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Realism in space: EUROPA REPORT and GRAVITY (spoiler reviews)

November 12, 2013 11 comments

In the past few days I’ve seen two recent movies that took an unusually realistic approach to portraying spaceflight: Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report (which I watched on my computer via Netflix) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (which I watched in the theater). It’s very rare to get two movies in such close succession that make an attempt to portray space realistically, and I hope it’s the beginning of a trend. Although both movies did compromise their realism in different ways.

Europa Report is a “found-footage” movie presented as a documentary about the first crewed expedition to Jupiter’s moon Europa to investigate hints of life. It’s rare among such movies in that not only is the found-footage format well-justified and plausibly presented, but it’s actually thematically important to the film. On the surface, the plot follows the beats of a fairly standard horror movie: characters come to an unfamiliar place, start to suspect there’s something out there in the dark, and fall prey to something unseen one by one. But what’s fascinating about it is that it doesn’t feel like horror, because these characters want to be there, are willing to risk or sacrifice their lives for the sake of knowledge, and see the discovery of something unknown in the dark as a triumph rather than a terror. And that elevates it above the formula it superficially follows. It’s really a nifty work of science fiction in that it celebrates the importance of the scientific process itself, and the value of human exploration in space even when it comes at the cost of human lives.

The depiction of the ship, its flight, the onboard procedures, and the behavior of the astronauts is all handled very believably, with a well-designed and realistic spaceship relying on rotation to create artificial gravity. The actors, including Sharlto Copley, Daniel Wu, Anamaria Marinca, Christian Camargo, House‘s Karolina Wydra, and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol‘s Michael Nyqvist, are effectively naturalistic and nuanced. The film’s low budget means they can only manage a limited number of microgravity or spacewalking shots, but what we get is reasonably believable. I do have some quibbles about procedures, though, like the lack of spacesuit maneuvering units during the spacewalk, and the decision later on Europa to send one crewperson out on the surface alone without backup. Really, a lot of the bad things that happened seemed to be avoidable. But I’m willing to excuse it since this was portrayed as a private space venture and the first of its kind. Now, I’m a big supporter of private enterprise getting into the space business, since history shows that development and settlement of a frontier doesn’t really take off until private enterprise gets involved and starts making a profit from it. And I’m sure that private space ventures in real life take every safety precaution they can. But for the sake of the fiction, it’s plausible that a novice organization might let a few safety procedures slide here and there.

The one thing about the film that really bugged me is one that’s pervasive in film and TV set in space and largely unavoidable: namely, once the crew landed on Europa, they were moving around in what was clearly full Earth gravity. Europa’s gravity is 13.4 percent of Earth’s, a few percent less than the Moon’s gravity, so they should’ve been moving around like the Apollo astronauts. Unfortunately, it seems to be much harder for Hollywood to simulate low gravity than microgravity. I’ve rarely seen it done well, and all too often filmmakers or TV producers are content to assume that all surface gravity is equal. In this case I suppose it’s a forgivable break from reality given the film’s small budget, but it’s the one big disappointment in an otherwise very believable and well-researched portrayal of spaceflight. Still, it’s a minor glitch in a really excellent movie.

Gravity is a very different film, much more about visual spectacle and action. Indeed, I’d read that it definitely needed to be seen in 3D to get the full impact, so I decided to take a chance. See, nearly 30 years ago I had some laser surgery for a melanoma in my left eye, and that left my vision in that eye distorted, on top of my congenitally blurry vision in that eye. So normally my depth perception isn’t all that great, and I tend to be unable to perceive 3D images like those Magic Eye pictures that were a fad not long after my surgery. So I’ve always assumed that I wouldn’t be able to experience 3D movies. But a few years back, I talked to a friend who had similar eye problems, and he said he could occasionally get some sense of depth from a 3D movie. So for this case, I decided to give it a try. And lo and behold, it worked! I could actually perceive depth fairly normally, though mainly just when there was a considerable difference in range, like when something passed really close to the camera, or in the shots of Sandra Bullock receding into the infinite depths of space (which were the key shots where you pretty much need 3D to get the full impact). I’m not sure if someone with normal vision could perceive more than I did, but it worked pretty well, considering that I wasn’t sure if it would work at all. There were occasionally some shots where I got a double image when something bright was against black space, but the double image persisted when I closed one eye, so I think it was a matter of the glasses filtering out the second image imperfectly. Anyway, it’s nice to know I can see 3D movies (and I didn’t get a headache or nausea either), though it costs a few bucks extra, so I’ll probably use this newfound freedom judiciously — for movies where the 3D is really done well and serves a purpose, rather than just capitalizing on a fad or being sloppily tacked on.

Anyway, as for the movie itself, it’s a technical tour de force, one big ongoing special effect that uses remarkably realistic CGI to create the illusion of minutes-long unbroken shots of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock floating in space and interacting seamlessly with each other and their environs. The technical aspects of NASA procedures and equipment and so forth seem to be very realistically handled as well. And best of all, the movie states right up front in the opening text that in space there’s nothing to carry sound, and it sticks by that religiously, never giving into the temptation to use sound effects in vacuum no matter how cataclysmic things get and how many things crash or blow up. The only sounds we hear when the viewpoint astronauts are in vacuum are those that they could hear over their radios or through the fabric of their suits when they touch something. It’s utterly glorious. Every science-fiction sound designer in Hollywood needs to study this film religiously.

The behavior of objects and fluids in microgravity is moderately well-handled too, although I’m not convinced the fire in the ISS would spread as quickly as shown, since fires in space tend to snuff themselves out with no convection to carry away the carbon dioxide buildup. But there were glimpses of what seemed like ruptured gas canisters spewing blue flame, so maybe they were oxygen canisters feeding the fire? I also wasn’t convinced by the scene where Bullock’s character wept and the tears sort of rolled away from her eyes and drifted off. I think surface tension would cause the tears to cling around her eyes unless she brushed them away.

