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 17, “Captain Cold”
Originally aired: April 5, 1991
Barry “The Flash” Allen is nearly frozen to death when he battles an insane criminal mercenary known as “Captain Cold.”
“Captain Cold” isn’t a bad episode of the show by a long shot, but stacking it up against the tour de force of the previous two installments certainly does it no favors. There isn’t much that’s different from any typical early episode, outside of including a fairly well-known comic book villain rather than an original one. The Flash developed more nuance and thematic prowess as it went along, and while “Captain Cold” is generally solid, it’s rather devoid of the cleverness that has made this show such a surprise.
Captain Cold as a character is fine, definitely marred by the knowledge of Wentworth Miller’s spot-on reinvention on the current The Flash. But Michael Champion is fun enough as the imaginative hit man, even with the strange decision to make him albino (it seems kind of offensive to have him freak people out so easily, doesn’t it?) But the color, or lack thereof, fits with this version of the character, who is genuinely scary in his ruthlessness and entertaining in his obvious sociopathy. He mercifully doesn’t spout all the cold puns you’d expect, at least not on Schwarzenegger-Mr. Freeze levels, and the ones he does throw out aren’t that groanworthy (though “The iceman cometh!” is…something.) There’s a funny beat where the kidnapped reporter Kronenberg screams at him, and he sarcastically screams right back in her face, an example of why return appearances might have been quite entertaining had the show not been cut short.
The gun effects are downright awful, though, and the most dated this show has looked thus far. The film literally freezes (haha, get it?) with an animated laser shooting out of the still frame, and while it’s maybe forgiveable once, the shot happens multiple times. Points to the show for having the guts to do it, I guess, but it’s not a good mark for the effects staff.
If there’s a lesson “Captain Cold” boils down to, it’s something about ethics in journalism. The Terri Kronenberg character has an arc much like Megan Lockhart’s first appearance as she learns it, forming the backbone of the plot. It’s become an interesting trend for The Flash to feature career-focused women who often lose sight of the truth–Megan, Kronenberg, Tina, Rebecca Frost–and while it’s certainly not a bad trend, it’s definitely an odd one. Like Megan, Kronenberg is ethically dubious but isn’t evil, and does eventually learn to at least try to use her skills for…well, not good, since she just writes for a greeting card company, but not evil, either. Kronenberg doesn’t really learn the lesson from Flash himself, but rather the entire circumstances she put herself in. That differentiates her story from Megan’s, but also makes it way less interesting as a result. The episode doesn’t really delve far enough into the ethics and moral grays of journalism–it’s pretty obvious that Kronenberg is on the unethical side since she lies constantly to the cops–but it also doesn’t make it personal enough to really mean anything. None of the major characters really learn much from Kronenberg’s appearance except for Kronenberg herself, which would be fine if she became a primary character, but not for making an impact on the world of The Flash.
That isn’t to say there’s nothing to take away from this episode. There’s a fun little subplot that puts Murphy in the spotlight as he tries his hand at being a novelist/memoir writer (with a book titled Murphy’s Law, of course.) Anything with Murphy and Bellows is entertaining and adorable in an “Aww, grandpa’s making a joke” kind of way, but that’s part of the charm of those characters. Tina also gets to play a much more active role, saving Barry from certain death (even though I’m not sure how typing frantically on a computer after defibrillating him was really supposed to help, but that’s 90s technology for you.) And, again, Captain Cold is an entertaining enough villain, fitting in with the world of the show but still sticking out among a mostly underwhelming rogues gallery thus far. He’d probably have improved in future appearances, had they happened.
Episode 18, “Twin Streaks”
Originally aired: April 12, 1991
When a scientist clones Barry, the clone is a perfect match–physically–but emotionally it is still a child.
If “Captain Cold” was sort of about ethics in journalism, “Twin Streaks” is sort of about ethics in cloning. Like the predecessor, it doesn’t much go into the nuances of the discussion, instead posing the science side as undeniably despicable and horrendous, and not very in support of the concept. But what works much better in this case is how it resonates with the main characters emotionally.
“Twin Streaks” is rushed and messy, dealing with heavier concepts like fear of death, nature vs. nurture morality, existentialism, and loss of innocence…frankly, more than this show can handle in a single hour. Like Pollux’s accelerated growth, concepts are brought up and touched on briefly before moving onto the next without so much as a breath, and that’s where the episode falters the most. There’s such a rush to get to its end point, which requires Pollux to grasp his sense of self, turn into a killer, but still retain a sympathetic emotional connection to the audience, that is loses its own natural momentum in favor of some forced turning points. The biggest moments and twists seem to only happen because the episode needs them to, or because it’s par the course for a clone story–the murder of Whitcomb and Pollux’s sudden decision to steal Barry’s life as prime examples–and those really mar the episode, unfortunately.
