Wednesday, July 14, 2010

BUCK ROGERS: "Return of the Fighting 69th"

I've made no secret of my affection for the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Like the "Silver Age" and "Bronze Age" superhero comics I grew up with and still love, it was a show about adventure, humor, glamor and heroism. One thing it wasn't was subtle. But you, know, I like that. One of my favorite episodes from that first season - perhaps my very favorite - is "Return of the Fighting 69th."

I actually started writing a detailed synopsis of the episode, but after about an hour and half spent recounting roughly the first ten minutes of the show, I realized that I was being stupid. Not only is the show on DVD (and I bet most readers of this blog have the set) but it can be watched on Hulu by anyone who's not familiar with it or can't remember it from when it aired in the autumn of '79.

Suffice to say, this is the episode where a bunch of "over-the-hill" space marines are recruited for one last mission - a strike on the base of galactic gunrunners Corliss (Robert Quarry of Count Yorga, Vampire) and his partner/lover Roxanne Trent (Elizabeth Allen), which is hidden the heart of a nigh-impenetrable asteroid field. These veterans - the titular "Fighting 69th," are led by Noah Cooper (Mission: Impossible's Peter Graves), Wilma's old flight instructor and family friend.

This is an interesting episode to me for a lot of reasons. For one thing, we get a nice anti-ageism message and a sympathetic supporting character who is a deaf-mute (deaf actress Katherine Wiberg - pictured above - in her only TV or film role). For another, we're given tantalizing little glimpses into Wilma's past. It's stated that her father flew with the 69th when she was a child. Clearly her father (never mentioned before or again) was not only a military pilot, but died while she was young, and Cooper became something of a surrogate father figure to her. This explains a lot about her character (at least as portrayed in these early episodes) and gives Erin Gray some genuinely human emotions to express.

We also get another brief glimpse into Buck's history when we find out that back in the 20th Century, Buck dated a teacher who worked with the deaf, and who taught him sign language. Is there nothing this man cannot do?

The episode's villains, Corliss and Trent, are fascinating, as well. In a previous encounter with Colonel Deering, they were trapped in a burning spaceship where Corliss was severely disfigured and lost an eye. Trent lost a hand to the flames, pulling him to safety, and their status as interstellar fugitives prevented them from getting top-flight medical care, condemning them to clunky metal prostheses and grotesque scarring. Their plot to destroy Earth's population with some stolen 20th Century nerve gas is driven by pure, unbridled revenge. What's particularly interesting to me is that they genuinely seem to love each other. Sure, they're horrible, mercenary criminals, but they are capable of love - if only for each other.

Another thing I like about this episode are the great guest stars, something that Buck Rogers, in its first season, really excelled at. Aside from the late, great Peter Graves and B-movie heavy Quarry, we get the legendary Woody Strode as one of the 69th's pilots. This guy's film career goes all the way back to 1939 and he's worked with directors like John Ford and Stanley Kubrick. He isn't given a lot to do in the episode except look imposing, but it's just so cool to see him in a space suit.

I also have to mention the 69th's mascot, a mutt named "Lucky." In an article that story editor Alan Brennert wrote for Starlog magazine back in 1980, he discussed this episode at some length. Apparently the writers were getting a bit punchy and were extremely amused with how loaded this particular script was with "schmaltz" - a deaf-mute slave girl rescued and reunited with her family by Buck, the whole Wilma-Cooper soap opera etc. - and started joking about how all the episode needed now was a puppy. The story goes that they then received a phone call from the network demanding that they find a place in the episode for a dog. It turns out that the pooch had been rescued by and showcased in The National Enquirer, and the network figured that if they gave the canine a role on the show, they'd get tons of publicity in the tabloid. At first, the writers were convinced it was a joke, but no - the dog was written into the script.

There's a lot of new Hartland effects shots in "Return," beginning with the Nacrosis asteroid belt itself. It's not as kinetic and interesting as the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back, but it's effective enough for Buck Rogers. There are at least three space dogfights featuring "Scorpion" fighters (first seen in "Planet of the Slave Girls") and "cargo sleds" equipped with tail guns. There's also the miniature of Corliss & Trent's base itself, built into a large asteroid.