One thing that both films handle quite realistically is the coolness of trained professionals in a crisis. In both Europa Report and Gravity, for the most part the astronauts keep a calm and level tone of voice as they report their crises. In real life, professionals generally don’t get all shouty and dramatic when bad things happen, but they fall back on procedure and training and discipline and rely on those things to see them through. And that’s what we mostly get in both these movies, although Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity has more panicky moments because she’s not as well-trained as the other astronauts. I’m not sure it’s entirely plausible that they would’ve let her go into space without sufficient training to accustom her to it, but it’s balanced by Clooney’s calm under pressure.

However… all that realism of detail in Gravity masks the fact that the basic premise of the movie requires fudging quite a bit about the physics, dimensions, and probabilities of orbital spaceflight. The crisis begins when an accidental satellite explosion starts a chain reaction that knocks out all the other satellites and creates a huge debris storm that tears apart the space shuttle and later endangers the ISS. Now, yes, true, orbital debris poses a serious risk of impact, but we’re still talking about small bits spread out over a vast volume. In all probability a shuttle or station would be hit by maybe one large piece of debris at most, not this huge oncoming swarm tearing the whole thing to pieces. And the probability of the same thing happening to two structures as a result of the same debris swarm? Much, much tinier. Not to mention that I really, really doubt the fragments as shown could impart enough kinetic energy to these spacecraft to knock them into the kind of spins we see. It’s all very exaggerated for the sake of spectacle. And by the climactic minutes of the film it’s starting to feel a bit repetitive and ridiculous that everything just keeps going so consistently wrong over and over. (The film also simplifies orbital mechanics a great deal, suggesting you can catch up with another orbiting craft just by pointing directly at it and thrusting forward. Since you and it are already moving very fast on curved paths, it’s really not that simple.)

Gravity has a huge edge over Europa Report in its budget and thus its ability to portray microgravity; I wish ER had been able to use this level of technology to simulate Europa’s 0.134g in its surface scenes. But as impressive as Gravity‘s commitment to realism is in some respects, it’s ultimately a far shallower film than ER and cheats the physics in much bigger ways for the sake of contrived action and danger. It’s essentially a big dumb disaster movie disguised with a brilliantly executed veneer of naturalism. Gravity has the style, while Europa Report has the substance.

Now what we need is for someone to put the two together, and we could really be onto something.

Revisiting FLASH GORDON (2007): Episodes 19-22: Revolution and resolution (spoilers)

“Blame”: Last time, Flash helped distribute the stolen Earth water freely to all the cantons, but let Terek take credit for it in hopes that it would improve the Deviates’ reputation. But Ming has poisoned the water and turned the cantons against the Deviates. Flash rushes to warn Terek while the others seek to apprehend Lenu and find out what she did to Joe. When Flash arrives, Terek is attacked by the Turin, who inexplicably are led not by Thun (the one major comics protagonist who does not appear in this series) but by a new character named Bolgar (Shawn Reis). However, the Turin makeup has evolved; Tyrus in “Pride” was just a hairy guy with wild eyes, but these Turin have leonine makeup appliances on their brows and nasal ridges and tawnier hair/manes, actually looking like Lion Men, and symbolizing how much more the show is now embracing Flash Gordon tropes. (Maybe Tyrus was adopted into the tribe?) Although it makes it odd that such inhuman-looking denzens would hate Deviates for looking abnormal — but then, prejudice is about what you’re used to, not what’s logical. Anyway, Flash wields his usual diplomacy and convinces Bolgar to let him seek an antidote as an alternative to killing Terek. Bolgar forces Flash to drink the poisoned water himself to give him a personal stake. Flash goes to Vestra of the Omadrians for help, only to find that Aura has done the same. All Vestra can do, though, is point them to Esmeline (Samantha Kaine), the outcast Omadrian who created the poison, and who demands much of Flash and Aura in exchange for the antidote. (Oddly, Esmeline is portrayed like a caricature of a Jamaican vodoun priestess, even though all the other Omadrians have generic North American accents.) Meanwhile, Vestra goes to tend to Terek, who realizes that she’s his mother, and therefore Aura’s mother as well — though Vestra swore a blood oath to Ming that would render Aura’s life forfeit if Vestra ever tells her the truth. (It’s never clarified whether the mechanism of death would be something magical or simply an execution.)

This is a good episode for Aura.  She really gets to show how she’s grown over the season, and gets in on the action too, proving herself a worthy ally to Flash at last. Plus we get some important revelations about her family. Not to mention about Zarkov and Dale as they interrogate Lenu. Zarkov proves himself cannier than we — or Lenu — would expect, at first seeming to fall for her deceptions but then turning out to be the one tricking her. And the grieving Dale shows a scary side. It’s weird to see Baylin being the voice of restraint.

“A Cold Day in Hell”: Since the rift generator can’t be destroyed without contaminating Mongo all over again, Flash decides it’s time to take out Ming instead. He goes to the Celetroph monks to win their support, willing to step up and accept the prophesied savior role if that’s what it takes, but the Dolan (abbot) of the Celetrophs (Nicholas W. von Zill) says he has one last test to pass, and sends him to the ice kingdom of Frigia, where he must save their frozen Queen Fria to prove he’s the one. He gets help from a woman named Brini (Holly Dignard) of the undersea Triton people (blue-skinned with scalloped ears — probably based on the kingdom of Coralia from the comics), but she turns out to be an ice poacher and he’s arrested with her. He convinces Count Mallow (Daniel Probert) — spelled Malo in the comics — to let him try to save Fria, but with a name like that, and with the way Probert plays him, it’s clear that Mallow’s up to no good. Fortunately, Baylin and Terek confront Rankol, who admits his affiliation with the monks, and is willing to nudge destiny along a bit by telling them where Flash is.

