‘Birds of Prey’ TV Rewatch, Episode 8: ‘Lady Shiva’
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, Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer) is faced with an enemy from her days as Batgirl, who returns to New Gotham at the exact same time that Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott) is reunited with best friend from high school. Coincidence? (Spoiler: No.) "Lady Shiva" originally aired on November 27 of 2002, and was written by Adam Armus, Kay Foster, Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz and directed by John Kretchmer.
Caleb: As the title makes clear, this episode prominently features Lady Shiva, who is the first villain from the comics to appear in this TV show based on comic books who isn't Harley Quinn... although I guess The Joker and Catwoman cameo in Alfred's weekly explain-a-thon. Given how rare it is to have a real villain instead of original-to-the-show ones like Slick "Liquid Guy" Waters or The Crawler, I thought I might take the opportunity to fansplain comic book Shiva.
Sandra Woosan was created by writer and legendary Batman editor Dennis O'Neil and artist Ric Estrada in 1975 for Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter, DC's answer to the kung-fu craze of the decade. O'Neil later used her extensively in his series The Question, and she gradually became more and more of a Batman character.
Robin II, Jason Todd, suspected she might be his mother in "A Death in the Family"; she helped train Robin III, Tim Drake; she helped re-train Batman when he needed to regain his fighting edge after recovering from his broken back; and she was closely associated with Batgirl II, Cassandra Cain, whom she had multiple fights to the death with... and who she has a secret connection to. I'm not going to spoil that here, though, since DC recently started re-collecting those Batgirl comics, and they are awesome.
An assassin and one of the world's greatest martial artists, Shiva's whole deal is that she hunts, challenges and kills the world's other greatest martial artists with her bare hands, as a way of defending her title. She would eventually become involved in the Birds of Prey comics, even joining the team for a while under the code name "Jade Canary," but not until Gail Simone's run on the book, which began after this show ended. Which is another reason I wonder how big a fan of the show Simone was, and how much it may have influenced her writing on the book.
So let's see how closely TV Shiva resembles comic book Shiva! We open eight years ago, on the corner of O’Neil and Adams, named for the very same Denny O'Neil I just mentioned and artist Neal Adams, one of his most famous collaborators. That, or those street signs are one hell of a coincidence.
Meredith: It’s Batgirl! She’s trying to stop Lady Shiva from getting away with a Louie Vuittou full of fifty dollar bills.
Caleb: Can we pause for a moment to discuss Shiva’s outfit? In the comics, she’s never really been a costumed type, but here she is wearing a full-body suit with a cowl that covers her face and head (with a hole in the back for a ponytail) and what appear to be Spice Girls-style heels. The costume is somewhere between a brownish maroon and a black, and has this texture that looks like... rubber scales maybe? I kind of hate it, but we’ll find out exactly why she’s wearing a mask later on in this episode.
Meredith: I know how much you hate superhero costumes having any kind of texture. You’ve complained about the dodgeball look of Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl suit. Shiva’s getup reminds me of that guy from the first season of American Horror Story.
Meredith: Shiva, not letting Batgirl ruin her night, throws a Shiva-arang. Batgirl whips out an Oracle-arang in response. Shiva has no problem dodging the projectile and it ricochets off a wall and right into a gas pipe, which starts leaking.
Caleb: Why does everyone have their own signature shape of throwing weapons? Why can’t Batgirl use a normal batarang, especially since she's still Batgirl in this scene, and why can't Shiva have an ordinary flying star?
The fight in a pretty okay action scene for this show, and I’m struck by the fact that this show’s version of Shiva is either a much, much worse fighter, or this show’s version of Batgirl is a much, much better fighter, as they basically fight to a draw and then Shiva retreats inside to her apartment building, which... explodes!
Meredith: Shiva appears to be dead, but the camera zooms in on her distinctive necklace, so I assume that will be important later.
Caleb: Oh hey, if she’s not dead, then that is one more character who survived an explosion in this series who is not Black Canary!
