Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Unchained Woman" (November 1, 1979)



The early first season episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) titled “Unchained Woman” finds Buck (Gil Gerard) undertaking the futuristic equivalent of an impossible mission. 

The man out of time is tasked with breaking a prisoner -- Jen Burton (Jamie Lee Curtis) -- out of an inescapable, subterranean prison on the moon Zeta 3 so she can testify against her boyfriend, Mal Pantera (Michael Delano), who has been ambushing Directorate shipping lanes.

Complicating the mission, Buck must also contend with a relentless and invincible android prison guard whom he has nicknamed Hugo (Walter Hunt). 

After escaping from the prison with Jen, Buck has to not only escape Hugo’s pursuit (and deal with hungry sand squids...) and meet Wilma (Erin Gray) at a rendezvous point. He must also deal with an unseen menace: Earth ambassador Warwick (Robert Cornthwaite), who is secretly allied with Pantera.




Watching "Unchained Woman" today, it is clear that the android Hugo is a sort of science fiction missing link between Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger in Westworld (1973) and Arnie’s cyborg from the future in The Terminator (1984). This relentless, incredibly strong individual drives much of the episode’s action and even provides “Unchained Woman” its sting-in-the-tail/tale conclusion. 

Although the mission ends successfully, Buck’s android nemesis is still “alive,” still hunting his escaped wards.  He is never going to give up. Ever. And in fact, the machine is referenced in a later episode ("A Blast for Buck.")



This is a funny happenstance, in terms of the pop culture, because guest star Jamie Lee Curtis is famous, of course, for being pursued by an unstoppable villain of another stripe, Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers.  

Here, Jen believes she is finally free, but the episode cuts back to Hugo on Zeta's surface, his hand twitching, thus signifying the fact that the nightmare continues.


What remains so intriguing about “Unchained Woman” (and much of Buck Rogers’ first season, as well) is that it focuses on a crime or “caper” story.  The prison break-out story, for example, is a genre trope, seen on such programs as The A-Team and the tongue-in-cheek The Lone Gunmen (2000). The story itself is familiar, even old, but the writers for Buck Rogers cleverly adapt all the 20th century clichés to the 25th century setting thus making them memorable, and in some sense even fresh.  

Here, we get an underground prison on Zeta 3 (two-hundred feet beneath the surface and carved “out of bedrock”), an explosive medallion, android prison guards, a decontamination chamber, and prison identification bracelets. These trappings are inventive enough to make the story feel fresh. The episode's director, Dick Lowry, creates a lot of tension from the fact that the prison is inescapable, and Buck's only method of getting out, the aforementioned medallion, is torn from his neck and thrown in a garbage bin.


When you couple these futuristic trappings with Buck’s sense of humor and quips, “Unchained Woman” emerges as quite the entertaining romp. For example, here he notes, with apparent appreciation, that prisons have gone “co-ed” since his era.  At another juncture, he considers an android’s law-and-order “motto” (“On Zeta, they do things right…”) and suggests it would make a good bumper sticker. Gil Gerard makes such a good series lead because he can alternate readily between sincerity and humor without either emotion seeming forced. "Unchained Woman" puts those talents to good use.

Every sci-fi TV series possesses its own unique alchemy. Buck’s is ably represented by this episode: crime-related “caper” tales in which Buck goes undercover, helps someone, and  cracks wise along the way, all while contending with the technological "miracles" of a de-humanized future age. 

The nice thing about this formula is that it can be varied to be more serious (like the brilliant “Plot to Kill a City,”) more horrific (“Space Vampire”) or even a bit more on the comedic side (“Cosmic Whiz Kid.”) 

I still remember watching “Unchained Woman” for the first time, and worrying about how Buck was going to stop an unstoppable android. The episode’s cleverness comes from the fact that --in the final analysis -- he doesn't accomplish the impossible. The androids still functions, and is still out there, in search of his prey.



“Unchained Woman” is a fun episode of the series, bolstered by some nice location shooting in the desert, and some good special effects, such as the matte painting of the outpost called Station Post 7.  

Several Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) costumes get recycled there, but it hardly matters. And one final bonus of Bill Taylor's teleplay is a rare subplot involving Dr. Huer's back-story and friendship with Warwick. Huer (Tim O'Connor) is a truly interesting character, a principled leader who grew up in a time of famine and ascetisim, while Earth was climbing back on its feet.  Buck Rogers rarely took the time to focus on the character, but "Unchained Woman" reveals his true humanity, and his sense of decency, and loyalty.

