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Flash Gordon and the 1930s and 40s Science Fiction Serial

I’ve just published an article in the Australian web journal Screening the Past 32, entitled  “Flash Gordon and the 1930s and 40s Science Fiction Serial.” Click here to read the essay.

As I note in the article, “The central characters in serials were more often types, rather than fully fleshed-out characters. In the early silent days, women were the protagonists of many of the action serials, thrown into situations of continual danger until the final reel unspooled. With the advent of women’s voting rights in 1920, the lead character became, more often than not, a heroic male; blindingly handsome, often endowed with above average mental acuity (as an investigator, adventurer, or soldier of fortune). A female companion was then introduced to support the hero’s efforts, with the possible addition of a young boy or girl “sidekick” to encourage adolescent identification with the serial’s characters. The hero was aided by a number of associates, who usually worked as a team to support the lead’s efforts. Lastly, and most importantly (for the leads in serials were usually rather bland), there was the chief villain, often masked, whose identity was not disclosed until the final moments of the last chapter.

Known in the trade as the “brains” heavy, the villain, in turn, would be aided by a variety of henchmen, or “action” heavies, who would unquestionably carry out the orders of their leader in a campaign of mayhem and violence that kept the serial’s narrative in constant motion. Indeed, though the serial format would serve as the template for weekly television series starting in the early 1950s, serials were far more violent than early television fare, noted for their extreme, non-stop action, their propulsive music scores, and seemingly impossible stunt work. And, unlike contemporary television series, which are open-ended – concluding only when audience interest has evaporated – serials were designed as a “closed set,” fifteen episodes and out, shot on breakneck schedules of 30 days or fewer, for completed films that could run as long as four hours in their final, chapter-by-chapter format.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or

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