Meredith: Back to present day. Babs and underage Dinah (Rachel Skarsten) are chilling out at the bar Helena (Ashley Scott) works at (side note, it really seems like Dinah spends a lot of time in bars) and, guess what? There’s a school dance coming up and Dinah’s not sure if she wants to go. Babs insists it will be fun.
Caleb: I think it will be! Ooh, as members of the New Gotham High faculty, maybe Barbara and Guidance Counselor Wade Brixton (Shawn Christian) can chaperone!
Meredith: I wonder what the theme of the dance will be? I hope it’s something like "Enchantment Under the Sea," or "Night Time."
Caleb: Up strolls Helena and, okay I feel like we say this any time she appears, but what on Earth is she wearing? This appears to be a turtleneck sweater with a boob window.
Meredith: Where do you even get a sweater like that? Does she make these clothes herself?
Caleb: I believe that is from the Power Girl Collection at Macy’s.
Meredith: So, Helena is waiting for her friend, Sandy, from high school to show up. And here she is! And it’s Shiva! Shiva is Sandy! Sandy is Shiva! No one else knows this yet.
Caleb: Just us viewers, since the camera made a point of lingering on that necklace in the earlier scene... and then zooms in to linger on it once again just as the theme song begins.
Meredith: At the bar, Helena catches Sandy (Sung Hi Li) up on what’s been happening in New Gotham. Sandy disappeared mysteriously eight years ago, so she didn’t know that they built a juice bar.
Caleb: When Helena asks Sandy what she does, her old friend replies coyly, "I’m sort of a headhunter. I freelance mostly. Actually I’m working on a project here in New Gotham now." She is laying it on pretty thick. I'm half surprised she didn't follow that up with, "You could say that I kill people for money because I am a paid assassin."
Huntress just gets into talking about her mom (Catwoman) being dead, when Oracle calls her on her jewelry set communications suite to tell her that Reese just used the "bat-ring" to report a weird murder. Huntress just says I have to go, not even pretending to take a call or remember an appointment or say anything about muffintops.
She apparently stops just long enough to put on a different revealing top and her big, dumb crime-fighting coat before meeting Detective Jesse Reese (Shemar Moore) at the crime scene.
Meredith: He needs Helena’s opinion on something they found. It’s a Shiva-arang with a bat-symbol painted on it. Reese brings up this story he once heard of about a "Bat-Man" from Detective Claude Morton back in episode three.
Caleb: Huntress pooh-poohs the very idea of a Bat-Man. "A man dressing as a bat?" she says incredulously, "A little far-fetched, isn't it?" She's got a point, I guess. Metahumans and crime-fighters apparently don't dress up in animal-themed costumes like they used to. They just wear long, dark coats.
Back at The Clocktower, Babs seems very concerned about the Shiva-rang and bat symbol. She refuses to rise to any of Helena's attempts at banter, saying only that there used to be a thief in town who left a Chinese throwing star as her signature, but it couldn't be her --- she's dead.
Is she, Barbara?
Meredith: High School! Dinah is swooning over a classmate named Matt Kendell (Ethan Browne). Dinah’s friend Gabby (Callie De Fabry) says she should totally ask out the hottest guy in school. Matt’s a cool dude who listens to his discman while dissecting frogs in science class.
Caleb: Gabby asks the girl sitting next to Matt to be her lab partner, forcing him and Dinah into lab partnership, a good first step on the road to a relationship. She's totally striking out trying to make conversation with him, until their hands brush for a moment and she gets a psychic flash of his memories, and then uses that for material. She starts humming part of a song from his favorite band, The Mighty Toms, who no one has ever heard of. “That’s pretty cool, Donna," he says. He's cute, so "Donna" is close enough.
Back at The Clocktower, Alfred brings Oracle tea at her desk.
Meredith: Not just a cup and saucer, it’s like a full silver tea set.
