Flash Gordon: Swashbuckling Minus The Swash… and the Buckles…

The thing that stands out after screening the first three episodes of Flash Gordon [Sci Fi 9/8C] is that the show’s creative team seems to have to discarded everything about the popular comic strip except for the names of the characters and places. That strategy worked to telling effect on Battlestar Galactica and looks to have a lot of potential on NBC’s re-imagining of Bionic Woman. With Flash Gordon, it seems that it might not be the best of all possible space operas…

Flash Gordon is a legendary figure in pop culture. He’s been the subject of comic strips, comic books, movie serials, movies, animated series and even radio serials. Throughout his seventy-odd years of existence, there has been one constant: Flash Gordon is the Captain Blood of space opera – the swashbucklingest hero in SF history.

Steven “Flash” Gordon [Eric Johnson], three-time marathon winner, finds himself part of a weird news story when he becomes reacquainted with his ex-girlfriend, Dale Arden [Blood Ties’ Gina Holden]. The story involves an alien flying monitor device that turned to green goop, and a Borg-like figure that threatens his mom. These events lead him to believe that his father, who disappeared thirteen years before, is not really dead, but possibly on a world that can only be reached through an interdimensional rift.

Aided by his father’s assistant, Dr. Hans Zarkov [Jody Racicot] Flash determines to try to find out what happened to his father, all the while dealing with problems that arise as beings of various types past through these rifts: in the pilot, there’s that Borg-thing and a bounty hunter named Baylin [Karen Cliche] who is assigned to bring Flash and Dale back to Mongo after they manage to escape their initial encounter with Ming [John Ralston]; then, in Pride, there’s Tyrus, a nasty sort who is freed from Ming’s dungeons to retrieve Baylin [who has not returned home], and finally, in Infestation, some Joybugs, whose bite could mean death by happiness for Flash’s best friend, Nick [Panou].

These threats are woven around the subtle-as-a-mallet relationship between Ming and his rebellious-but-spoiled daughter, Aura [Anna Van Hooft]; the chemistry between Flash and Dale [which is oodles hotter than that between Dale and her fiance]; the problems that arise when one alien almost trashes Flash’s home and another wants to move in, and the unfortunate fact that Dr. Zarkov might have a brilliant mind but is pretty much incompetent at translating his ideas into workable products [a proton gun that… well, you’ll have to see it to believe it!].By making the journey to Mongo dependent on interdimensional rifts, the creative team has found one way to keep the budget down [no expensive space ship designs and CG effects] – and introduced an element of randomness to the series [no one knows where a rift will pop up next – in a field, in the hull of a rusted out old ship…]. The problem is this: Flash Gordon is a spaceships and rayguns kind of creation [see the current weekly strip – it’s as thirties-futuristic as ever].

The episodes sent out for review were rough cuts that featured rough cuts of effects [if any at all] and the only real way to tell if something science-fictional was going on was by reading graphics inserted to describe FX actions. On the other hand, the Mongo sets are fairly impressive – and definitely not entirely Earthlike. In terms of costuming, most of the costumes look pretty silly [Tyrus, from ep #2, may howl like a whole zoo, but his costume would’ve been rejected by Space Cases]. Of course, Princess Aura’s costumes are sleek, sexy and sophisticated, but that takes away from the Mongo budget, so not many of the other costumes in that world are very believable – especially Ming’s, which looks like a generic tyrant costume updated from the forties…

Then we come to the characters… Flash is a stolid, square-jawed, do-the-right-thing kinda guy. Dale is the intrepid reporter who allows herself to be persuaded not to follow up weird news stories because revealing the rift situation might lead to the end of the universe – despite a lack of real evidence to support Zarkov’s theory. Zarkov is a germiphobic conspiracy believer who can’t quite get his ideas to work in the real world. Nick is just a guy who helps Flash repair cars in their shop in Flash’s mom’s garage [which is why Flash still lives at home…] and seems like the most real person of the lot.

On the Mongo side, Ming is as much PR fiend as despot – he puts a spin on everything, but not even that spin can prevent his daughter from wondering if she’s just an ornament to him. Aura is a spoiled brat who can usually get out of any situation by playing her father – though she’s beginning to learn that he can only be played so far. Baylin is a bounty hunter who worked for Ming, but has had her situation change because of Ming’s new mistrust. Rankol [rankle, get it?] is Ming’s “head scientist” – which translates as head torturer and generally nasty piece of work.Frankly, Flash Gordon looks to be a watchable SF series at best. The villain is evil [though not nearly silkily enough]; the hero is true blue [though the key word remains stolid]. The heroine is plucky [though not nearly as winsome as one might expect], and the displaced bounty hunter is pretty much a typical duck out of water [are there laughs galore to be mined from her trying to figure out how to wear Earth clothes and still be able to fight/defend herself? Not as many as you might think].

The writing is serviceable – the plotting is such that Flash’s search for his father will arc over the season, while each week will find our characters in a situation that can be resolved within the hour. The fight scenes are, so far, underwhelming [Flash vs Tyrus? A whole lotta no fun], and it remains to be seen how the FX will look [and it’s not a good thing when the quality of the FX might actually make a show better].

The real problem is that, in attempting to stay on the more realistic side of the line between solid adventure and camp, the show’s creators have forgotten one simple fact: Flash Gordon needs – first and foremost – to be fun, to buckle a little swash. Sadly, there’s not a lot of swashbuckling goin’ on around here.

[b]Final Grade: C+[/b]

Eclipse Review Posted by Sheldon Wiebe
Originally Posted on 08/08/07

[b]Check out our DVD Review Page for coverage of recent releases.[/b]

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