BR25C: Planet of the Slave Girls (two-parter)

February 18, 2013

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Planet of the Slave Girls

Season 1, Episodes 3 and 4

Synopsis

As the episode opens, Buck Rogers and Col. Wilma Deering are approaching Earth after a scouting and/or training flight that has evidently lasted some days. A scanner on their starfighter, which Rogers is piloting, calls their attention to an Earth Directorate starfighter that is being attacked by two pirate ships. Rogers successfully engages the pirates, thereby sparing the life of Cadet Regus Saroyan, who has fallen out of formation from a training flight led by Major Duke Danton.

Danton is annoyed both that Saroyan fell behind and that Rogers intervened. Rogers is annoyed that Danton is annoyed, and they spar verbally. Deering comes on the channel to say that Rogers’ actions were fully warranted. (“Wilma!” Danton exclaims when Earth’s top military officer first joins the radio exchange. “I mean, Col. Deering.” “Right on both counts,” she replies.)

After the starfighters land, Saroyan collapses and is sent to a health clinic. Rogers and Danton exchange more heated words. Deering asks Danton to have Rogers as a guest lecturer on 20th century battle tactics; when Danton balks, she orders him to follow through.

Deering then checks on Saroyan, who is among a huge number of starfighter pilots who have fallen ill while she and Rogers have been away. Deering and Dr. Huer visit Dr. Mallory; he and a computer named Carl are researching the illness. They’ve discovered that the disease stems from contaminated food discs, all of which were manufactured on the agricultural planet Vistula.

Rogers’ turn as a guest lecturer for Danton is a fiasco. The major, obviously irked by his guest, goads his class to laugh as Rogers discusses battle strategies in terms of the ancient game of football. The class devolves into Rogers and Danton tackling each other.

Vistula turns out to be home to a very charismatic and belligerent rabble-rouser named Kaleel. He tells his followers that soon they will go into battle and take their revenge on the Earthlings who have enslaved them. Kaleel has the ability to make his hands glow red and kill a person with the barest touch; he demonstrates this ability on a man whose wife calls him out as being skeptical of the leader. The adoring crowd chants Kaleel’s name.

Kaleel has an agent on Earth, one Stella Warden, an assistant to Mallory. As Carl is closing in on an antidote for the poison, Warden plants a device that severely damages the computer. She flees to rendezvous with Kaleel on Vistula.

Soon afterward, a masked figure attempts to assassinate Dr. Huer, who is strolling through a garden with Rogers and Deering at night. Rogers attempts to foil the attacker, who only runs off after his or her futuristic boomerang becomes embedded in a tree trunk.

Because Saroyan is the son of Vistula’s governor, Deering and Rogers fly a shuttle there with the recovering but still shaky trainee pilot. They are escorted by two starfighters piloted by Danton and Major Fields. The group’s covert mission is to learn something about the poison that could lead to a cure.

En route, Rogers quizzes Deering about her relationship with Danton. It turns out that they were classmates and lovers, but her being promoted faster than him contributed to the end of the relationship.

After their arrival, the five visitors dine with Governor Saroyan and his aid, Julio. The governor proves to be a vain, short-tempered man who threatens one servant, Ryma, with relegation to the agricultural fields after she spills some liquid on Rogers.

The Earthlings are surprised to learn that Vistula has no robots because they can farm foodstuffs cheaper using people sold to them by a desert leader named Kaleel. Rogers is outraged at the use of slaves and says so. It makes for an awkward meal. (So too does the Terrans’ unvoiced suspicions about Vistula’s food; they only relax and begin consuming the foodstuff when the governor says he imports all his comestibles from off-world because he finds Vistula’s output so bland.)

The comely young Ryma is in fact one of the slaves sold by Kaleel to Governor Saroyan; her nighttime assignment is to serve Rogers in any fashion he pleases. After dinner, he tells the visitor that Kaleel is a maniacal mutant or prophet who is selling his own people down the river while manipulating the foolish Governor Saroyan. Ryma says her brother had discovered a terrible secret about the food plant where he worked; unfortunately, he was murdered before he could reveal it to her.

