Whatever Happened to “The Fastest Man Alive”?

Team Flash, and Their Amazing Monochrome Basement

Anyone who has ever heard me talk about The Flash knows that the one villain I think defeats the team on a regular basis isn’t actually a character. It’s S.T.A.R. Labs. Partially Team Flash itself, but mostly S.T.A.R. Labs. Whenever a villain even hints that he’s going to destroy the place, I immediately jump to their defence, and whenever it looks like the team might “gasp” go their separate ways, I send up a silent prayer. Our article from last year delved into the storytelling problems, but here I’m going a little deeper. There are many reasons I hate it, revolving around the show’s characters, the show’s structure, and the show’s worldbuilding, each just as frustrating as the last, but they all point to the same conclusion – it. Is. The. Worst.

Let’s start with the show’s characters. While all of the characters use the Lab as a base, only a few are actually native there; as in, on a normal day, that’s where you’d find them. Over the seasons, Barry, Iris, Joe, Cecile and Wally (when he was around) all had primary sets at their job, the West house, or the West-Allen apartment. Caitlin, Cisco and Wells, however, are based in the Lab, and since the show never sought to develop them outside of being Barry’s appendages sidekicks, they can’t really push the story forward in ways that aren’t directly connected to what they’re doing in there. Put simply, Caitlin, Cisco, and Wells have very little life and no narrative mobility outside the Lab, which means that the show is forced to have the vast majority of the scenes there so the audience don’t notice how poorly-developed they are.

This problem feeds other problems; primarily, that they have to take away from Barry so they can still fulfil their narrative purpose. As I mentioned, Barry can’t get any smarter or develop his own technology or we’ll have no need for Cisco or Wells. As soon as Barry got fast enough to not injure himself all the time, the show brought on another rookie superhero (Ralph) that would injure himself enough that Caitlin still had something to do. In season 4, The Thinker storyline was dumbed down considerably so that Ralph was the star, while the scientific work was outsourced to Cisco and Wells with consultation from Caitlin. All Barry was required to do was show up and run. This season, the villain is apparently supposed to be defeated by Killer Frost, and once more, a near-stranger is explaining the source of Barry’s own power to him even though he just got here.

Caitlin and Cisco have barely developed since season 1.

Apart from this, it prevents the characters themselves from developing so much that they can’t still be Barry’s sidekicks, with Caitlin and Cisco being the biggest examples. Because Caitlin could not be allowed to be anything other than Barry’s doctor, her Killer Frost arc over the past three seasons has been haphazard and nonsensical. She is evil but takes no responsibility for it, the rules around her powers change seasonally, and the show has her repeatedly do the same things without actually developing her character, so the effect is a little like sitting on a carousel all day long. Cisco, whose storylines are often matryoshka dolls that look like they’re about Cisco but actually turn out to be about the white characters he’s babysitting, has fared even worse. At the very least, we’ve seen Caitlin’s family; Cisco hasn’t spoken about his in two seasons. His romantic storylines happen mostly offscreen, and the latest development with his powers is that he can’t use them. Both of them have to have storylines that keep them inside the Lab, because the show doesn’t see them (or rather, their skills) as anything other than plot devices that can build a gadget or make up pseudoscience to solve a problem. Why aren’t they allowed to have arcs not related to their powers, or goals that take them away from Barry? After all, what do Caitlin and Cisco want out of life? Apart from getting superpowers and love interests, how have they really changed? In reality, they haven’t, but because the show wrote themselves into a corner in earlier seasons by keeping them confined to the Lab, they have to stay there. And so do we.

This feeds nicely into the other problem with S.T.A.R. Labs – the show’s worldbuilding is nonexistent because we’re always stuck in the basement. Usually, Barry, Iris, or Joe would discover a problem at work, bring the problem to the Lab, and then everyone would go off and solve their part of it. But as Barry got smarter it got less justifiable that he needed three extra brains so often, so the show often begins, ends, and exists in the Lab – which is not only visually dull, but decreases a lot of tension and emotional resonance as well as making the show seem stale.

