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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Epic Series
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Epic Series
Universal // Unrated // November 16, 2004
List Price: $89.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted November 21, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The year is 1987, and NASA launches the last of America's deep space probes. In a freak mishap, Ranger Three and its pilot, Captain William "Buck" Rogers, are blown out of their trajectory into an orbit which freezes his life support systems, and returns Big Rogers to Earth... five hundred years later.

The Program

OK, intrepid followers, hop back with me as we flow freely into the past, back to the majestic year of 1979. It had been two full years since Star Wars had pretty much blown the roof off of children's imaginations everywhere. Like the flip of a light switch, suddenly space - for lack of a better term - was in. Action/adventure was king at the box office, especially if it featured ray guns, spaceships, aliens, robots, and great-big-embarrassingly-exciting kung-faux fights in gold lamé jumpsuits. Heck, we even got James Bond into outer space with ray-guns in Moonraker (still vastly underrated as a Bond flick, damn you elitists!)

But let's not get ahead of ourselves...

Where were we? Ah yes: 1979. Your humble reviewer was a wee lad of eight, and like most members of my generation completely absorbed by and obsessed with all things Star Wars, having seen the film in theaters somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 billion times and suffered through the Holiday Special without too much cerebral trauma. On television, the first (and only) season of Battlestar Galactica had come, bringing much excitement to SF fans but destined to be only a memorable one-season footnote for genre aficionados (the less I mention Galactica 1980, the less I have to actually acknowledge such an abortion ever existed.) Starved for any kind of "space-based" entertainment, March of 1979 provided something of a reprieve. One Saturday morning, my brother and I had found out that a brand newBuck Rogers in the 25th Century film was playing in local theaters. Energized as if we had just shot up with a combination of Pixie Sticks and Mountain Dew, we begged our Mom to take us to the Cutler Ridge mall to see this flick. We grabbed our popcorn, plopped our collective asses down in our seats, and awaited the sci-fi greatness that was sure to emerge before us.

The film starred Gil Gerard as the eponymous hero, the 20th Century astronaut lost in time, thrust into a world far removed from that which he left. He finds himself smack dab in the middle of an interstellar war between Earth and the Draconian Empire. A Draconian ship, as part of a diplomatic envoy on its way to Earth, discovers Buck's frozen ship first. The absolutely stunning and metal bikini-clad Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley), along with General Kane (Henry Silva), decide to return Buck Rogers to Earth was a transmitter on his ship, thus transmitting coordinates to the proper passage through Earth's force shield. As Buck arrives on Earth, his loyalty is questioned by the Defense Directorate, commanded by Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) - which doesn't get any easier when they discover the transmitter on Buck's ship. Facing execution, Deering offers Rogers a proposal in exchange for leniency: spy on the Draconians for Earth and find out their master plan. Buck agrees, and discovers a massive ruse in the making: Draconian ships are posing as space pirates in order to distract Earth's Defense Directorate from a massive Draconian invasion. Can Buck Rogers save the day? Or is Earth doomed?

And uh... well, to be honest, my brother and I absolutely loved the movie. So sue me; I was eight. I wasn't exactly the most discriminating customer. Furthermore, the film, while not a big hit, grossed somewhere around the range of $12 million, making it very profitable release for MCA Universal. Why, you ask? Because Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was never meant to be a theatrical release; it was a two-part pilot episode for a proposed NBC series that somehow merited a small theatrical run, perhaps to "test the waters" for any potential interest. It seemed to have worked: on September 20, 1979, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century made its television debut on NBC as a full-blown series.

Twenty-four episodes were produced for the show's first season, which included the theatrical film as a two-episode pilot (the televised version of the film was slightly but not substantially different from what was released in theaters.) For awhile it was not sure if Erin Gray was to reprise her role as Wilma Deering, so some of the earlier episodes had Buck teaming up with other female partners. Thankfully, Ms. Gray's return was a welcome relief to hard-up SF horndogs all over the country.

