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Review: Flash Gordon uneven start still shows potential

Review: Flash Gordon uneven start still shows potential

As I turned on my TV to watch the premiere episode of Sci Fi Channel’s newest series (Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT), the re-imagining of Flash Gordon, I went into the experience having very low expectations after reading various reviews calling the show dreadful and other, less-kind words

Additionally, I have never been a fan of anything done my RHI Entertainment. This is the Halmi crud factory that ruined Earthsea a few years ago.

But as the credits rolled, I watched the show. I was not as disappointed as I had thought I would be. In fact, many parts I really liked and some show promise that belie the wonderful story about Flash Gordon originally created as a comic strip almost 100 years ago.

On first impression, it appears that after getting a 2-hour movie from RHI, the Sci Fi editing wizards cut out much of the RHI crap and got a so-so 90 minute pilot out of the deal. With an order for 10 more episodes, Sci Fi got a “full” season.

The channel also took an ownership stake in the series and is said to have majorly reorganized the writing and production staff to the extent that the show by mid-season is vastly improved from the pilot.

Let’s hope so.

It’s not that this show is horrible. It’s just merely OK in parts and disappointing in others. Some of the changes to bring Flash into the 21st century are well-done. Others … not.

The back story  of the series, although different from the original, was updated nicely. I like the fact that Flash and Dale have a past and that Dale is not damsel-in-distress-ish at all.

But, the back story of Flash’s missing father is cliche crap and way too Disney-esque.

This brings us to the tone of the show, its biggest change. RHI took the first grand space opera of Western civilization and turned it into a character-driven action procedural.

Now, I understand that the lack of space ships and associated special effects helps keep the budget manageable, but it hurts the Flash Gordon legacy that fans have come to expect.

It is sorta like the producers saw the success of portal-jumpers Doctor Who and Stargate decided to re-make Flash in their image. But didn’t quite get it right the first time out of the starting blocks.

The Cast

Canadian Eric Johnson (Smallville) plays the title role as Flash. Traditionally, the Flash character has been the ultimate “he-man” type. But Johnson just doesn’t fit that part physically. Sure, he’s got a nice bod and doesn’t disappoint beefcake fans in the pecs department in his shirtless scenes, but his features are a goofy/delicate mix that makes him look a tad bit scrawny despite the nice arms and chest. Acting-wise Johnson’s ability exceeded the material he was given in the pilot by a long shot. Let’s hope the rumors are true that Sci Fi replaced the writing staff with those who better understand what the channel’s fannish audience expects from its heroes.

Another Canadian, Jody Raciot (Stargate SG-1), plays Hans Zarkov. Not to slight Mr. Raciot, but this character is one of the biggest disappointments of the series pilot. Raciot has done stellar work in the past, even winning the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy for best actor in SG1.  But his character in Flash is written so poorly that he comes off as a babbling idiot in the first episode.

Worse yet, and perhaps the biggest disappointment is with the casting of John Ralston as seminal bad guy, Ming The Merciless. Bad, badbad. Again, not to pick on Mr. Ralston, but he does not match his part at all. It reminds me of the first few episodes of Farscape where that show’s producers tried to make Captain Crais the main baddie – but he was too bland. The same principle applies here. Ming must be a lot more Scorpius and a lot less Donald Trump. [Maybe Sci Fi realized this in that according to IMDB, Ming is only in two episodes of the series. (Of course, this could change)]

A better baddie than Ming – even in the pilot episode – is Jonathan Walker (The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne) as Rankol, a deranged inquisitor of the icky sort. He’s creepy, mean and downright gross. EXACTLY the kind of evil villain Flash Gordon should be facing week-in and week-out.

Perhaps the biggest “star” of the new Flash is Gina Holden (Blood Ties, Alien vs. Preditor 2), who plays Dale Arden. No swooning damsel, Dale is a tele-journalist and apparently smarter than Flash. Like the rest of the actors, she outshined the script by leaps and bounds. Luckily she does have a tangible chemistry with Johnson, which should help the show a lot among fans of Flash/Dale romantic story arcs (and the fan fic circles).

The most surprisingly good casting maneuver was with the choice of Karen Cliche (Mutant X, Dresden Files) as Baylin the Bounty Hunter. In what appears to be the only original character to this new series, Baylin has the makings of a kick-butt anti-heroine who can draw in the Xena fans, if written correctly in future episodes.

And what is Flash Gordon without a requisite evil slut? Here we have Anna Van Hooft (Trollz) playing Princess Aura. She does an OK job portraying a power-hungry wench with really bad dialogue.

Again, I think the talent of the actors exceeded the direction and the writing. Let’s hope now that Sci Fi has a show runner and ownership stake in the series both writing and direction are fixed, similar to what they did with Eureka.

Future Cast

For a sneak peek at who will be joining the cast of Flash Gordon in future episodes:

  • Steve Bacic (Andromeda) as Barin

Special Effects

I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen much better. This falls into the same “so-so” category as The Chronicle and early Doctor Who. Not good enough to make you forget you are watching a fake story. But good enough to get the idea across without being too laughable. Hopefully, these will improve as the series progresses.

Costumes? Right out of the same nightmare closet as Lexx. The woot (and not a good woot) appeal was very high.

HDTV format

The series is being repeat broadcast in high-definition on the Universal HD channel Sundays at 9 p.m.. Upon viewing the pilot, I believe the makeup artists need better training on how to do makeup for an HD series (use airguns instead of sponges – you can see streaks on the actors’ faces).

The special effects also looked less special due to the increased detail of High-Def. I’m hoping that Sci Fi’s handiwork and experience with BSG can help fix this.

Overall impression

The look and feel of the pilot episode of Flash Gordon was either not campy or not serious enough. I can’t tell which. But either way it didn’t quite get any “wow effect” out of this viewer.

On the other hand, the eye-candy appeal of the actors is a bonus. Now, they need to fire the dialogue writers and get some real character development in this series.

But listening to what rumor mill coming from Sci Fi has been saying, the show starts taking on a tighter and more original feel at about episode 4 or 5.

That said, this show has the potential to go either way.

With Sci Fi possibly losing (or so the rumors say) new Doctor Who episodes to BBC America after this season, the channel really needs a light family-friendly adventure series to replace it. This could be that show – if it is improved in the right places.

Final verdict
Compared to summer reality TV – I’d rather watch Flash Gordon by a long shot. It was not a waste of my time, but it was not even close to being what it should be, either. The final product succeeded to transcend the RHI dreck machine – which was a surprise.

3 out of 5 stars.

David Speakman

David Speakman has spent more than two decades as a writer/editor, photographer, graphic designer and manager of creative teams in broadcast, print and the Internet. His education is in journalism, graphic design, organizational communication and law.
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