Wednesday, August 2, 2006

FLASH GORDON - THE COMPLETE SERIES

Another Filmation endeavor making its DVD debut is the Saturday morning classic, (THE NEW ADVENTURES OF) FLASH GORDON, from 1979-80.

When the rogue planet Mongo enters our solar system on a collision course for Earth, scientific genius Dr. Hans Zarkov, athlete Flash Gordon, and his girlfriend Dale Arden blast off in a rocketship of the doctor's invention, hoping to find a way to turn the alien planet from its course. Crash landing on its surface, they find Mongo inhabited by a vast array of sentient creatures, all under the rule of the tyrannical Ming the Merciless. It soon becomes clear to the Earthmen (and Earthwoman) that the only hope of saving Earth lies in uniting the distrustful, ever-warring races of Mongo against the sinister space tyrant.

I have to say, that in my book, this show (first season only) is right up there with JONNY QUEST, THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN and BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES among the great animated adventure shows. By Filmation standards, the animation is rather lush, with lots of rotoscoping and elaborate backgrounds and character designs. Being a limited-budget, limited-animation product of the Seventies, there's the usual relentless recycling of footage and repetitive music cues, but it is executed with a level of care and ingenuity that is rare in cartoon shows of this vintage.

In the first season episodes, the writing is not dumbed down for kids and follows the continuity of the original Alex Raymond comic strips quite faithfully. Characters are actually killed (disintegrated) on-screen, and the female characters are designed to be blatantly sexy. Ming's got his harem and King Vultan's got dancing slave girls... there's no way they would have been able to get away with that even a few years later in the 80s.

The first season is presented as an ongoing serial with cliffhangers. The second season is made up of 16 fifteen-minute segments that are, unfortunately, aimed squarely at small children, with simpler, sillier stories and the addition to the cast of a pink baby dragon called Gremlin.

Once again, BCI (under their new Ink and Paint label) and animation expert Andy Mangels have put together a very nice DVD set. While the episodes definitely show their age, with a considerable amount of visible dirt and debris (inherent in this kind of animation) and somewhat faded colors, there are no noticeable digital artifacts or compression problems, and the audio is sharp and clear.

There are some great extras included – a 20 minute documentary wherein Filmation head honcho Lou Scheimer and other studio staffers reminisce about the show and the TV feature that preceded it. There are character model sheets, some storyboards, the series bible and some scripts on DVD-ROM, and even the entire first episode of the 1980's syndicated series DEFENDERS OF THE EARTH. This 80's series (coming from BCI later this year) also starred Flash Gordon, along with The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, his sidekick Lothar and their teenaged children, all teaming up to battle Ming. The premise was okay, but looked and sounded like every other show that Marvel Productions made in the 80s: bland. Also inserted into the set are a fold out episode guide and two collectible art cards featuring beautiful illustrations by comic book artists Frank Cho and Gene Ha.

Overall, I think that the first season of the Filmation FLASH GORDON is one of the best adaptations of the character to film (right up there with the Buster Crabbe serials of the Thirties), and one of the best animated adventure series ever. The DVD set is very nice – the picture quality's not perfect, but better than I expected after nearly 30 years.

Recommended.

BUY: The New Adventures of Flash Gordon - The Complete Series