The Flash (1990) DVD Review

  • Series Title: The Flash
  • Season: The Complete Series (Season 1)
  • Episodes:  22
  • Discs:  6
  • Network: CBS (Warner Brothers Television)
  • Cast:  John Wesley Shipp, Amanda Pays, Alex Désert, Richard Belzer, Vito D’Ambrosio, Biff Manard, Mike Genovese
  • DVD: Widescreen DVD (R1, NTSC)

This is the original The Flash television series from 1990, based on the DC Comics Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen. I remember watching the series in 1990, and liking it because it was very over-the-top and funny.  Unfortunately, re-watching the series, it does not live up to even that sense of nostalgia, and there’s no other way to say it – it’s just pretty bad.

One of the problems with the program is the utter lack of women and minorities (I’ll get to Dr. Christina McGee and Julio Mendez in a moment). The Central City police department doesn’t appear to employ a single female officer. Not one. They also don’t appear to employ any minorities at all. The two street cops, Bellows and Murphy, have the bumbling quality that brings to mind early 1960s comedy cop shows such as Car 54, Where Are You? Murphy, in addition, is the stereotypical Irish Cop – at least he doesn’t speak with a phony leprechaun accent, which would have taken it from a bad stereotype to an offensive one.

Dr. Christina (Tina) McGee, played by Amanda Pays, whom I normally like (she was also in Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future) tries so hard in The Flash, but her part is nothing more than the token Strong Woman ™. She’s a scientist, and we know this because every time we see her she’s in a white lab coat and normally Barry sees her at Star Labs. This is one case where I would have liked to have seen a bit of romance between Barry and Tina, because at least that would have given Tina something to do. Tina spends all her time worrying about Barry, especially his health, and occasionally helping him on cases by running lab results (something Barry, as a forensic scientist, should be able to do himself), breaking into computer systems, or, occasionally getting captured. It’s sad, and a thankless role.

Julio Mendez, is Barry’s friend and colleague at the Central City police department. Though I liked seeing an African American as an intelligent, educated character who works for the police department, unfortunately, he’s even more of a token role than Tina. We rarely see Julio actually doing anything at Barry’s lab. His only role seems to be setting Barry up on blind dates. And he has no idea that Barry is The Flash.

Even with the art deco set and location design (although the Pac-Man font that appears occasionally definitely doesn’t fit with Art Deco) the show is definitely set contemporously, that is, in 1990, so the lack of real women and real minorities just glares.

The early half of the series, also, makes the mistake of trying to make the Flash simply a supercop. And having Barry use his speed to catch everyday criminals simply doesn’t work. In addition, the pilot introduces Barry’s family – Nora Allen – his mother, his father, and his brother Jay, who is also a cop. Jay’s killed in the pilot, which becomes Barry’s motivation for becoming a crime-fighter. But Barry’s father is a real jerk. Mr. Allen constantly compares Barry to Jay and comes up wanting. He also insults Barry for being a scientist and not a real cop (in his father’s view). It’s painful and sad to watch. The pilot also introduces Iris, an arty type, who disappears to study painting in Paris and we never see again. You’d think that getting rid of Iris would free Barry for a relationship with Tina – but no. This Flash is a solo man with no girlfriend.

The second half of the series, which introduces super-villains to challenge the Flash is an improvement. Yes, the series still as problems, but introducing characters like The Ghost, Nightshade (a friendly hero who helps the Flash), Mirror Master, Captain Cold, and of course, The Trickster, at least makes it slightly more watchable – and on occasion almost getting to the level of “pretty good” despite the glaring issues.

Mark Hamill is way, way over the top in the episode, “The Trickster”, but in the final episode of the series, “The Trial of the Trickster” he returns, dials it back a bit, and becomes wonderful. The series final episode is it’s best by far – which is the saddest thing about this show – it had potential, and was definitely starting to find it’s own feet when it was cancelled. “The Trial of the Trickster” also introduces Prank, a women who is heir to a toy store fortune and completely obsessed with the Trickster. She becomes his partner in crime and frees him from jail before his trial. She’s also the driving force of much of his rampage in his encore performance, providing weapons, materials, semi-deadly pranks and jokes, getaway vehicles, etc. Although in the first episode, “The Trickster”, Prank was a figment of James Jesse’s imagination – and his obsession with having an assistant caused him to kidnap and turn private detective Megan Lockhart into his “Prank”; in “The Trial of the Trickster”, Prank is a real character, though with very little background. And she’s completely obsessed with and possibly in love with the Trickster – despite his treating her terribly and not caring about her. If you’re familiar with the DC Animated Universe, you can see where this is going – the Trickster-Prank relationship seems to me to have inspired both the character of Harley Quinn and her relationship with the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. (and Hamill played The Joker throughout Batman: The Animated Series and many subsequent Warner Brothers Animated DC films.) If all of the 1990 The Flash series had been up to the quality of it’s final episode, the series might have lasted a bit longer.

Another episode I’d like to discuss is number 15, “Fast Forward”. In the episode, Pike, the violent biker from the pilot is released from prison on a technicality. During the Flash’s conflict with Pike, he fires a heat-seeking missile at the Flash. In attempting to out-run the missile, Flash travels 10 years into the future. There, Central City has become a cesspool of violence, crime, sex, gambling, and it’s also the personal playground of “Mayor Pike” who runs the city as his own, personal fiefdom. Yes, it’s very reminiscent of Back to the Future Part II (with Biff running Marty’s hometown). But what I found interesting about it was I couldn’t help but think of the modern day The Flash (2014) episode where Barry slips into the future and prevents a tidal wave from destroying Central City but is completely unaware that Wells “kills” Cisco. In the 1990 The Flash episode, Julio is killed in the future, and we’re pretty sure Tina is as well but her experiment completely negates that future by returning Barry back in time a few minutes earlier – so he can prevent Pike from firing the missile. The 1990 The Flash episode was typical for the show, but it made me a bit disappointed in the new 2014 series that they’d actually updated an episode from the original series. Don’t get me wrong, the modern episode is awesome, and when I saw it, I thought it was one of the best of the 2014 The Flash episodes, but it now disappoints me to find out that story wasn’t as original as it seemed.