Buck Rogers Week 2017: Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center (Mego; 1979)





In 1979, Mego released a whole line of very cool Buck Rogers spaceships and toys, including the Directorate Starfighter (my favorite ship from the series, the Draconian Marauder (known as a Hatchet fighter on the series...), a Land Rover, and a Laserscope Fighter (not a design from the series). 

So it only makes sense that the same company would market a place to dock these ships, the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center.

Christmas 1980 was the holiday of Buck Rogers for me. I'll never forget going over to my aunt and uncle's house in Summit, New Jersey and opening toy after toy -- all Buck Rogers models and action figures (though, as I recall, this was also the Christmas of The Empire Strikes Back and my giant AT-AT. But that's another story...).

Here, the toy box suggests: "Issue commands to Buck and monitor his flight pattern with this authentic replica of the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center!"

The toy also includes:

"2 level deck with radar screens and railings," "Cut-out landing and launch pad for Buck's Star Fighter," and "landing control console for use with Mego Buck Rogers 3 3/4 action figures and all other poseable 3 3/4 action figures."

What remains most interesting about this toy is that what you see displayed on the box is not necessarily the toy you get inside. On the box, for instance, the upper deck of the landing pad shows a chair from Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise bridge. In the actual toy, a different style chair is molded to the deck.

Also, the decals on the box and the decals of the actual set are completely different. I know now that Mego was juggling a number of "space opera" licenses at the time, including Star Trek, Buck Rogers and The Black Hole, so there may have been some franchise confusion. Just a guess.

This just goes to show that back in the 1970's and 1980's, even great toy companies like Mego weren't necessarily paying close attention to the exact details of their (admittedly wonderful and now incredibly collectible) products. 


This isn't really an "authentic replica" of the landing bay on the series.

But that's okay, it's still a fun toy. And as you can see from the photos, Buck's Starfighter Command Center today holds a cherished spot in my home office, even today.

Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Return of the Fighting 69th" (October 25, 1979)



In “Return of the Fighting 69th,” Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) finds that her past has caught up with her in two ways.

First, two notorious gun-runners hiding out on an asteroid base near Necrosis IV -- Corliss (Robert Quarry) and Roxanne Trent (Elizabeth Allen) ) -- have sworn revenge against her and all of Earth for the injuries they received when trying to escape her pursuit, years earlier. Now, these villains have a cache of 20th century nerve gas at their disposal.

Secondly, Deering must go to the men and women of the Fighting 69th Space Marines for help navigating the asteroid belt. 

Although she grew up with Noah Cooper (Peter Graves) and his team of silver-eagle pilots, Wilma recently flunked them on their annual physicals, as they are all nearing the mandatory retirement age of 85.  

Cooper and the others put the past aside, and agree to work with Wilma and Buck (Gil Gerard) on a bombing mission of Corliss and Trent’s hide-out. They outfit several ships as “star belly bombers” and train to assault the base.

Unfortunately, Buck and Wilma are captured during the actual raid, and are held captive by the burned, scarred gun-runners. Fortunately, they are assisted by a young Terran slave, Alicia (Katherine Wiberg). Alicia is deaf, and has been separated from her family on Earth for five years, but puts everything on the line to help the Directorate end the threat of the nerve gas.




Like many episodes of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’s (1979-1981) first season, “Return of the Fighting 69th” is fast-paced and action-packed. The episode features space dogfights, new miniatures (the asteroid base), and new optical effects as well.  

What differentiates this story from many others, however, is that it delves into the past of a character who is not often explored: Erin Gray’s Wilma Deering.


We learn a lot about Wilma from this episode. For example, we learn that her father was a pilot, as she became. When he died, she was raised, essentially, by his pilot friends (including Noah Cooper) and given the nickname “Dizzy D,” because she would get into everything, and make mischief. This is a nice, colorful peek at the character, and explanation for her life, essentially, of military service. She’s an Army (or Space Marine) brat, essentially.


Secondly, we learn about one of Wilma's important missions before Buck arrived in the 25th century. I like this touch, in particular, because it suggests that the 25th century didn’t just start when Buck showed up. 

Wilma had a career, and a history, and it wasn’t all positive. 

Here for instance, she failed to catch Corliss and Trent, and they have sworn a vendetta against her.  Uniquely, this whole subplot ties in neatly with the personal back-story. In both cases -- hunting down the gun-runners (who are badly injured and scarred) and booting the fighting 69th out of the service -- Wilma is just doing “her duty” as she sees it. 

But duty, while clear cut in the present, can sometimes have unforeseen effects from a point of retrospect. Here, Wilma makes two very dangerous enemies in space, and loses the people closest to her on Earth.  She must feel in some ways that duty is a harsh master, as it often requires her to hurt those she cares for, or destroy lives.


