Flash… arrrrrggggghhh

Right, so let’s talk about Ming.

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No, not that Ming. This Ming.

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That’s unquestionably Ming the Merciless, Emperor of Mongo, as played by Max Von Sydow in the 1980 film version of Flash Gordon.

For anyone my age – and maybe a little younger – who can remember the days before 24/7 cable/satellite TV, one of absolute givens of the 6 weeks’ school summer holiday period was the BBC’s summer morning schedule.

We’re talking about the days, here, when Breakfast TV meant watching the test card while you ate your cornflakes – that girl never did finish her game of noughts and crosses, although what can you expect when you’re waiting for a rag doll to make the next move – and the viewing day kicked off at about nine in the morning, if you were lucky.

For what seemed like years, the Beeb’s summer morning schedule followed the same basic format. They’d kick things off with a grainy old 1950’s adventure series for boys, something like Zorro or Champion the Wonder Horse. This was, I think, less an attempt to entertain the youth of the nation and more an effort by the Beeb to force kids into going out and getting a bit of exercise in order to spending the first half hour of the viewing day listening to your parents reminiscing about their childhood, back when owning a black and white TV was the height of urban sophistication and whatever series the Beeb were showing at the time was absolute the best thing ever.

Survive that and it was straight on to a half hour of ‘Why Don’t You’, which, if you never had the dubious pleasure, consisted a carefully contrived coterie of the infeasibly enthusiastic offspring of the middle classes attempting to persuade you that there were better things you could be doing than watching them on the telly by showing you all the ideas for Blue Peter’s ‘here’s one I made earlier’ segment that had been rejected as too dull and boring to show on the Beeb’s flagship kid’s show. The big gimmick this show had was that all these dumb ideas had come from other kids writing into the show, thus confirming that future of Britain lay in the hands of an entire generation of young people who possessed absolutely no imagination whatsover.

Next up came the badly-dubbed Eastern European serial that the Beeb had bought on the cheap from Czechoslovakia only to realise afterwards that they had absolutely no idea whatsoever as to the correct running order of episodes. For reasons known only to the Beeb, they invariably managed to buy in these shows about a fortnight after the only World Service employee who spoke the language in which the programme had been produced had left for their gap year farming goats in the Kalahari, leaving them with no option but to hire a bunch of unknown voice-over actors – and Miriam Margolyes – stick them in a studio and get them to improvise a bit of dialogue on the spot. The only vaguely memorable thing about any of these shows, other than the Flashing Blade, which was brilliantly and deservedly revoiced as a pisstake years later, was that they seemed to run for months without ever showing any discernable signs of having a plot.

It took a strong will to survive that first hour and half, but for those of us that managed it the payoff was well worth it. One, maybe two classic Tom and Jerry cartoons – ITV had the rights to Looney Tunes. Sometimes a Laurel and Hardy short film – and no one ever did the piano-shifting gag quite as well as Stan and Ollie – and then it was time for the 1930s movie serial. Usually Flash Gordon, sometimes King of the Rocketmen or Buck Rogers, but always a guaranteed 20-25 minutes or so of solid entertainment full of lantern-jawed heros, women who scream, trip over and twist their ankle at the first sight of an alien creature, evil megalomaniac super-villains bent on world/universal domination, ambulatory dustbins and all with an ‘I wonder how implausibly they’ll have re-shot that last sequence for the next episode’ cliffhanger at the end.

The point of this digression in childhood reminiscences – other than early-onset Alzheimers – is to introduce you all to this:

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No, that’s not the lead tenor of the Heinrich Himmler Memorial Male-voice Choir.

That complete imposter, according to the Sci-fi channel in the US, is the Emperor Ming in their brand new remake of Flash Gordon.

No seriously, Ming the Merciless is now a poor man’s Christopher Walken with a uniform fetish and all, so it seems, as continuation of misplaced sensitivities to criticism of racial stereotyping which has, since the 1980s, seen Ming become a green reptile in a brain-dead kids’ cartoon series and, with the other denizons of Mongo, develop grey skin in a DC comics graphic novel.

