Friday, March 18, 2016

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: Lo, the Rings of Saturn

It’s easy for me to point out things that I like right now. It’s harder to tell what’s going to make a lasting impact and what’s the equivalent of a momentary infatuation. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (the TV series) is one of those things that has stuck with me through my life. I enjoyed watching it as a kid, but unlike so many other childhood shows, it’s one that I keep coming back to again and again. And every time I watch it, I enjoy it as much as I did the first time around. (The first season, anyway; the second season is another story entirely. In just about every sense.) So when I learned that a company called Blam Ventures was producing new, officially licensed Buck Rogers novels, I had to check them out.

First, some context. At some point between 1979 and 1981, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century premiered, and I fell for it, hard. It's tough for me to recall the exact chronology of things, and while I suppose I could uncover some dates using the Internets, the actual facts don't really matter. Here's what I remember: 

After seeing Star Wars in 1977, I became a huge science fiction fan. At the time, that meant seeing movies like Battle Beyond the Stars and watching TV shows like Battlestar Galactica. At some point in 1979 or 1980, I became aware of a new movie, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, starring Gil Gerard. (Who it starred probably meant nothing to me at the time.) 

Around the same time, my family moved to New Zealand for a year, while my father did research. What I think may have happened was that I saw the publicity for Buck Rogers before we moved, but it didn't come out until after we moved, so I wasn't able to see it in the US. I was able to buy a treasury-sized comic adaptation of the movie, and I eventually did see it in New Zealand in the theater. I thought it was great.

I learned, somehow, that the movie was just the pilot for a TV series that would be premiering in the US while I was still in New Zealand. (Did I learn about this from Starlog Magazine? Was I reading Starlog Magazine at this point? I don't recall.) Of course, we left New Zealand before the show started airing there, and missed the premiere of the show in the US. Didn't stop me from getting excited about it, though. 

When we returned to the US, we took a trip to Washington, DC almost immediately. I remember asking my mother to buy an issue of TV Guide from a local convenience store to see when Buck Rogers was on, so I could FINALLY see an episode. If memory serves, I did see my very first episode while we were on that trip, but I couldn't say for sure. What I can say for sure is that the title of the episode was Space Vampire. And that I was hooked.

What Buck Rogers had over other contemporary science fiction shows (which were basically Battlestar Galactica, as far as I can recall) was that it was very much a bright, shiny escapist action adventure fantasy. Battlestar Galactica was a much darker, more serious series, and my ten-year-old brain was looking for action and adventure. And, apparently, really attractive women playing strong military leaders, because I instantly developed a huge crush on Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering.

And Wilma wasn’t the only character who had my attention. Almost every episode featured a gorgeous lady, usually working for the villains, either because they were forced to or because they were misguided. Regardless, Buck usually ended up rescuing them or getting them to turn on the villains, and together they defeated whatever the evil plan of the week happened to be. Maybe that was part of the appeal of the show then and now: Buck and Wilma and their friends fought bad guys and evil plans, and they won.

The characters were also friends, and they were kind to each other, and they were genuinely nice and funny. I want to say that I watched it with my dad and my brother, even though I don’t remember whether or not that was the case. I choose to remember it that way, because it’s a great show to watch as a family. 

By the time the second season rolled around, I know I was reading Starlog Magazine, because I distinctly remember reading articles about how things would be changing drastically for the second season. At the time, I kept watching, because at that age, no matter how drastically shows that you watch get changed, they’re still shows that you watch, right? However, even at the time, I don’t think I was enjoying the show as much. (I remember really not enjoying the two-hour episode where Buck and everyone had to escort an alien ambassador with a removable head—yes, a removable head—across a desolate planet. It was the first time I felt like the show had crossed the line from fun to just silly.) However, I kind of liked the new character they introduced, a half-bird alien named Hawk. (You knew he was part bird because he had feathers on his head, and his ship was shaped like a hawk. I was ten or eleven years old, and that ship looked pretty cool.)

As I grew older, I watched the show in reruns whenever I could. More specifically, I watched the first season in reruns whenever I could. I bought it on DVD, and I even purchased a season one soundtrack not too long ago. It brought back a lot of fond memories. I would buy season two’s soundtrack as well, but it was a limited edition release, and the prices people are asking are a little more than I want to pay at the moment.

Not too long ago, I learned that Bear Manor Media, a small press specializing in books about TV and movies, had released a book about the TV series. After checking out an excerpt, I decided to order it. I haven’t read it yet, but skimming through it, it looks pretty good.
Not long after that, I discovered that Blam Ventures had just released the first in a series of licensed Buck Rogers novels, based on the series, and set between the first and second seasons. I almost immediately purchased their first book, and read it over an hour or so while my sick wife lay napping beside me. 

The book, by Andrew Gaska, was a lot of fun. It really captured the spirit of the show, and I could hear the actors speaking the dialogue as I read it. The plot felt like it could easily come from an episode of the show: Buck and Wilma are sent to uncover the reason why shipments of a valuable resource are being delayed. During his undercover investigation, Buck encounters an attractive young woman who agrees to help him foil the plot. In this case, the attractive young woman is actually a character returning from the TV series, although the book introduces yet another attractive young woman who may figure more prominently into the story in later installments.

I won’t spoil who the returning character is, but I will say that she’s not the only character from the series who makes an appearance. However, these references to the show don’t feel forced in the way fan-fiction will also include a bunch of references just to make fans of the show smile. The story takes place on a prison world, so it makes sense that a bunch of defeated villains would appear in the story.

There’s also plenty of fast-paced action, just like the show. However, there’s also some nice character stuff. We get a sense of what happened to all the various women who Buck rescued throughout the series, and we get some sense of his reaction to that. It’s not particularly dark or creepy or nefarious, just realistic. And there’s maybe a greater sense of danger in this episode.

The book also does a great job of fleshing out the character of recurring frenemy Princess Ardala, who gets her own subplot completely separate—at this point, anyway—from the Buck/Wilma story. We learn more of her backstory and see a major change in her status quo. (We also get an explanation of why the character of Kane changed actors between the pilot and the series, but it doesn’t feel like too much jarring fan service to get distracting.) I look forward to seeing where the Ardala story goes.

This is very much just the first part of the story, ending on a cliffhanger with quite a bit left to be resolved. That’s fine; it’s pretty clearly labeled as “book one.” From the publisher’s web site and other interviews, it appears that we get three of these “season 1.5” novellas, and then stories set after season two. I’m genuinely hoping that they bring the series back to Earth, instead of continuing the “searching for lost tribes of Earth” plot of the second season.

As a fan of the show, I genuinely enjoyed reading this book as much as it felt like Gaska enjoyed writing it. I’m glad I finally get new stories based on this thing that I loved so much as a kid, and I’m glad that I can still enjoy them more than 30 years later.

(Note: An earlier version of this entry had author Andrew Gaska's name misspelled. I sincerely apologize for that, and have corrected it.)


  1. I don't care how old you are, a ship shaped like a hawk is cool.

  2. Bonus geek points: these books are canon to that universe. Contractual agreement between the Dille estate (who has the rights now) and the author.