In 1979, while in the throes of both a whirling dervish of Star Wars mania and a feverish countdown until the 1980 release of the first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, I was whisked away to the theatre to watch the latest sci-fi adventure to hit the big screens, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Staring Gil Gerard, the film was a great way to bridge the gap between Star Wars sequels. Featuring dueling spaceships, a wisecracking star pilot, a pair of shiny robots and a not one, but two sexy space sirens in the forms of Princess Ardala and Wilma Deering, Buck Rogers was everything a space obsessed kid could want. The fact that it was just the starting point for a television series made it all the better. Along with Battlestar Galactica, television was a gold mine for genre shows back in the late 1970’s. Every kid my age was glued to the television on Sunday nights to thrill to the continuing exploits of Buck Rogers and the forces of good.
The key element that made Buck Rogers so different from Battlestar Galactica, besides the rich history the character brought with him –a fact virtually unknown at the time to a kid my age, even with original actor Buster Crabbe fighting alongside Gil Gerard, was the humor element. Buck Rogers was the fish out of water experiencing the future for the first time alongside the audience at home. Just as equally confused were the inhabitants of the 25th century forced to endure the “archaic” customs of the centuries old earth man. Many of the insane activities that Buck tried to explain to Dr. Huer, the leader of Earth’s Defense, and Wilma Deering, played to the hilt by Erin Grey, revolved around 1980’s dating rituals. Much like the film Demolition Man, Buck Rogers portrayed a culture so sanitized as to be devoid of love and heartache, the very things that make us human. Episode after episode featured Buck explaining soft music and candlelight and what it did to women back in his day. Each lesson would be met with laughter and scrutiny by the more civilized future dwellers. As a kid I watched each episode knowing, JUST KNOWING that Buck and Wilma were going to get together. I had the same feeling about Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia pre-Empire Strikes Back when it was revealed that Leia preferred her men a little rough around the edges. Any hope of a Luke and Leia romance was dashed forever with the reveal of them being brother and sister in Return of the Jedi, but there’s enough evidence to show that was a last-minute change so any pre-Jedi thoughts were definitely warranted. On Buck Rogers each week Wilma would somehow deflect Buck’s charms even as every other woman in the galaxy was swooning and throwing themselves at the dashing swashbuckler. The interesting part, and the part that makes Wilma so darn human, is that she would always cluck her tongue and chastise Buck for his womanizing ways, all the while looking hurt that she wasn’t the main target. Women, right? Even in the 25th Century they send out mixed signals.
Buck and Wilma’s relationship took a turn during the second season when the show was retooled – our heroes were sent off into space on a Star Trek type mission that felt more serious than the light first season. With the change in the series also came a change in Wilma’s attitude towards Buck, in direct contrast to the military direction of season 2, was changed to be friendlier and less military like. Who’s giving the mixed signals now? Ah, television show producers, they’re never met a show they didn’t like to tinker with until it no longer resembles the very show you fell in love with. Galactica 1980, anyone? What is it with final seasons anyway? Sadly, most of the romance between Buck and Wilma was either implied or delegated to off screen to make room for more space ship fights and laser guns. Because that’s what young boys want, right?
Speaking as a young boy, for that’s what I was then, that’s only partly right. Yes, we watched Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers for the space battles and robot laser sword fights. But we also watched for the pretty girls even though we didn’t quite know what to do with that information. Like a farmer planting long-term crops, we watched and watched knowing that someday it would make sense. Each week Erin Gray would appear in a variety of skintight shiny spandex outfits and I would find myself unable to turn away from the television. Yes, as a child who grew up in the ‘70s but matured in the ‘80s, I too watched Princess Leia grow from a senator to a slave girl in the Star Wars trilogy, but the germination of that fascination began with Buck Rogers. As Buck romanced Wilma Deering, so too did the boys of America find themselves hopelessly in love with the no nonsense leader of the forces of good. Wilma represented the strong, independent woman that most men/boys longed for. She was brash, brave and able to fly her own starship! She spent her downtime in disco fashions that would make Olivia Newton-John jealous. What’s not to love?
When Buck Rogers was cancelled and Erin Gray moved over to the sitcom Silver Spoons starring Ricky Schroeder, I followed too, but the magic just wasn’t the same. While she had the same “will they or won’t they” relationship with Ricky’s father, gone were the shiny outfits and outer space shenanigans. Ah, you can’t go home again, can you?
But perhaps cancellation was the right thing to do for Buck and the gang. Once the show was changed the writing was on the wall. Wilma was fitted into a skirt ensemble more akin to Star Trek than the hip spandex she used to rock. She also spent a good deal of time piloting the large starship they traveled around in instead of the more conventional earth ship she commanded in season one. Gone was the witty banter between Buck and Wilma, replaced with more action oriented dialogue like, “Prepare for impact!” or “Shields up!” Much like Moonlighting a few years later, Buck Rogers lost a key element to its success when the producers decided to simply make Buck and Wilma another generic television couple. As Jacques the Bowler said on The Simpsons, “Better than the deed, better than the memory…the moment of anticipation.” And doesn’t that just say it all? The journey is more important than the destination and Buck and Wilma’s courtship in season one was so enjoyable we never wanted it to end, while secretly wishing it would! From Moonlighting to The X-Files, a lot of shows have wrestled with this dynamic and most usually flounder once the main characters have jumped in the sack together. Buck Rogers was no exception, and the fact that the show was cancelled after season 2 says volumes. Who knows what might have happened had the show’s retooling not included Buck and Wilma becoming a pseudo couple in the process. Perhaps with the will they or won’t they dynamic left intact the show could have survived another season or two. We’ll never know and unlike Galactica, which saw the rag tag fleet finally make it to their destination, earth, Buck Rogers and company sailed off into the galactic unknown with a simple stand alone episode that offered no closure to the fans that had watched from that first trip to the cinema. Too bad – a wrap up with Buck Rogers marrying Wilma Deering would have made a good finale and the mind reels at the thought of a disco spandex wedding dress!
I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to meet Erin Gray at Comic-Con in San Diego over the years and she’s always been very gracious. She still looks beautiful and if a reboot or remake of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ever becomes a reality I hope the new producers have the sense to reach out to her and offer her a part the same way they did to Richard Hatch on the updated Battlestar Galactica. After seeing what they were able to do with Mr. Hatch’s new character it would be amazing to see that same magic work on an older version of Buck and Wilma, long married and still enamored with each other. Let that same witty banter play between the two, only now seen through the eyes of the next generation. What better way to show the future than to acknowledge the contributions of those that laid the groundwork? Work in a cameo by Twiki and Dr. Theopolis and you have the makings of a ratings winner. Oh, sure it has to be gritty and dark to survive in the current television landscape but perhaps a couple as romantic and in love as Buck and Wilma could go a long way to brightening things up a bit. As goes the economy so goes popular entertainment and with gas at $2 a gallon and arcades making a comeback, maybe it’s time for a little optimism in our science fiction – Star Wars owes a little something to coming out at the tail end of the Vietnam era when folks were ready for a little sunshine in their ray guns – there’s no reason Buck Rogers couldn’t soar back into the heavens…as long as Wilma brings along those shiny spandex pants.
Jeff Tucker works in the theme park industry. His magical book series, “The Sixth Key,” is available on Amazon.com. He also hosts his own Podcast, “91 Reasons,” available on iTunes.