‘Birds of Prey’ TV Rewatch, Episode 1: ‘Pilot’
In the long ago year of 2002, the WB debuted a live-action television drama based on DC's Batman family of comic books, past and present. Entitled Birds of Prey, it focused on Batgirl-turned-Oracle Barbara Gordon, and Batman and Catwoman's vigilante daughter The Huntress, working together to defend the streets of New Gotham after The Dark Knight abandoned the city under mysterious circumstances. It was the first live-action Batman TV show since the 1966-68 series, and an early example of the modern comic book superhero TV show. Too early, really.
The show lasted just one 13-episode season, and never gained the sort of rabid fan following of other one-season wonders like Firefly. What was the problem? Looking back from the summer of 2016, one can't help but assume it was a show before its time.
TV today is positively rife with superhero-inspired shows, many of them based on DC Comics, including Gotham on Fox, the CW shows Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl, and the upcoming Krypton. So it's weird to think that a show starring Barbara Gordon, set in Gotham City, and featuring various Batman characters around the edges, only lasted as long as, say, Constantine or The Cape, when Arrow is on its fifth season and The Flash has Vibe and Firestorm helping Barry Allen combat the likes of The Clock King, Golden Glider and The Bug-Eyed Bandit.
Was Birds of Prey a good show that hit at the wrong time, or was it really a bad show that only deserved 13 episodes? We're going to find out with Bird Watching, a look back at every episode of the series. Your bird watchers are Caleb Mozzocco, long-time ComicsAlliance contributor and a guy with a longbox full of Birds of Prey comics, and Meredith Tomeo, a librarian who specializes in media, an experienced watcher of superhero television, and a Barbara Gordon fan (Babs being a sort of patron superhero of librarians, after all).
The pilot episode introduces us to New Gotham's cape-less crusaders Oracle and The Huntress, a blonde teenage metahuman named Dinah, apparently freelance bulter Alfred Pennyworth, a couple of romantic interests, and a suspicious mental health professional. Our heroes become embroiled in a triple murder plot involving real estate developers coincidentally committing suicide. This episode originally aired on October 9, 2002 and was directed by Brian Robbins and written by series creator Laeta Kalogridis.
Caleb: Before we dive in, I suppose it would be helpful to remind ourselves of the context of the show's October 2002 debut. The first Birds of Prey one-shot was published in 1996, and by 2002 the 1999-launched monthly series was approaching its 50th issue, original writer Chuck Dixon was winding down his years-long run and the monthly's second writer, Terry Moore, was waiting in the wings. As far as the premise of the series went, it was at that point still very much an Oracle/Black Canary book, with occasional guest-stars.
Meredith, can you remind us what the TV landscape was in 2002...?
Meredith: Sure, although I can’t speak for everything that aired on television that year, I am very familiar with Birds of Prey’s network, the WB. I was a regular viewer of the channel between 2001 and 2006. At the time the WB wasn’t necessarily the home for science fiction shows, their bread and butter being family and youth oriented dramas like 7th Heaven, Gilmore Girls and Dawson’s Creek. However, they did have a small rotation of more diverse programming. Smallville, DC’s first majorly successful modern TV series, had just launched the year before. Charmed was still going strong and Angel had settled in as a spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was still airing on their sister network, UPN.
Elsewhere, you had other female-led science fiction/fantasy shows ending. Xena Warrior Princess, Dark Angel and Roswell had all wrapped by the time Birds premiered.
Looking back at Birds of Prey now, the fact that I don’t really recall it is one of the more surprising things. I mean, I still remember Black Sash and Tarzan, two shows from 2003 that both aired fewer episodes than Birds' thirteen. I have no memory of any ad campaigns for Birds of Prey, which makes me wonder who the WB was attempting to target. The network certainly wasn't pushing this as a companion show to Smallville, the way CW is structuring its comic book properties today.
The Birds of Prey premiere was a hit for the WB, bringing in 7.6 million viewers and, at the time, managing to attract the WB's largest audience in the 18-34 demographic. But with steadily declining ratings in the following weeks, the WB gave it the axe after 13 episodes.
Caleb: Okay, well now let’s add two more viewers to the 7.6 million who watched the first episode! You, dear reader, can watch along with us, as digital episodes are available on iTunes and Amazon. The first episode is available for free on the latter.
