Tuesday, January 12, 2010


The success of Star Wars in 1977, along with George Lucas’ admitted indebtedness to 30’s serials and comic strips, inevitably led to other entrepreneurial filmmakers turning to those Depression-era sci-fi classics and characters, and reimagining them (though that noxious term hadn’t been invented yet) for the 1970s. Among these was another Filmation Saturday morning favorite, the animated Flash Gordon series from 1979-80.

When the rogue planet Mongo enters our solar system on a collision course for Earth, scientific genius Dr. Hans Zarkov, athlete Flash Gordon, and his girlfriend Dale Arden blast off in a rocketship of the doctor’s invention, hoping to find a way to turn the alien planet from its course. Crash landing on its surface, they find Mongo inhabited by a vast array of sentient creatures, all under the rule of the tyrannical Ming the Merciless. It soon becomes clear to the Earthmen (and Earthwoman) that the only hope of saving Earth lies in uniting the distrustful, ever-warring races of Mongo against the sinister space tyrant.

I have to say, that in my book, this show (first season only) is right up there with Jonny Quest, Thundarr the Barbarian and Batman the Animated Series among the great animated adventure shows. By Filmation standards, the animation is rather lush, with lots of rotoscoping and elaborate backgrounds and character designs. Being a limited-budget, limited-animation product of the Seventies, there’s the usual relentless recycling of footage and repetitive music cues, but it is executed with a level of care and ingenuity that is rare in cartoon shows of this vintage.

In the first season episodes, the writing is not dumbed down for kids and follows the continuity of the original Alex Raymond comic strips quite faithfully. Characters are actually killed (disintegrated) on-screen, and the female characters are designed to be blatantly sexy. Ming’s got his harem and King Vultan’s got dancing slave girls… there’s no way they would have been able to get away with that even a few years later in the 80s.

The first season is presented as an ongoing serial with cliffhangers, modeled after the classic Flash theatrical features from the 30s. The second season, however, is made up of 16 fifteen-minute segments that are, unfortunately, aimed squarely at extremely young children, with simpler, sillier stories and the addition to the cast of a pink baby dragon called Gremlin. The second season episodes are hardly worth watching, as the stories are too short to be very interesting and so much footage is recycled from Season 1 – and sloppily so, I might add – that the viewing experience is hollow.

Once again, BCI (under their Ink and Paint label) and animation expert Andy Mangels have put together a very nice DVD set. While the episodes definitely show their age, with a considerable amount of visible dirt and debris (inherent in this kind of animation) and somewhat faded colors, there are no noticeable digital artifacts or compression problems, and the audio is sharp and clear. The picture quality’s not perfect, but better than I expected after nearly 30 years.

There are some great extras included – a 20 minute documentary wherein Filmation head honcho Lou Scheimer and other studio staffers reminisce about the show and the TV feature that preceded it (production-wise; it had its sole airing after the series). There are character model sheets, some storyboards, the series bible and some scripts on DVD-ROM, and even the entire first episode of the 1980’s syndicated series Defenders of the Earth. This 80’s series (also released by BCI on DVD) also starred Flash Gordon, along with other characters owned by the Hearst Syndicate: The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, his sidekick Lothar and their teenage children, all teaming up to battle Ming. The premise was okay, but looked and sounded like every other show that Marvel Productions made in the 80s: bland. Also inserted into the set are a fold out episode guide and two collectible art cards featuring beautiful illustrations by comic book artists Frank Cho and Gene Ha.

Unfortunately, the DVD set does not include the prime time TV movie that preceded the series, Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All. The feature-length movie was made by the same team, but was somewhat more adult in tone and story; whereas the TV series began with Flash and company landing on Mongo, the film begins in 1939 Warsaw under attack by the Nazis.

Flash escapes from the besieged city, and we follow him as he meets Dale (above) and Zarkov. Some animation from the feature was recycled and used in the subsequent Saturday morning series, but not nearly as much as people seem to think. The feature aired only once, a couple years after the series, and – inexcusably – has never been made available legally on home video, and that’s too bad, because it is a superior animated adventure.

Overall, I feel that the first season of the Filmation Flash Gordon is one of the best adaptations of the character to film (right up there with the Buster Crabbe serials of the Thirties), and one of the very best animated adventure series ever. But then, it’s pretty obvious from my other posts that I have an extremely strong bias toward the sci-fi efforts of the Filmation studio.

In 1980, Italian film mogul Dino deLaurentis released a live-action Flash Gordon feature film. I’m certain I’ll get around to writing about that movie soon.


