“Alliances”: Picking up right where “Life Source” left off, Flash travels with Baylin through the lingering rift to follow up on Vultan’s lead (“Ascension”) that Dr. Gordon went to live with the Verden. (Why didn’t he do this before? Presumably because he had other priorities by the time he gained access to the first rift created in “Life Source.”) Baylin, an exile from the Verden, is uneasy about returning. Zarkov impulsively follows them through, eager to see Mongo at last. There, they meet one of the most important charcters from the mythos, Barin (Andromeda‘s Steve Bacic), a hereditary leader of the Verden. (In the comics, he’s Prince Barin of Arboria; here, he’s the son of the former leader of the Verden, whom Ming had executed years before.) Barin and Baylin know each other, allowing her to vouch for the Earthmen. But Flash’s inquiries about his father are met with furtive looks and evasions by all the Verden he talks to.
Barin has his own problems; the Verden are suffering from “the Sickness” that results from inadequate pure water supplies, but Ming will only extend their water rations if they agree to fly his new flag, which he insists is a symbol of global unity but which Barin sees (correctly) as a symbol of Ming’s domination. Still, the only alternative is the Lottery, a Verden tradition in which families are cast out when resources run short. It turns out that Baylin’s family was thus cast out, so she’s not happy about the tradition. Nor is Barin, after seeing her again and being reminded of the cost. But the Verden aren’t painted as evil for employing this tradition; Neya (Kerry Sandomirsky), the Verden leader who calls for the Lottery, participates in it herself, and accepts the verdict bravely when she draws the black stone condemning her to exile. With her fate seemingly sealed, she confesses to Flash that she did know his father rather well, and that he lived among them and helped them for some time.
Flash discovers that the Verden have a hidden water-purification machine which his father built, but which is now broken. Barin resents Dr. Gordon for making his people dependent on the machine, enabling their population to grow to a size that can’t survive without the extra clean water it no longer produces. (We’ll see in “The Sorrow” that Mongo’s denzens have good reason to distrust the idea of living beyond what the land can provide.) But Flash offers to repair it and gets Zarkov in on the work, along with the Verden “tender” Quin (Michael Eklund), the one responsible for maintaining their technology. Some worldbuilding hints here as we learn that the Verden (and the denzens in general, I suppose) once had higher technology but now struggle to repair the remains of what their forebears left. Evidently Ming hoards the advanced technology and the scientists in Nascent City and leaves the rest of the denzens to make do with what they can salvage and maintain from the past. But the Verden don’t trust the water machine to work, so the Lottery goes ahead, and Barin swallows his pride and resentment and goes to grovel to Ming. Turns out that Ming has decided to respond to Aura’s desire for greater involvement in politics in a particularly imperious and manipulative way: he gives her to Barin in marriage to forge an alliance with the Verden, without giving Aura a say in the matter.
(At this point in the series’ initial run, it was starting to occur to me that Flash and the gang should just be bringing some of those big water-cooler bottles through with them every time they go to Mongo. Or maybe some water purifiers from a camping store. It wouldn’t be enough to put a serious dent in Ming’s stranglehold, but it’d be great for winning the goodwill of the various cantons.)
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Dale is having problems with her fiance Joe, who’s unhappy with her secrecy. (Although I think he’s being a jerk. As a cop, surely he has to keep secrets, such as the names of his confidential informants. So by all rights, he should understand perfectly why there are sometimes good reasons to keep secrets from a loved one.) She goes to Flash’s house to commiserate, finding him gone, but she and Flash’s mother Norah have a nice bonding scene that fleshes out the latter character considerably (including the revelation that Flash gave up college to help her when she was diagnosed with kidney cancer). The scene doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, since they’re talking about Joe and Flash nearly the whole time, but it’s still a nice character-building scene and a change of pace in the character pairings.
All in all, this is the first really, really good episode of the show, and the point where this series finally finds its true voice and identity. The characters are at their best (except for jerky Joe, but that’s kind of who he’s supposed to be), the dialogue is crisp and sharp and witty, and the worldbuilding on Mongo has never been richer. And it’s just the beginning. Indeed, it’s part 1 of a 3-part arc, so let’s move on:
“Revelations”: We get our first look at Mongo’s religion as Ming receives “testimony” from the order of the Celetroph: monks who paint their faces with skull motifs and use the (fatal) sting of scorpion-like insects called celetrophs (actually just real scorpions) to give them prophetic visions that are always true, but cryptically expressed. The prophecy tells of a great warrior who will unite the cantons and bring Ming’s reign to an end, which rattles the tyrant. (Hmm, I wonder who it could be…?) Meanwhile, Flash, Baylin, and Zarkov sneak into Nascent City to try to get to the rift generator so they can get home, and they’re startled to learn of Barin’s betrothal to Aura. They tell Barin the water machine is repaired, but he intends to go through with the marriage, not willing to trust the machine again and feeling he can help his people best at Ming’s right hand, tempering his judgment. Their debate is interrupted when Zarkov is arrested for tampering (out of scientific curiosity) with a holoprojection of Ming. He’s thrown in a cell opposite a prisoner named Krebb — who’s played by Sam J. Jones, star of the 1980 Dino De Laurentiis Flash Gordon movie, and is no doubt named in honor of Buster Crabbe. Krebb tells Zarkov that he knew Dr. Gordon, and the latter was imprisoned in Zarkov’s current cell until recently — proven by some equations Gordon carved into the wall. When Flash and Baylin rescue Zarkov (after Barin helps them set off an explosion as a diversion, further unsettling Ming, who suspects insurrectionists), the latter tells them of Krebb, and Flash goes back to talk to him, getting arrested himself. Baylin and Zarkov reactivate the rift generator and are forced to go back to Earth without Flash when the Patriots attack. Rankol throws Flash in Krebb’s cell, and Krebb reveals that Gordon built the rift generator for Ming — under duress, but with the goal of using it to return home and blowing it up behind him. But he says Dr. Gordon was executed less than a year before, devastating Flash. Flash is taken away by Patriots who turn out to be Celetroph monks; they knock him out with some mystical mojo, and he wakes up back on Earth. But Rankol had his own agreement with Krebb, and we get the sense that maybe he’s not as loyal to Ming as he’s seemed.
Back home, there’s more bonding between Dale and Norah Gordon, and Jill Teed really shines here. The past two episodes have been fantastic at developing Norah into a fully rounded character, and here we get some great insight into why she’s been so resistant to the idea of her son investigating her husband’s presumed death. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help being distracted by Dale’s new hairstyle — the bangs are less flattering than her previous cut, plus, given the timeframe, it seems she must’ve gone to get a haircut right after her last talk with Norah. (And Norah doesn’t even acknowledge the new do, which seems impolite.) Maybe it was a therapeutic thing, to distract her from worrying about Flash and Joe? Anyway, the bangs are brushed to the side in later episodes, so this is a one-time thing.
Meanwhile, Aura is furious at being given away to Barin, and when she argues with Ming, we get a good look at how imperious and ruthless he is and how little respect he has for his daughter. Ralston and Van Hooft have good chemistry, and Ralston was really growing on me as a performer by this point, showing a lot of nuance, especially in his scenes with Aura. Later, Aura is determined to be hostile and uncooperative toward Barin, and Van Hooft and Steve Bacic have really good chemistry, bringing out some enjoyable acting in two performers that I’d previously found rather bland and vocally monotonous. It’s the first time I’ve heard Van Hooft’s voice vary in pitch by more than a few notes, and the first time that she’s genuinely fun to watch rather than just really, really beautiful to look at.
All in all, this is a strong continuation to the Barin arc, with a lot of big things happening and the cast continuing to improve. And there’s one more episode to go:
“‘Til Death”: The first half goes more for humor again. Aura, whose despise-hate relationship with Barin is still going strong, goes to Vestra of the Omadrians (previously seen in “Infestation”) for a poison to kill Barin. Vestra advises that this would be politically unwise and suggests instead using a love potion (a bit redundant when you look like Aura) to seduce another man into her bed so Barin will break the engagement out of pride. Naturally, she picks Flash as her boy toy, going to Earth to hook him and bringing him back to Mongo over a stunned Dale’s futile objections. Dale and Baylin go to Mongo to try to bring him back, and failing that, to get an antidote from Vestra — who’s resistant until she learns that Flash is the man in trouble.
