Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

For a couple of years after the massive (and somewhat surprise) success of Star Wars in 1977, all of Hollywood turned their cameras skyward and decided that outer space was the best way to replicate Wars’ box office take. Creator George Lucas kept all proprietary licensing rights close to the vest – so we started seeing a plethora of film and TV offerings not just set in space but also featuring, sometimes none-too-subtlety, aspects of Star Wars in a different vein: cute robots, a looming, dark overlord for a villain, a clean-cut hero balanced by a renegade quasi-hero, and as many realistic-looking spaceships as the budget would allow.

The first major work of this ilk was ABC’s Battlestar Galactica, a huge gamble for the network (given its unheard-of budget, especially for TV), that didn’t quite pay off, at least in the long-term ratings. Like Star Wars, it merchandised its characters out for everything from trading cards to action figures, clearly targeting a young male demographic hic for its audience. Canceled after one season, the show lost a boatload of money, but that didn’t deter Hollywood from pumping out a slew of their own Star Wars imitators. As theatrical films typically take longer to make, it wasn’t until 1979 that we saw the full effect: The Black Hole (Disney’s attempt), Battle Beyond the Stars (Roger Corman’s), Moonraker (James Bond’s), and the most expensive reunion movie in history – Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (’79 was also a big year because filmmakers knew that the Star Wars’ sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, was set for release the following summer, so timing was key.)

Noticing that these films were by and large profitable, Galactica producer Glen A. Larson saw potential in bringing Saturday matinee hero Buck Rogers to TV. Just as he had done with the Galactica pilot, he released the Rogers pilot theatrically, a few months before the TV premiere, shrewdly drumming up interest and turning in a revenue at the same time. By the summer of ’79, anticipation was running pretty high for the upcoming series. Despite having no stars, it did reasonably well in the ratings – considerable given its Thursday at 8:00 competition: juggernauts Mork & Mindy and The Waltons. But at a budget of $800,000, it needed top 10 numbers to stay afloat, which it didn’t have. It sailed into a second season only after some major restructuring, but these changes couldn’t keep it sailing off into that great nebula in the sky in 1981.

But time as been kind to ol’ Buck. Decades after the fact, one can now look atthese old shows removed from the shadow of all things Lucasfilm, and see them more objectively. I only saw Buck a couple of times during its network run (I was Mork loyal), but seeing the show again I was impressed with the seriousness with which it told its weekly tales. Yes, there was comic relief in the form of R2D2/C-3PO rip-off Twikki, but it took its time to develop creative yet cerebral storylines, somewhat like Star Trek did a decade and a half earlier. And of course, like so many shows from this era and before, it comes up looking pretty good compared with modern digital-crazy spectacles of hyper-kinetically paced, oh-so cleverly written, joyless tedium. Buck may have been campy, sometimes cheesy, but always lots of fun. And that, to me, is what sci-fi is all about.

So, with thanks to Starlog’s Episode Guide Vol. 2 and, as per usual, Wikipedia, I now begin our voyage to September of 1979. I was just starting 4th grade, Iran had the hostages, disco was in its waning days…. and Buck Rogers was about to enter the 25th century!

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