BIRDS OF PREY, A HISTORY: Conception and ‘Pilot’

FROM THE AUTHOR

The following essay written by a grown-ass man with the mind of a 12-year-old. 

I was already a budding superhero nerd on October 9th, 2002, when Birds of Prey premiered on the WB network. Cut to: 17 years later, where Marvel Studios dominates at the box office, the CW network (a direct descendant of the late “The WB”) is readying for a superhero crossover epic like no other, pitting characters from a dozen past and present DC projects together to literally save the multiverse in Crisis on Infinite Earths. We are still a month from that event’s premier, but producers have already confirmed the inclusion of Burt Ward (Batman TV series, 1966), John Wesley Shipp (The Flash, 1990), Brandon Routh (Superman Returns, 2005), Tom Welling and Erica Durance (Smallville, 2001), and Kevin Conroy (Batman: The Animated Series, 1992) to say nothing of the dozens of rumored cameos that abound on the Internet at large. But most surprising of all was the announcement of Ashley Scott’s return to the role of Helena Kyle/The Huntress.

For fans of the DC Multiverse, this Crisis event (miniseries? TV movie?)  is validation for fans who have loved and followed these comics characters, in all their permutations, throughout the decades. And to have the Birds of Prey universe represented in that is, simply put, a gift. A gift to the fans of the original series. A well-earned gift to the actress herself. A gift to comics readers, who know of Huntress’s involvement in the original pages the thing is based on. And a gift to the grown-ass man, sitting next to his original Birds of Prey batarang, the cast-signed replica, the custom action figures, the one sheet poster,  typing madly to produce this essay about the one that got away. 

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“In truth, many at the WB knew the show was in for a hard time… All told, ‘Prey’ was doomed before it began.” – Susanne Daniels & Cynthia Littelton, Season Finale

Most genres don’t start off with a bang. While many filmgoers and media watchers revere the action movies of the 1980’s and 90’s, better historians than myself can trace the lineage of those films back to the steadily maturing car jumps and fisticuff of the 60’s and 70’s. Modern franchises can make slick action their bedrock component; the John Wick franchise, for example. But this understanding did not form overnight. Rather, the film industry slowly learned how to produce such films over decades, taking inspiration from Asian cinema, Bollywood, and Anime to name a few. There’s a noticeable gap between the plodding action set pieces of a Pierce Brosnan James Bond film and the brutally-efficient “realism” of Keanu Reeves taking out upwards of 150 assassins on the streets of New York in a tight 2 hours.

And so it goes with superhero fiction. While many have already traced our current superhero blockbusters back to the Batman series and more directly to the emergence of Fox and Sony Pictures’ respective X-Men and Spider-man movies in the early 2000‘s, you can chart a similar path on television. And despite the television landscape’s current embarrassment of riches in terms of the genre, TV’s superhero storytelling skidded into the same bumps and growth spurts their film counterparts hit along the way. For every successful Smallville, there’s a Justice League of America or Mercy Reef that never make it past pilot. But every once in a while, like genres and metahuman genes before it, live action superheroes take a giant leap in the right direction. 

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When the Creek reigned supreme.

 

Producing partners Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins of the aptly-named Tollin/Robbins Productions (T/RP) originally wanted to make one of these giant leaps with a series for Warner Brothers’ The WB network, focused on the teenage years of Bruce Wayne. Developing the series in late 1999, the pair got so far as commissioning a script for the pilot episode before they received a definitive “Not on your TV-ghetto lives” from the Feature Films division at Warner Brothers, which held tight its stranglehold on the Batman character’s television rights. As screenwriter (and hero of this here essay) Laeta Kalogridis put it in an interview with Comic Book Central in 2015, the young Bruce Wayne pilot was nixed by Features “because it was seen as being in competition with the potential movie version,” (that “potential movie version” would eventually become Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins). Kalogridis continued, “The thought process at the corporate level at that point was an ‘either or’ thing.” It’s worth noting here that the studio’s infamous, tight-reined practice with its most-prized caped crusader continues on to this day, showing only the first cracks in the wall with the premier of the CW’s Batwoman and voice actor Kevin Conroy’s much-anticipated live action debut as Bruce Wayne in the upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event. 

