Time for a change…
Difficult, supposedly vastly expensive carrying a weight of second-string comic book characters… DC’s Legends of Tomorrow’s first season embraced comics’ legacy of canned titles, team-ups and continuity re-defining events… But it also managed a significant coup – the return of that old staple of American genre television, the spaceship show!
A gleeful trawl through the Arrowverse and Legends of Tomorrow’s first year, where spoilers abound.
DESPITE ITS HIGH CONCEPT, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW REMAINS THE LEAST CERTAIN OF CW’S TRIUMPHANT RUN OF TELEVISION SHOWS BASED ON DC COMICS PROPERTIES. But that’s not down to any particular or peculiar weakness the show has brought to that growing mix. On one hand, its roots are firmly embedded in the existing Arrowverse, with most of its characters appearing there first. On the other, even in the ever-changing world of comics, the show’s temporal and paradoxical plots mean that a character’s death has an even higher probability of being reversed. But there’s no doubting that Arrow, The Flash and (the soon to be joining her cousins) Supergirl are simpler and purer concepts. Built around families of characters swiped from the comic books or intelligently bolstered, they mix enjoyable villain of the week shows with increasingly complex series arcs, always in the reliable cribs of DC’s fictional but well-established cities. Legends is the pinnacle of the oh-so-comic conceit of ensemble team-up that the other shows have played with, but has jettisoned the larger super-powered egos to pull them through multiple locations and times and become the closest thing The CW and Warner Bros Television can get to putting the Justice League on the small screen.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (Series One, 2016)
“Apparently, time wants to happen”
Last decade the laudably long-lived Smallville put its own version of the Justice League on screen, featuring a few of the familiar big players, but during a vastly different time for DC and Warner’s ambitions on small and big screen. While DC’s subsequently struggled to assemble that team for cinemas, there’s no doubt that alongside their animated films, the Warner Bros produced television series are their strongest suit. the brave new world began with Arrow in 2012, picking up one of DC’s, and indeed Smallville’s more interesting characters and building a show around him. Nothing was certain four years ago with the Smallville approach notably dating since its cancellation, a Wonder Woman pilot falling just before she met her first Olympian hurdle and Aquaman never making it further than a prolonged Entourage punchline. Arrow soon established a firm, soap-to action treatment of the source material, that while it may not quite represent the Oliver Queen seen in the comics, rose above the young superhero clichés that had perpetuated since Superboy and Supergirl to do what few expected. It established a stable, compelling world that sucked in and interpreted as much DC Comics lore as it could, and sett the foundations for the introduction of three more DC-based shows over the next four years. Star City’s Oliver Queen has long proven a fine building block in the Comic line. An everyman, lacking the super-powers but without the all-encompassing role and symbolism of Batman, he’s the arrogant spoilt rich kid who suffered a powerful fall down the rungs. That moralistic journey aside, his gruff manner and modern-day Robin Hood persona works as well in an urban environment as the battlements of Nottingham. One of the film universe’s great losses was David Goyer’s Supermax, a low-key unbranded film that would have seen the Emerald Archer take down assorted villains of the DC universe after a super-jail break-out in a kind of meta-meta-Die Hard. With the ‘rise’ of Dredd and The Raid since that was pitched, DC have cleared its desk and embarked on one of the least clear, direct assaults at big name franchise Hollywood’s ever seen.
On television, Arrow’s now readying its fifth season. While there’s a sentiment that the wealth of irresistible crossovers that dominate what’s now called the Arrowverse around mid-season has debilitated that original show, their power during sweeps period remains undeniable. They’re not going anywhere. And this being DC, there’s always a crisis round the corner ready to shake the status quo of shows that currently exist across multiple time zones and even different Earths (Zoom took Flash to Earth2 during his second season; Supergirl currently lives on another one altogether). That could all change as the third outing of The Flash confronts the comics’ Flashpoint storyline and the multiverse makes its presence felt. In the DC universe, the Flashpoint Paradox merged multiple worlds into the new multiverse of the New 52. On TV, with all four Arrowverse shows joining The CW network for the first time later this year, that’s just one gift this immense Source Wall of a property provides.
