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 9, “Ghost in the Machine”
Originally aired: December 13, 1990
A demented electronics genius, who once tried to blackmail the city, reappears after 35 years only to face the masked crime fighter who defeated him in 1955 and a new crime fighter — the Flash
That complicated question sets the stage for perhaps the best episode of The Flash yet, a fun, self-aware installment that’s both retrospective and forward-thinking. It’s an episode about the past as much as the future, how the two often intersect and overlap in the present, and the problems that come from forcing things to move forward too soon.
“Ghost in the Machine” is another example of The Flash carrying a potentially weak story with exceptionally strong themes and characters. The show has gotten progressively more out-there and comic-booky with each passing episode, but it’s been handled it quite well thus far. In this case, it uses its thin level of realism to capitalize on those aforementioned themes: Nightshade is the past, Flash is the present, and The Ghost is working oh-so-hard to be the future. But “Ghost in the Machine” doesn’t just compare/contrast how things change or stay the same as time passes, as would be expected in a cryogenic freezing story. In fact, The Ghost adapts incredibly quickly to the “future” of 1990, and in fact his whole conceit is that he belongs in the here and now more than he did in the 1950s. It’s sort of a reverse time displacement story, and as such the episode uses The Ghost’s circumstances as a catalyst for the story than anything else.
That’s fine, because The Ghost is actually an incredibly fun villain. Part of that is because Anthony Starke revels in the role, with appropriate speech patterns to feel like he was pulled out of the 50s, along with a very campy approach to the villain’s sociopathic tendencies. He’s genuinely creepy in the way that he manipulates his lackeys, especially the wonderful Lois Nettleton as the conflicted Belle. But the other part of that is because we’re watching this 24 years later, so any of The Ghost’s musings of our well-developed “futuristic” technology in 1990 is downright funny much of the time. That said, how the episode treats TV frequencies, as ridiculous and impossible as it may be, is a pretty solid prediction for how we’ll treat the internet two decades later. There have been a handful of superhero stories since that have had villains tap into the internet, and used the connection to take control of/shut down every electronic grid system in a given city. TVs were kind of a hot topic in the 90s, what with more and more channels being launched and more fears that it was making kids dumber, so it makes a little teensy bit of sense that TV signals would be chosen as a means to inexplicably hack into everything in the world. But even so, The Flash doesn’t harp on the very 90s “TV is bad!” lesson at all, even though it’d be pretty easy given the circumstances of TVs literally causing things to blow up. Instead, we get Tina admitting that she’d enjoy cartoons showing up on her computer if it wasn’t causing her to lose 3 weeks of work. Let’s be honest, that’s a way more realistic reaction.
But it’s Dr. Desmond Powell and his alter-ego as Nightshade that brings this episode together, and hammers in the theme. First of all, the implications of Powell being an African-American masked vigilante in 1955 are ingenious. A man of color trying to directly change things during a time of racial unrest is a good reason for protecting one’s identity, and it’s a reason seldom explored in the alter-ego heavy superhero medium. Jason Bernard is perfectly cast in the role, too; it’s very much the James Earl Jones/Morgan Freeman archetype we see now, but the clever spin is that he’s still a total badass. Nightshade is The Flash’s answer to Batman in many ways–his “powers” are just clever gadgets and a cool car–but with a completely different type of man behind the mask.
But more to the point: Nightshade is what The Flash may become in 35 years–a relic, and a forgotten urban legend. Barry became The Flash to use his powers to make a difference, but if Nightshade’s heroics still led to Central City being as dangerous as it is, is there a point? What’s really clever is that “Ghost in the Machine” doesn’t quite pose a definitive answer to the question; the meta-answer is that, yeah, we still remember The Flash here in 2014. Even if many of us hadn’t heard of this TV iteration of him, The Flash has only grown in prominence. But in the context of this Central City, where Batman and Superman are mere movies and, as far as we know, Flash is the lone DC superhero anywhere, perhaps there won’t be such a legacy.
But then, it doesn’t really matter. Nightshade and The Flash are/were both helping people their respective here and nows. If Nightshade wasn’t around in 1955, he wouldn’t have stopped The Ghost from blowing up Central City. If The Flash wasn’t around in 1990, he wouldn’t have stopped The Ghost from blowing up Central City. Superheroes aren’t in control of the legacy they leave, all they can do is keep fighting the good fight and making things better for the people who need it. Instilling hope for the future and becoming iconic is just a nice bonus.
Episode 10, “Sight Unseen”
Originally aired: January 10, 1991
An invisible man steals a poison toxin from Star Labs, contaminating the building and trapping Tina inside until the Flash can find the man — and the antidote.
There’s less to talk about in “Sight Unseen” that isn’t made very obvious. That doesn’t make it bad, though, not in the least. For as much as I praised “Ghost in the Machine” for bringing tons of thematic relevance and strong characters from a weak story, and derided “Double Vision” for it’s lack of anything but plot, “Sight Unseen” strikes a happy medium between the two.
