The history of live-action superhero adaptations has been largely dominated by movies – and small wonder; the accurate portrayal of such spectacular adventures can prove expensive stuff. Ever since George Reeves first made his appearance as Superman, however, it’s been a rare period when some such super-show isn’t knocking around the small screen. From recognized classics like Batman and Wonder Woman to farcical flops like Captain Nice, the genre has a long and varied history, and has been showing new life lately with shows like Smallville and the currently-running Arrow.
Inevitably though, some such shows do fall through the cracks, and that is where we come in, boys and girls. The spectrum ranges from duds with few defenders to genuine lost gems, ones that probably should be better known, but somehow aren’t. Ah, the sweet, sweet smell of cult.
One such show was The Flash, a victim of shuffling time-slots that lasted a single season, from 1990 to 1991. It’s since become one of those shows where either you’ve heard of it or you haven’t – and if you haven’t, you really haven’t. It’s pretty well-regarded amongst the former, though, and obscurity, my friends, is our bread and butter. And since there’s another Flash show that debuted not too long ago – well, what better reason to check out this older version first?
The protagonist of The Flash is one Barry Allen (John Wesley Shipp), a forensic scientist in Central City, a fictional Midwestern metropolis. Though he’s good at his job, he comes from a family of more traditional policemen, and inevitably winds up being compared to his ‘hero cop’ older brother, Jay (Tim Thomerson), which has made him a bit insecure about his lot in life. In his idle moments he wishes he had a more direct way to make a difference, instead of just slaving away behind the scenes.
Fate abruptly grants him his wish when he becomes the victim of a truly unforeseeable lab accident – during a thunderstorm, a lightning bolt hurtles through an open window and strikes a metal rack, tipping it over and dousing him in random electrified chemicals. This somehow imbues him with incredible powers – he is now able to move at incredible speeds, running faster than the fastest car and with a reaction time that lets him pluck bullets out of the air before they hit. At first wishing only to rid himself of these frightening new abilities, he changes his mind when his brother is cut down in the line of duty. Choosing to use them for vengeance – and, ultimately, for justice – he dons the masked identity of the Flash!
OK, it being an established and more or less effective technique by now, let’s get the bad/not so good stuff out of the way first. The Flash having come out in the early ‘90’s, it is very much of the early ‘90’s – in other words, it dips into some of the standard clichés of the TV writer that showed up on just about every show of a certain type back then – and are still pretty familiar today.
This means that there are several episodes which anyone with a certain amount of experience can practically recite beat for beat. You’ve got the don’t-do-drugs episode, the evil twin episode, the episode where the hero has to take care of a baby and wacky baby shenanigans ensue, etc, etc. Equally predictable are the eye-rolling bad comic relief moments where otherwise dignified characters have to humiliate themselves because plot.
We’ve all seen these. Shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles thrived on them, and given that The Flash is only a single season long, there’s inevitably a fair portion of the episodes that contain some or all of these aspects. To the show’s credit, it’s far from a huge portion, and even when it’s absolutely wallowing in clichés, they’re at least well executed. Still, if you loathe such things with a passion, be warned – you will find yourself with a ‘me no likee’ scowl on your face at least once.
Having been so warned, however, if you do decide to go gallivanting forward along the Flash-watching path, I doubt you will regret it. Because personally, I think this show is quite a lot of fun.
To start with, it looks cool. It’s pretty obvious that the Tim Burton Batman was a major influence, at least to start – there are plenty of night scenes, plumes of steam wafting ominously from street grates, etc. Also, while the show is for the most part set in the year of its creation, it further borrows from Burton’s playbook in that it’s not afraid to mix-and-match eras for visual effect – there’s a fair amount of people wearing fedoras, driving old cars, etc. (One thing that is unique about The Flash’s look is its odd penchant for murals. There are murals everywhere in Central City, and not just the places you’d expect them, either. There are murals on random city walls, there are murals in the bad guys’ hideouts, there are murals in people’s apartments – every place you look, there’s a freakin’ mural. The overall effect is… somewhat busy, but at least it’s colorful, and does add a certain visual flair to scenes that might otherwise be dull.)
