Remedial SF 101: Buck Rogers, with Buster Crabbe

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Along with the Flash Gordon serial I reported on previously, I also have obtained the Buck Rogers serial starring Buster Crabbe--again--as the eponymous heroic Earth pilot from the 20th century who helps save the world--again--in the 25th century.

Ford Beebe once again directs, but this serial seems more plodding and sterile than the Flash Gordon series. While I compained that Flash Gordon's people could make space ships, but had no radios, in Buck Rogers they spend half their time calling each other on radio sets, in a really weird, stentorian manner that quickly gets on my nerves.

The plot is fairly simple: during a daring dirigible flight over the North Pole, Buck and his crew are forced down in a storm. Two of the pilots bail, but Buck and his young friend Buddy are put into suspended animation through the use of some Nirvano Gas to preserve their lives until a rescue party can reach them. However, the dirigible is buried in an avalanche and remains undisturbed for 500 years, when they are found by a patrol from the Hidden City, the last refuge of decent people on an Earth which has been overrun by the corrupt rule of the ubergangster, "Killer" Kane.

I would have liked to see a little of Buck and Buddy's amazement to find themselves in the future, but they get right into volunteering to aid their saviors in the fight against Kane by going on a spy mission to Kane's stronghold. In this serial, the heroes aren't shy about using their ray guns, and even young Buddy gets to score a few kills.

Eventually, Buck heads to Saturn to try to enlist that planet's aid in Dr. Huer's struggle against Kane, but Kane gets an emissary there first, and the Council of the Wise are turned against Buck's "resistance fighters against the benevolent ruler, Kane." Luckily, Buck is later able to kidnap Saturn's ambassador, Prince Tallen, and show him how Kane deals with those who would oppose him--by turning them into mind-numbed robot slaves. Tallen decides to offer Saturn's support to the Hidden City instead, but before they can report back to the Council, Kane's minion Captain Laska intervenes and turns Tallen into a robot, making him tell the Council lies about the Hidden City and how good Kane is.

I'm not sure how much help the Saturnians could actually provide, since they seem to have a rather mediaeval culture, and express astonishment when Rogers and Wilma Deering, another pilot (and the only woman in the show) bring in their radio set to contact Earth once the treaty is finally signed. Into the mix, the Saturnians rely on the slave labor of a race of semi-intelligent beings called Zuggs, who are dressed like clowns, and are "harmless unless ordered to fight." They are made up to look like disfigured men, and the way they sway from side to side reminds me of severely mentally handicapped people, so they're pretty disturbing to see. When the Zuggs find one of Laska's human robots, they worship him as a god, and Laska turns this to his advantage by ordering the robot to order the Zuggs to revolt against the Council of the Wise.

The serial re-uses a lot of footage and props from earlier films, including "Flash Gordon" (hell, it re-uses the lead actor!) As it is set on Earth, it lacks the fantastical elements of "Flash Gordon," and has a more militaristic feel. Kane's henchmen are much better at their job than Ming's were, and are snappier dressers, too. The serial also gives a major role to a Korean-American actor, as Philson Ahn plays the noble Prince Tallen.

Buster Crabbe is still an earnest and active actor, but I think he liked playing Flash more; he seems more serious and restrained as Buck Rogers. Buck is also more thoughtful and less impulsive than Flash, and uses his wits rather than his brawn to get out of scrapes. Constance Moore as Wilma Deering is just sort of there, although she does rock the jodphurs look. Anthony Warde as Killer Kane is properly malicious, and I think his lappet-sleeved patent-leather suit wins the top prize for Coolest Villain Costume In A Serial.

In all, "Buck Rogers" is a lot more serious a serial. It also bears little resemblance to the book by which it was inspired, Philip Francis Nowland's "Armageddon 2419 AD," which introduces the characters, and which was later adapted into the comic strip drawn by Dick Calkins.

And it bears absolutely no resemblance at all to the TV show starring Gil Gerard.