Comics

Niles Caulder; or, a Modern Epimetheus

Allow me to present Dr. Niles Caulder, a Modern Epimetheus. And yeah, I did compare him to a genius scientist who combines alchemical research with cutting edge science and bad father filled with bad ideas, Victor Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Doom Patrol‘s Niles Caulder (Timothy Dalton) makes mistakes but he never learns that he’s a person who makes mistakes. No matter how often his judgment fails him, Niles continues to to try to do everything on his own, his way and without asking for help till there is no other option. And then because he is Niles, he asks for help poorly or the wrong help or from someone with judgment not much better than his own. Niles even names his space ship, “Icarus.” That is never a good sign.* 

Niles always believes he is the one who can fix everything, but he almost always the proximate cause of almost all the mess. Niles is filled with father issues and bad ideas.

Niles aboard the Icarus. It’s powered by magic and, yes, that is a goat’s head.

In fact, father issues and bad ideas are so integral to the Doom Patrol season two that there are episodes titles making it very clear: “Dumb Patrol” and “Dad Patrol.” In “Dumb Patrol,” characters not including Niles, are infected by Scants, parasites who feed their queen the ectoplasmic goo that bad ideas create in the brains of the kind of saps who inhale them from a box infested with them clearly marked, “Do Not Open.” (This episode includes an excellent cameo from the Beardhunter). “Dad Patrol” is the series’ truncated season finale, so I won’t get too deeply into it, but it prominently features Niles Caulder’s father issues and bad ideas as he takes his daughter to the carnival for one perfect day to make up for, well, all the time they didn’t have together.

Scants.

The first season of Doom Patrol pulled some neat tricks. I wrote before about its interesting take on heroes and the end of the world. One element I appreciated but didn’t address was how it inverted a typical father issues narrative so common in not only superhero stores, but science fiction and fantasy stories as well. Sometimes they’ll switch it up and it’s about mother issues, but mostly not. Aside from the ease of hanging your story on the particular pre-made structure of a hero’s father issues, it does make one wonder about what’s up with some writers. Perhaps it’s just the age people are by the time the write for a larger audience. So many are guys in their 30s and 40s–a time when people often confront the humanity of their parents, if they are not also confronting their loss.

As the only self-identified hero in the first season, it’s appropriate that Cyborg / Vic Stone (Joivan Wade) issues with his father and the loss of his mother are more typical of superhero stories, and the ones most manipulated by the screenwriting-savvy villain Mr. Nobody (Alan Tudyk). And Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero) is trying to hold the collective of personalities together created to protect Kay Challis from her horrifically abusive father, but she would not call herself a hero. The show never presents what he did to Kay as an “origin story.” It’s trauma that interferes with her ability to live her life, let alone be a hero. And Rita Farr (April Bowlby) struggles with her feelings about her mother. But Rita’s stage mother destroyed her self-confidence, which does not help as either an actor or a hero. Though as the most resilient of her friends and housemates, Rita is the first of the non-heroes to try to become a hero in season two.

Cliff and his daughter.

The father issues I’m talking about here, though, are not issues children have with their parents, rather the issues fathers have. That’s right, Doom Patrol shares with us the regrets and fears fathers have. And in the second season, father issues are in full bloom. Doom Patrol is filled with fathers working out their issues as bad and failed dads. Larry Trainor (voice and non-bandaged Larry: Matt Bomer; bandaged Larry: Matthew Zuk) is urged by the Negative Spirit that shares his body to contact his now elderly sons, addressing his absence as a father to his sons that were evident in his family life last season, but obscured by his self-loathing and his regrets around the love of his life, John. After discovering last season that his daughter did not die in a car crash, as Niles led him to believe, Cliff Steele (voice and non-robot Cliff: Brendan Fraser; Robot Cliff: Riley Shanahan) tries to reconnect with his now adult daughter by standing on a bus outside her house and shouting. Cliff has advanced enough in his process to compare himself as a father to Niles, noting that while he himself is a fuck-up, Niles is so much worse a fuck-up as a father. And just as Niles encapsulates the season’s themes, it is Niles’ father issues that lead to the final confrontation.

We meet Niles initially as a benefactor to deeply wounded people recovering from unusual traumas. Cliff Steele is a former race car driver whose brain Niles recovered from the scene of a car accident and placed in a robot body of his own janky design; 1950s starlet Rita Farr fell into contaminated water that gave her both longevity and blobbish tendencies on location; Larry Trainor encountered a radioactive being during a test flight and that being now shares his body, keeping him alive and making him lethal to others unless he wears specially treated bandages created by Niles; and, Jane the primary personality of Kay Challis, a girl with multiple personality disorder who was experimented on with a serum that gave each of her 64 personalities super powers. Niles tells them he is providing them a place to heal and acts as a counselor, doctor and engineer, depending on their needs. 

Larry and one of his sons.

To some extant, Niles attempts to frankenstein them into a team, but more in the comics than in the television series. In the first season, we discover that Niles has engineered their transformative accidents and experiments on them, altering their bodies, giving them their “powers.” Even stealing Cliff’s brain to put it in a body he built himself, which would certainly have made young Victor Frankenstein proud, even if perhaps older Victor Frankenstein would warn him off that path. But where University of Ingolstadt, Bavaria drop-out and candidate for World’s Worst Dad Victor Frankenstein runs away from the life he created, Niles Caulder, also a terrible father, does everything out of paternal love and paternal fear–even running away from his daughter, isolating her and refusing her companionship beyond his own occasional presence, the imaginary friends she can manifest in the world, and that of Danny the nonbinary sentient street who is also her warden. And, ultimately, like Victor, Niles believes he must destroy the life he helped create because he fears what she will do.

