Buck Rogers 1.23 and 1.24 – Flight of the War Witch

Well, now that is how you do a season finale. It’s the sort of thing that we expect now, but I don’t believe was all that common in 1980: a good chunk of location filming, including a big all-terrain vehicle, and a pile of guest stars. Not only are Pamela Hensley and Michael Ansara back as Ardala and Kane, but we’ve got two new enemies played by Julie Newmar and Sid Haig, along with Sam Jaffe and Vera Miles as the peace-loving people who need our heroes’ help.

Look, I’m predisposed to like anything with Newmar, for obvious reasons. Add Sid Haig as her second-in-command and I’m not going to say anything bad about it even if it was lousy. But this was really entertaining! I do feel there was one very dated missed opportunity, but this was huge fun and I enjoyed it almost as much as our son did. He had a blast. All the regulars get a chance to shine, and Twiki gets to have an ongoing war of nerves with some R2-D2 cash-in. Our kid will be imitating Twiki’s growl about that other robot having the brain of a can opener for days.

I was quite surprised by what he didn’t like. As regular readers know, he can’t stand Princess Ardala. Here, the Draconians are forced into an uneasy treaty with the Earthmen to battle the War Witch Zarina and her battalion. But Ardala’s just gotta Ardala and she tries to have a woman-to-woman talk with Zarina to sell out everybody and split… with Buck, of course. Zarina is not even remotely impressed. She calmly, firmly, quietly puts Ardala in her place and calls her a spoiled child and has her guards drag her away.

Our son was so shocked that he found himself on Ardala’s side and broke out his finger blasters to start “shooting” Zarina. She’s a villain so evil that she’s reduced his previous most-hated-villain into a shrieking tantrum. “You hate her even more than Ardala?” I asked. “Yes! She’s WORSE!”

Ardala’s deterioration over her four appearances isn’t all that surprising, but she’s really treated like a man-hungry comedy foil this time out. This reaches its nadir in a scene that the Neanderthal in me kind of loved, but I think they’d play it a lot differently today. She’s in a cell with Buck and another fellow and they trick the guards in, because this always works on television, and the two fellows beat up the guards while Ardala hides under the bed and trips them by their ankles. The part I liked came when she asks how she can help now the four dudes are clobbered, and Buck says “You can take their clothes off,” and Ardala’s all about that.

Sure, it was funny, and Pamela Hensley, as you see, has a delightfully devilish look in her eyes as she gets down to the task. But you know what would have been even funnier? Ardala should have beaten up the four dudes by herself and told Buck and his pal to undress them. That would have been a fabulous revelation: that the Emperor Draco raised his daughters to be the meanest fighters in the galaxy, but this one’s just happier being a sex kitten.

That wraps up Buck Rogers in the 25th Century for us. There was another season I’m not interested in, but life’s too short. Our kid definitely enjoyed it more than I did, but this story was very good, and so were “The Plot to Kill a City”, which was downright excellent, and “Cosmic Whiz Kid”. And they were all better than that terrible pilot movie!

Buck Rogers 1.22 – Buck’s Duel to the Death

Holy anna, our son loved this episode. Our schedule got a little bent out of shape today, as it will again tomorrow, so he and I watched it earlier in the evening. He was still yammering about details hours later. It stars B-movie legend William Smith as a kingpin called the Traybor on a distant planet. And yeah, I mean legend. With 269 credits at IMDB, you’ve seen him in something. Smith is stuck under a silly toupee, but he looks like he could rip a phone book in half in 1980, and he probably still could, so you didn’t hear that crack about his rug from me, okay?

Anyway, I didn’t care for this one, again, and thought it was weighed down by two really appalling actresses, but our son loved all the fights. Talking and smooching was kept to a minimum, this one’s nothing but running down corridors and shooting bad guys. The Traybor has circuitry implanted under his skin, so he gets to fire surges of electricity at our hero and have a nicely satisfying brawl with him in the end. It’s an hour made to thrill younger viewers and clicked all of our younger viewer’s buttons.

Buck Rogers 1.21 – Space Rockers

This wasn’t guest star Jerry Orbach’s finest hour. In a moment of television about as clued-in as that punk rock installment of Quincy, Orbach plays the manager of the galaxy’s biggest rock band. The group, Andromeda, plays music that sounds precisely like the tunes warbled by the robot MAMMA, Dudley Moore’s Music and Mood Management Apparatus, from that episode of The Muppet Show*.

Do I sound cynical? Well, our son thought this was the best thing ever and danced all the way through it, so never mind me!

