Review: Flash Gordon 1×1-1×2 (US: Scifi)

In the US: Fridays, 9/8c, SciFi
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Flash! Argh!

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Flash Gordon has been through many incarnations over the years. First, a comic, then movie serials, radio serials, novels, a movie, a TV series, cartoon series and now another TV series. Each iteration has been different but with certain common themes: Flash, usually an athlete of some variety; Dale Arden, his girlfriend/love interest; Dr Zarkov, a scientist who can build really whizzy inventions that would earn him a fortune if he ever patented any of them; and of course, the planet Mongo, with its various moons and weird inhabitants, ruled over by Ming the Merciless.

The new TV series is far from the worst version of Flash Gordon there’s ever been – that would be the one with Flash and Dale as hoverboarding teenagers – but judging by the first two episodes, it certainly has ambitions in that direction.

Plot (found on the SciFi channel web site, covered in cob webs and half eaten by mice)

SCI FI is putting a 21st-century spin on one of science fiction’s best-known names: Flash Gordon.

The new Flash Gordon follows Flash (Eric Johnson) and his companions, Dale Arden (Gina Holden) and Dr. Hans Zarkov (Jody Racicot) through wild and momentous adventures.

They’re ordinary people thrust, often against their wishes, into extraordinary circumstances. In fact, they are Earth’s last defense against the forces of a merciless dictator named Ming (John Ralston).

As the series opens, we learn that Flash’s father, the eminent scientist Dr. Lawrence Gordon, died in a laboratory fire when Flash was just 13.

Flash has no way of knowing that something is approaching that will undo all he thought he knew about his father’s death, and set him on a path punctuated by overwhelming responsibility and euphoric victories.

Flash’s adventure begins when a dangerous echo of his father’s old experiments reaches him. He seeks advice from his old flame, Dale. She’s a reporter for their hometown TV station, and she is engaged to police detective Joe Wylee (Giles Panton). Dale quickly becomes entangled with Flash in interstellar intrigue.

It’s no coincidence that Dr. Zarkov, a quirky assistant to Flash’s father, also reconnects with Flash at that critical moment. Zarkov warns Flash of a transdimensional rift — a tear in the universe’s fabric — like the one Flash’s father was trying to create the night of the fire.

That discovery might just turn out to be the least mind-blowing one that Flash will face.

Is it any good?

Firstly, it needs to be pointed out that Flash Gordon has always been a bit camp. Even when it took itself seriously back in the 30s, it was camp, all the same. This version is no different: it has a knowing humour and isn’t afraid to be silly.

The trouble is that it’s just dull. Dull, and ridiculously low budget.

The version of Flash Gordon that most people will be familiar with is the early 80s movie, starring the over-dubbed Sam Jones and Max von Sydow among others. Whatever else you could say about it, the characters were broad and fun, and the aliens were really alien – they actually had their own cultures and feelings that were different in almost every way from our own.

This new show is having none of that. Ming is no longer merciless and he’s a dictator who governs Mongo by manipulating the water supply, rather than through force or techno gadgets. Mongo itself, thanks to the phenomenally low budget, consists of a couple of rooms and a single CGI shot. There are no hawkmen, no treemen and none of the other rich range of Alex Raymond aliens, just a load of thirsty people dressed up like they’re in the middle ages. Since the show’s filmed in Canada (of course), there are also some trees.

Those trees show up a lot on Earth, too, with the vast majority of scenes involving three trees and two humans, standing around chatting. It would be easy at this point to make an easy joke about the actors and trees, but actually the actors aren’t that bad. Dale’s quite sparky, Flash has a certain charisma and easy-going quality.

The problem, as you can see from the Ming transformation, is the writing. The characters are just too insipid. Zarkov is little more than a tech nerd; Flash still lives at home with his mother; Ming is about as threatening as a tax inspector about to head off for a lunch break; and there are some tedious additional characters, such as an alien bounty hunter, who could have been bought from “Generic Sci-fi Characters R Us!” and shipped in to fill up holes in the script where the imagination should have been.

The budget also precludes any sense of sci-fi wonder. There are no rocket ships to get us to Mongo, no need to actually stay on the planet and get to know it; now, there’s a Stargate – sorry, ‘rift’ – that opens up to take aliens and heroes from planet to planet at a moment’s notice. It’s a lot cheaper and quicker and lets us almost get to know the characters in their home settings, but it takes away any trace of individuality from the show.

On the whole then, nothing to write home about. There’s enough in it to warrant holding out to episode three for a third-episode verdict, but it’s just not very good at the moment, I’m afraid.

Here’s a YouTube trailer – unfortunately, they don’t use the Queen music from the movie in the TV series. That would have given it something anyway.