Flash turns out to be so wholesome that Aura is unable to get him into a suitably compromising position despite his being head over heels for her, but Barin still discovers them technically in bed together, and things get more complicated when Ming shows up. Ming insists the only way to restore Barin’s honor is with a duel to the death. He doesn’t really care about Barin’s or Aura’s honor, but the marriage serves his political agenda and thus it must be salvaged, and Ming assumes that Barin will make short work of the interloping Earthman. At this point, things get a lot more serious. During the duel, Dale manages to get the antidote to Flash with a kiss, and once he recovers, Flash is unwilling to keep fighting. At first, Barin feels honor must be served, but he recognizes that Flash was a dupe rather than his enemy, and he decides instead to use his weapon against Ming, appearing to assassinate the monarch. But Aura swapped the poison on the duelists’ weapons with sleeping potion, so Ming will awaken. She grants Barin and Flash time to escape before Ming recovers. Aura expects Ming’s gratitude for saving his life, but instead he expresses only scorn that his daughter was too weak to seize power for herself whe she had the chance.
Barin’s ultimate decision comes a little abruptly, and it’s acted out somewhat implausibly, in that Ming leaves himself more open to attack than one would expect of a monarch with many enemies, especially when he’s so recently been afraid of insurrection and overthrow. But the payoff is effective in a way that helps improve the relationship between Flash and Aura (the real relationship, not the drug-induced one), while also underlining the asymmetrical relationship between Aura, who cares for her father, and Ming, who gives her no reason to with his constant contempt for her.
Finally the scattered bits of worldbuilding we’ve seen in previous episodes are starting to come together in what feels like a larger world, and feels more like Flash Gordon. We see the great diversity of Mongo represented here, with Verden, Dactyl, Omadrians, and other denzens all appearing in one episode, and we see the emergence of the familiar relationships and roles: Aura’s romantic interest for Flash and burgeoning rebellion against Ming, Barin as occasional rival for Flash and/or ally against Ming, etc. And Anna Van Hooft is still managing to improve her acting.
Coming next, the series’ focus shifts back to Earth for a bit, but Mongo continues to loom larger, and the storyline undergoes some major advances.
The Trek Mate Family Network in the UK has just released a podcast of an interview I did for their “Captain’s Table” feature in which they interview Star Trek prose authors. The discussion covers my Trek work, my Marvel novels and their audio adaptations, and Only Superhuman. You can find it here:
“Infestation”: Once again, the Kendal side of the episode is the weak link. Rankol’s generator is creating stray rifts, and a couple of deadly Mongonian* insects slip through, coincidentally near where Flash and Dale are driving Flash’s friend Nick to his brother’s wedding. Nick is bitten by what Baylin identifies as a “joy bug,” whose venom induces euphoria prior to a “pleasant” death hours later. Baylin and Flash travel through the rift to get the cure, and Baylin instructs Dale that she needs to keep Nick as miserable as possible to slow his demise. So basically half the episode is Dale trying to make sure Nick has a lousy time at the wedding. In theory, there’s some appeal to the dilemma of having to make a friend miserable to save his life, although I wonder why Dale couldn’t have just contrived for Nick to miss the whole wedding and depressed him that way. In practice, that would certainly have been better than sitting through Panou’s broad acting as Nick goes from cartoonishly happy to cartoonishly unhappy and back. I actually found this subplot somewhat entertaining back in 2007, but on revisiting it — and knowing in retrospect how much better the show gets — I feel the whole thing could’ve been skipped. It didn’t help that we barely knew Nick at this point and had little reason to care about him.
*”Mongonian” gets the most Google hits, but “Mongoan” and “Mongovian” are also used. I see why this show coined the word “denzens.”
But Flash’s return visit to Mongo is far more effective. The cure lies with the Omadrians, an Amazon-like tribe of medicine-makers who mistrust men (yet are nonetheless partial to wearing plunging necklines). But they mistrust Baylin even more, for she stole their sacred urn on Ming’s orders. Flash convinces their leader Vestra (Carrie Genzel) that he can bring back their urn in exchange for the medicine. He goes to Ming’s capital, Nascent City (everywhere on Mongo seems to be within easy walking distance — unless there’s some high-speed transit system we’re never shown), and convinces Aura to help him get into Ming’s archive — first trying verbal persuasion but ultimately having to wrestle her stun pistol away, which she rather enjoys. But although he delivers the urn, the Omadrians refuse to give him the cure, because he consorts with a thief. Flash eloquently persuades Vestra that he and Baylin are not their enemies.
This is where we begin to see the emergence of the Flash Gordon we know. The show may have reintepreted a great deal, but what makes Flash Gordon, fundamentally, is not rocketships or Lion Men, but pure, classic heroism. Flash gets to be a classic hero here — going on a dangerous quest to help a friend, winning a suspicious tribe over with his decency and eloquence, and in the process getting to flirt with an exotic princess, beat up palace guards, and don a variety of disguises. The story of Flash Gordon is the story of a good man convincing Mongo’s warring tribes to unite through the noble example he sets, and we see the first step in that story here. It’s a thread that will continue, and that’s why this episode is necessary despite the extraneous stuff with Nick: the foundations Flash lays here will pay off down the road. (And it’s not the only thing. Pay attention to the necklace Aura takes from the archive while Flash retrieves the urn.)
I also like it that Aura’s interaction with Flash is still contentious. She’s less of a pushover here than in previous versions — rather than someone who instantly falls in love and betrays her father because of it, she’s a regal, independent woman who’s used to getting what she wants. She wants Flash, but that’s separate from her own inherent doubts about Ming’s actions. Come to think of it, that was a strength of “Pride.” It was good that Aura’s subplot there had no involvement from Flash, that it was Aura herself questioning her father rather than needing a heroic Earthman to melt her heart and teach her the American Way.
“Assassin”: When a new rift appears and Dale retrieves surveillance footage of the event, Flash is stunned to see his presumed-dead father arriving on Earth. But Dr. Gordon doesn’t go home, and Dale’s cop fiance Joe reports that a man matching his description stole a car and took it to Washington, DC. There, the seeming Dr. Gordon meets with a fellow member of the Portage Initiative (which apparently was more actively pursuing rift technology than Zarkov believed in the pilot)… and uses a Mongonian device to drain his brain, killing him. Baylin attempts to get into the late scientist’s lab, but it blows up — and Baylin, quite implausibly, is caught nearly point-blank by the explosion and flung several stories to the ground, yet survives unharmed. It’s never suggested that her people, the Verden (based on the comic’s Arborian forest people), have any kind of superstrength or invulnerability, so this has to be chalked up to a flaw in writing and/or direction. Anyway, they eventually figure out that “Dr. Gordon” is one of Ming’s black-clad “Patriot” stormtroopers using a shapeshifting technology invented by Rankol, and is trying to brain-drain and kill all the Portage members in order to monopolize rift science. The Patriot kills Dr. Gordon’s two colleagues, leaving only Zarkov as a target, Dale takes Zarkov out to the Gordons’ cabin in the woods, but the Patriot arrives disguised as Flash. Can Dale see through the disguise? Of course; the women on this show are smart and resourceful and awesome. Though Flash is a little off his game; usually he’s portrayed as a smart hero who thinks things through, but here he impulsively dives into the fray against the duplicate Flash, leading to the inevitable “which one do I shoot?” trope that’s probably older than Flash Gordon itself — a trope he could’ve avoided if he’d paused to take off his jacket before attacking.