That’s the environment in which the Flash operates, though – how does the Flash himself look? I am happy to report that he looks fine. The show had a hefty budget of over a million dollars per episode, and apparently a fair amount of that was sunk into making the main character look and act believable as a super-speedster. The costume may come off as just a touch bulky at first, but it’s well-designed, and has an advantage over the then-current Bat-suit it was clearly inspired by in that the actor can move in it without looking like every motion should be accompanied by the agonized squawk of too-tight rubber. As for the special effects, they’re excellent – just standard sped-up camera work with a few extras thrown in, but they work very well, and fulfill the basic function of making you believe that yes, this guy is indeed moving at unbelievable speeds. Sure, there are a few visual shortcomings here and there, but I totally bought that this was indeed the Flash, doin’ what the Flash does.
Not only does it look good, it sounds good, too. The show’s main theme was written by Danny Elfman – yes, that Danny Elfman – and the orchestration was done by the late, great Shirley Walker, best known for scoring B:tAS and most of the other significant DCAU shows. Some have accused the show of sounding too much like the Batman movies, but, well, there’s a reason for that – they owe a lot to the Caped Crusader. (Anyway, the Batman score is awesome, so what are they complaining about?)
So now that I’ve talked about how the Flash looks, and what music plays when he zips into action – how is he?
He’s not half bad. John Wesley Shipp is not the next Olivier or anything, but he does manage to make Barry Allen a genuinely likable guy. Some fans have given the show flack for being about the Allen Flash when the then-current comics version was his ex-sidekick, Wally West (and for the record, I’m not exactly wild about the fact that he’s ‘the then-current’ and not ‘the current’ – freakin’ DC Comics reversing every good decision they ever made; I swear…), but it’s more semantics than anything else, since this Barry is functionally a merger of the two. From the original (or, I should say, the Silver Age original), we get his job as a police scientist and his straight-laced, slightly dorky personality; from Wally, we get an impatient, wisecracking side that comes out every now and again, and his status as a freewheeling bachelor. (He has a fiancée in the pilot, but she quickly gets written out.)
Really, the show is to be commended for how well it deals with the concept of the Flash. While he himself always remains sympathetic and likable, what we’re really here for is the super-speed, so when episodes don’t focus on Barry’s own issues, they often delve into his new abilities and what sort of impact they have on his life.
To start with, they’re not the cakewalk they’re presented as in the comics. Yes, he can zip around like lightning and do amazing things, but all this comes with a cost – the human body is not designed to accommodate such velocity, and inevitably the strain shows.
For one thing, it leaves him constantly ravenous as he burns through calories at an incredible rate – a running gag throughout the series is the sheer amount of food this man ploughs through, to the point where it’s kind of amazing that no one else has noticed. (I’m pretty sure this aspect of things has also been featured in other incarnations of the character, but I’m not sure to what extent.) For another, while he can indeed run miles in seconds and the like, he’s still just run miles, and that means he’s just a leetle bit tired, if not completely wiped out. He gets blackouts, he has trouble sleeping – basically, his speed may be a blessing, but it’s also a curse, and one he has to adjust to every day.
Not, mind you, that this is a dry medical procedural or anything, oh goodness no. He is, after all, a crimefighter, so naturally we get plenty of him fighting crime – and here’s where things get interesting, because it’s where the show’s Batman connection really starts to become blatant.
Now, you may think that sounds like a whole heap of no-goodness. The Flash – friendly, cherry-colored nice guy that he is – played up like the Dark Knight? Suuuuuuuure.
Here’s the thing, though – it works. Yes, the Flash is still, well, himself, but just think about this for a minute. Let’s say you’re a crook, out being crooked. Suddenly, this… thing, this red blur shows up out of nowhere and cracks you across the jaw, and next thing you know, you’re waking up in police custody. How’d you get here? Who – or what – was that blur?
You’d be a little freaked out, right? So would your pals. And this, at least to start with, is the angle the series takes. The Flash is a kind of urban legend – a bit more palpable than Batman, but not much. Most people only experience him as a strong gust of wind and, if you’ve got sharp eyes, a brief smear of color. ‘The Flash’ becomes his official name pretty quickly, but prior to that, his nickname amongst the criminal element is ‘the Red Ghost’. ‘Cause he’s spooky.
There’s a reason I said ‘at least to start with’, of course – his depiction does mellow out, until by the end he’s pretty much treated as usual. But still, he never quite loses that edge, and to my mind the character is all the better for it.
Speaking of characters, let’s move on to the supporting cast. Chief among these would be Dr. Tina McGee (Amanda Pays), a scientist who Barry contacts for a professional opinion after his accident. She works at STAR Labs (a nice little nod to the comics), and acts as our hero’s gadgeteer, whipping up whatever technological gizmo he may need for this week’s episode.
