Flash Gordon and the Planet of Death (1954)
This is a new one for me. I usually review one-off full-length movies, but I'm going to try and do a pilot episode of a television series. In 1954, Flash Gordon returned in a short 39-episode series on American television and movie screens. In 2005, low-rent distributors Digiview released three of these episodes on a DVD, a common practice these days, especially with these older series. I paid a cool $1 for it a Wal-Mart, which was a heck of a deal.
The three episodes are The Planet of Death, which was the pilot episode, The Brain Machine, the 21rst episode, and Deadline at Noon, the 36th episode. I don't know why these three were picked in particular, but I suspect that they're representative of the series as a whole. I'm just going to do The Planet of Death, the pilot, today. Maybe I'll do the others later.
Flash Gordon is a unique series as it was filmed in West Germany and France by a European film company, using a mix of American and local actors and crew. Our particular episode was filmed in Marseilles, France. The series thus has a distinctive Cold War feel to it, despite being set in the distant future.
As with other similar series of the era (Captain Video, Rocky Jones, Atom Squad, Tom Corbett, etc) don't expect anything other than preschool art class quality sets and costumes, lame dialogue and hack actors. They were meant for kids, and should be viewed (and reviewed) as such.
And now on to our show...
For starters, I see that the traditional "FBI will hunt you down and kill you if you copy or disseminate this movie" warning at the very beginning is a little different. I found the following quote humorous and interesting, when describing what sort of venues are forbidden for public showings, "Clubs, coaches, hospitals, hotels, oil rigs, schools, or prisons..." Oil rigs? Prisons? I don't think either one of those populations would appreciate the unique qualities of Flash Gordon!
Also, I will admit that have never seen any of the older Flash Gordon series before (at least not that I can remember). I was expecting a total kiddie-fest, but was actually rather impressed by the complex storyline and frequent moments of rather mature writing. More on this as I go along.
The Planet of Death was first aired on October 1, 1954. At just 26 minutes, this is the shortest media I've reviewed yet. The film quality is abysmal at best, and nearly unwatchable at worst. The 16mm prints from which they made the digital transfers were probably sitting in a can in the basement of some old guy's house in Malibu for the last 50 years. The sound quality is equally bad, and without subtitles, I had to search the internet to find the names and places used. Still, considering the age and relative unimportance of the series (and the fact that I only paid $1 for it!) the DVD is acceptable.
We open with some stock footage of a desolate barren desert plain that looks like Morocco on a bad day. An overly-dramatic narrator tells us that this is the planet Tarsit, once home to a civilization, but now empty and uninhabited. We're never actually told what happened to the civilization here, but it's really unimportant to the story.
Now we go to Earth to meet Doctor Hans Zarkov, one of our main characters. Zarkov is played by Joe Nash, and this series is his single movie or television credit (I wonder what he did with the rest of his life). Zarkov is a tall, exceedingly skinny man with a pointy goatee and a tight fitting uniform vest. Wow, that is one skinny dude.
Zarkov is arguing with Commander Paul Richards, who is head of the GBI, the "Global Bureau of Investigations", a sort of interplanetary FBI that our hero Flash Gordon works for. Commander Richards is played by 33-year old Henry Beckman, who is the most prolific actor in our cast, having appeared in 56 movies and 130 television episodes in a 51-year career. Richards looks like a portly, perpetually-annoyed desk sergeant sorta guy with a US Army-esque uniform.
The issue is that Zarkov wants to use the barren world Tarsit for his experiments in "negative gravity". Zarkov claims that "We can set up our experimental equipment using robot mechanisms and gauge the impulse reactions from space". What the hell? And Zarkov pronounces "robot" as "row-butt", and that's funny. Apparently no other planet will do for his tests, which are vital for the defense of the galaxy against "hostile invaders from Ebon". Hmm...I assume that viewers in 1954 would know what all this means, as it was a part of the Flash Gordon series of the 1930s and 40s.
Commander Richards will not allow it because of what happened to the expedition they just sent out to Tarsit. It seems that of the four men, only one returned alive. That survivor is now brought in, accompanied by Flash Gordon and Dale Arden, and sat in a chair. Let's meet our two heroes, Flash and Dale.
Flash Gordon is played by 29-year old Steve Holland, a male model with virtually no professional acting experience before or after this series. I'd like to say nice things about Mister Holland, but he's really just a big, thick beefsteak of a dude with a floppy hairdo and cavernous dimples. And I don't think he even knows what an opus is (rimshot Thank you!).