With their Bat-project stymied by Features’ apparent fear of cheapening the Batman brand, T/RP instead enlisted screenwriters Miles Millar and Al Gough (Lethal Weapon 4, Shanghai Noon) to develop a similar teenaged concept for the Man of Steel. Their series would ultimately constitute a notable step forward in action and visual effects on television, but one giant, single bound in the eyes of comic-loving nerds. Smallville was that magical blend of genre storytelling; accessible to the “normal” (people more concerned with life than the going’s on’s in fictional universes) while lovingly catered to the hardcore nerds, who by then had spent decades beta testing the iconic hero on a monthly basis. 

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No flights, no tights, no shirt, no service.

Like the Batman Beyond animated series that premiered two years prior, Smallville managed to mine a new form from the well-worn intellectual property by presenting the right blend of melodrama, iconic characterizations, superhero thrills, and pouty, WB prettiness. The show’s first season earned extremely high ratings for the WB at the time (season 1 averaged 6.41 million per episode. Compare that to another WB staple Angel, which caught an average 4.2 million viewers that same year), earned high praise from critics, and won over an instant, rabid fan-base that ate up young Superman’s high school turmoil with a kryptonite spoon. 

Suddenly confident in the WB’s ability to manifest a hit series from the pages of DC Comics, the network’s president, Jordan Levin, turned again to T/RP, looking now for a show set in the world of Gotham City. 

“News of the WB doing a ‘Birds of Prey’ show, as far as I can remember, first came out a few days before the premiere of ‘Smallville’,” recounted Craig Bryne, webmaster of the series very first fan site, the still-active GothamClocktower.com. “Clearly the WB was riding high on the Tollin/Robbins partnership.”

As the producing pair’s initial Bruce Wayne-centric series was still a non-starter (Warner Brothers Features division held tight their rights to the Dark Knight himself, along with all relatively bankable characters in his orbit), Tollin and Robbins set their sights on a more contemporary Gotham story. 

“I was asked if I wanted to do — if there were any DC titles that weren’t going made into films any time soon that I was interested in,” said Laeta Kalogridis, looking back on her time spent playing in the DC sandbox. Despite a lack of previous television experience, Kalogridis had earned her stripes in the late 90’s as a screenwriter, working on drafts of X-Men, Scream 2, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider shortly before joining the T/RP team in their quest to create their worthy follow-up to Smallville. When asked specifically about the potential for a series on the Birds of Prey comics title, Kalogridis’s eyes went wide. 

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Created by Jordan B. Gorfinkel and Chuck Dixon in 1996, the Birds of Prey comic series began as a two-woman partnership of former-Batgirl-turned paralyzed tech wizard Barbara Gordon (the Oracle), and second-generation Black Canary, Dinah Lance. With Oracle tech-ing the tech and Canary kicking the asses, the pair often teamed-up with other field operatives, most regularly Helena Bertinalli’s Huntress, to keep the mean streets of Gotham and the world (the Birds of the comics were a jet-setting bunch) a little bit safer. But Kalogridis had a few tweaks to make. Rather than focus on the Lance/Canary character as the Oracle’s No. 1 operative, she turned her sights back to before the great Crisis (on Infinite Earths, keep up!), to Batman and Catwoman’s long-forgotten daughter.

“I had always had a weak spot in my heart for Huntress. But I liked Huntress as the daughter of Batman and Catwoman. And that obviously got us into trouble eventually in terms of how much you could or could not use iconography or characters from the DC Universe who might be exploited for movies. But again, it was a different time.”

On DC Comics’ pre-Crisis Earth-2 it was Helena Wayne, the prodigy of the married Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle, who patrolled the rooftops of Gotham City after her mother’s death and father’s subsequent retirement. Created by eventual DC editor Paul Levitz, Helena was written (and drawn) in the mold of the typical super heroine of the day; a true believer in justice and devout remnant of her mother and father’s crimefighting legacy. 

 

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Helena Wayne’s Huntress saving dear old Alfred.

Kalogridis saw great potential in translating this hero to the screen for the first real time (I see you Legends of the Superheroes), but much adaptation was necessary to fit the Bronze Age character to the small screen. The strongest of these changes were the ones Kalogridis made to the once-doting-daughter’s personality. In her version, just as most of the WB’s audience had never heard of Batman’s daughter… neither had Batman. Raised in secrecy by Catwoman (necessitating a surname change from Wayne to Kyle), this Helena was not brought-up in the lap of luxury that Wayne Manor would have afforded, but by a single mother; a reformed criminal who put down her whip and mask after her daughter’s birth, and hid from her daughter bother her former life and the girl’s paternal parentage. With this change, Kalogridis completely retconned the character’s position in the Gotham limelight. No longer the revered heir to the Wayne fortune, this Helena was a mistake. A forgotten child. A bastard.   