Tina is more than just a plot convenience, though – she quickly becomes Barry’s closest friend and ally, and one of only a (very) few he’s entrusted with his secret identity. She often acts as his anchor to the real world, pointing out when he’s putting himself in unnecessary danger or the like. She essentially plays Alfred to his Batman, and like Alfred she clearly wishes he would just give up all this crimefighting business and stay home; however, also like him, she realizes that it’s something he needs to do, and helps him along as best she can, being as charmingly British as possible in the process. Really, the parallels are quite striking – Alfie was never as comely as Amanda Pays, though.
To the show’s credit, although a romantic spark between the two is teased at a few times, it never actually materializes; they remain just close platonic friends, which is refreshing (although who knows what might have happened had there been a second season).
The rest of the supporting roles are mainly filled with his fellow members of the CCPD. To start with, there’s Julio Mendez (Alex Desert), Barry’s lab partner, a fun-loving fellow who is constantly trying to set him up on a series of blind dates, most of which, it seems, end disastrously. He flirts with being annoying at times, but the writers do eventually find his rhythm, as it were, and there are a few episodes where Desert gets to spread his wings a little. A bit higher on the irritation scale are Officers Bellows and Murphy (Vito D’Ambrosio and Biff Manard), a couple of cops who are typically involved in an argument involving the Flash (for most of the season, Murphy stubbornly refuses to believe that he exists). They’re not great characters, but they typically don’t have big roles in any given episode, so I’ll give ‘em a pass for now.
Slightly more significant is Lt. Warren Garfield (Mike Genovese), Barry’s superior officer, usually to be found bellowing at him to get back to work. While at first glance he would seem to be the typical hard-ass ‘hand in your badges’ type found in dozens of cop shows/movies, Garfield is actually a pretty good character – for all his gruffness, he’s a good boss who will stick up for his men when the chips are down, and on the rare occasion when the focus is squarely on him he proves to be a hard-working, principled man who has clearly been fighting the good fight for quite some time. Next on the list would be one Megan Lockhart (Joyce Hyser) a private detective and love interest of Barry’s who… ah, but that would be telling. Suffice it to say that, though she only shows up in a few episodes, she makes a pretty big impact on his life.
Speaking of ‘only in a few episodes’, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Nightshade (Jason Bernard). He is – or was – a ‘mystery man’ type who fought crime in Central City back in the ‘50’s. When events lead to him coming out of retirement, he inevitably winds up encountering our hero in the red suit, and the two team up on a couple of cases.
The Nightshade does not make a huge impact on the series as a whole, but I’d say he’s one of its better original characters. He and the Flash have great chemistry together – Barry looks up to him as someone who knows what it’s like to fight the good fight, while Nightshade is able to give his younger colleague some sage advice with the perspective of greater experience. Plus, while he may be a bit past his prime at this point, it’s evident that he used to kick ass with the best of them, and still can when pressed to do so.
It’s not terribly surprising that the Nightshade hasn’t made it into the comics – among other things, DC’s already got a hero by that name – but it’d be nice if they’d do something else with him, because I genuinely do think he’s pretty awesome. I just wish there’d been more of him in the series; I would have loved a few more flashbacks to his glory days.
Which brings us to the end of the heroes. So naturally, it must be time for the villains.
To start with, the Flash’s antagonists were basically just your stock crooks – mostly nothing you wouldn’t come across on a standard cop drama. Due to the show’s scientific theme, the standouts tended to have something to do with technology – for instance, there was Trachmann (Charlie Hayward), a creepily sadistic mad scientist who had the power of mind control via his cybernetic implants (and apparent love of Nintendo accessories), and the Ghost (Anthony Starke), a megalomaniacal ex-Nightshade villain who was obsessed with cyberspace. (Also, I do have a bit of a soft spot for the ridiculous drug dealer guy who is defeated through the power of ROCK! I’m not kidding; he really is).
Other than that, the season’s first half was more based around Barry himself than his opponents. It’s during the second that things started to get interesting, as the writers decided to introduce some of the classic Flash Rogues from the comics. To start with, there was the Mirror Master (David Cassidy), a slimy gent who used holograms to fool his enemies, and Captain Cold (Michael Champion), a fearsome hitman whose M.O involved a formidable freezing weapon. Neither of these were exactly accurate to the source material, but that was fine – they were still good characters, and Cold wound up being particularly intimidating, as Champion gives an intense performance as someone who’s a little… too into his job, shall we say. (There’s also a fun reference to – although not an actual appearance by – Professor Zoom.)
