Larry is tasked with handling Niles’ old research team when the ageless aeronauts return from space. As Niles and Cliff set out to find a missing Dorothy, a funeral in The Underground occupies Jane’s mind. Meanwhile, Vic discovers a curious connection between Roni and S.T.A.R. Labs, and Rita finds that her role in an upcoming community theatre production hits too close to home.
Warning: This review contains Mild spoilers, with the discussion of key plot points from the episode and series. Then again, is “The Chief acts like an arse” really a spoiler?
Space Patrol has landed, and it’s a perfect time to talk through how Doom Patrol manages to keep viewers so engaged with its stories. As we’ve said before, the acting and the sets are all remarkable, but that only keeps people around for a while by itself. That goes double when it’s a comic book-based series with few fight scenes or explosions to its name. So whilst other shows offer roller-coaster thrills and spook-house chills, how does the Patrol give us something that manages to be comparatively sedate but still engaging?
Firstly, for a team show, it really isn’t that stuck to the idea of having the team together. If characters would logically be doing their own thing then that’s what they do, because that’s what real people do even in the most surreal of situations. Close-knit groups don’t spend all their time in each other’s pockets, and sometimes they just go off and do their own things because they are their own people. Not only does it allow for personal stories to get covered, but different tones and themes can be explored without feeling forced.
In this episode, Jane is forced to be in that situation because of the events of Finger Patrol, but Rita goes off to an audition with “regular people” because that’s what she needs right now and Larry stays at home because it just needs to be done. The only reason Cliff joins The Chief in a spaceship is that he feels he has to, not because he wants to go into space, and it’s very clearly two characters in the same location rather than a team field trip. Meanwhile, Vic is spending all his time with Roni because that’s what he does at the start of a relationship. No special reasons, just young love. Everyone is doing what you would expect everyone to do in the situations they are in, which puts the show’s feet firmly on the ground.
This partly helps counterpoint the “wacky” elements, in this case, three Buck-Rogers-style astronauts landing in the mansion’s back garden and looking for Niles because that’s just what happens in this world. But the writers avoid their cringy-hijinks being annoying by showing the kitsch “as-is” and then working back from there. Just like how Doctor Tyme saw all of existence and decided to constantly relive one particularly pleasant afternoon, first we get overly chipper caricatures and then we get the horror that explains it. “Why?” or “how?” are dull questions that get you stuck in pseudo-science loops, “what does this mean?” is where the really interesting stuff lies. Your own mind fills in the answers and the questions, making it all that bit worse. Niles has a spaceship in one of his garages which he could have revolutionised the world with or got that trio back to Earth 50 years earlier, so why didn’t he do that?
The series also doesn’t insist that everyone develops and grows at the same speed, or that developments have to follow a set theme. Cliff takes a step forward to being caring about Dorothy, growing as a parent-figure, whilst Rita copes with facing how the world views her. Two very different steps forward, making each hit its own note and feel more likely. It means that when Dorothy does her own bit of growing up it lands true, but we are geared for a different outcome when it’s someone who’s been 11 for a century. When Larry is given an “open goal” chance to reconcile his grief and instead decides to double-down on being sorry for himself, it’s its own tragedy rather than anyone else’s counterpoint. And when The Chief continues to be the self-centred bastard that he’s always been, it’s a continuation rather than shock, as why should a man who regrets nothing and thinks he’s done nothing wrong ever bother to “improve” himself?
The main plotlines of the season are all there: family, parenting, and the danger of The Candlemaker. But these are only the framing for the ongoing interest we have in the characters as people, and the realistic manner in which they deal with their trauma. Space Patrol could have been a single zany adventure, but instead was five separate vignettes of characters we have grown to care about. It’s those characters that will keep us coming back for more, and it’s great to see a series have faith in those characters, rather than insisting that danger and arbitrary puzzles will win our hearts and minds.
Doom Patrol is released every Friday on dcuniverse.com and HBOmax.com