Thursday, March 6, 2014

Flash Gordon: revisiting the Filmation series

Kids today just don't get it.

Cartoons were not always accessible 24/7.  Typically, one needed to catch them in a two to three hour window after school.  But for the truly widest range of animated offerings, including such mind-broadening fare as Jonny Quest, Thundarr the Barbarian, and The Adventures of Batman, you needed to wait until Saturday morning.  For many years, Flash Gordon was a part of my Saturday mornings.

In an era frantic to cash in on anything even remotely like Star Wars, Filmation produced two seasons worth of The New Adventures of Flash Gordon between 1979 and 1982.  I was front and center for most of the episodes and a few years back, I was lucky enough to receive the complete series on DVD as a birthday gift.

I admittedly never really read the old comic strips or watched the b&w movie serials, but much of the Flash Gordon from those media seems to have carried over into the Filmation series.  There is of course the main character of Flash Gordon.  Just who he is never really gets developed...or even mentioned...unlike the movie version with Sam Jones where he's at least named as the quarterback for the New York Jets.  That and an appalling lack of Klytus may be among the only advantages that the film has over the cartoon series.  But I digress...

There's Dale Arden along for the ride, playing out one of the only female characters in the opus.  In a sad blow to feminism, her only role in the story appears to be that of Flash's girlfriend.

Dr. Hans Zarkhov is there as well, acting as the scientist who builds the rocketship that takes the three main characters to the planet Mongo.

Mongo!  That's where our three heroes end up after "blasting off on a desperate mission to save Earth from the evil plottings of the tyrannical space lord Ming the Merciless" or so the intro voiceover says.  But why this particular trio has taken it upon themselves to do this is very unclear.  At least in the edition I have.  There is a memory gnawing away at my brain, however, of seeing the beginning of this series set in Poland in September, 1939.  As Warsaw is overrun by the Nazis, Zarkhov takes and Dale and Flash with him in his ship to stop Ming for Ming is secretly supporting Hitler.

Ah yes, Ming.  That prototypical, "lawful evil" bad guy who rules Mongo as the Grand Tyrant with both iron fist and Machiavellian strategy.  He commands a full army of both human and robotic soldiers as well as fleets of spaceships.  The cartoon would probably never air today as Ming is portrayed as having Asian-like features not unlike Dr. Fu Manchu.  Someone would likely be offended.

Ming acquires Flash, Dale, and Zarkhov shortly after they crash on Mongo.  The three wayfarers are captured by the aquatic race known as the Gill Men who are in servitude to Ming.  Flash and the others also encounter characters who will be constant companions to them across the two season run.  Chief among these characters is Thun the King of the Lion-men.  He appears just as he sounds.  Thun becomes a loyal friend and right-hand man, err Lion-man to Flash.

Other characters likewise seem to bear out that royalty is in plentiful supply on Mongo.  There is Prince Barin of Arborea.  He's an effete and self-serving snob of a Robin Hood wannabe.  There's King Vultan of the sky-soaring Hawk Men (who had many attractive slave girls in his palace in the sky.)  There's Ming's daughter, Princess Aura, who goes through the series carrying the burdensome conflict between loyalty to her father and the burning in her loins for Flash...not to mention getting the stink eye from Dale over the whole thing.

There is, as you might imagine, a startling lack of logic as to how Flash Gordon and the others survive their pulpy near-death scrapes in each episode.  Once you're past that, you are then free to enjoy the fact that the series actually gets a few things right.  For example, the planet Mongo somewhat breaks the mold for genre fiction.  Typically, we get "desert planets" or "ice planets." Mongo has a full range of biomes and climates and is ecologically diverse just like Earth.  This would likely be the case with any other "living" planet.  The diversity allows for a population of numerous humanoid races and beasts.

Okay, so maybe there's only one thing the series got right in terms of realism.

It's fun, though.  Really fun.  I'm given to understand that Dynamite Comics publishes (or published?) a Flash Gordon comic book series.  I'll need to check it out.

ADDITION:  I knew it!  I'm not crazy!  Er, least not on this point.  There was a version of this Flash Gordon that started in World War II and Space1970 bears this out.  It also looks like a cool blog that I'll need to add to the blogroll.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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