Judge Brett Cullum crash landed on Mongo, and the experience changed him for life. The most obvious sign was the extremely odd facial hair he was sporting upon his return.
Flash Gordon—saving the universe, one planet at a time!
Filmation has gotten a bad rap in the wake of anime. People recall He-Man and the Masters of the Universe for its crappy animation and thoughtless plots aimed at children. But the American animation house cranked out at least two thoughtful science fiction animated series—one concentrating on Star Trek using the real actors for voices, and the other a revival of Flash Gordon merging visuals and storylines lifted straight from the original comic strip created by Alex Raymond. BCI Eclipse surprises everyone with an almost exhaustive collection of Flash Gordon: The Complete Series. Fans of swashbuckling space operas should at least give this one a spin, because Flash Gordon is king of the impossible and savior of the universe.
Facts of the Case
Forced to crash-land a spaceship on the planet Mongo, Flash Gordon (along with Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov) find themselves squaring off with the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless. They'll have to rally the disparate groups of his home world to stand a chance to save Earth, and bring together warring factions such as the hawkmen led by Vultan with the Robin Hood like Arborians who follow Prince Barin. Throw in Ming's sexy hunting daughter Aura, armies of robots, lion men, and you have one of the greatest adventures in science fiction history.
The first sixteen episodes of the show (sometimes referred to as The New Animated Adventures of Flash Gordon) are serialized, and unfold in the same order as the comic strip did back in the '30s. It's well constructed, and does an admirable job with plot, pacing, and character development. Each climax builds in to a cliffhanger, and it seems like one long movie. It's like the original drawings came to life; even the style of the animation looks like panels from a newspaper. The pace is breathtaking. Within fifteen minutes of episode one Flash has crashed on Mongo, been kidnapped by fish creatures, escaped a fleeing mine train, found himself hunted by Aura and her female warriors, and almost been plant food for a man-eating flower.
You may notice similarities between Flash Gordon the 1980 Dino DeLaurentiis production and this animated series. Originally the writers scripted a movie treatment for network television, but the plot was wild enough to make Star Wars look skimpy. The only way they could achieve their vision would be to turn the entire epic in to animation. That was going to take additional funding, so they approached Dino DeLaurentis to invest. He struck a deal with them to acquire the rights to a live action version, and helped finance the animated series.
The animation utilized rotoscoping techniques, where they filmed live actors and real models to base the drawings on. It doesn't look groundbreaking, but there's a charm to it. The simple animation doesn't bother me considering the complex narrative we are dealing with. Filmation is guilty of using shortcuts such as looped stock footage to repeat action, but for the most part it looks fine even if its retro. BCI Eclipse allows colors to pop, and not much other than grain and a touch of aliasing detract from the experience. Audio is a simple mono delivered over two speakers, and is clear even if it sounds tinny at times. Look out for Ming's voice if you're a He-Man fan, because it's the same voice actor that brought Skeletor to life.
Flash Gordon: The Complete Series does an amazing job in the extras department. Three episode length commentaries are featured, along with a documentary on the project, storyboard comparisons, character sketches, and even an episode of the Defenders of the Earth series. I've rarely seen a cartoon get this kind of treatment on DVD, and its refreshing. The makers of this show are rightfully proud, and it's wonderful to hear their passion for the project continue to this day.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After the fully realized serial reaches its finale, we find the show changing to fit a second season network directive. Episodes became shorter (11 minutes for each story), and a new character called Gremlin (a baby dragon) came onto the scene. The idea of the serial storyline was ditched, and two stories were crammed in to each half hour show. The series was aimed towards easier syndication and a younger audience with a short attention span. What a shame; Flash Gordon had mutated in to stereotypical Saturday morning fare. The last run of episodes on this collection are not quite as exciting as the first batch.
BCI Eclipse just stops short of turning in a complete package. Sure we get the entire run of the series, but missing is the movie version called Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All which included much more narrative explaining how Mongo was heading to earth and showed a collusion with Ming and the Nazis. There is much discussion of the feature version, and claims made such as Pauline Kael called it "the best movie of the year." We don't get to see it, and it feels like a cheat. The first five or six episodes represent most of the movie, but several scenes were trimmed and certain themes were axed. Seemed Saturday morning was no place to discuss Nazis or show stronger violence.
Most people don't know this, but Filmation had a very hip period where they produced adult, intricate cartoons. There was an animated treatment of Star Trek, a faithful adaptation of Tarzan, and this version of Flash Gordon. Unfortunately the shows were ahead of their time, and networks either abandoned them or made the studio dumb them down. At least the first half of Flash Gordon: The Complete Series proves the American animation studio was capable of producing thought-provoking art.
Not guilty of being your typical silly Saturday morning cartoon…well, at least for the first year. Flash Gordon: The Complete Series will rival your Buster Crabbe serial set, and somehow come off more faithful and serious than the trippy feature film with Sam Jones. It's a keeper!
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