How Smallville proved the DC Universe needs an Oracle

Contributed by
Jan 26, 2017

Superheroes are a big deal in Hollywood right now, and while Marvel may have the monopoly on the big-screen heroics, DC is knocking their rival out of the park on television. From Vertigo series like Lucifer and Preacher to the strange world of FOX’s Gotham, DC Comics has brought plenty of their countless characters to the small screen to great success. But the true test of their brand remains their weekly takeover of The CW’s so-called Arrowverse.

The Arrowverse owes a lot to the shows that came before it, but perhaps none more than its immediate predecessor, Smallville, the story of a young Clark Kent in the years before he became the Man of Steel. Over its 10-season run, Smallville, like the shows for which it paved the way, borrowed heavily from the comics. The series introduced a slew of comic book characters and storylines ranging from the classic to the obscure, but it was never allowed to venture into the world of Gotham City’s costumed heroes. Despite those restrictions, the series did manage to bring one very important bat-related character to the small screen ... they just had to be a little creative with it.

I'm speaking, of course, of Oracle.

What do you mean you don’t remember Oracle's role in Smallville? It was right out in the open, starting somewhere around Season 7 and running through the final season.

Oh, maybe because she didn't go by "Oracle." She went by "Watchtower." And she wasn't Barbara Gordon. She was Chloe Sullivan.

Still don’t remember? Okay, let me break it down for you.

Girl reporter turns heroic hacker

During the early years of the (then) WB's flagship superhero drama, Chloe played an important but supporting role in the life of Clark Kent. She was his best friend, confidante and eventual partner in crime fighting. But Chloe's life didn't just revolve around Clark. She was also a brilliant young reporter with her eyes set on a job at the Daily Planet, one she would eventually win, though she never made it out of the basement.

Chloe started out filling what turned out to be a necessary role for the story of a young Superman, that of the intrepid reporter usually reserved for Lois Lane. But down the line, once the real Lois blew into the Smallville town limits, Chloe's role became a bit less clear. Was there room for two girl reporters in Clark's life? 

Turns out the answer was no, but the transition wasn't quite as cut-and-dried as a quick replacement. Over the course of four seasons, Chloe and Lois slowly traded places, and with that trade her priorities shifted. As Lois' career at the Daily Planet took off, Chloe's was diminished. But while she was slowly losing her grip on her high school fantasies, she was gaining new skills, new allies and a brand new role in the burgeoning Justice League. 

In the sixth season, Chloe took her amateur hacking to the professional circuit when she started moonlighting as 'Watchtower,' quarterbacking missions for Oliver Queen and his band of merry men. One year later, after being summarily fired from her basement job at the Planet, Chloe would become Watchtower full-time, eventually opening up a decked-out base of operations and becoming an indispensable member of the team.

Birds and brainiacs

While her trajectory is much less tragic than her comic book inspiration, Chloe's turn from sidekick to information broker and Justice League eye-in-the-sky mirrored that of Barbara Gordon's. This was especially true when it came to the darker parts of the job as both women struggled with alien possession and a loss of identity.

During the 2004 Birds of Prey story arch Between Dark & Dawn, Oracle is hit by a blast from her computer system. While it seems to do no immediate harm, eventually she and the rest of the Birds discover that the wheelchair-bound superhero has become infected by the Kryptonian A.I., Brainiac. At first, Oracle gets a little technologic enhancement, something pretty useful for a hacker. Eventually, though, Brainiac's consciousness takes over completely, turning her on her friends. 

If this sounds familiar, that's because Chloe went through virtually the same character arc in the eighth season of Smallville. Following an attack by Brainiac, Chloe finds that she's gotten a cognitive boost. She hides her newfound abilities from her friends, choosing to use them to her advantage until eventually her memories, and then her entire person, are taken over by the alien entity. 

Both women are eventually saved by their friends and go back to their humdrum lives as regular humans and super geniuses. 

But the real threat to their technological lives isn't an alien computer, it's the siren call of a level of control they can only find behind the comforting glow of a computer screen.

The ghost in the machine

Both Chloe and Oracle operate in a world separate from reality and find themselves giving in to darker impulses. Both women spend their entire lives behind screens, monitoring the world from afar. They see but don't experience. They have knowledge, endless amounts of it, and you know what they say about knowledge: it's power. And power corrupts.

That's not to say that either woman becomes evil, but they certainly walk a very blurry moral line. Both Oracle and Chloe see themselves as guardians of the heroes with whom they work, and both find themselves getting a little too involved in the lives of those heroes, slowly becoming master manipulators, much to the chagrin of those they manipulate.

Throughout the more than 10-year run of the Birds of Prey series, Oracle recruits dozens of female heroes to their ranks, starting with the Black Canary and eventually adding Huntress, Lady Blackhawk and others. While each member of the Birds finds something they need in the team, eventually, Huntress notices a pattern. Each of them is recruited with a mission tailor-made to their particular history and pathology, specially designed to get each of them to a place where they feel comfortable joining the team. Oracle admits that she manipulated each of them, though she maintains that she did so only out of a desire to help. Of course, good-intentioned or not, her actions cause a rift between her and the members of her team, even threatening her friendship with Black Canary.

Chloe faces a similar moral dilemma as she starts to let her own omniscience go to her head in Smallville's ninth season. This starts with the meticulously planned and potentially deadly intervention of the Green Arrow. But while Oliver is grateful for her meddling, Clark is less than enthusiastic when that same meddling interferes with his relationship with Lois. Chloe has turned into a blonde big brother, monitoring communications, eavesdropping and taking matters into her own hands without the knowledge of those whose lives she's inferring with.

Suicide and the squad

Both women find their troubles coming to a head when their respective alter egos threaten the lives and well-beings of themselves and the people they love. And both of them come to the same conclusion: the only way to survive is to burn it all down.

For Chloe that comes in two forms. The first, when her own system turns against her, trapping her and Tess Mercer in the Watchtower, leaving her with only one choice: destroy the system and escape or keep it intact but die in the process. She chooses the former, finally allowing herself to take a step out of the darkness and into the light.

The second comes not long after when, in an effort to rescue Oliver from a shadowy group who targeted him to get to her, she trades herself for him and fakes her death in order to stop them coming.

Oracle, meanwhile, finds herself in a similar predicament when her arch-nemesis The Calculator seeks his revenge. As Calculator abducts her allies in an attempt to discover her identity, Barbara allows him to shoot down her helicopter and believe he has finally dispatched the famed hacker. 

Neither woman, of course, allows their "death" to stop their heroics. Chloe takes up a very familiar cause to fans of Oracle, taking a page out of the comics of the late '80s/early '90s and infiltrating the Suicide Squad. She uses her newfound position to steer the Squad in a brand new direction, saving heroes from a world that sees them as more of a threat than a saving grace.

As Oracle says, "Big Sister is watching everyone."

While I'm the first to admit that any homage to Oracle should take into account her role in representing a demographic of superheroes that largely goes untapped -- that of the wheelchair-bound and differently-abled -- as a fan of the comic book genius, I cannot help but appreciate what Smallville did with the character of Chloe. By allowing that character to grow and change and develop a not-so-black-and-white persona, they created a female hero not often seen on television and drove home the importance of a superhero who doesn't just fight crime with their fists.