And yet, for all its narrative and pace problems, John Wesley Shipp damn near saves it all with his revelation of a performance. One of the greatest strengths of The Flash has been Shipp’s own charm, but he shows off his capabilities with the infantile portrayal of Pollux. The entire episode sees Pollux as a very different character from Barry, from the higher-octave voice to the distinctly uncertain, almost infantile way Pollux walks. As much as the episode shifts around in tone and plot, Shipp keeps up with it adeptly, with numerous moments that are downright stellar. The moment Pollux recognizes that he’s killed Whitcomb, for example, is beautiful in its darkness solely because of how Shipp handles Pollux’s realization. The brief section where Pollux tries to take over Barry’s life is effective, too, from Pollux’s amazement at Julio’s hair to his repeating of Julio’s speech (“BARE!”), to his sudden switch to temper tantrum-like anger when people aren’t nice to him. The menace is in Pollux’s childlike mindset in a powerful body, and Shipp makes sure that menace is totally believable.
The crux of all this is how it affects Barry, in the best and worst ways. Unlike “Captain Cold,” this is an extremely personal matter, and the episode attacks that concept in a surprising manner. There are many ways a clone story can reflect the clonee, but this installment squarely hones in to how it ends: Barry literally watches himself die. Barry’s own limits and exhaustion have been constant, even if inconsistent threads throughout the season, and it’s good to see “Twin Streaks” bring them up to the forefront so effectively. The predictable route to solving Barry’s stubbornness at accepting his own limitations would be for him to lose a battle, but “Twin Streaks” takes a far more traumatizing route. The only downside to the storyline is, again, how rushed the episode is, zipping around from Pollux as a sympathetic ally to an antagonist back and forth so quickly that it’s hard to grasp the intended emotional wallop in his death scene. But it still works well enough–again, thanks to Shipp’s acting–and makes many of the episode’s faults worthwhile.
Next Week: David Cassidy arrives as another classic villain in “Done With Mirrors,” followed by “Goodnight, Central City.”
Odds & Ends
- I didn’t catch it on my viewing, but according to Wikipedia, Captain Cold here is changed from Leonard Snart to Leonard Wynters. Okay, show.
- Interestingly, Captain Cold’s plan to place five bombs throughout the city for The Flash to find is very similar to Captain Boomerang’s plan in The Flash/Arrow crossover.
- The anachronistic hodgepodge mise-en-scene of The Flash isn’t usually that distracting–the older cars and technology thrown in fits as a stylistic choice sometimes–but having a major plot point involve Tina drive Barry away in an inexplicably 50s-style ambulance took me out of the episode a bit.
- I would definitely read the comic book version of Murphy’s “The Scarlet Speedster and Me.”
- The score throughout “Twin Streaks” is better than usual, especially Pollux’s motif.
- Dr. Brassell is played by Lenny von Dohlen, a Twin Peaks alum, which refers back to the punny title of the episode, “Twin Streaks.”
- How creepy is that clone growth sequence (and what I assume is a puppet baby) right?
- It’s creative, but I’m still not into Pollux as clone-Flash’s name.
- Would we consider Pollux this iteration of The Flash‘s version of Reverse-Flash? I only say that because I thought he would be going into it, but after watching the episode I realized just how different Pollux’s story was. Maybe in hypothetical future seasons, we’d have seen a proper Zoom/Reverse-Flash character.
- That Pollux is able to progress in learn so much in a such a short amount of time could speak to how intelligent Barry could be if he took the time to read as much as Pollux.
- Wasn’t much room to touch on it in the review, but Tina is really awesome in “Twin Streaks,” even if a bit naggy at times. But generally, this show has done a great job at making Tina an integral part of The Flash as Barry’s partner and doctor first and love interest second. Not that it ever forgets the love interest part, as it seems encoded in Barry’s DNA to be in love with Tina, as evidenced by Pollux’s crush.
- That clones vanish in a burst of colors because their metabolic levels cause them to “literally burn out” is…a really weird part of the episode.
- “It could be aliens from the earth’s core.”
- “Do you ever breathe?”
- “You’re not physical enough.” – Reporter Terri Kronenberg said to the very clearly ripped Barry Allen.
- “Murphy’s Law? More like Murphy’s Guffaw!”
- “Petulance. I love that in a man.”
- “Everyone is someone.”