As a TV show, “Buck Rogers” is pretty well impossible to review. Here’s the thing: As a product, it’s bad. I mean really bad. Where other old Sci-Fi shows like Star Trek made up for their lack of special effects flair with compelling stories and characters, “Buck Rogers” settles for Wilma Deering in tight pants. Erin Gray’s ass is its own special kind of joy, but it’s no substitute for decent writing. The thing about “Buck Rogers” is that even though it’s probably one of the low points in television history… it’s also a lot of fun. Maybe that’s just nostalgia talking, residual goodwill from a little kid who was awed by a robot named Twiki, but there it is. That makes this show review proof, because no matter how bad it really is; schmucks like me are going to want to watch it. There’s no stopping it.
Based on a ton of other Buck Rogers related stuff that came before it, the TV series “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” debuted in 1979 on NBC, probably as part of a network response to the ongoing Sci-Fi surge started a few years earlier by better shows like “Star Trek” and movies like Star Wars or 2001. It stars the soon-to-be-forgotten Gil Gerard as Captain Buck Rogers, an astronaut from 1987 caught in a freak mishap which leaves him frozen and drifting in deep space. 500 years later, Rogers is unfrozen and returned to Earth, an Earth where his skills are eminently superior to those of future humans, after centuries of over-reliance on technology. Buck uses his amazing piloting abilities to save the planet from certain destruction and brings freedom to its people… I guess. Most of that I know, I know because I’ve read some of the books, not because I watched the show.
The biggest problem with “Buck Rogers” is that a lot of the time I had no idea what was going on. Buck’s value to Earth’s defense is never exactly explained and he seems to succeed mostly by suggesting ridiculously obvious things. The “fish out of water” element to his story is never really explored and after a couple of episodes the show seems pretty content to have Buck blend it with all the other future-folk. The stories are weak and it doesn’t help that they hired an acting black hole to play Buck. Gil Gerard is a terrible actor and it’s no wonder his career went no where worthwhile after the show. I suppose at the time he might have been considered a sex symbol, but by modern standards he’s just disgusting, showing off his flabby, pre-aerobics body in overly tight spandex. Perhaps I should hope the floppy belly will make a comeback. David Hassellhoff and I would both benefit.
By contrast, the show’s savior is the luscious, sparkling, Erin Gray. Ok, I have a bit of a crush… a crush probably 20 years too late. Still, she’s fantastic and full of life, her eyes sparkle and every time she’s on screen she adds life into this otherwise confused, flaccid affair. Wilma Deering is never written as the daring general she’s supposed to be, but Gray does her best to get something out of the character even while the people posing as show writers try to whittle her down into a doe-eyed, love struck, sycophant.
Since “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” is basically a product of the early eighties, it had access to better special effects technology than old shows like “Star Trek” or “Lost in Space” did. You’d think at least that might be one area where the show shows a little shine. In some cases it does. Ship dogfights are about on par with the other stuff of its era, bearing a not altogether displeasing resemblance to “Battlestar Galactica”. Sadly, often little effort is put into their actual sets, and much of “Buck Rogers” looks ridiculously bare. Wores, some of it is just plain stupid though, as in an episode where Buck pushes a cardboard cleaning robot down a hallway into the path of pursuing villains. The robot is only knee high, but for reasons probably of budget, the bad guys run from it. Apparently they’re afraid of soap, or don’t know how to jump. Later making a weird special effects cameo is the robot from Flight of the Navigator. You remember it as the lunch dispenser the Navigator hides in to escape from N.A.S.A. Who’d have thought it was recycled “Buck Rogers” parts?
Of course the show’s biggest two special effects are the robots Doctor Theopolis and Twiki. Twiki is played by a midget in an uncomfortable suit, and that is exactly what he looks like. He’s also voiced for some bizarre reason by Mel Blanc, who chose to use the voice of Yosemite Sam for the character. Twiki is far too rootin tootin for my adult ears, but as a kid, I guess I thought he was pretty cool. Around Twiki’s neck, worn like one of Flava-Flav’s giant clocks, is Dr. Theopolis. Dr. Theopolis is a lite-bright who never shuts up. The prop they use for him is often a little lopsided and tied around Twiki’s neck with what looks exactly like cheap yarn. At least Flava-Flav has a stylish chain.
There’s no getting around the fact that “Buck Rogers” is an absolutely horrible show. In fact, the premiere episode’s opening credits sequence may be the worst thing ever shown on television. Though they later abandoned that opening in favor of something less likely to terrify puppies, the quality of the show itself remained sub-par. Here’s the weird thing… I loved watching it. There’s just something comfortable about sitting down with Buck and his flabby abs again. The silly ray guns, the scantily clad female villains, cameos from Gary Coleman, spaceships done with models instead of CGI… it’s a ridiculously cheesy, poorly constructed ball of crap-ass fun. If you don’t have weird childhood memories of Yosemite Sam trapped inside the body of a midget robot, if you don’t remember a strange toddler stirring whenever Erin Gray popped on screen—then really, don’t bother. It’s a terrible show and it isn’t going to win you over. This is after all, a show with someone specifically assigned as a Disco Choreographyer. But if you’ve got a soft spot for lame old Sci-Fi shows somewhere in your heart, then feel free to revisit “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”.
Yet another slap dash, bare-bones TV release. “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century – The Complete Series” comes in a now typical, cheaply made box with some nice artwork painted on it. There’s a weirdly pointless plastic slipcover around it, which ought to have been dispensed with. Open it up and you’ll find 5 double-sided discs containing the series. Some people hate that, I’m on the record as being alright with flippers for TV sets. It just makes storage easier. I’m all about saving space.
The discs contain the show, all 32 episodes plus the debut TV movie, easily accessible from a menu bereft of features. In fact, all the discs are bereft of features. All you’re getting kids is the show, exactly as it was when it aired over twenty years ago. The quality isn’t much better either. I guess the set’s strong point is the sound, which didn’t seem too terrible when I pumped it through my surround system. At least it wasn’t bad for a television show filmed in 1979. While some of you, like me, may have been hoping for a commemorative Erin Gray bikini poster, or perhaps a coupon redeemable for a life-size bust of Twiki, it just isn’t there. Neither are any old ads for the show, cast interviews, news clippings, or anything. Just the complete show. Every episode. In other words, if you’re getting this, I hope you’re not paying very much for it.
“Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” is worth a look if you watched the series when you were younger and like me, have warm feelings attached to it. In that sense, it really is review proof, because the good vibes you’ll get from it have absolutely nothing to do with the product that’s actually on screen. It’s a geeky trip into a bygone world of laser pistols and spandex-overuse. No matter how bad “Buck Rogers” gets, it’s at least still better than Flash Gordon. Forced to choose between the two, this is the better way to get your cheesy Sci-Fi fix.