One aspect of “The Return of the Fighting 69th” that doesn’t work quite so successfully involves series continuity. Just a few episodes back (in “Vegas in Space,”) Buck and Wilma were still arguing a core conceit of the series: computer control vs. manual control as it applies to Starfighter pilots.  As we saw in the pilot “Awakening,” too, Directorate pilots could be beaten all the time, essentially, because they relied in combat on computer control. It took a good old fashioned, red-blooded American pilot of the 20th century -- Buck -- to show these stiff 25th century pilots how to fly by the seat of their pants.

Yet here, Cooper and all the other pilots seem quite capable and accomplished, and not-reliant on computer control at all.  Indeed, there is no mention of this debate here, as if the series has dropped the whole pretense that this is a continuing thread.  It is just as well, perhaps, that the notion is dropped, because looking at the grizzled, hard-boiled, experienced (and beautiful…) faces of Peter Graves, Woody Strode and the others, it isn’t easy to believe that they were raised and trained in an environment of computer control.  

An answer to this? It would have been great if Wilma had noted that these pilots practiced in a time more like Buck’s when computer control programs were not as sophisticated, or ubiquitous.



In terms of history, “Return of the Fighting 69th” boasts some intriguing antecedents. The Fighting 69th is a beloved war movie, actually of 1940, which stars James Cagney, George Brent, and Pat O’Brien.  

The Hollywood film, which is about courage and sacrifice in war, is based on World War I’s infantry regiment of the same name. It was called, like Noah’s space marines, “The fighting 69th.” That term was coined in a poem by Joyce Kilmer, “When the 69th Comes Home.” So it is fascinating to trace a line between the real fighting 69th, and patriots of Noah Cooper’s squadron in the 25th century.

“The Return of the Fighting 69th” is a fun, fast-moving episode of Buck Rogers, and the pace of the enterprise keeps one from thinking too much about some of the sketchy details. Corliss and Trent have weapons, ships, personnel, and an amazing facility. All of that is wasted by their pursuit of vengeance, which is part of the episode’s theme, no doubt, but their scenes play as two-dimensional.  


Similarly, the episode falls all over itself to provide a happy ending for literally every protagonist.Noah survives the bombing run (when first thought dead). Buck reunites Alicia with her family…and she is scheduled for surgery to get her hearing back. Meanwhile, the Fighting 69th gets back its “silver eagles,” and the regulation about mandatory retirement at 85 is taken off the books.  It’s just so…positive.  

I would suggest that a more impactful ending would see Noah killed in action -- dying the way he lived; protecting his planet. That denouement would have given the story a bit of an extra (gut) punch.

Also, it is rewarding that the concept of “ageism” is brought up here, but it isn’t exactly treated in nuanced fashion. 

Wilma’s point, that the Fighting 69th was not ready for combat proves wrong, but she is not wrong in every situation.  My great uncle Arthur -- whom I loved dearly -- died at the age of 96 last une. He still would, occasionally, ask where his driver’s license was, so he could drive. Yet the man was virtually blind.  As cold-hearted as this may sound (or read…), it is an act of kindness sometimes, to prevent the people you love from hurting themselves, and hurting others. My uncle did not belong, in his nineties, behind the wheel of a car.  I would always offer to drive him to get whatever he wanted or needed (which was, usually, a bag of black licorice candy).  

I understand that the story particulars of “The Return of the Fighting 69th” suggest that Noah and the others are as capable as ever, at their advanced ages. But in real life, it’s not often that clear cut. I don’t believe in discriminating against the elderly, and I believe that they should maintain their independence as long as they possibly can. But sometimes, sadly, other factors “weigh” on their ability to be self-sufficient.

To my delight, this Buck Rogers episode also addresses the issue of the hearing-impaired, and sign-language. Alicia is treated as less than a complete, or intelligent person by Trent, because she can’t speak; because she can’t use vocal language the way that we do. Buck connects with her, and helps her find her courage; her "voice," if you will. This is a nice touch that gives Buck something meaningful to do in what is, clearly, an over-stuffed episode.

Finally, and on a personal note, I love the miniatures of the star-belly bombers used in this episode.  They look great, and the special effects visualizing them are certainly state of the art for 1979. 

Although it moves very fast, and avoids reality strenuously with its happy, Hollywood ending, “Return of the Fighting 69th” still must count as a strong episode of this series in its first season.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Buck Rogers Week 2017: Mego Action Figures



Mego acquired the merchandise license for the 1979 revival of Buck Rogers and used the feature film (originally a TV-pilot) as the basis for its many toy designs.  

Today, I want to remember the action figures from the series.

Nine were released all together, including Buck, Twiki, Wilma Deering, Killer Kane, Ardella, Dr. Huer, Tiger man, Draconian Guard and Draco. 

