My main goal in these posts is to examine the Doom Patrol TV series through its connections with its history as a comic book. And the title does have a long history, beginning in 1963, though it has not been continuously published all those years. As a periodical, the comic has been started, cancelled, and restarted many times. The original book was a product of the 60’s, of what is called the “Silver Age” of comics, with wild Sci-Fi plots including alien invasions, mutant monsters, and giant robots. While the characters were heroes, they had flaws. While they were a team, they sniped and argued with each other. There were real bonds between them — which ultimately led to the team unanimously agreeing to sacrifice their lives to save innocents.
The TV series immediately subverts those premises, with a group of people who generally don’t like each other and frequently object to the very notion of being a team. Each character has had some trauma that both scarred them and gave them “metahuman” abilities, but each of them was also already damaged and suffering before their accidents. As they are now, these people are not superheroes. Will the overall arc of the series be their growth into heroes, into having the potential that The Chief claims to see in them? That would be the conventional expectation, but for this show we can’t yet be sure.
It’s not a good start for the characters this episode, as we open with a Rita flashback, to when she tried to get back into show biz after her accident. Her skeezy producer makes it clear that her only route to new roles involves the casting couch. What happened next was probably an accident, an instance of Rita loosing control of her powers, and not actual murder. In any case it’s another dark point in her already shadowed history.
Cliff turns to Jane for help accessing his daughter’s social media, but things are still rocky between them. Trying to appeal to Baby Doll is a bad mistake, since Jane rejects the feelings that persona has for Cliff. Baby Doll is very troubling to her, as she is the one persona we’ve seen who actively wants to connect with other people, The Chief in the past, and now Cliff. As she watches the old VHS tapes of The Chief interviewing Baby Doll, the name “The Doom Patrol” comes up again.
Research in The Chief’s micro fiche files turns up accounts of them as a minor superhero team in the 50’s. Which Rita actually is quite familiar with, having had a brief affair with a member of the team, Steve Dayton, aka “Mento.” This original Doom Patrol team is still alive and teaching at a school of young people with metahuman powers. Rita and Vic are both very opposed to trying to contact them. It is after all exactly what Mr. Nobody wants them to do. This impasse is once again solved by a frustrated Flit teleporting herself, Rita, and Larry off to find them.
The show’s creators are now making their deepest dive into and most disorienting remixing of Doom Patrol lore so far. In establishing the Doom Patrol as active in the 50’s, it puts them into what comic fans and historians call the “Golden Age.” That’s a surprising new addition, since as mentioned, the Doom Patrol has always been very much a Silver Age comic. But many DC superheroes active since the 60’s do have Golden Age counterparts, so that’s an established tradition. What gets complicated is that the Golden Age team is made of an odd melange of characters from the book’s history. My head was spinning by this point, entangled in this mixture of old, new, and revised Doom Patrol lore. Delighted, but spinning. Let me try to quickly unravel some of what’s going on here:
- Having a “school for gifted youngsters” is a wink to the small controversy that the Marvel’s X-men team (outcast heroes led by a genius in a wheelchair) was a copy of the Doom Patrol (the two comics debuted a few months apart, Doom Patrol in June and X-men in September of 1963).
- Steve Dayton: “Mento.” Dayton did appear in the original run of the comic, not as a member of the team, but an occasional uneasy ally. He was pretty much as portrayed, save that he actually marries Rita Farr late in the comic. He does also have a history of mental instability.
- Rhea Jones, “Loadstone” and Arani Desai, “Celsius,” are characters from versions of the Doom Patrol comic that were published between the original run and the Morrison/Case stories. Arani remains an enigmatic character in comics, since it is unclear how much of her backstory, including marrying Caulder, might be a delusion. Rhea experiences a metamorphosis in the Morrison/Case issues that doesn’t lend itself to easy summary. The administrator of the school is Joshua Clay, another member from the 70’s, with the codename “Tempest.” These characters are all from failed attempts to recast the Doom Patrol as a more traditional superhero team.
