Category Archives: Buck Rogers

Collectible of the Week: Buck Rogers Laserscope Fighter (Mego; 1979)

In 1979, the post-Star Wars, Glen Larson version of Buck Rogers took the sci-fi world by storm.  I was nine year old at the time, and both the feature film and the follow-up TV series on NBC were right up my alley. 


The franchise starred Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering, and Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala.  The tone of the enterprise was cheeky and knowing, and the special effects, for their day, were absolutely stellar.  Down to the sexy opening credits, the film version played like James Bond in the future, or in space, perhaps.

Accordingly, I was thrilled when I began to see toys from Mego lining the shelves at Toys R Us.  Among the first of these was a spaceship toy with a design you never saw featured on-screen: the “Laserscope fighter.” 

This sharp-nosed space fighter “with simulated lasers and explosions” featured a cockpit for the 3.5 inch Buck Rogers figures.  But more interestingly, it possessed a rear-mounted view screen through which you could track, target, and incinerate enemies.

The box explains: “Look through the view-screen and line up your target, press the switches – see and hear the lasers fire – the target will appear to explode right before your very eyes!”

Also according to the box legend, this Buck Rogers Laserscope fighter featured:

·         Laserscope viewscreen
·         Twin stub wing handles
·         Telescopic focus control
·         Realistic laser sounds
·         Swing-open cockpit
·         Fits any Buck Rogers figure.

Of course, I must confess that when I was generously given the Laserscope fighter as a gift, I was a bit disappointed because I really wanted the Buck Rogers star fighter, a craft which was featured on the show and boasted an infinitely cooler design aesthetic. 

But once I actually got the star fighter for the Christmas of 1980, I could enjoy the Laserscope fighter as a kind of “alternate” ship for the intrepid Buck.  The fighter sort of fit with the universe of the TV series, because Buck often ended up going undercover for the Earth Directorate, flying ships of various designs.  So it was kind of cool to be able to play out that scenario with a ship other than an “official” one.

Also, if I understand my toy history right, the “Laserscope fighter” was also released in Europe, but as a toy from a different Mego license: The Black Hole (1979).  

Of course, the design of the ship doesn’t fit that particular franchise any more than it resembles something you saw on Buck Rogers


Cult-TV Flashback #151: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "The Guardians" (January 29, 1981)

The second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is not generally high-regarded among fans. In its sophomore sortie, the Glen Larson series eliminated the characters of Dr. Huer, Dr. Theopolis and the Draconians, downplayed Buck’s (Gil Gerard) strong sense of fish-out-of-water humor, and moved Buck from sexy secret agent work on Earth to a deep space assignment aboard the Earth ship Searcher. These format changes cast the new Buck Rogers rather firmly in the mold of Star Trek or Space: 1999 with the new series acting as a vehicle for “civilization of the week” stories. 

In that particular format, success or failure rests largely on how well interesting and likable main characters interact with intriguing or convincing alien cultures. The Fantastic Journey (1977), for example, got the former aspect of that alchemy right (the likable main characters), but had a difficult time coming up with good stories, and original alien cultures to explore. In broad terms, this was the very problem with the second season of Buck Rogers. Episodes that involved mischievous dwarves, (“Shgoratchx!), or backwards-aging men spray-painted gold (“The Golden Man”) failed to impress or persuade either mainstream audiences or die-hard sci-fi fans. Some second season episodes were better, including the dynamic “The Satyr” (reviewed here), a show that pinpointed a great “alien” metaphor for alcoholism and its impact on families. 

The subject of this cult-tv flashback, “The Guardians” may not work as effectively as “The Satyr” on a metaphorical level, but I still estimate it’s one of the best episodes of Buck Rogers’ second season, in part because it deploys a tried-and-true Star Trek technique for better developing the dramatis personae.

On Star Trek, an alien disease or weapon was often utilized to examine emotional aspects of the characters that they normally keep hidden. “The Naked Time” or “The Naked Now” are two such notable examples.  In those episodes, a disease that mimicked alcohol intoxication “exposed” the underneath characteristics of our favorite Starfleet officers. The character revelations were sometimes funny, sometimes extremely moving. 