If you watched Buck Rogers in the 25th Century on television with any regularity, you’ll immediately pick up on some of the discontinuities between the program and the toys.  

Specifically, Pamela Hensley’s character was named Ardala, not Ardella.  

And Kane -- a character played by both Henry Silva and Michael Ansara – was never referred to by the nickname Killer Kane. 

Finally of course, King Draco appeared in the pilot/movie for about twenty seconds and was never seen again on the series.  Not even once.

Despite such problems, I always enjoyed these three-and-three-quarter inch action figures.  They could fit easily inside the Land Rover, the Draconian Marauder and the Starfighter, and in general looked a great lot like their video counterparts.  The figures’ drawbacks included the fact that they came with no accessories, not even laser guns or helmets. 


And additionally, like The Black Hole action figures from Mego of the same vintage, these Buck Rogers figures could break very easily because all their joints were held together by silver pins.  Those pins  had an annoying habit of loosening up or even falling out.

I still remember seeing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in theaters.  Afterwards, my parents took me to a Toys R Us store to buy me two action figures.  I was able to find Buck and Twiki and was pretty happy about it.  Our next stop was a carpet store and while my parents shopped, I flew Buck and Twiki around the huge store filled with rolled-up rugs. 

In short order, however, Buck’s interior elastic snapped, and the hero came apart into many pieces. The very first night I had him!  Buck’s “accident” left me only with Twiki…which was a big disappointment.  

The astronaut had survived five hundred years as a popsicle only to spontaneously combust in a carpet store.

When we arrived home, my Dad glued Buck Rogers back together, but the poor guy was never quite the same, being now unable to move his hips. 

How could he teach my Princess Ardala figure how to boogie?


Buck Rogers Week 2017: "The Plot to Kill A City" (October 11, October 18, 1979)





Buck Rogers vs. The Legion of Death.
This exciting Buck Rogers two-parter aired on October 11 and October 18, 1979, and was written by the talented Alan Brennert.  Dick Lowry directs.

"The Plot to Kill a City's story opens in media res, with Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) on a mission to take out and replace a legendary criminal named Raphael Argus.  Argus, you see, is a member of "The Legion of Death," a terrorist group planning to deliver "final retribution" on New Chicago (a city of 10 million people...) for the death of one of  its comrades.

Because Buck hails from the 20th century, there's no record of his existence anywhere in the data-heavy, computerized 25th Century, and so Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor) at the Earth Defense Directorate sends Buck to infiltrate the Legion and learn its secret plan.  Since the Legion of Death members rarely gather -- and don't know each other by sight -- this seems a perfect plan.

Not so fast, however, as Buck is soon pitted against a team of James Bond-worthy villains. 

A soldier villain? Varek (Anthony James)
Leading the Legion of Death is a brilliant scientist from Rigel IV, Selon Kellogg (Frank Gorshin). 

He's the mastermind and formidable "general" villain of the organization.  Kellogg is cruel and merciless, willing to visit death upon innocent millions for a personal slight. 

If you've watched Batman, you may recall that Gorshin is expert at portraying exaggerated, larger-than-life villainy, but his Kellogg is a different breed from the Riddler all-together: a deadly serious, deadly somber threat; a real (and utterly horrible...) person.

At Kellogg's side stand several incredibly powerful and memorable "soldier" villains and minions.  Their numbers include Quince (John Quade), an assassin from a heavy gravity planet armed with telekinetic powers, Sherese (Nancy DeCarl), an empath who picks up "vibrations" and who is "pathologically suspicious," and Markos, a martial arts expert who has "partially severed" his nerve endings to reduce his ability to feel pain (and yes, we saw a villain much like Markos in The World is Not Enough [1999], didn't we?). 

Finally, there's the hulking Varek (Anthony James), a masked mutant and Kellogg's personal bodyguard.  He boasts the ability to "alter his molecular density."   In other words, Varek can walk through walls.

During the course of the story's two-parts, Buck must infiltrate the Legion and stay ahead of these powerful villains.   This task is made more difficult by his entanglement with a betrayer named Barney (James Sloyan), after the comic strip's "Black Barney."  Buck must also evade galactic police, who believe he really is the notorious Raphael Argus.

As Buck soon learns, the Legion of Death plans to destroy a matter/anti-matter power generator outside of New Chicago. The Legion forces an employee at the power station to help them evade security by threatening the lives of his children. 

"Show me a family man who can afford to be a hero..." Kellogg quips.

With time running out, Buck finds an unexpected ally in Varek...

