Look up Glen A. Larsen in the Internet Movie Data Base, and you will find a man who comes second only to Aaron Spelling in terms of cheesy television. However, where Spelling focused more on soapiness, Larsen focused on adventure and science fiction. However, despite his reputation (alleged by Harlan Ellison) as "Glen A. Larceny", Mr. Larsen is responsible for one of the most solid science fiction television franchises...and I'm not talking about Battlestar Galactica
Nope, having Netflixed the first disc, I'm talking about Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
Now, let me get this straight off the bat - Buck is not in the same league as Star Trek, Star Wars etc. It's reminiscent of those CD "Greatest Hits" compilations found in a bargain bin, usually with "re-recorded by the original band members" or "recorded by the Anonymous Nobodies" in small print. It may not have been the most original, but was a nice, pulpy mixture of all that had come before, with an appropriate amount of whiz-bang to satisfy the preadolescent in all of us. At the very least, we wouldn't have had tongue-in-cheek series like Hercules and Xena, much less the return of Star Trek in 1997.
In viewing the first disc of the "epic series", it kicks off with "Awakenings", the pilot movie, released theatrically (presumably) to get a little bit more money for special effects...as well as some effects clips reused from Battlestar: Galactica. The only difference in the theatrical version from the tv version is a clipped blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo from Joseph Wiseman...and an introductory sequence of Gil Gerard making out with women in silver bikinis.
Let me repeat that - Gil Gerard makes out with space babes. If that doesn't scream late 70's...well, the "disco" sequence later on does. As well as the spandex prevalent throughout the series.
Anyway, the original movie took its inspiration (rather than direct plot) from Armageddon: 2419 by Phillip Nowlan. The plot of the novel is more of a "what if the Germans won World War One and how the future reflects our present". The movie is slightly more plausible - in the fantastic year of 1987, Captain William "Buck"Rogers flies a space probe into weird cosmic bits, freezing our good captain for 500 years. (It beats crashing in a dirgible or being trapped in a cave). When he wakes up, he finds himself in the clutches of a gorgeous space princess, and then finds himself on a new Earth, with "inner cities" and lots of blinky lights. There's more involving space pirates dressed in samurai costumes, a droid voiced by an obviously not-happy-to-be- there Mel Blanc, and fun a-plenty.
The kickoff two-parter, cheekily named "Planet of the Slave Girls", involves a rival for Wilma Deering, poisoned food pellets, Roddy McDowall, Jack Palance with glowing red hands and Larry "Buster" Crabbe coming in and kicking butt. The latter part was part of the charm (and downfall) of the show - it mixed a healthy knowledge of past science fiction with a slightly off sense of humor. (The second season would see Buck onboard a ship with "Admiral Asimov", "Hawk" - a half man, half bird, and flying around the galaxy looking for "lost tribes." Not only did Larsen never meet a theme he couldn't borrow, he seemed to be an influence on John Nathan-Turner). The episode is pretty much by-the-numbers, but there is a lively, slam-bang spirit to it.
Part of that spirit is, in fact, due to Gil Gerard - he brings a slightly Shatnerian sensibility to the role, playing the "cowboy-amongst-the-civilians" role with a sly wink. (Personal note - Gerard would have made a much stronger Sheridan on Babylon 5 than Bruce Boxleitner, who tended to play it so straight, he seemed slightly wooden). In those heady, pre-Empire Strikes Back days, it was the closest we had to pure space opera.
It's easy nowadays to complain - science fiction on television has exploded. The 4400, Farscape, Firefly/Serenity, the new Galactica - there's no lack of thought-provoking shows on television. Trek may have started it, but Buck kept the torch alive. And for that, we give thanks.