Doom Patrol, Episode Three: “Puppet Patrol”

More grim backstory for our characters as well as fan service for old time Doom Patrol readers such as myself. See my earlier posts for how I’m approaching these examinations of the show.

Mr. Nobody as narrator is absent here. The episode opens with Jane stapling posters for the missing Chief, as if he were a lost pet, leading to a violent encounter with the townsfolk. Jane continues to mainly present her angry, aggressive personas, making her a dangerous, even more violently unstable character than we’d expect from the Morrison/Case comics.

Back home, Cyborg is checking his memory files, recalling Mr. Nobody’s taunts. Vic addresses his internal systems as “Grid.” That’s an ominous name drop, since Cyborg has more than a little trouble with his AI assistant in his comic book adventures. Vic also has some information on Eric Morden, the man who was reborn as Mr. Nobody. He was known as a member of “The Brotherhood of Evil” in the 30’s. Giving the Brotherhood — and perhaps The Chief — a history in “The Golden Age” of comics is a weird twist, making them appear contemporaries to the early days of Superman and Wonder Woman. In “actual” comic history, Doom Patrol is firmly rooted in the 60’s — “The Silver Age.”

The others are searching through the Chief’s paper files for clues as to his location – conveniently letting Cliff discover a post-it note with his daughter’s phone number. The best they come up with is an old photo from 1940’s Paraguay of a donkey. The link between this and *the* donkey of Mr.Nobody is flimsy, but the story has to get moving. Firm narrative strength was never a big part of the comic either. “Paraguay” as it appears here is entirely notional, it is, as we will soon see, is just a label representing the “Nazis hiding in South America” troupe.

Vic as usual is the main motivator to get the team in motion to Paraguay in search of the Chief, though is attempts to manage this group as if they were a functional superhero team meet with resistance. Vick’s father refuses to allow him to use a S.T.A.R. Labs private jet or funding, so the “team” must make their way on their own resources. Scientific and Technological Advanced Research Laboratories is a well-established part of the DC Universe, so its brief mention is one of several references in this episode that establish Doom Patrol as part of that comic book continuity.

A road trip in their broken down bus is their own recourse. The practical difficulties of driving to Paraguay aren’t exactly addressed. Are any of these characters, besides Cyborg, likely to have a passport? But the whole adventure is treated as a farce, with an animated bus jumping and looping around a map of the US, as the team snipe and argue with each other, ultimately getting stuck at a roadside motel. The whole sequence is a parody of what happens when a superteam usually goes on a mission. Classically, they all jump aboard their high-tech air craft and zoom off. There might be a few panels of exposition, or of jibes and banter before they arrive at their destination – where are usually shot down or otherwise attacked by their enemies’ defenses. This is such a well-established trope that it’s a running joke in comics such as X-Men or the Avengers.

Morale and mood are at low points. Rita is having trouble keeping herself together, Larry drifts into painful recollections, and Cliff fails to find the courage to call his daughter. Even Vic is having trouble maintaining leadership with this gang. “I bet Aquaman never loses his keys,” Cliff snipes at Vic, emphasizing that this Cyborg is a young hero, with dreams of joining the Justice League. The whole expedition is on the verge of collapse when the issue of getting to Paraguay is rendered moot by Jane teleporting Cliff, Larry, and herself there. Or rather this is Flit, one of Jane’s personas. This sort of infuriating jumping over mechanical plot problems is fairly typical of things that happened in the Morrison/Case comic. Mechanically it helps keep the large cast under control, since the coming adventures in Paraguay would have gotten ungainly with 5 characters. How to give a large group of characters occupied in a team book is always an issue in comics. Stories usually divide groups in smaller pairs or teams each dealing with an aspect of a situation.

Larry and Rita are left behind, to continue their brooding and bickering. There are some signs of growing understanding between them. As the two characters who are most unlike each other in personality and situation, they may have the best chance at actual communication.

Flit has taken Larry and Cliff to the spot pictured in the old donkey photograph. They meet a tourist, Steve Larson, who is waiting for the bus to “Fuchtopia” a facility where superpowers are provided, for a cost, as if they were sketchy medical procedures. So we are definitely in a world where superhumans are a part of everyday life. The name “Steve Larson” just flew past me, but I think any fan would be hard pressed to easily connect this Asian-American tourist with the name “Sven Larson” and thus anticipate the reveal at the end of the episode. Steve also refers to “The Morden” as the most advanced procedure available in Fuchtopia (though he can only afford magnetic feet). So enough clues have been handed to the heroes and us that they are on the right track – or at least on track to something.

Immortus/Von FuchsArriving at the facility, the characters are shown an expository puppet show about the history of Heinrich Von Fuchs, his mad scientist experiments, his creation of Mr. Nobody, and his near-fatal shooting by The Chief. That Caulder has past relationship with an life-extended villain, suggests that Von Fuchs is a stand-in for comic book Doom Patrol nemesis General Immortus. If so, why the name-change. Was “Immortus” too “comic book”? The use of marionettes is close to being weird for weirdness sake, but it does foreshadow some of what is to come. Von Fuchs makes no effort to hide that he was supported by the Nazis and his entire operation is an undisguised Aryan fantasy brought to life.