Still, for the first time since the pilot, the Earth-based stuff is reasonably effective, perhaps because it’s played less for humor. Although Flash here is very much in the mode of other Syfy/Sci-FI Channel heroes like Stargate‘s Col. O’Neill or Eureka‘s Sheriff Carter, a cavalier, wisecracking lead managing the efforts of his more capable colleagues. At this point he’s more a sidekick and guide to Baylin than a hero in his own right, which isn’t what you expect of Flash Gordon. True, as I said, he’s only starting to grow into the hero we know; but it’s something of a backslide from “Infestation.”
“Ascension”: This episode introduces one of the major FG characters: Vultan, King of the Hawkmen. Except instead of winged Hawkmen, Vultan leads the Dactyl, a band of bird-worshipping, shirtless nomadic warriors in capes adorned with feathers and talons. A Dactyl spy learns that Aura has secretly kept the rift blaster — more properly called a transit key, as we learn here — that she used in the pilot, and steals it from her to deliver to Vultan (Ty Olssen). Vultan uses it to travel to Earth, where he abducts Tee-Jay (Samuel Patrick Chu), an annoying teenage grafitti artist with a thing for painting hawks. Flash, Baylin, and Dale follow them to Mongo to rescue the boy, only to learn he’s Vultan’s long-lost son, who vanished through a rift 13 years ago, the same time Flash’s father was lost. This lets Flash bond with Vultan after Aura abducts the boy as a hostage for the transit key’s return, and they go together to rescue him (after dressing Flash in Dactyl robes, the look he sports on the cover of the DVD set). In escaping from Nascent City, Vultan must convince Tee-Jay that he has it in him to glide like a Dactyl in order to get away.
This is the first introduction of a major character from the FG mythos other than the leads, but it’s sadly sabotaged by weak writing and shoddy execution. Tee-Jay is a totally unappealing character whose fate we don’t care about. Flash is at his worst, spending most of the episode in clueless Sheriff Carter mode as he tags along behind Baylin. (Although I have to say, when they had a close-up on him as he bonded with Vultan over their shared loss, for a moment he really and truly looked like Flash Gordon, with the intense and earnest look on his face and the camera angle and lighting.) The visual effects of Nascent City fail by zooming in too close and exposing the lack of detail on the CGI model, making the buildings look like crude toys. And the Dactyls totally fail due to inept costume design. There’s no way anyone could glide on those loose, tattered rags. If the capes were bound to the ankles as well as the wrists, and if they had rods that extended them further outward from the hands, then I could buy it. As it was, they just looked silly. They didn’t even look particularly birdlike, with just a few token feathers on the collar. Now, in theory, I like the idea of the Dactyl. It’s more subtle than the original Hawkmen, their avian aspects coming more from their culture and belief system than from their anatomy. Unfortunately, the execution falls disastrously short. (Also, where were all the Dactyl women? And would they favor the same shirtless dress code as the men…?)
Fortunately, “Ascension” is the series’ lowest point (making its title rather ironic). This whole run of episodes since the pilot has been pretty weak aside from the Mongo portions of “Pride” and “Infestation,” and no doubt that’s why the series lost viewers so quickly. But if you make it through this episode, then the worst is over.
“Life Source”: Like “Assassin,” this one is set almost entirely on Earth as Flash and the gang deal with interlopers from Mongo (there are only two scenes on Mongo, totalling under four minutes), but this time it actually works on most every level. The team must find a killer who’s come through a rift from Mongo, while also concealing the corpse of the Patriot soldier who was the killer’s first victim on Earth. The latter leads to some Weekend at Bernie’s-style macabre humor (they even nickname the corpse Bernie), featuring a guest turn by Dead Like Me‘s Christine Willes as a perky realtor showing the house whose garage contains the rift. But there’s also some advancement of the character arcs, for in order to keep Dale’s cop fiance Joe from discovering the body, Flash has to pick a fight with him, bringing out some of the romantic-triangle tensions involving Dale. The killer turns out to be something of a sci-fi cliche, a seductive woman (future Alphas regular Laura Mennell) with the power to drain the life force of the lovers she takes and turn them into old men who soon die (although it doesn’t involve actual sex here, just draining them through a ring). She ends up seducing and draining Joe before the team can capture her and make her return his youth (after which he conveniently remembers nothing). But the story is effectively handled, with good interplay among the cast, and Flash gets to be the clever, shrewd hero he is at his best, while also being an effective comic lead, witty and charismatic without being the butt of the joke as in the previous two episodes. And even Baylin is starting to develop a sense of humor.
And while we get very little of Mongo, the bulk of what we do get is a very effective, creepy twist ending that shows more than anything else so far just what a sick, malevolent bastard Ming is (one might even go so far as to say he’s merciless). So “Life Source” runs the gamut of emotions and tone — and pulls it all off. The show really clicks here.
But although this is the best entry in the Earth-centric stage of the series, it’s also the end of that stage. From here on in, the emphasis shifts to Mongo and the worldbuilding starts ramping up big time.
Here I begin my episode-by-episode reviews of the underrated 2007 Flash Gordon series. Note that I’m using the DVD’s episode numbering, treating the pilot as episodes 1-2; most indexes treat it as a single episode.
“Pilot, Part One/Part Two”: Aside from a brief opening scene on what we’ll later learn is Mongo, the first half of the full-length pilot is set entirely in Kendal, introducing marathon champion and auto restorer Steven “Flash” Gordon (former Smallville regular Eric Johnson) and his high-school sweetheart Dale Arden (Gina Holden), now a TV reporter who’s engaged to a cop (Joe Wylee, played by Giles Panton). This Flash is a bit of a slacker, perhaps, but is committed to being a decent guy. He lives with his mother Norah (Jill Teed) due to her past health problems (a cancer history, we’ll later learn), although her job keeps her traveling pretty often. In the opening marathon sequence, he’s tripped up by his rival for first place but declines to retaliate, winning fair and square. And he’s determined to be okay with Dale’s engagement to another man, even though she expects him to be jealous. There’s a lot of banter and mild bickering between Flash and Dale at this point, but it’s decidedly good-natured, and everyone around them (including Mrs. Gordon and Dale’s news producer Joely, played by Carmen Moore) seems determined to set them up as a One True Pairing.
(By the way, the first name “Steven” for Flash is a new coinage for this series, possibly an homage to Steve Holland, who played the character in the 1954 TV series. Previously the only “real name” given for Flash was in the 1996 animated series, where he was called Alex Gordon in honor of Flash’s creator Alex Raymond. Although there was a 1963-4 set of stories published in Israel, unconnected to the original comics, in which Flash’s first name was given as Jim. I guess once he’d saved the Earth from Mongo, he went on to become police commissioner of Gotham City.)
Flash discovers he’s being tailed by a nervous little man (Jodi Racicot) who, when confronted, says he was the lab assistant to Flash’s late father, physicist Dr. Lawrence Gordon (played by Bruce Dawson, and probably named in honor of Flash’s first screen portrayer Larry “Buster” Crabbe). He hints that Dr. Gordon may still be alive, and mentions a project they worked on called the Portage Initiative. Flash begins probing his father’s work in search of answers, and seeks help from Dale, who’s investigating alleged alien sightings — which she dismisses as pranks until the evidence builds up. Together, they track down the lab assistant, who turns out to be Dr. Zarkov, reinterpreted as a neurotic, dysfunctional conspiracy nut. (It’ll be weeks before we hear his first name Hans uttered — and the one and only mention of his last name in the pilot was cut out of the aired version!) It turns out he and Dr. Gordon accidentally created a dimensional rift that Gordon fell through, and Zarkov has been searching for him ever since, building a rift detector. Now things are coming through from the other side, and Zarkov warns that too much rift travel between dimensions could cause a cosmological phase change that would destroy the universe (which is halfway decent technobabble). So the heroes can’t bring in the government for help because then the technology would get out, get used, and hasten the end of all things, or so Zarkov argues.
A robot from the other side captures Norah and tries to get Flash to reveal the location of the “Imex,” whatever that is. While Flash fights the robot, Dale figures out how to electrocute it, and in the ruins they and Zarkov find a device that leads them to, and opens, the rift. Flash goes through, determined to find his father, and Dale gets pulled in while trying to stop him. They arrive in an unfamiliar world with red-tinged light and three moons in the sky, then get beamed up by an ominous ship, and that’s the end of part 1.
