Lots of old comic book characters look silly because, well, comic books are (and often still are) pretty silly. Take Dr. Tyme, for example, who debuted just ahead of the American psychedelic era, in 1964. Here’s a picture of him from the comics:
Many superhero shows would be tempted, when including a character like this, to try to make him look cool. Maybe he doesn’t have a literal clockface for a face. Maybe he’s just a guy with a clock-themed outfit. or maybe he has clock-themed glasses. Or maybe you’re Doom Patrol, and you’ve long-since embraced the weirdness of your source material. Guess who shows up this week? Spoilers follow for Doom Patrol Season 2, episode 2, “Tyme Patrol.”
Dr. Caulder is, without question, a bad man. He ended the lives of three deeply unhappy people and a victim of systemic mistreatment in his quest for immortality. He created Robotman, Elasti-Woman, Negative Man and, finally, Crazy Jane. And then he lied to them for decades about their stories or subtly encouraged them to hide from their lives. Rita and Jane both live with sexual trauma while Larry hides from the sons he left behind in shame over the monster he’s become. Cliff didn’t even know his daughter was alive until she was old enough to have kids of her own.
And so when it comes time for the team do discuss how to help the doctor, some members of the team are understandably reticent. Rita finds Caulder poring over old notes and, in an effort to be the superhero she’s now dreaming of being, she nudges her way in.
We have our reasons.
We learn that the talisman that Caulder gave up to rescue the Patrol was the only thing keeping him from aging and that he’s currently 139 years old. Looking pretty pretty good, Doc. But here, the group splits. Vic’s PTSD is making staying in Doom Manor dangerous, and Larry found out from his Negative Spirit that his son, Gary, has killed himself. That leaves Rita, Jane, and Cliff to help the Doctor. He knows of a man named Dr. Tyme who possesses a stone that gives him total control over time. Jane wants to go to protect Dorothy. Rita has a mistaken sense of obligation to Niles. Cliff just knows that Niles doesn’t want him to go, and that means that he has to.
Soon, the three are gathered in a circle to transport into Dr Tyme’s domain. One of the things I love about Doom Patrol is that it treats weirdness as normal and measurable enough that it doesn’t warrant explaining. Every weird thing the team does has a history to it or a ritual that kicks it off. There’s science to explain the magic or magic to explain the science.
And that’s why Rita, Jane and Cliff have to say, in clockwise order, what they were doing on a specific time on a specific day while standing in a circle of ground-up continuinium. That’s not misspelled.
The team ends up in the domain of Dr. Tyme, which apparently is a neverending disco dance party. Dr. Tyme spots them right away and explains that that day in 1979, when Donna Summers’ “Bad Girls” was at the top of the charts, was the peak of humanity in all of the past and all of the future. And so he’s chosen to live eternally in that moment. Samurai, tribal warriors, explorers, and disco dancers are all part of his parade.
Oh, and did I mention that Dr. Tyme has a big fat clock for a face?
It’s self-aware and silly, but also dips into horror. When Cliff reliably freaks out, Rita manages to harness her powers long enough to smash Dr. Tyme’s head open on the floor. Jane and Cliff go for the gem, which is fused to Tyme’s brain, and end up locked in memories of their creation. It’s only when Rita literally turns back time that they manage to escape their memories before Dr. Tyme kicks them out.
Back in the very real world
Meanwhile, Vic is in Detroit, trying to attend PTSD support groups. As he joins, the members of the group are immediately wary because they live in 2020 and a walking video camera and microphone array just strolled into their meeting. Cyborg is a tough character to get right in 2020, and I think Doom Patrol does a really good job.
Cyborg is the most “heroic” of the characters, and his abilities are the closest thing to legitimate superpowers among the team. But they come from a deep, scarring trauma. His cybernetic implants have left him permanently and visibly changed. He’s at once superhuman and less than human to those around him. His mere presence makes people uncomfortable. It’s not so much that he likes being a superhero as that being a superhero might be the only way people can accept him; it’s there that his weirdness becomes beneficial to those around him.
And so Vic’s conflict between wanting to help and wanting to have a life feel very real. It’s an intelligent treatment of a character that’s often given pretty silly treatment (I see you, Teen Titans). Vic meets a woman, also scarred by battle and life, and for a while his story isn’t about being a cyborg, but about being a survivor and a person.
Old wounds reopened
Meanwhile, Larry heads to his son’s funeral where he decides to speak to his living son. Each member of the Doom Patrol hides pain, regret, and trauma. Cliff hides his behind rage, Rita behind a prim, proper, and perfectly-manicured exterior. Jane hides hers behind 64 layers of protection. Larry, though, can’t hide his. It consumes him. He’s not just Negative Man, he’s a negative man. Did I make that joke already? It’s still true.
Larry’s son invites him back to his late son’s home, where Larry sees the remainders of a life consumed by conspiracy theory. His son believed him to be alive and followed numerous rumors and plotlines in an effort to prove it until ultimately his own anguish caused him to commit suicide. While Larry was moping around for fifty years, his children lived and hurt.
Meanwhile, Jane’s adventure into the Tyme Capsule has forced her to remember her life, many years ago, when she lived with her mother in a religious cult. The girl’s many personalities tried to protect her from her abusive father but as so often happens when young women are abused, her abuser went ignored while her own trauma was minimized. In this case by a preacher dunking her in holy water to force her demons out of her. Very early on, her personalities agreed to protect her and do what’s best for her.
Acting through make-up and prosthetics
Dorothy doesn’t figure as heavily into this episode as she has others, but I’m continually amazed by the actress playing her. Abigail Shapiro is a 20-year-old actress from Florida playing a British girl that’s been 11 years old for nearly 100 years. She’s also covered in makeup that not only makes her look less classically feminine but also constricts what emotions she can show with her face.
Shapiro manages to convey the extreme emotional swings of a young child through that makeup using her eyes and body language. When she’s excited, she does that wiggle that kids do. When she’s angry, her posture changes. She’s using the tools she has available to do a great job despite some of her standard tools being locked away behind that makeup.
Honestly, the same goes for Cliff and Larry, too, both of whom have one person doing the voice and another doing the body language. The voice actors and body actors work well together to create convincing live-action characters. I never think “oh, Brendan Fraser’s voice and Riley Shanahan’s body language match really well.” They’re just Robot Man. They’re just Cliff, and that’s awesome.
Every pore of Doom Patrol oozes craftsmanship and care, and it shows.
Doom Patrol season 2 is airing now on DC Universe.