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Buck Rogers in the 25th Century - Original Score Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany May 22, 2008

  • Movies review

    2,078

    Buck Rogers in the 25th Century - Original Score Soundtrack Review
    “Far beyond the world I've known ... far beyond my time ...”

    Ok, ok ... some of you out there are already sniggering. But I'm willing to bet that even more of you are experiencing a warm tingle of excitable nostalgia. Yes, I know - Erin Gray's delectable Col. Wilma Deering in that white super-skin-tight flight-suit! Pamela Hensley's voluptuous and skimpily-clad Draconian Princess Ardala runs a close second, but former cover-girl Gray holds the attention like a space-born goddess. Even if the visual effects and model-work weren't the best around, Saturday evenings still held many of us spellbound in total awe of something so infinitely divine and acutely unreachable that those fledgling computer techies could not possibly have hoped to emulate - pure wanton fantasy. Yet, looking back on the show, it is surprising just how childish it could be one minute - granite-chewing Mel Blanc's immortal “Biddie-biddie-biddie” catchphrase as the Hobbit-sized silver droid, Twiki, acting as chaperone-cum-menial for Howard Fynn's blinking neon discus Dr. Theopolis, was prone to blather at least five times an episode - and then how downright naughty it could be the next, with acres of bare flesh and some eyebrow-raisingly seductive predicaments for its hero to un-entwine himself from. This knowing, futuristic Carry-On formula was immediately embraced by the show's score composer, too, who very definitely realised that there were different angles he could exploit within the boundaries of network formula.

    “What am I ... who am I ... what will I be ...?”

    TV-show supremo Glen A. Larson was the creative force behind the camp-but-fun series starring Utah-born Gil Gerard in the title role of the time-displaced astronaut catapulted five centuries into the future ... and right into the path of an oncoming invasion of the now nuclear-devastated Earth. The story, like Gerard's laconic spaceman, had been around for a long time in comic, novel, radio and vintage TV serial incarnations and the character had already been made famous by dynamic blonde beefcake Buster Crabbe - who was renowned and idolised primarily for having also leapt with vigour into the costume of one Flash Gordon. But in the resurgence of all things intergalactic in the wake of Star Wars, Alien, The Black Hole and the garish re-evaluation of Flash Gordon, himself, with Sam J Jones and, take a deep breath, BRIAN - Gordon's Alive! - BLESSED, the TV mogul found a way to go beyond the stymied small-screen branch-offs of Planet Of The Apes and Logan's Run. Inevitably, even Buck would come unstuck and, at the end of his second, and far less entertaining season, he, too, bit the laser-beam.

    But, like all of these shows, Buck still lives on in the type of cult-cocoon that permanently rejuvenates him and sees him dusted-down for conventions, re-runs and DVD boxsets. And, now, courtesy of the ever-amazing recording label, Intrada, even his famed anthem returns from slumber in this splendid, memory-rife soundtrack CD of composer Stu Phillips' on-the-hoof work for the show's memorable pilot-cum-movie.

    “Where am I going ... and what will I see?”

    Although he made a name for himself with immensely popular signature themes for an abundance of TV shows, Phillips is, perhaps, best remembered for his dramatic, ballsy and often tongue-in-cheek music for Buck Rogers and the other cult sci-fi fest from the seventies, Battlestar Galactica. His sense of fun and creativity was always the key to his scores' popularity and though he, himself, often remarked about the ultra tight schedule and sometimes miniscule windows in which he had to cram his painstakingly-crafted cues, the fruits of his labours were almost always bigger, grander and more energetic than the restrictive format would usually have allowed for. His music for Buck Rogers is evidence enough of the pride and commitment that he extolled for subject matter that many may have considered juvenile, ridiculous and irritating. It is no wonder, then, to learn that many of his cues were truncated, dialled-down or cut altogether from the shows he worked on - shows such as The Scarecrow And Mrs. King, Quincy, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, as well as the more popular Knight Rider, The Fall Guy and Automan. But it is reassuring to know that his work for Buck Rogers - as he created for the pilot episode (which also received a full, and very successful, theatrical outing in its own right) is presented here intact and uncut. Although the movie featured more music than comprised here in this almost-thirty-four minute album, the missing cues are merely rehashes of the this same material that Phillips had to stretch out to cover the running time.

    “Searching my mind ... for some truth to reveal ... what thoughts are fantasy ... what memories real ...”

    A previous LP version of this score was released a long time ago and, thankfully, this limited CD release retains all that could be found upon it.

