Flash Gordon: The Complete Series Review
Think how depressing it must be to work on a television show as bad as Flash Gordon. Imagine receiving each new script, praying as you begin to read that maybe this week the writers will have finally pulled their fingers out and produced something half-decent, only to feel that familiar sense of crushing disappointment as you turn the pages and realise that no, actually, if anything this one is even worse than the week’s before, a feat you would have hitherto sworn to be an impossibility. How dispiriting then to have to go into work knowing this was what you were facing, to walk onto dreary soundstages devoid of any sort of aesthetic inspiration and to watch a bunch of mediocrities utterly failing to bring any sort of life to the drivel written on the page. And then, when the long day is over, to have to go home again and fall into bed knowing not only that you have to go through it all again tomorrow, but that, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, this rubbish, and your part in it, will be preserved for hundreds if not thousands of years, so that future generations will look back and shake their heads in bemusement that such a show could ever have been existed, or that there were people who were willing to be part of such a farrago.
It didn’t have to be this way. Reviving Flash Gordon is not necessarily a bad idea, as it has proved a durable title down the years, albeit a mildly silly one. One of the few wise decisions Executive Producer Peter Helms chose was to embrace the daftness and make the series a light-hearted exercise - after all, any series which features characters called Dr Zarkov and Ming the Merciless is never going to be able to keep an entirely straight face. That said, in this incarnation Ming is no longer merciless (or, for that matter, a dodgy-looking Fu Manchu clone) but rather “the Benevolent Father”, a Stalinist figure who rules over Mongo by controlling the supply of drinking water, a scarce commodity following some sort of apocalyptic event of which I forget the exact details. Flash, meanwhile, is a youthful athlete and garage mechanic, played by Eric Johnson, who is still mourning the disappearance of his father when he was a small child. It turns out that Daddy Gordon was involved in scientific work to open doorways called Rifts between our world and Mongo, and on one sojourn to the alien world was captured by the evil Ming to help him carry out his own nefarious schemes. Now Ming has his own Rift Generator, through which he sends various evildoers to Earth for reasons not always readily apparent and which leads him into direct confrontation, week after week, with Flash, Flash’s ace reporter ex-girlfriend Dale Arden (Gina Holden), and Daddy Gordon’s former partner the certifiable Dr Zarkov (Jody Racicot). Can Flash and his chums stop Ming’s plans? Can Dale hide the truth of what is going on from her fiancee? Can anyone stand to watch more than three episodes of this show?
When the series was first announced, there was scepticism from some quarters regarding the changes made to the Flash mythos, most notably the use of Rifts to travel between the two worlds and the introduction of new characters, Ming’s bodyguard Rankol and ex-bounty hunter Baylin, played by Jonathan Lloyd Walker and Karen Cliché respectively. Such changes are inevitably pragmatic, though, and all of the recent plethora of re-inventions, both the good ones like Battlestar Galactica and the not-so-great titles such as Bionic Woman have featured changes in the basic premises. Indeed, the latter title owes Flash Gordon some thanks as if it wasn’t for the existence of Flash Michelle Ryan’s short-lived series would have easily been the turkey of the 2007-8 season. The two shows share many of the same problems - a dull cast, poorly thought-through premise and a total lack of anything new - but Flash wins the wooden spoon because at least Bionic occasionally looked reasonably stylish. The sets of Mongo, however, are almost astonishingly bland, Ming’s palace a succession of undecorated corridors, his city a collection of astonishingly basic-looking CGI buildings, and the wider planet distinguished from ours only by the fact the light is overexposed. It’s an example of this show’s most heinous crime, the sense that everything is done in a half-hearted, that’ll-do fashion, with little care or attention paid to anything from the costumes the principal characters wear through to the weapons they fire.
There is not even the remotest sense that anyone tried to bring anything new to the table. This is the worst kind of remake, one which thinks it can get by almost entirely on the virtue of its name alone, the same kind of cheap exploitation of a property that has been plaguing cinemas for years but which is becoming increasingly prevalent on television too. Instead of trying to be different, Flash follows a formula which has been evolving over the past ten years or so, starting, as so many other things have, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s as though the makers of Flash have feasted at a smorgasboard of better shows, chowing down on a portion of Stargate Sg-1 here, a smattering of Smallville and Alias there, garnished with a sprinkle of Supernatural, then digested all the nutrients from those shows for their own private benefit and passed out and served up for our delectation whatever was left over. The style, in which characters talk in ironic witticisms rather than proper dialogue, is now tiresome and overused, the content familiar from those better shows. Oh look, Flash is searching for his long-lost father. Oh gosh, there’s a character who we thought was good/bad but is in fact bad/good - what an unexpected twist! Oh, here comes some mystic prophecy about heroes vanquishing villains and hey, why don’t we just throw in a government cover-up while we’re at it? Yeah, that’ll do.
