Thursday, September 21, 2017

Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Time of the Hawk" (January 15, 1981)


"Time of the Hawk" by Norman Hudis and directed by Vincent McEveety is the premiere episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century's hotly-debated second season. 


The two-hour episode aired on NBC, January 15, 1981, following a lengthy writer's strike, and eventually earned an Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Cinematography in a Series" for director of photography Ben Colman.

Loyal viewers of Buck Rogers' first season were in for a shock with the opening moments of Season Two: Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor) and Dr. Theopolis had been erased from the format (along with the Earth Defense Directorate), and were never mentioned again. The Draconians were also gone.




Instead, Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard), Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) and Twiki -- now voiced by Bob Elyea -- were officers ensconced aboard a starship called "The Searcher," heading out on a space mission in search of the "lost tribes of Earth." They hoped to find humans who had fled Earth following the nuclear holocaust... and re-establish contact.

New characters on the series included the gruff, temperamental commanding officer of the Searcher, Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner), a dotty, scatter-brained professor, Dr. Goodfellow (Wilfrid-Hyde White) and an officious robot called Crichton, who refused to believe that humans had actually constructed him. Dennis Haysbert -- later President David Palmer on 24 -- had an early, recurring role as a "communications probe officer."



"Time of the Hawk" introduces the second season's most prominent new character, a noble bird-man called "Hawk" (Thom Christopher).

As the two-parter commences, Hawk and his mate Koori (Barbara Luna) return home to their peaceful village on the distant planet Throm in the Argus Sector, only to find that drunken humans have murdered all of their people, including Koori's family. Hawk swears vengeance on the human race and begins to launch lightning raids against human-owned starships from the cockpit of his deadly fighter, the war hawk.

"The Galactic Council" orders The Searcher to stop this "devil" called Hawk, and Buck tracks the bird-man down to the City-State of Neutralis on Throm, where Hawk's ship is often serviced by local engineers who are -- you guessed it -- "neutral" in matters of conflict.

"Forget the hatreds of the past," Buck urges Hawk, "help us discover the future..."

The first thing you may notice about this particular narrative is the overt western genre structure.

A decent lawman (Buck Rogers) on a frontier of sorts (the West/Space) needs to bring in a terrible criminal from a different or "alien" culture (think of Hawk as a native-American, a wronged Apache-Chief...), but it is mankind's (America's...) difficult history actually put on trial, particularly for the crime of genocide.

Indeed, this structure was absolutely intentional. New Buck Rogers producer John Mantley had also overseen a decade's worth of Gunsmoke (1955-1975) stories, and had re-vamped a script from that long-running series to open Buck Rogers's sophomore sortie

Mantley told Starlog Magazine's Karen E. Willson (#39, October 1980, page 18) that "something can be said for the fact that Matt Dillon and Buck Rogers are the same man, six or seven hundred years apart. They're 'both' superheroes -- the difference is that up to now, Buck has not been very real. In the first show that Matt Dillon was in, the 'heavy' blew him down. He didn't outshoot the heavy. He even hanged the wrong man once. That made him very human. In the first show of this year, Buck is going to be soundly whipped in the air by a character named Hawk..."

In theory this may have sounded like a strong and intriguing idea -- to allow Buck to finally meet his match after a season of handily dispatching space tyrants -- but Mantley's concept was also, plainly, a western re-tread, a rerun.

Author Norman Hudis explained to CFQ's Steve A. Simak (CFQ: "Back to the Future," February/March 2005, page 46) that Mantley and fellow producer Calvin Clements Jr. had "used the story at least twice before when they worked on Gunsmoke. The idea was very vaguely about somebody who was wanted either by the police or by some authority but he was safely hiding somewhere. The only way they could entice him out was to flaunt his girlfriend or romantic interest and [then] he took the chance of coming out of hiding..They both giggled about it and said 'We've used the story twice before in the Old West and now we're going to use it in outer space.'"

Basing a high-profile re-vamp of an already popular show on a decade's-old rerun may not have been the best or most creative way to countenance a futuristic series going into a critical time period, but nonetheless, Hudis's version of the familiar tale is emotionally affecting at points. "Time of the Hawk" proves a fine introduction for Hawk, at the very least.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century's second season faced additional concerns too. The shooting schedule per hour-long episode was cut an entire day from what it had been the year before. And the budget per episode of the series was drastically reduced, to approximately half-a-million dollars a show. 



