It just so happens that I have recently seen both a 70's serial of Doctor Who (The Three Doctors, 1972-73) and a Flash Gordon serial from the 50's (The Planet of Death, 1954). I watch classic Who every once in a while, because I enjoy it. The Flash Gordon thing happened by chance in a circle of friends. There are some striking resemblances between the two shows, despite the 20 year gap(1).
First off, there's the cheap effects, shoddy sets, outrageous costumes, the wooden acting from most of the cast. Now, I'm saying to myself, how is it possible that a show (mostly thinking of Doctor Who here) could be so popular, despite being so obviously bad. Same goes for early Star Trek (we probably all know the infamous fight scene). My reasoning is this: when watching shows like these, you shouldn't follow the action on the screen literally, that is, it shouldn't be taken at face value. When you're reading a comic book, your brain has to fill out the spaces between the panels, you have to imagine the action. Now, take theatre for example. You are completely aware that you're watching people performing on a stage, in a black box. You know the castle walls in the back are cardboard, that the poison in the king's cup isn't really poison. Yet you let yourself be captured by the moment, drawn into the story. You believe it.
Take old computer games (like Zork, or Ultima). One has no graphics, only a text description. The other has graphics, but you know, look at the picture...what the hell is going on there. We see a dude and...green circles? Are those trees? I guess there's a castle and some mountains? No flashy 3D, super "photorealistic" (fuck you James Cameron, fuck you) graphics. Yet people played that. A lot. And enjoyed it. Even better, let's look at a more recent game, Dwarf Fortress . I look at a screenshot and I'm like...what the fuck is going on here?
Bottom line? Those little symbols on the Dwarf Fortress screen? They represent something. They don't actually look like like dwarves and mine shafts (well, maybe vaguely) they're symbols, they refer to something, and your brain has to fill out the blanks. Words don't look like anything yet make us see things. Like the comic book panel only has a frame of a dude punching another dude. It's a reference to a fight. When Flash throws an obviously fake punch, you're not supposed to take it at face value. It's a symbol for a punch. Like the cardboard castle walls or the little coloured pixels moving on a screen. The tempest in The Tempest is not a real storm, Laertes doesn't put real poison in the cup. Right?
When the GM says "You enter a dark room." or "She slashes at you with her sword." your mind fills in the blanks. The GM is just making pixels move. Flash is swinging through the air, he's not actually hitting the dude. It's an act. It's fake. It's make-believe.
Now, frankly, there's a certain enjoyment in the fakeness, too. I can enjoy the moments when the solid prison walls shake in Doctor Who when someone bumps into them. I can enjoy the moments when they forget to close the TARDIS doors and you can obviously see it's not bigger on the inside(2). It's funny, it makes you laugh. But I don't think that was the appeal back then. Not really. Especially for the kids. The kids weren't laughing at the fact that villains were made out of tin foil or that Daleks had toilet plungers for "hand" (?) stalks. The kids were terrified. They were hiding behind sofas. Just like they can be terrified of an evil witch puppet in a puppet show. They're not scared of the puppet, but what it represents.
II. Behind the image
Once you get beyond the awkward action, the shitty acting, the cheap sets, what remains? It's like reading a story, except you've got some visuals to go along with it. In Dwarf Fortress, when that one ASCII symbol moves towards another ASCII symbol, you've got a Dwarf fighting an Elf. It's a story. The fidelity of the representation doesn't really matter. You don't need perfect mimesis. What matters is "what's going on", not what is actually seen. What you see on stage is a dude covered with a sheet. What's really going on is the ghost of his dead father appearing to Hamlet.
What I see on the screen is Flash pushing some stupid-looking buttons on a stupid-looking set. What's going on is he's flying the spaceship. What I see on screen is people running around a tiny cardboard courtyard like retards, being chased by a flashlight. What's going on is they're escaping the DEADLY CURSE BEING CAST BY THE IDOL OF THE GOD BELPHEGOR, CARVED AS FROM A BLOCK OF PURE EVIL. Holy shit is that badass or what?!
So, these shows stand or fall not on what is shown on the screen, but the idea behind it. It doesn't matter if the acting is bad or that the super-science device is just a box with a few lightbulbs. (Recall, if you will, the archetypal "science laboratory". It doesn't matter if it's actually science, it's important what it represents.) When the GM at the table hands you out a print, it's just a print, but the idea is that it's an eldritch scroll. When the Doctor gives Omega a shoebox wrapped in tin foil with some wires hanging out of it, it's just a shitty prop. But the idea is that it's a forcefield containing matter in Omega's anti-matter universe (which destroys that universe once knocked to the ground). It's clever, and that's what counts.
III. The stories being told
Besides old pulp serials, you know where else a shoebox can represent an awesome device? In a child's play-pretend world. Where a cardboard box can be a ship, a house, a car. It's imagination gone wild, there are no boundaries. When a roll of tinfoil can represent some fearsome future artefact, really, what's the limit to what you can use it for? (Or even better, if you need only words and dice?)
If I may be so bold, I'd say that was (and is) the drive behind weird fiction, before it became trapped in genre conventions of fantasy and sci-fi. The pulp imperative, the blood of the old-school. Ancient civilisations, spaceships, demons, magic, monsters. Ape-men, princesses, castles, dungeons, outer space. Lovecraft, Howard, Burroughs, Dunsany, Smith.
In the Flash Gordon story we watched, the team (Flash-fighter, Dr. Zarkov-magic-user and Dale Arden-cleric...if we stretch our imagination a little) flies their rocket to The Planet of the Dead, where they explore the ruins of an ancient civilisation, investigating rumours of an evil demon-god idol cursing anyone who comes there. Are you going to deny that's some cool shit?
I'm not going to recount the Doctor Who story which is somewhat more complicated, but it's basically a story about a space lich who wants to be a god. In another one, Tomb of the Cybermen, an archeological expedition digs up and explores a veritable dungeon/catacombs of a robot race, which is actually a trap, devised to aid the resurrection of the builders. In another, The Doctor fights ancient vampires. In another he is said to be Merlin.
Gods, demons, devils, even dragons and spaceships, stars and singularities. Magic and science. Ancient ruined civilisations and future-tech. Everything coexists here.
Jeff Rients summarized D&D as "I play Conan, you play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula."
(I might talk about racism and sexism in Flash Gordon another time.)
(1)As a side note, Doctor Who started in 1963, eight years after Flash Gordon ended. There had been Flash Gordon film serials before that, as early as '36.
(2) I think the representation moment also explains why TARDIS is such a strong and lasting image. There were still some Police Boxes arround in the 60's, so that was the charm for the kids back then. You could see a Police Box in the street and pretend it was actually a time machine. But today, they're an artefact that's culturally recognisable, yet it refers to nothing. To us, a Police Box doesn't mean anything. It's a blank, a question mark (much as the Doctor). It is a symbol, it refers to something else, something more, it is indeed bigger on the inside. The Police Box is a symbol for a time machine, for a space ship, for adventure, for infinity. Imagination itself resides in that box.