Thursday, February 20, 2014

Buck Rogers 2.6: “Mark of the Saurian”

Airdate: 2/5/81

The devious Saurians have found a way of flawlessly impersonating humans so as to infiltrate the Searcher and fly it into an enemy’s defense shield, destroying everyone aboard. The good news: Buck, being from the 20th century, can see through the disguise and views them for the slimy, reptilian creatures that they are. The bad news: he’s sick with a rare virus, so everyone thinks he’s just hallucinating. The Saurians are on to him, so they steal a sample of his blood and “realign” their image devices, but Buck by now takes matters into his own hands by decreasing the ship’s temperature, paralyzing the cold-blooded intruders and sending them to the brig, all before certain disaster were the Searcher to continue its programmed course.

Excellent episode is nail-biting from start to finish. Borrowing more than a bit from the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of The Twilight Zone, it employs the old “who’s really crazy?” trope to fine dramatic effect. Good makeup of the Saurians makes them intriguing enemies – if the show were to continue on, they could have been good continued foes, like the Klingons on Star Trek.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Buck Rogers 2.5: “The Guardians”

Airdate: 1/29/81

While exploring a supposedly lifeless planet, Buck and Hawk come across a
Anyone got a protein bar?
dying old man, whose last request to his visitors is to be the “guardian” of a small, green-light emanating chest and deliver it safely to an undisclosed location. Honoring the request, Buck brings it back aboard the Searcher, and from there his troubles begin. It seems as though anyone who looks inside the weird object has disturbing visions – for Buck it’s a dream/memory of his last hours before the ill-fated journey that froze him for 500 years. The admiral hallucinates that the entire ship’s crew is starving to death, Hawk sees a vision of his deceased wife, and Derring catches a glimpse of herself… as a blind woman. What do all these dreams have in common? Well it’s something to do with the space-time continuum, which has now been thrown out of whack thanks to the emerald enigma. Ultimately, Buck decides to have the ship follow the course the chest seems to have set for them – and the wind up on a strange planet where the object they’ve vouchsafed to the natives makes wise old men appear. Their line has been restored – and many thanks are paid to Buck for his fearless delivery.

Interesting premise is mostly successful once it gets going. Some of the folkish backstory involving the line of Guardians is little hokey, but the supernatural qualities of the chest, and the dreams those afflicted have, are quite eerie. I’m always a sucker for sci-fi works that deal with time-twisting, so this was up my alley. Most interesting scene: Buck’s flashback to his life before his trip, which we’ve seen only once before (“A Dream of Jennifer”).

Show has found its more cerebral, babe-less groove, but those pubescent boys that were the core of Buck’s first-season audience vacated the show in droves. No more ratings, no renewal, and so Buck has only 8 more shows left.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Buck Rogers 2.3 and 2.4: “Journey To Oasis”

Airdate: 1/22/81 (Originally broadcast as a two-hour episode)

Buck, Wilma, Hawk and Goodfellow volunteer to escort an ambassador, Duvoe, to the city of Oasis in order to arrange a peace treaty between the humans of earth and Duvoe’s alien race, the Zaccharians. A freak electrical storm, however, strikes and renders their ship completely inoperable (and invisible, after it sinks into deep crater). They must all get to Oasis on foot, braving marauding bands of savages, and aided only by a riddle-speaking gnome named OD-X. Compounding their problems is the possible rekindling of Wilma and Duvoe’s past romance, and the secret he harbors of having the ability to remove his own head, as well as the Zaccharian coalition on board the Searcher who thinks that the humans have kidnapped Duvoe and is holding him for some kind of bargaining leverage.

Third double-episode in a row is a dull, tediously protracted disaster. Say what you will about Buck’s first season campy episodes, but you can’t claim they were ever boring. Coming on the heels of a halfway decent season premiere, this one just seems to go on and on, with a storyline paper-thin and some of the shoddiest “special effects” and makeup work I’ve ever seen. The gnome that the crew meets on the Oasis planet looks like something out of Land of the Lost, while the finale, featuring Buck battling a disembodied sword while negotiating a precarious rope bridge, is derivative of old Saturday afternoon movie serials, only not nearly as much fun. Duvoe (looking suspiciously like Muammar al-Gaddafi) has the potential of being a complex persona with some interesting buried history, but instead comes off as half-baked oddball. The worst Buck so far, and if this is the trend for the rest of its truncated season, there’s no mystery as to why the show was cancelled shortly thereafter.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Buck Rogers 2.1 and 2.2: “Time of the Hawk”

Airdate: 1/15/81 (Originally broadcast as a two-hour episode)

Buck is now on an intergalactic spacecraft, The Searcher, along with Wilma, Twiki and other members of the Defense Directorate, whose missions is to roam the far reaches of space to locate lost tribes of humans rendered homeless after earth’s apocalyptic war. They locate an abandoned spaceship and discover its crew mercilessly slaughtered; all clues point to a half-bird, half-human known as the Hawk. His mate, Kooni, is captured by Buck to lure Hawk out of hiding, but she is severely wounded during their dogfight. Forced to crash land on an earth-like planet, the two enemies become uneasy allies in the race to bring Kooni some much-needed medical attention, but during this time Buck also understands the source of Hawk’s wrath: the genocide of his ancestors, of distant to recent past, and the vengeance he feels the need to visit upon its perpetrators. After Kooni dies, a heartbroken Hawk resumes his enmity towards Buck, while Buck must fulfill his orders to kills or capture the birdman (he does the latter). In front of an intergalactic council, Hawk is almost sentenced to death, but Buck appeals for leniency on the basis that his actions were no worse than the humans that nearly wiped out his species. Hawk’s life is spared but ordered to be closely monitored by the Searcher’s crew – Buck proposes a compromise that Hawk join them on their mission – one which bird-boy accepts readily.