That general idea informs “The Guardians,” only an alien artifact is the catalyst for the character reveals.
Here, Buck and his new friend Hawk (Thom Christopher) investigate a “Terra Class satellite.” Although the exploration of the planet is supposedly “strictly routine,” Buck and Hawk soon hear a distant bell ringing over the wind’s howl. They follow the noise and discover that the bell tolls for Janovus XXVI, an old man now on his death bed. This ancient “Guardian” informs Buck that he has been waiting for Captain Rogers for over five hundred years. Now, he must pass on to Buck – “The Chosen One,” an ancient green Pandora’s Box. This jade artifact must be transported to the old man’s unnamed successor and only a person of both “the past and the present” (like Buck) can get it to its destination successfully. 

That night, Buck sleeps in proximity to the jade box and dreams of his life on Earth. In particular, he experiences a vision of his mother, one from the eve of his disastrous mission on Ranger 3. After the box is brought back to the Searcher, it begins to have strangely deleterious effects on the ship and crew. The ship inexplicably goes off course and makes a setting for the edge of the galaxy.

 This trajectory especially concerns Lt. Devlin (Paul Carr), since he is due to be married on Lambda Colony in only a few days. 

When Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner) is exposed to the box, he imagines his crew…starving to death on the long journey in the void from the edge of the galaxy to Lambda. When Wilma (Erin Gray) is affected by the box, she sees herself as a hopeless blind woman wandering the corridors of Searcher alone. Then, in a matter of an hour, Wilma is blinded in real life, and realizes her vision was prophetic. Even Hawk is affected, and he experiences an emotional moment with his dead mate, Koori (Barbara Luna). 
As the Searcher reaches the edge of the galaxy, Buck realizes the box must be passed on to a Guardian, a “saintly figure” seen throughout many cultures and on many worlds. When a Guardian does not possess the box, chaos ensues, and that sense of chaos explains a lot of Earth’s violent history. Buck realizes that the Time Guardian is the very one that they now must seek… 

By and large, Buck Rogers is a pretty light show, a fact which distinguishes it from the original Battlestar Galactica or Space: 1999. There’s often a great deal of humor on Buck, and a tremendous amount of physical action too. In some sense, “The Guardian” showcases how the series could have approached more serious sci-fi storytelling.

 This episode is not without flaws (and the ending looks cheap…), but the crew member visions of people starving to death and going blind are authentically disturbing. I remember watching the program for the first time in 1981 and feeling pretty jolted by Asimov’s vision of a crew dying from hunger…and looking like zombies.  This moment resonates, and is probably the strongest in the show, despite the fact that Gil Gerard, in the vision, hardly looks emaciated…

“The Guardian” also delves into some pretty dark territory regarding erstwhile Lt. Devlin. While Searcher is lost and heading to the edge of the galaxy, he learns that his fiancé on Lambda Colony has died.  She was killed while out searching for him and his lost ship. Again, this bit of drama is just a bit darker than the typical Buck Rogers show, and here it all works well.  A sense of panic and anxiety builds up as “The Guardian” reaches it final act.  

Frankly, the writing for the main characters here is also amongst the best in the series’ second season. We learn how heavily Asimov carries the burden of command (imagining a future of starvation, in which he is incapable of helping his crew…), we come to understand Wilma’s fear of appearing vulnerable or being pitied. And we are reminded once more of Hawk’s utter isolation and alone-ness. 

Of all the phantasms featured in “The Guardians,” Buck’s may be the least effective. It’s great to meet a Rogers family member, since we know very little of the astronaut’s family history, and yet Buck doesn’t really do or say anything important in this dream. You’d think Buck might want to warn his Mom about the coming nuclear holocaust…tell her to go into hiding, or something. Instead, she’s the one worried about his mission. 
Buck’s dream is a bit off tonally, though it’s fun to see the special effects from “Awakening” recycled as a callback to the Buck Rogers pilot.   In toto, I would have preferred to see a dream in which Buck revealed some personal flaw, foible or fear.  Like the fact that he was afraid of never again making a meaningful connection with the world around him.  I don’t know.  But something other than an idyllic dream of lemonade and small-town Americana.  This dream tells us where he came from, but in a sense, we already know that.  Better to explore how he feels about where he was, or where he is, or where he might be headed.
Like many cult-tv programs, “The Guardians” also imagines an external force as being the guarantor of peace or war in the galaxy. On the original Twilight Zone, the great (and incredibly atmospheric) episode “The Howling Man” postulated that man would experience peace only during those intervals during which he held the Devil captive. Whenever the Devil escaped captivity, world war would occur.  
Likewise, in Star Trek’s “The Day of the Dove,” an alien monster that thrived on “hate” was believed responsible for the violent, war-like aspects of humankind’s long history. 

