(WARNING: This thing is full of spoilers, and super sad ones at that, for Season 1 of The Flash, Season 3 of Static Shock, Doctor Who 1×08, and The Sarah Jane Adventures 2×10-11/serial 11)
So, it’s been over a month since The Flash finale.
And I’m still wrapping my head around it.
When I was theorizing what would happen in the finale, at least as far as Barry’s storyline, I knew he would go back and try to change his mother’s death, no matter what the risks. I knew she would eventually die anyway.
But I really never thought he’d let her die.
Why, you may ask?
Okay, you remember back in December when I compared The Flash to the superhero cartoon Static Shock? I made a particular prediction back then (and this was before the Eobard Thawne reveal, guys) that, based on the fact that both heroes struggled with their mothers’ deaths. In a particular episode, Static reunited with his mom through time travel, though was unable to save her from dying when she was originally meant to. I predicted based on this that The Flash would have a similar moment between Barry and his mother.
Well, guess what?
But similarities aside, I’m incredibly conflicted about what occurred between Barry and his mom. And I think it’s because, based on Static Shock as well as other stories where this particular version of the Kid from the Future trope is in play – a person visits the past, sees the parent they know will die in the future, tries to save them, and fails due to outside interference – I had certain expectations for what was going to happen. And well… it didn’t quite work out the way I thought.
Now, I certainly don’t hold it against The Flash for diverting from the norm. But because the trope worked so well on other shows, I’m not sure if The Flash’s deviation is original and powerful… or cruel and irresponsible.
So, to dissect what makes The Flash finale so different – for better or worse – let us look at a few more examples of this plot to see how they utilized family-focused time travel, and where The Flash falls in comparison.
Let’s start with the show that started this whole comparison:
Static Shock, “Flashback” (2003)
“I think I’m starting to forget who she was. It’s been so long, I’m losin’ my memory of her.” – Virgil to Richie about his mom.
On the five-year anniversary of the riot that killed his mother, Virgil Hawkins/Static becomes bitter that he got so little time with her. When he and Richie/Gear discover a metahuman with the power to travel in time, Virgil quickly suggests they go back to the riots to save the people who died that night… including his mom. Though Nina/Timezone and Richie/Gear agree, Ebon, Static’s shadow-shifting nemesis, interferes and hitches a rid back to the past, kidnapping Timezone.
“They call me Static. But you know me by another name… It’s me, Mom. It’s Virgil.” – Virgil to Jean, his mom, after saving her as Static.
While searching for Ebon and Timezone, Virgil spots his mother, a paramedic, about to be crushed by a collapsing building. After he saves her and reveals his identity, she marvels how much her son has done and is incredibly proud of him. Virgil is called away by Richie, but begs his mom to promise to stay away from danger. Though she insists she can’t just leave people to suffer, she agrees to stay. After Virgil disappears, Jean gets a call from her fellow paramedics. Though conflicted by her promise, she cannot leave others in danger, and heads back into the fray.
“It wasn’t like your mother to hide from danger, Virgil. She was dedicated to her work and to helping people. Nothing would stop her from doing that. And she had a stubborn streak, too, just like her kids.” – Robert Hawkins, Virgil’s dad, after seeing Virgil upset.
Virgil, realizing she didn’t keep her promise, races back home upon returning to the future to see if anything has changed. Sadly, it hasn’t. However, Virgil is consoled in the fact that his mother was proud of him, and that his memory of her will not fade anytime soon.
Next up, two closely related time-travel tales:
Doctor Who, “Father’s Day” (2005)
“Peter Alan Tyler. My dad. The most wonderful man in the world.” -Rose Tyler in the opening of the episode.
Rose Tyler’s father was hit by a car, and died alone in the street when she was just a baby. When she asks the time-travelling Doctor if she can be there at her father’s death, he reluctantly assents on the condition that she don’t change anything else. But, faced with it, she just can’t help it – she saves her dad.
“It wasn’t some big plan. I just saw it happening and I thought, I can stop it.”- Rose Tyler to the Doctor after saving Pete
Yeah. It all unravels from there.
Shadow-like bat creatures who protect the space-time continuum, called Reapers, show up and start devouring everything on the planet. They mean to cauterize the wound in time and, in this case, the “wound” is earth. Rose, her parents, and the Doctor hole up in an old church.
