I’ll be honest; Buck Rogers reaches the very furthest reaches of my childhood. Until having purchased this DVD collection last week, about the only associations the title conjured up for me were cheap plastic toy guns (painted gold metallic if I remember correctly) and I might even have had a Buck Rogers coloring book with the outlandish crew and the unmistakable form of Twiki on the cover.
As the years rolled on (and the Star Wars trilogy matured to leave the campy space opera genre behind), my appreciation of science fiction also evolved, leaving poor Buck Rogers in the dust; or in the toy box in the attic at my parents’ place as the case may be.
Enter 2010 when, after thoroughly rekindling my adoration for science fiction television through shows like Farscape, the reimagined Battle Star Galactica, and Stargate Atlantis, I happened upon the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century - The Complete Epic Series box set: 5 dual-sided DVDs, the entire television series (32 episodes) plus the theatrical film (which was the show’s pilot), 1,799 minutes of entertainment all for $15 brand new- the time had finally come to compare notes with the memories of a coloring book circa 1979.
The Buck Rogers saga, which actually began life way back in the late 1920’s, tells of an earth astronaut in the year 1987; one Air Force captain William "Buck" Rogers who is sent into space on the experimental craft, the Ranger 3.
His flight was to last 5-months, but passage through an uncharted meteor storm not only deflects his craft’s projected orbit, it damages his life-support systems as well. Frozen solid inside, Buck finds himself on an orbit that will return the craft back to Earth in some 500 years.
Shortly after Buck’s fateful departure, the Earth he left behind is devastated by a nuclear war spurred by a group of defected U.S. military officers. For 500 years a perfectly preserved Buck Rogers rides out his orbit while the Earth slowly rebuilds from the ashes.
In 2491, the Ranger 3, in its final approach toward Earth, is intercepted by an alien vessel on route to earth for negations. The aliens on board this vessel (Draconians) boast a great deal of knowledge on cryogenics and are able to resuscitate the long-frozen human before sending him the remaining distance to Earth.
Upon arriving to a 25th-century post-nuclear Earth, Buck Rogers, a man from the year 1987, finds himself a stranger in a strange world. To summarize: Written in the 20’s, made in the 70’s, Buck Rogers is a story about a man of the late 80’s trying to make his way in the 2490’s.
Now for the good and the bad. You’ll find no shortage of critics out there who love to lambaste the show for it’s campy nature, at-times silly plots, and unforgivably period-specific themes (discos, exposed chest hair, roller skates, they’re all in here) but to become hung up on the superficial is selling the effort a bit short.
While in no danger of wrestling a Saturn award away from Star Trek, several of the plots, especially in the early entries of the first season, are surprisingly solid. The science holds up pretty well and is often intermingled with politics and alien cultures similarly to what’s typically expected out of Star Trek The Original Series. I found myself pleasantly surprised for the duration of the first disc (both sides) consistently.
However, it’s only fair that I point on the grim as well. Even the most open minded of scifi aficionados will find themselves scratching their heads at some of the sheer oddity that makes up a lot of the Buck Rogers universe. The ridiculousness of Twiki is often enough to make even the most die-hard C-3PO supporter blush with embarrassment and the outfits often have the women, um, hanging out (and I’m not talking about the effects of zero G either). In a sense, comparisons to the show being more a James Bond in space than anything else are perhaps the most accurate (complete with villainous groups who sometimes laugh maniacally until the scene fades after revealing their dastardly scheme).
On the flip side, the show does demonstrate flashes of character depth on occasion especially considering it isn’t a serial so much as it is a series of self-contained episodes. Many characters make repeat appearances and Buck’s chemistry with the lady-folk is often quite naturally flirtatious, props are certainly due to Gil Gerard’s portrayal for brining a level of believability to what boils down to a comic superhero brought to life.
Like most shows of the era, no episode is complete without a massively choreographed fight sequence in which Buck hands out the pain with a series of spin kicks and judo throws. While a few of these moments are a bit over the top, a pretty strong argument could be made that today’s television is lacking since the trend dried up some years ago. Stunt doubles and lightening fast cuts weren’t what Buck was all about and it shows.
And speaking of such comparisons, obviously this series comes from a time long before CGI- which actually works to its benefit in several ways. First the space shots are clearly practical effects- meaning miniatures and models. Honestly, I expected much worse than what is found here. They’re pretty similar to what George Lucas gave the world in 1977’s Star Wars A New Hope but with the additional benefit of ships that could scale and rotate in frame. Laser blasts are pretty similar in quality and the explosions are as well.
The trend of practical effects also works well with the characters as we’re talking suits and rubber masks rather than green screens. Several sequences could easily be compared to moments like the Mos Eisley cantina segment of said Star Wars film with the addition of 70’s laced music and a disco-lit dance floor.
Erin Gray’s performance as Buck’s female counterpart Col Wilma Deering are consistent as well, if not limited by the trend of deterioration from strong, confident colonel in the motion picture, to simply an other damsel in distress for Buck to rescue by the end.
Finally there is the issue of the two very different seasons to address. Indeed there is a notable decrease in the show’s sense of adventure between the 1979 & 1980 season (with the former being the superior of the two). The first season was a bit more aimless in its major prose, but worked on the formula of introducing a guest star or two (many of whom would go on to become very recognizable celebrities) in each episode. The second made the shift to placing Buck on the crew of the Searcher, a starship sent to locate former Earth colonies that may still exist in deep space. While the idea of a space exploration theme may sound more exciting than a post-apocalyptic-Earth-set one, the sad truth is Buck Rogers was more an action/ adventure than it was a serious scientific trek in the first place and the confides of a ship aren’t exactly conducive to this reality.
In all, Buck Rogers isn’t nearly as bad as the detractors would have you believe. Your enjoyment of the series will depend heavily upon expectations going in. Those individuals enamored with modern computer-generated effects and the intricate plots of science fiction serials like the new BSG or Farscape will likely be disappointed with BR’s fairly formulaic plot structure, limited effects and tongue-in-cheek humor. However, going in expecting an opportunity to relive a simpler time in human existence and to witness a building block on which many of today’s scifi efforts have been derived, there is a lot to appreciate here. Best of all, the set is nice and beefy with a clear plastic slipcase housing a cardboard fold-out book of 5-double sided discs (on clear plastic holders) and a full color foldout booklet containing a thorough episode listing with plot summaries, all for under $15- it’s a great deal to boot.
What did you think of this review?
The series struggled through an awkward first season, with routine plots elevated by decent special effects and noteworthy guest stars including Jamie Lee Curtis, ill-fated Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (appearing, with her voice dubbed over, less than a year before her ...