The Flash’s Wonderful Fake Science Was Its Greatest Strength This Season

Barry Allen, sorta-scientist. Photo: Diyah Pera/CW

Historically, of all the top-tier superheroes in the DC Comics pantheon, the Flash is the one most closely tied to science. Well, okay, “science” with heavy quotation marks around it: in comic-book lore, ordinary dude Barry Allen got his speed powers after being drenched in electrically charged chemicals — an explanation that’s a long bus-ride away from serious physics. Nevertheless, unlike fellow DC superhumans such as Superman (an alien who looks just like a human and can fly for unspecified reasons) or Wonder Woman (a quasi-god from a hidden island of undying warrior women), his origins at least take a stab at rational explanation.

As such, the Flash archetype represents a kind of universal fantasy about science: that the natural world is far less mundane than it might seem, and  the right combination of research and chance can unlock wonders. Throughout the character’s many decades of existence, his stories have drawn upon quasi-scientific notions — time travel, parallel universes, power-unleashing equations — far more often than those of his peers. Thankfully, the CW’s televised interpretation of the Flash mythos, The Flash, has followed suit, especially in its just-concluded second season. Indeed, the show’s slinging of pseudoscience is its finest narrative trait, and one it could stand to exploit more often.

I’m not really talking about the hand-wave-y technobabble dialogue that gets spewed in virtually every episode, usually by the show’s pair of go-tos for such things, Carlos Valdes’s Cisco and Tom Cavanagh’s Harry. The Flash’s more interesting deployments of pseudoscience are the ones with thematic weight and/or high-concept inventiveness. The most notable development in this second season was the introduction of Earth-2, an alternate version of Barry’s Earth located in a parallel universe. The near-apocalyptic climax of season one led to the weakening of the border between these two dimensions, and this season saw the introduction of an array of Earth-2 characters on good ol’ Earth-1. But more importantly, we got occasional narrative expeditions into Earth-2 itself.

Once we got there, inventive sci-fi tidbits greeted us. This was no mere mirror image of the world we’d been watching: It was different in curious, visually rich ways. On Earth-2, Art Deco never went out of style, leading to grand CGI backdrops comprised of bold, rounded, almost Fritz Langian structures. A conflict called the “War of the Americas” was mentioned but, enticingly, never explained. There were doppelgänger versions of every character, all with jobs and looks that differed wildly from the versions we were used to. For some reason, TV and computer screens are cast in portrait (rather than landscape) orientation on Earth-2. It was all just reasonable enough to not feel silly, but just odd enough to evoke an air of calm, dreamlike wonder that one rarely gets in superhero shows.

The Earth-2 story line also tapped into what has long been the core pleasure of the parallel universe as a sci-fi conceit. At their best, journeys to alternate realities are fantasies of a very specific sort: They fulfill our wishes to learn what is essential about ourselves and what is changeable about ourselves. For example, brave Barry learns that his Earth-2 counterpart is a weak-willed poindexter, which demonstrates that he has to stay strong and focused on crime-fighting, lest he melt into a whiny puddle. At the same time, he learns that his counterpart is married to longtime romantic interest Iris (Candice Patton) — evidence that their love would exist even if the rest of the world turned upside-down.

The world didn’t just turn upside-down this season — it also spun backward, in a way. The notion of running so fast you travel back in time was a story element introduced in season one, but season two deployed it in new and compelling ways. Most notably, the show drew heavily upon the concept of “time remnants” — doubles of oneself that you can find while time-traveling (to be honest, I didn’t entirely follow the mechanics of how that worked, but I don’t think there’s going to be a final exam). The sides of good and evil both used time remnants, and, in both cases, these doubles were brought to the present as parts of schemes whereby they would sacrifice themselves for a greater cause. This allowed for unique moments of terror and sadness, wherein characters had to watch identical versions of themselves willingly die right before their eyes.

But the most emotionally gripping use of pseudoscience came near the end of the season, in the Kevin Smith–directed episode “The Runaway Dinosaur.” During a risky experiment, Barry disappears and finds himself in a surreal environment that looks a lot like his childhood home. There, he learns that he’s entered the so-called Speed Force, the energy source from which all speedsters get their speediness. The Force adopts the forms of his loved ones and speaks to him about reality, destiny, and his own neuroses. It was The Flash’s own version of the famed Sopranos two-parter where the dying Tony dreams of being in an otherworldly hotel, or last year’s Leftovers episode in which Kevin does the same.

Much was made of the heartstring-tugging moment in that episode when the Speed Force takes the form of Barry’s long-dead mother and allows him to have some time with her. But for my money, the more exhilarating moments came when he spoke to the Speed Force about the hidden order of the cosmos. “When the first subatomic particle sprang forth from the Big Bang to form reality as you know it, we were there,” the Force says while in the smiling, soothing form of his adopted dad, Joe (Jesse L. Martin). “When the last proton decays, stops vibrating, and plunges the universe into heat death, we’ll be there, too." A living manifestation of a (fake) natural force was telling our hero that everything is under control, everything can be explained, and everything is going to be okay. Of course, real science is more likely to give you confusing findings about quantum uncertainty or gloomy predictions about climate change — but The Flash taps into a child’s optimistic fantasy of science.

This kind of stuff just doesn’t show up in other superhero shows. Marvel’s output on ABC and Netflix is filled with fistfights, espionage, and/or ninjas. The CW’s other DC-based shows don’t satisfyingly explore pseudoscience, either: Arrow is all about swashbuckling and terrorism, Supergirl throws aliens at us but lacks any big ideas about them, and Legends of Tomorrow uses time travel basically as a way to change set dressings every few episodes. The Flash stands alone in this regard. Given that fact, it would be wonderful to see the show’s creators double down on pseudoscience next season. Perhaps we can spend less time on monster-of-the-week villains and more time on esoteric concepts and alternate worlds. Hey, maybe we can even spend less time on the show’s dull love-story plots! Just kidding; I’m basically the only person who watches this show and doesn’t enjoy that stuff. They’d be idiots to cater to down-with-love curmudgeons like myself.

I’m cautiously optimistic about next season because it seems the show’s creative team has recognized there’s gold in the Flash’s sci-fi hills. Hopefully, they’ll mine even deeper. After all, that kind of conceptual inventiveness has been Barry Allen’s mythological strong point, going all the way back to his creation at the hands of Robert Kanigher in 1956. No other top-line DC hero can boast that pedigree. As the Speed Force tells Barry in “The Runaway Dinosaur”: “We pretty much invented trippy here.”