When Doctor Who was at its peak, few shows could beat it in the ratings. Weirdly, Man from Atlantis was one such show – never underestimate the appeal of sensitive, semi-naked, wet, buff men – but more famously, it was another time-travelling, science-fiction superhero who’d been around for even longer than the Doctor who trounced him on Saturday nights at the end of the 70s.
Yes, the all-American Buck Rogers could defeat the best Britain had to offer. Happy Independence Day, everyone, and let’s head off to the 25th century after the first of its title sequences and the jump.
The character of Buck Rogers – originally, Anthony Rogers – has had a long and varied history, both in literature and on screen. Created for the pulp comic Armageddon 2419AD, he was originally a veteran of World War I who is exposed to radioactive gas while in a coal mine. The mine suffers a cave in and Rogers enters a state of suspended animation, only waking after 492 years in the year 2419. There he meets a pilot, Wilma Deering, and together with her ‘gang’, they fight the ‘Hans’ who rule North America in the 25th century.
The original comic was eventually turned into a newspaper strip cartoon, where Wilma and Buck were joined by other characters, some friendly, some not so friendly, including Dr Huer, Killer Kane and Ardala. Three years later in 1932, Buck Rogers became the first ever science fiction programme on US radio, and by 1939, a 12-part Buck Rogers in the 25th Century serial was in cinemas. The serial starred Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe, who notably also played Flash Gordon in similar serials – so similar, they could interchange props, sets, background shots and more – and was airing on TV well into the 80s in the UK:
Buck next appeared in a short-running 1950s TV show that aired on ABC. Despite the show only lasting a year, no fewer than three actors playing Buck – Earl Hammond, Kern Dibbs and Robert Pastene – and two actors playing Dr Huer. More importantly, two actresses played Wilma Deerings, one of whom was Eva Marie Saint of On The Waterfront and North By Northwest fame.
He disappeared again for nearly three decades, but by the end of the 70s and following the success of Star Wars, it was time for a Buck Rogers revival. Leading the charge at NBC was Glen A Larson, who’d already had a bold first stab at a Star Wars for TV in the form of the original Battlestar Galactica. That colossally expensive 1978 NBC show lasted only a season though, leaving Larson free to develop a Buck Rogers show for the network.
Larson, together with famed producer Leslie Stevens (creator of the original The Outer Limits and one of the producers of Battlestar Galactica) used the main idea of the Buck Rogers comic strip as well as many of its characters for his update. However, in this version, Rogers was a US Air Force pilot turned NASA astronaut, sent off in the far off year of 1987 on a deep-space mission. A freak accident sends Rogers into suspended animation and changes the orbit of his spacecraft, leading him to return to Earth, unravished by time, in the year 2491.
Rogers, played by Gil Gerard in his first big TV series role, and his spaceship are found by pilot Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) of the Earth Defense Directorate, who brings them both back to Earth. In contrast to the comics, the Earth is doing pretty well for itself: although it suffered a devastating nuclear war shortly after Rogers embarked on his mission, its people live inside domes and are advanced technologically and at peace, thanks to the likes of scientists such as Dr Huer (Tim O’Connor).
However, not only has it and its people become dependent on technology, it has enemies who want to invade. Chief of these – although it doesn’t seem like it at first – is Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensey – CJ in 80s detective show Matt Houston) and her henchman Kane (played in the pilot episode by Henry Silva and in the series itself by Michael Ansara). Ardala has two main interests: the first is taking over the Earth; the second is sexing up Buck. For a lot of the first season, the episodes focused on Ardala’s schemes to achieve both goals at the same time.
As well as characters from the original comic, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century featured some new characters, the most popular and memorable of which was Twiki, a somewhat uppity diminutive silver robot or ‘drone’ voiced in the first season by the man behind Bugs Bunny, Mel Blanc. If you were a kid and you played Buck Rogers in the playground, being able to do Twiki’s ‘biddy, biddy’ noise was compulsory.
In addition to Buck’s fighting off Ardala’s advances on both fronts, season one had two main themes: Buck’s ‘fish out of water’ attempts to adapt to the 25th century and to adapt the 25th century to himself. As well as finding the Earth’s population somewhat stuffy and reserved compared to his all-American 1980s earthiness, with the Earth’s star fighter pilots used to their onboard computers fighting other spaceships for them, Rogers finds himself invaluable in teaching dogfighting techniques to the Earth’s starfighter pilots to overcome the superior computers of its enemies. He also spends a lot of time on secret missions, trying to infiltrate aliens’ spaceships and cities, usually in one disguise or another.
The show had a huge budget and it could afford some impressive guest stars, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Jack Palance, Vera Miles, Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, Roddy McDowell, and Julie Newmar. But it had two main attractions. The first was its space dogfights and effects: it had some superb visuals for its time and used many of the same designers from Battlestar Galactica for its models and designs. The show’s ‘starfighters’ were also as iconic as BSG‘s vipers, as were its ‘stargates’ for travelling between solar systems.
The second were its pretty people, especially the women. While Gil Gerard probably had some appeal to women (and gay men), Erin Gray/Wilma Deering’s endless array of form-fitting jumpsuits (she actually had to be sewn into them) drew the attention of legions of male fans…
…as did Pamela Hensey’s Ardala, who had a tendency to wear slightly more revealing outfits:
It certainly boosted the show’s ratings in the UK, anyway, despite the fact that over here, the pilot episode was only shown as a movie in cinemas, leaving viewers to work out the plot purely from its title sequence alone when it aired. You can, incidentally, watch that whole pilot episode here (sorry, but it’s not embeddable).
But in the US, ratings weren’t so good. The show was somewhat cheesy to say the least – so much so that Gerard, who favoured a more serious show, publicly hoped that the show wouldn’t be picked up for a second season. However, it was, but was substantially retooled by a new set of producers to become a show about space exploration. Rogers, Deering and Twiki, together with new arrivals Admiral Efram Asimov (Jay Garner), Dr Goodfellow (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and a Spock-like alien descended from birds called Hawk (Thom Christopher), travelled around the galaxy on a spaceship, the Searcher, looking for life. There was less humour in the second season, as Gerard had hoped, with a greater focus on mythology, environmentalism, racism and other issues. Wilma also became less militaristic and more ‘feminine’, complete with Star Trek mini-skirts – apparently being one of the first strong female leaders in TV science fiction, able to order the main male character about, was a little too cutting edge.
Nevertheless, the retooling wasn’t enough. Ratings plummeted following the second season premiere and NBC cancelled the show after a second season of just 11 episodes (a strike had already reduced the number of episodes from the intended count).
But Buck Rogers lives on. Just as the original movie Buck Rogers, Buster Crabbe, got to meet Gerard’s Rogers on TV – appropriately enough as Colonel Gordon…
…so Gil Gerard and Erin Gray got to meet a new Buck Rogers in 2009, in a web adaptation of the original comic strip that also owed a lot to the movie serial and the 80s revival. Starring Bobby Quinn Rice, the show was to feature Gerard and Gray as Rogers’ parents, with Gray’s daughter playing Rogers’ girlfriend. Unfortunately, funding never emerged and even the brief clip of Gerard and Gray together was withdrawn. But it did exist:
Instead, you’ll just have to watch them together in this 2007 TV movie Nuclear Hurricane.
Nevertheless, talk of movies and TV series continues, and he’s continued to live on in comics and books. It can’t be too long before another Buck Rogers TV show or movie hits our screens.