Doom Patrol: Pilot

Mr. Nobody: "Critics. What do they know? They’re gonna hate this show."

Doom Patrol was the show that finally broke my resolve and made me sign up for the DC Universe streaming service.

It was worth it.

A bit of overview up front, both textual and metatextual, which is appropriate as the show itself has a somewhat casual attitude toward differentiating between the two. Please feel free to skip ahead to paragraph six if you'd like to disregard the preamble.

Doom Patrol, the comic book, premiered a few months before the X-Men, although there's plenty of room for debate as to who was listening to whose ideas and where exactly the credit for certain concepts should lie. A team of misunderstood individuals with powers that keep them separate from a world that fears them which they nonetheless protect, the Doom Patrol live in Doom Manor, the stately mansion belonging to the groups mentor, Niles Caulder, known as 'The Chief.'

Anyone who wishes, at this juncture, to make a joke about 'C-Men' should be aware that The Big Bang Theory beat them to the punch on that one by about five years.

There's been a fairly diverse roster of Doom Patrol members over the years. I am required by federal law to mention at this point that Cliff Steele, a.k.a. Robotman, is the only member to have been part of the team during all seven of its disparate incarnations. One of those incarnations was written by Gerard Way, former lead singer of My Chemical Romance, and is totally worth tracking down and reading.

A lot of Doom Patrol, the series, is pulled from the run written by Grant Morrison in the late 80s and early 90s. This was being published concurrently with Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and the influence that those two works had on me both as a writer and a person cannot possibly be overstated. I was deeply and personally invested in this show, well before I finally broke down and gave DC Universe my checking account information. I'd long suspected that the majority of Grant Morrison's ideas and concepts were simply unfilmable. Mr. Nobody, for example.

Which brings us to paragraph six, and a big hello to those of you just joining the review in progress. So, how is the pilot episode of Doom Patrol, both as a setup for the series and as an hour or so of television in its own right?

As a setup for the series, Doom Patrol's pilot is remarkably efficient, and is consistently working a lot harder than you think it is to properly set up a staggering number of characters, themes and concepts. Interestingly enough, it begins with establishing the series primary antagonist/villain, Mr. Nobody. Formerly known as Mr. Morden, Mr. Nobody was once a low level villain in his human form. We aren't made privy to the information yet, but it's not really a spoiler so I'll discuss it here; Mr. Morden was a very low level member of the Brotherhood of Evil. Tired of being overlooked and forgotten by everyone, he went to Paraguay to see Heinrich Von Fuchs, escaped Nazi scientist and no relation. Heinrich puts him into a large tank (in the comics it's specified as a sensory deprivation apparatus) and basically blasts Mr. Morden out of rational existence, leaving him a strange fractured shadow with the catchphrase 'The Mind is the Limit.'

The reason that the show chooses to begin with Mr. Nobody before getting to the Doom Patrol is very simple and effective. Mr. Nobody, as a character, essentially weaponizes the narrative conventions of whatever medium the story is being told in. In the comics there was a lot of breaking into the white space between panels and that sort of thing. Here it sets him up personally to narrate the rest of the episode, helpfully explaining what needs to be explained and skewering what genre conventions need to be skewered.

As for the remainder of the episode's structure, at first glance it appears to be the standard way of introducing and explaining a secret organization, i.e. it introduces us to a new member of that organization and then has us watch all of the basic setup being explained to them. This is a perfectly legitimate way to handle to exposition, and worked just fine for Torchwood, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and the first Hellboy film. The interesting twist here is that we're being introduced to the team through Cliff's eyes as he comes to term with being a brain in a robot suit, but that the team, per se, doesn't really exist until nearly the end of the episode. That's what I mean when I say that the structure is working harder than you notice it doing. Instead of being introduced to a functioning superhero team, we essentially open in a nightmarish 'Cure for Wellness' situation where our focal character is ripped from his normal life and is suddenly trapped in a baroque palace of freaks and mutilation.

Which probably means that this is a good time to mention the aforementioned mutilated freaks.

Because that's really always been the differentiating line between the Doom Patrol and the X-Men. The members of the DP don't see themselves as having powers, they seem themselves as having deformities. Albeit deformities with occasionally useful side effects which might help you stop villains if you can take a break from feeling sorry for yourself long enough to do it.



Robotman, AKA Cliff Steele: Former race car driver, now brain in a robot suit. Cliff is paradoxically the heart of the team, and by far the most human of the group.  Brendan Fraser does a great job here of being a fundamentally decent and big hearted person who did a lot of bad things in the past.

Negative Man, AKA Larry Trainor: Former test pilot and closet case in the 60s, a tragic encounter with a strange force in the upper atmosphere left him burned beyond recognition and possessed with a strange negative force which can leave his body and seems to possess a consciousness and personality of his own. We don't get a lot of time with Larry here, but what we do see is a man who's absolutely broken and given up.

Elasti-Woman, AKA Rita Farr: Film actress from the 50s, a chance encounter with a mysterious green force in an African river took from Rita the ability to consistently control the shape of her body, which means that moments of stress cause her to turn into an amorphous blob. Yes, it's an elaborate riff about 'self image.'

Crazy Jane, AKA... well, a lot of people: Jane has 64 personalities, each of which has its own specific superpower. Jane was a creation of Grant Morrison, and so came to the team a long time after the others. This is reflected nicely in the episode's structure by having Jane return to the manor after the other characters were all established, making her feel simultaneously like part of the team and a late addition. It was a little detail, but as an admirer of the Morrison run I appreciated it.