    John Williams had paved the way for full orchestral scores for science-fiction with Star Wars - the catalyst for the overwhelming plethora of genre product that flooded the space-gates from the mid-seventies until today. But TV scores had always been traditionally comprised of small ensembles with limited breadth and aural depth and an ever-increasing dependency upon on electronics. Therefore, beyond a catchy main theme, they tended to reuse tracks in various guises over and over again, forming their own library of sounds that could be tracked in at a moment's notice. The same could inevitably be said of Buck Rogers - but, at least here, as with Battlestar Galactica, there was a movie-length pilot that its composer could sink his teeth into and, thus, generate more dimensionality to his themes and incidentals. Although Star Wars cast a long, long shadow, Phillips was more struck by the cheeky, roguish attitude of the show's main character and the two distinct polarities of the lengths his women would go to in order to ensnare him. Therefore, his overall score would ultimately be camp, sly and slinky and almost always be winking at the audience. But he never neglected the action that Buck was invariably thrust into, or the comedy that his metallic mate would generate.

    There are three distinctive themes that Phillips incorporates - the first, and foremost, is the catchy ballad and title cue for Buck, himself, then there is the comical hi-tech whimsy of Twiki and his babbling medallion Theo, and then there is the ominous, blurting brass stabs denoting the villains of the piece, the Draconians. But within the borders of that triumvirate, he finds ample opportunity to produce some wild and brassy action cues, seventies-style siren sleaze and some smirk-inducing, jive-disco synthetics a la Buck's personal, bygone era.

    The soft, sugary pop ballad that opened and closed the show, entitled Suspension and with lyrics penned by Larson, himself, and sung by Kipp Lennon, appears in two versions here on the disc, a full rendition and a slightly shorter and punchier one with more emphasis on electric guitar. The lyrics are bizarrely floating and surreal, detailing the dreamy passage through time that Buck endures and his slow, almost birth-like awakening into a strange new world. Sung with cloying saccharine, the song, nevertheless, became a cult favourite and will ring many bells with people who may steadfastly claim never to have heard it before. Out of context, it is annoying, slight and too balmy (as well as barmy) for its own good - but with the hyper luxurious and soft-tinted visuals of the title sequence firmly in mind, the track definitely weaves a spell that is undeniably both cutesy and catchy. The clever thing that Phillips does with this quasi country waltz - especially considering that he had no part in its actual creation - is to unravel a warped, yet heroic main theme for Buck out of its swooning melody. And it is this slow, but strangely march-like anthem that comes to denote the character of the wide-eyed, cocksure space cowboy - breezily irreverent and romantically heroic. The vocals also climb inside your head and simply play along in there, on some deranged yet addictive loop - the opening few lines of which are printed between the first few paragraphs.

    Blasting flurries of strings and trumpets greet Buck's unlucky plucking from frosted space by the Draconian flagship, presided over by the sensual snake Ardala and her memorable henchmen, Henry Silva's Killer Kane and the tattooed, baldy brawn-head, Tigerman. This cue would go on to serenade and greet villains of all description throughout the series, although it would be most memorably presented with its strident, two-dimensional ferocity for the Samurai-bedecked Draconians, themselves.

    Track 4, Princess Ardala/Seduction is a delicious conglomeration of sultry horns, sliding electronica and erotically charged guitar, but besides the overt eroticism of the piece, there is a fine undercurrent of menace that adds weight and suspense. Eerie glistening motifs abound and the track is one of the highpoints of the album, its inexorable mystery a sheer delight. By contrast, Phillips employs shrill brass and a seventies rock beat combined with tom-toms and short, sharp strings. The comedy angle is brought to the fore in Introducing Twiki & Dr. Theo, a cue that, although one of the core elements of the show, still sounds as though it was put together on a Casio keyboard stocking-filler. However, Phillips allows woodwinds and strings to complement the vintage, raw synth vibe of the clownish cue.

    Pirate Attack then brings stabbing percussion, militaristic drums and aggressive trumpets for its short, but intensive duration, whilst the following track, Buck Returns To Earth, hurtles charging strings and dark, rapid brass together with a racing tempo that climbs and descends with giddy, short-set exhilaration. Then comes the best track of the entire album - the simply galvanising and threatening Dead City/Attack Of The Mutants. Buck unwisely ventures into the ruins of old Chicago and incurs the wrath of the pipe-clanging denizens who reside in the rubble of the civilisation he once knew. The first cue in the track builds up wild suspense and tension with swirling strings, vague glissandi in the background with harp and an edgy Bernard Herrmann homage with Psycho-style searing violins. A transition of Close Encounters-esque tuba heartbeats then greet the chaos of screaming strings, bizarre metal percussion, glorious glockenspiel and all manner of haunted house shivers and shakes. A brilliant fast-punching passage that becomes the repeated backbone to Buck's battle with the surrounding mutants energetically pounds away with a pulsating frenzy, topped off with a delirious metal chime at the summit of each stabbing height. Awesome stuff.