I am fairly certain Niles believes he is a better parent than Victor Frankenstein and would resent any comparison. But like Victor, he sees his creations as failures. Even though he cares about Jane, Rita, Larry and Cliff and felt twinges of conscience as he arranged their accidents and their experimental treatments, they were a means to an end for him–living one day longer than his daughter, Dorothy. In my last piece on the Doom Patrol series, I mention I was pleased by Niles’ motivation, but didn’t say what I thought it was because the season hadn’t concluded. So here it is: Niles was doing everything to protect his child. He had a daughter with Slava, an extraordinarly long-lived woman who was also likely a Neandertal. Slava protected herself by manifesting a creature from her imagination that had viscerally real impact on anyone or anything that threatened her. Niles at first was part of a team attempting to capture her for the nascent Bureau of Normalcy. He projected all kinds of colonial fears on her, then stayed with her for years while the Bureau believed he was dead and ultimately left to ensure that Slava and their daughter Dorothy would never be discovered. Dorothy had inherited not only her mother’s longevity but her ability to manifest creatures that kept her company and protected her. Niles caused the accidents of Cliff, Rita, Larry and Jane** in order to further his own experiments into immortality.

But Niles isn’t only protecting Dorothy from the world. He believes he is also protecting the world from her after seeing her make a wish that killed an audience tormenting her and Slava’s guardian at a London freak show where Dorothy was an attraction. Niles is terrified in part because all the European and North American secret societies sworn to protect us from secret paranormal threats warned him that, according to their research, Dorothy will cause the end of the world when she grows up. And they mean when she gets her period.

Out of this fear and his own parental love, Niles wants Dorothy to stay a little girl forever. He constantly reminds her and others that she’s “a little girl.” And so he is never prepared for when she grows up. And he never prepares her for growing up. A stranger at a gas station has to tell Dorothy what’s happening when she menstruates for the first time. Niles only talks to Dorothy about her power to tell her to contain it. Niles never tells her any of the stories he has heard about her. Instead it is Slava, appearing as a ghost or another manifestation of Dorothy’s imagination, to show up with regalia and a spear to tell Dorothy, “You’re ready.” Fortunately, unlike other shows that make me sigh more, Doom Patrol sympathizes with but does not ride or die for Niles. Niles is a screw up, like Larry and Cliff. I am more sympathetic to their reasons, but I understand Niles’ love and his fear. What parent or caregiver wouldn’t do anything to protect their child? But Niles is wrong. Danny the Street has tried to tell him for over a hundred years that he needs to be with his daughter now, but Niles’ fear, certainty in his own judgment and possibly his isolation lead him to enact his bad plan: isolate Dorothy for every one’s good while he tries to become immortal to watch over her and hope she never grows up.

Dorothy and Niles at the carnival.

Then, when she inevitably does grow up, Niles will take Dorothy for one last–or probably the first–perfect father/daughter day, and call chaos magician and his good frenemy Willoughby Kipling (Mark Sheppard) to euthanize Dorothy in order to save the world, as he and Willoughby had arranged. This is the same Willoughby who inadequately marked the Scant-infested box and was willing to make a trade for Niles’ longevity talisman even though Willoughby wanted Dorothy contained, knew Niles was the only one she trusted and is the only one who knows Dorothy’s location. So you’re a sap, too, Willoughby. A smart mark.

Niles always believes he is right, which is a breeding ground for Scants. He is a scientist who messes with all kinds of chaotic things both occult and scientific that he only partially understands, ruining lives and creating janky, weird problems. Then he bulls through thinking he knows what’s best for everyone and only he can save the world. No matter how often he is tricked, mistaken or flat out wrong, no matter fully he realizes the horror of what he has done, Niles continues to be absolutely positive that he is the only one who is right and knows what to do. It never occurs to Niles to see if his interpretation of the omens and prophecies surrounding Dorothy are correct. He’s already lived through several weird eschatons and continues to believe there is one end of the world and one thing to do to save it.

And even though we end this season without a final confrontation, I am pretty sure I know what happens. And I am so glad. I am happy to see that not only are Niles and Willoughby but that Willoughby’s secret order of occult knights sworn to protect us against occult dangers and whatever were wrong, too. Are they Knights Templars? Rosicrucians? “Something older?” I don’t care because they are wrong and ancient humans and Indigenous people are right. And that is some gratifying business. Rita, Larry, Cliff, Danny the Street, Maura Lee Karrupt, the ones Niles pushes away and lies to are closer to right than him and they are all kinds of physically, emotionally and mentally messed up right now. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy Niles Caulder being wrong, Secret Orders of Mostly Men in Robes being wrong and Indigenous women probably from the Paleolithic being right. It seems to me that as Dorothy’s mother appears to her and gives her red boots and a spear, well, it’s not going to be the Knights Templar who ride to the rescue whenever we get the final piece of this truncated season’s finale. It’s going to be Dorothy who stops the evil, saves the world and possibly her father, dope that he is.

*Daedalus is right there. Daedalus also flew and did not crash into the sea because he understood the tolerances of his wings and that wax melts.

**Niles’ relationship with Vic and Vic’s mother’s accident is more complicated.

~~~

Carol Borden was so happy to see Danny, Maura Lee Karrupt and Flex again. 

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