Birds of Prey

PrintE-mail Written by Robin Pierce Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Future Imperfect - by Robin Pierce

The year was 2002. In retrospect, a tumultuous year for fantasy TV.

Star Trek: Enterprise was entering the second year of its troubled run. Buffy - The Vampire Slayer was gearing up for its seventh and final season, with series creator Joss Whedon’s attention firmly on his new series, the highly anticipated Firefly. The Warner Brothers network, (the WB as it was then called) had scored a success the previous year with a series focussed on Superman’s youth in Smallville, now returning for a second season and were seeking to bring another superhero series to screens.

They turned to Gotham City for their source, and as much as they had struck gold with Tom Welling as a pre-Superman Clark Kent as 'Superboy' in all but name without the iconic costume being used, Gotham would also have a drastic change of vigilante guardian.

Impressive - Especially in those heels...

Birds of Prey is an often overlooked series. It’s premature cancellation by the network overshadowed by the similarly outrageous mid-season dismissal of Whedon’s Firefly. But whereas Firefly caught the imagination of viewers and found a cult status through repeats and on DVD, closing with a climactic theatrical feature film, Birds of Prey sadly faded into obscurity.

Birds of Prey liberally took various chunks out of Batman’s comic book mythology, cutting, pasting and ultimately weaving them into something new and different from the established Batman conventions, yet retaining a sense of familiarity. The series’ executive producer and screenwriter for the opening episode was the debuting Laeta Kalogridis, who would later write the screenplay for Shutter Island and serve as executive producer not only on the Scorsese thriller, but also on James Cameron’s Avatar.

Kalogridis set the scene as New Gotham. The time is undetermined, but we can safely assume it’s the near future as Batman has left Gotham some seven years earlier and has not been seen or heard of since. He is widely regarded as an urban myth. His final battle was a war with the Joker, which cost him dearly. Drawing on elements from DC Comics multiverse where there are several versions of Earth, we are told that Batman and Catwoman had a daughter. The brief glimpses we see of Batman and Catwoman clearly evoke memories of Batman Returns as the costumes are identical, though obviously the actors are not. These are freshly filmed inserts. The scenes showing flashes of The Joker depict the character as the Batman - The Animated Series version rather than Jack Nicholson’s portrayal, even down to the detail of including Mark Hamill’s iconic and psychotic Joker voice.

As Batman’s ultimate battle against the Joker was waged (but before it was ultimately won and the Joker was taken down) the Joker took his revenge against Batman’s closest allies, brutally stabbing Selina Kyle (The Catwoman) to death in an alley with her daughter Helena as a witness. In another flashback scene re-enacting a pivotal sequence in the graphic novel The Killing Joke he visits 'Batgirl' in her civilian guise of Barbara Gordon, shooting her through her spine at point blank range, leaving her paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair.

In the graphic novel, the shooting of Barbara is part of the Joker’s scheme to turn her father, Commissioner Gordon, as crazy as the Joker himself by making the point that the thin line between sanity and lunacy is one bad day. In Birds of Prey though, it’s an act of pure revenge against Batman. No mention is made of the Commissioner in this scene. In fact, no mention at all is made of the character until the sixth episode.

However, in keeping with comics continuity, Barbara Gordon would continue to fight crime, not as a costumed heroine, but as a collector of information and co-ordinator, operating from a nerve centre of crime fighting operations located in a clock tower, working under the code-name 'The Oracle'. Barbara is played by Dina Meyer who’ll be known to Starburst readers for her roles in Starship Troopers, Johnny Mnemonic and more recently, the first four Saw films. Of the three actresses we’ve seen in the role of Batgirl, the others being Yvonne Craig and Alicia Silverstone, it’s Meyer who absolutely nails the character down, both in the few times we see her in the full costume and as the tough and resolute Barbara/Oracle. No pun intended, but there’s no doubt that the paralysed Barbara is the backbone of the Birds as she keeps a protective eye on her younger, sometimes over confident charges.

The series proper takes place seven years after these events in the intervening time, Helena Kyle has become Barbara Gordon’s ward and, in addition to displaying metahuman powers, has been trained and mentored by Barbara as New Gotham’s protector, the Huntress (Batgirl herself is said to be one of Batman’s many protégés in one episode, with mention also being made of other previous ones, namely Dick Grayson, Jason Todd and Tim Drake all three 'Boy Wonders'). There is no attempt at an explanation where the metahuman gene appeared - Batman, though highly trained in just about everything possesses no super powers and nether does Catwoman, who was a cat burglar. Yet, their daughter can virtually crawl up a wall like Spider-Man and has cat-like vision and stealth capabilities. In later episodes, she seems to glide short distances as well.