“I gave you my car keys. You don’t give your keys to a complete stranger. It’s like I trusted you. The moment I met ya, I just did. A wound in time. You called me “dad”. I can see it. My eyes. Jackie’s attitude. You sound like her when you shout…. You’re my Rose.”
Pretending to be a stranger, Rose takes this time to get to know Pete Tyler. Though he is not quite what she’d been lead to believe, he is at his heart a loving father. Pete soon realizes just who Rose is, and that something is amiss with the way Rose regards him.
Pete: “I never read you those bedtime stories. I never took you on those picnics. I was never there for you.”
Rose: “You would have been!”
Pete: “But I can do this for you. I can be a proper dad now.”
Rose: “But it’s not fair!”
Pete: “I’ve had all these extra hours. No one in the world’s ever had that. And on top of that, I get to see you. And you’re beautiful. How lucky am I, eh?”
Connecting the dots, he realizes that it is his death, or lack of it, that is causing the destruction. So he does what Rose couldn’t – sacrifices his life to set the timeline right. But Rose is able to change two things: first, the driver, a kid, takes responsibility for the accident, and second, Rose is able to comfort her father as he dies, knowing he did the right thing.
Sarah Jane Adventures, “The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith” (2008)
Sarah Jane: “We lived in a village called Foxgrove, that’s where I was born. One afternoon in August 1951, they got in their car, drove off. And they never came back.”
Luke:”There was an accident?”
Sarah Jane: “A tractor had broken down in the lane. They went straight into it.
Luke: “You got out okay?”
Sarah Jane: “I wasn’t with them. They left me behind, in my pram, at the side of the road. Alone.”
Luke: “They must have had a reason.”
The Doctor Who spinoff’s take on this plot is not dissimilar to “Father’s Day” in a number of ways – Sarah Jane lost her parents in a car accident when she was a baby and never got the chance to know them.
When a wormhole opens up to the exact time and place she knows they will be, she reluctantly takes the opportunity to meet them, intending only to meet them, as Rose had with her father. But when she discovers she has come back to the very day they died, she decides to sabotage the car so they’ll never drive off.
And again, it all unravels from there.
The Trickster, an interdimensional being that feeds on chaos, turns out to be behind the wormhole, and wanted Sarah Jane to create a paradox large enough to let him through. Once through, he turns the future earth into a wasteland (as Sarah Jane’s friends in the future witness). Sarah Jane attempts to stop the Trickster in the past, but discovers the only way is to let her parents die. And she can’t make that call.
But her parents can.
Trickster: “You have denied me my hunger!”
Sarah Jane: “I did nothing. That was my mum and dad saving the world, something we Smiths can’t help doing.”
Trickster: “But you you couldn’t do it. I knew you could never do it.”
Sarah Jane: “You were right. I couldn’t send them off. But you didn’t count on one thing – they were brilliant. They worked it out, they went by themselves. My mum and dad defeated you!”
Like Pete Tyler, they put the pieces together about who Sarah Jane is and why things are going wrong, and decide to willingly go off in the car in order to put things right. After a very sad goodbye, the Smiths drive towards their deaths, and Sarah Jane watches the Trickster disappear in anguish. They go back through the wormhole and shut it for good.
So again, fairly similar to the Doctor Who version, but there are a number of differences. Most importantly, the character involved.
“Stepping back in time, into your own past, is so dangerous! And think about it. It’s all too convenient. It could be a trap.” – Sarah Jane to Luke
While Rose was a teenager just starting her time travel adventures with the Doctor when she made her mistake, Sarah Jane was in her fifties, and had traveled with the Doctor for many years. Save for the Doctor himself, she knew better than anyone the dangers of meddling with time for personal gain. She knew the opportunity to save her parents was most likely a trap. But as the Trickster predicted, she just couldn’t stop herself from trying to save her parents. Her speech to her son as she sabotages the car is actually very heartbreaking:
“All these years I’ve put other people first! There has to be something at the end of it, something for me! What if this is it? My reward?” – Sarah Jane to Luke about saving her parents.
Sarah Jane falling prey to this plot perhaps proves that no one is invulnerable to the temptation to save someone you care about, even at the expense of others or yourself.
How does The Flash stack up to these other examples?
