Revisiting Buck Rogers In The 25th Century

Andrew time travels 35 years back to revisit the theatrical release of the Buck Rogers In The 25th Century film...

Once synonymous with science fiction, the phrase ‘That Buck Rogers Stuff’ once called to mind everything the average person thought about Science Fiction – ray guns, rocket ships and robots. Certainly in the 1928, when the then-christened Anthony Rogers made his debut, he was something pretty unique in Sci-Fi – the space adventurer as swash-buckler. Given the nickname ‘Buck’ by John F. Dille, the novel, Armageddon, was adapted into the comic strips in 1929 and then in 1932, Buck Rogers became the first major Science Fiction radio drama. 1939 saw Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe take on the role for a 12-part serial. All of this is to say that Buck Rogers was around for quite a while before many people of my generation discovered him.

Buck Rogers In The 25th Century arrived on UK shores via the medium of cinema. Despite being shot as a TV movie and potential pilot for a television revival, the money Battlestar Galactica had accrued when it was re-cut as a 2-hour theatrical release was enough for Universal Pictures to try the same tack with Buck, only this time, unlike Galactica which only had a Canadian and overseas release initially, the pilot was released in North America before the series debuted on US Television in September 1979. A world-wide release followed. In the UK, this cinema release meant that when ITV bought the series for transmission in the early evening Saturday tea time slot, the pilot was omitted from transmission which meant the UK screenings began with 2-hour episode The Planet Of The Slave Girls. The film received a fair amount of publicity as I recall, with full page adverts in the likes of Starburst magazine and in a few of the Marvel UK comics of the times plugging the release date of July 26th 1979. Given that the TV show would only land on UK shores in August of 1980, that gave it almost a solid year of filling in matinee double features before the series debuted. I know I saw it as a double bill with Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack, the second feature to be cobbled together from episodes of Battlestar Galactica. A number of scenes were cut from the theatrical release that were present in the pilot version, which we’ll look at here, along with pertinent alterations to the novel.

The pilot to Buck Rogers is a thing of beauty if one’s idea of beauty is a dated 70s disco flick attempting to be futuristic. The movie opens with a prologue – voiced by The Fatman of Jake And The Fatman fame, William Conrad – not dissimilar to the one that would open the series.

Conrad sets up that Buck, played by Gil Gerard and now renamed William Rogers for the traditional no-good reason, was a lone astronaut launched by NASA on an ambiguous deep space mission in the year 1987. Buck was frozen, “by forces beyond comprehension” – a great way of ducking out on using any real science – and from there the credits roll and we are subjected to a wonderfully cheesy James Bond pastiche. Ostensibly supposed to represent Buck’s past and future melding together, Buck instead sees Col. Wilma Deering, played by Erin Gray and Princess Ardala, the magnificent Pamela Hensley, and and numerous unnamed blonds with Farrah hair and large Deidre specs, writhing around on the film’s logo in silver bikinis and one pieces as the theme song, Suspension sung by Kipp Lennon, warbles on about being “far beyond the world I’ve known, far beyond my time”. Here it is – something that has to be seen to be believed.

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Buck is picked up by Draconian Princess, Ardala and thawed out. Why people are surprised that a people known as ‘Draconians’ are nefarious is beyond my comprehension but nevertheless, Earth is under the impression that Ardala is part of a mission of peace. Believing Buck to be a spy of some kind, Kane , played here by Henry Silva, states that Buck should be sent back to Earth – if he lands with no issues rather than being fried by the Earth’s defence systems, then he was a ploy of some kind.

Pamela Hensley, after gyrating provocatively in the opening titles, gets a proper introduction here and is every bit as scantily clad as one would expect from a Glen A Larson production. Whilst not quite as campy as she would be in the series that follows, Hensley is clearly enjoying herself in the femme fatale role and her fun, flirty, campy space Princess would return in numerous follow up episodes of the show wearing as little as TV standards of decency would allow for the time.

