Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A group of bickering superhumans, too “strange” to be regular heroes, who live in a mansion in the woods, hiding from a world that hates and fears them and maybe being manipulated by their mysterious leader: A doctor in a wheelchair. The jury’s out on whether X-Men or Doom Patrol was a knockoff one way or the other, but the idea of Weird Superheroes isn’t something one title holds any exclusive claim on. Even Superman’s very first appearance frames him as a figure of menace, smashing a car in front of a fleeing crowd.
The idea of the Doom Patrol that sets them apart is they’re disfigured by their powers. To what extent depends a lot on how much the public is used to the Strange in a given superhero universe. The modern take favored by DC frontman Geoff Johns is basically the Munsters, so it’s a good fit for writer Jeremy Carver, the showrunner on Monster Roommate drama Being Human a few years back.
We have Larry Trainor, the Negative Man: A pilot with some kind of energy being (might be an alien, might be his soul) inhabiting his body that can act remotely but leaves Larry unconscious and dying, he’s also in bandages because his body is radioactive and decaying. Rita Farr the Elasti-Woman, an actress who swallowed some weird protoplasm and can shapeshift, traditionally by growing and shrinking but so far she can only turn into a blob and has to eat a lot to maintain human form. Crazy Jane, with 64 different personalities most of which have their own superpowers, I’m not sure how the TV version differs from the comics but the trailer made it sound like the condition and powers were the result of an experiment instead of dissociative identity disorder caused by trauma from childhood abuse and then the powers came later when an alien invasion gave a random % of the world’s population superpowers because comics. And Cliff “Robotman” Steel, a race car driver whose brain was put in a Cyborg body after a crash, and who constantly complains about the lack of sensory stimulation, missing his old life and damages the new mechanical body at every opportunity in a vain attempt to feel something.
The episode is narrated by Alan Tudyk’s Mr. Nobody. He does a good job as the bored, sarcastic presence looking in & giving the audience a space to vent their concerns about the series. He complains about oversaturation of superhero TV shows, mocks cliffhanger conventions and even says “the critics are going to hate this show” outright. The effects to a decent job of conveying his ‘not all there’ design and I was surprised that they kept his origin pretty directly from the comics, nazi mad scientist and all.
One thing I really like is how the show sets up a long timeline of events. Most superhero stories roll everything up to the Present Day unless something is really tied in with a historical event (usually World War II), but the Doom Patrol are all from decades ago, and a little frozen in time by their accidents. Rita was a movie star in the 50s, Larry was a test pilot in the 60s, Cliff was a race car driver in the late 80s. Even Jane’s origin is said to have happened in “The 70s” although we haven’t seen that yet so who knows if it’s true. And Morden/Nobody’s transformation happened in 1948, with allusions to Caulder being somehow involved. All this creates an intriguing unspoken immortality. If they hadn’t been drawn out into the public eye, would the Doom Patrol have been kept in a limbo of hobbies and tests in Caulder’s mansion for eternity? I’m a sucker for comic stories where the characters shape real-world culture and events, and there are some great bits of Reality in the Doom Patrol’s origins: Larry flies the X-15, Cliff’s car is #8 and Rita gets compared to Deborah Kerr.
The biggest part of the episode is the origin of Cliff “Robotman” Steel. He’s the grumpy everyman that makes for a good introduction, and Robotman has been the most consistent member of every Doom Patrol lineup. Pretty much every incarnation of the Doom Patrol after the original Drake & Premiani has built the idea that they weren’t very good people before the accidents that gave them powers, but Cliff really gets brought down in this version. He’s introduced cheating on his wife, and in fact the first thing you see is Frasier’s naked ass as he’s almost caught in the act, and every scene of his past hammers home that his marriage is a mess. They even change some of the circumstances of the accident that destroys his body.
He makes it through the race but finds out his wife is cheating on him with his pit crew manager. After getting drunk and leaving his family, he tries to reconcile with them and take them out for ice cream where he gets into the crash on the road and kills his wife and older daughter and possibly his younger daughter, we’re not sure Caulder is telling the truth about her.
The show makes the original addition of wives and kids to Cliff and Larry’s backstories, and with the decades-long setup that could mean we’ll see their now grown children sometime around, that could be interesting. Larry was also hiding a love for one of the other pilots he worked with, and there’s some ‘I was hiding even before the bandages’ drama out of that. Rita’s powers are different but her origin is the most unchanged from the comics, personality wise she has more of an edge than I’ve seen before: Having a cameraman fired because she didn’t want to look at his missing arm in the past and drinking constantly in Caulder’s mansion. Negative Man in contrast is less abrasive than he usually is in the comics, often deferring to The Chief’s advice (even though Rita was changed first, it’s implied in the Titans episode that Larry has been there the longest).
