Shiny Shelf

Flash Gordon

By Lance Parkin on 11 August 2007

When ‘Holby City’ was launched, the BBC informally referred to it as their “answer to ‘ER’”, demonstrating a fundamental inability to understand the question. When Sci-Fi Channel announced that they were remaking ‘Flash Gordon’, they said it was to steer their shows away from shows like ‘Battlestar Galactica’ that fanboys love but no-one actually watches, towards things with mass appeal.

Their model? ‘Doctor Who’, which Sci-Fi show in the States, and which doesn’t score massive ratings for them, but does pull in people who don’t usually watch the channel. With ‘Flash Gordon’, they’ve managed to alienate the fanboys, because they managed to let slip that they chose to make this instead of a ‘Battlestar Galactica’ spin-off. But have they got themselves a mainstream hit?

No. It’s terrible.

It’s difficult to know where to start, so how about the very beginning? So many series have been revamped and modernized and reimagined that it’s possible to categorize the cliches. The first thing any American writer seems determined to do is give their hero daddy issues. The first line of dialogue in ‘Flash Gordon’ is “your father would have been so proud”, and an astute viewer can guess that the visit to the father’s grave won’t take long (it takes six minutes, including commercials); that whatever happens to Flash will be because of something his dad did when he was a kid; that there will be a flashback to some particular father-son moment That Now Takes On New Significance; that the innocuous object his dad gave him is an important plot token; that his mom will have moved on but the hero hasn’t; that it’s hinted that his father was involved in something secret; and there will be clues that his father is actually alive. That the daddy being proud line is delivered by Flash’s hitherto non-existent hip black friend (who, incidentally, redefines ‘token’ by being set up as a regular character then completely vanishing after the first twenty minutes), is just the icing on the cake.

So problem one … the writers clearly struggled with how Flash could get involved with the alien stuff and felt it needed a psychological motive. In every previous version, it was because Earth was attacked and Flash found himself defending the Earth. And do you know what … those previous versions worked, and were far more dramatic than scenes with characters stood around in kitchens and offices talking about their childhood. There’s so little threat or action – probably just as well, given that there’s a fight scene in a field at the end that shows no obvious involvement on the part of a director or editor. So there’s no momentum, no pace, not even the slightest sense of urgency.

The dialogue is awful. Every character, from whichever planet – sorry dimension – they are from, talks the same, and they talk in cut-and-paste-lazy-scriptwriterese: ‘don’t go there’, ‘we have a situation’, ‘if there’s just one chance to save him’, ‘don’t even think about it’, ‘I so broke up with you’, ‘you have got to be kidding me’, ’so basically what you’re saying’. Watching it, I had a sense of déjà vu with the first Flash and Dale scene … she was his sweetheart, he’s been low since dad died, he was a local sports hero who knew she was a TV reporter now, and she was assigned to interview him, and didn’t he realise she was engaged. Where had I recently seen that exact same scene, down to the ’she takes the ring off before interviewing him’ shot? ‘Ghost Rider’. They’re. Lifting. Stuff. From. Ghost. Rider.

Obviously, some of the problems are a function of time and money. They have to scale back Mongo a bit. It’s disappointing that the big reveal of Mongo is of a planet that looks just like where they were before, with some filter on the lens. But that’s a lack of money, not their fault. Before I get too mushy, though, this is a production team who make up for a lack of money with a lack of imagination. It takes a particular type of untalent to use all the CG tools available to television makers in 2007 and come up with a ‘Flash Gordon’ that’s less spectacular and convincing than the Buster Crabbe serials.

A decent reinvention might have saved it … OK, it’s now a show where Zarkov tracks down dimensional rifts (using a machine that, the first time it detects one, flashes up ‘Rift Alert’, no less). It’s possible to change things and improve them. Take Ming. He’s a character that had to be updated – not only is the original about as crude a racial stereotype as can be, but nowadays we need a little bit more persuading that a supervillain could become ruler of a planet. The whole ‘you have failed me for the last time’ thing is a bit old. But their solution is to play Ming as a politician/administrator so bland that a British reviewer has to fight not to type the lines ‘he’s more like Ming Campbell than Ming the Merciless’. It ought to be possible to take away the beard, the orientalism, the throne, the cackling … because the idea behind Ming is that he’s FUN. This version strips away everything, leaving no detectable entertainment value.

The main problem is simple: they’re in love with all the new stuff – the daddy backstory stuff, the idea Ming’s a slimy politician not a cartoon dictator, the fact you get to Mongo through boring dimensional rifts, not in a rocket ship. There’s no room for all that boring old stuff like rayguns and lightbridges and hawkmen and spectacle and wit and sexiness. Sci-Fi show ‘Doctor Who’ before ‘Flash Gordon’, and they showed ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ before the ‘Flash Gordon’ pilot. That episode isn’t the best of the last season – truth be told, it struggles to make the top ten – but it looks so much better, moves so much faster, has so much more imagination, has so much cleverer dialogue, gives you so many more reasons to watch and keep watching that it’s faintly embarrassing.

There’s a reason that ‘Doctor Who’ works, and it’s simple: the people making it know they’re making twenty-first century television drama. They know how to compel people, to keep surprising them. Above all else, they understand the appeal of the original, and that their job is to take the source material and make it acceptable now. Russell T Davies understood that, yes, the Daleks looked dated and silly … and that his job was to sell them as a threat, not turn them into CG spiders or whatever.

Many, many years ago I worked as a storyliner on a TV show. One evening, I watched something on Channel Five where Mariella Frostrup was telling people how to pack a car boot. She told us that you put the heavy things at the bottom and the light things at the top. I later mentioned this to a TV executive type and asked ‘why on Earth would anyone think anyone would want to watch that?’. Her answer was instructive: ‘well, everyone has a car boot, don’t they, and so they were trying to tap into that market’.

I’ve got the same question for the makers of ‘Flash Gordon’, and I’ll ask it because I don’t think they have: who do you think wants to watch this? Not the fanboys, who want grit and to argue about continuity errors online; not people who have affection for ‘Flash Gordon’ in any previous incarnation – the new show has nothing to offer them beyond names and one scene nicked, clunkily, from the 1980 movie; not the casual viewer – this show is painfully slow, witless and insultingly predictable. Like a lot of cult telly, it’s still shot like it would have been in the eighties, even though we’re living in an age where medical drama is shot like a music video. Like a lot of cult telly, it has an aversion to characters and jokes, because they are seen as, alternately, ’soapy’ or ‘camp’.

Have they “done a ‘Doctor Who’?” … no, they’ve not even reached the giddy heights of ‘Primeval’. The standard write up of the 1980 ‘Flash Gordon’ movie is that it’s ’so bad it’s good’. Personally, I think it’s much better than most people give it credit for – it’s packed with memorable moments and fun performances. Even so, I’d be up for an intelligent revamp of ‘Flash Gordon’. I don’t see why ‘Flash Gordon’ needs to be camp, or feel particularly loyal to Alex Raymond’s original art. There’s no reason, really, why the story of an all-American sports hero who ends up on an alien planet couldn’t have worked. But there’s no doubt, either, that this version doesn’t.

The 2007 ‘Flash Gordon’ is bad. Just bad.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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