The telefilm is also interesting in that it jumps straight in with Buck being thawed out in 2491. There’s not half an hour of Buck on Earth in 1987, no tedious preamble, the movie just gets on with it. It’s also clear that Buck at the very least owes more of a debt to Larson’s previous Sci-Fi drama, the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica than previous incarnations of the character. Buck’s space module was used in an episode of that show – albeit painted orange – the spaceships launch tubes are directly ripped off from Galactica and the sound effects and sets all bear a striking similarity to those seen on the previous show even if the sound effects for both were straight from the Universal Studios archives labelled ‘futuristic buttons being pressed’. Even the Earth’s ships were rejected designs for the Colonial Vipers.

Buck is escorted through the Earth’s defence shield by cold fish Col. Wilma Deering who arrests Buck for singing, while Dr Huer, played by a dignified Tim O’Connor, starts interrogating Buck via the use of ‘ambuquad’ Twiki, played by Felix Silla and voiced by Mel Blanc. Around Twiki’s neck is a large silver dollar with a light-show face named Dr Theopolis who informs Buck that he is 504 years out of time. Wilma, still convinced Buck is a spy for Ardala, takes Buck to expose him by touring him around the malls of New Chicago and explains that the Draconian Peace Treaty is to help Earth rebuild and prevent pirate attacks that have been cutting off Earth’s shipping lanes. Buck tries to point out that the blast marks on his lunar module are those of a pirate ship and Ardala is lying through her horned hats about being unarmed. Buck says he wants to see the real Chicago, not the malls and fake environs that make up New Chicago and leaves. Wilma goes to shoot him and changes her mind. This scene is trimmed in the TV version. Wilma is not seen drawing her gun and it cuts to a lengthy scene edited out of the theatrical version, which shows Theo and Twiki introducing Buck to his new apartment. To be fair, it makes much more sense being excised given that Buck is still suspected of being a traitor so giving him a flash apartment that responds to his voice seems somewhat premature. There is a neat gag at this point though. Theo tells Buck that he just has to say “I want to go to bed,” and the bed does some cool stuff and Buck asks if it can be programmed to operate off something a tad more subtle! Theo doesn’t understand what he is referring to.

The set design implies that the film follows the Logan’s Run approach to the future – i.e. that Farrah Fawcett hairstyles will remain in fashion and that shopping malls will provide the architectural designs of the future. Admittedly, one only has to walk down a modern high street of homogenised shops to see that last one wasn’t that far off.

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Buck, Twiki and Theo then go to the remains of Chicago, a place now called Anarchia (they clearly aren’t big on subtle names in the 25th Century). I remember the scenes in the ruined remains as being quite scary as a kid. Buck and Twiki are pursued by the radioactive occupants of Anarchia, who are keen to strip Twiki and Theo of their valuable electronic circuitry. It’s in this scene that we get one of the better human moments of the telefilm, in which Buck finds his parents’ graves. Theo’s description of the fall of civilization is quite grotesque and the darkest the series ever really got. The series never went outside again and the issues of the people who lived out there never addressed. The fight between Buck and the mutants is longer in the theatrical version and a little more violent, and a line of dialogue in which Buck describes Wilma as “ballsy” was omitted from the TV Version.

Wilma arrives with a squad just in time to save Buck and the robots. It is here in both the TV and theatrical versions that Buck is tried and found guilty of treason – primarily thanks to the actions of one council member, Dr Apol – and is sentenced to execution. Wilma comes up with the idea to test Buck’s knowledge of the Draconian flagship and Dr Huer convinces the council to allow it, ordering a stay of execution. Dr Apol goes on record as being against the decision, a subplot chopped from the theatrical version.

Buck and Wilma journey to the Draconia and are attacked by pirates – obviously all a ruse by Ardala and Kane. The special effects in the space pirate scenes aren’t that bad by TV standards and I wonder if Universal, knowing they would release this as a movie, decided to spend a bit of extra money on the FX. They clearly didn’t spend it on the sets which are fairly cheap looking. The pirates make short work of the Earthers and Buck, having had enough of his team taking a beating, switches off his targeting computer and engages in the kind of outer space dogfight hated by scientists but loved by viewers as his natural 20th century reflexes and skill make up for the computer’s lack of programming. Ardala then requests Buck’s presence at the ball to celebrate the Draconian/Earth alliance after he ‘single handedley’ saved them from those nasty pirates, a move that doesn’t sit well with Wilma.

