1/06/2009

Buck Rogers in the 20th Century

I've been doing a lot of work on Buck Rogers lately, reading old Canon, talking about what the appeal is, trying to figure out what, if any, Internet presence is commanded by the name “Buck Rogers”.

Did you know that the original Buck Rogers from the 1920's was the first story to run with the “Man from modern day is frozen in time, wakes up X years in the future”? Buck Rogers was from the modern day, but wakes up in the 25th century after various accidents (depending on the instantiation of the story you're looking at) leave him in suspended animation.

Here's a valuable lesson for writers out there that I learned just recently:

If Buck Rogers is supposed to be a hero, and he is, believe you me, it helps to have a quality that makes him exceptional. Well, that's easy, he's from the 20th century (or possibly the 21st century, I suppose) and he's in the future, that makes him exceptional, but it's just not enough. If I got transported into the 25th century, I would flip the fuck out. Barring some sort of huge catastrophe (which the Buck Rogers universe doesn't provide for) human beings in the 25th century should be better at doing just about everything. I don't know about physical fitness, but more advanced transportation, more advanced weaponry, fewer diseases and genetic defects (gennies, genetically engineered humans, are a staple of the universe), and so forth. Why would a 20th century pilot be able to function meaningfully in this world at all, let alone become a hero and save the day?

The answer is that the 25th century world must have lost something that Buck Rogers, being a hotshot pilot from the 20th century, still has. It can be almost anything, but (and I know this sounds so obvious as to be self-evident, but you'd be surprised) Buck needs, in order to be a hero, some quality that no one else has.

It's kind of a pre-req to being a hero at all, really. I harp on thematic consistency too much as it is, but unless you can answer the question of “what is the singular quality that makes this hero special?”, you're not really telling a story about a hero. You don't need to tell a story about a hero, to be sure, but... might as well know what you've got, right?

3 comments:

orange-fell said...

I'm not sure which your post is trying to say is more important: the common science fiction fudge (that the character of Buck Rogers is allowed to function and communicate with 25th-century people, instead of going catatonic or something, in order for it to be an enjoyable story), or the quality the hero has that everyone else has lost (which you never identify)?

If it's the former, you should totally read "Language for Time Travelers" by L. Sprague DeCamp. If it's the latter, could you explain more?

William said...

Definately the latter. While I think it would be realistic for an average person dropped 500 years into the future to freak out, Buck Rogers, ostensibly, isn't an average person, he's a hero. Regarding the special quality everyone else has lost, it could be anything. Bravery, instinct, intuition all come to mind. The important element, from the standpoint of telling a functional story, isn't WHAT that quality is, merely THAT it is. The quality can be whatever the writer likes (provided it's consistent with the Buck Rogers aesthetic), but unless there's something there, the audience with be left wondering, "Why Buck?"

Natalie said...

It sounds like one of the things that Buck Rogers might have is just heroic unflappability. Being able to function in the 25th century at all, let alone heroically, suggests an unusual ability to function in high-stress situations - he's cool under fire, as it were. That's most immediately useful for being a functioning human being, but it's useful in all sorts of saving-the-day scenarios.

I kind of get the vague impression that coolness under fire was considered more heroic in prior generations (when being steely-jawed was more a sign of courage and less a sign of bravado). I wonder if this sort of thing would figure large in a modern Buck Rogers product.