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Okay, so I just finished watching Season 1 of the Doom Patrol television show. I noticed that seasons 1 and 2 of the show were available as DVDs at my local public library and I thought, “what the heck?”
Actually, as a kid, I really enjoyed the old Doom Patrol comic book. First featured in “My Greatest Adventure” comic title issue 80 (June 1963), it chronicled the saga of three misfits forged into a superhero team by scientist/genius Niles Caulder, also called “The Chief.” The original team was made up of Robotman (Cliff Steele), a race car driver who was in an accident so horrific that only his brain survived. The Chief put that brain in a robot body. Elasti-Girl was originally actress Rita Farr who, filming on location, was exposed to a volcanic gas enabling her to grow to giant size or to shrink into a tiny form. Negative Man was test pilot Larry Trainor who flew his rocket plane into a radiation belt. The plane crashed, and Larry discovered that not only was he permanently radioactive, but for sixty seconds, he could project a negative image of himself that could travel at the speed of light and had amazing abilities. The only trick is that N-Man has to get back inside Larry’s body before the minute is up or Larry dies and N-Man disintegrates.
In looking up the full history of the comic book (see above link), I saw that it had gotten a whole lot stranger than it first started out.
Okay, even in the 1960s, they had oddball villains like an immortal general, a genius gorilla, and a disembodied brain under glass, so naturally a TV show made out of this comic book would be outside the box.
What I didn’t realize was that it would have a surreal, farcical side which included a donkey that farted messages and was the doorway into another dimension, a rat named General Whiskers who sought revenge against the team for running over his Mom as she crossed the street, and an evangelizing cockroach.
Brandon Frasier plays Cliff Steele/Robotman, not in the suit, that’s Riley Shanahan, but he does the voice and we see him in flashbacks and other reality scenes (there’s a lot of flashbacks in the show). This is the “adult” version, so he had a lousy marriage and while he doted on his little daughter Clara, he was still a crappy Dad, having an affair with the nanny. Worst of all, he ended up destroying his body in a car crash that killed his wife and left Clara an orphan.
The series actually begins largely from his point of view, with Larry (Matt Bomer – in bandages played by Matthew Zuk) and Rita (April Bowlby) already having lived at “Doom Manor” with the Chief (Timothy Dalton) for decades.
Cliff’s accident was in the 1980s and as his brain doesn’t age in his robot body, he, like the others, decides to hide from the world at the Manor up to 2019 when the show starts.
In 1955, Rita is a selfish, vain movie star on location making a jungle adventure movie. She objects to one of the local camera crew because he has only one arm and has him fired, making everyone else hate Rita even more. During a scene, she falls into a lake and encounters some sort of glow. When she is taken back to land, she finds her body is so plastic that her face starts to melt. Don’t worry, she can reform herself temporarily, but she has no control and in extreme situations turns into a large, moving blob.
This brings up an interesting point relative to old comic books. Cliff and Larry are completely deformed and even the Chief is wheelchair bound, but there was some sort of rule that said a woman must always be beautiful. Hence Rita’s comic book powers just let her grow and shrink. In the 21st century, all bets are off and she can look like a House of Wax refugee.
In 1961, Larry was a successful and highly admired Air Force test pilot scheduled to fly the X-15 rocket plane. He’s married to a wonderful wife, has two sons, and is the handsome All-American Hero. He’s also gay.
Remember this is 1961 so if anyone finds out, his career and marriage are over. His (more or less literal) wingman John Bowers (Kyle Clements) is also his gay lover. When this was first portrayed, I thought, “Oh great, more ‘representation’ with no other reason for Larry being gay.” However as the show progressed, his past and the dynamic between being married to Sheryl (Julie McNiven) and his secret meetings with John revealed the core of fear and despair lurking within Larry (for a while, I even thought that somehow the “negative spirit” was a version of John).
So when he flies his rocket plane into a mysterious energy field and then crashes, he does emerge horribly disfigured, emitting lethal amounts of radiation, and is possessed by a “negative spirit” which has a will of its own, but the two can’t communicate.
Larry does pass out whenever the spirit leaves him (later in the show, he can stay conscious for brief periods of time), but the spirit can be out of Larry for much, much longer than a minute.