The space port on Aldebaron (later re-used in ST: TNG: "Coming of Age").
It seems to me that --  especially in the case of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- one must judge the quality or worth of the series' installments within the boundaries of its action-oriented format and particular historical context. 

In this case, the Glen Larson TV series was broadcast post-Star Wars.   That says a lot.

That historical context means audiences  must expect a cute robot (Twiki), plenty of flashy laser beam fire, space dogfights, and a heightened sense of romantic action/adventure.  

In broad terms, the series format basically makes Buck and Wilma futuristic "secret agents" working for Dr. Huer's Directorate, putting cosmic bad guys out of business while acting "undercover."   Not particularly deep; but the stories are often immensely engaging, and almost universally entertaining.

Many weeks, it's James Bond in space, all right, and as is the case with the best Bond films, the best Buck Rogers episodes are often those which feature the most interesting villains

"The Plot to Kill a City" serves up a literal "legion" of such nemeses, plus an appealing Bond girl (Buck girl?)  in Markie Post's cute-as-a-button Joella Cameron.  The threat is also grave enough to hold the attention: the destruction of New Chicago and 10 million people at the hands of the terrorist villains.

If you choose to look at Huer as "M" or "Q" while he gives Buck his gadgets of the week (black light bombs...) the comparison to the Bond franchise is complete.

Within the parameters established above -- Buck as Bondian secret agent, bracing space adventure -- the truly rewarding Buck Rogers episodes remain those that  are able -- through clever writing and execution -- to often find a sort of unexpected "sweet spot" in this superficial Bond formula:  a spot where story and character ingredients work on a deeper-than-surface level. 

Markie Post is a futuristic Bond Girl.
Where was that sweet spot located?  Well, it often became apparent when Buck's humanity and fish-out-of-water predicament played an important role in the narrative, and when good, solid science fiction concepts ably supported the front-and-center action. 

Even better, it occurred when those solid science fiction concepts were ones that had something relevant and important to say about American life during the late 1970s or early 1980s.

With the "The Plot to Kill a City,"  you can put checks in all those boxes.  

Make no mistake, Buck Rogers is not Star Trek, which by and large remains a meditative vehicle on human morality, but this  comparison doesn't mean Buck couldn't tell meaningful, dimensional tales, either.  

Most importantly, the superficial good guys vs. bad guys nature of the "Plot to Kill a City" is supported ably by a surprising, welcome and very human character subplot.  In this case, Varek -- the masked body guard -- originates from a planet that survived a "winnable" nuclear war, only to face a future of terrible genetic deformity.  Varek hides his misshapen face behind a golden mask so as not to reveal his hideous visage.

Late in the first segment, Varek tells Buck Rogers that he deserves to be Kellogg's servant, a slave essentially. 

"I deserve no better," he declares with self-loathing.  "My people were a proud race...too proud.  It wasn't enough that we had tamed our planet, built a great culture, reached out into space.  We had to have other worlds too.  We abused our freedom and we lost it, and deservedly so."

Later, when Varek realizes that Kellogg plans to visit a similar apocalypse upon Earth's innocent children, he gets over his self-pity and hatred and actively joins Buck's cause.  "You can't imagine life on my planet," he explains.  "Children afraid to look at their own reflections.  Children with the touch of death."

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
In the end, Varek saves the day by facing his own death.  Eyes wide open, he walks straight into a radioactive anti-matter chamber to stabilize the reactor. 

Inside, Varek re-aligns the power system, and saves the generator...and all of New Chicago.

And yes, this heroic incident -- with a character bravely and knowingly facing extinction before the eyes of his comrades in a sealed compartment -- oddly foreshadows the specifics of Spock's death in the engine room in The Wrath of Khan.

More to the point, however, Valek is no ordinary "guest star of the week," but rather a character who is well-developed, and undergoes an arc of learning and development during the story.  He changes sides not on a writer's whim, not because the story demands it, but based on his difficult life experience, and that idea comes through pretty powerfully without being overtly preachy.

Also, it's important to recall that America was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union in late 1979, when this episode aired.  The specter of nuclear annihilation was always present -- every day -- like a shroud, hanging over all of us.   This episode of Buck Rogers expresses the terrible horror of nuclear Armageddon, with children paying the consequences for an "international" disagreement over political ideology.  Even more so, it suggests that those who use such weapons to conquer others deserve themselves to be subjugated and enslaved.  Not a tame statement in the year leading up to Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, and the American boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics.

