Rogers and Deering are back together again. OK, to be more precise it’s Gil Gerard and Erin Gray who have teamed-up again. Sadly, Buck and Wilma haven’t returned to our screens, but their real-life alter-egos have both appeared in a new movie, are making joint convention appearances, and join Starburst for an exclusive interview.
Let’s flash back to the distant past of… the 20th Century. It’s 1979, and hot on the heels of Battlestar Galactica, Glen A Larson unleashes Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the weekly exploits of astronaut William ‘Buck’ Rogers. Frozen in time in 1987, Buck wakes up in the far-flung future of 2491 and joins the Earth Defence Directorate, pairing up with tough talking Colonel Wilma Deering. The most expensive show on TV at the time, Buck Rogers limped halfway through its Second Season before being cancelled. Fast forward to the 21st Century and Gil Gerard and Erin Gray are at the SF Ball convention in Bournemouth, reminiscing the halcyon days when Buck and Wilma ruled the airwaves.
It has to be said that Erin and Gil (Gilbert C) are both looking great. Gil has shed over 150 pounds following major weight-loss surgery, as documented in Discovery Channel’s Action Hero Makeover, while Erin looks after herself by (among other healthy activities) running Tai Chi sessions, a class of which is an unusual addition to this sci fi convention’s regular agenda of autograph sessions and photo opportunities. “We’re having a great time,” enthuses Erin. We get on together so well, and working together on film projects or at appearances like this could never really be considered work.”
With Battlestar Galactica being successfully re-imagined for TV and Flash Gordon (arguably not so successfully) a short-lived weekly TV show, isn’t it about time for Buck and Wilma (not forgetting diminutive robot Twiki) to return for a 21st Century makeover? “Absolutely, I think it’s a wonderful franchise,” Erin agrees. ” A lot of people love it and would eagerly embrace a return, but there are problems with the people who own the rights to it. They are at a stalemate with negotiations and can’t seem to move things forwards.” Gil joins in. “I tried to deal with the copyright holders shortly after the show was cancelled because I wanted to do a feature film with the ideas that I’d had for Season Three (see separate sidebar), but it proved impossible. I think they felt like they were protecting the legacy of the creator (Philip Francis Nowlan), but I get the feeling that he personally would have wanted his character to grow and be updated for a modern audience.”
In the absence of a revival, there are still 37 episodes to savour, and Erin guesses why the show is still being talked about over thirty years after its original transmission. “I think it’s because Buck was such a likeable and cheeky character, and you don’t see much sci fi that has that level of humour any more,” she suggests. “I guess it also got people thinking what the planet will be like in five hundred years – what will be familiar and what will be starkly different – and finally I think it’s great that the whole family could sit down and watch it together. A lot of sci fi is so dark now that the kids really shouldn’t be watching it, but our show had universal appeal.” Indeed, the adults loved Buck, many a teenage boy had pin-ups of Wilma on their bedroom wall (hey, don’t judge me!) and the kids wanted a real-life Twiki.
Aside from the broad family appeal, Buck Rogers presented something of a rarity for Seventies sci fi… a strong female role. “When I joined the show they gave me a ‘bible’ on Wilma’s background – about how the Earth had been through a Holocaust and everybody got jobs based on their abilities – man or woman,” Erin explains. “For me, my character was strong in this aspect and yet very much a virgin and inexperienced when it came to men and relationships. In fact, Gil fought for the other women in the show so that they were represented in a positive way.” Gil recalls these battles. “Wilma was the standard bearer for all these women - the best of the best. If she was the only one in power then she would have been just a token. By being the leader of others, it made her even stronger, and that’s why I pushed for female technician and pilots around her.”
Erin’s Wilma Deering proved to be a credible role model, and she has been told stories of how the character convinced many women to join the armed forces and other previously male-dominated careers. Erin herself cuts a strong authority figure and was in the final five alongside Genevieve Bujold and Kate Mulgrew when it came to the casting of Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. However, while Wilma was at her authoritative best in Season One of Buck Rogers, Season Two saw a dilution of the mix following the addition of a new sidekick for Buck, the birdman Hawk. “I became the weak female stereotype in the second season,” Erin laments. “It was really disappointing. I had seen her become stronger in terms of her ability to fight and do martial arts. They had a character that obviously the fans enjoyed and wanted to see more of, and then they just missed the boat.”