Overall, The Flash (1990) is a disappointment. It’s full of melodramatic dialogue and acting, and the subtle but impossible to ignore lack of women and minorities is disturbing and upsetting. The best episode is definitely it’s last. If you can find the episodes “The Trickster” and “The Trial of the Trickster”, especially the second one, on-line somewhere they are worth watching, but the series is not really worth buying.

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future DVD Review

  • Title:  Max Headroom:  20 Minutes into the Future
  • Original Network:  ABC (US)
  • Original Airdate:  1987 – 1988
  • Cast:  Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, Chris Young, Jeffrey Tambor, George Coe, W. Morgan Sheppard, Concetta Tomei
  • DVD Format:  3-4 episodes per disc, 5 discs total (final disc is special features only)
  • Number of Episodes:  14

Max Headroom is an  excellent SF program, that was way ahead of its time. This program originally aired when night time soaps like Dallas and Falcon Crest were popular, as were formula action series such as The A-Team, MacGyver, Miami Vice, and Magnum, PI. Max Headroom was completely different. Following the adventures of a crusading, caring tele-journalist and his “computerized” alter-ego in a dystopian future – each episode addressed futuristic issues that seem even more relevant now than then. The look of the show mixed the old and the new – antique typewriter keyboards hooked up to sophisticated computer screens. The effect of the mix was that nothing was shiny and new, everything was old, dirty, and re-used. In one episode, Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) tries to get some information from Sully in the “Fringes” (the bad section of the sprawling metropolis) who remarks, “Nobody makes nothin’ new anymore. We just recycle the old ones.” – He’s specifically talking about cars, but it seems to apply to everything.

Corporations rule this world, and television is everywhere – taking over every aspect of life. Not only is the Japanese Corporation, Zik-Zac the top advertiser and client of Network 23 (where Edison works) – but at one point they actually manipulate a crash in Network 23 stock – a comment on Sony’s acquisition of ABC at the time the series was made. In the world of Max Headroom, television is how people vote, educate their children, shop, attend church, are entertained, and how people are informed. Television is literally everywhere, even in fancy restraurants – and the sets cannot even be turned off. There is also no video tapes, no movie theaters, no books, and no other form of entertainment – just television.

The show commented on television network politics, instant ratings, violent extreme sports, genetic engineering, pervasive private security, televangelists, censorship, and consumerism. And always, always, always – the series mocked the very medium that created it, which is why it didn’t last. Max Headroom predicted many things we now find commonplace, more if you substitute the word “computer” for “television”. For example, Edison and Theora both carry “credit tubes” – these are used to make all payments, as ID to enter Network 23 or any place that requires it, even as the way to unlock their (respective) apartment doors. These days it’s becoming very common for people to not carry cash or checkbooks but to pay for everything with debit or even credit cards. Both Google and Apple have launched payment apps so that in the US, people can start to pay for things using their cell phones (something that’s been common in Europe for years). Personal security companies are creating “smart home apps” that allow you to do everything from program the optimal temperature to lock and unlock the front door. Is it hard to imagine a time when your smartphone is all you need to carry and it becomes the device for personal ID, unlocking doors, and making all payments?

In the episode, “Lessons” (or Project:  Fringes Literacy) it’s revealed that free public education no longer exists – and well-to-do parents pay for subscription paid educational TV. In the episode, Edison meets a Blank (non-registered) person whom the cops think is pirating educational TV tapes. In reality, she’s printing illegal books to teach children in the Fringes how to read. That is also the episode that takes place during the annual “Sky Clearance” festival – where old satellites are shot down to make room for new ones. Today, Earth’s orbit is getting so full of various pieces of space junk, the idea of cleaning it up by destroying bigger chunks isn’t that far-fetched.

Whereas, in the episode, “Dieties” (Vu Age Televangelists) it’s revealed traditional religions more-or-less no longer exist, and have been replaced by Televangelists hosting their own TV religious hours.  Even movie theaters are gone, as shown in the episode, “Dream Thieves”, when Edison does a brief nostalgia piece at a worn out, empty theater – the blanks and fringers he interviews, man-on-the-street style don’t even know what a movie or movie theater is.

Max Headroom was an intelligent, smart, show. The dialogue was frequently snappy and ironic. The characters were great, and had excellent relationships with each other. It was a show that called attention to being television – much of it took place in the newsroom control center, where Murray (Jeffrey Tambor) would decide what stories air and what don’t (though he could be over-ruled by the Network 23 board of directors, or even by the Censor computer.) The room was filled with multiple TV screens, smoke, and streaky blue lighting. Many episodes would start or end with Edison’s “What I Want to Know” program – but at times, rather than filling the screen and being the focus for the audience, it would play in the background, and other characters would talk over what Edison was saying – just as today, TVs play in the background all the time and no one pays attention to what is being aired.

The DVDs in this set look fantastic – the copy quality is very good, and the episodes have been cleaned-up and restored beautifully.

I highly recommend this show. If you haven’t seen it, rent or buy the series on DVD.  If you like Cyberpunk, or dystopian SF – this show is for you.