Boyish charm isn’t enough to thrust ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’ to greatness

January 31, 2013

In the late 1970s, there appeared a genius who made many exciting science fiction adventures. His initials were GL, and his name, of course, was — Glen Larson?!

Larson is hardly as famous or successful as filmmaker cum Disney sellout George Lucas, creator of the iconic Star Wars saga. But Larson had some high-flying space opera of his own. In a short span of time in the late nineteen-seventies, Larson produced both the cheesy second-tier Star Wars knockoff Battlestar Galactica (which was revived to critical and popular success a decade ago) as well as an incarnation of 1928 pulp scifi hero Buck Rogers.

The 90-minute pilot for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which also received a theatrical release, debuted in 1979. It kicked off a two-year, 37-episode run (per, yes, the Internet Movie Database) that lingered in reruns and memory for a while. Then Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987 and it, along with wholly new science fiction franchises such as Stargate and Independence Day, started to push BRit25thC — as no one, to the best of my knowledge, actually calls it — into obscurity.

Recently while browsing through videos at my favorite second-hand entertainment store, I discovered a pristine-seeming box set of the entire Buck Rogers series, priced at just $10. After some hemming and hawing, I carried it to the checkout counter with my selections.

I recently watched the extended pilot episode/theatrical movie, and… Well, I suppose it’s fitting that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century remains a distant memory for most.

From concept to execution, Buck Rogers is a thoroughly middlebrow operation. Some stuff is done well, but very little could be called great. (One exception would be the very cool design of the Terran starfighters flown by the good guys.) There are some jarringly bad notes, such as the embarrassing title sequence with a close-lidded Rogers languidly embracing scantily clad space babes and the hokey spaceman adventure song that accompanies. (Imagine a song in the style of the Muppets classic “The Rainbow Connection,” only about the original Battlestar Galactica and sung by a third-rate John Denver imitator, and you begin to get a sense of how bad the song is.)

Sadly, there’s never enough of the well-done stuff to make this adventure soar, alas. And there was never quite enough of the jarringly bad stuff to motivate any mildly friendly BR25C (as no one to my knowledge dubs it) to turn off the film and do something else — which isn’t to say that I didn’t contemplate doing so… 

The adventure begins promisingly enough with a voiceover explaining that in 1987, American astronaut Buck Rogers blasted off on a solo exploration mission. However, a Mysterious Space Phenomenon froze Rogers and sent his vehicle careening into a radically different orbit.

The upshot is that Rogers’ primitive vehicle winds up returning to Earth not after some weeks but after more than 500 years. He’s first discovered by a hulking starship of the alien Draconian empire. The Draconians, sadly, look exactly like humans, although they’re mostly Oriental in appearance and costume, except for…the princess, who’s a slender Caucasian.

Said princess — Ardala by name, skimpily costumed by habit — takes a shine to the ancient Capt. Rogers, if only because that’s convenient for plot purposes and she’s the kind of shallow female character who enjoys playing men off against one another.

Rogers’ foil in this case is the scheming, sinister Kane, who appears to be the top Draconian envoy to Earth who isn’t genetically related to the emperor. But envoy, in this case, is a misleading term, for while Kane’s role is never explicitly defined, the pilot reveals that the Draconian dreadnaught travels beneath a false flag of truce. The aliens don’t seek to establish a valuable trade treaty with Earth but instead wish to conquer it.

Thus Kane inserts a heavily drugged Rogers back into his probe ship and sends him back on his way to Earth. Kane expects that Rogers will either be shot down as an invader or admitted entrance as an Earth spy. The latter scenario, thanks to a concealed transmitter, will show the Draconians how to sneak their warships past Earth’s powerful defense shields…

Rogers, natch, isn’t shot down in the first 30 minutes of the show; otherwise, why revive this venerable and hardy science fiction character, whose adventures have been chronicled in comics, radio plays, a 12-part 1939 movie serial and a 1950-51 television series?

