Welcome to TV Flashback Reviews, a new part of our TV Flashback series, where we’ll be doing more in-depth, episodic looks at shows from the past! With CW’s The Flash now airing, we’ll be looking back at the 1990 iteration of Barry Allen from beginning to end every Flashback Friday.
Episode 15, “Fast Forward”
Originally aired: February 27, 1991
Blasted ten years into the future by the killer of his brother, The Flash must return to the present to prevent Central City from being taken over by criminals.
We now come to a pair of The Flash episodes that, in different ways, encapsulate the most relevant themes and elements of the show. The first in this pair, “Fast Forward” (which I keep accidentally typing as “Flash Forward” and would have been a better title) could function nicely as a season finale, really. Sure, it hits the reset button as time travel episodes often do. But thematically, it brings nearly everything from the pilot full circle.
That becomes obvious when Pike returns as the key villain, and while he’s still a fairly boring bad guy, it’s what he represents that’s important. Pike is Barry’s old shame, his first failure—he failed to stop Jay’s murder—and his acquittal completely tears down Barry’s faith in the justice system he was raised to believe in. It’s beyond even Scandal levels of ridiculous political maneuvering that Pike could have been acquitted of the crimes everyone knows he committed, but it works in the story’s favor. Even before the time travel kicks in, Barry’s anger and frustration is incredibly engaging. That anger is dredged up from the pilot, which was actually one of my biggest complaints about it then. This time, that vengefulness is played out much better and for very good reason, and certainly not as a heroic quality given how he viciously lashes out on Tina. It’s a crisis of conscience for Barry right from the get-go—and this episode really puts the pedal to the metal from the first scene—and that makes the time travel more important than just a gimmick.
Now, to be fair, there are a ton of things about that time travel and the far future of 2001 that are blatantly dumb and ill-conceived, even with the highest level of suspension of disbelief for a comic book show. Running at superspeed in an explosion sends Barry to the future, which you could argue has some base in scientific logic, until they emulate the same explosion that you’d think would just send him even more forward in time, but saves the day. Pike becoming mayor, of all things, somehow leads to Central City being a dystopian police state with rampant lobotomies and a broken electoral process, but apparently only in that one city since he couldn’t enact anything on a federal or even state-wide level. It’d be like if Bane from The Dark Knight Rises did his big uprising in Gotham totally legally, and everyone just kind of shrugged and accepted it. The actual dystopian world is hardly well-rendered, with a couple of shots of sort-of futuristic looking cars, some people riding on segways (???), and Julio being held in a plastic tube instead of a jail cell. And it’s never clear exactly why Barry’s metabolism gets so messed up in the future. So, if you’re looking for any good sci-fi here, this is not the place to look.
The thing is, I’m putting all that out there to support why everything else in this episode works so well. So many of things in “Fast Forward” are supremely stupid, yet miraculously, they’re all things that don’t seem like a cheat to forgive. The issues often lie in the narrative’s set-up or many of the details, but the character work, emotional pathos, pace, and general feeling of coolness and satisfaction are all on their A-game. You can notice every bit of stupidity, but you can’t not be entertained and invested by what’s on screen. Every character is handled wonderfully, from Murphy and Bellows running a nostalgia shop with banned Flash memorabilia, to Barry’s nephew Shawn growing up to be a solider in the rebellion. Likewise, the cynical future-Tina serves to put Barry in his place and recognize his own cynical attitude, prompting him to change it. Oh, and she and Barry get to share a very well-handled dramatic kiss, and it’s totally worth it.
Julio and his giant dreads are the stand-out, though, and he proves himself as a competent partner in Barry’s superheroics, confirming that his suspicions in “Shroud of Death” never completely disappeared. Alex Desert has managed to do a lot with very little over the course of the series, making a big mark thanks to little more than his charisma and realism, and that goes a long way to make his role (and death!) here that much more affecting. Julio’s character is rooted in his loyalty to and friendship with Barry, and seeing their closeness progress through knowing his secret identity into a heroic sacrifice plays that up perfectly. Now, if only Julio could be allowed some of that character progression in the present day, too.
A few episodes ago, a forgotten vigilante made Barry wonder if he’d be remembered in 35 years. In a great bit of continuity, Barry brings this up—but in reference to the fact that, when things have gotten their darkest, The Flash is not only remembered, he’s a legend. That lesson is what “Fast Forward” hinges on, essentially bringing the dark and vengeful vigilante of the pilot and the urban legend of the series into the light. The Flash exists in a universe without Superman or Batman, so Barry has the responsibility to be both. He’s been the Batman throughout this show, the street-level vigilante on a quest for justice. But “Fast Forward” teaches him he can be Superman, too: the representation good in the darkest hour, the hero everyone has to live up to. It’s even more poignant that this occurs while he’s powerless, hammering in the idea that it’s what his escapades as The Flash represent rather than the superhero himself. This is something so big that it makes Barry’s anger seem petty in comparison, and while the lesson he learns is hardly hidden, his journey in realizing how important The Flash is makes “Fast Forward” work so well.
Episode 16, “The Deadly Nightshade”
Originally aired: March 28, 1991
Barry “The Flash” Allen teams up with Dr. Desmond “Nightshade” Powell, combining their super powers to defeat an insane vigilante known only as “Deadly Nightshade.”
