Buck Rogers, the progenitor of science-fiction adventure heroes in the comics, was a fixture of the daily strips from 1930 to 1967 and a well-documented influence on the first generation of American pilots, scientists and engineers to achieve space flight.
Robers reached the screen belatedly in 1939 in a Universal serial starring Larry "Buster" Crabbe. By that time Crabbe had already embodied Flash Gordon, in two serials, and Buck Rogers emerged from the old Universal assembly line looking like a derivative late-comer.
In the new pseudo-feature "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" the character is again a lackluster after-though, exploited by a new Universal assembly line that specializes in the serials manufactured for weekly television consumption.
A feature-length version of the Crabbe serial has been revived at the K-B Rosslyn Plaza to coincide with the opening of the new film at area theaters. Neither succeeds in concealing its origins.
The jumpy continuity of "Buck Rogers," for example, obviously derives from stitching together scenes from the 12-chapter original. The jumpiness itself was commonplace; the problem is that this assemblage tends to emphasize the stilted expository scenes at the expense of the goofy tussles and spectacles.
"Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" just as obviously began as the pilot for a television series, and may still end up as one. The executive producer and cowriter, Glen A. Larson, also does "Battlestar Galactica" for Universal.
Although Rogers is a Rip Van Winkly figure, accidentally placed in a state of suspended animation in our own century and miraculously revived five centuries later, the filmmakers ignore the likelihood that he might have a lot to learn upon awakening. Supposedly an astronaut lost during a deep space probe, Gil Gerard's Rogers is just a big, smirky, takecharge jerk. No sooner does he revive than he's showing the fighter pilots of the 25th century how to do their stuff.
Larson's Rogers returns to an Earth where advanced civilization survives inside a vast metropolis built near the irradiated ruins of Chicago. Known as the Federal Directorate, this citadel is protected by sophisticated technology from the primitive goblins who inhabit the surgrounding wastelands, anarchia, and from a tyrannical outer-space empire called craconia, which is making treacherous peace overtures.
The catastrophic past is reduced to Halloween nonsense when Gerard beats off a mob of ghouls after searching for his long-lost roots in a cemetery.
As Princess Ardala, the Draconian temptress, Pamela Hensley sashays across the screen in Arabian Nights scanties, swinging her hips and licking her lips. The wholesome contrast to this science-fiction hooker is supposed to be Erin Gray, an amateurish reminder of Tippi Hedren cast as Col. Wilma Deering, commander of an Earth fighter battalion.
The fighter models and combat interludes are economy-sized imitations from "Battlestar galactica." The obligatory R2-D2 impersonator is a moon-faced robot called Twiki who emits a lip-vibrating noise.
The evident lechery of modern TV producers isn't nearly as much fun as the naive eroticism that permeated the original "Flash Grodon" serial, in which Crabbe's Flash and Jean Roger's Dale Arden were always being pursued as consorts by the lustful First Family of Mongo. Regrettably, there's nothing similar percolating under the laborious heroics of "Buck Rogers."
Despite its abundant insufficiencies and absurdities, the older "Buck Rogers" will probably seem a more toterable clinker to movie freeks.
The passage of time seems to enhance the charm of the charms of those buzzing, sputtering little spaceships shooting sparks and vapor out of their tails. The sound of their motors was always curiously homey, reminiscent of the barber's clippers circling your ears.
The "telev-eye," some kind of invisible spy satellite that can evidently braodcast pictures across the galaxy, still baffles the imagination. The idea of parachuting onto the surface of Saturn may seem far-fetched even to preschooler nowadays, but who can fail to be delighted by props like the "amnesia helmet," an inverted canister with spikes and coils around the top that robs men of their wills and memories when strapped into place?
The movies reflect striking shifts in sexval attitudes, although it's difficult to believe anything has changed for the better out there in the 25th century of the pulp imagination.