Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: Awakening

If a show was judged solely on its opening credits, you'd have a hard time convincing me that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) didn't belong on any list for greatest TV ever made. Alas, opening credits alone do not a kickass series make. Still:

"In the year 1987, NASA launched the last of America's deep space probes."
"Aboard this compact starship, a lone astronaut, Captain William "Buck" Rogers, was to experience cosmic forces beyond all comprehension."
"In a freak mishap, his life support systems were frozen by temperatures beyond imagination."
"Ranger 3 was blown out of its planned trajectory into an orbit one thousand times more vast..."
"an orbit which was to return Buck Rogers to Earth"
"500 years later."

The future in which Buck finds himself is, like much of the wardrobe and conceptual terrain of the series, a hodge-podge of source material - in this case, cherry-picking the various versions of the character that had appeared since his introduction in 1928 - and leftovers from other sci-fi of the era, most notably that other 70s Glen A. Larson ("Glen Larceny," as Harlan Ellison calls him) space saga, Battlestar Galactica.

New Chicago is administered by the Earth Defense Directorate (fighter pilots, mainly)
and a computer council.
Outside their sphere of influence, of course, chaos reigns.
Mutant marauders who never left the demolished ruins of the wars that finished off the old world.
I was five when I saw these images, and for better or worse, they are the foundation for all subsequent post-apocalyptic landscaping in my life.
With the rare exception, such as the story we're about to look at, the credits were generally the peak of the show. Like much of the television of its era, it wasn't designed to age well.

But those credits! Masterful. The music and voiceover are perfectly suited for the subject at hand. That link, above, is actually for season 2, which is a bit different, but the music and voiceover are the same. Not so with the opening for the pilot aka theatrical release:

Blogger won't let me embed it for some reason, but it's worth watching. Some slight changes to the wording, but more importantly, the song is... well, it's rather amazing, regardless of whatever other spin you put on it. The first person you meet karaoking this is probably The One.

They're clearly trying for a Bond vibe both with the song and the women writing around - and really, the title sequence for Moonraker, which came out a few months after this Buck Rogers business graced screens in March 1979, is probably only marginally less ridiculous. Maybe this was just how 1979 seemed to a lot of people.

I only saw this torch song/ writhing-on-the-logo opening for the first time a couple of years ago. As a kid, I was only familiar with the ones for the first and second season.

Speaking of the second season...
Buck Rogers was substantially restructured when it returned from summer hiatus in 1980. Most of the cast and original concept was jettisoned. Buck and Wilma were put aboard a spaceship (the Searcher) to establish contact with long-lost Earth colonies, and a bird-man named Hawk joined the cast. 

For our purposes today, we need only concern ourselves with how the show was originally presented to the viewing public, specifically in its pilot episode aka the theatrical release:

Before establishing itself as an ongoing series, "Awakening" was released to theaters where it took in somewhere in the neighborhood of $35m in one month, before it was removed from screens because it had been pre-sold to cable. This was pretty booming business in 70s money, when movies were $3 a ticket. Unfortunately for all involved, it was all downhill from there.

First and foremost: 

As William "Buck" Rogers, man out of time, and Colonel Wilma Deering, respectively.
Buck and Wilma have the sort of relationship you'd expect: he's irreverent, she's by-the-book but secretly smolders for him. It's a 70s/80s version of the dynamic you still see, albeit a bit better realized, in almost every science-fiction show - maybe just every regular old show. Both are fun to watch, but let's not kid ourselves: this is not a complex-character-dynamics type of show. Erin Gray found further success elsewhere (such as Silver Spoons) but Gil Gerard's visibility pretty much peaked with Buck Rogers. Which is too bad. There's a lot of Gil Gerard in Nathan Fillion, for example, and I hope that someone someday realizes this and casts Gil as Nathan's Dad or Uncle in something. (He played a Starfleet admiral in the Trek Phase II episode "Kitumba," which was cool to see.)

Rounding out the first season cast on the good guy's side is Tim O'Connor as Dr. Huer. He's either the head of the Defense Directorate or the leader of the planet; it's never quite made clear. (If he's the head of the planet, the government really sucks.) He's somewhat overshadowed by Buck's robot sidekicks:

As voiced by Eric Server.
And Twiki ("Biddi-Biddi-Biddi-Biddi") as voiced by Mel Blanc.
On the bad guys' side there was the very vague Draconian Empire, which took the place of the "Mongol warlords" seeking to conquer Earth in the comics and serials. These guys were either aliens or the inheritors of former Earthmen; it's never really made clear. They all have their precedent in the comic strip, but they were altered to fit the self-erasing episode-to-episode template of the series.

In the pilot, Kane, the main baddie, is played by Henry Silva. (He was replaced by Michael Ansara in the ongoing series.)
And in the tradition of Frazetta-esque sci-fantasy vamps, there was the emperor's daughter:

Played by Pamela Hensley.
While for the most part going along with her father's and Kane's plans to conquer Earth, her intermittent motivation was hooking up with Buck. I'd say at least half of every episode's costume budget is consumed by her.

Not that she always wore a costume.

A lot of the online summaries out there are correct in the details but don't quite capture the spirit / feel of it. I'll try and make up for some of that here. 