Here, the Guardians preserve galactic peace, but during the uncertain periods of succession, elements of the space-time continuum “jump” their tracks, and chaos is the result.  In all these situations, “fate” is determined specifically by some agency outside of man’s dominion and yet he can  still struggle to rein the situation back in during each crisis.  

Probably the best aspect of “The Guardians” is simply the fact that the episode creates a sense of terror (especially in the scene wherein the box is jettisoned from the ship…but then re-appears aboard her…) without ever focusing on a humanoid villain. There are no bad guys to be found here, at all, only a strange alien artifact that the crew of Searcher, including Buck, doesn’t quite understand. 
This conceit was very much of the Space:1999 playbook: terror is forged because man doesn’t have all the answers, and his curiosity or other emotions only create more danger. It’s nice to see Buck Rogers operate on that more intellectual, spine-tingling level, at least for a short duration. Had later episodes followed this relatively intelligent formula, the second season might today be much better perceived.
I don’t often return to the second season of Buck Rogers today because of some of the really dreadful episodes, but “Time of the Hawk,” “The Satyr” and yes, “The Guardians” reveal how the changes from season one to season two could have truly created an interesting space opera and interesting, early 1980s alternative to Star Trek.   I don’t know if the second series was too rushed, it was difficult to find good writers, or there were problems elsewhere that needed to be addressed first, but at least for “The Guardians” everything seems to come together for Buck.    
In this case “opening up Pandora’s Box” gave the sci-fi series a pretty visceral and intriguing hour.

Collectible of the Week: Buck Rogers Galactic Play Set (HG Toys; 1979)

By the time Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) aired on NBC, I suppose you could state I was primed to love the show.  I had “grown up” through Star Wars (1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and had seen The Black Hole (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Moonraker (1979).  
But the nice thing about Buck Rogers was that the series, unlike many of those other titles, didn’t take itself too seriously.  The program, starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray, boasted a great sense of humor, at least during the first season.
Mego released a good-sized line of Buck Rogers toys and vehicles back in the day, but HG Toys also got into the act, recycling and retro-fitting a pre-existing play set as the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Galactic Play Set.  It came complete with “over 35 pieces” and a nice diorama/backdrop.  
This HG Toy set included a “space station with movable ladder, 2 Draconian marauders, 2 starfighters, 8 space commandos, 10 aliens,” and “fully detailed figures of Buck Rogers, Wilma Deering, Killer Kane, Dr. Huer, Tigerman, Draco, Twiki and Princess Ardala.”
Also present: “a colorful diorama set-up and assembly instructions.
I have fond memories of playing with this particular play set, because I took it on a cross-country vacation with me.  My family traveled (in our new Ford van) from New Jersey to California and back over the span of six weeks.  Space was tight since we were traveling for such a duration and this one of the few toys I was allowed to bring along.  I set it up in camp sites from Lake Michigan to Lake Tahoe.   On days where we seemed to be endlessly driving through desert terrain, I also set up the Galactic Play Set in the back of the van and played with it, though the bumps in the road could occasionally wreak havoc.

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote #6: Alien Lizards (Saurian vs. Sirian)

CULT TV FLASHBACK #147: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "The Satyr" (1981)

 
“There are strange viruses here on this planet.”

– Cyra (Anne E. Curry) warns Buck about the dangers of Arcanus in “The Satyr.”

One of the real bright spots of Buck Rogers’ abbreviated second season in 1981 remains the episode entitled “The Satyr” written by Paul and Margaret Schneider and directed by Victor French. 

On first glance, however, this development seems unexpected since the episode’s storyline stems from a long-standing and ubiquitous sci-fi TV trope: “the single mother in jeopardy.”

In this all-too-familiar genre TV chestnut, a series protagonist encounters a lovely single mother and her child (usually a son) who are being menaced by some malevolent outside force.  The series hero then becomes a stand-in husband/father to the duo, defeats the menace, and — in a heartbreaking moment — must say farewell to his new family so that he may continue his episodic adventures romantically unimpeded.   

