When I first heard that Flash Gordon would be returning to television, I admit my interest was mildly piqued. Although never a die-hard fan of the original comic or serial -- both were well before my time -- I'll be the first to proudly proclaim my odd and unyielding devotion to the absolutely God-awful 1980 movie starring Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson and, for reasons unknown to this day, a host of people who could actually act. In addition to being the single worst career move in Brian Blessed's lifetime -- as there's little doubt that he's since been forced to endure frequent and infuriating shouts of "DIVE!" from various live audiences while attempting to perform, say, Shakespeare's Richard III on the Haymarket stage in London -- the film is best remembered for its campy style, punctuated by a brilliantly absurd score from Queen.
I was curious as to whether the new series would take the traditional route or purposely party like it's 1980 and go completely over-the-top. Regardless, it had one thing going for it right off the bat -- it was being given a run on cable's Sci-Fi network, which, despite having successfully exhausted the entire "-Saurus" genre, had carved out a certain place in my heart by bringing the whip-smart reimagining of Battlestar Galactica to television.
So, yesterday, I downloaded the pilot episode of the new Flash Gordon free on iTunes, settled in with a bag of Bugles and a depth-charge-sized cup of Crystal-Lite raspberry lemonade and watched from start-to-finish.
It's just fucking terrible.
I'm not talking destined-for-kitschy-cult-classic-status terrible; I'm talking unwatchably bad.
The entire thing feels like an Ark II-esque Saturday-morning venture (and not in the good, old-serial sort of way), it looks like it was produced -- special effects and all -- by a junior high AV class, and the dialogue sounds as if it were written by Dawson of Dawson's Creek when he first got that Spielberg jones -- say, around age five.
The goddamned thing was free, and I still wanted my money back.
I found myself immediately demanding to know just who was responsible for such a painful atrocity, as I hadn't done much in the way of research before sitting down to watch -- nor would I be able to live with myself had I actually taken the time to delve too deeply into the parentage of fucking Flash Gordon. That's when I realized that I had missed the opening credits entirely -- no doubt in the kitchen at the time, grabbing the aforementioned Bugles and Crystal-Lite.
So I skipped back to the beginning, careful not to subject myself to even a momentary second-viewing of the nonsense I'd just witnessed, and when I got there, you can imagine my surprise -- or complete lack thereof -- at what I found.
Robert Halmi Sr.
The Godather of crap.
For the blissfully uninitiated, Robert Halmi Sr. was once known as the "King of the Mini-Series." He was the man responsible (read: to blame) for a huge swath of supposedly epic, Tolkein-on-the-cheap, TV sweeps extravaganzas -- beginning with Gulliver's Travels in 1996, starring (oh dear God) Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, eventually winding its way through an entire catalogue of fantasy titles like Merlin, The Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland, and The 10th Kingdom, and finally coming to a merciful end with 2002's Dinotopia. During Halmi's heyday, there wasn't a magical land of make-believe beyond his reach, as long as cut-rate CGI could support it.
Infinitely more entertaining though than Halmi's leviathan ten-hour televised elementary school pageants was Halmi himself. A diminutive, 80-something Hungarian immigrant with an obligatory streak of white hair -- his unpredictable temper and bitter disdain for the very TV executives who regularly and inexplicably agreed to fund his schlock was the stuff of legend. I've never actually seen an interview with Halmi, but knowing his demeanor all-too-well, I always picture his mannerisms being quite a bit like Patton Oswalt's impression of surly TV painter William Alexander.
I was picking up a paycheck from NBC when Halmi's flame-out began -- when his magical fantasy world started to crumble, so to speak, and his banishment from network television seemed all-but-assured.
In 2000, after a series of projects which became known for their consistently escalating budgets and consistently diminishing returns in the way of ratings (as well as one, The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns, which became fodder for late-night comedians everywhere thanks to its rather un-PC portrayal of the Irish), NBC wisely reacted with hesitation when presented with Halmi's latest opus -- The 10th Kingdom. More than a few cracks had developed in the network's once mighty primetime juggernaut and the powers that be were weighing their sweeps choices more carefully than usual; Garth Ancier, the programming chief at the time, simply wasn't sure it was worth the risk involved in tying up five nights of valuable airtime with another of Angry Bob's whimsical epics.
His Solomon-like solution: Straddle it at the end of the book -- with the first episodes inside the sweeps period and the last ones safely outside. As expected, it bombed -- leading NBC's mini-series chief Lindy DeKoven to fall on her sword for signing the thing in the first place.
Halmi's response to all of this?
He went fucking ballistic.
He screamed to anyone who would listen about NBC's lack of vision and how no one at the network appreciated "imaginative fantasy" anymore, and he vowed to take his next project elsewhere -- leading to the compulsory public statement of remorse from NBC, followed immediately by the private Don't-Let-the-Door-Hit-You-In-the-Ass-On-the-Way-Out party.
That next project, by the way, was 2002's incomparably silly Dinotopia; the "elsewhere" was ABC.
The ratings were as you might expect.
In the space between Halmi's initial descent at NBC and his final crash-and-burn at ABC, he managed to piss-off every other network executive in the contiguous 48 -- at one point inundating CBS big gun Les Moonves with faxes designed to antagonize the living hell out of him after learning that Moonves had publicly insinuated that Halmi did little more than crank out bad special effects.
But time heals all wounds apparently, and Halmi has allowed himself -- and has been allowed -- back under the tent of one of the big networks, as Sci-Fi is owned by NBC Universal. Apparently and unfortunately however, one thing that hasn't changed is his almost preternatural knack for being able to get away with churning out ridiculous garbage -- as evidenced by the new Flash Gordon.
Like much of what Halmi has done in the past, his latest effort is an embarrassment to the network carrying it, and the presence of it makes it crystal clear just how much Sci-Fi is going to suffer come next May when Battlestar wraps-up for good. If this is the kind of brand the network is set on advancing, and NBC is content with accepting, it's pretty much doomed to a consistent level of failure.
But hey, with Halmi on board, at least Sci-Fi can be assured that it'll never run out of badly produced dinosaur movies.
Coming soon: Carnotopia.