Moreover, the change-out of Oracle’s main operative tied the series’ two leads closer to the Batman mythos. Now they were both family, and acted like it. Without Bruce Wayne’s constant presence on the show, he was only remembered through the two women whose personalities he had helped form through Gotham’s collateral tragedy and trauma. And the half-maternal, half-sibling relationship between Helena and Barbara became the much-needed emotional heart of the series. Much like Batman before her, Barbara was clearly the lead of the team and took to crime-fighting from her wheelchair and computer screens with the same zeal as she once did in her cowl and cape. The relationship’s strain comes from Helena’s side, who’s work as Barbara’s field agent often forces her to confront her reservations about letting crime-fighting become a permanent fixture in her life, despite her strong sense of justice. We first meet Helena in just such a situation in the series pilot, suffering through an anger management session with her court-appointed psychiatrist (more on her later), careful to evade questions that would lead to discussion of her nightly vigilantism. Unlike Batman and Robin, this Dynamic Duo feels the burden on their double lives at every turn, and the series is all the richer for it. 

Ashley Scott was a star on the rise when the casting notices for the Birds of Prey pilot first posted. Having recently transitioned from modeling to acting thanks to small roles in Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Dark Angel, she fought her way through the long audition process to earn the part of the Wayne heir. 

“I connected with the character. And it’s funny when you’re an actor; you kind of know when it fits,” Scott recounted to me in our 2015 podcast interview, “And I knew it.” But despite the actress’s assertion, there was still at least one member of the show’s casting committee with reservations about Scott before her audition for the network. 

“There was one person over at WB, some higher-up, that didn’t think I was tough enough. And I remember going in and my agent was like ‘Look, this woman there just doesn’t think that you’re tough enough, [that you’re] hard enough… I remember thinking ‘How am I going to get this part. I gotta get this part, I just love this character’… But I ended up going in and I started the audition and the woman that I think it was, and I’m not even sure I picked the right woman in the room, looked at her phone. And I stopped my audition and I hollered at her. I just kinda ripped her one.” The tactic didn’t go unnoticed, and Scott was awarded the role that same day. “I bullied my way right in.” 

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Ashley Scott smizing hard!

Despite these heaps of continuity to play from beneath a leather collar and ridiculous sheer trench coat, Scott’s performance shines out as a particular highlight in this series. Playing into the “child of Catwoman” angle, her Helena is a struggling hero (a throw-away line in the pilot about killing Dinah would prove an all-too-frequent urge for the character to work against), who avoids social connection at every turn with her reflexive mix of sarcasm and inner anger. It is only during the pilot’s climactic dream sequence that we are allowed a glimpse of Helena’s inner pain and torment over the death of her mother and her inability to defend her. The actress went through extensive Taekwondo training to play the part convincingly, and though her look as Huntress was far removed from the character’s comics garb (the producers chose to deny the character a mask even, a subject we’ll come back to in further essays in this series), her Huntress proved every bit as violent, capable, and instinctively deadly as Selina Kyle, herself.

But there was still one more seismic change to the comics canon up Kalogridis’ sleeve that would directly affect the Helena character and the stories the series would tell. Out of what was likely (read: I may be talking out of my ass on this bit) a mixture of studio meddling and fannish appreciation for the dead-and-buried film series, the decision was made during development to tie Birds to the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman movies of the late 80’s -early 90’s. The quick glimpses seen of Batman and Catwoman in the series approximated costumes the films (actor Bruce Thomas wore the same batsuit he wore in several surprisingly well-produced OnStar commercials the year before), and the look of (New) Gotham City hued closely to the designs done by Anton Furst and Bo Welch, if on a TV-friendly budget. 

By extension, this decision meant that Helena’s parents were Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney’s Batman, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, who’s performance in Burton’s Batman Returns was a shining gem in the midst of an uneven, though deeply-enjoyable Bat-sequel. Afterall, it’s Pfeiffer’s Selina that provides the greatest story arc for the film. The audience is shocked when the mousy, well-meaning secretary (nay, executive assistant) is pushed out of a window to her death by her greedy corporate boss, and watch wide-eyed during a story point that is equal parts simple and mind-numbingly baffling, as alley cats lick, bite, and trample her corpse back to life. No explanation given.

