posted by Mike on 7/22/02
Star Wars. Star Trek. Two sci-fi powerhouses, both of which have spent the last 30 years dominating the minds of sci-fi fans everywhere. Lucas and Roddenberry took what had been at one time considered campy kids stuff (and still is to some degree) and brought it into the mainstream consciousness of American society. I'd say there are few Americans who don't know what the Force is, of what it means to "live long and prosper." But where did it all start? When and where did the American sci-fi craze initially set in?
Before the days of television, when movie serials and pulp comics were all the rage, there existed a magazine called Amazing Stories. On January 7th 1929, Amazing Stories published the first installment of a new series by a man named Philip Francis Nowlan. It was a rework of one of his more popular pulp novels, Armageddon In The Year 2491. But now it had a new name, and a new hero. On that day, the world was introduced to the first sci-fi comic hero in Buck Rogers in The 25th Century. The comic was an instant hit. Within a few years time of its initial release, the rights were bought in Hollywood and a serial version of Buck Rogers, starring serial mainstay Larry "Buster" Crabbe, hit theaters to the delight of kids across the country. Soon Buck Rogers was everywhere. Lunchboxes. Dolls. Model kits. Pulp novels. The sky was the limit. Imitators such as Flash Gordon began springing up like weeds.
But it was short lived.
Through the late forties to early fifties, television, the grand mind sucker, descended upon the living rooms of unsuspecting Americans everywhere. The age of the movie serial was over, and with it, died Captain William "Buck" Rogers. It would be almost 30 years before his fans would see him again, in the very medium that had spelled his demise. Sadly, I think most of them, including Mr. Nowlan himself, would've preferred for Buck to stay dead.
It was 1979. Star Wars had come along two years prior, reinvigorating the practically dead sci-fi market. Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture was released to lukewarm reviews and shattered box office records. Flash Gordon hit theaters and quickly disappeared due to its campy script, shoddy production design, and overall loathsome acting. On television, Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica ended its run, having lasted just over a year, due to budgetary problems, and a looming lawsuit from George Lucas and 20th Century Fox. ABC received a flood of mail concerning Galactica's demise, but Larson had already jumped ship to NBC. The NBC bigwigs caught word of the Galactica hubbub, and Larson was put to task. Could he create another sci-fi epic that would be just as popular, but cost less to produce?
Larson had already gone to the Star Wars well with Battlestar Galactica. He couldn't rip-off Star Trek: The Motion Picture for his new series. It was itself a take off on a television series. So he turned his attentions to the sci-fi heroes of the past. Finally he decided there was no better place to start than from the beginning. He purchased the rights to the Buck Rogers character, and started to work. Unfortunately, his finished two hour pilot came in way over budget. The NBC execs were not convinced. And so Larson reached into his bag of tricks and pulled a maneuver that shocked everyone involved. On March 30, 1979, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century was released theatrically across North America and Europe. It was a financial success, even breaking records in some foreign markets. Larson strolled these figures into the NBC offices, and the green light was given. Thus on September 20, 1979, our wonderful glowing screens were gifted with the presence of:
Tits and ass, space battles, and walking dildos, oh my!
"The year is 1987 and NASA launches the last of America's deep space probes. In a freak mishap Ranger 3 and its pilot Captain William 'Buck' Rogers are blown out of their trajectory into an orbit which freezes his life support systems and returns Buck Rogers to Earth 500 years later."
Whereas Battlestar Galactica was built around the space battle formula of Star Wars, Buck Rogers, was originally scripted to resemble the cliffhanger serials of the 40's. Relative unknown and former industrial chemist Gil Gerard (hot off a stint on NBC's General Hospital rip-off soap The Doctors) played Buck, a NASA astronaut, whose flight is put on indefinite hold when his life support system goes haywire and freezes him solid. He drifts through space for 500 years, stiff as a board (though he was most likely in that condition through much of the show, judging by the outfits his leading lady wore) until being revived on a post-apocalyptic Earth, in the year 2491.
Jesus...now I know what Ted Williams must feel like.
