"We meet again, Flash Gordon… for the last time!"
The story goes something like this: Sometime in the late 1970s, producer Lou Scheimer went to NBC looking to do a TV movie featuring Alex Raymond's classic sci-fi hero Flash Gordon. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, considering the recent success of "Star Wars" and the ensuing space adventure mania gripping Hollywood at the time), NBC said yes. Former "Star Trek" scribe Sam Peebles was hired to pen the screenplay. The good news: the script stayed true to the spirit of the original comic strip and the 1930s serials. The bad news: the script was simply impossible to film on a television budget; indeed, it would have cost more than George Lucas' blockbuster. The solution: do it with animation!
Even as a cartoon, Scheimer's vision would be pricey, and so to help cover the budget, live action rights to the character were sold to Dino DeLaurentiis, who wound up making the 1980 camp classic starring Sam Jones and Max Von Sydow. The result was "Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All," widely considered to be the best of all Flash Gordon adaptations. (Sadly, it remains unavailable on home video in any format. If anyone out there can prove me wrong on this, I'd be very, very grateful indeed!)
Filmation, the company behind the movie, was then asked by the network to produce a Saturday morning series. (Although its on-screen title is simply "Flash Gordon," the series was also promoted under the names "The New Adventures of Flash Gordon" and "The New Animated Adventures of Flash Gordon." Whew!) As the movie had not yet aired (in fact, it would not get broadcast until August 1982, a full three years after the series' debut), the decision was made to retool the film, dropping the first chunk of the movie, removing the more adult themes (including a major subplot involving Adolf Hitler!), and adding in several new scenes. The material from the movie would be stretched for the first five episodes of the sixteen-episode first season.
Another key decision that added to the series' success: the first season would play out as an old fashioned serial, complete with cliffhangers and a consistent, linear storyline. It was a major risk - cartoons then, like today, were almost entirely standalone works that could be reshuffled into rerun rotation at the whim of network executives. The risk succeeded, at least artistically, as the first season plays out as an endlessly entertaining tribute to the non-stop thrills of yesteryear.
The main drawback of the first season is in the noticeable decline in quality as the season progresses. The earliest episodes, which lift the most from the meticulously animated TV movie, are quite visually impressive. But then the well runs dry, and Filmation - which was always something of a poor man's Hanna-Barbera - opted for the cost-cutting technique of repeating footage to an almost ludicrous degree. Several shots were filed away as stock footage, with close-ups of Flash talking, Ming laughing, or Hawkmen getting blasted out of the sky recycled ad infinitum, sometimes a bit of footage used several times within a single scene. The new animation created to fill the gaps varied, some of it remaining at the high quality of the movie, the rest coming out clumsy and weak.
The series' saving grace, then, was in its relentless storytelling. "Flash Gordon" might not have always made sense, but it always moved. The first season's story arc followed Flash as he traveled Mongo recruiting allies in a revolution against Ming, but each episode pretty much was only concerned with action. Even the first chapter ditches any sort of exposition, dropping us right into the thick of things with Flash's arrival on Mongo (with Dale and Dr. Zarkov at his side, natch); just as "Star Wars" prided itself with beginning in the middle, so, too, does this "Flash Gordon."
Each episode, then, gave us just enough plot to push things forward, and then it'd kick back and watched the action fly. The classic serials were fast-paced, but nothing like this, which shoves us from set piece to set piece with little concern for minor things like logic and flow. That's the series major drawback of the first season, of course: that dreaded "making sense." Stick with it, however, and it all adds up to a whole heap of fun, especially in the final few chapters, where everything comes to a head and we get our much-anticipated showdown between our hero and his arch-villain. (The niftiness of the weird alien creatures and the sexiness of the scantily-clad alien dames don't hurt, either.)
The series was doing so well on an adventure storytelling level, in fact, that the only way the creators could possibly mess things up would be to ditch the serial format, aim for a younger target audience, and introduce an obnoxious "kid-friendly" sidekick.
Guess what? For the second season, the creators ditched the serial format, aimed for a younger target audience, and introduced an obnoxious "kid-friendly" sidekick. Ouch.
You really can't blame Filmation, though. NBC, unhappy with the serial format (which, as mentioned, hindered the network's ability to properly rerun the show) and worried about the appeal (or lack thereof) to the youngest viewers, demanded a few changes for the next batch of episodes. And so, for Year Two of "Flash Gordon," we get standalone episodes - each show containing not one 22-minute adventure, but two individual 11-minute ones. Comedy was amped up, violence was dialed down, and, in the series' most ineffective move, a squeaking pink dragon named Gremlin was added to the cast as Flash's comic relief sidekick.
Mention Gremlin around any fan of the series, and the reactions you will get in return will range from embarrassment to pure anger. The character is of the Scrappy-Doo/Great Gazoo line of toss-ins that signal a shark duly jumped thanks to a desperation to appeal to little children. Worse, Gremlin winds up featuring prominently in every single episode of the second season, meaning not only is there no escape from the guy, but even the episodes that try their hardest to retain the serious action of the first season wind up falling apart in one way or another thanks to Gremlin's involvement.
