Posted by:
Byron Brewer

The Wayback Machine: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979)






Everyone is back these days in comics: Flash Gordon, the Phantom, Doc Savage, Tarzan, John Carter and, for a while, the Black Bat.

I may be misinformed but I think Buck Rogers is losing out!

Not so in the late 1970s; Buck was everywhere! So let’s dial the ol’ Wayback Machine to 1979 and away we gooooooooo

Inspired by the massive success of Star Wars, Universal began developing Buck Rogers for television, spearheaded by Glen A. Larson who had a production deal with the studio. Initially, Larson and Universal had planned on making a series of Buck Rogers TV movies for NBC. Production began in 1978. The pilot for Larson's other sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica (1978), had been released theatrically in some countries and in key locations in North America, and had done well at the box office. Universal therefore opted to release the first Buck Rogers TV movie theatrically on March 30, 1979. Good box office returns led NBC to commission a full series, which began on September 20, 1979.

The production recycled many of the props, effects shots and costumes from Battlestar Galactica, which was still in production at the same time the pilot film for Buck Rogers was being filmed. For example, the "landram" vehicle was made for the Galactica series, and the control sticks used in the Terran starfighters in the pilot movie were the same as those used in Galactica's Viper craft. The Terran starfighters were also concept designer Ralph McQuarrie’s original vision of the Colonial Vipers.

The new series centered on Captain William Anthony "Buck" Rogers, played by Gil Gerard, a NASA pilot who commands Ranger 3, a space shuttle that is launched in May 1987. Due to a life-support malfunction, Buck is accidentally frozen for 504 years before his spacecraft is discovered drifting in space in the year 2491. The combination of gases that froze his body coincidentally comes close to the formula commonly used in the 25th century for cryopreservation, and his rescuers are able to revive him. He learns that civilization on Earth was rebuilt following a devastating nuclear war that occurred on November 22, 1987, and is now under the protection of the Earth Defense Directorate.

The series followed him as he tried to fit (not always successfully) into 25th-Century culture. As there were no traceable personal records for him, he was uniquely placed, due to his pilot and combat skills and personal ingenuity, to help Earth Defense foil assorted evil plots to conquer the planet. In many respects, this version of Buck Rogers was more similar to James Bond or Steve Austin rather than Nowlan's original character, and Buck would often go undercover on various covert missions.

Buck is aided in his adventures by his friend and semi-romantic interest, Colonel Wilma Deering (played by Erin Gray), a high-ranking officer and starfighter pilot. He is also assisted by Twiki, a small robot or "ambuquad" as they were known. Twiki was played mainly by Felix Silla and voiced by legendary WB animated voice artist Mel Blanc (who had previously voiced Daffy Duck as Duck Dodgers in spoofs of the early Buck Rogers and other SF serials). Twiki became Buck's comic sidekick and tended to express himself with an electronic noise that sounded like "biddi-biddi-biddi" often followed by a 20th-Century catchphrase or slang, many of which he learned from Buck.

Also aiding Buck was Dr. Theopolis or "Theo" (voiced by Eric Server), a sentient computer in the shape of a disk, approximately 9-inches wide with an illuminated face. He was capable of understanding Twiki's electronic language, and was often carried around by him. Theo was a member of Earth's "computer council" and one of the planet's scientific leaders. During the first season, Buck and Wilma took their orders from Dr. Elias Huer, played by Tim O’Connor, the head of the Defense Directorate. Some episodes suggested Huer was the leader of the entire planet, though this was never made completely clear.

The series' chief villain (at least in the first season) was Princess Ardala (played by Pamela Hensley) whose goal was to conquer the Earth whilst making Buck her consort. She was aided by her henchman Kane (played in the pilot film by Henry Silva and in the series by Michael Ansara). All of these characters were featured in the original comic strip, except for Dr. Theopolis and Twiki (whose closest counterpart in earlier versions would likely be Buck's human sidekick Buddy Wade). Kane (or Killer Kane as he was then known) was also featured in the 1939 film serial and was actually the chief villain himself, rather than Ardala's henchman (Ardala did not appear in the film serial).

The pilot film depicted human civilization as fairly insular, with an invisible defense shield that surrounded the entire planet, protecting it from invaders. Civilization was restricted to a few cities, the main city seen in the pilot and weekly series was New Chicago, which was also known as the Inner City. Travel beyond the Inner City was hazardous, as much of the planet was said to be a radioactive wasteland inhabited by violent mutants (as Buck discovered when he visited the derelict remains of old Chicago).

Ratings dropped significantly after its second season premiere. NBC canceled the series at the end of an eleven-episode actor strike-abbreviated season. No finale storyline was produced, with the final episode broadcast being a normal standalone episode.