We look at the second episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
In this Short Look episode review, I’m looking at Planet of the Slave Girls, the second story of the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
The Buck Rogers theatrical movie was hastily green-lit as a TV series. The movie was re-tooled and used as a pilot episode for the series, but what was to become the tone of the series wasn’t entirely in evidence in the movie.
Planet of the Slave Girls, while still early in the development of the character, is the first episode to introduce some of the ideas that would remain through the first series. It also jettisoned a few ideas from the movie.
In the movie, it seemed fairly obvious that poor, desolated and vulnerable Earth was possibly not even capable of interstellar travel. Even the Draconian Empire, while obviously interstellar, seemed to rely on large, long-range ships to transport Princess Ardala and her “trade delegation” to Earth.
In the opener of the series proper, Wilma is introducing Buck to the Stargates, unexplained technological devices placed in star systems within the galaxy that allow ships to jump from one solar system to another, making interstellar travel possible and broadening the horizon for future stories based off-world. Gone, too, is apparently Earth’s formidable and nearly impenetrable planetary defense shield.
Returning to Earth’s solar system, Buck and Wilma are right in the thick of it. A training flight of Earth Defense Directorate pilots is in trouble from raiders, and one of their members is about to die, until Buck and Wilma step in and save the day, angering the flight instructor, who turns out to be Wilma’s ex-love interest, Duke – a man with a decidedly 20th Century sounding name.
Buck and Duke don’t get along, but Wilma decides that Buck’s unique 20th-century tactical skills would be a worthy lesson for Duke’s students. A comical fight breaks out between the two in class, which is as close as they can get to pissing on one another on 1970s television.
This represents a few more changes from the movie. First, it seems that Earth’s Starfighters no longer fly themselves via computer control and that the pilots actually go to flight school. Second, we’re introduced to the idea that Buck has “special 20th-century skills” that have been lost in the 25th century, such as Judo, tactical training and knowledge of football.
While that sounds counter-intuitive, I’m OK with the idea. The Earth was nearly destroyed. Much of its history and knowledge burned out in nuclear fire. Buck, as a representative of the “wisdom of the ancients”, is another warning to the audience about the hubris of mankind and the nuclear arms race.
Another change: at the end of the movie, Buck declined an offer to join Earth’s Defense Directorate – presumably, he wanted to go walkabout and find himself. Now here at the beginning of the series, Buck almost immediately joins the Defense Directorate, once he learns there’s a problem threatening his new-found home.
Besides, you have to wonder how he was going to pay his bills. I doubt he got his back-pay from the US Air Force or NASA.
What is that problem? Earth’s fighter pilots are taking seriously ill and are unable to fly. The pilot Buck and Wilma saved was suffering from the first stages of the illness. He also happens to be the son of one of the Governors of one of the Earth’s agricultural colonies. Yes, apparently poor, beaten, defenseless Earth is now an interstellar colonial power, too. Through an amazing coincidence, that planet is also identified to be the source of the illness, which is actually poison in the food that comes from that planet.
Naturally, Buck and Wilma, as the saviors of the Governor’s son, escort him home, giving them the opportunity for some snooping. Duke goes along to be a foil for Buck.
On the strangely barren, desert world that provides Earth most of its food, it turns out the Governor is a clueless dupe and a bit of a nasty character. His secret to high production of food at a low cost? Slave labor.
You knew slave girls had to come into the story at some point, right.
Really, though, it is Kaleel, a messianic con-man (that’s redundant, right?) who is both supplying the slaves to the Governor and forming them into his loyal army. He has set in motion a plan to poison the Earth’s fighter pilots and launch an attack on and subjugate the Earth.
Wilma is captured, and Buck and Duke must survive the harsh desert in order to save her, finally coming to an understanding, respecting each other and becoming the best of friends. No doubt, Duke will feature in many more stories as the series goes along, providing a bit of competition for Wilma’s affections.
In the end, Buck defeats Kaleel at home, and a rag-tag group of trainees and retired pilots from Earth defeats Kaleel’s superior-sized fleet.
It’s an overly long and disjointed episode, not helped by it being a two-parter, but the story does benefit by some not-at-all-over-the-top performances from veteran actors Roddy McDowell as the Governor and Jack Palance as Kaleel.
The episode gets another famous name-check when, amongst the retired starfighter pilots is Brigadier Gordon, played by the original Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon actor from the 1930’s, Buster Crabbe.
While the story itself is a bit weak, I like the overall changes to the format, which should present many more opportunities for the series to go forward with lots of different types of stories.