Examples of the “single mother in jeopardy” convention can be found on the original Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) in “The Lost Warrior,” where the convention is played well as a variation on Shane (1953) and as a commentary on gun control, in V: The Series as “The Wildcats” (wherein Marc Singer’s Mike Donovan steps in to save a Mom and her daughter from the Visitors), and on MacGyver, “To Be a Man,” which featured the late Persis Khambatta as Zia, the single mother in jeopardy from Russian military forces.

In Buck Rogers’: “The Satyr,” Captain Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) explores the planet Arcanus, the site of a failed Earth colony while the star ship Searcher is away for ten days on a mission to “sweep” an asteroid belt. 

On the planet surface, Buck soon meets Cyra (Anne E. Curry) and her son, Delph (Bobby Lane), the only two settlers who have remained behind on the planet.  Buck soon discovers that the duo is regularly harassed by Pangor (Dave Cass), a half-man/half-goat or “satyr” who seems obsessed with them.  Buck steps in to battle the violent Pangor, but is bitten by the satyr. 

Over a period of days, Buck begins to transform into a satyr himself, a creature obsessed with women and wine…and little else. 

After being bitten, Buck learns that Pangor is actually Jason Samos, the founder of the Arcanus colony and Cyra’s much-mourned husband.  She has been unable to leave the planet behind because she still feels attached to him, despite Jason’s transformation into a rampaging monster.

As I’ve noted above, the “single mother in jeopardy” cliche has been depicted on television many times, but “The Satyr” illustrates nicely how a science fiction program can explore contemporary issues that “regular” dramatic programs either cannot,  or if they do seems too on the nose, like an Afterschool Special. 

As my friend and the exemplary blogger Uncle Lancifer of Kindertrauma noted here on a previous Buck Rogers retrospective (for “Time of the Hawk,”) this episode of the series sub textually concerns alcoholism; and the effect of alcoholism upon the entire family unit.  This subtext and social commentary actually elevates “The Satyr” above its familiar and cliched premise and makes it one of Buck Rogers’ finest hours.

In “The Satyr,” Cyra and Delph live a relatively happy life, until Dad — Pangor — shows up at their home, demanding wine and violently threatening Mom. 
In one well-staged scene, we watch with Delph through an exterior window as, inside the home, Pangor pushes Cyra onto her back (behind the kitchen table), and threatens physical violence.  He wants more wine, you see, even though, as Cyra tells him, “he drank it all the last time.”  The subtext here isn’t just violence, but sexual violence, at least in terms of the staging/blocking.

What we get in “The Satyr,” particularly in this camera view from the outside-in, is the notion of a child dwelling in a terrifying household of alcoholism and domestic violence, and seeing/experiencing things that no child should.  Worse, the P.O.V. suggests isolation and helplessness.

At several points during the episode, Delph is also policed by his mother not to be too conspicuous, so as not to gain the attention of the alcoholic/Satyr.  At one point, Delph plays “flute grass” and at another point he calls out innocently for his Mom.  In both instances he is quickly “hushed” — “Don’t shout!” —  lest the angry man of the household focus his violent attention upon him.  Half the battle is staying off Pangor’s radar as he pursues his vices.

Additionally, the boy, Delph, soon sees himself as his mother’s defender, eventually fighting the angry Pangor and telling the beast to “leave my mother alone.”   In the homes of many alcoholics, it is indeed the child who eventually becomes the protector of the Mom,or other siblings, and who stands-up to the offending drinker. 

As for Cyra, she’s dramatized in this episode as the traumatized, exhausted victim of sustained domestic abuse.  She hides bruises on her neck from Buck, and, quite understandably, doesn’t like “to be touched.”  She also has much trouble letting go of the “good man” who was once her husband, clinging to old photo albums which reveal happier, more romantic days.  Much of the blocking depicts Cyra cowering or retreating.  She is someone who is used to being terrorized and fears being struck.

Cyra also maintains the family home on Arcanus — despite the danger to herself and her son — in the misguided belief that somehow Pangor can change.  In fact, Cyra spends her life appeasing the violent satyr.  “If he’s supplied with enough [wine],” she informs Buck, “he’s content” and leaves the family alone.

