Buck Rogers #1: Awakening

"In the year 1987, at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, NASA launched the last of America's deep space probes. The payload, perched on the nose cone of the massive rocket, was a one-man exploration vessel - Ranger 3. Aboard this compact starship, a lone astronaut - Captain William 'Buck' Rogers - was to experience cosmic forces beyond all comprehension. An awesome brush with death: in the blink of an eye, his life support systems were frozen by temperatures beyond imagination. Ranger 3 was blown out of its planned trajectory into an orbit a thousand times more vast, an orbit which was to return the ship full circle to his point of origin - its mother Earth - not in five months, but in 500 years."

WHAT'S UP, BUCK?: Buck Rogers wakes up 504 years after his own time and immediately gets embroiled in a conflict between Earth and the Draconian Dynasty.

REVIEW: The pilot doesn't waste any time on preliminaries. It starts with narration telling us the origin of Buck Rogers, how he left Earth in a shuttle in 1987 (as it turns out, only a few months before a nuclear holocaust), got frozen, and spent the next 504 years dreamin' of buxom babes rolling around with him on a giant Buck Rogers logo. Among these are Wilma Deering and Princess Ardala who he hasn't even met yet, so the sequence - along with its accompanying song - make a good case for the whole series being the silly dream of a man in cryogenic suspension. It would certainly explain a few things, like the disco fashions and other anachronisms, how everyone has the hots for Buck, and any continuity errors or abrupt changes between seasons. But judging by the material that follows it, it seems pretty appropriate to play the opener as James Bond meets Barbarella (the former was an inspiration, the latter had the same costume designer).

I find it interesting that the first people Buck meets in the future are the bad guys. Kane was in the first movie serial, and Tiger Man was in both the comic strip and the first live action short, and confusingly, there are two actors playing him (the first was a non-actor who bolted before reshoots) so it seems like there are more of these Tiger Men (indeed, the comic strip had it plural). Princess Ardala is also from the strips and here captures the spirit of those old sci-fi pulps. Clad in royal bikinis and amazing headdresses - her closet might be in Eternia or Hyborea - she is sexy as all get out (there's even a hot tub scene where she wears nothing at all), and of course wants our hero for her consort since the next five centuries will erase true manliness from the gene pool. Not that she's strictly human. The Draconian Dynasty lays claim to three quarters of the universe (I'm gonna take that to mean galaxy), and Earth isn't a part of it. Her back story is pretty interesting - she's one of the king's 30 daughters, her siblings all coveting her position (as eldest? just favorite?), but also quite keen on replacing dear old dad, if only she can find the right guy (the culture may well require a king). She navigates a treacherous court and needs to make conquests of her own to consolidate power, which is where Earth comes in. Pamela Hensley is without a doubt the best thing about the series, and there's a version of events where Buck Rogers actually stays with her because she's quite compelling. It's just not a version where Kane is around. He wouldn't have it.

So Buck heads to Earth and my, is he ever slow on the uptake. Even after spending some time on Ardala's ship, he still can't believe he's in the future. He's talking to himself. He's cracking jokes. He's making like it's all a dream. He essentially believes the opening montage. And it does little to endear him to me. He really is the cocksure "barbarian" they all think he is, but it's supposed to be humanity's saving grace. This is a trope at least as old as the pulps, where we evolve into pacifists, but that makes us prey to invaders. There are Star Trek episodes about it, Doctor Who's "The Daleks" makes the point, as does Adam Strange in comics... The "primitive man" is "correct" that you have to fight for what you believe in, even by force of arms. As America heads for the 80s, the fact that Buck Rogers is a warhawk seems about right. There's something of a "Conservative Agenda" beating the drum across the pilot, as something that will protect us from the Commies. Buck mentions the Russians and the plot gives us Cold War vibes (with the Dynasty appearing as a hybrid of various Asian cultures, just like the less villainous Draconians in Doctor Who); humanity is divided between privileged "goodies", while poor mutants living in bombed out ruins are "monsters" (Buck even takes a potshot at Chicago's South Side); a general bootstrap philosophy exemplified by the hero; and the one gay-coded character is a talking disco medallion who can't take action and is rather representative of what's gone wrong (we've let "sensitive" machines do all the thinking).

