Monday, August 07, 2006

Be-de-be-de-be-dee ... Don't muck with Buck

'The year is 1987 and NASA launches the last of America's deep space probes. In a freak mishap, Ranger 3 and its pilot Captain William 'Buck' Rogers are blown out of their trajectory into an orbit which freezes his life support systems and returns Buck Rogers to Earth ... 500 years later.'

Remember that intro? Spoken in sonorous tones by William 'Cannon' Conrad, it introduced us to that silliest of 1970s' sci-fi series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Well, now it's back on TV in the UK (on satellite TV station Bravo) ... and I'm loving every cheesy, cliche, unfashionable and uninspired minute of it.



The DVD box set cover. The artist has been very kind with Buck's waistline.

Buck Rogers first appeared in March 1979 and ran for a full first season of 24 episodes. A second season began in 1981 but ran for just 13 episodes. Chunky Gil Gerard was Buck and he was aided and abetted in his adventures by slinky Erin Gray as spandex-clad Colonel Wilma Deering, bewildered Dr Huer (Tim O'Connor) and Twiki (Felix Silla), a small 'ambiquad' who spoke like a Bronx taxi driver and punctuated his 1970s' platitudes with an occasional 'Be-de-be-de-be-dee' noise (although in series 2 Mel Blanc no longer did the voice and Twiki affected a weird falsetto instead. I suspect he had a robot sex change). In Season Two, the series got a shoddy makeover and Buck got a new playmate, Hawk, played by Thom Christopher. Hawk was the last of his kind; a birdman with a feathered toupe which must have been incredibly warm to wear judging by the frequent sweat to be seen running in rivulets down the actor's face.

As explained in the intro, Buck is sent out on a routine mission and ends up getting frozen. After thawing out, he finds that he's now in the year 2491. And things are very different. There's been a nuclear war to start with and much of the 'old knowledge' has been lost. It's a world ruled by computerised brains and protected by the Defence Council based in New Chicago. Everyone has enormous hair and dresses in Bacofoil and the world is at peace.

But what a strange world it is! 25th century computers are the size of bears and fitted with reel to reel tapes and chunky retro switches. Computer graphics look suspiciously like the stuff we used to produce on our Sinclair ZX81s and Commodore Amigas. Disco is the universally acknowledged music of the universe. And what's left of the 'old knowledge' is strangely particular. In one episode Wilma confesses that she has no idea what an egg is, while in another she knows how big a whale's tongue is. What possible catastrophe could have caused such singular specificity?

Be-de-be-de-be-dee. Annoying little bastard.

All of the men are hunky and slim and the ladies are lovely Charlie's Angels also rans. They've obviously sorted out the global warming issue as all they seem to wear most of the time are silver bikini tops adorned with bling. All except Wilma, that is, who is far more professional and spends Season One in the kind of super-tight spray-0n jeans made fashionable by Olivia Newton-John in Grease, and Season Two in a kind of Donald Duck sailor suit with pixie boots. And heels. All of the female fighter pilots wear high heels. So practical.

But that's one of the things that makes watching Buck Rogers so enjoyable. I love the fact that they got it so very, very wrong. Glen Larson presented us with an optimistic view of the future based on 1977 technology and seen through the eyes of 1970s sexual politics. Everything is just so cheesy - the fashions and the hair and the music and the technology. And when that's combined with stinking scripts and completely uninspired characters and situations, it makes a show worth watching for the sheer comedy value alone. Look at the planet names ... Neutropolis; I wonder if the people there are neutral? And what kind of creatures live on Voltron? Electrical beings maybe? The effects are appalling (this was the time of Star Wars but TV didn't have George Lucas budgets) and the scripts are criminal. Just look at the titles ... Planet of the Amazon Women, Cosmic Whiz Kid, Vegas in Space, Planet of the Slave Women, Space Rockers and Mark of the Saurian (lizard creatures maybe?) This was sci-fi of the very worst kind; derivative, inane, camp and lacking in all the fixtures and fittings that made its main 1970s competitor Star Trek so damned great.

'... but it's the pelvic thru-u-ust that really drives you insa-a-a-a-ane ...'

Buck Rogers was cancelled halfway through Season Two and deservedly so. While Season One was all the things I've described, it still had a naive charm and some fabulously over-the-top performances: Pamela Hensley as the vampish Princess Ardala; the deliciously named 'Legion of Death' (which included Joker Frank Gorshin and Markie Post); and an apparently catatonic post-op Julie 'Catwoman' Newmar as Zarina the War Witch with cheek bones so sharp she could cut tin. Season Two however, changed the format (and half of the cast) and replaced Twiki's voicebox with that of a San Francisco tour guide. And they dropped his (its?) trademark be-de-be-de noise. That's like the characters in The Fast Show being told 'Drop the catch-phrases.' Madness. The universe may have been expanding but so was Gil Gerard's waistline and he seemed less and less the hero-figure. Wilma was demoted to a background character and an irritatingly smug robot called Crichton was introduced. Worst of all was veteran Ealing comedy actor Wilfred Hyde-White, whose Professor Goodfellow character was so doddering and dithery I wondered at times whether some escapee from an old people's home had wandered aimlessly onto the set looking for his teeth. Still, it's good to see that pastel blue cardigans are still de rigueur 500 years from now.

It had to go.

But now Buck is back. And I can't resist it. It's car-crash telly. I'm watching it every day and I'm roaring with laughter. Somehow I don't think that's what Glen Larson intended. I've heard rumours that it's due a makeover, like Larson's other 70s sci-fi classic Battlestar Galactica. I do hope not. I like it just as it is. Awful. Cringeworthy. Crass.

I'm going to buy the box set.

(Photos (c) Universal Studios)

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