Archive for November 10, 2013

Revisiting FLASH GORDON (2007): Episodes 19-22: Revolution and resolution (spoilers)

“Blame”: Last time, Flash helped distribute the stolen Earth water freely to all the cantons, but let Terek take credit for it in hopes that it would improve the Deviates’ reputation. But Ming has poisoned the water and turned the cantons against the Deviates. Flash rushes to warn Terek while the others seek to apprehend Lenu and find out what she did to Joe. When Flash arrives, Terek is attacked by the Turin, who inexplicably are led not by Thun (the one major comics protagonist who does not appear in this series) but by a new character named Bolgar (Shawn Reis). However, the Turin makeup has evolved; Tyrus in “Pride” was just a hairy guy with wild eyes, but these Turin have leonine makeup appliances on their brows and nasal ridges and tawnier hair/manes, actually looking like Lion Men, and symbolizing how much more the show is now embracing Flash Gordon tropes. (Maybe Tyrus was adopted into the tribe?) Although it makes it odd that such inhuman-looking denzens would hate Deviates for looking abnormal — but then, prejudice is about what you’re used to, not what’s logical. Anyway, Flash wields his usual diplomacy and convinces Bolgar to let him seek an antidote as an alternative to killing Terek. Bolgar forces Flash to drink the poisoned water himself to give him a personal stake. Flash goes to Vestra of the Omadrians for help, only to find that Aura has done the same. All Vestra can do, though, is point them to Esmeline (Samantha Kaine), the outcast Omadrian who created the poison, and who demands much of Flash and Aura in exchange for the antidote. (Oddly, Esmeline is portrayed like a caricature of a Jamaican vodoun priestess, even though all the other Omadrians have generic North American accents.) Meanwhile, Vestra goes to tend to Terek, who realizes that she’s his mother, and therefore Aura’s mother as well — though Vestra swore a blood oath to Ming that would render Aura’s life forfeit if Vestra ever tells her the truth. (It’s never clarified whether the mechanism of death would be something magical or simply an execution.)

This is a good episode for Aura.  She really gets to show how she’s grown over the season, and gets in on the action too, proving herself a worthy ally to Flash at last. Plus we get some important revelations about her family. Not to mention about Zarkov and Dale as they interrogate Lenu. Zarkov proves himself cannier than we — or Lenu — would expect, at first seeming to fall for her deceptions but then turning out to be the one tricking her. And the grieving Dale shows a scary side. It’s weird to see Baylin being the voice of restraint.

“A Cold Day in Hell”: Since the rift generator can’t be destroyed without contaminating Mongo all over again, Flash decides it’s time to take out Ming instead. He goes to the Celetroph monks to win their support, willing to step up and accept the prophesied savior role if that’s what it takes, but the Dolan (abbot) of the Celetrophs (Nicholas W. von Zill) says he has one last test to pass, and sends him to the ice kingdom of Frigia, where he must save their frozen Queen Fria to prove he’s the one. He gets help from a woman named Brini (Holly Dignard) of the undersea Triton people (blue-skinned with scalloped ears — probably based on the kingdom of Coralia from the comics), but she turns out to be an ice poacher and he’s arrested with her. He convinces Count Mallow (Daniel Probert) — spelled Malo in the comics — to let him try to save Fria, but with a name like that, and with the way Probert plays him, it’s clear that Mallow’s up to no good. Fortunately, Baylin and Terek confront Rankol, who admits his affiliation with the monks, and is willing to nudge destiny along a bit by telling them where Flash is.

I should note that Terek had previously come to Ming in secret and tried to make a deal with him, offering to stand with him if Ming claimed him as his son. But Ming’s hatred of Deviates is intractable and he has Terek arrested — a condition Baylin is able to reverse, since even some of Ming’s prison guards now feel that any friend of Flash Gordon’s is a friend of theirs. The people are ready to rally around Flash’s name — although Flash ends up having Terek’s help in fulfilling the prophecy, and Terek also fits every other parameter of the monks’ foretellings, so Flash is willing to defer to Terek as the prophesied warrior. Given Terek’s willingness to bargain with Ming, though, that struck me as potentially a bad idea.

