In the wake of the 1977 success of Star Wars, TV producer Glen A. Larson latched on to the idea of launching two Sci Fi series clearly modeled on the cinematic galaxy far, far away. One was the semi-serious Loren Green vehicle, Battlestar: Ponderosa, er, Galactica. The other was the far more tongue-in-cheek Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Now, media historian Patrick Jankiewicz offers the first inh-depth exploration of Buck Rogers, and it’s a treat for those who fondly remember the two year run of the cult classic.
Right off the bat, Jankiewicz let me know I wasn’t the only viewer to have seen the show as wonderfully sexy, notably for the alluring eye-candy of Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Derring and the well-liked Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala of the planet Draconia, not to mention so many leggy guest stars. Jankiewicz quickly admits sexy ladies held much of the drawing power for Buck Rogers which was why he invited Gray to write the foreword to his book and not the lead actor, Gil Gerard. In that introduction, Gray says she’s very aware of how male viewers responded to her character (especially the costumes) but asserts many women saw Col. Deering as a trend-setter for women hoping for leadership positions in the 1980s. Perhaps so—I had no idea the series had that much of a social impact.
But, of course, Gerard was the star of the show, playing the astronaut who is cryogenically frozen for 500 years before returning to an earth after a nuclear apocalypse. While there’s considerable praise lavished on pretty much everyone involved with the first year of the show in the many interviews with the cast and crew, Gerard is the only one to earn mild criticism from other participants. In particular, he lashed out at scriptwriters he felt were injecting too much humor in his lines. He didn’t like the idea of Gray getting equal billing in the show’s titles. Well, he played a rather two-dimensional character requiring little acting skills, something of a cross between Han Solo and James Bond. Still, his co-workers noted his good nature and professionalism throughout a series he wasn’t sure he wanted to do, even if he created, sort of, his own fighting style dubbed “Buck-Fu.” One legacy for Gerard was meeting and becoming friends with future President Bill Clinton who, according to Gray, hit on her at a charity screening of the pilot movie.
Other attractions to the show included Twiki, the little robot with the immortal voice of Mel Blanc saying "biddi-biddi-biddi-biddi" before his one-liners. Equally well-regarded was Dr. Elias Huer, played by Tim O'Connor. His being cut from the 1981 season was seen as one of the reasons the second and last season lost much of the show’s spirit. As with many programs of the era, stories benefited from a high caliber of guest stars such as Joseph Wiseman, Jack Palance, Roddy McDowall, Cesar Romero, Peter Graves, Frank Gorshin, Julie Newmar, Jamie Lee Curtis, Vera Miles, and especially Buster Crabbe, the actor who had played Buck Rogers in the original movie serials.
By all accounts, while season one was a delight to create, everything eroded when veteran producer Bruce Lansbury was replaced by John Mantley, a producer mainly noted for Westerns, and he even had a Gunsmoke script rewritten for Rogers. Ironically, Lansbury didn’t think much of Rogers and tried to sabotage his last episode by giving it to a director who had no experience whatsoever. The setting was changed to a spaceship called The Searcher where Rogers, Deering, and a cast of new characters left earth which made the show seem a mere imitation of Star Trek. On one hand, they introduced the character of the birdman, Hawk, played by Thom Christopher. On the other, the role of Col. Derring was seriously downgraded and the lower budgets were obvious. After 13 episodes, NBC pulled the plug.
Jankiewicz’s overview is not as exhaustive as many other TV books, providing essentially participant biographies and an episode guide. Noticeably, he never mentions critical reviews or show ratings, which likely would have added a negative pale over his appreciation of Buck Rogers. Clearly, this is a book for fans, especially those who go to conventions to meet and greet the stars who impacted their childhoods. If that’s you, here’s a souvenir of a short-lived exploration of a fanciful future. Biddi-biddi.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com
By Wesley Britton, author, The Beta-Earth Chronicles