Rogers sneaks out of his quarters and infiltrates the plant where Ryma’s brother had labored. He finds a blue substance in the packaging and instantly deduces that this is how the contamination vector for the food discs. Rogers fights his way out of the plant and heads back to his quarters without being identified or followed.

Before he arrives, Deering overhears Julio in Rogers’ quarters; he is questioning Ryma about where the Earthling has gone. She won’t talk, but Julio sends Ryma to a shuttle that will take her to Kaleel’s desert headquarters for interrogation and disposition. Deering attempts to rescue Ryma by ambushing the henchman who is escorting her to the shuttle, but she in turn is ambushed by a pistol-wielding Julio.

When Rogers returns to the guest quarters, he realizes that both Ryma and Deering are gone. Danton walks by and Rogers tells him what is happening. They dispatch Fields to Earth along with a tainted packaging sample that Rogers has taken from the food plant.

Then the two men board Danton’s starfighter and try to follow the shuttle carrying Deering and Ryma to Kaleel. (They’re able to track it because Deering and Rogers are each carrying special wristwatches.)

Kaleel and his military commander, Galen, notice the starfighter on their monitors. Galen activates a power leech that sends the ship plummeting to the desert floor. Danton and Rogers both survive the crash, however; they resolve to don survival gear and begin walking to Kaleel’s mountain headquarters. Ominously, they are covertly observed by a group of aliens as they speak.

Two thugs — costumed rather like the Draconians seen in the Buck Rogers pilot — lead a manacled Ryma and Deering through corridors to Kaleel. Deering throws one, evidently using a judo move that Rogers taught her earlier in the episode. She escapes, but Ryma is taken to Kaleel.

Ryma professes no fear of the self-styled prophet; she urges him to kill her, decrying him as a parasite feeding upon their people’s hopes and dreams but who can never conquer her spirit. Kaleel fires up his eery glowing red hands, but then he says that killing her with his holy touch would only sanctify her unnecessarily. He sends her to her doom in an unpleasant sauna.

We cut to Rogers and Danton, both clad in ridiculous gold-foil “survival suits” and walking through the desert landscape. Oddly, they break for food — Rogers, off-screen, kills some kind of ground creature and cooks it on an open fire, despite the extreme heat. Danton is disgusted, being accustomed to food discs and completely unused to conceiving of his meals as having once been living, moving animals. He tells Rogers that he’d prefer to risk his life on a possibly contaminated food disc.

Before they can chow down, however, the aliens who had been spying on them attack. They are small and vaguely reminiscent of Jawas, although they also seem a bit ape-like. The two larger men drive off their attackers in hand-to-hand combat; in the process, Rogers also obtains one of the aliens’ unexploded miniature grenades. Rogers’ meal is spoiled, but they pick up their belongings and carry on, having bonded during the combat.

Deering is captured and brought before Kaleel. Warden notices her attempt to conceal her fancy wristwatch/bracelet; realizing that Rogers is tracking Deering that way, Warden confiscates the device.

As they approach the mountain headquarters, Rogers and Danton notice a fleet of spaceships arrayed on a nearby plain. Surely this is an invasion armada meant to overwhelm Earth’s weakened defenses. Danton deems himself best able to steal one of the ships and pilot it back to Earth, where he will muster a force to destroy the fleet while it is still on the ground. Rogers says he’ll infiltrate Kaleel’s lair to rescue Deering. The men wish each other luck.

Rogers enters the evidently unguarded lair without much trouble, but he’s ambushed in the corridors by a group of thugs led by Warden. He’s brought to Kaleel’s control room, where he joins Deering.

Once Danton takes off in a commandeered ship, Kaleel and company see his would-be breakaway on their monitors. The villains attempt to stop him by training their energy leech on the ship. But the Earth pilot is expecting that ploy and flies away before his vessel can be brought down.

No matter, Kaleel crows to a captive Rogers and Deering; he will advance his invasion timetable by one day, and his superior numbers will defeat Earth’s crippled military.