Dale Arden is played by 23-year old Irene Champlin. Other than a bit role in a 1953 movie, this series is the only thing on her professional resume. Hmm...let's just say that Flash could do better. I mean, sure he's just a vacuous meatstick, but he should have a more attractive female lead. He's Flash Gordon, after all, the position alone demands at least a Rene Zellweger-level Hottie, if not the exalted Ashley Judd-level Uber-Hottie.
Anyway, the lone expedition survivor is Doctor Jefvus, who is a short, middle-aged man who looks like a young Al Pacino with a goatee. Zarkov recognizes the name as that of a famous expert in "astro-hydraulics". And how are astro-hydraulics any different than regular hydraulics? I'll be damned if I can find the actor's name anywhere, which is a shame because he really does a good job here.
Jefvus is clearly distraught and twitchy, but manages to tell them what happened in a flashback scene. He and three other men were investigating an abandoned temple ("the only building not in utter ruins") when they came upon a big stone idol about ten feet tall. The idol spoke to them (!), telling them in a booming voice that they have brought the "Curse of Belfagor" upon them for entering the sacred temple. A killing "Death Light" lances out and zaps the other three men, Jefvus managing to run for his life. He then jumped in his spaceship and headed back for Earth in a state of shock (hope his ship had autopilot).
Back on Earth now, Zarkov ridicules Jefvus' story, claiming that he's delirious, spouting "superstitious rot". Zarkov insists that they use Tarsit, as it "is the one astro-graphical location where the repelling force of negative gravity is affective in relation to Earth." What the holy hell? Calling upon Jefvus' patriotism, they enlist him to come along as a guide. They will leave Earth in 48 hours. In light of what we will learn about him later, I can't believe he agreed to return to Tarsit.
I think most of this opening segment was waste-no-film-stock-one-take-only here. Several of the actors (especially Dale) flub their lines a bit at times and miss their blocking marks, things they would normally reshoot to clean up. There are also several multi-minute one-cut shots that last over three minutes each. While this is not that impressive compared to, say, the opening of Snake Eyes, it's still pretty good for the caliber of actors we have here. And Irene Champlin is no Carla Gugino, to be sure.
So Flash, Dale, Zarkov and Jefvus board the Skyflash II, Flash's personal spaceship, and rocket off for Tarsit. The visual of the rocket flying through space is, I believe, a hand-drawn animation against a moving star background. Cheesy, but effective. The Skyflash II is your typical 1950s spaceship, looking like a pimped out V-1 rocket more than anything else. Inside, the interior set is pretty bare, with just a few attempts at "spacey" widgets and gadgets glued here and there. To reach the "control panel" Flash has to reach far down between his knees, which just looks tacky. [Editor Pam: It's ergonomically unsound, too. Why design controls so the pilot has to crouch over to operate them? Was this spaceship originally designed for midgets? Or short aliens? If I were Flash, I'd complain. His back must hurt like crazy after flying the spaceship for any length of time.]
The Skyflash II!
Once landed on the barren planet of Tarsit, they're led by Jefvus to the temple. We see that Flash has changed into his away team outfit, which consists of pants and a simple white t-shirt with a red lightning bolt iron-on transfer on the front. Yes, it really does look as stupid as it sounds. The men carry these snazzy ray pistols, Dale seems to be unarmed.
The first thing they come upon in the temple is the dead bodies of Jefvus' three companions. I actually noticed that one of them is now lying in a different position than in the flashback scene, but didn't think much of it. And, whoa, after nearly a week, those have got to be some stinky heaps of decomposing flesh there!
They approach the idol, who again begins to threaten them. The Death Light shoots out, searching for them. The light is just a spotlight on the darkened soundstage, and moves quite slowly, like it's controlled by a drunken octogenarian. As such, it's easy for our heroes to avoid its probing brightness. Flash and Jefvus are separated from the others, and end up hiding in a small alcove off the main temple, entered through a narrow door.
The Death Light!
When the door locks itself behind them, the already emotionally unstable Jefvus begins to melt down. It's not helped by Flash suddenly getting very physical and accusatory with Jefvus, claiming that he has been lying from the get-go about what really happened. His main evidences? That it seems suspicious that only he escaped alive and that one of the bodies was facing the wrong way (ah, I was right!).
Jefvus breaks down and admits that he was spared by an Intelligence Agent for the Ebons! It seems that these hostile aliens plan on using Tarsit for a staging point for their upcoming invasion of Earth. Dastardly aliens! It further seems that the Ebons offered Jefvus money and fame if he'd keep quiet about their plans. Hmm...they should have just shot him in the head. For this sort of lack of operational security Ebon deserves to lose this war. Jefvus readily agreed (as he should have...and then immediately went to the authorities as soon as he was back on Earth) and was freed.
