Buck Rogers #21: Flight of the War Witch

"Just give them my best wishes and send them on their way. I don't want them to be late for the war!"

WHAT'S UP, BUCK?: Buck and Ardala team up to fight Julie Newmar in another dimension.

REVIEW: Ending the season with a two-hour movie (indeed, on the highest ratings the show ever got) is a laudable idea, but I have to wonder if they had enough story for a double-sized episode. It feels incredibly padded, especially the first half, from the extremely long William Conrad trailer (his longest and last spoiler), an awkward extended cut of the opening theme, dialog repeated in back-to-back scenes, cutaways to "who is this guy?", and completely disposable moments like everything with Buck's new girlfriend (more on her in due course, but the fact Elena is uncredited might say something about how this was put together), and a pointless moment with a handmaiden who seems starstruck by Buck. The pacing is all over the place and the editing shoddy, cutting away too soon from a moment before a line has time to breathe, or omitting a scene we wanted to see (Buck convincing Ardala to help) with something we don't (bonus robot hi-jinks or a conversation between guards and Buck in a hallway).

The premise is an intriguing one. There's this other dimension accessible through a black hole (if one has the electronic map) and it has its own Ardala and Kane combo, its own Buck and Wilma and Dr. Huer, even its own Twiki. Oh, not as Mirror Universe duplicates, but the roles are very much the same. Julie Newmar is a total queen (of Hearts, going by the Emmy-nominated outfit) as Zarina, a libidinous tyrant who tortures but invites the handsome Kodus (Buck if he were very wet indeed) to her bed, and shouts at her main general Spirot/Kane. She's older and tougher than Ardala, a queen rather than a princess, something their eventual meeting will make clear. Spirot has powers Kane does not, able to cause pain with his touch, but he's much the same otherwise. Less of a comic foil, perhaps. Down on planet Pendar, the Keeper is sort of like Dr. Huer, and Kodus's betrothed Chandar is sort of like Wilma, if both characters were ineffectual and couldn't deliver the lines naturally to save their lives. Twiki is saddled with a robot that looks like a cross between a lamp and a game show answer button, and who doesn't understand his way of speaking. Mild coughs ensue.

So once again, aliens can't come right out and ask for help, they have to trick Buck (and also the Draconians in case he says no) into coming, then hold back the map back to the Prime Universe if they don't comply. Huer and Wilma just happen to be on the Draconian ship to protest a treaty breach and are swept along on the adventure. This, after having made some rather teary goodbyes on Earth. Let's address this because it's the season finale and it plays like it's either a SERIES finale, or else a pivot to a different core premise. It would turn out to be the latter, but the show doesn't know it, restoring the status quo at the end. Imagine if Season 2's Star Trek rip-off had instead taken place in the other universe because Buck had no choice but to stay there. That might have motivated Huer and Wilma's goodbyes (though she's in that second season). Don't get me wrong, both actors give great performances (Tim O'Connor will definitely be missed), to a rather stone-faced Gil Gerard. Wilma's dialog doesn't quite make sense because it assumes a romantic relationship where none existed ("you made me a woman!", eech), but I do like Huer as an old pioneer, the first man to go through a stargate, disappointed he can't be in Buck's shoes. They also introduce a pretty serious girlfriend for Buck (now that he's "buried" Jennifer?) and makes the same kind of promise to her he made Jen before getting lost for 500 years. In fact, everyone acts like it's gonna happen again. It just doesn't. And the girlfriend is then ignored as the episode suggests 1) that relationship with Wilma, 2) a sexual encounter with Ardala, and 3) an open door to the Princess after seeing a different side of her. They almost make it seem like Buck is fleeing his new relationship, or holds out hope he might be thrown BACK in time, but the script doesn't bear any of it out.

I could recommend the special effects. The UFO made of liquid gold. The trippy voyage through the vortex. The colorful new universe. The red "sharks" used by the War Witch. They poured money into the episode. I just wish the dialog matched what we see sometimes. We're told something is "like" something, but our eyes say different (and if we see it, why say it?). The biggest flub is the "life field" around Pendar. We see a bunch of giant Earth animals (dragonflies, salamanders, snakes) moving around in there, at which point Buck says they look stuffed. Clearly, the idea is to have them in suspension, but they're not, it's nature photography and it moves. THEN we're told these are aliens who attacked the planet thousands of years ago and were trapped in the field, a way to stop an invasion without killing anyone. But they don't look like a single alien race, they're not in ships, they're just animals you might find in your back yard. And if AT LEAST the life field had been the key to stopping the War Witch, it could have been an acceptable (if bungled) idea. But NO, there's also a force field and that's what her Zaads manage to penetrate (Zarena says "penetrate" a lot), and THAT'S what must be repaired in time, and THAT'S what her ship crashes into. When she could have been trapped in the life field for eternity just as easily. WHAT IN THE HECK!?

Friends, I spent a lot of time shouting at the screen. Angry outgoing producer Bruce Lansbury co-wrote the script (using a pseudonym) and it's a little like he left a turd behind in the office to sabotage the new guy. This thing is SO BADLY WRITTEN as to undo the good will it gets from its great guest stars. I've mentioned some discrepancies already, but I've got more. How does the Pendarians' plan work? They invite the Terran Federation so strongarm them into helping, and claim they also invited the Draconians. But instead of sending a similar invitation to the Dracs, Ardala has to ask her spy (who travels to her ship for very slim reports, which is bizarre in and of itself) to steal the message sphere so she can follow Buck and maybe conquer a bunch of new planets. Why not just send her a sphere too? When the Draconian ship goes through the vortex, there's a lot of turbulence, and Ardala complains about not being warned about it, except she was listening to Buck's transmission where he made what to expect very clear. Maddening!