    Buck's persuasion of the weird band at a Royal Ball into playing something that he can “get down” to results in Phillips putting the fun into funky with an infamously dated synth-and-drum-machine, sizzle-and-razzle-dazzle-attack in Track 10. The scene is also fondly recalled for the wild attire that Hensley's Ardala is almost wearing and the freaky horns that she sports, signifying her intentions as clearly as a billboard, as well as the buffoonish sight of Twiki strutting his stuff on the dance-floor. The album then produces a helter-skelter of a track in Buck Vs Tigerman, which seems to track-in a huge assortment of motifs and ideas, some that we have heard already but now seem to have evolved and many more that just seem to come out of nowhere. The section is made up of a rich variety of small cues and themes that result in a breathless and quite complex range of suspense, drama and action quotes. There is a little bit of John Barry's Bond in there and, if you listen out, even a great little seventies “wacka-wacka-wacka” effect ... that never fails to put a grin on my face.

    A rousing c.o.d. trumpet fanfare heralds the start of Track 12, before the cue then slides into a slow, drawn-out tension plateau, lit from above by tense strings and from below by Bernstein-style soft, rolling bass. A lush track whose best moment was actually cut from the finished pilot episode, but sounds gloriously dark and intimidating here. Tailpipe Torpedo, Track 13, brings in several of the key motifs - namely Buck's secondary theme, his action cue, Twiki's theme and the deep imperial evil of the Draconian theme. Wild strings, thunderous percussion and heroic trumpets cavort through the first half of Track 14, before woodwinds and victorious horns take the baton into a brief return of Buck's main theme, now slightly slowed down and fatigued, like the hero of the hour, who is relieved at his victory, his gaining of a new home and an exciting, if short-lived, future ... and, especially, having Wilma Deering on his arm. Brass then sees out the day before the final track reprises Suspension for us, drilling those candy-coated lyrics into our psyche.

    “Bidi-bidi-bidi ... what an ending, Buck!”

    The field of sci-fi TV scoring often goes overlooked, except by rabid fans of the shows themselves. But this blinkered attitude is denying some of the most creative and fascinating musical devices and compositions from a medium that, by tradition, cripples its composers. Over the years, there have been many, many great scores in the small-screen cousin of genre - The Prisoner, Mission Impossible, Doctor Who (which is now receiving marvellous attention from Murray Gold), Planet Of The Apes, Knight Rider etc - and their influence has permeated the cultural divide with verve. But there is a core element of scores from the mid-to-late seventies and early eighties that have gone to receive justifiable cult status for their style, insane nostalgia and pure audio escapism. It's funny how the music for action shows of the period fared less well. Oh, the main title themes for Chips (from Alan Silvestri!), The A-Team, Magnum PI, Airwolf and Streethawk are all classics, but the incidental cues throughout the episodes were library-tracked and over-used. Other celebrated scores for the likes of Logan's Run (the TV show), The Bionic Woman (the original series), amongst others, will soon be reviewed in an attempt to redress the balance.

    Full Track Listing is as follows -

    1. Cosmic Forces 0:37

    2. Song from Buck Rogers (Suspension) 3:01

    3. The Draconia / Buck Awakens 2:07

    4. Princess Ardala / Seduction 2:47

    5. Buck's Heroics 1:46

    6. Introducing: Twiki & Dr. Theo 1:07

    7. Pirate Attack 2:25

    8. Buck Returns to Earth 2:41

    9. Dead City / Attack of the Mutants 3:55

    10. Something Kinda Funky 3:09

    11. Buck vs. Tigerman 2:47

    12. Fanfare & Appearance of Draco 2:12

    13. Tailpipe Torpedo 2:12

    14. Wilma Saves Buck / What an Ending 2:45

    15. Song from Buck Rogers (Suspension) - Reprise 2:22

    Total Album Time: 35:53

    Verdict

    Well, this may not be the grandest, or most requested of scores, but Intrada have, once again, done the composer and the fans proud with a gloriously put-together package that showcases the talent and enthusiasm that went into the film-cum-series and the music that transported it across time and space. The sound is beautifully produced and well up to the label's usual high standards and the booklet of notes is full of fact, fun and fond reminiscence. For fans this should prove an irresistible accessory to the bumper DVD set that comprised both of Buck's colourful, innuendo-laden seasons and, for score-buffs, this marks a point in time when the constraints of TV creativity were no obstacle to a determined composer. Excellent all-round entertainment and well recommended. Like Buck, himself, this is a sheer blast from the past!

    The Rundown

    Movie

    8

    Overall

    8

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