Tuesday, February 7, 2012

BUCK ROGERS - The Lost TV Series

Believer probe design by Bob McCall
If you’re a regular reader of Space 1970  you’re already more than familiar with the 1979 television series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Produced by Universal Studios for NBC, and airing from the Fall of '79 through the Spring of 1981, Buck Rogers was a light, comic book-styled space adventure based on the classic 1930s newspaper adventure strip, and starred Gil Gerard and Erin Gray.  The show that aired on NBC that year originated with a pilot film (also released theatrically that Summer) produced by veteran TV producer Glen A. Larson – who had also created Universal’s previous television space opera, Battlestar Galactica.

Glen A. Larson
Larson – a tremendously successful producer, whose other credits include such favorites as Knight Rider, Magnum P.I. and The Fall Guy, as well as two of the three Six Million Dollar Man pilot telefilms – had a very specific idea of what made good TV: handsome, wisecracking heroes, lots of beautiful women wearing as little as possible, and simple, straight-forward and light-hearted stories that could entertain the whole family from junior to grandma. His version of Buck Rogers followed that well-tested formula precisely.

But Larson wasn’t originally supposed to produce Buck Rogers.

In fact, according to various reports in Starlog and other magazines between 1977 and '79,  when Universal and NBC first proposed a new Buck Rogers series in the late 1970s, they had a very different kind of futuristic adventure show in mind.

Originally, the NBC Buck Rogers show was going to be much more in the Star Trek vein, with more serious science fiction adventures and strongly character-driven stories. The show would take place almost exclusively in outer space, with 20th century Buck in command of the 25th Century Earth starship Constitution.

Various U.S.S. Constitution starship designs by Bob McCall
The executive producer was Andrew J. Fenady – a veteran film and televisions producer (mostly of Westerns) and probably best known as the author of The Man With Bogart’s Face. Samuel Peeples – who had written the second pilot for Star Trek – as well as plenty of Flash Gordon and Space Academy scripts for Filmation Studios, wrote the pilot film script.

David Gerrold
The science fiction author David Gerrold – best known for writing the "Trouble With Tribbles" for Star Trek, and who had recently been the story editor on the first season of the Peacock Network's own The Land of the Lost, was hired to oversee the writing on Buck Rogers.

Several scripts, with such intriguing titles as "The Guns of Babylon" and "Kill The Constitution," by sci-fi TV veterans D.C. Fontana (Star Trek, Logan's Run) and Dick Morgan (who had written for the 50s show Space Patrol, as well as Land of the Lost) were commissioned and written… but never filmed.

Acclaimed space artist Bob McCall, who had contributed concept and advertising art for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Disney's The Black Hole, was hired to design the spaceships for the series, but his designs went unused. Some of his sketches did show up in an issue of Starlog, though (which is where I snagged the scans accompanying this post), and they exhibit a decidedly different aesthetic from the spacecraft seen on Larson’s version of the show.

More Believer probe ship/shuttle designs by Bob McCall
Apparently, someone, either at the studio or the network, decided that they wanted something lighter, so the project was turned over to Glen Larson and Bruce Lansbury (The Fantastic Journey, Wonder Woman), who handled the weekly series.

It’s too bad. As much as I enjoy the comic book tone of first season of Buck Rogers, a more serious, Trek-like version of the concept, with scripts by experienced science fiction writers, might have made a very memorable – and possibly more successful - series. I sure would have liked to have seen it.

Note: This article is based on a segment from my first - and thus far, only - Space: 1970 Podcast, newly expanded and illustrated for this blog post.

25 comments:

  1. Yes, I would've preferred that kind of show too. I was a big sci-fi fan in the post 'Star Wars' late 70's but could never really take to 'Buck Rogers'. Weak storylines and too formulaic

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  2. This concept sounds a lot like where the series went for Season 2. Any idea if this concept was touched on when the next season went into production?