But that potential has also been allowed by a few deft decisions. The real strength of these shows is their continual growth and momentum. If there are any criticisms in the season-end reviews, it’s not that these shows stand still. A major help was Warner and DC’s decision that the film and television lines would be kept distinct, a sentiment that’s true to the comics and the multiverse. And although the major players of the DC universe were unlikely to make an appearance, a clash that was once led the adventures of young Bruce Wayne to quickly and oddly develop into Smallville, all the more odd when Superman Returns materialised in 2006, all bets are now off. An inadvertently hilarious Krypto-elephant in Supergirl’s National City this past year was that her more famous cousin appeared in shadow, by SMS or just as a pair of boots. Fortunately, this unintentional silliness has been resolved with the casting of a Superman for the premiere of Supergirl’s second series. Again, this is a multi-verse, so why not? And as soapy as The CW shows may be, there’s a lot that DC’s take on the small screen could feed into the comic’s all too serious short-form adventures on the big screen.
Past is the Prologue to the Present
“As the first Time Master was so fond of saying, ‘That was then, this is now’”
Yes, the twist, is a great power source of the Arrowverse. Fast-paced, almost glossed, not hanging around to worry about fully explain things whether in the grit and techno-bubble of Star City or the physics-stretching science of Central City. It sounds unfair, but it’s a blistering pace and scope that hangs together thanks to the goodwill it engenders. There’s barely a bad episode of pelting 40-minute comedy drama among the bunch, even when those old staples of evil doppelgangers and Red Kryptonite pop up. They’re shamelessly referential to pop-culture and other science-fiction; always happy to go for a quick joke before sinking teeth into some deep drama and moral quandry. The shorthand of pizzas in The Flash (every night) or the coffees in Supergirl (every morning) just help to build this four-colour universe.
And behind the scenes, they’ve all had an agenda to steadily explore the wealth of the DC universe. Like Marvel, the decades have produced thousands of characters that can draw in hundreds of genres. From Arrow’s urban roots to the entrance of magic and a certain John Constantine during its fourth season. To the rapid entrance of the Flash two years ago, introducing meta-humans, time travel and the multiverse. And then the pincer movement of Supergirl (over on CBS for its first year) and Legends, that opened up the universe to Kryptonians, Martians and Thanagarians among other alien races. Arriving just four years in, sucking up characters mostly introduced on Arrow, The Flash or through crossovers, Legends took that ball of momentum and ran back, forth and all over with it. In a universe already known for its sly references and team-ups, Legends emerged fully made.
“Let’s call it Paradox Prevention”
The science-fiction influences of Legends abound, not least from the source material, referential as those four-colour pages were. The root of it all is the personable, if morally dodgy and occasionally flappable Rip Hunter, marvellously cast in the form of Arthur Darvill. Created by Jack Miller and Ruben Moreira, Rip Hunter first appeared in 1959, originally a normal man with an incredible Time Sphere that could accomplish the predictable. It would be the seminal 1986 refresh Crisis on infinite Earths that crafted a new mythology of this man without time, well one version of him anyway, and ensure him a chronologically important and vexing place in the New 52 and recent Final Crisis. Incidentally, tying into that crisis, The Return of Bruce Wayne that found Batman’s alter-ego travel through time and take in Vandal Savage, Jonah Hex, historic versions of DC cities and a futuristic denouement provided great material for Legends to pay tribute to.
By casting Darvill as Hunter, the parallels with that other well-light-yeared time traveller the Doctor is unavoidable. Flipping about in his long coat picked up in the Old West, allied to his vocal and notably female time-ship, often withdrawing to his room of time paraphernalia while ruminating on the malleability of time this Cockney Time Master is already familiar. With John Barrowman, Arrow’s Merlyn the Archer, confirmed as a regular across all The CW shows including Legends over the coming year Rip’s trade-mark long coat will be the least of the show’s fabric recalling Doctor Who during its second season.
