Doom Patrol, Episode Two: “Donkey Patrol”

Questions of heroism, emotional connection, and where does narrative ends and reality begins come up in “Donkey Patrol” (See my earlier posts for how I’m approaching these examinations of the show).

As Mr. Nobody’s vortex continues to devour the town, our characters have never looked less heroic. They are helpless to stop the disaster, clueless as to how to even try. Mr. Nobody continues to narrate the events, expressing knowledge not just that this is a TV show, but that it is a specific show on the DC Universe streaming service, and even that it is based on Grant Morrison’s comics. He narrates out loud and in The Chief’s presence, prompting Caulder to ask: “Who are you talking to?” It is even more intriguing when he follows up his question with “You still think you control this story?” Does The Chief, at some level, know that Mr. Nobody, as omnipotent as he seems, is himself still a character?

Mr. Nobody, The Chief, Crazy Jane, and the entire town are eventually disappear into the vortex, leaving the remaining characters to ponder the disaster. Only Cliff retains any hope that they can fix the situation. The others just want to give up – though I am not being fair to the Negative Spirit, which also seems to want to stay, refusing to let Larry get on a bus heading anywhere but here.

Cyborg

The story then introduces another ongoing character. When I heard this show was being made, the strangest thing in their approach was the inclusion in the cast of Vic Stone, the superhero Cyborg. Cyborg began his career as a member of the Teen Titans and in recent years he’s been “promoted” to the Justice League in comics, animation, and even live action feature films. While there are connections between the Teen Titans and the Doom Patrol in comic book lore, Vic has never been part of the later team. Also, in the traditions of superhero teams, members are very distinct characters. Doom Patrol already has a man whose disembodied brain has been installed in a robot body. Why add another cyborg who has parts of his body replaced? The Legion of Superheroes (another quirky, extra-nerdy DC superhero team) had a specific rule that no two members could have the same powers (with a single exception for Superboy and Supergirl) – not for any good reason, that’s just how comic books worked then.

His introduction shows where they are going with Vic. He’s a a solo hero, fighting street crime and hoping of making it to the big “League.” And he has a long standing past relationship with The Chief. One assumes he helped Vic deal with the trauma of the accident that destroyed much of his body, but unlike the others in Caulder’s care, Vic was able live on his own, or rather, under the supervision of his father, Silas Stone, the one who constructed the advanced prosthetics that give him superpowers. Stone apparently having access to more advanced tech than The Chief had when building Cliff’s clunky body. Vic has a standing offer come to the mansion, to join the others, whom The Chief describe as “bursting with potential.” There’s an unresolved conflict here with what Caulder wants from the others. He’s offering them a secure hiding place, but also wants at times wants them to “grow up” into something more. Is their failure to do so due to their weakness or The Chief’s?

When Vic hears of the disaster in Cloverton he travels to see what he can do for The Chief, finding only a frantic Cliff and the enigmatic donkey. Jane is vomited out of the animal’s mouth, suggesting its innards are of some significance. Jane is understandably upset by her recent experience and cycles rapidly through her personas, perhaps trying to find one that can deal with what is happening. I like the subtle visual rippling the show uses to denote a shift between who is in control, even when there is no physical change to Jane’s form. Cliff and Vic take two very different approaches to her. Cliff realizes that he knows very little about Jane and searches through The Chief’s records and taped interviews. He begins to uncover just how vast she is and how extensive is “The Undergound” where her personas live. Vic meanwhile tries to use his “star” charm to ingratiate himself with her, drawing out the fawning Babydoll, who is delighted to be paid attention by an actual superhero. Vic is thinking too highly of himself, and underestimating Jane – who understands perfectly well is going on. When his apparent friendliness fails to hide his grilling of her for information about what happened to The Chief, her superpowered personas reacts violently

Vic’s goal is interrogation; Cliff seeks understanding. In the Morrison/Case comics, Cliff and Jane develop a real, trusting friendship. It is a little concerning that TV Cliff’s motivation may be to find a replacement for his daughter in Jane – something she senses as well, and does not care for one bit. In Grant Morrison’s comics, for all their occasional darkness and madness, there is usually a belief in the need and power of sincere connections between people. I hope that something like that does develop between Cliff and Jane in the show.

Rita and Larry’s first reaction to Vic is that he’s the excuse they need to remain passive: a “real” superhero is on the scene. He eventually goads them into taking some action to find The Chief, including having Rita use her plastic abilities to some practical purpose: to probe the innards of the donkey. The animal’s digestive system is a doorway into Mr. Nobody’s pocket dimension. It almost gives the flatulent prophecy in episode one a little logic. Vic, Cliff, Rita, and Larry end being swallowed by the donkey, appearing into the realm within.