Instead, Rogers is escorted to safety by the steely Col. Wilma Deering and interviewed by Deering, Dr. Elias Huer and Dr. Theopolis, a soothingly voiced computer about the size and shape of a wall clock.

So begins a muddled and meandering middle sequence in which Rogers and the people (and computers) of Earth of the year 2491 try to get acclimated to one another. Rogers flees the safety of civilization and finds the ruins of the city where his family lived and were buried when some unspecified holocaust laid Earth low. He, Theopolis and the good doctor’s robot Friday, a squat automaton named Twiki, are menaced by a threatening barbaric horde.

Deering rescues the trio from the mob. But after Kane’s transmitter is uncovered, Rogers is rather abruptly sentenced to execution by a computer panel that believes him to be a Draconian spy. (Yet, oddly, Earth still seems completely ready to negotiate the trade treaty with the Draconians.)

Justice is about to be miscarried when Deering indulges Rogers’ theory about the Draconian trade mission by flying him to the supposedly unarmed flagship. Rogers, see, based on nothing beyond the dictates of plot, has intuited this crazy scheme about the Draconians using him to invade Earth… 

Deering and Rogers’ exploratory mission is a fiasco, as Kane and Ardala are prepared to discredit Rogers’ theories as mad ravings. But when “pirates” attack the Draconians and start offing Deering’s squadron of pilot-escorts, Rogers disobeys orders, disengages his evidently useless tactical computer and destroys the attackers. He is deemed a hero!

Naturally, nothing befits a hero better than a party combining Earthlings and aliens, with the man only recently suspected of espionage on behalf of said aliens scheduled to be the guest of honor.

This leads to what might be the single most awkward and unconvincing party scene in the history of science fiction. Let’s just say that Gil Gerard, the actor who portrays Rogers, was evidently never in the running for John Travolta’s starring role as a disco sensation and ladies’ man in Saturday Night Fever. Or for a cameo among the hordes of American Bandstand dancers, for that matter.

The whole endeavor ends with some skullduggery aboard the Draconian flagship, and — spoiler! — the good guys ultimately carry the day.

Last year, I re-watched the pilot of Battlestar Galactica, which, like this Buck 25th pilot, was also released theatrically. The two have a number of other similarities. The characters are cardboard thin; the dialogue, frequently flat and unconvincing. Both pilots’ plots throw obstacles in the heroes’ paths and have a pivotal second-half award ceremony. They are also both inspired by Star Wars, but both lack its production values, pacing and charm.

And sadly, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is derivative of a derivative. As flawed as Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica pilot and series were, they had a certain appeal. But Buck Rogers borrows a bit too liberally, not just from Star Wars but from its slightly older sibling. Sound effects and visual motifs (and, per the Internet Movie Database, sets, although I didn’t spot which ones) used in BSG are reused in BR25C. The carryover just makes Buck Rogers seem cheap and cheesy.

Rogers as portrayed by Gerard has an appealingly boyish devil-may-care air, but the character remains a squarely generic protagonist. Kane, as played by Henry Silva, exudes calculating menace, but his obvious jealousy for Ardala’s infatuation with Rogers badly weakens the character. As Deering, Erin Gray is uneven; she’s able to carry off about half of her lines as the repressed über-competent warrior and even fewer lines as the Beautiful and Tender Woman who begins to flower after the handsome Rogers kindles her Heretofore Unknown Passion.

Hardly anyone else makes much of an impression, although legendary cartoon voice artist Mel Blanc gets off a few mildly amusing lines as Twiki, the R2-D2 stand-in to Theopolis’ C-3P0. “I’m freezing my ball bearings off,” Twiki grumbles at one point over being forced to lurk in a refrigeration unit. He also says “L’chaim!” at one point upon bringing a drink to Rogers.

In the end, the best I can say about Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is this: It’s strictly for science fiction junkies or cheese-fest aficionados, and even they may have trouble swallowing this fare.

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