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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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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.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.2 – Sharks (part two)

Between the sharks and the stock footage of depth charges exploding, there’s certainly enough in part two of this story to keep kids entertained. I wasn’t as keen on it myself, since Steve spends almost the entire story a prisoner and doesn’t get much of a chance to be active, but our son liked it, with one qualification. He said it was mostly good and partly bad because he was very worried that Rudy Wells would have to stay forever at the bottom of the ocean.

I was right last time, by the way: the mercenaries end up taking over the piracy of the submarine. I did kind of love the casual way that the FBI let everybody know in part one that some nuclear missiles were stolen from Boston like the thieves had helped themselves to them along with some rims and subwoofers. I missed how silly that was last night, but the recap this time had me giggling.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.1 – Sharks (part one)

So into the 1977-78 season and the final batch of The Six Million Dollar Man, still on ABC, and The Bionic Woman, now moved to NBC. I’ve picked thirteen episodes from the final runs of the shows, and we’ll see what surprises are in store.

One surprise for me: seeing Fred Freiberger’s name in the credits as a new producer for the show. I’d known this before, but forgot about it. Freiberger has a horrible reputation among sci-fi teevee fans-slash-loudmouths for the apparently subpar third and final season of Star Trek (I really have no idea whether it’s any worse than the other two and don’t care), and for the definitely inferior second season of Space: 1999 (the first season was grim and boring and the second was bombastic and stupid). So it used to be, among the sci-fi teevee fans-slash-loudmouths of the 1980s, Freiberger was associated with making beloved shows stupid before getting them cancelled, and here he is on Six. So is this going to be appreciably worse than what came before?

Honestly, not so far, and besides, I like the idea of challenging reputations and expectations. Using remote controlled sharks as part of a scheme to hijack a decommissioned nuclear sub is a little silly – and a little bit of a cash-in on mid-seventies Jaws mania – but it’s no sillier than many of the other far-fetched plots in this show. The villains are a disgraced US Navy captain (Stephen Elliott) and his marine biologist daughter (Pamela Hensley, possibly getting this role as a consolation prize since “The Ultimate Imposter” didn’t get picked up as a series), but they’ve hired some mercenary types to assist them, led by a guy played by Greg Walcott, and they kind of have the look of baddies who are going to take control of the situation. Walcott, incidentally, had been in the final episode of Land of the Lost about nine months before this, but he’s best known for being the square-jawed hero of Plan Nine From Outer Space. Also in the cast: John De Lancie in another small part, but at least this time, unlike part one of “Death Probe,” he warranted a screen credit.

Our son is at the age where the animal kingdom is incredibly fascinating. Of course, if you’re in your forties like me, you remember those How and Why Wonder Books on every subject from your elementary school library. He’s currently loving the modern equivalent series, called Everything You Need to Know about bugs, snakes, and dinosaurs. Sharks haven’t quite made the rounds yet, but that might be changing with this episode. He really enjoyed it. The underwater material is quite well done, although the nitpicker in me remembers from one of the initial movies-of-the-week that Steve can swim at super speed as well as run real fast, and probably could have left that last “guard dog” shark in the dust and made for the surface. Couldn’t he?

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The Six Million Dollar Man 4.12 – The Ultimate Imposter

Flush with the success of their two bionic shows, the producers made two attempts in the fourth season of Six to expand the OSI’s roster with another spinoff. First up was “The Bionic Boy,” in which Vincent Van Patten became a teen bionic hero, and in January, they tried a backdoor pilot, with Steve Austin taking a two scene back seat to Joe Patten, a schoolteacher played by Stephen Macht, whose brain can be programmed for secret missions.

Using superspeed computer-learning that’s quite a lot like Gerry Anderson’s Joe 90, Patten can be primed with all the background, languages, chemistry, or blueprints necessary to complete any mission. When his girlfriend, an OSI agent played by Pamela Hensley, is captured on an undercover assignment, Joe gets to learn all about the world of counterfeiting to rescue her.

My son was a little disappointed with this one, because Joe’s chemistry wizardry is no match for bionic thrills. It’s not bad for what it is, and probably a shame that Joe was never seen again. Even without his own show, he could have been an interesting recurring character to provide some in-the-field help for Steve and Jaime. But another bionic action show certainly wasn’t in ABC’s plans, as I’ll mention in a couple of weeks.

The writers, Lionel E. Siegel and William Zacha, kept their programmed agent concept alive for one more try. After the bionic shows had ended, they wrote a movie-of-the-week for Universal, also called The Ultimate Imposter, in 1979, starring Joseph Hacker as the agent.

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