‘Birds of Prey’ TV Rewatch, Episode 10: ‘Gladiatrix’
Long before comic book superhero TV shows were as common as they are today, the WB launched a live-action Birds of Prey TV series that lasted just thirteen episodes. In an effort to determine what went wrong, our Bird Watching team of Meredith Tomeo and Caleb Mozzocco are watching and dissecting every episode. You can watch along on DVD, or digitally on iTunes or Amazon.
In this episode, Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott) and Dinah Lance (Rachel Skarsten) investigate an underground fight club for metahuman women... only to find themselves forced to fight one another to the death. "Gladiatrix" originally aired on January 1, 2003, and was written by David H. Goodman and directed by David Carson.
Meredith: We open as always in Crime Alley. Well, this is a different Crime Alley. There’s more neon here.
Caleb: Perhaps there's more neon signage because this is the red light district? A lady with a big, fat, juicy-looking purse is walking down the dark alley alone in the middle of the night when she is confronted by a man wearing the mandatory big, long dark coat favored by 50% of all characters who appear on this show. He has pretty fake-looking scar tissue over his right eye, a tranquilizer dart gun and a creepy, Crispin Glover haircut.
Meredith: Yeah, but she’s ready for him. She’s got electric hands.
Caleb: Lightning hands are even better than a can of mace, but unfortunately they are no defense against tranq darts, and he puts her out of commission before she can zap him.
Meredith: Do dart guns really have those giant, carnation type flower ends? It looks like he shot a big corsage into her lapel.
Caleb: Just as the dart takes the woman down, Huntress arrives to save the day. As the bad guy backs slowly away from her, he bumps into Dinah. She now has a big dumb black coat of her own, and has apparently graduated to going on patrol with Huntress now.
Dart Gun has got the kung fu skills that get handed out with the coats, though, and he manages to take on Huntress, who Dinah pettily accuses of "hogging the scumbag."
Meredith: Did Helena get a haircut? It looks less Rachel Leigh Cook and more The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
Caleb: Could it just be a lack of product? Previously the only way to distinguish Helena Kyle from The Huntress was that the latter teased her hair and put on a coat.
Meredith: Maybe, it’s definitely flatter than normal. Maybe she’s trying out a new sleek style. Anyway, Dinah and Helena fight with the one-eyed creeper and he gets away, but not without leaving behind a strange reflective disc with an odd symbol on it.
Caleb: This being 2002, could it be a re-purposed AOL disc…?
Back to the Clocktower where, oh hey, it’s that time of the episode again! Ready? What the hell is Helena wearing…?
Meredith: It looks like a shirt made of safety pins. Helena and Dinah briefly argue about who is taking on which task, and Helena makes a crack about Dinah being her sidekick. Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer) has no witty response.
Caleb: Weird. The scene just ended, with the camera focused on Babs like she was supposed to say something but didn't.
Meanwhile, Creepy Guy has his eyes --- well, eye --- on another blond lady.
Meredith: And back to the Clocktower, where Dinah is taking out some of her aggression on a heavy bag with some sticks. She wants to fight Helena to prove how tough she is now.
Caleb: I do so love when Rachel Skarsten does her over-emotional teen thing, where she screams, huffs and puffs, or pouts about how she's not being emotional at all. This isn't her most hysterical protestation of being totally calm, of course, but it's still fun to see her so worked up and insisting to Helena, who isn't in the mood to fight her just because she's feeling emotional, that she's not at all worked up.
At her computer bank, Babs is in full Oracle mode, analyzing that symbol, matching it to a case Detective Jesse Reese (Shemar Moore) had recently worked on and analyzing a hair sample of a victim Reese found previously.
The hair contains an element found in granite, which was a common construction material in Old Gotham, but wasn't used in the construction of New Gotham.
