Sunday, 12 December 2021

Buck Rogers In The 25th Century

Cool As Buck

Buck Rogers In
The 25th Century

USA 1979 Directed by Daniel Haller

Buck Rogers In
The 25th Century

Sept 1979 - March 1980 Season 1
January - April 1981 Season 2
Blu Ray Zone B

I can't remember if it was Shanklin, Scarborough or somewhere like Eastbourne when I first became aware of a book sitting on a store bookshelf... but it would have been something like May or June and I was on holiday with my parents. I spied the paperback copies of Buck Rogers In The 25th Century and Buck Rogers 2 - That Man On Beta (apparently based on an unfilmed screenplay) on the shelf and I pestered my dad to buy me the first one. I was already on board with Buck Rogers because of the fantastic 1930s serial starring Buster Crabbe (reviewed by me here). But, it was expensive... I think it might have been 75p or even maybe 95p. An expensive, luxury item. So he said no. Even so, I knew I would be on holiday in the general area over the next few days and so I took note that the book shop stayed open late on a Thursday night, when it usually shut at 5pm.

Anyway, sometime the next day, my dad and I were trying to remember the name of a specific Gene Kelly musical where three army buddies are reunited a year or two after the war to find they had nothing in common. We just couldn’t think of it but then I had a brainwave. “It’s Always Fair Weather!” I shouted gleefully. “No.” said my dad. “I’m pretty sure it’s not that. “I’m sure it is.” I said... “What do you want to bet?” He said our usual bet of something like either 5 pence or a million pounds. I said, “Tell you what... If I’m right... you buy me that Buck Rogers book from that bookshop! It will give me something to read on the train.” It was Thursday... the day before we took off for home. He said fine because he had two things he was almost certain of... a) The name of that film surely wasn’t that and b) the bookshop shut at 5pm and we wouldn’t be able to get near it until 6pm. So he agreed and, somewhere, we found a store where we could look the information up in a book (no internet in those days, remember).  And yes, I was completely right, the film we’d been trying to remember was It’s Always Fair Weather and so he conceded he’d take me around to the bookshop later, knowing in his mind that it would have already closed. Imagine his surprise (he never lived it down) when he found the bookshop was still open and he had to buy me the novel, which I read from cover to cover very quickly... so much so that I was able to convince him to buy me the sequel a few weeks later.

Now, I think there must have been a lag on the UK cinema release date because it’s listed as July 1979 but I would have been on holiday early June in those days and so it maybe came a little later to cinemas just outside of London (Enfield Town is nowadays considered part of London, in fact). So I remember waiting a few months and seeing the film and loving it. Then, later, a TV show which, somehow never seemed to live up to the film and which got pretty bad in its second season. So it was an absolute pleasure catching up to these again on Blu Ray.

The film was originally made as the first of a series of TV movies but Universal decided it was looking so good that they decided to do it properly, as a theatrical version. And that version is also available on the current Blu Ray and it's like chalk and cheese to the later, pilot version recut of mostly the same material. It’s also not quite as dark as the version of the story in the novel, which was written from an earlier draft of the script. That being said, it was still fairly adult in tone, starting off with an almost James Bond title sequence with an actual title song (the TV show opening theme was an instrumental of this) and Buck (played by Gil Gerard) laying on the titles with scantily clad, super sexed-up versions of co-stars Erin Gray (playing Wilma Deering) and Pamela Hensley (playing Princess Ardala, who I first saw in the Doc Savage movie, reviewed here) crawling over his unconscious body in a suggestive manner. Indeed, the film is definitely more adult in tone, even though the first season of the show was extremely sexualised in its plot concerns (with some great costumes to match).

I remember someone once told me that if I looked at Gil Gerard in a fight in any episode of the TV show, he hardly ever (I think it happens just once) throws a punch... instead, every time the character gets into a fight, he just kicks people a lot. It looks quite ridiculous and feels way too theatrical but, in the original movie version, he does indeed throw the odd punch or two... which is nice. There are also some very adult lines in the theatrical cut of the movie, such as Buck turning down Wilma’s sexual advances with the line “I’m 500 years old and have to go easy on re-entry.”