The first episode opens with a solid two-minutes of exposition narrated by Alfred Pennyworth (Ian Abercrombie), describing a climactic battle between Batman and The Joker --- who both appear! Onscreen! --- that ends with Batman triumphant and The Joker seeking vengeance against Batman’s female allies.
First he has former Catwoman Selina Kyle stabbed to death in front of her young daughter, Helena. With her blonde hair and shiny black costume with white stitching, this is apparently the Michelle Pfeiffer, Batman Returns version of Catwoman.
Then the Joker goes to visit Batgirl Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer), and shoots her, Killing Joke-style. Meredith, what do you make of this version of this scene?
Meredith: Well, it’s not portrayed exactly the same here as in the comics, and because this is a brief Oracle origin story, I’ll give it a pass.
Caleb: Meanwhile, we meet a blond girl named Dinah, and she is a little kid, like at least a decade younger than Batgirl. And she’s apparently psychic, awaking from a nightmare screaming. She has just dreamt the very info that Alfred was in the process of dumping!
Meredith: The change of Dinah’s powers is super weird. Was the canary cry too comic book-y? That’s crazy to think about seeing as how there are, what, four versions of Black Canary running around the CW these days?
Caleb: We then jump ahead some years, and teenage Dinah (Rachel Skarsten) is moving to “New Gotham.” I know it’s supposed to be “the future,” but I’m not sure that adding “New” to the name of the city suggests that all that well. I thought you could only name a city “New” Something-or-Other if it is actually a new city being named after an old one (See: New York City).
Barbara Gordon is in a wheelchair now, and she’s also a school teacher. Being hit on by the school guidance counselor. Who would like to guide her into a date. With him.
She’s in the process of agreeing to go out with him when… her beeper goes off?
Meredith: She communicates with her team via beeper! Seems a little old school for a techno junkie like Barbara, but hey, it’s classic.
Barbara has gotta deal with some crime stuff and doesn’t have time for your awkward come-ons, Mr. Hottie Guidance Counselor (Shawn Christian). We move to Watchtower (or whatever they are calling it here) and Barbara hacks the police database to find information on a murder.
Caleb: Barbara has put on a pair of glasses in order to become the superhero information broker known as Oracle! She’s basically like a reverse Superman here, then. Without her glasses, she’s mild-mannered school teacher Barbara Gordon, but when she puts them on, she’s the superhero super-hacker, Oracle!
Meredith: Now, If only Huntress would answer her communicator…
Caleb: Huntress has a good excuse! She’s in talk therapy with a blonde psychiatrist who is wearing red and black who is definitely not going to turn out to be a supervillain. Of course, if Huntress wasn’t going to bother answering her bird-shaped earring/communicator, Babs could have totally just gone out for coffee with the guidance counselor while she was waiting.
Meredith: Let’s be real, he’s no Dick Grayson.
Caleb: True, but who is? We should probably here note that the girl we are calling Huntress is really Helena Kyle, and she’s played by Ashley Scott. We just know she’s the Huntress already because we saw the cover of the DVD set.
Meredith: Her therapist, played by Mia Sara, mentions that Barbara Gordon became Helena’s legal guardian a few months after her mother was murdered? OK, New Gotham’s department of social services needs to be investigated because who would give a woman who has recently suffered a massive spinal cord injury a child to take care of? Wouldn't she have been kind of busy re-learning how to navigate the world as a paraplegic?
Caleb: Discussing the anniversary of her mother’s death, Helena says of her father, “He didn’t know he had a kid.” The World’s Greatest Detective didn’t know he had conceived a child with a member of his rogue’s gallery? Who then raised that child in Gotham City, without his knowledge, for years?
Meredith: He can join the Superhero Deadbeat Dad Club with Brandon Routh’s Superman.
Caleb: Dinah, eight years older than she was during Alfred's narration and now played by Rachel Skarsten, exits the bus station in New Gotham. She's been in the crime capital of the DC Universe for all of five seconds when she sees a man jump off a bench and throw himself screaming into traffic in a highly successful suicide attempt.
She rushes to help the dying man, and upon touching him she enters his mind, because she has psychic powers and not something silly like a “canary cry.” In his mind, she sees he’s being chased by a CGI swarm of rats. He was trying to evade the illusory rats and ended up getting run over.
