Examining Classic Buck Rogers Starfighters From the 25th Century

Source: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century

Disco and drones were the order of the day for Buck Rogers, along with a host of awesome spacecraft.

“The year is 1987, and NASA launches the last of America's deep space probes. In a freak mishap, Ranger 3 and its pilot, Captain William "Buck" Rogers, are blown out of their trajectory into an orbit which freezes his life support systems and returns Buck Rogers to Earth... five hundred years later...”

So began Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Glen A. Larson's take on Philip Francis Nowlan's classic literary hero, albeit best known for being on screens large and small with the 1939 Universal serial starring Buster Crabbe. The television show came not long after the cancellation of Larson's previous space opera Battlestar Galactica, although that show was still in production when the Buck Rogers pilot was released theatrically in March of 1979. As a result, some elements of Galactica were reused for the new show. While Buck Rogers made it to two seasons, the show was not particularly well-received critically. However, it did have audiences tuning in regularly, with kids from various nations lapping up what was a tongue-in-cheek pulp adventure that happened to feature some cool spaceships.

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The Thunderfighter Joins Earth’s Defense

The Thunderfighter studio model.
The Thunderfighter studio model.

The most impressive and still beloved craft from the show was the Earth Protectorate Starfighter, known internally at the Universal Hartland model shop as the Thunderfighter. A sleek and dangerous looking fighter with two sharp prongs leading from the front, this was the front line defense against the evil marauding pirates. It was memorably flown by Buck, who managed to save the day time and again by using his 20th Century skills against an over-reliance on artificial intelligence and technology. Interestingly, the Starfighter was originally designed by Ralph McQuarrie, who was famous as being one of the main concept artists for the original Star Wars trilogy. McQuarrie had designed the ship as an early version of the Colonial Viper from Galactica, and while the design wasn't used for that it was repurposed for Buck Rogers.

Chronologically, the first ship to appear in the show was Buck's original NASA ship, which was launched into deep space before being frozen in time by “temperatures beyond imagination.” Ranger 3, as it was designated, was essentially a scaled-down version of a NASA space shuttle designed for one pilot. Molds of the ship were further modified for later episodes of both Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica, with the latter (“Greetings From Earth”) airing before the release of the pilot movie.

Buck Rogers Gets Draconian

As Ranger 3 arrives in 2491, it's immediately met by the Draconia, a gargantuan orange-brown spaceship that is the flagship of the Draconian armada. With the Draconian people clumsily modelled on Genghis Khan and his Mongols, the ship has jagged and sharp edges has somewhat of a dragon appearance, with flaring wings on both upper and lower surfaces and a front fork like the prongs of a forked tongue. Designed by illustrator David Jones, the Draconia miniature was five feet long and wide and weighed a hundred pounds, about the same as a tire from a semi-trailer truck.

A concept drawing of the Draconia.
A concept drawing of the Draconia.

Supporting the Draconia were two smaller ships, the Hatchet Fighter and Princess Ardala's Launch. The triple-wing Hatchet Fighter was also known as the Pirate Ship and Draconian Fighter, and essentially looked like a part of the Draconia had broken off, which is kind of stupid considering in the show they were masquerading as independent pirate ships. The Launch was a much more elegant craft that was basically an executive shuttle that looked luxurious inside and out, with the Royal Crest of Draconia – a dragon – on its upper wing. Certainly, the kind of ship that would be owned by the dastardly yet enticing Princess Ardala.

Minor ships in the Buck Rogers universe included the Scorpion Fighter, which itself was a kitbash of a model of a Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunship, the Raven, which used castings of the Draconia model, and the sleek Astro Sled.

Only a cameo was afforded for one of the better-looking secondary ships, a scout type-vessel called the Ranger. Outfitted in the same colour scheme as the Starfighter and with a similarly-designed canopy, the Ranger was a great design that was extremely underused. The Learian Queen cruise ship was another interesting ship, an elegant long-lined craft with a sphere leading at the front, presumably as the command section. But while it only appeared once, it would seen be seen again, albeit in a different configuration.

Buck’s Ship Shifts Focus

For the second season of Buck Rogers, the producers decided to change the format somewhat, moving from pulp space opera to something more along the lines of Star Trek. That led to the introduction of the starship Searcher, an exploratory vessel designed to take Buck and friends out into deep space to look for new lifeforms and new civilisations. Along for the ride came Wilma, Admiral Asimov, a scientist named Goodfellow, a robot named Crichton, and a murderous Birdman named Hawk. The new concept was not well-received.

The Searcher itself was a modification of the Learian Queen. Repainted in the Earth colours of red and white, the vessel looked appropriate enough for the new direction of the show. With a homage to Star Trek – intentional or not – with the spherical bow a reminder of Matt Jefferies' original design for the Enterprise. Meanwhile, many of the new ships were recycled from earlier Buck Rogers episodes or from Galactica. For example, the prison ship from the rag tag fleet became a battle cruiser while a bootlegger shuttle was transformed into the “gnome mobile.” Even the Ranger 3 reappeared, this time missing its top wing as a Searcher shuttle.

Studio model of Hawk's fighter ship from Buck Rogers.
Studio model of Hawk's fighter ship from Buck Rogers.

The most popular ship from season two ended up being the newest fighter belonging to the relentlessly stoic new character Hawk, last of the Birdmen of Throm. Hawk's ship was shaped like a bird of prey, with elements of the Starfighter design. It was a fairly impressive craft, one that is still prized today as a model kit. As fun as some of the show was, the real draw was always its spaceships, and in particular the Starfighter, which really personifies Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Whether commemorating it with a studio-scale plastic model or the vintage Corgi die-cast toy, the Thunderfighter will always remain in the hearts of those who grew up with Buck.

Contributing Editor

Charlie Brigden has been obsessed with spaceships, horror films, and film music since a young age and can usually be found across the internet writing about one of those three. He lives in South Wales UK with his family, cats, dogs, and tarantulas.