Friday, January 31, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.21: “Space Rockers”

Airdate: 2/21/80

The kids are diggin’ a new rock group, Andromeda, but Dr. Huer is disturbed by reports that some of the young un’s are acting a bit rowdy at their concerts, even by adolescent standards. When Buck goes undercover to the band’s headquarters, he discovers that their new manager, Mangros, has altered the altered the transmission of their music so that its listeners go completely beserk. It’s a race against time for Buck to stop this fiendish plot before Andomeda’s big concert – fortunately he has the help of some of the bands more sensible members – and when Mangros’s signal is destroyed, he becomes a laughing stock.

Hands down the most god-blessedly dated episode of the series thus far. The “Space Rockers” resemble a cross between Daft Punk and Devo, while the funk they’re playing could’ve been the B-side of a Meco single. Not enough? A young Jerry Orbach as the heavy and Night Court’s Richard Moll (with hair) as his head henchman. And the usual babe quota includes hot Judy Landers in a completely superfluous role as one of the groupies. Clearly a metaphoric episode given the “threat” of late-70s punk and metal on the nation’s youth (The Incredible Hulk and Quincy had similar episodes during this same TV season), which had culminated in the deadly Who concert stampede just the previous year. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.20: “A Dream of Jennifer”

Airdate: 2/14/80

Buck swears he sees he girl he knows at the New Chicago Mall; through a dream we learn that it could be Jennifer, his girlfriend from the 20th century whom he left to fly the mission that tore then apart. Determined to find her, he travels to the “City By the City,” or the new version of New Orleans, and does indeed get a chance to talk to her. Flattered by his adulation, she’s also a bit heartbroken as she knows that it’s Jennifer that he sees in her, not her true identity: Lela, a woman used as bait by the alien race of Kovens to get Buck to suppress a trade blockade by rebel colonists – the same colonists Wilma and her crew are coincidentally supporting. Buck manages to forgive Lela’s duplicity long enough to thwart the mighty Kovens’ plan, but he can’t stop Lela’s death during the final shootout. In her final words she was glad to be the girl Buck loved, even if just for a moment.

Gorgeous, doe-eyed Anne Lockhart shines as here as the molecularly altered Lela (no wonder there’s a website solely devoted to the babes of Buck Rogers – what a gallery of looks and talent!). And lest we forget Mary Woronov, in redface, as the evil Koven named Nola. Definitely cool to see the flashback dream of Buck in the 1900s – presumably 1987 when he starts his mission but looking a heck of a lot more like the 70s than the 80s.

And don’t miss the cute-funny epilogue (does Wikipedia have a name for this yet?) in which Huer gives Buck a movie (a disc, presumably) with a title something like… mandibles? No, it’s Jaws! and Buck has the final line, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the 20th century!” (Jaws studio Universal also produced Buck).

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.19: “Olympiad”

Airdate: 2/7/80

It’s time for the 2492 Olympiacs, and Buck, knowing a bit about the event, is invited to attend as a special guest. A troubled beauty named Lara asks him to go star cruising with her, but it turns out she needs his help to save her athlete boyfriend, Jorax, from the oppressive clutches of Allerick, a tyrant using Jorax as a political figurehead. Not necessarily the easiest thing in the world, especially when you consider that Allerick has implanted a molecular bomb inside Jorax’s head, and can detonate it if he senses any escape attempt. Oh – and the bomb – it can kill anyone next to the vertical vaulter as well. Buck, Wilma and Twikki know this, so they fly Jorax through the stargate, where any hope of remote detonation is – remote. Naw, make that impossible!

