Friday, February 12, 2010

25th Century Perspectives

I've been looking back through some of my old Starlog magazines from the 70s, and earlier today I ran across a couple of articles from early 1980, where the cast and producers of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century were enthusiastically discussing the changes that were being made in the show for its second season. Everyone involved - it appears - were certain that these changes were all positive and would result in a much-improved and more popular program.

Today, though, many - if not most - of us who remember the show regard the second season as a giant disappointment, with virtually all the charm and comic book fun of the first year drained away and replaced with ill-conceived, sub-Trek storylines, reduced production values, a dull, "serious" Gil Gerard (who apparently never realized that it was his charm and humor that were his strengths as a performer) and - perhaps worse of all - a tragically diminished and, frankly, demeaning, new role for Erin Gray's Wilma Deering. Without so much as an ounce of evident shame, the producers reduced her from a competent, intelligent woman of action to glorified telephone operator (I think - did they ever actually establish her position on the Searcher definitively?) in an absurd, unflattering carhop uniform.

But, to go back and read these old Starlog articles, it looks like this was exactly what the people in charge - and in the cast - wanted. Gerard wanted to show that he was a serious, thoughtful actor in stories that were about "ideas," and Gray wanted her role to be more feminine and less butch. (I wonder if she'd seen that ludicrous sailor suit yet?) Both praised the arrival of new producer John Mantley, whose past experience on Gunsmoke was supposed to be evidence of his mastery of characterization and drama, if not (as we soon learned) science fiction-fantasy.

Of course, Gerard had been difficult since the beginning, giving the impression that the comic strip-styled action-adventure nature of the show, with its scene-stealing robots, bright colors and scantily-clad female guest stars, were beneath him. It's a shame that he couldn't grasp just how unique that was, and how entertaining that approach could be.

In fact, the first season's "James Bond in space" format was something we hadn't seen before on television. The idea that this guy from our time era had an edge over all those futuristic villains because he knew how to rely on his own wits, intelligence, reflexes and experience was extremely appealing to young audiences. The "mission" format opened up the show to a variety of action-driven stories, and the relationships between the characters were all presented as being based on mutual respect. Buck appreciated Wilma as his guide to his new world and as a professional, respected Huer's sense of duty and basic humanity, and treated TWIKI as a valued friend. They, in turn, recognized that he brought something new and important to their time with his individuality and self-reliance, and could accomplish things that they could not.

And they laughed, and enjoyed each other's company.

The first season was light and the stories were unabashedly goofy (though, usually in a good way), but it was a future that was fun to visit once a week, with a hero that kids could look up to.

All of that was lost in the second year, with its half-baked format that stole equally from Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, an uninspired and recycled spaceship model (from Season 1's "Cruise Ship to the Stars"), and hastily repainted and cobbled-together sets (Hint for SF television producers: if you're going to set your show on a single vessel week after week, make it distinctive and cool in its own right, instead of a random jumble of reused flats and rented computer props leftover from the 60s,awkwardly positioned so as to hide the seams. See Star Trek, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, Firefly, etc).

The introduction of avian alien Hawk (an absurdly improbable concept, though well-played by Thom Christopher) changed it into more of a "buddy" show, giving Buck another male to adventure with, while Wilma stayed safely back on the ship, since women - even in John Mantley's 25th Century - really have no place in adventure stories, except to stay home, worry about their men, and make coffee.

The rest of the new supporting cast - Admiral Asimov (poor Isaac!), Doctor Goodfellow (an absent-minded scientist? Yeah, that's who I want as science officer on my starship - and gee, what a fresh idea!), and Crichton the obnoxious robot (yet another recycled prop) - were nothing but stock cyphers who were inexplicably subservient to their civilian passenger. Not one of them was given a consistent personality, with Asimov (for example) vacillating wildly between abrasive and confrontational to acquiescent and impotent -- sometimes in the same episode!

As for the scripts, well, they're what you'd expect the producer of Gunsmoke to think was science fiction, undercooked plots that would have been rejected by Star Trek, executed blandly. I'm sure part of that was Universal's cost-cutting, but still. One episode, "The Satyr," was literally recycled - it's basically the same script as Battlestar Galactica's "The Lost Warrior" and would reappear again as Tales of the Gold Monkey's "The Lady And The Tiger." I guess Universal wanted to get their money's worth out of that blatant Shane rip-off.

Here's the thing: the idea of making the show more serious and giving Buck more depth as a character - that's actually pretty smart, and might have made an entertaining show. But the way it was done - which was just completely inept - only killed the series that much faster.

It's all history now, and I have no idea if the principals involved - Mantley, Gerard, Gray, et al - see that second season as the disaster that I, and many other fans, do. Maybe they think that it's the better of the two seasons. I don't happen to agree, and what do I know? I was just a loyal viewer who missed the confident, wisecracking hero, scantily-clad female guest stars (Markie Post!) and Mel Blanc's TWIKI characterization.

The second season's not a total waste - I think three of the 13 episodes very nearly work (for the record: "Mark of the Saurian," "Testimony of a Traitor," and "The Dorian Secret."), but none of them are as simply entertaining as the majority of the first season. Hell, even "Cosmic Whiz Kid" is kinda charming, in a pandering sort of way. It's just sort of a shame that the people involved didn't recognize what actually worked about the show, and put so much effort into eliminating those aspects completely in its second year.

Obviously, I think way too much about this stuff.


  1. I totally agree with you about the second season of Buck Rogers.

    However, I have a question for you -- the image that tops the right-hand column (labeled "Starstreak.jpg") -- what is that from? I'm having the damnedest time placing it.

