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January, 2007 : Essay:

Twiki Love and Space Rock

Ruminations on The Worst SF TV Episode Ever

It's been said that if you get a bunch of monkeys and sit them at typewriters (archaic devices that resemble primitive laptops) eventually they'll get around to pecking out the entire works of Shakespeare. This demented theory, most likely the work of a halfwit (or typing monkey), is in the same league as that "weapons of mass destruction" business. But if you give it a whirl and you're waiting for your platoon of chimps to work their way up to Macbeth and Hamlet, odds are pretty good that they'll crank out a few science fiction television scripts along the way.

Which is a round-the-back-fence way of saying that science fiction TV, as a general rule, tends to suck a lot more often than it doesn't. Naturally, as with any rule, there are exceptions, so please take a few deep breaths and save yourself the trouble of firing off any all-caps, expletive-laden missives or letter bombs.

I realize that proclaiming any one episode of science fiction TV to be the worst ever is a foolhardy act. After all, plenty of SF TV has been spewed forth over the years and quite a lot of it has been dreadful. Since I haven't had the opportunity to rummage through this towering dung heap and ferret out every last turd that might be a contender, there's a chance that I may one day discover something that giveth off an even more odious stench. But I doubt it.

I also realize that making such a proclamation is to imply that said episode is worse than any given installment of Lost In Space that features Dr. Smith (probably quite a lot of them) or that it's worse than any Star Trek episode featuring tribbles or Harry Mudd. It even suggests that there are more excruciating tortures in the televisual galaxy than David Hasselhoff and his snooty, high-falutin' talking car. Not to mention The Time Tunnel, a sixties Irwin Allen production so near the bottom of the barrel that it must only be viewed with a generous supply of barf bags on hand.

Let me state, for the record, that I clearly understand the concept of camp. Sometimes, I even approve. I truly do grasp the appeal of a certain level of naive ineptness in works of pop culture. On more than one occasion, I've thrilled to that great cinematic stinkbomb, Plan 9 From Outer Space. I've been known to devour episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 with childlike glee and even go so far as to interject my own hilarious zingers. And I consider Joe Friday's somber, super-square Dragnet monologues to be virtually unparalleled in the annals of camp.

But there is always a chance that ineptness will go too far and cross that nebulous boundary between camp and just plain toe-tinglingly, excruciatingly awful. Then it's not funny anymore, not even when viewed through one of those smartassed ironic prism thingamawhatzits.

But there's a level of awfulness that even goes a few notches beyond this one, a level where an SF TV show like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century might conceivably be said to reside. Then there's an even more exalted level of stinkarola than this and it's right about here that the Buck Rogers Space Rockers episode must reside, all by its wretched, reeking self. This one is without peer, friends. Thus, I don't hesitate to loudly declare it The Worst SF TV Episode Ever.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. For purposes of this piece, it's not necessary to delve too deeply into the history of Buck Rogers. Suffice to say that the franchise got underway in 1928, in print, specifically in the pulp rag Amazing Stories. A comic strip, a radio show, a movie serial, and a TV series (1950-1951) followed.

In the late seventies, some quick-thinking TV executive types and their bean counter minions got to thinking it might be a good idea to take Buck out of space mothballs (spaceballs?). After all, given the rather considerable success of a certain piece of cinematic space opera in 1977, it must have seemed an eminently sensible idea to resurrect a space opera hero who came with some built-in name recognition.

So it was that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was born, with the first of two seasons' worth of episodes airing on NBC on September 20, 1979. For a brief summary of what it's all about, let's review the narration—by William Conrad—that kicks off each episode.

In the year 1987, at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, NASA launched the last of America's deep space probes. The payload, perched on the nose cone of the massive rocket, was a one-man exploration vessel—Ranger 3. Aboard this compact starship, a lone astronaut—Captain William "Buck" Rogers—was to experience cosmic forces beyond all comprehension. An awesome brush with death: in the blink of an eye, his life support systems were frozen by temperatures beyond imagination. Ranger 3 was blown out of its planned trajectory into an orbit a thousand times more vast, an orbit which was to return the ship full circle to his point of origin—its mother Earth—not in 5 months, but in 500 years.