You'd think that Buck would have a hard time acclimating to his new surroundings. After all, everything he owned has been destroyed, and everyone he knew is dead. But it seems that a little hard-to-get is all that is needed to take his mind off his terrible loss, as he perks right up upon first laying eyes on his new commanding officer, Lt. Wilma Deering, played sveltely by soap opera star Erin Gray. As much as Buck was an amalgamation of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo (a pilot who could outfly anybody/an outsider who saves humanity from an evil armada), Wilma started off as a direct carbon copy of Princess Leia. She was rude, crass, a smart-ass, and had nothing but distrust and harsh feelings for Buck. It was clear from the beginning that Larson hadn't given up on his Star Wars stealing ways, as the Buck/Wilma romance was a direct rip-off of the Han/Leia chemistry. But that wasn't the only source he was pulling from.
In the 60's, Star Trek had set the mark for how much skin a woman could show on network television. Hoping to bank on that same concept, Larson made damn sure that every female character on Buck Rogers wore the tightest outfits imaginable. If Erin Gray had a mole on her labia, you could easily make out its length, width, and density through her vacuum-sealed jumpsuits. Buck's costumes were the same way (to the dismay of heterosexual men everywhere), often displaying the fact that Gil Gerard was possibly the only man in the history of the world to sport a camel toe. It all boiled down to ratings: whereas Battlestar Galactica tried to take its subject somewhat seriously, Buck Rogers was all about the pussy… and ripping off Star Wars... again.
Okay guys and gals, set your phasers to vibrate.
Or perhaps it would be better to say that Buck Rogers was about ripping off Star Wars (and sex) in general. Much like Luke Skywalker, Buck had two constant companions in the form of a couple of droids. One was a roughly humanoid gold-plated robot named Twiki (voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc) that spoke mostly in beeps and whistles… and had a head shaped just like an engorged penis. The other droid, Dr. Theopolis, was shaped like a large lit up dinner plate that hung around Twiki's head on a chain. Theo spoke in a British accent, ala C-3PO, and the two of them would get into constant verbal battles, much like the droids from the film.
="Biddi biddi biddi... Hey Buck, polish my helmet and I'll spit in your eye.
Much of each episode was spent in space, where Buck would pilot his rather X-Wingish starfighter against whomever was threatening to blow up the earth that particular week. The plots were always outlandish, from ultra-horny space princesses who want to breed with Buck to raise an army of "super-men," to Space Vampires with heads shaped like giant scrotums who entrance Wilma by subjecting her to multiple orgasms as she sucks the "life" from Buck. My favorite episode, I think, was entitled "Space Rockers," and concerned a 25th century rock group called Andromeda. It was a three piece band, two guys and a woman if I remember right, dressed in orange neon-glowing jumpsuits and sprinkle filled afros, who played house-style techno music meant to sound trippy, far out, and futuristic, but now sounds like anything you'd hear walking into a typical rave party. Their keyboardist was a black guy with what resembled a lightning bolt ripping through his humungous 'fro, who looked like the long lost brother of Isaac from the Love Boat. Their evil manager (even in the future, all band managers are evil) wanted to use their music to control the minds of everyone in the entire galaxy, and rule over them all as their hip, happenin' leader. As you might gather from this, there were no deep, though provoking episodes on this show. No City On the Edge Of Forever masterpieces. It was all about blaster rays and big boobs.
On his way to kill the Draconians, Buck stops to drain the main phaser bank.
Had the show stuck with this formula of tits, ass, and action, the show might've had a pretty decent run. Unfortunately, after the first season, they fell victim to a writer's strike. The NBC executives again demanded that the budget be lowered. Several actors from the original season had moved on to other projects. So the entire concept was redefined. New sets were designed, new actors hired, and new scripts written. This time, they would keep the tits and ass and drop the Star Wars impersonation. Instead, they were going to rip off Star Trek.
Season two found Buck and Wilma aboard the USS Searcher, a long range star cruiser (shaped like a cross between a dildo and Hal 9000's ship from 2001) built in the hopes of finding "Earth's lost tribes," a concept stolen from Larson's own Battlestar Galactica. Each week, Buck and Wilma explored strange new worlds (when not exploring strange new positions in Buck's quarters) and seeking out new lifeforms and new civilizations, going where only William Shatner had gone before. Twiki was still around, but Dr. Theopolis had been replaced by the fakest looking robot to grace television sets since Lost In Space, a TV antenna-shaped monstrosity named Crichton: a whiny, self-absorbed twit, who took over the role of ship's asshole. And no, Buck was not the captain (though he continued to become more Kirk-like with each new episode.) The commander of the Searcher was Admiral Asimov, apparently Larson's attempt at earning the show some real sci-fi credibility.
