By Les Chappell, Jessica Ritchey, J. Walker and Cameron White
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
Season 1, Episode 14: “Space Vampire”
Original airdate: January 3, 1980
Les: Since some people have asked, before starting this discussion I wanted to take a moment to explain how we select the episodes discussed in the This Was TV roundtables. There are many ways an episode can qualify for discussion: sometimes, we’ll select episodes that are particularly well-regarded in the series or as a whole, as we did when selecting “Demon With a Glass Hand” or “Arena.” Other times, a member of the roundtable may have seen the episode before and considers it a solid representative sample worth talking about, as happened when Cameron stood up for “Grotesque.” And in some cases, episodes get selected simply by virtue of having a great title, “Too Many Cooks are Murder” being the most obvious example.
To that latter category, we can now add “Space Vampire.” If you show me a series has an episode called “Space Vampire,” that’s the episode I’m watching. I don’t need to know anything else about the plot, critical reception or any other episodes in the series, that’s the episode I’m watching. The episode could have been universally panned or the one dud in the entire oeuvre, it doesn’t matter. And for the most part, I would say that “Space Vampire” delivered what I was hoping to get out of it, a competently executed sci-fi that balanced claustrophobic space station threats with ridiculously silly effects.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century takes us to a universe much different from the ones of previous weeks: this is a universe where the style is to wear jumpsuits that expose your chest hair, the robots all have exceptionally cheerful faces, interstellar collisions happen with the force of crumpling tinfoil, and the biggest problem at home base is whether or not the commanding officer can keep a plant alive. Like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers is a space saga with its roots in 1930s pulp comic strips, and as such this is a more old-fashioned kind of sci-fi story. There’s no moral quandaries about traversing space and interacting with other races, no grand journey to embark on or civilization-destroying alien race in sight; there’s just our square-jawed hero, his attractive partner and wisecracking sidekick against a scary space monster and his horde of minions.
And as a show that’s trying to deliver all of that, it succeeds more than I was expecting when we first went into it. The episode’s plot of a ghost ship carrying an uncertain threat into Theta Station fits within the trend of unknown threats emerging from space at any time, and I thought the early scenes when they explore the crashed Demeter were reasonably effective in generating the Aliens-style claustrophobic tension I talked about back in Doctor Who. Gil Gerard makes for a reliable leading man as Buck Rogers, and while I think the episode sidelined Wilma Deering into obvious damsel-in-distress territory Erin Grey plays the character with an assertive quality below it.
At the same time, there’s a definite self-seriousness about most of what happens with the Vorvon that keeps the episode from being truly emotionally affecting. The loaded dialogue that Buck shares with Dr. Ecbar and Dr. Huer about how the victims have lost their souls is the theological equivalent of technobabble, devoid of any serious debate between science and belief. And then of course there’s the Vorvon, who is just a ridiculously silly creation–first with the makeup job that felt the need to make him look like a unibrowed Ferengi, then with a voice and dialogue that’s in the same neighborhood as “I vant to suck your blood.” It’s infectious too, as Gray gives some ridiculously campy performances, first when she’s freaking out about seeing the Vorvon (just a few shades away from Chris Crocker) and then her own gloriously over-the-top Vorvon performance trying to seduce Buck.
And yet oddly enough, both of these sides work well enough together that they balance each other out. There are some moment that come across as wacky misunderstandings, as when Commander Royko mistakes Buck’s attack on the Vorvon for a hallucination, but the moments don’t feel forced or artificial, they’re just there to keep things moving along. The Vorvon’s silly-looking, yes, though he’s deployed in a manner that keeps him an unseen threat for most of the episode, just hovering off-screen and playing psychological mind games with most of the crew. Even something like Twiki manages to work—yes, he’s a deliberate piece of comic relief, but he’s used sparingly enough that he doesn’t wear out his welcome, and the fact that he’s voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc earns him a pass. (Also, as far as miniature support characters go, Twiki’s a definite step above Muffit in that I’m not going to wake up screaming with Twiki’s dead eyes boring into my soul.)