This meant that props and miniatures largely had to be re-used from older episodes (and other Glen Larson series...), a fact which gave the new season a kind of bizarre, on-the-cheap visual aura. The Searcher, for example, -- the starship Enterprise of this new season, essentially -- was a redressed version of a vessel seen in "Cruise Ship to the Stars" in the first season. Had this fact simply been mentioned in the screenplay -- that a civilian ship had been retrofitted for the mission -- the re-use of a familiar miniature might not have been so alarming. She's still a beautiful vessel.


And Buck is also seen in "Time of the Hawk" tooling around in a Colonial shuttle craft from the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979). These two space vessels don't appear to be products of the same technology, history or culture...and that's part and parcel of the problem. In visual terms, the new Buck Rogers just looked scatter shot...like a spaceship and prop vault at Universal had been raided.

The same criticism applies to Searcher's bridge: it looks like a hodgepodge of spare parts from the first season of Buck Rogers. It's crowded, ugly -- and again -- cheap-looking. And don't get me started on the fishbowl space helmets Buck and Wilma adorn early in the show. Suddenly, we're back on Rod Brown and the Rocket Rangers.

The criticism of slipshod production values does not affect however, anything Hawk-related in this premiere episode. Hawk is introduced with great flourish, and actor Thom Christopher remains a powerful presence as the stoic, dangerous bird man. The actor brings tremendous gravitas and dignity to the role, and his "war hawk" fighter is one of the coolest, most sinister-looking miniatures ever featured on Buck Rogers, replete with retractable claws that can tear apart enemy ships.


At least this introductory episode, with its western storyline, boasts the sense to present Hawk as an authentic menace (right down to his ship...), and as a character who seems believable in terms of the genre. Some people have complained about Hawk's costume, but I submit that the overall look of the character works just fine, especially given Christopher's serious, intense interpretation of the part.

The central idea governing Mantley's re-vamp of Buck Rogers was that characters and ideas would now take prominence over space battles and action scenes. Hawk is a good step in that direction: an "outsider" with his own world perspective, and a serious counterpart for the more impish Buck.

Yet, after "Time of the Hawk," Hawk (like Maya before him on Moonbase Alpha and the Maquis after him on Voyager...) is far too easily and quickly assimilated/integrated into an existing crew structure. 

There's not much sense in presenting an "alien" character who quickly fits in with human buddies. You lose the chance to mine drama from that conflict. Hawk should have always had a different way of doing things, and always chafed at his proximity to humans. Thom Christopher always maintained his dignity, and the character's "outsider" traits, but often with precious little assistance from the story lines that followed "Time of the Hawk."



This was not the only problem with the "new" approach of the second season. Wilma has very little of substance to do in "Time of the Hawk," and soon becomes a console jockey in the series, flying the Searcher and pushing buttons. In Season One, Deering was a sexy, independent, operative for the Directorate. Here she's almost invisible, as if Buck Rogers had also adopted a Western-style aesthetic about the role of women.

In space, in the distant future, this is nothing short of absurd.



"Time of the Hawk" also presents Crichton and Asimov, two dreadfully-cartoonish, cardboard characters who hurl insults at each other ("ridiculous lamp post!" "kettle belly!") and, if anything, evoke only memories of Dr. Smith and the Robot on Lost in Space.

Where is the so-called "serious" drama in this relationship? Bickering is not a substitute for mature storytelling, just because Star Trek did it (and did it well...) with Spock/McCoy.

Most disturbing of all, perhaps, Buck and Wilma are now forced to endure playful romantic banter that, in contest, just seems ridiculous.

In their first scene of the season, they engage in a mock argument, flirt a little bit, and then reconcile...but it's all over nothing at all. It's strictly canned characterization

Everyone is too jovial, too emotional, and trying too hard to be likable and "human." This was also my problem with some of Space: 1999 Year Two: everybody was trying so hard to laugh and smile that it actually became painful to watch. Gil Gerard and Erin Gray are enormously likable performers, and one just wishes they had better material to work with here. In Buck Rogers' first year, Buck and Wilma had great chemistry and shared a kind of tongue-in-cheek relationship. The stories may not have been overtly serious, but the characters seemed real and human, and not forced, like grins had been plastered to their faces at gunpoint.

In terms of story lines, one can argue that the new season of Buck Rogers tried sincerely to make a statement about conformity, and the way that people fear or kill that which they don't understand. "Time of the Hawk," "Journey to Oasis," "The Golden Man," and "The Dorian Secret" all -- at least tangentially -- revolve around the idea of prejudice against those who are deemed different. This is a commendable and consistent theme. The best enunciation of it -- for all its flaws -- is likely in "Time of the Hawk," which condemns man for his predilection to render other species extinct because differences are perceived as threats. "The history of your race is written in its own blood," Hawk tells Buck at one juncture, and the point is made.

