Buck Rogers (2005)

This feature was originally published in SFX 140, in that magazine’s regular “Time Machine” slot.

Buck Rogers – all white teeth, innuendo-laden badinage, fey robots and tight jumpsuits. That’s what the name means to most of us, remembering as we do the low-brow, high-camp 1980s series from the vast stables of Glen A Larson, whence many a wonky nag and almost thoroughbred SF TV show came trotting onto our screens. The show followed Larson’s “fire and forget” approach to producing, appearing with much fanfare and running for a mere one and a half seasons before sinking into a quagmire of high mediocrity, becoming a something that today seems laughably bad. But Buck Rogers was once much more than this, entrancing several generations of Americans in magazines, comic books, radio and screen, and the sad whimper that his last hurrah endured does a great disservice to his legend.

Anthony Rogers first appeared in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. Penned by Philip Francis Nowlan, the tale was entitled “Armageddon – 2149”. It was a clever piece of science fiction that had the forces of the future waging war on one another with a variety of military inventions that have since become commonplace – infrared ray guns for night fighting, jet planes, bazookas, paralysis rays and more, though Buck’s flight-endowing jumping belt is still sadly unavailable. The famed Hugo Gernsback, at the time editor of Amazing Stories, firmly stated of the tale: “We have rarely printed a story in this magazine that for scientific interest as well as suspense could hold its own with this particular story. We prophesy that this story will become more valuable as the years go by. It certainly holds a number of interesting prophecies, many of which, no doubt, will come true.”

Buster Crabbe plays it straight.

His prophesy was a good one. Soon after the story’s publication, newspaper mogul John Flint Dille commissioned Nowlan to create a comic strip featuring the adventures of the hero. Entitled Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the strip began its run on January 7th 1929. It was to be a phenomenal success, running in over 400 newspapers simultaneously at the height of its success.

Many of the Buck staples are present in the original stories. Buck Rogers, an ex-WWI American fighter pilot, is a surveyor in Pennsylvania who gets trapped in a cave-in and is put into suspended animation by a strange radioactive gas. When he awakes 500 years in the future, the heroic Buck becomes a pilot once more, a secret agent and head of the Rocket Rangers. He lives in a futuristic city of “metalloglass” full of marvellous devices. His enemy is Killer Kane, an evil Mongol who is trying to dominate the world, and his ally Ardala. Buck’s cohorts are the genius Dr Huer, Wilma and her younger brother, Buddy.

By 1932, when the spin-off radio serial was launched, Buck memorabilia crammed the bedrooms of American boys. Hundreds of thousands of people tuned in to listen to the adventures of the space hero four times a week, whose gadgets and gizmos were simulated on the airwaves by the clever use of power tools (his psychic disintegration ray was an electric razor, for example). Buck Rogers was, in all ways, a household name.

In 1939 Buster Crabbe, who had played Buck’s imitator Flash Gordon, donned the robe of the time-displaced adventurer for a cinema serial. This Buck’s origin stepped up the science fiction wow-factor – he­ is flying a dirigible with his colleague Buddy (changed from his earlier role as Wilma’s brother) when they go down over the Artic. The ship is carrying an experimental gas, Nirvano (a shameless piece of McGuffin pinched by ITV’s poor 1999 drama The Last Train). The pair are instructed to inhale the gas in order to preserve their lives. Of course, when they wake up, they’re not in early 20th century Kansas any more, so to speak. This serial – of the kind that ran before the main feature in the days before televison – had Buck and Buddy revived in 2440. Killer Kane is again the villain, this time at the head of a band of super-gangsters which rule the Earth. Buck joins the freedom fighters, and, in a complicated plot, seeks aid from the planet Saturn. The 12-parter was recycled endlessly, being cut together for a 1953 film release, Planet Outlaws and edited again for television in 1953 in the shape of Destination Saturn. It even ran in the ’70s and ’80s on British TV. Though virtually indistinguishable from the Flash Gordon serial, it was far more polished than other SF offerings of the time, and had a kind of muscular vitality the ’80s version lacked. The wiry Buster Crabbe, an athelete, was a world away from the toothy avuncularity of Gerard.