Part 2 gives us our first real look at Mongo. Ming (John Ralston) is reinterpreted in a radical but intriguing way. Instead of being an obvious villain, this Ming is intelligent enough to use a little PR and present himself as a charismatic, kindly ruler, hiding the cruelty within. I always liked this idea. Real ruthless leaders don’t go around cackling and shouting menacingly all the time, but get to be leaders through their charisma, hiding their malevolence in a pleasing facade. Hitler and Idi Amin were very charming fellows socially, to all accounts. Ralston is a relatively bland Ming at first glance, something that early viewers complained about, but that seeming banality is intentional, and as the series goes on, Ralston does an excellent job portraying both the polished, friendly facade and the Machiavellian, ruthless, and frequently brutal dictator underneath.
Moreover, there’s some real ambiguity to this Ming. Mongo, in this incarnation, is a world recovering from a great disaster that poisoned its water. Anyone who has to drink it is deformed into a “Deviate” (think Total Recall mutants) if they survive at all. The only pure water left is from the Source, a single well in Ming’s territory, and it was his control of this water that let him rise to power over the cantons of Mongo — but by so doing, he saved Mongo from total destruction, and many admire him as the “Benevolent Father” to whom they owe their very existence. True, he’s as ruthless a tyrant as they come, but the debt that Mongo owes him is genuine.
Ming initially presents himself to Flash and Dale as a benefactor, but Ming’s chief scientist Rankol (Jonathan Lloyd Walker) gives away the game by asking too eagerly about the Imex, tipping Flash off that Ming sent the robot. Rankol is a Deviate with a deformed leg, so that he normally floats along on a hoverdisk hidden under his robes — so that, ironically, Walker is the one cast member who never does any walking. (I think he must’ve really had a Segway under there.) Ming has Rankol torture Flash for information (which Flash doesn’t have) and sends Dale to be prepared for his bedchamber. Dale arranges her own escape, but Flash needs to be rescued by a lovely woman (Anna Van Hooft) who introduces herself as a servant of Ming’s and helps Flash and Dale get back to Earth in exchange for taking her with them. But her haughty, entitled manner tips Dale off that she’s really Ming’s daughter. Of course, this is Princess Aura, and the character’s traditional attraction to Flash is distinctly present, but at this point her rebellion against Ming is limited merely to trying to prove to her father that she’s more than just a pretty face; she admires Ming and wants to serve his cause, but he lacks respect for her abilities. The complex relationship between Ming and Aura is the most compelling thread of this series, though the casting initially works against it. Though Van Hooft is gorgeous to look at (and delightfully tall), she’s a rather bland performer at this point in the series, though she will improve greatly as Aura gains depth as a character.
Almost an afterthought here is the final regular, Baylin (Karen Cliche), a bounty hunter Ming sends to retrieve Aura and the Imex — which Flash has found and discovered to be some kind of alien data archive. We don’t even learn Baylin’s name here, and basically all we know is that she’s tough and determined and inexplicably able to drive a truck after being on Earth for mere minutes. Flash makes a game effort to outfight her but ultimately has to outsmart her, faking the destruction of the Imex. Aura returns to Mongo, but Baylin is stranded in Kendal. Ms. Cliche (pronounced “kleesh”) will become one of the most effective actors on the show once her character is fleshed out, and she’s well-cast as a tough and sexy action heroine in the Xena mold, but at this point she barely registers.
This is an imperfect pilot, but a promising one. The humor is often forced, but the dramatic core of the characters is there; and where the actors’ talent is lacking, their personability makes up for it. I particularly like Gina Holden as Dale; she’s capable, wry, and impressive. Her acting can be somewhat limited, but she has kind of a tough ’40s film-noir leading lady quality in a 2000s sort of way. And she has huge, magnificent eyes. But Eric Johnson is effective as Flash too, even if Flash isn’t yet all he will become. At this point he’s written more as a comic hero, out of his depth and often needing to be rescued by more capable people (usually women, yay!), but Johnson fills the bill well, demonstrating superb comic timing and delivery. And Flash displays intelligence and creativity and a lot of innate decency. Over the course of the series ahead, we’ll see him grow into a real hero while retaining those virtues, and I love it that he’s an action lead defined more by wits and compassion than by toughness and aggression. Though like much about this series, it’s a slow burn that takes a while to pay off.
I’m not sure whether I prefer the longer DVD version or the shorter broadcast version of the pilot. Taking the whole first episode to get to Mongo was a bit frustrating, but the added character material does help compensate. Not all the characters are particularly worthwhile — Flash’s friend Nick (Panou) and Dale’s producer Joely are fifth wheels who will gradually be phased out (though Joely will return to play a somewhat significant role in the climactic arc), and it’s disappointing that they’re the only nonwhite performers in the main cast. (My biggest criticism of this series is the lack of ethnic diversity in the cast and the tendency to relegate nonwhite actors to cliched roles like best friend, security chief, or exotic sorceress. I like the cast the show had, but I wish it had been as progressive with race as it was with gender.) But it is good to get to know the leads a bit better, and there’s some important exposition in the long version that was missing in the short version. I think the added time is mostly worth it. A lot of the Kendal-based stuff to come feels like padding, but here it mostly works, since it’s laying the foundations.
“Pride”: This episode is divided between a plot on Earth and a mostly independent one on Mongo. In Kendal, Baylin decides to move in with Flash, figuring that since he’s responsible for stranding her, he should put her up. The cold, commanding Baylin doesn’t offer him a choice. But Rankol has sent someone after her: Tyrus (Mark Gibbon), a savage member of the Turin (this show’s equivalent of the comic’s Lion Men), who kills one person and injures another before capturing Baylin, revealing that she’s his bondmate (wife) and property. Baylin gets away, but Tyrus takes Dale hostage to trade for her. Baylin shows a decent streak as she offers to turn herself over for Dale’s freedom, and Flash repays her by helping get rid of Tyrus courtesy of a damaged rift blaster (as Zarkov has dubbed the devices that track and reopen the rifts created by Rankol’s generator). This side of the plot is played mostly for laughs, many of which are lame, but there are some fun bits, including Dale’s immortal utterance, “Alien bondage makes me cranky.” It typifies the problem with the early episodes, the overemphasis on Kendal-based material that’s too insubstantial and feels like padding. Although there’s some important exposition about Baylin and the rifts here, a great deal could’ve easily been cut.
(Also, Zarkov’s credibility is badly undermined by a line suggesting his belief in a link between cell phones and cancer. Any physicist should be aware that the microwave frequencies emitted by cell phones are non-ionizing radiation — it is literally a physical impossibility for them to cause the kind of genetic damage that can lead to cancer.)
The Mongo plot is far more compelling, as well as fleshing out the basics of Mongo far better than the pilot did. Aura is approached by a friend of one of her servants, a woman whose husband was arrested for smuggling pure ice from Frigia (one of the only regions of Mongo whose name wasn’t changed from the comics). But he did it only to treat their sick child, not for profit. Aura appeals to Ming to show compassion, but he’s adamant that the Code must be followed to the letter. The cataclysm, known as the Sorrow, has rendered all of Mongo’s water contaminated except for Ming’s Source well and the ancient “pre-Sorrow” ice of Frigia, and this “gray water” causes mutations and death. Ming insists that his monopoly on distribution is a matter of public health, that his austerity measures are the only way the “denzens” (the show’s term for the people of Mongo, no doubt derived from “denizen”) have survived their hardships. Aura points out that the man risked his life to save his daughter — and wonders, not merely rhetorically, if her own father would do the same for her. We begin to see the complexity and pain that define the Ming-Aura relationship. In the climax, at the execution, Ming seems to show mercy to the family — yet proves his unflinching ruthlessness in enforcing his laws in a very powerful scene that makes a mockery of the goofy stuff going on in Kendal. Aura condemns him as a tyrant, but Ming replies that her compassion would have saved one life while his ruthlessness will save thousands. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a Ming who truly believes that he’s the savior of his people, and that his strict, even tyrannical rule is a necessary defense against death and chaos. He came to power by pulling Mongo out of desperate straits, and the rigid Code he enforced really was necessary in a time of great austerity, but by now he’s let that power go to his head. This is fascinating, inspired stuff, although it’s undermined some by Anna Van Hooft’s limited acting at this stage and by the frequent cutaways to Kendal.
