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The most influential sci-fi series ever is streaming free now

Not every sci-fi franchise gets a Queen song.

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Like any genre, sci-fi is built on tropes — recurring themes or images that audiences recognize instinctually and take for granted.

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The origins of most tropes can’t be pinned down to a specific place, but sometimes, a work is so popular it becomes a reference point for everything after it. That’s the case with Flash Gordon.

Maybe you know Flash Gordon as the phantasmagorical high-camp 1980 film, or as “that thing George Lucas won’t stop talking about.”

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Those are both true, but Flash Gordon actually started much earlier, as a 1936 movie serial, which played in “episodes” in movie theaters.

Since viewers weren’t assumed to have seen previous installments, Flash Gordon serials opened with text crawls to catch them up on what happened before.

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Star Wars turned the opening crawl into one of its most iconic elements, and also took lessons from Flash Gordon’s bombastic episode titles (“Captured by Shark Men,” “The Unseen Peril”).

Star Wars isn’t the only series Flash Gordon inspired — Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek’s Uhura) once referred to the series as Trek’s “grandpa” in Starlog magazine.

Star Trek’s penchant for old-timey costumes, rubber monsters, and dirt-cheap sets clearly have roots in Flash Gordon.

Then there’s Flash Gordon’s star, Buster Crabbe, who’s clearly reflected in Kirk’s flinty stare and “man’s man” persona. Crabbe’s echoes can be seen everywhere in sci-fi, down to Futurama’s clueless Captain Zapp Brannigan.

If you don’t think a serial from the ‘30s would really hold up today — you’d be right. Everything from its hammy acting to barebones special effects falls firmly in “charmingly cheesy” territory.

It’s not all the fun kind of outdated, either. Flash Gordon’s reliance on unchecked machismo, damsels in distress, and overtly racially coded villains run the gamut from regrettable to outright offensive.

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The distasteful aspects of Flash Gordon are exemplified best in antagonist Ming the Merciless, who embodies the all too common racist Asian stereotypes prevalent in media at the time.

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But even its most retrograde aspects make Flash Gordon worthy of study, if not admiration, as a blueprint for the racism and sexism that continue to haunt sci-fi.

To see how far sci-fi has come and how a nearly century-old work still influences the genre, you can watch the full 1936 Flash Gordon series free on Tubi or YouTube.

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