Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Movie and TV – Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) (1979-1981)

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was a reboot of the sci-fi serial character from the 1930s.  It was released as a theatrical movie in the spring of 1979 and based on its box office returns it was turned into a TV series in the fall of 1979.  The movie was edited and turned into the two hour pilot for the show, which ran two seasons before being cancelled.  It was campy fun in the tradition of the shows like the original Battlestar Galactica and the original Star Trek.

Gil Gerard played the title character.  He was a Lee Majors look-alike and I’m sure that the fact that Majors’ show The Six Million Dollar Man had just gone off the air had no small part in Gerard getting this role.

As far as I’m concerned, the most important character on the show, and during the formative part of my teen years, was Colonel Wilma Deering, played by Erin Gray.  When she first came striding onto screen in her all white uniform my 15 year old self knew he had found the woman he was going to marry.  She was strong, didn’t take crap from anybody, and was completely gorgeous.  As the show went on she may have worn the tightest outfits ever created.  She wasn’t just a “Save me, Buck!” character, either.  She was in charge of Earth’s space defense forces and she’s actually the one saving Buck a couple of times in the movie. 

In the film it explains that Buck Rogers was on a mission in 1987 when his ship went out of control and gases were released into the cabin, freezing him.  Five hundred years later he is found by a Draconian warship that is on its way to Earth disguised as a diplomatic mission.  They revive him, drug him, and send him to Earth with a tracker in his ship so they can learn the way through Earth’s defense shield.  When this tracker is found on his ship he is thought to be a traitor.  He tries to warn them about the coming threat, but he is not believed.

Meanwhile, he is having a hard time adjusting to the future.  Mankind almost destroyed itself in his absence and much of the planet is a wasteland with dangerous creatures roaming on it.  It’s only in the Inner City where people are safe.  He takes a trip to the old city to try to find his past and finds himself over his head.  Cue save number one.

When the Draconian princess arrives on Earth they have a huge welcome for her, including drink and dancing.  Buck Rogers teaches these uptight 25th century people how to “get down” and enjoy dancing at a party.  Pamela Hensley plays the princess and she arrives at the party in her best formal bikini wear.  When she dances with Buck it was quite, um, special for me at the time, too.

Just in case you ladies are figuring it’s a show only for men to watch, Gerard provided any number of beefcake shots where he was bare-chested.  More than one of my female classmates blushingly admitted that she would love to be Buck’s “friend”.

When they turned the movie into a pilot for the TV show they removed a James Bond-like opening with beautiful women appearing in the opening credits and replaced it with new opening credits.  They removed a few words and phrases that were deemed too suggestive for TV and they added an epilog where Buck is invited to join Earth’s defense forces as a sort of special agent.

The first season of the TV series was quite fun and is almost universally better liked than the second season.  The first season deals with various plots against Earth, and is lighter in tone.  Buck has a robot assistant named Twiki that provided comic relief.  There is also a lot of humor from the uptight 25th century people trying to understand Buck’s “ancient customs”.  The rest of the Earth is not as desolate as first presented.  There are other cities and the wastelands in between them are no longer as dangerous.

Gil Gerard got tired of playing it soft and wanted to do episodes with more depth to them.  After an actors’ strike in 1980 the show came back for an abbreviated second season.  They took the characters of Buck, Wilma, and Twiki and sent them into space on a ship to look for “the lost tribes of Earth”.  If this sounds like the original Battlestar Galactica, it is not a coincidence.  The same man created both shows and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century even used some effects, props, and outfits from Battlestar Galactica.

The second season did end up presenting more serious topics, but it was kind of boring.  Even worse, since there was now no way for her to be defending Earth, there wasn’t much for Colonel Wilma Deering to do except become a Lt. Uhura communications clone on what was now a Star Trek clone.  She also became softer and more of a “whatever you say Buck” kind of character.  Worst of all, they replaced the great Mel Blanc as the voice of Twiki.  Fans didn’t like the changes and the show was cancelled.

The complete series is available on DVD.  I have a link for it below.  It includes the original, intact, theatrical movie.  Netflix has the show available via streaming, but you cannot watch the original movie.  They only have the edited-for-television version.

Either way, keep your eyes peeled for a number of familiar faces.  Look for young actors/actresses Jamie Lee Curtis, Markie Post, Dennis Haysbert, Tim Robbins, Dorothy Stratten, Ann Dusenberry, Gary Coleman, Leigh McCloskey, Morgan Brittany, Judy Landers, Richard Moll, and Mary Woronov.  Also look for veteran actors/actresses Roddy McDowell, Jack Palance, Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, Peter Graves, Woody Strode, Ray Walston, Jerry Orbach, and Julie Newmar.

Buster Crabbe, the original Buck Rogers from the 1930s, appears in the second episode.  His character has an exchange with Buck where he tells Buck that he’s been doing this sort of action since before Buck was born.  This is a reference to Crabbe playing the character of Buck Rogers four years before Gil Gerard was born.  Other little in-jokes are contained in the periodic announcements over PA systems.  They sometimes contain references to comic book characters or other science fiction shows.

Even though it was only on the air for a short time it did get nominated for 5 Emmys for things like Costume Design, Cinematography, and Art Direction.  It won an Emmy for its score in a second season episode.

This show would be best enjoyed by people who don’t want their science fiction shows to be too serious, who can relax about something not being scientifically possible, and who appreciate beauty and sex appeal, whichever form it comes in.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]



  1. Was Buck Rogers the one who had the little creature as a pet? The one that would follow him around? It kind of looked like an ewok. Or was that the original Battlestar?

  2. Buck Rogers had a 3 foot tall robot named Twiki that talked and was all metal. Battlestar Galactica had a boy with a pet robot named, I believe, Boxy, that walked around on all fours more like a dog and that seemed to be a combo of biological and technological.