As much as I'd like to veer off and deconstruct this prattle—starting with "temperatures beyond imagination"—I'm going to exercise an admirable degree of self-restraint and forego the digression.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century found Gil Gerard in the role of you-know-who. Erin Gray starred as starfighter pilot and sidekick Colonel Wilma Deering, whose main function was apparently to look good in a form-fitting jumpsuit—which she did. Tim O'Connor was Dr. Elias Huer, head of an organization called the "Earth Defense Forces".

Rounding out the regular cast was Twiki, a C3PO rip off so blatant that it was almost embarrassing. With a voice provided by cartoon vocal legend Mel Blanc, Twiki came across kind of like a robotic Yosemite Sam (minus the beard, of course), with a mysterious clocklike apparatus around its neck that may have served as a stylistic inspiration for rapper Flavor Flav.

One thing about Twiki that was not immediately apparent—not only did it speak, but the clock thingy around its neck did too, and in a different voice. This threw me for a loop, at first, thinking that this little bucket of bolts was suffering from a multiple personality disorder or perhaps a cybernetic demonic possession of some sort. As it turns out, Twiki's Flavor Flav clock thingamabob is actually a computer called Dr. Theopolis.

Twiki was apparently included for the purpose of providing comic relief, and not much else. In reality, it displayed a tendency to punctuate the proceedings with wisecracks so nauseatingly unfunny that one would like nothing more than to have at the miserable, creaking junk heap with an acetylene torch—and no anesthetic.

Which isn't saying much about the quality of acting on Twiki's part, though the writers must shoulder a good portion of the blame for his misdeeds. But you couldn't say much about the quality of any of the acting in BRIT25C. In fact, the acting is so wooden that Ed Wood himself (no pun intended) would surely have gone weak in the knees and wept openly upon witnessing it. Not to belabor the point, but these attempted thespians operated at such a level of incompetence that they would probably have been laughed out of casting calls for an early (Pink Flamingos-era) John Waters flick.

Which brings us around, at long last, to the Space Rockers episode. Though the titles of some earlier episodes—Planet of the Slave Girls, Vegas in Space, Planet of the Amazon Women, Cruise Ship to the Stars, Shgoratchx!—suggest that there may be other BRIT25C dung heaps I need to wallow in. Not that I would have the intestinal fortitude for it. We should also digress long enough to note that Planet of the Amazon Women was co-written by Michael Richards, who (fortunately) went on to bigger and better things as Seinfeld's Kramer.

Space Rockers was episode 21 of BRIT25C's first season. It first aired Thursday, February 21, 1980—a regular Day of Infamy, if you ask me. The aforementioned space rockers are a trio who go by the name Andromeda. Andromeda are in mid-performance as the show opens. They are comprised of two black men (Rambeau and Cirus) and a white woman (Karana). They are said to be "the most popular group in the galaxy today."

One can surely see—and hear—why. The ridiculously energetic group members are dressed in the shiny fabrics that denote futuristic attire in certain quarters and are further outfitted with what look like strings of Christmas lights. Close-ups reveal that their surprisingly conservative hairstyles are enhanced by copious amounts of glitter, which was obviously applied by a visually challenged makeup technician with a bad case of the tremors.

As for instrumentation, Karana plays something that looks like a middle school shop student's attempt at a futuristic guitar—and not a very good one. Rambeau or Cirus (I've already forgotten which is which) is playing a strange percussion instrument that looks like a distant cousin of a xylophone, while Cirus or Rambeau tackles an instrument that's played by waving one's hands over colored circles.

This brings us to Andromeda's music, which still plays so clearly in my head that I've actually begun shopping around for the best price on a lobotomy. But how to describe the so-called music pumped out by this alleged bunch of futuristic teen sensations? That's a tricky one.

