The Idiot Box
by Terence Chua
So, I decided, what the hell, I'll have a look at the new Flash Gordon television series.
Here's how you make a good re-imagining. You sit down and look at the original show. You figure out what the essence of the show was, what made it work. You isolate the main themes. You give it, perhaps, a modern twist, and add some themes of your own. You don't necessarily have to slavishly ape the original material, but you harken back to it, pay respect to it, by echoing some of the classic designs. You try to mimic the scale of it, or take advantage of current technology to up the stakes.
Do that, you get The Mask of Zorro, or the new Transformers movie, or Battlestar Galactica.
Do sod all, and you get Flash Gordon. When I was a child, my first encounter with Flash was first the campy Dino De Laurentis motion picture, then the Filmation animated series, which seems horribly primitive compared to today's animation. But I loved it -- well, the first season anyway, before they decided to cutesy it up -- because the essential elements of the Flash Gordon story hooked onto my kid's imagination and never quite let go.
Flash Gordon is pulp fiction, first of all, which means you need suspense, cliff-hangers, a too good to be true hero, a beautiful but feisty female love interest, and pure, scary evil in your bad guy. Second, Flash Gordon is epic -- a floating city, grand throne rooms, jungles stretching out for miles, armies amassing for battle, fleets of spaceships shooting each other out of the sky, and the iconic image of Mongo heading towards Earth, causing tidal effects and other nasty stuff. Third, rocket ships, mad scientists and madder science. Fourth, the American imperialistic story of this whitebread, All-American man meeting an oppressed world, which is oppressed only because the bad guy keeps the peoples divided, and unites them for the common cause. It's the Constitutional Narrative, the Revolutionary Legend. It's cheesy, but it's primal, like all good myths are.
In the late 80s, DC Comics -- specifically Dan Jurgens -- did a mini-series update of Flash Gordon. They made him a ex-basketball player past his prime, but they kept the rocket ships, the threat of Mongo, they had a supremely evil Ming, they had cliff-hangers at the end of every issue, they had Flash meeting the races of Mongo and uniting them, and at the very end, this washed out sportsman reaches the end of his hero's journey and becomes the saviour of the planet, deciding to stay where he's found a new life. It was a fresh take, there was a bit more emotional motivation from Flash, it was more cynical and cockier than the original, but Jurgens got it. He understood that there are some things you just don't mess with.
So what do we have in this latest attempt? We have Steven "Flash" Gordon, a guy in his twenties, who still lives with his mother, and still has father issues because his father vanished into a space rift thirteen years before. He pines wimpily after his high school sweetheart Dale, who -- to add insult to injury -- is engaged to another man. He travels to Mongo by way of a Sliders-like hole in space, and meets Ming, who is more petulant than nasty, is actually shorter than his daughter is, and has blonde hair. Dr Zarkov is this nebbish, hyper, unshaven scientist, who tells them that nobody on Earth must know about this alien threat, for the vaguest of reasons. Ming's throne room is smaller than my apartment. All this might be forgiven if there was the slightest substance to the story, which there isn't. Acting is lukewarm to awful, dialogue sucks, effects are sub-par.
I mean, for fuck's sake. Really.
This isn't Flash Gordon. This is some weird hybrid of The X-Files and Sliders and Dawson's Creek that calls itself Flash Gordon. This is the pod people version of Flash Gordon. There's no sense of scope, no sense of threat, no sense of derring-do. In fact, it's positively claustrophobic. The actors who play Dale and Flash, though easy on the eyes, have no chemistry. Don't even get me started on the actress who claims to be the spitfire called Princess Aura. Ming... yeah, sure, they couldn't go the Yellow Peril route, but come on: Max Von Sydow in the movie didn't look a bit Asian, and they got away with it fine. In fact, he almost looked Middle-Eastern, and that would go down a lot better these days. Even if you dump the racism, would it have killed them just to make the guy look more like the Master and less like Bryan Ferry?
You want to hook me, you give me a proper Mingo City, with spires and Alex Raymond-y flourishes.. You give me Mongo in space careening towards Earth. You give me Prince Vultan, or Barin, or Sky City, or the jungles of Arboria. Throw me a freaking cliff-hanger. You show me a world -- or two worlds, one of which is incredibly alien and doesn't just look like a grassy patch somewhere in British Columbia -- crying out for a hero. This aren't just trappings, these are parts of the myth that might convince me that, at some level, you actually understand what Flash Gordon is all about.
You want to do crap like this instead, please, please, please, call it something else. To call it Flash Gordon not only demeans the original, but it automatically holds you to a standard that, unless you're Ronald D. Moore, you just can't reach.
Flash Gordon airs Fridays at 9:00pm Eastern on The Sci-Fi Channel
© 2007 Terence Chua
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