Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Buck Rogers Week 2017: HG Toys Galactic Playset



By the time Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) aired on NBC, I suppose you could state I was primed to love the show.  

I had "grown up" through Star Wars (1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and had seen The Black Hole (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Moonraker (1979).  

But the nice thing about Buck Rogers was that the series, unlike many of those other titles, didn't take itself too seriously.  

The program, starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray, boasted a great sense of humor, at least during the first season.

Mego released a good-sized line of Buck Rogers toys and vehicles back in the day, but HG Toys also got into the act, recycling and retro-fitting a pre-existing play set as the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Galactic Play Set.  It came complete with "over 35 pieces" and a nice diorama/backdrop.  

This HG Toy set included a "space station with movable ladder, 2 Draconian marauders, 2 starfighters, 8 space commandos, 10 aliens," and "fully detailed figures of Buck Rogers, Wilma Deering, Killer Kane, Dr. Huer, Tigerman, Draco, Twiki and Princess Ardala."

Also present: "a colorful diorama set-up and assembly instructions."

I have fond memories of playing with this particular play set, because I took it on a cross-country vacation with me.  My family traveled (in our new Ford van) from New Jersey to California and back over the span of six weeks.  Space was tight since we were traveling for such a duration and this one of the few toys I was allowed to bring along.  I set it up in camp sites from Lake Michigan to Lake Tahoe.   On days where we seemed to be endlessly driving through desert terrain, I also set up the Galactic Play Set in the back of the van and played with it, though the bumps in the road could occasionally wreak havoc.




Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Space Vampire" (January 3, 1980)


When I was eleven years old, the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) episode about a monster called a "Vorvon," was probably the scariest thing I had yet seen on network television (with the exception of Space:1999's "Dragon's Domain.")

That episode, titled simply "Space Vampire," aired on January 3, 1980 on NBC, and the Kathleen Barnes and David Wise teleplay concerned Captain Buck Rogers' (Gil Gerard) chilling encounter on Theta Space Station with a cosmic Nosferatu or "Undead," a soul stealer known as a "Vorvon."

Although Buck Rogers might rightly be accused of exploiting the popularity of Dracula in the pop culture in 1979 -- a year which saw the release of John Badham's Dracula, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu and even Love at First Bite -- the "Space Vampire" episode of the first season nonetheless remains one of the series highlights: unnervingly creepy, uncharacteristically somber, and wholly dread-filled. This is true even if by adult standards we today judge the program to border on camp.

On the other hand, I watched the episode again recently with a friend's ten year old son and it thoroughly freaked him out. So there's definitely something frightening there; at least to impressionable young minds.

In "Space Vampire" a "space age vampire stalks a lonely space station," according to the teaser, and that summary pretty much nails the whole story. Buck and Wilma drop-off Twiki for repairs at Theta Station but instead of getting away for their vacation on Genesia, they witness a starship (the Gemonese Freighter from Battlestar Galactica actually...) plunge through Stargate Nine and collide with the station.

The inner atmosphere of Theta is contaminated, and the logs of the derelict -- the I.S. Demeter -- suggest the crew and passengers were suffering from hallucinations and "mental deterioration" brought on by the Denebian virus EL7.

After the station's Dr Ecbar (Lincoln Kilpatrick) reveals to Buck that the crew of Demeter is not dead, but rather drained of "spirit," Buck suspects a being, not a disease, is the culprit.

He's right. The evil Vorvon (Nicholas Hormann) creates undead minions out of the station crew (who appear replete with two discolorations on their neck...). He then prepares to make the uncharacteristically terrified Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) his immortal bride.

One aspect of "Space Vampire" I rather enjoy is the deliberate homage to the epistolary nature of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. As you'll recall, the literary Dracula was crafted in the form of various collected letters and communiques. The whole story was conjured through the filter of newspaper clippings, Mina's Diary, Seward's phonograph recordings, and Jonathan Harker's journal.

For all its disco-decade glitz, cheap sets and callow characterization, Buck Rogers actually pinpoints a decent "space age" corollary to Stoker's literary approach, permitting the stalwart Buck to assemble the story (and history) of the Vorvon from various 25th century media sources, though all visual in nature: the captain's log from the Demeter, the servo drone recordings of a Demeter passenger (and bounty hunter) from "New London" named Helson (Van Helsing), and even helpful communiques from Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis on Earth.

The other parallels to Dracula are much more obvious. The only thing to ward off the Vorvon is called an "ancient power lock," the "25th century equivalent of a cross," in Buck's own words.

What's funny (and silly...) about this "ancient power lock" is that it is really just Commander Adama's collar medallion from Battlestar Galactica. And ironically, Adama was played by Lorne Greene, a man who had recently portrayed Dracula himself in an episode of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries in 1977! Yep, it's Six Degrees of Cult-TV Dracula...