Let’s first recognize that The Flash finale, “Fast Enough,” did inherit quite a bit from its time-travelling predecessors:
Doctor Who: As in “Father’s Day,” the one alteration ( though potentially not an alteration in Barry’s case) that Barry ends up making to the time line is to be present at his mother’s death, holding her hand and assuring her that her family will be okay without her. To give her a peaceful death instead of an anguished one helps both come to terms with what has to happen. (And is SUPER SAD).
Static Shock: Barry and Virgil are both superheroes who save people for a living, in part due to their mothers’ legacies (see the other article for more on this). As such, they go back with a direct purpose to save their mothers. Though they do not succeed in this, by getting to see their mothers again, revealing their superhero selves and the good they’ve done, the mothers get to see their good come full circle, and their sons are assured in the pride their mothers have in them. (And is SUPER HEARTWARMING)
Sarah Jane Adventures: Both Sarah Jane and Barry wrestle with a moral conundrum when given the opportunity to travel back and see their dead parents. They both take time to consult with their friends and family on whether it’s a good idea. Both have also experienced time travel before, and thus know the potential consequences to changing the past. But whatever the doubts, in the end they cannot resist attempting to change things. Which is, of course, what the respective villain wants them to do, but Sarah and Barry still manage to defeat them… though to do so means losing their parents again. (*sniff* Oh god, I was gonna be cool…)
So now that we’ve tracked what The Flash has inherited from these other examples, let’s point out what makes it different.
Season-Long Arc: In every previously mentioned case, the Kid from the Future trope takes place in a single episode that doesn’t have much bearing on other episodes. But for The Flash, there have been hints since the first episode -heck, since Barry first talked about the murder on Arrow – that Barry would be going back to that night his life changed forever. Thus, there’s quite a bit more gravity attributed to Barry’s trip to the past than to the others.
Time Spent with Parent: Rose and Sarah Jane got a day. Virgil had maybe hours. Barry? Barry got like five minutes with his mom in the past before she died. Which really sucks, pardon my language. But at least the audience got to know Nora a little from Barry and Henry’s stories and a couple of previous flashbacks. In the other examples, the noted episodes were usually the first time we got to see the parent for more than a minute, sometimes the first time the parent was even mentioned (which in Sarah Jane’s case is particularly egregious – she first appeared on Doctor Who in the 70s, and no lick of a parental backstory for 40 years!). So, it kind of balances out? Still, I was expecting more time between Barry and Nora in “Fast Enough.” Another flashback might have even sufficed (more on that later).
Comic History: The Flash is the only shows of the four whose Kid from the Future story originates in another medium. Nora Allen and her death have a particularly interesting role in the comics. Before the Rebirth series (shout out to Maha on One Does Not Simply Fangirl for telling me about this storyline), Nora and Henry were there for Barry growing up – just as Eobard says his original timeline was. But then Professor Zoom/Reverse Flash/Eobard Thawne went back and killed her, which changed everything. When Post-Rebirth!Barry got the opportunity to travel back and save her, he actually did.
The results unfolded in the Flashpoint series, which showed a catastrophically-changed DC world – (comic spoilers) Among other things, Bruce Wayne died instead of his parents, Wonder Woman and Aquaman were evil, and Barry never became the Flash. (end spoilers). Basically a huge mess. Eventually, Barry talks to Flashpoint!Nora and they agree he has to fix this… And let her die.Though the show and the comics are quite different, many show fans who knew the comics expected Barry to do just what he did in Flashpoint – go through with it, see the horrors that resulted, and set things right again. So, again, expectations thwarted.
However, the other thing we can take away from the comics is the time travel rules, as the rules in the show universe are probably quite similar. Even though the Rebirth timeline in which Nora Allen dies is not the “original” timeline, preventing her murder did not immediately snap things back to that timeline. It created a whole new, horrible reality – the Flashpoint timeline. And changing that timeline, though it was better for everyone, did not simply reset to the Rebirth timeline. It resulted in a new reality – the New 52 series. As they say in the show, none of them could possibly know all the changes that would result from Barry changing the past, and if it operates by the same rules as the comics, once changed he could never go back to the way things were.
Murder: Though every parent mentioned in this article met a sad and untimely end, Nora Allen is the only one who was outright, purposely murdered (though we never did find out exactly what killed Jean Hawkins, so I could be wrong). And this complicates things. Her death is all the more horrible because it wasn’t an accident, and worse still because the one who killed her did it out of spite towards Barry! As Joe points out, Nora’s murder was a big reason why Barry became the Flash in the first place.