  2. Excellent overview. :)

    I thought Journey to Oasis from Season 2 was decent, but in general the second season was definitely not as good as the first.

  3. I watched quite a bit of Buck Rogers when I was a kid. About a year ago I rewatched the entire first season. I was blown away by how fun, funny and sexual the show was. Truly, James Bond in Space.

  4. But man did Hawk have a cool fighter. Also, I thought Crichton was neat (and totally didn't realize he was recycled).

    Well, I was ten. Go figure.

  5. Gareth-Michael:
    "StarStreak" is from the awful "HG Wells the Shape of Things to Come".
    I loved the 1930s flick and walked out on the remake.

    As to the "Season Two Curse"...
    Both Buck and Space:1999 had awful (and final) sophmore seasons!
    Hawk and Maya were both unnecessary additions, and tossing Elias Huer and Victor Bergman literally out the airlock without an explanation pissed me off no end...

  6. I have no idea if the principals involved - Mantley, Gerard, Gray, et al - see that second season as the disaster that I, and many other fans, do.

    At a guess, they never think about the show at all.

    I'm with Jayson--Hawk was silly and cliched, but I thought he was cool when I was a kid. The rest of the season--junk. Actually, one can just presume that anything that removes Erin Gray from the proceeding is, ipso facto, junk.

  7. Don't forget this season also was hurt by the writers strike and was delayed several months.

  8. You might want to catch Gil and Erin at a convention. They do speak about the second season qutie a bit. Some of this is shown on the 70th Aniversary Buck Rogers DVD starring Buster Crabbe. The DVD extras contain the Buck Rogers panel at San Diego's Comic Con last year. Both Gil and Erin was in attendance.

  9. I agree with most of the assessment. The one point I'd have sought exception with was tying in a major character with Isaac Azimov; the fact that a network TV show (on a network being run by Fed Silverman, yet) was willing to acknowledge a living SF author of some reknown was worth note.

    My memory isn't serving me well as to which one, but there was an episode where Crichton was being rebooted and recited the Three Laws of Robonetics. I remember seeing that and thinking that if nothing else, that one moment was a plus on ther series' behalf.

  10. I got the DVD of both seasons for V-day but haven't made it to season 2 yet. However, I do remember I did like the first season better and wondered where DR T and the others went and wished they were back in the show.

    I'll get to the second season and share my thoughts after I have watched it.

  11. Bravo! I completely agree - though I wished - and still do - that the original series had been a little less brightly colored - that is, over-lit - after the first few forays I left that second disc of my DVD collection strictly alone.

    Speaking of Tales of the Gold Monkey - have you ever noticed that all of the characters on that show are recycled from Buck Rogers? Bellisario even had to introduce the idea of a “half-breed Japanese princess” (!!!) so he could cast a Pamela Hensley look-alike, complete with bodyguard 'Todo' a k a Tigerman.

  12. I must have not watched much of the show in the 2nd season, for I have no memory of all those other characters.

    That top pic of Buck and Wilma looks like they're getting ready to a figure skating routine.

  13. With respect, I think you're being a little too hard on John Mantley. Gunsmoke is truly an all time classic TV series. But he was not the right man for a science fiction series. Never a good idea to put someone who is out of their element in charge. Season 2 was really awful, with the Time Bandits cash in episode being a real low point.

  14. I don't think I was particularly hard on Mantley; I said basically the same thing you did. Science fiction simply wasn't his genre.

  15. I agree with you. I totally disliked season two, and after a few episodes, gave up on it.

    OTOH, I hated Twiki and the Mel Blanc voice. To each his own.

  16. From things Gil and Erin said in more recent interviews it doesn’t sound like either of them were happy with the second season. That may be the benefit of 20/20 hind-sight but I wonder if, when they did the interviews you reference, they were giving the party line trying to publicize the show.

    I actually thought Hawk could have been a good character but they didn’t do enough with him. He’s just a side-kick for Buck who happens to have a few feathers.

    1. Yes, that is right on. I've seen Gil and Erin and meet both of them at the Calgary Convention in 2012. They were awesome! But both had expressed disappointment at how the second season turned out, and Gil even said that he was making pleas at the time to do something to save the show; ex. get Buck back to Earth as he was a man displaced in time and trying to "fit in" to the new Earth. That made for some great story material right there. I think you are right about Gil and Erin saying what they said back in 1980 or whenever that interview was; they couldn't exactly be too negative!

  17. I often wonder how the people who make these decisions get that power. It's so painfully obvious that it's NOT on the basis of past accomplishments.

    For every series this has happened to, the fans always know whether the changes are positive, while the execs stubbornly insist it will make things 'better'. Better for whom?

  18. It almost feels like 1999 and Buck became "remakes" or "reboots" in their own second seasons. Whenever somebody remakes an old show as a theatrical feature, it's usually unrecognizable and unenjoyable. Basically, they don't understand what made the original popular and leached out everything that fans liked.

  19. That's a lovely leggy photo of Erin Gray at the top there. She looks like a cheerleader. Mmmm, now there's a thought...

  20. I loved the show as a kid - and while the first season was mostly campy - concluding with the deliciousness of Julie Newmar chewing the scenery and putting Princess Ardala in her place - I have to say that the episode "Space Vampire" scared me silly and I still find it effective, even if I now find the "Vorvon" makeup a tad over the top.

    I did find the second season largely disappointing and mostly forgettable, but with one significant exception that another commenter pointed out - the two-parter "Journey to Oasis", and almost entirely because of its guest star, the brilliant Mark Lenard. (And no - other than his weirdly immobile mask - I don't actually find OD-X to be annoying.)