The Vorvon can also mesmerize his victims and change forms at will, another recognizable trait. Just as Dracula could turn to mist, wolf, bat or other form, the Vorvon here often takes the shape of a red, pulsating energy blob that hovers overhead. This non-corporeal form gives the makers of the episode license to provide some examples of crimson-hued, P.O.V. shots. Call it "Vorvon Vision," all rendered from dramatic and doom-laden high-angles as Wilma is stalked by the Monster.

Obviously, the name of the derelict ship, the Demeter, itself originates from Stoker's novel and serves the same purpose in both texts: carrying the "disease" (Dracula or Vorvon) to civilization.

Even the uni-browed, long-fingered physical appearance of the Vorvon is similar to Stoker's written description of the vampire.

From almost a century of vampire cinema, the episode appropriates the idea that the Vorvon cannot survive in sunlight, and in an interesting final twist, Buck destroys the soul sucker by flying it into a star itself.


There are actually some pretty solid horror compositions featured in this episode too. A slow, steady pan ominously marks the Vorvon's first appearance as a humanoid. We pan across the Theta Station Lounge (where an arcade video game unit, circa 1979 is plainly visible...) and see Buck ordering drinks at the bar. When the camera pans back (all in one shot), the Vorvon is suddenly seated at a previously empty table...staring at Wilma with malevolent eyes.

There's also a great shot (pictured above), in which the undead Dr. Ecbar is struck down and collapses directly in front of a flashlight, his ghoulish pallor suddenly illuminated in the relative darkness. Together, a few clever compositions like these examples economically enhance Wilma's stated fear of "death as a tangible presence."

And finally, you haven't truly lived until you've seen Erin Gray -- in a skin-tight spandex cat-suit -- playing the soulless, avaricious, seductive bride of the Vorvon. But seriously, what makes "Space Vampire" resonate, I think, is Wilma's pervasive fear of the Vorvon, and the fact that nobody seems to believe that it is hunting her. Wilma just knows she can't escape it...and she almost doesn't. There's a feeling of powerlessness here; and a sweeping inevitability in the narrative. It may not be Shakespeare -- or Stoker -- but it works pretty well.

"Space Vampire" may not be the best episode of Buck Rogers (I'm rather fond of "The Plot to Kill a City"), but it is certainly the installment that most people of my generation seem to remember most fondly. 

Buck Rogers 2017: "Cruise Ship to the Stars" (December 27, 1979)



In “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” Buck (Gil Gerard), Wilma (Erin Gray), and Twiki (Mel Blanc) board the space luxury liner Lyran Queen on a mission to protect Miss Cosmos (Dorothy R. Stratten), a genetically perfect human woman, and “beauty” contest winner.

Mystery assailants aboard the space liner realize that Miss Cosmos possesses a “staggering genetic value” and wish to sell her body parts on the black market.

Once aboard, Buck and his friends attempt to protect Miss Cosmos, unaware that their opponent is a dangerous “transmute.” 

Sometimes, the would-be-thief is the meek, gentle Allison (Kimberly Beck) and sometimes she is the avaricious, incredibly powerful Sabrina (Trisha Noble). 

Allison and Sabrina both are being manipulated by their boyfriend and thief, Jalor Davin (Leigh McCloskey), who is plotting to use Sabrina’s abilities to capture and dissect and Miss Cosmos.


“Cruise Ship to the Stars” is another intriguing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) pastiche.  It’s another episode that seems basic, and even clichéd on the surface, until one looks at a little more deeply at the influences going into it. 

In this case, the episode takes its setting from one of the most popular TV series of the latter-half of the disco decade: The Love Boat (1977-1987).

Instead of a sea-bound Pacific Princess, however, Buck Rogers sets its story on the gorgeous star-liner Lyran Queen.  The miniature for this spaceship is incredible and it would recur -- though with less-flamboyant coloring and trim -- as the starship Searcher in the series’ season two.  I’ve always loved this ship’s appearance, with the forward sphere, the long tube, and the over-powered, rear-mounted engine tubes.  It’s a fantastic design. I’ve always wanted a model kit of it.


In terms of interiors, the set used for the directorate hangar deck during the first season has been rebuilt or redecorated here as an elaborate Lyran Queen swimming pool (another set frequently seen on the Pacific Princess).

The episode takes a little bit from The Love Boat in terms of structure too. Here we meet a number of different passengers, all with a story to tell.  Even Twiki gets to fall in love with the gold ambuquad named Tina (Patty Maloney). I won’t comment on the fact that she says “booty booty booty” instead of Twiki’s “bidi bidi bidi.

In terms of characters, however, “Cruise Ship to the Stars” -- at least on its surface -- is really a kind of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde story.  That story first came into the pop culture firmament back in 1886, when Robert Louis Stevenson published his tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The novella is a case study in the duality of man’s nature, both moral and immoral, and perhaps even a reflection of the conscious vs. unconscious mind.



