Movie: Like most American children, I grew up a fan of comic book superheroes for all the super powers they possessed and the manner in which they wielded them to benefit mankind rather than their own selfish gain. I know that sounds kind of lame in a day & age when the "me first" attitude has hit new strides, having been cultivated by a culture of self over society and the varying disillusionments with those we collectively lent great authority and power to over the years (pre-dating Kennedy's Bay of Pigs fiasco but more personalized by Nixon's impeachment later on) but a lot of people still seem to long for a better world so the clear cut examples of heroism by our childhood saviors offers a degree of solace in these imperfect times. For my part, I enjoyed reading all the comics relating to that most perfect of illegal immigrants, Superman, for all that he embodied but also a number of others; firmly interested in the more straightforward characters populating the DC Universe over the mixed bag of Marvel (though I learned to enjoy them more as I grew up). One of the heroes I never really identified with though was The Flash. He was the guy who could run really fast all dressed up in his red tights. I know he had various related abilities to his speed but let's face it; Superman could fly just as fast and do so much more than Flash that the escapism relating to this childhood fixation leaned heavily on the one over the other. Today's review though, is of a single season show from 1990-1991, The Flash: The Complete Series, a show that was far truer to the roots of the character than Superman's latest incarnation on Smallville.
The comic book origin of the Flash dates back to 1939 when DC Comics teamed up writer Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lampert to star in an anthology series that lasted a remarkable 9 years. The Flash was a college student by the name of Jay Garrick, who had an accident where a bunch of chemicals spilt on him and he awoke to find himself endowed with fantastic powers revolving around speed. Like most popular fiction of the time, he used his powers for good and became a superhero, fighting all sorts of villains using his powers but displaying a sense of community and self sacrifice that were equally important to his mission. The character was revived in the mid-1950's by Julius Schwartz, a crime lab employee of a local police department, who was also doused with chemicals during a late night session at work that involved a bolt of lightning too. This second version formed the basis for the television version of the character, though tribute was paid to the original, and a third version, in several ways throughout the series; fitting in that Flash has "died" in the mid-1980's when DC Comics decided to revamp its entire lineup using the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline.
The Flash: The Complete Series was made very much in response to the success of the movie version of Tim Burton's Batman that came out the previous year. CBS gave the project the green light after considered several other superheroes, most of who were too obscure or not viewed as "doable" by the suits at the network. While it's not fair to suggest that Flash was a knockoff of Gotham's famous dark knight, watching the series for even a few minutes will quickly let the viewer know how much of a tribute it really was. Unlike the campy Wonder Woman or the contemporary Incredible Hulk; The Flash was set up in a timeless era where no dates were established or events mentioned to fix it firmly in a single time period. The cars were reminiscent of those used in Batman with running boards and appearing to be something out of the 1940's while technology was clearly advanced to the point where computers, television, lasers, and all sorts of other devices were plentiful. Like Batman, the music was also handled by Danny Elfman, the creative genius behind many other shows (as well as a favorite band of mine: Oingo Boingo).
The lead character, Barry Allen (John Wesley Shipp), is a criminalist in the Central City police department where he helps solve crimes using his brain instead of the daring do of his older brother and father before him. This sets up the mindset of the character since he always plays second fiddle to his family name as established by his famous bloodlines, even though his work solves just as many cases as they did but with less fanfare. One night at work, the infamous accident involving chemicals and lightning occurs, and he finds himself endowed with the ability to move, and think, extremely fast. The problem is that such a newfound set of abilities don't come with an owner's manual and they pose a danger to Barry. He gets help from an attractive scientist named Tina McGee (Amanda Pays) who tests him in a variety of ways and develops a suit that protects him from the ravages of super speed travel. Unlike the comic book Flash though, this version (much like the television Hulk) of the character has been considerably powered down, in large part to allow for then current special effects to accurately portray him as he ran through the streets at hundreds of miles per hour.
The scenario was set up early on with Barry's brother Jay (Tim Thomerson) as the head of the police department's motorcycle division. He's a rough and tumble street cop like their father and Central City is under the threat of a terrorist motorcycle gang, The Dark Riders, that steal and destroy with impunity (even breaking into the police armory in full force and firebombing police cars responding to the call). Barry gets in the accident and then spends the rest of the two part pilot episode avenging his brother's death at the hands of the gang. Along the way, he befriends Tina and finds out the limitations of his abilities as well as the unique position he's in to help the world at large. He eats vast quantities of food, gets tired when he pushes himself too much (unlike the comic book version that had unlimited capacity to speed), and can barely break the sound barrier rather than the speed of light yet none of this stops him as he attempts to catch the bad guys and restore a sense of law & order to his city.
The individual episodes after the pilot all seemed to follow that standard television dynamic; a crime is committed as the prologue, the theme song plays during the opening credits, the secondary thread is initiated, and then Barry tries to solve the crime & catch the crook while dealing with his personal issue (typically after losing at least one battle to the crook at large). This "sameness" was one of the factors that plagued the series throughout its single season and has been the downfall of many other shows in the history of television as well. The acting was another area that bugged me since the characters all played it completely straight and the camp nature of the material virtually demanded a lighter approach. All attempts at humor were forced in the manner that told me the jokes (and not-so-subtle winks at the audience) were added in afterwards rather than an integral part of the scripts. Still, as a fan of comic books since my earliest recollections I couldn't help but enjoy the show when it first came out and even now, 15 years later.