This character choice from a then 10-year-old blockbuster could have easily been ignored by Kalogridis and Co. As laughably confusing to normals as it was downright sacrilegious to fan, no one would have faulted the producers for simply ignoring the moment completely and presenting a simplified Catwoman for the series. But Kalogridis eyed potential in this development. Maybe, by virtue of her quasi-mystical revival, Catwoman was now a metahuman?

“You know, in the DC universe there’s humans and metahumans.” Kalogridis over-explained to an already well-informed crowd of nerds. “And it’s pretty clear in Tim Burton’s movie [Batman Returns] that she’s not normal. I mean, she dies. She falls out of the window, she dies and the cats come. It’s obvious to us that she does not come back as being entirely human. So what I wanted to do was use that origin story and experiment with the idea that, therefore, the daughter of Catwoman and Batman is going to be a metahuman, half human, half metahuman, like her mother. So dad’s human, mom’s not. That’s the reason you see a physiological difference. Yes, it’s a little bit of a departure, but it sort of depends on which one you’re looking at.”

Now, Helena was a metahuman and capable of her mother’s same agility and resilience. She could leap tall fire escapes with a single, wire-sponsored bound, while close-up shots of her eyes showed them narrow to cat-like slits before battle. Helena’s metahuman status also made her a member of a unique “other” that haunted the New Gotham underbelly, where super-powered citizens grabbed a quick drink at metas-only speakeasy No Man’s Land (see you back here soon for Chapter 3) or, more often than not, turned to a life of crime. Yet more prey for the Huntress.

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Ashley Scott, Rachel Skarsten, Dina Meyer.

 

The rest of the cast was filled out handily. The series Barbara Gordon/Oracle took the most direct route from comic page to screen, giving the series much-needed fan credit. Played masterfully by Dina Meyer, this Barbara Gordon is at the height of her computer-teching powers, but still wounded and vulnerable at her core thanks to her paralysis at the hands of the Joker. Leaving the comic connections thin again, Kalogridis rounded out her Birds team with a younger, heavily-reworked Dinah Lance, who’s teenaginess and new metahuman powers (she’s suddenly a touch-telepath) made her a perfect lead for the WB, derivative of Buffy Summers and Charmed’s telepathic Phoebe before her. Canadian actress Rachel Skarsten was only 16 when she got the part, and shifted her young life completely to be available for the series. 

An original character constituted the team’s connections to the city’s police department in the form of Detective Jesse Reese. With Commissioner Gordon nowhere to be seen, the Bat family’s relationship with the police is effectively set back to one with this edition. Alfred Pennyworth, arguably the most recognizable character in the piece to only passing Batman fans, was added in as well, keeping a watchful eye over the Wayne heir in Bruce’s absence. And, in what was likely the most fan-friendly move Kalogridis made, the Joker’s paramour Harley Quinn (here answering to her baffling alter ego, Dr. Harleen Quinzel) was plucked from the renowned animated series that birthed her, and given her live action debut as the series’ first major adversary. The role was given to Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks), who’s spunky attitude and brilliant blue eyes fit well with the character’s animation model. With the cast in line, production began on the pilot in March of 2002, with interior sets built at the Warner Brothers Studios Ranch in Burbank, California. Along with work at the ranch, exterior scenes utilized the classic backlot sets of Warner Brothers Studios proper, which had played host to several Bat-productions over the years since Adam West and Burt Ward first pulled up to Gotham Police Headquarters back in 1966.  

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Clocktower sketch by Michael Helmy.

The finished pilot episode tested high for the network, earning Birds a 13 episode pick-up, though the move to series necessitated a few changes be made before air date. Unable to commit to the series, Sherilyn Fenn was dropped from the role of Dr. Quinzel and replicated by Mia Sara (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Legend). While Fenn played the psychotic psychiatrist with reserved interest during office hours and flat-read cruelty with her operative, Sara keenly saw the part for what it was and played the villain’s dark intent at every turn, bringing whimsy to the character’s quiet, patient menace. 

