'Flash Gordon' Is More Comic Than Cosmic on Sci Fi

Eric Johnson plays Flash Gordon as a modern man with issues  --  besides fighting Ming the Merciless, that is.
Eric Johnson plays Flash Gordon as a modern man with issues -- besides fighting Ming the Merciless, that is. (By Jeff Weddell -- Sci -Fi Channel)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007

The planet Mongo, sadly, is no longer hurtling on a collision course toward Earth, its trajectory once controlled by evil emperor Ming the Merciless. Ming isn't even entirely merciless anymore, though still not the kind of guy you'd hire to babysit, and Mongo has been downgraded from planet to a sort of neighborhood.

Flash Gordon, fantastic planet-hopping playboy of yesteryear, has been exhumed from eternity. But the new "Flash Gordon," concocted for the Sci Fi Channel (and premiering tonight), departs radically from the original Universal serials made in the 1930s. The ray guns and rocket ships lack a certain panache, or maybe elan, and there's nary a sign of mangy old lizards tricked up to look like big scary monsters.

Attempting to reinvent and contemporize Alex Raymond's comic-strip icon, Sci Fi has "humanized" the dashing rascal by bringing his personal life to the forefront and demoting the amazing stuff to second fiddle. This time out, we have to hear all about Flash's relationship with Dale Arden, plucky heroine (then and now), plus lots of back-story business about how Flash's scientist-father died, or at least disappeared, in an explosion when Flash was 13, and how Flash still likes to go off searching for him.

Ming reigns not from a maverick planet but from somewhere in another dimension that is accessed via a "rift" in the universe just outside Flash's home town, apparently somewhere in Maryland. The rift looks extremely similar to the bubbly portal through which explorers mooshed into yet another dimension on the old Showtime series "Stargate SG-1," which itself migrated to the Sci Fi Channel.

I say three dimensions are plenty and we should leave it at that -- enough goes wrong in them without adding another -- but the revisers have had their way. And although it would be folly for them to have attempted an outright imitation of the old serials (or of the music-by-Queen spoofy version from 1980), the new approach is basically to make a mockery of the hero and his derring-do, with too much comic relief and a surplus of supposedly snappy banter between Flash and Dale.

Example: In Ming's realm, certain voluptuous babes earn the title and job of "Avid," performing special duties for the emperor. But when Dale suspects one voluptuous babe of being a phony, she tells Flash, "If she's an Avid, then I'm Costello." Ha ha ha ha ha.

We refer to the Avids as "babes" because that is how the series treats them (so please, no angry letters). Dale is beautiful, too, but rather than being a mere babe, she (as played by Gina Holden) is one of those fully empowered women we all love so much. Now a fearless TV reporter, she still appears to love Flash (Eric Johnson), her old high school sweetheart, but has become engaged to a creep named Joe (Giles Panton), who's on the police force. As for Flash, he remains on the clueless side, still living with Mom after all these years and running a garage with a pal.

Meanwhile, Dr. Zarkov (Jody Racicot), once the mad genius who devised the rocket ship that took Flash and Dale on their Ming wingding, has been converted into an irritating, myopic geek who drives around town in a Winnebago. If only there were a big lizard around to eat him.

The original Depression-era serial was a surprising success that inspired two sequels. Ming the Merciless had only seemed to die at the end of the first film, it turned out, and thus returned twice more to vent his wrath on Earth with such environmental hazards as "the purple death." Ming's palace on Mongo looked as if it had been invaded by interior decorators addicted to art deco.

Both Ming's name and mustache do carry unfortunate racist overtones reflecting "yellow peril" prejudices of the era (even as, curiously, Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto simultaneously prevailed as highly superior snoops in many a B-movie). The serials were really exercises in the now-popular art of pop collage, patched together with discarded shots from other movies (including a ridiculous 1930 musical, "Just Imagine"), hokey special effects, recycled sets and music from such pictures as "Bride of Frankenstein" and stock footage of storms, riots and other catastrophes supposedly wreaked by Ming.

Yet, it was a wacky wow then, returning for multiple reruns on TV during the early years of the medium (the first serial was renamed "Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers"). And the original "Flash" remains fascinating to watch today, especially the first serial with its undercurrents of sadomasochism and erotic imagery. Flash, played by Olympic swimming star Buster Crabbe with his hair colored Aryan-blond, was forever falling into torture traps that tended to render him shirtless and sweating; and Ming's daughter, instantly hit with the hots, lusted after his Olympian bod with eyes aflame and bosom a-heave.

All that plus monsters galore and exotic kingdoms -- Mongo suburbs, sort of -- each with its own quixotic ruler, like an undersea world whose sharky snarky king wore a shower cap. Dale was played by Jean Rogers, projecting a seductive innocence; she can be spotted in an earlier gig among the heavenly hordes of chorines in Busby Berkeley's outlandish musical numbers. By vivid contrast, the new "Flash" version opens with a cranky alien unleashing fury on, of all things, the pin-setting machines at a bowling alley.

This "Flash" jumps the shark right out of the gate.

A key mistake is to have Ming look, of all things, very much like Flash. This Ming is a youngish hunk played with neither menace nor charisma by John Ralston. What's he supposed to be, Flash's evil twin? "Flash" looks suspiciously as if it emanates from that peaceful other dimension known as Canada, where many a TV show is shot because of lower overhead. Indeed, the producing pair of Robert Halmi Sr. and Robert Halmi Jr. are really more renowned as cost-cutters than as captains of imagination.

As light summer fare, most of it done with a campy wink at the camera, "Flash Gordon" is by no means unbearable. But the fonder one's memories of the original, the more likely the viewer will want to send this "Flash" back.

Flash Gordon (90 minutes) debuts tonight at 9 on the Sci Fi Channel.

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