BUCK ROGERS

AWAKENING

Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) and Wilma Deering (Erin Grey)


By Matthew Wharmby

PREMISE: If you don't know by now... NASA Space Shuttle pilot Buck Rogers departs Earth in 1987 for a long-range mission, but is frozen 'by forces beyond his comprehension'. He is revived by a Draconian battleship on its way to Earth and sent back to the planet, which he discovers is now in the year 2491...

COMMENT: It's flares, it's disco, it's loads of fun. Amazing-looking women in tight spandex, space battles, refreshingly old-fashioned sexism, and not a serious moment to be had. What more could you want?

The premise is explained in the titles (which are repeated in every subsequent episode), enabling us to cut right to the chase, to wit Buck's space shuttle drifting along with his frozen, but still ticking, body strapped inside. It might interest you to know that the original Buck Rogers (Universal Pictures' 15-part cliffhanger serial of 1936, starring Buster Crabbe), the vessel in question was an airship, which transported him to the year 2440. However, 1979's Buck isn't going directly home, as his ship is in the path of a mammoth battleship, which launches fighters to bring it in. We soon establish that they're 'evil' when the Samurai-helmeted pilots try and blow it out of the sky first.

Having tractored him aboard, the owners of the ship wonder who Buck is and what he's doing out here, but when he comes around, woozy and disorientated, he's as pleased as we are to see the eye-popping figure of Princess Ardala come into view. The spoilt, petulant and staggeringly sexy youngest daughter of King Draco, she's on her way to Earth for scientific negotiations between the Draconian Empire, a force known for its rapid conquest rate of recence, and Earth. The true mission is to get the ship through the planet's security grid and then attack it, which is why Ardala and her impotent consort-in-waiting Kane (a noteworthy rewrite of the original, in which 'Killer' Kane was the baddie) don't believe his story. They humour him, fixing up his ship and sending him off on a return course to Earth, but have slipped a tracker aboard so as to monitor how he gets through.

Shrugging off the experience aboard the Draconia as a weird but enjoyable dream, Buck happily gets into the approach lane for Cape Canaveral, but is puzzled when none of his transmissions are returned. He's even more perplexed when unfamiliar spacecraft appear and start ordering him, in no uncertain terms, to cease and desist his approach. Adding a hoary old bit of Cold War hysteria, he assumes he's been intercepted by the Soviets. Buck attempts to engage the stern female pilot in some Russian banter, but it doesn't go down well, and he assumes, with a heavy heart, that his next stop is Red Square. Meanwhile, Colonel Wilma Deering has no idea of what it is that she's escorting back to Earth under her gunsights.

Buck is none too impressed when he's shown into a sterile room and left to discuss events with a talking computer. The friendly disc known as Dr Theopolis informs Buck that he has spent five hundred and four years in suspended animation. In the interim, Earth has, as feared during the Cold War, gone to war, and damn near blown itself to pieces. The surviving cities are shielded from the rest of the planet's radiation by huge domes, and the one they are inhabiting is New Chicago, Earth's capital. Feral gangs of shabby mutants roam Anarchia, the wasteland outside the city, but Buck is fascinated at this last link with his familiar home, and demands to be taken there. Not that life off-planet is all too cosy either - Earth is menaced by pirates, who rove the shipping lanes picking off any traffic they can find. Wilma still isn't convinced he's not one of them with a tall tale.

Buck does manage to slip out of New Chicago and into the ruins of the old city, but Theopolis (worn around the neck of the lovable Mel Blanc-voiced, kid-sized robot Twiki) catches up with him. They can't persuade him to get back before he finally finds what he's looking for - his parents' grave. Theo explains that the decline of the planet after the war was so complete that it was lucky anyone got buried at all - and that they would be next, as muties are closing in! These raggedy rejects from Night of the Living Dead have their hearts set on the robots' parts for sale on the black market, and a fight breaks out. Buck manages to pummel a few of the creatures, but there are too many of them, and it looks bleak until a laser burst cuts through the night. We are then treated to an unapologetic massacre as a government minitank carves through the mutant hordes, slaughtering them gratuitously with its deck gun. The muties chased off, Wilma emerges with a pack of soldiers. Unimpressed with Buck's search for himself, she cuts him down with a stunner.

