Sunday, 22 January 2017

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, season 2 (1981)

Writer-producer Glen A. Larson had achieved modest success with the Battlestar Galactica TV series in 1978. It only lasted one season but that was mostly because in those days American network executives hated science fiction. It was horribly expensive and seemed like a crazy risk when you could just as easily make yet another western or cop show for half the cost. Battlestar Galactica was one of many sci-fi series that got the axe even though their ratings were quite respectable. A year later Larson went on to develop another science fiction TV series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. While Battlestar Galactica was ambitious and fairly serious in tone Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was to be pure lighthearted fun.

The first season worked pretty well. Gil Gerard was not the world’s most dynamic actor but he made a perfectly adequate action hero as Buck Rogers. Erin Gray was pretty good as Colonel Wilma Deering. The support cast was solid, headed by Tim O’Connor as Dr Huer of the Earth Defense Directorate. Naturally there had to be a cute robot and Twiki is about as cute as robots get. Twiki also carries around Dr Theopolis, an artificial intelligence who has the answer to just about everything. There was plenty of action, plenty of fun and lots of delightful 70s kitsch.

It was a wonderful formula and it worked. So naturally at the end of season one the network decided to change the whole format. Instead of Buck, frozen in time for 500 years, helping to defend Earth against its enemies we now have Buck, Wilma and Twiki on the giant spaceship Searcher, their mission being to find the lost tribes of Earth. It sounds terribly familiar but Glen A. Larson can’t be blamed for turning the show into a poor man’s Battlestar Galactica - by this time he was no longer associated with the series (I don’t know if he quit or was forced out). What the new format adds up to is less action, less fun and no delightful 70s kitsch. It all starts to take it itself too seriously.

The second season also saw the departure of all the most interesting supporting characters - Dr Huer and Dr Theopolis are both gone. Twiki has been made less cute. And, for no logical reason whatsoever, it was decided the series needed a second cute robot. The trouble is that the robot Crichton isn’t cute and isn’t funny - he’s painfully annoying and totally unnecessary.

Added to the cast are the rather dull Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner) and Dr Goodfellow (Wilfred Hyde-White). Now Wilfred Hyde-White is one of my favourite English character actors but he was always at his best playing characters with a slight edge to them. Here he’s trying too hard to be loveable and doddering. The other major new character is Hawk (Thom Christopher), of whom more below.

The amazing thing is that the network managed to eliminate just about everything that made season one so enjoyable, and to add elements that are totally unnecessary and  extremely irritating.

The series might still have been salvageable if the scripts had been of sufficiently high quality but sadly the quality of the writing is noticeable lower than in season one.

The second season gets off to a bad start with a two-part story, Time of the Hawk. Norman Hudis’s script might have worked as a single episode but there just isn’t enough plot, enough action or enough interest to justify a two-parter. Even worse, it’s padded out by a great deal of incredibly tedious speechifying. Hawk is a kind of part man-part bird who has a grudge against humans. Buck’s mission is to stop Hawk’s rampages through the galaxy. Most of the story consists of Hawk and Buck carrying Hawk’s injured wife across the desert whilst talking incessantly. All this is bad enough but then they reach the great healer and we get some excruciatingly embarrassing hippie-dippie new age waffle. And then it gets worse with lots of boring and very banal speeches.

Episode two, Robert and Esther Mitchell’s two-parter Journey to Oasis, starts out like a very bad Star Trek episode. Buck has to escort an alien ambassador to a peace conference. If the ambassador doesn’t arrive on time it will mean war, and naturally Buck’s spaceship crashes. Then it gets worse, and once again we have Buck and friends walking across mile after tedious mile of desert. And once again we have talk, talk, talk. As a single episode it would still have been pretty dull; as a two-parter it’s sheer torture.

The third episode, The Guardians, is a huge improvement. Being a single-episode story the pacing is much much tighter. There are also some reasonable ideas here. Buck encounters a dying old man on a planet believed to be uninhabited. The old man gives Buck a mission, to deliver a box, but to whom does the box have to be delivered? And what strange powers does this box have over space and time? The ending lets it down a bit but at least it isn’t dull.