The best I can come up with is that it sounds a little like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, at their most bombastic, crossed with a peppy jazz-rock fusion and spiced up with a liberal dose of seventies-era TV theme music. Sort of. Or maybe not. In any event, it sure is excruciating to listen to, especially since the group keeps repeating the same short snippet each time they perform.

This would be bad enough, but we also find out that "data has shown that within minutes of an Andromeda concert broadcast from Musicworld [groan] there is a 55 percent surge in youth crimes." Which is a very precise feat of data collection, if I do say so myself. Among the aforementioned youth crimes, according to Dr. Huer (who kind of resembles Carl Sagan) are "rioting, looting and wanton destruction." Not to mention a cringe-worthy segment in which two hypnotized teens pinch Buck's starfighter and crank it up to "1/2 light speed" before Buck rounds them up and gives them a good talking to.

The problem here, and the cause of the "youth crimes", is that the evil baddie Lars Mangro and his lunkheaded henchman are out to pretty much destabilize the galaxy with rampaging teens so that all of the authorities will come to him on bended knee, begging him to restore order. Or something like that.

Which sounds like Total Galactic Domination to me, though I'm not really an expert on that sort of thing. Trivia fans should note that Mangro is portrayed by the late Jerry Orbach, who also went on to make something of himself, most notably as Lennie Briscoe, on the series Law and Order: Trial By Jury. His lummox of a sidekick is played by Richard Moll, who's been in a bunch of stuff, none of which springs to mind right now. [See Night Court —Ed.]

Mangro and company (just the big dumb guy, actually) are carrying out their plan for Total Galactic Domination by implanting "ionized particle transmissions" (there's one more thing to go looking for in Iraq) in Andromeda's music. Group members are exempted from the insidious effects of the transmissions by the snazzy pendants they're wearing.

To make an agonizingly, mind-numbingly long story (at least it seemed that way) short, let's just say that Buck and Andromeda sort all this out, are imprisoned by Mangro, do a hack on one of the instruments (some blather about a "CPS governor") and blow open the door of the studio where they're confined.

In the meantime, Mangro is broadcasting a recorded version of Andromeda giving "their first galaxy-wide concert." As you might have guessed, galaxy-wide mayhem breaks out, though it's pretty sedate stuff and actually seems to be to confined to one room. As expected, Buck and his cohorts disable the transmitter (or whatever the hell it is) and save the day.

It's a climax that could have been at least marginally exciting. But, thanks to the diligent efforts of all of the automatons and boobs involved, it's totally devoid of anything remotely resembling thrills or suspense. On the plus side, Andromeda close out the show with a previously unheard snippet of song. It sucks every bit as much as the other one, but at least it's different.

This should mean it's about time to wrap up this rant and try to put my life back together. But there are actually a few random snippets of awfulness I feel compelled to exorcise.

Like Buck's attire, for example. While I don't want to be smacked down by the PC Police for the crime of ageism, I have to mention that Gil Gerard was hardly a spring chicken back in 1980 when BRIT25C ruled the airwaves. So the spectacle of a man of his advanced years wearing obscenely tight white pants (no way to be sure if this episode was set before or after Labor Day, by the way) and a silk shirt that shows off entirely too much cleavage is almost unbearable.

Then there's Judy Landers, who's on board as Mangro's main squeeze. Once upon a time, Landers had quite a career going for herself as a breathless, helium-voiced blonde bimbo type who popped up a lot in assorted and sundry TV shows. But her appearance here is just downright embarrassing, though, to be fair, no more so than anything else about this televised train wreck.

There's also the conceit that people who obviously know as much about rock and roll as I do about crocheting (something to do with yarn) should make it the focal point of an entire episode of network television. Andromeda's music has about as much to do with rock and roll as the Brady Bunch's various musical dalliances and to suffer through Buck waxing nostalgic about the Beatles and wisecracking about the Who actually caused me to fling a shoe at the TV. Well, not really, but I sure did want to.