Caleb:I like to imagine that he carries it all the way from Wayne Manor like that.
Meredith: Alfred thinks she needs a break, and Babs admonishes him for eavesdropping. Alfred rightly points out that a good butler doesn’t eavesdrop, he discreetly overhears.
Claeb: She's reviewing the Lady Shiva explosion case, where a body was found, but, as Alfred points out, it was a Jane Doe, and it was never identified or claimed. Could Lady Shiva still be alive? Yes. Yes she could.
Meredith: Back at the bar, Helena, Sandy, and Dinah bond over embarrassing tales of Helena's time in high school.
Caleb: Hel wants to go clubbing, and while 16-year-old Dinah is in --- but not invited --- Sandy says she has to work, as “this is her most creative time.” To kill people!
Cut to another dead guy in the street with a Shiva-rang embedded halfway through his head. This one has a a Chinese character on it, and a handsome New Gotham police detective crouched over it.
Meredith: Wow, that is really buried deep in that guy’s head.
Caleb: As Reese explains, this place was once robbed about eight years ago, but no one was killed. This time, no money was taken, but a big, goofy flying star was left in this poor guy's head.
Meredith: Babs knows more than she’s letting on. She needs some time to think everything through. Luckily, she has a sadness room! It’s an enormous room with weird lighting and one single display case for her Batgirl costume.
Caleb: Hey, Barbara Gordon doesn’t have a display case for Stephanie Brown either! This joke is brought to you by the Internet of 2006.
I like the swelling, Danny Elfman-style Batman theme music when she reaches for the mask and fits it over her face again.
Meredith: I think it’s odd Helena and Dinah haven’t ever asked Babs what’s behind this strange door that no one uses.
Caleb: Well, it’s a big Clocktower, obviously, as we keep discovering new rooms.
Alfred dramatically appears behind her, reminiscing about when he first fit her for that mask and about the good old days, mentioning her time fighting alongside Master Bruce and “Young Master Dick.”
Meredith: Babs is determined to face the obviously-not-dead Shiva alone. Haven’t the last two episodes been all about how going it alone never works?
Caleb: Babs called in sick so she could stay home all day to MacGyver something with various soldering tools and electronic components and suchlike. Helena again tries to banter, and when Babs won't engage, she says, “I don’t even know who you are anymore! You’re not Barbara, you’re not Oracle, you’re certainly not Batgirl.”
So what's Barbara missing at school today? Well, Matt looks up from his dissected frog to hold the phone, what’s this? Dinah has She’s All That-ed herself with a fairly dramatic makeover, and she comes into the room with music playing, tossing her hair like she’s in a shampoo commercial.
Meredith: There’s a lot happening right now and I love it. Dinah using her powers to woo a teenage boy is the best use of her powers so far. It’s also the most I’ve liked Dinah. She fans herself with a pair Gotham Knights box seat tickets she scored. Matt loves the Gotham Knights! But I’m still left hanging on which sport they’re talking about. Until further notice I will assume it is curling.
Caleb: I will look it up. I’m 1,000% sure the Internet contains a page that has entries on all of the fictional sports teams of the DC Universe.
Of course there is. According to the Batman Wikia, the Gotham Knights are one of the city's two baseball teams. The DC Wikia, however, has that name also being applied to Gotham City basketball, hockey football and baseball teams. Given that Birds of Prey occupies its own discrete universe with its own continuity, I guess there's no way we can know for sure.
But let's not get too far off track, and return to the major theme of this show: What On Earth Is Helena Kyle Wearing Now? At the bar she works at, she is wearing... something. What would you call this, a bra with a triangle of fabric hanging from the front of it…?
Meredith: She’s marches to the beat of her own drummer when it comes to fashion.
Dinah goes to Babs for advice about using her powers to trick a boy into liking her. Babs, ever the wise mentor, shrugs and says, “Eh, can’t help you.”
