It’s 500 years later and Mr. Roger’s neighborhood has changed…slightly!
Buck Rogers returns to the big screen after 40 years away. His return marks a turning point for sci-fi revivals and for the future of sci-fi on television.
Interestingly there’s actually no studio trailer of this film that I could find on the Internet. There were some fan edited trailers, and commercials for the film or the TV series, but nothing like what normally gets found. That may be due in part to the fact that the film was really the pilot for the television show of the same name. Based on the information out there, this is an updated version of the Buck Rogers stories, where the character encountered an accident on his spaceflight in 1987 and went into suspended animation, awakening in the 25th Century. There’s spaceships, robots, laser guns…and disco dancing? Since this film was to be the introduction for a television series, it will be interesting to see how it holds up.
Presented below is the closest thing to a trailer for the film I could find.
The Fiction of The Film
Captain Buck Rogers (Gil Girard) suffers a catastrophic incident aboard his spacecraft, Ranger 3, in the year 1987. He is frozen in suspended animation and awakens in the year 2491, a prisoner of the Draconian Empire. Kane (Henry Silva) and Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) believe him to be a spy for the Federal Directorate of Earth. They place him back into his ship, with a tracking beacon, and send him off for Earth. They believe if he is a spy he will be escorted through the singular corridor of the planetary defense shields, showing them the way to attack.
Buck is picked up by a squadron of Earth starfighters led by Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray). She is terse and doesn’t appreciate his flippant humor, advising him to stick closely to her tail. He is brought into an interrogation unit and questioned by Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor) and later a portable AI computer named Dr. Theopolis (voiced by Howard F. Flynn) who is carried by a small drone robot named Twiki (Felix Silla, voiced by Mel Blanc). Buck learns that shortly after he left Earth there was a nuclear holocaust and the humans turned over control of the environment to these AI beings, known as “Quads,” to help bring them back from extinction.
Buck also learns that the Draconians are on their way for the signing of a peace treaty. Earth will offer them landing privileges so that the Draconians can help fight off pirating marauders that are disrupt Earth’s shipping. His experience aboard the Draconian flagship, coupled with his sudden distrust of anyone in this bizarre futureworld, leads him to believe that the Draconians set him up and that they are actually sending an armed warship to the meeting. Col. Deering scoffs at this trying to explain how things work in the future. Buck leaves the Inner City and explores the ruins of Old Chicago where he finds his parents grave, along with dozens of angry mutants. Col. Deering and some other members of the Third Force of the Earth Directorate save him.
After reviewing his testimony, the humans, including Dr. Huer and Col. Deering believe Buck is a spy, but Dr. Theopolis has reservations. A trial by the Computer Council is set, and Buck is found guilty and sentenced to termination. Buck is cocky that he will not be killed, since he still believes the Draconians will invade and destroy the city. Col. Deering believes there may be something in his story and sets up a ruse to meet with the flagship, outside of protocol, to verify Buck’s story. The Draconians launch a group of pirate ships to attack their own flagship as a adistraction, but Buck is able to destroy them all single handedly, making his allure even greater to both Princess Ardala and Col. Deering.
At the fancy diplomatic reception for the Princess, Buck shows off his late-20th Century dancing skills and gets invited to join Ardala back on the flagship. He ignores Deering’s advances and goes with the Princess, hoping to get more information on their plan. In a quiet moment alone in her chambers, he drugs the Princess and begins searching the ship, disguised as a Draconian guard. He discovers more “pirate” ships, which he now realizes are Draconian marauders, and goes about sabotaging the ships. Twiki and Dr. Theopolis, who have secretly followed Buck aboard, radio Col. Deering for assistance.
Buck is discovered by the Princesses’ guard Tigerman (H.B. Haggerty) but he easily defeats the muscled warrior with a swift kick to the groin and a bomb tucked under his waistband. As the fighters attempt to launch they are blown up thanks to Buck’s plan. Col. Deering makes a daring landing on the ship as it too is detonating, and saves Buck, Twiki, and Dr. Theopolis. Just before the flagship explodes, Ardala and Kane make it off vowing they will see Buck Rogers once again. Wilma expresses her love for Buck, surprising him, as they fly back to the Earth.
