The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: Buck Rogers

Welcome to my tenth Back Row’s Weekly Serial revue. To celebrate this somewhat arbitrary milestone I will revue another one of the classic science fiction serials, Buck Rogers.

Quick Facts
Released in 1939
Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind
Written by Norman S. Hall and Ray Trampe
Starring Buster Crabbe, Constance Moore, Jackie Moran, and Anthony Warde

Basic Story Line
Buck Rogers, a twentieth century pilot, is found in a state of suspended animation 500 years in the future. There he helps a group of rebels fight against the tyrannical rule of Killer Kane.

In the history of pop culture Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon have often sat side by side. Never more so than with this serial.

Buck Rogers started life in Adventure Stories Magazine and was then quickly moved into a syndicated comic strip where he, shortly there after, shared the page with the upstart Flash Gordon. He then moved into a radio series and was turned into a short film called, Buck Rogers and the Tiger Men from Mars. Following the success of the Flash Gordon serials, Buck finally got his own film serial, also staring Buster Crabbe. The Buck Rogers character had a television series in the 50s and then again in the 80s. There have been rumours and multiple attempts to revive Buck in recent years, including rumour of a Frank Miller version that got canned after the failure of his stylish but hollow version of The Spirit.

There are many similarities between the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. Both are based on early 30s Sci-fi comic strips. Both are produced by Universal. Both star Buster Crabbe. Ford Beebe director of Buck Rogers also directed both Flash Gordon sequels. It had the same writers as Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. Buck Rogers reused many of the props, sets, costume pieces, and sound effects from Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars.

Some people refer to the Buck Rogers serial as an inferior imitation of Flash Gordon. In many ways they are correct. Anthony Warde, as the villain, doesn’t have the same charisma that Charles Middle has as Ming. It lacks the production values, pizzazz and exoticism that the first Flash Gordon has and the story doesn’t have the same forward momentum that Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars has. There are inconsistencies and plot holes big enough to build a parking lot in. The Zuggs are referred to as a primitive race and speak only in grunts, that is until chapter 8, then they overrun the Saturnians and speak perfect English. I also feel bad for Lieutenant Wilma Deering. Some jerk dirigible pilot shows up, 500 years behind the times, screws up his first mission, and suddenly he out ranks her. What is that!

But it’s not all bad. On the plus side, it makes vaguely more sense then Flash Gordon. It’s set in the future so you don’t have to deal with the Zarkov effect, which is, how come one man is so far advanced that he can build interplanetary rockers and operate alien technologies better then the aliens, when no one else on the planet has so much as put a toaster in orbit. True, Buck is able to slip into a world 500 years beyond him without missing a beat, but unlike Flash, he’s not doing it alone or with the help of two or three friends, Buck Rogers has the entire Hidden City supporting him. Earlier, I mentioned plot holes and inconsistencies, but those are to be expected in all serials (Hell, that’s what I base the Weekly Back Row Serial Drinking Game on!) and there are just as many issues in the Flash Gordon serials.

Buck Rogers has often had to take a back seat to Flash but as far as a serial go it does work and it gives us a startling view of the future, 70 years ago.

Things to watch for
-The worlds most well behaved dog
-The disolvoray
-Wilma shoots a guard with his own ray gun
-A fight scene with an obvious Buster Crabbe double
-A televisor that can not only show you what is happening anywhere on earth, but it can also tune into what happened on another planet in the past.

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink. (Note: It’s not a plot hole for Buck Rogers’ record to have survived 500 years. It’s not even a plot hole that it should be found in the only book that is conveniently place on a table in the laboratory the very day Buck is found. However, as a writer, I do find that lazy and insulting, so take a drink anyways.)
Odds of getting sloshed: Medium to High

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