Here, Buck tangles with an opponent who boasts two distinct personalities. One is meek and gentle, learning to assert herself and declare her needs. That’s Allison, our Dr. Jekyll in this case. The other personality is an out-of-control Id, a thief and a savage: Sabrina, or Mr. Hyde.

The sci-fi concept that permits this doubling is the idea of a “transmute,” some who can alter their physical and psychological identity. 

The question becomes, I suppose, who is really in charge? Sabrina or Allison? And beyond that, who is the “real” personality, and who is the “created” one, if we look at the concept in that fashion?


When we look in the mirror, we could ask ourselves the same questions. What controls us? The unconscious mind? The Id? Or some higher, more “civilized” function of the new brain, rather than the prehistoric one?

On an even deeper level, “Cruise Ship to the Stars” is really all about identity and the way society judges the standard of beauty.

Ms. Cosmos is beautiful inside and out, so much so that she is judged perfect by society. Her beauty is both physical and genetic, and therefore coveted by others who wish to profit from such “perfection.” 


Sabrina and Allison navigate standards of beauty in a fascinating way as well.  Sabrina is physically attractive, and yet her soul is monstrous. Her beauty is external; wrapped up in things like materialism and avarice.  Jalor considers Allison meek and weak, though she is also physically beautiful.  But as Allison asserts herself, as she undergoes the process of “becoming,” she might be seen as self-actualizing in a beautiful way as well.

I rather like the episode’s climax, wherein Buck, Twiki and Wilma close in on Sabrina and incapacitate her with sonic beams.  They make a good team.

Finally, I can’t end this review without noting the appearance here of Dorothy Stratten as Ms. Cosmos.  Stratten also starred as Galaxina (1980), and was named Playboy’s Playmate of the Year for the same year. 



And, of course, Stratten’s beauty was also coveted and manipulated by others.  At the age of 20, she was murdered by her former husband and manager.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Buck Rogers Week 2017: Colorforms



Buck Rogers Week 2017: Laserscope Fighter



In 1979, the post-Star Wars, Glen Larson version of Buck Rogers took the sci-fi world by storm.  I was nine year old at the time, and both the feature film and the follow-up TV series on NBC were right up my alley. 

The franchise starred Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering, and Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala.  The tone of the enterprise was cheeky and knowing, and the special effects, for their day, were absolutely stellar.  Down to the sexy opening credits, the film version played like James Bond in the future, or in space, perhaps.

Accordingly, I was thrilled when I began to see toys from Mego lining the shelves at Toys R Us.  Among the first of these was a spaceship toy with a design you never saw featured on-screen: the “Laserscope fighter.” 

This sharp-nosed space fighter “with simulated lasers and explosions” featured a cockpit for the 3.5 inch Buck Rogers figures.  But more interestingly, it possessed a rear-mounted view screen through which you could track, target, and incinerate enemies.

The box explains: “Look through the view-screen and line up your target, press the switches – see and hear the lasers fire – the target will appear to explode right before your very eyes!”


Also according to the box legend, this Buck Rogers Laserscope fighter featured:
·         Laserscope viewscreen
·         Twin stub wing handles
·         Telescopic focus control
·         Realistic laser sounds
·         Swing-open cockpit
·         Fits any Buck Rogers figure.

Of course, I must confess that when I was generously given the Laserscope fighter as a gift, I was a bit disappointed because I really wanted the Buck Rogers star fighter, a craft which was featured on the show and boasted an infinitely cooler design aesthetic. 


But once I actually got the star fighter for the Christmas of 1980, I could enjoy the Laserscope fighter as a kind of “alternate” ship for the intrepid Buck.  The fighter sort of fit with the universe of the TV series, because Buck often ended up going undercover for the Earth Directorate, flying ships of various designs.  So it was kind of cool to be able to play out that scenario with a ship other than an “official” one.

Also, if I understand my toy history right, the “Laserscope fighter” was also released in Europe, but as a toy from a different Mego license: The Black Hole (1979).  

Of course, the design of the ship doesn’t fit that particular franchise any more than it resembles something you saw on Buck Rogers



Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Unchained Woman" (November 1, 1979)



The early first season episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) titled “Unchained Woman” finds Buck (Gil Gerard) undertaking the futuristic equivalent of an impossible mission. 

The man out of time is tasked with breaking a prisoner -- Jen Burton (Jamie Lee Curtis) -- out of an inescapable, subterranean prison on the moon Zeta 3 so she can testify against her boyfriend, Mal Pantera (Michael Delano), who has been ambushing Directorate shipping lanes.

Complicating the mission, Buck must also contend with a relentless and invincible android prison guard whom he has nicknamed Hugo (Walter Hunt). 

After escaping from the prison with Jen, Buck has to not only escape Hugo’s pursuit (and deal with hungry sand squids...) and meet Wilma (Erin Gray) at a rendezvous point. He must also deal with an unseen menace: Earth ambassador Warwick (Robert Cornthwaite), who is secretly allied with Pantera.