The Starship Phallusian, captained by Commander Viewmaster
Another new edition was Hawk. Hawk (as played by Thom Christopher) was the last of his race, a birdlike people who'd been wiped out by humans years before. He initially attacks Buck… for no other reason than the fact that Buck had inadvertently killed his wife. But even the death of one's spouse was no match for Buck's good nature and 80's sensibility. Hawk warms up to him, and eventually joins the crew.
Hawk resembled Jamie Farr, the transtestical from M.A.S.H., in a black leather jumpsuit and white feather wig. He had a hook nose, dark eyebrows, and spoke in a calm, even voice, often acting as the voice of reason to counter Buck's bravado… much like another funny looking alien from another show (this is why I refer to him as Spawk.) They carried the bird correlation to the extreme. His starfighter was shaped like an eagle, and I seem to recall a couple of instances where he made pitiful birdlike noises under his breath. All of this beggared logic (ironic, since Hawk was written to emulate the ultimate logical sideman) in the fact that he was an alien who both resembled and was named after a bird indigenous to Earth. But this is a sci-fi show, not a courtroom drama. It's not supposed to make sense.
Don't grieve, Buck: the needs of the flock outweigh the needs of the fowl.
The set design for their second season went right down the shitter. The bridge set of the Searcher made the original Enterprise bridge from the 60's look high tech by comparison. The planets they visited were pure out Trek-inspired… obvious studio sets with paper machete rocks and badly painted backdrops. The scripts became more and more outlandish. The absolute worst… and as always, I am NOT making this up… was a blatant rip-off of the classic stage musical Les Miserables, where Buck goes "undercover" as a convict with a name suspiciously similar to "Jean Valjean" and is meanwhile being stalked by a ruthless robot cop! The costumes took a dive… most episodes had Buck walking around in 80's era trousers and a brown leather jacket. Wilma's outfits became, dare I say it, even tighter, which must've drove Buck into a frenzy of copulation, as Wilma spent the majority of the second season staring cross-eyed into the camera.
Last night was wonderful, Buck. But next time, don't bounce me off the ceiling.
All of these changes sealed the show's fate. It was shut down halfway into its second season, after only 37 episodes were produced. What was left of the props were carted back to ABC to be used on the Galactica "revival" series Galactica 80 (more on it another time.) Erin Gray went back to soap operas, and now stars in various infomercials that can be seen somewhere between midnight and the end of time. Gil Gerard had a brief career saver in 1987 with Sidekicks, where he played a cop raising a young Asian boy (played by Ernie Reyes Jr. of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame) who could shoot lightning bolts from his feet. Startlingly enough, it was cancelled after one season. He was seen again in 1992 in the failed "actuality" series Code 3. He was last seen in 1999 in a direct-to-video extravaganza called Mom, Can I Keep Her?, about a boy who brings home a full grown Silverback Gorilla (I'm unsure whether Gil played the kid's father, or the gorilla.) Thom Christopher languished in relative obscurity, no doubt molting in shame over the cinematic shitburger he'd taken part in. I read somewhere that he'd had a few small film roles, but I've never confirmed it. Like I'm going to go out of my way to dig up info on a birdman… please…….. Oh all right, don't twist my ankle! Thom went on to take part in numerous sci-fi b flicks, including Space Raiders (1983), Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom (1985), and Deathstalker 3 (1989.) He also had a bit role in the Kiefer Sutherland/ Lou Diamond Philips buddy-cop picture Renegades (1989), and was last seen portraying Greek millionaire Aristotle Onassis in the TV movie Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Kennedy Women (2001.) Twiki has as of yet not re-emerged from his film and TV hiatus, but is still presumed to be at large.
Smurf my smurfin' smurf, Hawk! You're the smurfiest smurf I've ever smurfed!
And as is par for the course, Larson, having left his scars on the minds of children and sci-fi fans everywhere, moved on to finish out Galactica 80, and then went back to NBC to produce Knight Rider the following year. His career is storied with several more speed bumps in the road of television history, which we shall visit when the time comes. As of this date, Mr. Larson has yet to repay his debt to society for subjecting us to the tripe that was Buck Rogers. Perhaps the courts are still waiting for the verdict to come in on AutoMan.
Next time in our Larson tribute, I'll take a look at Manimal...