Ashley Scott, fresh from her success in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. and the James Cameron created Dark Angel (which made a star of Jessica Alba), was chosen for the part of Helena Kyle. She would re-team with Alba three years later for Into The Blue. Scott brought a level of vulnerable arrogance to the role of Helena, playing her as a troubled loner.

Ashley Scott as Helena Kyle/Huntress

There would, however be a third member of the crime-fighting crew - a sixteen year old metahuman girl named Dinah Lance (Rachel Skarsten). Again, little regard was paid to the source material. Comic book fans know Dinah Lance as Black Canary who has an eardrum splitting sonic scream to compliment her martial arts skills. In the series, however she has intuitive powers in the form of a precognitive touch telepathy, and has seen the events of the fateful night of the Joker’s revenge spree seven years earlier in a dream. Her crime fighting persona is not yet defined, but as the series develops, it is established that her mother was the original Black Canary and there is always the possibility she could become her successor, carrying on the Black Canary’s mantle as various hints are given that her powers are still developing through puberty and as the series progresses, include a telekinetic ability. Running away from home, she seeks out Barbara and Helena. As the youngest member of the team, Rachel Skarsten played the role of the innocent, eager to please heroine-in-waiting, while undergoing training and high school. A role model for the younger members of the teen target demographic to identify with.

Girl Power! The team 'clock' in...

Rounding off the team at the Clock Tower is the narrator of the opening sequence and dispenser of sage advice - the ever faithful Alfred Pennyworth, previously butler to Bruce Wayne and keeper of the Batman’s secrets. Ian Abercrombie took the role vacated by the late Michael Gough in the four Batman feature films that had preceded. Although the role is very limited, as Alfred only has a brief scene or two in any given episode, Abercrombie has a disconcerting knack of imitating Gough’s voice with unerring accuracy, and it’s a bit disturbing to hear the voice before the camera pans to someone shorter and stouter than the tall, lean Gough - even if the wardrobe and glasses are exactly the same.

Ian Abercrombie does a fine job as Alfred Pennyworth.

All good crime busting teams need a good arch villain, but as stated, the Joker is missing or dead. Who to turn to for the required degree of psychotic disregard for human life?

Well, in the first episode we see that Helena is undergoing therapy sessions to help he anger management problems. The attending psychiatrist is none other than Harleen Quinzel, better known to fans as the Joker’s girlfriend & sidekick, the crazed and demented Harley Quinn who was the series’s recurring villain, returning week after week with a scheme to overthrow New Gotham in the name of her lost love, 'Mr J'. Mia Sara who had co-starred alongside a young Tom Cruise in Legend was cast after the original pilot had completed filming. Originally, Twin Peaks’ Sherilynn Fenn took the role but was unable to continue, thus leading to three days of reshooting with Mia Sara.

Harley Quinn sans jester hat and big rubber mallet...

It was, by any measure, a bold premise for a weekly television series, taking vast leaps and liberties that might agitate loyal fans and followers of the regular continuity, yet alienate new viewers expecting to see the Caped Crusader make the occasional appearance.

The episodes have a chronological running order, with a timeline being adhered to, so let’s start at the beginning.

The series premiere sets the scene and establishes the characters. We learn that Barbara teaches at New Gotham High School, and we kick off with Dinah’s arrival in the big city as a 16 year old runaway passing herself off as Dinah Redmond (taking the name of her adoptive parents). She’s looking for Barbara and Helena, who she’s seen in dream visions of the night the Joker changed both their lives. It doesn’t take long for Dinah to find trouble, because as soon as she steps off the bus, she witnesses a man deliberately step in front of a moving vehicle, dying instantly - she also had another vision. She meets Huntress and of course manages to follow her to the Clock Tower by means of her cognitive metapowers and immedeatly wants to join the heroic team.

Huntress meets Jesse Reese (Shemar Moore) the detective investigating the wave of bizarre suicides - a man reputed to be just about the last honest cop in New Gotham. The suicides are driven by pure fear with the villain having the capacity to instil terror. Though the effects are the same as classic Batman villain Scarecrow’s fear gas, this is neither Scarecrow nor Jonathan Crane. As the 'save' here is made by Dinah, who uses her powers to save Huntress, Barbara agrees that she can stay on and begin the training under Barbara’s mentorshop. We later discover that the mastermind heading crime in the city is Helena’s psychiatrist, Harleen Quinzel, though she has yet to reveal herself as Harley Quinn.