At the same time that she must handle Pangor, Cyra worries that the “virus” that affected her husband — a metaphor for alcoholism — could affect her son too “when he’s a man.”  In other words, the cycle of abuse and violence could continue to the next generation.  Yet by keeping Delph on Arcanus, in a terrorized home, Cyra makes it more likely that this will happen to Delph.

This social commentary in “The Satyr” is intriguing by itself, but the episode gains some real unexpected juice and power when Buck actually grows sick with “the virus “and quickly loses his status as the white knight. 

Buck sets up house with Cyra and Delph (even teaching the boy to fly his shuttle craft) and then — just when things are good — succumbs to the same “virus’ and begins to show signs of physical violence like Cyra’s previous husband.   In one sequence, Buck tries to hide evidence of his transformation from Delph, ashamed to show his true nature as a “monster” to the boy he clearly cherishes.

Here, the subtext isn’t about alcoholism so much as the nature of (some) men in general, and how some women seem to attract these monsters, one after the other. It’s something in their individual nature and lack of self-esteem perhaps, and part of a deadly symbiosis involving abuser and victim. “The Satyr” tries to make viewers understand why Cyra stays on Arcanus, imperiled by one satyr after the other, and gives us some insight into the mentality of a perpetual victim.  In this case, Cyra just can’t let go of the past and the (vain) dream that Pangor could again become the husband she once loved.

course, Buck — as our stalwart series hero — is able to kick the virus and save the day. Still,  it was pretty daring in terms of 1981-era television to create a metaphor for alcoholism and then see the likable series protagonist succumb to that  “disease.”  In visual terms, Buck’s horns literally start to come out, as he transforms from man to beast.

I am old enough to remember the promotional materials and interviews for the second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  The overall promise by the producers was that Buck would become more recognizably and fallibly human, and less the quipping, boogeying, Burt Reynolds-in-space figure of the first season.  Whether or not that promise was fulfilled entirely is up for debate, but certainly “The Satyr” showcases Buck at his most human and interesting.  He exhibits real remorse when he believes he is responsible for the death of Cyra’s husband, Jason, and then must battle his growing “dark side” as the satyr virus takes hold.   

This episode is also intriguing for the way it ties the myth of the Satyr (a wine loving man/goat) to the alcoholism/domestic violence symbolism, and for the implicit “reason” behind alcoholism provided by the show.  Jason had the “pioneer spirit,” you see, and had hoped to turn Arcanus into a “garden of Eden.”  When that dream failed, he couldn’t handle it…and that’s when he first acquired “the virus.”  Again, this idea fits our contemporary world well.  What leads people to drink?  Failure?  Tragedy?  Loss?  Desperation?

All of my commentary on this episode no doubt suggests that “The Satyr” is some labored “message” show about an “important” life lesson (see: Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Symbiosis.”)  But that’s not actually the case at all. 

Like the best social commentary in science fiction television (from The Twilight Zone to Star Trek to The X-Files to Buffy), this is an episode that plays ably on two levels.  You can watch it just as a gripping, good adventure, or as a story with a bit more relevance and meaning in our own world.  In other words, the metaphor for alcoholism holds powerfully (right down to the blocking of the actors), but you aren’t hit over the head with a “lesson.”

At the very least, “The Satyr” adds some much-needed depth to an old TV trope.  In this Buck Rogers episode, the single mother was again in dire jeopardy, but it’s the nature of  that jeopardy and the source of the jeopardy that make this installment meaningful and unique, even after three decades.

From the Archive: Buck Rogers Starfighter Command Center (Mego; 1980)


Last week for the retro toy flashback from the archive, I featured Mego’s U.S.S Enterprise Bridge from 1980 and on a similar note, this week I’d like to remember another kindred Mego toy from the same year.
It’s Mego item # 85022; otherwise known as the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center.

As you likely recall, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century starring Gil Gerard ran on NBC TV from autumn 1979 to the Spring of 1981. It was a fun and exciting sci-fi adventure and as a kid, I loved every minute of it. How could you not love a series featuring Erin Gray in spandex and Pamela Hensley (showing mid-riff)?  Buck Rogers in this incarnation was like James Bond in space; with neat spaceships, cool sets, and gorgeous ladies. The villains (which included Frank Gorshin and Julie Newmar), were also quite colorful.

