Batgirl's secret TV origins are unmasked in this unaired pilot

Contributed by
Jan 11, 2017

Where does she come from, where does she go, and what is her scene (because you just gotta know)? Batgirl as the alter ego of Barbara Gordon first flew out of the Batman comics and onto TV screens in 1967 — in shimmery purple spandex, no less. Space-age bat couture aside, Babs dazzled her prime-time audience with her quick thinking, stealthy moves and endless ways of whacking villains upside the head with any impromptu weapon she could find in a back alley or sketchy warehouse. She would even materialize when Batman and Robin became fun for the Joker or prey in the claws of Catwoman.

Before Batgirl, who was already a high-kicking sidekick on Batman, soared into a show of her own, she starred in an unaired pilot that collected dust in some dark corner of the Gotham City library for years. Her mysterious origins have been revealed by the video surfacing on that ingenious thing we call the Internet. Leap onto the Batgirlcycle, let your cape ripple in the wind and take a ride through Barbara Gordon's transformation secrets.

Out of the Batcave

Barbara Gordon was not the first Batgirl character to emerge from the shadows. She succeeded Batwoman (Kathy Kane) and her niece, Bat-Girl Betty Kane, first appearing in Batman #139 in April 1961. The librarian with a double life would go on to do vigilante justice in the third season of Batman after ratings took a nosedive off the skyscrapers of Gotham City. Creator (and slightly over-dramatic narrator) William Dozier decided prime-time television needed more DC characters and that a female superhero would attract preteen girls who aspired to be something besides princesses, just as Batman and Robin were idols for millions of boys. However, she and her assortment of Batgirl-branded gizmos needed a test run before taking on TV.

The pilot was pretty much Batgirl boot camp, serving as both a training ground for the character and a live-action costume trial. While I have serious fashion envy for a costume that's at once kickass and sparkly, the first prototype wasn't exactly in fighting shape. Batgirl's original mask was more like one of the Joker's torture devices for Yvonne Craig. Sharp edges in the design were the culprit behind painful red welts on her flawless powdered face. This is also the only time she wears a cowl that ties under the chin, which anyone who has ever worn a Halloween costume of that persuasion can tell you is immensely irritating after about five minutes. The new mask and cowl not only made spying through keyholes a much less excruciating experience, but the eyeholes even matched her fierce winged eyeliner. Marc Jacobs would be proud — that's very much in the orbit of his retro-cool aesthetic.

Pressing the transformation button

Barbara Gordon is introduced as an unassuming librarian in a day-glo yellow suit that could have possibly blinded Gotham villains before they ever needed to be taken down by her laser-shooting makeup compact. It is when she is helping millionaire Bruce Wayne research a rare exotic butterfly that she mentions she is Commissioner Gordon's daughter. While many viewers might have thought Batgirl to be an automatic love interest for Bruce Wayne, a tryst was the last thing on his bat-radar. The writers were adamant that Batman was married to Gotham City and, unlike some of his later iterations, too preoccupied with fighting off the scum that emerged in its shady alleys and abandoned warehouses to even think about cliché candlelit dinners and long walks on a nonexistent beach.

The pilot is also where her secret identity is unmasked when Gotham's stupidest criminal thinks he’' shut her in a room that turns out to be a hidden chamber with a revolving door that reveals her secret identity in the form of a red wig and a metallic purple suit and mask. There couldn't possibly be more obvious villains crawling in broad daylight than the Killer Moth and his parasites -- they look like a bunch of spacemen wearing TV antennae, which is going to be really effective camouflage in the middle of a library. He and his hench-moths are about as believable as the cartoonish sound effects that flashed on screen in acid-bright colors with a psychedelic Pow! Boff! or Sock! The producers knew this needed insecticide and quickly exterminated him. Out of the fumes rose the even more psychopathic likes of Joker, Catwoman, and the Penguin with their swarms of henchmen and booby traps that could pass for modern takes on medieval torture.  

Striking back against '60s sexism

While Yvonne Craig did mention that Batgirl was more feminine than the handful of superheroines on TV at the time, even remarking that Honey West was canceled because its titular detective was "always going around clobbering somebody, and you can't be feminine doing that," there is speculation over whether she was just a mouthpiece for what studio execs really wanted to project in a female crimefighter. It is rumored that the balletic kicks she deals out to her arch-nemeses were choreographed to make her look like a showgirl. Ballet is a beautiful — and difficult — art form. I used to practice it myself. However, it's not exactly the weapon in your arsenal you want to use for stunning a psycho ready to spray you with lethal Joker Gas.The balletic moves she employs for evading these grimy characters are performend with a sleek and graceful speed, but sometimes you're faced with no choice but needing to make an evildoer see stars beyond your glittery Batsuit.

"Dazzling dare doll" (which was actually supposed to refer to that aforementioned makeup compact that fires deadly laser beams that 'dazzle' its targets) and other similar phrases might elicit a silent chorus of eyerolls in 2017, but Batgirl's most significant superpower back in 1967 was defying gender norms for women one kick and laser beam at a time. Even with a theme song that calls her "baby," she was nobody's baby and made that as fiercely obvious as her flaming red wig. Even the powers of Batman and Robin were not enough to break out of the chemical cocoon the Evil Moth sprayed on them (which they shockingly admitted) until she flew in. While Craig insisted that Batgirl was not there to save Batman and Robin every time they tripped on a booby trap, she does more than her share of swooping in when the situation is dire. Like any fallible human being in a superhero cape, she would see her share of shortcomings as the show progressed, but this kind of role reversal was still a rarity during that era. Batgirl's biggest proverbial sucker punch of all was her 1971 commercial demanding equal pay beside Batman and Robin.

Flying into the future

Even though the not-so-top-secret Batgirl pilot is seven and a half minutes of flimsy villains and story that deviated from the comic (in which Batgirl is actually leaving a costume party in her glittery getup before being attacked by the Killer Moth), it serves its purpose to flesh out Barbara Gordon while keeping her altar ego shrouded in mystery. By adding a super-powered female character to the primetime lineup of Wonder Woman, Honey West, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.'s April Dancer and all the women who ever fought back against killer aliens on Star Trek, it also fulfills a need for strong women in the often oppressive society of the 1960s. Her powers have endured. When Jessica Jones locks up psychopaths, Supergirl supernaturally knocks out rogues from Krypton and Storm sets off a hurricane, they can thank Batgirl.

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