The show itself was something of a Battlestar Galactica hangover. Produced by the always awe-inspiring Glen Larson (who had created and produced Galactica as well as such wonderfully silly and entertaining shows as Quincy, Get Christie Love, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, Magnum PI, and Knight Rider), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century used many of the same props, models, and special effects. Furthermore, the show wasn't exactly the most highbrow of science fiction entertainment. This was "Sci-Fi" at its lightest and cheesiest, streamlined and made accessible to all audiences by focusing on simplistic plots, melodramatic dialogue, scenery-chewing acting, and plenty of silly action scenes to keep the whole thing moving along at a brisk pace. The science-fiction faithful and snooty critics alike rolled their eyes and wrote off the entire affair. The ratings weren't too hot, either; the show returned for a thirteen-episode second season in January of 1981, with a reduced budget and new direction. This time, Buck and Wilma were stationed on the starship Searcher, commanded by Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner), on a mission of discovery for lost tribes of humans that had fled Earth centuries ago... sort of like a reverse-Battlestar Galactica, only without Lorne Greene. They apparently jettisoned Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor) out of an airlock or something, because they replaced him with Colonel Pickering from My Fair Lady (Wilfrid Hyde-White) in the role of Dr. Goodfellow, and were joined by Hawk (Thom Christopher), a bird-like being whose race was murdered by drunken humans on a weekend binge.

The show actually got a little less silly in its second season and strived to present a harder science-fiction edge, but it was too little, too late. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was cancelled after the second season, and its thirty-seven episode body of work remained a silly but nostalgic yearning in the hearts and minds of the faithful.

Now, I won't even begin to argue that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was a great show, but it was certainly a fun one. For starters, Gil Gerard was perfect in the title role. I totally bought him as a heroic figure, but he also brought a lot of warmth and humor to the role. Gerard certainly looked the part: with his rugged good-looks and muscular build, there's no doubt that he cut a dashing figure, but at the same time he gave Buck Rogers a sense of humor and personality that placed him high and above many of the bland, character-less leading men that populated the television landscape. And... um... there was Erin Gray. Do I really have to explain the appeal there? A former model, Ms. Gray became the object d'omigodsosmokin'fineI'mgonnaloseit affection for young boys and infatuated men alike. There is nothing... nothing... like a beautiful woman in form-fitting spandex brandishing a ray gun to completely capture the attention of geeks of any age. Even more, Ms. Gray projected strength and confidence in her role, and she made Wilma Deering a believable and endearing character, remaining one of the most popular sci-fi "babes" to ever grace the medium.

And finally there was Twiki, a midget runaway from Styx's Mr. Roboto video with the voice of Yosemite Sam afflicted with some bizarre neurological disorder that forced him to precede every sentence with a "beedy beedy beedy." This surely was not Mel Blanc's most memorable contribution to the art of voice-over acting, and Twiki's anachronisms certainly contributed to some of the eye-rolling and groan-inducing to which Buck Rogers in the 25th Century seems to lend itself. It didn't help matters much that the little guy walked around with a talking tambourine around his neck from which everybody seemed to take orders. Silly? Sure. Unnecessary? Probably. Should they have removed him from the series? Absolutely not. Given the time and tone of series, Twiki fit right in with the proceedings as breezily as a $20 off, no minimum, multiple-reuse coupon from Reel.com circa 1999.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century wasn't a perfect show. It was silly and obvious and about as believable as Ashlee Simpson belting out a Shostakovich cantata. But it worked. It lived and breathed and sailed by on its affable charm and colorful vision of the future, as if reflected through L.A. 's Bonaventure Hotel, circa 1979.

The DVD

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Epic Series comes in a lovely five double-sided DVD set, containing the following episodes:

  1. The Awakening (Part 1)
  2. The Awakening (Part 2)
  3. Planet of the Slave Girls (Part 1)
  4. Planet of the Slave Girls (Part 2)
  5. Vegas In Space
  6. Plot To Kill A City (Part 1)
  7. Plot To Kill A City (Part 2)
  8. Return of the Fighting 69th
  9. Unchained Woman
  10. Planet of the Amazon Women
  11. Cosmic Whiz Kid
  12. Escape from Wedded Bliss
  13. Cruise Ship to the Stars
  14. Space Vampire
  15. Happy Birthday, Buck
  16. A Blast for Buck
  17. Ardala Returns
  18. Twiki is Missing
  19. Olympiad
  20. A Dream of Jennifer
  21. Space Rockets
  22. Buck's Duel to the Death
  23. Flight of the War Witch (Part 1)
  24. Flight of the War Witch (Part 2)
  25. Time of the Hawk (Part 1)
  26. Time of the Hawk (Part 2)
  27. Journey to Oasis (Part 1)
  28. Journey to Oasis (Part 2)
  29. The Guardians
  30. Mark of the Saurian
  31. The Golden Man
  32. The Crystals
  33. The Satyr
  34. Shgorapchx!
  35. The Hand of Goral
  36. Testimony of a Traitor
  37. The Dorian Secret

