Earthman Flash Gordon is joined by a beautiful woman and an esteemed scientist as they journey to the planet Mongo, which is threatening the existence of life on our own world. They find that they must go against the evil Emperor Ming, but to pose a credible threat to Ming they must somehow unite Mongo’s many peoples in the spirit of revolution.
The Sweatbox Review:
Although Filmation was one of the preeminent television animation studios in the 1970s, its shows have been held in mixed esteem. This was largely due to the limited animation and the frequent use of stock footage, balanced out by frequently entertaining scripts and a moralistic approach to storytelling. Those of us who grew up in that era have our favorite shows, some of which hold up better than others today. Probably my favorite was The New Adventures Of Flash Gordon, an adventure cartoon that had a more sophisticated look than most other shows of that era, not to mention a more mature tone.
Even then, as a preteen, I was aware that the Flash Gordon character had been around for a while, thanks to reading up on the back history of Star Wars— the film George Lucas made when he could not secure the rights for making a Flash Gordon movie. Flash had appeared first in a wonderful newspaper comic strip, created by Alex Raymond in 1934, on direction from the Hearst Syndicate to conceive a rival for the popular Buck Rogers science fiction strip. Thanks largely to the amazing artistry of Raymond, Flash’s popularity came to surpass Buck’s. A succession of other fine artists ensured that Flash’s popularity would last beyond Raymond’s departure from the strip in 1944. George Lucas’s inspiration for his own space saga came largely from the three Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon movie serials which were great theatrical successes and were later shown on television. There was also a TV show in the early days of television starring Steve Holland, but it would take until 1979 for a TV program to approach the creative success of the serials.
Filmation had most of its success with adapted properties, right from its first show, The New Adventures of Superman. They were always on the lookout for what to adapt next, and producer Lou Scheimer was a longtime fan of Flash Gordon. He worked hard to get the rights to do a Flash Gordon movie from King Features/Hearst, and sold NBC on the idea of doing it in live action in prime time. Striving to make the most of the opportunity, he hired Sam Peeples, writer of Star Trek’s successful second pilot, to write a script. What came back to Scheimer was wonderful, but it would cost a fortune to do in live action. He sheepishly told NBC that the movie would have to be done in animation, and fortunately NBC was happy to do it that way.
The budget would still have to be stretched in order to do the movie to the level that Scheimer wanted. Dino De Laurentis, producer of the live action 1980 Flash Gordon theatrical feature, reportedly helped out with some financing since he was impressed with Filmation’s efforts. When the animated version, (titled Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure Of All) saw its prime time premiere, it was greeted with practically universal acclaim as one of the most faithful and entertaining comic strip adaptations ever. The movie was then re-edited into the first five episodes of a Saturday morning show, The New Adventures Of Flash Gordon. While those first five episodes gained some new animation, they also excised some scenes such as (most unfortunately) the opening set-up scenes on Earth.
Since Saturday morning viewers did not get to see exactly how Flash came to team up with the lovely Dale Arden and the scientist Hans Zarkov, they were quickly thrown into the story as the threesome was well on its way to Mongo in a rocketship. The ship came down on Mongo, which had been approaching Earth and threatening its destruction. They eventually find themselves in front of Emperor Ming the Merciless, who takes a liking to Dale and covets Zarkov’s scientific genius.
Throughout the rest of the first season, Flash and his comrades repeatedly escape from the clutches of Ming, while making friends and enemies of the various races of Mongo. During the course of their adventures, they create alliances with Thun of the Lion Men, Price Baron of Arboria, and Vultan of the Hawk-Men. Flash’s goal was to unite the various factions of Mongo against Ming, thereby saving earth as well as bringing freedom to the peoples of Mongo. Complicating things were the amorous intentions of a number of females he encountered, including Ming’s own daughter, the luscious Princess Aura.
The first season of the show was based, just as the original movie serial, on the first year or so of Alex Raymond’s comic strip. Flash and his friends traveled to many different areas of Mongo, filled as it was with a large diversity of terrains and humanoids. The exotic settings combined with dynamic action and surprising sensuality to create a cartoon unlike anything on television at the time. Naturally, its quality and distinctiveness led to low ratings; and the serialized nature of the storytelling, comprised of cliffhanging-ending chapters every week, did not help.
But for those who faithfully watched the entire sixteen episodes of the first season unfold, it was magical. The splendor of Raymond’s strip was in great evidence. Nowhere else on Saturday mornings could one find such strong adventure storytelling told in such a serious and compelling fashion. The dangers felt real, and the women were gorgeous. It was enough to blow a kid’s mind!
Sure, it still had a lot of recycled footage, just like all Filmation shows, but it was really good stuff despite the limiting television budget. Filmation used a fair bit of rotoscoping for its adventure programs, giving the characters realistic movement at a level beyond typical Saturday morning fair. So, one didn’t mind watching a glorious run cycle or Princess Aura turning over on a couch over and over again quite so much. Even the ships got rotoscoped, adding further realism to their movements while flying over Mongo. Admittedly, this still looks like Saturday morning television; the budget and time constraints did not allow for full animation. But the directors did a fine job at economizing the animation to get the most out of the artists and provide the best visuals possible. The draftsmanship on the show is very good, especially given the detailed, realistic models the animators had to work with.
As I mentioned, low ratings for The New Adventures Of Flash Gordon led to creative changes on the show, and the second season was a shadow of the first. The drawing was still first-rate, but the storytelling became simpler. Gone was the epic season-long storyline with cliffhanger chapter endings. Instead, each episode was broken up into two unrelated stories, often featuring a childish pink dragon named Gremlin. At this point, it still wasn’t really a bad show. Some of the second season stories were decent enough (even Paul Dini’s name shows up in the writing credits), but it just wasn’t the same anymore.
Anyone who loved the first season was bound to be disappointed in the second, while those that stopped watching the first season likely never came back to see its less interesting second season. The second season had only eight episodes (sixteen stories), however, so its content does not reflect much on the show as a whole.
Ah, but that first season! Glorious.
by Randall Cyrenne