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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/10/04
updated: 11/16/04

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century:
The Complete Epic Series

1979-1981 (2004) - NBC (Universal)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

The Complete Epic Series

Program Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/C/F

Specs and Features

Approx 1,799 mins (31 episodes at 49-55 mins each, plus 89 min feature pilot), NR/PG (series/feature), full frame (1.33:1), 5 dual-sided, dual-layered discs (no layer switch), custom cardboard/plastic packaging with plastic slipcase, onscreen episode summaries, booklet insert, preview trailers (for Riddick, Quantum Leap: S2 and Ghost in the Shell 2), animated program-themed menu screens with sound effects and music, episode/scene access (4 chapters per episode), languages: English (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: French and Spanish, Close Captioned

In the year 1987, NASA launches the last of its deep space probes, commanded by Captain William "Buck" Rogers (Gil Gerard). During his mission, Buck suddenly encounters strange forces that result in his ship being thrown off course and his body being perfectly frozen in suspended animation. 500 years later, Buck's ship is rescued and he's revived in perfect health... 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 Directorate space forces. When Buck returns, 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... and only Buck sees through their subterfuge. Unfortunately, Wilma thinks Buck is a spy for the Draconians and is reluctant to trust him. Can Buck win over the girls (both of them) and save the Earth? You beedee beedee bet you asteroids he can.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century started life as a TV mini-series, and soon evolved into a 2-hour series pilot for NBC. Universal was reportedly so pleased with the production, that midway through it was decided to release the pilot film theatrically. This led to a 2-season run on NBC starting in 1979. All of the film's major cast members returned for the TV series' first season (including Mel Blanc as the voice of Buck's robot assistant, Twiki), which saw Buck trying to adjust to life in the future while continuing to work with Wilma and the Directorate to protect Earth against the Draconians. The first season is generally pretty good, and features a number of great guest appearances and cameos, including genre regulars Frank Gorshin, Roddy McDowall and Jack Palance, as well as the man who played the character of Buck Rogers in the original 1939 film serial, the legendary Larry "Buster" Crabbe. Unfortunately, low ratings, a diminished production budget and a new series producer led to many changes for the show's disastrously bad second season, which is ultimately notable only for the addition of Wilfrid Hyde-White and Thom Christopher (as Hawk) to the cast.

Twenty-five years later, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is now available on DVD from Universal in a new 5-disc set that includes both the 89-minute film pilot (presented uncut in its original theatrical form), as well as all 31 episodes from both seasons of the TV series. I must say, I've been secretly looking forward to this release for months now, but I was worried that the show just wouldn't hold up after all these years. It's to my great surprise then, that not only does the show hold up fairly well... it's so cheesy that's actually a great deal of fun. The fact is, the show was cheesy back in 1979 as well, mostly for its "spandex and ray guns" view of the future. But most of us didn't fully appreciate that at the time - at least I know I didn't. Buck Rogers was also surprisingly funny for its day, filled with plenty of camp humor. In fact, there can be no doubt that the film/series falls squarely in the camp arena (view the opening credits of the pilot film if you have ANY doubt of this). The combination of these factors actually works to make Buck Rogers more entertaining today that it was back in its day.

Given that Buck Rogers was originally shot on film, these episodes look surprisingly good on DVD. Universal has done brand-new, high definition transfers of each episode from the original negatives. They're presented in their original full frame aspect ratio. The theatrical pilot is presented full frame as well, which makes sense - it was shot full frame for TV presentation, and was later cropped to 1.85 for its theatrical release (it would be cool if the film were released separately in anamorphic widescreen, but that's a minor quibble). Color is accurate and vibrant, detail is generally excellent and contrast is outstanding. There's some grain visible, and the occasional bit of dust and dirt on the print, but all in all you should be very happy. These episodes certainly look better than they did in their original TV broadcast run. If you're familiar with the quality of Universal's recent Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Epic Series on DVD, you'll know exactly what to expect. Better still, as most of these episodes run in the neighborhood of 50 minutes, we suspect that there's footage here that hasn't been seen since the original airing.

The audio for both the film and the episodes is presented in the original mono (in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono for DVD). It's surprisingly crisp and clear given the age of the masters - no doubt a good deal of clean-up work was done to eliminate production artifacts and analog hiss. You're not going to get much in the way of dynamic range, but the tracks are very serviceable and do their job just fine. It would have been cool if this had been remixed for 5.1 surround, but again that's a minor quibble.

What is unfortunately a much bigger issue, is the lack of bonus material here. Unlike the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica series DVD (which was loaded with surprisingly good extras), there's just nothing here - no audio commentaries, no outtakes, no retrospective featurettes... absolutely nothing at all, other than an insert booklet and text summaries of each episode. It's really quite a shame, as I have no doubt that there are many who participated in the production of this series who would have been happy to participate (many of them were at the recent American Cinematheque screening of the film, including Erin Gray and series creator Glen Larson). And since most of these folks aren't getting any younger, if someone doesn't get them on tape soon, it isn't ever going to happen.

On the whole, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century on DVD is a helluva lot of fun. The content is more entertaining than ever, and you certainly can't fault the presentation quality of these episodes. The lack of extras however is very disappointing. That enough for me to be reluctant to give this set a strong recommendation unless you're either a fan of the series, or you can find this set on sale for a decent price ($90 is WAY too expensive to not get at least some bonus material). Still, if you are a fan and you can get this set for a song and a dance... you're going to have a blast. Buck is back, better than he ever was. Okay, so it hasn't been 500 years since we last saw him, but a quarter of a century is nothing to sneeze at.

Before I close, here's a little bit of trivia for you serious Buck Rogers fans. Have any of you ever wondered by there are two different Tigermen in the original film? According to costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorleac, it's because the fight scene between Tigerman and Buck was added later, after the original production had already wrapped. When they tried to call the actor who had played Tigerman earlier in the film back (he'd been "discovered" for the part on the Universal Studios backlot tour), they couldn't find him! So they had to replace him with a lookalike (who, frankly, didn't). File that in the category of information you'll never be able to use again...

[Editor's Note: As I mentioned above, the 89-minute film pilot for this series is included here in its original theatrical form. However, for its later TV presentation, the pilot was edited into two parts. For this TV version, a number of deleted scenes were added, a few key scenes were replaced with slightly different versions of the same scene, and a different coda was tacked on the end of the second part to lead into the series run. This TV version is NOT present on this DVD release, so technically, this is not "the complete epic series". Why it wasn't included is unknown, but I suspect Universal didn't know there were key differences between the two versions. I give the studio credit at least, for erring on the side of including the original theatrical version.]

Bill Hunt
[email protected]

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