Of course, I collected all of the Buck Rogers action figures of the day, though even my ten year-old mind rebelled at the lack of care that went into some of the marketing.

For instance, Princess Ardala was called “Ardella” on her action figure card. What, nobody could be bothered to spell check the character’s name?

And why market a figure of King Draco, who was barely in the series at all? And Kane (Henry Silva) was called “Killer Kane.” He was never called that on the series.  Instead, that name came from earlier incarnations of the space hero.

Anyway, Mego released a whole line of very cool Buck Rogers spaceships and toys, including the Directorate Starfighter (my favorite ship from the show), the Draconian Marauder (known as a Hatchet fighter on the series…), a Land Rover, and a Laserscope Fighter (not a design from the series). So it only makes sense that the same company would market a place to dock these ships, the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center.

Christmas 1980 was the holiday of Buck Rogers for me. I’ll never forget going over to my aunt and uncle’s house in Summit, New Jersey and opening toy after toy — all Buck Rogers models and action figures (though, as I recall, this was also the Christmas of The Empire Strikes Back and my giant AT-AT. But that’s another story…).

Here, the toy box suggests: “Issue commands to Buck and monitor his flight pattern with this authentic replica of the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center!”

The toy also includes “2 level deck with radar screens and railings,” “Cut-out landing and launch pad for Buck’s Star Fighter,” and “landing control console for use with Mego Buck Rogers 3 3/4 action figures and all other poseable 3 3/4 action figures.”
What remains most interesting about this toy is that what you see displayed on the box is not necessarily the toy you get inside. On the box, for instance, the upper deck of the landing pad shows a chair from Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise bridge. In the actual toy, a different style chair is molded to the deck.

Also, the decals on the box and the decals of the actual set are completely different. I know now that Mego was juggling a number of “space opera” licenses at the time, including Star Trek, Buck Rogers and The Black Hole, so there may have been some franchise confusion. Just a guess.

This just goes to show you that back in the 1970s and 1980s, even great toy companies like Mego weren’t necessarily paying close attention to the exact details of their (admittedly wonderful and now incredibly collectible) products. This isn’t really an “authentic replica” of the landing bay on the series.

But that’s okay, it’s still a fun toy.  And as you can see from the photos, Buck’s Starfighter Command Center today holds a cherished spot in my home office, even today.

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 121: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "The Plot to Kill a City" (1979)

Well, I didn’t necessarily expect to revisit Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) again so soon after my 2010 review of the second season premiere, “Time of the Hawk,” but one of my favorite bloggers in the known universe (and in the Uncharted Territories…) — Sci-Fi Fanatic — recently posted for debate and discussion the genre magazine Sci-Fi Now’s list of the five best and worst episodes of the disco decade series. 

I won’t pillory or second-guess that periodical’s list too roughly, primarily because I believe it’s extremely cool of the magazine to look back at a thirty-year old sci-fi series and give it some much-needed love and attention (remember, when I worked for another genre magazine circa 2000, the editorial  rule of thumb was that you couldn’t write about any genre TV series that a contemporary “16 year old” wouldn’t be familiar with.)

That sense of appreciation carefully established, I don’t agree with very much on the Sci-Fi Now Buck Rogers list, save for the inclusion of “Space Vampire” as one of the five best installments. 

But I felt the most glaring omission involved the absence of the series’ epic two-parter, “The Plot to Kill a City” as a selection for best segment. 

Buck Rogers vs. The Legion of Death.

This exciting two-parter aired on October 11 and October 18, 1979, and was written by the talented Alan Brennert.  Dick Lowry directs.

“The Plot to Kill a City’s story opens in media res, with Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) on a mission to take out and replace a legendary criminal named Raphael Argus.  Argus, you see, is a member of “The Legion of Death,” a terrorist group planning to deliver “final retribution” on New Chicago (a city of 10 million people…) for the death of one of  its comrades.

Because Buck hails from the 20th century, there’s no record of his existence anywhere in the data-heavy, computerized 25th Century, and so Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor) at the Earth Defense Directorate sends Buck to infiltrate the Legion and learn its secret plan.  Since the Legion of Death members rarely gather — and don’t know each other by sight — this seems a perfect plan.

Not so fast, however, as Buck is soon pitted against a team of James Bond-worthy villains. 