Buck Rogers 1.20 – A Dream of Jennifer

I spoke too soon! Last time, I mentioned how there hasn’t been any location filming on this show in several episodes, and tonight’s installment brought a whole gaggle of costumed extras into two separate places. I can’t find a Buck Rogers fan site to confirm my theory, but I think they dressed up one of the gift store and restaurant areas of the pre-Six Flags Magic Mountain park to serve as the “Old Chicago Shopping District.”

And they got a recognizable-to-me guest star again. Anne Lockhart had played the recurring character of Sheba on Battlestar Galactica in the previous season, and she’d been in two different Hardy Boys Mysteries before that, and would later appear more than once in both Magnum PI and Knight Rider, so Glen A. Larson and his team must have enjoyed working with her! Also, she looks exactly like her mom, June. Seriously. Mary Woronov plays a red-skinned alien, and Gino Conforti, who I’ve seen in a dozen things, plays a down-on-his-luck street magician.

Unfortunately, neither my son nor I thought too much of this one. He thought it was too sappy and smoochy, but I at least enjoyed seeing Gil Gerard stretch a little and have the chance to play Buck as a little sad and lovesick for once.

Buck Rogers 1.19 – Olympiad

I’m guessing that toward the end of Buck Rogers‘ first season, they started to run out of money. We haven’t seen any A-list guest stars in weeks, and not a frame of location filming. I thought that for an intergalactic Olympic games, they’d go rent the Rose Bowl, but no, it’s just a big gym.

We paused this one to explain the allegory to our son. The story concerns an athlete from the planet of Space Russia – I mean, Losseria – wanting to defect to Earth. He’s under constant guard and has a bomb in his brain, so his girlfriend, who is Space Nadia Comăneci, turns to Buck to help them. Well, the girlfriend rides a Space Bobsled and isn’t a Space Gymnast, but her home planet is effectively Space Romania, as these things go. The episode was first shown about two weeks after the United States laid down its boycott demands on Moscow, to get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan or lose international participation in the 1980 summer games, so it was a pretty timely allegory.

The young athletes from behind the Space Iron Curtain get awfully smoochy, but our son didn’t object too much. There were enough silly future sports to keep his attention, and he really enjoyed Buck beating up a couple of boxers who use sonic blasts from their gloves. As for the guest stars, they may not have been on the Hollywood A-list, but Paul Mantee, a regular “heavy” from the period, plays the number two bad guy. Judith Chapman, who’s been a regular on The Young and the Restless for the last thirteen years, plays Space Nadia.

Buck Rogers 1.18 – Twiki is Missing

And while we’re on the subject of turkeys, here’s “Twiki is Missing.” The main guest star is actress Eddie Benton, and she’s the best thing about this hour, just like she was the best thing about the dopey 1979 movie The Shape of Things to Come.

But for a second opinion, our favorite seven year-old critic completely loved this adventure, which is built around a crime boss wanting to steal Twiki because he’s heard the gossip that the little robot “ambuquad” has developed imagination. It’s really one action scene after another, with space rescues, fistfights, and lots of running up and down lots of corridors. He was very emphatic that he liked this one much, much more than “Ardala Returns”, singling out a moment where Twiki topples a convenient stack of crates on top of a gunman.

Buck Rogers 1.17 – Ardala Returns

Episode 16 was a clip show, so we skipped it. Life’s too short.

In the last two weeks, our son’s had to put up with the returns of the Cybermen and the Master, and he wasn’t happy about either of them. Cue another match with Princess Ardala, Kane, and Tigerman. After sighing the most ridiculously fake stage sigh you’ve ever heard, he growled “Not HER!”

We chatted a little about it afterward. The little dude just does not like recurring villains. “You like the bad guys who get beat and stay beat, don’t you,” I asked. “I loved those giant spiders in Doctor Who the other night (three weeks ago), because they were new, and they died,” he clarified. I thought about that for a minute and considered the possibility of Chris Noth’s character, Jack Robertson, making a comeback one day. “What about that really rich American guy in that episode, the one who caused all the trouble? You never know, we might see him again one day.” I’m not entirely sure how to spell his response. Possibly “Nuhbleeurrrgh.”

Anyway, he sighed and squirmed all the way through this one, only perking up when spaceships start blasting each other at the very end. He’s enjoyed most of this show a whole lot, but not Ardala’s two repeat appearances. As for me, I didn’t think it was too bad, but I was probably distracted by the wardrobe people dressing the beautiful Pamela Hensley in her most ridiculous costume yet. She spends most of the hour wearing this purple thing with a high collar and shoulder pads so thick they might have been made from lawn furniture. At one point, she’s made clones of Buck and one of them spends literally two hours giving her a shoulder rub. That costume was so thick that after two hours, she probably hadn’t felt a thing.