Buck's antiquated spacecraft is picked up by the Draconian vessel.
They 'lude him up and send him back to Earth.
Colonel Deering escorts him through the Earth Defense Grid.
Then she arrests him.
Buck goes out with Twiki and Dr. Theopolis and mixes it up with some slow mutants before being rescued.
Buck awaits execution.
He buys some time with his offer to prove the Draconians want to destroy Earth.
Princess Ardala (accompanied by Kane and her bodyguard) make an entrance at a gala in her honor.
Buck convinces this guy to play rock disco.
It inspires Wilma to make her move on Buck -
- and Twiki to get down.
It also inspires Ardala to make Buck her amorous conquest of the evening.
Ardala shows Buck her quarters.
And (again) her navel.
Buck drugs her and makes his escape, discovering the Draconians ready to attack Earth.
Wilma, assuming Buck's a traitor and smoldering with jealous rage, waits until Dr. Huer is out of earshot and then delivers a soap opera aside, assuring Buck Rogers she knows exactly who, what, and where he is, thank you.
Ardala wakes up. She is pissed.
So's Kane. Launch the attack!
Buck is about to do the whole punch-and-steal-the-uniform-trick.
Twiki and Dr. Theo think Buck's in on the sneak attack on Earth and confront him.

Buck convinces them he's on the level. Wilma rescues them all.
She assures him that even though she's very adventurous and a Colonel, she "has a womanly side." (Very 70s, that.)
Buck doesn't really answer. Twiki tells him, "Buck, you're my kinda guy."
All in all, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is very much like Battlestar Galactica or The Greatest American Hero or Knight Rider or Fantasy Island or Wonder Woman or The A-Team or other shows of the era: memorable concept/ hook, lazily explored. Lots of sizzle, no steak. Fondly remembered as background for your childhood if any one of the above were among your first TV experiences, in the same manner as this kitchen, but not the sort of thing you'd make your first choice as an adult. (Unless you're Closet of Mystery-ing it.)

If that wasn't the case? If your first TV memories are much later (or much earlier?) Tough to say. Probably seems indistinguishable (except for Biddi-Biddi-Biddi and Bird-Man) from a lot of other TV Wasteland stuff. But for me, it's one of those shows I had to buy, even though I'll never watch it start-to-finish.
The TV Tomb of Mystery is an ongoing catalog of one man's attempt to stave off  acquisition of any more impulse-buy DVDs until he can take better inventory of the ones already in his possession. Today's excursion was directed by Daniel Haller and written by Glen A. Larson and Leslie Stevens.

BONUS FEATURES: Here are some leftover screencaps.


  1. Man, I haven't seen this show in . . . I dunno, must be close to thirty years. But there are images among these screencaps which must have been burned onto my brain or something. The foremost among them, for some reason (apart from the opening credits, which ARE awesome, and damn anyone who says otherwise), is Princess Ardala's bodyguard.

    And Princess Ardala herself, too, of course, but there's something about the makeup design on the bodyguard that stuck with me. I suspect that there must have been a photo of those two in one of my Starlogs or something.

    Also ringing a lot of bells: that goofy penis-lookin' helmet Buck is wearing. He may as well have stolen that from a tribe of vicious aliens called the Purple Headed Warriors. If I were Gil Gerard, I'd've looked at that and said "nope, not wearin' that helmet, guys."

    I don't think I ever saw any of the episode with Hawk. He looks ridiculous.

    1. I have a clear memory of seeing this pilot episode on television and on VHS, and then seeing one of the Hawk episodes and being very confused. I don't remember thinking anything amiss about the penis-helmet at the time... but it does kind of jump out now, doesn't it?

      I meant to look through those Starlog and the Gang scans you made available to refresh my memory. I just checked this one (http://thetruthinsidethelie.blogspot.com/2014/04/another-look-at-some-vintage-magazines.html) and figured the theatrical release would be covered in the sci-fi of '79 issue(s) but it appears not to be the case.

      I do see a pic of Buck in the montage in the sci-fi-companion to that post, though (http://wherenobloghasgonebefore.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-look-at-some-vintage-magazines-part-1.html#more) but no article or behind-the-scenes stuff on the show.

      Ah, googling "Buck Roger Starlog" leads to this, where a pre-Hawkman-season write-up is printed in its entirety: http://buckrogersinfo.tripod.com/ArticleStarlogoct1980.htm I only skimmed it, but the level of spin and hubris on display is noteworthy.

    2. Boy, I'll say! For me, stuff like that is a huge part of the reason why revisiting old issues of magazines like Starlog is fun: you won't catch many people being that disingenuous -- if that's the word -- about a show like "Buck Rogers" after it's off the air. But disingenuity -- I'm not even sure that IS a word -- of that nature is such a massive part of experiencing movies and tv shows and whatnot from a fandom standpoint.

      I mean, seriously: how many people over the years read an article like that one and decided to, in the face of so very many reasons not to, take that series seriously? Hundreds, at a minimum; thousands is more likely, and these days, if you include internet hype into the mix, millions would be an easily-achievable goal.

      So for me, studying the almost-always-present disconnect between what a show's makers say it is and what a show actually is . . . well, that's a fascinating pursuit. I wish I had more time for it!

    3. "So for me, studying the almost-always-present disconnect between what a show's makers say it is and what a show actually is . . . well, that's a fascinating pursuit. I wish I had more time for it!"

      I cannot agree/ like/ retweet this enough. If I had a High Fidelity dream job list, it might just be this. (#2 might be "review all cop shows and evaluate qualitatively and quantitatively; do a good job.")

      #3 might be Viper pilot, I'll be honest.