Friday, 9 January 2009

Flash Gordon: Why it deserves a second season

I’m increasingly ambivalent about what’s coming out of the SciFi channel and their decision first to remake and then to cancel their 2007/08 version of Flash Gordon is a prime example.

On the one hand, I admire the channel’s tendency to persist with a show that isn’t rating. When compared to networks like Fox, which infamously cancelled Firefly after 13 episodes, SciFi will always inspire some affection for honouring their commitments. Satisfactorily-resolving Flash Gordon’s main plot contributed significantly to my enjoyment of the season. And Stargate SG1 fans will always be grateful that they picked up the show after Showtime ditched it despite its solid ratings at the time.

On the other hand, there’s an increasing trend for their shows to be written to a formula, a criticism I recently levelled at their production of Sanctuary. While the webisodes had their flaws, they did have a freshness that, with each recurring episode of the SciFi version of the show, has been slowly stripped away. Last weekend’s season-finale part 1, for example, was incredibly poor.

It is this formulaic writing that led to Flash’s downfall yet the show is not beyond salvation and, considering the surprisingly-excellent main story arc, it deserves the opportunity. A few changes can redeem nearly everything that went wrong while retaining the things that made an otherwise poor-quality show highly-enjoyable to watch, namely one of the best-constructed arcs I have seen in years.

With only a few exceptions, each A plot in each episode of Flash built the arc to the overall conclusion; everything contributing to the plot, everything being relevant, every plot twist being well-flagged and every character development logical. Mongo became a coherent, believable, complex, multi-cultural society struggling with many of the same issues we are, while still retaining a mildly-enjoyable campness. On an albeit much smaller and less-complex scale, this was Babylon 5-inspired plot construction and while it’s obvious no one gave much thought to the rest of the show, least of all what to do with non-arc storylines, someone put a lot of thought into this. Considering the tendency of modern shows to eschew anything resembling internal logic or consistency (Torchwood, where the hell is that going anyway?), Flash deserves a second chance for this alone.

So, what went wrong and how do we fix it?

Unfortunately, there’s little anyone can do about the casting even if, by some chance the show does get renewed. While Karen Cliché is truly excellent as Baylin and was given superior character development as a result (the ass-kicker is over 30 and looks and acts like a mature woman, yay!), Gina Holden is woefully miscast as the one-dimensional Dale Arden. As well as looking as though a skeleton has walked from a grave and stolen someone’s skin, Gina has no sense of comic timing and frequently buried some of the best one-liners of the show. It defies logic why the writers kept handing her great punchlines when she merely stumbled over them to get to her next cue. Casual viewers of the show probably didn’t even know it had wit. While she and Eric Johnson have a nice dynamic, it’s more akin to people who dated in highschool and have forged a firm friendship as adults not people who are supposedly still in love. If sexual tension was what they wanted they bombed out and I’m probably not the only one who hoped Flash would hook up with Aura.

On the baddie side, I thought John Ralston was good as the redefined, more complex, Ming, but the show would have benefited from the kind of shivery charisma John Glover brought to Lionel Luthor in Smallville. Great bad guys should steal every scene, not merge into the background, and Ming regularly had his scenes stolen by Jonathan Lloyd Walker as the fascinatingly multi-layered Rankol. I was also surprised to enjoy Anna van Hooft’s Aura. Apart from a tendency to mince out of every scene as though she was on a catwalk, she did a good job.

That’s nice but what about the things we can fix?

First off, the use of an A plot, B plot structure. What is this, 1973? No one writes likes this anymore and the reasons are obvious. While the A plots of Flash Gordon are (Conspiracy Theory and Life Source notwithstanding) interesting, well-developed, cohesive and employ nice continuity to build to a very satisfying season conclusion, the B plots are lame, derivative and very obviously used to fulfil an actor’s contractual obligations for screen time. The perfect example of this is the otherwise-excellent ‘Sorrow’, which is marred significantly by the painful “comedy” of the Zarkov B-plot. So moved was I by the comparative leap in quality this episode demonstrated that I watched it again: this time with judicious use of the remote control. It was even better the second time round, particularly when my personal editing process removed Zarkov completely. The B plot of Infestation, where Dale tries to keep Nick alive at a wedding by being mean to him is another episode where “meanwhile, back on Earth” transcended dreadful and it’s no surprise that at this point many viewers simply turned off.

Secondly, the extensive Earth cast. What to do with them? Nobody knows, least of all the writers and certainly not the viewers. If you must have them use them more sparingly because nobody cares about Nick Gilmore cleaning cars or whether Dale’s boss wants to (rather understandably) fire her. And since killing Joe was very obviously an attempt to conveniently remove Flash's only sexual rival it rang cynically false. Better to not have introduced the character in the first place.

Finally, the special effects. With the amount of money saved on casting, you’d think they’d have more funds to put into special effects. While other parts of the production were fine (the lighting and camera work for Mongo in particular was very good) the special effects were laughably woeful and couldn’t even be redeemed by the “but it’s supposed to be a comic book” defence. All the women may be dressed to look like they’re in a bad harem movie and all the men from a gay nightclub floor show but that doesn’t excuse an audience yelling “fake!” at the screen for 42 minutes.

The point though, is that all of these things can be fixed but I fear audiences won’t care enough about the cancellation to start a campaign. While I hate to compare Flash Gordon to the far-superior Firefly, one should note that these are cancelled while other shows of similar or less quality are still on the air. It's a shame because I for one was looking forward to finding out what happens in Season 2.

Hopefully it involved Eric Johnson in more Dactyl outfits.

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