Babs mentions New Gotham is built on "tectonically engineered slabs after that earthquake that toppled Old Gotham.” Oh, so we finally learn why Gotham is called New Gotham... in episode 10? I guess this is a reference to the 1998-1999 cycle of epic stories in the Batman comics, the "Cataclysm" and "Aftershock" crossovers that lead to the year-long "No Man's Land."
Meredith: I feel like that’s something they should’ve mentioned before right now.
Caleb: Well, maybe that explains why it looks like there are only like four different streets in New Gotham, and it has a population of maybe 25 people, tops? Few people moved back to the rebuilt city after the earthquake?
Meredith: Apparently parts of Old Gotham are basically underneath parts of New Gotham, so Helena is heading down into the sewers and, thank God, Alfred (Ian Abercrombie) is at the ready with a pair of very practical galoshes.
Caleb: Which she turns down, as she doesn’t want to be a “fashion don’t.”
"Crimefighting today,” Alfred says “It’s all style over substance.” You should see it in 2016, Alfie!
Meredith: Dinah is enraged that Helena went into the sewers without her because, as Alfred says, going mucking around underground is very big with the youths today.
Deep in the bowels of Old Gotham, Helena finds some cells and a room retrofitted as an arena.
“From the looks of the accommodations," Helena tells Oracle over her comms, "it ain't Lilith Fair.” Wow, now that takes me back. I think we need more references to Lilith Fair. It’s something that we need to be reminded of daily.
Caleb: Isn’t that kind of a terrible analogy?
Meredith: Yeah, a stadium arena where one might see the Lilith Fair isn’t the same as an arena for a mixed martial arts fight.
Caleb: Creepy Guy, who still hasn't been given a name, appears, wearing a nice white tuxedo. He shoots Helena with his dart gun, and down she goes. Oracle has lost contact with her because the two-way earring and choker necklace radio suite doesn't have a strong enough signal underground.
Cut to a scene of the ring in use. Creepy Guy is now surrounded by a bunch of other dudes, mostly older and white, all wearing tuxedos and chewing on cigars, cheering as metahuman women fight one another for their amusement.
Now not to get all, like, philosophical here, but aren’t we essentially playing the same role as those dudes? I mean, here we are, week after week, watching Helena and Dinah and Barbara in combat, for our own entertainment?
Meredith: Surely you know the difference between women being abducted and held against their will and forced to fight for people to watch, and two people watching a mediocre television show?
Caleb: Based on some of the performances, I don’t know that we can rule out that some of the cast and crew of this show weren’t captured, held against their will and forced into working on this show. Boom!
But perhaps that's why the show got canceled? At episode 10, the audience all had the same epiphany that I just had, and realized they were more like the bad guys in this episode than the good guys of the show, and quit watching en masse out of guilt…?
Something to think about.
Helena wakes up in a cage next to one of the three blond ladies that are also in cages,. They are all wearing weird black uniforms and plastic bibs/collars that turn red and cause them pain when they try to use their powers and or otherwise do something bad. These pain bibs are controlled by a button that Creepy Guy holds at all times.
He arrives to offer some exposition to Helena, flanked by two people in green jumpsuits that look like they coulda come from the wardrobe department of Batman ‘66, if only they had the henchman's names printed across the front of them.
Meredith: Oh, I thought they were all put in tuxedo t-shirts, but now I see that it’s a white shock collar over a black shirt.
Mid-monologue, the bad guys inject Helena with a rage drug that will make her want to fight the other girls. Okay, this is just one too many things. The cells, the shock collars, and now a rage drug? It’s seems like too much work for an underground fight club.
Caleb: This set up is really sort of depressing me because it reminds me so much of that superheroine-fight club episode of Justice League Unlimited, which also prominently featured Huntress and a blonde lady named Dinah Lance (That would be "Grudge Match" from 2006).
And this is so much poorer than that, in terms of action and... pretty much everything else. Also, "Grudge Match" had a real DC Comics villain behind the super-lady fights, Roulette, who would have been a perfect villain for this show. She was created in 2001, so was around when this show was made, although she probably hadn't achieved much in the way of recognition outside of readers of JSA at that point.