Looking back, I enjoyed (and still enjoy...) several episodes of Buck Rogers' second season, mainly "Time of the Hawk," "The Guardians," "The Satyr," and "Testimony of a Traitor," but the second season changes -- excluding Hawk -- by and large did not improve the series.

Today, the first season is generally regarded more highly. Still, I can't help but wish that the second season had been granted a full renewal instead of just thirteen episodes. Maybe those last dozen or so episodes that were never produced would have been the very ones that revealed just how well the second season format might have worked. 

We'll never know.


Lastly, I'll say this. At age 11...what I wouldn't have done to get my hands on a war hawk model kit...




Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Olympiad" (February 7, 1980)



Although Star Trek (1966-1969) is the cult-TV series best known for Cold War subtext and social commentary, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) also delved into this artistic terrain at the end of the Carter Era and at the beginning of the Reagan Era.

“The Plot to Kill a City” -- the series’ finest episode -- was a powerful anti-nuke statement, for example.

An episode from later in the 1979-1980 first season, “Olympiad,” arrived with the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, and also qualifies as a Cold War parable.

Those real life games convened on February 14, 1980, and closed on February 24th.  Thirty-seven nations participated, and more than a thousand athletes competed. The highlight, of course, was the so-called “Miracle on Ice,” wherein the U.S. ice hockey team unexpectedly defeated the Soviet team, 4-3.


In “Olympiad,” Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) visits the distant planet Mikos for the 2492 Interplanetary Olympic Games.  He attends in an official capacity, to deliver a 20th century Olympics flag to the games.

Once there, however, Buck is asked by a lovely astro-sledder, Laura Teasian (Judith Chapman) to help her secret lover, vertical jumper Jorex Leet (Barry McFadden) defect to Earth.

Jorex is a citizen of the repressive planet, Losira. The world’s tyrannical Satrap uses athletes like him as propaganda tools to further his anti-freedom aims and agenda. To assure total loyalty, Losiran citizens, including Jorex, are fitted with “dis-harmonizer” devices in their heads. These can cause headaches in the athletes, or be rigged to explode their struggles.

Accordingly, Buck must get Jorex away from Mikos before his disharmonizer can be activated.

In disguise as an escort, Wilma (Erin Gray) attempts to get the dis-harmonizer away from Jorex’s womanizing handler, Allerick (Nicolas Coster), but finds that the device can’t be tampered with.

Buck hatches a dangerous plan to outrun the device’s “zeta waves” by having Jorex and Lara escape in her sled.  Once they escape the astro-slalom, Buck and Wilma’s starfighter will be waiting to bring them through a stargate, and out of range of the disharmonizer.


I’ve often described Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as “American Exceptionalism in Space,” with Buck serving as the avatar for the authentic 20th century “real” American.  He is a grounded, skilled, heroic, funny man of the 20th century who brings his wisdom to the repressed, buttoned-down, computer-centric world of the 25th century.  

The irony, of course is that in the series continuity, the “real” Americans of the 20th century weren’t able to solve their problems peaceably, and resorted to the holocaust, a nuclear war that all but destroyed the planet.  There’s some exceptionalism for you!

Leaving that point aside for the moment, this episode not only creatures a future corollary for the Olympic Games of 1980, but sees Buck again demonstrating his American-style superiority in terms of instincts, empathy and heroism. Although he is a man five hundred years out of date, Buck successfully flies his Starfighter through the astro sled slalom course (featuring force fields rather than snow…) to rescue Jorex. 

The final slalom is a suspenseful scene, replete with Dr. Theopolis counting down to the arrival of the fatal zeta waves. Buck and Wilma rescue the defector with all of 2 seconds to spare.

The episode’s “impossible mission”-type premise also finds Wilma going undercover, like Cinnamon Carter on that Bruce Gellar series (1966-1972). She plays a 25h century “escort” (read: prostitute) and incapacitates Allerick, only to find her efforts are for naught.  There’s a blooper here regarding Wilma too. She uses the wrong name in a scene involving Allerick and Jorex. 

The weakness, structurally, of Buck Rogers’s first season is the fact that Buck is so often depicted helping a beautiful young woman on unofficial missions of the type we see in “Olympiad” rather than exploring, for his own reasons, his new century, future Earth, and learning more about the history he missed. 

In other words, the stories involve Buck only at a very surface or superficial level. We don’t learn anything about him, at least anything deep.


Yet some series stories, (again, “Plot to Kill a City” and “Olympiad”) are able to fill the character void with allegory or social commentary This episode, with the planet Losira acting as a latter-day Soviet Union, and Buck acting as an agent for the West (the Defense Directorate) is certainly entertaining, and gives the episode an added layer of significance and relevance to the audience of 1980.