Worse still, the lack of consistency story-wise led to a lack of consistency style-wise; some episodes would go for broad comedy, others for dark adventure, and the mix never clicked. The writing staff had to struggle a little more, as Ming, who was semi-defeated in the first season, now becomes this vague villain whom we can never tell if he's still in charge or not, thus weakening his threat as a baddie. He's just a generic villain this time around, and the energy just isn't there.
Worse still again, the animation takes yet another nose-dive in quality, relying on stock footage more than before, with the cheapest of new material thrown in quite blandly; Gremlin is especially ill-fitting, his cartoonishly round eyes and bubbly features not matching at all with the lusher details of the rest of the Flash Gordon universe.
Between all of these problems, it's no surprise that the network declined to renew the series beyond its initial two season, 24-episode deal. (I will note that my six-year-old daughter really likes the second season, so I suppose their second season tactic still holds up.) And so "Flash Gordon" remains a series split in two, its first set being a sheer delight, the second being a sheer mess. To this day, fans often focus only on the first season, completely ignoring the second entirely. Can't say I blame 'em.
BCI Eclipse has collected all twenty-four episodes of "Flash Gordon" into a single handsome collection. The episodes come on four discs, housed in a double-sized keep case that holds two discs on each of its sides, one disc overlapping the other to save space. The case is then housed in an attractive cardboard slipcover.
The episodes included in this set are:
Disc One: "A Planet in Peril," "The Monsters of Mongo," "Vultan - King of the Hawkmen," "To Save Earth," "The Beast Men's Prey," "Into the Water World," and "Adventures in Arboria."
Disc Two: "The Frozen World," "Monster of the Glacier," "Blue Magic," "King Flash," "Tournament of Death," "Castaways in Tropica," and "The Desert Hawk."
Disc Three: "Revolt of the Power Men," "Ming's Last Battle," "Gremlin the Dragon"/"Royal Wedding," "Sir Gremlin"/"Deadly Double," "The Game"/"The Seed," "Witch Woman"/"Micro Menace," and "Flash Back"/"The Warrior."
Disc Four: "The Freedom Balloon"/"Sacrifice of the Volcano Men," "Beware of Gifts"/"The Memory Bank of Ming," and "Survival Game"/"Gremlin's Finest Hour."
The visual presentation here is quite the mixed bag. The image looks pretty clean for the most part, although a few episodes show quite a noticeable amount of edge enhancement. The rest has been cleaned up so well that, unfortunately, you can see all the flaws in the original animation - dirt, debris, and film scratches, as well as telltale signs of cels overlapping for visual effects purposes. You can still thrill to the remarkable detail of the earliest drawings, though. Presented in the original 1.33:1 broadcast format.
The mono soundtrack is refreshingly clean, getting the most of the audio effects and musical score on just one track. No pops, hisses, or any other artifacts of a 25-year-old cartoon are noticeable. No subtitles have been provided.
BCI seems to have understood its cult audience, as we get quite a few fan-friendly bonuses.
First up are three commentary tracks (on "A Planet in Peril," "Sir Gremlin," and "Gremlin's Finest Hour") featuring several of the series' key players. The first and third tracks tend to repeat some of the same historical facts, but the rest is quite informative, especially when animators begin to admire others' works and explain why it's so impressive.
A 21-minute featurette, "Blasting Off With Flash Gordon," contains interviews with a good number of the creators, and while it provides some repeat material as the commentaries, we do get more depth. It's obvious that everyone here is in love with the show - which is a bit disappointing, as nobody pipes up to talk about why the second season failed. Still, the love is infectious. We don't even mind when a few of the interviewees use their time to shill for their own books and magazines at the end.
Next up is the pilot episode for the mid-1980s cartoon "Defenders of the Earth," which united Flash with comic strip faves The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and Lothar… and their kids. Yeesh. It's a fairly miserable show in terms of both animation and storytelling, but Flash completists might like a peek. It serves mainly as a promo for BCI's upcoming "Defenders" DVD sets, the first of which is due this fall.
For those who appreciate such things, animated storyboard comparisons are included for a couple of key stock footage sequences. We also get a gallery of the character model sheets, as well as some blandly written profile pages for characters, aliens, and settings.
On the chapter listing page for each episode, you'll find "Gremlin's Fun Facts," which are trivia nuggets that are actually pretty interesting at times, despite having Gremlin's name attached to them. They're worth the extra clicking it takes to find them.
Those with DVD-ROM access will be able to take a gander at scripts, storyboards, and the "series bible," the guide all writers and animators had to follow. All of these extras are in PDF format and require Adobe Acrobat, which you most likely already have, so no worries there.
Finally, two 4"x6" "collectible exclusive Flash Gordon art cards" are found inside the keep case, right next to your episode guide and ads for other Funimation releases. The "art cards" feature very appealing artwork from comic artists Frank Cho (on card no. 1) and Gene Ha (on no. 2); cards numbered 3-6 in this self-described exclusive series are to be packaged in the two aforementioned "Defenders" DVD sets.
For fans of the series, this one's a no-brainer. For everyone else, though, the question remains: is the first season strong enough to make up for the fairly unwatchable, if mercifully brief, second season? And do the extras make up for the inconsistent video quality? On both counts, I'll say yes, calling this one Recommended - with a bump up to Highly so for anyone who has fond memories of Flash Gordon in any incarnation, be it Buster Crabbe or Sam Jones. The series is flawed, but it's always a delight, and with this set, BCI does our space hero proud.