Political exploitation of the Olympics was sure a hot-button topic in the winter of 1980 (the U.S. had just announced a boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). Buck Rogers, never missing the chance for socio-political editorializing, explored this brazen Carterian move with this story of a would-be defector, desperate for the chance to escape his shackles and come to earth – and by earth we mean America (New Chicago, to be specific). But seriously, not a bad outing with Buck and the gang – definitely highlighted by the charming, ever-appealing soap and TV veteran Judith Chapman as Lara. In addition to being a fantastic fox, she’s a wonderfully nuanced actress, as evidenced by her ride with Buck when she appeals to him for help. Also, don’t miss the beginning scene of the futuristic Olympic events, particularly the telekinetic boxing. Perhaps farfetched back then, it doesn’t look so nowadays, what with virtual gaming and the like.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.18: “Twikki Is Missing”

Airdate: 1/31/80

Don't mess with the midriff.
Say it ain’t so! Buck’s little sidekick is indeed abducted – it seems that thenefarious ruler of a mining planet Toros wants robots for his slave labor after an uprising nearly topples his reign. The ruler, Kerk Belzak, has his eyes on Twikki, an “ambiquad” possessive of not simple his native computing abilities but also the humanistic characteristics Buck has endowed his with. After a failed attempt to buy, Kerk’s cohort, a lovely “paranormal” named Stella, turns to force, using her psychokinetic powers to seize Twikki, and later, Buck himself. But she makes the fatal mistake of befriending the handsome flyboy, who convinces her that she needs to escape Toros or she’ll never see her son, who Kerk has imprisoned again. The good guys all escape – and get extra brownie points for stealing some of Toros’s ore, which comes in handy for exploding a deadly spaceberg off course from a catastrophic meeting with earth.

Sort of a Ben Hur meets Armageddon storyline here, with a Twikki kidnapping story that gives the rascally robot extra screen time for those so desirous. Fantastic, lovely and archy supporting actress Anne-Marie Martin shines as this week’s damsel in distress, but she an also hold her own, especially when doing her mind-melding routine with fellow space vixens as part of the “Omniguard” (this show is chock full of that cool sci-fi nomenclature). Not much Deering in this one – all her scenes are on a space fighter (probably shot everything in one day on another soundstage). 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.17: “Ardala Returns”

Airdate: 1/27/80

The Directorate finds an abandoned spaceship, appearing to be from the 20thcentury. Buck, being the best qualified, goes in to check it out – but he discovers it to be a trap… too late. The culprit: Princess Ardala, who wants to clone Buck into “Zygots” to man her new, revamped Hatchet fighter program. Oh, and there are a few fringe benefits: namely, plenty of Buck to satisfy her decidedly amorous inclinations. But the fake Buck (in New Chicago) is promptly found out by Wilma, and the real Buck manages to escape in time to stop his doppelgangers from accomplishing their fiendish mission. And anyways, Ardala finds out that there really is only one true Buck – like a sequel, it just doesn’t have the magic of the original.

Pleasant enough escapade with amusing pre-digital multiple Buck special effects. It’s a hoot to see Gerard play the android – not particularly good at human skills such as watering plants. But the endearing part of this one is seeing Ardala, as played by the always half-clad Pamela Helmsley, having genuine feelings for Buck, especially after discovering how turned-off she is by his dupes. She plays this role tottering on the line between high camp and shadowed poignancy – her episodes always entertain in multiple ways, and yes, one of those ways does appeal to the male (or at least female appreciating) sensibility. Twill be mighty sad to see her go at the end of the season. Fans just had to wait a couple for a new ABC series called Matt Houston.

BTW – Buck’s joke at the end, in which he pretends to get a 20th century idiom wrong so Huer and Wilma might suspect he’s an android, is extremely ill-advised considering Wilma vaporized his double earlier for the exact same reason.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.16: “A Blast For Buck”

Airdate: 1/17/80

A weird object just happens to turn up in Huer’s office (it looks like a giant yo-yo) and when he and Wilma decrypt its contents, they discover some strange riddles. Naturaly, they believe them to be death threats for Buck, so they probe his brain for memories of potential culprits. This leads to – you guessed it – a clip show, filled with warm, fuzzy moments of intergalactic shnanigans from the show’s first eight episodes.

You might think it’s a little early for a retrospective special, but I guess if you’re spending $800,000 per episode, you’re entitled. Not a whole lot to say about this one - I won’t spoil the ending for you, but put it this way: don’t take the “plot” too seriously or you’ll be extremely disappointed by the end. Gary Coleman guest stars, reprising his role as Heronimous Fox.  