Kaleel is reminded that Earth’s highly trained pilots are surely superior to his. He concedes the point, but he notes that his soldiers are utterly obedient to his military mastermind, whom he then introduces.

This garishly clad man — imagine the costume of a buffoonish Gilbert and Sullivan general — seen earlier in the episode, is one Galen. Deering recognizes him as a martial genius who absconded from Terra when authorities found evidence he had sold out his home world. Kaleel sends Deering and Rogers to join Ryma in the sauna. (This is a classic case of the Bond villain unnecessarily postponing the hero’s death, although we later see there is sort of a rationale for Kaleel’s decision.)

As Danton nears Earth in his stolen ship, he radios Dr. Huer and Theopolis and informs them of the plan. Huer is reluctant to commit any pilots, while Danton insists that for Earth to have a shot, they must all depart immediately to destroy Vistula’s grounded ships. After the transmission ends, Theopolis and Huer agree that there is no choice; Danton’s plan is the only option. Twiki says something unintelligible, which Theopolis praises two exit the room, leaving behind a worried Huer.

Rogers and Deering are deposited in the sauna, which seems to contain a lake of lava-like liquid. Ryma is slumped on a narrow ledge by the entrance — alive, but very weak. Rogers surveys the room and devises an escape plan. He crosses a beam to the other side of the room. There, he pulls out one of the alien desert-dwellers’ explosive devices, adjusts its control knob, places it beneath the helmet sitting beside skeletal remains and steps on top of the helmet.

Rogers’ plan works to perfection: The device explodes after a short pause, and the helmet channels the force of the explosion like a rocket, propelling Rogers upward. He hoists himself into a large air passage near the ceiling and tells the ladies that he’ll be right back.

Danton lands and meets with Huer and the tiny group of warriors he is to lead into battle. It includes one elderly Brigadier Gordon, a long-ago teacher of Danton’s who has come out of retirement for this mission. When told there are no other flight-worthy personnel, Danton self-pityingly asks what he can possibly do with just six pilots.

But there are seven pilots! Twiki and Theopolis enter and report for duty. (“Can’t you count?” the robot asks.) Theopolis helped design Earth’s starfighters, and Danton is in no position to turn away possible help. The ragtag squadron blasts off.

Kaleel readies his troops for combat. He commands the pilots to obey every order Galen gives.

In the sauna, Rogers returns with a rope. He hoists the ladies into the airway, which he says leads to a nice, cool storage room.

Danton’s force approaches the stargate. He tensely issues reminders about the mission as they prepare to jump to Vistula.

Kaleel settles into a chair in the control room. Galen tells him that they’ll be able to monitor his transmissions directly until the attackers pass through the stargate to Earth’s system. The invasion fleet lifts off.

Rogers, Deering and Vistula return to the same hilltop where he and Danton first spotted the combat ships. Fortunately, there are a few ships that have been left behind, which the Terrans resolve to steal.

But Ryma declines to go with them, saying instead that she will gather a few allies and attempt to lead a revolt against Kaleel while he’s preoccupied with the military expedition. The Terrans wish her luck.

The Terran starfighters jump to Vistula and prepare for combat.

Rogers and Deering overpower some guards and lift off. Rogers playfully chides Deering for taking out more than her fair share of men.

Danton sees that the Vistulans have lifted off and have vastly superior numbers. He tries to gird his small force for battle.

Rogers and Deering manage to overtake the Vistulan armada and fly past it to rendezvous with the Terran starfighters, which they contact by radio. The two sides engage. The humans chew up the Vistulans but still remain badly outnumbered.

Back at headquarters, Kaleel becomes anxious and orders Warden to ready his escape shuttle — just in case.

Ryma has gathered with fellow rebels, a band not much bigger than the Terran strike force; like Danton, she convinces them that the moment to attack is now. The leader agrees, and the group prepares to break out their armaments for an assault on Kaleel’s control room.

