Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Buck Rogers, Pulp Fiction, and the Serials

Oh, how one thing leads to another. As I was researching for my last entry about Flash Gordon, I began to learn about some of the early history of sci-fi pulp fiction. I found it so fascinating that I just have to include a synopsis here. The first half of the 20th century saw a rise in popularity of short story fiction magazines referred to as pulp magazines due to the type of paper they were printed on. The first of these to be dedicated completely to science fiction, Amazing Stories, was launched in 1926, followed in 1930 by Astounding Science Fiction, which by paying the highest rates for its articles attracted the best writers like Heinlein and Asimov and helped launch their careers. In fact, it was these mags that were responsible for naming the genre science fiction, and were instrumental in bringing together a community of writers and fans.

This was also the time that science fiction comic strips appeared, the first being Buck Rogers in the 25th Century circa 1929. This was the first time a serial comic strip had been attempted, that is, a long continuous story from which a small episode was featured each week. The story was taken from the first two Buck Rogers articles which had been recently printed in Amazing Stories - "Armageddon 2419 A.D." in 1928, and "The Airlords of Han" in 1929 (The cover at left is a 1960 reprint). It turns out that the original Flash Gordon comic strip came out in 1934 to compete with Buck Rogers. So Buck gets the credit as the original science fiction serial.

And when serial programming came to radio, guess what science fiction serial first hit the airwaves? Buck Rogers of course - and it ran for 15 years, from 1932 to 1947! How about the first science fiction serial to hit the theaters? Gotcha - Flash Gordon became a film serial in 1936 thanks to Columbia Pictures, and Buck followed in 1939 out of Universal. Each had 12 episodes and the stories remained in their basic form from comic strip to radio to film. These were not stories that raised deep questions about man and society as the real meat of the genre would come to be known for, but we owe them much credit for accomplishing the impossible, namely, bringing science fiction to the pop culture and inspiring a generation of writers, film makers, and even astronauts to follow suit. And the era of science fiction that followed, often referred to as the Golden Age, was in part driven by this early popularization.

Almost in parallel historically, the modern remake of Flash Gordon in 1980 was preceded a year earlier by a modern remake of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I believe they were both motivated by the success of Star Wars, and that is deliciously ironic since George Lucas modeled his space opera upon the original space serials from his childhood. The basic characters and elements of the original are still relatively intact, and the film became a pilot for a TV series (i.e. modern serial) of the same name. The main difference from the original is a much more light-hearted approach to the subject matter, which actually had the effect of making it more entertaining. Gil Gerard plays Rogers very much like a cheesy version of Han Solo - a smug ladies man, hot shot pilot, and serious hero all in one. They added in a robot duo as comic relief, again thanks to Star Wars, one being a scientist in a box named Dr. Theopholis, carried around by a humanoid robot named Twiki, voiced by none other than Mel Blanc of Looney Tunes fame. Hey, if you thought Yoda sounding like Grover of Sesame Street was odd, try a robot that sounds like a character out of Bugs Bunny. Of course, we're not talking high quality acting or script writing here, but it's less corny than Lost in Space. I mention it here mainly to show the longevity of these historical characters.

I also admit to some reminiscing back to a simpler time in my life. The actresses who played the two main female characters from the original serial, the good Col. Wilma Deering (Erin Gray), and the bad Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley), who is cast here as the leader of the Draconians instead of Kane, were both stunningly beautiful, and the show takes every opportunity to capitalize on this in ways you could only get away with in the 80's before AIDS hit the scene. As a young 13 year old lad, I really enjoyed it ;). And I still think it is more entertaining than most series you might find on SyFy channel today.


  1. I loved this show... but I smoked a lot of weed back then. The TV series was typical of the 80s. The same period where 'Love Boat' and 'Magnum PI' gave us a sexy and action packed 45 minutes of TV. I don't know what the major expense was for 'Buck Rogers'? Erin Gray and Pamela Helmsley were the only actresses that had miniseries draw? With the $500,000 to $1 million dollars an hour budget, you'd be out-doing 'Star Wars'?

  2. I checked over at Wikipedia and it says $800k per hour of screen time. If I had to guess, I'd say it was the sets and special effects, which were pretty good for the time. Studios were willing to pay up thanks to the success of Star Wars. Also looked that up - $13M budget in 1977. For a two hour film, that's $6.5M per hour. That's a pretty close margin for a movie to TV comparison!

  3. the old TV series still runs from time to time on RTV/RETRO.

    the tape is getting old and the colors and sound are beginning to fade. it is a prime candidate for a restoration and would look fantastic if brought back to its as filmed color!

    it was a refreshing break from the dreadful over serious series.

    i think it was made from props and sets made for battle star galactia and was on a tight budget in its day.