When George Lucas’s space fantasy film Star Wars broke box office records, it wasn’t too surprising that many Star Wars rip-offs were quick to follow, with Roger Corman leading the pack with such films as Star Crash and Battle Beyond the Stars, but television producer Glen A. Larson managed to create not one, but two television shows that owe much of their genesis to the success of Star Wars. Universal teamed up once again with Larson in bringing a big space adventure to the small screen — and as in the case of Battlestar Galactica, the pilot of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was given a theatrical release —but where Galactica was a taught space drama, with survivors of a genocide fleeing across the cosmos, Buck Rogers was more in keeping with the lighter tone of the Saturday morning serials it was most known for, which themselves had greatly inspired George Lucas in the making of his space opera.
Before we get into Glen A. Larson’s television epic, let us take a quick look at the history of Buck Rogers, a character that got his start way back in the days of pulp magazines. Though created back in 1928 by author Philip Francis Nowlan for his novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. it wasn’t until Buck Rogers had become a syndicated comic strip that the character’s popularity really began to grow, and it would get even bigger as it moved on into radio plays and eventually a Saturday morning serial starring the great Buster Crabbe as Buck Rogers. The original genesis of Buck Rogers dealt with the character of Anthony Rogers, a veteran of World War One, who, while investigating reports of unusual phenomena in an abandoned coal mine, found himself trapped during a cave-in. Exposed to radioactive gas, Rogers falls into “a state of suspended animation,” where he remained for 492 years. In fact, in the first Buck Rogers story, he spends no time having cool space battles, but instead, he spends most of his time helping America fight the conquering Chinese, or the “Airlords of Han” as they were known, and using the knowledge he gained in the First World War to deal with this new threat.
The 1932 radio program was most notable as being the first science-fiction program on radio, and it introduced some of the more futuristic elements to the Buck Rogers canon, but it was the Buster Crabbe serials that cemented the character as a cultural phenomenon. In that rendition, Buck Rogers and a friend were caught in a blizzard and were forced to crash their airship in the Arctic wastes. In order to survive, they inhaled their supply of Nirvano gas, which put them into a state of suspended animation, and they awoke 500 years later to find that a tyrannical dictator named Killer Kane now ruled the entire world. In this rendition of Buck Rogers, we do get some cool airship battles — as cool as you can get on a dime store budget — but nothing really in the vein that would spark the bloodlust of a 70s Star Wars fan.
In the year 1979, producer Glen A. Larson wasn’t about to waste valuable screen time with our hero messing around in some stupid cave or getting caught in a blizzard, not when real-life NASA was readying itself to launch their very first Space Shuttle, so now we have astronaut Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) piloting a NASA spacecraft, one that looks an awful lot like the Space Shuttle. The movie opens with the dulcet tones of William Conrad as he narrates the necessary backstory, “The year is 1987, and NASA launches the last of America’s deep space probes. In a freak mishap, Ranger 3 and its pilot, Captain William “Buck” Rogers, are blown out of their trajectory into an orbit which freezes his life-support systems, and returns Buck Rogers to Earth, 500 years later.”
After that informative opening sequence, we find frozen Buck drifting in space as it passes by the alien flagship Draconia, a massive space dreadnought that is headed to Earth for a trade conference, which is under the command of Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) and her aide de camp, Kane (Henry Silva). Buck’s strange spacecraft — its type not having been seen for 500 years — is immediately tagged as a threat and fired upon, but at the last minute, Kane decides to spare the craft and investigate things further. Our hero is revived from his cryogenic sleep and immediately catches the eye of the Princess, him being a definite step up from the glowering Kane, but before love has a chance to bloom, Kane comes to the conclusion that this supposed frozen astronaut is just an elaborate ruse of the Earth’s Defense Directorate, and to prove it, they pack Rogers back into his shuttle and send him on his merry way to Earth. Unfortunately, poor Buck, who still has no idea he is 500 years out of step with the times, doesn’t know that the Earth is now protected by an energy shield, one that will disintegrate his spacecraft if he tries to fly through it. Kane’s theory was that if Rogers is a spy they will let him through, if not he is blown up and good ole Buck is no longer anyone’s problem.
