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.