'Flash Gordon' not out of this world

Flash Gordon

Eric Johnson as Flash Gordon in 'Flash Gordon.' (Carole Segal)

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And here's another reason we love DVD. The 1980 "Flash Gordon" feature film just came out on disc this week, all its campy comedy, glitzy adventure, disco-era sauciness and Queen music as frisky-fun as ever. (Our space-marooned title hero is otherwise the quarterback for the New York Jets!) The nostalgic 1930s Buster Crabbe movie serials that started it all can be found on DVD, too, taking themselves oh-so-seriously with their clockwork cliffhangers and bargain-basement special effects.

So, get one or both of those, and enjoy yourself immensely. Or watch Sci Fi's new "Flash Gordon" series and wonder where the magic went.

It's hard to see how a show could take such a perennial fave and go this completely wrong. Unless you factor in Canada. Sorry to say, our neighbors to the north specialize in providing American television with inexpensive production, gray weather and bland acting. Yes, there's the occasional exception ("Battlestar Galactica," we love you), but more often, Canadian imports have all the sharp edges, sharp wit and sharp performances rounded off 'til they're soulless.

In this particular instance, not one of the model-pretty cast makes any impression whatsoever, not Eric Johnson as our slacker hero "dude" (even when he's shirtless), and not Gina Holden as his Dale Arden, a former youthful fling who's now a TV reporter with a police detective fiance.

The evil Ming, emperor of the planet Mongo that's visited by Flash, is no longer a vaguely Asian fiend but instead a more politically correct and purportedly charming younger man (John Ralston), though he still has an adult daughter with the hots for Flash. A younger, geekier Dr. Zarkov (Jody Racicot) comes the closest to displaying some semblance of personality as Flash's smarter sidekick, but even he is defeated by a series tone too dumb for adults yet too talky-dull for kids.

The story goes that aliens have landed in Flash's Maryland hometown, seeking something once invented by his dead (or is he?) scientist father. After rampaging through the local bowling alley (not as much fun as it sounds), they open a rift through which Flash and Dale zap to Mongo in search of Daddy. They cute-bicker. Dale proves herself resourceful (those modern women!). The captured Flash is tortured (the shirtless part). And Ming gets to (blandly) threaten Dale with the supposedly sexually charged command "Have her cleaned and sent to my chamber."

Attempts are made to set up environmental and class exploitation themes on Mongo, none of which matters because they're so boringly presented. Nobody seems to be having any fun here, not even lording-it-over-everybody Ming.

You'd think next week's second episode might be better, once all that exposition is out of the way, but you'd be wrong. It's even more lifeless, unless you count a newly landed alien who laughingly resembles someone from those Geico caveman commercials, or maybe the classic moment when Flash tells a female alien bounty hunter who's crashed his house, "You can only stay here until my mom gets back."

FLASH GORDON. Hardly the savior of the universe. Neither this contemporary telling nor its hero can decide whether to be a cartoon or serious sci-fi. So they're nothing. Series premieres Friday at 9 p.m. on Sci Fi.

The many faces of Flash Gordon (all blond):

Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon film serials, 1936-40) - The first filming of Alex Raymond's comic-strip character still entertains with its kid-aimed simplicity, cheesy adventure and enduring iconography. Widely available on DVD.

Steve Holland (Flash Gordon TV series, 1954) - Syndicated single-season wonder feels like an early British genre serial ("Doctor Who," maybe) because it was filmed in Germany and France. Available on public domain DVDs (try dollar stores).

Jason Williams (Flesh Gordon movie, 1974) - Soft-core sex-flick spoof is filled with sexual imagery and innuendo, but also clever special effects and silly wit. Out on DVD from Henstooth Video.

Sam J. Jones (Flash Gordon movie, 1980) - Just released as a boxed DVD by Universal, this ornately campy disco-era hit retains its goofy charm, aided by the catchy (bombastic) Queen score. Max von Sydow makes a delectably villainous Ming, with Brian Blessed memorable as the jolly Prince Vultan. (DVD includes Chapter 1 of Crabbe's '30s film serial.)

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