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Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Entry updated 10 November 2023. Tagged: Comics, Film, Radio, TV.

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1. US Comic strip conceived by John Flint Dille for the National Newspaper Syndicate Inc., written by Philip Francis Nowlan, based on his novel Armageddon 2419 AD (stories August 1928, March 1929 Amazing; fixup 1962). Buck Rogers appeared first in 1929 in daily newspapers, illustrated by Dick Calkins, and in March 1930 the Sunday version began, signed by Calkins although the actual illustrator was Russell Keaton (to 1933) and then Rick Yager (who also took over the daily strip in 1951). Calkins – whose illustration was embarrassingly inferior to that of his colleagues – was removed from the strip in 1947; Murphy Anderson drew the daily strip 1947-1949, followed by Leonard Dworkins 1949-1959, Yager 1951-1958, and George Tuska, who took over both strips in 1958 when Yager resigned. After Nowlan's death in 1940 various writers worked on continuity, including Calkins, Bob Barton and Yager, with contributions after 1958 by Fritz Leiber and Judith Merril. The Sunday strip ended in June 1965, the daily in June 1967.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was the first US sf comic strip with a moderately adult and sophisticated storyline, though both dialogue and artwork were crude and naive by comparison with such imitators as Brick Bradford and Flash Gordon. Nonetheless, it remained extremely popular for many years. Its scenario is archetypal Space Opera. Buck, a lieutenant in the USAF, is inadvertently transported 500 years into the future, where he finds the USA overrun by hordes of "Red Mongols". Accompanied by his perennial girl-friend, Wilma Deering, Buck is constantly engaged in battle, on land and sea and in space, with his mortal enemy Killer Kane. (The Sunday version, which was much better drawn, also featured Wilma's younger brother Buddy and Princess Alura of Mars.) All the standard accoutrements of space opera are used: Antigravity belts, Death Rays, Disintegrators, domed Cities and space Rockets. The strip became more sophisticated after 1958, with some real sf writers brought in to spice things up.

Although Buck Rogers contributed little to the artistic evolution of the comic strip, its storyline was very influential. It was successfully translated into other media: in addition to those discussed below, it appeared as a popular CBS Radio serial (1932-1946), and as a Big Little Book. Some of Buck Rogers's adventures have been reissued in book form, including The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1969; rev 1977) edited Robert C Dille, which is in fact only a selection. [PN/JE]

2. Serial Film (1939), titled simply Buck Rogers. Universal. Directed Ford Beebe, Saul A Goodkind. Written by Norman S Hall, Ray Trampe, based on the comic strip. Cast includes Larry ("Buster") Crabbe, Constance Moore, Jackie Moran, C Montague Shaw and Anthony Warde. 12 episodes. Black and white.

After their success with Flash Gordon, also played by Crabbe, in two serials (1936 and 1938), Universal cast him as Buck Rogers, the other famous Space-Opera hero of the newspaper comic strips. In this serial, not as lavish or baroque as the first Flash Gordon serial, Buck and his young sidekick Buddy (Moran) wake after 500 years of Suspended Animation in the Arctic to discover that Earth, with the exception of the Hidden City, has been taken over by the criminal mastermind Killer Kane (Warde). Buck and Buddy, rescued by the people of the Hidden City, become their allies and team up with Wilma Deering (Moore) and Dr Huer (Shaw) to defeat Kane, who has enslaved the population with mind control helmets (see Slavery), by seeking an alliance with the people of Saturn (see Outer Planets). The remaining episodes deal with their efforts to convince the Saturnians of their good intentions and Kane's villainy and to avoid the usual hazards of crashing Spaceships, Ray Guns, Robots and mind-control devices. The Hidden City features such futuristic devices as Antigravity belts, an Invisibility Ray and a prototype of Star Trek's Transporter. Edited episodes were later cobbled together as a feature film, Planet Outlaws (1953), re-edited as Destination Saturn (1965). [JB/PN/LW]

3. US tv serial (1950-1951), titled simply Buck Rogers. ABC TV. Produced and directed by Babette Henry. Written by Gene Wyckoff, based on the comic strip. One season. Cast includes Ken Dibbs (replaced after several months by Robert Pastene) as Buck, Lou Prentis as Wilma and Harry Sothern as Dr Huer. 25 minutes per episode. Black and white.

Buck Rogers was one of the earliest of many space-opera juvenile television serials in the early 1950s. Its style was that of the Saturday matinee cinema serials, but restrictions imposed by television production necessitated its being shot live on a cramped interior set, with the result that the cinema serials seemed visually extravagant by comparison. Buck and his pals fight against evil and tyranny from a base hidden behind Niagara Falls. [JB]

4. US tv series (1979-1981). Glen A Larson/Universal/NBC. Developed for television by Glen A Larson and Leslie Stevens. Produced by Larson (season 1), John Mantley (season 2). Directors included Daniel Haller, Sig Neufeld, Larry Stewart, Jack Arnold, Vincent McEveety. Writers included Alan Brennert, Anne Collins and D C Fontana. Cast includes Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Wilma, Tim O'Connor as Dr Huer, Felix Silla as Twiki, Thom Christopher as Hawk and Wilfred Hyde-White as Dr Goodfellow. Two seasons. 100-minute pilot, one 100-minute episode, 33 50-minute episodes. Colour.

In the year of the strip's fiftieth anniversary a second Buck Rogers television series began, the brainchild of Glen A Larson, whose Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) had aired the previous year. Buck was now a US astronaut who had been frozen in a space-probe for 500 years. After the success of Batman (1966-1968) (see Batman), film and television producers persisted for many years in believing, against all evidence, that sf and fantastic genre material did best when spoofed. Buck Rogers was played rather too much for laughs, and the irritating Star Wars-derived Robot Twiki was no help. The stories were very weak and nobody much cared for Buck as a cocky, wise-cracking lout. The show improved in the second season, with better scripts and a new alien character called Hawk, but it was too late. [PN]

5. Film (1979). Directed Daniel Haller, screenplay Glen A Larson, Leslie Stevens. Other credits as for the television series above, plus Pamela Hensley. 89 min. Colour.

This is simply the pilot episode of the television series, edited down and given theatrical release. It is not too bad in a frothy way. Buck returns to a Post-Holocaust Earth where a semi-military sanctuary, once Chicago, exists in the Mutant-haunted wreckage of his old homeland. He is wooed by wicked princess Ardala (pretty dresses; Pamela Hensley) and by Wilma (white jumpsuit and lipgloss; Erin Gray), and is suspected of being a spy. Many conventions of Genre SF are parodied. [PN]

6. Game adaptations are discussed under Board Games and Card Games; the Role Playing Game is Buck Rogers XXVC. [DRL]

7. Comics: Buck Rogers has an intermittent history in comic books, dating back to 1940 when Eastern Color produced six issues of the first Buck Rogers comics (Winter 1940/1941-September 1943). Gold Key Comics released a single issue of a Buck Rogers title in 1964, then five more issues in 1979. Nine more issues followed from Gold Key after it rebranded as Whitman Publishing. Most recently, the series was revived in the twenty-first Century, when Dynamite Entertainment premiered a short-lived monthly series (2009-2010). [JP]

see also: Cinema; Heroes; Yellow Peril; Zap Gun.


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