The second episode was called Slick. Harleen hires a metahuman with the power to turn himself into water to kill the cops who are standing in her way. The premise of the Slick character is practically identical to Hydro Man from the Spider-Man: The Animated Series of 1994, which was itself, in turn a riff on their Sandman character (just substitute sand for water, or vice versa). However, what really gets the episode some kudos is the CGI work as Slick drowns his victims on dry land by forcing pressurised water into their mouths and nose. The next intended victim is Reese. Seeking shelter in a sauna (where obviously Slick can’t follow for fear of turning to steam) Huntress and Reese’s relationship becomes a little bit more consolidated.

Jesse Reese (2nd left) deals with the aftermath of Slick

So far, at this point, the episodes are pretty much following a formula, with Quinzell hiring villains to do her bidding and only the budding romances between Huntress and Reese and Barbara and a guidance counsellor at the high school Wade Brixton (Shaun Christian) as the threads of continuity. This would change and the series’ universe would expand a little bit in the next episode.

Prey for the Hunter has Reese and Huntress crossing paths once again as they track down a metahuman serial killer who is killing other metahumans by absorbing their powers before using them against his victims. This episode is where we’re told that New Gotham has quite a large metahuman population. Basically, they were drawn to the city as super villains years ago by Batman’s presence, and have since stayed, some have married, settled down, had kids. Others still have a talent for causing trouble. There is an underground bar hidden behind and below a collectibles store named 'No Man’s Land Collectibles'. There’s no way I can see that as anything but a nod to the long running No Man’s Land which was a continuing story line in the Batman comic titles which had just come to an end at the time.

Three Birds and a Baby starts with the discovery of an abandoned baby. They call him 'Guy' but as this is New Gotham - we know that the baby’s not going to be ordinary. Guy ages considerably every time he sleeps, and has been biologically engineered to live his entire life in three days. As his creation is another of Quinzel’s crazy schemes, he’s also programmed to kill the person he bonds with. It’s Quinzel’s plan to raise an entire disposable army with a lifespan of three days. Although the plan is thwarted, the Birds realise that there’s nothing they can do to save Guy from dying of old age.

Episode 5, Sins of the Mother was nothing short of outstanding, both in terms of solidifying the series continuity, flashing out some of the regular characters - most notably Reese and Dinah, but also setting the story line to be pursued in the ensuing episodes. Dinah’s real mother, Carolyn Lance (Lori Laughlin) arrives in town and tracks down her daughter. Carolyn is a crime fighting vigilante superhero known the Black Canary. Having given up her only daughter for her own safety, she’s not prepared for the abandonment issues the actions caused, nor hearing the truth about the 'cruel to be kind' treatment Dinah suffered at the hands of the adoptive parents who didn’t understand her cognitive powers and punished her. Al Hawke is the head of the crime family that was brought down several years ago by the Canary and knowing she’s back in town - Hawke wants his revenge. In a surprising finish, the Black Canary, using her sonic power, sacrifices herself to save Dinah, Huntress and Reese from an exploding warehouse with the only other survivor being Hawke himself - revealed to be Reese’s estranged father.

Old Canary get's all tied up...

After such a heavily emotional and character driven episode, it comes as no surprise that Undercover was a more standard story, comprising of Huntress working undercover with Reese to infiltrate a gang of adrenaline junkie robbers with a sub plot where she might just have gone native and joined the gang. Think Point Break and you’re basically on the right track here. The disappointment continued in the following entry, Split which sees another hero hit town, with the twist being that he has a split personality. A so-so concept handled here in a pedestrian manner.

However, despite the lacklustre nature of the two preceding instalments, the series would again find its feet and come back with a strong episode in Lady Shiva - one of the most memorable episodes of the entire run. Eight years ago, Batgirl had tracked masked supervillain/thief Lady Shiva to an apartment block, where a badly thrown batarang had ruptured a gas pipe, resulting in an explosion which apparently killed the villainess. In the present day, a series of killings which are unusual even by New Gotham’s warped standards is plaguing Reese - the instrument of death is a throwing star (Shiva’s weapon of choice) with the bat symbol embossed. This leads to a theory that the Bat himself is back in action, but Barbara knows better. She uses a cybernetic device to allow herself to don the Batgirl costume one more time to fight Shiva as an equal - and fails, being unmasked in the process.

