Sunday, October 05, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: The Flash's First TV Series

One of my prize possessions, natch
This Tuesday sees the premiere of the CW's The Flash, a spin-off of their successful Arrow, but of course, this isn't the first time the DC Comics hero has raced to the small screen. After Tim Burton's Batman broke box office (and merchandising!) records in 1989, we saw a miniature version of the same superhero fever we're experiencing right now, with various related and competing properties being fast-tracked at various venues to try and capture some of those sweet, sweet Bat-bucks. The Flash ended up being the first beneficiary of this fervor, hitting screens in fall of 1990 on CBS after being developed by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (who wrote the excellent, underrated feature The Rocketeer and would go on to produce another DC Comics-based show, 1992's The Human Target).

Here's the intro of the resultant series:

As you can see, the Batman influence was just all over thing, starting with the title theme by Danny Elfman. I was eleven years old at the time, and even I could see that. Of course, living in Saudi Arabia, in those pre-Internet days before I would have tracked the development of something like this from conception to completion, I didn't even know it was in the works at all until I saw a house ad in DC Comics at the time with an image of the Flash's trademark ring-around-a-lightning-bolt symbol along with the cryptic promise that he'd be "speeding to CBS this fall" (or something to that effect). Naturally I lost my mind. And not out of excitement. A Flash TV show was coming! And I had no way to even know what it looked like.

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: ABC's The Phoenix -- Bennu There, Done That

It wasn't until a few months later that I got to see the feature-length pilot episode via a bootleg VHS tape. Naturally I was blown away. The suit, designed by the late Dave Stevens (of Rocketeer fame), sure didn't betray the kind of reflexive embarrassment about its comic book roots that I'd become conditioned to accept from these things even back then. And the premise was the same one I knew: police scientist Barry Allen (John Wesley Shipp) is struck by lightning and flung into chemicals that super-charge his metabolism and give him super-speed. Yep, this was the Flash, all right. The same Flash I loved from the comics. (Well, not exactly the same, as the Flash I followed was Wally West, who inherited the suit after Allen perished in the mid-'80s. He got better.)

Anchoring the whole endeavor as Barry, Shipp made for a likable and relatable lead, able to believably play both everyman and superman as needed. (By the way, I think it's a kind of generational marker whether we recognize Shipp as the Flash or as Dawson's dad.) He also had an easy chemistry with Amanda Pays, playing scientist Christina McGee, with whom Allen engaged in a will-they/won't-they flirtation. A few months after seeing the pilot, I got to see The Flash II: Revenge of the Trickster, a feature-length compilation of two episodes guest-starring Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hammill, as comic book villain the Trickster (who clearly served as an unplanned dry-run for his eventual voicework as Batman's number one baddie).

Two Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Bill & Ted's Excellent Adequate Adventures

Based on the pilot and those two Trickster eps, it sure looked like The Flash was on its way to a long and successful run, and I looked forward to finally seeing it live when I visited the States during my family's next trip in summer of '91. Little did I realize that, unbeknownst entirely to me, it had already been cancelled by then. See, in a bit of scheduling bravado that proved ill-advised, CBS aired their very expensive show on Thursday nights, and it ran headfirst into the twin behemoths of The Cosby Show on NBC and The Simpsons on Fox. Despite positive reviews and a fair amount of buzz, The Flash just ran out of track after a single season's worth of episodes (the second Trickster ep was the finale, in fact). I was crushed.

It wouldn't be until 2006 -- a full fifteen years after the series ended -- that I was able to make my way through the whole thing when it finally hit DVD. And all told I think it holds up pretty well. There's some misses in there, the early '90s fashions are pretty painful to look at, and the TV budget is what it is, but nonetheless, the show made a concerted effort to expand the boundaries of what was achievable with the superhero genre during that era, and as TV's first go at giving the Scarlet Speedster his own skein, it's an important piece of comic-to-film history. I'm glad the new series is acknowledging that history by giving Shipp a key recurring role (they also announced a few weeks ago that Pays would also be appearing -- as the same character she played twenty-four years ago, no less).

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