Wednesday, April 17, 2013

FLASH GORDON - THE COMPLETE SERIES

I'm a big fan of the character of Flash Gordon, created in 1934 by cartoonist Alex Raymond. I love (and collect) the original comic strip, the comic books, novels, 30s movie serials, cartoons and even the 1980 feature film. The basic premise of an ordinary man from Earth rocketing to an exotic, alien world and uniting its oppressed inhabitants against a merciless tyrant - well, it's classic fantasy adventure. When the SciFi Channel announced in 2007 that they were going to air a "fresh, new" FLASH GORDON television series, I was cautiously optimistic... until I saw the first few press releases and photos. I didn't have cable at the time (I still don't, actually), so I never got to see if the show lived down to my low expectations, or actually turned out okay... until now. This week, Mill Creek Entertainment released the complete 22 episode series on DVD for the first time (in the U.S.).

In this re-imagined FLASH, the titular character, Steven "Flash" Gordon (Eric Johnson), is a small-town auto mechanic and marathon runner who lives at home with his mother. His father, a scientist working on something called the "The Portage Project," supposedly died in a laboratory fire several years ago. In the course of one very eventful day, his old high school girlfriend, Dale Arden (Gina Holden) returns to town as a local TV reporter, an eccentric scientist named Hans Zarkov (Jody Raciot) shows up, claiming to have been his father's colleague, and a ray gun-wielding armored alien appears out of a "rift" in the air (remember SLIDERS?). The alien is from an extradimensional planet called Mongo, which is ruled over by a blond-haired, perpetually constipated-looking despot named Ming (John Ralston). Over the next 22 episodes, Flash and his friends (which include a sexy renegade female bounty hunter from Mongo named Baylin) attempt to foil Ming's efforts to use the "rift" technology to conquer Earth, and seek the truth about he fate of Flash's dad.

Based on the evidence at hand, it appears that the producers' mandate was to take everything that made the property interesting and popular for 70 years and... discard all of it. The planet Mongo has had almost every fantastic element removed - no more varied nonhuman races, no more floating cities or rocketships, no winged hawkmen (now they're "dactyls," with glider capes) or water breathing sharkmen. No, this Mongo is portrayed simply as red-tinted Canadian woodland locations, cramped sets, and one under-detailed CGI cityscape. Flash and company spend more screen time in exotic, far-off suburban Maryland (actually British Columbia) than Mongo, and there are no rocketships or space travel. (In fact, Mongo doesn't even appear to have vehicles of any sort - everyone walks. Must be a small planet.) In other words, the show is a very cheap production, and every aspect has been downscaled to match that shoestring budget.

The casting is a mixed bag. Eric Johnson is an amiable, charismatic Flash, and even somewhat resembles actor Steve Holland, who played the character in a 1950s TV series. Gina Holden is an equally likable Dale Arden, smart, attractive, and admirably strong-minded. John Ralston, however, makes a very unimposing Ming - he's the shortest member of the cast and underplays the role to the point of somnambulism. Unlike the comic strip version of the character, he controls the populace of Mongo not through fear and terror, but by controlling the planet's only water supply, which reduces him to basically a 90s-styled Eurotrash gangster. (Mongo looks remarkably lush for a supposedly water-poor world, but I digress.) Anna Van Hooft, as Ming's bratty daughter Aura, is very pretty, but wooden, a description which also applies to most of the other supporting players as well.

Notable guest stars include Steve Bacic (ANDROMEDA, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: RAZOR), and movie Flash, Sam J. Jones, who shows up for one episode as a prisoner of Ming's dungeons.

Mill Creek's new DVD set includes all 22 episodes on four discs, formatted to a 16x9, 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. picture quality is basically flawless, and the audio is crisp and clear. There are no extras included.

So, what if you're not already a fan of the classic Flash Gordon? Does the series work on its own as a science fiction adventure show? Yes, but it's still not particularly good. Change the names, and you'd still have an underachiever of a genre show, with a likable cast, but a derivative, uninspired storyline realized in the cheapest possible manner. Fans of the show - and I'm sure there are some - will appreciate having it available on DVD for their home collections (especially as it retails for only about $10), but it's hard to recommend FLASH GORDON to anyone else.

BUYFlash Gordon - The Complete Series