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.15: “Happy Birthday, Buck”

Airdate: 1/10/80

Cornell Traeger, whom Dr. Huer sent on an ill-fated space mission some 15 years earlier, is back in town – and bent on revenge. He kidnaps a lovely courier named Raylyn and plans to zap her brain to get Huer’s business schedule, but the beauty also happens to be a diversionary tactic for Buck, for whom Wilma and Huer are planning a surprise birthday party (to help allay his homesickness). Traeger manages to succeed enough to meet his nemesis face to face, but Buck rushes in to save the day, and not even Traeger’s “molecular transference” abilities can stop our titular hero.

So-so episode hampered by Peter MacLean’s overwrought, Charlton Heston-esque performance as Traeger but abetted mightily by smokin’ vixen Morgan Brittany as Raylyn – never mind that her character seems to jump from uber-serious in the first half to loose and jovial in the second. Again, lots of unnecessary sci-fi plot baggage to convolute things, particularly when there doesn’t need to be (i.e. Traeger’s plans to team up with a telepathy doctor to probe Huer’s plans out of Raylyn). 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.14: “Space Vampire"

Airdate: 1/3/80

Something is putting the crew of a space station into a catatonic state, and its commander Royko, thinks it might be a virus. Buck (one the station for Twikki’s service appointment), suspects otherwise, particularly after a space freighter collides with the base. After corresponding with Huer, Buck finds out that a “Vorvon” may be the culprit – in other words – a space vampire, with powers of sucking the life out of his victims and transforming them into brainwashed zombies. Wilma looks like she’s already been possessed by the fiendish bloodsucker, so Buck, whom everyone disbelieves, must devise a way of stopping the Vorvon. His plan? Get him to fly a rigged spaceship practically into a sun (daylight): the only way of destroying a vampire… 20th or 25th century!

Odd entry not so much for its subject matter but for its look – this feels like aschlocky 70s horror film, replete with weird synthesized score and bargain-basement special effects. Whether intentional or not (probably not), it’s still a refreshing change of pace from the TV-oriented, highly polished episodes of late. And it’s a real hoot, not to mention somewhat of a turn-on, to see Erin Gray writhing around, trying to resist vampiric possession – and then acting like a seductress when her efforts fail. Good to Christopher Stone, veteran actor of horror/sci-fi flicks and husband of Dee Wallace, as the commander.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.13: “Cruise Ship to the Stars”

Airdate: 12/27/79

On the cruise ship Lyran, Buck (and Twikki) join Wilma when she goes undercover (donning a hideous Marcia Wallace wig) to track down some big-time criminals, but the real crime occurs when a vacationing beauty queen, Miss Cosmos, is almost kidnapped. Assigned her protection, Buck can’t stop another kidnapping attempt, this one successful, by a wild, energy-beam shooting woman named Sabrina. What to do? The key may lie in the periodic blackouts of a shy, disturbed girl named Alison, whose “boyfriend” seems to offer no comfort for her whatsoever. Buck’s dogged detective work uncovers the dark secret that Sabrina is a mutant who can transform herself into Alison – thereby having a rock-solid alias that nobody, except Buck, can uncover.

Beauties aplenty in this Love Boat-inspired caper that actually uses its women for more than sexy scenery. All the major roles here (aside from the regulars) are strong, complex female characters and, as such, the show is more character-driven than previous entries of late. I was actually quite invested in the Jekyll-Hyde story that gives some serious acting opportunities to film actress Kimberly Beck (as Alison) – ones that she fulfills handily. Add to that some perfectly groovy disco dance sequences, the usual assortment of funky get-ups, and a charming romance for even Twiiki, and you get, for my money, the best Rogers episode thus far.

PS: This one is also probably noteworthy for featuring the beautiful but eerily ill-fated Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. If you’ve never seen her before, be prepared. Let’s put it this way – she’s perfectly cast as the woman with the most perfect DNA in the galaxy.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.12: “Escape from Wedded Bliss”

Airdate: 11/29/79

Princess Ardala is back – and she wants Buck in the worst way – and I do mean the worst way. How about threatening to destroy all of New Chicago, or earth for that matter, unless she can have the studly spaceman, with perfect genes and all, completely to herself. Buck tries to find the ex-Draconian who knows the layout of the weapons system so the Directorate can thwart the evil plans, but he needs to play along until Huer and Deering can send him the plans. In the end, he relies on a quid-pro-quo with one of Ardala’s fighting thugs (whose life Buck spared) to get out alive – so he can return to kick some more Draconian butt!

