Monday, September 27, 2010

Merged Into A Timeless Dream

With the recent start of the Fall TV season it can be hard for someone of my age not to flash on memories of television long since past, if only for a few moments, remembering the time when the start of the new season was a big deal. As if preparing BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS lineups in advance each network launched all of their Still the One/Proud As a Peacock/Be There campaigns with all their big stars joined together in some kind of ridiculous We Are The World setup where they pretend to be singing some idiotic jingle. Of course, this nostalgia really has more to do with the comforts of childhood and the past rather than any actual quality. Because, let’s face it, they weren’t all THE ROCKFORD FILES and TAXI in those days, that’s for sure and just as plenty of TV shows now suck (just about all the new shows this year seem pretty bad), plenty sucked back then too. Just the nature of the suckage has changed. I may have fond memories of sitting down to watch an all new episode of THE ROPERS way back when but I’m more than happy to leave all that in the past. After spending an evening recently watching the amazing BOARDWALK EMPIRE pilot directed by Martin Scorsese followed by a particularly fantastic episode of MAD MEN there’s almost nothing to be nostalgic for. Sure, I wouldn’t have wanted to watch either of those shows when I was eight but I’m not eight anymore so there’s nothing wrong with having higher standards.

Case in point: BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY, the late 70s revival of the famous character for the STAR WARS generation. Yes, I have Dynamite Magazine-infused memories of watching this show and loving it and yes, I get a small thrill every time I hear William Conrad intone, “The year is 1987!” in that great title sequence and yes, I’ll probably have a crush on Erin Gray until forever. I guess those memories are why I once bought the complete series on DVD for a pretty cheap price but when I put in an episode to watch all I could think was…oh, man, this is bad. I couldn’t get through a single hour of any episode I tried even a few I had particularly fond, if vague, memories of. But at least I have the title sequence which is all I suppose I’ll ever need to remember this show by. And, even stranger, the box set includes the theatrical version of the pilot film, a release to theaters which occurred months before the TV premiere. I actually have no memory of it playing theaters when it opened in March 1979 (this must be before I was paying attention to such things) and it almost seems hard for me to believe it actually happened. But several people have confirmed its existence for me and Box Office Mojo reports that it grossed $21.6 million, not bad for the time, and I suppose it’s no stranger than the release of the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA movie, also from Universal, which occurred after that show had already aired. The theatrical version of the BUCK ROGERS pilot film is slightly different from what later aired on NBC in the Fall of that year, with differences that included a few extra scenes and some slight editorial alterations so I guess you could say that the DVD box which announces it as “The Complete Epic Series” isn’t at all correct and maybe it would have been best for Universal to have included both versions for completist’s sake. I wonder if they ever even realized there were alternate cuts. This sort of thing might seem unnecessary to the casual fan but when it comes to these touchstones of childhood it’s easy to pick out the tiny things--to nitpick big time, it always annoys me how they usually remove the famous Universal logo at the tail of these shows (like on the ROCKFORD discs), instead playing the current Universal fanfare as each episode begins, since that button at the end of each end credit sequence is to me as much a part of each series’ identity as anything. Clearly I have problems and haven’t grown up as much as I would like to think. That’s just the way it goes.

After blasting off in a space shuttle in the future year of 1987 Captain William “Buck” Rogers (Gil Gerard) is blown off his trajectory where his ship is frozen and he is returned 500 years later. But before he makes it to Earth his ship is discovered by the villainous Draconians led by Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) and her second in command Kane (Henry Silva) who immediately hatch a plan to use Buck’s return as a way to launch their invasion of Earth to break through their defense barrier. Once Buck returns he encounters Col Wima Deering (Erin Gray), Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor), the computer disc administrator known as Dr. Theopolis (voice by Howard F. Flynn) as well as everybody’s favorite wisecracking robot Twiki (body by Felix Silla, voice by Mel Blanc). The unknowing Buck is immediately suspected of being a spy for the Draconians but when he learns the truth of exactly what year it is he has his own desire to find out what happened to the world he once knew and once Ardala and Kane make an allegedly ceremonial visit to Earth he has no idea that he is being used as a pawn.

