Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is a 1979 American science fiction film directed by Daniel Haller. Starring Gil Gerard in the title role and Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering, it was produced by Glen A. Larson who co-wrote the screenplay with Leslie Stevens, based on the character Buck Rogers which was created by Philip Francis Nowlan in 1928.
Originally made as a television movie pilot, Universal Studios opted to release the film theatrically several months before the subsequent television series aired.
In 1987, NASA astronaut Captain William “Buck” Rogers is piloting the space shuttle Ranger 3 when he flies into an unexpected space phenomenon and is frozen for 504 years. In the year 2491, his shuttle is found drifting in space by the alien ship Draconia, which is headed to Earth for a trade conference, under the command of Princess Ardala and her aide de camp, Kane, a former native of Earth. Rogers is revived from his cryogenic sleep. Princess Ardala is visibly attracted to Buck, though Kane arranges for Buck to be put back on his shuttle and returned to Earth.
It turns out though the Draconians are actually planning to conquer the Earth through staged pirate attacks on Earth’s shipping fleet, forcing Earth to seek a treaty with the Draconians and unwittingly opening up their defences to the invaders. They plant a homing beacon aboard Buck’s shuttle to track a way through Earth’s planet-wide defence shield. Buck is escorted through the shield by Colonel Wilma Deering of Earth’s military forces. He lands in the futuristic city of New Chicago where he is interrogated and learns that Earth has been rebuilt in the centuries during his absence following a nuclear holocaust, and now much of the Earth outside of the city is a desolate, radioactive wasteland. During his time in the city, Buck meets Dr. Elias Huer, the leader of Earth’s Defence Directorate, the AI computer Dr. Theopolis, and the robot drone Twiki, all of whom try to help him adjust to his new surroundings.
While recounting his encounter with the Draconians, Buck notices several discrepancies and suspects that the Draconians must be armed, contrary to the terms of the trade meeting. Against advice, Buck ventures outside the city to the ruins of old Chicago in an attempt to see that what he has been told is real, eventually finding his own parents’ grave and having to be rescued by Wilma and her troops from the violent mutants inhabiting the ruins. Following Buck’s return to the Inner City, the Draconian tracking device is found aboard his ship, and the authorities accuse Buck of espionage and sentence him to death. Buck claims the Draconians simply used him, and Wilma persuades Dr. Huer to test Buck’s claims by requesting a meeting with Princess Ardala and Kane aboard the Draconia. During the meeting, the “pirate ships” (actually Draconian marauders) attack their flagship as a diversion, but Buck manages to destroy them single-handedly, thus earning Wilma’s respect.
At the official diplomatic reception on Earth, Ardala, who is still attracted to Buck, invites him back to the Draconia later that night. Buck uses the invitation to go aboard and find out the truth behind the Draconians’ plot. On the ship, Ardala tells Buck she needs a man such as him to rule by her side and offers him the position. After drugging Ardala, Buck explores the ship and discovers their marauder ships and imminent plans to attack Earth. Dr. Theopolis and Twiki, who have followed Buck aboard, eventually meet up with him and alert Earth to the Draconian threat. Wilma immediately scrambles Earth’s starfighters and attacks the Draconia, while Buck sabotages the Draconian bomber fleet prepared to attack Earth and fights off Ardala’s bodyguard, Tigerman. During the battle, the Draconia is critically damaged, but Buck, Theopolis and Twiki are rescued by Wilma before the ship explodes. Ardala and Kane also escape the Draconia’s destruction in a shuttlecraft, with Kane vowing to return to take his revenge on Buck.
- Gil Gerard as Captain William “Buck” Rogers.
- Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering.
- Tim O’Connor as Dr. Elias Huer.
- Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala.
- Henry Silva as Kane.
- Howard F. Flynn as Voice of Dr. Theopolis.
- Felix Silla as Twiki.
- Mel Blanc as Voice of Twiki.
- Duke Butler as Tigerman.
- Joseph Wiseman as Emperor Draco.
Inspired by the massive success of Star Wars two years earlier, Universal began developing Buck Rogers for television, spearheaded by Glen A. Larson, who had a production deal with the studio. Initially, Larson and Universal had planned on making a series of Buck Rogers TV movies for NBC. Production began in 1978, however, the pilot for Larson’s other sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica (1978), had been released theatrically in some countries and in key locations in North America, and had done well at the box office. Universal then opted to release the first Buck Rogers TV movie theatrically on 30 March 1979. The movie grossed over $21 million in North America and was later released internationally, which led NBC to commission a weekly series, which began on 20 September 1979 with a slightly modified version of the theatrical release that deleted some scenes, added others intended to link to the ongoing series, revised the fate of one character killed off in the original so that he survived (Tiger Man), and replaced the suggestive opening credit sequence with a more generic version.
The movie was originally slated for release for September 1978. There were several start dates for filming but it was repeatedly delayed due to casting problems. The movie was eventually released in March 1979.