Rogers informs Danton that the key to defeating the Vistulans is to destroy Galen’s vessel, which he deduces is hanging toward the rear of the fleet. Hearkening back to the football strategy Rogers divulged in his lecture to the cadets, Danton orders his force to open a hole in the “line” protecting Galen. He designates Rogers the red dog, the defender whose mission is to “sack the quarterback.”

Galen figures out the strategy and understands that Rogers wants to engage him in a one-on-one dogfight. “Challenge accepted,” Galen says, seconds before Earth’s antediluvian hero blasts him to smithereens.

Seeing that he has been defeated, Kaleel heads to his escape shuttle. But Ryma’s rebels are on their way to apprehend him — as are Rogers and the other Earthlings. “You’re a dead man,” Kaleel bellows at the 20th-century man. However, Rogers informs everyone that Kaleel’s power to kill is solely that of suggestion; those who drop dead when the prophet touches, he says, do so only because of their fear of Kaleel. He is apprehended by the emboldened Vistulans.

Cut to Earth, where Governor Saroyan attempts to tender his resignation to Huer. However, Regus Saroyan chides his father for failing to listen to others and for not understanding that he can clean up the mess on Vistula. The governor, lamenting the fact that he ignored his son’s wise words about slavery and other issues, asks the cadet to help him bring justice to Vistula. Saroyan Junior agrees to do so — with the help of a beaming Ryma, who stands at his side. Huer observes that Vistula is in good hands.

“That’s our cue to leave,” Deering says. She, Rogers and Danton exit into the corridor.

Rogers asks Deering if she’d like to do something that evening, but she demurs, saying she already has plans. Rogers makes a disappointed noise and asks the same question of Danton.

“I’m the guy she’s got plans with,” he replies, rather sternly. They stop. “And let’s get one thing straight — you’re coming with us.” The trio laugh and resume walking toward the camera; the image freezes as Deering takes both men’s arms.

Analysis

Let’s start by parsing the title of this episode: “Planet of the Slave Girls.” Yes, Ryma is a slave girl on the planet Vistula. But is Vistula a planet of slave girls? Actually, nothing suggests that Kaleel is selling only women as slaves. (Nor, come to think of it, do we see anyone we can positively identify as a slave other than Ryma herself.) The very title is misleading — to no discernible effect.

It’s that kind of sloppiness that, based on the equivalent of four episodes, I suspect will be a hallmark of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

The storyline of this two-parter is solid: Rogers and Danton strike up an instant dislike for each other whilst vying for Deering’s affections; meanwhile, as illness sweeps through Earth’s pilot corps, the trio must venture to an alien world in hopes of finding a clue that will lead to an antidote. On personal and strategic levels, everyone has a lot to lose, and internal tensions notwithstanding, the three main characters must all rely upon each other.

Kaleel as played by the late great Jack Palance is a wonderfully cheesy TV villain: He has an appealing charismatic veneer, he is hungry for power and he boasts deadly light-up hands. He’s also in the driver’s seat, having placed agents in the top echelons of both the Vistulan and Terran authorities, who are all but completely blind to his manipulations. The pompous Galen and vicious Warden also make wonderfully hatable henchpersons.

The episode also features some decent action, at least by the standards of the day, to accompany the villain’s devious manipulation. In keeping with just about all the vessels seen through the early run of BR25C, the Vistulan fighters are genuinely menacing. They seem about three steps beyond the technology of the late 20th century, and indeed feature nose-cones and cockpits reminiscent of aircraft that might still be flying today.

But “Planet of the Slave Girls” is ultimately disappointing because it botches countless little things that cumulatively make a big difference. Danton’s intensity is both off-putting and oddly charming. But it seems wrong that he and Rogers are instantly at loggerheads, and their classroom confrontation is about 10 different kinds of goofy.

(That scene’s humorous coda, in which Theopolis and Twiki see the aftermath of that confrontation, does nothing to make the scene any more palatable. In fact, in general: the Theopolis/Twiki comic relief, clearly an attempt to imitate the C-3P0/R2-D2 chemistry of Star Wars, is painfully awkward, not humorous.)