I didn’t plan on this when setting the schedule, but it’s fitting that we’re doing this one right after Battlestar Galactica, and not just because both series were created by Glen A. Larson and even used a lot of the same sets and props. Taken together, they’re an interesting academic look at how important it is to have a consistent vision when you put your show together, regardless of overall quality. Battlestar Galactica skipped between serious space opera and fun for the whole family, and failed on both counts because it didn’t have any idea what it wanted to be. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century knows exactly what it is, and what it is is tongue-in-cheek, pulp comic-inspired, sci-fi entertainment. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jessica: Buck Rogers was such a strange beast. Loopier than Larson’s other sci-fi flagship Battlestar Galactica, I find that on the whole I prefer this. Original BSG is grating in how they’re absolutely ignoring a terrific premise for a show, and throwing Space Irish at you to boot. Buck Rogers on the other hand is right out of the early 20 century pulps that birthed it. It may not be good strictly speaking but so much gets thrown at the wall, and in such jaw dropping costumes, that it works. In this episode for example, the makeup of the titular vamp walks that line quite nicely between silly and creepy in spite of of itself. And it’s just plain fun seeing a futuristic sci-fi show deal with such a Gothic folklore thing as a vampire.
Cameron: Space vampires. You know, there was an episode called “Vegas in Space” too; that one’s probably more my speed. (Editor’s note: If it had been “Space Werewolf, we know you’d have been all over this one. – Les )
But I dunno. I wasn’t really feeling Buck Rogers all that much. Every element that I liked—the cheesy make-up and effects for the vampire, the rapport between Buck and Wilma, the generally humorous tone in the first half—was counterbalanced by something I disliked—the vampire itself not having any motivation, the robot Twiki, the darker tone of the second half. There’s a show I could really like in here, but it’s buried underneath layers of trappings common to the serial form.
And besides not having any motivation, there wasn’t a clear attempt to make vampirism analogous to anything worth exploring. Typically, vampire writers connect it to sex, but up until Wilma gets infected, there’s not even a nod made in that direction. Plague or virus is another common analogue, but its usage here in this episode suggest it only as a real-life example to counterbalance Buck constantly suggesting that it’s vampires. (Excuse me: space vampires.) The tonal shift is at issue here too: things only get dark because one of the main characters is directly threatened by the vampire, but we’re never given any reason why she’s in danger, other than, “hey, she’s in danger!” So why do it at all?
I’m open to the possibility that this was just a bad episode. It didn’t really inspire any feelings in me, and as someone who adores science fiction, that’s a bad thing. I wanted to feel like I could connect in some way to the characters and the threat they were facing, but there wasn’t an in for me anywhere. It just left me cold. Like a space vampire, really.
J.: This episode gave me a great idea for a new show: classic works of public domain literature, adapted and retold as a kid-friendly space sci-fi serial. Like Wishbone, but in space. The two-part season finale based on Macbeth is going to be rad.
I’ve never seen Buck Rogers before, but I kind of wish it was something I’d watched as a child and could now look back on with fond nostalgia. As compared with the mess of Battlestar Galactica, this show’s confidence in what it was trying to accomplish meant I found its cheesiness more endearing than bothersome. And I really respect that they were comfortable enough in their premise that they felt it could include a straight-up Dracula adaptation. I even thought they did a fairly decent job recasting Stoker’s story as a space opera, from the epistolary exposition in the old captain’s logs to the Van Helsing analogue who failed to take down the Vorvon. (Only the reference to the creature originating in the “Rumaine system” did I find a bit too cute.) The makeup effects weren’t at all convincing, but they kept with the lo-fi aesthetic, and I even found them suitably unnerving at times.
Where “Space Vampire” suffered for me was in the unfortunate attempts at comic relief. The bits with Dr. Huer “hilariously” incapable of caring for Buck’s plant were not only beyond cliche, they also threw off the creepy tone of the A-plot and took up time that could have been spent exploring the Vorvon’s unclear motivations. It was out of place and felt forced; the scenes could practically have subtitles reading “We are trying to lighten the mood!”
But all in all, I was surprisingly impressed. Les, you nailed it: Buck Rogers knows exactly what it is, and that leads to a competently-executed (if cheap and cheesy) action-adventure show. Though, like Battlestar Galactica, I think it might be due for a dark, gritty reboot. Who has Ronald D. Moore’s phone number?
As a reminder, we’ll be sampling a different series every week for the next few weeks:
2/28: Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Defector” (season 3, episode 10); available through Netflix Instant and Hulu
3/7: Red Dwarf, “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” (series 6, episode 3); available through Netflix Instant
3/14: Farscape, “PK Tech Girl” (season 1, episode 7): available through Hulu
3/21: Battlestar Galactica (reboot), “33” (season 1, episode 1); available through Netflix Instant and Hulu