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Remembering SYFY’s Short-Lived 2007 Flash Gordon Series
Ming might be missing his trademark twirly mustache… but at least Flash is still sorta awesome.
From The Ark to Channel Zero, there’ve been a lot of killer original-IP series to land at SYFY (and its similarly-named predecessor the Sci-Fi Channel) over the years. On occasion, there’s even been an out-of-the-park home run take on already-established existing franchises — like the ongoing horror hit Chucky (stream the current third season on Peacock here.)
But it takes a deep appreciation for fresh franchise takes to really wrap your head around our favorite TV network’s Flash Gordon series, a strange, short-lived early-2000s revival of the iconic comic-book and film brand that arrived and quickly vanished after a single season that debuted all the way back in 2007.
Wait… Flash Gordon was actually on TV?
Developed by Peter Hume (known for writing episodes of the original Charmed series as well as producing the more recent SYFY series Spides), Flash Gordon: A Modern Space Opera, as its name suggests, didn’t shy away from embracing the grandiose sci-fi concept of the old-school, 1930s-vintage King Features comic strip. In the years since the show’s cancellation, it’s even picked up a small and affectionate fan following — thanks at least in part to finding a worthy leading actor to play Flash (Eric Johnson of Fifty Shades and Pretty Little Liars franchise fame), as well as a slow but steady uptick in quality over the course of the series’ 21 episodes that hinted better things might’ve been in the offing… if, that is, the show had ever lifted off for a second season.
Thankfully, we can at least dive back into the series' solitary first season thanks to its recent arrival on Peacock (stream it here!) — and the trick, if you’re going in cold, is to know where the high points are while keeping a tongue-in-cheek sensibility handy to appreciate Flash Gordon: A Modern Space Opera as a product of its pre-streaming TV times. Though it plays fast and loose with some of its comic book source material and does reimagine much of the basic lore (taking far greater liberties, say, than the iconic 1980 movie from director Mike Hodges), the essentials are tweaked slightly — but they’re definitely still there.
Classic Flash Gordon baddie Ming the Merciless is a great example of what we’re getting at. Played by John Ralston (Ready or Not, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles), he’s still an evil, resource-hoarding dictator on the other-dimensional exotic planet of Mongo. But he’s also kind of a modern-day bad guy; rather than twirl his skinny mustache with the sort of loathsome cosmic cupidity fans are familiar with from the comics (and the movie, thanks to Max von Sydow), Ming’s actually sorta easy to accept as a megalomaniac at first glance. Clean-shaven and suave instead of sadistic, he projects a made-for-TV image of authority that’s supposed to fool the planet’s populace. Heck, he’s not even known as “Ming the Merciless” except in close company; to his millions of minions on Mongo, he’s simply known as “Ming the Benevolent Father.”
How do you deal with a kinder, gentler space lord who, when push comes to shove, is still every bit as sneaky as his comic-book counterparts? Well, it took Flash Gordon more than a handful of episodes to find its story stride — and by the time it did, the critics had already rendered some pretty unfavorable verdicts about where the series was headed.
That’s a shame, really, because despite its small-ish budget and easy-to-spot special effects, the back half of Flash Gordon: A Modern Space Opera does begin to find some fun ways to live up to its ambitiously space-saga title. Gina Holden (familiar these days for her leading roles in a string of Lifetime and Hallmark made-for TV movies) embodied love interest Dale Arden with fresh eyes, while Anna Van Hooft (Riverdale, Altered Carbon) plays Ming’s estranged daughter Princess Aura with a must-watch nuance that makes her character far less one-dimensional than any version of Aura — dare we say it?! — that’s ever been portrayed onscreen.
We admit: It takes a little patience to get to a point in the series’ episode count where the whole modern-opera idea really starts to come into its own. In a break from previous screen treatments, there’s a lot of early character exposition that feels more busy and bureaucratic down here on Earth (and in Flash’s local home base of Maryland, no less!) than your typically epic and swashbuckling Flash Gordon fare. But the show does eventually let Johnson look like a bona fide space hero in actual outer space, even leaving off on a tantalizing two-part cliffhanger that reunites Flash’s separated family while stranding a ton of characters we’re rooting for firmly in Ming’s clutches back on Mongo.
What might’ve happened if we’d been treated to a second season that gave the show’s slowly-coalescing cast and themes a chance to shine? Flash fans, sadly, will never get to find out. But for a truly deep cut to round out your Flash Gordon lore (along with a handful of anachronistic laughs and even some genuine space-saga vibes along the way), Flash Gordon: A Modern Space Opera does make for a fun weekend binge… so long, that is, as you don’t mind walking away from a cliffhanger that’s smack in mid-stride.
Stream Flash Gordon: A Modern Space Opera on Peacock here.