Buck Rogers 1.11 – Cosmic Whiz Kid

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.

Buck Rogers 1.10 – Planet of the Amazon Women

I’m not going to say that this episode is as bad as its misleading title suggests, but I will say that something has gone horribly wrong with your hour of television when the plot actually requires that it is filled with attractive young actresses in sexy costumes and yet the best thing about it is guest star Jay Robinson.

Buck Rogers 1.9 – Unchained Woman

Once again, a not-too-bad episode of this show gets a title so lurid it’s downright embarrassing. Guest star Jamie Lee Curtis is the unchained woman in question, because Buck breaks her out of a prison. It’s not a tawdry seventies exploitation prison as seen in some skeezy Filipino-made movie; it’s a perfectly civilized prison where everybody keeps their clothes on and are overseen by android guards.

Because 25th Century Earth is, as I’ve mentioned, 1970s America, Buck’s in the prison break business because the planet Zeta refuses to comply with Earth’s demands that they extradite Curtis’s character. That means Dr. Huer has no choice but to blow up their prison and release all the convicts. Zeta made him do it.

Despite the very questionable politics, it’s not bad. Our son loved the prison break and I enjoyed the android who pursues Buck across the desert to a small frontier town. He makes a rather grand entrance when everybody’s having a standoff with guns drawn, as though a menace from the earlier part of the story is telling the narrative that his role isn’t finished yet, no matter how much the other characters are ready to move on.

Buck Rogers 1.8 – Return of the Fighting 69th

It must be so nice to be at that age where all special effects are equally amazing. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century looked remarkable in its day, but time and technology have left it behind to the jaded and cynical eyes of grownups. But our son, despite enjoying a Marvel movie and the first episode of Jodie Whittaker’s run on Doctor Who – we liked it! – earlier today, still appreciated this as though it was still state-of-the-art.

He reports that he really likes the “space explosions,” and explained it this way: “It always looks like a new star is being made, and then there’s a whoosh and a bang and then it’s not there anymore! Then it suddenly disappears and it’s so cool.” So my hat’s off to the visual effects wizards of thirty-nine years ago. Their work is still able to thrill the young and the young at heart.

The principal guest star this week is Peter Graves, and I amused myself by realizing that his put-out-to-pasture squadron of space marines has the same demographic makeup as the classic Mission: Impossible force, even down to the married couple. Okay, so Rollin Hand and Cinnamon Carter don’t appear to have been married, but the actors who played them were. That had to be deliberate!

Buck Rogers 1.7 – The Plot to Kill a City (part two)

I’m impressed. That was a very solid story. I might quibble and grumble about the show playing it safe and not making the future seem very different from 1979, but that was every bit as entertaining as any other science fiction show could have managed in the seventies, and our son loved it. He was much more focused and still tonight than he was with the first episode.

Obviously it’s early hours, and for all I know the rest of this program is as dopey, dated, and disco as its godawful pilot was, but I didn’t dislike any of that. I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but I’ve always agreed with the generally bad reputation that Buck Rogers has, which is probably thanks to that godawful pilot. Even though nothing happens in this story that will be very unpredictable to grownup viewers, it’s done with style and talent and a lot of charm. I hope other episodes are half this good.

Actually, there is just one watched-from-the-future disappointment. Of the three main villains, two of them are killed off quite unceremoniously, and one escapes. I believe she is never seen or heard from again. That’s no way to start a rogues gallery! I like recurring enemies.

Joining the cast this week, it’s James McEachin as an engineer blackmailed into helping the villains. We’ve seen McEachin a couple of times before in this blog – in Universal shows, in fact – but I want to pause this time and note what a good actor he is, with such an expressive voice. McEachin was the star of Tenafly, one of the forgotten NBC Mystery Movies of the seventies. I’ve been aggravated for decades that only about half of those movie series, led, of course, by Columbo, ever got a second life in syndication or home video. I’d love for someone to release Tenafly, McCoy, Cool Million, Faraday & Company and the others.

Buck Rogers 1.6 – The Plot to Kill a City (part one)

And here we have Batvillain # 3, the great Frank Gorshin, classing up the joint as Kellogg, leader of a gang of secretive intergalactic assassins called the Legion of Death. Since most of the killers don’t know what each other looks like, Buck is able to infiltrate their ranks as a heavy called Argus in order to learn the Legion’s plan to destroy New Chicago. But there’s somebody on the planet who does know what Argus looks like, a barhopping cutie played by Markie Post. Can she be trusted to keep Buck’s secret?