Hovering at the background, Rip’s mentors then enemies the Time Masters lurk at the Vanishing point. They have many of the hallmarks of Doctor Who’s Time Lords, particularly when their major power source Oculus is revealed to be powered by a supernova just as Gallifrey’s powers of time are sustained by that black hole romantically called the Eye of Harmony. That can’t be laboured though. As the gangs dip into the Wild West reconfirmed, the Legends form a gang of mavericks and need a giant, authoritarian body to rebel against. In that respect the Time Masters are much the same as any technologically advanced cartel, and bear more than a passing touch of Kryptonian, Guardian of the Universe or any advanced council of science-fiction. The destruction of the Oculus at the series end (itself recalling the sabotaging of a shield unit on the original Death Star…) sets up a free-wheeling and careering second series free of destiny that should herald some major changes as the format finds its feet on wider gorund.
Legends hasn’t been afraid to earn that freedom on the back of other influences. One of the series highlights was Last Refuge, where the Time Master’s most effective assassin, the Pilgrim, went about her sppecial work of assassinating members of the ensemble at earlier points of time. While some of that potential was robbed by ruling out threat to serial-reincarnate Kendra or Time Master himself Rip Hunter, it didn’t take Ray Palmer’s wry “come with me if you want to live” to highlight this as the Terminator episode. Effective stuff it was too, especially the assassin’s break-in to Star City’s police station.
Elsewhere, there was acknowledgement of one of DC’s tricky characters, the gruff but temporally aware Old West bounty hunter Jonah Hex, who not only gifted Rip his coat but his son’s name. In that same episode, in a strangely effective, damp reconstruction of a Western town, Martin Stein managed to save young HG Wells from a certain consumptive death, one of the show’s constant explorations of destiny.
Quantum Leap and 11.22.63
Quantum Leap is ignored at the peril of any show exploring the moral and physical consequences of changing history.
Another shadow was cast by the increasingly present Quantum Leap. There’s a nostalgic pang for a child of the ’90s that this character-led genre show’s legacy seems to be strengthening. This year, an interesting counter-point to Legends has been Hulu’s 11.22.63. That self-contained series was far from an ensemble as it tracked James Franco’s attempts to halt the assassination of John F Kennedy. Based on the Stephen King novel, the King tropes were evident. Glossing over the science, or science fiction behind the concept – effectively a Narnia route back to 1960 – in favour of the elderly café owner, the sudden death, chance meetings, and small tales of human salvation. While hardly the only explorations of that famous political assassination, the inevitable arrival in that book depository makes it difficult not to think back to Sam Beckett’s leap into Lee Harvey Oswald or even the crew of Red Dwarf’s trip back there in the 1990s.
Quantum Leap is ignored at the peril of any show exploring the moral and physical consequences of changing history. Legends had no such allusion of dwelling too closely on the individual aboard its full time ship, but as with 11.22.63 time is established as a potential opponent. That wasn’t greatly explored in the King adaptation, often boiling down to jumps of King danger- the recurring phrase, the Christine-style car lunge, the random fire and ghosts – but 11.22.63 established time that would fight to stop any changes to the timeline with Final Destination-style horror, often successfully. In Legends that boils down to “Time wants to happen” – a soft and squidgy work around of Doctor Who’s vastly complicated treatment of timey-wimeyness. While solid and often opposing for vast parts of Legends, where the odds are vastly stacked against the team, as soon as the final twists reveal the Time Masters to be opponents (although through shades of grey that ensure the Legend’s drastic solution warrants further story time) and allies of Savage, time gains ambiguity by the end. It’s shown to settle, but not too quickly, and acts like Stein’s saving of young Wells certain interventions are strongly encouraged to maintain the timeline. Conversely, the other half of Firestorm, Jackson’s attempt to warn his father about an IED that robbed both of each other is likely to have been entirely useless.
Revealing, fairly unambiguously, that the team was at the whim of destiny as manipulated by the Time Masters for the entirety of the series was a brave twist. Although, the motivation for ending that and leaving the universe in indeterminacy remained vague the motivation for the Legends final assault was the universal although not wholly satisfying argument that the good will out in humanity.
