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.