Back in 1990, CBS’s The Flash was a favorite of young comic book fans. Growing up as a young comic book fan in the ’80s and ’90s was not easy. All you current comic fans have it so easy. I grew up in the dark times, my friends. We were glad when anything comic book related was on movies and TV. We were so desperate that we would make excuses for anything.
Superman III? Hey, he gets to fight an evil Superman.
Generation X? Look they’re in the X-mansion!
Howard the Duck? Yeah….I got nothing.
But every once in a while someone would get it right. Richard Donner’s Superman started it but it was Tim Burton’s Batman film in 1989 that started to change things. Sure we would eventually get duds like Batman & Robin, but we also had Batman The Animated Series and Blade. Yet for a long time, there was one TV show that was mostly ignored for years. It wasn’t until 28 years later that it was showered with love and truly appreciated for all it did to comic book media. I am of course talking about The Flash TV series from 1990.
Yes, long before Grant Gustin raced into comic book fan’s TV sets in 1994, there was another scarlet speedster who was the trailblazer for the speed force. So before we see yet another Flash break the sound barrier, let’s talk about the original, and to me the best hero to wear the lightning bolt. In this episode of Gone But Not Forgotten.
After the massive success of Tim Burton’s Batman In 1989 Warner Brothers television was trying to develop different DC comics characters to milk the superhero interest that Batman had sparked for CBS. During this time, writing duo Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo pitched a show called “Unlimited Powers”. Which revolved around an older Flash and a group of young superheroes. These characters would be fighting a war against supervillains secretly controlling the world. The network passed but where impressed with the script, so when CBS president Jeff Sagansky gave the order to make a Flash TV show they were tapped to develop it.
Fun fact, as they were making the show Bilson and De Meo were also writing another superhero movie. The Rocketeer! Yes, these two were responsible for one of my favorite superhero movies of all time. Honestly, I think it’s in my top 5 superhero movies. I know many people might disagree with me but I stand by that statement.
But back to The Flash. The casting of Barry Allen was very interesting, sixty actors auditioned for the lead of the fastest man alive. De Meo and Bilson originally wanted Richard Burgi for the role. Other actors were considered, supposedly Jack Coleman was offered the character. But he turned it down because he didn’t want to play a superhero and wear a costume. You have to take that with a grain of salt though, since I couldn’t find any proof of this. But, the network pushed for soap opera star John Wesley Shipp. Shipp was reluctant to take the role though. He had no idea who the character was and asked if it was the classic sci-fi hero Flash Gordon. But the main reason for his trepidation was the common belief that superheroes were a joke. Like many people at the time, Shipp thought of the Adam West Batman TV Show when he heard the word superhero. But, legendary casting director April Webster talked about how De Meo and Bilson wanted to make the show more like the Richard Donner Superman film. Then she told Shipp to just read the script and to come back with his opinion.
John read the script and was blown away. Shipp said that some of his favorite aspects of the pilot were Barry’s family dynamic. In the pilot, Barry was the runt of the family, the nerd in a family of jocks. He was intrigued by the concept of Barry’s wish to give up his powers and be normal again. Only to wind up using them to avenge his brother’s murder and make the world a better place. John said that it was something he never expected to read on a superhero tv show. So once he got the approval from De Meo and Bilson, he signed up for the role.
As a fan I was thrilled to see The Flash suit recreated so accurately on the show. Robert Short designed the costume for the series. Short was responsible for the iconic Batman suit that Michael Keaton wore in the now groundbreaking 1989 Tim Burton Batman film. This was a blessing because the network was against having Barry in the classic Flash costume. They wanted a costume in a more “realistic” style. At one point they wanted to have Barry in a tracksuit. But Bilson and De Meo told them “The guy made the costume on the highest-grossing film in the past decade, I think you should trust him”.