The second season of Buck Rogers not only saw a reduced role for Wilma, but a new emphasis on searching for lost colonies in the stars on the Searcher, making it more like a recycled Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. Gil was not happy. “Obviously it wasn’t my decision to make those changes, and in fact I came up with an alternative for Season Three to bring things back on track again.” Gil’s idea brought Buck and Wilma back to Earth, exploring the post-holocaust planet. “Not only would it have been better creatively but economically because they wouldn’t have to spend so much on special effects,” he rationalises. ”I spent two years going through the correct channels, trying to get someone to listen to my ideas, but I was continually rebuffed. Finally I went over everyone’s head straight to the executives at Universal. I had a meeting with the president, who said ‘That’s the best idea we heard in two years. Why haven’t we heard this before? If we pick the show up for a Third Season that’s exactly the direction we’ll go in.’ It became a moot point though because we weren’t picked up.”
Of course, Wilma was not Buck’s sole female interest. He also received the attentions of the evil Princess Ardala, as played by Pamela Hensley. “Buck certainly thought Ardala was beautiful, but he didn’t trust her. He recognised that she was devious and manipulative, whereas he had complete respect for Wilma,” Gil clarifies. And what of Twiki’s occasional outbursts, such as ‘Biddi biddi, she’s foxy!’ Would it be fair to say that these politically incorrect retorts represented Buck’s inner most thoughts? “Not at all!’ Gil responds, possibly offended.” I haven’t heard that theory before. That was Twiki’s own inner monologue coming out. I always felt that Buck said exactly what was on his mind, so why would he need a surrogate? He certainly wasn’t shy about coming forward.”
Sidebar 1: Buck to the past
Instead of propelling five hundred years into the future, let’s reverse the process and go back to the past – destination 1979. With hindsight, how might Gil and Erin have done things differently? “I think that if I had to do it over again I would have gone to the ‘powers that be’ right off the bat and told them what changes needed to be made,” Gil decides. “Instead I wasted two years going through the correct channels and got nowhere. With my ideas they could have saved up to a million bucks an episode on the special effects,” he sighs. Erin shares her thoughts on what she might have changed. “I regret not standing up for my character when they changed her so drastically in Season Two,” she suggests. “Part of me gave out emotionally at the time because I really didn’t want to fight that battle. Looking back on things now it was a battle I should have fought.” So, no regrets about those slinky figure-hugging cat suits? “I thought that Wilma would have looked good in silver or grey outfits, but I accept that a lot of people liked the brightly-coloured ones,” she smiles. For the record, Erin no longer owns the original outfits, she asked for them to be burned!
Sidebar 2: Saving the Earth… again!
Gil and Erin joined forces again for a 2007 TV movie directed by Fred Olen (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers) Ray called Storm Effect. At least that’s what we thought its name was. “I think it’s called Meltdown now,” Erin corrects. “They changed the name from Storm Effect, Nuclear Hurricane or Atomic Hurrican.” Gil joins in: “Is that so? I hadn’t realised. I don’t pay attention, just so long as the cheque clears…” he laughs. “It was great fun, and the first time that we’ve worked together since Buck Rogers. Gil played my boss and got to fire me, and I got to stomp off,” Erin chuckles. “We were really naughty and frisky in the interviews we did afterwards. I really hope those things don’t air any time soon. It was at the end of a long day!” Independently of Gil, Erin has also completed work on mystical family drama Dreams Awake where she was teamed up with Tim O’Connor, who played Dr Huer in the first Season of Buck Rogers. Gil has worked with Bruce Boxleitner and Walter Koenig on monster movie Bone Eater, and dino-epic Reptisaurus. There is no truth in the suggestion that he’ll be joining up with Twiki for a remake of Robocop, or with Hawk for The Birdman of Alcatraz.