Flash Gordon and the Boring Lockean Stereotype

Late to the party again, but...passed up on my usual Monday routine last week, and instead spent the evening lounging on the couch, eating leftover pizza and watching the premier of Sci Fi’s new version of Flash Gordon with dissident1L. My initial reaction was to be a tad disappointed. I wasn’t sure going in whether I was mostly hoping for the bold re-imagining Sci Fi did for BSG or whether I wanted to see more of the camp that has me all atwitter at the DVD release of the 1980 film version (sing it with me now – Flash! aah-AHHH!). The answer, at least after the premier, is that it’s neither BSG nor Sam Raimi.

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s certainly some re-imagining. Flash gets a backstory. Zarkov is more bumbling nutty professor than brilliant half-mad kidnapper. Ming is no longer the evil oriental stereotype of the 1930s. (Now he’s an evil monopolist. Progress!) There’s also a bit of camp (“If she’s an Abbot, I'm Costello”? Really?). Plus it has some fairly cool effects, particularly for a cable TV series.

Traditionally, of course, Flash Gordon has more-or-less epitomized science fantasy-style space opera. The All-American Hero, his Beautiful and Smart-But-Not-Intimidatingly-Smart Girlfriend, his Brainy But Hugely Naïve and Unworldly Sidekick, and a Handful of Colorful Humanoids battle it out against the Supremely Evil One, his Slightly Less Evil Protégée, and a Horde of Nameless and Faceless Henchmen for nothing less important than The Fate of All Mankind! Along the way are gigantic battles fought with ray guns, FTL spacecraft, and thirty-seven thousand violations of the laws of physics. It’s all great fun, and done well, it can rise out of the genre fiction ghetto to become a cultural touchstone (see George Lucas pre-Star Wars VI: The Muppets Save the Rebellion).

Even more interesting, of course, is when science fantasy / space opera slips off the standard good v. evil meme in favor of something more complicated. And there is at least some potential in that regard. Mongo has (again traditionally) offered a number of different types of society. I, for one, am interested to see how they all play out. Thus far, we’ve had but a glimpse of Mingo City which Ming (natch!) describes as the only safe place on the planet. As I see it, the show can go one of three directions.

A. Hobbes

Ming is right about Mongo. It really is full of savage egoists who will as soon slit your throat as look at you. Ming may be a bloody tyrant, but, when the alternative is a Hobbesian war of all against all, the bloody tyrant starts to look like a decided improvement. At the very least, it’s better to have just one person who can kill you arbitrarily than it is to have a whole planet full of people who can do so. Plus, at least in the pilot, Ming isn’t killing arbitrarily. He rapes women, orders Flash tortured, and demands that missionaries pay full market value for water (even when that water is going to saving children from disease). That may be evil (the first two certainly are), but it’s not an arbitrary evil. Flash reluctantly teams with Ming to civilize the savages.

B. Locke

Ming is completely wrong about Mongo. It is in fact a pluralist planet with a number of different perfectly functional societies, most of which are generally free and happy. Communities come together to combat scarcity and to provide mutual support and protection against threats to life, liberty and property. These happy, free societies are mainly threatened by Ming, whose brutal police state constitutes the greatest real threat to Mongo. Flash provides the heroic leader necessary to unite the various societies in a civil war to overthrow the evil tyrant Ming.

C. The Mixed Bag

Mongo is neither a Hobbesian nightmare nor a Lockean Eden, but rather something in between. There are a number of different societies on Mongo, some better than Mingo City and some much, much worse. Flash finds himself sometimes allied with a particular society against Ming’s tyranny and sometimes allied with Ming against a far worse threat.

My sneaking suspicion is that what we’ll get is something similar to B – which, of course, is also a pretty standard space opera theme. Personally, I would find A to be fairly entertaining, though to be perfectly honest, I think that outcome better suited to a movie or mini-series with a definite closing point. The interesting part would be watching Flash realize that siding with Ming really was the best option. Actually watching the “civilizing of the savages” – perhaps less fun. Unless FG is taken over by the editors at Baen Books, I don’t much look for A to happen.

So I’m holding out for C. There’s a perfect opportunity to explore different types of social structures; indeed, that’s what SF and fantasy really do best. What I fear, though, is a fairly boring B with cool effects and occasional campy dialogue. Which I’d probably still watch (because there’s a part of me that hasn’t progressed all that much beyond age 12). But the part of me that’s an actual adult (small though it may be) would be a bit saddened by that outcome.

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