DirectorDaniel Haller, Various
Release Date(s)1979-1981 (August 17, 2016 – 8/26 via Amazon U.S.)
Studio(s)NBC/Universal (Madman Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
[Editor’s Note: Though this is listed as a Region B Blu-ray release, I’ve confirmed that the discs are, in fact, ALL REGION. They should play fine on any U.S. Blu-ray player.]
I have to tell you, I’ve had a great deal of fun, these past couple of days, reviewing this new Blu-ray set from Madman Entertainment. It’s been years since I’ve last watched Buck Rogers in the 25th Century on DVD, and the opportunity to revisit the series on Blu-ray has conjured up great memories. Frankly, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed seeing this show on NBC back in the day. But all you need to do is pop in any Season One episode on disc and watch the show’s classic opening credit sequence, which features that great voice-over narration by actor William Conrad and Stu Phillips’ iconic theme music (mixing orchestration with disco/lounge rock riffs), and you’ll be instantly reminded of the fact that Buck Rogers represents the best of 1970s TV science fiction in all of its cheesy glory.
I’ll talk discs in a moment, but first a refresher…
In the year 1987, NASA launched the last of its deep space probes, commanded by Captain William “Buck” Rogers (Gil Gerard). During the mission, Buck suddenly encountered strange forces that resulted in his ship being thrown off course and his body being perfectly frozen in suspended animation. 500 years later, Buck’s ship is rescued from deep space and he’s revived in perfect health... to a world that’s changed more than he could ever have imagined. Earth has been devastated by war and the surviving humans now live in domed cities, protected by Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) and her Earth Directorate space forces. When Buck returns, the Directorate is negotiating with the Draconian Empire for badly needed supplies (as Earth can no longer sustain itself). Secretly, however, the Draconians’ Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley) and her henchmen plan to attack and take over the planet. Only Buck sees through their subterfuge, yet Wilma thinks he’s a spy for the Draconians and is reluctant to trust him.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century began as a plan for a series of TV movies, but the first one was strong enough that Universal released it theatrically before it aired on NBC. This led to a 2-season run on the network starting in 1979. All of the film’s major cast members returned for the TV series’ first season (including Mel Blanc as the voice of Buck’s robot assistant, Twiki), which saw Buck trying to adjust to life in the future while continuing to work with Wilma and the Directorate to protect Earth against the Draconians. The first season is generally good, and features a number of great guest appearances and cameos, including the likes of Frank Gorshin, Roddy McDowall, Jamie Lee Curtis, Cesar Romero, Peter Graves, Woody Strode, Gary Coleman, Richard Moll, Jerry Orbach, Ray Walston, Julie Newmar, and Jack Palance, as well as the man who played both Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the original 1930 film serials, the legendary Larry “Buster” Crabbe. Unfortunately, low ratings, a diminished production budget, and a new series producer led to many changes for the show’s disastrously bad second season, which is ultimately notable only for the addition of Wilfrid Hyde-White and Thom Christopher (as Hawk) to the cast, as well as additional guest appearances that included Sid Haig, William Sylvester (who you may know as Heywood Floyd from 2001: A Space Odyssey), and Mark Leonard (Sarek of Star Trek fame).
Thirty-seven years later, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is finally available on Blu-ray Disc in true HD, not from Universal Studios Home Entertainment but rather from Madman Entertainment (a company that produces titles for release in Australia and New Zealand). As such, there are a few things that are important to say that up front about this release.
First, Madman had very limited resources available to them when producing this set. All they had to work with were Universal’s recent HD scans of the syndication masters for each episode in the series. The theatrical film elements have not been scanned in HD by the studio, which means the HD version of the 2-part pilot, Awakening, (a.k.a. the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century film) is the TV version (more on that in a minute). Second, it’s important to note while these are true HD elements, Universal hasn’t done any kind of dirt removal, color timing, or other digital remastering to them. So while Madman has done a bit of work on them, you’re still going to see some dust, dirt, and other print artifacts from time to time. Most importantly, however, while this set is listed as a Region B release, I have confirmed that the discs are, in fact, ALL REGION. They should work on any Blu-ray player, which is great news for U.S. and international fans of the series alike.
All that said, these episodes look way better in 1080p HD (at the correct original 1.33:1 TV aspect ratio) than I ever expected them too. I’ve watched four of this set’s discs in their entirety now, and sampled the rest of the episodes. I can tell you that the colors are vibrant (especially once you get into the series proper), there’s abundant detail visible, and contrast is excellent with nicely-detailed shadows. There’s modest grain visible and some of the effects shots and title sequences can look a little optically soft, but really this image is impressive and is a great improvement over Universal’s previous DVD release. Let’s put it this way: There’s enough new detail present in the image that, in a few shots (filmed in the desert for the episode The Planet of the Slave Girls) you can actually see a military transport plane flying low to the horizon behind the actors – something that viewers would never have noticed in SD analog. The audio for all of the episodes is available in uncompressed 2.0 LPCM mono, and the original tracks sound surprisingly full and nice. Clarity is generally very good and to the extent that there’s ever muffled dialogue or distortion it was certainly present in the original TV audio too. There are no subtitles, but there is one additional audio option that actually counts as a bonus feature (so more on that in a minute as well).
Madman’s set includes both seasons of the series encased in a pair of multi-disc keep cases (Season One includes 5 Blu-rays, while Season Two includes 3 BDs). Their content breaks down thusly:
Season One, Disc One includes the feature-length TV version of the 2-part Awakening pilot and the feature-length TV version of the 2-part Planet of the Slave Girls (both HD and in 1.33:1 original aspect ratio). You also get the feature film version of Awakening (upscaled to HD from 1.33:1 aspect SD PAL). The disc also includes the following extras: The ending credits from Awakening, Part One and opening to Awakening, Part Two (in HD – the portion removed to allow the presentation of Awakening as a feature film), the series’ opening title sequence in HD without actor William Conrad’s voice-over narration (in HD), and both the series opening and closing titles without credit text – just the visuals (again in HD). Finally, that additional audio option I mentioned: You get a music and effects-only track for both versions of Awakening (TV HD and SD film) and Planet of the Slave Girls in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (such tracks are available for all the other episodes in this set too).
