There was a period, brief but real, when we paid to see television shows in the theater instead of watching them for free on, you know, television. This started back when some crafty producer would take a couple episodes of a TV show and splice them into a single movie — even if the plots of the two episodes had almost nothing to do with one another. In 1979, producer Glen A. Larson managed to get not one, but two pilot episodes released as feature films. Granted, they were actual feature-length productions and not two episodes slapped together and were expensive, but still. He was asking people to pay money to see something they’d normally see for free at home. The first of them was Battlestar Galactica. The second was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
He was able to do get them into theaters because of Star Wars. And we did it. I did it. When I saw them both in the theater I remember liking Battlestar Galactica, but Buck Rogers? Buck Rogers I loved. And years later I still love it. This movie/television pilot is also the reason I discovered Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
In 1979, I wasn’t a huge Buck Rogers fan. Or rather, I was a huge fan, but only in a vague sense. I was a fan of the idea of Buck Rogers. I’d seen some of the old serials because they played them as part of the Matinee at the Bijoux package on PBS, this show where they’d recreate the experience of going to an old-time movie theater by playing newsreels, cartoons, a couple serials, and then two black and white features. But I wasn’t any sort of die-hard Buck Rogers fan, so there was nothing about Glen Larson’s re-imagining of the character that offended me the way it might have offended older fans who grew up not just with Buck Rogers serials, but also with pulp stories, comic books, toys, and newspaper strips. I was, however, a huge fan of science fiction and Starlog magazine, and Starlog really talked up Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I was thrilled by the onslaught of color pictures showing awesome-looking spaceships, ridiculous Edwardian space outfits, dwarf robots, Tiger Man, and of course Erin Gray and Pamela Hensley. By the time ads started showing up in the local newspaper, I was about as excited for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as I was for Star Wars.
Let’s a take a quick aside, if we may, and talk about Starlog. I’ve delved previously into the impact of Heavy Metal magazine on my young mind , the world of European comic magazines in general, and I’m sure I’ve dropped the title of Dragon magazine a time or two, though I guess we need to fully explore that, if for no other reason than to mention Snarf Quest. Oddly, mentions of Starlog have been rare in past reviews despite the fact that it played the biggest role in my youth in informing me of the films that would become staples of my cinematic diet. Unlike Heavy Metal, there was no pornographic stigma attached to Starlog, so I could buy and read it in full view of my parents. There also was not a social stigma associated with a young kid reading a science fiction film magazine, because we’re talking late 1970s here. Pretty much every kid was a scifi nut thanks to Star Wars and Moonraker. It was one of the first magazines to which I ever subscribed. It formed the foundation for my leisure reading, along with Boys’ Life and some natural science magazine whose name I can’t recall. Pretty sure it had “World” in the title, and like 75% of the covers featured some Amazonian frog or other. And then of course there was Dynamite and Bananas, so I could keep up with what Sean Cassidy and Fonzie were up to while hanging up mini-posters of Kristy McNichol.
More than any of them though, Boy’s Life and Starlog meant the world to me. One because I grew up in a rural area and could apply the many skills I learned, be it tying a solid knot or escaping deadly alien tripods that wanted to fasten a mind-controlling skullcap to me. The other was because I loved science fiction and space, and in a time before the Internet, in a place pretty far removed from just about everything other than cows and snapping turtles, Starlog was my lifeline to all things science fiction. The magazine was originally meant to be a one-off publication about the Star Trek phenomenon, leading up no doubt to the eventual release of the much anticipated and now somewhat infamous Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But it turned out making a magazine about Star Trek meant you were an official Star Trek product and had to pay to be licensed as such. Not having that kind of scratch on them, creators Kerry O’Quinn and Norman Jacobs found a loophole. If they made a more general science fiction magazine, then they could write about Star Trek all they wanted without having to pay a fee. And so Starlog, covering the whole world of science fiction film and literature (with occasional futurist lifestyle articles), came to be.
The first issue of what was then a quarterly publication hit magazine racks in 1976. The launch could not have been better timed. A year later, the world was hit with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, followed in quick succession by Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, and Moonraker. There was also, in the real world, the beginning of the space shuttle era. Science fiction had never been so huge and socially mainstream, and Starlog was perfectly situated to ride the massive wave. I devoured every issue and frequently bugged my parents to order stuff from the classified ads. I mean, what little kid doesn’t need the moon base schematics from Space: 1999 or a portfolio of space art? What really appealed to me about Starlog wasn’t just that it covered these exciting new science fiction blockbusters and television shows; it was also that it covered weird, obscure stuff as well, be it Japanese monster movies or gaudily-lit Italian space opera. All of it was done with a positive “reaching for the stars” futurist attitude that appealed to a generation of kids who assumed we would be departing the earth and colonizing space within the next decade.
