When Improvement Kills the Show: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (TV Showcase #43)

And once again we return to our good friend Glen Larson, aka Mr. “Knight Rider”. I was quite curious to see how Larson would handle scifi in comparison to his “Knight Rider” franchise, and since I haven’t seen “Battlestar Galactica”, I thought I’d try this series instead. Something popped up in this series, however, which I have not seen in all the other series’ I’ve watched thus far, and it took some pondering to think through it. So let’s take a trip forward in time as we look at “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”.

“Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (BR for short) was created in 1979 and ran for 37 hour-long episodes over two seasons, ending in 1981. The show focused on Buck Rogers, a NASA astronaut who in 1987 piloted a deep-space probe, and after performing some tricks against the will of his superiors, damaged his ship and froze himself inside for five hundred years, awakening in the year 2491. With his partner Wilma Deering and small robotic friend Twiki (voiced by Mel Blanc), Buck helps right wrongs committed all over the universe.

In the first season of this show, Larson set up the cast in his classic style, as seen in the original “Knight Rider”: the dashing young hero, his kind-of cute female partner, the older sophisticated man, and the talking robot. Buck was kind of a space policeman (much like Flash Gordon in the 1954 series), and much of the recurring comic book villains were brought in and molded into something new while still keeping the atmosphere characteristic of the original comics, which was not easy to do considering that the first Buck Rogers book was published in 1898. Recurring villains in the series, such as the famous trio of Princess Ardala, Kane, and Tiger Man, were all brought from the original series. And given my previous rant about comic books, I thought that this show was pretty original in its own right. But then came season two.

Season two was doomed from the start. It was delayed because of a strike and cancelled halfway through because of terrible ratings. The entire format changed. Instead of Buck being a freelance space cop, he was now a part of a crew searching for human colonies all over space. The older doctor character was replaced by another one, and Twiki was joined by another robot. An admiral became a regular character, and a hawk-man alien was even brought on board. In many ways it was a ripoff of “Star Trek” and a copycat of “Battlestar Galactica”. The entire format of the show changed. So why am I confused that the show tanked after nearly every aspect of it was changed?

I was surprised at the show’s cancellation because I came to find that season two was a huge improvement over season one. The sets and props were better, special effects were more on point, and the writing blew season one out of the water. There were some absolutely brilliant scripts for season two that just weren’t present in season one. So in that light, then, why did the show get cancelled?

I think it has something to do with character relatability. In season one, Buck was still trying to get used to the idea of the 25th century, and having Wilma and Dr. Huer (the older assistant) as his friends, along with Twiki, made the characters very easy to connect to. Even the villains, like Princess Ardala and Kane, were welcomed by viewers because they had personality, and they often tried tactics other than killing and destroying all the time. Even though the writing wasn’t spectacular, the show’s audience loved it because they could connect and several different levels with the characters. Plus, the interspersing of personal information about Buck, Wilma, and Dr. Huer, combined with the anticipation of Ardala’s return, kept the viewers wanting to know what they’d learn about the characters next week.

Enter season two. Buck and Wilma are unexplainably on board the Searcher, a vessel dedicated to finding lost human colonies after the nuclear holocaust of 1987. Twiki is there but his voice actor is different. Doctor Huer is replaced by Dr. Goodfellow (who isn’t the same personality type at all). There’s an admiral now, and another robot named Crighton, with a hawk-man (aptly named Hawk) joining the crew. No explanation is given for any of this change. The season is darker, more scientific, and even Wilma and Buck act differently than they used to. So despite the fact that the scripts were a hundred times better, the show was cancelled. The audience wanted relatable characters, personalities, and once they had gotten that, they wanted to keep seeing their characters grow, not fall flat for better writing. It didn’t matter that season two was better; the audience wanted character development over better writing.

In the end, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” was quite an enjoyable show. But season two and season one were so opposite, the audience wouldn’t have that large of a change. What do you think?

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