We have a bit of the comic book troupe that when two hero teams meet, they usually end up getting into a fight. Tensions are eased and soon the characters are being shown around this metahuman school. Then there is the weird aspect to the situation that I always have to mention: it is not just that Steve and the others appear un-aged since the 50’s, it is that no one comments on it. Nor is the passage of time being hidden, Larry for instance referring to knowing The Chief for 60 years. As in every episode so far, I’m left wondering if this means something or is the audience just meant to accept it as a conceit of the genre.
Rita and Steve get reacquainted and we learn through flashbacks that The Chief introduced them, and that Steve’s mental powers helped Rita get control of her abilities. Her mantra of “The person who is breathing is me” was given her by Steve. Their therapy quickly grew into an affair. As mentioned, in the comic these two actually marry, even eventually adopting Gar Logan, better known as “Beast Boy” from the Teen Titans.
Back at the mansion, Cliff and Vic have their own issues. We learn more about why Vic was so upset about his emergency signal being activated after he was injured last episode. It not only alerts his father, but puts him into a safemode that only Dr. Stone can take him out of after rebooting him. It’s unsettling to see how Vic, who while on the surface is more flesh and blood than the robotic Cliff, may actually be the most machine, since his brain, memory, and consciousness have computer elements incorporated in them. Vic is worried about what his father might do to his systems while he is unconscious and make and uneasy deal with Cliff. Vic will help him hack into his daughter’s social media, if Cliff will watch over him while he’s rebooting. Cliff doesn’t actually hold up his side of that bargain, storming out of the room eventually, but I’m not sure if that is meant to be significant to the story, or if the editing of the scene just emphasized it to me. Cliff is more effective actually talking to Dr. Stone, and challenging him on how he treats his son. Dr. Stone also examines Cliff’s body, and suggests that he could have made a much better version. This is an recasting of a scene in the first issue of the Morrison/Case comics where the robotic genius Dr. Will Magnus (inventor of the Metal Men) promises he can make an improved body for Cliff. That was the beginning of a long-running plot where Cliff is given different robot forms, with mixed success, as part of the rivalry between the genius/mad science of Magnus and The Chief.
The relationship of Vic and his father advances a little, though Dr. Stone remains skeptical of what Vic is doing and whether Mr. Nobody is a “credible threat” (if he was, Dr. Stone insists, the Justice League would be dealing with him, reminding us again that this series is part of the larger DC Universe, though not, as far as we know, part of the “Arrowverse” of other more mainstream superhero TV series) but is willing to let Vic make his own decisions. Vic is grateful — but still takes to opportunity to steal a USB drive which has his father’s software tools on it. You would think that Dr. Stone would notice that he was missing that almost immediately, but you have to give TV writing some leeway for plot purposes.
As a bit of comic relief Cliff is watches an episode of “Stupid Criminal Spotlight” where we see our old friend, The Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man do about as badly as one can while trying to rob a store. When attacked by his own dinosaur head, Steve cries “Not in the face!” which of course is a classic reference to “The Tick.” The scene was funny, though I have mixed feelings about going for such a cheap laugh. The A-V-N Man is classically one of the Doom Patrol’s most formidable foes. He was one of several enemies whose power was the ability to turn into pretty much any substance or form. I’d like to see this group try to deal with the practical and the existential challenges of an opponent who could be anything.
At the metahuman school, Arani is showing Larry around (and dropping the bomb that she is married to The Chief), Joshua is avoiding telling Jane anything important, and Steve is showing off to Rita. He is very proud of the Doom Patrol trophy room, which includes a couple comic references for fans such as myself. It is a bit odd though when Steve presents the shell of what he calls “Ultimax.” This skull-styled housing is quite recognizable as the life support system of “The Brain,” leader of the original Brotherhood of Evil. Ultimax was a very briefly used pseudonym of The Brain while pretending to be a rampaging robot. Steve does mention The Brain in passing but it isn’t clear that this is the villain’s actual name. This is the second time the show has possibly avoided using a villain’s name (as with Von Fuchs/Immortus). Are they hiding direct references to certain characters that are well established in other media? But that doesn’t fit with their use of Cyborg, a hero who appears all over the place, including the Justice League feature film. The rest of the trophy room seems filled with a miscellaneous collection of weapons, mostly ancient and medieval arms and armor. The only other Easter egg I noticed are the robes of Garguax, a green-skinned alien dictator who also eventually joined the Brotherhood.