What started out with a feature film premiere, a huge budget and extensive word of mouth is now trundling limply along. Buck’s ratings during its first season were fair but barely covering the mammoth weekly budget that the show required. On top of that, the critics weren’t exactly lining up behind it either, so the decision was made for some major retooling. Producers changed the venue from New Chicago to a travelling space cruiser roaming all parts of the galaxy a la Star Trek (but, given their mission, reminding me more of Damnation Alley). Hawk would become the new Spock, while Wilma was made up to look and dress like Uhara.

But the actors’ strike of 1980 delayed the season, and by the time the new, revamped series was ready it was already January of 1981. That, along with the new tone and setting of the series, understandably confused would-be viewers, and the ratings nose-dived. Despite launching the season with two double-length episodes (or perhaps because of it), the Buck “reboot” was short-lived; by mid-April, Buck had fired his last ray-gun, spoken his ending anachronism and seduced his final female crew member.

Captain, meet your new crew
But the irony is that this episode is pretty darned good – maybe the best Buck yet. Gone are the scantily-clad vixens and shameless overacting. In fact, with the exception of some pretty hokey headwear on Throm, this is pretty much camp-free, and instead we get a serious story that generates suspense, thrills, and a meaningful finale (don’t miss Buck’s speech at the end). Thom Christopher, once you get past his one-note stoicism, slowly develops into a layered, sympathetic protagonist, and the Searcher’s acceptance of his as a comrade just gives you that warm fuzzy feeling all over.

Other new cast members are pretty good too, particularly Dr. Goodfellow, a kind-hearted, quirky counsel who’s like a combination of Dr. Huer and Santa Claus, and Chrichton, a snarky, sassy robot unwilling to believe he was created by humans. But beware – the new voice of Twiki is astoundingly bad (did they even try to approximate Mel Blanc?) and the new opening narration is wordier and more awkwardly written.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.23 and 1:24: “Flight of the War Witch”

Airdate: 3/27/80 (Originally broadcast as a two-hour episode)

A weird orb lands outside of New Chicago, and the Directorate discovers it to be some kind of invitation from another universe, complete with directions on how to get there. Buck volunteers for the perilous mission, but Princess Ardala knows something is up and, not wanting to be left out, tags along too – forcing Huer and Wilma to go with. Now everyone together gets to find out what the deal is: their help is needed to defend the planet Pendar from the wrath of evil War Witch Zarina and her Zaad armies, who have captured a Pendarin scientist who can deactivate the Pendar force field and render the planet completely unprotected from any alien attacks. Essentially held hostage until the work is through, the good guys, led by Buck, figure out how to fry the Zaad battle cruiser inside the force field when it gets activated again, and once again all is well – even if in another universe.

TV Guide ad for the show
First season finale also represents the final appearances of Huer, Theopolis, Ardala and Kane as the show gets revamped for the second season. Knowing this, the producers gave Pamela Hensley plenty of midriff-baring screen time – and even lets her be a good girl for a change, while Tim O’Connor gets to say goodbye to Buck, even if not at the end of the show. Things get a little silly toward the end, particularly when Ardala tries to negotiate a separate deal with Zarina (whose portrayal by Julie Newmar isn’t near as fun as it should be), and the storyline is a bit too thin to fill a two-hour episode. Still, the action is rollicking enough, and some of the superimposed animated special effects look so good they almost resemble CGI. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Buck Rogers 1.22: “Buck’s Duel to the Death”

Airdate: 3/20/80

This dude named Traybor is showing a group people named the Katarianswho’s boss, and they not a fan. He has a nasty habit of stealing their women, too, and to flaunt his power, he picks some poor dude to fight in a duel to the death. The thing is, he’s got a bit of an unfair advantage because he uses deadly bolts of the now obscure electricity – only Buck, whom the Katarian leader asked for help from, seems to be the best qualified to defeat this badly coiffed menace. Using Twikki to absorb Traybor’s power and deflect it back to him, Buck emerges victorious, thereby fulfilling the prophecy that a man from 500 years n the past could set the Katarians free once and for all.

Last single-length episode of Buck’s first season is campier than average, thanks largely to William Smith’s overwrought performance as Traybor, and it doesn’t help that he seems to have borrowed Ricardo Montalbon’s hairstyle from Star Trek II. The usual array of buxom beauties comes in the form of Traybor’s harem of abducted women (subplot deals with a blonde Katarian’s angst over losing her sister in such a way). Best part, though, is Buck’s fighting “uniform” when he prepares for mono-a-mono battle against Traybor; it’s nothing less than a 70s leisure suit!

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