On the heels of recent news that Disney is rebooting Flash Gordon, one has to ask, “What about Buck Rogers?”
Good question. The problem is that Buck Rogers changes even more than Flash Gordon with each iteration. Flash is always the heroic stud, Dale his beautiful sidekick/damsel-in-distress/gal pal and ego deflater. Zarkhov is always the genius scientist (or hacker in the most recent version), and Ming the bombastic megalomaniac. (I still say the new Ming should look something like Palpatine. Lucas might even have been thinking of Ming when he created the cackling Sith Lord.)
It began in 1928 with the novella Armageddon 2419. It wasn’t even a space adventure. Rogers was a World War I vet and mining specialist who, during a mine collapse, is exposed to radioactive gas and left in suspended animation for 500 years. The only other familiar part of the story is Wilma Deering, who is a pilot for a gang of settlers in what was once Pennsylvania. America as we know it no longer exists and the continent is ruled by an evil tribe called the Hans. No space ships. No Dr. Huer or Dr. Theophilos. No Princess Ardala lusting after Buck.
The novella soon spawned a comic strip and comic book series called Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Like the various iterations of future DC and Marvel characters, Buck and Wilma’s story would evolve. Eventually, Dr. Huer, the brilliant scientist, was added, and the main villain became an alien named Killer Kane. For the movie serial, starring Buster Crabbe (who also played Flash Gordon), the story became one of space. Another comic strip producer would try to capitalize on the serial’s popularity by creating Flash Gordon.
ABC would tackle Buck next, going back to Armageddon 2149 but keeping the space theme. However, the short-lived series did not have a stable cast (three Bucks, two Wilmas, and two Dr. Huers) or a stable time slot (which would kill Star Trek 18 years later, ironically on Buck Rogers’ next TV home.)
And then in 1980 came what is now considered the definitive Buck Rogers.
Glen Larson, using leftover sets, props, models, and sound effects from the recently canceled Battlestar Galactica, created a Cold War-influenced Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, starring Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Wilma Deering, and Warner Brothers voice Mel Blanc putting words into the mouth of the robot TW1K1 (or Twiki.) Kane was demoted to Princess Ardala’s sidekick (with former Kang actor Michael Ansara confusingly replaced with Henry Silva in the role. Did he take this job for a quick buck or what?) The Earth-based space opera proved just popular enough for NBC to order a second season.
But space opera was too expensive for the late 70s and early 80s. Not until Paramount budgeted $1 million an episode for Star Trek: The Next Generation would space opera suddenly become viable on television again. So Larson moved Buck, Wilma, and Twiki onto a starship called the Searcher and add a bird man as a flightless humanoid alien. These episodes, too, proved popular. They also proved expensive.
There have been attempts since then to reboot the series. Currently, the Dille Family Trust owns the rights, and they even licensed a web series by Star Trek fan director William Cawley. It never went anywhere. More recent attempts included a project by Frank Miller that fizzled.
So what would a new Buck Rogers look like? Would he fall asleep in a mine as he originally did in Armageddon 2419? Would they keep the space disaster premise? Or maybe something new? Perhaps take a page from Idiocracy and have Buck participate in a cryo-sleep experiment that gets forgotten as the world goes to hell. The world has changed since Larson’s version. Gone will be the disco music and nightclub-ready clothes. Buck may still be (and should be) a smartass. Wilma most likely will have more in common with Captain Marvel than Dale Arden. Or maybe Ellen Ripley? We now have forty years of Alien, three Star Trek reboots, a rebooted Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, X Men and Marvel Universe, and even grittier shows like Altered Carbon forming our expectations. But as a new decade approaches, we might finally be tired of the joyless dystopias of the past twenty years and be ready to have some fun with ray guns.
So who should take this on?
Paging Kevin Smith…