Sexplot Pamela Hensley (whose contract must require that she wear a glittering bikini top in every scene) returns as Ardala. Not necessarily that they needed her, given the show has no problem filling its weekly quota of cleavage, abs and skin-tight uniforms, but few beauties can chew the scenery like she can. Best metaphor involves Ardala’s future marital plans with Buck, which includes a collar he must wear that she has the prerogative of shrinking down to half its normal size if he were to displease her. The target demographic of 13-year old boys probably didn’t get this, but the second largest demographic – married men aged 35-50 – know it all too well.

DO NOT miss the roller disco scene during the Directorate’s first meeting with Ardala. Funny how every other kind of music, except disco, survived the great holocaust. Of course, for some that’s not only similarity it has to cockroaches.

PS: Tell me that new guy who plays Kane is not a dead ringer for Tony Orlando!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.11: “Cosmic Whiz Kid”

Airdate: 11/22/79

Duel of the Shorties!
11-year old Heronymous Fox, played by Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman, has just been kidnapped by the evil Roderick Zale (Ray Walston). Fox is president of the planet Genesia, a world that cannot possibly meet Zale’s ransom demands, so they send Lt. Dia Cryton, who forcibly enlists the help of Buck Rogers, to carry out a rescue mission. Wilma also infiltrates the compound where Fox is being held, and through both her and Buck’s efforts they manage to return the pint-sized prez back to safety – and the galaxy is once again back to normal… at least for this week.

Then red-hot Coleman adds a much-needed boost of levity to the series with his guest appearance, and the dialogue they wrote for him makes fine use of his cute, street-smart comebacks and funny faces. Also great to see one of my favorite character actors, Ray Walston, return to light science fiction. (Evidently, the fall of ’79 was a busy time for him; he had also guest-starred on The Incredible Hulk just a month earlier.) Add to that the perfect abs of Melody Rogers (she wears a mid-riff baring top in every scene she’s in), and you’ve got pure, unadulterated late-70’s cheese with a pickle on the side. Amen!

PS: Best performance by a robot: Erin Gray’s snide “boss” when she goes undercover to rescue Zale.  He hates humans and never misses a chance to insult them whenever possible.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.10: “Planet of the Amazon Women”

Airdate: 11/8/79

Buck is kidnapped on the female-controlled planet of Xantia. While there he is imprisoned, and dehumanizingly auctioned off to be the mate of a lucky girl – but he manages to escape and join an uprising, led by the daughter of the planet’s prime minister. It turns out that Xantia lost all its men in a war with another planet, Ruatha, and needs to take men, preferably hot ones, to help populate their world. To help settle things, our fearless flyboy arranges to board the Ruathian ambassador ship, where he helps create d├ętente among the warring parties.

Wacked-out premise seems like its trying to be part Roger Corman exploitation, part feminist tract – and winds up succeeding at neither due to a needlessly overplotted (and dull) third act. Uber-tight silk pants and extreme-cleavage exposing tops are in usual abundance, but so is the tedious technospeak that only true fans will have a tolerance for. Highlight: Buck’s auctions scene, where lounging sirens could resemble the glassy-eyed vixens of a Russ Meyer movie.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.9: “Unchained Woman”

Airdate: 11/1/79

Buck is sent to free a young woman, Jen Burton, from a prison planet so that the Directorate can get information about her pirate ex-boyfriend, Pantera. Also involved: an elder diplomat on Earth, whose suspicious behavior alerts Huer and Theopolis that he may be in cahoots with Patera’s illegal dealings. Buck successfully breaks Jen out, but hot on their trail is a malfunctioning android guard who takes no prisoners alive.

