Buck Rogers: Cosmic Whiz Kid

buck rogersOh dear, what have we got here?   When this series starts, I rapidly zip past the opening scenes of what’s to come because I think that’s a deplorable thing to do with an episode.  I realize this is sort of an “in reverse” way of doing coming attractions which would normally be shown at the end of the previous episode, but I want nothing to do with it.  I’m going to watch the episode and that’s all there is to it.  So I listen to the opening music and then watch the list of guest stars.  And with this episode, I realize how much has changed for me since I first watched this series back when it was new.  I was 7 or 8 back then.  Actors names meant nothing to me.  40+ years later, I know actors names.  So when I see My Favorite Martian, Ray Walston as a guest, my antennae rise with curiosity.  When I see Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman also star, I think “What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Wilma?”  This is going to be quite a trip down memory lane and I can’t imagine it being a good one! 

Then, to my surprise, it ends up being a good one.  What does strike me of this series is that it’s far less science fiction than it is action  adventure with some sci-fi trappings.  Super-strong baddies from high gravity worlds, telepaths who just think at you and laser fields that are clearly just grass covered by fuzzy special effects are all that give this the elements needs to get checked in the box of sci-fi, but it’s really about a political kidnapping.  Gary Coleman plays Hieronymus Fox, a genius from Buck’s time who froze himself during an experiment years ago.  Now, he’s so intelligent, he was made president of a planet, and his kidnapper, Zale (Ray Walston), is determined to make a lot of money off him.  (When they talk about going to Zale’s, all I could hear was Zales, as in the jewelry store, and I felt like he must have hit his life goal at some point…)

I was amazed at how good Walston was as the villain.  I’m so used to him being a comedy actor, that I had no idea he could do gravitas.  Meanwhile, I never liked the show Diff’rent Strokes and Coleman never did anything for me but seeing him now, I was stunned to find him very watchable.  He played a fun character and was remarkably charismatic.

Where I find the episodes are losing me is where Wilma is concerned.  After Fox is kidnapped, his friend and bodyguard, Dia Cyrton, goes to the Earth Defense Directorate for help and they turn her down due to political ramifications.  Huer then sends Wilma out covertly.  She barely plays a part.  Why even add her to the story.  She does turn up for a great ending moment, but it’s far too little to make her a main character in these stories, and yet Erin Grey really does have an onscreen presence that should be capitalized on.

There are a number of interesting things about this episode that really shocked me.  There are a ton of references to other episodes, including hearing about Buck who broke a woman out of jail in a previous episode (Unchained Woman), Fox says someone has the personality of a “sand squid” (also Unchained Woman) and there’s a reference to Buck going back to Aldeberan II (The Plot to Kill a City).  In real world references, Fox suggest a rapid escape to “34th and Lexingon” (Midtown Manhattan) and asks to avoid “Doctor Doom jive”.  (I would only have been more impressed if this were a Doctor Who reference, instead of a Marvel villain!)  I’m also tempted to give Buck credit for his early version of Alexa, asking some unseen computer to play music that’s more suited to his time.  And I think Coleman’s character was meant to be a futuristic version of Arnold, his character from Diff’rent Strokes because of his love of burgers, but I may indeed be misremembering that!

While the stories don’t take any deep look at the plot points, we do get a lot of fun for the sake of having fun.  When Buck and Dia Cyrton are trapped on the lawn where the path they were walking on is reduced, Buck’s comment is brilliant, “I wonder what Moses would have done!”  Theo states that he believes Buck has things under control to which Twiki rapidly comments, “He also believes in the Easter Bunny!”  And Fox comments that his tennis reach is “kinda short”.  While all of this is enjoyable, it doesn’t make up for the poor special effects or the idiocy of the bad guys.  The tubes that Coleman gets buried in at one point are so clearly Styrofoam that any jeopardy is lost to the viewer and the villains are caricatures for the most part; one is even overpowered by a headset he spectacularly fails to throw off his head.

The bottom line is, we haven’t had a great episode since the start, but none of these have been outright bad either.  They are very average but with a delightfully charismatic cast that seems to pull me in episode after episode.  We’re not breaking the mold, not exploring new ground, nor pumping the brain full of mind candy, but the series is just tasty enough that we keep coming back for more.  But that offers such an astounding contrast to what I experienced last year with good sci-fi with lousy characters, that’s almost hard to comprehend.  The question is, will it mirror the other series when it makes it to season 2?  We’ve got a way to go to find out and plenty of time for the attitude to change!    ML

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1 Response to Buck Rogers: Cosmic Whiz Kid

  1. scifimike70 says:

    I was a fan of Gary Coleman thanks to Different Strokes which made this episode an enjoyable one for me at the time. Ray Walston had previously impressed me as a villain, namely Mr. Whiney for Silver Streak. Now I remember him best as Judge Henry Bone in Picket Fences. Earl Boen (Selmar) who has now sadly passed away became a major SF star thanks to his role as Dr. Silberman for the Terminator films. The gravitas for all these special guest stars in old SF shows continues to be very interesting. The episodes may not have been great so far. But that was okay for the better chances the show would have had to more naturally grow on the fans. So getting round to potentially great episodes in due time would therefore have the greater impacts. Thank you, ML, for your review.

    Liked by 1 person

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