Monday, March 1, 2010

Torch Bearers

The Flash

Episode 9: "Ghost in the Machine"

1955, Central City. the supervillain known as the Ghost threatens to blow up the city center using a television signal if his demands are not met. His plans are foiled by the mysterious vigilante known as Nightshade. 1990, the Ghost awakens from cryogenic sleep to find a brave new world... and one equal to his genius and nefarious plots. The Flash must team up with an out-of-retirement Nightshade in order to stop the Ghost from bringing Central City to it's knees.

My Take:
Ladies and gentlemen, after nine episodes.... We. Have. A. SUPERVILLAIN! YAY!!!!! Okay, so it's not one of the Flash's traditional rogues from the comic books but he fits all the points of supervillainy. Costume? Check (at least in the opener. The wardrobe department is quick to put him in regular clothes and keep him there throughout the episode but there WAS a costume), Supervillain name? Check. Wild, over-the-top, insane plan for conquest (at least of the city)? Check.

About freakin' time. Some disappointment that the first supervillain they feature is one made up for the TV series and not one of the Flash's traditional rogues from the comic books but I'll let it go because IT'S A SUPERVILLAIN!!!!

Okay, okay, it's out of my system now.

At any rate, the writers finally hit their stride with this episode. There are a few minor quibbles -- some elements where time has not been kind to the story, but overall, from the opening to the last scene, this story is awesome!

So, the opening... so very cool that they chose to do this in black and white -- like an old TV show. I also like all of the touches that tie the hero Nightshade into the old, pulp mystery men genre (more on that later).

The story as a whole has some really good dialogue -- everything from truly funny stuff to quiet, dramatic moments that manage to hold you spellbound. Of course, some of this is because of actor Jason Bernard playing Desmond Powell/Nightshade. His performance here is nuanced and grounded giving the characters weight and believability.

There is a lot going on here in the script and yet it all manages to work together seemlessly. The Ghost bemoans that the "future" he has awakened in has fallen short of his expectations. There are no "food pills", no "personal helicopters", no monorails, and no "underwater cities". As modern, British, comic book writer Warren Ellis put it in his Doktor Sleepless comic: "Where's my $%^&ing jetpack?!" It's a nice commentary and good laugh at how science fiction of the 1950's and 1960's always had humanity far ahead of where it would end up being at the turn of the millenium. Then there is the passage of time. We see it physically in the change of the mural on the wall of the secret entrance to Nightshade's hideout, we see and hear it in the characters of Nightshade and Belle as they bemoan their lost youth. And yet, at the same time, there is a realization on the part of both of them that they have lived all of these years and they have gained something from them. Belle eventually flees from her former love -- both from a sense that she cannot be with him while he is still young and vital and she has had time take it's toll on her -- but also because she has grown up as she has grown old and the Ghost has not. Stunted in maturity and morals for not having gone through life the way she has. Belle and Nightshade reflect that age may take away beauty, skill, stamina and speed but it delivers wisdom, intelligence, and maturity.

In addition to all of that, the story is a love letter to the old, pulp mystery heroes many of whom were forerunners of modern superheroes as well as contemporaries of the superheroes. There are lots of little tributes -- Nightshade keeping his car and hideout in an abandoned building where the wall rolls up to let the car out hearkens back to the Green Hornet who had a similar setup. Also, Nightshade's black car seems pretty similar to the Green Hornet's ride, Black Beauty. The idea of an ordinary guy without any superpowers who relies on gadgets was also a staple of the mystery man -- characters like the aforementioned Green Hornet, but also the original Crimson Avenger, the original Sandman, Alias the Spider, and even some women like Lady Luck, Domino Lady and the Blonde Phantom. Nightshade's use of tranquilizers could be a tribute to the Sandman or the Green Hornet -- both of whom used gas guns which dispersed a "knockout" gas. Also, Nightshade's costume bears a slight resemblance to the Golden Age Sandman's costume in that Nightshade's welder's goggles look quite a bit like the Sandman's WWI era gas mask which he wore as a disguise. In another tribute, Powell tells the Flash that he read "Too many pulp magazines when I was a kid". Of course, this also touches back to the Flash's comic book origin where he took his name and inspiration for crime fighting from reading comic books when he was a kid.