I should note that Terek had previously come to Ming in secret and tried to make a deal with him, offering to stand with him if Ming claimed him as his son. But Ming’s hatred of Deviates is intractable and he has Terek arrested — a condition Baylin is able to reverse, since even some of Ming’s prison guards now feel that any friend of Flash Gordon’s is a friend of theirs. The people are ready to rally around Flash’s name — although Flash ends up having Terek’s help in fulfilling the prophecy, and Terek also fits every other parameter of the monks’ foretellings, so Flash is willing to defer to Terek as the prophesied warrior. Given Terek’s willingness to bargain with Ming, though, that struck me as potentially a bad idea.

Speaking of questionable ideas, we get our first Earthside plotline in several episodes as Dale decides she has to go back home and reveal the truth about the threat Ming poses to Earth — although she’s clearly driven by guilt at what happened to Joe because of the secrets she kept. It turns out that her producer Joely, seen for the first time since “Conspiracy Theory,” has put the pieces together on her own (and there was actually a reaction shot foreshadowing this in that episode), so she and Dale make plans to reveal the truth. But first Dale needs to tell Norah Gordon the whole story. Norah warns about the men in suits who came to silence anyone who knew the truth after Dr. Gordon’s disappearance, creating doubts in Dale’s mind.

This is a decent episode, and all the stuff in Frigia is a nice pulpy Flash-Gordony adventure, further demonstrating the show’s new willingness to embrace its comics origins rather than downplaying them as in the early episodes. But it feels like a digression from the main arc. It helps that we’ve been hearing references to Frigia and their ice since way back in “Pride,” but we never actually saw them before, and it was still a bit much to spring on us all at once, particularly with the Triton also thrown in; and so it felt a little disconnected from the rest. Although maybe it’s better seen as a pause to catch our breaths before the big finale. Or maybe the producers knew that the show’s chances of renewal were uncertain at best and thus wanted to flesh out more of Mongo’s exotic peoples while they had the chance.

“Revolution, Part One/Part Two”: Terek has gathered all the cantons and their leaders — except for the ones introduced in the previous episode, making that one seem even more irrelevant. Although the Frigians are doing their part offscreen, since Ming has sent his army to conquer them (and claim their pre-Sorrow ice) now that they’ve deposed his puppet Malo. Terek sees this as the ideal opportunity to overthrow Ming, but he needs Flash, the one man all the cantons trust and respect, to vouch for him and convince the denzens to stand with him. Flash does his part, but he’s still not eager for war, urging Terek to find another way, and is angered when Vultan kills a captured spy. I love this show’s portrayal of Flash’s fundamental decency. Even though he knows what’s at stake, he still values human life and is hurt and angered when even an enemy is killed. That’s what I like to see in a TV hero — not the ruthless Jack Bauer kind of crap that proliferated when this show was airing and is still all too common. The cool thing about Flash Gordon, and one thing this adaptation has captured very well, is that he’s an ordinary guy whose basic decency, courage, and willingness to fight for what’s right end up changing an entire world. Perhaps in this version, he’s been less of an overt leader and fighter, more a catalyst bringing out the best in others; but though he may not be as much the champion of Mongo in this incarnation, he’s still the conscience of Mongo, a source of inspiration, and I think that’s ultimately more important.

Aura is also actively supporting Terek, and when Ming discovers Rankol’s secret membership in the Celetroph order, the chief scientist ends up in prison — leading to Zarkov choosing to show him compassion and set him free to go to the Deviates. So now both of the characters who started out as Ming’s main supporters and sounding boards now stand with Terek, and Aura steps up impressively to help the rebellion — though she still loves her father in spite of everything and is torn given the likely necessity of his death. Terek certainly doesn’t seem to have a problem with using force; the plan is to place Ming at such a disadvantage that he’ll have no choice but to surrender, yet Ming refuses to be bowed, and he gains allies in Azura and her Zurn tribesmen. So Terek chooses to launch the war even though Flash and their other allies are still in the city.

Back on Earth, Dale goes ahead and airs her story about Mongo, over the protest of her boss, but all it gets her is a visit from the Men in Black, whom she escapes by ducking out her window. She goes to warn Norah Gordon that the MiB are probably after her too, and she’s quickly proved right. Dale and Norah have no choice but to drive Zarkov’s RV through a rift to Mongo. Dale has pretty thoroughly burned her bridges in Kendal.

Rankol also reveals to Zarkov that Dr. Gordon is still alive, and at the end of Part I, Flash finally finds him — and early in part 2 is reunited with Dale and Norah. Flash is kind of marginalized at this point, more concerned with helping his father and shutting down the rift generator (since Dr. Gordon knows a safe way to do so) than participating in the rebellion, but Dr. Gordon tells him that the security key to shut down the generator is the brooch that Ming always wears on his uniform — meaning that Flash will have to confront Ming at last to get his father home. Now, I confess, while I’ve enjoyed the fact that Flash is a hero defined more by wits and compassion than force, it was satisfying to see Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless finally battling outright (and there was a nicely done buildup to that as both men changed into battle armor to prepare — though Ming didn’t know at the time that he’d be facing Flash). But this isn’t the ’30s anymore, so Aura also plays a key role in the final confrontation, as she deserves to do.