Mark of the Saurian is a reasonably entertaining episode as well. The Saurian lizard-men have somehow been able to take on human form to penetrate Earth’s defences and only Buck, with his 20th century biochemistry, can see them in their true form.

You expect a certain amount of scientific silliness in a TV sci-fi series but the episode The Golden Man defies all reasonable expectations. We have a spaceship that runs aground on an asteroid, and the only way it can be freed is by lightening it! And it just so happens there are a couple of aliens that the Searcher has picked up and they just happen to have the ability to lighten metals! The golden-skinned aliens can in fact turn any metal into any other kind of metal, including turning iron into gold. But first Buck has to rescue them from a penal planet. Apart from the extreme scientific silliness it’s generally a pretty lame episode.

The Crystals is another story that feels too much like second-rate Star Trek. Buck, Wilma and Hawk are searching for some crystals (without which the Searcher is apparently doomed) when they discover a mummy and an attractive blonde girl who seems to have no memories. The story features one or two moderately interesting ideas but they’re not developed and the whole thing is a bit too bland and a bit too feel-good.

One of the things that the second season seemed to be attempting was to work various ancient myths into the science fiction story lines. Time of the Hawk and The Golden Man both try to do this, with mixed success. The Satyr is a much more successful attempt. An Earth colony has been all but wiped out by figures from Greek mythology, but how do satyrs come to be on the planet? And why are the survivors of the colony so unwilling to discuss the matter? This is actually a pretty decent episode.

Shgoratchx! is quite ridiculous but it’s also great fun - it’s the kind of inspired silliness that characterised the better season one episodes. A derelict spacecraft crewed by six generals and one private, none of them more than three feet tall, and all possessing rather disturbing powers. Or at least their powers would be disturbing except for the fact that these diminutive aliens, while exasperatingly mischievous, are also friendly and good-natured. The second season includes lots of stories inspired by mythology. In this case the inspiration is a fairy tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with Colonel Deering being less than thrilled about being Snow White. It’s genuinely amusing, good-natured and reasonably clever.

The Hand of the Goral is OK. It’s totally unoriginal but the plot, involving a planet where nothing is as it seems to be, is executed fairly well.

Testimony of a Traitor on the other hand is deadly dull. Buck is accused of starting the nuclear war that devastated Earth in the 20th century. The courtroom scenes are tedious and contrived.

The final episode, The Dorian Secret, isn’t too bad. Buck rescues a Dorian girl fleeing from the implacable justice of her people. The Dorians also wear masks, all the time, to hide a terrible secret which Buck will force them to reveal.

Hawk represents a bit of a lost opportunity. Given his history he could have been an intriguingly edgy character. After all he is an alien and he has spent his whole life hating humans and now he’s working and fighting side-by-side with them - you’d expect a bit of tension but in fact after the first episode he becomes just a generic hero character. The series didn’t need another action hero character. It already had Buck and it had Colonel Deering. If they weren’t going to do anything interesting with the Hawk character why bother including him in the regular cast?

It surprises me that so many people dislike Gil Gerard. To me he seems like a perfectly fine space opera action hero. The trouble is that in season two he’s not given enough action hero stuff to do. He doesn’t even get to fly a fighter - he’s reduced to piloting a shuttle! He does seem to be trying a bit harder in season two to do a bit more serious acting stuff but he also doesn’t seem to having quite as much fun. On the whole though I don’t have any real problems with his performance.

Erin Gray also gets less action heroine stuff to do. Mention has to be made of the uniform worn by Colonel Wilma Deering in many episodes - it’s a cute little sailor suit that makes her look adorable but I’m not really sure that colonels are supposed to look adorable!

On the whole season two is very uneven and mostly disappointing. In season one Buck Rogers in the 25th Century had established its own distinctive style - fun, breezy, action-filled, a bit silly but thoroughly entertaining. Season two by comparison is too much a generic science fiction TV series, trying too hard and modeling itself too much on Star Trek.

It was probably the two rather dreary two-part stories that kicked off the second season that doomed the series. Overall season two isn’t a complete loss. There are some good episodes and some dud episodes but then you could say the same about Star Trek. Mostly it’s just disappointing that the fun and the over-the-top ultra-70s style of the first season is lacking. The first season is definitely worth buying. The second season is worth a rental.

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