Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Adventures of Flash Gordon

“Blasting off on a desperate mission to save Earth from the evil plottings of the tyrannical space lord Ming the Merciless, Dr. Hans Zarkov and Dale Arden have joined me, Flash Gordon, on a fantastic journey into worlds where peril and adventure await us.”

A lot of blogs and podcasts- including the Earth Station One podcast and the Needless Things podcast, so check out their episodes on the topic –have been recently doing nostalgic looks back at American animation through the ages or just at the cartoons and kids shows of the 1970s and 1980s. Annoyingly, while hitting a lot of the better known highlights, everyone seems to give either little or no mention to what was for me one of the great science fiction Saturday morning cartoons. The Adventures of Flash Gordon, at least the first season, should be more widely recognized as a classic, yet largely outside of a few childhood friends and my childhood-in-spirit friend Sean Scullion I meet very few people who seem remember it. That really needs to change.

One reason why I think the thing deserves a little more recognition is that it was a first. The character of Flash Gordon had seen very brief appearances of animated life here and there before, but this was the first animated series devoted to chronicling his adventures on the planet of Mongo. Beyond that, it was a damned fun and entertaining series.

The Adventures of Flash Gordon started its life as an animated television movie project done by Filmation in the wake of Star Wars mania. Accounts differ on what happened next, even when it comes to those who were there. I’ve seen interviews and reports over the years stating that the movie was deemed good but too scary for kids, and I’ve seen interviews and reports over the years that simply say that NBC saw the finished work and wanted more out of it than just a one-off project. Both versions of events are believable, but I’ll get to why the first one is believable a little bit later.

The series landed on the NBC Saturday morning lineup in the fall of 1979, and it started with a bang. The series opening intro told you everything you needed know about what was happening, and the first episode dropped you straight into the action with the ship that Flash, Zarkov, and Dale flew to Mongo in being shot down and crashing into one of Mongo’s seas. We’re quickly introduced to some of the different races of Mongo as our heroes are saved/captured by Ming’s underwater mutants, the Gill Men of Mongo. Flash, Dale, and Zarkov awaken in a bubble cage being hauled along under the water to find themselves imprisoned with two natives of Mongo, the very human looking Prince Barin of the Forest Kingdom of Mongo and the more animalistic looking King Thun of the Lion-men.

We get a bit of quick dialogue explaining and emphasizing the conflicts on Planet Mongo. Ming the Merciless is the ruler of this world, and the various races on Mongo unwillingly serve him. But, despite their numbers being far greater than Ming’s forces, they don’t attempt to depose him. A part of this is Ming controlling far superior technology than the various other races and kingdoms of Mongo possess while also doing what he can to ensure they remain less technologically capable. The other part of this is the various races on Mongo being in eternal conflict with one another no matter the benefit of joining forces to stand against Ming.

As quickly as we were dropped into the deep end, we’re just as quickly introduced to the capitol city on Mongo and Ming himself. We’re also introduced to several more of the races on Mongo, most notably in the form of King Vultan, ruler of the Hawkmen. Our band of heroes are broken up, alliances- some rather questionable and on shaky ground from the start –are formed, and Flash escapes to start building an army, to start unifying the different peoples of the Planet Mongo in order to stop Ming’s plans to enslave the Earth.

The first season of the series owed a lot to the classic concepts and ideas found in the Flash Gordon mythos. The visual style, the designs of the various races, the monsters, the cities and technology, and even some of the barely there outfits looked like something that could have come out of the comic strips of the 1930s. The first season introduced the viewers to the various regions of Mongo, from tropical to sub-arctic, and the many races and cultures that populated those regions. All of them feeling as if they were plucked out of the sci-fi stories of days gone by. Plus there was a lot of heroic daring do.

While the entire first season had a single, unified arc, many stories were somewhat self-contained right up until the last few moments. That’s another area where the series gave a great nod to the past. The Adventures of Flash Gordon was big on the cliffhanger ending. Like the Saturday Matinee serials of old, you were left with an ending that had you wondering how Flash and crew would ever get out of whatever danger they were left in when the episode ended. You didn’t want to miss the start of the next episode, or you’d miss how the heroes cheated death one more time. You also didn’t want to miss it because the stories were just so damned much fun, especially if you were a sci-fi kid looking for a quality fix.

The voice work was also often top notch. Flash (as well as Barin) was voiced by actor Robert Ridgely. Ridgely was a working film actor who had a large live action resume, but kids of that era would have recognized him as the voice of more than a few square-jawed, Saturday morning heroes like Tarzan and Thundarr the Barbarian. Dale was voiced by Diane Pershing, a talent with a long list of voice acting credits ranging from popular cartoons to games and running up to just a few years ago. Zarkov was voiced by Bob Holt, also a solid talent. Ming the Merciless was voiced by the late, great Vic Perrin, a journeyman actor whose face you’d recognize from more roles than you think, and who voiced “The Controller” in the classic Outer Limits intro.

The writing was taken care of by Samuel A. Peeples. Yeah, you Trek fans are reading that right. Among his many writing credits across several mediums, this is the man who wrote “Where No Man Has Gone Before” for Star Trek. You also had writers in there like Michael Reaves and Paul Dini amongst others.

I also have a special place in my heart for the show’s music. Most of the incidental music by Ray Ellis and Norm Prescott worked well enough, but the music that played whenever Ming’s robot soldiers first appeared stuck in my brain for years. I’d later learn that it was actually a riff on an existing piece of music- Mars, the Bringer of War by Gustav Holst.