“The past is gone. But you can still help us with our future.” – Dr. Theopolis
History in the Making
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was another star in the cap of producer/writer Glen A. Larson. After one season of his modestly successful TV series Battlestar Galactica was cancelled, he started working on an adaptation of Buck Rogers for television. Unlike Battlestar Galactica (which will be the subject of and upcoming Sci-Fi Saturdays) which only got a theatrical release in some countries (like Canada) prior to the airing of the film length pilot episodes, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was always intended to get a film release. And so in March, 1979 six months before it would air on television, the world was reintroduced to Captain Buck Rogers.
Buck was a pulp-hero created by Philip Francis Nowlan and published in the August 1929 issue of “Amazing Stories.” The story was so successful it necessitated a comic strip, which was also popular. That popularity led to imitators of the dashing space-adventurer, the most famous being Flash Gordon (1934) and John Carter of Mars (1941). This led to his swashbuckling adventures in comic books, radio dramas, and the Buck Rogers 12-part movie-serial starring Buster Crabbe in 1939. Interestingly Crabbe also portrayed Flash Gordon in a movie-serial three years prior to portraying Rogers. Buck lay dormant for a few years after the 1940s before being revived in a short lived TV series in the early 50s. After that his adventures would be rebroadcast on television, edited into feature length films, and reprinted for many to experience, including young George Lucas who credits both the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials as one of many inspirations for Star Wars.
So, in 1978 Glen Larson began preparing a new primetime TV series to feature the daring and exciting adventures of Buck Rogers following the cancellation of Battlestar Galactica. The influence of Star Wars in both shows was palpable, but even more evident was the lessons learned from Galactica. Buck Rogers made use of props and special effects elements pioneered by Larson’s previous show allowing a series that had near-cinema quality on a television budget. With the cinematic release of the film, it was hoped that the initial outlay of monies for sets, costumes and special effects could be recouped and allow for better production quality on the series itself. But the film didn’t look like a cinematic film. Due to the film being the first two pilot-episodes for the television show, the movie was released in the TV aspect ratio of 4:3 (aka 1.33:1), not the widescreen format that was popular for feature releases, such as 1.85:1. This makes the film feel smaller than other recent space operas, creating more of a TV style to the events and action. But Rogers’ return to the screen, both big and small, added to the continuing desire by the public for science-fiction action and adventure, inspiring other revivals in the coming years.
Buck Rogers was not setting any new trends in science-fiction. This was not high-brow philosophical media like Silent Running or even Soylent Green. It was just a fun, and exciting space adventure meant to capitalize on the success of Star Wars and fans’ interest in the Buck Rogers franchise. It did help advance the notion of what a sci-fi film should look like. The props, weapons, starships, and costumes all became an iconic look of late 70s/early 80s sci-fi films inspiring the look of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Flash Gordon (1980), and countless other TV series from this era.
It also brought a huge amount of sensuality and sexuality to the genre. While previous films like Logan’s Run had (mostly) female characters in skimpy and suggestive costumes, it was definitely not something that was common. Battlestar Galactica used beautiful women in skimpy or skin tight costumes to some degree as well, but nothing like Buck Rogers. If you’ve only seen the television broadcast of this film, dubbed as “Awakening” parts 1 & 2, then you are only getting half the picture. The film’s opening credits have a series of “dream girls” in tight and revealing futuristic outfits mugging for the camera, including both Erin Gray and Pamela Hensley. It’s as sensual and erotic as a PG rated film could get at the time, and definitely titilating to the males in the audience. The sexuality continued with both Wilma Deering’s skin tight pilot outfit and the variety of “bathing-suit” inspired costumes worn by Princess Ardala. The television show would continue this trend with Deering’s skin tight jumpers, and revealing outfits for the attractive female co-stars. This was a trend that Buck Rogers may have been leading publicly, but there were other films being released around that time that also used sex and sexuality to pander to audiences. These include Starcrash (aka The Adventures of Stella Star, 1979) starring Carolyn Muroe and David Hasselhoff, Galaxina (1980), with Playboy model Dorothy Stratton, and the low-budget sci-fi comedy Spaced Out, as well as many others.