As the 1970s came to a close, science fiction fandom reached a fever pitch. There was another Star Wars movie coming out. In the theaters, we had The Black Hole, TRON, and Alien; and on television, we were about to get a couple of shows that had extravagant budgets and promised to bring the special effects wizardry and excitement of Star Wars to the small screen (more effectively, we hoped, than the Star Wars Holiday Special had) — but not before they brought their big screen-inspired small screen efforts to the big screen. Executive producer Glen A. Larson managed a fantastic trick when he used the popularity of Star Wars to fund such expensive television shows, then turned around and used the high budgets of the shows to justify theatrically releasing the pilot episodes as movies.
With as much money as was being spent on each episode of Galactica, it didn’t take long for Larson to start thinking about two things: how to milk that scifi cash cow a little more, and how to do it for cheaper than Galactica. And so we got Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Where Galactica was a relatively lavish affair, Buck Rogers was scrappier and cheaper. Larson cut corners by pulling a Roger Corman and reusing special effects scenes that had been shot for Battlestar Galactica. Even the spaceship models were recycled: the shape of the Earth Defense Force’s ships came from rejected initial designs for Galactica’s Viper spacecraft. To differentiate the two shows a little more, he decided to give Buck Rogers a campy Victorian-meets-disco sense of style, as opposed to Galactica’s more militaristic look. Buck Rogers was also much more a comedy, whereas Battlestar — minus a zinger or two from Starbuck — was a more somber affair. Since it got the Galactica hand-me-downs, Buck Rogers looks pretty good, with cool ships, huge matte paintings, and giant sets. A few of the composite shots are a bit rocky, but for the most part, Buck Rogers looks fantastic.
The Buck Rogers of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was reimagined as a wise-cracking space shuttle pilot (Gil Gerard) from the 1980s who, during a freak cosmic storm, is frozen in a state of suspended animation. Centuries later, his shuttle drifts back into the vicinity of Earth and is retrieved by the scantily-clad Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley), who is en route to Earth as a representative of the subtly-named Draconian Empire to negotiate a mutual defense treaty to help deal with local space pirates and their Kabuto-shaped space helmets. Ardala is enamored with the cosmic throwback, as all men from the past flung into a distant future are witty, winking sex gods. Ardala’s advisor, Kane (Henry Silva), doesn’t buy Rogers’ story and suspects the man is a spy. With nothing to go on, though, and with the Princess serving as his protector, Buck is allowed to return to Earth — still more or less unaware that he’s hundreds of years in the future and not just the butt of the world’s most elaborate aerospace prank.
It turns out Earth is in a bad state. Most of the world was destroyed by a nuclear war and ecological devastation, leaving the bulk of the planet an uninhabitable wasteland. Pockets of murderous mutants roam the ruins, and the surviving humans are confined to protected cities controlled by benevolent hyper-intelligent canteens. Or computers. Something. To make matters worse, the one place it’s fairly safe for Earthlings to go — off the Earth — is choked with pirate activity. Well, they are called pirates, but where most pirates hijack and rob ships, these guys just seem to blow everything up. Anyway, the dire straights have led Earth’s leaders, sequestered away in New Chicago and represented by computer brain Dr. Theopolis (voiced by Howard F. Flynn) and human representative and standard issue “older British guy authority figure who is also a bit effeminate,” Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor), to cut a deal with the Draconians, who they believe to be more or less benevolent even though they are called Draconians and their representative is a permanently sneering Henry Silva.
Although they can find it in their heart to trust the Draconians, no one in New Chicago seems to trust poor ol’ Buck, least of all Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray), in command of the space patrol that picks Buck up. Between being accused of espionage and confronted with the fact that the future seems to have been dressed by the Jonzun Crew, Buck sinks into a funk. His only ally is a diminutive wisenheimer of a robot named Twiki, whose primary function is to carry around electronic superbrain Dr. Theopolis. Why the future built their electronic superbrains in little tambourines with no means of getting around on their own is anyone’s guess. Twiki, who is voiced by Mel Blanc, immediately picks up Buck’s hep 20th Century lingo and quickly becomes the movie/episode’s odious comic relief.