The TV show that followed in 1950 was, by all accounts, a disappointment, though it is difficult to gauge as there are reputedly no copies of this long-forgotten piece of TV history. It was only the second ever TV SF show after all (the first being Captain Video and His Video Rangers), and the signature elements of Buck Roger’s universe, the constant action and clever gadgets, were severely hampered by the static, live nature of television.

The TV show finished in 1951, and Buck went into a slow decline. Nowlan had long left the comic strip behind, and it lost much of its power. Though it ran until 1967, it was confined to but a few newspapers. “Buck Rogers”, once a commonplace synonym for all that was futuristic in the speech of Americans, became a derogatory phrase applied with the same level of disdain as someone might have said “Doctor Who monster” ten years ago.

There was no Buck for 12 years, until maverick producer Glen A Larson got his hands on the property, launching a new

What science fiction needs is more comedy robots.

Buck onto an unsuspecting public in 1979. Many of the main elements of the story remained wholly intact, but the concept was retooled for the age of disco. “The original space man! The ultimate trip! Buck Rogers swings back to earth and lays it on the 25th Century!” screamed the jive-talking tagline. But disco was not the only innovation since Buck had last entertained the masses – feminism had come along in the meantime and grabbed the world by the proverbials. In response to this, Deering was promoted to Colonel, (though the character was always in need of rescuing and actress Erin Grey had to a) Dye her hair blonde and b) prance about in a shiny catsuit – feminism was yet to be fully integrated into the popular consciousness) and had an arch relationship with Buck with more than a hint of “mother knows best” to it. Ardala too was given preminence over Killler Kane, who was reduced from emperor of the world to henchman. She was now a sexually bored yet ultimately dangerous Princess, daughter of King Draco, evil overlord of one of Earth’s antagonistic ex-colonies. Again, empowered as actress Pamela Hensly was, Ardala was required to prance around in a whole range of adolescent-bothering outfits. Not that this upset Gerard, who had the pair of these lovely, self-determining chicks fighting over him in the show.

“All those beautiful women were one of the reasons I had such a good time doing it! It was in my contract ‘scantily women only’. We were kind of kinky, a little ahead of our time,” He told SFX in a 1999 interview.

Originally intended as a pilot for a TV show, Buck Rogers went on general theatrical release in the US where it tapped into the public’s fondness for the character, grossing vast amounts of cash.

“The figures are burned into my mind,” Gerard told us, figures tripping off his tongue as he recounted his glory hour. “It took 35 million in one month, before being removed from screens because it had been pre-sold to cable. It was one of Top 5 grossing pictures in 1979. In the opening weekend alone it took 12 million dollars, and this was three dollars a ticket at the time.”

(These big figures, predictably, prompted the third re-release of the old Universal Buster Crabbe serial).

Feminism's advent had minimal impact on the new Buck Rogers. The last Wilma (Erin Grey) might have been a capable colonel, but all men were encouraged to look at her tightly clad backside.

Unsubtle flirting aside, this Buck was a different man. Though he was known to floor the odd Tigerman with a well-aimed punch, he was also a caring, sharing gentleman. The series writer’s bible said of him “As a character Buck Rogers outwardly presents a flip, sardonic, devil-may-care guy, and an adventurous spirit. Beneath this facade is a serious and caring man who is alone. For all of the marvels of the 25th century, Buck Rogers is cut off from everyone he loved or cared about.”

And what marvels! Actually, no. The keyword with Buck Rogers’ 80s incarnation is ‘fun’, and that in the lightest sense. Behind the recycled, unused Battlestar Galactica concepts (another Larson show) and Ralph McQuarrie spaceships, the stories suffered from the curse of syndication – the need for the series to be shown in any order at all cut out any character development or story progression, with many narrative inconsistencies between episodes. The future looked like a bad nightclub furnished by early Ikea, so soulless and plastic that when Buck paints faces on his furniture many viewers must have empathised. But the show illustrated one important social shift – the idea of relentless social progress through science had taken a beating, and it was often Buck’s knowledge of the old ways that got him out of scrapes. This aside, the show relied heavily on comedy, particularly from Twiki, Buck’s mentally deficient midget robot sidekick, and this did not make for the gut-wrenching tale of one man lost across the centuries. Even when the film tried to capture this aspect of Buck’s character, when he sneaks out of New Chicago to his ex-girlfriend’s grave, it slips into pathos.