You can skip to the 2:13 mark to see what I’m talking about, but I’d recommend listening to the whole thing. Hey, some people credit their love for some classical music to Bugs Bunny. Mine is largely due to cartoons as well, many were just a little more pulp sci-fi in nature.

The original story arc one associates with Flash Gordon was completed in the beginning of the first season. Ming was defeated, Earth was saved, and Flash and Dale lived happily ever after until next week’s exciting adventures on Mongo. Much of the First season after the early episodes involved seeing the world of Mongo, its dangers and its beauty, with the threat of Ming still ever present in the background. The finale for the first season was the final battle with Ming.

The series was successful enough that NBC wanted a second season. This was ultimately not the good news fans would have thought it was. The powers that be at NBC wanted some changes made. The things at the top of the list were dropping the serialized format, making the series episodes totally self-contained stories, and curbing some of the violence. They also wanted a more kid friendly character created for the show.

I was a kid when the first season aired. I found all of the characters “kid friendly” enough. I had absolutely no issue connecting to or simply enjoying the characters that were there. But in the world of corporate network executives, they thought my friends and I could only get into the show if it had the cute, goofy, “kid friendly” character. The result was the creation of Gremlin the Dragon. For those of you who loved Masters of the Universe but wanted to kill Orko, Orko was freaking Al Pacino compared to Gremlin. Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, but I quickly grew to hate Gremlin.

I also grew to greatly dislike the episodes that were designed to be more “kid friendly” in nature, especially those that focused on Gremlin, as it became obvious that “kid friendly” was code for “dumbed down”. I wasn’t alone in that feeling. The second season was the last season, performing noticeably worse than the first and finding itself preempted for other things more than a few times. It’s also regarded rather negatively by fans even when looking back through the lens of nostalgia.

I was majorly bummed. Despite my growing dislike for the second season, this was still the series that gave me a great first season. This was still my favorite Saturday morning cartoon sci-fi fix EVER, and it was gone. But it turned out that NBC wasn’t completely done with it.

Earlier I mentioned the two stories you hear about why the original made for TV animated movie was nixed. One of those was that it was supposedly deemed to be too scary for kids. As I said above, I can see where some might have thought that.

Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All aired on NBC in 1982. It was actually the film they made before the Saturday morning cartoon was created, and it pulled no punches whereas the Saturday morning version did.

The film opens on Earth, but it’s not the then present day Earth as was implied by the series. We’re dropped right into the firebombing of an Earth city. It’s not Mongo’s forces invading Earth though, but rather the Nazis of the late 1930s destroying a European city.

Flash is in Warsaw, serving as some form of government operative. He’s seeking an informant, but finds him too late. The man dies after Flash finds him, but not before mentioning Doctor Zarkov and the word “Mongo”.

From there Flash races to find Zarkov, meeting Dale on the way. As they make their way to Zarkov the Earth is hit with a wave of meteorites, downing Flash’s plane and causing volcanoes to erupt. They find Zarkov and end up getting dragged along with him as he launches a rocket to Mongo to stop what he knows is coming.

How does he know about Mongo? He has inside information, the same thing Flash was sent to find out. Ming has actually had contact with someone on Earth. In an attempt to weaken Earth and see it greatly destabilized before his invasion, he has aided an evil madman and given his forces weapons that are slightly more advanced than seen on Earth at that time. Yeah, you figured that right. Ming was aiding Hitler.

The story itself followed the basic outline the first few episodes of the first season of the series did once our heroes were on Mongo. There were some tonal differences though. Some guns used were less sci-fi cartoonish and more realistic in nature. Death was more common as well, and not only in battle. It’s made clear on no uncertain terms that some of Ming’s more animalistic servant races ate the more human prisoners, particularly Ming’s Lizard Women.

Destruction was depicted with more permanence as well. Cities that were captured in the series were sometimes completely destroyed in the movie. Some characters were also colder in nature, and in some cases less likable and/or sympathetic to the viewer. Also, unlike the end of the first season of the series, it was made clear that despite their best efforts our heroes were trapped on Mongo with no way to ever return home.

As a note of interest for some, Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All used a different actor for Thun than was heard in the series. The actor used for the telefilm project passed away shortly after recording the voice work for the movie. This is the last professional work of Ted Cassidy, known to genre fans largely for his work in Star Trek, doing the narration work for The Incredible Hulk TV series, and for portraying lurch in The Addams Family.

Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All was released on VHS and laser disc for overseas markets in the 1980s. However, your best shot at finding it right now is on services like YouTube. The Adventures of Flash Gordon has had two US DVD releases in the last decade. The most recent release was Mill Creek Entertainment’s two disc set back in 2009 that still retails for under $15 when you can find it. This was a bare bones set of the first season with no extras. It’s also missing the last two episodes of the first season. BCI Eclipse released a four disc set with both seasons and a ton of extras back in 2006. It went out of print when BCI Eclipse ceased operations in 2009. It’s certainly the best set that’s out there, but the downside is that whether you find it new or used it will cost a pretty penny. An Amazon seller still has a few new in package that sell for just shy of $130.

Right now, as with the movie version, YouTube is your best bet. There’s actually a Flash Gordon YouTube channel devoted to the series that has some nice quality uploads of some of the episodes. It’s certainly worth going to and seeing the first few.

Flash Gordon is a classic character in science fiction history. This cartoon (the first season at least) was an amazingly enjoyable part of that history for a child who loved sci-fi or even for the inner child hidden away in a number of adults out there. The Adventures of Flash Gordon really does deserve to be better known and better remembered in discussions about the classic cartoons of the era or just about science fiction in general.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to those forms of art and entertainment known as horror hosting professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm on him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

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