Space Babes, Robots, and Disco Boogie: ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’ in the 21st Century

It’s not easy being an astronaut: studying vectors, fuel consumption reports, star charts, and demonstrating fast reaction times, all while piloting a 135-ton space vehicle roaring against the unrelenting pull of Earth’s gravity. What happens when operations don’t go exactly according to mission parameters? The crew of the Apollo 13 lunar mission had a picnic compared to Captain William “Buck” Rogers, as his NASA shuttle, Ranger 3, encounters an unknown space anomaly, and the vessel and its pilot are frozen for five hundred years. Not familiar with Captain Rogers and his legendary exploits? You’d be forgiven, as poor Buck has fallen into obscurity since his 1979 feature film and subsequent TV series (1979-1981). Created as a daily newspaper comic strip by Philip Francis Nowlan in 1929 (predating the comic-book exploits of Superman and Batman by a decade), the character was an instant success with readers, providing a rare glimpse of pulpy science fiction, as the character, a post-WWI air service pilot who now earns a living surveying abandoned mines, suffers a cave-in and is “frozen” in an unconscious state for five hundred years, now dealing with a future Earth at war with extraterrestrial foes, space pirates, and an assortment of robots. The strip was so popular, it spawned imitators like Flash Gordon, another vintage Depression-era space hero, and launched comic books, pulp novels, movie serials, and a short-lived TV series in the early 1950s.

By the late 1970s, as film studios rushed science-fiction movies into production to cash in on the Star Wars phenomenon, Universal Pictures launched a big-screen version of the character, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Produced and written by prolific TV producer Glen A. Larson and Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits, Incubus) and directed by Daniel Haller (Die, Monster, Die!, The Dunwich Horror), the film was originally made for television; the theatrical success of Larson’s Battlestar Galactica in Europe and Canada and an impressive screening for company executives convinced the studio to release it as a feature film. Though seen as a Star Wars knockoff, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was the latest iteration of a character that had helped inspire George Lucas’ cinematic space saga. While serious science-fiction enthusiasts would howl with derision, audiences who saw the film were delighted by space battles, post-apocalyptic mutants, a sarcastic robot, a cosmic princess, and Buck’s ability to “boogie” on the 25th Century dancefloor, all essential ingredients for making an entertaining, memorable outer-space extravaganza. Buck Rogers is no forgotten masterpiece, but it sure is a lot of fun.

In the 25th Century, William “Buck” Rogers (Gil Gerard) and his frozen ship are discovered by the Draconian Empire, already en route to Earth for a trade conference, amid frequent pirate attacks on the planet’s trade routes. Aboard the Draconian ship Draconia, Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) and her lieutenant, Kane (Henry Silva), privately scheme to use Buck as an unwitting decoy to have Earth’s security shields opened in order to attack and conquer the planet. Buck is cautiously embraced by Earth Defense Directorate’s leader, Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O’Connor), as a curious 20th Century relic, an out-of-time man on an unfamiliar home world that has been rebuilt centuries after nuclear war almost obliterated humanity. With the help of his assigned robot, a wise-cracking “ambuquad” named Twiki, and one of Earth’s smartest computers, Dr. Theopolis, he discovers the Draconians’ nefarious plot and must convince a suspicious Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) and the rest of the Earth Defense Directorate that he’s really one of the good guys. Can Buck save Earth and find a home on this strange new world?

In order to make the character more relatable to the audiences of 1979, Buck Rogers’ backstory was updated from a WWI veteran to an astronaut in the futuristic year of 1987, using the impending launch of NASA’s space shuttle program to emphasize his space-age skills. Gil Gerard, a relatively unknown actor with only a handful of TV commercials to his credit, is a big reason Buck Rogers in the 25th Century succeeds as well as it does. Brave, resourceful, decisive, and good-humored, Gerard imbues the character with all the charm required to play a likable science-fiction hero, flirting with both Princess Ardala and Wilma, not dissimilar to the loveable smuggler Han Solo, or the maverick space explorer James T. Kirk. Though he’s a man lost in time, he accepts his situation after an unauthorized tour of Old Chicago, which is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland outside the gleaming, futuristic city of New Chicago. While Twiki complains that he’s “freezing his ball bearings” outside the protection of New Chicago, Buck fights off nuclear mutants to save his new robotic friend and finds the graves of his parents, punctuating the fact that the people he knew and loved are long gone. When he’s accused of being a Draconian spy, once again Buck doesn’t wait for permission to stow away aboard the Draconian flagship to find proof that the Draconians are masquerading as the space pirates attacking Earth’s trade routes. He’s also keen on demonstrating to Princess Ardala his 20th Century dance moves, in a memorably silly scene in which Earth hosts a gala for their Draconian guests. Without Gerard’s affable screen presence, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century could have been a much dour film.

