Welcome to TV Flashback Reviews, 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.
Going into The Flash rather blindly, I have to admit, I didn’t have terribly high expectations. Sure, it has a following. And even dated shows like the 70s era The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman or 90s era Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman still have their charms. But The Flash, as I knew going into it and discussed in my pilot review, was a one-season anomaly that piggybacked on Tim Burton’s Batman‘s success, with Mark Hamill as The Flash’s Joker, a dark tone and procedural format, and a score that was meant to basically be exactly Danny Elfman’s Batman score. At best, I expected the show to be cute in its efforts but boring and underwhelming in retrospect, given how spoiled we’ve become on superhero films and television.
But, man, this show surprised me. It’s hard to fully grasp TV of this era sometimes after being so immersed in what many refer to as the new Golden Age of Television nowadays. But The Flash really nailed this era’s knack for standalone easy-to-follow stories with heavy internal characterization and themes. This is nothing even remotely specific to The Flash, and in fact the prevalence of serialization and long-form narratives is really only a recent development for TV. But it was a pro at making the most out of its episodic stories, packing in loads of twists and subplots but without collapsing under its own weight. The show didn’t change very much over the course of its one and only season, but each episode offered something vastly different from the last, exploring all kinds of genre-bending settings or wacky avenues for The Flash’s powers. We got an episode with an invisible man, one that played like a child’s fever dream, and a moody Shakespearean murder mystery scored with jazz.
Yet, it always had its eyes squarely on the characters. It’s a prime example of keeping the status quo useable by keeping the characters interesting, peeling away the layers with each installment in lieu of progressing them to new places. We learned something new about Barry, Tina, and Julio every time they were in the spotlight, and never once did they seem out of character. When they weren’t in the spotlight, we’d get tidbits for supporting characters like Lt. Garfield, Murphy and Bellows, and even periphery characters like Joe Kline and Fosnight. Even guest characters got to have notable arcs, crafting heroes like Megan Lockhart and Dr. Desmond Powell, who ended up being the best characters on the show. For as much as each episode threw out an old-fasioned sci-fi trope or gimmicky villain, even the worst episodes like “Double Vision,” “Honor Among Thieves,” or “Good Night, Central City” offered something for us to explore or latch onto.
The final two episodes encompass all these ideas, with two distinctly different tones and plots that allows us to learn more about our main and guest characters. They’re great examples of what this show has to offer, even if perhaps not the best episodes overall. But in any case, let’s get on with it one last time, shall we?
Episode 21, “Alpha”
Originally aired: April 27, 1991
The Flash uses his powers to protect a beautiful android who wants to be free. Meanwhile, her owners, the U.S. government, attempt to capture her in order to reprogram her to be an assassin.
“Alpha” is a welcome surprise this late in the game. It’s an episode with a tired premise that seems pulled right out of the beginning of the season, with no new comic book villains or returning characters. And yet, it manages to excel where other late episodes like “Captain Cold” and “Good Night, Central City” didn’t.
Part of that is probably incidental, and has more to do with hindsight and where the episode falls in its run. The entire first quarter is extremely, hilariously dated, something the show has managed to avoid thanks to its strange anachronistic mise-en-scene most of the time (outside of Barry’s baggy clothing.) But I can’t get over the elation of seeing Barry dancing like a total goober with an android to C & C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now” at a charity-hosting nightclub called “Apocalypse Wow.” Everything about that is so fundamentally a product of its time, not to mention people constantly telling Barry “black is out” (make way for 90s neon!). Earlier on in the show, that would have been a quick joke I’d have shrugged off. But in the penultimate episode, it’s unexpectedly fitting to see it going out in full embrace of the period it was made. It’s similar to, say, Linda Hamilton’s hair and the nightclub called “Tech-Noir” in The Terminator — the elements are kind of laughable in how dated they are now, but it doesn’t take away from the suspense of the scene, one of my favorite sequences in the film. It’s a time capsule of when that movie took place, however ridiculous some of it looks and sounds and retrospect, and most definitely any of our party/club scenes nowadays are going to look profoundly stupid or cheesy in ten or twenty years. So with The Flash, this type of stuff is amusing, but also kind of heartwarming, given that we won’t ever see a show exactly like this again
As for the episode itself, the merits go to Alpha herself, portrayed with mystifying charisma by Claire Stansfield. Admittedly, the benefit is that I had rather low expectations going into this — the description only calling her “a beautiful android” set the stage for a model without any acting expertise — but Stansfield was clearly cast for more than her looks. (In fact, her IMDB page specifically says “she worked as a model in her teens but was not really that good at it,” which seems weird to have on an IMDB page.) That might still be giving them too much credit — she’s also insanely tall, truly tall, not just TV Female tall. As such, her presence is felt throughout the episode, and Stansfield makes a remarkable balance between the expected stiffness of playing a robot and genuine likeablility within her alienness. She’s vastly different from the majority of women on the show, but in a good way. Stansfield has great chemistry with everyone onscreen, and she’d have been welcome back if the show continued. Surprisingly enough, too, Fosnight gets the spotlight this time around. Dick Miller is never not fun to watch, so it’s nice that a character who’s been on the periphery for so long gets to make such integral contributions to a plot. He’s a fun character, slimy enough to be unpredictable and have an edge, but still rather loveable and usually with good intentions.
This is also just an all-around well put-together episode. The directing is much more dynamic than usual, which helps in fight scenes with the show’s first foray into super-strength brawls. The episode also takes into account that robots are pretty common knowledge, even if they themselves aren’t common. So, while people are certainly surprised that Alpha is indeed a robot, they tend to accept that fact rather quickly. It’s an easy frustration in science fiction, where people are often treated like they’ve never even seen a sci-fi movie and can’t comprehend that things could exist even when given proof. In this case, though, Barry doesn’t even hide Alpha’s state from Lt. Garfield, and everyone ends up buying it.
The pacing of the episode is admittedly a little weird, with the Terminator-esque attacker climax turning out to not be the climax at all. But the episode also has plenty going on, with enough threads between Fosnight, Alpha, Omega, and NSIA that even its rather predictable plot is perfectly functional. This certainly isn’t the best of the season, but it’s more capable and engaging than the past few episodes have been. NSIA is a good adversary that would have great potential as a recurring villainous organization. Sure, its nefarious motives are laughably two-dimensional (they’re even too evil to give to the homeless at a charity event!) but they have a connection to Tina, and provide a cipher for more believably intimidating bad guys.
The Flash has time and time again touted an underlying theme of good science vs. bad science, and NSIA fits right in with that. Tina and Barry are the shining lights of science, people who use it to improve the world, solve crimes, and get justice, while most of the villains use it for personal gain or vendettas, dating all the way back to the second episode. Alpha’s story is the culmination of it all, with an actual being created from elements of both sides and ultimately stuck between them, too. Good wins out as it usually does on this show, but there’s always that level of ambiguity for how far scientists can and can’t go before they cross a line. As out there as this show has been with its technology, a full-fledged emotion-feeling AI is a new level, and that it doesn’t completely stick out as being ridiculous is a testament to what this show can handle. That’s what makes “Alpha” such a solid installment, even if it’s not exactly the one we’d expect to get right before the finale.
Then again, it could just be because I really like robots.
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