So changing this event doesn’t initially seem like messing with fate, because it wasn’t fate that killed Nora – it was Eobard Thawne. (Back to the Future series spoiler) Rather like how Biff killed George McFly in the alternate 1985 of Back to the Future Part 2 (end spoiler). But as detailed in the previous section, it isn’t as simple as all that. And, even worse, if Barry agrees to prevent the murder, he has to let the killer go free, giving Eobard control over yet another part of his life.*
The Final Say: This is the part that probably conflicts me the most.In the three examples outlined, there is one very powerful thing that they all have in common:The parent decides their fate.For all that the kids try to change things and save their parents, the parent in question has the final say in whether to live or die, because the child should not have to make that decision. Jean Hawkins goes back to her job, even knowing it might get her hurt. Pete Tyler and the Smiths know they have to die in order to save the world for their daughters. Which is beautiful and heartwarming and exactly the way things should be. Parents make sacrifices for their children, and are willing to die for them, something my own parents have reassured me time and again. Even in the comic version of Flashpoint, Nora is consulted in Barry’s decision.
But in The Flash, the script gets flipped on its head.
It isn’t Nora, but Barry’s older/alternate self who makes Barry decide to leave the past as it is in order to protect the future. We don’t get any explanation as to why older/alt!Flash asked Barry not to interfere. Perhaps he had already lived through his own version of Flashpoint, perhaps he thought Barry would be killed if he interfered. But either way Barry listens – to his older self, and to his mother being murdered through the door.
And, I don’t know. Mother and son do get a really lovely moment before she dies, but I wish Nora could have had a more dignified death if she had to die. I wish she’d had more of a say, if only because I’ve been primed by the likes of Static Shock and Doctor Who. Henry Allen does say that Nora wouldn’t have wanted Barry to jeopardize his happiness for her sake. But why couldn’t we have gotten her saying something like this, either when Barry was with her, or during a flashback? Without this, it sometimes feels like a cruel and disrespectful end for Nora – forsaken by her son with no explanation.
But there is another way to look at this, pointed out to me on tumblr:
Barry struggled with trusting his own judgment for pretty much the whole season. He trusted Harrison Wells, who betrayed him. He listened to Joe about not telling Iris, which blew up in his face (and rightly so). So when faced with the ultimate decision, he finally trusts himself, which is a big step for him as a hero.
Additionally, by listening to how his mother was killed by Thawne, it becomes all the more real. Until this point, Barry has only known this figure as either the vague Man-in-Yellow, or his hero Harrison Wells. Even though he knew by this point that Thawne killed his mom, he never had a visceral image of the killing. Once he does, he realizes – even if he prevents Nora’s death, Thawne would still be out there, willing to kill for what he wants.
By making this decision, could we say that Barry proves himself to be stronger than Virgil, Rose, and Sarah Jane? I’m not sure I’d go that far. But I think Nora would have wanted Barry to do exactly what he did – choose for himself and take steps to move on, making sure she didn’t die in vain.
But I still wish she’d gotten to say so herself.
I guess until we learn more next season, this is the best way I can justify how The Flash dealt with Barry and Nora Allen. Until then, I’ll be rewatching Static Shock, Doctor Who, and Sarah Jane Adventures takes on the trope. Hope you will be too!
So, what do you think? Did this post give you feels? Which of these time-travel escapades does the Kid from the Future trope best? Did The Flash handle it well, or should things have gone differently? Let me know!
See more posts about Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures here:
Wibbley-Wobbley Timey Wimey: Traveling to the Past in Doctor Who and the Works of Edward Eager
Agent Carter & Sarah Jane Smith: So Awesome They Got Their Own Show Part 1 (Part 2)
Learn more about the blog here, about me here, and my recommended articles and sites here
Until next time,
* Static Shock is of course also based on comics, but there wasn’t a time travel plot or a dead mother in the original Static comics.
* Some would argue that Barry had no reason to hold up his deal and let Eobard free, which would have been an easy solution to at least that part of the conundrum. But as we saw in the previous episode, “Rogue Air,” that isn’t the type of hero Barry is. He doesn’t doublecross or play tricks, and when he tries he just isn’t good at it. Better that he wait until the last second to get the upperhand, and only when he realized it was absolutely necessary. Certainly it’s more dramatic and in character.