Cliff Steele (Brendan Fraser), hard living race car drive and nanny philanderer, dies violently in a high-speed crash on a race-track and then gets better due to assistance of apparent benefactor Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton). Encased in his new, home built, robot-body, he discovers the other patients of the house; the mentally disturbed Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), ex-moving pictures star Rita Farr (April Bowlby), and constantly bandaged Larry Trainor (Matt Bomer). The episode is narrated by the mysterious, escaped Nazi scientist associating, Mr Nobody (Alan Tudyk), and takes the viewer through the histories of the Patrol plus their incautious decision to take just one, harmless bus ride into town…
DC Universe launches its second home-produced TV series with 15 episodes of the long standing, but relatively unknown, group of characters known as the Doom Patrol. Started in the 60s, by writers Arnold Drake, Bob Haney and artist Bruno Premiani, showrunner Jeremy Carver has stuck with the various comic series’ concept of having “The World’s Strangest Heroes” being a tale of trauma and alienation. Rather than the questions of moral right or wrong asked by its predecessor, Titans, the opening episode focuses on introducing each character to the audience through a series of heavy punches to the heart, face and soul. What could have been a simple run-through of “the gathering of the forces of good” is an assortment of kicks to the groin, executed so as to leave no joy unsullied and no heart sting unrazored.
Yet, through all the bitterness (and a lot of swearing), there is hope, as it becomes apparent that this is a self-help group rather than an excessive pity party. Whilst the script helps with that – giving a realistic depiction of people being made world weary by a series of unrealistic events – a lot of that is also carried by the actors finding the right balance between utterly miserable and optimistically resigned to their situations (no mean feat when Cliff and Larry have no facial movements to play with). They also bring touches of love and affection between each other, inbetween the kind of bickering and snapping that a close knit and closeted group need to have.
This could have been the latest in ‘grimdark’ superhero self-indulgence, instead it’s the lift and fall of strong people going through depressing situations together. The visual style matches this, with lighting and filming being natural and unflamboyant, rather than a barrage of tight, underlit headshots from baffling angles. Fans of the comic series will be pleased to know that whilst there have been the inevitable series of nips and tucks to backgrounds and situations, both to improve the introductory narrative and to combine elements of various stories told within the source material, the characters are mostly as they have always been in tone and feel.
The most altered character, so far, is Rita Farr; but this move is done with care and with grand results. In the original 60s run of the comic, a hyper-competent, wilfully independent, intelligent, beautiful and self-driven heroine may have been sufficient to make Elasti-Girl a reject from society, but, as a dedicated Doom Patrologist I dare to say, giving her physical and emotional imperfections has produced a character better suited for the modern age and with more story arc potential.
There are also plenty of homages and references to the comics, both in dialogue and plot points, that are put in to the show. In fact, one of the most heartfelt moments of the show is taken, almost wholesale, from the first issue of the Grant Morrison run that so heavily influences the episode. Slightly chipped away at the edges to fit in with its new surroundings, it manages bring a gravitas and emotion that both hardened fans and curious newcomers can get a little teary-eyed to altogether, and is probably one of the best examples of how to bring a scene across from one media to another.
The only major criticisms I have of Doom Patrol’s opening episode are that of its timescale. For an opener that gives so much detail on the years of the various events happening, it gives scarce information on what happened in between nor demonstrates the impact of the modern world on characters who would now either be ready to retire, or classable as super-powered Saga Louts. Not only do they fail to act their age with regards the rest of the world, they don’t do it with each other; whilst some seniority is established between the Patrol, they mostly behave as if they were the actual actors’ ages, with deference and tensions applied accordingly.
There are also a couple of moments when the timeline just plain doesn’t add up; however, that could either be explained later in the series or be misinformation, so could, for the moment, sit as minor concerns. It also – somewhat bafflingly – has no connection with the events of the Titans episode that previewed this show. Other than that, it sets things up very well for the series and makes it markedly distinct in tone and narrative to the various other super-hero offerings available at this time. All the major players, motivations and themes are established for the audience to assess if they like this new and exciting flavour. There is foreshadowing that things – beyond being an abnormal line-up of hard-luck heroes – are going to get stranger, and the nagging feeling… built on little bits of evidence, intriguing bits on inconsistency, plus tantalising gaps in people’s stories, that not everything is actually how it is first presented.
Combine all that with a build-up of tensions and personalities that make you actually worried for everyone by the cliff-hanger ending, and you have a first episode that will have all watchers waiting feverishly for the next instalment of Doom Patrol to drop.
Andrew “Raggedyman” Watton-Davies
Doom Patrol is currently available weekly on the DCUniverse online service and will then be on Netflix globally once the series finishes. Please note that the first episode has a couple of sex scenes and several gory moments, so don’t watch it at work. It also has more swearing than Titans, and does it with far more conviction.