But, you know what, it’s okay. It doesn’t matter this is all recycled garbage because this series is FUN! It knows it’s silly (any series which features the screeching birdmen this one does couldn’t help it) but it revels in it, and as such we the viewer would be very churlish if we didn't join in as well. Only, the problem with that is that this isn’t fun. Not in the slightest. What jokes there are weak, the action feeble, the characters uninteresting. The writing undermines itself in numerous ways, maintaining the light-hearted tone so long that it is then surprised when we find what are meant to be the truly dramatic moments as stirring as a typical episode of Little House on the Prairie. One episode’s cliffhanger expects us to be shocked that Flash and his chums are stranded on Mongo, but they hop back and forth so often that we can’t help but think getting back to Earth won’t be that much of a challenge. Nor, for that matter, will defeating Ming be especially difficult, given the ease that our heroes manage to get into his palace and virtually into his throne-room - if I were Ming, I’d be thinking about installing new security or at least hiring some new guards, as the ones around are plainly not doing their job. There are few surprises along the way, with key twists being signposted miles ahead, resulting in boredom and apathy settling in very quickly. The second half of the season appears to improve matters by having more of an arc running through but in reality nothing changes, most episodes still involving the characters just running about being captured and escaping at regular intervals for forty minutes until the credits roll. It's tedious, brainless stuff and nowhere near as entertaining as it thinks it is.
Matters aren't helped by the fact that the characters are rotten as well. It was an interesting move to make Flash not that much of a hero - in the series finale he is very much peripheral to much of the action - while Ming is one of the poorest villains I’ve seen in a long while. The decision to tone him down from the over-the-top nutter of yore is understandable, but here he is so low-key and ineffectual he’s no threat at all, not helped by the fact John Ralston who plays him is hardly a menacing actor. His playing reminds me a little of John Shea as Lex Luthor in Lois and Clark but the comparison doesn’t favour Ralston; while both performers were often given poor material to work with, Shea nearly always managed to bring his part alive and make something of it, which Ralston just doesn’t. Their costars don’t help - Holden channels Goldie Hawn in her ditzy period for long stretches of time while Karen Cliché plays Baylin as a shameless Anya-from-Buffy clone (which, in fairness to the actress, is exactly how she’s written, a piece of barefaced cheek if ever I saw one). The wooden spoon in a competitive field, though, would have to go to Racicot, who is oftentimes ghastly as the “delightfully mad” Zarkov, mugging away for all he's worth in a somewhat embarrassing fashion. The one performer who escapes with a shred of dignity is Lloyd Walker as Rankol who, despite being stuck having to glide around like a demented Dalek, shows signs of having far more ability than the nonsense he has to deal with here allows him to display. I would very much like to see him given better material as I suspect he would be rather good - as it is, he is the only one who manages to give a halfway decent performance.
Over the course of twenty-two episodes, I really did try and find something to like about the show, but Lloyd Walker notwithstanding, failed to come up with anything. When a show revives such old hat as love potions and clip shows you know you’re in trouble - when it decides it would be a good idea to remake Weekend at Bernie’s it’s time to throw in the towel. The previous on-screen incarnations of Flash, from Buster Crabbe’s thirties serials through to Mike Hodge’s delirious 1980 version (starring Sam Jones, who makes a surprisingly good cameo in this series) might not be great art but they are usually hugely entertaining, something this show must definitely isn’t. Fortunately it doesn’t appear to have done the franchise too much harm - it has just been announced that a new film version is planned for 2010. After this debacle that news might be cause for concern but there is one consolation - no matter how good or bad it is, it can’t be any worse than this bilge. A merciless series, in all the wrong ways.
The complete series, all twenty-two glorious episodes, are presented on five discs. The menus aren't very well designed: each episode is distinguished only by a number with no episode titles and a tiny image which in many cases could have come from half a dozen different episodes. There is a Play All button should you be in a particularly masochistic mood, but there aren't any subtitles.
There's a real problem with the Video in that you can see everything perfectly clearly. This is a definite disadvantage and should be marked down accordingly. That said, marks are put back on for the sequences shot on Mongo exteriors; intentionally over-exposed, the transfer doesn't handle these scenes especially well and loses detail in the murk, and even Earth-bound exteriors and some interiors have a surprisingly flat, somewhat dull look about them which does nothing if you're trying to stay awake. Equally, the Audio is an unadventurous 2.0 mix which doesn't even bother trying to do anything remotely interesting, even during the various frenetic scenes of corridor running or empire-overthrowing.
As for Extras having manfully made it to the end of the series I was hoping to be faced with just a couple of fluffy Making-Of featurettes, the sort in which everyone says how much fun the show is and how wonderful everyone was to work with. Evidently in this particular case no one involved wished to incriminate themselves further and so there is a notable absence of such a feature. Instead, your reward for making it to the end of the season is to watch the original Pilot - oh terrific, even more Flash to enjoy! - which, as an extra bonus, runs for twenty minutes longer than the normal episodes, clocking in at 63 minutes precisely. I can't tell you too much about it as I spent the time yelling at the screen "This is all your fault!" but there doesn't seem to be much difference between it and the first two episodes, although the picture quality is a fair bit poorer than for the regular shows. There are no other extras, which for once is a bonus - I suspect any episode commentaries would have consisted mainly of lengthy periods of embarrassed silence and as such it's a mercy we, and the performers, are spared them.
More trash than Flash, this is an exceedingly poor show which maybe unsurprisingly doesn't get a great DVD release. One to quickly forget.
2 out of 10
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2 out of 10