Not all is fun and games, though, and there is a lovely soliloquy by Powell/Nightshade about his career -- of returning after the Korean War, of wanting to be of service to the city but being blocked by the fact he was African-American, of the strain and costs of the double life... it is a mature, sincere discusstion wonderfully acted not just by Bernard but by Shipp as well. The character of Barry doesn't have a lot to say here but Shipp manages to convey with expression and body language Barry being entranced by the life of this superhero -- a kind of enchantment like a kid reading a comic book for the first time -- but also as an adult who has found a kindred soul -- someone who understands the masked crusade.

After all of this... lovely writing, a serious story, a love letter to the past, the story does fall down a bit when it comes to the suervillain... or more precisely, his plot. The idea of him uploading his consciousness onto the net and taking over is cheesy, yes, but suitable supervillainy. The writers might have gotten away with it too... I can remember in my youth when I watched this episode first run I thought it was pretty cool. Problem is, we're 20 years farther along with decades of open public internet access being the norm. Of even 10 years olds now knowing enough about the way computers operate and the net operates to know that pretty much ALL of the computer stuff depicted here is so wrong, stupid and bad it's beyond fail. It's beyond ultra fail and has gone into the territory of ultra-mega-bad-crazy-fail.

Still, if one overlooks the fact that time has not been kind, the rest of the story is well awesome.

Now, I said, I would get around to explaining about "Mystery Men" a bit. There are some who choose to subdivide the superhero genre into true "superheroes" -- men and women who wear colorful costumes and who have powers beyond those of ordinary mortals -- and "Mystery Men" -- men and women who are perfectly ordinary, who rely on some gadgets and gizmos but mostly stand on brains, fists, and occasionally guns. The Mystery Men also tend to have costumes that consist of ordinary business suits (although perhaps in an unusal color like green or blue), trenchcoats or greatcoats, domino masks, and fedoras -- either wide-brimmed or snap brimmed. A number of mystery men were actually created before many of the first superheroes (Superman being one of the earliest heroes and he arrives in 1938) but many also came about after the first superheroes throughout the 1930's and 1940's.

The Mystery Men came from two sources -- one was comic books but the other source was the old pulp magazines (hence Nightshade's comment about reading too many pulps as a kid). The Shadow, Alias the Spider and Domino Lady are three who came from the pulps while Crimson Avenger, Sandman, and the Blonde Phantom are three examples from the comic books.

Of course, the lines between superhero and mystery man are not always clear. Take the Shadow for instance. He had the look of a mystery man -- greatcoat, fedora, and scarf covering his face. He tended to use guns in the pulp stories (not so much in the radio adaptations) and he had no superhuman strength BUT he had the "hypnotic ability to cloud mens' minds so they could not see him" basically resulting in invisibility... which pretty much amounts to a super power. And on the flip side you have Batman who had the look of a superhero -- a colorful costume, but who had no superpowers, was an ordinary man and tended to rely on gadgets like grapling hooks and gas capsules like the mystery men did.

Either way, the Mystery Men served an important place in bridging the world of the weird pulp heroes and the comic book hero.

Flash Facts:
Nightshade, in talking about fading from public memory, asks Barry how many people will remember the Flash after 35 years. Unknown if this was a joke on the part of the writers or not since, in 1990, the Silver Age version of the Flash was actually 34 years old, having debuted in 1956. As it is, The Flash: Rebirth comic book mini-series just concluded, returing the Barry Allen version of the character to the comic book world 54 years after his introduction and 25 years after his death. I'd say plenty of people still remember the Flash.

When the Ghost takes control of the computer network he broadcasts a message in which he tells the citizens of the city that: "I control the horizontal, I control the vertical"; this is a reference to the original opening of the Outer Limits TV series. Although this is an odd choice for the Ghost to make as The Outer Limits did not debut until 1963 and the Ghost supposedly put himself in suspended animation in 1955.

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