There are two kinds of people in this world: People who think good science fiction is only good because it’s serious, and people who think good science fiction is sometimes bad. Enter: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the 1979 TV series produced by Glen A. Larson, just one year after he launched the original Battlestar Galactica, and one year before The Empire Strikes Back.
Of these two Larson-made TV series, time has been much kinder to Galactica, partially because it spawned an edgy reboot that just happened to redefine 21st-century sci-fi as we know it. The ‘70s Buck Rogers, however, was derivative and corny from the second filming began. Buck Rogers was ‘70s gonzo sci-fi at its most ridiculously fun. And, in this way, it’s essential viewing if you really want to understand the history of sci-fi on TV and in film.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is a funky rosseta stone of sci-fi tropes. It’s also a kitschy classic that is still fun as hell today. Lights spoilers ahead for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
Brief history lesson: The character of Buck Rogers originated in the novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. written by Philip Francis Nowlan and published in Amazing Stories in 1928. This story was about a WWI veteran named Anthony Rogers, who, after getting hit up with some strange gases in a cave, wakes-up in the 25th Century. Nowlan later changed the character's name to William, and then, in 1929, when he adapted the concept for a comic strip, was convinced that “Buck” was a cool nickname for William Rogers.
After starring in his own comic strip serial, Buck Rogers rapidly became the most popular science fiction hero of the 1930s, eventually rivaled by Flash Gordon. Like Buck, Flash was presented as a fish-out-of-water who is forced to do battle with evil space warlords — the difference being that Flash doesn’t travel in time, only space. The angsty tragedy of Buck Rogers (in all versions) is that everyone he ever knew from his own time is long dead.
Long before the 1970s, both Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were popularized in movie serials of 1939 and 1940 by the same actor: Buster Crabbe. If you’ve ever read a single interview with George Lucas from the eighties, you’ll hear him mention the influence of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon movie serials on the creation of the original Star Wars.
This brings us back to the 1970s, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The existence of over-the-top TV space opera like Battlestar Galactica was the direct result of the Star Wars copy-cat effect. Lucas even briefly sued Larson and Battlestar Galactica, alleging they ripped him off. Lucas lost, but by 1979, Glen A. Larson decided to do something that everyone would know was a knock-off — a new version of Buck Rogers, the very thing that set mainstream pop space opera into motion. That’ll show Lucas! (Note: as of this writing, George Clooney is set to produce a new Buck Rogers project, but there’s a legal dispute with Nowlan’s estate.)
The result is a hilarious mash-up of sensibilities.
The 1979 Buck Rogers has space ship designs that look impressive and straight-up awesome. The legit spaceship coolness can be attributed to the fact that some of the designs were left-over from concept art created by Ralph McQuarrie for Battlestar. But, more than that, the effects talent was created by Douglas Trumbull’s Future General Company, a VFX house that worked on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (also 1979), Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977), and would later do about half of the effects work on Blade Runner (1982.) This gives the 25th century of Buck Rogers a mixed visual aesthetic — half Xanadu, half Star Wars.
What makes Buck Rogers work is the way it adheres to its premise. Instead of trying to make the fish-out-of-water concept seem new, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is funny because it actually seems to go out of its way to make Buck seem like your dad’s slightly boring friend.
In the opening, the narration tells us that Buck launched in a NASA spacecraft in 1985, but he acts like he’s from 1925. As played by Gil Gerard, Buck is only cool because everyone else in the 25th Century is a total square. It’s the same kind of thing that makes Harrison Ford so great in Star Wars — a funny rogueish audience surrogate. The difference is, Han Solo is the cool space swashbuckler you wish you could be, while Buck Rogers is kind of the more realistic version of what most dudes would actually be like in the same situation. He’s not the funniest or coolest guy in the world. He just happens to be the only human being alive who knows how to get down and dirty. Gerard’s Buck is cool by default, which is a bold choice I’ve never seen any other TV show make, ever — it’s like if you made a Bond movie starring Jason Bateman. Sure, I guess this guy is cool, but that’s only because everyone else is too afraid to do anything!
Buck is joined in his adventures by a wise-cracking robot named Twiki, who punctuates everything he says with the faux-robot catchphrase, “beede-beede-beede.” In Season 1 (don’t watch Season 2, it’s an abomination of an abomination) Twiki is voiced by famous Looney Tunes voice actor Mel Blanc. This gives the diminutive robot something of an edge. Sometimes you think that maybe Twiki is going to drop a firecracker in the tailpipe of an enemy spaceship. (In fact, that actually kind of happens in the debut episode.)
With a loose format that roughly translates to “Buck Gets Assignments to Go Do Stuff in Future Land Every Week,” the first season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century finds Buck busting up some crooked gamblers in “Vegas In Space,” and impersonating a leathered-up bounty hunter in “A Plot to Kill a City.” His greatest enemy is also his biggest love interest, the wicked Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) of the Draconian Empire. Depending on the episode, Ardala is either trying to destroy the Earth and kill Buck or is doing all of those things while also trying to sleep with him.
Buck is like the anti-Bond, almost like a hapless porn character, constantly resisting the advances of a seductive and all-powerful space dominatrix. Sometimes you don’t know whether you're watching a Bond-in-Space spoof or a softcore Boogie Nights-era sci-fi porn. The truth is, with Buck Rogers, you’re watching both, and yet, it’s somehow very wholesome. Featuring an impressive and never-ending supply of quirky guest stars — from Jack Palance to ex-Riddler Frank Gorshin to people who will make you say “Hey weren’t they on Night Court?” — watching Buck Rogers is one of those trips down memory lane where memories are being implanted in your brain — because no, nobody ever made shows quite like this, even though what you’re watching feels exactly like what you’ve always been told pulpy sci-fi was always about.
Armchair sci-fi historians like to talk about pulpy heroes, or the intentional kitsch and humor of Guardians of the Galaxy, and how it honors a storied, corny tradition. Buck Rogers is of that pulp, and only that pulp. It was a show that barely cared if critics thought it was good. Unlike some kitschy sci-fi of today, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century had just enough self-awareness to pretend like it was completely serious.