Watching "Unchained Woman" today, it is clear that the android Hugo is a sort of science fiction missing link between Yul Brynner’s Gunslinger in Westworld (1973) and Arnie’s cyborg from the future in The Terminator (1984). This relentless, incredibly strong individual drives much of the episode’s action and even provides “Unchained Woman” its sting-in-the-tail/tale conclusion. 

Although the mission ends successfully, Buck’s android nemesis is still “alive,” still hunting his escaped wards.  He is never going to give up. Ever. And in fact, the machine is referenced in a later episode ("A Blast for Buck.")



This is a funny happenstance, in terms of the pop culture, because guest star Jamie Lee Curtis is famous, of course, for being pursued by an unstoppable villain of another stripe, Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers.  

Here, Jen believes she is finally free, but the episode cuts back to Hugo on Zeta's surface, his hand twitching, thus signifying the fact that the nightmare continues.


What remains so intriguing about “Unchained Woman” (and much of Buck Rogers’ first season, as well) is that it focuses on a crime or “caper” story.  The prison break-out story, for example, is a genre trope, seen on such programs as The A-Team and the tongue-in-cheek The Lone Gunmen (2000). The story itself is familiar, even old, but the writers for Buck Rogers cleverly adapt all the 20th century clichés to the 25th century setting thus making them memorable, and in some sense even fresh.  

Here, we get an underground prison on Zeta 3 (two-hundred feet beneath the surface and carved “out of bedrock”), an explosive medallion, android prison guards, a decontamination chamber, and prison identification bracelets. These trappings are inventive enough to make the story feel fresh. The episode's director, Dick Lowry, creates a lot of tension from the fact that the prison is inescapable, and Buck's only method of getting out, the aforementioned medallion, is torn from his neck and thrown in a garbage bin.


When you couple these futuristic trappings with Buck’s sense of humor and quips, “Unchained Woman” emerges as quite the entertaining romp. For example, here he notes, with apparent appreciation, that prisons have gone “co-ed” since his era.  At another juncture, he considers an android’s law-and-order “motto” (“On Zeta, they do things right…”) and suggests it would make a good bumper sticker. Gil Gerard makes such a good series lead because he can alternate readily between sincerity and humor without either emotion seeming forced. "Unchained Woman" puts those talents to good use.

Every sci-fi TV series possesses its own unique alchemy. Buck’s is ably represented by this episode: crime-related “caper” tales in which Buck goes undercover, helps someone, and  cracks wise along the way, all while contending with the technological "miracles" of a de-humanized future age. 

The nice thing about this formula is that it can be varied to be more serious (like the brilliant “Plot to Kill a City,”) more horrific (“Space Vampire”) or even a bit more on the comedic side (“Cosmic Whiz Kid.”) 

I still remember watching “Unchained Woman” for the first time, and worrying about how Buck was going to stop an unstoppable android. The episode’s cleverness comes from the fact that --in the final analysis -- he doesn't accomplish the impossible. The androids still functions, and is still out there, in search of his prey.



“Unchained Woman” is a fun episode of the series, bolstered by some nice location shooting in the desert, and some good special effects, such as the matte painting of the outpost called Station Post 7.  

Several Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) costumes get recycled there, but it hardly matters. And one final bonus of Bill Taylor's teleplay is a rare subplot involving Dr. Huer's back-story and friendship with Warwick. Huer (Tim O'Connor) is a truly interesting character, a principled leader who grew up in a time of famine and ascetisim, while Earth was climbing back on its feet.  Buck Rogers rarely took the time to focus on the character, but "Unchained Woman" reveals his true humanity, and his sense of decency, and loyalty.

Buck Rogers Week 2017: Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center (Mego; 1979)





In 1979, Mego released a whole line of very cool Buck Rogers spaceships and toys, including the Directorate Starfighter (my favorite ship from the series, the Draconian Marauder (known as a Hatchet fighter on the series...), a Land Rover, and a Laserscope Fighter (not a design from the series). 

So it only makes sense that the same company would market a place to dock these ships, the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center.

Christmas 1980 was the holiday of Buck Rogers for me. I'll never forget going over to my aunt and uncle's house in Summit, New Jersey and opening toy after toy -- all Buck Rogers models and action figures (though, as I recall, this was also the Christmas of The Empire Strikes Back and my giant AT-AT. But that's another story...).

Here, the toy box suggests: "Issue commands to Buck and monitor his flight pattern with this authentic replica of the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center!"

The toy also includes:

"2 level deck with radar screens and railings," "Cut-out landing and launch pad for Buck's Star Fighter," and "landing control console for use with Mego Buck Rogers 3 3/4 action figures and all other poseable 3 3/4 action figures."