In a way, “Pride” feels like part 3 of the pilot, since so much of it is the establishment of things that were left incomplete or unresolved in the opening 2-parter. It underlines how decompressed the storytelling was at this point. This would change, but not for another few episodes.
The 2007 Flash Gordon series from what was then the SciFi Channel (now Syfy) has a reputation for being a terrible show, one that deserved to be cancelled after its one and only season. And I can totally get why people think that. In its initial conception, it didn’t quite work. The conventional wisdom at the time was that general TV audiences were uncomfortable with space and other worlds and needed a show to be grounded and familiar in order to draw them in, so — perhaps under network instructions — the producers (including Robert Halmi Sr. and Jr. along with developer Peter Hume) tried to turn Flash Gordon into something like Smallville. Rather than rocketing to Mongo and being stranded there, Flash, Dale, and Zarkov lived in the fictional town of Kendal, Maryland (near Washington, DC) and went back and forth to Mongo via dimensional rifts. At first, the show spent more time in Kendal than on Mongo, even though the Mongo stuff was much more interesting. It was seen by viewers as too much of a departure from what Flash Gordon is about. Also, many of the actors started out fairly mediocre, and the budget was tiny so the action and effects were pretty weak. It’s not surprising at all that most viewers quickly bailed on the show.
But here’s the sad thing: After the viewers left due to the show’s early problems, the show fixed its problems and got, in my opinion, really good. About a third of the way through the series, the focus shifted increasingly away from Kendal and toward Mongo, with 12 of the last 15 episodes — and all of the last 9 — being set primarily on Mongo and bringing in more characters and elements from Alex Raymond’s original comics. They moved beyond the cheesy comedy of the early episodes to a deeper, more dramatic approach, but leavened with richer and more effective humor. They realized they couldn’t emphasize action and spectacle with their budget and so they shifted the emphasis to drama, plot intrigue, character development, and worldbuilding, the exploration of ideas and people and relationships. (Although they did later free up enough money to improve the action and effects in the last third or so of the season.) Even the Earth-based episodes got better, with stronger writing and better pacing. The characters worked pretty well from the start: Flash (Eric Johnson) was a smart, creative, compassionate hero; Dale Arden (Gina Holden) was strong, calm, and resourceful; Ming (John Ralston) was a nuanced tyrant who hid his cruelty beneath a facade of benevolence and tough love; and Princess Aura (Anna Van Hooft) was a rich and independent character who underwent extensive growth over the season and had a compellingly contentious and nuanced relationship with her father. (Really, the female leads on this show were so strong and dynamic that they sometimes overshadowed Flash himself.) Original characters Baylin (Karen Cliche) and Rankol (Jonathan Lloyd Walker) started out fairly straightforwardly as, respectively, a tough bounty hunter and Ming’s chief scientist, but both developed greater nuance and depth over time, with Rankol in particular revealing much complexity in his agendas and loyalties. And the acting got better in many cases as the players grew into their roles and were given meatier material. The last 2/3 of the series are mostly good, often excellent, with occasional moments of brilliance.
But by the time it got good, hardly anyone was watching, and so all this quality storytelling went largely unnoticed. The show vanished into obscurity and was remembered as a disaster when it was remembered at all. It was on Hulu for a while, but then it disappeared, and for a time I feared I’d never get to see it again.
Fortunately, the show has now been released on DVD in the United States (as of April 2013, though I only recently found out), and due to the low demand, it’s very inexpensive. I was able to get it on Amazon for under 10 bucks. So I wanted to take this opportunity to review the series on disc and highlight its merits, the reasons why this is a series worth buying and watching through to the end (and it does have effective closure in the finale, feeling like a complete and satisfying story, while still leaving room for a continuation). I’ll acknowledge its flaws as well, but I believe it’s worth sitting through the less interesting stuff in the early episodes if you know there’s better stuff coming later.
And by the way, I’m not the only reviewer who thinks this. I found some interesting quotes on the show’s Wikipedia page. Anthony Brown in TV Zone wrote, “the series continues to improve, and you start to see the meaning in the producers’ madness — they must have hoped they could lull passing viewers into watching Sci-Fi with pedestrian, mainstream plots, before building up a world of Dune-like complexity…which might even have worked if the early episodes hadn’t been so dire that no-one but reviewers are still watching.” In a later issue, the magazine added, “…while the early episodes are dire…this is one series that does eventually — and we mean eventually — reward patience and endurance.”
I think they’re overstating the “eventually”; as far as I’m concerned, all but one of the bad episodes are on Disc One of the 4-DVD set. It can be a bit of a trudge to get through that one (though it has one moment of brilliance in episode 3), but once you get to Disc Two, the show comes together quickly and the intricate worldbuilding and intrigue on Mongo start shifting into high gear.
Although if I’m being frank about the flaws, I have to say that the DVD set itself isn’t very impressive. The 22 episodes are crammed onto only four discs — 6 each on the first two, 5 each on the last two — and the audio and image quality are occasionally somewhat lacking. The packaging is bizarre, with all four discs stacked on a single spindle; I immediately transferred them to empty jewel cases for long-term storage. The front cover image shows Flash in a costume he wore only once, in “Ascension,” by far the least representative episode of the series. Also, the back cover text mistakenly refers to Kendal, MD as “a peaceful Pacific town” — which is not only geographically erroneous but etymologically redundant. There are no bonus features, except for one thing: Sci-Fi edited the 2-part pilot down into a single episode that ran 90 minutes with commercials, but the DVDs feature the full uncut 2-parter (which is why it lists 22 episodes instead of the 21 that were aired), so there’s about 20 minutes of new material here.
Now, normally in these review series I do the season overview after the episode reviews, but since my goal here is to convince people that the series is worth watching, I’ll start out here with a spoiler-light look at the series as a whole, giving brief summaries and assessments to provide a sense of how the series evolved in focus and quality over time. I’ll be giving episode ratings on a scale of 5, something I don’t usually bother with but which is useful in this case. Here goes:
1-2. “Pilot” ***
Flash Gordon, his ex-girlfriend Dale Arden, and eccentric scientist Hans Zarkov discover that Ming, ruler of Mongo, is sending probes and operatives to Earth through dimensional rifts, and that Flash’s scientist father, long thought dead, may be alive on Mongo. Princess Aura follows Flash to Earth in pursuit of a secret his father held, and Ming’s top bounty hunter Baylin is sent to retrieve her.
A mediocre beginning, but with potential. Too Earthbound to feel like Flash Gordon yet, but an adequate alien-infiltration story. The cast doesn’t shine in terms of acting, but they’re an appealing bunch.
3. “Pride” ***1/2
Flash helps Baylin win her freedom from the cruel Turin (Lion Man) who owned her on Mongo, and Aura pleads with Ming to show mercy to a water smuggler.
A weak but necessary setup for the Baylin character on Earth is balanced by an excellent Mongo-side story that fleshes out the world (a post-apocalyptic society where Ming controls the only safe water supply) and the characters much better than the pilot did and culminates with the series’s first moment of brilliance (and, sadly, the last one for a while). A terrific episode for establishing Princess Aura and her complex relationship with Ming.
4. “Infestation” ***
When Flash’s best friend Nick is bitten by a deadly insect from Mongo, Flash must travel there to win a cure before it’s too late, while Dale must keep Nick miserable to save his life.
The comic-relief plot on Earth is weak and unnecessary, but the Mongo side feels like a real Flash Gordon adventure, as Flash begins to live up to his traditional heroic role and win the trust and respect of Mongo’s peoples.