The tale of the original Doom Patrol’s ultimate encounter with Mr. Nobody needs some examination. Mr. Nobody is a creation of the Morrison/Case comics, though he first appeared as Mr. Morden, a minor member of the Brotherhood of Evil from the comic’s early days. He was quickly overshadowed by the disembodied brain, talking gorilla, alien conqueror, and shapechanging assassin that made up the rest of the membership. It was these feelings of being forgotten that drove Morden to his rebirth as Mr. Nobody. Thus transfigured, he went on to found not a society of evil, but The Brotherhood of Dada, dedicated to the overthrow of the very concepts of logic and reason. A buttocks-shaped balloon delivering a bizarre jukebox is on brand, but not the mass insanity and murder. A lot people certainly died as a result of the Brotherhood’s cruel and thoughtless escapades, but that was never their main goal. So the tale of Mr Nobody’s attack we hear from Armani and Steve is jarring and doesn’t quite sit right. It is both too violent and too silly. Of course the TV Mr. Nobody is a very different character, with unknown goals and we don’t even know how much of the tale, any version of it, actually happened.
By this time all the characters have witness disturbing glitches in reality, and things really fail apart when an illusion of The Chief appears in Arani’s room. The arrival of the team has taxed the false construct that is the school to the breaking point and Steve’s mental powers can no longer maintain it. His uncontrolled metahuman abitily begins to invade everyone’s mind. We catches glimpses of the even deeper secrets our gang are keeping hidden. Yes, they have even more layers of trauma. For Jane it’s not a big reveal, particularly for readers of the comic, that her personality disorder stems from the child abuse she suffered from her father. Jane’s scenes are the most disturbing, due to her pain being something that occurs in the real world (rather than comic book fantasy) as well as seeing a character who is overwhelmingly the most powerful member of the team reduced to helplessness in the face of the one thing she can’t fight. Rita’s full story is still in fragments, though we only know that a child was involved and a friend was driven to suicide. Larry’s nightmare suggests that he and the Negative Spirit were part of some government black-ops team that was active during the six decades between his accident and now. He certainly has a lot of years to fill up with backstory, and we can only assume this has something to do with his visions of loved-ones infected/burned/scarred. Maybe these awful events are behind the schism that separates Larry and the Negative Spirit from fully communicating. Even Joshua has a secret past, though there is only mention of his ‘true talent”, apart from medical and administrative skills. While Joshua was introduced into the comics as a costumed superhero, the Morrison/Case stories quickly established that he was tired of flying around shooting energy beams. The Chief convinced him that he would be valuable as a support member of the team, and Joshua was present, though very rarely using his powers, throughout the Morrison/Case run. I hope the series can move beyond relying so much on “characters have secret pasts” to generate mystery and tension. That can, to my taste, get tiresome and too easy a technique. A serial drama can establish who the characters are and then examine how they are dealing with things now, rather than have them getting lost in visions and nightmares of the past, again and again.
An interesting revelation about Jane was that The Chief had prepared a room for her at this asylum. Was he considering her to be a lost cause, too broken to realize her potential? Or even a danger, a menace that needs to be contained? I continue to feel that The Chief, as a parental figure, suffers from being overly protective and too quick to offer safe places (or what he considers “safe”) for troubled people to hide in.
The day is once again saved by the Negative Spirit, which removes Steve’s Mento helmet. The illusion crumbles entirely and we see the truth that the school is only an asylum for the original Doom Patrol, left hopelessly insane by their actual encounter with Mr. Nobody, whatever that was actually like. Among other things we see their true ages, which again nobody comments on. It’s up to the empathizing Rita to restore enough mental stability in the patients that the comforting illusion can be rebuilt. She is able to reach out to Steve as part of her own journey of facing illusions of the past, since the stage identity of “Rita Farr, movie star” is her own asylum she needs to escape from. Joshua’s parting words are that they all must learn to confront their inner fears, since that it the main weapon that Mr. Nobody keeps using against them. That’s something I agree with as well, if the show as a whole is going to advance beyond being “Dark Secret of the Week” for these characters.