A soldier villain? Varek (Anthony James)

Leading the Legion of Death is a brilliant scientist from Rigel IV, Selon Kellogg (Frank Gorshin). 

He’s the mastermind and formidable “general” villain of the organization.  Kellogg is cruel and merciless, willing to visit death upon innocent millions for a personal slight. 
If you’ve watched Batman, you may recall that Gorshin is expert at portraying exaggerated, larger-than-life villainy, but his Kellogg is a different breed from the Riddler all-together: a deadly serious, deadly somber threat; a real (and utterly horrible…) person.

At Kellogg’s side stand several incredibly powerful and memorable “soldier” villains and minions.  Their numbers include Quince (John Quade), an assassin from a heavy gravity planet armed with telekinetic powers, Sherese (Nancy DeCarl), an empath who picks up “vibrations” and who is “pathologically suspicious,” and Markos, a martial arts expert who has “partially severed” his nerve endings to reduce his ability to feel pain (and yes, we saw a villain much like Markos in The World is Not Enough [1999], didn’t we?). 

Finally, there’s the hulking Varek (Anthony James), a masked mutant and Kellogg’s personal bodyguard.  He boasts the ability to “alter his molecular density.”   In other words, Varek can walk through walls.

During the course of the story’s two-parts, Buck must infiltrate the Legion and stay ahead of these powerful villains.   This task is made more difficult by his entanglement with a betrayer named Barney (James Sloyan), after the comic strip’s “Black Barney.”  Buck must also evade galactic police, who believe he really is the notorious Raphael Argus.

As Buck soon learns, the Legion of Death plans to destroy a matter/anti-matter power generator outside of New Chicago. The Legion forces an employee at the power station to help them evade security by threatening the lives of his children. 
Show me a family man who can afford to be a hero…” Kellogg quips.
With time running out, Buck finds an unexpected ally in Varek…

The space port on Aldebaron (later re-used in ST: TNG: “Coming of Age”).
It seems to me that —  especially in the case of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century — one must judge the quality or worth of the series’ installments within the boundaries of its action-oriented format and particular historical context. 
In this case, the Glen Larson TV series was broadcast post-Star Wars.   That says a lot.
That historical context means audiences  must expect a cute robot (Twiki), plenty of flashy laser beam fire, space dogfights, and a heightened sense of romantic action/adventure.  
In broad terms, the series format basically makes Buck and Wilma futuristic “secret agents” working for Dr. Huer’s Directorate, putting cosmic bad guys out of business while acting “undercover.”   Not particularly deep; but the stories are often immensely engaging, and almost universally entertaining.

Many weeks, it’s James Bond in space, all right, and as is the case with the best Bond films, the best Buck Rogers episodes are often those which feature the most interesting villains

“The Plot to Kill a City” serves up a literal “legion” of such nemeses, plus an appealing Bond girl (Buck girl?)  in Markie Post’s cute-as-a-button Joella Cameron.  The threat is also grave enough to hold the attention: the destruction of New Chicago and 10 million people at the hands of the terrorist villains.


If you choose to look at Huer as “M” or “Q” while he gives Buck his gadgets of the week (black light bombs…) the comparison to the Bond franchise is complete.

Within the parameters established above — Buck as Bondian secret agent, bracing space adventure — the truly rewarding Buck Rogers episodes remain those that  are able — through clever writing and execution — to often find a sort of unexpected “sweet spot” in this superficial Bond formula:  a spot where story and character ingredients work on a deeper-than-surface level. 


Markie Post is a futuristic Bond Girl.

Where was that sweet spot located?  Well, it often became apparent when Buck’s humanity and fish-out-of-water predicament played an important role in the narrative, and when good, solid science fiction concepts ably supported the front-and-center action. 

Even better, it occurred when those solid science fiction concepts were ones that had something relevant and important to say about American life during the late 1970s or early 1980s.

With the “The Plot to Kill a City,”  you can put checks in all those boxes.  

Make no mistake, Buck Rogers is not Star Trek, which by and large remains a meditative vehicle on human morality, but this  comparison doesn’t mean Buck couldn’t tell meaningful, dimensional tales, either.  

Most importantly, the superficial good guys vs. bad guys nature of the “Plot to Kill a City” is supported ably by a surprising, welcome and very human character subplot.  In this case, Varek — the masked body guard — originates from a planet that survived a “winnable” nuclear war, only to face a future of terrible genetic deformity.  Varek hides his misshapen face behind a golden mask so as not to reveal his hideous visage.

