Tune in Next Week is an ongoing feature, examining serials one chapter at a time. You can watch Chapter Three here.
At the end of Chapter Two, Buck, Buddy and Wilma had stolen one of Killer Kane’s patrol ships and used it to return to Earth. Without their radio, they were unable to contact the Hidden City, giving Air Marshal Kragg the understandable impression that the secret entrance had been given up and Kane was now launching an attack. Under Kragg’s orders, the heavy stone gates were opened, and then suddenly slammed shut on the approaching ship, crushing it. At the beginning of Chapter Three, we see that the heroes have survived, and without knowing why the gates closed on them they disembark using their “degravity” belts. They are arrested and brought to Marshal Kragg, and the truth of their situation is discovered. Despite being almost killed, everyone is remarkably blasé about the incident. Kragg offers no apologies, and Buck doesn’t ask for one: clearly he would have done the same thing, which should chill anyone who might have daydreamed about taking Buddy’s place and accompanying good old Buck Rogers on his adventures.
Speaking of Buddy, I wrote before that he hadn’t shown much personality of his own beyond being Buck’s plucky sidekick. We get a little more of it in this chapter, and it isn’t flattering: Buddy is a straight-up dissembling, Eddie Haskellizing weasel. When Buck volunteers to infiltrate Killer Kane’s city to stop Saturn’s Prince Tallen from signing a treaty with Kane, Buddy is determined to go with him. At first, Buck rightly refuses: it will be much too dangerous for his young charge. (Buck Rogers: officially a more responsible guardian than Bruce Wayne.) After slipping past the world’s least effective security guards (whose level of competence goes a long way toward explaining why Buck’s talents are so indispensable just after his arrival), Buddy pulls the old “my mom says it’s okay if it’s okay with your mom” maneuver on Buck and Marshal Kragg and gets himself added to the mission before anyone can exchange notes. Gee whiz! At least Buddy didn’t stow himself aboard Buck’s ship.
I wasn’t too familiar with Jackie Moran, who plays Buddy, but a little research shows an interesting career stretching from the 1930s to the early ’70s. Moran started as a kid actor, with his biggest role being Huckleberry Finn in 1938’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The same year Buck Rogers was released, Moran had a small role in Gone With the Wind. He continued playing young roles throughout the ’40s and ’50s and then reappeared in the ’60s in several sex comedies, including a couple he wrote for Russ Meyer. Moran died in 1990.
After being flown high above Kane’s city and floating down to the Leader’s tower with their degravity belts (hilariously explained as being a simple outgrowth of the parachute and not, you know, a complete bending of the laws of physics), Buddy and Buck seek to infiltrate Kane’s treaty conference wearing uniforms salvaged from the wrecked patrol ship. This sequence is a great example of getting a big idea across with a minimum of resources: there are only two sets, the conference room and the outdoor terrace, but with the addition of a miniature cityscape and some compositing as Kane and Tallen look out a window, the illusion of a massive futuristic city is achieved. The shot of Buck and Buddy descending from the ship with their belts isn’t fooling anybody, but the scale of the city is suggested by the terraces whizzing by in the background.
After struggling with a guard, Buck and Buddy find their way to the conference room, where they take Kane (Anthony Warde) completely by surprise. Now, Buck doesn’t just shoot Kane right there, even though he’s got him dead to rights with a ray gun: he’s too much of a good guy to be an assassin, and it’s only chapter three. Buck’s goal is simply to stop Kane from formalizing a treaty with Saturn; if you recall, Kane’s emissary Captain Laska had convinced the Council of the Wise and Prince Tallen that Kane was a just ruler, and that Dr. Huer and his faction were bloodthirsty revolutionaries. Buck forces Kane to show Tallen the mind-controlled slaves–former dissidents, robbed of all free will–who run the reactors and do other heavy labor in Kane’s “free and just” society.
And how about those names? “Prince Tallen” and “Captain Laska” are the sort of plausible-sounding but ethnically-indeterminate names that fill out the rosters of the Star Wars universe, or perhaps a Steve Ditko comic. Pulp narratives have a vested interest in giving their characters concise, hard-consonant names–“Buck Rogers” being another good example–an impulse that is generally compatible with the tendency for science fiction names to use abstract, “futuristic” syllables. As mentioned in the introduction to this series, Buck Rogers creator Philip Nowlan showed a great deal of interest in the linguistic aspects of his imagined future, including both new vocabulary words–portmanteaus and abbreviations are always a favorite device for naming new inventions–and transformations of existing names, so that the conquerors of twenty-fifth century America lived in cities with names like Nu Yok, Sikaga, and Bah-Flo. The serial under discussion hasn’t gone quite that far, but it has plenty of room for men with names like Kragg and Rankin (a real surname, but one that fits the aesthetic perfectly). Note, however, that Wilma (or “Will-Ma”–whoa!) retains a traditional, and traditionally feminine, name: no androgynous woman of the future she!
Faced with the truth, which Kane does not deny, Tallen cancels the treaty and offers to meet with Dr. Huer and his freedom fighters. (Tallen is one to talk, with his planet’s population of apparently enslaved Zuggs.) But first they have to escape together, since Kane obviously has an incentive to prevent them from leaving. Buck, Buddy and Tallen escape from the window and drop down to the terrace with their degravity belts, but it is too late: they are cornered by guards manning a giant-sized mounted ray, and all three men are struck down.
Are they dead? Yes, probably. Surely no man could survive being struck by the beams of light that felled our heroes. Tune in Next Week for the first of nine chapters of eulogies, mourning, reminiscence, and drunkenness, “Sky Patrol”!