Again, this "apocalypse mentality," this expression of fear around a nuclear war, lends a commendable gravity to this episode that not all Buck Rogers episodes abundantly possess.  Although the Earth itself is a victim of nuclear holocaust in the series, the writers of the program never returned Buck to Anarchia to face the savagery of his time period, and the ideological passions that led to such global horror.  "The Plot to Kill a City" gets at the idea in a different way, and in a way that resonates well.  Other episodes of the series would certainly try --"Olympiad" was about a defector from an oppressive planetary regime -- but none truly got to the stark horror of nuclear brinkmanship in the way that "The Plot to Kill a City" does.

Kellogg's starfighter.
When I discuss solid science fiction concepts in terms of this two-part episode, I'm talking about the way the episode creates deadly and unique "assassins" out of other-worldly environments. 

It imagines a world of heavy gravity where the inhabitants develop the power of their minds (telekinesis) so as to control their environs.  It imagines Varek's world of nuclear apocalypse; a world that took a dark path which, fortunately, our Earth has not. It features an "empath" as a deadly conspirator and interrogator, and much more.

With the exception of Varek and his milieu, these concepts are not explored in great depth, merely touched upon, but then again we must return to the concept of Buck Rogers as an action series.  The natures and backgrounds of Quince, Sherese, Markos and the others are imaginative and believable enough to make the story fly (and to suggest a larger world), and that's what's important.

I still remember watching this compelling two-parter when I was nine years old, and being absolutely glued to the television as those terrible words -- "To Be Continued" -- popped up.  There was the feeling then that Buck Rogers -- for all its swashbuckling fun -- was hitting on all creative thrusters too.

"A Plot to Kill a City" serves up a number of great villains, and one tragic character too.  Because it consists of two parts and has roughly ninety minutes to tell its tale, the story is fast-paced but also takes the time to get the small touches right.  For all of the series' sense of fun and humor, there was always the impression here that the danger presented by Kellogg was real and grave, and that matters of great consequence were occurring.  Simply put, this is one of the best "Bucks."

Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Vegas in Space" (October 7, 1979)




In “Vegas in Space,” Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) is assigned by the Directorate and Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor) to visit Sinoloa, a city of casinos in space run by the crime lord, Velosi (Richard Lynch).

Buck is accompanied on his journey by Colonel Marla Landers (Juanin Clay), and their mission is to spring a kidnapped young woman, Felina (Ana Alicia), who is secretly the daughter of a rival crime boss, Armat (Cesar Romero).

An agreement is made: Buck and Marla save Thelina, and the crime boss will provide information about the Draconian’s new hatchet fighters, which have proven impossible to defeat.

Once at Sinoloa -- which is described by Dr. Theopolis as an “orbiting city of moral depravity” -- Buck is befriended by Tangy (Pamela Susan Shoop), a woman who is also being held captive by Velosi. She helps Buck and Marla free Felina before a sadistic expert at extracting information, Morphius (Joseph Wiseman) gets an opportunity to ply his trade.



My perception is that “Vegas in Space” is a well-liked and popular episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), but despite this act, it has never been one of my favorite installments. It’s an early episode of the series’ first season, and the actors, writers, and directors are all still in search of a consistent tone.

This episode follows very much the kind of glib approach we see in “Awakening,” with Buck as the grinning Burt Reynolds of the future. 

Gil Gerard, in future episodes, brings depth and humanity to the role, but one can see here that he is fighting against a script which features a different vision of the character.  For example, just look at the scene in “Vegas in Space” in which Wilma recruits Buck for this particular mission, and he perks up at the word “gambling” and his (lascivious) memories of (the attractive) Marla Landers. Again, this is a guy who has lost his own world, but we’re supposed to believe he just wants to gamble and bed beautiful women.  

Late in the episode, Buck is also somewhat insufferable. After his victory over hatchet fighters, he gloats to Wilma: “I told you so.”


The approach here is, also, clearly much in the pattern of Mission: Impossible (1966-1972) or the James Bond films of the era. For example, Dr. Theopolis, at the start of the episode, outfits Buck with a series of gadgets to help him escape from Sinoloa. He might as well be designated “Q.” In the final act, of course, those gadgets come in handy to escape from Sinoloa.

The episode also continues the early (and soon dropped…) conceit that no one in the 25th century can think without computer assistance. Here, the crisis of the week involves a new design of Draconian fighters.  These hatchet fighters can out-maneuver human pilots. Buck wants Directorate pilots to go to manual, to counter the moves of these new crafts. Wilma doesn’t believe that this will be enough, or that her pilots can do it.

Then, on Sinoloa, no computers are allowed, so that human gamblers can lose at games such as “10 and 11” (Black Jack).  Apparently, the human mind of the future has atrophied to a terrible degree.  Buck’s dialogue spells it all out. “People’s minds have gotten flabby,” he notes.


