In 1963, a team dubbed “The World’s Strangest Superheroes” made their debut. While the description of a team of people with freakish powers, protecting a world that fears them, led by a brilliant man in a wheelchair might sound familiar, the Doom Patrol actually appeared a few months before Marvel’s X-Men. The team has fluctuated a lot, and been rewritten many times over the years, attracting more strange characters and strange writers (looking at you, Morrison).
I admit, I didn’t have high hopes for the live action DC Universe show. I was very disappointed in the Titans series, both as a long time fan of the characters and from a storytelling perspective. But the Patrol got one episode of the Titans’ first season for their introduction, and I was interested. After checking out the pilot, I’m intrigued. It was certainly better than any of the Titans episodes.
The lineup for the team is initially the same as the original, way back when, although with the complications to their origins and powers that have accumulated over the years. These are very real, flawed people who end up with powers by accident. These powers effectively end their old lives, and eventually bring them together. The focus of the episode, at least much of it, is on Cliff Steele, Robotman, voiced by Brenden Fraser and played both by Fraser and Riley Shanahan. What got my attention right off the bat was the very sardonic, amusingly odd narration provided by Alan Tudyk, playing Eric Morden/Mr. Nobody. He narrates parts of the entire episode, and his own origin, which is suitably odd, both plot-wise and visually. That happens in Paraguay in 1948.
The show skips around in time a lot. Many of these characters have ended up with extended lifespans as a side effect of their conditions. In 1988, we see the life of Cliff Steele, star racecar driver, minor celebrity, and somewhat lacking as a father and husband. His wife is no prize at all. Roughly following his classic origin, Cliff is in a horrible accident, and ends up being a brain in a powerful robotic body courtesy of Dr. Niles Caulder, the Chief, head of the group and investigator of oddness. There are a lot of scenes of Cliff adjusting to his new circumstances, and meeting fellow freaks Rita Farr and Larry Trainor. After several scenes of various kinds of therapy for Cliff, he gets a series of surprising revelations from Rita, who says she will always tell the truth.
With more great narration, we see Cliff taken around the house and not exactly bonding with, but getting to know, Larry Trainor, the heavily bandaged Negative Man. We also get the classic version of Larry’s origin, a terrible plane crash for the Air Force test pilot. Cliff works on more rehab and therapy, and starts getting flashbacks of some of his family life, especially his daughter. The Chief says it’s a good sign, and they talk a bit about people ever leaving the Chief’s care. Later, Cliff and Rita watch tv together, and we jump back to her origin in Africa, 1955. Rita was a movie star, and her accident left her unable to keep working, to say the least.
When Cliff starts making great strides in his recovery (literal and physical), he goes to the Chief with some demands. This is when his origin story takes a hell of a turn, and we find out he’s been repressing memories about his accident. It’s a really ugly, tragic spin on things.
Years pass, with more changing screen titles to show the passage of time and more snarky narration. When we get to the present, and skip over the time Beast Boy spent with the team as seen in Titans, another new character arrives. Crazy Jane, a Grant Morrison creation, has multiple personalities, and each one has a different power. We don’t get her origin, but she clearly has a history with the team. Jane, or her Hammerhead personality, doesn’t make a great first impression on Cliff. Later, outside, she’s painting and they sort of start over. Cliff shares some of what has him on edge, and Morden’s narration takes us up to Caulder feeling things are settled enough for him to go off and look into something. He leaves with what are clearly ritual words that Rita says along with him, and Cliff gets a parting wisecrack.
While the Chief’s away, the Patrol will play. In this case, resident troublemaker Crazy Jane talks everyone into going on a field trip into town. They get there in a bus Jane redecorated, and split up to do a few things. Rita goes to a diner, meets a fan, and things start off so well. Larry goes to a bar, orders a beer, and we see some flashbacks showing his All American hero background wasn’t quite what it seemed at first, especially for the time it was happening. Jane and Cliff go to the park, where Cliff shares some more memories. Jane implies the Chief has been lying about a few things, and the two argue, which attracts the attention of some cops. Jane shifts to a different personality, who isn’t that happy to see the police. Rita hears some things she really wishes she hadn’t, and starts to lose control. Larry has a similar problem facing his past. I’d like to point out that the Patrol really didn’t do much wrong here, they just had a few problems that resulted in property damage issues, but I don’t think anyone was even hurt. Scared, sure. But not hurt. The team comes together to gain control again, and ends up with some very mixed reactions about their outing.
Learning of all this, the Chief returns, and he’s in a mood. He blasts them all for being reckless, and Cliff fires back with what he’s learned from Jane. Citing unspecified threats, Chief Niles Caulder says they all have to leave now, because something is going to come after them. Cliff isn’t happy with endangering and then abandoning the town. Cliff sticks by his guns, even as the others are leaving without him. Jane, maybe just being contrary, starts a revolution and halts the running away. The heroes march into the town, their dramatic entrance screwed up a bit by Rita’s issues, but it’s a nice scene regardless. The Chief, alone now, has a strange confrontation with an old enemy. The episode ends with the team facing a new threat that seemingly appears out of nowhere.
What I liked: I was really unsure about this after the disappointment of Titans, but this was actually a good show. It was well written, the characters have depth, and I like how they told their stories. The narration was fantastic, both written and delivered. I thought how they gave the classic origins, then complicated them, was nicely done narratively. I really liked Cliff, but he’s the closest to an actual hero, which is what I tend to enjoy anyway.
What I didn’t: We don’t get much background at all, or an origin, for Jane, which sets her apart even further. I’m not sure why they tied the show to Titans on that series, and then skipped even the mention of Beast Boy. The Chief, much like in the comics, is very hard to like. He shares a lot with the worst versions of Professor X, actually.
This was surprisingly good, especially considering the Doom Patrol was never a favorite of mine in the comics. I’ll give this a 4 out of 5, and I’m really interested to see where they go next.