Jane, one of the Chief’s subjects who left the mansion for the outside world (he alludes to others. We know Beast Boy and Fever, maybe we’ll see the likes of Mento, Lodestone or Dorothy Spinner in later episodes?) comes back for a visit and convinces them to go into town in the Chief’s absence when he leaves – presumably to contact Sir Not Appearing In This Pilot Cyborg, it’s funny that the Big Name character meant to draw viewers isn’t there at the start.
They make their way to town in a school bus Jane painted black. In a change from the Titans episode, it’s now the fictional Cloverton instead of the real Covington Ohio which is a bit of a bummer to me because I’ve been to Covington & have family living there. Rita leaves first and goes to a diner where the first person she meets is coincidentally a fan of her movies and goes through the whole “you remind me of this obscure 1950s actress who disappeared but I happen to recognize immediately” routine. Larry and Cliff ignore the stares of the public when they eventually step out of the bus. The anxiety of being in public for the first time leads Rita and Larry to lose control of their powers, while Cliff and Jane start fighting in a park because Jane tells Cliff his daughter could still be alive. Pretty soon the town is being wrecked and Robotman puts himself between Rita and a real school bus before she can knock it over.
I like the tone overall. The Doom Patrol have always been “the weird team”, although not as distinctively weird in the Silver Age when most comics weren’t concerned with being ‘grounded’. Grant Morrison’s stamp is definitely there: Crazy Jane and Mr. Nobody were his creations, so was Cliff’s “heavy industrial” look with the leather jacket and giant jaw and making Caulder less trustworthy. I caught a few direct panel-to-screen lifts from his run too.
There’s really only one bit that stands out as unnecessary weird for the sake of weird, and that’s a donkey that follows Mr. Nobody around and farts a cryptic message at the end of the episode. DC streaming gives them the freedom to do “mature” content if they want to, so there’s cursing and a burning body and a sex scene to remind you this is a serious, gritty show (although the biggest laugh to come out of any of that is The Chief saying “oh fudge”) but Doom Patrol is a better fit for that than Teen Titans. Mr. Nobody is cynical and meta instead of a Dadaist Mad Artist, but I guess that works. Frasier has the most to work with in this episode, but the rest of the cast are good.
We see the abrasive Hammerhead, Sylvia, the painter Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and a sun-headed one whose name I don’t remember, maybe Flaming Katy?) Guererro does all right switching between characters physically, but it’s still a little clunky when each new persona gives their name and an expository “you’re not talking to Jane right now”. I’m thinking that some different accents for some of Jane’s transformations would be fun, and hoping we see Black Annis before the season is over.
I looked up the cast for upcoming episodes and got a few familiar character names, and although it’s not mentioned in the pilot it does look like Jane’s real name is still Kay Challis.
You don’t cast Julian Richings as a oneoff throwaway for a flashback origin. I have a feeling his War Criminal In Hiding will be back, if not in the flesh at least in spirit and maybe voice & brain in a jar.
Aside from a single shot of Cliff crushing a cell phone, there’s nothing in the show that would mark it as happening after 1989. The mansion is full of retro sci-fi tech, cassette players and box TVs. The dates on Cliff’s recovery montage say he wasn’t in his robot body until 1995 and the series could have easily happened then.
The effects are pretty much on par with the CW’s DC series. Robotman’s “naked” body looked entirely CGI but I think a lot of it afterwards is a costume. Larry’s Negative Spirit is less humanoid than it is a batch of blue lightning and instead of changing size Rita melts into a blob with limited directional control. Mr. Nobody looks weird, but the Glowing effect draws the eye when he’s supposed to be hard to see clearly.
Rita is never called Elasti-Girl, probably to avoid Incredibles confusion, and doesn’t have a set costume, as she loses her clothes when she melts. I don’t think they ever call Larry Negative Man and his outfit is the Pilot gear from the recent Giffen run along with the coat & sunglasses from Rebis. Robotman is straight out of Richard Case’s design with that jacket. Jane is in eccentric modern street clothes, with lots of jewelry and buttons. It’s weird seeing The Chief without a tie, but he still has a sweet tooth.
Caulder mentions “others”. Since the Doom Patrol predate most characters in this version of the DCU, could they be using his experiments as the origin for some recognizable characters?
I love the Morrison runs as much as the next guy, and the Pollack & Arcudi runs WAY more than the next guy, but it bugs me that DC’s still doing the whole thing where they act like they never published anything before 1985 and left Drake & Premiani’s names off the “special thanks” list.