The series opening minutes were completely reworked as well. Originally presented as a series of character defining scenes strung together by a well-informed newcaster, the new edit introduced narration from Abercrombie’s Alfred, who’s talk of a “secret war between Batman and Joker” was a far cry from a newscaster intoning such craftless expositional gems as “Catwoman is survived by her only daughter, Helena.” What’s more, this change represented the pilot’s final significant derivation from the movie series, which saw Batman and the rest enjoying their share of the Gotham spotlight, to that of the status quo as enforced under Batman comics editor Denny O’Neil. A veteran Batman writer, O’Neil chose to play the hero and his like off as an urban legend, rather than publicly known vigilantes as they had always been before.  This change for the series brought the Batfamily and Helena’s tragedy out of the public eye and into the shadows of the city, where only criminals and metahumans had the slightest clue of the city’s caped crusading contingent.

The series made its first public splash during the 2002 Television Critics Association press event, where a long trailer for the series was shown, utilizing scenes from Batman Returns to tease the series’ connections to its silver-screen forefather. A massive marketing campaign hit the ground running from there, with billboards, bus ads, and comics pages given over to the show’s signature imagery of Ashley Scott’s Huntress atop a gargoyle, with the ever-present tagline (“Batman’s little girl is all grown up”) pulling its weight to give passersby the slightest hint as to what the series would be. All, also, pushing the show’s premiere date of October 9th, 2002.

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Birds of Cahuenga, courtesy of Craig Byrne.

 

That night, Birds of Prey premiered to what a betting man would likely estimate as an  80/20 split audience of previous DC or Smallville converts and curious normals intrigued by the show’s massive publicity push. The pilot premiered to respectable numbers for the network with 7.6 million viewers, but fell 1.2 million short of Smallville’s premier the year before. Multiple factors were likely at play here, but along with the series in ability to fully explain itself in as succinct a tag line as “Young Superman,” Birds of Prey had failed where Smallville had succeeded in gaining the ever-elusive trust of the hardcore comics fan.  

Pairing nicely with the ratings success were the largely positive critical reviews. Varity’s Laura Fries commented lovingly on the show’s inventiveness, stating “With ‘Birds of Prey,’ Kalogridis has crafted a tidy concept, crossing an idol with a villain to make a new breed — slightly naughty, definitely conflicted but with some serious kick-ass power.” Caryn James at the New York Times took the time to throw some shade at competing shows during her praise, stating “’Birds of Prey’ is much closer to the wit of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ than to the banal witchcraft of ‘Charmed’, or the earnest, overpraised C.I.A. drama ‘Alias’.” And the Hollywood Reporter’s Barry Garron gave particular praise to Scott’s performance, stating; “Although each ‘Bird’ is appealing in her own right, and they share solid chemistry, Scott’s Huntress steals practically every scene in which she appears. Defiant one moment and vulnerable the next, Scott is the perfect choice for this action hero with attitude.” 

 Armed with solid Neilsen ratings to back of the network’s massive gamble on the relatively unknown property, the executives at the WB sat back comfortably, eager to capitalize on the show’s success and reassess the network’s “brand” as the host of two DC properties. But, these discussions would be short-lived, and news of the show’s struggles to coalesce behind the scenes would soon spell doom for New Gotham City.  

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The pilot episode for every TV series is, at its simplest, a promise. Forged between creators and audience, a good pilot gives the viewer a glimpse at the potential to come and promises that the first 22 to 42 minutes spent with that story will lead to countless hours of entertainment for the next five to seven years. And the weight of the promises the Birds of Prey pilot needed to make are evident from the very beginning. A lengthy opening montage of events, narrated by Ian Abercrombie’s Alfred Pennyworth, skillfully jams decades of Batman comics and film continuity together like so many ripped comics pages, collaged together with Kalogridis’ liberal retconning. With only the characters of Batman, Catwoman, and the Joker familiar to most of the audience, Alfred’s narration guides the viewer through the last night of Batman’s crimefighting career, the murder of Selina Kyle in front of their daughter Helena, the crippling of Barbara Gordon at the hands of the Joker, and Dinah Lance’s psychic connection to all of them. A tall order for any series, but Birds handles its heavy load of backstory remarkably well, establishing the tragedy in its lead characters’ histories and the new status quo in the city. Barry Garron made note of this as well, stating the opener, faced with introducing the characters and explaining the legend to comic book illiterates, “keeps the plot simple.” The message here being “normals welcome.” Quick to clear up any confusion the uninitiated TV viewer might have, the opening montage effectively answers much of the audience’s Bat-questions before the plot takes hold. 