Other key stuff happens too, including Aura finding out the truth about her mother and realizing that it’s actually Ming who has Deviate blood. Unsurprisingly, the reason he despises Deviates so much is that he’s one of them, and is vehemently in denial of the fact. Of course; the whole Deviate thing has been a gay-rights allegory since the moment Terek showed up.

Season finales are generally not the finest episodes of their series, I find, because they’re too focused on big action and revelations and tying off all the threads and thus tend to be too noisy and cluttered and plot-driven to get very deep. This finale is like that in a lot of ways — big and eventful and pretty satisfying, but not as brilliant or moving as something like “The Sorrow” or “Ebb and Flow.” Still, there’s some excellent stuff here in the culmination of the Ming-Aura relationship. Aura is in many ways the best character in this show, and I’m glad it eventually brought out the best in Anna Van Hooft. Most of the character resolutions are pretty satisfying, although it’s disappointing that Barin got written out. The action isn’t as big as it could’ve been on a show with a larger budget, but what we get is reasonably effective. And of course it’s good that they didn’t have the money for a big action-driven finale, since that required focusing more on the character interactions, which is so much better. My main problem with Part Two is that the editing is awkwardly tight at some points; it must’ve been difficult to cram so much in.

I’m going to spoil the ending here so I can talk about its ramifications. The final scenes went almost exactly as I expected they would: Ming is overthrown but escapes at the last moment (courtesy of Azura’s magic), and Flash, Dale, and Zarkov are trapped on Mongo.  And yet I consider that a good thing, because it’s just what I wanted to happen. Indeed, it’s pretty much the same as the ending of Filmation’s 1979 Flash Gordon TV movie (which didn’t air until 1982) and the first season of the weekly animated series that was reworked and expanded therefrom.  (Although there it was Barin who ended up taking over as ruler, which I suspect was the original plan here.) Still, that just drives home my disappointment that we didn’t get a second season. This show had really come into its own, and it deserved to go on longer. It would’ve been nice to see a second season about Flash and the gang having further adventures on Mongo, with Zarkov’s RV their only link to Earth. Well, I am curious about the fate Dr. and Mrs. Gordon would’ve faced on returning to Earth with the MiB after them, particularly since Flash had them take the Imex with them. Maybe a second-season (or third-season) arc could’ve involved Flash & co. having to go back to Earth to stop its leaders from endangering the cosmic fabric with a rift generator this time around. But there would still have been plenty on Mongo to deal with. I suspect we would’ve seen two major villains: Ming himself, building his forces for a return to power with Azura at his side, and Terek, becoming increasingly ruthless like his father. Aura would probably have been in much the same role as before, trying to temper Terek’s cruelties and finding herself increasingly at odds with him. And I suspect Flash would eventually have had to accept — with Rankol’s encouragement — that he was wrong to interpret the prophecies as being about Terek, that Flash was the destined uniter and ruler of Mongo all along.

Still, the end of “Revolution” works reasonably well as a series finale. There’s plenty of room for continuation, but there’s also a satisfactory degree of closure for all the major story and character arcs. So the single season we have doesn’t feel like an incomplete story. It makes me wish we could’ve had more, but I’m satisfied with what we do have, and I’m very glad that I finally own the series on DVD. And now you can too! I hope I’ve managed to convince at least some people that it’s worth the expenditure of less than ten bucks and about sixteen hours to experience this series in its entirety.

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Revisiting FLASH GORDON (2007): Episodes 15-18: Setbacks and escalation (spoilers)

“Stand and Deliver” is something long overdue, an episode set entirely on Mongo. After the events of “The Sorrow,” Baylin, Flash, and Dale find the remains of the Verden village, and learn from a survivor that most of the Verden were already in bondage to Ming’s service in Nascent City, except for those who refused to submit to the order, who are outlaws and fair game for killing (as in the Honor Day raid) or capture by slavers. But Ming is getting more uneasy about the Verden, since the Celetroph monks elaborate on their former prophecy of a great warrior who will overthrow Ming, stating that the son will take the place of the father. We know who that probably is, of course (since by this point we know that Dr. Gordon rebelled against Ming), but Ming assumes it’s the still-fugitive Barin (whose father, the former Verden leader, Ming had killed), and he’s determined to punish the Verden for it.

Flash and Baylin try to buy back the slaves, which requires collecting celetrophs, whose venom is reputedly the most valuable trade good on Mongo. There’s a funny scene where Flash has to risk his life to try to harvest the scorpions (it’s Flash’s reactions, and Eric Johnson’s excellent comic delivery, that make it funny), although the whole thing seems kind of unnecessary. After all, we’ve been told many times before that pure water is the most precious commodity on Mongo. Why not use the rift blaster to pop back to Earth and buy some 12-packs of bottled water? Indeed, by now Flash’s gang should have a regular water-bootlegging operation in effect, to undermine Ming’s monopoly as well as to help the general populace.

Anyway, Dale and the Verden they rescued are captured by the slavers, and Dale ends up being sent to Ming’s bedchamber — again. This time she doesn’t manage to get away before he arrives, but she holds her own nicely against Ming, using her wit and a fair amount of flattery to maneuver him into a conversation, keeping herself safe from assault for the time being. But she inadvertently gives him a nasty idea about how to deal with Barin. (I’m a little disappointed, though, that they didn’t have her use her journalistic wiles and talk Ming into an interview. We never really got to see Dale’s professional side come into play during her visits to Mongo, and I think that’s a missed opportunity.)