Flash and Jefvus get up close and personal.
Flash is disgusted by this weasely quisling, and roughs him up a bit, like any good 1950s hero should. Suddenly, the walls of the room where they're locked in begin to move together. We get some grinding and scraping and ominous music and we feel we're in an Indiana Jones movie for a second. Now in serious danger of being squashed flat like a pancake, Jefvus totally nukes down into a blubbering pool, begging and pleading for help. Flash, being the Stalwart Hero, stands resolutely, arms stretched out wide, as if he's going to hold back the inexorably moving stone walls with just his rippling biceps. Even Han Solo had a metal pipe...
Ooo, you're so strong.
A lot of this action sequence here is also one-take-one-go. The actor playing Jefvus is excellent here, totally wigging out yet still getting out a lot of exposition. I wish I knew his name! Steve Holland, on the other hand, struggles a bit, even clearly blowing his line once. With Jefvus being so spot-on, I can see why the director didn't want to reshoot just because Holland dropped the ball.
Just when it looks like Flash is going to be a bit thinner, the outside wall begins to crumble under the shaking and pressure. The fragile ancient building just can't take all this grinding and has collapsed. Flash leaps out of the jagged hole, and then reaches back and pulls Jefvus out after him. They talk some more (with heads very, very close together to both stay in frame) about the Ebon Intelligence Agent and the handful of soldiers with him. Flash leaves Jefvus there and goes to find his friends.
Back with Dale and Zarkov, they're still hiding from the Death Light, when a door opens behind them. In the doorway is a man with a pistol! Eek, what's he wearing on his head? Is that a two-sizes-too-big stocking cap pulled down over his face with holes cut out for the eyes? Good lord, who was the costumer for this show, a hairless mole rat?
Western Civilization is doomed.
He introduces himself as the Head Intelligence Agent for Ebon. Seeing as how Ebon is a thinly-veiled poke at Russia, this man is a high-level KBG agent if I ever saw one (not that I ever have...well, I had this TA once for a stat class...). He also knows of Zarkov and of his experiments somehow, perhaps from Jefvus?
With an oily evil laugh, the KGB agent demands that Zarkov give him the secret of his "negative gravity wall", the sole determent to Ebon conquest of Earth apparently. Hmm...I though it was still experimental? Maybe the test on Tarsit was going to be for Gravity Wall Version 2.0 or something. Zarkov isn't going to give his secret to no commie spy, no sir!
So the KBG agent and his two soldiers take Dale and Zarkov back to the temple room and ties them to pillars facing the stone idol. He says that he will kill Dale, slowly at first, with ever-increasing power levels on the Death Light, until Zarkov gives in. To her credit, Dale tells Zarkov to stand firm and not give in, despite her soon-to-be-nasty death. And she's right, her life is nothing compared to the salvation of the human race.
Zarkov and Dale in trouble.
Zarkov and the Agent banter about idols and curses and whatnot, the actor playing the Agent really chewing scenery with abandon here. He says that the Death Light is no curse from an ancient god, but a "paralysis death ray set in the idol's head". A machine "whose controlled ray cuts through organic matter, destroying the millions of nerves, eating its way deep into the very nerve centers, until total paralysis is achieved!" Wow, that was the best evil-dude-describes-his-death-machine-to-his-captive-victims-speech I have ever heard! Classic! I really love the way he says "millions" with deliciously vile tongue rolling. "You're a fiend!" growls Zarkov, to which the Agent answers harshly, "Not by choice, this is war!".
As the Agent is monologing, Flash has snuck up behind the idol and is monkeying with the controls for the Death Light. The Agent tries once more to get Zarkov to give in, but he won't, and the switch is thrown. The Light washes over Dale, who winces, but feels no pain.
Flash messing with the idol.
Ah-ha! Flash jumps out and gains the advantage over the KGB agent, talking him to the ground. They train them good in Moscow, however, and the Agent kicks Flash away and comes up with a long knife. Hmm...so much for that, Flash just simply reaches in and takes it away from him without so much as a "may I?" and jumps on top of him again. Flash gives him two quick right jabs to the face and presumably knocks him out.
Just then the two Ebon soldiers recover enough to charge Flash. The first one comes running in, but Flash shows us a bit of Akido by using the man's momentum to roll him over his back. The second one grapples with Flash, who kicks his leg out from under him and jumps on top. Two jabs to the nose and that soldier is out of action.
The first soldier is back up now, and he and Flash go toe-to-toe for a few seconds. Flash gives him two rights to the ribs and an uppercut to the jaw, knocking the soldier down. He bounces right back up, however, and blocks Flash's next swing. The soldier then sidekicks Flash in the chest, and then leaps on him when he goes down.
