Tuesday, January 26, 2010

TV Time - Flash Gordon

My husband and I were out shopping and decided to check out the clearanced DVDs. We weren’t finding much until my husband spotted the 1979 Filmation animated series Flash Gordon (sometimes called The New Adventures of Flash Gordon to distinguish it from other retelling of the Flash Gordon stories).

“You’re not really going to buy that, are you?” I asked. Though I’ve found one or two of them charming, Filmation’s TV shows are not among my favorites. I was also thinking of all the still unshelved DVDs we had at home. Adding another one, one that even my husband didn’t remember as being very good, didn’t seem like a good idea.

Of course he bought it.

Later on at home, we settled in to watch a couple of episodes. Though my expectations were pretty low, I was pleasantly surprised. Filmation’s Flash Gordon may not be a great TV series, but it is surprisingly fun and – for a Filmation production – well-made.

The original Flash Gordon comic strip was created in 1934 by Alex Raymond. The comics followed the intergalactic adventures of Flash Gordon and his companions as they battle to save Earth and the alien world of Mongo from the tyrannical Ming the Merciless. Prior to the animated series, the strips were adapted into a radio program, a series of film serials, and various other formats. When Filmation got their hands on the property in the 1970s, Star Wars was in the process of taking the world by storm, creating a lot of potential demand for a TV series featuring adventures on an alien world. Filmation started out making a television movie later named Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All. NBC, which would be airing the finished Flash Gordon product, requested that Filmation turn the concept into a TV series. The movie was still completed though it did not air until 1982, despite the fact that it serves as an introduction to most of the characters and concepts of the series.

Flash Gordon does not stray too far from Filmation’s usual formula for TV animation. Limited animation? Check. Rotoscoping? Check. Constantly reused stock footage? Check and double check. If the animation in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe makes you cringe, you will probably not like Flash Gordon. I got pretty sick of seeing Flash and his lady love Dale Arden embrace and kiss in the exact same way dozens of times throughout the series. But stock footage aside and the occasional weird drawing aside, this is a pretty good looking show. Most of the characters, locations, and overall look of the series are taken directly from the comics, resulting in a fun and imaginative world with all manner of different environments, wonders, and challenges for Flash and his friends to explore. Fans of past versions of Flash Gordon may recognize hawkmen and their the flying city, Prince Thun of the lion men (though we never see any other lion men), Queen Desira (really) of the jungle kingdom Tropica, and various other elements from the original comic. In addition to rotoscoping some of the human and alien characters, Filmation’s animators filmed live-action wire models of the spaceships in the series and rotoscoped them to create the very consistent and convincingly dimensional animation of the ships in flight. Though the show may not be among the best television animation ever created, it is certainly among Filmation’s best work.

In its first season, the show utilized a serial format similar to the comics. The latest episode would pick up the story where the previous one left off. The continuing storyline did allow the writers to revisit some of the characters and setting in the show periodically and to show Flash gradually building an army of allies. But growth and development of character doesn’t really figure in to the story. Flash remains the exact same character throughout the series: brave, daring, athletic, and nearly as irresistible to alien women as James T. Kirk. Flash’s love interest Dale alternates between worrying about Flash when he’s in danger and being jealous when he’s around other women with very little change or evidence of a deeper personality, making it all the weirder that Flash remains faithful to her while so many lovely ladies of Mongo are throwing themselves at him. The only major character who undergoes any real substantial change during the series is Ming’s daughter, Aura. She switches both allegiances and love interests rather late in season one, but both happen so suddenly that it doesn’t really make sense. The main benefit of the continuing storyline was to provide some cliffhanger episode endings and give viewers additional motivation to keep tuning in. But NBC felt that the inability to rerun the episodes in any order outweighed whatever benefits the serial format had. When the second season went into development, NBC had the show changed to a more traditional format with stand-alone episodes.

Flah Gordon is not an exceptional cartoon. The writing is not very deep and the animation – while quite good by Filmation standards – is not generally stunning. What the show does have going for it is a good sense of fun and adventure, not unlike what you will find in He-Man or the much more visually engaging ThunderCats. There’s a feeling that just about anything can happen, any manner of character can be encountered, and some manner of bizarre beast lurks around every corner. With the right mindset, this “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to fantasy can be quite entertaining. For fans of Flash Gordon, the series is one of the most accurate retellings of the original comics ever produced. Consider the most well-known alternative:

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Flash Gordon turned out to be fun, much more so than I was expecting. It’s a solid, straightforward adventure series and sometimes, that’s just what I’m in the mood for.

Trivia Time No one answered last week's trivia question, about the other animated movie to join the National Film Registry this year alongside Little Nemo. The film in question is Quasi at the Quackadero a surrel short from animator Sally Cruikshank, best known to the general public for her occasional segments on Sesame Street.

This week's question is a little easier. Several years after the Filmation cartoon, Flash Gordon starred in another animated series, in which he teamed up with fellow comic strip characters Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom to battle Ming once more. What's the name of this show?

Post your answers in the comments section. The person with the first correct answer gets a link of their choice on the site next week.

All images in this article are copyright SGC Entertainment and Hearst Entertainment.

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