Cyborg, AKA not appearing in this episode: We'll get to him later, when he turns up.

Once we get all the players established, the DP take advantage of the Chief's absence to play hooky and go into town, resulting in total chaos as they each fail to control their powers in catastrophic ways, which in turn results in Mr. Nobody finally learning of the Chief's location. This information is conveyed via the standard genre cliché of a farting donkey. Which was awesome.

So, Team all introduced, initial 'mission' screwed hopelessly up, and main series villain brought into contact with the group, all culminating in a black hole forming in the center of town and cutting to cliffhanger blackout. Well played, Pilot. Well played.



Bits and Pieces:

-- Huge credit to Riley Shanahan and Matthew Zuk, who portray the physical forms of Robotman and Negative Man, respectively. Brendan Fraser and Matt Bomer get all the lines, all the juicy backstory scenes, and most likely all the credit as a general rule, but neither of those two characters would work at all without the physical performances that Shanahan and Zuk bring to them.

-- Diane Guerrero is amazing as Crazy Jane. Just stunning attention to tiny details of physicality in her different personalities.

-- Timothy Dalton's performance of the Chief is, as well, a thing to be seen.

-- Rita is from the 50s, Larry from the 60s, Jane says she's from the 70s, and Cliff is from the 80s. The Chief is averaging one new recruit a decade. The other three make sense, sort of, but why isn't Jane aging normally? Multiple personalities don't 'pause' their own aging when they're not in control, after all.

-- Cliff was the only one who cared about the City enough to go back and defend it. Jane returned because she cares about Cliff. That's very telling, in both cases.

-- Cliff and Jane's friendship is the heart and soul of the Morrison run of DP, and I'm so relieved to see what a great job they're doing with it here. 'Come in out of the rain' is hugely significant in the story of their friendship, and it actually made me tear up a little bit that they included it so faithfully.

-- Larry's secret boyfriend was very cute and clearly loved him a lot.

-- There's a lot of joy to be had, both in the show and the comics, from tracking what T-shirts Cliff is wearing at any given time.

-- And speaking of Cliff's costuming, the show has updated Cliff's iconic 90s jacket so that the metal shoulderpads are clusters of solar power cells. That is just such a clever tweak, I can't say enough good things about it.

This framed poster is above my desk as I write this review.
I am not screwing around about my dedication to this property.
Quotes:

Cliff: "I don’t know what happened to us. I’m gonna be better."

Rita: "And then we need to take those expectations and flush them into the ocean."

Larry: "I thought you might like some air."
Cliff: "I can’t feel the air."
Larry: "Well, sucks to be you."

Rita: "What’s it say?"
Cliff: "Library."
Rita: "Your handwriting is an abomination."
Cliff: "Robot fingers."

Mr. Nobody: "After a brief misunderstanding in which junk was grabbed, Robotman met Jane."

Crazy Jane: "You forgot to buy your daughter a birthday present?"
Cliff: "I was busy. F**king the nanny."


A great start with a lot of promise. Thank you for not making me regret subscribing to the streaming service.

Nine out of ten farting donkeys.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

8 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Mikey, nothing wrong with being passionate about a show you're reviewing (says the woman who is currently totally obsessed with Outlander).

The actors are all wonderful, but since I was completely unfamiliar with the story, I think I needed more exposition. I thought that Cliff was very RoboCop, totally creeped me out. I also thought it was cool that the narrator turned out to be the bad guy. That glimpse of him at the end was tantalizing.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Fair point, that's always the hardest part of reviewing things when you're familiar with the source material, it's so easy to not notice if something you already understand isn't really given enough explanation.

I'm not 100% sure though that the off putting robo-cop vibe wasn't at least partially deliberate though, they kind of hold back the reveal that Cliff is basically a decent guy at heart. It's not really until he chooses to go defend the city on his own that we see him being selfless.

Alan Tudyk just gets more and more amazing as Mr. Nobody. Honestly, and I say this as a Firefly fan, this show is the best work he's ever done. Just wait until... but that would be spoiling... ;)

CoramDeo said...

Incidentally, if you're watching this show, you can read the Morrison and Way incarnations of the series, along with all the rest, because DC Universe includes practically every DC Comic series ever. Great review of a great show, Mikey.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Thank you so much for mentioning the comics being on DC Universe! I mentioned that at one point in the review and then edited it out because I was starting to feel like a shill for the service :)

If you haven't read the Morrison run however, I'd recommend watching the series first so as to not spoil some very well done twists and surprises.

Also, thank you for the compliment :)

Lisianpeia said...

Mike, as always great review! Full disclosure: I had never heard about the Doom Patrol before watching the trailer for this (sorry!), but the trailer got me really excited. And it also delivered because I loved this first season - specially episode 8. I was fast invested in all the characters and by the end I loved them all.

I'm looking foward to reading your reviews! Besides your usual insights and humour, it'll be great to get an opinion from someone who loved the source material =)

Mikey Heinrich said...

Episode 8 is the best!

There are two separate scenes in episode 8 that I've gone back and re-watched literally dozens of times. I suspect you can guess which ones.

:)

Hcckdude said...

This is my favorite Season 1 of any show ever! I absolutely adore this show and think every character is quite wonderful! I am so happy someone is reviewing this show! I just hope more people start to watch it! It deserves any support and success it gets.

Hcckdude said...

Also great review good sir! I'm glad a fan is writing the reviews! Also, if anyone else here has the DC streaming service, you should check out Young Justice! Its pretty fantastical!