Meredith: Dinah’s really working the Alicia Silverstone circa Clueless look.
The police show up to investigate, and one of them is very skeptical.
This is another part of the show I’m finding confusing, the New Gotham detectives who are trying to figure out why weird crimes happen in this city. Did they just forget Batman and the Joker were a thing? Are they new?
Caleb: After being interviewed by super-hot Detective Jesse Reese (Shemar Moore), the young, naive Dinah follows the address that a handsome young man she met on the bus gave her to “a party.” It leads her to a dark, scary alley, where he promptly attacks her. Welcome to Gotham, Dinah!
And then it happens: Huntress jumps on top of the attacker and stops to pose, allowing us to see her... costume, I guess you’d call it? Thoughts?
Meredith: It’s really ugly. And that’s saying something because I find most of Huntress’ costumes to be pretty awful. She’s sporting a floor length sheer... jacket? Over a plastic-y looking bustier. I give it an “F” for fugly.
Caleb: Yeah, suddenly the purple bathing suit with the plunging neckline from the late ‘70s and even Jim Lee’s spandex belly shirt and booty shorts from “Hush” don’t look so bad.
I particularly like the lack of mask, since, as far as I can tell, she looks just like she does in her “secret” identity, except maybe she teased her hair a little? And put on more makeup?
Maybe she’s hoping that criminals will be so distracted by how ridiculous her outfit is that they won’t have time to study her face as she’s beating them up with her... cat-powers?!
Meredith: Her eyes CGI morph into cat eyes when she uses her powers just in case you weren’t sure what was going on. The added cougar roar sound effect is especially delightful.
Caleb: So I guess the implication is that her mom, Catwoman, had cat-powers in the Birds of Prey-iverse, and she inherited them. I suppose that this is a good time to note that the terrible Halle Berry Catwoman movie wouldn’t be released until 2004, so Birds’ Catwoman is the first live-action Catwoman to have (or to have had, since she’s dead at this point in the story) cat powers.
Anyway, the poorly dressed Helena nobly uses her metahuman superpowers to beat the crap out of Dinah’s attacker, but not so badly that he can’t run away. Huntress doesn’t stick around much longer.
Meredith: Afterward, Huntress uses her ninja cat powers and weak one-liners to move across the city, leaving Dinah behind.
Caleb: Back at the clocktower/Babs’ apartment, Huntress is hunting for something to eat when there’s a “security breach." It turns out that Dinah has used her psychic powers (which, remember, she has), to gain access to Birds’ secret Birdcave. Huntress promptly punches her out.
Meredith: We get a huge info dump from Babs explaining metahumans, and Huntress quips that people have also been getting weird powers from meteor showers. I’d say that’s a subtle nod to Smallville, home of the meteor freaks. Also, I’m convinced that the close up shot of Babs’ head with the green computer screen reflected on her face is a reference to her Oracle symbol.
Caleb: Alfred Pennyworth to the rescue! He brings Dinah an assortment of clothes as well as breakfast on a tray. And he's restocked Barbara Gordon’s refrigerator while he was at it. He is apparently bored hanging out in Wayne Manor by himself. Batman/Bruce Wayne is MIA.
“You’re being superior again,” Barbara tells Alfred, when he makes some knowing, semi-sarcastic remarks to her about how she should probably just let Dinah join the team. "Superior"...? That’s just called “being British,” isn’t it?
Meredith: Uh, oh! According to the name on her office door, Helena’s therapist is none other than Dr. Harleen Quinzel. Is this her first live action appearance?
Caleb: Yes, yes it is. At this point, the Harley Quinn character was only about a decade old, having been introduced on Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. She was just rather recently introduced into Batman comics in 2002, having joined the DCU proper in 1999. Margot Robbie will be the first person to play Harley Quinn in a movie when Suicide Squad opens later this summer, but Mia Sara is the first live-action Harley.
I guess it’s kind of interesting that they are having Batman’s former protegee Batgirl in eventual combat with the Joker’s former protegee, if you want to look at it that way, although I guess you could also look at it as the girl version of Batman has to fight the girl version of The Joker, too.
Meredith: I wonder if she’s “Harley Quinn” at this point? That would seem like a conflict of interest if Harley is treating a person whose mother was murdered by her lover.