I've always loved this episode, with its classic adventure plot and interesting characters. I even like the so-called "schmaltz" (though I'd prefer to think of it as "heart") - when Cooper and his crew are presumed dead for a while at the end of the episode, I always choke up a little. And when Alicia is reunited with her family in the tag, it's a genuinely emotional - if somewhat thrown away - scene. But even more than those elements, I just love particular moments. For example, when Roxanne Trent meets Buck, she offers him her metal hand with the expectation of revolting or threatening him, but he takes it in his own and places a gentlemanly kiss on her copper-plated wrist. That's cool.

I also like Wilma's enthusiastic flirting with the guards when she and Buck are thrown into a holding cell on Corliss' base. The comic sequence is extremely broad and campy, but it's funny, too - and Gray looks astoundingly sexy in the scene.

There's also a surprisingly grim and effective scene between Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis when they believe that the mission has failed and Buck & Wilma are dead. Their discussion about their options is bleak and somewhat frightening. Apparently there's an "Omega complex" somewhere underground that can hold a limited number of people (specifically, Earth's leadership), and it falls to Huer and Theopolis to choose who will be permitted to survive. Considering that one of the participants in the scene is a plastic prop with flashing lights, it's a remarkably effective and moving sequence.

But my absolute favorite moment is when Buck grabs an old machine gun off a pile of 20th Century munitions and threatens Corliss with it. "That's just an ancient signaling device," Corliss insists. Buck fires a few hundred rounds into the floor: "Get the message?"

So - solid military mission-adventure plot, interesting villains and charismatic guest stars, lots of outer space action, some emotion and Buck Rogers with a machine gun. In my book, that adds up to a hell of a great hour of TV space opera, and I never tire of rewatching it.


Next on "Favorite Episodes" - Space: 1999's "War Games."

14 comments:

  1. The only thing it lacked was the return of Buster Crabbe as Brigadier Gordon... ;-(

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  2. I wonder if they considered that at any stage....?

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  3. Man I loved this show when I was a kid! I've ordered the DVDs on Netflix so I'm hoping to catch up. BTW, have you seen the Women of Buck Rogers series over at Retrospace?

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  4. Hit every nail on the head with this one. This ep ranks with the Dorothy Stratten story and the Vampire one as my favorite Buck Rogers stories.

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  5. I really enjoyed those 1st season Buck Rogers episodes. Fun stuff.

    Bobby

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  6. This really makes me want to watch season one. I've been meaning to get around to watching this box set but there never seems to be anytime. I always dug the Jamie Lee Curtis episode and the two parter with Frank Gorshin. Can't wait to read more of these.

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  7. I watched this episode on Netflix through the Wii and loved it. Thanks for suggesting it Christopher!

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  8. Buster Crabbe does a cameo in a later episode. When Buck admires his flying he uses the line " Son I've been doing this kind of thing since before you were born"...nice!

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    1. Actually Crabbe appeared in the first two-part episode (not including the Pilot), earlier in the season, as has been covered elsewhere on this blog.

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  9. Kudos, sir, for mentioning the Alan Brennert article in Starlog! I remember reading that as a kid and laughing out loud. It was a rare behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood that indicated that sometimes the networks made stupid decisions for stupid reasons. That incident about the dog was great. I can almost remember what he wrote verbatim: "I said, 'The only thing this episode lacks is a dog!' Just then, the phone rang..."

    Just before the series came out on DVD somebody wrote a big two-part article in a sci-fi magazine that recounted a lot of the production problems with the show. It was always run very poorly. The article recounted how the actor who played Dr. Huer learned that he would not be in the second season... during the press conference for the second season! A producer learned that he had lost his job when somebody showed up to take over his office. I think they had a joke about Universal that "when you need it really bad, that's how we'll give it to you."

