Right now, DC television is sweeping the market for superhero stories on the small screen. Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow are dominating headlines, and the CW’s recent acquisition of Supergirl has promised a spectacular four way crossover next year. Fox’s Gotham has been renewed once more after a successful second season, and Syfy is currently developing a Superman prequel series called Krypton.
All in all, it’s a pretty good time to be a fan of DC television. Various fan favourite characters who wouldn’t necessarily be featured in movies are seeing exposure in these television shows - the Atom, Hawkman and Hawkgirl, Firestorm, Vibe, and even Rip Hunter. It’s an exciting time indeed.
But things could have taken a very different turn.
At various points within the past ten years, the CW, HBO and NBC have been looking at developing television programs featuring a rather different set of heroes. Even though, ultimately, none of them came to pass, it’s interesting to think about what might have been…
A pilot for an Aquaman television show was developed for the WB (a precursor to the CW) in 2006, by Smallville creators Al Gough and Miles Millar. The pair had hit upon the idea during the production of a fifth season episode of Smallville, which had featured Aquaman, and lead to them realising that the character could carry a television show. (Interestingly, at one point they did consider a Lois Lane television show.) You can view a trailer for the pilot here.
Crucially, Aquaman would not have been a spin-off from Smallville, hence in part why Justin Hartley (known to viewers as Oliver Queen on Smallville) was to take the title role rather than Alan Ritchson, who had already taken the part of Arthur Curry in Smallville. Other cast members included Adrianne Palicki as a Siren, and Ving Rhames as an exiled Atlantean who helped Arthur Curry assume his destiny as Aquaman.
The pilot, which was released on iTunes in 2007, gave some hints as to what we could have expected from a long-running Aquaman TV show. It adapted Aquaman’s origins somewhat; though he remained prince of Atlantis, brought up on the land and unaware of his heritage, it was also revealed that Aquaman and his mother had been exiled from Atlantis. The series was to take place near the Bermuda triangle, which was the portal to Atlantis, and would have acted in a manner not dissimilar to the Hellmouth from Buffy. Aquaman’s powers were activated by the water; he was able to swim at superspeed, had superstrength, and could breathe underwater.
Though they were quick to stress that some stories could take place on land, the episodes which Gough and Millar had planned out would have involved predominantly environmental threats, such as corrupt oil companies and ocean polluters. It was also thought that the mythology of the character would play an increasingly important role as the series went on.
(And, yes, Aquaman was going to be able to talk to fish.)
There have in fact been two attempts at a Wonder Woman television show in recent years, the first of which was to air on NBC in 2011, helmed by David E Kelly, and starring Adrianne Palicki. On paper, it perhaps wasn’t the worst idea; David E Kelly had prior success with a program featuring a female lead in Ally McBeal, and Adrianne Palicki is a talented actress who, even then, had experience in genre programmes.
In practice, though, there was nothing about this pilot that bore any resemblance to Wonder Woman, bar the costume. Were you to search for it online, you’d find a program about Diana Themyscira, who is head of Themyscira industries, a company that makes Wonder Woman action figures to pay for Wonder Woman’s crime fighting activities. This culminates in a scene where Diana yells at her marketing team, “I never said for you to merchandise my tits”, before leading into a spiel about how she’s always expected to be perfect. It is, in fact, worse than it sounds.
In her personal life, though, she’s Diana Prince, and fairly early on in the episode we have a scene where she’s watching The Notebook, crying over Steve Trevor, while sat with her cat and talking about building up her facebook page because she needs to get out more. She also kills a man by throwing some lead piping at him with such force that it impales his throat. Yes, really. No significant reference is made to Themyscira or the Greek Gods, although Wonder Woman does refer to herself as an Amazon during the aforementioned marketing dispute, and there are hints she’s not strictly human, somehow.
Given this disaster, it’s perhaps a miracle that anyone was interested in making a Wonder Woman TV show in future at all. However, there was interest from the CW a few years later, following the release of Arrow’s first season, but before The Flash had been commissioned. A show called Amazon was in the early stages of development, and of Amy Manson Being Human fame was cast in the role of Wonder Woman; ultimately, however, the show was abandoned, as the CW felt they couldn’t get a handle on the character. In some ways, that’s a shame, because it would have been fantastic to see Wonder Woman on the small screen, crossing over with Arrow; on the flip side, though, this may well have meant we’d have lost out on The Flash, and that’d be a huge shame.
The most interesting of these three, to my mind, is the mooted Bruce Wayne television series. Long before Gotham - and before even Smallville - there was talk of a series that would follow a young Bruce Wayne, exploring the “how and why” of his origin story. It was, essentially, a Smallville for Batman - indeed, when this concept had to be abandoned because of the development of a Batman movie, it was retooled into Smallville.
Bruce Wayne would have featured an 18 year old Bruce Wayne, recently returned to Gotham, investigating the murder of his parents; it would slowly be revealed that their deaths were connected to a larger conspiracy linked to Wayne Enterprises, who wanted him dead. Though primarily based in Gotham, the series would also have seen Bruce travelling the world to train with various DC characters, including Slade Wilson and Ra’s Al Ghul himself. (You can find a more detailed outline about plans for the series here.)
Other prominent DC characters would have been included as well, of course; the usual roster of Alfred, Jim Gordon and Lucius Fox would all have made appearances. Harvey Dent was also to be included as a close friend of Bruce’s, in training to be a lawyer; he would have provided an interesting counterpoint to Bruce’s
The series was planned to have somewhere between 5 and 6 seasons, and would ultimately end with Bruce adopting the persona of the Batman. Though the series never developed to the point of casting, it was heavily rumoured that Shawn Ashmore (pictured at the top) was in negotiations for the role. Particularly interesting is the fact that, though it was likely that this program would have aired on the WB, there was in fact confirmed interest from HBO to pick up the series. Given the success of shows like Game of Thrones, it’s interesting to consider what a HBO Batman series might have looked like.
Ultimately, had these shows been picked up it’s likely we’d be looking at a very different televisual landscape today. Certainly, had an HBO Batman series gone to production, it’s unlikely we’d have Gotham today; it’s also possible that later superhero efforts would have been closer in tone and style to an HBO production. (Of course, it was more likely that Bruce Wayne would have gone to the WB, so perhaps the only real effect would have been losing out on Smallville.)
Equally, though, looking at that Wonder Woman pilot, it’s hard not to think that we dodged a bullet with that one. Further, it’s debateable as to whether or not the Aquaman show ever would have really picked up steam; given how functionally similar it would have been to Smallville, it may well have struggled to carve out its own distinct tone.
In the end, then, given the respective quality of shows like The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl, it’s difficult to genuinely argue that we missed out on much here; a lot of the interesting ideas of the Bruce Wayne show have been integrated into Gotham, the Wonder Woman show from NBC would have been awful, and as entertaining as an Aquaman show would be, I’m not convinced that the above was the right way to do it.
Still, though. It’s fascinating to think about what could have been!
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