Shows regarded as meticulous when it comes to time and sci-fi mechanics are quite capable of the same glossing…
The show’s overarching lightness of touch when it comes to the intricacies of time has come in for some criticism. We see that no act of irresponsibility can’t be wiped out or ignored, yet the team’s time foes face heavy limits . The effect of Mick Rory’s lost time and transformation into temporal bounty hunter Chronos and Kendra, Ray and Sara’s two years stranded in the 1950s fall to very little. The least thought about Kendra’s eventual pairing with a reincarnation of her eternal love who’s clearly from a future time stream the better. But such a triviality is entirely consistent with the other shows rather glossing treatment of technology and dramatic propulsion. Legends is unlikely to ever touch Hugo nominations for its treatment of high-end science fiction, and while it might try to tighten up the nuts and bolts of the good ship Waverider for the bold new temporal universe of its second season, sci-fi fans can’t expect too much.
Also, for all its glossing, it shouldn’t be ignored that shows regarded as meticulous when it comes to time and sci-fi mechanics, like Doctor Who, are quite capable of the same. That Legends can chuck up an entertaining 16-hour trawl of timelines that just about hangs together from its writers’ room while that oh-so British production of Doctor Who warranted a rest year is slightly worrying.
With the cliff-hanger of the Justice Society of America at the season’s close, Legends promises a wider-scope in its second year and has every chance of putting time travel very much front and centre of the show. As this crew of Legends inexplicably choose to continue their adventure they assume the role of the Time Masters in much the way the Doctor took on responsibilities of the Time Lords with Doctor Who’s reboot. A journey to tabula rasa as Dr Palmer put it.
“You showed a caveman fire…”
The identity of the second series villain remains unclear, but there are some big old shoes to step into. Vandal Savage has long been one of this writer’s favourite DC villains. Hope and despair in perfect balance, the cave man raised to judge civilisation, usually in a dapper suit, albeit with some dodgy leanings. Physically powerful, wonderful ambassador of the beard, superbly monikered, Savage was brought to the pages of Green Lantern in December 1943 by none other than Martin Nodell and Alfred Bester, inaugural winner of a Hugo Award and one of the fathers of modern science fiction. In those pages, the plummet of a meteorite around 50,000 brought the leader of the Blood Tribe Vandar Arg immortality and a vastly expanded intellect. One thing that didn’t change in this huge early man, or was exacerbated by the space-fall, was a disdain for humanity that Lex Luthor would later boil down to the punchy speculation that he was humanity’s first cannibal.
In shortening the drama, the Arrowverse’s Vandal Savage is an amalgam of his comic forebear and great Hawkman and Hawkgirl foe Hath Set. He’s a 4,000-year-old Egyptian rather than the heavy-browed Cro-Magnon man of the comic universe, potentially Cain the first murderer, and extricably linked to the legend of the Hawk heroes and Thanagar, the planet that dispatched the meteorites that gifted all three their powers. The later revelation that Savage has proved temporally-elusive thanks to time travel access slightly diminishes the length of his life, but Legends intends to have its cake and eat it – a proverb some 400 years old that Savage would no doubt approve of.
When he first appeared in an Arrow and Flash cross-over, Legends of Today/Legends of Yesterday Savage looked like a riff on Highlander, another franchise that can’t fail to cast a shadow over the Thanagar-affected tale of past lives, eternal execution, flash-backs and resurrection. Effectively a power-thirsty serial-killer, by the time the Legends resolutely refuse to confront him in 2016, we get to see him throughout history in every guise. There’s the arms dealer, the mad scientist and pinnacle of suburban civility, the cult figurehead, friend of historical figures good and bad, tutor to a future puppet dictator and dictator himself (reassuringly suited as he should be come the end). It’s an interesting facet, and mostly a red herring for the final twist, but the way Savage meets his foes, learns their powers and develops technological antidotes over decades is one of the season’s most robust elements. And Casper Crump, all flashing teeth, Danish accent and various slick haircuts sells the character well once you warm to the villain as much as you can. Best of all, Savage is defeated by time, suffering not one but three deaths at once . Despite that emphatic death, with Merlyn’s arrival to the show, a character who’s owed a favour by the dapper immortal, chances are Savage will make a comeback like every good immortal should.
