DirectorDaniel Haller, Various
Release Date(s)1979-1981 (November 24, 2020)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures/NBC TV (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
In the year 1987, NASA launched the last of its deep space probes, commanded by Captain William “Buck” Rogers (Gil Gerard). During the mission, Buck suddenly encountered strange forces that resulted in his ship being thrown off course and his body being perfectly frozen in suspended animation. 500 years later, Buck’s ship is rescued from deep space and he’s revived in perfect health... awaking to a world that’s changed more than he could ever have imagined. Earth has been devastated by war and the surviving humans now live in domed cities, protected by Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) and her Earth Defense Directorate space forces. When Buck returns to the planet, the Directorate is negotiating with the Draconian Empire for badly needed supplies (as Earth can no longer sustain itself). Secretly, however, the Draconians’ Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) and her henchmen plan to attack and take over the planet. Only Buck sees through their subterfuge, yet Wilma thinks he’s a spy for the Draconians and is reluctant to trust him.
Of course, all of this happens in the 1979 theatrical film. Naturally, Buck does prove himself trustworthy and saves the day, so he’s invited by Deering and Dr. Huer (Tom O’Connor) to join the Directorate. Thus begins a two season television odyssey on NBC that first sends Buck, Wilma, their robot companion Twiki (a costumed Felix Silla, with the voice of Mel Blanc), and the computer mind Dr. Theopolis on missions to help keep Earth safe from its enemies. And in the show’s second season, Buck, Wilma, and Twiki take to deep space aboard the Earth starship Searcher in an effort to find new allies and the lost colonies of humanity. Joining the crew are Dr. Goodfellow (Wilfrid Hyde-White), the last-of-his-kind bird man Hawk (Thom Christopher), and a robot named Crichton.
Based on the classic newspaper strip and film serial character created by Philip Francis Nowland in 1928, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was developed for television by producer Glen Larson. The original plan was to make a series of TV movies for NBC, but after the success of Star Wars in 1977, as well as the theatrical success of Larson’s Battlestar Galactica pilot in 1978, Universal opted first to release the Buck Rogers pilot film into theaters. The resulting box office returns were strong enough to convince NBC to commission the property as a weekly TV series, which subsequently aired for two seasons from 1979 to 1981. Notable guest stars included Jack Palance, Sid Haig, Roddy McDowall, Frank Gorshin, Mark Lenard, Dennis Haysbert, Cesar Romero, Ray Walston, Peter Graves, Jamie Lee Curtis, Gary Coleman, Jerry Orbach, Vera Miles, William Sylvester (of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame), and even Buster Crabbe (who played Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Tarzan in the classic 1930s film serials). Highlight episodes include Planet of the Slave Girls, The Plot to Kill a City: Parts I and II, Return of the Fighting 69th, Time of the Hawk, and Testimony of a Traitor.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics’s new Complete Collection Blu-ray release is a 9-disc box set that includes the original feature film version of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century for the first time ever in full 1080p HD at its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio and with a running time of 89:03. It offers footage missing from the two-hour TV syndication version (known as Awakening), including Kane’s communication with Emperor Draco, the alternate “sexy” Bond-like opening credits, different William Conrad opening narration, slightly more adult language deemed suitable for theaters but not for TV (including Buck calling Wilma “ballsy” and Twiki saying that he’s “freezing his ball-bearings off”), and a few moments of tame violence edited for TV. It’s also missing an additional scene found at the end of the TV version (in which Dr. Huer and Wilma offer Buck a job at the Earth Defense Directorate) which sets up the series.
The box also includes both seasons of NBC’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century TV series in 1080p HD—all 37 episodes—in their original 1.33:1 TV aspect ratio, including the two-hour TV version of the pilot film (with the series’ opening credits, additional scenes, and the added voice of Vic Perrin in scenes set aboard the Draconians’ spaceship), as well as the two-hour versions of Planet of the Slave Girls, Time of the Hawk, and Journey to Oasis. The Blu-rays are mastered from brand new 2K scans of archival film elements. The image quality is surprisingly good—better than I expected actually. Contrast is excellent with deep blacks yet a surprising amount of shadow detail. Overall image detail is much improved from previous DVD releases and nicely refined, though a few shots are optically soft and obviously VFX shots (that have been through the optical printer) are a little soft as well. Grain levels are light to medium, but organic. You’ll see a bit of dust occasionally, and the odd age-related artifact, but nothing glaring or distracting. Colors are actually nicely vibrant and accurate—the blues and reds are definitely bolder than you may recall them from all those years of TV viewing. On the whole, this set offers a lovely image presentation of its content, and one that you’ll appreciate more the longer you watch.
