Birds of Prey (Unaired Pilot, 2002)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Batman (1966)

Batman & Mr Freeze: Subzero

The Flash

Birds of Prey (Unaired Pilot)

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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

"Next time you go undercover
at Charlie Sheen's house."
The universe of DC comic books is of course one filled with the strange and fantastic, but it is also riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. How exactly does one keep a beloved character at roughly the same age he has always been, despite the passage of time in the real world? Writers often refer to earlier adventures to give the characters a sense of history, but how far back can they go before it becomes glaringly obvious that the Batman (aka playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne) who was gallivanting around Gotham City in the 1930s cannot possibly be the same man doing the same in thing fifty, sixty, seventy years later?

Although both DC and Marvel have taken to stretching time for their characters and fudging ages a bit, DC's characters have been in circulation for a much longer time. The custodians of the DC universe have been forced to occasionally "reset" the world in which their characters live to bring those characters in line with contemporary readers. Before they started doing that, however, they explained the inconsistencies away by claiming that the heroes who fought crime earlier in the twentieth century were actually on an Earth in a parallel universe. This worked well to account for the younger counterparts of earlier heroes like Superman and The Flash, who lived their thirty-something lives in later decades from their predecessors. At least, it worked well until someone got the bright idea of allowing characters to cross from one parallel universe to the next, and then writers began creating more universes with even stranger casts of characters, each with a version of Earth on which superheroes of one sort or another existed. As you might expect, it became an unholy mess before too long, and eventually DC created a mini-series titled Crisis On Infinite Earths to tie things up as neatly as they could without giving themselves brain seizures. (It's best not to ask.)

Where does she get
those wonderful toys?
One of the happier products of the "multiverse" created by overeager comic book creators was a character named The Huntress. As the daughter of an unlikely union between the 1940s Batman and a reformed Catwoman, The Huntress assumed her father's crime fighting duties after his death. When this original Huntress was written out of existence during the Crisis mini-series, she was replaced by a new Huntress – the daughter of a notorious Gotham crime family who turned vigilante to help make up for the sins of her ancestors. In the grittier storylines that followed the DC universe revamp, Batgirl went through some serious changes as well. Known to anyone who has followed the campy Batman TV series as perky librarian Barbara Gordon (daughter to police commissioner James Gordon), Batgirl was gunned down by the Joker and paralyzed below the waist. Unable to don her tights and fight crime on the streets, Barbara instead used her research skills and Bruce Wayne's not inconsiderable fortune to do her part via the Internet, as a sort of information-brokering superhero called Oracle.

These two characters are the focus of the new WB TV series Birds of Prey, along with a third character imported from the comic book Birds of Prey -- sort of.

"I never should have
upgraded to AOL 8.0."
Remember those inconsistencies and contradictions we were talking about? Sit back and try to relax, because there are more on the way. In this TV microcosm, the Huntress is once again the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, and Barbara Gordon's career as Batgirl and Oracle are much the same. Undergoing a complete transformation, however, is Dinah Lance, a twenty-something lady spy known as Black Canary in the comic books. On screen, however, she has mutated into a teenaged psychic (Rachel Skarsten) who runs away from home to hang out with Oracle and the Huntress. This may cause brain hemorrhages in anyone who tries to follow all the different incarnations of these characters, but it does bring character elements (and another viewer demographic) that might otherwise be missing.

As one might expect from a pilot, this episode has a simple plot that seems to be trying as hard as possible to tell us everything we need to know about the characters in one hour (minus commercials). An incredibly crammed prologue explains to us what happened to Batman, Catwoman and the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill!) on a night seven years before the series takes place. While we know Catwoman is dead, exactly what happened to Batman and the Joker is not clear, though Bats has not been seen in Gotham since. and the version we saw lacked the narration by Alfred that features in the televised version.

"I knew if I waited long
enough the Virtual Boy
would come back."
As with the comic book, Barbara (Dina Meyer) uses a female colleague as her eyes and ears (and legs and fists) to operate beyond the confines of her secret lair inside an incredibly suspicious looking clock tower. While Black Canary is the proxy for Oracle on paper, in the flesh the Huntress (Ashley Scott) provides the footwork. And this isn't your daddy's (or if you remember Earth-2, granddaddy's) Huntress. She's a metahuman (superpowered for those of you who don't read DC books) with talents she apparently inherited from her mother, including being able to see in the dark, super speed, and the ability to jump tallish building in a few bounds. She also seems to have an odd mental block when it comes to having a secret identity. Her entire disguise consists of putting on something from the classier end of the Fredericks of Hollywood catalog. Then if she happens to meet anyone she knows, she tells them she's going out clubbing. It's enough to make us nostalgic for Superman's glasses.

"Give me a cocktail cherry
and I'll show you a trick."
In her civilian identity of Helena Kyle, the Huntress is being counseled in anger management by the head of Arkham Asylum, Harleen Quinzel, a name familiar to watchers of Batman: The Animated Series. In an example of how unforeseen circumstances can alter a show before it even airs, in the version we saw Dr. Quinzel is played by Sherilyn "I like to lick" Fenn, but due those ever mysterious "scheduling conflicts" Mia Sara will play her in the final version. Obviously, Quinzel is being set up to be a central villain, and it's a shame we won't get to see Fenn perform kung fu. We would have paid extra if she did it in saddle shoes.

The plot has to do with a killer that can make his victims kill themselves. He does this through some kind of sonic power (Oracle explains that there are lots of metahumans, and no two have the same powers), and luckily Dinah joins the gang just in time to serve as a psychic link that saves the Huntress' life when that whole "no costume" thing bites her in the ass. Keep in mind, we're still in the first episode.

This pilot has some pretty good special effects and (of course) copious wirework kung fu that put us in mind of The Heroic Trio. What it doesn't have is a lot character development, beyond stating what each character's motive is for fighting crime. Still, we have to cut it a little slack -- there are three main characters and the show's only an hour long. If Birds of Prey can keep up the relative quality of the pilot it may be worth tuning into the same bat channel, same bat time.

Own it!

Review date: 10/09/2002

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