Worse still, Ming in no longer even merciless. In this new series he’s played as a media-savvy benevolent dictator who’s only ruthless when someone crosses him, although having survived the two part series pilot I have to say that he comes over more as Ming the Humourless than anything else.

Of all the classic Sci-fi serials of the 1930s and 40s, Flash Gordon is the one that’s most a period piece and most defined by its ‘look’, a riot of Art Deco ornamentation on sets designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It belongs to its time, the 1930s and its precisely because its of its era that, strangely enough, it doesn’t really date. It belongs to a different time, to the classic era of pulp science fiction, of Hugo Gernsback – after whom the most prestigious SF award, the ‘Hugo’, is named – and ‘Amazing Stories’ and much of the real enjoyment in watching those old serials lies in revisiting that era and their notions of what stood for being modern and futuristic.

The 1980 film remake by Dino De Laurentis may have had a leading man – to call him an actor is stretching credibility too far – so wooden that even Ronseal couldn’t put on gloss on him and it was absolutely as camp as a row of tents but at least it looked the part. It stuck with the period look and feel and between that, a genuinely scenery chewing performance from Brian Blessed as Vultan and Von Sydow’s picture perfect performance of Ming as the classic melodrama megalomaniac we know and love from the original, it still ended up being a pretty entertaining film.

Entertaining is not a word to be used in close proximity to any reference to this new series.

Ming is the direct literary descendant of Sax Rohmer’s evil Dr Fu Manchu and, yes, he does reflect the many of the paranoid, xenophobic preoccupations of the era, which manifested themselves in short-lived ‘yellow peril’ genre that was popular in the Us  in which he was created but the mere fact that we’ve – for the most part – moved on as a society doesn’t mean that we should airbrush characters like the classic Ming the Merciless out of our cultural history or even that the classic Ming ‘look’ is off-limits to film makers. At much the same time that Ming was being stripped of his origins in children’s cartoons and graphic novels, Star Trek Voyager included two thoroughly enjoyable and wholly uncontroversial episodes built around a fictional holodeck novel, ‘Captain Proton‘, which lovingly parodied Flash Gordon, amongst other classic serials, and which included its own wonderfully realised take on Ming the Merciless, Dr Chaotica, complete with a near classic recreation of the Ming ‘look’.

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Growing up watching those old serials I never once made the mental connection between Ming the Merciless and the short-lived period of paranoia about the so-called ‘yellow peril’ and all things oriental in part because that was all very much an American ‘thing’ that never particularly seemed to find its way to Britain but for cropping up in Ian Fleming’s ‘Dr No’. In fact I never really thought of Ming as being particularly oriental in appearance – he looks the way he does because that’s what Ming looks like and on an imagined planet populated with mud men, lion men, hawkmen and walking dustbin robots the fact that he looked a bit different from everyone else was of no particular consequence.

Today, I think its highly questionable as to whether the 1920s/30s oriental stereotype from which Ming was derived even exists in the public awareness. Ming the Merciless is so recognisable for what he is, an iconic character in a science fiction story that its doubtful that anyone would make the connection with his literary antecedents like Dr Fu Manchu without first being pointed in that direction and even that stereotype has lost its power over the years. Show someone a picture of Fu Manchu from one of the old 1930s serials/films and they’re much more likely to think in terms of the genial Chinese storeowner in Gremlins or come up with a reference point in Chinese films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero or House of Flying Daggers. For my own part the character that comes to mind who seems closest in appearance and aspect to Fu Manchu is Kao Chu, the lead villain in the Japanese TV version of The Water Margin and even that loses its xenophobic power when you consider that not only is the villain Chinese (even though played by a Japanese actor) but so are all the other characters.

Moreover, and thinking in literary terms, most people would, these days, tend to see the lineage of the evil genius supervillain in film and television as tracing back not to largely forgotten cultural attitudes from the 1930s but directly to arguably the best known and earliest exponent of the art of super-villainy, Professor Moriarty. That’s certainly true of another classic villain who shares many of the qualities, and – in his classic incarnation – many of the physical characteristics of Ming, Dr Who’s The Master.