What remains most interesting about this toy is that what you see displayed on the box is not necessarily the toy you get inside. On the box, for instance, the upper deck of the landing pad shows a chair from Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise bridge. In the actual toy, a different style chair is molded to the deck.

Also, the decals on the box and the decals of the actual set are completely different. I know now that Mego was juggling a number of "space opera" licenses at the time, including Star Trek, Buck Rogers and The Black Hole, so there may have been some franchise confusion. Just a guess.

This just goes to show that back in the 1970's and 1980's, even great toy companies like Mego weren't necessarily paying close attention to the exact details of their (admittedly wonderful and now incredibly collectible) products. 


This isn't really an "authentic replica" of the landing bay on the series.

But that's okay, it's still a fun toy. And as you can see from the photos, Buck's Starfighter Command Center today holds a cherished spot in my home office, even today.

Buck Rogers Week 2017: "Return of the Fighting 69th" (October 25, 1979)



In “Return of the Fighting 69th,” Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) finds that her past has caught up with her in two ways.

First, two notorious gun-runners hiding out on an asteroid base near Necrosis IV -- Corliss (Robert Quarry) and Roxanne Trent (Elizabeth Allen) ) -- have sworn revenge against her and all of Earth for the injuries they received when trying to escape her pursuit, years earlier. Now, these villains have a cache of 20th century nerve gas at their disposal.

Secondly, Deering must go to the men and women of the Fighting 69th Space Marines for help navigating the asteroid belt. 

Although she grew up with Noah Cooper (Peter Graves) and his team of silver-eagle pilots, Wilma recently flunked them on their annual physicals, as they are all nearing the mandatory retirement age of 85.  

Cooper and the others put the past aside, and agree to work with Wilma and Buck (Gil Gerard) on a bombing mission of Corliss and Trent’s hide-out. They outfit several ships as “star belly bombers” and train to assault the base.

Unfortunately, Buck and Wilma are captured during the actual raid, and are held captive by the burned, scarred gun-runners. Fortunately, they are assisted by a young Terran slave, Alicia (Katherine Wiberg). Alicia is deaf, and has been separated from her family on Earth for five years, but puts everything on the line to help the Directorate end the threat of the nerve gas.




Like many episodes of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’s (1979-1981) first season, “Return of the Fighting 69th” is fast-paced and action-packed. The episode features space dogfights, new miniatures (the asteroid base), and new optical effects as well.  

What differentiates this story from many others, however, is that it delves into the past of a character who is not often explored: Erin Gray’s Wilma Deering.


We learn a lot about Wilma from this episode. For example, we learn that her father was a pilot, as she became. When he died, she was raised, essentially, by his pilot friends (including Noah Cooper) and given the nickname “Dizzy D,” because she would get into everything, and make mischief. This is a nice, colorful peek at the character, and explanation for her life, essentially, of military service. She’s an Army (or Space Marine) brat, essentially.


Secondly, we learn about one of Wilma's important missions before Buck arrived in the 25th century. I like this touch, in particular, because it suggests that the 25th century didn’t just start when Buck showed up. 

Wilma had a career, and a history, and it wasn’t all positive. 

Here for instance, she failed to catch Corliss and Trent, and they have sworn a vendetta against her.  Uniquely, this whole subplot ties in neatly with the personal back-story. In both cases -- hunting down the gun-runners (who are badly injured and scarred) and booting the fighting 69th out of the service -- Wilma is just doing “her duty” as she sees it. 

But duty, while clear cut in the present, can sometimes have unforeseen effects from a point of retrospect. Here, Wilma makes two very dangerous enemies in space, and loses the people closest to her on Earth.  She must feel in some ways that duty is a harsh master, as it often requires her to hurt those she cares for, or destroy lives.


One aspect of “The Return of the Fighting 69th” that doesn’t work quite so successfully involves series continuity. Just a few episodes back (in “Vegas in Space,”) Buck and Wilma were still arguing a core conceit of the series: computer control vs. manual control as it applies to Starfighter pilots.  As we saw in the pilot “Awakening,” too, Directorate pilots could be beaten all the time, essentially, because they relied in combat on computer control. It took a good old fashioned, red-blooded American pilot of the 20th century -- Buck -- to show these stiff 25th century pilots how to fly by the seat of their pants.

Yet here, Cooper and all the other pilots seem quite capable and accomplished, and not-reliant on computer control at all.  Indeed, there is no mention of this debate here, as if the series has dropped the whole pretense that this is a continuing thread.  It is just as well, perhaps, that the notion is dropped, because looking at the grizzled, hard-boiled, experienced (and beautiful…) faces of Peter Graves, Woody Strode and the others, it isn’t easy to believe that they were raised and trained in an environment of computer control.  

An answer to this? It would have been great if Wilma had noted that these pilots practiced in a time more like Buck’s when computer control programs were not as sophisticated, or ubiquitous.



