TV Review: Poor writing leaves 'Flash Gordon' grounded

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Ever since Sci Fi Channel announced in January it would air an update of "Flash Gordon" (9 p.m. Friday), I've been both excited by the prospect and full of dread. Excited because it would be fun to see a new take on the classic sci-fi tale; full of dread because the new "Flash" is executive produced by Robert Halmi Sr., whose productions are not noted for the high caliber of their scripts.

After watching Friday's 90-minute premiere, this "Flash" dashed my hopes, as feared.

It has a likable lead in actor Eric Johnson (Whitney, Clark's jock nemesis, on the first season of "Smallville"), who stars as marathon runner Steve "Flash" Gordon. His age is never stated explicitly, but he and ex-girlfriend TV news reporter Dale Arden (Gina Holden) have a history, so he's post-college for sure. But, oddly, in some close-ups, he appears to be too close in age to the actress who plays his mom.

Although the lack of spaceships is an initial disappointment -- Flash and Dale travel to Mongo, ruled by the evil Ming (John Ralston), by tripping through a space-time rift -- I got used to the new device quickly. The show's biggest drawback is the same problem faced by just about every other Sci Fi Channel series introduced in the past year: lackluster writing.

Like "Dresden Files" and "Painkiller Jane" before it, "Flash Gordon" is a victim of pedestrian scripting. Worse yet, the characters are forced to spout too much exposition that betrays what should be the characters' natural reactions (rather than being amazed by the jump to Mongo, moments after arriving Dale announces they're "captives on an alien planet"). There's also a fair bit of technobabble and an alien culture that's confusing in the first episode.

One of two future episodes sent for review shows more evidence of a sense of humor -- particularly when a jungle girl from Mongo takes up residence in Flash's house -- but everything else about this "Flash Gordon" remains dreadful, particularly the scenery-chewing villains. On Mongo there's a guy who floats instead of walking, and who suffers the double indignity of terrible dialogue and a scenery-chewing performance.

Fans of the camptastic 1980 "Flash Gordon" movie shouldn't get too excited by hearing the Queen theme song in ads for the new TV series. Executive producer Peter Hume said it won't be used in the show, "except maybe as a ring tone or something," although the movie's Flash, actor Sam J. Jones, has been tapped to guest star in an upcoming episode to air in October.


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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