The only funny thing about Twiki’s constant zingers and one-liners in this pilot episode is that no one acknowledges that he’s said anything, which makes it look like the entire cast is trying to ignore the odious class clown Twiki. What I think happened is that Twiki was never meant to be a Borscht Belt vaudevillian, but in post-production, it was decided to comedy him up a bit. Thus Mel Blanc came in and recorded some one liners and they were looped in after the fact, which is why no one reacts to them. After this first episode, Twiki’s “sassy” jokester personality was kept, so his jokes became an actual part of the dialogue instead of a surreal after-the-fact voiceover that makes it sound like you’re overhearing some dude just off-camera making fun of things.
As Buck is batted back and forth between the Earthlings and the Draconians — stopping to make time with Ardala and teach the future how to “get down” on the dance floor — he soon discovers that the space pirates are in fact the Draconians, who have been staging the crisis so they could get their talons into Earth’s defense system and take over, because who wouldn’t want to conquer a burned-out atomic wasteland with almost no natural resources beyond rubble, mutants, and sassy little robots? Naturally no one believes Buck, and if Earth is to be saved, the smirking man from the past is going to have to teach these future Earth people not be such a bunch of gullible chumps. Many space battles and scenes of Henry Silva being irritated at shenanigans ensue.
As a kid, I had high expectations for Buck Rogers (as high as one can expect from a kid who went on to like Treasure of the Four Crowns), and they were met. As an adult, I still had high expectations, and I was happy to find that my enjoyment of the “movie” had not diminished over time. It’s goofball fun, though with older eyes I was also a little surprised to pick up on the faint melancholy and darkness that exists under the surface. Don’t misunderstand, it’s a very faint melancholy, but there are a few spots where Buck’s realization of his predicament makes for deeper television than the rest of the run time. Most effective is the scene where Buck decides he’s had enough of this uptight, sterile future city and decides to take his chances in the wasteland (with Twiki making the escape with him). On the outskirts of obliterated old Chicago, and before he has to punch out some mutants, he finds the graves of his family. Amid all the hijinks and gettin’ down, it’s an oddly quiet and moving moment. That slight element of darkness was eventually excised when the pilot proved successful and the series was launched.
Alas, as popular as they were, it turned out that neither Buck Rogers nor Battlestar Galactica were sustainable. Although The Empire Strikes Back kept the world crazy for science fiction, Glen A. Larson couldn’t maintain such massive budgets. In its second year, Battlestar Galactica got kind of weird, what with the Eastern Empire and those strange space angels that turned everyone’s stuff white. It was off the air by 1979, and the attempt to revive it — Galactica 1980 — was doomed from the start on account of being one of the worst shows ever made, except for the episode where a Cylon meets Wolfman Jack, who is dressed as King Henry VIII, and maybe the episode where they paid enough to get Dirk Benedict back long enough to explain what happened to Starbuck. Buck Rogers made it a year longer, but its subsequent season abandoned the whole “protecting the Earth from the evil Draconians” and popped a smaller cast onto a spaceship they used to cruise around the galaxy, Star Trek style. This is how they meet Hawk, a guy who really takes his bird motif to the illogical extreme. By 1981, Buck was back in hibernation, never to be revived. But it was fun while it lasted, and even though the series starts to fall apart in the later episodes, the Buck Rogers pilot movie was and remains plenty entertaining.
By Christmas of 1979, there was nothing I wanted more than Buck Rogers stuff. Well, maybe some more Micronauts, especially the Hornetroid. Anyway, my mom and I were out shopping one weekend. It must be a pain to buy Christmas gifts for a kid when that kid is with you, and when we were walking out of the store with some bags, the contents of which had been shielded from me, one of them ripped and out tumbled a Buck Rogers fighter ship. My mom covered with some fib or other that must have been good enough for me, and life went on until that Christmas day when I unwrapped one of my gifts from Santa Claus and discovered it was the very same Buck Rogers spaceship my mom had bought. I’m pretty sure the revelation was handled more or less with, “Yeah, there’s no Santa, but don’t tell your sister. Here’s a Hornetroid.”
Sorry if that Santa news was a shock to you, but you had to learn sometime. There’s also no such thing as pandas.