A Look Back at Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

I asked my wife yesterday, "What should I blog about?"  And she responded, "Tigers."  I racked my brain thinking of a pop culture connection.  Many popped to mind but the one that stuck was the cheesy but awesome villain Tigerman from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  A short retrospective on that fun little sci-fi series seemed to be the best topic for my geeky Web log.

The show only ran two seasons (1980 and 1981) and evolved from a theatrical movie in 1979 that NBC produced to capitalize on Star Wars mania.  Producers borrowed some of the props from another Star Wars rip-off, Battlestar Galactica.  The first season was a light-hearted cheese-tacular science fiction saga about an astronaut, played by Gil Gerard, who wakes up from accidental suspended animation in a world 500 years in the future very different from what he remembered. 

Many of the characters from the first season were straight out of the original Buck Rogers comic strip, although the TV series took modern liberties.  The cast included Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering (first as a blonde, then later as a brunette), Pamela Hensley as the wonderfully wicked villain Princess Ardala, Tim O'Connor as Dr. Elias Huer, Mel Blanc as the voice of Twiki the robot, and Michael Ansara as Ardala's henchman Kane.  Duke Butler played the part of Tigerman in only a few episodes, but he was such an iconic presence that he became a fan favorite -- the character was killed off in the movie verison but brought back for appearances in the television series.

The second season had major changes, in cast, story premise, and tone.  Instead of focusing on Earth-bound adventures, Buck Rogers was placed on a ship called the Searcher, traveling through space in a quest to find lost colonies of humans who fled during a nuclear war.  It seemed to me like it was trying too hard to be comparable to Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica.  The most noteworthy new character was Hawk, a "birdman," played by Thom Christopher. 

Many factors can be blamed for the demise of the show.  It was very expensive to produce.  A writers strike interrupted the two seasons.  Popular characters from season one were dropped in season two.  But I think the tone change was a big reason viewership declined.  While actor Gil Gerard was pushing for more serious and less campy storylines, a lot of the humor and fun of the first season was jettisoned in season two as it tried to tell "more important" stories, which ultimately failed to connect with its audience, both in execution and perception.

Buck Rogers has been a character created in 1928 by pulp fiction writer Philip Francis Nowlan.  He has been reimagined a bunch of times in movie serials, comic books, radio shows, and other media.  Surely, storytellers will revisit his futuristic adventures again.  The television series will be an entertaining part of that legacy.

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