The film also starred Henry Silva as Kane (aka Killer Kane), Tim O’Connor as Dr. Huer, Felix Silla as android Twiki (voiced by none other than Bugs Bunny man Mel Blanc), Eric Server as Dr. Theopolis and Dr. No himself, Joseph Wiseman as Ardala’s father. Wiseman was dropped completely from the TV show and, asides from the pilot film which was, as I said, a retooled version of the theatrical release... with the title sequence replaced by something far tamer, lots of adult lines removed or redubbed, the death of a character called Tigerman (amongst others) deleted and a few scenes of Buck’s new 25th century apartment added in... Michael Ansara took over as Kane, replacing Henry Silva.

And it’s a fun film. I absolutely loved it as a kid and I quite enjoyed it now, it has to be said. The TV show is more adventures on future Earth - Buck was frozen in the near future of 1987 for 500 years in a space shuttle, as opposed to the dirigible he was cryogenically frozen in for the serial - with Buck helping out his ‘high up’ friends and completing missions for them... for the first season, at least.

And there are some great guest stars in the first series too... such as Tamara Dobson (that’s Cleopatra Jones to you), a young (on the brink of success) Jamie Lee Curtis, Frank Gorshin, Jack Palance, Gary Coleman (Watchoo talking ‘bout Willis?), Leigh McCloskey (from Dario Argento’s Inferno) and even the tragic playmate Dorothy Stratton. Probably my favourite guest star was an early episode with an appearance by an ageing Buster Crabbe, the original Buck Rogers, starring as a character named somewhat after the other famous science fiction hero he played, ‘Brigadier’ Gordon.

The show has a lot of good, ‘of its time’ writing and action and Pamela Hensley returns every now and again to start invasions, strange conspiracies and cosmic wars... all because Buck refuses to be her boyfriend. In this way, she’s almost a carbon copy of the role Marta DuBois played in the TV show Tales Of The Gold Monkey (reviewed here)... or vice versa, come to think of it.

It was a fun show but Gerard didn’t get on well with the producers and was trouble on the set, apparently, for taking it all too seriously (well that’s kinda what you want, isn’t it?). When the second season began, there was a complete change. Most of the characters and actors who played them were replaced with new ones. Dr. Huer, Dr. Theopolis, Ardala and Kane are all gone. Instead we have new regulars Hawk (an alien bird man played by Thom Christopher), Dr. Goodfellow (played by Wilfrid Hyde-White), a second robot called Crichton (voiced by Jeff David) and Jay Garner as Admiral Asimov, who is indeed name checked as being an ancestor of popular science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (his famous three laws of robotics are quoted often in the second season). And with Mel Blanc being ill for the first handful of episodes, Twiki’s voice was changed to some kind of high pitched thing, before dropping back to Mel Blanc with no explanation whatsoever. Future Hollywood star Dennis Haysbert also turns up as a semi-regular bridge crew member in the second season.

Not only that, the show was no longer taking place on Earth but on a starship called Searcher, as Buck and the crew would basically ‘seek out new life and new civilisations’ around the galaxy, which made it another Star Trek/Battlestar Galactica clone and something far from the concept of the original Buck Rogers created by Philip Nowlan in the original novel and subsequent comic strip adventures in the earlier half of the 20th century.

There was an actors strike that year which held up production and, after that and considering their troubled relationship with the lead actor (apparently), Universal pulled the plug after only 11 episodes of Season 2. By then, though, there were less good episodes than bad, it has to be said.

That being said, the bad episodes are still quite fun looking back at them now, even though the designs and costumes took a big quality drop in the second season. The original starfighters in the movie and first season (and rarely seen in the second), which were reject concepts from the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica, were absolutely beautiful. And the costumes were... well... they definitely didn’t hide a lot of the various actors and actresses from episode to episode. Even the wise ass robot Twiki, who was picking up the old 20th Century lingo from Buck, was a well designed thing which you can see was probably influenced by Star Wars to some extent but, only in that you can trace the lineage of both him and the more famous C3PO right back to Brigitte Helm’s robotrix in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (reviewed here). In comparison, the second season looks like nobody had any money to shoot proper special effects let alone put money into the sets... with the exception being the wonderful looking bird craft belonging to Hawk.

And that’s me done for a good long while, I think, with Buck Rogers In The 25th Century... not forgetting a quick shout out to Stu Phillips who composed the score to the movie (and several other interesting composers on the show)... not to mention Kip Lennon on vocals on the original, amazing vocal version of the Buck Rogers theme tune. I’m not sure I’d recommend this to everyone, for sure... however, if you liked the show in the 1970s, you might have some fun still with it now. It’s not for everyone these days but I’m glad I saw these again and, you never know, I might revisit again in another decade, if I’m still around myself.

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