Ultimately, I think this is what dooms so much of SF TV to an honored spot on the Exalted Dung Heap of Eminently Forgettable Pop Culture Crapola. It's this notion that people who know absolutely nothing about a topic should nonetheless go ahead and take a crack at writing about it. Like science fiction, for instance. Though we've seen bonafide science fiction people actually involved in the creation of science fiction television over the years, I'd bet that collection of Twiki action figures I'm looking to score on eBay that the majority have been TV people, or in other words, the kind of people whose expertise is in writing TV—and it matters not what flavor it is.

Typically, one would wind up an essay as brilliant and incisive as this with a closing statement that summarizes the writer's arguments and ties things up in a neat and tidy fashion. But after reliving the trauma of Space Rockers, I feel kind of like I would if I'd just ingested a whole bunch of "ionized particle transmissions". So I hope you'll understand if I just leave you with a snippet of timeless dialogue from the thoroughly vile Lars Mangro (a man who undoubtedly scowls at children and kicks space dogs):

I was afraid you were too good to be true, Tarkus...your report to New Chicago will have to be delayed. Permanently.

Copyright © 2007, Bill Lengeman. All Rights Reserved.

About Bill Lengeman

William I. Lengeman III is an Arizona-based freelance journalist. His Web sites include My Star Trek Year and Dog Oil Press

COMMENTS!

Jan 9, 11:52 by IROSF
The worst? Really the worst? Well, I guess something has to be. Register your own thoughts here.

The article can be found here.
Jan 10, 06:37 by Nancy Beck
LOL! Although I tuned in, briefly, to one episode of Buck Rogers blah blah blah, the only thing I remember is the tinny, weird voice of that C3P0 ripoff (I recognized it as Mel Blanc's voice right away, and wondered why, why, after so many great cartoons).

As for the worst episode I've seen? Hard to say. There's the overpopulation episode from the original Star Trek (The Mark of Gideon); I don't know why, but I have a hard time getting into this particiular episode and avoid it like the plague.

There's the Chakotay boxing episode from Star Trek: Voyager (can't remember the name of it); hubby and I scratched our heads over that one, and have only viewed it once.

There are probably other ones, but those are the ones that come to my mind.

Trivia fans should note that Mangro is portrayed by the late Jerry Orbach, who also went on to make something of himself, most notably as Lennie Briscoe, on the series Law and Order: Trial By Jury.

Actually, Jerry Orbach was in the original Law and Order for 13 years (1991-2004). He'd only filmed 2 episodes of the spinoff, Trial By Jury, when he died in December 2004.

~Nancy
Jan 11, 20:14 by James Phillips
Actually, I would have to agree with Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova about THE STARLOST being the worst drek I have ever seen on television. The actors in that one are as dead as the cheesy sets.

James Phillips
Jan 12, 12:10 by A.R. Yngve
When Twiki says "Bidi bidi!", doesn't it sound uncannily like "Bidé, bidé"..??
;-P

-A.R.Yngve
Homepage
Jan 21, 16:36 by Brian Dolton
Interesting that you should mention Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and then put in a show-quote referencing a character called "Tarkus" - that was the title of one of their albums.

So clearly the scriptwriters had ELP in mind, too.


As I recall, no episode of BRIT25C was in any remote way anything resembling good. Some things seemed good at the time and look terrible with hindsight, but Buck seemed absolutely terrible even at the time.

Then again, so did Battlestar Galactica, so can we expect a revisionist reappearance of Buck?


I can but pray otherwise.
Apr 19, 00:53 by Ian Sales
Having recently watched the entire first season of BRIT25C on DVD, the full horror of 'Space Rocker's is still clear in my mind. It's bad, but whether it's the worst episode in the series is another matter... The two-parter concluding the season, 'Flight of the War Witch', definitely comes close. Okay, it features no mind-numbing jazz-disco-elevator music fusion, but Julie Newmar as the eponymous War Witch (whatever that might be) is the epitome of skiffy camp. The plot makes no sense either - something about an alternate dimension reached via a "vortex". Oh, and the inhabitants all appear human and speak English. When asked why by Buck, they explain it is for his benefit. Which doesn't explain why the enemy forces led by the War Witch should appear human and speak English too...

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