The characters pose as potential customers in order to learn more about what’s going on – one of the more practical tactics we’ve seen them try. Larry is tempted by the possibility of using Von Fuchs’ techniques to free himself of the Negative Spirit. The episode gives us several extended flashbacks to Larry’s earlier life in 1961. Even before his accident Larry’s life is falling apart, his marriage is on the rocks, and there was growing conflict between him and his lover. He seems to have trouble being too close to anyone, which is literalized by his accident. While we’ve seen before that Larry is badly burned under his bandages, only now is the deeper reason for the bandages introduced: his body emits deadly radiation, which the bandages contain. He stumbles down a body strewn hallway to emphasize the point. In re-reading some of original Doom Patrol comics, I discovered in issue #87 we are shown Larry’s face beneath the bandages: a luminous radioactive skull glows visibly beneath his flesh. Is that more upsetting that the burns we have in the show? Perhaps that fantastic, almost supernatural sight would distract from Larry as a scarred and damaged victim. We’d feel more weirded out than sorry for him. On top of all the angst and guilt from his past, Larry is in active conflict with the Negative Spirit, rather than it being at his beck and call. Like all the characters in this version of the team, Larry is at war with himself. Jane makes the claim that her persons respect each other, and that Larry should try that for a change. But we know Jane herself is full of inner turmoil.

Personally I don’t like the visual design of the spirit here, a vague ghostly outline of electricity. The classic Negative Spirit was a black silhouette surrounded by a glowing green aura. Very striking on the comic page. This version is hard to even make out on the screen.

It is Jane who manages to directly confront Von Fuchs, who is kept alive by steampunk level technology. The lederhosen clad staff at Fuchtopia are drones controlled by his will – the opposite of Jane’s situation as he points out. Von Fuchs seems familiar with her, being aware that “Crazy Jane” is not the core personality. His temptation to “cure” her only enrages her, and when Von Fuchs summons his drones to capture her, violence breaks out.

Cliff, who is sneaking through the castle’s interior also encounters a squad of drones. We now have the series’ first comic book fight. The combat between normal humans and superpowered individuals is horrific. Silver Tongue (one of Jane’s personas) slashes through them with her words-turned-weapons, and robot-bodied Cliff crushes and dismembers as his rage grows. Only when he is left standing in a blood-splattered hallway does he realize what he has done. We’ve seen earlier that even before his accident Cliff was prone to violent rages. Now, as only a brain in a metal body, how much “human” control does he have over his impulses? I expect this to be an ongoing theme, yet another layer of angst draped over him. It’s to the show’s directness that there is no attempt to soften his and Silver Tongue’s slaughter spree by any mention of “oh they were just drones, with no consciousness of their own.” I’d expect that to come up even in the violent comics of today. Jane does outright murder the defeated Von Fuchs, though he gets in a last taunt about how this was not “her” victory, which could be interpreted to mean that the Jane persona herself did not do this, or perhaps a hint that she is being used by someone else.

After Larry is freed from his fantasy of being cured of his wounds and possession by the Negative Spirit, Jane (manifesting Flaming Katy) proceeds to destroy the Morden chamber and, we assume, most of the rest of the facility. They then finally rendezvous with Rita and Cyborg. Cliff debriefs them on the whole incident with the single word “Nazis”. That’s a commentary on the trope of Nazis as all purpose bad guys, without any further need to explain, support, or justify their actions. Von Fuchs as “mad scientist” is little more than an elemental force.

Rita and Cyborg are here because Vic’s father relented and allowed them to use the S.T.A.R. Labs jet after all. From what we’ve seen of Dr. Stone it’s hard to accept this a beneficent, fatherly gesture. He insisted Vic start this mission on his own, and only when it was hopeless did he relent. The message to his son is clear: you are dependent on me, I’ve demonstrated that you can’t do anything without me. Dr. Stone is a manipulative bastard, and we can begin to believe more of Mr. Nobody’s suggestions that Vic’s memories are not trustworthy.

Animal-Vegetable-Mineral ManThe final scenes of the episode is a return to the ruins of Fuchtopia, where the forgotten Steve is wondering where everyone is and if he has been left in his treatment chamber too long. As he exits we see his body has been transmogrified into a mass of wood, crystal, and scales, with a secondary dinosaur head growing out of his shoulder. This was a big treat to any Doom Patrol reader, who should immediately spot this new incarnation of The Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, a classic reoccurring enemy of the team. This character, Sven Larson, was a scientist whose experiments gave him the power to change into… anything essentially. In his first appearances he morphed from one form — from a monster to a living mass of sulfur to a giant tree, etc. The cover of the comics though traditionally portrayed him as a huge composite creature made of many different substances, including the dinosaur head. This image of Larson became so iconic that in contemporary stories, such as his appearance in “The Brave and the Bold” animated series, he is always portrayed this way. It is hard to judge the reaction of Steve to this change, but he appears delighted, having gotten a better deal than the magnetic feet he paid for. Even if one had some grumbles about this episode with its excessive angst and downbeats for the characters, it’s hard for a fan of any version of the Doom Patrol not to be hooked after a reference such as this.

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.