40 Years Ago: Buck Rogers Goes Out Fighting
The “difficult second season” issue faced by science-fiction shows in particular is usually caused by the same two issues. The network receives a better (i.e., more profitable) response from the initial run than it expected, but, knowing nothing about the genre, it fails to understand why. For the second season, it tries to refocus the show toward a mainstream audience, losing the sci-fi fans in the process. But the budget is often cut as a way of hedging its bet.
The case of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century isn’t the same but the effect was: Viewers lost interest, and the show was canceled without fanfare or finale. The second season was actually an example of star Gil Gerard beginning to get his own way, up to a point.
But the problem, he said later, was that the new producer didn’t like it.
Another series from the era’s “Mr. Prime Time,” Glen A. Larson, Buck Rogers was inspired by the ‘20s comic strip character who later became a Saturday-afternoon matinee star. The show had premiered in 1979 to a positive response, telling the story of a NASA astronaut, frozen in time due to a flight malfunction, who's rescued 500 years later and finds the world adjusting after a nuclear holocaust amid a host of culture clashes caused by the age difference and alien threats. Buck Rogers was a man for all seasons, Twiki and Dr. Theopolis were a robot double act and Col. Wilma Deering was a warrior princess.
There were also holes in the concept. For one, Gerard had total control over the Rogers character but not the scripts. “The stories were confused,” he told Starlog after the season ended. “Why couldn’t we get one good storyline and follow it? We kept getting into 15 different subplots, which deflected viewers’ interest. … I felt that I had misled people inadvertently by saying that the show was going to have good characterizations and that there was going to be substance to it. It wouldn’t be just special effects and fight scenes and stuff like that, but that’s just what we had.”
When Buck Rogers in the 15th Century returned, there had been a delay caused by an actors strike, and a new producer was at the helm. Gerard reported that Larson himself had taken a hands-on approach to only the movie that launched the series; after that, Bruce Lansbury had overseen the first season. He was replaced by John Mantley, and at first it seemed like a positive step because, like Gerard, Mantley was more a fan of westerns than sci fi as a youth.
Watch ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’ Season 2 Opening
The second season saw an end to the main character’s near-constant wisecracking – something Gerard had been trying to stamp out since the start. But it also softened Deering into a less-determined and more gentle character, with the addition of a stronger sense of the pair being a couple, although not much happened onscreen. Instead of exploring the brutalized Earth – which Gerard always felt should have been the show’s premise – the stars took flight into deep space on the starship Searcher, its multiyear mission to explore strange, new worlds in search of the brothers of man who now fight to survive far, far away, among the stars. Basically, it's an amalgam of Star Trek and Larson’s previous success, Battlestar Galactica.
On top of that, the addition of an alien sidekick, never confirmed to have been inspired by Spock, named Hawk reduced Deering’s profile in the plots. There was even a different voice for Twiki – leading Gerard to apply pressure until original voice artist Mel Blanc was reinstated. These and other arguments led to problems between the star and the producer. “I hated that season,” Gerard told Star Wars Interviews in 2005, saying that any positive things he said in the past were a result of his loyalty to the show. “It was such a rip-off of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. I was thinking: 'Why are we doing this?' I always wanted Buck to stay on Earth, but we got a new executive producer who had no respect for the audience and the show.”
In a 2009 interview with the Collectors Club of Great Britain, he elaborated: “I always thought that there was a whole unrealized area of Buck Rogers that we didn’t really get into that I wanted to do … let him walk around the Earth 500 years from now and see how people are coping. I would have liked to have seen Buck, Wilma and Twiki go off on a journey of self-discovery for Buck. You’ve been gone for 500 years; you want to come back and put your hand on something that you recognize. I would have liked to have seen more character-driven stories with Buck Rogers and less of the starfighter stuff.”
There were some moments of glory in the "Battlestar Trek" season, however, when the darkening of Rogers’ universe cast some moments of potentially strong drama. Gerard cited an episode titled “Satyr” as having “reflected the feeling that I wanted Buck to have,” adding that it “was almost a pilot of the things I’d wanted to see.” In that episode, two survivors of a small colony refuse to leave, despite the "plague" that's sent everyone else running. Buck Rogers soon finds out why.
The final episode – the 13th of a curtailed run, first broadcast on April 16, 1981 – is often regarded as one of the best. “The Dorian Secret” follows Rogers' visit to a space station as he attempts to help a young girl on the run. He discovers the truth behind the allegation of murder laid against her by the authorities of her race, undergoes betrayal as a result of mass bullying and puts his life on the line in the name of justice.
Watch ‘The Dorian Secret’ Clip From 'Buck Rogers in the 25th Century'
But it wasn’t enough to save this most Frankenstein of TV shows. Gerard regretted that, after two seasons of fighting – which resulted in him being branded as “difficult” – he nearly got his way.
“I went to see the president of Universal and told him what I would like to see," he explained. "The response after the meeting was that it was the best idea they ever heard in two years, and why didn’t they hear this earlier. I said, ‘Because no one would listen.’ They asked me to pitch the idea to the president of NBC, and I did. He told me that if the show would have a third season, that would be the direction they would go into.
"Unfortunately, the new producer had damaged the show so badly, the show was canceled and didn’t get a third season. But I felt vindicated, because they liked my ideas. They should’ve gone back to Buck, Wilma and Twiki, because they were the main characters.”