The problem is that this “history” and characterization of 25th century man doesn’t always fit with what we see. For instance: Noah and his team of gruff veterans in “The Fighting 69th.” Don’t tell me those grizzled space dogs relied on piloting computers.  And if they didn’t, why should other human pilots?

In the end, the plot doesn’t exactly resolve, or go anywhere interesting. Buck bests a hatchet fighter during a space dogfight by relying on his instincts. So he doesn’t even need the information that was the motivating factor behind the mission to Sinoloa.

Another intriguing, but unexplored angle of this story involves the Draconians. How would Earth crime lords have top secret information about state-of-the-art Draconian spacecraft? Is there some alliance between Big Business and a foreign power threatening Earth? Certainly, we see this today with various corrupt politicians/business figures working with a foreign power, such as Russia. But “Vegas in Space” doesn’t explore the connection, or make anything dramatic of it. And the connection between the crime lords and the Draconians is never raised in the series again.


“Vegas in Space” features a lot of superficial on-screen value. Consider the guest stars, for example: Cesar Romero, Richard Lynch, Joseph Wiseman, Pamela Susan Shoop, and Ana Alicia.  That’s a lot of on-screen talent for what is, essentially, a caper story. “Vegas in Space” also moves at a quick clip and features an easily comprehensible gimmick so as to appeal the widest possible audience demographic: an outer space casino.  A similar space casino had been seen in the final part of the original Battlestar Galactica pilot, "Saga of a Star World" (Carillon).



Beyond those shallow virtues, the episode isn’t really about anything.  I watch “Vegas in Space,’ and I can’t help but see a series that hasn’t yet found -- or cemented – its own identity.  This isn’t one I often choose to re-watch because there’s nothing of substance to mine, or to think about.  

I do very much like the performance of Juanin Clay, however, as Marla. It's an intriguing historical footnote that she was nearly cast as Wilma Deering, when Erin Gray was not certain she wanted to commit to the series.

Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Awakening"




Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- though designed as a TV series -- actually had its premiere in American movie theaters on March 30th, 1979.   

The film, originally a pilot called "Awakening" quickly provided a remarkable return on Universal’s investment.  It was produced for a little over three million dollars (or one-third of Star Wars’ budget, essentially, in 1977) and the movie grossed over twenty-one million dollars in American theaters alone. 

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the film was generally well-received by critics, despite its TV origins. Vincent Canby at The New York Times belittled the film as “corn flakes” while simultaneously comparing it to the big boys: Star Wars and Superman: The Movie.  He also noted (with grudging admiration) the ingenuity of the film’s makers.

I remember seeing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in theaters and enjoying it tremendously, unaware that it had been conceived and shot as a TV series pilot and then kind of exploded into becoming a full-fledged feature film. In 1979, the special effects held up on the big screen beautifully (particularly the moments in Anarchia, a ruined 20th century city inhabited by mutants…), and the film, overall, was very entertaining. It moved at a fast clip, showed knowing good humor about its world, and was flashy in visual presentation

Today, however, it is not difficult to detect some of the “growing pains” of this production as it stretched from being, essentially, a kid-friendly TV pilot to a more adult-oriented, “big” event movie.  What began as a relatively straight space adventure inched closer to a nifty and ingenious paradigm: James Bond in Space

This shift in premises is best exemplified by an opening credits sequence which features Buck romancing scantily-clad women of the 25th Century, who pose and preen on the over-sized letters of his “name” while a Bond-like ballad blares on the soundtrack.  It’s a little bit ridiculous, and a little bit cheesy, but it definitely captures the 007 aesthetic: sexy women and a catchy pop-tune.


The Women of James Bond Buck Rogers.



The women of Buck Rogers #2


The Women of Buck Rogers #3




The Women of Buck Rogers #4



The Women of Buck Rogers #5

Other moments are more clumsily folded into the narrative than the enjoyable Bondian-opening.  


Late in the film, aboard the Draconia, for instance, Ardala declares she wants Buck to take her father’s “seat” on the throne.  Suddenly, the film cuts to a shot of Buck -- obviously shot at some later date, on a different set -- declaring that her father’s “seat” is the furthest thing from his mind (implying it’s her seat – her buttocks – that interests him). 

Thus sexual double-entendres were ham-handedly added to the production when the shift in venue was broached.  Other innuendos work a little better than this one because they arrive via the auspices of ADR or looping, and therefore we don’t get the chance to visually note the inconsistencies.

Another not-entirely successful addition to the original pilot sees Buck going mano-a-mano with Tigerman, Princess Ardala’s hulking bodyguard and the film’s equivalent of Oddjob, or Jaws…a so-called soldier villain.  

