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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