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    1. I agree , Season 2 is very much like this concept with one exception - Season 2 was badly done. I can forgive the cutbacks in budget but with the exception of 'Time of the Hawk' ( a fine opener ) the series struggled with 3 terrible main characters - the admiral ( who always seemed drunk to me ) , the lamppost robot who looked too cheap even for 1970's Doctor Who and wilfred hyde white who too old to bother with his lines just mumbled and ad-libbed his way around the set. The series also suffered from tired scifi plots zeroxed from other 1970s shows like Fantastic Journey and Logans Run . For its few flaws , Season 1 worked ...Season 2 didn't even get to the factory gate.

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    2. I remember reading somewhere that the change in tone was partly due to Gil Gerard complaining about Buck being such a wiseass all the time. He wanted Buck to be more like the original Buster Crabbe version, the serious no nonsense action hero. Of course that same article stated that he also campaigned to have Erin Grey's role reduced because he was tired of being upstaged by the "walking eye candy in spandex" which might explain the god awful costumes Wilma wore in Season Two.

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  3. Yeah, I agree. I recently tried watching Buck Rogers for the first time ever on NetFlix, and could not make it through the first episode. I turned it off after Erin Gray's character switched from aloof to weak in the knees in the space of about 5 minutes. Right after Buck wowed everybody with his disco dancing skills. They couldn't even give that relationship a few episodes to show the gradual thawing process.

    The alternative described above sounds much more interesting!

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  4. I believe one of the stated reasons for switching the format was that Battlestar Galactica was in production and taking the "serious, character driven" approach to its stories. Fearing that there wouldn't be room enough for two "serious" sci-fi shows, someone decided to do something that would be lighter in tone.

    Of course, by this time Star Wars had come out and the thought of building the show around a Han Solo-type character who's flippant and wise-cracking probably appealed to a lot of people too.

    I remember another piece of production art that appeared in either Starlog or one of those poster magazines you posted about a few days ago, showing Buck and a robot being attacked by mutants in old Chicago. My understanding is that this was designed for the original version of the series but I could be mistaken. I believe the artwork was by William Stout. You can see the piece here:
    http://mydelineatedlife.blogspot.com/2010/06/buck-by-wm.html

    Thanks for a great post!
    Pierre

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  5. I've read and heard by several sources that Glen A. Larson was the go to guy at NBC. They used him on everything they could the way a company would use someone for anything and everything who was getting paid way to much to be on staff and they wanted to get the most out of him.

    Donald P. Bellisario has stated more than once that he did nothing on Magnum. Due to his contract with NBC Larson's name was simply added to the list of producers as a sort of "senior" role as if Magnum fell under his department if you will.

    Lee Majors has stated several times that while they were making the Fall Guy Lee was the man in charge on the set and Larson stayed in the office. That dynamic worked for them.

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  6. Thanks for this, Chris. I remember some of those designs! And whatever happened to the *new* BUCK ROGERS Web series produced by James Cawley? Here's a link to a 2010 Trekmovie item about it along with video:

    http://trekmovie.com/2010/03/06/watch-first-clip-from-cawleys-new-buck-rogers-web-series/

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  7. Wow, those concept ship designs are fantastic, it's fun to think about what might have been............

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  8. If scripts were produced, somebody somewhere must have a copy of them -- as well as the Series Bible that would've been used to produce those scripts. Any ideas on how to track them down?

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  9. That Bob McCall work looks very similar to the Cygnus and Palomino designs for THE BLACK HOLE.

    https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/IDR8cPot3qURwqw0dneRftMTjNZETYmyPJy0liipFm0?feat=directlink

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  10. I was just thinking about those Bob McCall drawings this past weekend and viola - there posted here now! I really like those first and third starship Constitution drawings posted with this article.

