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.