Audio across the board is offered in English 2.0 mono (as originally presented) in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format. The soundstage is front and center as you might expect, though modestly wide. The tracks offer good overall clarity and little in the way of analog artifacts. Dialogue is clean and the film score by Stu Phillips (as well as the TV compositions by Johnny Harris) is presented with pleasing fidelity. Optional English titles are also available.
Kino’s Blu-ray release actually includes some nice extras for the film, among them:
- Audio Commentary with Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson
- Radio Spots (audio with HD images – 2 spots – 1:22 in all)
- 9-Minute Special Theatrical Preview (HD – 9:23)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 3:29)
The video features are all in HD, though the 9-Minute Preview is of much higher quality than the trailer. The commentary is also quite enjoyable, with film historians Mitchell and Thompson packing lots of interesting trivia, production anecdotes, and other behind-the-scenes details into the track’s 89-minute running time.
There are some nice new extras for the TV series episodes too (scattered over the rest of the set’s discs), including:
- Season 1, Disc 1 – Audio Commentary for Awakening by Patrick Jankiewicz
- Season 1, Disc 1 – Audio Commentary for Planet of the Slave Girls by Patrick Jankiewicz
- Season 1, Disc 1 – Audio Commentary for Vegas in Space by Patrick Jankiewicz
- Season 1, Disc 2 – Audio Commentary for Unchained Woman by Patrick Jankiewicz
- Season 1, Disc 3 – Audio Commentary for Space Vampire by Patrick Jankiewicz
- Season 1, Disc 4 – Audio Commentary for Twiki is Missing by Patrick Jankiewicz
- Season 1, Disc 4 – Audio Commentary for A Dream of Jennifer by Patrick Jankiewicz
- Season 1, Disc 5 – Audio Commentary for Space Rockers by Patrick Jankiewicz
- Season 1, Disc 5 – Audio Commentary for Flight of the War Witch: Part 1 by Patrick Jankiewicz
- Season 1, Disc 5 – Audio Commentary for Flight of the War Witch: Part 2 by Patrick Jankiewicz
- Season 2, Disc 1 – Audio Commentary for Time of the Hawk by Patrick Jankiewicz
- Season 2, Disc 3 – Interview with Erin Gray (HD – 18:30)
- Season 2, Disc 3 – Interview with Thom Christopher (HD – 9:10)
The commentaries are all interesting, featuring background information and production anecdotes. Jankiewicz is a film and TV historian who has written a number of companion books, including one on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. As good as the commentaries are, however, the new interviews with Gray and Christopher are the real highlight. Each of them reveals how they got their respective roles, and what they brought to the characters, and looks back on their memories of the production and their various co-stars and collaborators. Note that Kino Lorber Studio Classics attempted to get Gil Gerard to do an interview for this set as well, but either he declined or the timing couldn’t be worked out. So credit to them for trying. In any case, the new bonus content you do get here is all welcome and worthy. All of this comes in a trio of Blu-ray cases, one for the film and one each for the individual seasons, housed in a cardboard slipcase. In a nice touch, the slipcase features the original teaser poster artwork for the film.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is campy to be sure but also good fun, and Gerard does much to keep things lively and entertaining. It’s a pleasure to finally see both the theatrical pilot film and the TV series in this level of quality. Note that Kino Lorber Studio Classics offers the film on Blu-ray by itself (we’ve reviewed it separately on The Bits here) in addition to this Complete Collection box. The box set is a little pricey at the moment, but if you recall Buck Rogers fondly from your childhood it’s worth the upgrade. Whichever version you choose, these Blu-rays are certainly recommended.
- Bill Hunt