After a brilliant bit of continuity in the previous episode, that aforementioned Nightshade returns in a full-fledged superhero team-up. Much like the Arrow/The Flash crossover played with the fun of crossing over such similar-but-different superheroes, The Flash and Nightshade are a generation apart, but have a specific friendship based in their heroics that no one else could understand. This is The Flash’s answer to a crossover event, in that it’s two established heroes teaming up and learning new things about each other in the process. And it’s great because of that.
Like the episode preceding, “The Deadly Nightshade” is also a culmination of The Flash thus far, but in very different ways. Where “Fast Forward” brought Barry to a new place and the show itself full circle, “The Deadly Nightshade” is a discussion on the psychology of a superhero, and what would make someone put on the mask.
This makes sense, since two key characters in the episode are in psychology. I honestly expected Dr. Rebecca Frost, who’s introduced and subsequently very prominent in this episode, to be unveiled as the Deadly Nightshade, perhaps sort of lining her up with the otherwise unrelated female comics Nightshade. With all of Frost’s feminist rants and rambles throughout, revealing her as the surprise villain would have made for some interesting discussions on the subject, but instead her views are just a minor character beat for her. Ultimately, she’s another love interest for Barry, which is a little odd considering we’ve just had the previous episode and two before it heavily push Tina and Barry together. But kudos are still deserved for crafting such an antagonistic and insufferable character and bringing her around over the course of a single episode. Frost is immediately grating, but Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Denise Crosby does ample work to make sure Frost isn’t a caricature. By episode’s end, Frost seems like a character I’d want to see again, even if she isn’t wholly likeable–a strong-willed professional who has very heavy and overbearing views, but is smart enough to understand and empathize when things get tough.
That said, not revealing Frost as the villain does make the truth slightly less interesting. Deadly Nightshade is a hero worshipper of the original, and was burned as a child by his criminal father, thus turning into a ruthless and misguided murderer of “criminals.” Calling that totally uninteresting wouldn’t be fair, though, because it’s a rather unique and somewhat ambiguous motivation, even if Deadly Nightshade doesn’t so much prompt discussion as play out like a typical psychotic villain. Richard Burgi (The Sentinal, Desperate Housewives) is solid in the unhinged role, even as he gets progressively more ridiculous in that mechanical exosuit. The Flash has seldom had great villains so far, so Deadly Nightshade does still rank high on the list just by default.
But the standout is Dr. Desmond Powell/Nightshade, and the way the show handles that proverbial no-kill rule. Arrow‘s thorough breakdown of it in its second season has handled the concept best in recent years, but I have to give credit to The Flash for being so, well, straightforward with it. When Deadly Nightshade invites the captive Dr. Powell to join forces with him, he hilariously remarks, “Yeah, just a bunch of crime fighters out murdering the bad guys.” In a way, this episode shoots down much of the ambiguity this show (and many other superhero shows) have suggested through Dr. Powell’s presence. One of the things that makes Powell such a fun character is how he’s totally confident in his wisdom, and willing to tell it like it is. As such, much of this episode has Powell talking Barry down when Barry does his typical overthinking; sure, putting on a mask changes you, but how does that complicate what’s good and bad? Again, murdering the bad guys is bad. Saving people is good. By Powell’s logic, there’s just not much more to it than that.
Whether The Flash is just “playing out a macho adolescent fantasy,” or is only in a “vibrant suit as a cry for help” triggered by a loss of a family member in a violent death–does it really matter? The Flash needs to save people and capture the bad guys. That was Nightshade’s reasoning for putting on his mask, and he ends the episode with his identity revealed and a bunch of book and movie deals coming in. As much as we like our heroes to be brooding and surrounded by tragedy, perhaps there’s room for rewards in the long run.
Next Week: Another classic villain is introduced in “Captain Cold,” then a new spin on a classic villain in “Twin Streaks.”
Odds & Ends
- Exactly what evidence supports that The Flash killed Jay? As much as that plays into the episode’s events, that part is a little forced.
- I got really emotional when they established that we were seeing Earl, Jr. in the future, not the original Earl.
- In Pike’s dystopian future, Julio explains that Barry’s parents got away from the terror by…moving somewhere else. Again, this was not a hostile takeover in the least.
- Flash museum references are the best references.
- The pictured moment of Barry stepping in from the light in his Flash costume in “Fast Forward” to rally the rebels, even without his powers, is easily the best moment of the episode. Great score, too.
- Nightshade’s musical motif continues to be on-point.
- There are a slew of familiar faces in “The Deadly Nightshade.” In addition to Richard Burgi and Denise Crosby, we have more appearances by recurring actors Dick Miller as Fosnight and Richard Belzer as Joe Kline (both of whom I’ve regretted to mention in past appearances.) Oh, and don’t forget a very, very young Jeri Ryan as the terrified Felicia Kane.
- Gorilla Grodd alert! There’s throwaway line in “The Deadly Nightshade” where someone mentions “Short conning for Gorilla Grodd out of Helltown.” So even though I’m pretty certain he doesn’t ever appear in this series, we now know a version of Grodd exists in both this The Flash and the current iteration. How cool is that?
- Jason Bernard is so freakin’ good as Nightshade. His reaction to Deadly Nightshade’s exosuit–a simple, “What the hell is that?”–might just be the best moment in that episode.
- “Did anyone ever tell you you have the sensitivity of a rock?”
“Yeah, my mother.”
- “Sometimes the law makes mistakes.”
- “You look like my second husband, Eddie. Only naked.”
- “What’s with your generation? Don’t any of you ever knock?”
- “”As long as you’re questioning your sanity, you still have it.”