Let me just say one thing first since it’s just about the first thing anyone ever mention when it comes to this movie: the opening title sequence set to the Stu Phillips/Glen A. Larson composition “Suspension” sung by Kipp Lennon (essentially a slowed down version of the familiar theme set to lyrics) involving Buck’s dreams of various beautiful women including Gray, Hensley and others--check out those glasses!--while he’s in his frozen hibernation is the damndest thing I’ve ever seen. Depicting what we’re told in the narration in Buck drifting “through a world in which reality and fantasy merged into a timeless dream” it has nothing to do with the rest of the film or show or anything else in the history of time as far as I can tell, playing like some lame attempt to do a Bond title sequence but coming off as just kind of weird for what’s supposed to be a kids film and has the late 70s tinge of somebody doing too much coke somewhere. I wonder how Erin Gray feels now about those few seconds where she has to do that Farrah thing with her hair. Hang on, let me watch it again. As for the rest of the film directed by Daniel Haller (lots of episodic television as well as a few features including 1970’s THE DUNWICH HORROR with Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell) and written by series Executive Producer Glen A. Larson and Leslie Stevens, well, the simple way to put it is that it’s not very good, coming off as sort of workmanlike and uninspired.

It’s not like there’s anything particularly terrible about it but much of the time it just doesn’t really do anything for me and though I may have more of a sentimental attachment to this than Larson’s BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (why this is a Rosebud and that isn’t, I have no idea) that show/film always seemed to have much more going on storywise at any given point. This pilot feels a little like it didn’t get the various elements quite right-- not introducing any element of futuristic Earth until fifteen minutes in feels like some sort of mistake and when we get there it’s never as enticing as it probably should be, coming off as if they couldn’t decide to make it a LOGAN’S RUN-type futuristic utopia or a more darker setting similar to the desperately fleeing GALACTICA characters. This future Earth is, we’re told, unable to fully deal with the outside elements with discussion of trade disputes and pirates blocking shipping lines so food can’t get through (hey, just like in THE PHANTOM MENACE!) but this future Earth which has all its major decisions made by computers just doesn’t come off as very interesting to me. This computer council has to authority to decide Buck’s fate while everyone just sits around? Can’t they think for themselves? Is this who Buck is supposed to fight for?

Much of the 25th Century shown is depicted with bland sets and even a little bit of location shooting involving the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles (Hey, it looks futuristic!) as well as what seems like the same matte painting effects angle of the main headquarters shown about thirty times. There’s also a fairly lengthy stretch as Buck goes off into the forbidden territory of old Chicago in search of his past leading to an attack by some OMEGA MAN-type ghouls but since it doesn’t really result in anything beyond Buck admitting that everyone he once knew is really gone (what is referred to as “the holocaust” occurred on Earth sometime after he left) I kept wondering why we weren’t being shown cool futuristic stuff instead. The bits of that future we get, like the ceremonial dance at the party, is all pretty goofy anyway and not really anything to be impressed by. Buck leads the princess out on the dance floor to “get down and boogie” so he can show all these stiffs how things were done back in the 20th, since he’s now the only real man left around.

Obviously this was made for an much younger demographic than I am now—and made over thirty years ago now, for that matter—but it’s still all pretty cardboard and stilted so while I won’t criticize it for trying to appeal to kids I will criticize it for being bad. Coming in just under ninety minutes the whole thing is pretty choppy—I wonder where the commercial breaks were in the network version and though it feels like more of a complete narrative than the GALACTICA movie, as lame a story as it is, it still doesn’t really end, just sort of setting itself up for all of Buck and Wilma’s adventures to come. It’s weird to be writing this movie in the first place since it’s obviously not even a movie. It’s a TV show and a cheesy late 70s TV show at that. The nostalgia vibe given by these space battles and the old “Filmed in Universal City!” sheen is something that I’ll gladly acknowledge (just a shot of those spandex uniforms with the colors on the arm is enough to give me pleasant feelings of childhood) but they don’t disguise how this is all pretty lackluster stuff with lame plotting, unimaginative sets (those fun old blinking lights are seen) and a weird paucity of supporting characters, as if Larson decided that GALACTICA was too overpopulated (which it kind of was) and decided to overcompensate. Or maybe he was just trying to make this one cheaper from the outset. Some points developed later in the series were obviously still being worked out—the setting was made into more of a utopia with things like the forbidden city being dropped and at this point Twiki mostly communicates by using the famous “Biddi Biddi Biddi” sound, though a few wisecracks are tossed in at random (I believe his first spoken line is “L’Chaim”) as if it was a last-minute idea. Extra jokes for the kids, I guess. The effects are par for the course for the Glen Larson assembly line from this period but some of the matte paintings are admittedly pretty cool and provide the sort of evocative feel this show needs that probably exists only in my memories.

