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