  1. The Filmmation Flash Gordon was a real treat when I was a kid and somehow felt more "new" than a lot of other cartoons from the 80s, even though it was from '79.

    I don't think I've ever seen the 2nd season... and it sounds like I didn't miss out on much.

  2. Oh my god. I had completely forgotten about this, but seeing these images has brought the memories flooding back. I have GOT to check out these DVDs!

  3. I bought the complete series on DVD as soon as it came out and I've loved every minute of it! I had no idea there was a movie though--I'd really like to learn more about it.

  4. Loved this series. I can even hum the theme music.

  5. One of these days, I'll write up a full review of the movie. As good as the first season of the Saturday morning series is, the movie is better. A really solid adaptation.

  6. Now the movie is entirely new to me, didn't know it existed at all! But the series I do recall, mostly (sadly, and likely unfairly) for repetitious re-use of animation... But also for being my introduction to Flash Gordon.

    I haven't seen it in years though, while the 80's movie in infectiously enjoyable for me and gets watched far more often than it likely should, hehe. Maybe this is a series I need a refresh on.

  7. Recycled animation was a financial reality of the business at the time. Budgets were low, and animation was expensive, especially for Filmation, which refused to farm out its animation to Asian sweatshops, and kept production entirely in-house. That said, I think they were far more ingenious at the technique than their contemporaries at Hanna-Barbara and Ruby-Spears.

    And it's simply a matter of taste, but I feel that the Filmation shows of the era were just flat-out better designed, better drawn, better written and overall more visually appealing than the toons produced by their rivals.

  8. I agree with you, Chris, the second season of Flash Gordon is not worth watching, but that first season is golden. I'm waiting for a sale on Amazon to pick it up on DVD.

  9. What a coincidence! I just got this in the mail on the weekend. Loved this as a kid and've enjoyed it again. Wonderful color and character designs.

  10. Filmation rules. I loved the series, I didn't knew about the movie, but seems terrific.

  11. I have to agree with everybody else; the first season was extremely faithful to the source material and remains one of the best Saturday morning cartoons of all time, perhaps second only to the untouchable Thundarr.

    Of special note, the animated version of Princess Aura was just amazing in it's sheer sexuality. Even at age seven I knew she was hot.

    I can't help but think that if the second season had kept the tone and pacing of the first, the series would have gone on for a few more years and become a bona-fide award winner.


  12. I remember the movie; I believe NBC aired it during the summer of 1981 on a Saturday night. I especially remember it because it was the first (and probably only time) that Filmation rendered a realistic-looking Adolf Hitler; that surprised the heck out of me to see that. Well, that and the way they drew Dale in her slave gear; when I saw that, it was then I realized why the film didn't get a Saturday morning slot...

  13. We bought the DVD collection of the series last Spring. I am a big fan of Flash Gordon to begin with, but the animated series (first season) was awesome to watch late Saturday morning before the afternoon sci-fi/horror movies would start on that local channel that had all the used car commercials.

  14. "And it's simply a matter of taste, but I feel that the Filmation shows of the era were just flat-out better designed, better drawn, better written and overall more visually appealing than the toons produced by their rivals."

    While I loved watching the first season of Flash, I don't believe your statement is completely accurate. Some Filmation was great. Some was pretty bad. Worst of all for me has to be Journey to the Center of the Earth and Fantastic Voyage. Not only did those reuse stock animation week after week, it was bad animation to begin with.

    That said, I still miss 1970s Saturday mornings. I feel sorry for today's kids, who don't get networks crammed with kids' programming on their mornings off from school. Filmation, Hanna-Barbera and Krofft will live forever in my memories.

  15. "That said, I still miss 1970s Saturday mornings. I feel sorry for today's kids, who don't get networks crammed with kids' programming on their mornings off from school. Filmation, Hanna-Barbera and Krofft will live forever in my memories."

    I missed them too, so now Filmation, Hanna-Barbera and Krofft are living on my DVD shelf (alongside the Looney Tunes). Most of the shows from the 1970s Saturday morning line-ups are or were available on DVD at some point. The HB and WB cartoons are still available. Most of the Filmation stuff is out of print but can be bought on the secondary market, some of it for rather high prices though, and the Krofft catalog is a mix; Land of the Lost is still in print, most of their other stuff is available but a bit expensive, I think. If you're really into it, pick up a copy of the Schoolhouse Rock DVD along with some of those vintage 1970s ads DVDs and you've got yourself a 1970s Saturday morning time machine.