Flash and Baylin are too late to prevent the slaves from being bought by a Turin (lion man), but when they attack him, it turns out to be Barin in disguise, buying his people’s freedom. (So all that scorpion-hunting was unnecessary. I’m sure Flash was thrilled about that — too bad we didn’t get to see Johnson play his reaction.) Barin helps them to free Dale, but then Ming announces that he will kill twenty Verden a day until Barin turns himself in. Barin has no choice but to surrender, and it seems he’s doomed to die. He bargains with Aura, saying that if she helps keep him alive, he’ll help her discover the identity of her mother, who’s not dead as Ming claimed. But Flash comes up with a plan of his own to issue a new prophecy to keep Barin alive.

This episode has a couple of major conceptual problems. One is the venom thing I mentioned; the other is that Baylin’s injury from last week is forgotten aside from a token arm-clutching in the teaser. I suppose it’s possible they found a healer in between episodes, but the dialogue suggests otherwise. It’s an odd glitch in a show that’s been so strong with continuity even at its weakest. By the same token, given how little time has passed, Aura has rebounded way too quickly from the shock she received in “The Sorrow.” But overall, it’s very effective. Inevitably it’s a letdown after the power of “The Sorrow,” but it’s a solid episode with some major story developments. Aura is impressive in her improving grasp of politics and how to handle Ming. Flash is impressive in his ingenuity. Dale is impressive in her survival skills and gift of gab — although at this point I’m reluctantly forced to admit that Gina Holden takes the title of the most one-note performer in the show now that Anna Van Hooft has raised her game. I still think Holden has a good presence and personality, and does pretty well with the comedy and banter; but she doesn’t show much range, and unlike others, she hasn’t noticeably improved since the early episodes.

“Possession”: Joe is stalking the gang, trying to get proof of Mongo, and ends up stealing one of Zarkov’s rift blasters to go to Mongo, forcing the others to go after him, out of fear of what will happen if Rankol should get his hands on the blaster with the improvements Zarkov has made. And though Joe does get captured and the blaster taken, this is not followed up on within the episode; the characters just seem to forget about it.

Anyway, while they’re looking, they make the mistake of splitting up — something Zarkov actually warns against as a bad idea — so that Dale can be waylaid by a creepy old woman and possessed by the bottled spirit of her dead mistress, a sorceress named Helia. Helia/Dale reconnects with the others and sneaks into the city with them, but it soon becomes clear that she has no interest in helping Joe, and once she and Flash split off from Baylin and Zarkov, Flash discovers who she really is. Helia convinces Flash to help her get her body back from her sister, a rival sorceress, and protect her children. He helps her break into Ming’s archive and take one of the spirit jars used for the soul-swapping. But then she knocks Flash out and goes off to battle her sister (Stargate Universe‘s Elyse Levesque), who turns out to be a good sorceress keeping some evil bog monsters asleep with her constant harp playing. If the good one wins, Dale’s body will die.

Meanwhile, Zarkov drinks something he shouldn’t in the steephouse and ends up high, to Baylin’s annoyance. The producers like to pair these two off, since they have good comic chemistry and contrast. But the important thing that’s going on is that Joe has been arrested and brought to Ming, who has a new scientist on staff, Lenu (Sonya Salomaa) — a much more attractive and obedient scientific advisor than Rankol, and quite ambitious as well, enough to make Rankol worried about the competition. Anyway, Ming has Lenu hook Joe up to an experimental mind machine, and Baylin rescues him — but did she do so in time?

This is the first truly weak episode since “Ascension,” though it’s not quite as poor. On the plus side, it’s set entirely on Mongo aside from the first few minutes, there’s some arc advancement with Lenu’s introduction and the developments with Joe, and it’s nice watching Gina Holden play a seductive bad girl for a change, though the range limitations I mentioned before keep her from really making the most of the opportunity. Oh, and the climax is accompanied by Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” which is a beautiful song if a bit overused. But on the down side, the sorceress plot is an odd digression from the strong arc that’s been developing, and conceptually incongruous since it’s the first time we’ve seen any out-and-out magic on Mongo besides the celetroph prophecies (and Azura’s glowy eyes, but that seemed to be just for show), so it’s weird to see all the characters taking it so much in stride. Plus the security on Ming’s archive is ludicrously shoddy, the neglect of the rift-blaster plot point is annoying, and did we really need to see Zarkov “heroically” beat up a frail old woman in the climax?

Fortunately this is also the last truly weak episode, and things really ramp up from here.

“Thicker Than Water”: This episode debuts an updated main title sequence befitting the more Mongo-centric focus; not only are the images mostly from recent or upcoming episodes, but very few of them are from scenes set on Earth.

It turns out the missing rift blaster hasn’t been forgotten after all; Flash, Zarkov, and Baylin head back to Mongo to retrieve it. But they stumble into a crisis: the Patriots are chasing a man trying to escape with a newborn baby that Ming has condemned to death for being 1% Deviate, despite showing no deformities. (Rankol is an exception to Ming’s genocidal policy toward Deviates because he’s “high-function” and useful.) Naturally, the guy gets shot and entrusts the baby to Flash with his dying breath. The steephouse bartender puts them in touch with people who can smuggle the baby to a Deviate sanctuary in the toxic Banelands. (I love the rich vocabulary of Mongo. Everything has its own distinctive name. Denzens, cantons, Banelands, steephouse, bondmate, Third Moon, the currency called dram, etc. It makes up for the contrivance that most of the language is idiomatic American English.) Once there, they meet the Deviates’ charismatic leader Terek (Craig Stanghetta), who orates about how one day they will be free and equal. Flash offers to arrange an audience with Aura so Terek can ply his case, but it ends up with Terek’s people abducting them both. Still, Aura and Terek bond, and ultimately discover (just in time to avoid a Luke-Leia moment) that Terek is Aura’s long-lost brother, whom Ming ordered killed at birth due to his mild Deviation.