Season One, Disc Two includes the episodes Vegas in Space, The Plot to Kill a City, Part 1, The Plot to Kill a City, Part 2, Return of the Fighting 69th, and Unchained Woman (all in HD and 1.33:1). Extras here include the music and effects-only tracks for every episode in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono.
Season One, Disc Three includes the episodes Planet of the Amazon Women, Cosmic Whiz Kid, Escape from Wedded Bliss, Cruise Ship to the Stars, and Space Vampire (all in HD and 1.33:1). Once again, you get music and effects-only tracks for every episode in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono.
Season One, Disc Four includes the episodes Happy Birthday, Buck, A Blast for Buck, Ardala Returns, Twiki is Missing, and Olympiad (all in HD and 1.33:1). Again, you get music and effects-only tracks for every episode in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono.
And Season One, Disc Five includes the episodes A Dream of Jennifer, Space Rockers, Buck’s Duel to the Death, Flight of the War Witch, Part 1, and Flight of the War Witch, Part 2 (all in HD and 1.33:1). This disc also includes music and effects-only tracks for every episode in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Plus you get the syndicated feature film version of Flight of the War Witch (upscaled to HD from 1.33:1 aspect SD PAL).
Moving on to the next case, Season Two, Disc One includes the feature-length version of Time of the Hawk, the feature-length version of Journey to Oasis, and The Guardians (all in HD and 1.33:1). There are music and effects-only tracks for each episode in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. You also get the second season version of the opening title sequence sans voice over narration, plus text-less opening and closing titles too (all in HD and 1.33:1, though I should note that the version without voice over looks to be upscaled from SD – in fact the opening credits for this whole season appear to be upscaled from SD, though all the episodes are full HD).
Season Two, Disc Two includes the episodes Mark of the Saurian, The Golden Man, The Crystals, The Satyr, and Shgoratchx! (all in HD and 1.33:1). Extras include music and effects-only tracks for each episode in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono.
And Season Two, Disc Three includes the episodes The Hand of Goral, Testimony of a Traitor, and The Dorian Secret (all in HD and 1.33:1). Extras include music and effects-only tracks for each episode in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. You also get the syndicated 2-part TV version of Journey to Oasis (in HD and 1.33:1).
Finally, virtually every disc in the set has a series of hidden Easter eggs: If you go to the episode selection menu from each disc and highlight any episode, navigating “up” will play in-show text-less elements from that episode. Most of the set’s episodes have them. The set’s box (which you can see pictured below) also includes a double-sided A3-size poster, featuring a photo of Buck on one side and Wilma on the other.
That’s actually a pretty damn nice batch of bonus content, all things considered, especially when you recall that A) Madman had a very limited budget for this project and, B) Universal’s original DVD release had no extras whatsoever. A couple additional notes on the extras:
Madman chose to upscale the film versions of Awakening and Flight of the War Witch to HD from PAL (576i) instead of NTSC (480i) in order to ensure the highest possible video quality. The compromise is that the result does suffer from PAL audio speed-up (as PAL video has a 25 frames per second frame rate, compared to film’s 24 fps, resulting in a 4% speed increase over film or NTSC, which converts 24 fps to 29.97 fps via 3:2 pulldown). What that means for U.S. readers is that, if you want those versions in SD with properly-pitched audio, you should either keep your existing DVD release of the series or pick up the currently available U.S. DVD release of Season One (it’s just $15 on Amazon at the moment) which has both. For those of you who may be unaware, the film version of Awakening includes the footage missing from the syndication HD version, such as Kane’s communication with Emperor Draco, the alternate “sexy” opening credits, the different Conrad opening narration, and more. There’s a bit of more adult language too, which was deemed suitable for theaters but not for TV (including Buck calling Wilma “ballsy” and Twiki saying that he’s “freezing his ball-bearings off”), though the syndication version does have an additional scene at the end (in which Dr. Huer and Wilma offer Buck a job at the Earth Defense Directorate) that’s not in the film version.
There are also two additional “censorship” edits to the HD presentation of Awakening. The first happens when Wilma comes after Buck in old Chicago. When she has her solider stun Buck, she says “Captain, you got away once, but not this time. Lieutenant?” and he shoots Buck. But there’s a second missing in the HD presentation, so the words “time. Lieutenant?” are gone (along with the actual moment the guy points the gun at the camera and pulls the trigger). The second edit happens when Buck kicks Tiger-Man in the balls near the end of the film. It looks like the actual kick has been trimmed out of the presentation, so the video goes from Tiger-Man facing off with Buck to suddenly howling in pain. These are small things, and again they’re not edited in the SD film version, but it’s important to note them. This is not something Madman had control over – these were in the elements as delivered by Universal. (In fact, I believe these edits were present in the original NBC TV broadcasts.)
Ultimately, I think that Madman Entertainment has done a hell of a nice job with their Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Series release, given the limitations they were dealing with. This a very nice Blu-ray set, all things considered, and I’m damn glad to own a copy. I don’t know if Universal will ever release this show here in the States on Blu-ray themselves, but since these discs are ALL REGION it doesn’t really matter. Trust me when I say that, if you’re a diehard fan of the series, $80 delivered on Amazon is a fairly reasonable price to pay for all that you get here (click here to order a copy). This series is a great, long-awaited, and very welcome addition to the Blu-ray format.
- Bill Hunt