The rest of the film’s cast is quite good, more than up to the challenge of reciting cheesy sci-fi dialogue or parading around in tight spandex uniforms. B-movie veteran Henry Silva is great fun as Princess Ardala’s lieutenant, reminding her royal highness that her infatuation with Buck is a distraction from the Draconians’ ultimate plan. Hensley as the ravishing Ardala clearly relishes her role, providing a welcome sight whenever she appears onscreen (and not just because of her very suggestive outfits), as she exhibits strength, cunning, and a tendency for falling for 20th Century astronauts. Hensley and Gerard have very good chemistry together and it’s plain to see that ol’ Buck is surely tempted to remain at Ardala’s side, despite the ramifications for Earth—that’s how powerful a presence she projects. In the hands of another actress, Ardala could have come off as a shrill villainous stereotype, but with Hensley, she is an alluring antagonist with suggestions of much more on her mind than conquest and power (though she clearly likes both). Hensley would make additional and memorable appearances on the subsequent TV series, though Silva would be replaced by the equally-imposing Michael Ansara. Erin Gray can’t match Hensley in the audacious costuming department (though her spandex uniform does impress), but she is equally good as the leader of Earth’s defense fleet as Colonel Wilma Deering. Strong, confident, and a natural leader, Wilma doesn’t fall for Buck’s charming routine because she’s got too much responsibility and his hairy-chested, 20th Century braggadocio doesn’t impress her. However, as Buck proves his worth to Earth, she softens her stance and ends up being part of an unrequited love triangle with Buck and Ardala. Mel Blanc as the voice of Twiki provides much-needed humor, especially with his “BEEDA-BEEDA-BEEDA” sound effect each time he speaks–how can anybody not like a swaying robot shaped like a silver dildo? Howard Flynn provides the soothing, reassuring voice of Dr. Theopolis, a portable AI computer, worn by Twiki, who clearly crushes on Buck, repeatedly calling him a “handsome man.” As someone who openly dislikes C-3PO and R2-D2, I’ll take Twiki and Dr. Theopolis over those irritating Star Wars droids any day.

Though much of Buck Rogers’ production design and special effects were created with television in mind, they still hold up on the big screen, if not as flashy as its contemporaries Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or even The Black Hole. Motion-control miniature work was still in its infancy, but it’s enjoyable to see Buck and Twiki handle flying an Earth starfighter or the looming dominance of the massive battleship Draconia. Matte paintings by acclaimed artist Syd Dutton are used to good effect in many sequences, particularly Old Chicago and the hanger bay of the Earth defense fleet, and location shooting in and around the newly-built Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, a gleaming series of glass towers used to showcase New Chicago, helps avoid the over-reliance on artificial film sets. Costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorléac won a Saturn Award for the film’s wardrobe, thanks mostly to Pamela Hensley’s performance in his creations. The film’s title sequence is a hilariously cheesy sendup of James Bond opening credits, as Gil Gerard lies asleep on brightly-lit white panels as a bevy of beautiful women, including Erin Gray and Pamela Hensley, cavort around him in shapely silver costumes, all while singer Kipp Lennon sings the title song, “Suspension”; it signals to the viewer that like the James Bond-in-outer-space film Moonraker (also released in 1979), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century has its tongue planted firmly in its cinematic cheek.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is a disco-flavored phantasmagoria that is a wonderful respite from the high-minded and serious tones found in many of the big-budget Hollywood sci-fi films of the late 1970s. Unfairly labeled as a dumb movie that launched an equally dumb TV show, Buck Rogers creates a refreshing update of a vintage pulp hero with doses of action, romance, and humor. It doesn’t require audiences to linger over morality plays or grapple with overwrought, unearned drama (like many of Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction films, particularly Interstellar). It provides plenty of eye candy with space battles and explosions, revealing and “futuristic” costumes, and delightful robots that serve as comic relief. Buck Rogers wouldn’t top many “Best Sci-Fi Films of the 1970s” lists, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as a bad movie. Gil Gerard’s Buck conveys a very earnest man doing his best to fit in with his new century and much like 25th Century Earth, audiences can’t help but like him. Gerard would continue to instill the character with nobility and humor on the TV series (until the second season’s drastic format change turned him into a Captain Kirk clone and the series into a Star Trek knockoff), but it’s the film that deserves to be remembered as a lively, very-much-of-its-times sci-fi flick that continues to be enjoyed in the 21st Century.

Author

  • Jay Alary

    Jay lives in downtown Calgary, Alberta with his beloved partner, two cats, and far too many books and movies.

    j.alary@gmail.com Alary Jay
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