Is this a Batman show? 

Sorta. 

Where’s Batman? 

Not here, stop asking. 

Who’s left?

 Broken-Batgirl, Batman’s bastard, and some blonde girl with nightmares.

Off to the races!

“It’s the lighting from the sky that just makes it so ultra-stylized.” Everitt recounted in our podcast interview. “So you’ve got those sunset shots and some day shots that are blue and everything looks like this cold blue stuff. And the night shots have those, like, purple clouds. It’s like what’s night for a comic book? Purple clouds.”

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The same standing backlot sets once utilized for Batman Returns, Forever, and & Robin are seen again as the streets of New Gotham (let’s take special note of the alley where Helena first meets Dinah, which will pop up in one form or another on every single episode of the show). The standing set of the Clocktower layer is fully introduced in the second act, presented as a true industrial space that Oracle has retro-fitted to function as her personal batcave. Enjoy it while you can though, as the series’ main set will be completely revamped by the very next episode, trading its aesthetic of damp cement and bulky gear for that of a Pottery Barn ad (interior designers work quickly in New Gotham). 

What sticks out, though, as a particular weak spot for this pilot out is the villainous threat. Instead of tying directly to a known bat-villain or even obscure comics character (*shakes fist* “Features Division!”), the episode’s baddie, financier Larry Ketterly,  trades in terrifying hallucinations created by his own metahuman powers. A tweak on the Scarecrow concept to be sure, but still well-short of originality. The pilot’s final act, though, lays bare the producers’ reasoning for this particular threat, when the villain’s powers take himself and the other Birds into Helena’s subconscious, black and white mindscape. Here, dream logic allows us precious moments with Dina Meyer in her Batgirl suit and a knockdown dragout fight between Ketterly and Huntress, who safely plunges a knife into the villain’s dream persona, leaving him catatonic, but alive.

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The pilot’s final surprise comes during our first trip to Arkham Asylum, where Helena’s psychiatrist (who’s office door has already betrayed her true nature to comic fans) reveals herself as the villain of the piece, abusing the now-vegetative villain and declaring war on New Gotham and whoever foiled her latest plan. 

A few shot scenes later, Barbara and Helena have all-but adopted Dinah and agreed to train her in the ways of the Bat. The pilot ends having established its complex world and convoluted character backstories as efficiently as possible, even with its original 52-minute run time. 

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Despite the producers’ good faith showings in public and positive notice in the press, the hardcore comics fan bases’ nerdish instinct to distrust interpretations of their favorite comic characters in another medium had already taken hold. To add insult to the trepidatious reports of Scott’s Huntress not wearing a mask or any of her comic book gear, was the fact that the show would tie into the already contentious movie series. By the time reason was given to comics fans that the Huntress was a metahuman by way of Pfeiffer’s derided revival origin, the harcore nerds had been lost as viewers in any serious way. As Gotham Clocktower’s Craig Byrne recounted:

”I thought it was unnecessary. Being the daughter of Batman and Catwoman is pretty cool in itself! If anything, I think it was a mistake not to focus more on the inner turmoil of being in the middle of a good legacy and a bad one. Who wins? The Batman side or the Catwoman side?”

 Maybe they’d tune into their VHS recording a few days later, sitting back to scream, laugh, and cringe at the changes to the sacred text, but the vast majority of comic purists would never become loyal. Never follow the show in any serious way.  

But some nerds in the audience saw something deeper in the show’s premiere episode; something far more satisfying and intriguing than any WB-sanctioned romance, leather costuming, or flashy effects. There was canon here.

Not direct canon, mind you. The mere fact of Barbara Gordon’s history as Batgirl and her crippling by a very-living Joker knocked out half of the films in the Burton/Schumacher series from the jump. But in its place, the opening sequence offered the series’ first peak into the intriguing blend of continuity at play. The series first shot after it’s logo card, a blueline map of “New Gotham City,” may have played like a weird grab towards youth to normals, but to fans, the city’s new name reflected the comic book storyline at play at the time. Post a devastating earthquake that left Gotham disowned by the US government for a year, the city had rejoined the union, and the subsequent stories were labeled as, what else, New Gotham tales. Even more surprising, the series featured the first (and at the time of this writing, only) live action interpretation of Barbara Gordon’s crippling scene from Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, with the nearly-fatal bullet fired by a Joker voiced by Batman: The Animated Series regular, Mark Hamill. Birds marked the first time Hamill had lent his iconic interpretation of the character to a Bat-project beyond the animated universe he had started in, but would certainly not be his last, later lending his laugh to the hugely successful Batman: Arkham Asylum video game series and an animated version of The Killing Joke in 2016. 