In terms of history, “Return of the Fighting 69th” boasts some intriguing antecedents. The Fighting 69th is a beloved war movie, actually of 1940, which stars James Cagney, George Brent, and Pat O’Brien.  

The Hollywood film, which is about courage and sacrifice in war, is based on World War I’s infantry regiment of the same name. It was called, like Noah’s space marines, “The fighting 69th.” That term was coined in a poem by Joyce Kilmer, “When the 69th Comes Home.” So it is fascinating to trace a line between the real fighting 69th, and patriots of Noah Cooper’s squadron in the 25th century.

“The Return of the Fighting 69th” is a fun, fast-moving episode of Buck Rogers, and the pace of the enterprise keeps one from thinking too much about some of the sketchy details. Corliss and Trent have weapons, ships, personnel, and an amazing facility. All of that is wasted by their pursuit of vengeance, which is part of the episode’s theme, no doubt, but their scenes play as two-dimensional.  


Similarly, the episode falls all over itself to provide a happy ending for literally every protagonist.Noah survives the bombing run (when first thought dead). Buck reunites Alicia with her family…and she is scheduled for surgery to get her hearing back. Meanwhile, the Fighting 69th gets back its “silver eagles,” and the regulation about mandatory retirement at 85 is taken off the books.  It’s just so…positive.  

I would suggest that a more impactful ending would see Noah killed in action -- dying the way he lived; protecting his planet. That denouement would have given the story a bit of an extra (gut) punch.

Also, it is rewarding that the concept of “ageism” is brought up here, but it isn’t exactly treated in nuanced fashion. 

Wilma’s point, that the Fighting 69th was not ready for combat proves wrong, but she is not wrong in every situation.  My great uncle Arthur -- whom I loved dearly -- died at the age of 96 last une. He still would, occasionally, ask where his driver’s license was, so he could drive. Yet the man was virtually blind.  As cold-hearted as this may sound (or read…), it is an act of kindness sometimes, to prevent the people you love from hurting themselves, and hurting others. My uncle did not belong, in his nineties, behind the wheel of a car.  I would always offer to drive him to get whatever he wanted or needed (which was, usually, a bag of black licorice candy).  

I understand that the story particulars of “The Return of the Fighting 69th” suggest that Noah and the others are as capable as ever, at their advanced ages. But in real life, it’s not often that clear cut. I don’t believe in discriminating against the elderly, and I believe that they should maintain their independence as long as they possibly can. But sometimes, sadly, other factors “weigh” on their ability to be self-sufficient.

To my delight, this Buck Rogers episode also addresses the issue of the hearing-impaired, and sign-language. Alicia is treated as less than a complete, or intelligent person by Trent, because she can’t speak; because she can’t use vocal language the way that we do. Buck connects with her, and helps her find her courage; her "voice," if you will. This is a nice touch that gives Buck something meaningful to do in what is, clearly, an over-stuffed episode.

Finally, and on a personal note, I love the miniatures of the star-belly bombers used in this episode.  They look great, and the special effects visualizing them are certainly state of the art for 1979. 

Although it moves very fast, and avoids reality strenuously with its happy, Hollywood ending, “Return of the Fighting 69th” still must count as a strong episode of this series in its first season.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Buck Rogers Week 2017: Mego Action Figures



Mego acquired the merchandise license for the 1979 revival of Buck Rogers and used the feature film (originally a TV-pilot) as the basis for its many toy designs.  

Today, I want to remember the action figures from the series.

Nine were released all together, including Buck, Twiki, Wilma Deering, Killer Kane, Ardella, Dr. Huer, Tiger man, Draconian Guard and Draco. 

If you watched Buck Rogers in the 25th Century on television with any regularity, you’ll immediately pick up on some of the discontinuities between the program and the toys.  

Specifically, Pamela Hensley’s character was named Ardala, not Ardella.  

And Kane -- a character played by both Henry Silva and Michael Ansara – was never referred to by the nickname Killer Kane. 

Finally of course, King Draco appeared in the pilot/movie for about twenty seconds and was never seen again on the series.  Not even once.

Despite such problems, I always enjoyed these three-and-three-quarter inch action figures.  They could fit easily inside the Land Rover, the Draconian Marauder and the Starfighter, and in general looked a great lot like their video counterparts.  The figures’ drawbacks included the fact that they came with no accessories, not even laser guns or helmets. 


And additionally, like The Black Hole action figures from Mego of the same vintage, these Buck Rogers figures could break very easily because all their joints were held together by silver pins.  Those pins  had an annoying habit of loosening up or even falling out.

I still remember seeing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in theaters.  Afterwards, my parents took me to a Toys R Us store to buy me two action figures.  I was able to find Buck and Twiki and was pretty happy about it.  Our next stop was a carpet store and while my parents shopped, I flew Buck and Twiki around the huge store filled with rolled-up rugs. 