But just so it doesn’t seen like I’m being a total grouch about all this and maybe some of this is nostalgia talking—to me, Gil Gerard and Erin Gray really are fun to watch as Buck and Wilma. In some ways, they actually are as good as I remember this show being, coming off as likeable, energetic, playing off each other well with sparks flying and if given a good enough script their banter could have really developed into something. They even manage to avoid looking ridiculous when kneeling down to Twiki to have a conversation with Dr. Theopolis. Plus I just enjoy watching the beautiful Gray just strut around in her uniforms (get a good look at those nails of hers too) so at least there are still a few positive elements to it all. Tim O’Connor turns up on occasion to give some exposition as Dr. Huer but it occurs to me now that I’m not really sure what his character is supposed to be, beyond just a benign authority figure. Pamela Hensley (among her credits, a particularly good ROCKFORD FILES—it looks like she was a contract player at Universal) seems to let her looks and ridiculous costumes do most of the work for her and it feels like there’s a tiny spark missing from her character. As attractive as she might be, she’s no Erin Gray. She also shows about as much skin as any number of outfits worn by female guest stars on the original STAR TREK series but, I guess because this was the 70s, her costumes look just a little too stupid. She still looks good, though and reappeared on the series a few times. Henry Silva skulks around seeming vaguely annoyed—it almost reads as if the actor is using his annoyance at playing second in command to this actress who hasn’t earned the right to play such a large role into his character who feels exactly the same way about the princess. “Special Guest Star” Joseph Wiseman appears very briefly as King Draco. The exciting score by Stu Phillips provides the film with much of the energy it really does have and watching it now there’s a lot of enjoyment found in his various versions of the famous main title that pop up throughout.

As the talking computer disc Dr. Theopolis tells Buck at one point, “The past is gone,” and watching this movie that isn’t really a movie reminds me that the past really is gone and that for better or for worse network television isn’t like this anymore. The time for this sort of unpretentious adventure show that’s sci-fi or otherwise, at least the kind that I would ever want to watch, has long since passed and even if not much about BUCK ROGERS is any good, deep down I know that there’s something comforting in it all. When it went to series, episode titles included “Space Vampire,” “Unchained Woman,” “Planet of the Slave Girls” and “Planet of the Amazon Woman”. I guessing they don’t all live up to how good they sound. When it returned for its second season in the Fall of 1980 the show’s format had changed into a GALACTICA/TREK sort of thing causing me to tune out instantly and I probably wasn’t the only one. Whether it’s significantly better or worse, I really don’t have much interest in finding out. Why is it that so many shows from around this time period went through drastic changes of the format in its second year, leading to the implosion of what were established hits? Anyway, that second season was somewhat abbreviated (the 1980 actors strike was a factor) and the show was not renewed for a third. The world moved on and I moved on. Except, of course, for buying this DVD box set which wasn’t something I really needed to do. There was an anniversary revival screening of this pilot film at the Cinematheque back in 2004 and I unfortunately wasn’t able to go. As these things go, it’s pretty terrible stuff. It’s best left in the past. I really never need to see it again. If it’s ever shown somewhere in L.A. at any point in the future I’ll do everything humanly possible to be there.


dani michaeli said...

Dunwich Horror is great. I love that movie. I remember watching this show and being amused despite myself, which is weird because I WAS A KID!! Somehow, even as a child, this entertainment felt a little softball already.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

It might have been interesting if a seemingly stoned Dean Stockwell had turned up in BUCK ROGERS.

I'm sure it would seem even more softball now.

Jeff Allard said...

I lived for this show as a kid! Every week, when the title sequence would kick in, it was a thrill. Like most every other show I was into back then, Buck Rogers was lousy but I do miss the goofy innocence of those days.

joey a. said...

I actually saw this at The Egyptian in 79! When that theater was just HUGE in a Mann Chinese-y way. pre-earthquake, pre-everything else. Anyway, I think the show had potential. There are a handful of episodes, fleeting moments where you can see a dry, Rockford in space that could have been.