Speaking of questionable ideas, we get our first Earthside plotline in several episodes as Dale decides she has to go back home and reveal the truth about the threat Ming poses to Earth — although she’s clearly driven by guilt at what happened to Joe because of the secrets she kept. It turns out that her producer Joely, seen for the first time since “Conspiracy Theory,” has put the pieces together on her own (and there was actually a reaction shot foreshadowing this in that episode), so she and Dale make plans to reveal the truth. But first Dale needs to tell Norah Gordon the whole story. Norah warns about the men in suits who came to silence anyone who knew the truth after Dr. Gordon’s disappearance, creating doubts in Dale’s mind.

This is a decent episode, and all the stuff in Frigia is a nice pulpy Flash-Gordony adventure, further demonstrating the show’s new willingness to embrace its comics origins rather than downplaying them as in the early episodes. But it feels like a digression from the main arc. It helps that we’ve been hearing references to Frigia and their ice since way back in “Pride,” but we never actually saw them before, and it was still a bit much to spring on us all at once, particularly with the Triton also thrown in; and so it felt a little disconnected from the rest. Although maybe it’s better seen as a pause to catch our breaths before the big finale. Or maybe the producers knew that the show’s chances of renewal were uncertain at best and thus wanted to flesh out more of Mongo’s exotic peoples while they had the chance.

“Revolution, Part One/Part Two”: Terek has gathered all the cantons and their leaders — except for the ones introduced in the previous episode, making that one seem even more irrelevant. Although the Frigians are doing their part offscreen, since Ming has sent his army to conquer them (and claim their pre-Sorrow ice) now that they’ve deposed his puppet Malo. Terek sees this as the ideal opportunity to overthrow Ming, but he needs Flash, the one man all the cantons trust and respect, to vouch for him and convince the denzens to stand with him. Flash does his part, but he’s still not eager for war, urging Terek to find another way, and is angered when Vultan kills a captured spy. I love this show’s portrayal of Flash’s fundamental decency. Even though he knows what’s at stake, he still values human life and is hurt and angered when even an enemy is killed. That’s what I like to see in a TV hero — not the ruthless Jack Bauer kind of crap that proliferated when this show was airing and is still all too common. The cool thing about Flash Gordon, and one thing this adaptation has captured very well, is that he’s an ordinary guy whose basic decency, courage, and willingness to fight for what’s right end up changing an entire world. Perhaps in this version, he’s been less of an overt leader and fighter, more a catalyst bringing out the best in others; but though he may not be as much the champion of Mongo in this incarnation, he’s still the conscience of Mongo, a source of inspiration, and I think that’s ultimately more important.

Aura is also actively supporting Terek, and when Ming discovers Rankol’s secret membership in the Celetroph order, the chief scientist ends up in prison — leading to Zarkov choosing to show him compassion and set him free to go to the Deviates. So now both of the characters who started out as Ming’s main supporters and sounding boards now stand with Terek, and Aura steps up impressively to help the rebellion — though she still loves her father in spite of everything and is torn given the likely necessity of his death. Terek certainly doesn’t seem to have a problem with using force; the plan is to place Ming at such a disadvantage that he’ll have no choice but to surrender, yet Ming refuses to be bowed, and he gains allies in Azura and her Zurn tribesmen. So Terek chooses to launch the war even though Flash and their other allies are still in the city.

Back on Earth, Dale goes ahead and airs her story about Mongo, over the protest of her boss, but all it gets her is a visit from the Men in Black, whom she escapes by ducking out her window. She goes to warn Norah Gordon that the MiB are probably after her too, and she’s quickly proved right. Dale and Norah have no choice but to drive Zarkov’s RV through a rift to Mongo. Dale has pretty thoroughly burned her bridges in Kendal.

