|Flash Gordon: The Complete Series (1979)
Starring: Robert Ridgely, Diane Pershing, Allan Melvin, Melendy Britt, Bob Holt, Alan Oppenheimer
Having spotted the words “Flash Gordon,” it’s probably already too late to get the strains of Queen’s “Flash” out of your head – personally, it’s been stuck in my brain for 25 years – but, in fact, these animated adventures of the spacefaring Earthman Flash Gordon, his lady friend Dale Arden, and scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov, actually made it to television a full year before the brightly-colored and delightfully cheesy film starring Sam Jones and Max von Sydow.
Coming from Filmation Studios, there are certainly some similarities between the first story arc of this series and the eventual motion picture that was made by Dino DeLaurentis. Actually, the creators of the animated series put together a treatment for a television movie, but its special effects would’ve bankrupted any network, so they went the animated route, striking a deal with DeLaurentis when he got the rights to make a live action movie and helped finance the animated series.
Season One of “Flash Gordon” was, in a word, fantastic. If you’ve ever seen artwork from the original Alex Raymond comic strip, you’ll be in awe at how close the series came to capturing its look. The animation might be relatively static…note how often the characters’ mouths move without any other part of their face shifting in the slightest…but you can’t deny that the backgrounds are beautiful. The serialized aspect of the show, where each episode ended in a cliffhanger and the next segment began by recapitulating what happened last time, was decidedly unique on Saturday mornings.
Unfortunately, however, if you want to talk about a sophomore slump, “Flash Gordon” is absolutely a textbook example; it’s also an example of dumbing down a heretofore-intelligent show in a misguided attempt to gain a larger audience. Away went the serialized aspect of the show; in its place, the series went from one ongoing 24-minute story to two 12-minute, unrelated stories. You say adults are enjoying the show more than kids? Fair enough; let’s add a cute, cuddly alien dragon with wings, name him Gremlin, and have him serve as Flash’s scrappy sidekick. God, it’s so bad that you can’t even believe that it’s the same show…and if the sudden simplicity of the scripts wasn’t bad enough, the animation quality dropped off dramatically in the second season. (There’s also an unsubstantiated rumor that the network requested less humanoid aliens because they didn’t want kids to start asking questions about evolution. It’s crazy, but not so crazy that you immediately doubt its veracity.)
In that first season, however, episodes 1–6 were so strong that they were released as a full-length animated film entitled “Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All” (even esteemed critic Pauline Kael raved about it, declaring it one of the best films of that year), but they were edited before making it to Saturday mornings, excising the portion of the plot where the villainous Ming the Merciless interacts with the Nazis.
It’s a shame that they couldn’t find a place on this set to include either “The Greatest Adventure of All” or, at the very least, the segments that were removed…but, fortunately, there are plenty of other special features here. There’s a documentary about the origins of “Flash Gordon” and how the series came to be, three audio commentaries from the show’s creators, and storyboards and the original model boards for the various characters; there’s also a bonus episode from “Defenders of the Earth,” a 1980s series which teamed Flash with fellow King Features heroes Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom. (BCI Eclipse will be releasing the series within the next few months.) Additionally, the booklet details each episode…and I do mean “details”; there’s a full paragraph about each…and the set includes two postcards, each with a different comic book artist’s interpretation of Flash and his friends. (The Frank Cho card is particularly awesome.)
So the question at hand is: do the merits of the first season outweigh the utter crappiness of the second? Absolutely. The first sixteen episodes of “Flash Gordon” are among the most enjoyable action/adventure sci-fi cartoons ever made. It’ll only take you one of those 12-minute stories, however, to really piss you off about how NBC ruined one of the best Saturday morning shows of the ‘70s.