“Crazy Jane” (Diane Guerrero) wasn’t in the original comic book team but was a later addition when the comic book truly became weird. She has 64 distinct personalities as a result of being horribly abused by her Dad (and maybe other abuses we aren’t shown in season one) and thanks to experimentation in the 1970s, each of those personalities has an individual super power. None of the personalities is stable, making Jane unpredictable and dangerous.
Guerrero has one of the hardest acting jobs on the show in that she has to portray some (not all 64) of those people. Occasionally, she has a change of makeup to signify which person she’s playing, but all of the time, she has to behave out of those different beings. The one we see most is “Jane” because she’s the protector. The actual core personality is Kay (Skye Roberts) who we only see as a child. Her subconscious, where all of the personalities “live” is called the Underground. In one episode, we see the Underground and each personality is portrayed by a different player. Only Driver 8 (the train engineer who ferries personalities between the Underground and the “real world”) looks like Jane.
Joining the team is Cyborg/Victor Stone (Joivan Wade) who we first see as a minor superhero protecting people from street crime. His father Silas Stone (played by the terrific Phil Morris) works at STAR Labs and put Vic back together after a lab accident that killed Vic’s Mom Elinor (Charmin Lee).
All of them have terrible secrets and guilt, which the main villain Mr. Nobody/Eric Morden (played by Alan Tudyk) manipulates in bizarre and twisted ways. Even Vic’s memories of the night his Mom died may not be real and he suspects that his Dad has “programmed” him in some way.
Nobody and the Chief have a history that goes back to the 1940s and apparently, Nobody has been trying to get his revenge on Caulder since then. An experiment gone wrong turned Morden into an extra-dimensional being of terrific power and he kidnaps Caulder, holding him in “the White Space” while the Chief’s proteges fumble ineptly trying to rescue him.
They end up destroying a nearby town more than once and for the majority of the first season, can’t seem to do one darn thing right, even with Cyborg’s help. They’re more like a depressed, superpowered, dysfunctional family than a super team.
In addition to their own secrets everyone seems to have some sort of connection with Caulder and the Chief has the most sinister secrets of all.
I was puzzled why just about all of the principle characters, including the Chief (who seemed to have been born in the mid-19th century), were decades old or older while never aging and without any explanation. As I mentioned, the number of flashbacks was dizzying and when you add all of the hallucinatory and multi-dimensional journeys and form changes (Larry and Cliff are frequently shown as their former selves giving Bomer and Fraser “face time” on the show), it’s hard to keep up.
Heroes and villain’s alike seem ludicrous which is the cornerstone of both the show and the comic books, and the stories are almost told in metaphor. There’s even “Danny the Street” who on TV is a sapient (not “sentient” as the show states…sentient just means an organism can feel, like a sheep or chicken, which aren’t really smart, while “sapient” means more of a human-like intelligence – why do all these shows get this wrong?) gender queer city block who communicates by manipulating signs in the stores on the street (How asphalt and concrete can even have a gender identity I don’t know, but that was first created in the comic books, so the show only borrowed the idea). Danny can also teleport to anywhere on Earth, integrating into any city or manifesting in the middle of nowhere. Their purpose is to protect the people who live there, who are all vulnerable people, some gay, trans, disabled…anyone the rest of the world has cast out.
I didn’t exactly hate the first two episodes, but blood, gore, and hideous disfigurement aren’t exactly appealing to me. But the characters started to grow on me and I became attached to them. Cliff is really devoted to Jane and all of her cranky and dangerous personalities, while Rita and Larry display the warmth of long time friends. They’re also the pair who never, ever want to get involved, while Cliff is willing to dive headlong into danger. Jane can go either way depending on the personality.
Oh, ultimately, everything hinges on why everyone seems to be immortal and Niles’s obsession with prolonging his life even more than he already has. What secret evil has he done to everyone around him in pursuit of his goal, and who is the one person he wants to protect? That’s answered by the end of the season and you see no matter how “bleeped up” everyone else’s life is, Caulder is more messed up than all the rest.
Did I leave out anything? Lots. I was tempted to review season 1 episode by episode, and I’ve done that with TV shows before. But this time I was determined to encapsulate the whole season in a single review. Now I realize I can’t possibly do the show justice, but here it is anyway. I do highly recommend the show. I’m definitely going on to season two and I hear that episodes for a third season have been written.
I can’t wait.