Video:

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Epic Series is presented in its original, fullframe aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The pilot movie, while released theatrically in a widescreen aspect ratio, was originally shot fullframe for television broadcast, and retains that aspect ratio here. The quality of the video is varies from episode-to-episode. That is to say, it looks like something shot for television in 1979, although a little bit cleaner and little bit brighter. Many of the episodes show evidence of grain, shakiness, and some minor print wear. Others are pretty clean and sport some vibrant, enjoyable colors. Image detail is soft and the picture looks slightly filtered in parts: check out the "futuristic James Bond" opening credits to the pilot. Still, the many positives outweigh the few negatives in this transfer. While not spot-on perfect, the show looks generally pleasing to the eye. I noticed some edge-enhancement here and there, and for some strange reason I found most of it around Twiki (!). Is Universal trying to send us a message here? Surrounded by an edge halo, is Twiki presented as some kind of messianic figure? Discuss.

Audio:

The audio is presented in your standard monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. You have heard this type of audio review dozens of times before, but it bears repeating here: the mix is solid and pleasing and presents a satisfactory rendition of the original soundtrack without distraction, yet it doesn't provide for anything aggressive, immersive, or enveloping. Dialog levels are bright and clear without hiss, distortion, or noise. There is nothing in terms of separation, imaging, or localization, but let's be frank: that's not exactly what you need here. The soundtrack is fine and acceptable for what it is.

Extras:

Save for a few trailers for other MCA/Universal DVD product, there is absolutely nothing of interest here. No commentaries, no retrospectives, no documentaries... not even a single freakin' set of DVD credits! Now this is just wrong -- what Buck Rogers fan wouldn't want to hear Gil Gerard, Erin Gray, or Glen Larson offer their thoughts on this show? Heck, I'm sure Gary Coleman would have been a blast to listen to while watching Cosmic Whiz Kid.

Final Thoughts

Nostalgia is a powerful, powerful entity. It clouds one's recollections of times past, and there isn't a doubt that nostalgia is nudging Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Epic Series in my mind as one of the goofiest but enjoyable sci-fi shows ever to grace the television medium. But in reviewing this set, I sat back and watched all 37 episodes over the course of a weekend. That's how little of a life your pathetic reviewer has, but there you have it. Anyway, I came away from the entire affair with a sense of giddy glee and moronic self-babbling. The show was simple, but charming. Campy, but exciting. At times it got downright spooky and intense, but never self-important or pretentious. And the cast was perfect: I put it to you that, except for maybe Kirk and Spock, no television sci-fi duo was ever as memorable as Captain Buck Rogers and Colonel Wilma Deering. Gil Gerard and Erin Gray may have looked good together onscreen, but they also made their respective characters shine as endearing and entertaining people. And besides, we had exotic princesses in metal bikinis, sci-fi babes in spandex outfits, laser guns, spaceship battles, goofy robots, and that unquantifiable late 70s/early 80s television sci-fi feel-good vibe that was as ephemeral as vapor but as simplistically enjoyable as a kazoo shaped like a pickle.

The DVD release looks good and sounds good, and with 37 hours of programming, you're sure to get as much Buck Rogers enjoyment as your heart desires. But the complete and utter lack of bonus features comes as a severe disappointment. Perhaps Universal was thinking that there wouldn't be much of an audience for the show, and to save money decided to release the series without muss or fuss. Unfortunately, the set carries a price tag that is replete with both muss and fuss. Still, I can't help but recommend Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Epic Series. A throwback to a time more innocent, more naive, and a lot cheesier, I still liked the show a hell of a lot more than Star Trek: The Next Generation. For those of you who remember the series - and not with the fondest of memories - give the show another whirl; you'll be surprised at how much you find yourself actually enjoying it. Warts and all.

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