Take the earlier seasons. Barry had to hide his identity from people, he had to work to keep up appearances at his job, and he had to make sure being The Flash didn’t encroach on his life. This added a source of tension, because Barry always had something to lose. Now, though, Barry spends all his time at the Lab and doesn’t go to work, so we never get the sense that his world – and therefore the show’s world – is bigger than the four walls of the basement. Characters like Captain Singh, the people at Jitters, the people at the newspaper – they all gave us a sense that the show existed outside of Barry’s circle of friends, and therefore a sense that the villain’s plan would affect real people, not the people we know won’t die because they’re all contracted for the next season.

There is no end to the potential storylines that come if the writers cared to make something other than the Lab the primary focus, and build the world of Central City into its own character. Caitlin’s Killer Frost arc, for example would have held more weight if the “Oxford friends” she mentioned sometime in season 4 actually came to visit, and maybe she’d have to deal with someone who aren’t quite as forgiving as her Team Flash friends when it comes to her villainous alter-ego. Cisco having to explain to his family why he sometimes works for the police and has superhero gear in his laundry would add some meat to his character. Barry and Iris have a daughter from the future and that should have given us all types of hijinks – like Barry and Iris’ colleagues asking why a grown woman kept calling them “mom and dad,” one trusted friend being let in on the secret and not being able to deal with it, or even them trying to have dinner with friends one night and wondering how to explain her presence to their guests. But like I said, basic worldbuilding was sacrificed so we could remain in S.T.A.R. Labs. Perhaps I missed the Supernatural crossover episode where they were cursed so that if they left the Lab for more than four whole minutes a Chupacabra would jump out of the computer and get them, but I’m getting tired of knowing that the characters won’t do anything other than stand around folding their arms while they debate a plan that inevitably won’t work.

Characters outside Barry’s inner circle give the threat of the villains more weight.

That’s not to say that the show hasn’t tried to make us believe that they’re expanding the world. Each season, the show introduces one new character to the cast to give the impression that the world would get a little bigger, but it never works. In season 2, Jay Garrick (Teddy Sears) was supposed to be a mentor figure for Barry – but he kept disappearing and then turned out to be the main villain. In season 3, Julian Albert (Tom Felton) was introduced as a work rival for Barry, giving us hope that we’d get storylines based around his job – but then he was also revealed to be a villain and then inducted onto the team, and we didn’t see Barry’s lab for the rest of the season. The same with Ralph, who initially had a historical connection to Barry through work – but then as soon as he got powers, he got chained to the Lab too. Even Nora, who you would think would provide more family time between the West-Allen-Horton family and discussions with her parents, has had the opposite effect – her parents barely even speak to each other anymore.

Actually, that reminds me of something: earlier, I said that Barry had little emotional arc this season, but that isn’t true. As I mentioned, Barry and Iris’ daughter has come from the future, and they learned that Barry would die before he got to see her grow up. This should have been the emotional core of the season – but The Flash’s writers constantly undermine it by having so-called intimate moments involve everyone outside the West-Allen family, as well as having them in S.T.A.R. Labs. It’s all well and good to have an emotionally heavy scene where Nora’s secret – that she’s working with the man who killed her grandmother –  is revealed to her parents, but am I really supposed to take it seriously with Sherloque being as obnoxious as possible all over it? Why are Barry and Iris discussing their child, their relationship as parents, and possible solutions in front of their work colleagues? I don’t know whether it’s a writing or directing choice, but I question the sanity of anyone who thinks that an intimate family scene requires every regular cast member standing silently in the background as if they all gave birth to her.

In the earlier seasons, S.T.A.R. Labs and its residents helped him; now, it’s hindering him – and them. Whatever happened to “the fastest man alive”? Lots of things, but here it’s that the show clung to a structure that worked in earlier seasons but now hangs around its neck like an albatross, and it’s slowing Barry down faster than any villain ever could.

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