Draggy show starts out superb – with Buck posing as a convict to infiltrate the prison – but quickly loses steam once the breakout happens, despite the potentially electrifying presence of then red-hot Jamie Lee Curtis (as Jen), whose form-fitting prison suit is the only attention-getter. Scene in which a desert serpent nearly strangulates Buck may remind one of the future Sarlac pit scene in Return of the Jedi. Hmmm… perhaps Lucas ripped off Buck instead of the other way around for a change.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.8: “Return of the Fighting 69th”

Airdate: 10/25/79

What’s so important about recovering a stolen America freighter, Buck wants to know, especially after two cadets died in the failed attempt. The thieves are actually gunrunners, threatening the earth with nerve gas as a vendetta against being nearly burned alive by a attack by Wilma Deering, long before Buck entered the picture. Also pissed at Wilma: the elder members of the Fighting 69th, led by Noah Cooper (Peter Graves), whom she grounded when they failed their physicals due to old age. Noah and his gang accept the offer to fly into an asteroid belt and thwart the villainous plot, which Buck and Wilma conduct ground operations that includes the rescue of an orphaned girl now suffering under the captivity of evil Roxanne Trent, whose severed hand is replaced with a powerful metal claw. With mission accomplished, the 69th is reinstated to active duty, the girl reunited with her parents.

So-so heart-warmer is abetted by he presence of always-reliable Peter Graves, who at this point is only a few months away from his career-changing role in Airplane! (and comedy, as well as airplane disaster films, would never be the same again). Villains here are more campy than creepy, and the story of the mute girl is never given the dramatic weight is deserves. It would be awhile before we get another geriatric space adventure – that would be Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys – let’s hope we don’t have as long to wait for someone else to tap into this underexplored genre!

Are we so immature these days that we could never title a serious episode with the number "69" in it?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.7: “Plot to Kill a City, Part 2”

Airdate: 10/18/79

With his cover blown, Buck frantically tries on a new alias – the emergency identity that the Directorate set up for him, but Kellogg somehow knows that one’s a fraud too. Do you smell a rat? As it happens, there’s a spy afoot, and both Huer and Deering intend to deal with him, New Chicago style. Meanwhile, Buck needs to stop the Legion of Death from sabotaging an anti-matter reactor and destroying a huge chunk of earth – it happened before to the home planet of Varek, one of the Kellogg’s boys, and that’s precisely why he turns around and defies his boss’s orders, fighting for the good guys at the end. It looks pretty hopeless, especially when the Legion holds one of the reactor’s engineer’s family hostage to get access to the facility, but not to worry: Buck and Wilma blast away the baddies and save New Chicago from total annihilation.

Part 2 being slightly better than part 1, the episode squeaks by as a moderate success. Some touching emotional notes here, particularly from Varek’s maskless confessional in which he relays how the earth must not suffer the same destruction of his own planet, where children “must look at their own disfigured faces every day.” Spunky Markie Post continues to charm as Buck’s quasi-love interest (maybe in one of these episodes he’ll have a real love interest), and Kellogg wonds up being a bit more Darth Vadery in his general menace. But no need for this to have been a two-parter; too much of it drags or is simply unnecessary.

And there’s one thing that I’ve noticed about the series thus far. Because it appears that much of the outer-space fighter plane shots are stock footage r recycled shots simply inserted into the action, the viewer gets a feeling of spatial disorientation. The spaceships are never clearly identified, and we get attacks and explosions without really understanding who got whom (Kellogg’s anticlimactic death scene is a perfect example of this). Clearly, the producers are mimicking the final attack scene in Star Wars, but there, George Lucas was very careful with  his match-of-action editing to make it clear who and where everybody is. Wars’ dogfights were works of art; Buck’s are just video games.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.6: “Plot to Kill a City, Part 1”

Airdate: 10/11/79

When Buck kills a vile bounty hunter, Raphael Argus, the terrorist group of which he was a member, the Legion of Death, vows revenge. Buck infiltrates the group using Raphael’s identity, and meets its leader: the nefarious Seton Kellogg (Frank Gorshin). Other members include a thug with superior strength, a mystic with powers of telekinesis, and a ravishing beauty who can read others’ emotions. Only one woman, Raphael’s old girlfriend Joella (Markie Post), has the potential of blowing Buck’s cover, but she trustingly plays along with the ruse. It turns out the real threat is Buck’s former cellmate turned traitor; he tattles to Kellogg that Buck can’t possibly be Raphael, and it looks like Kellogg believes him. Uh oh!