Worse was to come. Glen A Larson had become little more than a name in the credits once the film had aired, and, as much of a magpie as he was when it came to other’s ideas (Gerard affectionately called him a “bandit”)  the TV series lacked his screwball creative energy, and Gerard allegedly argued with the chief writers on the project. Then came the second series…

Where the first series was goofy but fun, the second was risible. Buck joins the crew of the Searcher, a spaceship commissioned to search out “the lost tribes of man”. The first series’ bible made much of Earth’s relationships with her former colonies, though these were never satisfactorily explored, but this level of plagiarism from Battlestar Galactica, was too much. The second season retrod old western and Star Trek plots. Mel Blanc, the cartoon genius who had voiced Twiki in the first series, was replaced by Bob Elyea for much of the second series, to fans’ mystification and outrage, and the little bot’s limelight was stolen by Krichton, an awful robot who owed much of its ancestry to a standard lamp. Buck wasn’t the only anachronistic throwback on board either, a bemused Wilfred Hyde White was wheeled onto the show to stammer and dither his way through awful lines, in a cardigan! Not very sci-fi. Gerard rages against this new direction.

“Our new producer John Mantley had no idea, one of his ideas was to replace Mel. A complete rip off of Star Trek was another. We ditched all those classic characters – Ardala, Killer Kane, the Tigermen. I was saying ‘Look, I’d really like Buck to stay on Earth. Why would he want to leave? He’s been gone for 500 years. The man needs to look around for a while, not go flying off again. John Mantley did not know what he was doing. He did the last part of Gunsmoke. To hear him tell it he reigned during the headier days of Gunsmoke, but he simply presided over the demise of that and the demise of Buck Rogers. He actually bragged about the fact he ripped off one of his Gunsmoke scripts for the Hawk episode. He actually bragged about it, he thought it was really funny that he cast Barbara Luna in both roles – she was the Indian princess and she was Hawk’s wife. The thing is, to actually laugh about it, to have so little respect for the audience, as to say, fuck ’em”

The audience got the message, and deserted the show in droves. It was canned. Buck disappeared from the popular awareness, only an RPG, published in the late eighties, keeping his memory alive.

But his tale is perennial one, that of a man out of place, in a new world that presents many opportunities as much as it makes him yearn for that which he has lost. With TV SF reaching new levels of sophistication, perhaps it is time for some enterprising producer to take up the torch of Buck Rogers, and carry it once more to light the darkness of the future for us all.

Buck Facts

  • Buck has been played by Matt Crowley, Curtis Arnall, Carl Frank and John Larkin (radio series); Buster Crabbe (cinema serial); Kem Dibbs and Robert Pasteme (’50s TV show) and Gil Gerard (’80s TV show)
  •  Buck is a nickname, the character’s real is Anthony Rogers
  •  Buck has been put into suspended animation by radioactive gas in a cave, experimental gas in an airship, and by being frozen in deep space when his probe is lost
  • In the ’80s version, Buck’s Deep Space Probe, Ranger 3, was modelled on the space shuttle. The series introductory narrative explains it was launched in 1987. In reality, there were no shuttle launches in that year because of the prior year’s Challenger disaster
  • Gil Gerard worked with Glen A Larson once before. Larson’s band, “The Four Preps”, played at Gerard’s college. Gerard’s band supported them
  •  Gerard was originally going to be a teacher before deciding to take up acting
  •  Buster Crabbe appeared in the 80s episode “Planet of the Slave Girls”.
  •  The first Buck story, Armageddon-2143, appeared in the same issue of Amazing Stories as the first part of EE Doc’ Smith’s “The Skylark of Space”.
  •  Though they are often seen as contemporaries, Buck Rogers came before, and inspired, Flash Gordon
  •  At his peak, Buck commanded the loyalty of thousands of fans. The Radio serial had several giveaways with it. The first of which, a map of the planets, had 125,000 requests. A later offering of a space helmet could only be gained by sending in seals from Cocomalt cans, the show’s sponsor, even so 140,000 of these pieces of tin were sent in, and this was during the Great Depression.

Find out everything there is to know about Buck Rogers at the excellent www.buck-rogers.com


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