I'm not sure I quite believe that humanity is so ineffectual, or that Buck is such an anomaly. After all, the other lead is Colonel Wilma Deering, a cold, no-nonsense military leader. The future Chicago where Earth scenes are set is protected by all sorts of protocols, defense shields and Viper-like fighter craft. When the latter get massacred in a pirate attack, it's because their battle computers have been scrambled by the enemy, not because our warriors don't know what they're doing. What is clear is that we may given up TOO MUCH thinking to A.I. and stopped doing it for ourselves. Having none of the jaded reflexes of the others, Buck instinctually thinks outside the box because he never lived IN the box. Of course, there are times when Wilma reverts to TV's idea of a woman, incredibly jealous when Buck gives Ardala the attention, and throwing herself at him like she was spritzed by Tommy Wiseau pheromones (see my article on The Room to get that reference). Though she's a little too hard to be likeable yet, these moments are incredibly sexist, though on par with the rest of the episode in terms of sexism. You set up two strong women just so they can cat fight over a piece of beefcake, well... Oh, and don't think too hard about the bit where Buck roofies Ardala.

But truly, the most egregious character is Twiki. I do remember doing the Bidi-Bidi-Bidi thing in the school yard, but if an adult gut reaction to the notion might be "not a cute robot!", the truth is that what he has to say is often objectionable. For the most part in this, he's non-verbal and Theo the Necklace has to translate for him (sound familiar?). But Twiki soon learns to quip in a most anachronistic way, talking about freezing his ball bearings off, toasting Buck with a "L'Chaim", and telling Princess Ardala she has quite the body. I suppose it's supposed to be funny that he looks like a little kid and speaks like a dockworker, but it's like nails on a chalk board. He's a little dickhead (literally, some would say) and it doesn't even make sense in the context of the world they've presented where Buck's 20th-Century vernacular puzzles everyone. The A.I. Theo is a much better character, charmingly taken with Buck's good looks, a poet, and a member of the council of inanimate disks that rule the Earth, so strapping him around Twiki's neck seems an indignity. Glen Larson would go on to create Knight Rider, and Theo seems a prototype.

The plot itself would have Ardala broker a "peace" with Earth as a cover for gaining a foothold there and invading. It's pretty clear from the off that the so-called pirates are her own forces squeezing Earth so they'll accept protection, but the even the super-smart A.I. takes forever to get it as Buck explains it over and over. They don't trust Buck yet and don't necessarily conclude that he's playing Ardala, the grand seduction in front of everyone, a pretty big production number in terms of spectacle for us too, even if Buck needs to reevaluate what he considers "rock". Ardala in horns and silver bikini, shaking her thang on the dance floor makes me more than happy to pardon the DJ's choices. After the pleasantries, we'll get action anyway. Fights, and ship battles, and Buck neatly sabotaging the enemy fighter by slipping bombs into their thrusters. As soon as they light up, boom, so there's not much for Wilma's fighters to pick off. Generally fun, but the Draconia's explosion is sadly unimpressive. They didn't want to scrap the model so it's just a bunch of explosions overlaid on the film. Similarly, the King's holographic cameo is so unimpressive (you expect Genghis Khan but get retired Kublai) that they might as well have skipped it. In fact in one version, they did.

SPACE DISCO: Ardala is a disco QUEEN, but all the women tend to satin uniforms with deep V's, you know. There's a dance sequence, with old fashioned techno beats and lots of people doing something that's the ancestor to the "robot". The dance floor has a holodeck-style grid on it - we're definitely in a discotheque. Buck even interrupts the DJ to make a request, though his impression of rock is so 80s as to not be rock at all.

