Buck Rogers was a part of a crop of enduring science fiction heroes created in the early twentieth century. His transfer to television was brief for several reasons.
Capturing the imaginations of kids of all ages, Buck Rogers was born of the wellspring of the post-industrial age and the embracing of science and technology by western culture.
Buck first appeared in a novella titled Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan published in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories as Anthony Rogers. A sequel, The Airlords of Han, was released in the March 1929 issue. The character’s popularity soon led to syndication as a comic strip drawn by Dick Calkins, Nolan changed the character’s name to William “Buck” Rogers. The comic strip made its first newspaper appearance on January 7, 1929. Later adaptations included a serial film, a television series, and other formats.
The comic strip series quickly gained popularity, and the adventures of Buck Rogers in comic strips, movies, radio, and television became a highly regarded part of American popular culture. This pop phenomenon paralleled the development of space technology in the 20th century and introduced Americans to outer space as a familiar environment for swashbuckling adventure. A modern hero and icon were born. Buck came along ahead of his counterpart Flash Gordon who was specially created, not long after, to compete with Buck in the comic strips.
The original science fiction sleeper who falls under the effects of radiation (initially) and goes into a form of suspended animation for 500 years and wakes up in the future. Buck Rogers is synonymous with the popularity of space exploration in various media. The character follows in the footsteps of literary pioneers such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The connection and tributes to these earlier authors are unmistakable.
The TV series starring Gil Gerard as Buck changes some elements of the original story, adapting it to modern times. Produced for Universal, by Glenn A Larson the creator of the original Battlestar Galactica, the series had a similar camp approach. In it, Gerard, like Buck, is portrayed as an astronaut accidentally frozen during a mission who wakes up in the year 2491, 500 years later. The series, like Galactica, depicted a future styled after the disco culture still fashionable at the time, reflected in the clothing, hairstyles, and other design elements of the show.
Rogers, like a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, awakens into a future still rebuilding itself after a nuclear war that occurred the same year of his accident, governed by the Earth Defense Directorate. He is portrayed in the traditional fish-out-of-water role as he tries to adapt to life in the 25th century. His unique way of looking at things and innate ingenuity prove valuable in helping the Directorate foil evil plots to conquer the planet. Buck is also sometimes used in undercover assignments as an agent for the Directorate, similar to a future James Bond.
His friend, guide and sometimes romantic interest in this future world is the beautiful Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray), a starship pilot and officer in the Directorate. Deering is the personification of the modern woman, intelligent, capable, and independent. Both Buck and Deering take their orders from Dr. Elias Huer (Tim O’Connor). Buck is accompanied by Twiki a small humanoid robot, and Dr. Theopolis a sentient computer in the form of a disk carried around the neck of the little robot. Theopolis is a member of the computer council and a scientific leader in the future earth. The future surface of the earth, depicted as a radioactive wasteland, has only a few cities that serve as shelters for what remains of humanity. The planet is initially portrayed as surrounded by an energy dome that protects it, Most of what is depicted on earth in the show takes place in New Chicago, a future metropolis.
The first season of this series had a chief antagonist in the form of Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley), an alien with the goal of conquering earth, who gets distracted by her physical attraction to Buck. She, along with her henchman Kane (initially played by Henry Silva and later by Michael Ansara), was one of the best things about this cornball attempt at a science fiction series.
Season one markedly differed from season 2 when the showrunners decided the series needed a makeover, they changed the format, and not for the better, removing the amorous Ardala and introducing the alien Hawk, another version of the noble savage stereotype often used in science fiction. Along with other changes, this spelled doom for the series and hastened its cancellation. By going with the cute factor in the show and for other reasons this show was for me a big disappointment, that only got worse in the second season. A wasted opportunity that will be remembered as a big serving of cheese and ultimately a footnote in the history of science fiction television.