Meanwhile, Baylin and Zarkov have been captured trying to retrieve the rift blaster — but Ming, who can’t openly be seen negotiating with terrorists for Aura’s return (she’s playing along as a hostage to help Terek), instead grants Baylin her freedom in exchange for bring Aura back sub rosa. It’s an interesting turnaround — we go from Ming seeming totally callous about Aura’s fate with Rankol to showing what seems like real concern for Aura when he turns to Baylin. No doubt Ming is a horrible man, but sometimes it’s unclear how much of his facade of caring is genuine. I think Ming does love Aura in his own twisted way — although maybe it’s just that he couldn’t tolerate letting anyone take her from his control.

The bad news is, Rankol realizes that Zarkov has modified the rift blaster using Imex-derived knowledge, so he makes a deal with his new rival Lenu to work together. Lenu has an asset on Earth: Joe, who’s got a mind-control chip in his brain. He helps her retrieve the Imex — uh-oh.

This is a strong episode, and it really ramps up the arc. The Deviate storyline that dominates the rest of the series seems to be a little bit out of the blue, and I suspect that Terek was created to take Barin’s intended place in the climactic episodes after Steve Bacic got a series-regular gig on another show. But they made Terek different enough from Barin that it adds new elements to the saga and makes for an effective arc. Stanghetta is reasonably good as Terek; as an orator, he’s reminiscent of Ralston’s Ming, which is appropriate. And Anna Van Hooft is still getting better. Aura has always been one of the most intriguing characters on the show, at least in potential, and now she’s living up to that potential.

“Ebb and Flow”: The Imex lets Rankol perfect the rift generator, allowing Ming to steal the entire contents of Lake Kendal, the city’s main reservoir. (This actually makes sense geographically: Maryland has no natural lakes, but does have numerous artificial ones serving as reservoirs or recreational areas.) This is why he’s been pursuing the rifts all along: to find a new source of water to replace the depleted Source well. Flash and company (now including Joe) determine they have to go to Mongo to destroy the generator once and for all. They need to buy explosives once they get there, and finally they figure out that bottled water can be a valuable trade commodity to bring with them. But Joe is still under Lenu’s control and he arranges to get Flash captured. Rankol wanted to get access to Flash because his interpretation of the Celetroph prophecies had led him to believe that Flash was a saviour from Ming’s cruelty. (True, Rankol works for Ming, but he’s secretly a Celetroph monk and his higher loyalty is to the prophecies, so if they say Ming is doomed to fall, Rankol will obey their will — or maybe he just wants to be on the winning side.) But the latest prophecy is that “the waterbearer is the ruler reborn,” which Rankol and Ming both interpret to mean that Ming’s rule is assured. There’s a nifty confrontation between a disillusioned Rankol and a bitter Flash, after which the ever-resourceful Flash manages to escape. But the gang can’t risk blowing up the rift generator, since it’s powered by the same toxic element that caused the Great Sorrow. Flash decides instead to undermine Ming by blowing open the reservoir and distributing the water freely to the cantons. But the mind-controlled Joe tries to stop him, and matters come to a powerful climax.

Meanwhile, Aura shows off how politically shrewd she’s becoming, talking Ming into appointing her as prefect to the Deviates, on the grounds that politically legitimizing them would give him influence over them that he’s lacked before due to the fact that they don’t need pure water. She arranges a meeting between Ming and Terek, which just brings out more of the depravity and lies beneath Ming’s well-cultivated facade of stern benevolence.

This is an awesome episode, almost as good as “The Sorrow,” and it’s a tour de force for Eric Johnson. He’s shown how good he is with comedy, but here he demonstrates how powerful he can be as a determined, driven dramatic lead. This is the moment where Flash Gordon steps up and commits himself once and for all to the role of freedom-fighter against Ming, and it’s wonderful. The rest of the cast gets to be pretty good too; one of my favorite moments is when Dale comes up with a very clever and counterintuitive way to get the drop on a guard in a gunfight. And yes, there is a lot of action and visual effects in this one, and both are handled a lot better than they were in the early part of the season. Everything works here, aside from Carrie Genzel’s still rather mediocre acting as Vestra. And aside from a Mongovian electronic key being rather obviously a taser. Plus there’s a funny production glitch when we see the corridor leading into Rankol’s rift-generator facility, which is clearly a redressed industrial plant of some sort… and I’m pretty sure it’s part of Zarkov’s lab, just lit and dressed differently! So both lab sets in alternate dimensions were shot in adjoining parts of the same location! That’s so fun to learn that I don’t even mind having the illusion undermined.

Next, the final four episodes.

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Revisiting FLASH GORDON (2007): Episodes 11-14: Committing to Mongo (spoilers)

“Conspiracy Theory”: Unable to get the cooperation of Dr. Gordon (who we see is alive and well, though comatose and only contactable through virtual reality), Rankol sends Baylin’s former bounty-hunting colleague Genessa (Ona Grauer) to bring Zarkov to Mongo, where Rankol appeals to Hans’s ego and persuades him they need to work together to devise a way to halt the growing degradation of the dimensional barrier and prevent the destruction of their universes. Baylin follows to retrieve him, and for information she goes to a Nascent City tavern which will be a standing set from now on, plying the bartender with chocolate eggs from Earth. But will Zarkov be willing to go? And will he spill to Rankol that the Imex — an ancient artifact containing the secrets of the universe, so Rankol explains — still exists and is in his lab?

