Movie studios weren’t focusing much on science fiction films in the 1970’s. That is, of course, until Star Wars was released in 1977. After that, everything changed. This extended to the realm of television, as well. TV producer Glen A Larson was one of the first to bring Star Wars style sci-fi to the boob tube with his series Battlestar Galactica in 1978. In 1979, Larson would begin another sci-fi series, this one based on the classic character of Buck Rogers. Universal Studios, though, decided to release the show’s hour-and-a-half pilot to theaters as a feature film several months before the series debuted on television. It actually did pretty well at the box office. So strap on your space boots for 1979’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
A brief narration (provided by William Conrad) tells us about how Captain William “Buck” Rogers (Gil Gerard) took off in the last of NASA’s deep space probes in 1987. His ship encounters strange galactic forces, though, which freeze his body and send his ship into an orbit that returns him to Earth 500 years later. However, before the ship can reach Earth, he is intercepted by emissaries from the Draconian Empire. The Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) is fascinated by Rogers, but her majordomo, Kane (Henry Silva), thinks he’s a spy. So, he sends Buck to Earth, but not without placing a tracking device on the ship.
Buck doesn’t get a warm reception on Earth either. He is taken to the city of New Chicago by Col. Wilma Dearing (Erin Gray) where he meets Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor), the computer Dr. Theopolis (voice of Howard F Fynn) and the little robot who carries “Theo” around…Twiki (voiced by Mel Blanc). Everyone except Theo is suspicious of Buck and don’t fully trust that he is really an unfrozen astronaut from 500 years ago. When they spot the tracking device Kane put on the ship matters get worse. Buck is even put on trial and found guilty of treason. However, Wilma steps in an gives Buck the chance to prove the Draconians are plotting a war against Earth. When the visiting Princess Ardala invites the unfrozen 80’s dude to her chambers, Buck is able to sabotage the giant warship from the inside.
Though Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was released to theaters, make no mistake, this is a television production. Still, it is fun. Full disclosure here…I was a big fan of the series that followed this theatrical pilot. I watched it every week. I even had the action figures! So, even though I admit this is a bit of a poor man’s Star Wars, it is always going to hold a certain charm for me. Despite being made for TV, the production design, costumes, and special effects are actually quite good. Both the Buck Rogers series and Battlestar Galactica were quite expensive to make, which is part of why both shows had a limited run. Many of the effects shots from this pilot would be reused ad nauseam throughout the run of the show…but they still hold up quite well today.
There is some wild and wacky stuff going on in this little slice of 70’s sci-fi, though. Many of the stranger elements surround the princess and her entourage. The princess has a big mute bodyguard called Tigerman who sports some weird tattoos. The style of dancing employed at the ball honoring the princess is a bit odd, as well. It involves balancing a shiny silver softball on one hand while doing the various dance moves. And then there’s the sexy princess herself. If you’re a fan of Princess Leia’s gold bikini, well you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Four years before Jedi, Pamela Hensley’s costumes in this film leave a lot less to the imagination. She completes the ensemble by sporting a fuzzy headdress with silver horns. She takes off the headwear, though, when she tries to bed down with Buck. In general there’s a lot more talk of sex in Buck Rogers’ universe than we’ll probably ever get in Star Wars.
The cast is definitely a strongpoint of this incarnation of Buck Rogers. Gil Gerard was clearly told to model his take on the character on Han Solo and I can’t say I have a problem with that approach. He’s slick, cocky and has a bit of a humorous streak. I also have no complaint with Erin Gray as Col. Dearing. Gray got her start as a model, even appearing in early edition of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, but she was a solid actress. Some of today’s viewers, though, will probably not appreciate the way Col. Dearing begins the film as the strong and determined leader of the whole planet’s defenses and by the end of the story has become essentially a gooey-eyed fangirl of Buck’s. I was a little disappointed in the character of Kane. He doesn’t really get to do a whole lot, which is a serious waste when you have an actor like Henry Silva in the role. Another actor, Michael Ansara, would take over the role for the series. Lastly, it’s a sheer joy to hear the great Mel Blanc do the voice of Twiki. His little “Bee-dee-bee-dee-bee-dee” noise is priceless!
I’ll admit that the story does drag a bit in the middle section of the film. Things get pretty stretched out and talky. It’s a little strange considering how the beginning of the film wastes very little time with Buck’s backstory and just jumps into the future action. Despite the slower moments, there’s enough 70’s sci-fi action to make Buck Rogers in the 25th Century a fun ride. I don’t know that this pilot necessarily deserved to be a theatrical feature…but I can’t fault the producers for trying to snag a piece of George Lucas’ pie.