The Flash: The Complete Series is one of those shows that holds together pretty well if you just kick back and don't try to analyze it for the many weaknesses it has. The individual episodes varied tremendously in terms of quality (my favorites were largely co-written by comic book legend Howard Chaykin), but if you buy into the concept and how it was handled, the show was actually quite amusing. Guest appearances by Mark Hamill as the Trickster, Jason Bernard as Nightshade, and other television regulars (like Jeri Ryan from Star Trek: Voyager in an early appearance or Denise Crosby from ST: TNG) enhanced the anecdotal value of the show but also provided some interesting moments as well (Mark stole the show in both of his episodes). I remember the show when it first aired on Thursday nights (against some of the most popular television shows in history), thinking how it was designed to fail. While the network claimed to cancel it due to the expensive special effects budget and low ratings, it didn't help that the time slot was moved around several times, it wasn't advertised, and ended up on Saturday nights (science fiction shows on television have long been subjected to poor treatment as evidenced by Alien Nation, Firefly and Crusade, among others). Still, I thought the show was one you'll either love or hate so I rated it as a Rent It.
1) Pilot: (9/20/1990)
2) Out of Control: (9/27/1990)
3) Watching the Detectives: (10/18/1990)
4) Honor Among Thieves: (10/25/1990)
5) Double Vision: (11/1/1990)
6) Sins of the Father: (11/8/1990)
7) Child's Play: (11/15/1990)
8) Shroud of Death: (11/29/1990)
9) Ghost in the Machine: (12/13/1990)
10) Sight Unseen: (1/10/1991)
11) Beat the Clock: (1/31/1991)
12) The Trickster: (2/2/1991)
13) Tina, Is That You?: (2/14/1991)
14) Be My Baby: (2/21/1991)
15) Fast Forward: (2/27/1991)
16) Deadly Nightshade: (3/30/1991)
17) Captain Cold: (4/6/1991)
18) Twin Streaks: (4/13/1991)
19) Done With Mirrors: (4/27/1991)
20) Good Night, Central City: (5/4/1991)
21) Alpha: (5/11/1991)
22) The Trial of the Trickster: (5/18/1991)
Picture: The Flash: The Complete Series was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color the series was shot in back in 1990-1991 for airing on the CBS network. On early versions of the DVD set, there was reportedly a problem with the first disc that caused it to lock up towards the end of the pilot episode. If you have this problem, I've been advised that: "For any consumer who is experiencing this problem with Disc 1 and needs to obtain a replacement disc, please contact Warner Home Video at 1-800-891-1311 so that a self-addressed stamped envelope can be sent to you for return of your current Disc 1." My copy didn't have this problem but I wanted to mention it sooner rather than later, noting that later pressings of the DVD set don't seem to have any problems. Okay, that said, the source material for the show seemed a little weaker than I remember it being with numerous minor scratches on the prints of some episodes and the mastering process seemed to add a number of artifacts (especially in later discs). There were moments of shimmering when clothing patterns had lines close together (as well as certain other times) and the colors were saturated in far too many episodes. It looked better than the first season of McGuyver but not by much on about a third of the episodes.
Sound: The audio was presented in Dolby Digital encoded monaural. It didn't sound too bad although it certainly didn't make use of the special audio effects available even back in the day it was made. I listened with headphones to see if maybe some of the early reports of stereo were true but on spot checking the audio track, found nothing to substantiate those claims (there was no separation between the channels). The vocals were clear enough and the effects were okay but this would've been so much better in a dynamic 5.1 set up (had that been available since remastering never seems to enhance the audio quite as well as studios try to sell it). I always liked the music to the show, thanks in large part to Danny Elfman's work, but there wasn't a lot of variety to it, in large part due to the visual effects budget from what I understand. There were English, French, and Spanish subtitles available on the set for those who care too.
Extras: Sadly, this was an area where Warner really dropped the ball as there weren't any. The 6 discs were packaged in a fold out style case enclosed in a cardboard cover with some comic strip Flash artwork under the discs and a short bit of episode information on the folds of the holder. I wish some audio commentaries could've been included (I know the original creator of the Flash would've been perfect but he passed on a couple of years ago in Florida) by the cast and crew of the series, interviews, a historical perspective of the character, or even a booklet but this was not the case.
Final Thoughts: The Flash: The Complete Series will remain one of those one season science fiction shows destined to have a small but loyal following like Firefly, Alien Nation and Crusade but like each of them, it never really had a chance to flourish thanks to external considerations by the network. It wasn't a terrible show but the cadence of the episodes was too familiar and the way it borrowed so much from the Batman movie limited the appeal of it even to loyal comic book fans like myself. In all though, I thought it was worth picking up for my collection, even if I know the sum of the parts was only slightly greater than expected so I forgave it the technical flaws and lack of extras more than a dispassionate observer might have done.