At the end of 1978, Universal began production on a Buck Rogers TV movie for NBC. Based on a popular old comic strip where everybody wore outrageously stupid clothes, it had once inspired one of the most successful and best-remembered of the old movie serials, as well as the, errr, somewhat less successful An Interplanetary Battle With the Tigermen of Mars, which used to give me and my mates fits of laughter, and made sure we referred to every bad special effect in every dumb old movie we used to watch a “flash ray, which works at the speed of lightning.”
That old Tigermen movie is maybe five minutes long. After sitting through ninety minutes of the first installment of this series, its brevity suddenly holds so much more appeal.
Universal decided to release Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, latterly known as “Awakening,” in theaters in the spring of 1979. It did such good business that NBC decided they wanted a weekly series instead. The version on the Rogers DVD that I bought is the theatrical cut. Apparently one way to tell is that the original version has a cameo appearance by Joseph Wiseman toward the end as Princess Ardala’s father Draco, and it was cut when it was shown on TV.
Anyway, when I was seven or eight years old, this series was the greatest thing ever, so I chose to hold off watching this when we looked at all the other Star Wars cash-ins of the late 1970s last summer. I wanted my son to be right around the same age I was, and he absolutely had a blast. He loved it and can’t wait for more. This series remains the greatest thing ever…
…provided you are seven or eight years old.
Although, I’m kind of amused by the astonishingly clumsy way that producer Glen A. Larson and his crew decided to try to make this appealing to more than just the kids in the audience. Twiki, voiced by Mel Blanc, gets to make some stupid double entendres for the older and naughtier kids, but the only apparent concession to any grown-ups watching comes in the form of the downright painfully clunky attempts at romance. Gil Gerard and his very, very hairy chest was just peak masculinity for 1979, and he’s caught in a love triangle with the all-business-before-she-met-him Colonel Wilma Deering, played by Erin Gray, and the evil princess from space, Ardala, played by Pamela Hensley.
And you don’t know pain until you see the scene where Buck teaches these 25th Century squares how to get down and boogie and show off his barbaric, “disgusting” disco dance moves. It’s already the most hilariously stupid thing ever, and then Twiki starts dancing and shouting “Groovy!”
Before we get there, Buck Rogers was frozen by cosmic rays or gasses or something in 1987 and revived when discovered by some aliens called Draconians who are on their way to Earth for trade negotiations. A traitorous human named Kane, played by Henry Silva, sees a way to get vital information about Earth’s defense screen from Rogers’ ship, and the people of Earth see him as a possible spy. Other than Col. Deering, we don’t meet many humans, principally just Tim O’Connor’s Dr. Huer. There’s a run-in with some mutants in the ruins of Old Chicago, and lots of space battles, and Buck Rogers slips some roofies in Ardala’s drink to knock her out and go stop the invasion. Ardala has spent the movie taking baths in front of half-dressed ladies, and getting massages from half-dressed ladies, and one kiss and a knockout pill later, she ends the film in an escape pod asking Kane why he can’t be a real man like the guy who drugged her. So no, for a five hundred year-old man, Buck Rogers hasn’t aged well at all.
This was so much dopier than I remembered it, and I remembered it as being a cheesy relic of the disco era. But maybe I’ll enjoy suffering through it as our son has a blast. It has fun guest stars, and pretty girls, and even though the sexual politics of the program are very much of its time, I also know that Julie Newmar’s going to show up at some point, and I’m only human.