In short order, however, Buck’s interior elastic snapped, and the hero came apart into many pieces. The very first night I had him!  Buck’s “accident” left me only with Twiki…which was a big disappointment.  

The astronaut had survived five hundred years as a popsicle only to spontaneously combust in a carpet store.

When we arrived home, my Dad glued Buck Rogers back together, but the poor guy was never quite the same, being now unable to move his hips. 

How could he teach my Princess Ardala figure how to boogie?


Buck Rogers Week 2017: "The Plot to Kill A City" (October 11, October 18, 1979)





Buck Rogers vs. The Legion of Death.
This exciting Buck Rogers two-parter aired on October 11 and October 18, 1979, and was written by the talented Alan Brennert.  Dick Lowry directs.

"The Plot to Kill a City's story opens in media res, with Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) on a mission to take out and replace a legendary criminal named Raphael Argus.  Argus, you see, is a member of "The Legion of Death," a terrorist group planning to deliver "final retribution" on New Chicago (a city of 10 million people...) for the death of one of  its comrades.

Because Buck hails from the 20th century, there's no record of his existence anywhere in the data-heavy, computerized 25th Century, and so Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor) at the Earth Defense Directorate sends Buck to infiltrate the Legion and learn its secret plan.  Since the Legion of Death members rarely gather -- and don't know each other by sight -- this seems a perfect plan.

Not so fast, however, as Buck is soon pitted against a team of James Bond-worthy villains. 

A soldier villain? Varek (Anthony James)
Leading the Legion of Death is a brilliant scientist from Rigel IV, Selon Kellogg (Frank Gorshin). 

He's the mastermind and formidable "general" villain of the organization.  Kellogg is cruel and merciless, willing to visit death upon innocent millions for a personal slight. 

If you've watched Batman, you may recall that Gorshin is expert at portraying exaggerated, larger-than-life villainy, but his Kellogg is a different breed from the Riddler all-together: a deadly serious, deadly somber threat; a real (and utterly horrible...) person.

At Kellogg's side stand several incredibly powerful and memorable "soldier" villains and minions.  Their numbers include Quince (John Quade), an assassin from a heavy gravity planet armed with telekinetic powers, Sherese (Nancy DeCarl), an empath who picks up "vibrations" and who is "pathologically suspicious," and Markos, a martial arts expert who has "partially severed" his nerve endings to reduce his ability to feel pain (and yes, we saw a villain much like Markos in The World is Not Enough [1999], didn't we?). 

Finally, there's the hulking Varek (Anthony James), a masked mutant and Kellogg's personal bodyguard.  He boasts the ability to "alter his molecular density."   In other words, Varek can walk through walls.

During the course of the story's two-parts, Buck must infiltrate the Legion and stay ahead of these powerful villains.   This task is made more difficult by his entanglement with a betrayer named Barney (James Sloyan), after the comic strip's "Black Barney."  Buck must also evade galactic police, who believe he really is the notorious Raphael Argus.

As Buck soon learns, the Legion of Death plans to destroy a matter/anti-matter power generator outside of New Chicago. The Legion forces an employee at the power station to help them evade security by threatening the lives of his children. 

"Show me a family man who can afford to be a hero..." Kellogg quips.

With time running out, Buck finds an unexpected ally in Varek...

The space port on Aldebaron (later re-used in ST: TNG: "Coming of Age").
It seems to me that --  especially in the case of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- one must judge the quality or worth of the series' installments within the boundaries of its action-oriented format and particular historical context. 

In this case, the Glen Larson TV series was broadcast post-Star Wars.   That says a lot.

That historical context means audiences  must expect a cute robot (Twiki), plenty of flashy laser beam fire, space dogfights, and a heightened sense of romantic action/adventure.  

In broad terms, the series format basically makes Buck and Wilma futuristic "secret agents" working for Dr. Huer's Directorate, putting cosmic bad guys out of business while acting "undercover."   Not particularly deep; but the stories are often immensely engaging, and almost universally entertaining.

Many weeks, it's James Bond in space, all right, and as is the case with the best Bond films, the best Buck Rogers episodes are often those which feature the most interesting villains

"The Plot to Kill a City" serves up a literal "legion" of such nemeses, plus an appealing Bond girl (Buck girl?)  in Markie Post's cute-as-a-button Joella Cameron.  The threat is also grave enough to hold the attention: the destruction of New Chicago and 10 million people at the hands of the terrorist villains.

If you choose to look at Huer as "M" or "Q" while he gives Buck his gadgets of the week (black light bombs...) the comparison to the Bond franchise is complete.

Within the parameters established above -- Buck as Bondian secret agent, bracing space adventure -- the truly rewarding Buck Rogers episodes remain those that  are able -- through clever writing and execution -- to often find a sort of unexpected "sweet spot" in this superficial Bond formula:  a spot where story and character ingredients work on a deeper-than-surface level. 