The plot works because it’s appropriately tense, playing sort of a half-bottle show by locking Tina and the antagonistic Ruth in STAR Labs. Ruth doesn’t quite exist to be much more than someone for Tina to be annoyed at, but there’s a nice mini-arc for her as she comes around and stops being so uncaring of her dangerous projects. Barry’s race against the clock, along with Tina and Ruth’s increasing sickness and Quinn’s constant interference, keeps the pressure boiling throughout. As a result, the episode never lags, and it’s probably the most tense hour the show has done thus far.
There isn’t much going on, thematically; the “moral” posited is about the horrors of weapons research, essentially, though it’s played quite broadly. Gideon, our invisible bad guy, has some strong motivations for his psychosis–he’s seen the horrors of 2,000 people dying in Costa Luca due to a nerve gas leak, and no one heard about it or cared. He’s completely justified in being outraged, and in spite of the evil of his plan, he’s got a point–if the same disaster happens in good ol’ American Central City, everyone will hear about it and care. Here in 2014, the media and general public didn’t much care about a a serious Ebola epidemic in West Africa, but as soon as one quarantined person in America was infected, miraculously it was a “problem.” I don’t mean to get on a soapbox here, but the point is, the issue of isolationism and media blindness is a heavy one for The Flash to tackle, and hasn’t stopped being relevant. There isn’t much ambiguity since Gideon is still planning to kill a lot of innocent people, but Christopher Neame nails his equivalent to a “villain monologue”–which is more more like a confession–and packs on the sympathy.
The episode is smart to put Tina in direct danger, because that prevents it from feeling like a cop out that the issue is never truly discussed. Instead, there is a clear goal–save Tina (and Ruth)–and even an easy way to make everyone happy: revealing that Quinn, who’s been an obnoxious obstacle throughout the situation, also just-so-happens to be the Big Bad that Gideon has really been fighting against. Quinn is a personification of the ignorance and willful blindness that causes incidents like Costa Luca’s to go unnoticed, and lets the heroes practically punch those issues square in the jaw. And that’s totally fine; The Flash is a fun show first and foremost, not really equipped to get into terribly heavy controversial issues. But it’s shown enough intelligence to at least touch on these issues in meaningful ways, which is admirable even when it doesn’t succeed (see: “Out of Control.”) “Sight Unseen” does succeed, though, even in the face of an underplayed moral quandary, and that’s in part because it’s just a thrilling hour of television.
Next Week: Had to postpone throwing in “Beat the Clock” this week because I wasn’t actually able to beat the clock, so look forward to that next week. Then it’s the one we’ve probably all been waiting for…”The Trickster.”
Odds & Ends
- There’s a DC Comics character named Nightshade, but this Nightshade bares no resemblance to her whatsoever, so it’s likely just incidental.
- The Amazon Prime version of “Ghost in the Machine” retains the “Place Commercial Here” stills for the network and even a “The Flash will return in a moment” bit, which is pretty cool considering this is an episode dealing heavily with television.
- This week in unique superpower use: typing in every possible combination for a lock, and running on a treadmill to generate energy during a power outage.
- There’s a place in 1955 called “Gay N’ Frisky,” so that’s awesome.
- STAR Labs establishes that there’s a chain of command, though that makes it harder to believe the sheer amount of stuff Tina does in secret.
- Murphy singing with Bellows at the piano at the telethon is fantastic.
- Hey! We finally meet the famed Sabrina! She’s…okay.
- Nightshade’s reason for there being such minimal records of him: “The world wasn’t on videotape.” Oh, buddy, you have no idea.
- The quick bit with Barry being basically guilted/forced into giving his Lox and onion burrito (YUM!) to Garfield just because he’s the boss is a great piece of character relationship stuff.
- Love, love love the suggestion that Barry create a Flash museum.
- Really dig the Quantum Leap-esque effects of the invisibility machine.
- If they arrest Barry, why do they just let him…walk around with handcuffs on? And then never question how he got out of the handcuffs? How did he get out of the handcuffs, by vibrating really fast?
- The STAR Labs defense measures sure amp up the drama, but some of them are definitely overkill. Why do they shock people on the outside without warning?!
- Really clever to have the recurring blind character recognize that there’s an invisible man present.
- The show goes for a very easy “blood is the antidote” solution to the nerve gas, which seems…strange and out of place.
- “178 channels! This is the future!” – Another reason why “Ghost in the Machine” is great.
- Lesson in 1990 slang: “No, no, bad as in good!”
“Orwellian double-speak, like in 1984!”
- “The future is like the present, only older.” – I can’t tell if that’s insightful or not.
- “Computers used to fill a room, not a briefcase!”
- “Dang it, and we’ll bloody well have to raid the Kremlin for another!”
“Kremlins? You mean the cute little fuzzy dudes from the movie?” – The pop culture references in this show are amazing.
- “I hate reruns!”
- “Don’t touch that dial!”
- “There aren’t many people who will ever know the thrill when the sky goes dark, the masks go on, and the criminal hearts thump with fear.” – Wonderful, wonderful speech and delivery.
- “And behold, a pale horse. And he who sat on it had the name…death.” Oh…kay…