Part one of the series’ third two-part episode is a real snoozer. Oh sure, it hasall the Buck trademarks: campy, sexy get-ups, slick silver sets, and the usual fish-out-of-water misunderstandings Buck must deal with, but neither the story nor the characters here have no motivating interest. Even the villain here is a complete non-threat: Frank Gorshin (the second in a row of two Batman villain guest stars) looks like he wandered in from the set of a laconic psychological drama. Wilma Deering is ostensibly teamed up with Buck on this mission (to where?), but she winds up playing second-fiddle to Buck’s vixen-voiced automatic pilot for the duration. Sure hope things pick up for part 2, put it would have to be an Empire Strikes Back-caliber continuation for my review of this to change.

Future Night Court star Markie Post is probably the best thing here, playing her usual sassy but saucy persona. She’s wearing a fairly modest outfit considering what they could’ve put her in.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.5: “Vegas in Space”

Airdate: 10/4/79

Buck, along with female agent Marla Landers, is enlisted by the Defense Directorate to rescue the kidnapped employee, Felicia, of a corrupt privateer named Amrat, from the evil hands of Velosa, who rules the gambling planet Sinaloa (who names these things anyway?). Velosa’s plans are simple: to extract vital information from Marla that could ruin Amrat (courtesy a mind-sapping “specialist” played by Dr. No himself, Joseph Wiseman). Buck is hand-picked for the job for his gambling skills, particularly blackjack, but that’s about all that’s familiar to him once he gets to Sinaloa, where he encounters a myriad of challenges to rescue the girl, not the least of which is dealing with a beautiful, buxom casino worker who yearns to be rescued from her high-tech shackles. All’s well that ends well, especially when Amrat must pony up his part of the deal for getting his daughter (surprise!) back – hand delivering to the Directorate all the files of his dirty dealings and the secret schemata plans for the Draconians new hatchet fighters, and why they’re impervious to computerized attacks.

First single-length episode is also the first script by story editor Anne Collins. Readers of this blog know I found her Wonder Woman teleplays needlessly overcomplicated, but here the byzantine twists and turns of her plots (and subplots) feel more at home in a high-tech world. Plot is a classic “infiltrate the impregnable fortress to rescue the fair maiden” chestnut, but its spectral setting offers a fun change of pace – not to mention the continued scanty costumes of the women (one in particular will have your jaw dropping; you’ll know which one). It won’t make you forget the race to rescue Leia from the Death Star, but on its own merits it succeeds.

What doesn’t succeed is the performance by Ana Alicia as Felicia, who displays some of the more egregious overacting I’ve ever seen in any series, science fiction or otherwise. Series co-stars Erin Gray and Tim O’Connor only have a couple of scenes.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.3 and 1.4: “Planet of the Slave Girls”

Airdate: 9/27/79

Flying back from the stargate, Buck and Wilma Deering encounter brusque Major Duke Danton (David Groh), who immediately resents Buck’s hotshot attitude. The two become even more antagonistic when Wilma assigns Buck to train Danton’s cadets, 20th century style, but all that becomes secondary when an epidemic of a nerve disorder spreads among he Directorate’s fighter pilots. The culprit appears to be poisoned food discs, but the search for an antidote is stymied when the head researcher’s computer is destroyed by a fleeting saboteur, believed to be one of the female research assistants. Buck and Wilma journey to the planet Vistula, source of the toxic soy protein, but there they discover that the governor (Roddy McDowall) is purchasing slave labor from a messianic leader named Kaleel (Jack Palance), who is brainwashing the masses and destroying the insurgents with his special powers that feed on fear. One of the slaves, Ryma, helps Buck and the others uncover Kaleel’s plot, which also includes using a massive starship fleet to destroy Earth’s immobilized forces. It becomes a race to the finish summon up the Directorate’s few remaining fighters and send them to attack Vistula’s, as well as find Kaleel and help the revolutionaries and his oppressive reign. Buck goes face to face against his evil nemesis, but Mr. “Believe It or Not” is no match for the fearless time traveler.

