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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!

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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.

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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 1.11 – 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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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