Entering this dreamlike domain is apparently exactly what Mr. Nobody wanted them to do. As a world in which Mr. Nobody can trap and torment, it essentially functions as “The Painting that Ate Paris” from Morrison/Grant’s issue Vol 2 , issue 27. We then see a series of vignettes where the characters are tortured by memories of their past. Why Nobody feels these poor saps need to be demoralized even more is unclear. Is he just a sadist? And since we, like him, are observing this for entertainment, are we sadists too? (that would be another Grant Morrison-like theme). The characters’ memories include as yet unexplained details. Did Rita have a child at some point? Why does a hideously disfigured vision of Larry’s lover appear in the backseat of his jet? Vic’s vision is the most understandable, as we see the immediate aftermath of the explosion that killed his mother and destroyed much of his body. Vic fights against this tactic, arguing with Mr. Nobody that he relives this nightmare every night. Nobody leaves him with the question of how much of his memory can he trust? And indeed we later hear Vic’s father speak the very words of courage and perseverance that Vic had thought were his own.

Ultimately Mr. Nobody gives the team a warning: stop looking for Nigel Caulder or he’ll expose their deepest secrets, which he knows in detail, being this show’s narrator after all. The Negative-Spirit manages disrupt their haunted donkey-doom and free the team, as well of the rest of Cloverton. Most of the team consider this all another disaster, but Vic, once again the heroic optimist, takes away the conclusion that Mr.Nobody must consider them a threat. Why else go to such effort to scare them off? Well, the world of superhero stories might work that way… I don’t know about this one though. Still, Vic’s presence is a catalyst for the others. Naïve, romantic, and not quite mature, he might be what they need to move towards the potential The Chief believes in.

Doom Patrol, Episode One: “Pilot”

I’m continuing my examination of the Doom Patrol TV series, from a perspective of nearly 50 years reading the comics the show draws on. I’m discussing the episodes as I watch them so **Spoilers** for the series to the current point. I am freely bringing up things from the comics. My previous post was taken up by introducing this show’s characters and some of the relationships between them and their previous comic book incarnations. Now I’ll actually get into the plot of the first episode of the series.

It was quickly apparent that the creators of the show are going for the equivalent of an “R” rating, with foul language, sex and nudity, and body horror. “What the f***?” has become Cliff’s catch phrase. To my (perhaps prudish) taste, the language in particular feels like they are trying too hard to make a superhero story seem more “adult.” The Morrison/Case comics were published during last waning days of the Comics Code Authority, and could be transgressive for their time. They actually crossed a nudity threshold in mainstream comics, featuring a character whose metamorphosis into semi-divinity left her with little concern for human garments. But what we “saw” in this comic was essentially a floating statue — contrasting with live action sex scenes and nudity in the first episode of the show.

The core action of this episode is the characters deciding to disobey The Chief, and take a trip into the local town of Cloverton, just to get out of the house some. This quickly goes very badly, with Jane confronting police, Rita turning into a rampaging blob, and the Negative-Spirit running berserk. Back at the mansion, the humiliated characters face an angry and frightened Chief, who is mainly upset because the fiasco would have alerted their presence to threats and enemies that will now come looking for them. The appearance of an enigmatic donkey, a sort of jackass of the apocalypse, reveals that these warnings are coming true. The Chief desperately suggests their wisest action is to flee. Cliff states that they should defend the town they’ve endangered, but the others are reluctant. Despite their strange abilities, they are not superheroes after all. These never swore an oath to defend the world that hates and fears them, as their comic book predecessors did. Still Cliff’s example inspires them, and they march towards whatever awaits them, accompanied by Mr. Nobody’s mocking narration. A heroic choice, but a not a smart one. Mr. Nobody himself finally appears, opening a swirling vortex that begins to swallows the town.

Mr. Nobody

The art design of the show draws heavily on Richard Case’s comics, so as soon as I heard Mr. Nobody’s narration I wondered how they would depict him. Mr. Nobody was meant as someone you could never see clearly, who seemed like you were always seeing him out of the corner of your eye, even if he was right in front of you. Case drew him as an abstract symbol of a human, fitting with his and Morrison’s conception of Mr. Nobody as an embodiment of Dadaism’s deconstruction of rational meaning. TV’s Mr. Nobody appears more as someone who has ascended to some higher spacial existence, as if four dimensional space-time does not contain him — or even the difference between reality and narrative. He’s still a very “Grant Morrison” character, since Morrison is known for doing things such as making himself a character in comics he writes. Mr. Nobody and The Chief are shown to know each other well, as if they have clashed in the past, though there’s no indication about why Mr. Nobody is so interested in these characters that he otherwise despises and dismisses.

The episode ends as Cloverton is slowly devoured before the team’s eyes…