Buck Rogers was the first mainstream film that consciously aped aspects of Star Wars. TV shows like Battlestar Galactica had a chance to jump on this trend quicker, but Buck Rogers really showed that Lucas’ epic was here to stay. There are so many nods and homages, such as the robotic duo of Twiki, a small robot that communicates mostly with the phrase “bidi-bidi-bidi,” and Dr. Theopolis, a curt, intelligent, AI with a slightly British accent, being attributed to R2-D2 and C-3PO. Or the use of a space princess, a hero that can single-handedly wipe out a squadron of ships or destroy the flagship inspiring others around him. Buck even dressed as one of the Draconian guards to sneak around on the bad guys ship. Sound familiar? There were also many similarities to Larson’s previous show Battlestar Galactica, such as the use of the Colonial Viper control stick in the Star Fighters, similar special effects used for the flight patterns of the ships, and the launch tubes and lighting effects of the Draconian ship.
As mentioned earlier, Buck Rogers is a film about fun space adventures and not one that focuses on social or political metaphors. As with many science-fiction movies, it can tell viewers a lot about the era in which it was made.The primary themes that Larson put in the movie are about environmentalism and keeping the planet safe for future generations. The world of the 25th Century is one still recovering from the abuse by the humans of the 20th Century. Nuclear holocaust has forced the future inhabitants of the planet into walled and domed cities, without many natural resources. “You see, the mistakes that we have made in areas, well, like our environment, have been entirely turned over to them,” Dr. Huer informs Buck. Only through the careful use of technology, and putting their management of the natural world in the hands of the Computer Council has allowed them to have the seemingly idyllic future that is shown.
Buck is understandably melancholy about waking up 500 years after everyone he has ever known died. But his words to Wilma are telling. “It’s none of my business how you blow up your world. My generation didn’t know what they were doing either.” He is looking back on the problems of his generation, like any generation might, and seeing the wrongs they have committed. It’s all subtle, but these messages about preserving the world permeated many sci-fi films of the time, and helped to increase the awareness of many young viewers to the plights of the world.
Buck Rogers has a quick foray into the ruins outside the city of New Chicago where he is attacked by a large band (maybe two-dozen) mutants of some kind. The film doesn’t go into the specifics of why the well to do inhabitants of the Inner City would allow these creatures to exist or how they were able to survive, given that resources are low even for those within the walls. It seems to be a reminder that even in an idyllic place as the fancy futuristic city of the 25th Century, there is still a lower class, a group of outcasts that live apart from society. Potentially another reminder of modern ills that befall towns like Chicago.
The Science in The Fiction
Science-fiction films have entered the realm of science-fantasy by the late 70s. The rules that govern worlds where spaceships spew laserbolts, and humans survive 500 years of suspended animation are ludicrous and arbitrary. But that’s okay since the primary goal of these types of films are fun and action. Not every film needs to be 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of their portrayal of space travel, nor should they be. As long as the “science” of the films are internally consistent, that is probably all that an audience can ask for.
The Final Frontier
The Buck Rogers television series would debut in September 1979 and run for two seasons. The first season follows the events of the film, with return appearances by Ardala and Kane (now portrayed by Star Trek alum Michael Ansara). The second season would keep Buck, Wilma and Twiki, but switch out the remainder of the cast and place the adventures off planet aboard the science vessel Searcher whose mission was to travel amongst the stars–leading into new and exciting adventures.
The film was re-edited for its television debut as the two part pilot. The racy opening credits was switched for a more standard television introduction for the time. Additional footage of Buck and Twiki were filmed showing how Buck was acclimating to the 25th Century, plus conversations with Twiki and Dr. Theopolis adding additional setup for the series itself. The biggest addition was a coda after the final shot of the starfighters returning to earth. Dr. Huer and Wilma (now in her turquoise spandex jumpsuit) ask Buck to join the Defense Force and work with them, also setting up the remainder of the first season. In total about 10 additional minutes of footage was added.
The film and the show also eschewed much marketing, particularly with toys featuring the cast of the film. As Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica had shown, there was a lucrative market for merchandise on sci-fi shows regardless of the quality or either the show or the goods. Buck’s continuing adventures were chronicled in a Gold Key comic book, as well as a couple novels from Dell Publishing. The TV series would run 32 episodes with a literal who’s who of cameos from existing and up-and-coming stars. Buck Rogers continued the evolution of sci-fi adventure into the 1980s where new and more exciting worlds would arrive.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.