November 21, 2015


(NBC, September 22, 1979-November 6, 1982)

Filmation Associates, King Features Syndicate

When space-faring hero Buck Rogers turned into a commercial success, King Features Syndicate wanted to try and duplicate that with their own space hero. Initially, they tried to purchase the rights to Edgar Rice BurroughsJohn Carter of Mars series, but failed to reach an agreement. King turned to staff artist Alex Raymond to come up with an original concept, and eventually gained Flash Gordon with the help of ghostwriter Don Moore.

The first Flash Gordon run alongside Raymond's other strip, Jungle Jim.

The strip centered on the titular character who was a polo player and Yale University graduate. After rescuing Dale Arden from a plane crash, he was abducted with her by the half-mad scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov and taken aboard the spaceship he created in order to stop the rogue planet Mongo from hitting the Earth. They crashed on the planet and became embroiled in a constant battle with Mongo’s sinister ruler, Ming the Merciless. 

Flash is captured by Ming.

Mongo was an Earth-like planet with a number of diverse kingdoms and races inhabiting it; all either deathly loyal to Ming or playing at loyalty for their own survival. Ming ruled the planet from Nascent City, a sprawling metropolis near the planet’s equator. Beneath it were the Power Men, a group of electrical engineers run by Ergon, and in the sewers the Freeman, a group of rebels led by the one-eyed Count Bulok. Other areas included The Land of the Lion Men run by King Thun; Kala’s City of the Shark Men ruled by King Kala; the underwater kingdom of Coralia led by Queen Undina; the airborne Sky City of the Hawk Men governed by Vultan; the forest kingdom of Arboria ruled by Prince Barin; the frozen kingdom of Frigia ruled by Queen Fria; and others of varying creatures, climates and topographies. 

Flash Gordon artists through the years.

The strip debuted on January 7, 1934 and became a hit with readers, comparable to Buck Rogers. With that popularity came a merchandising blitz that included books and toys. By 1936, Flash made the jump to cinema with the first of four serials by Universal Studios, all starring Buster Crabbe in the title role. By the end of the 1930s, Flash was read in 130 newspapers around the world with a readership of 50 million people. Flash’s distribution and readership went into a bit of a decline as World War II broke out across Europe, resulting in the strip’s circulation being reduced or ended entirely in different nations. Upon the end of the war, Flash’s international popularity resurged as it returned to former markets and gained new ones.

In 1954, after Universal had allowed their film rights to the series to lapse, former Universal executives Edward Gruskin and Matty Fox secured the rights from King to produce a television series. The events of the series were set in the year 3203 where Flash (Steve Holland), Dale (Irene Champlin) and Zarkov (Joseph Nash) worked for the Galactic Bureau of Investigation and battled galactic threats on various planets. The series lasted a single year. In 1972, Flash made his first transition to animation as part of the one-hour film Popeye Meets the Man Who Hated Laughter, which aired as part of The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie series and featured a variety of King characters uniting.

The successful release of Star Wars in 1977 led to a new interest in space properties. Filmation’s Lou Scheimer, a fan of the original strip, acquired the film rights and began production on a live-action television film written by former Star Trek scribe Samuel A. Peeples for NBC. Deemed too complex to film live, Filmation planned to change it to an animated movie. However, when they ran into budgetary issues involving the computers used to render the spaceship effects; one of the first uses of a computer in traditional animation. Dino De Laurentiis, who wanted the live-action film rights to the property, came to an agreement with Filmation to provide funding to Filmation for their animated adaptation in exchange for the live-action rights. De Laurentiss’ film ended up being 1980’s Flash Gordon.

Zarkov, Flash and Dale upon arrival on Mongo.

Filmation’s film came to be regarded by critics as the most faithful adaptation to the original material yet. Of course, that’s not to say that Filmation didn’t take some liberties. The setting was updated to WWII where Flash (Robert Ridgely) was part of the war effort and received a message from a fallen comrade for Zarkov (Alan Oppenheimer). Dale (Diane Pershing) was also given the profession of being a reporter on her way to interview Zarkov, putting her on the plane with Flash where they met. Zarkov was also made more sympathetic by instead of his abducting the pair he saved them from the resulting meteor shower caused by Mongo’s approach. Ming (Oppenheimer) was also helping the Nazis by supplying Mongo’s advanced weaponry to Adolf Hitler

Ming takes Dale for his own.

When NBC received the finished product, they were so impressed by it they decided to hold off on the release of the film and instead transform it into an animated series. Filmation took the general story and expanded it while also making additional changes. The WWII setting and connections to Hitler were dropped in favor of the present-day and focusing more on adventures on Mongo. They also had to tone down a lot of the content for Saturday morning, such as the more risqué costumes for female characters, depicted weaponry, and references to death. And while the movie conclusively stated Flash and his friends were trapped on Mongo, the series left a return to Earth a possibility. As part of Filmation’s tendency to cost-cut, many scenes were recycled from the film that could be useable for the series, resulting in one of their finest animated efforts (there was an extensive use of rotoscoping, as well as the ship models for the aforementioned computerized camera). Most of the actors from the film reprised their roles for the series.

Prince Barin tries to win over Princess Aura.

The New Adventures of Flash Gordon debuted on NBC on September 22, 1979 and largely followed the established Flash Gordon mythos; taking on a serialized format throughout its first season written by Peebles and Ted Pedersen. Ming served as the primary villain, although others were encountered, until his eventual defeat in the season finale. While officially the show was known as Flash Gordon, to distinguish it from other productions it had received the distinctive title of The New Adventures of Flash Gordon. The theme was composed by Ray Ellis and Norm Prescott and featured a narration by Ridgely informing the viewers of the background of the series. The closing credits incorrectly spelled both Oppenheimer and Allan Melvin’s first names as “Allen.”

