Gina Holden and Eric Johnson, <EM>Flash Gordon</EM> Gina Holden and Eric Johnson, Flash Gordon

Space aliens have invaded Maryland. Innocent citizens are being liquefied into goo. Space-time rifts are opening up everywhere and could trigger the destruction of the universe. Yes, a whole lotta hell breaks loose on the new Sci Fi Channel series Flash Gordon (premiering this Friday, Aug. 10, at 8 pm/ET), but the titular hero — played by Smallville vet Eric Johnson — is fiercely determined to save mankind from doom. Just not right now.

On the show's Vancouver set, Flash, who is wearing a dog collar, is friskily engaged in a boudoir wrestle with Princess Aura (Anna Van Hooft). She's the spoiled-brat daughter of Ming (John Ralston), evil ruler of the planet Mongo, and she only has eyes for Flash. But Flash only has eyes for the ion gun Aura is packing. After some suggestive who's-on-top maneuvers, Flash grabs the weapon and fires it into a pillow. Feathers fly, and so do the double entendres. Aura orders Flash to strip. The director calls lunch.

"They keep finding ways to get me out of my clothes," Johnson says with a laugh. He also has a bare-chested torture scene in the show's premiere, but the actor claims he doesn't mind being treated like intergalactic man-meat because "my character is about so much more than that." Unlike the brawny, uncomplicated comic-strip and movie-serial hero of the 1930s, this is a Flash for the new millennium, a sleek and snarky yet deeply sensitive man-boy who still lives with his mom and is haunted by the loss of his dad.

It is revealed in the first episode that (Spoiler alert) Flash's father — a genius physicist who discovered a transdimensional rift that allows instantaneous space travel — didn't die in a fire as everyone believed. He was sucked through the rift and has spent the last 13 years in captivity on Mongo. "It's the emotional gas pedal for the series," says Johnson, noting that "this sense of loss and a robbed childhood is a key factor in some of the greatest superhero legends. Superman loses his father. Spider-Man loses his father figure." But, unlike them, Flash has no superpowers to help him save his dad and battle the dark forces. Says Johnson, "Our show is not about a hero, it's about the making of a hero."

And that requires a serious villain. In most previous incarnations of Flash, including the high-camp 1980 film starring Sam J. Jones, the merciless Ming was old, creepy and Asian. Not so in these PC times. Here he's suave, studly, Caucasian and very Saddam Hussein — a dictator prone to secret genocide and horrific corruption.

"This is not a cartoon bad guy," Ralston says. "Mongo is a desolate, toxic world of warring tribes, with Ming ruling from an opulent Dubai-like city. He controls the planet by controlling its only source of clean water." Ming hopes to save Mongo by using Dr. Gordon's rift technology and robbing Earth of its resources.

"There's sly commentary on politics and global warming, but we're not making An Inconvenient Truth here," insists executive producer Tom Rowe. "Mostly, we're having light, goofy fun."

This crazy combo-platter show also riffs on low-budget 1950s UFO flicks, though sometimes not intentionally: The scene when a clunky spaceman attacks the Gordon house looks like it was directed by Ed Wood. And there's even a touch of Moonlighting. In the past, Flash was joined on his adventures by his damsel-in-distress sweetheart Dale Arden. Now played by Gina Holden (Final Destination 3), she's still by his side, only this time she's his ex-girlfriend and engaged to the town detective.

"It creates a lot of steam heat between Flash and Dale," says Holden. "Whenever he's around, Dale's heart skips a beat. But she's no longer the victim — she's a hotshot TV reporter who fights right along with Flash. In fact, she's always saving his butt."

Johnson's ego can handle it. "I like that Flash needs to be rescued sometimes," he says. "He's allowed to fall on his face or get caught with a punch. He's a little too cocky and confident for his own good, but that only makes him more human."

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