Follow-up to the two-hour pilot is yet another two-hour episode, the start of the series proper. Many veteran-actor supporting roles are clearly outshined by the campy presence of Jack Palance – his mind-controlling scenes are just too brilliant to resist; I mean, this is overacting at its finest. In keeping with the show’s (so far) tone of cheese and beefcake quasi-exploitation, we get some pretty saucy scenes of skimpy and skin-tight outfits, but the highlight is the “prison” where Buck, Wilma and Ryma are incarcerated. So steamy it essentially becomes a sauna, it provides the perfect excuse for sweaty skin baring and Wilma’s hair to lose its hairspray and hang limply to her neck. But hey, I’m not complaining – I’ll even excuse Buck’s ill-advised but somehow successful plan of standing on a bomb in the hopes that it will project him upwards so he can crawl out through an escape hatch. 

TV Guide Promo  9/27/79
The Star Wars rip-off trend also continues, and in this episode we get pretty obvious Jawa copycats when Buck and Danton are in the desert (can you say Tatooine?). And the final squadron attack on Vistula is pretty derivative of Wars’  X-Wing attack on the Death Star; we even get Twikki suiting up to fight (a la R2D2’s tagging along with Luke). But the show is also developing some of its own, unique elements. Buck’s potential romance with Colonel Deering is appealing, particularly given their charming chemistry. And in this episode we get a bromance between Buck and Major Danton, played by none other than David Groh. That’s right: Rhoda’s ex-husband is a future space pilot. The funny thing is, his character here is not too far removed from that on Rhoda: rough exterior, but a real softie underneath. Not sure if his role continues in this series, but it would be a nice asset if it did.

BTW: If the slaves of Vistula are men and women, why is the episode called "Planet of the Slave Girls"?  Sounds like they were going for a more exploitative title, a la Roger Corman.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Episodes 1.1 and 1.2: “Awakening,” also known as the theatrical feature "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century"

Airdate: 9/20/79

Rogers developer Glenn A. Larson enjoyed massive financial success when he theatrically released the pilot for his other sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica, to some countries and key locations in Europe and North America throughout late 1978 and early ’79. Hoping for a second lightning strike, he took his Buck Rogers pilot, which had a budget of 3 ½ million (a bit steep for any pilot movie), and gave it a North American release, where it took in a impressive 21 million dollars. Not only did it help matters financially, but it generated superb word of mouth for the fall series premiere. Retitled “Awakening,” it aired, with a few minor family-friendly edits, in September on NBC Thursdays, where it had increased odds of success now that the sci-fi powerhouse Mork and Mindy was temporarily moved to Sunday. All it had to do was survive against CBS’s The Waltons, which, given the two shows’ decidedly different audiences, it had little trouble accomplishing.

In the opening pre-credit sequence(more on that later), we learn, thanks to William Conrad’s grave narration, that U.S. captain Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) had flown into an ice storm and been cryogenically preserved for 500 years. It is now 2491, and he has been found and captured by the Draconian flagship, under the command of Princess Ardala and her henchman, Kane. Thinking him a possible spy for earth, they send him back home, and implant a tracking device in his ship. If he is a spy, his fellow earthlings will allow him save passage inside and they can copy his flight plan for their upcoming invasion. If not he will be attacked and destroyed – a win-win situation for them!

But crafty ol’ Buck manages to get out of this jam by convincing his fellow Americans that he’s not a threat, and gets escorted back to this new post-nuclear holocaust future world where skepticism of him, particularly from smokin’ Colonel Deering (Erin Gray), leader of Earth's Defense Directorate, slowly starts to melt. Buck also meets two doctors: Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O’Connor), the other head of the Directorate, and Dr. Theopolis, who’s actually a computer, transported around by cute robot Twikki, that befriends Buck and winds up defending him against charges of treason and espionage when the Draconian tracker is discovered in his spaceship. Buck is found guilty (oops!), but Deering arranges a deal that if he goes with her to see Princess Ardala and proves his charges baseless, he can be acquitted; if not, he’ll just get a stay of execution – but at least have a nice trip before he dies.