I like the way each installment expands the limited world of the future that the pilot showed us. By this point, there seems to be several hundred inhabited planets and space stations. It’s a universe with lots of passenger transport and privately-owned spaceships. Travel in the 25th Century seems to be incredibly cheap, though overall it’s not a very radical conceptualization of what the future might be like. It’s really just 1970s America, but with “Tau Ceti” instead of “Toledo.” There are always customs desks at the spaceports, and taverns, and hotels, and buying attractive people drinks hasn’t changed on any planet in five hundred years.

And I think it works really well. This is a family show and not meant to be too challenging. Writer Alan Brennert fills this adventure with superpowered aliens and backstabbing and double-dealing and quick escapes and it’s all perfectly entertaining, even if none of the alien cultures that we’ve met so far are actually all that alien. Part one ends with Buck’s cover being blown, kind of inevitably, and our son’s pretty anxious to see what will happen next. He particularly enjoyed the telekinetic tricks pulled by one of the assassins, especially when Buck pulls a gun on the villain and the guy just blinks it ten feet in the air.

Buck Rogers 1.5 – Vegas in Space

Once again, there’s a better story hiding here than its glitzy title would suggest. There are a few scanty outfits on the orbital gambling city of Sinaloa – guest star Pamela Susan Shoop, shown above, is wearing an unforgettable one in all her scenes – and some outrageous headdresses and a blue person from a planet where apparently the genders are reversed. But the reality of the budget means that we only see one big gaming room and some relatively conservative wardrobe choices for the all-humanoid extras, and the only game we see is Blackjack. This game is called “Ten and Eleven” in the 25th Century and is something of an old-fashioned throwback, which naturally Buck has mastered. I thought it was kind of odd that the director didn’t linger over any other space games.

Heck, Glen A. Larson was already reusing props and sound effects from Battlestar Galactica all over the place, so I was honestly expecting to see an avalanche of those plastic gold “cubits” spilling from a slot machine.

I chose the picture I did not only to spotlight an attractive actress in a fun dress, but because this was the best scene in the whole show so far. You understand, watching shows from the period, that the actors who got to play action heroes didn’t get a lot of opportunities to do different things. So Gil Gerard is winning big and starts recounting a story to the glamour girl on his arm about his last trip to Vegas with a good friend, and he abruptly becomes downbeat and sad, reminded again that everything he knew is gone. And you know what? Gerard plays the heck out of the scene. He’s excellent in it. I really enjoyed watching that.

Even without this, Anne Collins’ story is better than I was expecting. Cesar Romero – Batvillain # 2 so far – has a small role as a mob boss who’s willing to turn himself and his records in to the Earth authorities if they can rescue an employee from the boss who runs Sinaloa. This was a perfectly fine hour, with a couple of good fights to keep our son amused, several small explosions, and another dogfight in space getting away. Joseph Wiseman also has a part in this story as an infamous interrogator, perhaps to make up for almost all of his role as Emperor Draco in the pilot movie ending up on the cutting room floor.

Buck Rogers 1.3 and 1.4 – Planet of the Slave Girls

Mercifully, this morning’s double-length episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was nowhere as cringeworthy as that lurid and exploitative title made it sound. The villain, overacted painfully by Jack Palance, is an equal-opportunity slaver and happy to sell men as well as women. Palance had made the dopey Shape of Things to Come around this time. Two outer space masterminds in a single year, and neither of them worth a rewatch.

This episode got a little press at the time because Buster Crabbe, who had originated the role of Buck Rogers in a 1930s serial, came out of retirement to play Brigadier Gordon and fly around zapping bad guys in space along with the new kid. Brigadier Gordon never returned to the show, and bizarrely neither did Major Duke Danton, who is totally set up in this story as a buddy with whom Buck can spend some down time, and also be an occasional rival for Col. Deering’s attention. Duke is played by David Groh, who audiences at the time probably recognized most as Joe in Rhoda. Well, it really wasn’t the way of shows in this period to have a large ensemble of recurring players, but it does seem like the producers missed a couple of opportunities here.

Another familiar face is Roddy McDowall, who’s the first of a few former Batvillains to show up in this series. And as all the attention on actors on this post might indicate, the story was uninspired and left me quite bored. Our son liked it a lot more than I did.

Buck Rogers 1.1 and 1.2 – Awakening

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.

RIP Tim O’Connor, 1927-2018

We’re very sorry to hear that actor Tim O’Connor has died. A familiar face to anybody who watched TV in the seventies and eighties, O’Connor appeared in dozens of dramas, and was a regular in the soap opera Peyton Place for five years. We’ve seen him as a guest in The Six Million Dollar Man and Wonder Woman, where he originated the character Andros, and will of course be seeing him again down the line when we watch Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. For people in their forties, O’Connor is probably best remembered for his role as Dr. Huer in that series. Our condolences to his family and friends.