All the futuristic sports touches -- clearly tongue-in-cheek – give the episode, a jaunty, light-hearted feel as well.  

In addition to the astro-sledding -- the coolest, most imaginative aspect of “Olympiad” – we see “sonic boxing,” the “vertical leap,” and weight lifting in a “Gravity pool.”  Again, perhaps not strictly plausible, but nonetheless imaginative and droll.



A lot of cult-TV series in the 1970s featured defectors from “The Iron Curtain,” but it’s intriguing how Buck Rogers puts a spin on that familiar tale.

Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Happy Birthday, Buck"


In “Happy Birthday, Buck” a long-time human captive on the planet Ovion (?) Colonel Cornell Traeger (Peter MacLean) escapes and returns to Earth.

Having been held in an alien prison for fifteen years, Traeger swears vengeance on the one man he deems responsible: Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O’Connor).  Traeger’s mission of revenge is made easier by a talent he has learned in captivity: the art of molecular transformation. Now, with a touch, he can turn any living matter to stone if he so desires.

Meanwhile, in New Chicago, Buck is down in the dumps about his 534th birthday. He is lonely, and tired of the sterile, controlled environment of the 25th century. Wilma comes up with the idea of throwing him a surprise party, and arranges for Buck to escort a courier, Raylyn Derren (Morgan Brittany) to an appointment at the City on the Sea.

There, Buck runs afoul of Traeger’s assassination plot, and his accomplice, a psychologist Dr. Bayliss (Tamara Dobson).

Buck must race back to New Chicago to save his friend, lest Dr. Huer be turned to stone.


“Happy Birthday, Buck” is a futuristic retelling of the Ancient Greek Midas myth. 

That is the story of “The Golden Touch,” as you may recall.  Specifically, King Midas of Phrygia in Asia Minor, was unsatisfied with all his earthly treasures, and wanted to be able to turn items to gold by touch. 

His wish was granted with the so-called “Midas Touch,” but he realized that it was actually a curse. 

Since his touch turned objects to gold, he could no longer eat food. It too, became gold.  Nor could he ever touch another human being, whether out of affection or romantic interest, without that person becoming a gold statue.

His wish to be rich was, in fact, suicidal.



Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) here presents a story of a man bent on revenge, who uses an ability to change the molecular make-up of objects and people. 

Traeger is thus a 25th century Midas.  He can turn everyday objects into fabulous jewels but he chooses not to enjoy this ability, but to use it for negative aims.

Some people may also recognize Traeger as having similarities to Garth of Izar from the classic Star Trek episode “Whom Gods Destroy.”

There, the mad Garth of Izar (Steve Ihnat) developed on distant Antos IV the amazing power to change his shape at will. Here Traeger can change matter, a lesson taught him, apparently, while he was in captivity on the alien planet.

Actually -- and strangely -- “Happy Birthday, Buck” also forecasts many of the narrative details of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.


Here, a man bent on revenge (Traeger/Khan) seeks to kill the man he deems responsible for his fifteen years of exile/captivity (Huer/Kirk).

In his long absence from society, that enemy has been promoted (Kirk/Huer), worsening his resentment.

Also, both characters are depicted, in close-up, removing a glove, uniquely. 

Additionally, both stories are set around the occasion of a birthday party (Buck/Kirk), and one character’s mid-life crisis that comes with it (Buck/Kirk).

Although those similarities are certainly coincidental, they do add up. 

But “Happy Birthday, Buck” has always intrigued me for a few production-value reasons. 

First, I enjoy seeing the alien “Ovions” -- if that is their name – because they are essentially the people in the ape make-up from Planet of the Apes (1968). 


Secondly, this episode features a fifteen-year old Directorate Starfighter design and I love it. It looks appropriately older than the other, commonly-seen model, and has some fascinating flourishes. 


But basically both of these touches expand the Buck Rogers world a bit. We meet a new alien race, and also an aspect of Directorate History; from before Buck’s return.

On the other hand, the episode also gets saddled with an unnecessary complex plot about couriers keeping top-secret information locked away in their minds (forecasting Johnny Mnemonic, perhaps…) and the byzantine scheme to extract that information. 

Also disappointingly, Raylyn Derren is not fully distinguished as a character. She’s just another pretty woman for Buck to partner with on an adventure.


Fans of Jason of Star Command (1978-1980) will recognize Dr. Bayliss. She is played by Tamara Dobson, who starred as Jason’s partner, Samantha, during the second season of that Filmation series.

