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The Barbary Coast (1975)

I kind of enjoy taking a gamble on programs that I don’t really know for this blog. Barbary Coast had been one of those in-one-eye-and-out-the-other shows for many years. I’d seen it listed here and there over time, but when I found it listed cheap, I figured there were only 13 episodes, so it wouldn’t be the big time commitment that its forebear, The Wild Wild West, would be for the blog. (I also don’t really enjoy The Wild Wild West for some reason, despite it being a show that sounds like it was made specifically to appeal to me…)

We’ll start the series proper next month, and just like ABC originally did in 1975, precede it with a look at the pilot movie. The show, created by Douglas Heyes, is a lighthearted secret agent adventure set in the very, very muddy streets of San Francisco in the late 19th Century. It stars William Shatner as a master of disguise named Jeff Cable, and while his whiskers and wigs may not fool any grown-ups watching, our seven year-old son was completely thrown by him several times.

Agent Cable finds a base of operations in a casino run by Cash Conover. Two years before, Cash had killed the son of Louisiana’s governor in a duel and had fled, later winning the casino and becoming a destination on the lawless Barbary Coast. Cable knows Conover’s secret and press-gangs him into working with him to ferret out crime and corruption. In the pilot film, Cash is played by Dennis Cole. He’d be recast when the series started production.

Joining them in this initial outing are a pile of recognizable faces from seventies TV, including Richard Kiel as the casino’s bouncer, and Leo Gordon as the bent chief of police. Lynda Day George is here to cause trouble, as women do, along with Michael Ansara, John Vernon, and, a year before he took the role of Jonah in Ark II, Terry Lester.

Bizarrely, we watched this movie the same week that some bigoted old newspaper editor in Alabama called for the return of the Klan to do something about all these Demmycrats making his life miserable. In the film, Vernon’s character, using the pretty suspect name of “Robin Templar,” has resurrected the eyeholes-in-pillowcase brigade under the name of “the Crusaders” to execute criminals that the law won’t touch. It’s all a scam, of course, because Templar and his closest associates are really scheming to just lynch a couple of people to get the point across, and then extort protection money from all the other targets on their published Death List.

I think our son enjoyed parts of it more than others, and he was a little confused by the opening twenty minutes. They introduce a lot of characters before the plot becomes apparent, and we don’t meet Agent Cable under his real identity for a surprisingly long time. I think they missed a terrific complication: Lynda Day George’s character stumbles on Cash’s secret and sends word to Louisiana in order to collect the reward. There’s a point in the narrative where the agent from Louisiana really should have arrived and thrown the heroes’ plan to destroy the Crusaders into disarray, but the subplot is forgotten about until the very end. The film doesn’t present much of a challenge for Cable and Conover, really. Hopefully the series will give them meatier stories than this.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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