Several shots in the film were filmed at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Several other stock shots portraying futuristic buildings on Earth are that of remaining pavilions on the site of Expo 67, including the British and French national pavilion (now open as the Montreal Casino). These shots were also included in the 1979 Battlestar Galactica episode “Greetings from Earth“, in which they were said to be a city on the planet Paradeen (though in production around the same time, the episode aired a month prior to the release of the Buck Rogers film). Buck’s NASA shuttle, Ranger 3, was itself a prop that had been seen in this same episode where it was used as Michael’s Lunar-7 shuttle though painted a different colour.
Princess Ardala’s father, Emperor Draco (played by Joseph Wiseman), originally had several scenes in the movie but most of these were deleted. His only remaining scene was as a holographic image talking to Kane at the movie’s ending. Despite this brief appearance, images of Draco appeared prominently in various Buck Rogers merchandise, and 12″ and 3¾” Draco action figures were produced by the toy company Mego. Wiseman would later appear in the weekly television series, playing the character Morphus in the episode “Vegas in Space”.
The movie’s opening credits featured a song, “Suspension”, sung by Kipp Lennon and co-written by Glen A. Larson. An instrumental version of the song was used as the main theme for the television series that followed, though the vocal version of the song was used again for the ending credits of the season one finale, “Flight of the War Witch”.
The movie received a mixed reception from critics.
The film has been released on video several times since the 1980s, and was released on DVD in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century series boxed set released in 2004. This was in lieu of the television broadcast version (entitled “Awakening”) which contained some different scenes. When the first season was issued again on DVD in 2012, the boxed set still contained the theatrical version of the film. However, the television version of the film was finally released on DVD as a bonus feature in a re-issued boxed set of Season Two in 2013.
- Originally, Twiki was just going to make unintelligible electronic noises (the “biddi-biddi-biddi” sound) and Dr. Theopolis was to act as his translator. However, this was deemed to be too similar to R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) and so Twiki was given a voice of his own.
- The space dogfights were choreographed with the aid of a Hewlett-Packard “45” computer.
- Originally, Buck was to have been put on trial, found guilty and banished to Anarchia, along with Twiki and Theo, until Wilma comes looking for him with an idea that might prove his innocence.
- In the finished film, after reshoots, the story was restructured so that Buck chooses to explore Anarchia (with Twiki and Theo tagging along), until Wilma arrives to bring him back, then he’s put on trial, found guilty and sentenced to be terminated, until Wilma presents him with the opportunity to prove his innocence.
- Since these changes came late in production, there were several tie-in publications released (including the novelisation and comic adaptation) which followed the original sequence of events.
- To make Buck appear frozen in his space shuttle, he was sprayed all over with an ordinary dry shampoo.
- Because of this, he could not open his eyes or move, so while he was waiting for them to shoot the scene, he supposedly fell asleep.
- The ruined City of Chicago called Anarchia was shot on the back lot of MGM Studios.
- Kane’s backstory was that he was a former student of Doctor Huer’s who defected to the Draconians and to act as consort/advisor for Princess Ardala, the chief antagonist of the film and subsequent TV series.
- In the original movie serial Buck Rogers (1939), “Killer Kane” (as he was known) is actually a powerful gangster from Earth and is the chief antagonist of the story.
- Ardala was not featured in the 1939 movie serial.
- World War III broke out on 22 November 1987.
- The film takes place in May 1987 and 2491.
- Kurt Russell was the producer’s first choice to play Buck Rogers.
- But Russell, was looking for film roles by then and didn’t want to commit to another television series.
- This was probably a wise decision as during production of the second season of this show, Russell landed his breakthrough movie role of ‘Snake Plissken’ in the hit film ‘Escape From New York’ (1981) and would subsequently become a Hollywood A-list actor.
- At 35, Gil Gérard was a bit older than producer Glen A Larson was looking for in a lead actor when casting the role.
- However he supposedly gave a great screen test, got on well with Erin Gray during the audition and came across as naturally likeable and charismatic.
- Director Daniel Haller asked Larson to forget about the character’s supposed age in the original comic strip and go with his gut feeling leading to Gérard getting the role.
- Douglas Rain (the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)) was the first choice to do the voice of Dr. Theopolis.
Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century Series
You can find a full index and overview of Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century here.
Production & Filming Details
- Narrator(s): William Conrad.
- Director(s): Daniel Haller.
- Producer(s): Richard Caffey and Glen A. Larson.
- Writer(s): Glen A. Larson and Leslie Stevens.
- Music: Stu Phillips.
- Cinematography: Frank Beascoechea.
- Editor(s): John J. Dumas, David Howe, and Willaim Martin.
- Distributor(s): Universal Pictures.
- Release Date: 30 March 1979.
- Running Time: 89 minutes.
- Rating: A/15.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.