Although it defies all common logic, back in his youth – long before he was the awesomely off-putting Quint in Jaws, and before he was the awkwardly off-putting Ned Lynch in Swashbuckler – Robert Shaw was actually able to cut a somewhat dashing figure – and no where was this more apparent than in his two year portrayal of Captain Dan Tempest in the TV series The Buccaneers, the entirety of which – 39 episodes – is now available as a single DVD set.
Originally airing in 1956, The Buccaneers begins in 1718 New Providence as Governor Woodes Rogers arrives to convert this pirate cesspool into a respectable British colony. To do so he must establish himself as “top dog” amongst a less than receptive populace – wooing the less hardened with pardons, and defeating the worst of the lot – Blackbeard included – in direct combat.
Rogers hits the ground running, although three episodes in he changes course by recruiting one of the pirate captains – Dan Tempest – to lead other reformed pirates in the life of honest merchant sailors. And from there Rogers – who to this point seemed to be the show’s star – quietly departs, leaving Lt. Beamish as his affable if somewhat naive representative of the crown. From here Tempest emerges as the show’s true protagonist, along with several of his more prominent cohorts, Armando, Taffy, and Gaff.
With Rogers’ arrival in New Providence and his passing of the torch to Beamish and Tempest, The Buccaneers starts strong. Recurring disputes with such notable pirates as Blackbeard and Calico Jack show real promise of building an over-riding story arc, as does the pirates’ continued struggle to balance the honest path they’re on with the more adventuresome – if illegal – path that’s in their hearts. But it’s not log at all before Tempest and company graduate from merchants to privateers, and thus find plenty of action to keep them from getting bored – pirate attacks, those pesky Spaniards, and even the plotting of some of their fellow British colonists generate no end of challenges for them to overcome. And for the first 25 episodes or so, it all goes swimmingly – good natured swashbuckling thrills from a time when entertainment was perhaps a bit simpler, but still lots of fun.
And then it slowly begins to erode. Tempest and his crew return to New Providence less and less, with final episodes having nothing to do with their colony at all. Where early episodes saw them fighting for a purpose, these late episodes take on more of an A-Team “we show up wherever there’s trouble” approach that is far less convincing. What’s more, Tempest begins to drop hints at the end of multiple episodes that he’s ready to settle down with whatever girl he happens to be talking to at the time – and then we never see her again. The plots get increasingly tedious, and then it occurs to the viewer that it’s been a dog’s age since we’ve heard from Blackbeard, Calico, Lt. Beamish, or any of the old ‘regulars’ of the series – we’ve been cast adrift from the original plot footholds and are now aimlessly wandering from one odd adventure to the next. And then it ends. No resolution, nothing to bring us back around to New Providence or any of the promise of the early episodes – just no more.
At its best, The Buccaneers is light-hearted, a little silly, and plenty of fun. It well encompasses all you would expect of a 1950’s era television swashbuckler. Early episodes alone are well worth the price of the set. Middle episodes begin to show some loss of steam but are still enjoyable. And the last few? Well, they just get weird. But if you love pirates, you’ll watch them anyways. And believe me, there’s far worse things you could be watching.