Finally, this episode features the trope of the gigantic vent shaft. In fact, the vent shaft seen in “Happy Birthday, Buck” is second in size only to the one Kirk encounters in the Trek episode “Dagger of the Mind.”


Buck Rogers Week 2017: HG Toys Galactic Playset



By the time Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) aired on NBC, I suppose you could state I was primed to love the show.  

I had "grown up" through Star Wars (1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and had seen The Black Hole (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Moonraker (1979).  

But the nice thing about Buck Rogers was that the series, unlike many of those other titles, didn't take itself too seriously.  

The program, starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray, boasted a great sense of humor, at least during the first season.

Mego released a good-sized line of Buck Rogers toys and vehicles back in the day, but HG Toys also got into the act, recycling and retro-fitting a pre-existing play set as the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Galactic Play Set.  It came complete with "over 35 pieces" and a nice diorama/backdrop.  

This HG Toy set included a "space station with movable ladder, 2 Draconian marauders, 2 starfighters, 8 space commandos, 10 aliens," and "fully detailed figures of Buck Rogers, Wilma Deering, Killer Kane, Dr. Huer, Tigerman, Draco, Twiki and Princess Ardala."

Also present: "a colorful diorama set-up and assembly instructions."

I have fond memories of playing with this particular play set, because I took it on a cross-country vacation with me.  My family traveled (in our new Ford van) from New Jersey to California and back over the span of six weeks.  Space was tight since we were traveling for such a duration and this one of the few toys I was allowed to bring along.  I set it up in camp sites from Lake Michigan to Lake Tahoe.   On days where we seemed to be endlessly driving through desert terrain, I also set up the Galactic Play Set in the back of the van and played with it, though the bumps in the road could occasionally wreak havoc.




Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Space Vampire" (January 3, 1980)


When I was eleven years old, the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) episode about a monster called a "Vorvon," was probably the scariest thing I had yet seen on network television (with the exception of Space:1999's "Dragon's Domain.")

That episode, titled simply "Space Vampire," aired on January 3, 1980 on NBC, and the Kathleen Barnes and David Wise teleplay concerned Captain Buck Rogers' (Gil Gerard) chilling encounter on Theta Space Station with a cosmic Nosferatu or "Undead," a soul stealer known as a "Vorvon."

Although Buck Rogers might rightly be accused of exploiting the popularity of Dracula in the pop culture in 1979 -- a year which saw the release of John Badham's Dracula, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu and even Love at First Bite -- the "Space Vampire" episode of the first season nonetheless remains one of the series highlights: unnervingly creepy, uncharacteristically somber, and wholly dread-filled. This is true even if by adult standards we today judge the program to border on camp.

On the other hand, I watched the episode again recently with a friend's ten year old son and it thoroughly freaked him out. So there's definitely something frightening there; at least to impressionable young minds.

In "Space Vampire" a "space age vampire stalks a lonely space station," according to the teaser, and that summary pretty much nails the whole story. Buck and Wilma drop-off Twiki for repairs at Theta Station but instead of getting away for their vacation on Genesia, they witness a starship (the Gemonese Freighter from Battlestar Galactica actually...) plunge through Stargate Nine and collide with the station.

The inner atmosphere of Theta is contaminated, and the logs of the derelict -- the I.S. Demeter -- suggest the crew and passengers were suffering from hallucinations and "mental deterioration" brought on by the Denebian virus EL7.

After the station's Dr Ecbar (Lincoln Kilpatrick) reveals to Buck that the crew of Demeter is not dead, but rather drained of "spirit," Buck suspects a being, not a disease, is the culprit.

He's right. The evil Vorvon (Nicholas Hormann) creates undead minions out of the station crew (who appear replete with two discolorations on their neck...). He then prepares to make the uncharacteristically terrified Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) his immortal bride.

One aspect of "Space Vampire" I rather enjoy is the deliberate homage to the epistolary nature of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. As you'll recall, the literary Dracula was crafted in the form of various collected letters and communiques. The whole story was conjured through the filter of newspaper clippings, Mina's Diary, Seward's phonograph recordings, and Jonathan Harker's journal.

For all its disco-decade glitz, cheap sets and callow characterization, Buck Rogers actually pinpoints a decent "space age" corollary to Stoker's literary approach, permitting the stalwart Buck to assemble the story (and history) of the Vorvon from various 25th century media sources, though all visual in nature: the captain's log from the Demeter, the servo drone recordings of a Demeter passenger (and bounty hunter) from "New London" named Helson (Van Helsing), and even helpful communiques from Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis on Earth.

The other parallels to Dracula are much more obvious. The only thing to ward off the Vorvon is called an "ancient power lock," the "25th century equivalent of a cross," in Buck's own words.