5. “Assassin” **1/2
When Flash believes his father has returned from Mongo, it turns out to be part of a plan to kill everyone involved with Dr. Gordon’s rift research.
An almost fully Earthbound story, but the most adequate Earthside plot since the pilot. Important to the arc, but not a good showing for Flash, who’s reduced to a comic-relief second banana to Baylin.
6. “Ascension” *
Flash and Baylin return to Mongo to free a boy abducted by the Dactyl (Hawkmen), only to learn he’s the long-lost son of their leader Vultan.
The one irredeemably bad episode, failing on almost every level, but also the end of the series’ initial run of mediocrity.
7. “Life Source” ***1/2
The gang must stop a seductive “black widow” killer from Mongo, and tensions heat up between Flash and Dale’s cop fiance Joe.
The most effective Earthbound story yet, and also the last one to spend so little time on Mongo. A cliched premise, but with effective character work and humor, and Flash gets to be more heroic again.
8. “Alliances” ****
Flash, Baylin, and Zarkov try to help Baylin’s people, the Verden, solve a water shortage. But their leader Barin (Steve Bacic) feels he must negotiate with Ming for water rations, and Aura, who’s been pushing to get involved in politics, finds herself unwillingly betrothed to Barin.
This, the start of a 3-part arc, is where the series finds its voice and becomes the show it will be for the rest of its run. The worldbuilding and political intrigue on Mongo kick into high gear and become far more central from here on, while on Earth we get some very worthwhile character-building between Dale and Flash’s mother Norah. The writing and characterization are much stronger than before.
9. “Revelations” ****
When the gang sneaks into Ming’s capital Nascent City in search of a way home, Zarkov is arrested, and he and Flash meet a prisoner with disheartening news about Flash’s father. Meanwhile, Aura chafes against her arranged marriage, and Norah cautions Dale against letting Flash dig too deeply into his father’s fate.
Another really solid one that nicely fleshes out the characters, particularly Flash, Aura, Ming, and Norah Gordon. Anna Van Hooft (Aura) begins to show a marked improvement in her acting. Guest-starring Sam J. Jones, lead of the 1980 Flash Gordon feature film.
10. “‘Til Death” ***1/2
Aura uses a love potion on Flash in hopes of getting out of her marriage, leading Ming to order a battle to the death between Flash and Barin.
Starts out with reasonably effective comedy, then takes a more dramatic turn toward the end, doing more nifty stuff with the Aura-Ming relationship. Has a couple of plot holes, but it’s the culmination of the Mongo worldbuilding to date and makes it finally feel like a rich, fleshed-out, multicultural society.
11. “Conspiracy Theory” ***1/2
Rankol abducts Zarkov and tries to persuade him they must work together to halt the dimensional degradation caused by the rifts. Meanwhile, Dale must try to kill the story when someone gets video of a rift opening, but a disreputable rival reporter has already gotten wind of it — putting Flash and Dale in jeopardy when a government spook comes after them.
The last primarily Earthbound/comedic episode, but more effective than most previous ones and important to the overall arc. And there’s interesting and important stuff happening on Mongo as well, as Zarkov finds his loyalties tested.
12. “Random Access” ***1/2
While Zarkov tries to stabilize the increasingly erratic rifts, Dale’s fiance Joe is sucked to Mongo with Flash and discovers the whole truth. Meanwhile, Dale and Baylin must cope with an unexpected crisis.
This is a clip show, but a surprisingly effective one. The story is genuinely important to the arc, the clips are logically set up and fairly brief and unobtrusive, and the original material is solid.
13. “Secrets and Lies” ****
Flash tries to prevent a war between two tribes on Mongo, and is surprised to learn that Ming has called a peace summit to do the same. Meanwhile, Joe tries to get his captain to believe him about Mongo, and he forces Dale into an impossible spot.
A solid episode, further fleshing out Mongo’s intricate politics and Ming’s ruthlessness. And Flash has never been more heroic, intervening in a situation where he has no personal stake simply because he wants to save lives. Also features the last appearance of Flash’s Earthside friend Nick, fittingly, for the show becomes overwhelmingly Mongo-centric from here on out.
14. “The Sorrow” *****
Flash and Dale accompany Baylin to Mongo for their most important holy day, only to find her people’s shrine desecrated by grave robbers who take them prisoner. Meanwhile, as Ming commemorates the day, Aura is attracted to a lowly performer, drawing Ming’s disapproval and leading to shocking consequences.
The description sounds underwhelming, but this is the most brilliant episode of the series, doing a magnificent job of fleshing out Mongo’s history and culture. The costume design is lavish and gorgeous, and the direction and editing on the key montage sequence are intensely powerful. And Ming’s cruelty toward his people and his daughter has never been so chillingly displayed.
15. “Stand and Deliver” ****
Flash & co. try to free Verden slaves taken by Ming and find Barin trying to do the same. Ming becomes concerned that a prophecy spells his downfall unless he destroys Barin. Meanwhile, Dale has a meeting of minds with Ming.
While it has some conceptual problems, this is a good continuation of the arc, and notable as the first episode set entirely on Mongo. All the characters are impressive, notably Flash for his ingenuity and Aura for her growing political cunning.
16. “Possession” **
The gang follows Joe to Mongo, where he’s gone to find proof but ends up getting in deep trouble. While searching, Dale is possessed by the spirit of a witch who intends to claim her body forever.
The only real dud in the final 2/3 of the series. While it has some important developments with Joe’s storyline, the rest is an odd digression and doesn’t really work.
17. “Thicker Than Water” ****
Flash meets Terek, leader of the mutated Deviates, who are struggling for the right to exist and be accepted. Flash arranges a meeting between Terek and Aura, only to be betrayed. But Aura discovers an unexpected connection with Terek.
An effective beginning to a new storyline that will continue through the remainder of the season. It seems a bit out of the blue, and may have been a replacement for the originally planned arc, but still works pretty well and effectively escalates the stakes of the series. Ming’s reaction to Aura’s abduction is nicely ambiguous.
18. “Ebb and Flow” *****
Ming steals the water from Lake Kendal, and Flash’s attempts to retrieve it lead to intense confrontations and a shocking loss. Meanwhile, Aura convinces Ming to give her greater responsibility and uses the opportunity to press for Deviate rights.
The second-best episode of the series, with great character work and a powerful climax. Flash is at his most heroic and impressive here, and the action and effects are greatly improved from earlier in the season.
19. “Blame” ****
When Terek is blamed for spreading a lethal poison, Flash tries to find the antidote and clear his name, but he will need Aura’s help to succeed. Meanwhile, Baylin, Dale, and Zarkov confront the scientist responsible for the previous episode’s tragic events.
A solid continuation of the arc, undermined a bit by the appearance of an overacted and incongruously Jamaican-accented sorceress. Aura is at her best here, outgrowing the pampered princess once and for all.
20. “A Cold Day in Hell” ***1/2
Flash is sent to the Frigian wastes to perform a task he must fulfill to be accepted as Mongo’s prophesied savior — but when his friends come to his aid, the prophecy becomes less clear. Meanwhile, Dale makes a fateful decision that takes her back to Earth.
A decent, mostly standalone adventure that feels like a classic Flash Gordon sort of tale, but comes off as a digression from the main arc. Still, it’s a nice palate cleanser before the big finish.
21/22. “Revolution” ****
The cantons of Mongo are united and ready to revolt openly against Ming, and Flash and his friends plan to take out the rift generator once and for all. Backed into a corner, betrayed by the people closest to him, Ming only becomes more dangerous and enraged. When the war erupts, Flash and his friends and family are caught in the middle.
A satisfying conclusion to the arc, bringing every major plot and character thread to a resolution. While it leaves room for a continuation that never came, it doesn’t lack for closure. The action is limited by the budget, but that just puts the focus more on character and story where it belongs. Flash is unfortunately somewhat marginalized for much of the story, but he gets his climactic confrontation with Ming.