Rankol also reveals to Zarkov that Dr. Gordon is still alive, and at the end of Part I, Flash finally finds him — and early in part 2 is reunited with Dale and Norah. Flash is kind of marginalized at this point, more concerned with helping his father and shutting down the rift generator (since Dr. Gordon knows a safe way to do so) than participating in the rebellion, but Dr. Gordon tells him that the security key to shut down the generator is the brooch that Ming always wears on his uniform — meaning that Flash will have to confront Ming at last to get his father home. Now, I confess, while I’ve enjoyed the fact that Flash is a hero defined more by wits and compassion than force, it was satisfying to see Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless finally battling outright (and there was a nicely done buildup to that as both men changed into battle armor to prepare — though Ming didn’t know at the time that he’d be facing Flash). But this isn’t the ’30s anymore, so Aura also plays a key role in the final confrontation, as she deserves to do.

Other key stuff happens too, including Aura finding out the truth about her mother and realizing that it’s actually Ming who has Deviate blood. Unsurprisingly, the reason he despises Deviates so much is that he’s one of them, and is vehemently in denial of the fact. Of course; the whole Deviate thing has been a gay-rights allegory since the moment Terek showed up.

Season finales are generally not the finest episodes of their series, I find, because they’re too focused on big action and revelations and tying off all the threads and thus tend to be too noisy and cluttered and plot-driven to get very deep. This finale is like that in a lot of ways — big and eventful and pretty satisfying, but not as brilliant or moving as something like “The Sorrow” or “Ebb and Flow.” Still, there’s some excellent stuff here in the culmination of the Ming-Aura relationship. Aura is in many ways the best character in this show, and I’m glad it eventually brought out the best in Anna Van Hooft. Most of the character resolutions are pretty satisfying, although it’s disappointing that Barin got written out. The action isn’t as big as it could’ve been on a show with a larger budget, but what we get is reasonably effective. And of course it’s good that they didn’t have the money for a big action-driven finale, since that required focusing more on the character interactions, which is so much better. My main problem with Part Two is that the editing is awkwardly tight at some points; it must’ve been difficult to cram so much in.

I’m going to spoil the ending here so I can talk about its ramifications. The final scenes went almost exactly as I expected they would: Ming is overthrown but escapes at the last moment (courtesy of Azura’s magic), and Flash, Dale, and Zarkov are trapped on Mongo.  And yet I consider that a good thing, because it’s just what I wanted to happen. Indeed, it’s pretty much the same as the ending of Filmation’s 1979 Flash Gordon TV movie (which didn’t air until 1982) and the first season of the weekly animated series that was reworked and expanded therefrom.  (Although there it was Barin who ended up taking over as ruler, which I suspect was the original plan here.) Still, that just drives home my disappointment that we didn’t get a second season. This show had really come into its own, and it deserved to go on longer. It would’ve been nice to see a second season about Flash and the gang having further adventures on Mongo, with Zarkov’s RV their only link to Earth. Well, I am curious about the fate Dr. and Mrs. Gordon would’ve faced on returning to Earth with the MiB after them, particularly since Flash had them take the Imex with them. Maybe a second-season (or third-season) arc could’ve involved Flash & co. having to go back to Earth to stop its leaders from endangering the cosmic fabric with a rift generator this time around. But there would still have been plenty on Mongo to deal with. I suspect we would’ve seen two major villains: Ming himself, building his forces for a return to power with Azura at his side, and Terek, becoming increasingly ruthless like his father. Aura would probably have been in much the same role as before, trying to temper Terek’s cruelties and finding herself increasingly at odds with him. And I suspect Flash would eventually have had to accept — with Rankol’s encouragement — that he was wrong to interpret the prophecies as being about Terek, that Flash was the destined uniter and ruler of Mongo all along.

Still, the end of “Revolution” works reasonably well as a series finale. There’s plenty of room for continuation, but there’s also a satisfactory degree of closure for all the major story and character arcs. So the single season we have doesn’t feel like an incomplete story. It makes me wish we could’ve had more, but I’m satisfied with what we do have, and I’m very glad that I finally own the series on DVD. And now you can too! I hope I’ve managed to convince at least some people that it’s worth the expenditure of less than ten bucks and about sixteen hours to experience this series in its entirety.

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