So, after binging my way though Batman: The Animated Series, I had a craving for more. You have to admit, with all the new TV shows coming this fall, it's a good time to be a comic book fan on TV. New TV show versions of The Flash and Constantine, and the Batman prequel show Gotham. Many have been wondering how they can do a Batman show without Batman, so I thought I'd watch the last time they attempted that: Birds of Prey.
The year was 2002. Following the unexpected success of Smallville after its first season, the WB figured they should get another superhero show on the air while the iron was hot. After pouring through the DC archives, they settled on an adaptation of Birds of Prey, which was a bit of a critical darling in the comics world at that time. But still, the all-female superpowered trio of Oracle, Huntress, and Black Canary would be a different twist on the superhero show, and since their adventures are set in Gotham City, they have a bit of that Batman touch as well.
Let me establish the Elseworld this series took place in. Gotham City was leveled by a massive earthquake (see the "No Man's Land" storyline in the comics), and was rebuilt into a shimmering new metropolis called New Gotham. In this world, the war between superheroes and supervillains was very much an underground thing, with the famous Batman never becoming more than an urban legend among New Gotham's underworld. This world is also populated by
For our main trio of Oracle, Huntress, and Black Canary, some changes had to be made. Oracle was the one who was relatively unchanged. Barbara Gordon. Daughter of police commissioner James Gordon. The once and future Batgirl. Paralyzed from the waist down by the Joker's bullet, she has re-invented herself as Oracle. Using a vast computer network to keep tabs on crime, Oracle has become the premiere intelligence operative in the superhero community. And, despite being now confined to a wheelchair, she can still hurl a mean Batarang when the situation arises.
For the Huntress, they went back to her original Earth-2 origin. Helena Kyle, the daughter of Selena Kyle/Catwoman and Bruce Wayne/Batman. When Catwoman found out she was pregnant, she gave up her life of crime to raise her child. When young Helena was 16 years old, and on the eve of Batman and the Joker's final battle, the Joker had Selena Kyle killed. Consumed with grief over the death of his love, and in shock at discovering he was a father, it wasn't long after that final battle that Bruce Wayne and Batman just...disappeared. Helena had nowhere else to go, so Barbara took her in, and seeing the similar thirst for justice that was in Batman's heart, Barbara trained Helena to become the Huntress, and defend the streets of New Gotham. Needless to say, seeing as to how her father ran off shortly after she first met her, Helena is reluctant to accept her destiny as heir to the Wayne fortune, choosing instead to work as a bartender, and live above said bar. Oh, and Catwoman was a metahuman, therefore Helena is, gifting the Huntress with cat-like reflexes and heightened senses.
The most changed was Dinah Lance. In the comics, she's the Black Canary, the most formidable hand-to-hand combatant in the DC Universe, and gifted with her Canary Cry, a sonic scream that can shatter walls and disable any opponent. In the show, Dinah Lance becomes...Dinah Lance, a runaway teen with latent telepathic abilities. On the night of the final battle between Batman and the Joker, Barbara and Helena's intense grief over their personal tragedies gave Dinah a vision of the two, so when she was old enough, she ran off to New Gotham to find them and join them. They eventually tie her story into the Black Canary but introducing Black Canary as her mother, and she gave up young Dinah for foster care when Dinah was 6, knowing that it was a better life than being the child of a superhero.
Of course, in such tales, our heroes need a friend on the police force, so in comes Det. Jesse Reese. His colleagues mock him for his theories about a secret war between superheroes and supervillains on the streets, but he soon finds his theories are right as he becomes an ally to our heroes...and a love interest to Huntress.
And with our three heroines frequently wrapped up in their work, Alfred Pennyworth frequently comes by to look after the ladies. Even though Helena wants nothing to do with the Wayne family, Alfred is making good on his vow to look after the members of his two families: the Wayne Family and Batman Family. He comes by to tidy up their lair (a clock tower in New Gotham), stock the cupboards, and dispense fatherly advice.
And following the formula that Joss Whedon started with Buffy, we need a big bad to be a villain for the season. For the first and only season, the creators gave us, in her first live-action appearance, Dr. Harlene Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn. Because of the secret nature of superheroes and villains in this world, no one knew of Dr. Quinzel's dual identity, allowing her to rise to the top of New Gotham's high society as its most prominent and respected psychiatrist. Eventually she become director of Arkham Asylum. And of course, it's a position she's using and abusing to rebuild her beloved Mr. J's criminal empire. Watching it again, I must say, I was kind of impressed with Mia Sara's portrayal of Harley Quinn. She has the high society part down pat, but there are occasional glimpses, where she's shaking down a henchman or plotting an evil scheme, and she'll chuckle a little bit and smile a certain way, and we see the Harley Quinn we know and love peek through. It's a wonderfully subdued take on the character.
So this show was on for the 2002/2003 TV season. That's my lost year for pop culture, as I was in Japan, so I missed it in its original run. However, when I came home, and its short run was done, it seemed to be in constant reruns on Space. That's also how I discovered Firefly. The complete series DVD was finally released in 2008 as part of The Dark Knight hype, and I decided to pick it up.
Watching it again over the past few weeks...wow. I can't believe how low budget it looks. We're talking mid-90s first run syndication low-budget, and this was supposed to be a major network show. The CGI establishing shots of New Gotham are woefully showing the age. It looks like all of New Gotham's crime takes place on the same dark alley set. And the CGI special effects, even for TV standards, is just kind of weak. Man, Smallville must have gotten all the money at the time. At least that clock tower set for our hero's lair got a lot mileage. It was reused on Smallville and now Arrow.
But there were some interesting bits in there, like the episode Three Birds and a Baby. Here you think it's just another episode where a bunch of people who aren't good with kids get stuck with a baby. But then, the baby starts rapidly aging, and before long they're helping this child through its entire life. It really is a much more poignant twist on the classic tale.
And then there are times when they try to be poignant but it doesn't come across. So Barbara has a boyfriend named Wade. And in a few episodes, they try to play it up that Barbara being in a wheelchair is a big obstacle in their relationship. (i.e. his parents disapprove, Barbara obsesses over what it means when he whispers, "I want to take care of you,"). But all these things just seem half-hearted and quickly tossed aside. There could be something greater there, but there never is.
And sadly, a lot of episodes do fall into a "monster of the week" mold. Which is OK for the most part.
But one thing that the series did have going for it is the cast. Everybody really gives it their all and tries to make this a living, breathing world.
It was a fun series, but it fell into the pitfall that a lot of superhero shows fell into: it was so low budget. It's only in recent years that they decided to start pouring money into these things.
It was fun. It tried hard. And it was OK.