Even though on his back, Flash manages to flip the charging man over with a stiff-leg move. Both up on their feet again, the soldier leaps high in the air and lands on Flash, who catches the smaller man, and showing some serious strength, tosses him down in the dirt. That was an impressive final move there!
With some space now, Flash takes the opportunity to draw his ray pistol and shoot both soldiers as they try and rise. The effect for his is interesting, with the foleyed in sound of an air rifle and a single white full-frame insert cut in with each shot. The gun is a paralysis weapon, I guess, because the soldiers "freeze" in position when shot. Hmm...I can see them moving, especially the last guy who was just doing a lot of physical stunts, I can see him breathing heavily still.
Flash drags the KBG agent over and has him untie Dale and Zarkov. He explains to them all that he disabled the Death Light by placing his watch glass over the emitter port! Damn, he's like McGuyver this guy! Though it might have been easier to just unplug the thing. [Editor Pam: Good thing they're still using watches with glass over the faces in the...whatever century this is.]
As they move to leave, however, a man calls on them to surrender or die! From out of the shadows emerge Garko, supreme leader of Ebon himself, and three rifle-wielding soldiers. Hmm...gotta see that again. Yes, watch Zarkov to the right of the frame as Dale and Flash talk. He's clearly looking right at where Garko and his men are about to appear, and yet does not raise any alarm or even say anything until the camera swings to show Garko approaching. Bad framing.
Garko is dressed in a most elaborate and silly costume and to describe it would take years. He sounds like Josef Stalin, who I'm sure they were trying to imply here. He rages at the captives, "Who shall ever stand between Garko and his destiny shall be ground into dust!"
So Stalin orders his soldiers to kill our heroes, and they level their rifles at them. And then they....well, they sort of stand there a bit. And a bit more. Little more. What the hell? Shoot them already! I timed it and between the time Garko orders "Kill them!" and when they notice the idol behind them a full 19 seconds passes. If I were Stalin, I would shoot these soldiers as soon as this is over, because they're clearly incompetent.
Suddenly, the stone idol begins to rock and sway! We see Doctor Jefvus, with a long iron bar in hand, jimmying the idol off its base. As the dumbass soldiers just stand there agape, the idol tips over and falls upon them! A great cloud of dust and much camera lens wiggling later and our heroes are saved.
Back aboard the Skyflash II, we learn that along with all the soldiers, the KGB chief and Stalin himself were killed by the idol. As well, Doctor Jefvus perished (though I don't see how). In his radioed report to Commander Richards, Flash tells him to make sure he gives all the credit to Jefvus, "a great patriot who sacrificed his life for his galaxy".
Flash finishing this one off.
With that, the episode ends.
Hmmm...what? Ok, sure, the dude turned it around there at the end, saving the world and all, I'll give him that. But, if he hadn't been roped into returning to Tarsit in the first place, then he'd have gone about his merry way being a traitor of the highest order. Just because you repent of a crime, and even do something magnanimous to counter-act it, does that absolve you of committing the crime in the first place? Especially, if, as in our case, you know that the only reason he repented is because he was forced to by the circumstances? Just seems like an odd morality lesson for 1954.
And why the whole thing with the idol and the Death Light and all that? If the Ebonites were just using this place as a staging point, why go to all the trouble? They could have just killed anyone who stopped by, which they should have, and saved the effort. So many questions on that one. Why did they leave the three dead bodies there, rotting away in the very temple where they were working? And did they know that Flash and Zarkov were coming to Tarsit? Or was it just luck that they came and the KGB agent tried to milk some science secrets out of him? Too many loose ends here. Anyway, I could go on for days, but I won't, The Simpsons is coming on soon. [Editor Pam: I'm surprised that killing a few Ebonians is enough to stop an invasion. Garko must have been a lot more important than he appeared, but didn't he have a second-in-command somewhere able to take over?]
And while I'm at it, I noticed that the music score is credited to "Roger Roger". Who names their kid Roger Roger? Seriously.
Bonus! Some handy statistics for you:
16: Total number of individuals, cast and extras, speaking and silent, we see in entire episode.
11: Total number of those 16 individuals who get killed by episode's end.
[Editor Pam: Not that bad, especially for a TV show of that time. It looks as though some effort was made to appeal to adults as well as children. "Flash Gordon" had been around since the 1930s and probably had plenty of adult fans. The Ebonian costumes are hilarious, and I think they were meant to be, to ridicule these stand-ins for the Russians. I may actually watch the other two episodes available, since this one was much better than I expected.]
Written in September 2005 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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