The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars

While watching a serial, remember, they should always be viewed as a Michael Bay movie: Pure escapism. Plot? Character? forget it. A serial is all about the action. In 20 minute segments they don’t have time to develop character. The heroes are good. The villains are bad. And occasionally a bad guy may see the error of his or her ways and join the heroes to fight the villain. That’s it. The overarching plot has to be simple, very simple, evil villain wants to take over the world, simple. This is an unfortunate necessity. As a serial, anyone could be coming into the story at any time and they have to be able to figure out what is going on right away. “Oh, evil villain rules the world, Buck Rogers is trying to stop him.”

Quick Facts
Released in 1938
Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill
Written by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas
Starring Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers and Charles Middleton

Basic Story Line
Ming the Merciless allies himself with Queen Azura of Mars to attack the Earth. Flash Gordon and company travel to Mars in an attempt to stop the deadly duo.

Although flawed, this sequel to the highly successful Flash Gordon relies less on production values and more on story than its predecessor.

Unlike the first Flash Gordon, this one does not have large, exotic sets, lots of cool electronic gadgets, a dragon, or giant lizards. When Flash Gordon first came out people were so impressed with all the visual tricks because they were new and exciting that the story didn’t matter as much. In 1938, science fiction on film wasn’t as new. This meant audiences expected more but it also meant producers had a better idea of what to do.

Mars may not be as exotic as Mongo but the world feels richer and more developed. You feel it extends beyond what you are shown. More thought was put into the three cultures on Mars. Unlike on Mongo, where the cultures seem rather homogeneous, (The Shark People are just like the Hawk People except that one lives underwater while the other lives in the sky and has wings.) On Mars the people are distinct both visually and behaviourally. Queen Azura’s Martians are very militaristic in the way they dress, behave and even move. The Clay People are slower, more contemplative, and, well, earthy. The Fire People are primitive, superstitious, and brutish.

Characters are more developed. They have motivations and show some depth. Although she spends most of the serial being in jeopardy, Dale becomes proactive here. She insists on going to Mars with the boys. Once there, she steals an enemy ship and drops some bombs, on her own initiative. They introduce the character of Happy. The first few episodes he is nothing more than annoying, however as the serial progresses Happy is the character with the greatest arch. In a 1930s serial any arch, even a small one on a minor comic character, is impressive.

They try to apply some logic and science to their story. They don’t fight with swords in this one because all the guards are equipped with ray guns. True, the science is sketchy and there is no such element as Nitron, but it is still better than Unobtanium. (Well done Mr. Cameron. Why didn’t you just call it Cantgetium?) I give them points for making an effort.

There is also a story with a beginning, middle and end. The script does suffer in the last third. Contradictions start to happen and plot points seem forced. Dale reverts to being the helpless damsel and other characters seem to do things without any explanation. Despite the faults in the writing, though, the story moves forward.

The original Flash Gordon will always surpass its sequel in terms of pure pizzazz. However, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars also deserves some respect.

Things to watch for
-The first time we meet the Clay People, Ford Beebe uses mimes.
-The same vacuum tube car gets used on Saturn in Buck Rogers.

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink. (Note: Flash Saving Azura’s life is not an inconsistency. Flash saying she’s a good queen, after she tried to kill them all multiple times, is.)
Odds of getting sloshed: Medium to High

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