A word on Wilma - God, you will never find a more attractive woman on TV in this decade or the two following it. The word 'daaaamn', with as many syllables as you can append to it, doesn't even begin to do justice. Years later, it split my sides with laughter to see Erin Gray doing infomercials advertising anti-cellulite products. Here is a woman who has never had so much as a cubic nanometre of cellulite on her. Not a speck. I can barely remember what happens next, having gawped at her for half the show, but somehow Buck gets invited along as a cultural observer to the approaching Draconia. Wilma makes certain to establish that everything is very nicely computer-controlled, not least of which are the instruments of the fighters they're flying. Buck, as a pilot (perhaps he's still on flight status, five centuries later!) is less impressed than outright bored at being told not to touch. Meanwhile, Ardala and Kane are suspicious of the Earth Directorate's intentions and decide to dispatch their ships (the pirates mentioned previously) to give them a good old-fashioned welcome. Buck's eyes pop out of his head when he sees Ardala in yet another of the crazy dresses she is prone to change in every scene (it must have been a riot being costume designer on this show! Free rein to design the wildest clothes you could imagine!), but they've barely enough time to get acquainted before the 'pirates' attack and Wilma orders the flight back to the air to defend the Draconia. Unfortunately, the starfighters' combat computers are hopelessly outclassed by the hatchet fighters, which pick them off in rapid succession. Soon only Buck and Wilma are left, and thoroughly against orders, Buck disengages his combat computer and takes the pirates on by himself. Using 20th century tactics that neither Wilma nor the pirates have ever seen before, he wades into the hatchet fighters and destroys the entire squadron. Wilma has to be grateful, but threatens him with arrest, owing to the fact that Princess Ardala denied ever having met him.

Ardala organises a ball as thanks to Buck from 'saving us from those horrible privateers', and offers the ship as a gift to Earth in the interests of 'commerce and peace'. Buck takes the rather stuffy party, in which everyone is in starched dress uniform of a rather Napoleonic fashion, by the scruff of the neck in a delightful scene where he orders the DJ to throw off the simpering 25th century music and strike up some disco. Buck takes to the floor with a barely dressed and very thrilled Ardala, and both of them groove the night away. A watching Wilma is disgusted, but at the same time the rather prudish officer is very much struck by Buck's fearlessness, not to mention sick jealous. She finally gets up the courage to approach him and declare her feelings, but Buck's already booked a midnight soiree with Ardala aboard the flagship Draconia. Angry and upset, Wilma decides there and then that Buck Rogers really is a spy.

Aboard the Draconia, Buck and Ardala get cosy, and she has a declaration of her own to make. She's impressed by Buck's arrogance and disobedient attitude; enough to declare that she feels that, by her side, he is capable of unseating her father. Sick of being the thirtieth of King Draco's ultra-competitive daughters, and constantly hassled by 'weaselly little courtiers' like Kane (whom she seems to do without quite easily, thanks to the attentions of the hulking Tigerman, of whom more shortly), she wants her own power. Buck waits till she's in a suitably romantic swoon, and then mickeys her drink (Fool, we think! Why didn't you do the business first?!). He sneaks out of her stateroom to find Tigerman on guard, and discovers that the huge bodyguard is tremendously difficult to knock out. Once he manages to do it (which I believe entails kicking him in the nuts), Buck drags him into Ardala's bed to make it look as if he's taken advantage of her. On his way to the landing bay, Buck runs into Twiki and Theo, who've stowed away on board Ardala's launch in order to expose Buck at Wilma's behest, but he manages to persuade the robots that he has his own misgivings about just whose fighters those pirates were. They reach the landing bay to discover that sure enough, the hatchet fighters are very much Draconian property, and worse, are being readied for an imminent attack against the Earth! While Kane and an incensed Ardala are scouring the ship for them, Buck sabotages the fighters with bombs into the exhaust pipes. As they launch, they blow up in the tubes, but enough get off to meet a strike force led by Wilma, who has been alerted to Buck's honesty by Theo. She orders that her pilots switch off their combat computers, which is a successful strategy as the starfighters defeat the Draconians in a pitched battle and then tear into the flagship itself. Wilma manages to get on board the burning vessel and rescue Buck, and they all escape as the Draconia blows apart. So do Ardala and Kane, just in time, in her personal launch. 'We would be rulers of Earth now, if you hadn't let Buck Rogers on board!' grouses Kane. She puts him down with this devastating retort. 'He wouldn't have been necessary, if you were more of a man...'

Dr Huer, Earth's benevolent ruler (and another carryover from the 1936 serial) is grateful for Buck's assistance, and offers him a permanent post in the Directorate military. Characteristically, Buck turns him down, but agrees to stay around as an observer. Cue fodder for twenty further episodes as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century goes to series!