Meanwhile, Flash helps Dale try to kill the story when a local skateboarder gets phone video of Genessa’s arrival through a rift, and Dale’s more disreputable and fame-hungry counterpart from another TV station (Francoise Yip) plasters it all over the news. Dale’s boss Mitchell (the late Don S. Davis of Stargate SG-1, playing for laughs) pressures her to get the story, journalistic integrity be damned. The publicity brings the attention of Montgomery (Fringe‘s Michael Kopsa), the government agent who covered up Dr. Gordon’s disappearance, and who surveils and captures Flash and Dale to interrogate them about the rifts. Like Rankol, he’s also seeking the Imex, though he calls it the blueprint. But his use of truth serum backfires, since Flash and Dale end up sidetracked by their admissions of how they still feel for each other. It’s a totally unrealistic portrayal of how such drugs work, but nonetheless a fun exercise in romantic-comedy banter. Eric Johnson has really good comic delivery.

Although there’s still a strong slant toward humor and a strong Kendal-centric approach, this is an effective episode; the humor is genuinely entertaining and the story is advanced significantly. And I couldn’t help thinking that Rankol was right: Protecting the universes against destruction is a priority for everyone, and should trump all other factors. If Rankol has the equipment to do something about it, then maybe that’s where Zarkov should be. When the only technology that can potentially prevent universal disaster is in the hands of an amoral manipulator serving a ruthless conqueror, that’s a situation with no simple answers. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

“Random Access”: The bad news: This is the inevitable money-saving clip show. The good news: As clip shows go, it’s pretty good, and makes a major contribution to the arc. The spontaneous rifts are multiplying out of control, endangering the universe unless Zarkov can find a solution. The nexus where the rifts are converging is a sleazy motel, and reports of strange incidents draw in Joe (evidently the only cop in town), who comes across Flash and Dale examining the scene and assumes the worst. The confrontation is cut short when a rift opens and sucks Flash and Joe to Mongo, where they’re captured by slaver Strake (John DeSantis) and forced to work on excavating an aqueduct to a new water source Ming has supposedly found — an excavation that quickly kills the slave laborers, requiring frequent replacements. (Although it’s made clear that this project is tied into Ming’s plans for the rift generator. We begin to see what Ming’s real interest in Earth is.) Flash fills Joe in on the whole story, which is where the flashbacks come in, but they’re kept brief and don’t intrude much. And it’s a logical context for recapping The Story So Far, so the dialogue that sets up the clips doesn’t feel forced. Anyway, when they meet a Dactyl prisoner, Darem (Woody Jeffreys), Joe learns how much Flash is respected by the denzens of Mongo — and more importantly, Flash opens Joe’s eyes to the fact that Dale is far more heroic and independent than he ever knew. Or at least, he tries to. I’m not sure it actually sinks in.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Dale and Baylin track down a Deviate who came through the rift. Baylin’s exposition of how some people are willing to drink the gray water and become Deviates because of their desperate, killing thirst is poignant and sad, and gives a better sense of the water shortages on Mongo than anything else to date has done. Things take an unexpected turn when the Deviate turns out to be a pregnant female — and you can probably guess where that leads. But Dale proves herself up to the challenge. Meanwhile, Zarkov manages to cobble together a way to stabilize the dimensional barrier and save the universe, at least temporarily, and he does it without needing to ally with Rankol. It’s disappointing that the moral dilemma of the previous episode is cast aside so effortlessly.

Stilll, this is such an important piece of the arc that it makes up for the clip-show format. You could even say that at this point in the series’ original run, it was worthwhile to refresh the viewers’ memory of what had happened in early episodes — at least, for the seventeen of us who were still watching by this point. The recaps aren’t so necessary for the DVD viewer, but the original content is very worthwhile and important, making some permanent changes in the status quo, and setting up key elements of future episodes. (Also, the decision to do a clip show may have been what freed up the money the show needed to improve the action and effects in the remainder of the season.)

“Secrets and Lies”: When Zarkov devises a way to track natural dimensional weak spots and open rifts from the Earth side (an outgrowth of his rift-repair work), he and Flash inadvertently get stuck on Mongo and caught in the middle of a burgeoning war between the Dactyl and the Zurn, a tribal Blue Man Group ruled by another character from the comics, Queen Azura (Jody Thompson). Here, she’s a glowy-eyed high priestess of the god Rao (so… the Zurn are Kryptonians?), and has a thing for stilted intonation, fingernail-knives, and warmongering — though she claims the Dactyl stole their water supplies, provoking the war. When Flash goes to Vultan, the Dactyl leader denies the charge. Flash decides to stay on Mongo to find the truth and head off the war. Pursuing a lead, he heads to the tavern introduced in “Conspiracy Theory” — here identified as a “steephouse,” where denzens indulge in various forms of tea, some of which are addictive. Meanwhile, Ming has commanded a peace summit between the tribes — but he’s pretty clearly set it up to fail, an intention that Flash manages to subvert by finding a witness who testifies that he sold fake Dactyl costumes to raiders. But that doesn’t stop Azura from starting the war anyway, and Flash must find another clever solution to save the day — as well as Zarkov, who’s fallen into Zurn hands and been slated for the sacrificial altar.

Meanwhile, Flash’s rarely-seen friend Nick finally gets left alone with Baylin and they end up flirting and making a date. Dale is uneasy to learn that Baylin intends “seleneration,” i.e. casual sex (odd that Mongo’s language differs from English only where sexual vocabulary is concerned) and cautions against it, though I have to wonder what business it is of hers. Well, she probably doesn’t want Nick to get hurt, but she comes off as a bit prudish. Anyway, it won’t go anywhere, since this is Nick’s last appearance in the series. The more important Earthside plot is Joe going to his captain (Canadian-TV stalwart Garry Chalk) to spill the whole story about Mongo, which of course the captain disbelieves — and Dale is put in an impossible spot when Joe insists that she corroborate his story, something she can’t do. So much for them getting back together. Joe really is a jerk, and kind of an idiot to think that anyone would take his uncorroborated claims seriously.