Gremlin, the plucky sidekick.

The series wasn’t the tremendous hit NBC expected, but they were already committed to another season (even though they would announce the series as being cancelled that May). However, they demanded some changes. The serial format was dropped in favor of episodic stories in order to make the program easier to rerun however they wished (more popular episodes would get played more often), and a cute pet dragon named Gremlin was introduced. Gremlin was an artist with the smoke he blew from his mouth, molding it into various shapes, and often times led to trouble for Flash and his crew. And the already minor instances of violence were further toned down, as was the design of female characters. Writers for the season included Dan DiStefano, Paul Dini, Ria Parody, Michael Reaves and Tom Ruegger.

The film title card.

The changes, coupled with its being scheduled later in the day and often against sports programming, resulted in a dramatic drop in the ratings. The final episode wouldn’t even be aired until two years after the last broadcast. That same year, Filmation also reassembled the film and released it as Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All. It featured Ted Cassidy’s final performance before his death. The show would later air on Sci-Fi Channel as part of their Sci Fi Cartoon Quest programming block.

The DVD cover.

While the movie that prompted the series has yet to see any kind of official release, the series itself has had several. In 2005, Delta Home Entertainment released the complete series to DVD in the United Kingdom. The following year, BCI Eclipse LLC released it in North America. When the set fell out of print in 2009 following BCI’s closing, Mill Creek Entertainment acquired the rights to the series and released the first 14 episodes of season 1 as The Adventures of Flash Gordon. In 2013, Consolidated re-released the series in the UK in individual collections.

Season 1:
“A Planet in Peril” (9/22/79) – Flash, Dale and Zarkov crash on Mongo and are taken prisoner by Ming.

“The Monsters of Mongo” (9/29/70) – Flash and Thun escape Ming’s mines and end up in Prince Barin’s kingdom.

“Vultan – King of the Hawkmen” (10/6/79) – King Vultan captures Flash, Thun, Barin and Aura, prompting an attack on his kingdom by Ming.

“To Save Earth” (10/13/79) – Flash has to break-up Ming’s wedding to Dale and stop Mongo’s approach to Earth.

“The Beast Men’s Prey” (10/20/79) – Flash, Dale and Zarkov escape but are quickly recaptured by a primitive tribe.

“Into the Water World” (10/27/79) – Flash, Dale and Zarkov help defend the undersea kingdom of Coralia.

“Adventures in Arboria” (11/3/79) – Flash and Dale deal with a forest fire in Arboria while Zarkov is bitten by a poisonous creature.

“The Frozen World” (11/10/79) – Flash heads to Frigida to negotiate for a rare ore they need to battle Ming.

“Monster of the Glacier” (11/17/79) – Flash and Queen Fria have to free their friends from the ice giants.

“Blue Magic” (11/24/79) – An underground witch queen believes Flash is her long-lost love.

“King Flash” (12/1/79) – The witch queen Azura brainwashes Flash into believing he’s her king.

“Tournament of Death” (12/8/79) – Flash is captured and put in Ming’s Tournament of Death.

“Castaways in Tropica” (12/15/79) – Flash and friends crash on Tropica in the middle of a coup.

“The Desert Hawk” (12/22/79) – Flash helps Queen Desira regain the throne of Tropica.

“Revolt of the Power Men” (12/29/79) – Ming kidnaps Dale and Aura while Flash helps fight a battle to retake Vultan’s sky city.

“Ming’s Last Battle” (1/5/80) – The sky city is used for the final assault on Mingo City.

Season 2:
“Gremlin the Dragon” (9/13/80) – Flash rescues Gremlin from the Beast Men.

“Royal Wedding” (9/20/80) – Ming sends a robot to interrupt Aura’s wedding to Barin.

“Sir Gremlin” (9/27/80) – Azura kidnaps Dale to force Flash into marriage.

“Deadly Double” (10/4/80) – Ming uses a robot duplicate of Gremlin to capture Flash.

“The Game” (10/11/80) – Flash, Dale and Gremlin are taken underground to fight in deadly arena games.

“The Seed” (10/18/80) – Ming sends a giant creature to destroy Arborea.

“Witch Woman” (10/25/80) – Aura, Flash, Dale and Thun hunt down a creature created by Ming.

“Micro Menace” (11/1/80) – Ming shrinks Flash and his friends.

“Flash Back” (11/8/80) – Flash is sent to another dimension and an evil duplicate wants to take his place.

“The Warrior” (11/15/80) – A warrior hunts Flash, Dale and Ming.

“The Freedom Balloon” (11/22/80) – Flash, Dale and Gremlin are captured on a rescue mission.

“Sacrifice of the Volcano Men” (11/29/80) – The Volcano Men plan to sacrifice Thun.

“Beware of Gifts” (12/6/80) – Ming’s peace offering turns out to be his latest weapon to destroy Arborea.

“The Memory Bank of Ming” (12/13/80) – Arborea’s computer reverts to Ming’s original programming.

“Survival Game” (12/20/80) – Flash and the bounty hunter that captured him must work together to escape an island.

“Gremlin’s Finest Hour” (11/6/82) – Lizard people worship Gremlin as the reincarnation of their god.

Originally posted in 2015. Updated in 2020.


Anonymous said...

The second season was horrid. The introduction of gremlin turned it into a kiddie show. The animation for the first season and the film are top notch and still hold up very well.

Chris Buchner said...

Networks generally subscribe to the belief that "If it ain't broke, fix it anyway." Many a good show had suffered from network mandates demanding changes from the established formulas that made the show a success in the first place. That usually happens because you've got bean counters who look at rigid paperwork instead of creative people actually in charge of things.