I am calling this month’s blog series, “I Robot.” We are taking a look at some popular shows that featured robots. I did not include Lost in Space in this group because I did devote a blog to the show that discussed that robot in some detail.
Today we start with a show that was a fan favorite in the 1980s, although full disclosure, I had never seen this show until I wrote this blog: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
Because Star Wars was so popular, Universal decided to develop a television show about space. Glen Larson was the primary face behind the creation. The original plan was to make a series of Buck Rogers made-for-tv movies for NBC. Larson was also behind the show Battlestar Galactica.
Universal changed plans and filmed a big-screen movie about Buck Rogers. It had good reviews, netting $21 million. After the success of the film, NBC asked for a weekly series. Buck Rogers was not a new concept; he was created in 1928 by Philip Francis Nowlan and had been featured in a variety of media including comic strips, books, and radio. The original movie was edited for television, and it became the first two episodes of the series.
The concept of the show was that Captain William “Buck” Rogers (Gil Gerard) was a NASA pilot commanding Ranger 3 which was launched into outer space in 1987. Because of a part malfunction, Buck is frozen for 504 years and his spacecraft is found in 2491. At this time, he learns the Earth was recovering from a nuclear war.
Buck has to try to assimilate into the 25th-century culture. Because he was previously a pilot, he is placed in the Earth Defense department. Buck is often undercover. He works with Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray), a starfighter pilot. Stargates were artificially created portals in space to help travel between stars. If you watch the episodes closely, you will notice a subtle shift in Wilma’s hair color. Gray was required to dye her hair blonde for the first season. As the season progresses, the color begins to fade and she was allowed to do that, so by the second season, she has brunette hair.
Another coworker is Twiki, a small robot (Felix Silla and voiced by Mel Blanc). Twiki provided much of the humor on the show. Also helping the trio was Dr. Theopolis (voiced by Eri Server), a small computer disk who understood Twiki and was part of the Computer Council. In the first season, the group received its orders from Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O’Connor).
It was a bit kitschy a la Batman. Several villains are involved in plots. In the first season, the “bad guy” was Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) who tried to conquer Earth. Most of the population resided in New Chicago and the rest of the planet was being explored again, and new cities were popping up like New Detroit, New Manhattan, New Phoenix, etc.
In the original story, Buck awakes after 500 years to learn that America was overrun by Mongol invaders and in ruins. Wilma and Dr. Huer are both part of that story, as are Killer Kane and Ardala Valmar.
For a show that did not produce very many episodes, a lot of celebrities were featured on the show including Gary Coleman, Jamie Lee Curtis, Peter Graves, Jack Palance, Markie Post, Dorothy Stratten, and Vera Miles. A few of the stars who played Batman’s foes show up on Buck Rogers including Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, Roddy McDowall, and Julie Newmar.
The opening theme music for the show was composed by Stu Phillips and arranged by Johnny Harris. Harris added a 45-second audio clip when Rogers is spinning and then begins with the main theme.
The show debuted in September of 1979. It was popular with viewers, but critics were not on board with the show. Gerard did not like the direction his character was taking. He was in favor of more series stories and felt like his character was just used to make continual jokes and not taken seriously. At times he even rewrote scripts to favor his character over other roles. There was a lot of tension on the set. Two of the writers and script editors left in the middle of the year. Gerard was reprimanded by the network, and he said he hoped that the series would not be picked up for a second season.
James Van Hise said the show’s scripts “never took advantage of what they had at hand.” And he said Larson exploited a well-loved character in popular culture. John Javna in his book The Best of Science Fiction TV described the show as the worst science fiction show of all time. Bill Lengeman said the acting was wooden and specified that the episode “Space Rockers” was the worst episode of TV science fiction he had ever seen. Many critics were not happy with the way the women were treated in the second season. Ardala was dismissed, and Wilma lost her respectful position, almost becoming an inconsequential sidekick to Buck.
An actors’ strike delayed filming for season two. A new set of producers was brought in and the format was tweaked. Buck, Wilma, and Twiki were now on a spaceship called the Searcher with a mission to look for lost groups of humanity. Many of the previous characters were no longer part of the series, including Theopolis, Ardala, and Dr. Huer. The Starfighter on the series was created by Ralph McQuarrie and had been one of his designs for Battlestar Galactica.
Taking on more of a Star Trek aura, the new characters included Admiral Efram Asimov, a distant relative of Isaac Asimov (Jay Garner) who commands the Searcher; Hawk (Thom Christopher) an alien who represents the Bird people, now almost extinct; like Spock, he remained straight-faced while others are enjoying emotional moments; Dr. Goodfellow (Wilfrid Hyde-White) an elderly scientist; and Crichton (voiced by Jeff David) a robot built by Goodfellow who disdains humans.
The storylines became more serious and an underlying romance was hinted at between Buck and Wilma. Although the changes were what he asked for, Gerard later complained again about the show. Larson might have been second-guessing himself for casting Gerard. His first choice for the role was Kurt Russell. However, he was concentrating on his movie career and had no interest in coming back to television. Interestingly, Russell had been passed over for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars, losing to Harrison Ford. Ratings dropped in the second season. After only producing 21 episodes for season one, NBC canceled the show after 11 episodes in season two.
Despite the small number of shows produced, Universal released the show on DVD in 2004, but the first two episodes were replaced with the original big-screen movie. The series can also be streamed on NBC’s app.
New books and comic books were produced in the eighties. There were also several sets of action figures released by Mego. Milton Bradley debuted a Buck Rogers board game. You could also purchase jigsaw puzzles, model kits of space ships, die-cast toys, trading cards, and a lunch box.
Although the show garnered no Emmys for acting which is not surprising, it did receive five nominations. In season one, Bruce Broughton won for Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition for a Series. Other nominations included Outstanding Cinematography for a Series in season one, Outstanding Art Direction for a Series in season two, and Outstanding Costume Design for a Series in both seasons. The miniature sets for the landing bays and launch tubes were built with Styrofoam. Although they were inexpensive, combined with clever lighting, they appeared as complex architectural sets.
The show was beloved by its fan base. It’s hard to say why it had such a short life. There seem to be many reasons it didn’t last. With the success of Star Wars, everyone jumped on the outer space bandwagon, and the viewers could only watch so many of them. Gerard certainly did not help the ratings with his complaints and dissatisfaction with the show. Getting rid of Princess Ardala and reducing the role of Wilma to a minor character did not help retain female viewers. The show never seemed to be able to figure out what it was. Was it a Star Wars? Was it Batman? Was it Star Trek? It just seemed to not be very well planned or developed.
If you enjoy science fiction, it might be worth watching. After all, there are only 32 episodes, and if nothing else, you might want to watch to see if in the decades since it debuted, it still makes that list of worst science fiction shows. I’d be interested in hearing what you decide. As for this blog series on robots. I can happily relay that Twiki won the TV Land Awards in 2008 for Most Awesome Robot!