Batgirl unmasked!

Meanwhile, in a story that has more twists and turns than a New Gotham alley, one of Helena’s high school friends is back in town after eight years. It comes as no surprise that the friend is Shiva. In another twist, it was Shiva’s younger sister who was killed in the explosion and in yet another twist - Shiva intends to take her revenge, not on Helena or Barbara - but Dinah, as the 'young sister'.

The quality was maintained in Nature of the Beast which sees the return of Al Hawke, who has escaped police custody and has undergone extensive plastic surgery after his horrific burning at the conclusion of Sins of the Mother. He is now played by Mitch Peliggi, begging the question; with all his money, Hawke decided he wanted the face of Skinner from The X Files? There’s a hired killer after Hawke. A metahuman who can literally walk through walls. It’s up to his son and Huntress to protect him as he offers to turn state’s evidence against his former criminal operation. In the meantime, Dinah wants revenge for her mother’s death and as she gets increasingly stressed and emotionally overwrought, her telekinetic powers become deadlier and more unpredictable.

Thankfully, by the next episode, Dinah is able to channel and control her powers, though they do seem to have got stronger in the intervening period. As Gladiatrix opens, she’s fighting alongside Huntress, against a disfigured one eyed mystery man who’s abducting female metahumans for a superhuman fight club he organises in the depths of Old Gotham - buried underneath New Gotham as a result of a cataclysmic earthquake (another shout out to the No Man’s Land story line). Huntress is caught and given a rage inducing drug as she has to fight to the death. It’s up to the newly confident Dinah to save her, but she too ends up in the same cage in a death match. Thankfully, Reese is around to make the save as the girls fight to a surprising standoff.

Reunion had a high school reunion of Helena’s class, with the nerd of the bunch being a meta-chameleon intent on murder. Of more interest in the unfolding story line is Helena’s revelation to Reese that the woman he knows only as Huntress, is Helena Kyle - daughter of the Catwoman. At this point, the series began to suffer from a noticeable lack of Harley Quinn and the story arc that was being built around her. But this would change as we headed toward the explosive series finale, originally broadcast as a double bill.

The main story of Feat of Clay centres around Chris Cassius - the son of classic Batvillain Clayface, the shape changing homicidal maniac. Cassius has taken some of the chemical that altered Clayface’s body, allowing him to change his appearance. Only in Cassius’s case it allows him to turn others into solid clay. Eager to outdo his father, he plans to kill Gotham’s power elite. What’s interesting in this episode it the portrayal of Clayface himself as a Hannibal Lecter type, locked in a glass cell in Arkham Asylum, using mind games to get inside Helena Kyle’s head in a scene heavily reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs. Moreso when he reveals it was he, not the Joker who murdered Helena’s mother.

Clayface cooks the fava beans as Huntress looks on...

As to the continuity, Alfred allows Barbara Gordon’s love interest Kyle into the Watchtower - and Harleen Quinzel discovers that Huntress and Helena are one and the same. As we seque into the final episode Devil’s Eyes, Dr Quinzel uses psychology to trick forther information about the crime fighting team, their identities and associates from an unwitting Helena before having a hypnotic power transferred to herself.

Revealing her identity as Harley Quinn, she tears the Birds apart by using her power on Huntress, she infiltrates and takes over the Watchtower, murdering Wade before an all out battle with the heroes. Ultimately, good wins out - but at a heavy cost. Poignantly, the final scene shows Alfred the Butler making a call to 'Master Bruce' telling him how well his daughter is doing and how proud he would be.

It’s a good note to end on as it brings a sense of closure to the short run of the series, but I can’t help but wonder where the series would have gone had it continued. Obviously from that last scene, Batman was well aware of his daughter’s activities and Alfred was his eyes and ears. Would he have eventually made an appearance? Would we have seen some more classic villains? Would there have been an attempt at crossover episodes with Smallville?

All questions which will sadly never be answered.


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0 #2 Mr Cheese 2011-06-19 23:17
Great read again - I totally missed this when it came out (also managed to avoid Smallville somehow) - I think between you and Caroline Preece you've convinced me to immerse myself in teen/post-teen angst, DC style
+1 #1 maria 2011-06-15 18:18
Interesting read.I would also recommend you watch this series.

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