On Tuesday, the CW debuts The Flash, a spin-off of Arrow. It’s not the first time the Scarlet Speedster has been adapted to TV. In 1990, a one-season Flash series aired on CBS, starring John Wesley Shipp, Amanda Pays and Alex Desert. I thought I’d look back at the old series before the new one airs.
Police scientist Barry Allen (Shipp) is working in the lab late one night when lightning strikes a shelf of chemicals, bathing Barry in them and hurling him across the room. Soon after, he discovers that he’s gained the ability to move at super speed.
We first meet Barry at the Allen family home, where his older brother, Jay (Tim Thomerson), is celebrating his birthday. Jay and Barry’s father, Henry (M. Emmet Walsh), makes it clear he doesn’t consider police scientists to be “real cops.”
Jay’s name is a reference to Jay Garrick, the original Flash from the “golden age” of comics in the 1940s. The series is peppered with such allusions.
In the pilot, Central City is being overrun by a motorcycle gang called The Dark Riders. Jay heads up the task force charged with stopping them and Barry conducts his own investigations in the lab.
It’s not just Barry’s father who insults his work. When he arrives at a crime scene, he tells a TV reporter he’s with the crime lab. She immediately loses interest, telling her cameraman, “cut it. Let’s see if we can find a real detective.”
Barry’s partner, Julio Mendez (Desert), retorts, “see if you can find a real newscaster while you’re at it.”
That night, as Barry stays late at the lab— in part to “prove himself”— the storm strikes.
Hours later, he’s checking himself out of the hospital (against the doctor’s advice). By contrast, the Barry Allen of Arrow and the current Flash series was struck by lightning in a mid second season episode of Arrow and remained in a coma for months. I suspect the latter scenario is more medically accurate. Or it could be because the lightning bolt that created the current Flash was a byproduct of a Star Labs experiment. We’ll see.
(Shipp himself serves as a connection between the two series. In the current series, he plays Henry Allen. Only in this storyline, Henry is in jail for murdering his wife when Barry was a child. Barry (Grant Gustin) has maintained a lifelong belief that his father wasn’t responsible and became a police scientist in part to be able to prove it.)
Barry discovers something’s amiss when he runs to catch a bus and finds himself 30 miles away. His initial reaction is to rid himself of these strange abilities and he turns to Dr. Tina McGee (Pays), a scientist at Star Labs, for help.
(According to Variety, Pays will also appear in the new series, again playing a woman named Tina McGee. Only in this incarnation, she works for a rival company, not Star Labs.)
In testing Barry’s abilities (and keeping him from burning through his clothes), Tina gives him a prototype Soviet deep sea suit, with a layer of reactive insulation next to his skin. We later learn that the wings on the Flash’s cowl serve as radio receivers for Tina to communicate with Barry.
Barry changes his mind about getting rid of his powers after Jay is killed by his former partner, Nicholas Pike (Michael Nader), the leader of the Dark Riders. Barry goes after Pike with a vengeance.
John Wesley Shipp was a guest at the Motor City Comic Con in Novi, Michigan in May 2006. He told the audience at his panel that he liked that Barry decided to accept his powers out of the dark motivation of revenge. He said he could wrap himself, as an actor, around that motivation.
He also admitted that he didn’t know about the comic when he got the part. He thought it was Flash Gordon.
That didn’t mean he thought any less of the material.
“We didn’t want to make fun of it,” Shipp said. “We didn’t want to send it up. We wanted to respect the material as classic American literature, pop literature.”
Shipp also said that, to him, the character was Barry; the suit played itself.
“My job was to create a human character with whom people could identify,” he said, adding that he loved that Barry was an unblessed son.
Barry’s relationship with his father improved in the episode “Sins of the Father”, with Henry acknowledging that while Barry’s type of police work is different than his own or Jay’s, he was still a cop.
Central City had a very stylized, 1950s look, but The Flash wasn’t a period piece. In some ways it seemed to exist in the same universe as Tim Burton’s Batman, which hit theaters the previous summer. The difference, of course, is that Central City was a much brighter metropolis than Gotham. Shipp said the idea of the show’s look was “the 50s and 60s meets 90s, as if the 70s and 80s had never happened.”
He also said his understanding was that CBS wanted to do a detective show which was realistic save for the Flash’s speed. That might be why it wasn’t until the 12th episode, “The Trickster”, that we saw the first appearance of a villain from the comics. James Montgomery Jesse (Mark Hamill) is a killer who role-plays different parts (he impersonates an FBI agent at one point). When Jesse adopts the costumed persona of The Trickster, Barry wonders if he’s responsible, because of his own activities as the Flash.
The Trickster (whom Shipp said was his favorite villain) also appeared in the final episode, “The Trial of the Trickster”, making him the only villain to appear more than once.
Other villains from the comics were Captain Cold (Michael Champion), re-imagined as an albino hit man who kills people by freezing them; and The Mirror Master (David Cassidy), a thief named Sam Scudder who got his nickname through his use of hologram technology.
(Cassidy’s daughter, Katie Cassidy, appears as Laurel Lance in Arrow.)
Shipp said he thought there should have been more character arcs from week to week, which, he believed, were needed to hook the larger audience. He also said he believes such arcs would have happened had the series gone to a second season.
It’s too bad The Flash didn’t last longer. Many shows don’t find their footing until the second season. Of course, the series might have stood a better chance if it hadn’t been initially scheduled opposite both The Cosby Show and The Simpsons and later pre-empted and moved around (Shipp said the real adventure was finding where the show was on the schedule).
On the positive side, Barry, et al were engaging characters the audience could care about. On the negative side, more than one episode utilized TV logic (including the Flash moving at the speed of plot), instead of letting situations develop organically. I suspect that 90 percent of the shortcomings were due to network interference.
All in all, The Flash was a valiant attempt to treat a superhero show as a serious drama. With luck, the new series will enjoy a longer run.
Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating.