The year is 1987, and NASA launches the last of America's deep space probes. In a freak mishap, Ranger 3 and its pilot, Captain William "Buck" Rogers, are blown out of their trajectory into an orbit which freezes his life support systems, and returns Buck Rogers to Earth, 500 years later.
Developed by Glen A. Larson
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is an American science fiction adventure television series produced by Universal Studios. The series ran for two seasons between 1979–1981, and the feature-length pilot episode for the series was released as a theatrical film several months before the series aired. The film and series were developed by Glen A. Larson, based upon the character Buck Rogers created in 1928 by Philip Francis Nowlan that had previously been featured in comic strips, novellas, a serial film, and on television and radio.
Inspired by the massive success of Star Wars two years earlier, the pilot film opened in cinemas on March 30, 1979. Good box-office returns led NBC to commission a full series, which began on September 20, 1979 with a modified version of the theatrical release.
The production used recycled props, effects shots and costumes from Larson's previous science fiction series Battlestar Galactica (1978), which was still in production at the same time the pilot film for Buck Rogers was. For example, the "landram" vehicle was made for the Galactica series, and the control sticks used in the Terran starfighters in the pilot movie were the same as those used in Galactica's Viper craft. The Terran starfighters were also concept designer Ralph McQuarrie's original vision of the Colonial Vipers. A clip of the starfighters was later used in the opening credits of the sitcom Out of This World (1987), as was a shot of the futuristic city of "New Chicago" from the Buck Rogers series.
The new series centered on Captain William Anthony "Buck" Rogers, played by Gil Gerard, a NASA pilot who commands Ranger 3, a space shuttle that is launched in May 1987. Due to a life support malfunction, Buck is accidentally frozen for 504 years before the derelict spacecraft is discovered drifting in space in the year 2491. The combination of gases that froze his body coincidentally comes close to the formula commonly used in the 25th century for cryopreservation, and his rescuers are able to revive him. He learns that civilization on Earth was rebuilt following a devastating nuclear war that occurred on November 22, 1987, and is now under the protection of the Earth Defense Directorate.
The series followed him as he tried to fit (not always successfully) into 25th-Century culture. As there were no traceable personal records for him, he was uniquely placed, due to his pilot and combat skills and personal ingenuity, to help Earth Defense foil assorted evil plots to conquer Earth. In many respects, the new Rogers was more similar to James Bond or Steve Austin rather than Nowlan's original character. Rogers is aided in his adventures by his friend and semi-romantic interest, Colonel Wilma Deering, played by Erin Gray, and his comic sidekick robot, Twiki, voiced by Mel Blanc (who had previously voiced Daffy Duck as Duck Dodgers in spoofs of the early Buck Rogers and other science fiction serials) using a gruff voice very similar to the one he used for Barnyard Dawg. Twiki, a small robot or "ambuquad", tended to express himself with the exclamation "biddi-biddi-biddi" often followed by a 20th-Century catchphrase or slang (many of which he learned from Buck). Dr. Theopolis (voiced by Eric Server), was a sentient computer in the shape of a large disk with an illuminated face. He was carried around by Twiki, and was a member of Earth's "computer council" and one of the planet's scientific leaders. During the first season, Rogers and Deering took their orders from Dr. Elias Huer, played by Tim O'Connor, the head of the Defense Directorate. Some episodes also suggested Huer was the leader of the entire planet, though this was never made completely clear.
The series' chief villain (at least in the first season) was Princess Ardala (played by Pamela Hensley) whose goal was to conquer the Earth whilst making Buck her consort. She was aided by her henchman Kane (played in the pilot film by Henry Silva and in the series by Michael Ansara). All of these characters were featured in the original comic strip, except for Dr. Theopolis and Twiki (whose closest counterpart in earlier versions would likely be Buck's human sidekick Buddy Wade). Kane (or Killer Kane as he was then known) was also featured in the 1939 film serial and was actually the chief villain himself, rather than Ardala's henchman (Ardala did not appear in the film serial).
The pilot film depicted human civilization as fairly insular, with an invisible defense shield that surrounded the entire planet, protecting it from invaders. Civilization was restricted to a few cities, the main city seen in the pilot and weekly series was New Chicago, which was also known as the Inner City. Travel beyond the Inner City was hazardous, as much of the planet was said to be a radioactive wasteland inhabited by violent mutants (as Buck discovered when he visited the derelict remains of old Chicago).
The movie also served as a pilot and a two-part first episode for the series, though several racier scenes were edited (including a comment by Twiki about "freezing his ball-bearings off"). The scene involving Buck strapping a bomb to Tigerman's back is removed in order for Tigerman to plausibly appear in later episodes of the TV series. There were also some extended scenes in the TV version, such as an extended conversation between Buck and Dr. Theopolis about the nature of Anarchia, and the final scene was created specifically for the series and involves Dr. Huer and Wilma in Buck's new apartment persuading him to find a place with them in the Defense Directorate. This scene ends with Buck actually declining their offer, though he opts to join them by the first episode of the series proper: "Planet of the Slave Girls".
The tone of the series was lighter than the pilot movie, and showed a more positive picture of future Earth. The Inner City was now known as New Chicago, and it was established that human civilization had spread once again across the planet, and also to the stars. After the movie pilot, little reference to barren radioactive wastelands was made, and in several episodes Buck ventures beyond New Chicago with no hazards encountered. As opposed to the isolationist planet seen in the film, Earth is shown to be the center of an interstellar human-dominated government, sometimes called "the Federation", other times "the Alliance", with its capital at New Chicago. During the first season, references were also made to other "new" Earth cities such as New Detroit, New Manhattan, New Phoenix, New Tulsa, Boston Complex and New London. A "City-on-the-Sea" was also seen, mentioned as being the former New Orleans.
Travel between the stars was accomplished with the use of stargates; which are artificially created portals in space (similar to wormholes), shown as a diamond-shaped quartet of brilliant lights that shimmered when a vessel was making transit. Some people find the transit through a stargate to be physically unpleasant (transit resembling a "spinning" of the spacecraft). Buck Rogers is portrayed as disliking them in Part One of the episode "Planet Of The Slave Girls" and mentions his discomfort again in Part Two of the episode "The Plot to Kill a City".