Caleb: Apparently all that time spent with Wade hasn’t rubbed off on Babs and made her very good at offering guidance or counsel to high schoolers.
Meredith: Back at the Crime Alley set...
Caleb: Shiva’s just pacing around, waiting for Batgirl to show up...? I don't get it. Did the folks who make this show just forget to film the part where Barbara and Shiva made an appointment for a rematch, or is the implication that every night Shiva puts on her Shiva suit and comes and hangs out on the corner of O'Neil and Adams, just in case Batgirl comes by?
Meredith: Babs is walking! That contraption she was tinkering with was a device to fix her spine. Time to confront Shiva, and the truth comes out. Shiva’s 15-year-old sister died in that explosion and Shiva wants revenge. Babs tries to apologize, but Shiva is all like, "I forgive you --- not." And then knocks her to the ground.
Babs can't get back up, and Shiva slowly starts to put the pieces together, unmasking her and discovering that Batgirl and Barbara Gordon are one and the same. Also, Babs kind of left her wheelchair out in the open.
Caleb: And it’s got bright, glowing lights on it and everything. You would think she would have at least stashed it in a doorway or around a corner or something.
Then woosh! Huntress arrives! Since Huntress doesn’t wear a mask, Shiva immediately recognizes her as her best friend from high school, Helena, and decides to bolt and figure things out later.
Meredith: Helena is really upset that Babs basically went on a suicide mission to face Shiva. They have a pretty nice heart to heart, and Ashley Scott actually does a pretty good job with the emotional weight of the scene. I actually got the sense that she was angry/scared about Babs being so reckless.
Caleb: So Sandy goes to visit Helena at the bar, and now Sandy knows that Helena is Huntress, but Helena doesn't know that Sandy is Shiva, or that Sandy knows that she's Huntress.
Sandy asks her what she’d do if she found her mother's killer, and the killer asked her for forgiveness. Without knowing it, Huntress basically explains that, “Oh yeah, I’d totally kill Barbara Gordon if I were you. An eye for an eye, right? Hey, maybe don't kill Barbara, kill someone who is like a little sister to Barbara.”
Meredith: New Gotham High is all decked out for the dance and we finally learn what the theme is. It’s BIG DANCE. The colors are orange, yellow, and green and it looks like it’s taking place in a hallway. Dinah confesses that she lied to Matt about “looking in his PDA,” which is code for mindreading. He is upset and goes off to hit on Gabby.
Caleb: His wording, thinking she only looked at his PDA, was that she saw all his “most private thoughts.” Ew, can you imagine seeing all the most private thoughts of your average teenage boy? Poor Dinah!
Also, I thought he asked her to go to the dance with him? Why did they arrive separately? And why aren't they wearing fancy dresses and suits? I was hoping the Big Dance-themed big dance was going to be a formal. I guess I'll just have to wait until the prom episode, which I hope is an episode that actually exists.
Back at the Bird’s Nest, Babs and Helena are conferring, and in an extremely delayed reaction, Barabara realizes that since Shiva saw her face, she might be able to figure out who she is. And Huntress says that maybe she ran away so that, instead of killing you, she could kill your little sister and then they’re all like, "Oh snap, Dinah could be in trouble! Let’s get to the big dance!"
Although if Barbara really cared about her day job, you would think she would already be at the dance, as a chaperone.
Meredith: She really should be chaperoning the Big Dance, because Shiva shows up to kill (?) Dinah in an eye-for-an eye situation. Somehow Dinah manages to shake Shiva off her trail and sneak back up on her, clocking over the back with a fire extinguisher. I thought she was supposed to be the best fighter in the world?
Caleb: Well, as established earlier by Batgirl fighting her to a standstill, TV Shiva isn’t quite as good as comic book Shiva. A barely-trained teenager almost knocking her out in a school hallway with a fire extinguisher should prove that pretty definitively. At least she’s able to get the upper hand with a few kicks.
