Flash Gordon (TV, 2007, 2008)
UPDATE! I reviewed this awful mess twice, firstly when it began, secondly when it was canned. The first review is from Death Ray 06, and I wasn’t keen. The one at the bottom is from Death Ray 13. By then it had really hit home what a pack of shite this Canadian Sci-Fi Channel Flash Gordon was. There’s another article detailing pretty much all you need to know about Flash Gordon here.
Directors: Pat Williams, Paul Shapiro, Mick MacKay, T. J. Scott
Writers: Peter Hume, Melody Fox, James Thorpe, Gillian Horvath, Sheryl J. Anderson
Starring: Eric Johnson, Gina Holden, Karen Cliche, Jody Racicot, John Ralston, Jonathan Walker
Calamitous reinvention of Alex Raymond’s classic space hero.
There’s a peril to being an intellectual property that survives the march of time; the terrible peril of collective ownership. This is especially pronounced if the property is but of middling power, doubly so if there is no keen-willed corporation to codify in iron what that property actually is. Sherlock Holmes for example, has enough muscle as a modern archetype to survive most indignities unscathed, while the legal department of Disney ensures no one screws with Mickey Mouse.
But those lesser entertainments of yesteryear with neither mythical status or corporate mascot-hood? They become the sport of hacks.
Poor old Flash is one such, all he has on his side is a sort of fuzzy, warm public remembrance. Resultantly he’s been reinvented so many times even he’s not sure who he is – 1930s comic book hero, 1980s camp movie icon or 1990s hoverboarding teen?
Now the Sci-Fi channel have got their claws into him, and the results are not pretty, fearlessly managing to bypass both the visual opulence and exuberant pulp energy that typify the best outings of the titular hero.
Let’s allow a little apologia for Sci-Fi. They invest a fair bit in original drama. But fantasy TV is among the most expensive of all, and they’ve only go so much money – This is the stunted twin to the same channel’s Battlestar Galactica. Flash Gordon bears the full brunt of this financial shortfall like a stoic taking a beating.
There’s no majesty in Flash, no Lionmen, no Sharkmen – just plain old, men. There are no glorious sets, no over-the-top costumes, no be-ribbed pistols. Instead endless conversations in rainy Vancouver, a henchman on casters and a Mongo that looks like an abandoned factory adorned with some cheap curtains.
There’s no energy to it. Flash travels to Mongo via a portal, allowing trips back and forth to Earth. This is nice for him, as it means he can attend a wedding in episode two, but bad for us, as we lose the vital drama, and, what one might legitimately say is the whole damn point of Flash Gordon, of his TE Lawrence style freedom-fighting while stranded on an alien world.
A really quite dreadful script, full of filler material, clumsy exposition and awful cliche (“This one’s for you dad”), calls for lots of the running around in the Canadian woods that modern low-budget SF seems to require by law (Though rarely do they start, as this show does, with their hero actually jogging through the woods). The cast, comprised entirely of cast-off co-stars, aren’t bad, especially Flash (Eric Johnson) and Dale (Gina Holden), but it’d take a bunch of thesps with a lot more chops than “not bad” to make this dross sparkle. They seem bored, bored, bored, with Ming (John Ralston) behaving like a depressed banker trapped in a loveless marriage, while Karen Cliche as Baylin bases her performance mostly on scowling.
As exotic as a drizzly McDonalds car park, as limp as a burger bun discarded in the same, this one’s so bad it’s simply just bad. On the basis of these first few episodes, avoid.
Did you know…? Flash Gordon was invented in 1934 by cartoonist Alex Raymond as a rival to Buck Rogers. The original Flash flew to Mongo on a rocket ship after being kidnapped, along with Dale Arden, by Dr. Hans Zarkoff. The three were stuck on Mongo for many years, but they eventually overthrew evil Emperor Ming and returning to Earth to join the World Space Council. The theatre of their adventuring then expanded to take in more of the cosmos.
A sorry mess of wasted opportunities, thrown over for a handful of rubbish jokes.
When Flash Gordon fell burning from the phosphor heaven of the TV screen, it became just another pile of bones on the plains of cancellation. It’ll be soon forgotten, unmourned, despite the huge fan-fuelled furore that greeted its inauguration. Yep, Flash got flamed so much on the net that he was practically barbecued in the first few minutes of his reappearance. The newspapers stamped on the ashes shortly afterward.
There is much to loathe about this series, but there were also glimmerings of potential, glimmerings that will now stay forever unrealised. There are three things at fault for this. Yes, three. Here they are in descending order of seriousness.
The first, and major, cause of Flash‘s demise were the rifts, the spangly holes in the universe that allowed Flash and his chums to go to Mongo. Not a bad idea, really, gets round the whole old-fashioned rocketship, and ties in with certain physics. A great way to travel, but they were allowed to come back. Again, and then again. They cut down on this, but by then the damage was done. I’ve said it before: Flash Gordon is about a group of people who are marooned on an exotic alien world, and fight against the tyranny they find there. This is not a show about that, it is a show where our leads can nip back for misjudged comedy weddings.
Which leads us on to number two, comedy. Sass is the slow death of SF. Witless one-liners make Flash a bouffant manchild, reduce Zarkoff to a bumbling clown, and turn Dale into a blathering encumbrance, Only the Mongo men have any testicles to speak of. It’s frat party SF, with fatherly Ming scolding the Earthlings for being wankers. If only they had listened. In SF land, nobody ever grows up nowadays. It’s like Mongo was gatecrashed by escapees from the happy bus. We’re not saying we want a return to the old serials, with overdone hams barking at each other like seals recorded on wax cylinders, but why does all SF have to be, ahem, “funny”?
Number three, exoticism. Here the show at least tried. I watched seven episodes of Flash Gordon in quick succession, and began to think that if all the Earth sequences were edited out, it might have been only half bad. The Mongo scenes, though low budget and rife with cliche, were the strongest bit of the show. Whaddya know, it’s also the heart of the Flash Gordon concept. If they nailed this, they’d have won. Imagine if Flash behaved like a hero, outraged by injustice, if a genius Zarkoff had matched wits with the excellent Rankol (one of the show’s few highlights). The duel of Barrin and Flash – we should have had more of that. But no, thought the showrunners, let’s nip back to Canada for more familial bonding and hollow quipping.
So now we won’t have any more of anything. Serves them right.