The Draconian stage a “pirate” attack on themselves to keep up their auspices,
but Buck fends them all off by overriding the combat computers and using his “old fashioned” flyboy tactics – much to the surprise of techno-reliant Deering. In fact she tries to make amends to Buck by seducing him (!), which is rough for the hotshot spaceboy since the Princess has the exact same designs on him. Unfortunately, the latter has plans to take over Earth, so Buck must keep his hormones in check long enough to fend off the Draconian threat, once again utilizing his working-man’s wits to plant bombs in the fighter crafts’ tail pipes. The entire enemy fleet disabled, the Princess and her crew retreat en masse, with Kane vowing revenge on the man who thwarted his plans… and practically seduced his would-be mon amour.

If a young sci-fan from today rented (whoops! I mean streamed) this movie, there are two things I would tell him (or her – nah, probably him) as a bit of an explanation, for he would no doubt be confused by some of this.

1)   In 1979, it was all about Star Wars. No, I mean really: it was ALL about Star Wars. It’s not like today is all about The Hunger Games or Game of Thrones; back then, with so many fewer entertainment options, the power of one giant movie franchise was immensurable, especially one with sci-fi leanings and its subsequent effect on an eight-year-old boy like me. The 1978-79 season was glutted with chasers of this holy grail, and Buck Rogers was the biggest – and the biggest, unapologetic imitator at that. If you were to have a drinking game where you’d do a shot every time you saw a Star Wars rip-off, you’d be passed out by the time Buck gets back to earth. Let’s count: Twikki is an amalgam of R2D2 and C-3PO, heroic but edgy Buck is both Luke and Han Solo; spunky by smoky Deering is Lea, all the good guy fighters look pretty much like X-Wings; the huge monolithic bad guy ship a dead ringer for Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer – Buck’s “feeling” to switch off the combat computer and use his innate fighter skills feels to me like the Force, the scavengers from outside the base in New Chicago are a cross between Jawas and Sandpeople. Shall I go on?

2)   The other major trend of his time was called “Jiggle-TV” or, quite simply, the Charlie’s Angels, BJ and the Bear, Love Boat, Sugar Time, etc, and busty babes in bikinis was the order of the day. How can old fit this into a futuristic sci-fi adventure series, you ask? Count how many times Princess Ardala shows up in a space bikini. Or how about that nude pool scene where she swims to the edge nearly topless. And just how tight did they make Erin Gray’s uniform? And then there’s the piece de resistance of the whole show: the opening credits. To the strains (and I do mean strained) of  “Suspension” (a.k.a.“Buck’s Theme), a Larson-penned song that redefines cheese, we see the women of the show gyrating in fuzzy slo-mo over the neon-lit opening title. I guess they were trying to imitate the James Bond opening credits, and in that they failed miserably. But if they were trying to create the tackiest, cheesiest, most gratuitous display of sheer so-bad-it’s-brilliant awfulness, then they succeeded masterfully.
late 70s version of the old adage “sex sells.” It was the era of

And that sort of captures it in a nutshell: this is not hopelessly serious modern sci-fi, but a prime example of sci-fi from a more innocent age. The tone was just as happy-go-lucky as the protagonist himself (although that would soon change a bit in later episodes), and the credibility of its science didn’t matter nearly as much as he robots’ comic relief or the tightness of the female officers’ uniforms. Having said that, however, it is worth noting that some of this is more gratuitous than I expected. I mean, we’re just a few T’s ad A’s away from a Cinemax Friday night movie! It’s astonishing to remember that this aired during the coveted “Family Hour” of 8:00 – a time block reserved only for the friendliest of family programming. But I suspect the producers took advantage of the sci-fi loophole. It can’t be that dirty if it’s got aliens and flying saucers. That must have meant the FCC didn’t see Buck’s speech to Deering about why he can’t “re-insert.”

It probably also worth noting that Buck Rogers was co-produced by Bruce Lansbury Productions, which also did the Wonder Woman series. As such, you’ll notice the names of several writers who migrated from Woman when that show was canned, particularly Anne Collins (if you’re not familiar with her, checkout my Wonder Woman blog). 

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