Markie Post is a futuristic Bond Girl.
Where was that sweet spot located?  Well, it often became apparent when Buck's humanity and fish-out-of-water predicament played an important role in the narrative, and when good, solid science fiction concepts ably supported the front-and-center action. 

Even better, it occurred when those solid science fiction concepts were ones that had something relevant and important to say about American life during the late 1970s or early 1980s.

With the "The Plot to Kill a City,"  you can put checks in all those boxes.  

Make no mistake, Buck Rogers is not Star Trek, which by and large remains a meditative vehicle on human morality, but this  comparison doesn't mean Buck couldn't tell meaningful, dimensional tales, either.  

Most importantly, the superficial good guys vs. bad guys nature of the "Plot to Kill a City" is supported ably by a surprising, welcome and very human character subplot.  In this case, Varek -- the masked body guard -- originates from a planet that survived a "winnable" nuclear war, only to face a future of terrible genetic deformity.  Varek hides his misshapen face behind a golden mask so as not to reveal his hideous visage.

Late in the first segment, Varek tells Buck Rogers that he deserves to be Kellogg's servant, a slave essentially. 

"I deserve no better," he declares with self-loathing.  "My people were a proud race...too proud.  It wasn't enough that we had tamed our planet, built a great culture, reached out into space.  We had to have other worlds too.  We abused our freedom and we lost it, and deservedly so."

Later, when Varek realizes that Kellogg plans to visit a similar apocalypse upon Earth's innocent children, he gets over his self-pity and hatred and actively joins Buck's cause.  "You can't imagine life on my planet," he explains.  "Children afraid to look at their own reflections.  Children with the touch of death."

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
In the end, Varek saves the day by facing his own death.  Eyes wide open, he walks straight into a radioactive anti-matter chamber to stabilize the reactor. 

Inside, Varek re-aligns the power system, and saves the generator...and all of New Chicago.

And yes, this heroic incident -- with a character bravely and knowingly facing extinction before the eyes of his comrades in a sealed compartment -- oddly foreshadows the specifics of Spock's death in the engine room in The Wrath of Khan.

More to the point, however, Valek is no ordinary "guest star of the week," but rather a character who is well-developed, and undergoes an arc of learning and development during the story.  He changes sides not on a writer's whim, not because the story demands it, but based on his difficult life experience, and that idea comes through pretty powerfully without being overtly preachy.

Also, it's important to recall that America was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union in late 1979, when this episode aired.  The specter of nuclear annihilation was always present -- every day -- like a shroud, hanging over all of us.   This episode of Buck Rogers expresses the terrible horror of nuclear Armageddon, with children paying the consequences for an "international" disagreement over political ideology.  Even more so, it suggests that those who use such weapons to conquer others deserve themselves to be subjugated and enslaved.  Not a tame statement in the year leading up to Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, and the American boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics.

Again, this "apocalypse mentality," this expression of fear around a nuclear war, lends a commendable gravity to this episode that not all Buck Rogers episodes abundantly possess.  Although the Earth itself is a victim of nuclear holocaust in the series, the writers of the program never returned Buck to Anarchia to face the savagery of his time period, and the ideological passions that led to such global horror.  "The Plot to Kill a City" gets at the idea in a different way, and in a way that resonates well.  Other episodes of the series would certainly try --"Olympiad" was about a defector from an oppressive planetary regime -- but none truly got to the stark horror of nuclear brinkmanship in the way that "The Plot to Kill a City" does.

Kellogg's starfighter.
When I discuss solid science fiction concepts in terms of this two-part episode, I'm talking about the way the episode creates deadly and unique "assassins" out of other-worldly environments. 

It imagines a world of heavy gravity where the inhabitants develop the power of their minds (telekinesis) so as to control their environs.  It imagines Varek's world of nuclear apocalypse; a world that took a dark path which, fortunately, our Earth has not. It features an "empath" as a deadly conspirator and interrogator, and much more.

With the exception of Varek and his milieu, these concepts are not explored in great depth, merely touched upon, but then again we must return to the concept of Buck Rogers as an action series.  The natures and backgrounds of Quince, Sherese, Markos and the others are imaginative and believable enough to make the story fly (and to suggest a larger world), and that's what's important.

I still remember watching this compelling two-parter when I was nine years old, and being absolutely glued to the television as those terrible words -- "To Be Continued" -- popped up.  There was the feeling then that Buck Rogers -- for all its swashbuckling fun -- was hitting on all creative thrusters too.

"A Plot to Kill a City" serves up a number of great villains, and one tragic character too.  Because it consists of two parts and has roughly ninety minutes to tell its tale, the story is fast-paced but also takes the time to get the small touches right.  For all of the series' sense of fun and humor, there was always the impression here that the danger presented by Kellogg was real and grave, and that matters of great consequence were occurring.  Simply put, this is one of the best "Bucks."