Approached correctly and with the same genuine affection for the genre that Spielberg brought to the Indiana Jones films and the right balance between humour and adventure there is a genuine great science fiction movie to be found in the character of Flash Gordon, but you’ve got to stick with the iconic 30s futurist look of the original and to hell with the ‘sensibilities’ of a minority of activists and their misplaced ideas about outdated racial stereotype, almost all of which are unrecognisable to a modern audience.

If and when this new show ships up on British TV… don’t bother, it’ll only be 45 minutes of your life you won’t get back. In fact, if you’ve got a serious masochistic streak or you’re a regular viewer of 18 Doughty Street (there’s a difference?) then the Sci-fi channel’s US website has a whole streamed episode you can watch for free on-line…

Don’t – it’s still 45 minutes of your life you won’t get back.

Unlike the beautifully executed updated version of Battlestar Galactica, which rapidly pulls you in and makes you forget any affection you might have had for the rather hokey 1970s original, this new take on Flash Gordon is waste of viewing time (when you include the adverts) and suffering all the more in the US, from what I’ve been reading, for being scheduled immediate after Russell T Davies’ infinitely superior revival of Dr Who. If the reviews of the early episodes of the new Flash Gordon that I haven’t wasted my time on are anything to go by then this last three weeks, which has seen new episodes getting their first showing after the stand-out episodes of series 3 of Dr Who, ‘Human Nature’, ‘Family of Blood’ and ‘Blink’ with have been particularly painful for the channel.

To finish off I should mention the other bit of deeply unwelcome news for anyone who likes classic Sci-Fi movies – a remake of the 50s classic ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ is scheduled to go into production next year, destroying yet another treasured piece of my childhood.

And the make matters even worse its recently been announced that Fox, who’re behind the remake, have signed Keanu Reeves to play the lead role of Klaatu thus ensuring the beautifully still and subtle performance given by Michael Rennie, on which the original film hangs – which is arguably the best take on ‘alienness’ on film other than, perhaps, Kevin Spacey’s performance as Prot in K-Pax – will be replaced in the remake by a performance that couldn’t be less wooden had Fox signed Pinnochio to play the leading role.

Some things should be left well alone.

  • Chris

    I’ve always been a fan of the 80s Flash Gordon (partly because it’s the only Flash Gordon i’ve ever known), because of the way it looked (well, and Ming, he was the best character acting wise I think – Brain Blessed was wonderfully over the top as usual, but I wouldn’t call it good acting). The story was hardly the most believeable thing ever, but I enjoyed it for what it was.

    To see that Ming looks like every other uniform wearing dictator (much less to hear that he’s not exactly Merciless) is a huge disappoitment to me.

  • Elizabeth

    Keanu… Reeves?

    Excuse me, I’m going to go curl up in a quilt and cry.

  • epsilon

    I am so old, I remember before Why Don’t You – and the BBC’s unforgettable, sunglasses-required techicolor line-up of The Double Deckers/The Banana Splits/The Monkees. All made with heavy US investment- even the Double Deckers. At 4-6, I fancied Gillian Bailey and wanted to be Davy Jones. And now I sing the Banana Splits theme to very different words….

    Flash Gordon 1980…brave casting saw Peter Wyngarde in work for probably the first and only time since his little pas-de-deux in Gloucester bus station- a good actor shamefully forgotten through one act that made George Michael millions twenty years later. And John Osborne- yep, that one- in one of his few acting roles; the same director as Get Carter where he and the theme tune composer stole the show from Michael Caine and Alf Roberts from Coronation Street.

  • redpesto

    …and of course Peter Duncan.

    Unity, if I had a serious masochistic streak, I’d still watch the ’80s Gordon…it’s waay too pervy than a kids’ adventure should be.

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  • Jherad

    I used to enjoy ‘Why don’t you’. Well, I think I just enjoyed the theme tune, but hey-ho. I vaguely remember Banana Splits – again, just the ‘music’ really.

    This new Ming looks appalling. No character. No outrageous moustache!