With a title like that, we’re primed to expect something totally different, but the title has little to do with the plot. If anything, it’s a nod to the past when Buck Rogers was a comic strip and an old TV show starring “Buster” Crabbe. In fact, I feel I need to rewind to my own youth to explain something. After Doctor Who was taken off WOR, Channel 9, I was unable to find it for a long time, until a friend of mine told me to put on UHF channel 50. Doctor Who would come on at 9pm, but the bookends to that show were Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, both starring Crabbe in the title roles. Why is this important?
When I started this two part episode, there were a couple of items that caught my attention. Like The Outer Limits, we had another of those God-awful previews of what was to come. I hate those. Then I noticed that the opening music that I loved so much was back; the instrumental one, not that disco version from the pilot. Lastly and most importantly, I noticed the cast list which included the great Jack Palance as the lead villain Kaleel, Roddy McDowell as Governor Toban and “Buster” Crabbe as Brigadier Gordon. To make this even more special as Crabbe hands the reins over to Gil Gerard, there is a magnificent interaction between them. Buck asks where Gordon learned to fly to which he says: “I’ve been doing that sort of thing since before you were born”. It’s a stunning tribute and really made me smile and I think it speaks exceptionally highly of the writers of this series.
What also surprised me was how badly underutilized McDowell was. A genre icon probably most well known as Cornelius, the best of the apes in the classic Planet of the Apes, he gets surprisingly little screen time and what we do get is very minor indeed. By contrast, Palance gets plenty of screen time, overacting gloriously. His inability to run with a cape on without clutching it is hilarious. His glowing hands of doom just allow him to drain every morsel out of the overacted villain he’s portraying. (There’s even a moment where he’s shouting and I thought the screen froze!)
So why is it called The Planet of the Slave Girls? I really can’t say. Yes, Ryma is a slave girl and Wilma disguises herself for no apparent reason in sexy garb, but those are the only two slave girls in the story. The plot is around a plague that is spreading on earth, knocking out Earth’s defense fighters. When Buck and Wilma go to the local grain planet, they realize the toxin is being manufactured there. Kaleel intends to weaken Earth and attack when they are vulnerable. Of course, Buck is going to stop it.
For a two part story, there’s not a lot here to keep it going, but I found both parts entertaining. I was also mesmerized by some things that Buck Rogers was doing in 1979. Starfighters might be a pretty easy name to coin, but when Buck and Wilma go through a stargate, I was caught off guard! I always thought Stargate came up with that name first! I was amazed when Wilma rescued Ryma because, moments earlier she was handcuffed to a guard so when Wilma stunned him and he fell, Ryma is yanked down with him. It’s a small thing, but it stood out. And there was even a laugh-out-loud moment when a machine is sabotaged; it starts calling out for help. When Dr. Mallory arrives to help out, he’s too late to help, so the computer says sarcastically before blowing up, “Too late! Goodbye, Mallory!”
That doesn’t mean the episode doesn’t suffer somewhat. When Buck, Wilma and Ryma are locked in what is effectively a sauna, Buck never takes his jacket off even though they are basically being cooked. He also uses a grenade under a helmet that he stands on to rocket himself to a higher level. It just about works as an idea because it was established earlier that these are not typical grenades, but it probably hasn’t aged well. Although it was entertaining!
There are many things that I liked about the story overall. I liked that the arrogant Major Duke, who starts as Buck’s rival, ends up a friend. The series is a bit dated though, and it’s very noticeable when Duke, unsure if Buck is really Buck, asks who is “The Juice”, to which Buck replies OJ Simpson. It is established earlier that Buck was explaining about the past, including football, but I think OJ may have become less popular since this was made but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Still, I was glad they became friends, although the final shot of the episode has a slightly uncomfortable moment when Wilma and Duke have plans that evening and Duke says Buck is coming with them. The freeze frame and the laughter made me wonder what they had in mind. Perhaps it’s best not to know! Or maybe the title gave away more than what we saw onscreen…
Much like my viewing of Space: 1999, this has the advantage of showing me things I didn’t expect. As much as I love Star Trek, I always knew what I was in for. This is a series I’ve seen in my youth but that was a long time ago. I have literally no idea where the series will go from here, so it’s going to offer a lot to enjoy… or a lot to make fun of. I suppose that’s always a risk when we go back to the shows of our childhood. ML
A lot to make fun of for our favorite shows from childhood as time goes on may be inevitable. With some particularly mature memories of seriously famous guest stars early on in an SF series that we naturally appreciate more over time, like Jack Palance and Roddy McDowall (in either overacted or underutilized performances), it’s an interesting mix. The way Buck was able to take down Kaleel in the end, even with a bit of humor like “By the way I know where you can get a good lawyer”, was as down to basics as can be expected for the dashing hero defeating the bullying villain for its time. It was fitting entertainment and for some sci-fi shows today it can still work on some levels. If only it was that easy to take down such menacing bullies in real life. Buck Rogers was a good hero.
Thank you both for your reviews.
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So interesting all those famous actors from my childhood, and I never knew they were in these series. Unfortunately didn’t get either Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon in my area. I confess my memory seems to conflate the too. This might warrant some “research” 🙂
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I hope you do dig into it a bit. It’s been stunningly entertaining. Even the latest one I watch which, plot-wise, is weak, still aces things with the cast making a remarkably entertaining experience. ML
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Jack Palance’s performance as Kaleel really set the stage for every other scenery-chewing bad guy who will appear in subsequent episodes of Buck Rogers.
Agreed, the title “Planet of the Slave Girls” makes this two-part story sound a lot more cheesy & exploitative than it actually is. In fact, by the (admittedly low) standards of this series it’s a fairly intelligent script.
I definitely enjoyed the guest appearance by Saturday morning adventure serial veteran Buster Crabbe as Colonel Gordon. It’s probably one of the earlier examples of meta casting.
A few years ago I watched this one for the first time in a long time, and I was immediately struck by how disturbingly familiar a figure Kaleel was. Yes, it brought to mind Donald Trump. This line of dialogue Buck delivers to Kaleel is certainly applicable to Trump, although it undoubtedly could also be leveled at most any real-world demagogue: “The truth is, you get your kicks out of turning people who should logically hate you into mindless zombies who follow you around shouting your name.”
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