Man, what the hell happened?
It seemed like such a good idea at the time. The Syfy Channel or The Sci Fi Channel has had a good track record for television series that excelled in epic space adventures with hit shows like “Stargate” and “Farscape.” Plus, they engineered one of the most critically acclaimed award winning reboots of all time, “BSG: Battlestar Galactica” which ended up being an important touchstone for science fiction in the twenty first century.
So what in the heck happened with “Flash Gordon”? Syfy and their executives not only seem to miss the point with these characters of the pulp era, but completely seek out to alter their personas rather than re-invent them.
Take for example the diastrous “Phantom” reboot. This time around, Syfy basically plays the “Battlestar Galactica” card by rebooting Flash Gordon for the twenty first century and adding a brand new angle to the premise, as well as a modern grit and gloom that works against the idea of Flash Gordon. Flash, like every pulp hero, should be entertaining, daring, and most importantly, fun. “Mask of Zorro” worked because it was light hearted but dramatic. “The Rocketeer” worked on the same vein. As did “Sky Captain” and even “Indiana Jones”! Ignoring their camp appeal and watering them down to be angst ridden and dark works against the point of these characters. “Battlestar Galatica” worked because the original show was just a “Star Wars” wannabe transformed from the bottom up in to a stern adult science fiction epic. Flash Gordon works on a different level because Flash Gordon is one of the forefathers of the science fiction opera genre. He was Luke Skywalker before Luke Skywalker.
If Syfy would have built on that and completely embraced the iconic sensibilities of the character, providing us with a fun and dashing superhero, “Flash Gordon” could have been a fantastic re-invention for modern audiences. It presents a nugget of a good idea for the re-invention, implying that Gordon is not so much the Flash Gordon, but the son of the original Flash Gordon, who is now missing and has possibly been kidnapped. Eric Johnson formerly of “Smallville” is by no means a bad actor. He has the exact look and build for a modern Flash Gordon and could have embodied the All American ideals behind the hero, it’s just the series is in a perpetual state of bleak science fiction atmosphere that saps the fun out of the idea of an intergalactic superhero.
The creators this time around sap out the appeal of Ming the Merciless. While I applaud their efforts to stray from his Asian steretypical mold, they also subtract his menace and charisma, turning Ming the Merciless in to simply Ming, an evil ruler who, as played by John Ralston, is also incapable of displaying why he’s such a fine actor. To make things worse, a lot of the plot elements were re-worked for, I’m assuming, budgetary purposes. Flash was turned in to a more bare chested superhero, he spent most of his time on Earth, using portals to jump back and forth from space to his home planet (?!)., and is given a spunky new female partner Baylin, a bounty hunter from the planet Mongo meant to provide Flash with conflict, sexual tension, and to basically hold his hands through his adventures. Rather than Flash basically realizing his potential as a hero by circumstance and consequence, he basically has to be told he’s a hero. Karen Cliche is a gorgeous co-star, but completely unnecessary.
To add insult to an already annoying reboot, entertaining supporting players like the Dactyls are turned in to bare chested beef cakes without wings who can glide on air. “Flash Gordon” only suffers from the pilot that fails to establish a reasonable and enticing tone for the rest of the series. The pilot is a three parter, and in all three parts can’t really keep audiences attention, especially when it fails to be anything but the actual Flash Gordon time and time again. I’m not sure why this reboot didn’t re-invent the elements and just altered them to be even more ridiculous than ever, to the point where you wonder if the writers were purposely sabotaging the show to fail. Everything about the series feels bargain basement and low budget, and nothing is ever really urgent or tense giving Flash something to strive for as a hero. Thankfully the series only lasted one season before it was mercifully put down like a sick animal.
Sadly, the DVD is a collection of episodes and really nothing else, but for the remaining few fans who want to see the entire series on DVD finally for release in the US, or for hardcore “Smallville” fans that want to support Eric Johnson’s performance, Mill Creek Entertainment has made this release available for sale at last.