While on a scientific expedition around the North Pole in a dirigible (don't ask) Lt. Buck Rogers (Buster Crabbe) and his young friend Buddy Wade (Jackie Moran) are knocked off course and eventually crash. Lucky for them they have a canister of "nirvano" gas aboard that renders them into suspended animation. Unlucky for them however they eventually are awaken to discover it is the 25th Century and that the Earth is being ruled by a dictator known as Killer Kane (Anthony Warde.) A few rebels living in a hidden city are hoping to end his tyranny by striking a deal with the inhabitants of the planet Saturn. So it's up to Buck, Buddy and Wilma Deering (Constance Moore) to forge the alliance. But Kane and his men aren't too far behind...
By 1939 Buck Rogers had been around a whole decade, first appearing in the pulp Amazing Stories and then transferred to the comics page by writer Phil Nowlan and artist Dick Calkins. But when he made his big screen debut in this 12 chapter serial from Universal, his arch-rival Flash Gordon had already made the leap with two successful serials. Using the same team that helped shape the last one and with Buster Crabbe starring, the studio hoped to repeat their success.
Sadly they didn't. It's not that Buck Rogers isn't a fun serial but compared to the Flash Gordon serials they are extremely lacking. The major fault is the lack of a good villain-Kane just doesn't have the flair of Ming the Merciless and while Anthony Warde was good in other cliffhangers he lacked Ming actor Charles Middleton's flair. The other problem is the series runs out of plot about half way in-the running back and forth to Saturn gets a little tiring and it turns into chases, fist fights and air battles (complete with model rockets and sparklers for engines) before reaching the climax. What keeps it afloat is Crabbe. While not an actor of vast range, Crabbe always brought a warm and fun personality to his work and that's the same here. Fans of more recent science fiction may also get a good chuckle-from the opening titles that George Lucas "borrowed" for Star Wars to the first teleporter long before Scotty beamed his first person the cliffhanger is fun for those looking for a retro sci-fi serial. But I would still go with Flash first.
As for the DVD, VCI has done a great job with it. Their previous disc suffered from a poor image and lacked extras but here they have remastered the image and it looks sharper than before. The extras are also nice with three featurettes-the first a history of the character than includes his pulp origins, the comics and mentions of the TV series from the early 1980s and the recently cancelled Frank Miller film (even Daffy Duck gets mentioned. The second is an audio piece of Crabbe from the 1970s talking to college students about his career with humor and honesty while the third is a video piece from this past summer's San Diego Comic-Con with artists and TV Buck Gil Gerard and Erin Grey. Also included is two radio shows and the ancient short Buck Rogers and the Tiger Men of Mars that acts more as a promo for Buck toys and has some of the worst acting and effects this side of Ed Wood. Still a fascinating piece of history for sci-fi and Buck fans. All in all a pretty good set and I'm sure fans of serials and Buck Rogers will be happy with it.