There’s nothing wrong with the climactic physical confrontation between Buck and Tigerman, except that Buck faces a different Tigerman here, not the one seen throughout the film.  This discontinuity is left unexplained, but Derek Butler plays the character throughout the film, and H.B. Haggerty (who returned to the role in “Escape from Wedded Bliss” and “Ardala Returns”) plays him for the fight sequence.  

The two men are both imposing, but boast very different looks in terms of muscle-mass and body-type.  Honestly, I didn’t notice the substitution as a kid, but the switch is impossible to miss now.


Tigerman #1 (Derek Butler)

Tigerman #2 (H.B. Haggerty)
These last minute additions to the enterprise feel somewhat jarring, even if they add to the James Bond mystique of the thing.  A more significant problem, however, involves the thematic approach to the material.  Buck -- in both the film and the series – is raised up as some kind of paradigm for Earth’s future, the ideal man.  A professor and friend at Hampden-Sydney College called the idea “American Exceptionalism in Space,” and he was right.

The only problem, of course, is that Buck is from the very age on Earth that brought about the devastating nuclear holocaust.  His generation, in essence, destroyed everything.  It seems strange and counter-intuitive, then, to deride the sincere 25th Century folks -- just climbing out of a five hundred year economic and cultural hole, as it were – for depending on computers, since the episode makes plain the notion that ungoverned emotions and passions were what brought about the end of 20th century mankind. 

These benevolent robots, acting dispassionately but helpfully, instead rely on logic and rationality. As Dr. Huer notes, they saved the Earth from "certain doom" and have been "taking care of areas where we made mistakes, like the environment."

So…would you really want to go back to the approach that led to Earth’s ruin?  Would you lift Buck up as a role model, or see him as a backward man from a much more primitive time?  To champion Buck, in some sense, is to champion irrationality and emotions over science and reason.  This is the last thing a slow-recovering planet needs, a throwback to the violent past.

It would be one thing if the movie noted that some balance between approaches -- logic and emotion -- needed to be struck.  But the 25th century characters are treated, in broad strokes, as gullible fools who can’t even pilot their own star-fighters (even though those ships are built with very prominent joy-sticks designed for manual control).  

It’s all a little bit…incoherent. Yet the film gets away with it because, again, of the James Bond comparison. We all know that James Bond is irresistible to all women, best in a fight or shoot-out, and supreme exemplar of style and taste.  Nobody does it better, right? 

Here, Buck Rogers seems to have the same magic touch.  We accept the premise, in short, because we recognize it from that other franchise. But in context, the story doesn't make sense.

Despite such flaws, the movie vets an intriguing premise involving the Draconian “stealth” attack (a kind of Trojan Horse in Space dynamic), and features at least one authentically great sequence set in Anarchia, or “Old Chicago.”  Here, Buck goes in search of his past, and finds it…in a grave-yard. 

This scene in Anarchia is particularly well-shot, acted, and scored, and adds a significant human dimension to the film’s tapestry.  We are reminded that Buck has lost everything.  Not just his family…but the world he knew.  

Here, Buck Rogers harks back to a 1970's movie tradition earlier than Star Wars: the dystopia or post-apocalyptic setting of such efforts as The Omega Man, Logan's Run or Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  I’ve always wished that the ensuing TV series had followed up on this plot-line a little more sincerely.  There were many stories to be vetted in Anarchia, but in its two-year run, Buck never returned there (that we know of).

I should add, the special effects visualizations of New Chicago and Anarchia are nothing less-than-spectacular, even today. Again, it’s difficult to reckon with just how cheaply this movie was made because it features extensive, highly-detailed matte paintings, numerous space dogfights, and huge sets (like Ardala’s throne room…replete with Olympic-size swimming pool). 






Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning Buck Rogers’ other great “visual.”  Vincent Canby writes: Pamela Hensley is the film's most magnificent special effect as the wicked, lusty Princess Ardala, a tall, fantastically built woman who dresses in jewelry that functions as clothes and walks as if every floor were a burlesque runway.

There’s probably a case to made that Hensley is one of the Best Bond femme fatales ever…except that she’s not technically in a Bond film, of course. Still, the material is close enough, and boy does she have a sense of…presence.  I can't think of many actresses who could pull-off that "boogie" scene with Buck Rogers here.  But Hensley disco dances with the best of them, retains her character's regal sense of dignity, and is awfully sexy...


Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala
I can’t really argue that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is in the same artistic class as contemporaries like Star Wars or Superman: The Movie. But the movie is undeniably entertaining , and it sets up – with tremendous entertainment value -- the boundaries of Buck Roger’s new life in the 25th Century.  In other words, it’s a pretty great TV pilot for 1979 even if -- blown-up to the silver screen – it all plays as a bit scattershot.