“Who are you to stand up against me? Vandal Savage, destroyer of empires”
“Leonard Snart, robber of ATMs”
We’ll have to hope that Merlyn’s overarching role across all four series won’t overshadow that other great discovery of the series, and the primary cross-series regular. Already superb in The Flash, chief rogue Leonard Snart has developed over the course of the show that gave its ensemble time to dwell on their lives. Wentworth Miller really is a revelation, all snarl and spite, always handy with a disdainful one-liner. This writer never took to key Flash nemesis Captain Cold in the comic-verse, mainly due to lack of, er, exposure. But this unapologetic thief and mildly irritated antihero remains such a firm draw in the Arrowverse. The spoilerific reveal of his multi-series deal is not only cool, but great news. Perhaps we’ll finally see what unfolded at Alexa for Mssrs Snart and Rory…
Return of the spaceship
“There are no strings on me”
Perhaps Legends’ greatest trick was to, almost out of nowhere, pull that one-time staple of American genre television back on the radar. When Star Trek Enterprise was prematurely axed in 2005, it brought an intergalactic curtain down on not only 18 years of continuous Star Trek series, but the spaceship-based show – alongside the derided Andromeda that ended the same month. A few shows have challenged that fall since, notably Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Gallactica to and Canada’s recent Ascension, but the palette for bridges packed with exploratory laughs as seen in Star Trek: The Original Series, or the shows Lexx, Firefly and Farscape that all fell shortly before Star Trek, were rapidly forgotten.
The engine of time travel in Legends is Rip Hunter’s ship of 10 years Waverider – a name that may be taken from a character in DC but that doesn’t distract from the fact that this is a spaceship show. Almost accidentally, from a comic universe happy to delve into the wild expanse of space, Legends produced some light hearted, bridge-based, ship propelled sci-fi fantasy. There was notable darkness, the schism between Rory and Snart (Heatwave and Cold) and their fate, the pointlessness of Hunter’s quest… Seeing his family die multiple times and reflecting on that “funny feeling knowing that the universe itself doesn’t want you to save your family”. The running theme of murder and the value of life, as Rory neatly labels the endgame for Kendra, “The Olympics of murder”. But Legends also found time to be resolutely silly. Some of it was jolly good time bashing fun, from Stein’s embarrassment at his 1970s self to an obligatory arrival during World War II – “Staying here to fight Nazis is exacerbating the damage that we’ve already done to the timeline” says an exasperated Hunter. “We’ve got to do it again, that thing we did in World War II?” asks the other Jefferson of Stein as they discover a new skill.
In fact there were moments when a stray short-hand line of dialogue saw a relevant member of the team walk-in with a wry and timely response like (to quote Snart), “somebody mention a bank robbery?” More than anything, that recalled a type of 70s sitcom set-up, and that’s surely not the time travel they were after.
A cause for the demise of the spaceship show, particularly during the reign of syndication when series arcs were considered a property’s immediate death knell, were restrictions posed by plots and cast. Often resetting after tumultuous events just a week before, something that hit shows even as late as Star Trek Voyager, ensemble casts often found some characters falling to the way-side. Even when the Star Trek shows dedicated one episode a year to each of the regular characters, they could fall flat. Legends for the most part broke through this, using all the tricks of arc story-telling and flashback that has grown into television language over the last decade. The chance to duck back within the universe if not the show, such as White Canary’s second first meeting with Ra’s al Ghul added interesting depth. And that just about overcame the show’s major weakness: the fight scenes. With so many disparate abilities and modus operandi about their number, even a show that was surprisingly happy to kill and maim struggled in melee. The climactic battle of 1871-set episode and the time -freeze resolution of Last Refuge often found the most powerful heroes Hawkgirl and Firestorm flying around pointlessly in no direction at all as pretty as it looked. Also, those wings, not great in corridors.
With a second season warming up, the name of the premiere recently confirmed as Out of Time, rumours that Legends was too pricey for The CW and Warner’s ambitious plans have proved unfounded. It all ended on perfect fan bait with the arrival of Hourman Rex Tyler himself, fresh from the Justice Society of America. If it can recapture some of that silver age magic in the way The Flash has, it’ll remain a show worth watching.