Competing Visions of the Future

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On Saturday, I wrote about the genre TV I’m watching now and pointed out on (V) that holds up really well. My brain is still running over that ground, I guess, and I want to point out two of those series that don’t hold up as well, but for different reasons.

Buck Rogers and Space 1999.

For the first, Buck Rogers is a late-disco era vision of the 25th century. It’s bright and colourful, both in terms of sets and costumes. If those costumes are tight or revealing in ways that don’t necessarily make sense for the parts the actors are supposed to be playing, it’s easy to remember that it was 1979. It gives a vision of rebuilding that takes a long time after a global war and disaster, and the science used doesn’t always make sense, but it’s consistent in its use of make believe, and tends to be fairly coherent overall. In short, it’s campy 1979 fun, but it doesn’t hold up because it’s generally too simplistic.

The writing is cheesy but generally tight, the special effects are a bit repetitive but work well in context, and it works hard to have a different setting every week to showcase the guest stars it came up with. Fight scenes are hilarious and very active. Bad guys are bad guys and good guys are good guys, but there is some crossover in the middle so that no one is 100% either (well, except Buck and Twiki). Every script is written for the happy ending to be natural and loose ends are tied up with a bow, but there’s character breadth and growth for the recurring cast and it’s very watchable if you enjoy some cheese in your SF once in a while.

Space 1999, on the other hand, is a mid-70s attempt at darker, grittier SF. The whole design aesthetic comes together very well from the detailed sets to the model ships to the uniforms to the equipment the characters carry. Visuals and sounds are excellent for the time period. But the show doesn’t hold up even a little bit, and it’s for a couple of simple but all-encompassing reasons: the writing and the acting.

Everything is always serious and there’s a regular attempt to mix in some mild horror, often seeming just to want to shock the viewing audience rather than do anything for the story or the characters. There’s no character growth, memory, or consistency even inside the same episode. Gaping plot holes abound almost as much as sloppy characterization. Most of the non-primary characters are essentially interchangeable, even though the cast was a bit more diverse than usual for 1975. And the science involved in the background (or the foreground) is incredibly inconsistent with not just reality but with itself.

The acting problem may be just as much a directing problem, but Martin Landau is too melodramatic, Barbara Bain is too quiet, and Barry Morse is too boring. The secondary characters are mostly only there for some consistency in the background and they’re rarely given much to say or do that advances the episode. I’ve seen nearly all the actors in other things and they all have acting ability, but they clearly weren’t given much to work with for this show.

Ultimately, I’m enjoying my return visits with Buck, Wilma, and crew. Hanging out with Commander Koenig and Dr. Russell is a serious viewing slog. But you’ve probably already figured that out.

I wonder if part of it is that I prefer a positive vision of the future where the characters are striving to make the world a better place even when it isn’t starting that way. That can’t be the whole problem though. I’ll tolerate a lot of dim lighting and gritty worldbuilding if I’m getting a good story. Or at least a fun one. Nineteen episodes into the first season of Buck Rogers and I’ve enjoyed every story. Twelve episodes into the first season of Space 1999 and I haven’t had a fun story yet much less a good one.

They were only made four years apart and I loved them both as a kid, but only Buck Rogers works for me as an adult. If it works mostly for the cheese and nostalgia, that’s fine, but the stories are there too. Nostalgia isn’t a substitute for plot or characters.

Of course, your mileage may vary and you’re welcome to tell me why I’m wrong. It will be a tough road convincing me, though.

Be well, everyone.

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