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The Mercury Men and Flash Gordon

on Mon, 09/12/2011 - 00:00

The web series The Mercury Men is an old school sci-fi drama that pays homage to science fiction of the past, from the original Star Wars of 1977 to 1950s films like The Day the Earth Stood Still to even the psychological thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s most notable influence, however, are the Saturday matinee serials of the 1930s and 40s. Taking their cue from pulp magazine serialized fiction, in which new chapters of a long-running narrative appeared in each publication, production studios like Universal, Republic and Columbia created a series of short films that were interconnected by cliffhanging endings and shown in weekly installments at local movie theaters prior to the main feature. The plots were usually centered on pre-existing pop culture characters from both radio and comics, and were an essential part of America’s Saturday afternoon routine.

While the advent of television brought about the end of matinee serials, many later-day filmmakers found inspiration from those “thrilling days of yesteryear” nonetheless. George Lucas is the most famous of those creators, and both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film franchises initially evolved as modern-day updates of the old Saturday serial. Pittsburgh native and web series auteur Christopher Preksta, however, has taken the concept into the Twenty First Century with The Mercury Men. It turns out that the “cliffhanger” narrative device is a perfect companion to the traditionally shorter episodes of the web series medium, and The Mercury Men is finely crafted to emulate this old-school style of storytelling.

Although Captain Marvel, Dick Tracy and the Lone Ranger were amongst the characters that once graced the silver screen during the movie serial heyday, arguably the most popular adaptation was the Alex Raymond comic strip Flash Gordon. A total of three serials were based on the polo-playing, Yale graduate brought to life by actor Buster Crabbe, starting with the original Flash Gordon in 1936, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars in 1938 and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe in 1940. The main antagonist in each of these serials is Ming the Merciless, Emperor of the planet Mongo who is intent on destroying Earth. In the initial comic strip, Ming bombards Earth with a series of meteor attacks and during the 1936 serial, literally hurls Mongo on a collision course to smash the planet into smithereens. In both instances, Flash Gordon and his comrades Dr. Alexis Zarkov and Dale Arden travel by rocket ship to Mongo in order to prevent the destruction of their home world.

In regards to The Mercury Men, it is the first planet from the sun that serves as the chief adversary of the web series. Like Ming the Merciless, these Men from Mercury are equally determined to destroy the Earth via natural disaster. In the 1980 film adaptation Flash Gordon, Ming attempts to send the Moon from its orbit and collide with the planet. The Mercury Men contains a similar plot, with the Mercury Men pulling the Moon towards the Earth using a gravity engine amplified by the frame structure of the real-life Steel Building in downtown Pittsburgh. A form of “gravity engine” was also featured in the first Flash Gordon serial—it was an electromagnetic field that kept the city of the Shark Men firmly secure beneath the ocean on Mongo, while a comparable device was used to position the kingdom of the Hawk Men high above the planet’s surface.

Just as the evil plans of Ming the Merciless were ultimately thwarted by Flash Gordon and Dr. Zarkov, the plan hatched by the Mercury Men is likewise prevented by the characters of Jack Yaeger and Edward Borman. While Borman is an innocent bystander caught in the diabolical plot of the Mercury Men, Yaeger can be considered a direct descendant of Flash Gordon himself. When he first bursts onto the scene to save Borman’s life, for instance, he is dressed in an old-fashioned aviator outfit similar to the apparel worn by Gordon during the initial installments of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. Jack Yaeger is also armed with a futuristic pistol that has both the style and appearance of the weapons brandished by Flash Gordon while on the planet Mongo.

Jack Yaeger may not be a polo-playing, Yale graduate like Flash Gordon, but his background makes him just as much of a formable foe against the Mercury Men determined to destroy Earth. “An engineer—with a gun,” Edward Borman remarks in regards to Yaeger’s stated profession. Although not seen in The Mercury Men, Jack Yaeger also has his own Dale Arden, a love interest for whom he would risk his own life in order to save.

“I assure you, I know how to get you to tell me everything,” a mysterious brain-in-a-jar tells a restrained Yaeger. “By killing that lovely girl of yours. That woman that continually sits in the back of your mind—Jane. We want the location of the beacon and before the Moon falls, I will take her, I will torture her and I will kill her.”

“I know you can read my thoughts,” Jack Yaeger replies. “So know that I’m not lying when I say this—before this night is over, I’m going to crack open that jar and I’m going to crush you in my own hand.”

In Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, the Martian Queen Azura was merely a tool of Ming the Merciless and his quest to destroy Earth. It turns out that the Mercury Men of The Mercury Men are likewise dupes of a deeper plot against mankind that was hatched by an unseen entity known as the Chief Designer. “Dangerous?” Jack Yaeger explains of the nemesis. “He led the Russians into space. Convinced 13 of the world’s best scientists to forever encase their brains for his use. Constructed a full launch complex on an empty world that has never seen a scrap of technology. And in a 12 hour period, he damn near crashed the Moon into the Earth. He’s far more than dangerous.”

The days of Saturday matinee movie serials may be a thing of the past, but the adventurous spirit of Flash Gordon and other 1930s trendsetters lives on with the likes of Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. Following in the footsteps of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, meanwhile, is web series creator Christopher Preksta, whose Mercury Men endeavor is both an entertaining heir and inventive homage to a narrative tradition that spans decades.

Anthony Letizia

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