This is a strong episode overall. I love it when Flash gets heroic in the classic vein. He isn’t pursuing some personal mission here, isn’t trying to find his father or rescue a captured friend (at first) or protect his home planet. He intervenes to stop two groups of strangers (or passing acquaintances, in the Dactyl’s case) from getting killed, unhesitatingly risking his life to do a good thing even though he has no stake in the matter at all. I mean, sure, complex characterizations and all that are fine, but it’s refreshing to see someone doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. Say what you like about the setting or the budget or the casting — the writers of this show understood what Flash Gordon is all about. It’s about an ordinary (if highly athletic) man who takes on evil and fights for justice using only his bravery, wits, determination, and decency (and the occasional ray gun).

Meanwhile, Ming’s character is coming more sharply into focus as well. When faced with the threat of a Source water shortage, he almost loses it. No more Source water means no more power base for Ming, and power is all he craves. And he goes to extreme, murderous lengths to try to conceal the shortage. Ming gains a new confidant here, Drav (Dalias Blake), a security chief who looks a bit like a clean-shaven Nick Fury (though the patch is on the other eye), and we get to see how crazed Ming can be — perhaps even more so than when he’s with Rankol, since Rankol is less expendable and needs to be handled with more care. There’s a moment here with Drav where Ming is really chilling. Any opinions I had at the start about John Ralston being bland had completely evaporated by this point in the series.

But as good as the show has gotten by this point, about 60% of the way through, we hadn’t seen anything yet.

“The Sorrow”: You know, I have to say it up front: This is the best episode of the series. Much like the series as a whole, it starts out slow, but the last 2/3 of it are incredibly effective and powerful, and I’m so overwhelmed after watching it again that it’s hard to focus my thoughts as I write this.

While Zarkov, who mentioned a need for funding in a previous episode, is getting ready for a grant interview — hiding all evidence of Mongo and his dimensional research — Baylin starts acting strange, saying she’s been summoned home to Mongo by the spirits of the dead. She explains that it’s Honor Day, when the denzens commemorate the disaster called the Great Sorrow and the many who lost their lives in the event. Flash and Dale decide to go with her and help her pay tribute, which is a lovely gesture. Along the way, she explains that her once-lush planet was devastated by a disaster caused by the mining of a toxic element from the moon for power generation. The second and third moons in the sky are actually space stations built to house the miners, but are long since abandoned.

But the Verden shrine has been desecrated by raiders, who capture our heroes and injure Baylin (an arrow to the arm). They force Flash and Dale to ransack the crypt of the ancestors for them, but Baylin is still determined to carry out her tradition.

At the same time, we see Ming and Aura preparing for the event, and Aura’s eye is caught by a rakish player — actually billed as “Rake” (Battlestar Galactica‘s Dominic Zamprogna) — who flirts with her shamelessly, to Ming’s disapproval. In Ming’s court, everyone dresses in their best pre-Sorrow finery for the ceremony, and the costume designs are absolutely gorgeous, as lush and imaginative as Alex Raymond’s artwork, with Ming’s high-collared ceremonial robes suggesting the comics character’s traditional look. The visual effects of the city square and the huge crowd of denzens Ming addresses are well-done, though brief. All in all, it’s a triumph of production design, although unfortunately the DVD print is rather dim and it’s hard to appreciate the beauty of it.

The Honor Day ceremony is a recitation of the history of the Sorrow — how the release of the toxins devastated the planet, how some escaped to one of the moon-stations while the rest of the population died, and how the survivors eventually repopulated Mongo and had to deal with the gray water and its effects. It’s basically exposition, but it’s handled magnificently, giving us the most intense, dramatic sequence this show has ever done, and a tour de force of editing and direction. Two different tellings of the Sorrow are juxtaposed: Baylin, the true believer, driven to pay honor to the dead even at risk to her own life (and Karen Cliche gives her most poignant performance yet); and Ming, paying lip service to the words even as he betrays their principles, using the ceremony to distract the Verden and launch a brutal raid against them, a further juxtaposition that adds even more power to the montage.

Meanwhile, what started out looking like a frivolous romantic subplot for Aura takes a shocking turn when Aura sneaks down to the steephouse to watch the Rake give a puppet show mocking Ming — only for Ming himself to show up. I don’t want to give it all away, but lately, we’re getting to see Ming’s true evil and insanity, and it’s appropriate that here is where we finally hear the epithet “Ming the Merciless” used at last — and proudly embraced by the man himself. Ralston is at his terrifying best here. Moreover, Anna Van Hooft gives her most satisfying performance to date. I realized at this point that her main limitation was her voice; she’s actually very expressive with her face, and did some terrific nonverbal acting here.

The episode ends with a ceremony that can be interpreted as symbolizing Flash and Dale’s acceptance that they are now connected to Mongo’s fate and future, and a decision to stay there to help Baylin find the fate of the Verden (the first time the leads have chosen to stay on Mongo at the end of an episode). It also symbolizes the show taking the same step: From now on, this is a show about Mongo rather than a show about Earth.

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Revisiting FLASH GORDON (2007): Episodes 8-10: The Barin trilogy (spoilers)

“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.

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New podcast interview on Trek Mate

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:

http://www.trekmate.org.uk/ten-forward-captains-table-interview-with-christopher-l-bennett/

 

Revisiting FLASH GORDON (2007): Episodes 4-7: The Earthbound phase (spoilers)

“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.

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Revisiting FLASH GORDON (2007): Episodes 1-3: Laying the foundations (spoilers)

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.

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Revisiting FLASH GORDON (2007): Series overview (or, Why this show is worth watching)

November 4, 2013 8 comments

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.

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