STAR GAZING: While Buck Rogers is Gil Gerard's only real claim to fame, Erin Gray went from that show to the sitcom Silver Spoons and so seemed a mainstay of television during my pre-teen and teen years. Tim O'Connor (Dr. Huer) had been a television actor since the '50s so he just has one of those ubiquitous faces (he brought Famke Janssen onto the Enterprise-D some years later). Pamela Hensley (Ardala) had been Mona in the Doc Savage movie, so had pulp cred, but Marcus Welby was probably her bigger credit then, and her role in Matt Houston later (she retired from the business after that show wrapped in 1985). Henry Silva (Kane) has been in a lot of movies and television shows, including The Manchurian Candidate, Dick Tracy and Ghost Dog, but for the purposes of this blog's readers, he voiced Bane on the Batman Animated Series. The man inside Twiki, Felix Silla, had also played Lucifer on Battlestar Galactica and Cousin Itt on the Adams Family, and only just died a few weeks ago. His voice though, was Mel Blanc's, so "What's up, Buck?" (not yet spoken) is directly related to "What's up, Doc?". King Draco is Joseph Wiseman in yellow face, but not for the first time - he played Dr. No in the Bond franchise. The opener was narrated by William Conrad who would voice the Lone Ranger on the 80s cartoon, and play the eponymous Fatman on Jake and the Fatman.

The Draconia launches fighters just like Galactica does, and uses the same magno-launch tunnel graphics and landing bay model. Laser guns and rifles are all reused props belonging to the Eastern Alliance. Earth's fighters were originally designed to be BSG's Vipers, but Larson went with another one; waste not, want not. Either way, they handle the same, have similar cockpits and instrumentation, and make the same sounds. Their pilots use similar helmets. Some of the credits use graphics similar to BSG, with lines above and below words. Some of the buildings put into the Chicago skyline are from Montreal's 1967 World Expo, a location BSG often used to simulate futuristic societies. As far as ripping off Star Wars, the Draconia gets a Star Destroyer shot when we first see it, and it's clear Twiki and Theo are a remix of R2-D2 and C-3PO.

VERSIONS: The 90-minute pilot episode is a revised version of this theatrical release and has a different opening credit sequence (so maybe it's NOT all a dream), additional scenes (Buck being introduced to his apartment, being offered a commission and refusing, Dr Huer giving an impassioned speech), and Vic Perrin as the voice of the Draconia's P.A. system instead of William Conrad. The brief scene with King Draco, however, is not in the TV version (there are also other small trims). The film had more elaborate credits at the end, with Erin Gray and Pamela Hensley also being credited as "dream girls". In syndication, the episode was split in two, ending Part I after Buck's adventure in the bombed out city.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - I doubt it gets much better than this. The comedy is really hit or miss (mostly miss), but it's still a fun action piece, and Ardala is sexy as hell.


Mike W. said...

Buck Rogers wakes up 504 years after his own time and immediately gets busy. I'd forgotten how goofy the humour was in this show, with Buck's anachronisms confusing everyone. I remember liking Twiki, but that was when I was 8, so maybe I'd feel differently now. I agree about Pamela Hensley's hotness, although Erin Gray gave her a pretty good run for her money; I still can't decide between them, although there's always something appealing about the bad girl ...

By the way, in the first paragraph you wrote "Among these are Wilma Deering and Princess Ardala who he hasn't even made yet ..." I assume you meant "met yet"; some kind of Freudian slip? (Or maybe you did mean "made", considering your feelings toward Ardala.)

Siskoid said...

Yes, "met", thanks.

jdh417 said...

I have a friend who is a fan of the show, but hadn't seen the movie version. He flipped out when I showed him the original opening title sequence, especially as a Princess Ardala fan. We have a co-worker who has some resemblance to her that he'd asked out at one time. I'd almost forgotten the scene myself, since I'd only seen the network and syndicated versions since seeing the movie.


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