It says Buck Rogers in the 25th Century on the cover but this cheesy, corny and often-embarrassing late-'70s reimagining of the futuristic sci-fi hero created back in the 1920s, is strictly Star Wars for Dummies. George Lucas’s seminal space saga is rightly regarded as an important landmark in the history of genre cinema but we’re not sure we can ever forgive him for inspiring Glen A. Larson to create the original Battlestar Galactica and then the equally clunky Buck Rogers in an attempt to grab a bite of the back-in-vogue sci-fi pie.
Watching Buck Rogers now - the bad acting, lousy scripts, misjudged characterisations, props painfully obviously borrowed from Galactica and often dubious special effects (so much primitive matte work!) - it’s sobering to remember that this stuff gave the 18th season of Doctor Who a bloody ratings nose back in 1980 when the two shows went head-to-head on British television. Admittedly, the good Doctor wasn’t on top form at the time so we can perhaps make allowances for an audience seduced by a glitzy-looking TV show offering superficial Star Wars thrills but there are no prizes for guessing which series has better stood the time over the years (answer: it’s the one with a Police Box).
In the tortuous pilot feature-length debut Awakening we’re introduced to hunky, square-jawed 20th century astronaut William Anthony ‘Buck’ Rogers whose command on the Ranger 3 spacecraft in May 1987 lasts a little longer than he might have expected when his life support system malfunctions, plunging him into a period of suspended animation which ends when his apparently-abandoned craft is discovered adrift in 2491. He learns that humanity came close to extinction following a devastating nuclear war but society has been rebuilt under the protection of the Earth Defence Directorate. Buck, an outrageous stereotype of swaggering bravado, ridiculous chest hair and tight trousers, adapts to life in the 25th century with relative ease and he becomes an asset to the EDF and soon finds himself, alongside his will they/won’t they love interest, the shapely (different times) Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) protecting the ravaged Earth from attack by various hostile alien threats, particularly the exotic Princess Ardala (Pamela Helmsley) who covets the Earth as much as she fancies her chances with Buck. Buck has an additional sidekick in the shape of a beyond-irritating child-sized robot called Twiki (voiced by Mel Blanc) whose ‘biddi-biddi-biddi’ catchphrase is almost certainly the only thing most of the show’s casual contemporary viewers will remember from the series nearly forty years later. Season One is ropey and threadbare twaddle which has dated quite shockingly, standout dire episodes including Unchained Woman, Planet of the Amazon Women, and Planet of the Slave Girls (which boasts an extraordinarily-hammy guest turn from Jack Palance) which characterise a series in which Alpha Male Buck spends most of his time rescuing nearly naked young women from captivity with the odd tacky space dogfight thrown in for the Star Wars crowd.
Buck Rogers staggered into a second season and underwent a massive overhaul in an attempt to boost feeble viewing figures. The show dumped its first-year format and almost its entire supporting cast (apart from Wilma and bloody Twiki) and placed Buck aboard a spaceship called Searcher sent off on a mission to explore the cosmos, meet strange new civilizations and boldly go where Star Trek had gone before. The writing is marginally better in season two and one or two episodes verge on the tolerable but the show almost becomes surreal when Wilfred Hyde White’s rambling Dr Goodfellow, sporting a selection of splendid wrap-around cardigans throughout the series, stumbles onto the set, clearly wandering off-script in a fashion Doctor Who’s William Hartnell would have envied, much to the clear amusement of Gerrard and Gray who just let him get on with it. Searcher’s crew are joined in two-part series opener Time of the Hawk by Thom Christopher’s Hawk (he wears a costume which looks… well, a bit birdlike), a refugee from a race wiped out by rogue human pirates. Hawk adds a bit of welcome, if rather silly, portentous gravitas to the proceedings but it soon becomes clear that having made a hash out of ripping off Star Wars in its first series, Buck Rogers was also making a hash of doing likewise to Star Trek in its second.
A genuinely dreadful product of its time, the passing years have been savagely cruel to Buck Rogers; not only have visual effects and production values moved on in quantum leaps since this was churned out, so have audience expectations of genre television. Those with fond memories of Buck Rogers from the early 1980s may find their return visit to the 25th century briefly diverting but there’s nothing here at all for newcomers apart from a sigh of relief that this terrible series was canned just thirteen episodes into its second season. Biddi-biddi-bugger-off, Buck.
BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY - THE COMPLETE SERIES / CERT: 15 /DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING GIL GERRARD, ERIN GRAY, PAMELA HESLEY, TIM O’CONNOR, FELIX SILLA, THOM CHRISTOPHER, WILFRED HYDE-WHITE/ RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW