Sunday, January 20, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: Buck Rogers -- The 25th Century By Way of the 1970s

Gil Gerard as Captain William "Buck" Rogers
In the wake of Star Wars' sustained box office and merchandising success beginning in May 1977 and continuing through the remainder of the decade, all manner of imitators and pretenders tried their best to wrest the crown from sci-fi's new number one. TV's Battlestar Galactica, in 1978, was one such example, and 1979's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was yet another. As it happens, both shows were created by Nostalgia Theater mainstay Glen A. Larson, whose trademark lowest-common-denominator approach ensured that neither had a long shelf-life.

In particular, the Larson take on Buck Rogers is so chintzy and hapless when viewed through a 21st century prism that it's either completely unwatchable or, depending on your point-of-view, totally must-watchable. The premise of the show, based on a famous sci-fi newspaper strip character from the 1930s, is nicely explicated in the opening title sequence from the show's first season, as narrated to us by Larson's go-to Voice of God William Conrad:



One of my most distinctive memories of seeing that intro as a kid was being creeped out by that shot of an unconscious Gil Gerard with the concentric circles around him depicting the Earth's various stages of war and rebirth. No idea why. Chalk it up to the ominous "duh-da-DAH-duh-da-DAH" music from Stu Phillips (another Galactica alum), I guess. Make no mistakes about it, though. Buck Rogers was first, last, and primarily about stealing some of that Star Wars mojo, but doing it in as leaden and clubfooted a manner as possible.

Unlike Battlestar, which tried (and failed) to weave in some profundity with its derring-do, Rogers was expressly engineered to follow the Star Wars mould of mindless spectacle and whiz-bang to a tee (bear in mind that this was before The Empire Strikes Back came along and retroactively made the thing deeper than it actually was). Thus, everyman hero Rogers, unfrozen spaceman from the 20th century, is caught up in a new adventure every week (with on-the-nose titles like "Planet of the Amazon Women," "Planet of the Slave Girls," etc.) as he assists the space fighter pilots of 2491 and exchanges flirtatious come-ons with the va-va-voom Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Grey).

Twiki: The most annoying robot ever.
In addition to all the space-bound aerial combat (the majority of which was cannibalized from effects shots, models, and sound effects from the just-defunct Galactica, the original iteration of which ended its ABC run the previous spring), there was, of course, the requisite robot sidekick, in the form of Twiki, played by little person Felix Silla, whose pop culture colloquialisms and trademark exclamation of "Bidi-bidi-bidi" (as voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc) may just make him the most annoying robot sidekick of all time. Seriously, of all time. Take that, Threepio!

Though the pilot telefilm was actually released theatrically by Universal in late March '79, the series proper debuted on NBC in September (mere days before I was born, actually). Though ratings were okay initially, they softened as the year progressed, and the resultant retool for year two wiped away much of the Star Wars influence in favor of a straight-ahead Star Trek clone, with Buck, Wilma, et al, joining with the stoic, Spock-like Hawk as they search the galaxy for new, life, new civilizations, etc. in their spaceship, the Searcher (subtle, no?). Here's the revised intro from year two:


Note that while they jettisoned damn near everyone else from the first year cast, they inexplicably kept that  furshlugginer robot. Anyway, the retooled second season of Rogers is what I have more familiarity with, as those are the episodes they showed on Saudi TV growing up. Nonetheless, with production on year two already hobbled by a writers' strike, and the quality of the show pretty much staying at "crappy," ratings slid further, and poor Buck went back into hibernation (figuratively, of course) in April of 1981 after accumulating a total of thirty-seven episodes.

Those episodes were released back in '04 as part of a DVD set ostentatiously labeled "The Complete Epic Series," which I duly picked up in a fit of overwhelming nostalgia before being repeatedly smacked in the face by the cheesy storylines, cheesy special effects, cheesy acting, and...well, you get the idea. By the time I got to the episode featuring Gary Coleman as "The Cosmic Whiz Kid," I put the set away and haven't looked at it since. Universal later repackaged the series into separate "season 1" and "season 2" releases (the second season release just hit a few weeks ago), but this time they smartly left "epic" off the label. Bidi-bidi-bidi.

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