Caleb: I know, it’s almost like psychotic supervillains don’t have a code of ethics or something.
Well, while Huntress is with her therapist, Dinah and Oracle are trying to crack the case of the rich real estate investor guys who have been committing suicide under mysterious circumstances, like the guy Dinah saw outside of the bus stop. Oracle does this by typing very fast, which is exactly how computers work.
Meredith: Her dial-up internet is absolutely dynamite. My computer doesn’t even load files that quickly.
Caleb: There are only two potential guys left, and Huntress is following one lead, only to find he’s hung himself. She’s discovered at the scene of the crime by Detective Handsome, Shemar Moore, who finds her presence there highly suspicious and promptly handcuffs her to a statue. Kinky!
Meredith: Huntress’ costume now has an added collar and that somehow makes the whole ensemble worse. It gives the outfit the illusion of a cleavage window.
Caleb: Huntress uses her cat powers to escape, and that means there is only one potential victim left. Who Huntress happens to know. She goes to check up on him, while Barbara sends the teenage runaway to the dockyards with a weird pair of glasses that allows Barbara to see through Dinah’s eyes, basically.
Meredith: Because nothing says “responsible adult” like sending a sixteen-year-old into danger. I’m assuming she got her parenting skills from Bruce Wayne.
Caleb: When Huntress jumps over the guy’s fence, we get cat yowl sound effect number, what, six? Eight? I sincerely hope they don’t make that noise every time she uses her powers. We get it. They are feline in nature.
The guy, Larry Ketterly (Chris Ellis) immediately sees and recognizes Helena. Oh man, maybe she should have worn a mask!
Meredith: Batgirl flashback. Babs explains to Dinah the last mission she went on with Batman and how he could’ve killed the Joker. The Joker got away and that’s how Huntress’ mom died and Babs got paralyzed.
Caleb: And that’s what made Batman leave, apparently. He was so sad that he left New Gotham, his life's work and the “daughter he never knew he had.”
Meredith: Side note: I don’t hate the Batgirl costume. It looks classic and for something that only had a minute or so of screen time, it could’ve been worse.
Caleb: Oh snap! Ketterly is the bad guy! He’s got psychic powers too! He’s trying to figure out what Huntress' worst fear is, so that he can use it to psychically force her to commit suicide, the way he killed off the other businessmen. As he starts digging around in her mind with his mind, he gives her a gigantic knife with which he wants her to stab herself in the chest. In his parlor. Which doesn’t seem to give him the same degree of plausible deniability that the other suicides did.
"I have no idea how this young woman I know came to be in my den, dressed in revealing vinyl and leather and a sheer trench coat, a giant knife sticking out of her chest, officers. Suicide, I would assume, don't you think?"
Meredith: Dinah and Oracle to the rescue! Dinah puts her freaking hand through a window like it’s no big deal and Babs is the stealthiest paraplegic on four wheels. She sneaks up on the confrontation and throws an Oracle-arang to knock out Ketterly.
Caleb: Dinah also takes a fire poker to the abdomen when she confronts Ketterly. She’s one tough runaway teen. Okay, so after Oracle ninja sneaks up behind Ketterly in her electric wheelchair and konks him on the noggin with an O-shaped projectile, Dinah uses her psychic powers to transport Oracle and herself into Helena’s mind, where they try and talk her out of stabbing herself in the chest with that giant knife.
But Ketterly’s there in Helena's mind too. And, because it’s 2002, some Matrix-like techno music starts playing and Helena and Ketterly have a kung fu fight in their long black coats. Complete with slow-motion dodges. She totally kills Ketterly to death in their mind fight.
And in inside Helena's mind, the Birds all put their hands in.
Back in the real world, Ketterly's is in a coma of some kind, on account of his psychic self having been beaten to death by Helena's mental self.
“What are we gonna do with him?” Dinah asks, and then we transition to a sign reading “Arkham Asylum,” where Detective Handsome turns him over to Doctor Quinzel (“Call me Harley, detective, please”).
Meredith: Harley treats her patients with a gentle touch. And by gentle touch, I mean a karate kick to the face. I’m not a doctor, but I’m assuming kicking patients in the face has got to be a violation of the Hippocratic Oath.
Caleb: Doesn't that have a bit that goes “First, do no harm"...? So maybe this is more like the hypocritical oath, amirite?
