Legends Of Tomorrow has a lot of fun winking at all the other genre shows its premise brushes up against and its stars have appeared in—Snart’s “This isn’t my first prison break” remains a series highlight, and Rip Hunter’s insistence on referring to Mick by his last name feels like some sort of quiet hat tip to Arthur Darvill’s other sci-fi show—but there’s always a risk of the show losing track of its own still nascent identity and just feeling derivative. Take tonight’s “Progeny,” whose vision of a corporate-controlled fascist future basically just is the premise of Continuum. (Which, for the record, I realize didn’t invent that particular kind of dystopia. But it’s another time travel show with a near-identical vision of the future and a similar aesthetic, so it’s hard to avoid the connection entirely if you’ve seen both shows.) There’s a lot here that feels vaguely familiar if you’ve watched enough shows like Legends Of Tomorrow: a central conflict that sets up a direct parallel to the old “kill baby Hitler” moral conundrum, a subplot in which Ray discovers his greatest invention has been turned into the primary tool of the police state—though that last one might feel familiar just because its resolution reminds me of Futurama’s great “Luck Of The Fryrish,” which I was thinking about the other day.
None of these admittedly disconnected, discombobulated thoughts necessarily mean Legends Of Tomorrow is doing anything wrong. What they might indicate, however, is that this show still hasn’t quite worked out how to make the kind of strong narrative choices that would establish its own identity, and some of that goes back to just how many different identities it has in the first place. Let’s consider Ray’s discovery that his apparent descendant Dr. Bryce (the always welcome Firefly’s Jewel Staite, who doesn’t really get much at all to do here) has made his Atom suits the most feared force in the Kaznian Conglomerate. The episode briefly hints at some intriguing moral questions here about how grand dreams can become twisted over time, with even a slight glimmer of an argument that what Dr. Bryce is doing here is just taking his original vision of using the suit to fight crime to its terrifyingly logical conclusion. I’m not saying the show should have pursued either of those threads—the former is at least established, while the latter is more buried in the subtext—and it’s not really fair to expect Legends Of Tomorrow to be a show about big ideas.
But even allowing for all that, the way this all plays out just feels weird, even if it does all kind of make sense when you consider the CW of it all. First up, Ray is primarily concerned with the mechanics of how he can even have descendants in this timeline, which I suppose is only fair given that “Star City 2046” established that it’s as though the characters all disappeared from history when they went on their jaunt. But damn, the effect here is that a classic time travel plotline, the kind ripe for just the sort of introspection and self-doubt Brandon Routh is surprisingly good at as Ray, becomes effectively a pregnancy scare storyline, with Ray feeling too embarrassed about his apparent indiscretion to discuss it with Kendra. The original bold choice of having Ray be directly responsible for the suffering he witnesses is undone by slavish devotion to the show’s largely nonsensical rules about time travel and the Arrowverse’s general, CW-influenced preference to go for the relationship drama whenever the opportunity presents itself.
All this severely undercuts the eventual confrontation between Ray and Dr. Bryce, who is strangely au fait with the idea that this man is her long-dead ancestor. The reveal that she is actually his doofus brother Sidney’s descendant resolves the baby drama, I suppose, but it elides so much of what made this subplot intriguing in the first place—surely that doesn’t absolve Ray of the responsibility he feels for this future use of the suit technology, yet he takes this as an opportunity to laugh the whole thing off. And when the episode tries to pull some storytelling beat out of Ray and Dr. Bryce’s standoff, all that’s really available for either Ray or Kendra to say is that Dr. Bryce is a Palmer, and Palmers are good. Which, sure, fine, I suppose that’s a weird moral to throw out there, but I think attempting to analyze the logic of Kendra’s point gives it more depth than it actually has. Ray’s whole story has just been too shaggy and unfocused in its telling to lead to any sort of considered, compelling conclusion.
Rip Hunter’s struggle over whether to kill Per Degaton is more clearly told, even if the ending is underwhelming. Now, having had some time to think about this, I am not advocating the hero—the protagonist, at very least, but he’s mostly a hero—should kill a child, even one who is set up as young Hitler. But I would argue that, if Legends Of Tomorrow even wants to suggest Rip would do that, then it has to have laid sufficient groundwork for us to believe it’s possible. The fact that Rip is tortured by the murder of his wife and son isn’t enough to get us there, nor is his occasional manipulative bastard behavior. Some of this has to do with Arthur Darvill’s performance (and, if I’m being honest, my close association of him with his Doctor Who work, which a lot of people aren’t going to share as a reference point); Darvill is growing into the part of Rip, but he doesn’t have that hard edge that would make you think, even for a moment, that he might really go through with killing a child.
The show isn’t entirely incapable of such character work: Even eliminating Mick from consideration, I would feel legitimately unsure about what Snart or even Sara would do if placed in this situation. In those cases, their deciding to spare Per Degaton would mean something, as it would require them to actively choose the light over the dark. Whereas those two are legitimately dangerous, Rip is just sort of angsty, and so his decision feels more like affirming a safe choice for the show than it does moving a character forward. The way “Progeny” handles the fallout of this is also a little odd, as Rip makes a rather weak case for the value of goodness, one that Per Degaton predictably—and, frankly, understandably—ignores in favor of killing his father and releasing the virus years ahead of schedule.
After a run of episodes my colleague Oliver has rightly called the best stuff the show has done, “Progeny” feels like a bit of a letdown. It’s not a bad episode, exactly. But the thing about Legends Of Tomorrow is that its very premise has almost limitless possibility, and the trouble with that is such a setup necessarily invites the audience to imagine all the other possible stories the show could be telling. The challenge then isn’t for the show to tell the best possible story, as that’s not really a fair expectation, but rather for it to make strong enough choices and establishes a clear enough identity that the audience forgets about those roads untraveled. The show has gotten closer to that in recent weeks than it looked like it would in the early going, but “Progeny” is a reminder that this is still very much a work in progress.
- The main thing I wonder about after that Kendra subplot is whether Carter (and Kendra, for that matter) is reincarnated somewhere in the future. I thought for a second that her having visions of him could mean she was sensing his presence in the Kaznian Conglomerate, which would be an interesting way to reintroduce him. Though I suppose his leaving with the others in 2012 means he’s been removed from time, so he won’t reincarnate? This show is so confusing.
- Thanks for letting me sub in for Oliver. I realize this review went off in some odd directions, but hopefully it offered a different way to think about the show’s construction.
- Since I’ve already brought Continuum and Doctor Who into this, I might as well mention another show I’ve reviewed here and say a comparison I often think about for this show is Farscape. Now, that show had a lot more license to push its crew of rogues into dark territory than a show starring characters that Warner Bros. and DC Comics have a lot of input on, but still: What was so great about Farscape was that it took its hero on the kind of journey where you could believe he might actually kill a child if given no other choice. That sort of thing takes time, admittedly, and it’s not fair for me to expect the moral dilemma of “Progeny” to carry the kind of weight and ambiguity that John Crichton’s crisis does in, say, “Into The Lion’s Den.” But I at least wish Legends Of Tomorrow could do something to add a little more heft to the on-ship interactions between crew members, because those too often just feel soapy in the worst way. Anyway, I realize this was mostly gibberish for those who don’t watch Farscape; this is mostly just me throwing a bone to all those still waiting for me to finish reviewing that show.