    Gil Gerard had a bad reputation and apparently was not liked (Brennert hinted at that in his Starlog article). But Erin Grey came to his defense on a few things, saying that he got a bad rap for a number of incidents, like pointing out that there were not enough women working in the Earth Defense Forces.

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  10. Some other things from my memory of the Starlog article:

    There was a union rule that no more than one person could be in one of the golf carts that they used to get around the studio lot. They had to call a Teamster to drive them. So one day the two writers decided to head over someplace and got in the golf cart together. They were puttering along when suddenly they heard a "Hey!" It was the driver of one of the Universal Studios Tour trams (and of course a Teamster). Next thing they know, the tram driver is trying to turn the tram around and follow them, pulling a load of tourists along as well!

    Brennert was rather contemptuous of the production and the studio. (My guess is that he never expected to work for them again.) He thought that the network/studio/producer set a low bar for Buck Rogers and never cared about producing a higher quality show. I think (and this is my opinion, not Brennert's) that a lot of TV shows at the time did not take themselves too seriously and didn't worry about quality writing. Of course, one could say that Hollywood in the 1970s was doing a lot of coke, so maybe that's why they didn't care.

    Brennert ended the article with a quote by Gil Gerard saying that if they failed, it was his fault. That was Brennert's way of not saying anything bad about Gerard but clearly laying a lot of blame on him.

    The two-parter article that ran around 2004 or so had a lot of behind-the-scenes info. I cannot remember the author or the magazine, but it was around the time of the 2004 DVD release. The author was not able to interview Gil Gerard, who apparently had washed his hands of the whole thing (although it's pretty much the only notable thing he did).

    Erin Grey was more open about it. She said that she had been a studio player when she got the job on the show, meaning that she had a standard low-paying retainer contract. She said that the show got a lot of press and did reasonably well in the ratings and suddenly she discovered that she was a star but could barely pay the rent on her apartment. Her agent managed to get her more money, but it still sounded like she felt she had been taken advantage of early on. She also admitted that it was almost impossible to move or breathe in many of the tight outfits they made her wear. She could not sit down in some of them. I think she said that they had to lean her against a wall at times.

    Nobody would outright say bad things about Gil Gerard, but it was clear that he was wildly unpopular on set and with the writers and directors and just about everybody. Indeed, in a big two-part article about the show, the gaping hole is the star, because he wouldn't talk and nobody wanted to talk about him.

    Erin Grey did say that Gerard earned a reputation for being difficult that was not entirely fair. She told the story about how they were filming an early episode (maybe it was the pilot?) and he noted to the director that there should be more women in the background; it was all men. So they halted production in order to find some female extras. Grey said that the story that went around was that Gerard had thrown a fit, but the reality was that he made an entirely valid observation. I got the impression that she thought that there were a few other cases where Gerard complained about the campiness of the show and wanted it to be more serious, but was told to shut up and dance to the disco music.

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  11. Just remembered one more story, although I cannot remember if it was in the Brennert Starlog article or the two-part article that I saw around 2004 or so. But apparently there was an explanation for the dramatic change in the Wilma Deering character. If I remember correctly, after the pilot and maybe a few episodes aired the network got some complaints (or it could have been from focus groups) that Deering was too bossy. Indeed, if you watch the pilot again, you see that she's rather stern. People didn't like that, and so she got really toned down, and so in many later episodes Buck is rescuing Wilma and she's not as competent.

    I'm trying to remember if the article also said that many of the strongest complaints came from women, although I seem to remember that Gene Roddenberry faced the same complaint with the original Star Trek pilot over the "Number One" character. Maybe I'm confusing the two. But it is not hard to imagine people--especially women--in 1979 complaining about a woman colonel who gives men orders. After all, the military academies did not accept women until the mid-1970s, and it would take over a decade before women were allowed in combat support roles in the U.S. military.

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  12. Note: Katherine also appeared in an episode of T.J. Hooker "Death Strip" season 3 Episode 19..

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  13. Thanks for the article.

    This episode has one of my favorite lines ... "Ever been in a fire, Rogers?!"

    For some reason, I just love that. :)

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