What's funny (and silly...) about this "ancient power lock" is that it is really just Commander Adama's collar medallion from Battlestar Galactica. And ironically, Adama was played by Lorne Greene, a man who had recently portrayed Dracula himself in an episode of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries in 1977! Yep, it's Six Degrees of Cult-TV Dracula...

The Vorvon can also mesmerize his victims and change forms at will, another recognizable trait. Just as Dracula could turn to mist, wolf, bat or other form, the Vorvon here often takes the shape of a red, pulsating energy blob that hovers overhead. This non-corporeal form gives the makers of the episode license to provide some examples of crimson-hued, P.O.V. shots. Call it "Vorvon Vision," all rendered from dramatic and doom-laden high-angles as Wilma is stalked by the Monster.

Obviously, the name of the derelict ship, the Demeter, itself originates from Stoker's novel and serves the same purpose in both texts: carrying the "disease" (Dracula or Vorvon) to civilization.

Even the uni-browed, long-fingered physical appearance of the Vorvon is similar to Stoker's written description of the vampire.

From almost a century of vampire cinema, the episode appropriates the idea that the Vorvon cannot survive in sunlight, and in an interesting final twist, Buck destroys the soul sucker by flying it into a star itself.


There are actually some pretty solid horror compositions featured in this episode too. A slow, steady pan ominously marks the Vorvon's first appearance as a humanoid. We pan across the Theta Station Lounge (where an arcade video game unit, circa 1979 is plainly visible...) and see Buck ordering drinks at the bar. When the camera pans back (all in one shot), the Vorvon is suddenly seated at a previously empty table...staring at Wilma with malevolent eyes.

There's also a great shot (pictured above), in which the undead Dr. Ecbar is struck down and collapses directly in front of a flashlight, his ghoulish pallor suddenly illuminated in the relative darkness. Together, a few clever compositions like these examples economically enhance Wilma's stated fear of "death as a tangible presence."

And finally, you haven't truly lived until you've seen Erin Gray -- in a skin-tight spandex cat-suit -- playing the soulless, avaricious, seductive bride of the Vorvon. But seriously, what makes "Space Vampire" resonate, I think, is Wilma's pervasive fear of the Vorvon, and the fact that nobody seems to believe that it is hunting her. Wilma just knows she can't escape it...and she almost doesn't. There's a feeling of powerlessness here; and a sweeping inevitability in the narrative. It may not be Shakespeare -- or Stoker -- but it works pretty well.

"Space Vampire" may not be the best episode of Buck Rogers (I'm rather fond of "The Plot to Kill a City"), but it is certainly the installment that most people of my generation seem to remember most fondly. 

Buck Rogers 2017: "Cruise Ship to the Stars" (December 27, 1979)



In “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” Buck (Gil Gerard), Wilma (Erin Gray), and Twiki (Mel Blanc) board the space luxury liner Lyran Queen on a mission to protect Miss Cosmos (Dorothy R. Stratten), a genetically perfect human woman, and “beauty” contest winner.

Mystery assailants aboard the space liner realize that Miss Cosmos possesses a “staggering genetic value” and wish to sell her body parts on the black market.

Once aboard, Buck and his friends attempt to protect Miss Cosmos, unaware that their opponent is a dangerous “transmute.” 

Sometimes, the would-be-thief is the meek, gentle Allison (Kimberly Beck) and sometimes she is the avaricious, incredibly powerful Sabrina (Trisha Noble). 

Allison and Sabrina both are being manipulated by their boyfriend and thief, Jalor Davin (Leigh McCloskey), who is plotting to use Sabrina’s abilities to capture and dissect and Miss Cosmos.


“Cruise Ship to the Stars” is another intriguing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) pastiche.  It’s another episode that seems basic, and even clichéd on the surface, until one looks at a little more deeply at the influences going into it. 

In this case, the episode takes its setting from one of the most popular TV series of the latter-half of the disco decade: The Love Boat (1977-1987).

Instead of a sea-bound Pacific Princess, however, Buck Rogers sets its story on the gorgeous star-liner Lyran Queen.  The miniature for this spaceship is incredible and it would recur -- though with less-flamboyant coloring and trim -- as the starship Searcher in the series’ season two.  I’ve always loved this ship’s appearance, with the forward sphere, the long tube, and the over-powered, rear-mounted engine tubes.  It’s a fantastic design. I’ve always wanted a model kit of it.


In terms of interiors, the set used for the directorate hangar deck during the first season has been rebuilt or redecorated here as an elaborate Lyran Queen swimming pool (another set frequently seen on the Pacific Princess).

