Archive for November 9, 2013

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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