Thursday, September 21, 2006

Takin' It Easy On Re-Entry

I clearly remember going to see BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY with a group of friends on or around my 12th birthday (it was on a double bill with the awful HURRICANE). You may remember BUCK ROGERS as a television show, but the pilot was given a 1979 theatrical release first. Following in the footsteps of Buster Crabbe (who played Buck in a 1940 serial) is soap actor Gil Gerard, who actually does a good job juggling wisecracks and rugged action.

Narrator William Conrad (CANNON) sets up the premise in a quick pre-credits sequence. In 1987, NASA "launches the last of America's deep space probes". Ranger 3, a one-man craft carrying Captain William "Buck" Rogers, is knocked off course, and its pilot frozen in suspended animation. Nearly 500 years later, he's discovered floating in space by a huge alien vessel from the planet Draconia. Aboard are sexy Draconian princess Ardala (played by curvy Pamela Hensley in some eye-popping costumes) and her military commander Kane (Henry Silva), who are en voyage to a "peacekeeping" mission to Earth. They revive Buck, who seems a little slow on the uptake--he thinks his rescuers are Russians! Kane believes him to be an Earth spy and wants him executed, but Ardala just wants him and demands he be returned to his ship and sent ahead to Earth. He is, but not before Kane stashes a micro gizmo aboard that will allow him to break down Earth's defense shield.

Buck's in for more trouble when he gets home. Not only has everyone he's ever known been dead for five centuries, but shapely Colonel Wilma Deering (yummy Erin Gray), who sure has a slinky way of walking in her skintight white uniform for such a hard-assed soldier type, believes him to be a space pirate and soon has him on trial for treason. In a last ditch effort to prove his innocence (although it seems like it would have made a lot more sense to do this before he was found guilty and sentenced to death), Rogers, after introducing disco dancing to the 25th century and putting some mack moves on both Wilma and Ardala, teams up with an expressionless four-foot robot, Twiki, and Dr. Theopolis, a round box wrapped around Twiki's neck, to invade the Draconian flagship and destroy their fleet before their attack on Earth begins.

Produced and co-written by TV hack Glen A. Larson, whose BATTLESTAR GALACTICA was airing on ABC at the time, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY was rushed into theaters in March 1979, just five months before it would become the two-part pilot episode for the NBC series. I'm not sure exactly why BUCK was given a wide release, but it sure was a smart move for Universal. It allegedly earned more than $20 million at the box office (a huge profit, considering its TV-level budget) and probably inspired the studio to release GALACTICA's pilot in May--after it had already aired on television!

I loved BUCK as a 12-year-old, but it gets creakier and sillier the older I get. The miniatures and matte paintings, some of which were swiped from GALACTICA, are actually pretty good (although New York Times critic Vincent Canby amusingly called Hensley the film's "most magnificent special effect"), but the screenplay by Larson and Leslie Stevens (THE OUTER LIMITS) is packed to the gills with thin characters, simple plotting and too many dialogue groaners and double entendres (as when Buck tells a hot-to-trot Wilma that, after 500 years in space, he needs a little more time for "re-entry"). Twiki's antics are too childish for my tastes (he's voiced by Mel Blanc, who says things like, "I'm freezing my ball bearings off"), and it must have really boiled the britches of actor Tim O'Connor (who, despite being the second male lead, doesn't even receive enough screen time for us to realize who his character of Dr. Huer is supposed to be) to learn his scenes were jettisoned so Gerard could chat with a couple of metal boxes.

Director Daniel Haller, a former art director who had settled into a comfortable career directing television, was actually a decent choice to helm the film (he had directed a couple of horror movies for AIP, as well as designing the sets for several Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman in the '60s), and does a steady job of keeping the actors lively, the sets bright and the pace flowing. Haller balances the humor and action well, but BUCK's main problem is the script, which screams "1970s" at every turn. It's one thing to have your actors sporting contemporary hairstyles and fashions, but throwing in a disco scene is too much. Granted, there's a lot of unintentional humor in Gerard busting a move on the dance floor, demanding that the musicians "just go with it" and inviting Hensley to "boogie" and "get down" (although the sight of the scantily clad Hensley, adorned with sequins and a ridiculous horned headdress, shimmying to the beat is not one easily forgotten by any adolescent boy who sees it).