Starting tomorrow, I’ll begin more detailed episode-by-episode reviews (3-4 episodes per post), which will have a fair number of spoilers.
Upcoming4.me, which bills itself as “an online speculative fiction magazine featuring best content from leading quality publishers and independent authors,” recently asked me to write an essay for their “Story Behind” column, in which authors discuss the genesis of their novels. I’ve talked about the convoluted creative process behind Only Superhuman before on this blog and elsewhere, but on thinking back for this new essay, I managed to find some things to say that I haven’t mentioned before. You can read the essay here:
“The Adriatic Express Affair”: A bottle show aboard a train is a nice way to save money on sets while having some international intrigue and bringing an eclectic group of characters together. Here, Solo and Kuryakin are after, they think, a THRUSH scientist who’s developed a sample of a substance that would “interfere with the reproductive process,” as Waverly puts it — though he doesn’t clarify whether this means sterility or some sort of anti-Viagra, but I assume the former since they talk about it ending all life on Earth within a few generations. The McGuffin is somewhere aboard the Adriatic Express, a nonstop train from Vienna to Venice. The episode opens with our boys at the station looking for the THRUSH doctor, and does that Judgment at Nuremburg thing (or, as it’s better known now, that Hunt for Red October thing, or maybe that Star Trek VI thing) where we’re shown the characters at the train station speaking German, then we pull in on Solo’s face to establish his POV (with a train whistle to bridge the audio transition), then cut back to the same characters speaking English (i.e. we accept that they’re “really” speaking German and the TV is magically translating for our benefit). It’s a nice stylistic touch, and there’s another one where the person our boys think they’re following magically disappears behind a group of passersby while our boys close in on him from either side. Realistically there’s no way David McCallum didn’t see exactly where the actor went, but I watched the shot frame by frame more than once and I don’t have a clue where the actor went, so yeah, that was clever.
Anyway, several other characters are established as passengers, primarily Mme. Olga Nemirovitch (Jessie Royce Landis), an aging glamour diva and cosmetics mogul, and 19-year-old Eva (Juliet Mills, actually 24 at the time), the innocent of the week, who’s desperately trying to deliver Olga’s chocolates to her after the man she assisted, who in turn was Olga’s assistant, was struck by a taxi en route to the station. Eva ends up getting stuck on the nonstop train thanks in part to Solo and Illya forcing their way aboard, so they aren’t off to a great start. There’s also a rather striking blond model (Jennifer Billingsley) who’s in a party mood and has a thing for Illya, as well as being totally carefree and oblivious about all the dangerous stuff that ensues later on. Oh, and an American tourist who keeps stumbling upon the dead bodies that Illya tries to hide in the ladies’ room for some reason.
Anyway, it turns out the guy they were chasing onto the train — who had an unconvincing fake beard — wasn’t the doctor who invented the deadly virus, but some minor THRUSH functionary who had a crisis of conscience and was trying to get the virus away from his boss — who turns out to be Mme. Olga. When Solo makes amends with Eva and then meets Olga through her, he tries to convince Olga to side with UNCLE rather than THRUSH (though speaking implicitly, for innocent Eva is dining with them), but she tells him that not only has she been loyal to THRUSH for over 42 years, the whole organization was her idea in the first place. This bombshell is never followed up on. Anyway, once alone with Eva, Olga convinces the girl that Solo is the evil THRUSH agent and tries to turn her into a seductress, giving her a gun which she assures Eva will only fire knockout gas, but which is rigged to fire bullets in both directions and kill Eva and Solo alike. Solo is surprisingly unaffected by the teenager’s clumsy seduction — I guess he has some limits after all — and saves them both from the gun. Then he and Illya attempt to find the virus capsule, and it’s quite easy to guess where it is (I’ve given you all the clues, Gentle Reader), but of course our guys don’t figure it out until the end.
Not a great episode, clunky in some respects, but not bad either. It’s interesting to see the innocent being used by both sides, as it were, although you never get the sense that Olga’s plan to use her poses any real danger to Solo. And the “intrigue among a diverse group of travelers” idea never really comes together, since most of them are just background players who have a couple of gags to embellish the main plot. Still, the way this season is going, I’m glad to see an episode that’s devoid of any major failings.
“The Yukon Affair”: The show must have been running out of ethnic groups to stereotype offensively, because this week it’s Inuit, aka “Eskimos.” G. Emory Partridge (George Sanders), the wannabe old-fashioned British feudal lord from last season’s “The Gazebo in the Maze Affair,” has established a new petty fiefdom (without Jeanette Nolan as his wife this time) in the Yukon, where he’s uncovered a superdense, highly magnetic mineral — called “Quadrillennium X,” because most TV writers are not geologists — that could somehow allow THRUSH to control the seas and airways, I guess by disrupting navigation. He plans to sell it to THRUSH, but rather unwisely tips UNCLE off by having his men try to assassinate Solo with a chunk of the stuff, using his trademark pear tree (as in “A Partridge in…”) as a calling card. Luckily UNCLE has a geology computer that can instantly identify the exact coordinates where an otherwise completely unfamiliar mineral sample originated, because this is the 1960s and computers are magic oracles. But no sooner do Solo and Illya surface from the submarine that brings them that they’re captured by Eskimos. Luckily, their headman’s daughter, Murphy, is half-Caucasian and educated at McGill, so she’s properly Westernized and therefore the only good member of a tribe which she herself calls primitive. The only thing that keeps this from being totally offensive is that the actress they cast, Tianne Gabrielle, is not a white actress in brownface but genuinely looks the part — though I can find no other screen credits or information about her online, so I can’t be sure of her actual ethnicity.
Anyway, the episode is mostly a bunch of back-and-forth captures,escapes, and mutual outwittings, with Partridge abetted by the headman and locals along with his icily lovely blonde niece Victoria (Marian Thompson), who may not be as loyal to the family as she appears, and with Murphy siding with the UNCLE boys as they try to destroy the Chemical X before THRUSH arrives to collect it. It’s not an improvement on the previous Partridge episode, which was pretty mediocre to begin with. Its main virtue is that both female guests are quite attractive in nicely contrasting ways. And there’s some mild metatextual amusement in seeing George Sanders hanging around in the Yukon in an episode aired just six weeks before his appearance as the original Mr. Freeze on Batman. (The comics character was previously named Mr. Zero, which was changed to follow the TV show’s lead, so yes, he was the original Mr. Freeze.) Oh, and speaking of dates, there’s a bit of an anomaly with the dating here, since a couple of lines indicate that Partridge last clashed with the UNCLE boys years earlier and disappeared more than a year before the episode, even though his first episode aired less than nine months earlier. Well, that’s ’60s TV (non)continuity for you.
“The Very Important Zombie Affair”: I was wrong, they haven’t run out of cultures to insult. This week it’s Caribbean vodoun society, or “voodoo,” with all the voodoo-doll and zombie stereotypes, with the dictator who rules through the power of voodoo curses, El Supremo, being implausibly played by Claude Akins. Yup, Sheriff Lobo as a Caribbean dictator. Solo and Illya are trying to deliver Sheriff Voodoo’s leading (and badly acted) political rival, Delgado (Ken Renard), to a conference to denounce him when a voodoo-doll package is delivered and traps him in a trance. His wife then takes him back to Unnamed Caribbean Country to try to get him cured by a voodoo priestess, and the men from UNCLE go to retrieve him. They run afoul of Sheriff Voodoo’s enforcer Ramirez (Rodolfo Acosta), and recruit the help of the innocent, a vacuous blonde named Suzy (Linda Gaye Scott), a manicurist who’s terrified of El Supremo but forced to stay because he likes her work. She’s played with a ridiculously overdone Southern accent — she uses “y’all” as a singular pronoun, which is not unheard of but rare, so in this case I’d call it just one more lazy stereotype to add to the list.
I’m hard pressed to remember anything in particular about the plot, except that it’s another bunch of captures and escapes and evasions as they try to get to Delgado and evade Ramirez’s attempts to expel, arrest, or murder them in that order, plus an annoying scene of Akins pretending he had mixed ethnicity despite his blue eyes and talking about how the jungle drums ran through his veins and he had no patience for “your civilization,” since of course civilization is something white people invented, right? This show is really starting to get on my nerves.