Buck Rogers 1.15 – Happy Birthday, Buck

The high point of “Happy Birthday, Buck” is definitely seeing the awesome Tamara Dobson as one of the bad guys. She plays an accomplice to Peter MacLean’s main villain, who wants to kill Dr. Huer. MacLean was regularly seen on TV as a villain or heavy during this period. Dobson retired from acting after this. She only had two other credited roles, years later. At least I remember her from Jason of Star Command; our son has sadly forgotten her character completely. I guess I need to just put that show back on and let it run some afternoon and get his memory banks recharged.

Our son enjoyed the fights and the special effects, of course, but by far his favorite moment came when Dr. Huer is confronted with balloons, colorful hats, noisemakers, and other junk that the archives have suggested were used in 20th Century birthday parties. Tim O’Connor’s an absolutely perfect straight man in the scene, which had our son giggling loudly. When Twiki calls him a party pooper, he roared with laughter and was still chuckling “party pooper” under his breath five or six minutes later.

Buck Rogers 1.14 – Space Vampire

I asked our son whether tonight’s episode was scary. “No,” he said, “but it was very, very weird. And it was in part a mystery! Like why couldn’t anybody see that vampire when he was standing… RIGHT! IN! FRONT! OF! THEM!”

Continuing the show’s unfortunate tradition of silly episode names, this one’s called “Space Vampire.” Yes, the title is terrible, but it could have been worse, as both Buck and the show’s announcer, William Conrad, call the monster a “space age vampire,” reminding us that this was made in 1979. But that’s all the teasing I can muster, because this one is really, really entertaining.

The monster is called a Vorvon and it does all the usual vampire stuff, with the curious twist that vampire tales and legends have mostly died out. Buck figures out what’s going on immediately, and the space station’s doctor has no idea what he’s talking about. Christopher Stone, who must have set a goal to appear on every adventure program from the period, plays the station commander, and he’s certain that it’s some strange space virus that’s killing people.

The episode’s tone is surprisingly creepy and very effective. The music is harsh and angular and, combined with Erin Gray’s performance – she spends the whole hour feeling chilled and unsettled by something she can’t explain – it all works very well. It even features several newly-shot special effects scenes with new ships instead of recycling earlier miniature footage, including a ship crashing into the space station. It feels like the producers knew they had something memorable with this one and gave it some extra attention… which might explain why they had to resort to a clip show just two weeks later!

Buck Rogers 1.13 – Cruise Ship to the Stars

And so back to the 25th Century for the second half of Buck Rogers‘ first season. Well, I say 25th Century, but you can’t get more 1979 than this episode. It’s like they crammed The Love Boat and The Incredible Hulk in a blender. There are lots of men and women in bathing suits. Erin Gray gets to wear the ugliest wig in the galaxy and finally gets down and boogies with Buck on the disco floor, and Twiki even finds a love interest: a gold-plated robot like him called Tina. Our son really enjoyed it and was happy to get back into his comfort zone of laser blasts and strange super powers.

“Cruise Ship to the Stars” was one of the few acting appearances for Dorothy Stratten, who played the genetically perfect “Miss Cosmos,” the target of a pair of thieves. (One of them is a Jekyll-and-Hyde woman whose evil persona has super strength and fires lasers from her hands, hence the Hulk comparison.) Stratten, of course, was murdered about eight months after this episode aired. I remember reading that she was in one of these episodes but forgot which one. I can’t see her in anything without reflecting on how she was killed before her life could get started.

Buck Rogers 1.12 – Escape From Wedded Bliss

At last, we hit an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century that our son didn’t enjoy. I figured the gunfights and the one-on-one arena brawl between Buck and Tigerman would have made up for all the smoochy stuff, but no. Ardala’s back in town and she only has bedroom eyes for Buck, and he just couldn’t wait for this one to end. Ardala’s a whole new kind of evil for our son: she makes Buck smooch her! This time the plot is literally “Buck Rogers will marry Ardala or else Ardala destroys the Earth.” He couldn’t stand it.

Behind the scenes, H.B. Haggerty takes over the role of Tigerman from this episode, and Michael Ansara is the second Killer Kane. There’s also more disco dancing, this time with roller skates. Frankly, the only reason to watch this one is to see Pamela Hensley parade around in six or seven very revealing Bob Mackie-esque dresses.

And for the second night in a row, we end on a turkey, as Buck Rogers goes back on the shelf for a few weeks’ break to keep things fresh. But we’ll be back in the 25th Century in November, so stay tuned!