But then Huntress joins the fray!
Meredith: They duke it out in the hallway for a bit, unconcerned about the teens and their Big Dance nearby.
Caleb: We really should be hearing terrible 2002 pop music emanating from the Big Dance down the hall, shouldn't we?
When Huntress has Shiva down and raises her fist to deck her, Shiva calls her “Helena,” which throws her for a second, even though she doesn’t wear a mask.
Sandy then gets out from under Huntress, and readies a Shiva-rang to throw at her former BFF, when it’s blocked by --- Barbara! Yet again Barbara has stealthily snuck up and appeared out of nowhere on her motorized wheelchair with glowing lights! She takes Shiva out handily with her batons.
Meredith: The next day, the fight with Shiva is all over the school. Dinah covers with a story about muffintops --- just kidding! --- she claims some teachers got “over-beveraged and went berserk." Dinah quickly changes the subject by asking how Gabby’s night with Matt went. Gabby says it was fine, but he really isn’t her type. Her type, as it turns out, is Matt’s lab partner, Gina.
Caleb: Next up, Matt walks by, and he and Dinah talk it out. He tells her that the fact that she liked him enough to go snooping in his PDA was sort of a compliment, "in a stalker-ish way."
And back to the Clocktower. Huntress is striking a Jim Lee pose, with one knee up on the ledge, and Barbara wheels up. They share their feelings. Barbara insists that she'll eventually get her paralysis-fixing gadget to work. Not in this continuity! But she does kinda sorta get something similar to work in The New 52.
And then it's back to the sadness room, for another heart to heart with Alfred. "I'm not the hero I once was," Barbara says sadly, looking at the sad display case.
"Thank goodness," Alfred says. "You’ve grown into a thoughtful, beautiful woman with the capacity to care more for other than yourself. If that’s not a hero I don’t know what is."
Aw, that was sweet Alfred! Barbara thinks so, too. "How do you always know just what to say?" she asks.
"Years of practice," he replies. Well, that and scriptwriters, of course.
Meredith: Personally, I think this was the best episode so far. Using an established character like Shiva, even if she didn’t really resemble her comic self, went a long way to making the episode more watchable. It meant less time wondering what the heck a “Darkstrike” was, and it felt like we were actually watching something that was developed from DC comics, as opposed to some generic knockoff.
Additionally, I thought this was Ashley Scott’s strongest episode acting-wise. The scene where she tore into Barbara for being reckless made me believe there was a developed relationship between the two of them. There needs to be more scenes like that between Helena and Babs, and fewer scenes with Helena bantering with Reese.
I also thought they did a good job mining humor from Dinah’s high school plot. If they insist on making her a teen, that’s more along the lines of what they should be doing with it. Although, it is a little odd that they’ve basically got two completely different types of shows running simultaneously. A dark and gritty one where Helena and Babs are dealing with crime in New Gotham, and another lighthearted farce where Dinah is trying to go to high school and also deal with burgeoning metahuman powers.
Caleb: Agreed. This was probably my favorite episode yet, certainly right up there with episode five, "Sins of The Mother" (i.e. The one where Lori Loughlin shows up as Black Canary). I really liked all the Dinah stuff in this, from her trying to tag along with the older girls to her power abuse sub-plot.
As you say though, this episode did really sort of highlight the tension built into the premise of having a teenage highschooler learning to be a hero, and an established adult hero, with Barbara Gordon having a foot in both worlds. I think either direction would have made a fine show --- say if Helena was also a high schooler and Babs was their teacher by day, trainer by night, or if Dinah was also a grown-up --- but the structure is ungainly.
This time out, it worked pretty well though, and we got all three characters pretty much equally involved in the show and, in the final fight at least, working together. Some of these episodes end, and it's easy to see why the show only lasted one season. Other times, like this time, make you wonder why it only lasted one season, and curious about how good a second season could have been if there were more episodes like this, and fewer episodes like the previous one.