Back at the Clocktower, it is evident that Oracle's hair has taken on the body and volume that Huntress' hair has lost this episode.
Meredith: She used the last of the mousse in the Clocktower. They better put it on the grocery list so Alfred remembers to buy more.
Caleb: Between Internet research and a phone call to Reese, Oracle starts to figure out what exactly is going on with this whole "Gladiatrix" fight club thing.
"Men actually pay to watch women beat each other up?" Barbara asks incredulously. Um, I thought you were supposed to be the “master of the cyber-realms," Babs; haven't you ever been on the Internet before? Men will pay to watch women do pretty much anything.
Meredith: Oracle gives up their plan to Reese, so that he can go help Helena. “Do you know where Old Gotham is?” She asks, “Yes, deep underground in the sewers,” Reese doesn’t answer, but probably should.
Caleb: Back in his women's prison, the villain taunts Helena through the bars of her cage, and says he notices her looking at his messed-up eye. "For some odd reason, it’s always seemed to drive the ladies away," he says to her "Not just the pretty ones; I’ve tried whores, skanks... even freaks like you!"
So, this is all about his rejection by women? Surely all of the money spent on aggression drugs, dart guns, cages, high-tech remote-controlled pain bibs, henchmen salaries and so forth could have been spent instead on plastic surgery…? Hell, even an eye-patch or a weird Phantom of the Opera-like mask would have been an incredibly cheap fix to a relatively minor physical deformity.
Meredith: After raiding Helena’s closet and donning her finest vinyl trench coat, Dinah is ready to go save Helena from Old Gotham.
Caleb: She didn’t take the galoshes either!
Meredith: In order to spare a fellow captive, Helena talks her way into a fight against "Kayla the Destroyer," which is a nickname that is just not striking fear into my heart. The one-eyed ring leader dubs Helena the...Green Scorpion of Doom. I have no idea how he landed on that name.
Caleb: It’s not really any better or worse a name than "Huntress" though, is it?
Meredith: At least Huntress is within what I consider the correct neighborhood for a nickname that describes her abilities.
Caleb: Kayla demonstrates her metahuman skill immediately: She can create and throw fireballs. Maybe Bad Guy shoulda worked fire into her name somehow? Fortunately for Helena, Birds of Prey only had the budget for one fireball, so after that, Kayla the Destroyer switches to hand-to-hand, and Helena’s running-on-walls and super-cat powers prove more than a match for her.
Alfred brings Barbara her every-other-episode high tea, which also gives her someone to exposit to. She mentions that Reese found a trace of a drug in the victim she was analyzing, and the drug affects the amygdala, “the part of the brain that controls anger and rage”.
Fun fact: I learned the word “amygdala” from a Batman comic, specifically 1992’s Batman: Shadow of The Bat #3, where Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle pitted Batman against a new villain in Arkham Asylum named... wait for it... Amygdala. His deal was that his amygdala was removed to cure him of his fits of homicidal rage, but the experimental surgery had the opposite effect, and he was a super-strong brute whose anger could only be repressed by massive doses of drugs. Despite a couple of subsequent appearances, he didn’t really catch on, never becoming the next Mr. Zsasz. Or even KGBeast.
Anyway, you can read that story in Batman: Shadow of The Bat Vol. 1, a great collection that DC released just a few months ago.
Back to the TV show, though. As the drugs start to make Helena go a little crazy, the one-eyed, be-tuxed villain quips, "This is a crime-fighter. This is a crime-fighter on drugs." Ha, speaking of Rachel Leigh Cook... !
Meredith: That was Rachel Leigh Cook in that commercial? I don’t think I ever realized that.
[Caleb and Meredith pause to watch Rachel Leigh Cook destroy a kitchen with a frying pan in that "This is your brain on drugs" commercial repeatedly.]
