You’re not going to believe this, but I swear tonight’s episode was a million times better than I was expecting. Mind you, I was expecting the end of the world.
The sitcom Diff’rent Strokes was in its second season on NBC that year, and since I occasionally watched both programs, I was certainly aware that Gary Coleman would be guest starring on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century that week. So this is one of the few that I remember from my childhood, but I remembered it all wrong. Later, with teenage meatheadedness, came the contempt for elements of one’s past, and I don’t know about the crowd you ran around with in high school, but absolutely none of my peers were openly admitting any fondness for Strokes or any of the sixty-eleven TV movies that Coleman had cranked out for NBC when we were the target audience.
And so “Cosmic Whiz Kid” passed into infamy as just one more example of the embarrassing, pandering crap that American television was passing as worthwhile entertainment while right around the same time, kids in Britain were watching Blake’s 7 and kids in Japan were watching Mobile Suit Gundam. The fact that both countries also had more than their fair share of garbage was lost on us; we only got to know the better things and assumed everything from overseas was as good as we imagined.
The pleasant reality is that this isn’t a pandering showcase for a catchphrase-spouting child star to mug at the camera. It was written by Anne Collins and Alan Brennert, who had written the most memorable installments of the show so far, and the role of President Hieronymous Fox could have been played by any young actor. But here’s the thing: since we started this blog, I’ve seen a heck of a lot of performances by the child stars of the late seventies, and Gary Coleman, in this story, is better than every one of them I can think of, and I include Jodie Foster in that statement. He’s engaging, twinkling, fun, believable, and plays the part with subtlety and smarts.
And the other thing is that even if Fox had been played by a lesser actor, one that everybody forgot and who didn’t cause too-cool-for-school teens to mock and snort at the sound of his name, this would still have been one of the better installments of the show. Ray Walston plays the villain, and there are appearances by a telepathic alien and a weedy-looking dude from a low-gravity planet who throws Buck across a room and snaps laser blasters in half.
It’s a pretty good story, and our son really enjoyed it. Fox is clever enough to escape from danger without Buck’s help, which he loved, and he thought an ongoing subplot about the meat of “mountain lizards” being used to make 25th Century cheeseburgers and chili was a scream. I was also very amused by the show revealing that Buck had found some old music by Three Dog Night in an archive and has his Siri / Alexa playing it in his apartment. Not that I’ve ever given a flip about Three Dog Night, but yes, I can totally believe Buck Rogers spent his high school days smoking weed and thumping his dashboard along with “An Old Fashioned Love Song.” The Doobie Brothers, too.