Shipp said that the costume was a struggle to wear. It was hot and he would sweat so badly that at the end of the day, they would take his gloves off and it was filled with sweat up to his wrist. it was like ringing a wet sponge. It was so hot that they put a vest with tubing in the costume so that they could pump ice water that would circulate his body to keep him cold. Years later Shipp said that if he could have a say in it, he would have had the flash barely appear in the frame. He wanted the character to be so fast, that you would only see pieces of his costume to create a more dramatic effect when you did clearly see him. He also said he would have also had Flash not talk to create an intimidating atmosphere around the character.
The look of the show was amazing. Batman’s 1989 film was a huge influence on the show but there were some Max Fleischer Superman cartoons thrown in. The showrunners said that they wanted to mix a modern and 1940s esthetics. So you would see the 1940s and 50s cars, as well as seeing computers.
Many viewers were immediately impressed with the show. The reason Bilson and De Meo said was that they respected the source material. De Meo and Bilson said, “We do nothing different other than just reflect what was in the comics at the time.” It was fun to see little Easter eggs thrown in for sharp-eyed comic book fans. Some of my favorite ones were that Star Labs was located on 50 Garrick Ave which was a nod to the golden age Flash. At one point Barrys’s love interest Tina mentions the name of a doctor named Carter Hall also known as Hawkman. Then you had actors like Robert Shayne who played Inspector Henderson in the 1950s George Reeves Superman TV show. And so many more.
The cast on the show was excellent, probably the most well-known was Barry’s love interest Christina “Tina” McGee. Tina was played by the beautiful and talented Amanda Pays. Pays was well known at the time for being on another 1980s sci-fi TV show called Max Headroom (another Gone But Not Forgotten favorite). This worked well for the series as she was used to talking techno-babble and making it sound believable.
Pays and Shipp’s chemistry was off the charts. Unfortunately, this caused actress Paula Marshall her role as Iris West in the series. The showrunners felt that they couldn’t sustain two love interests on the show. “We painted ourselves in a corner,” De Meo and Bilson said. “We wanted him to be single so that he could date someone for an episode or two but also have a main love interest as well. We couldn’t do that if we had Iris on the show”.
But, even though the show was well written, acted, and shot there were problems. Of course anyone who has seen previous episodes of Gone But Not Forgotten knows the answer….THE NETWORK.
Yes, once again we have network interference that caused headaches for De Meo and Bilson. The big issue was that the network didn’t want any supervillains on the show. They wanted real-life villains, like mobsters. So De Meo and Bilson had to be clever and incorporated sci-fi elements in the episodes. But things began to change when De Meo and Bilson pushed through a supervillain episode. In one of my favorite episodes “Ghost in the Machine,” the show introduced a golden-age hero name Night Shade. It was a fun episode as it introduced the idea that Central City had a legacy of superheroes. Comic book fans will catch that Nightshade looked like the golden age superhero known as The Sandman.
The episode was about an old supervillain known as the Ghost. He fought Nightshade in the 1950s and escaped by going into suspended animation. He awakens in 1990 and fights The Flash and an older Nightshade. The episode was good not only for the action but also for the acting. Anthony Starke crushed it as The Ghost and Jason Bernard brought this regalness to Nightshade. He comes back in another episode to mentor Barry on the dangers of being a superhero.
John Wesley Shipp said that had there been a second season he would have become a recurring character, continuing to mentor Barry.
This was the episode when things began to change. CBS saw a rise in the ratings. So De Meo and Bilson used this and began to push for more comic book-related episodes. Then things exploded when one of the most popular episodes of The Flash aired. “The Trickster”.
Fun fact about this episode. Mark Hamill was the one to approach Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson to play the Trickster. Hamill was a fan of the show and a lifelong comic book geek. This episode was also the origin of The Joker’s voice. If you watch it you can hear the beta version of the Joker. Hamill developed the voice over time and it’s pretty cool to see the beginnings of it.
The ratings went through the roof and now the network wanted supervillains. But there was a catch, they didn’t want to pay for it. So ideas were thrown around to feature villains like Randal Savage who would be more of a budget-friendly bad guys. Even though Savage never showed up, Mirror Master was introduced. There’s this funny scene in the Mirror Master episode that had Barry pretend to be a scientist called “Professor Zoom”. Captain Cold also had a pretty cool episode as well.
