In a new series looking at classic sci-fi TV, Jeff Fountain takes us back to the ’70s and forward four hundred years to look at Glen A. Larson’s disco classic, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century…
It’s easy to look back at old sci-fi show’s from the 70’s and 80’s and laugh, brushing them off as silly, with poor effects, bad acting and more. To be fair, many of those things exist in these shows but to no lesser degree than in modern shows.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was different. It was more about fun than anything else. Space adventures, scantily clad women (something you would come to expect in a Glen A. Larson production) and the idea of not fitting in, something most of us have experienced in our lifetime. If anything, this was a good roadmap to follow, even if the show went off the rails at different times for very different reasons.
Buck Rogers had a lot in common with another Larson production (Larson was a big name in the ’70s in ’80s) the original Battlestar Galactica. Universal had released the pilot of Battlestar Galactica in theaters and it did well, prompting them to do the same thing with the pilot for Buck Rogers. It too was a success and Universal gave the green light for a weekly series, albeit with a slightly modified pilot. Buck Rogers also recycled some props from Battlestar Galactica, as well as using similar shots and costumes.
The show kicked off what would be a short lived series on September 20th, 1979.
The premise was pretty straight forward.
Astronaut Captain William ‘Buck’ Rogers (Gil Gerard) is piloting a small spaceship in 1987 that ends up getting frozen until he is awakened five hundred years later. The pilot was something else. It incorporated this premise and numerous plot points, including being woken/thawed by the Draconian Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) and sent on his way to Earth, but not by the goodness of her heart. It is there Buck discovers what year it is, what has happened to Earth, meets Col. Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) and from there we’re off and running. The opening sequence alone is pure ’70s gold, mixing Bond-like images of scantily clad women, with an annoying but catchy tune, trying to portray Buck’s past and present coming together in a disco-like haze dripping with cheesy moments. Throw in some stock footage of the Apollo 4 and 6 launches and yeah, like I said, pure ’70s gold.
So the series is set, having Buck Rogers trying to adjust to his new life on Earth, which feels like an alien planet at times, all the while eager to help thwart the threats to Earth that funnily enough seem to happen on an almost weekly basis. Gil Gerard was solid as Buck – a shoot first, ask questions later kind of guy who was very charming in a lost puppy kind of way. We meet Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O’Connor), the robot/’ambuquad’ Twiki (played by Felix Silla and voiced by Mel Blanc) and the sentient being (who looked like a wall clock) Dr. Theopolis, often found hanging around Twiki’s neck. No, I’m not making this up and to be honest, it actually works more often than not. In this setting, both in the show and the late ’70s when it was filmed, it was rather fitting.
The first season was a mixed bag and to be fair, a lot of shows use the first season to find their collective footing. The issues here were many, yet, in the setting of a ’70s sci-fi show, some were simply absorbed within the feeling of nostalgia and fun. The story of Buck Rogers and his assimilation into this new time was a great place to start, but it became increasingly clear that humour was also going to be a big part of the show, whether intentionally or not. Some fight scenes in space look better than average, while some sets and props were poor, and a mixture of stock footage and painted backdrops for the futuristic look. While this is part of the charm of shows such as this, the wildly inconsistent manner in which the episodes were set up were sometimes alarming, very cheesy and in some instances, just made you shake your head.
There is a very militaristic sense to the show, something that would be necessary after a devastating nuclear war, leaving the planet vulnerable to hostile alien races. There was an episode that discussed what happened, that actually saw characters venture outside the shiny happy place they had built, and gave the viewer both a mental and visual idea of the horrors that left Earth in shambles. It was a creepy episode but that was the one and only time the show ever went back to the past in that manner.
If you are going to talk about Buck Rogers the TV show, you have to take a moment to discuss the dance party at the ball, an episode celebrating a new alliance after it all hit the fan. The stiff and dry dance moves don’t sit well with Buck so he urges the keyboard player to ‘let go’ and ‘get down’. Very quickly, disco ensues with even Twiki getting into the act. A pure ’70s moment thrust into the party celebrating new friends – it was gleefully cringe worthy, something you couldn’t take your eyes off, and I mean that in both a good and bad way.
While season one was definitely not a hit with critics, it did well enough with fans to warrant a second season, which was given the go ahead. For many reasons, it was a totally different look and feel that greeted viewers and not many were buying it. Production delays, new sets of producers, an unhappy star… it all had the makings of a disaster and as it turns out, the show was cancelled and season two was cut short.
Leaving the Earth behind, the show decided to take to the skies for adventure aboard the ship Searcher. Buck, Twiki and Wilma and some interchangeable background characters went in search of humans who left Earth after the nuclear holocaust. More Battlestar Galactica themes clear here. This was more than a small change in terms of the shows direction but in the beginning, at least, the new direction held promise. A great new character named Hawk (Thom Christopher), a human bird man, joined the show and the crew of the Searcher, but sadly was never fleshed out and was badly underused. Wilma was made more docile as well, taking away some her wonderful edge, and the humor and fun seemed to have disappeared too, severely crippling the show.
Buck Rogers subsequently took on more serious topics, such as racism, war, evolution, in attempt to make the characters more human and relatable to the cast, but in the end made the show more cookie cutter action centric than anything. Where season one had the feel of a society growing and evolving, leaving some of its dystopian elements behind, season two became more generic and predictable, making it a very weird viewing experience. Trouble behind the scenes and plummeting ratings led to the show being cancelled halfway through season two, with no real resolution or finale. It was an unfortunate end but sadly, something most saw coming.
I have a lot of fond memories of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and most of that is wrapped up in the humour of the first season. It was pure escapism, fun and eye candy in every sense of the word. Even with the changes in season two, Buck Rogers made it cool to like ray guns again, embrace the wackiness and interesting ideas that came with robots and be part of a future full of adventures. It may not be rocket science but hey, it had rocket ships, so that’s as good as anyplace to begin in the world of science fiction.