CCI XTRA: To Mongo and Back with "Flash Gordon"

Last Sunday afternoon at Comic-Con International in San Diego, attendees were given a sneak peak at Sci-Fi's new original series, "Flash Gordon." Stars Eric Johnson and Gina Holden were joined onstage by Sci-Fi Executive VP of Original Programming Mark Stern and "Flash Gordon" Executive Producer Peter Hume, who told fans what to expect from the latest iteration of the iconic space hero.

Sci-Fi VP of Original Programming Tony Opticon kicked off the "Flash Gordon" panel by introducing moderator Josh Gates (host of Sci-Fi's "Destination Truth"). Gates, in turn, introduced the rest of the panel. Gates then launched into a thorough introduction of Flash Gordon, for those who might not be familiar with the character or his history. The fair-hared space man first appeared in a comic strip by Alex Raymond on January 7, 1934, and was created to compete with the already popular Buck Rogers. Gordon went on to appear in comic books, novels, and radio serials and serial movies (most notably the 1930's serials starring Buster Crabbe).

"'Flash Gordon' proved that comics were fertile ground for TV and films," Gates said, explaining that "Flash" heavily influenced the likes of George Lucas. Gates then invoked the cult-classic 1980's "Flash Gordon" films, which were memorable, but, in his view, "not for the right reasons." Gates then segued into a clip of the new "Flash Gordon" series.

Mark Stern said the goal with the new "Flash Gordon" was to take something that's familiar to the audience, but "reinvent it for a whole new generation." They've set out to create a fun show in the vein of "Stargate," with "great characters, relationships, action and humor."

Peter Hume said that all involved felt obligated to honor the 75-year legacy of the character. "We've tried to be true to what Alex Raymond invented," Hume said.

Gates asked the panel how much of the camp-factor that has been prevalent in many incarnations of "Flash Gordon" would find its way into the new series. Hume admitted to loving the campy '80s version, with the caveat that the premise could not sustain a five-year television show. The challenge, Stern said, was to "create a world that seemed reasonable and relevant to us today."

Eric Johnson described Flash as a "throwback to an old-time hero" who does good for the sake of doing good. Gina Holden, for her part, said the character of Dale Arden has come a long way from the character introduced in the original strip as "passenger on a plane" with a tendency to "pass out a lot." Johnson seconded, describing Arden from the new series as a "brilliantly written, strong woman" and definitely not a damsel in distress.

Sam Jones, who played the title character in the 1980 "Flash Gordon," guest stars in an episode of the first season of the new Sci-Fi series, and Hume said that after filming, "Jones took Johnson aside" and "passed the mantle on to him."

Gates opened up the floor to questions from the audience, and one fan asked about the romantic status of Flash and Dale. "They dated for the entire Clinton administration," Johnson said. "She went to college and when she came back she was engaged to another man."

But Holden said her character becomes deeply conflicted when she comes back and finds her destiny once again intertwined with her former flame. "Circumstances don't permit us to be together," Holden said.

The next question was about Flash's arch nemesis, Ming the Merciless. Hume said they've definitely set out to make the new Ming less of a racial stereotype than previous iterations. He's also not "evil for evil's sake" as he's often been portrayed in the past. "He's a more layered and complex villain," Hume said. "And he's always the smartest kid in the room."

Johnson said the updated Ming is charming and handsome. "A hero's only as good as his villain," Johnson said.

As in the original, it is the scientist Dr. Zarkov who gets our heroes to and from Mongo, Ming's homeworld, but this time it is without the use of the familiar spacecraft. Rather, the heroes travel to and from Mongo via a wormhole not unlike a stargate.

As for Zarkov himself (played by Jodi Racicot), Johnson insisted that the scientist is more than just comic relief. "He's the science, Dale's the brains, and I just try not to screw things up," Johnson said.

One fan asked Johnson and Holden if this was their first time at Comic-Con. It turned out that neither of the actors had been before, but both summed up the experience in one word: "Awesome." Both, too, had purchased lightsabers the day before, which Hume said was all the two could talk about. Holden's saber was modeled after Obi-Wan's, and Johnson opted for the Yoda model.

The old movie serials were known for ending on cliffhangers to entice viewers to return to the theater the following week, but Hume said the new series won't be quite so serialized. And while the look of the show is informed by that of the retro original, the executive producer said they'd "dialed it back a little" to make the new series more grounded.

Both Johnson and Holden revealed that they have an unhealthy fascination with Jonathan Walker, who portrays Rankol in the new series. Walker will be setting up for a big scene, and his costars sneak onto set and watch from around a corner. "He looks over and we hide," Holden said. Stern tried in vain to convince the actors that Walker uses a Segway and does not, in fact, float under his own power, but Johnson and Holden wouldn't hear it.

One decidedly confused fan came up to the microphone and proceeded to confuse Flash Gordon with DC's the Flash. Nevertheless, his question was a valid one: Will viewers who aren't familiar with the character's previous incarnation be able to follow the new "Flash Gordon" series? "There's no mythology you have to be aware of that would alienate you from the show," Hume said.

As to who is writing the score, that would be composer Michael Picton. Hume described it as "a little bit old school." It will be performed by a full orchestra, and have a large, action-adventure feel to it.

The Mongo of the new series is an environmentally-damaged planet, ruled with an iron fist by Ming, who controls all the good water. One fan asked how much of an allegory Mongo is for the real world. Hume said comparisons could indeed be made, but that they aren't going to be too obvious or preachy about it. "Except for the special Al Gore episode," Stern quipped.

Another "Flash Gordon" staple is the sword fight, and one fan wanted to know if that would make it into the new series. Hume answered with a resounding "yes." In the first season, fans can look forward to a duel to the death between Flash and Barin.

Johnson rounded out the panel with a ringing endorsement for the show. "'Flash Gordon' is the most fun you can have for an hour on Friday night," Johnson said. "It's the best adaptation of a comic I've seen."

The first episode of Sci-Fi's new "Flash Gordon" premieres on Friday, August 11.

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