Late in the first segment, Varek tells Buck Rogers that he deserves to be Kellogg’s servant, a slave essentially. 

I deserve no better,” he declares with self-loathing.  “My people were a proud race…too proud.  It wasn’t enough that we had tamed our planet, built a great culture, reached out into space.  We had to have other worlds too.  We abused our freedom and we lost it, and deservedly so.”

Later, when Varek realizes that Kellogg plans to visit a similar apocalypse upon Earth’s innocent children, he gets over his self-pity and hatred and actively joins Buck’s cause.  “You can’t imagine life on my planet,” he explains.  “Children afraid to look at their own reflections.  Children with the touch of death.”



The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
In the end, Varek saves the day by facing his own death.  Eyes wide open, he walks straight into a radioactive anti-matter chamber to stabilize the reactor. 
Inside, Valek re-aligns the power system, and saves the generator…and all of New Chicago.
And yes, this heroic incident — with a character bravely and knowingly facing extinction before the eyes of his comrades in a sealed compartment — oddly foreshadows the specifics of Spock’s death in the engine room in The Wrath of Khan.

More to the point, however, Valek is no ordinary “guest star of the week,” but rather a character who is well-developed, and undergoes an arc of learning and development during the story.  He changes sides not on a writer’s whim, not because the story demands it, but based on his difficult life experience, and that idea comes through pretty powerfully without being overtly preachy.
Also, it’s important to recall that America was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union in late 1979, when this episode aired.  The specter of nuclear annihilation was always present — every day — like a shroud, hanging over all of us.   This episode of Buck Rogers expresses the terrible horror of nuclear Armageddon, with children paying the consequences for an “international” disagreement over political ideology.  Even more so, it suggests that those who use such weapons to conquer others deserve themselves to be subjugated and enslaved.  Not a tame statement in the year leading up to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the American boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics.
Again, this “apocalypse mentality,” this expression of fear around a nuclear war, lends a commendable gravity to this episode that not all Buck Rogers episodes abundantly possess.  Although the Earth itself is a victim of nuclear holocaust in the series, the writers of the program never returned Buck to Anarchia to face the savagery of his time period, and the ideological passions that led to such global horror.  “The Plot to Kill a City” gets at the idea in a different way, and in a way that resonates well.  Other episodes of the series would certainly try –“Olympiad” was about a defector from an oppressive planetary regime — but none truly got to the stark horror of nuclear brinkmanship in the way that “The Plot to Kill a City” does.


Kellogg’s starfighter.

When I discuss solid science fiction concepts in terms of this two-part episode, I’m talking about the way the episode creates deadly and unique “assassins” out of other-worldly environments. 

It imagines a world of heavy gravity where the inhabitants develop the power of their minds (telekinesis) so as to control their environs.  It imagines Valek’s world of nuclear apocalypse; a world that took a dark path which, fortunately, our Earth has not. It features an “empath” as a deadly conspirator and interrogator, and much more.


With the exception of Valek and his milieu, these concepts are not explored in great depth, merely touched upon, but then again we must return to the concept of Buck Rogers as an action series.  The natures and backgrounds of Quince, Sherese, Markos and the others are imaginative and believable enough to make the story fly (and to suggest a larger world), and that’s what’s important.

I still remember watching this compelling two-parter when I was nine years old, and being absolutely glued to the television as those terrible words — “To Be Continued” — popped up.  There was the feeling then that Buck Rogers — for all its swashbuckling fun — was hitting on all creative thrusters too.

“A Plot to Kill a City” serves up a number of great villains, and one tragic character too.  Because it consists of two parts and has roughly ninety minutes to tell its tale, the story is fast-paced but also takes the time to get the small touches right.  For all of the series’ sense of fun and humor, there was always the impression here that the danger presented by Kellogg was real and grave, and that matters of great consequence were occurring.

Certainly, I didn’t feel this involved, this intrigued with “Space Rockers,” or “Cruise Ship to the Stars” either — two relatively lame Buck Rogers installments that somehow made Sci-Fi Now’s list of five best episodes. 

So I’d substitute “The Plot to Kill a City” for either of those episodes without reservation.