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  11. Great artwork from one of the most intriguing "what if" projects of all time. Most people think the late '70s/early '80s incarnation of Buck Rogers was just another attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Star Wars, but the show was actually in the early development stage as far back as the mid-'70s. At the time, NBC was interested in developing something that would appeal to the same audience that had made Star Trek enormously popular in syndication and their thinking was that a series based on the exploits of the most well-known sci-fi hero of all time would be a guaranteed success. Unfortunately, the project proved incredibly difficult to get off the ground and sat in development hell (during which time a number of people were involved) at Universal for some time before Glen A. Larson and Leslie Stevens (fresh from getting Battlestar Galactica started) became involved, eventually resulting in the theatrical feature and TV series we know today.

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  12. I've got a copy of the pilot script "Bomber's Moon" somewhere. It's nowhere near as good as what we eventually saw on screen.

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  13. Oh, my. I'd very much like to read what scripts were written.

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  14. I've never heard about this one before... fascinating. I'm a big fan of the Buck series that eventually did get produced, but of course there are a lot of different ways to approach that material, and this "what if?" sounds like it could've been interesting. I agree with the poster above that it sounds much like where Buck went in its second season, which didn't work (IMO) because it was throwing out an established format. But it could've been good if it'd been that way from the start.

    With all the remakes and reboots these days, I'm surprised no one in Hollywood has given this one another try. Nothing against James Cawley's efforts, of course...

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  15. Wow, those drawings took me back. I spent hours mulling over all the details in Starlog when it first came out. The star fighter in the series did capture a lttle the feel of the sketches, but the rest of the show ships were disappointing, if not outright forgettable.

    These marker renderings have a real Traveler vibe, and I'm sure many a GM lifted them for use in role playing games back then (and, in fact, I stole a good many of them as visual reference for our Star Frontiers game.)

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    1. ...Ah, Star Frontiers. I actually bought the basic set when TSR - Toomany Stupid Rules, natch - released it. Worst gaming purchase I ever made, and that would have remained in place had I purchased SPI's DragonQuest instead of winning a copy at a gaming convention :)

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  16. One of the only laments I ever heard about the second season from Gil Gerard was he thought it was preferable that the threats came to Earth and not in space onboard The Searcher.

    The one name I don't see mentioned here is Fred Freiberger who was to be involved in the second season makeover for Buck Rogers. As I recall he was interviewed by Starlog and claimed the second season of Buck Rogers would be like watching the unseen 4th season of Star Trek. Also interesting is if you compare "Mark of the Saurian" it is nearly a carbon copy of a second season Space:1999 episode titled "Bringers of Wonder." Freiberger oversaw Space:1999's second season and solidified his reputation as "the kiss of death" for TV series's.

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    1. ...Actually, I suspect Christopher left out Freiberger's involvement in Buck Rogers simply because, like myself, he couldn't come up with any *new* expletives/"colorful metaphors" to accurately describe how much of a Shleprock(*) Freddie was when it came to sci-fi. I was at a SF convention the weekend after Freddie passed on, and while everyone was sorry he passed away, 8 out of every 10 people discussing the subject also hoped he was burning in hell for having been instrumental the cancellation of numerous SF series by making changes that drove away viewers instead of attracting them.

      ...IIRC, the "hit list" of Fred Freiberger went something like this:

      * Star Trek (3rd Season)
      * Space: 1999 (2nd Season)
      * Lee Majors' Polyesther Leisure Suit Action Hour: (5th Season)
      * Beyond Westworld (Six episodes before cancellation)

      ...Note that Wild Wild West is not listed here. Freddie only produced the 1st season before he was fired. IIRC both Robert Conrad and Ross Martin were dissatisfied with certain script changes during the last half of the 1st season that were made - reportedly to add "Camp" elements thanks to the success of William Dozier's Batman series - and demanded that he be replaced. This also resulted in the sacking of Freiberger's Assistant Director, Dick Landau, who reportedly didn't care for the campy changes but had supported Freddie when called in on the carpet by execs at both See-BS and Bruce Landsbury.

      ...However, to give Freddie some credibility - or at least, one day a year out of the 13th Circle of Hell for some cool R&R - I submit his involvement as principle writer/adapter of Ray Bradbury's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. While four other writers were involved, the majority of the film's plot - an expansion of Ray's The Fog Horn short story - having been Freddie's. Considering how timeless that film has remained, I'll concede that at least as a writer, Fred Freiberger had some serious talent, and had he stayed solely in that job there'd be far less negativity towards him, even a near-decade after his death.