The episode takes a little bit from The Love Boat in terms of structure too. Here we meet a number of different passengers, all with a story to tell.  Even Twiki gets to fall in love with the gold ambuquad named Tina (Patty Maloney). I won’t comment on the fact that she says “booty booty booty” instead of Twiki’s “bidi bidi bidi.

In terms of characters, however, “Cruise Ship to the Stars” -- at least on its surface -- is really a kind of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde story.  That story first came into the pop culture firmament back in 1886, when Robert Louis Stevenson published his tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The novella is a case study in the duality of man’s nature, both moral and immoral, and perhaps even a reflection of the conscious vs. unconscious mind.



Here, Buck tangles with an opponent who boasts two distinct personalities. One is meek and gentle, learning to assert herself and declare her needs. That’s Allison, our Dr. Jekyll in this case. The other personality is an out-of-control Id, a thief and a savage: Sabrina, or Mr. Hyde.

The sci-fi concept that permits this doubling is the idea of a “transmute,” some who can alter their physical and psychological identity. 

The question becomes, I suppose, who is really in charge? Sabrina or Allison? And beyond that, who is the “real” personality, and who is the “created” one, if we look at the concept in that fashion?


When we look in the mirror, we could ask ourselves the same questions. What controls us? The unconscious mind? The Id? Or some higher, more “civilized” function of the new brain, rather than the prehistoric one?

On an even deeper level, “Cruise Ship to the Stars” is really all about identity and the way society judges the standard of beauty.

Ms. Cosmos is beautiful inside and out, so much so that she is judged perfect by society. Her beauty is both physical and genetic, and therefore coveted by others who wish to profit from such “perfection.” 


Sabrina and Allison navigate standards of beauty in a fascinating way as well.  Sabrina is physically attractive, and yet her soul is monstrous. Her beauty is external; wrapped up in things like materialism and avarice.  Jalor considers Allison meek and weak, though she is also physically beautiful.  But as Allison asserts herself, as she undergoes the process of “becoming,” she might be seen as self-actualizing in a beautiful way as well.

I rather like the episode’s climax, wherein Buck, Twiki and Wilma close in on Sabrina and incapacitate her with sonic beams.  They make a good team.

Finally, I can’t end this review without noting the appearance here of Dorothy Stratten as Ms. Cosmos.  Stratten also starred as Galaxina (1980), and was named Playboy’s Playmate of the Year for the same year. 



And, of course, Stratten’s beauty was also coveted and manipulated by others.  At the age of 20, she was murdered by her former husband and manager.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Buck Rogers Week 2017: Colorforms



Buck Rogers Week 2017: Laserscope Fighter



In 1979, the post-Star Wars, Glen Larson version of Buck Rogers took the sci-fi world by storm.  I was nine year old at the time, and both the feature film and the follow-up TV series on NBC were right up my alley. 

The franchise starred Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering, and Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala.  The tone of the enterprise was cheeky and knowing, and the special effects, for their day, were absolutely stellar.  Down to the sexy opening credits, the film version played like James Bond in the future, or in space, perhaps.

Accordingly, I was thrilled when I began to see toys from Mego lining the shelves at Toys R Us.  Among the first of these was a spaceship toy with a design you never saw featured on-screen: the “Laserscope fighter.” 

This sharp-nosed space fighter “with simulated lasers and explosions” featured a cockpit for the 3.5 inch Buck Rogers figures.  But more interestingly, it possessed a rear-mounted view screen through which you could track, target, and incinerate enemies.

The box explains: “Look through the view-screen and line up your target, press the switches – see and hear the lasers fire – the target will appear to explode right before your very eyes!”


Also according to the box legend, this Buck Rogers Laserscope fighter featured:
·         Laserscope viewscreen
·         Twin stub wing handles
·         Telescopic focus control
·         Realistic laser sounds
·         Swing-open cockpit
·         Fits any Buck Rogers figure.

Of course, I must confess that when I was generously given the Laserscope fighter as a gift, I was a bit disappointed because I really wanted the Buck Rogers star fighter, a craft which was featured on the show and boasted an infinitely cooler design aesthetic. 


But once I actually got the star fighter for the Christmas of 1980, I could enjoy the Laserscope fighter as a kind of “alternate” ship for the intrepid Buck.  The fighter sort of fit with the universe of the TV series, because Buck often ended up going undercover for the Earth Directorate, flying ships of various designs.  So it was kind of cool to be able to play out that scenario with a ship other than an “official” one.

Also, if I understand my toy history right, the “Laserscope fighter” was also released in Europe, but as a toy from a different Mego license: The Black Hole (1979).  