Aside from a moderately enjoyable scene of Suzy wrapped in a towel that isn’t very well secured, the only real point of interest in this episode is a new, but mediocre, Gerald Fried score.
“The Dippy Blonde Affair”: Uh-oh. A sexist stereotype in the title and a script by Peter Allan Fields. Should I be worried? Well, it’s not too misogynistic, I guess. The titular blonde is Jojo (Joyce Jameson), who’s dating THRUSH engineer Pendleton (Fabrizio Mioni) and attracts the interest of his boss, Baldonado (Robert Strauss), who checks up on Pendleton as he’s completing a pair of devices that will enhance an “ion projector” weapon to lethal intensity. Or rather, a scientist working for Pendleton perfects the spherical devices and then gets shot for his trouble, an act witnessed by Jojo. Meanwhile, Solo has infiltrated the house and gets himself captured (in an awkward bit of editing, the teaser ends mid-fight and then Act I opens with the revelation that Solo lost the fight). As a test of Jojo’s loyalty, Pendleton insists that either she kill Solo for him or he’ll kill her. While she’s led a dissolute life of petty crime, she’s never killed before, and is relieved when Illya’s stunt double barges in and beats up Pendleton’s stunt double. She fills the UNCLE agents in on the location of the spheres, to Pendleton’s disgust.
On later interrogation, Pendleton sneaks a suicide pill, and with his dying breath, asks to be shipped home to his family in Riverside. Needing to find the ion projector, Solo and Waverly recruit Jojo to infiltrate the THRUSH cell. She approaches two of Baldonado’s men, Max (actor/director James Frawley) and Eddie (Rex Holman), and wins their trust by “killing” Illya when he confronts them. This gets her in with Baldonado, whose attraction she’s happy to cultivate, since it entails lavishing her with gifts and money. But Max grows impatient with his boss’s romantic preoccupation. It turns out that the Riverside cemetery is actually the THRUSH base, and the plan was to revive Pendleton with an antidote to his death-feigning pill. (I was amused to see Frawley’s character “directing” the fake mourners before the funeral. It was shortly after this that Frawley would make his TV-directing debut with The Monkees, the beginning of a directorial career that would span over 40 years and would include directing The Muppet Movie.) But the aging, lonely Baldonado is falling in love with Jojo and wants Pendleton to stay dead, an order that sits poorly with Max, and that he and Eddie decide to override, more afraid of Baldonado’s THRUSH masters than of the man himself.
But when Illya gets himself trapped by the bad guys (and Max recognizes him as the agent Jojo “killed,” proving that she’s working for UNCLE), Solo confronts Baldonado and threatens to kill Jojo if he doesn’t order Illya freed. This leads to a final confrontation in which Baldonado’s own blind devotion to Jojo causes him to sabotage his own side’s plan and shoot his own men, and in which Solo is pretty much useless since he’s making out in the car with Jojo, leaving Illya to mop up Baldonado on his own — in the rain, no less. Sometimes Solo is a real jerk.
There’s some good dialogue in this episode, and some moments that work well, but there are also some awkward bits of scripting, directing, and editing, and the guest cast aside from Frawley is fairly unimpressive. There’s a decent, jazzy new score by Robert Drasnin, though.
“The Deadly Goddess Affair”: In North Africa, Solo eavesdrops on an awkwardly expository discussion involving the implausibly named Col. Hubris (Victor Buono), revealing THRUSH’s plan to send him a courier pouch containing money and McGuffin files via robot plane, which he will trigger to release the cargo using a remote control that he thinks is unique, except UNCLE has intercepted the plans and built their own. Solo and Illya arrange to bring the cargo down on the Mediterranean “Island of Circe,” some sort of generic pan-Mediterranean land where everyone has Italian names and accents despite the implied Grecian heritage. (Never mind that Circe’s island was actually called Aeaea, and was mythical.) The boys from UNCLE get caught up in a rather silly intrigue involving local marital customs: local girl Mia (Brioni Farrell) wants to marry local cop Luca (a very young Daniel J. Travanti giving a very bad performance), but custom demands that her older sister Angela (Marya Stevens) marry first — but even though Angela’s knock-down gorgeous, no local man will marry her without a dowry her father can’t afford. But Solo mentioned that Americans don’t need dowries, so that gives Mia an idea. (And yes, they refer to Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin as an “American.”) She and Luca literally force our heroes at gunpoint to play suitors to Angela, preventing them from intercepting the courier pouch they’ve just brought down. Then Col. Hubris comes looking for the pouch and it’s all kind of a mess from there, but it ends up with Solo and Illya wearing fezzes now, because fezzes are cool.
This is a really ineptly written and ineptly made episode. I couldn’t even watch it in one sitting, it was so boring. There’s a scene where our heroes are operating their robot-plane-intercepting equipment at what’s supposed to be an ancient lovers’ lane that has “X loves Y” grafitti dating back from modern times to Roman times — yet all the inscriptions that are supposedly from different centuries, in different languages, are all painted on the face of a single boulder in the same handwriting, and so large that there’s only room for the three inscriptions that our characters read out loud. It’s incredibly sloppy and thoughtless work, and exemplifies the problems with this episode and, really, with the season as a whole. They just don’t seem to be trying very hard.
The score is credited to Fried, and at least some of it seems to be new. He’s starting to sound more like his familiar self now.
“The Birds and the Bees Affair”: Solo and Illya find that UNCLE HQ in Geneva (behind a Swiss watch shop rather than the usual tailor shop) has had all its personnel wiped out by some kind of lethal insect attack, which turns out to be a special strain of killer bees engineered by THRUSH — bees which, conveniently for the special-effects department, are so small as to be effectively invisible.They’re the work of Dr. Swan (John Abbott), an entomologist whose compulsive gambling enables THRUSH operative Mozart (John McGiver) to co-opt his services in exchange for money. But they need a special variety of honey only sold at a few health-food stores, including one where Illya meets Tavia (Ahna Capri), a lovely clerk whom Mozart tries to recruit as a dance instructor at the dance studio that THRUSH operates because of course it does. Illya somehow convinces her to infiltrate the studio, then comes in as a client to arrange a lesson with her and stupidly gives exposition about her mission in the bugged studio, leading to their capture and torture until Illya agrees to help Mozart get the bees into UNCLE’s New York HQ’s ventilation system. Illya knocks out a guard to get one of the triangular badges that are necessary to wear inside HQ to keep an alarm from sounding, yet Mozart is inexplicably able to get in without having a badge — and then just as inexplicably is wearing a badge later in the scene. UNCLE has been watching the whole time, but Mozart gets away by threatening to release the killer bees into the city; Illya’s plan is a failure. But Solo has managed to get Swan’s help to track the bees in exchange for promising to return them to him. Eventually Illya manages to redeem himself by finding a way to contain the invisible bees when Mozart releases them in the climactic fight.
This wasn’t as bad as the last one, but it wasn’t very good. Capri is lovely to look at, but her character serves little purpose beyond random damsel in distress, and she isn’t much of an actress. In the scene where she’s held captive and being threatened with torture, she shows about as much facial expression as a Vulcan. John McGiver’s urbane Mr. Mozart is fairly entertaining, although urbane, well-spoken THRUSH operatives are a well-worn cliche by this point. The score is stock from Drasnin’s library, and at one point the Oliver Nelson-esque action music I mentioned liking in “The Tigers Are Coming Affair” is oddly enough used as a bossa nova record that Illya and Tavia dance to. It’s nice to hear that cue again, but that’s an odd way to use it.
The main appeal of this episode, though, is in its opening minutes, as director Alvin Ganzer uses effectively unusual camera angles — looking down from the rafters or up from knee level — to make the scenes of the corpse-filled Geneva HQ feel unnerving and off-kilter, and also to differentiate it from the New York HQ, which of course is the exact same set.