Caleb: Reese bat-rings Oracle, who has his celly number. He tells her he finally got some info out of his lead on the fight club case, whose name I believe is John Convenient Plot Device. "It’s amazing how talkative people are when they are hanging over ledges by their ankles," Reese tells Oracle. That’s a real Batman move, Reese.
Meredith: While Reese is on his way to the underground fight club, Dinah is also sneaking in to fight club, but I don’t understand why Reese and Dinah aren’t working together on this rescue mission.
Caleb: Oracle tells Reese to pull over at a certain corner and roll down her window, and... Alfred is standing there! He hands Reese a box and says, “Good evening Detective Reese. Compliments of Oracle.”
Aw yeah, Bros of Prey team-up!
Meredith: Alfred is wearing an incredible scarf. I hope one of the Robins knitted it for him.
Caleb: I think the Oracle/Alfred coordination here is pretty dope, but, after thinking about it, I wonder how in the world Alf got down from the Clocktower, where he was serving Babs tea a few minutes ago to be standing on that particular corner.
And then, when Reese opens the box to find a communicator and looks up, Alfred has straight-up disappeared, just like his former employer always used to do.
Maybe Alfred has a grappling gun and whirly-bat...
Meredith: Dinah finds Helena, but she’s all but feral at this point, thanks to the aggression drug. Dinah is immediately nabbed by a few goons and is forced to fight Huntress in the ring. “The only thing better than a girl fight," the bad guy says, "is a girl friend fight.” Wow, Patchy, that’s deep.
Caleb: So here's the plan. Dinah, fighting for her life with a drug-crazed Helena, and Reese, dressed in a tux and pretending to be just another guy there to watch meta-women fight, are to stall for time while Oracle solves the problem from far away, using quick thinking and computers. And she does!
She tells Dinah and Reese, via the amped-up communication gear that works underground, that to de-drug Huntress, they just need to re-drug her; the second dose will apparently flood the amygdala and shut it down…? Fake comic book science to the rescue!
Meredith: So Reese sticks Helena with another dose to cure her, while Kayla the Destroyer and The Other Blond Captive get set free to take down Patchy.
Caleb: The entire audience gets away clean, as do most of the hench-people in green jumpsuits, but yeah, the bad guy finds himself alone in the ring, surrounded by Dinah, Helena, Kayla and Whoever The Other Captive is. Case closed!
The episode ends as it begins, with one of the Birds stopping a street crime in progress --- this time it's a burglar in a ski mask --- but now it's Dinah doing the crime-fighting. The girls have learned a valuable lesson about sharing scumbag-beating-up opportunities.
Meredith: Wow, for an episode about an underground, all-female gladiatorial-type fight club, this episode wasn't very fun. I think this is where that dull, cheap-looking production design is a detriment to the show. I'm sick of seeing the same industrial warehouses and dark alleys. They could've had more fun with the set up. Put them in some sort of futuristic gladiator arena instead of an MMA cage, or give them weirder outfits. I don't know, anything to make the episode more eye-catching.
I'm also starting to miss Dr. Quinzel and her wacky schemes to take over the world. At this point, it's been three episodes since the last time we saw her, and we're nearing the end. I'm not sure how they plan on incorporating her into the finale or wrapping up the storyline with her and Huntress.
Caleb: Yeah, I think luchadore masks alone could have gone a long way to making the fight club aspect of this more fun. Like, if you're gonna call a fighter The Green Scorpion of Doom, why not give her a green luchadore mask and spandex outfit with scorpions emblazoned on it or something?
I know I already mentioned Roulette, but this show would have been another excellent opportunity to work in some Batman or DC Comics characters, having someone --- anyone --- take the place of the literally no-name villain and putting some pre-existing characters in those cages.
On the plus side, what this lacked in Harley, it made up for in Alfred. We're about three-quarters of the way through the series now, and clearly the Dinah-becomes-a-superhero arc is nearing completion. As you indicated, it will be interesting to see how they tie everything together in the last three episodes --- presuming everything does get tied together.