As silly as it is, the disco scene doesn't hold a candle to BUCK's opening title sequence, one of the most ill conceived and knee-slappingly hilarious I've ever seen. To describe it is not enough--it must be seen to be believed--but it involves Gerard lying on a floor lit from below (like the dance floor in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER), while gorgeous models in silver lame jumpsuits (including Hensley and Gray, who appear over their credits) writhe seductively, lick their glossy lips, bat their hair around, and make out with Gerard. All this while a Godawful soft rock tune (written by Larson, who once had a Top 40 hit as a member for the Four Preps) is warbled by somebody named Kipp Lennon. Obviously intended as some sort of James Bond homage, I'd love to find out who directed it, because he deserves some sort of award.

As a film, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY doesn't particularly work, but it is an effective small-screen pilot. The series that followed was troubled by backstage conflict--several writers, including story editors Anne Collins and Alan Brennert, clashed with both Larson and Gerard (Brennert soon afterward wrote an interesting article on the subject for STARLOG), guest star Ray Walston got hurt doing a stunt, and episode titles like "Space Vampire", "Vegas In Space" and "Planet of the Slave Girls" clearly showed the juvenile path Larson was taking. In all, 37 episodes were aired by NBC over two seasons, although kids who saw it then fondly remember the show today.

Stu Phillips composed the score, which, except for a menacing theme for the Draconians and the dopey disco stuff, is no more than generic TV music. Also with "guest star" Joseph Wiseman as King Draco, H.B. Haggerty and Howard Flynn as the voice of Theopolis. Felix Silla "played" Twiki. Gerard, Gray, O'Connor and Silla were regulars on the TV series, with Hensley and Wiseman making sporadic appearances. Michael Ansara (BROKEN ARROW) replaced Silva as Kane. Hensley retired a few years later after marrying her MATT HOUSTON producer, E. Duke Vincent. Gray later had a good run on SILVER SPOONS and appeared in a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie. Gerard teamed with a 10-year-old karate expert on his later series SIDEKICKS. I saw both Gerard and Gray signing autographs at the 2005 Wizard World Chicago show. Gil is thinning on top and widening in the middle, but Erin is aging wonderfully like an incredibly well-preserved soccer MILF.

4 comments:

Robert said...

Did the pilot play theatrically in the U.S. or was it the same scenario as with the initial BATTLESTAR GALACTICA release - in Canada and overseas? I did see the film when it came out and while it was basically fun there was enough problems to make a twelve year old notice them. Universal probably picked up enough ducets from the theatrical releases of both Larson ventures to make them very happy, and it's a wonder they didn't continue the trend with other pilot films.

I remember reading about the plans for resurrecting Buck Rogers (and Flash Gordon) back when STAR WARS took off, and remember that somebody put the feature version of the Buster Crabbe serial back in cinemas in 1977. There was a mad dash on for almost anything science fiction, giving a new go-round to things like THE BUBBLE and STAR PILOT and even a double-bill re-release of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE & WAR OF THE WORLDS. The conceptual art for BUCK ROGERS populated STARLOG and other such publications, and it seems like they had grand plans BUT...by time the movie came to be they really weren't doing anything different that hadn't already been covered by the same production team on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. It's as if they rolled their dice on that show and whatever was left over trickled over to BUCK. Efforts were made to make the show a bit more serious for the second season (I think urged on by Gil Gerard) but by that point the audience interest had already waned.

Marty McKee said...

Both BUCK and BATTLESTAR played theatrically in the U.S. Unlike the latter, BUCK was released before the series went on the air. Those who paid to see GALACTICA were actually buying a ticket to something they had already seen for free, which is why Universal added the Sensurround gimmick (which BUCK didn't have or need).

Anonymous said...

Fox's lawsuit against Universal over BATTLESTAR GALACTICA didn't apply to Canada, so it opened here in July of 1978 and did major business. The screening I went to was oversold by about two dozen people, who sat in the aisles watching the movie in a sweltering theatre with broken air conditioning. It played right up to the film's TV premiere, though we didn't get it in Sensurround, just plain old mono.

It was nice that Universal included the theatrical version of BUCK ROGERS in the DVD set, but they used a mono audio master for some reason. It was released theatrically in stereo and even the 26 year-old DiscoVision LD is stereophonic.

Robert Plante said...

I saw BUCK ROGERS at the drive-in...in the rain.