Of course, the design of the ship doesn’t fit that particular franchise any more than it resembles something you saw on Buck Rogers



Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Unchained Woman" (November 1, 1979)



The early first season episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) titled “Unchained Woman” finds Buck (Gil Gerard) undertaking the futuristic equivalent of an impossible mission. 

The man out of time is tasked with breaking a prisoner -- Jen Burton (Jamie Lee Curtis) -- out of an inescapable, subterranean prison on the moon Zeta 3 so she can testify against her boyfriend, Mal Pantera (Michael Delano), who has been ambushing Directorate shipping lanes.

Complicating the mission, Buck must also contend with a relentless and invincible android prison guard whom he has nicknamed Hugo (Walter Hunt). 

After escaping from the prison with Jen, Buck has to not only escape Hugo’s pursuit (and deal with hungry sand squids...) and meet Wilma (Erin Gray) at a rendezvous point. He must also deal with an unseen menace: Earth ambassador Warwick (Robert Cornthwaite), who is secretly allied with Pantera.




Watching "Unchained Woman" today, it is clear that the android Hugo is a sort of science fiction missing link between Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger in Westworld (1973) and Arnie’s cyborg from the future in The Terminator (1984). This relentless, incredibly strong individual drives much of the episode’s action and even provides “Unchained Woman” its sting-in-the-tail/tale conclusion. 

Although the mission ends successfully, Buck’s android nemesis is still “alive,” still hunting his escaped wards.  He is never going to give up. Ever. And in fact, the machine is referenced in a later episode ("A Blast for Buck.")



This is a funny happenstance, in terms of the pop culture, because guest star Jamie Lee Curtis is famous, of course, for being pursued by an unstoppable villain of another stripe, Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers.  

Here, Jen believes she is finally free, but the episode cuts back to Hugo on Zeta's surface, his hand twitching, thus signifying the fact that the nightmare continues.


What remains so intriguing about “Unchained Woman” (and much of Buck Rogers’ first season, as well) is that it focuses on a crime or “caper” story.  The prison break-out story, for example, is a genre trope, seen on such programs as The A-Team and the tongue-in-cheek The Lone Gunmen (2000). The story itself is familiar, even old, but the writers for Buck Rogers cleverly adapt all the 20th century clichés to the 25th century setting thus making them memorable, and in some sense even fresh.  

Here, we get an underground prison on Zeta 3 (two-hundred feet beneath the surface and carved “out of bedrock”), an explosive medallion, android prison guards, a decontamination chamber, and prison identification bracelets. These trappings are inventive enough to make the story feel fresh. The episode's director, Dick Lowry, creates a lot of tension from the fact that the prison is inescapable, and Buck's only method of getting out, the aforementioned medallion, is torn from his neck and thrown in a garbage bin.


When you couple these futuristic trappings with Buck’s sense of humor and quips, “Unchained Woman” emerges as quite the entertaining romp. For example, here he notes, with apparent appreciation, that prisons have gone “co-ed” since his era.  At another juncture, he considers an android’s law-and-order “motto” (“On Zeta, they do things right…”) and suggests it would make a good bumper sticker. Gil Gerard makes such a good series lead because he can alternate readily between sincerity and humor without either emotion seeming forced. "Unchained Woman" puts those talents to good use.

Every sci-fi TV series possesses its own unique alchemy. Buck’s is ably represented by this episode: crime-related “caper” tales in which Buck goes undercover, helps someone, and  cracks wise along the way, all while contending with the technological "miracles" of a de-humanized future age. 

The nice thing about this formula is that it can be varied to be more serious (like the brilliant “Plot to Kill a City,”) more horrific (“Space Vampire”) or even a bit more on the comedic side (“Cosmic Whiz Kid.”) 

I still remember watching “Unchained Woman” for the first time, and worrying about how Buck was going to stop an unstoppable android. The episode’s cleverness comes from the fact that --in the final analysis -- he doesn't accomplish the impossible. The androids still functions, and is still out there, in search of his prey.



“Unchained Woman” is a fun episode of the series, bolstered by some nice location shooting in the desert, and some good special effects, such as the matte painting of the outpost called Station Post 7.  

Several Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) costumes get recycled there, but it hardly matters. And one final bonus of Bill Taylor's teleplay is a rare subplot involving Dr. Huer's back-story and friendship with Warwick. Huer (Tim O'Connor) is a truly interesting character, a principled leader who grew up in a time of famine and ascetisim, while Earth was climbing back on its feet.  Buck Rogers rarely took the time to focus on the character, but "Unchained Woman" reveals his true humanity, and his sense of decency, and loyalty.