To celebrate the release of Filmation's Flash Gordon animated series (a little late on this though), let's take a look at the surprisingly brief tenure of the definitive space warrior in the field of animation. To date there has only been three products to feature Gordon in this capacity, two of them are classics, the other an example of what not to do with the franchise.
The newspaper strip hero is something of a myth these days, once upon a time we had daily offerings of danger from the likes of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and others, whilst many of us never really saw nor really appreciated those days, I'm sure others reading this did. For those who didn't, we had television, the theater, and the adventure serials of the black and white era where one chapter per week featuring Rogers or Gordon would end in a gripping cliffhanger, much like the strips.
And indeed, the first Flash Gordon animated series paid homage to it's roots by following suite and embracing the strengths of the strip, ending each episode on a thrilling cliffhanger
Beginning life as a feature length critically praised animated movie by former animation giant Filmation (also responsible for the legendary He-Man and She-Ra animated series), Flash Gordon soon gained a series, Filmation stuck to what had made the special work, and whilst there was a tremendous amount of stilted and repetitive animation, the kind that Filmation would become well known for and, sadly, also criticized for, (indeed, most if not all of the same running sequences and some mouth movements and character models were reused for other characters in He-Man and She-Ra) , the quality of the writing, much with He-Man and She-Ra, rose above the animation constraints and gave us a faithful interpretation.
Then they blew it in the second season with standalone fillers and some pretty bland dragon creature added as a sidekick, the stigma of many series back then to include one. This season is not known much with fans, and rarely has anything of interest, fairly generic material.
The second series that brought Gordon to our screens was one of those immortal 1980's epics, "Defenders Of The Earth", (the first episode of which can be found as an extra on the Filmation series box set), which saw Gordon share the spotlight with four other Kings Features characters, stars of numerous old American newspaper strips. Among them were The Phantom, Mandrake The Magician, and his faithful servant, Lothar.
Whilst Flash wasn't the only one to star in it, his backstory made up the principal premise of the series. Several years have passed since Flash began his campaign against Ming, and since then he has married Dale Arden, and had conceived a son with her, Rick. Ming however would soon retaliate, capturing Dale and Rick, and forcing Flash to crash land back on Earth after a failed rescue attempt by his nemesis.
As Flash slowly recovered from his ordeal at the mansion of Mandrake The Magician, Ming sent his lethal Ice Warriors, commanded by Garrax, to level the building and retrieve Gordon, after Mandrake uses illusion to delay the inevitable, Gordon recovers and engages his enemies in his own craft. Once Garrax is dealt with, Gordon elects to recruit Mandrake and Lothar, along with The Ghost Who Walks, The Phantom, to travel to Mongo and rescue Dale and Rick.
There were many great episodes to be found in this series , mostly from the story arcs like "The Necklace Of Oros" and "The Prince Rules", one episode that is of real interest is "Flesh and Blood". In "Flesh and Blood", Flash falls for someone for the first time since Dale's bodily demise, a young girl called Kala, a member of the superhuman race "The League Of Flesh And Blood".
The irony of their situation was that the league were actually robots themselves, and it takes a less than herculean effort by Flash to persuade Kala that the heart is what makes human and not a machine, Kala sacrifices her life to kill the League and save Flash's life. Not one of your original endings to say the least, but a solid action drama that made you think about that ever perplexing "three laws of robotics" initiated by Issac Asimov.
I'll probably cover "Defenders" again more extensively once I move to The Phantom's tenure in animation, which will cover by default Mandrake and Lothar as well as the Ghost Who Walks, but in the meantime it's better if we get back to the subject at hand, and to our hero's last animated interpretation on television, one that seems to stand for now as the last attempt at marketing the character.
In 1996, Flash Gordon was given that ever pestering label of being made into a teenager. 1996 was a transistional period for animation.Fox Kids, an upstart channel, was filling up the schedules with comedy shows EEK The Cat!, Life With Louie, and live-action fodder such as Power Rangers and Beetleborgs, it was quickly redefining, some would say toning down, the state of animation quality. Indeed by the time 1999 arrived, Marvel's superhero cartoons were long over and dominating ratings in reruns, and only DC remained unopposed as the masters of superhero cartoons. The reasons for this were many, but attempts to solve the problem were easily not represented by concepts like this
So Flash became young, hip, "edgy", a teenager who could probably qualify more for Surfing than the New York Jets, Dale was, likewise, an edgy plucky young headstrong girl, they were assited by their allies, only this time the Hawkmen King Vultan (DIIIIIIIIIIIIIVEEEE), was now black, King Thun, lord of the lion people had undergone a sex change and became a Tigress, (It's starting to actually look very much like the multcultural line up that was later supplied for Avengers: United They Stand, funny, because Falcon and Tigress were almost EXACTLY the same characters) and Dr Zarkov became a "father" figure to them and maintained some semblance of his original age, as for Ming...
...You know, this guy?
He was a Lizard.
A lizard. Ming the freaking Merciless was a lizard, looking nothing like the "Evil Chinese Emperor" look that had made his image iconic, at least the "Defenders" variation of him, with the green skin and new characters, maintained this look, but no, Ming had to look more alien, no doubt because of that old chestnut called "Political Correctness", it may be racist now to portray Ming as an "evil asian". Hopefully an option to put out a more mature animated series on DVD restores Ming to his traditional look.
Now THIS show I cannot defend, it may have it's fans, but I doubt it, you need to know this show exists first before you can watch it, and by the time it's short run ended, most had moved on or were watching better things. Flash Gordon was no longer a viable commodity, and no amount of revamping his character could make him appealing, the episodes were so-so, despite showing that Ming had a heart (he would constantly whine over a photo of his human wife, Princess Aura's mother), they failed to follow up, and this version of Flash did'nt last long.
Flash was in trouble. Indeed, ever since then, the Newspaper hero has met with less success with each revamp, The Phantom, currently scheduled for another movie, may reawaken this forgotten era of Kings Features classics, but for Flash Gordon fans, only two great animated series remain arguably the only true route to Planet Mongo for now. Thankfully, both the Filmation series and "Defenders of the Earth" are available now on DVD in one form or another, with "Defenders", currently released in Europe as a series of edited together "movies", receiving a full DVD set release shortly in November in the States
For now, "Gordon's alive", but when will he be resurrected for a new audience?