What is the nature of these Pendarians? We are told they only make themselves look human for Buck's benefit, even the surface of the planet which wouldn't normally look like a garden. They are beings of light, able to discombobulate at will. But they still have buildings and computers... And Kodus is human for Zarena's benefit? Why can't he turn into light and escape her torture chamber or cell? Where did he learn to fight like that if he's a pacifistic Pendarian? The Zaads land on the planet and skulk around for ages, because Buck has time to go to Ardala and try to convince her to team up with him, and we cut away just before it gets good, and the Zaads are still running around corridors looking for the shield computer when he coyly gets back. Why does Twiki work on the totally alien computer he's not trained for rather than the planet's own technicians/drones? What's that unmotivated laugh from Buck at the end - did they cut one of Twiki's jokes?

But let's end on the episode's redeeming best redeeming value: Ardala. Yes, Julie Newmar has presence and in many ways outshines the Princess, but only when they're in scenes together. Otherwise, she's quite serious and arch. What Ardala brings to the formula here is humor. She's out of her depth, but doesn't know it. She betrays the mission because she wants to do it HER way, not Buck's, and try to talk it out with her counterpart. But Zarina doesn't consider her an EQUAL though they're exactly the same person in terms of desires. I do wish she'd been allowed to kick a little butt, but she hides under a bed during a fight and indignantly crawls to a fighter with Kodus behind her because she never learned to drive. We get it, she's spoiled and privileged, but she could have done more than look great in her battle outfit. Her best bit is probably interrupting Kane's epic/tedious speech to the troops. She's also lost Tigerman (assigned to one of her sisters? Outrageous!) and been given a new "companion" (it's clear they are sex slaves) she dubs Pantherman (cringy, but in line with the naming scheme). He's very muscly, but turns out to be less than impressive in the door-guarding department. I don't think Pamela Hensley should have been given the line "I'm not fine, I'm TERRIBLE!" though it is amusing. She's still the best thing about the episode. It's not the Draconian pilot who learns to do a thumbs up, let me tell ya. Despite the promise of a return engagement, we'll never see her again. Sadness!

SPACE DISCO: It makes sense that these people are beings of light because their UFO looks like a disco ball while in flight, and their council chamber like a club (they sit at the bar; not sure what the karaoke stage is normally for).

STAR GAZING: Obviously, everyone knows Julie Newmar (Zarina) as Catwoman, if not for her many cult film roles. Sid Haig (Spirot) is likewise a cult figure, and still working; he was the main villain in Jason of Star Command, a Saturday Morning cousin of Buck Rogers. Donald Petrie (Kodus) went on to become a director of big-star comedies like Miss Congeniality and Turner & Hooch, and gave Julia Roberts her first shot with Mystic Pizza. Tony Carroll (Pantherman) would become Beastman in the Masters of the Universe movie, and had been Monstro in Hercules in New York. Sam Jaffee (The Keeper) was a veteran actor who had been in Ben-Hur, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and a regular on Ben Casey. Vera Miles (Tora) had a long film and television career whose credits include Psycho and The Wrong Man for Hitchcock, and The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for Ford. Her real-life daughter Kelley (Chandar) did not. She has the virtue of looking like her mom, and the distinction of have a story credit for one of my least favorite Deep Space Nine episodes, "Sanctuary".

ALL THIS HAS HAPPENED BEFORE: The "Astral Queen" miniature from Battlestar Galactica (1978) was painted red and re-dressed as the Zaad supply ship. The Galatica shuttlecraft exterior facade appears in the landing bay aboard Zarina's flagship. If the ship itself looks familiar, it's because it was based on Montreal's Olympic Stadium. Battlestar also featured "Beings of Light" who manipulated the heroes, but in that case, they were akin to angels. The control room set of the Draconia has a large circular wall of red/green indicator lights from the level 1 control center set for The Andromeda Strain. Whatever happened in the Holocaust, it moved Vasquez Rocks to just a couple miles outside Chicago.

This was split into two episodes for syndication, the cliffhanger when the Zaads make planetfall.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - The great villainesses aside, this is a real clunker. What happened there?!


Mike W. said…
Yeah, you can tell they upped the budget for this one, but there were obviously script problems. You mentioned some of the redundancies, which seemed to be mostly from looped in dialogue; I wonder if the script was rewritten extensively and they had to try and cover some plot holes. The most glaring one for me was that the Pendarans are supposed to be pacifists who would rather die than fight, but have no problem with Buck luring a whole ship full of people into their force field to be disintegrated.

The Star Trek parallels are pretty thick here, not just with the Mirror Universe stuff; the Pendarans kinda remind me of the Organians, and Julie Newmar is a TOS alum too. (Damn, she looked good here; I can't believe she has to strong-arm men into banging her.) I was also hoping Ardala might get the chance to kick some ass, but it never happened. Nice to see that Buck's finally gotten to do the deed with someone (although his girlfriend kinda came out of nowhere) after all the close calls throughout the season.