“In the year 1987, at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, NASA launched the last of America’s deep space probes. The payload, perched on the nosecone of the NASA rocket, was a one-man exploration vessel: Ranger 3. Aboard this compact starship, a lone astronaut, Captain William “Buck” Rogers, was to experience cosmic forces beyond all comprehension: an awesome brush with death. In the blink of an eye, his life-support systems were frozen by temperatures beyond imagination. Ranger 3 was blown out of its planned trajectory into an orbit a thousand times more vast, an orbit which was to return the ship full circle to its point of origin, its mother Earth, not in five months…but in 500 years.
For 500 years, Buck Rogers drifted through a world in which reality and fantasy merged into a timeless dream.”
It’s strange to call Buck Rogers in the 25th Century a ripoff of Star Wars when the concept behind it predates Lucas’ film by at least five decades. That said, without the tale of Jedis, Universal would have never green lit Buck Rogers for television. Glen A. Larson, who had a production deal with the studio, was in charge.
The original goal was a series of TV movies, but Larson’s other Star Wars-ian project Battlestar Galactica was supposed to work the same way, but then had been released theatrically overseas and in the U.S. So Universal decided to release this movie in theaters on March 30, 1979, with NBC airing a weekly series as of September 20, 1979, which started with a slightly modified version of this feature.
As the pilot and two-part first episode for the series, called “Awakening,” this movie features Gil Gerard — who was married to Connie Sellecca at the time (making them a power couple back in the days of Battle of the Network Stars; then there was Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett as the other “power couple”) — as Buck, who has slept through the last 504 years and awakens in a brave new world (with recycled props, costumes and effects from Battlestar Galactica. In fact, even the ships on this show were brought back from Galactica, as the Earth Starfighter was originally designed by Ralph McQuarrie as a Colonial Viper).
Speaking of recycling, the inside of the Draconian flagship was used for the setting of the Motley Crue video “Looks That Kill.”
But I digress.
Buck soon learns that civilization on Earth was rebuilt following a devastating nuclear war — making this kinda sorta a post-apoc movie — that occurred on November 22, 1987, and is now under the protection of the Earth Defense Directorate.
Buck is helped by Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray, who was all over 80’s TV) and a robot named Twiki who basically only says “budda budda budda” and was played by Felix Silla and voiced by Mel Blanc (who also voiced Daffy Duck as Duck Dodgers). Buck also meets Dr. Theopolis (Eric Server), a computer in the shape of a golden smiley face. Theo was a member of Earth’s “computer council” and one of the planet’s scientific leaders.
The villain of this piece was Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley, who was C.J. Parsons on Matt Houston) and her henchman Killer Kane (Henry Silva in the movie, Michael Ansara on the series and hey, are those guys brothers?) and a henchman named Tigerman who dies in the movie but came back for TV.
The actual series was packed with guest stars who comprise so many of the people that we love: Peter Graves (Mission Impossible), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Markie Post (TV’s Night Court), Dorothy Stratten (Galaxina), Leigh McCloskey (Inferno), Richard Moll (every 80’s movie ever made), Jerry Orbach (Law and Order), Gary Coleman (pretty much the kid of the 80’s), Jack Palance (so many movies but let’s say Welcome to Blood City), Sam Jaffe, Sid Haig (take your pick of amazing movies here), Vera Miles (Psycho), original Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers star Buster Crabbe, and a litany of Batman guest-stars like Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, Roddy McDowall and Julie Newmar.
I have fonder memories of this in my head as we didn’t have all that much science fiction on TV until Star Wars. However, the second season takes a definite turn, as Buck gets a whole new mission on the Searcher, a ship with the Latin motto “Per ardua ad astra” (“through adversity to the stars” or “through work to the stars”). Their goal was to seek out the lost tribes of humanity, or you know, the exact same mission as Battlestar Galactica.
Supposedly, despite the series decent direst season ratings, Gerard was displeased with its light, tongue-in-cheek tone, and frequently fought with producers. He told Starlog that he hoped the series would be canceled after the first season.
Admiral Efram Asimov, Dr. Goodfellow (Wilfrid Hyde-White from My Fair Lady) and a robot named Crichton joined the crew, along with a hawk-person named, well, Hawk (Thom Christopher, who is also in Deathstalker III and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom).
Now, the formerly funny show became as pastiche of Star Trek, with Hawk as Spock, Buck as Kirk and Wilma as Uhura, completely with a more feminine uniform that showed off her legs. Every episode was serious business, with evolution, ecology, racism, pollution, war, nuclear power, identity, the self and religion the order of the day, as well as the idea that Hawk’s people were from Easter Island and even an episode about satyrs.
Thanks to a combination of an actor’s strike and dwindling ratings, the second season went on ice after just 11 episodes.
You can tell the passage of time on the show by how brown Erin Gray’s hair is, as well as how bulging Gerard’s waistline becomes. He was warned by producer Bruce Lansbury about feasting on the company’s never closing craft service buffet to no avail. The producer asked costumer Al Lehman to slim him down via wardrobe, leading to Lehman’s nickname for the actor: the white polish sausage.
I kind of love the theme song for this movie. It’s so bad — nearly a sub-Bond theme than a science fiction ode or something closer to Maureen McGovern’s “Can You Read My Mind?” from Superman.
“Far beyond this world I’ve known, far beyond my time
What kind of world am I going to find?
Will it be real or just all in my mind?
What am I, who am I, what will I be?
Where am I going and what will I see?”
Update: On November 24, 2020, the fine folks at Kino Lorber re-released the theatrical version of Buck Rogers to Blu and DVD in an extras-loaded, 2K transfer. They’re also offering the full TV series on Blu, also complete with new interviews and commentary tracks. You can learn more about Kino Lorber’s complete roster of films at their official website and Facebook, and watch the related film trailers on You Tube.