Granted, I don’t know about mental health care, but can you have a private psychiatric practice and be in charge of a gothic asylum for the criminally insane?
Back in the clocktower, everyone is wearing crop tops and low-waisted jeans. We see Dinah trying to knock over a stack of pop cans with big, round metal projectiles. These are apparently what Oracle knocked out Ketterly with, and now we see that they are not O-shaped, but are in the shape of birds with their wings outstretched to form a circle. So they're Birds of Prey-arangs, not Oracle-arangs.
Meredith: Just to make sure everyone knows this is a hip show from 2002 airing on the WB, the episode ends with Michelle Branch’s “All You Wanted.” (For the record, I love that song).
Caleb: And the lyrics include the lines "If you want to/ I can save you." It's appropriate because the Birds of Prey are heroes, and they save people. I get it.
Okay, so overall thoughts?
Meredith: It seems like all the right pieces are there, it’s just been put together in the wrong order, if that makes sense. You’ve got the correct characters for a Birds of Prey series with a fairly comics canon backstory. So it is odd that they’ve made the changes they did. I don’t see how giving Helena cat powers or turning Dinah into a psychic makes for a more compelling narrative. In fact, it seems like they were trying to make the scripts easier to write. Psychic visions lend themselves better to moving plot forward more so than canary cries.
However, I find the dynamic between Barbara, Helena, and Dinah to be all wrong, at least in the sense of it being a proper Birds of Prey adaptation. To me, the Birds team is one of equals, each bringing a strength (and struggling with weaknesses) that compliments one another. This whole idea that Babs is the den mother to a squabbling pair of teens feels more like Kelley Puckett’s run on Batgirl. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see a Batgirl series that focused on Barbara attempting to train Batgirl and Spoiler, but really spent all her time trying to keep Cass and Steph from killing each other. But that’s not the kind of energy I’m looking for here.
Caleb: Yes, I think I'd rather watch a TV show about Oracle, Batgirl Cassandra Cain and Spoiler Stephanie Brown fighting crime than... just about anything, really.
Personally, I didn’t think this episode was any more terrible than any of the relatively few episodes of Smallville or The Flash I’ve seen, once you account for the fact that special effects in 2002 aren’t quite as special as they are today.
I was genuinely surprised to see things like Batman, The Joker, Catwoman and Batgirl on-screen at all, even if only in snippets of flashbacks. It really made me wonder why Gotham is Gotham and not, like, an adaptation of Gotham Central, with special guest-villains in particular episodes, and some combination of a stuntman and voice actor playing Batman for a few seconds at a time, as needed.
I found the premise a little wonky, though. Dina Meyer plays a pretty great Oracle, and certainly looks the part.
Meredith: The biggest strength of this series has got to be Dina Meyer’s Barbara Gordon. You need a strong player to be the center of this show and she really fits all my expectations of Babs. She’s tough and smart but is incredibly caring. Regardless of how Birds of Prey ends up being quality-wise, I’ll be glad to have seen Meyer’s performance of one of my favorite comic characters.
Caleb: Based on how good Meyer is as Oracle, it really seems like they could have very easily just adapted the set-up of the Birds of Prey comics, simply casting Ashley Scott as Black Canary, rather than this rather weird fusion of the Pre-Crisis Earth-2 Huntress storyline with elements of the post-Crisis Batman comics canon.
But they do seem pretty enamored of the whole "Dark Knight’s Daughter" aspect, and I suppose they wanted to play up the Batman connection as much as possible. It seems like the pitch for two different shows jammed into one.
Meredith: Just looking at the cover of the DVD set that only features Huntress and the tagline, “Batman’s Little Girl is All Grown Up,” it doesn’t really do a good job articulating what or who the Birds of Prey are. You’re right, it’s obvious they were trying to push the connection between Helena and Bruce, but in this episode I don’t get the sense that Helena is the protagonist. Barbara is a much stronger presence as the leader of the team. I think we’ll see that be a balancing act the show will struggle with as we go on.
Caleb: And go on we shall, since for all its weaknesses --- Huntress' sheer trench coat and cat powers, "New" Gotham, Sad Deadbeat Dad Batman --- it also has plenty of strengths. If we're going to diagnose what exactly went wrong with Birds of Prey, we're going to need to keep watching it.