In the US: Fridays, DC Universe
In the UK: Not yet acquired
At the start of the 90s, DC’s Vertigo imprint of adult-oriented comics was a powerhouse of creativity – one largely powered by Brits. Many of the titles took existing characters and gave them new depth. Swamp Thing had been about a relatively ordinary, second-tier character – a man turned into swampy beast – but in Alan Moore’s hands, Swamp Thing became a swampy beast that just thought it had once been a man but that was actually the embodiment of nature – a Green Man.
John Constantine had been a guest character in Swamp Thing whom Jamie Delano turned into the embodiment of British working class street cool, punk and post-punk anger, and rage against Thatcherite injustice in Hellblazer. Peter Milligan’s Shade The Changing Man saw an alien poet in a coat of madness critiquing American society, while Neil Gaiman’s Sandman gave us deities, dreams and re-examinations of magic and history.
Among this mix was Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, which rebooted an exceedingly second-tier group of misfits and turned them into something vastly more interesting. Morrison’s embrace of dadaism transformed the comic into something extraordinary, with (literally) two-dimensional characters who can drain people’s sanity, paintings that could eat cities, a street that was actually a superhero and more.
All of which made it an odd choice to be nascent streaming service DC Universe’s second piece of original programming. To be fair, its first, Titans, with its motley collection of sidekicks, was an odd choice, too, and it turned out great. But Doom Patrol? How were they going to capture in a TV show all the things that made the comic something more than just a bunch of rubbish superheroes facing relatively rubbish challenges?
The quick answer is: they didn’t. The longer answer is: they didn’t… until the final five minutes of the first episode.
Back on patrol
Oddly, of course, we’ve already had a backdoor pilot for Doom Patrol in a near-standalone episode of Titans. That was… odd, particularly in light of this pilot. For starters, it had Bruno Bichir playing the mad scientist boss of the group, The Chief, whereas the series proper has Rassilon himself, Timothy Dalton. It also gave us a group of fully formed characters, including April Bowlby’s Elasti-woman and the voices of Brendan Fraser and Matt Bomer as Robotman and Negative Man respectively, whereas this pilot is essentially a series of origin stories for all the characters we’ve already met. It also ignores more or less everything in that Titans episode.
We are at least treated to the real-life Bomer and Fraser this time, as we see how each became their Doom Patrol incarnations. Fraser is a 1980s racing driver who has a car accident; all that survives is his brain and we get an amusing Robocop-inspired depiction of how he gets turned by The Chief into Robotman. Similarly, we see 1950s USAF pilot Bomer getting possessed by an entity while flying a X-plane and subsequently crashing back down to earth, where he’s nearly burnt to death; and we see Bowlby’s 50s film star Rita Farr nearly drown on set and get turned into something much odder after breathing in a toxic gas. Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), who has 64 different personalities, each with a different superpower, also makes an appearance but doesn’t get an origin story, and neither does Dalton.
For the most part, these disparate misfits are confined to ‘Doom Mansion’ for the duration of the episode, where they bicker and snipe at one another. But when they visit a nearby town, they get to come out of their shells and display their powers, largely for the worse.
None of this is really very interesting, to be honest. Fraser’s story is moderately engrossing and there’s nice period touches in all the stories. We know, of course, that we’re not going to see much of Bomer and Fraser from now on, just hear their voices, since both their characters are hidden behind masks, so I guess we’re frontloading the majority of their appearances, with a few potential flashbacks later on. Coming to the line-up in later episodes is Cyborg (you might remember him from Justice League, where he was played by Ray Fisher, but here he’s played by Joivan Wade).
But largely, it’s not that exciting and the characters don’t really gel. For a superhero show, there’s very little superheroics, very little you’ll never have seen before and a bunch of misfits coming together as a team is far from remarkable as a concept. It doesn’t help that we have Timothy Dalton acting away while we have at least two superheroes without faces to emote back at him. Indeed, for the most part Doom Patrol‘s message is that if you’re ugly, you need to hide away, which doesn’t make it the most edifying of shows.
What eventually salvages Doom Patrol is Mr Nobody, played by Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Suburgatory, Con Man). Mr Nobody is one of Grant Morrison’s biggest and most iconic Doom Patrol characters and here he functions somewhat like Deadpool does in Deadpool. He’s the narrator – and he knows he’s narrating a TV show, which allows him to make various meta comments about the show and the plot (“I know what you’re thinking. ‘Another superhero TV show’. Like the world needs another one” and “What a revelation! Bet you saw that coming, hey?”).
But he’s also the arch villain of the piece; he gets an origin story at the beginning and he populates the episode with his trademark dadaism, such as random donkeys that can fart sky-writing. His appearance in the final five minutes of the episode is beautifully realised and hints at a much more interesting future show.
I won’t pretend for a minute that I loved Doom Patrol. Unlike Happy!, in which Morrison’s dadaism felt forced and almost superfluous at times, Doom Patrol really, really needs it and doesn’t get anywhere near enough of it until the end.
But now we have the set-up out the way, we do at least have a good foundation for future, more bizarre adventures. There are hints that much-loved, odder characters such as Danny The Street will be turning up in later episodes, too. All of which means that while neither of the show’s pilot episodes have really inspired a huge amount of confidence, they have at least made me want to stick around to see what the regular adventures will be like.
Plus, I do love anything with donkeys in it.