Note: In the comic strip, Killer Kane was romantically involved with Wilma Deering, but after Wilma left him for Buck Rogers, he became a criminal and Buck’s mortal enemy. In this incarnation, we only get a quick reference to him being a defector from Earth to the Draconian Realm.
Buck’s spacecraft is intercepted by a squadron of ships from the Earth’s Defense Directorate, led by Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray), who immediately distrusts Rogers and suspects him of being a member of the space marauders who have been harassing the space lanes which keep food and supplies flowing to Earth — a nuclear holocaust has wiped out the planet’s ability to sustain itself — and she believes that Buck has been sent to scuttle the trade negotiations between Earth and the Draconians. Of course, these pirate attacks have all been staged by the Draconians, forcing Earth to seek a treaty that will result in them unwittingly opening up their defences to the invaders. Colonel Deering is so eager to have the aid of the Draconian empire that she blows off Buck’s claims that flagship Draconia is far from a defenceless peace envoy, and that it is armed for invasion.
Note: In the pulps and serials, Wilma Deering mostly held the spot of the damsel in distress, with Buck Rogers having to rescue her from the clutches of various villains each and every week, but in this incarnation, she’s not only shown to be a capable fighter, but she’s also the commander of Earth’s entire defence forces. Her being a woman in such a position was pretty much unprecedented at the time.
Buck is interrogated by Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O’Connor), the leader of Earth’s Defense Directorate, and the A.I. computer Dr. Theopolis (voiced by Howard F. Flynn), who is a member of the Computer Council, and they both seem sympathetic to our hero’s plight, but Buck is still saddled with a robot drone named Twiki (body played by Felix Silla and voiced by Mel Blanc) as some kind of babysitter/minder. It’s here that Rogers first comes to grips with the fact that everything and everyone he knew is long dead, and on top of that, he learns that Earth has been rebuilt over the centuries in his absence, following a nuclear holocaust, and now the only thing left is this one big city surrounded by a desert wasteland.
Buck decides he has to see things for himself, and he vows to escape the city and search the ruins of Old Chicago for evidence of his family’s demise. I’m really not sure what Buck was hoping to accomplish with this trip, aside from endangering Dr. Theopolis and Twiki, who accompanies him on this foolhardy mission, because it’s not like there’s any chance his family not only survived the nuclear war but then somehow managed to live another five hundred years to wait up for him. Buck does find the grave of his parents, which is in remarkably good condition considering the likelihood of gravestones being legible after 450 years is about nil, but Rogers doesn’t get much time to mourn as the trio is soon set upon by the mutants inhabiting the ruins. Lucky for them, Wilma and a detachment of soldiers arrive in the nick of time to pull their collective fat out of the fire.
Note: The idea of New Chicago being the lone shining city, surrounded by a planet-wide wasteland of radioactive fallout and mutant scavengers, didn’t survive past the movie as later in the series we see beatific landscapes outside New Chicago, with no ruins of any kind in sight. We also never hear of the mutants again.
Wilma may have saved Buck from becoming dinner for some nasty mutants, but his troubles are far from over, a Draconian tracking device is found aboard his ship, and so the authorities accuse Buck of espionage. He is put on trial by the Computer Council and Buck is sentenced to immediate termination, but Wilma, who has started to warm up to this brash man from the past, persuades Dr. Huer to test Buck’s claims against the Draconians by requesting a meeting with Princess Ardala aboard her flagship under the auspices of proving whether or not Buck had ever been aboard.
Note: New Chicago is completely run by the Computer Council, and these “Quads” as they’re called, were not programmed by man but were programmed by each other over the generations. Dr. Huer explains to Buck, “You see, the mistakes that we have made in areas, well, like our environment, have been entirely turned over to them. And they’ve saved the Earth from certain Doom.”
That this series touched on the idea of the technological singularity, wherein super-intelligent computers would continue to upgrade themselves at an incomprehensible rate, and then go even further by exploring the idea that it would not end with mankind’s demise, as we’d see in The Terminator franchise, but instead, our salvation, is as surprising as it is impressive, especially when you take into account that this was just something written as a television pilot. But alas, such brief glimpses of actual science fiction were few and far between when the series went into production.