One of my favorites was called ‘Twin Streaks” where Barry fights his clone called Pollux. It’s not only action-packed but it also has some very emotional moments. This is one of Shipps favorite episodes.
Some great guest stars during the series included Adam West, Angela Bassett, and even Bryan Cranston just to name a few. Another fun fact, Alice Cooper was supposed to be in an episode but turned it down because he would have been playing a drug addict.
The music on the show was amazing. The main theme was created by legendary composer Danny Elfman. As many know, Elfman is responsible for another comic book hero’s theme the Tim Burton Batman movie. He not only created that theme but also for the Batman Animated Series (again – another Gone But Not Forgotten fave).
The Flash also had another Batman connection because the main composer for the show was the late Shirley Walker. Walker was also the person who was responsible for the music for Batman the animated series. It’s a shame she passed away in 2006. She was not only talented but was also a mentor to many composers. She was a pioneer and role model to women in a field dominated by men. Her score on the Flash is available to purchase but, from what I saw, only on CD. If you get a chance I do suggest you pick it up. It’s worth the buy.
As I stated before the series was heavily comic book inspired and some of the best episodes were written by comic book legends Howard Chakin and John Francis Moore. Chakin was a script consultant on the show and went on to be involved in other awesome shows like “Earth: Final Conflict” and “Viper”. John Francis Moore was also a consultant as well as a story editor. Moore wrote on many comic book properties like The Human Target and one of my favorite shows Superboy.
But, even though the ratings started to get better, problems began to arise on the series. It was one of the most expensive TV shows at the time, the average episode came in at a whopping 1.6 million dollars, that’s 2.5 million with inflation today. So when they began to be interrupted for sports, the gulf war, and George Bush puking at a state dinner, the outlook of the future of the series became concerning. Then they began to be moved around to different timeslots with no warning to viewers, which guaranteed its cancellation.
So on May 18, 1991, the final episode of The Flash aired. Fans were very disappointed, especially when they learned that the second season would have focused on The Rogues.
It seemed like we would never see the scarlet speedster on TV again. But 24 years later Barry Allen once again put on his boots and raced among the airways to rave reviews. The show was amazing with Grant Gustin as Barry Allen and his friends at Star Labs putting away supervillains. The best part was that John Wesley Shipp was cast as Barry’s father. Fans thought it couldn’t get any better until Shipp raced across the multiverse, once again in his classic costume. Original fans of the show now had closure, when we learned that Tina and Barry got married! Finally putting to bed the “will they or won’t they” aspect of the original show that viewers loved.
Then during the multipart Crisis of Infinite Earth saga, The 1990 Flash passed the baton to the new speedster and sacrificed himself to save the multi-universe. I still cry every time I hear the classic Danny Elfman theme and see his last thoughts of Tina as he runs into the speed force never to be seen again.
So after that amazing ending for the original Flash you’re probably wondering “How could the show to come back?’ Well, I do think it should return BUT not the way you think. What if we see The Flash’s adventures between the time of cancellation and his end in crisis? We could make it an animated show and have some of the original writers work on the episodes. Sadly Paul De Meo passed away in 2018 leaving a legacy of work in comics, film, TV, and video games.
Currently, the show is only available to stream on Amazon and sold on DVD. Although, some fans have uploaded a few episodes on YouTube. What’s amazing is that they converted it to HD, something even the studio has yet to do. I highly suggest you watch the show. All these years later it does hold up.
But, even if we don’t see Shipp become the 1990s Flash again, it was a good run. During the dark times of comic book media, The Flash was the beacon of hope for comic book fans everywhere. I know I will always be thankful that I was there when I saw that symbol race across the TV screen. At the time of this episode, the current Flash tv show ends this year and The Flash movie is ready to premiere in theaters. It’s funny, years from now Flash fans will cite either of those properties as their Flash. In their view, Grant Gustin or Ezra Miller are the only Flashes. But real comic book fans know that if it wasn’t for two comic book geeks in the 1990s, we would never have known how awesome super speed could be.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/the-flash-1990-gone-but-not-forgotten/