The ball is one of the best remembered scenes in the film, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Princess Ardala seems to think that one shows up to a formal ball wearing little more than beachwear and an ornate hat. Secondly, Buck teaches the stuffed shirts of the 25th Century how to ‘boogie’. He tells the keyboard player to ‘let go’ and ‘get down’. Disco ensues. Wilma, ever the prude, thinks that the dancing is ‘disgusting’, yet, in a scene cut for the TV version, Wilma offers to take Buck back to her place and he declines. He prefers bad girls, I guess. This scene is very different depending on which version you are watching. Some dialogue is trimmed from one that’s present in the other and vice versa. The TV version has more dialogue and is longer, the theatrical release having the end cut off.

Buck procures a “headache” tablet off Twiki – any bets that that will come in useful later – and joins up with Ardala, pretending he’s a traitor only to drug her with the painkiller and set about destroying Ardala’s fleet with Twiki and Theo’s help, who have followed Buck. It’s all pretty routine stuff with an ADR looped line for Buck explaining that the pirates are Draconians for those that haven’t figured it out. Theo hasn’t figured it out and even when Buck explains the plot – again – Theo still struggles with it but presumably the story of the Trojan Horse was lost in the holocaust. The finale has lots of explosions and ‘just in the nick of time’ derring-do with dogfights and fistfights between Buck and Tiger Man. The theatrical version differs again here from the TV version with Buck saying “shit” at one point during the fight and then clearly taking Tiger Man out with a well-placed kick to the Johnson and then, rather brutally, blowing him to pieces. Needless to say, these moments were trimmed for TV.

Overall edits to the TV version have mostly been minor changes here and there as mentioned. Ardala’s father, Draco, was a big deal in the marketing but only ends up with one scene in the film and even that is cut from the TV version. As it would turn out, Draco would never be seen in the series. More of Wilma thawing towards Buck is cut as well in the movie’s final scene as this wouldn’t have led to the platonic relationship they had in the series. The biggest alteration and largest single edit, occurs at the end. The film ends rather abruptly with Buck saved from the exploding Draconian ship by Wilma and a reprise of the Suspension theme from the opening, but the TV version has a five minute scene at the end in which Dr Huer offers Buck a job working for the Earth Defence Directorate which he accepts on an informal case by case basis.

As with all movies of this type in this period, a tie-in novel was subsequently produced. Written by Addison E Steele – a pseudonym for Richard A Lupoff – the novel is best described as ’workmanlike’. It features very little enhancements and very little in the way of fleshing out characters or motivations. Unlike the telefilm, it does feature a small prologue set in 1987 establishing the political situation behind NASA embarking upon this mission and a few short paragraphs about the reaction of the world to Buck’s disappearance. An interesting deviation in the novel has the trial scene from the midpoint of the movie moved up. Following the confrontation in the hanger bay, Wilma does shoot Buck and he is tried and, thanks to a council member named Dr Apol – who has a different voice in the theatrical version – convicted of treason and then despatched to the outside world, a world now ravaged by the effects of the nuclear war. Theo and Twiki are sentenced with him, which seems a tad harsh. Can you imagine if lawyers that failed were given the same sentence as their clients? In the film, Buck, Twiki & Theo go outside of their own volition. This reordering means Wilma retrieving Buck from Anarchia is so he can tell them about the Draconian Flagship but also to save his life, her thawing towards him being a more prevalent subplot in the book and the theatrical versions than the TV version. The novel, however does have an interesting ending and ties up a loose end left dangling in the film. The final chapter has Dr Apol found guilty of being a pre-programmed double agent, highlighting the problem of relying on automatons for everything. This explains how the Draconians got so far with their peace negotiations – they had an inside ‘man’ – and how the Draconians were able to counteract the Directorate’s computer control. I presume this subplot was filmed for the movie but dropped for whatever reason as Apol is the only other member of the council apart from Theo to have a decent speaking part.

Ultimately, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century is an entertaining diversion from a bygone era – much like Buck himself. The performances are better than they would be in the series that followed and it’s a good example of the kind of TV Sci-Fi they don’t make anymore. Not as po-faced as Galactica nor as formulaic as the TV version of Logan’s Run, Buck Rogers shows that, as much as Sci-Fi can and should be about big ideas, sometimes there’s nothing wrong with ray guns, rocket ships and robots.

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