      (*) Three rocks to whoever gets this reference :P

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  17. Freiberger is not mentioned here because he was not involved in the unproduced version of Buck Rogers that this post is about.

    In fact, I'm grateful that he was ultimately not involved with any aired version of Buck Rogers.

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  18. ...I asked David Gerrold about this first Buck Rogers attempt some years ago - in fact, I think I still had *two* real legs then - and he actually didn't have much to add other than what Christopher has posted here. What he did recall - and I'm recalling this from memory, as I can't get my e-mail archive to come up for some reason - was this:

    "As far as how the characters were supposed to be played, the pilot never got that far before Universal pulled the plug. It really wasn't as far in development as Starlog and the other fan press were reporting. [...] I actually don't have copies of anything related to that project anymore."

    ...Still, I'd love to see at least a synopsis of the pilot script, complete with plot spoilers, just to see how it compared to the Gil Gerard version, and especially whether or not it was more in a Star Trek vein of SF seriousness.

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  19. And whatever happened to the *new* BUCK ROGERS Web series produced by James Cawley?

    Hopefully, it stays dead. That's just another retro-show for people who can't let go of the past-this show concept mentioned by Chris is way better than the 1979-1981 show and this supposed to be webshow, simply for the designs of the ships, the overall plot concept, and the pedigree of the people that were to be involved with the show had it been made.

    @Christopher: Why all of the hate for Freiberger? He couldn't be any worse than Larson or the others who produced the Buck Rogers show that we actually got.

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    1. ...Why all the hate for Freiberger? Season three of TOS, series two of 1999, and in the case of TOS his refusal to write an episode of the series first to prove he understood the show. His argument was that "if you want me, take me as I am. I don't do tryouts." although he'd done just that on Rawhide, and just in case you didn't know, "Charles Woodgrove" was the penname of Fred Freiberger, who wrote three eps of 1999's series two.

      - Beta Cloud
      - Space Warp
      - Rules of Luton

      ...He also may have had some uncredited rewriting done on "The Immunity Syndrome", and claimed several times prior to his kicking the bucket almost 10 years ago that he also "swiped the title from a 'Star Trek' episode he actually liked". Ditto for the "donuts" interscenes for the first compilation 1999 movie, although there's some debate as to whether he wrote those added scenes back on Earth or not.

      ...One other interesting side point: the four episodes he wrote on Starsky and Hutch were the lowest-rated ones of that series' history.

      Yep, the guy was really the Shleprock of genre TV for almost four decades. Had he produced I Dream of Jeannie, not only would he have the Kennedy Space Center located in the middle of Nebraska launching westward, he'd have cast an actress to play Jeannie who'd have been so flat that in order to get her to appear to have an A-cup bra veil size she'd have needed D-cup implants. And we're talking the Carol Doda "Silicone Nodules" model, too.

      BottOM Line: In retrospect, nobody faults Gene Roddenberry for shifting to Executive Producer so he'd have time to work on new concepts and shows once TOS finally fell to the NBC sabotage department. What they *do* fault him for was not hiring a line producer who had at least half a clue as to what Star Trek was about, and knew how to produce a sci-fi show that wasn't a half-hour comedy. Hell, as bad as he fracked up that last season, Gene could have borrowed one of Irwin Allen's guys and still wound up with an overall better season!

      The first clue was when he refused to write a try-out script. Gene should have pointed to the exit door, and not even bothered with the courtesy of escorting him to the old Desilu back entrance out by the old cemetary...:P :OM:

      ...By all accounts, Freiberger was a nice guy, but as a line producer for the sci-fi genre, he was a quicker kiss of death than sticking his show on Friday nights just before the local late-nite news.

      ...Something else about Freddie that was mentioned to me the other day: apparently the

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