Kane not being too happy with this surprise “visit” has a squadron of Draconian marauders, painted to look like pirates, “attack” their flagship as a diversion, but Buck manages to destroy them single-handedly, and it’s a good thing too because the fighter pilots of the Earth’s Defense Directorate really suck at their job. Earth’s forces apparently use computer-controlled maneuvers in combat, which are quickly shown to be utterly useless against the marauders, and it’s Buck’s fighter pilot skills that manage to save the day.
Note: After Buck takes out the marauders, Colonel Deering comments, “Look, I don’t know what went wrong with our combat computers, but…thank you,” yet we never do find out what went wrong — apparently, there was a ditched subplot that involved an Earth Directorate fifth columnist who had sabotaged the combat computers, and the absence of this scene is evidence as to why story editing is so very important.
Even though Princess Ardala and Kane denied having ever met Buck Rogers before, and certainly not offering up the fact that it was them who had planted the homing device on his ship in the first place, Rogers gets a stay of execution when Princess Ardala requests that he attend her at the upcoming official diplomatic reception. Ardala claims this is so she can personally thank him for “saving” them all from the renegade pirates, but it’s clear she is seriously crushing on the good captain.
Note: Princess Ardala is one of 30 daughters of the Draconian emperor and is quite comparable to Princess Aura from Flash Gordon, who was the daughter of Ming the Merciless. These two royals both led very complicated relationships with both heroes and villains.
Buck Rogers may be innocent of the charges levelled against him by the Computer Council, but he is guilty of trying to revive Disco, and the sight of Gil Gerard and Pamela Hensley “getting down” is about as painful to watch as it is laughable. This attack on our senses does at least provide Buck some quality time with the Princess, where she informs him that she needs “A man, a REAL man to rule by her side,” and so Buck slips aboard her shuttle and returns with her to the Draconia. Unfortunately, to accomplish this, Buck had to brush off Wilma, which is pretty cold considering he does this right after giving her a sweet first kiss, and when she discovers he has fled with the Princess, she immediately jumps to the conclusion that Buck has been a villain all along. Of course, this is all clever subterfuge by Buck so that he can drug the Princess and search the Draconia for proof of their ill intentions.
The movie wraps up rather quickly after this point, with Buck sabotaging the Draconian fighters by placing bombs in the fighter’s tailpipes, and Dr. Theopolis and Twiki — who had stowed away on Ardala’s shuttle to follow Buck — are able to alert Earth’s Defense Directorate of the Draconian threat, which allows Wilma the time to scramble Earth’s starfighters and attack the Draconia. It’s a pretty one-sided battle, with most of the Draconian marauders exploding in the hangar bay or immediately after take-off, while Princess Ardala and Kane manage to escape just before Wilma’s fighters destroy the Draconia.
Now as space battles go, there is nothing in Buck Rogers in the 20th Century that is going to wow modern viewers, but for its time, the effects were quite decent, and the action fairly thrilling, but what really makes this movie stand out is in the area of character development. Gil Gerard’s Buck Rogers is at times a bit of an arrogant ass, but he’s also full of charm and heart, while Wilma Deering is the first female in science fiction — or at least television science fiction — that is in complete charge of the military, and yet she isn’t portrayed as some hardnosed bitch, but as a fully rounded character, one who is conflicted between what she wants to be true and the actual hard truth, as well as her feelings for Rogers. Then there is Princess Ardala who could have just been your standard space opera femme fatale, but instead, we get a woman who is clearly doing everything she can to keep her position and her life — with 29 sisters biting at her heels and waiting for her to fail — and when Buck drugs her so that he can skulk around her ship, you actually kind of feel sorry for her. The dynamic between these three characters was wonderfully executed, and it’s quite a shame that Pamela Hensley only reprised her role as the Princess in three more episodes.
When a person looks back at a forty-year-old movie, one that you first saw as a kid, a certain amount of nostalgia will doubtless cloud your vision, but even so, I think Buck Rogers in the 25th Century had a very nice blend of pulp action-adventure with a good helping of 70s charm and comedy, all heightened by above-average special effects, especially when you take into consideration that this was originally intended to just be a television pilot. If you haven’t seen Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, do yourself a favour and give it a try, you may be surprised by how much enjoy it.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979)
Movie Rank - 7/10
Buck Rogers in the 20th Century may have been one of many productions greenlit to cash in on the success of Star Wars, but being Star Wars itself was an homage to the likes of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon you should cut this movie a little slack, and it is quite entertaining.