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.

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