Here’s a trivia question for you: What was the second-most overused science fiction hero trope of the 20th century? Answer: Buck Rogers, created in 1928 by Philip Nowlan, has been reused and recycled in SF media of all kinds more often than any other SF character concept, save one. (The most overused? The science-created superhero, from Superman-on.)
And there was a reason for all that overuse: Buck Rogers was the prototypical Everyman, magically shifted into a world not his own, a world of weird creatures, exotic technology and people who, for some reason, needed the help of a man from the past to save their asses.
Buck was renowned for quickly mastering futuristic technology and showing the natives how we did it back in the good-old days. In each iteration, there was some quality about him that was somehow missing from the people of the future, making him an invaluable asset (and weapon) against the forces of evil. And for a world just being introduced to science fiction in the early 20th century, trying to figure out where they fit in a world of flying machines, foreign conflicts, ray guns and tight breeches, having a familiar character as their anchor to the future was important.
Buck became the standard of sci-fi heroes early on, first in illustrated form, not long afterward in movie serials starring Buster Crabbe, and in numerous other comic versions for decades afterward. Because the character was so relatable, he became a favorite of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who did his damndest to revive the archetype in no less than three television series (Earth II, Planet Earth and Andromeda). And after the success of Star Wars, the original Buck was brought back to TV by Universal. And Farscape‘s John Creighton is clearly patterned after Buck. Clearly, Buck’s gotten a lot of mileage out of him over the years.
So, is it time to resurrect this stalwart hero of yesteryear?
It’s the 21st century now… we’ve almost reached 2020. We already live in a world of flying machines, foreign conflicts, exotic weaponry, computers and communicators in our pockets, Moon landings, space stations, electric cars, drones, AI, robots throughout the Solar System and regular visits to the Titanic.
Moreover, we’ve had those things, and the vast amount of media about them, for so long that we’ve all become more than accustomed to the idea of new technology, space travel, instantaneous communication and AIs winning at Jeopardy (and no Captain Kirks blowing them up with reverse-logic traps). Science fiction isn’t the exotic idea it used to be, and we no longer expect ourselves to become the proverbial strangers in a strange land when exposed to it.
Does this mean that, because sci-fi has lost much of its original mystery and fascination to us, it’s lost its luster and attraction? No; it means we’ve grown more confident in our knowledge and expectations for the future, and we believe we can jump right in, grab that phaser, identify the stun and kill settings at a glance, and get busy.
Perhaps this is why our more recent sci-fi Everyman heroes are people who seem right at home with the science and technology, whether or not they were born into it; the Corben Dallas’, the Mal Reynolds’, the Ellen Ripleys, the Peter Quills, the Sarah Connors, the Rick Deckards, and all those Star Trek competence-porn officers who can field-strip a warp core over lunch. People who can grab a new piece of tech and subdue the bad guys without stumbling or asking which is the scary end.
Our perceptions of the future have changed, and our exposure to technology and change has grown our comfort and confidence with that future. The days of Buck Rogers ended with the 20th century; no more reboots for you.