There’s also the matter of the assassination attempt on Huer. Kaleel says — presumably based on Galen’s analysis, although we’re not told the reasoning behind it — that Huer is the only person on Earth who will be able to sense the invasion plot. Who was the would-be assassin? Is Huer’s life in any further danger?

We never find out. In fact, aside from Kaleel’s disappointed reaction to the news that the Terran leader survived the crazy metal boomerang attack, the matter is dropped. It’s almost as if the scene was written to provide an action beat in what might otherwise have been an exposition-heavy opening.

The most egregious scene in the show comes in the denouement, as Rogers convinces the crowd that Kaleel has no inherent power to kill. How does he know this? Unfortunately, the episode never establishes that crucial fact. Rogers learned a little bit about Kaleel from Ryma, and he had a brief prior encounter with the man, but I found Rogers’ speech to be extrinsic, motivated by the TV executives’ desire to give Rogers an inspiring and incisive speech like the ones Captain Kirk used to give on Star Trek, rather than intrinsic to the narrative.

There are other oddities. How is Rogers able to determine so quickly that the blue stuff in the packaging is the method by which the food discs are being contaminated? I couldn’t tell, other than that it was convenient for plot purposes. Why is Rogers and Danton’s starfighter able to survive the energy leech? No explanation is given. (Indeed, the villains — who never bothered to check the wreckage — are shocked that anyone could have lived.) How is Rogers able to corner Kaleel in his Vistulan HQ seconds after having destroyed Galen’s ship in outer space? It’s not clear.

Another problem is that this episode has more than its share of goofiness. It’s hard to know where to begin: With the vain, self-satisfied Governor Saroyan? With the goofy moralizing of Regus Saroyan, part of a legion of forgettable young television characters who speak truth to power, and to their elders? With the silly relationship between crusty old Dr. Mallory and crusty old silicon Carl? With the godawful music that Ryma plays when she sneaks up on Rogers in his bath in order to speak with him without being overheard?

Those elements are all cringe-worthy, but the worst thing is probably the spectacle of Twiki, the mechanical half-pint, reporting for duty as a fighter pilot. This oddity — meant to appeal to kids, I think — foreshadowed George Lucas’ embarrassing Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, in which a boy Anakin Skywalker plays a crucial role as pilot of a starfighter in the battle of Naboo.

Still, even Twiki the fighter pilot wasn’t quite as bad as the horribly embarrassing reception for the Draconian princess in the pilot episode — but it’s still pretty bad. And I haven’t even mentioned the judo: Half of the time, Rogers’ moves seem incredibly embarrassing, while the other half they seem believable. To my mind, that’s not a good ratio for this show.

(That half-and-half formula also holds for the special effects scenes — a horribly clunky shot is frequently followed by one that looks great. It’s another sign of how incredibly uneven the series is, at least in the early going.)

If I had to sum up this episode in one word, I think it would be pastiche. There’s a bit of Star Trek, a bit of Star Wars, a dash of The A-Team (the hit TV franchise that debuted in 1983), a hint of The Six Million Dollar Man (a 1974 TV series), and probably tastes of a number of other shows I can’t identify.

There’s one thing I want to praise about this episode, which is the casting. As noted above, Palance makes a fine villain, and I enjoyed the actor who played Danton. (If I can identify him by name, I’ll update the post.) Roddy McDowell is wonderfully vapid as Governor Saroyan.

But best of all, we get to see Buster Crabbe appearing as Brigadier Gordon. This is a wonderful wink to the audience — Crabbe played Flash Gordon in the 1950s, and he shines in his handful of scenes. (Crabbe, who died in 1983, would have been about 71 when the episode was filmed.)

The writers throw a sop to Crabbe after the dogfight over Vistula, in which Rogers asks Gordon where he learned to shoot so well. Gordon crustily and delightfully replies that he’s been doing it since before Rogers was born.

Finally, I think this episode boasts one GIF-worthy moment. When Rogers is homing in on Galen and the commander replies “Challenge accepted” — well, you can script moments like that, but it takes serendipity to make them truly cheesy. It’s a highlight to cherish.

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