The two most memorable villains, though – and the ones that could both make a good case for being Barry’s arch-nemesis – are the two recurring ones, the only baddies who appear in more than one episode. These would be Nicholas Pike and the Trickster.
Let’s start with Pike (Michael Nader). Pike is the man who arguably contributed most to Barry’s becoming the Flash, as he’s the one who murdered his brother in the first episode. When he first shows up, he’s the leader of the Dark Riders, a biker gang who’s been causing chaos in Central City; in his second appearance, he’s… well, I’ll let you find out for yourself.
Pike is, essentially, a cult leader – he has an intense personal magnetism, and everyone who works for him seems devoted to his service. Whether or not he’s actually insane is debatable, but he’s clearly teetering right on the edge. His cause, essentially, is vengeance – he believes in repaying slights with intense violence and terror and blowing things up. You mess with him, things go boom and people die – unless, of course, you’re the Flash, which does give you that little bit of an edge.
It could be argued that Nader’s performance is a bit too one-note – he delivers most of his lines in a sort of raspy whisper that, while effective, could perhaps use a little more variation – and when you get right down to it, he’s basically just a psycho biker guy. Still, he does have that certain something, and if nothing else, his sheer intensity ensures that you won’t be forgetting him any time soon.
That being said, the villain – and, for that matter, the character – that most people remember from this series, if they remember it at all, is Mark Hamill’s Trickster.
Now, if I’ve heard it said once, I’ve heard it said a million times that Hamill’s performance here was essentially a dry run for his legendarily magnificent B:tAS Joker, and that the two characters are for all intents and purposes one and the same. I’m here to tell you that that is not, in fact, the case – at least, not thoroughly.
The ‘dry run’ part I can buy, because The Flash ended just before B:tAS started, and given the timing of things, I’d be very surprised if Hamill didn’t have at least a little of his earlier performance still in mind. But that being said, the Trickster and the Joker are not the same.
Oh sure, there are definite similarities – they’re both colorfully crazed scenery-chewers with a penchant for gags and pranks (that’s an in-joke, folks) – but for one thing, the Trickster is even crazier than the Joker. He is thoroughly, gleefully insane; he creates multiple personalities at the drop of a hat to the point where he has difficulty concentrating on just one – the only thing that really keeps him focused is his ongoing battle with the Flash. He might not be any more realistic a depiction of the mentally ill than Joker is, but while the Clown Prince has his lucid moments, the Trickster is a babbling maniac 100% of the time.
For another, Hamill’s performance here is just different from the Joker. His Trickster is not only a ham the size of Godzilla, he’s markedly… well, goofier. He’s essentially a spoof version of an old-school cartoon supervillain, but the guy invests so much energy in his role that he makes it work. He capers around in outfits so incredibly loud they ought to come with earplugs; he cackles and chortles and does random impressions and is generally having such an incredible amount of fun being bug-#@!$ insane that you almost wish he’d win. Whereas the Joker always has a sneering, mocking quality to him, the Trickster is absolutely sincere – yes, he’s a criminal nutcase getting his jollies through chaos and destruction, but if you were one, too, he’d happily invite you to join in the merriment. (Of course, he’d also bump you off without a qualm if you started getting in his way – but then, he is a villain.)
Whether or not you agree with me, though, there’s no denying that the Trickster is a hoot to watch, and his episodes are undoubtedly two of the best of the series. View him as Joker Mark One if you wish, but don’t sell him short – he’s awesome.
So, all that being said, do I recommend The Flash? If you like superheroes, then yes, I do. Sure it’s a little bit cheesy in spots, sure it’s spotty in quality at times and has its share of predictable elements, but it’s also well-acted, funny, dramatic, visually interesting, has some memorable characters, a stick-in-your-head score, and special effects that are still good today. For a show that’s a single season long and was just starting to really hit its stride when it got cancelled, it makes quite a strong showing for itself. It’s really a shame that we didn’t get more.
Me, though, I’m not downhearted – just waiting for when we figure out how to reach into alternate dimensions and get their un-canceled shows onto DVD. I’ll bet alternate un-canceled Barry has lots of fun when he teams up with the Nightshade again to fight the Trickster in Season Two…