As the weeks went on and the proverbial sword hanging above the series grew sharper and sharper, a small, but close-knit group of fans arose for the show, vocalizing their appreciation for the characters and world of the series in WB sanctioned chat rooms and fan-run forums, alike. When the show’s cancelation was announced, these very same fans quickly rallied behind their series, writing letters and sending Birds of Prey comics and postcards to the Warner Brothers lot by the hundreds, demanding, like Trekkies and Cagney & Lacey diehards before them, that the show be given a second chance. The effort proved fruitless, though, and the show was unceremoniously yanked from the air after less than two months of regular showings, with the network eventually airing the final four episodes in two 2-hour “Movie Event” chunks during January and February of 2003. Dwarfed by Smallville’s decade-long run and the recent assortment of DC heroes on the CW, Fox, Syfy, Starz, and beyond, Birds’ effect on the comics-loving culture is neatly tucked away by most media watchers as a failed attempt, if they bother to mention it at all. 

But this assessment is, frankly, unfair to the series. While the show offered up more than enough fodder for fannish loathing and critical squabbling, it was also groundbreaking in many ways in a genre that had yet to excavate its possibilities much past its iconographic foundations. While Smallville’s Superman drama was the undeniable spark that lit the fuse, the series played its comic book connections close to their vest for the first four years of the show. But Birds wore its nerdy little heart on its sleeve, with its metahumans and Oracles and connection to the Batman film franchise, and trusted the audience to keep up with the lore-centric world building. One need only look to the CW’s inexplicably successful DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, uniquely blending DC staples and original characters to traverse the timestream week after week, or the newly premiered Batwoman (which borrowed Rachel Skarsten directly from Birds to play that show’s villainous Alice) to star collecting pieces of proof that Birds of Prey would likely have been given more of a chance were it to air today. Despite an ultimate failure to launch story-wise, the world and characters Birds of Prey attempted to bring to the screen was nothing short of a tall leap forward for the genre and geek culture at large. Landing optional.

Tune in next month for coverage of episode 102, “Slick.”

 

STRAY THOUGHTS

 

  • Helena’s costume is hideously impractical in this episode. While I love (and previously owned) the Birds of Prey-symboled belt and will continue to enjoy her choker/earring communications set throughout the series, the see-through gauzy trench coat and collared fetish corset are the unfortunate product of a costumier looking to be as edgy as possible, sacrificing character in the process. 

 

  • Every “city” set on the Warner Brothers backlot is used in this episode. While most future episodes will only utilize the Greenwhich Village-inspired Hennessey Street set, the pilot uses the studio’s New York streets for the death of Selina, Dinah’s arrival, and the final, black-and-white fight. If you’ve read this far, you will likely be interested to know that the Daily Planet facade used for Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and the entrance to the Gotham Police Department from the classic Batman series both cameo in this episode. 

 

  • SPOTTED IN THE CLOCKTOWER: There’s a motorcycle parked under the spiral stairs the Clocktower in this episode and this episode alone. Considering the tricked-out bike Huntress rides in the comics, this seems like a missed opportunity.

 

  • ALLEY WATCH: The Hennessy alley makes its first appearance in the series, where Dinah is accosted by young Arron Paul and the Huntress makes her ass-kicking debut.

 

  • PROP WATCH: The first version of Helena’s com-set choker and earrings get a nice close-up introduction in this episode. The earrings will remain unchanged, though the choker will change slightly in the episodes to come. Also seen are the light-up batarang and several silver-painted practice versions.

FROM THE AUTHOR The following essay written by a grown-ass man with the mind of a 12-year-old.  I was already a budding superhero nerd on October 9th, 2002, when Birds of Prey premiered on the WB network. Cut to: 17 years later, where Marvel Studios dominates at the box office, the CW network (a direct … Continue reading BIRDS OF PREY, A HISTORY: Conception and ‘Pilot’