John's Review

Overall, Buck Rogers was a really lame show with poor writing and cheesy costuming (Despite Galactica's faults, one thing it does not really have is a dated look - not so for Buck Rogers!). Despite these problems, Gil Gerard and Erin Grey made a great team, and that was pretty much the only thing that made the show watchable (ditto can be said for Bruce Campbell and Angela Dotchin of Jack Of All Trades). Of course, Matt is correct in saying that Erin Grey was absolutely gorgeous! She played a strong character, a female officer similar to Sheba of Galactica (although Wilma Deering had nowhere near as much depth as Sheba did - Sadly, the writers never bothered to try to do anything interesting with the character).

I like the pilot episode "Awakening". It is easily the highlight of the entire series, as the show went immediately downhill afterwards. The opening sequence of Awakening is great as we hear the Buck Rogers theme with actual lyrics. The narrator says, "For 500 years, Buck Rogers drifted in a world where dreams and reality were merged into one." (Well, it was something like that) Anyway, we see Buck sleeping, and gorgeous women (including Wilma and Ardala) appear before him, and each one starts kissing him! Is THAT what Buck dreamed of for 500 years straight??? Some guys have all the luck!

Perhaps the most painful moment of the movie is near the end when Wilma comes on to Buck (She's practically begging him to take her to bed!) and he turns her down! Yeah, okay, the Earth had to be saved, but this is Wilma, for crying out loud! So he goes off with Ardala, and she, too, is ready to hop into bed with him, but he drugs her before anything happens. Buck turns down two gorgeous women in one night in order to save the Earth - If that's not heroic, I don't know what is!

After everything blows up in the end (you know the story), Wilma pretty much spells out to Buck that she is still interested in him, but Buck just smiles and basically says, "Yeah, yeah. Whatever." Is the man gay? Did 500 years in deep freeze take away his ability to perform? Well, could be. Anyway, the Buck-Wilma "thing" is never brought up again (which to me makes Buck a tragic hero), and the two from that point on are just good friends (which eliminated a lot of potentially interesting story ideas).

The first season of Buck Rogers was nothing to hoot about, yet the series was renewed despite the fact that its ratings were nowhere near as high as Galactica's! (Talk about unfair.) And the second season made the first season look like great television. Wilma goes from being an independent, strong-willed warrior to a helpless, obedient space stewardess. Erin Grey herself has said she was extremely unhappy with what was done to her character. Twiki, the resident robot that seemed to exist for no other reason than to drive viewers away, was more annoying than BG's Muffit ever was. At least Muffit couldn't talk! And while BG had quality guest stars such as Lloyd Bridges and Fred Astaire, Buck Rogers mostly brought us the likes of Gary Coleman (The Cosmic Whizkid who must have been the alter ego of Dr. Zee!)

The best episode of Buck Rogers (besides the pilot) is probably "A Dream Of Jennifer" in which Anne Lockhart guest-stars as Buck's long-lost love. This is a really good (but still not great) story, and one of the few episodes worth seeking out. Another episode that is fun to watch is "Vegas In Space" not because it's a good story (because it isn't), but it has several people who appeared in BG and/or G1980 - Ana Alicia (Aurora), Richard Lynch (Wolfe, Xavier), Christina Belford (Leda), and Pamela Susan Shoop (IFB Interviewer, Ms. Carlyle). Ana Alicia is gorgeous, but she is laughable as the screaming, terrified victim. There is also stock footage of the planet Carillon used. This one is available at Amazon.com. It's poorly written, but good for some laughs.

Probably the most fun thing about watching Buck Rogers is spotting all the actors and stock footage previously seen in BG and G1980. There are other interesting parallels between BG and Buck Rogers. "Awakening" is similar to "Saga Of A Star World" in that a peace treaty is being negotiated between two sides, and one side is planning treachery by launching a surprise attack. In "Saga Of A Star World", the surprise attack is successful. In "Awakening", it is not. Also, the second season of Buck Rogers appeared to be following in the footsteps of BG, as Buck and Wilma set out on a ship called the Searcher as they journeyed across the galaxy to discover new worlds. It was similar to BG, but the execution was atrocious, and it doomed the series (of course, it was probably doomed no matter what).


Interesting Buck Rogers facts:

Gil Gerard went out of his way to diminish Erin Grey's role on the show. Originally, the credits of the pilot were going to say "Starring Gil Gerard and Erin Grey", and Gerard demanded that her name not appear alongside his.

Erin Grey only made $600 a week! Is that unfair or what?

Erin Grey has said the stretch suits she always wore were quite painful. Her favorite episode is Space Vampire which is available at Amazon.com.

Awakening was originally supposed to air only on television. It wasn't until after it was shot that the decision was made to release it as a theatrical film. It actually grossed more money during its first week than Star Wars did.

Although Glen Larson produced the series, he actually had very little involvement because his main focus at the time was Battlestar Galactica and then Galactica 1980.


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