The lessons Gotham can learn from Smallville

As Gotham premieres in the UK, Phoebe-Jane considers what the show can learn from long-running superhero prequel, Smallville...

Please note: this article refers only to Gotham‘s UK broadcast. Our US episode reviews are here.

“Somebody save me/I’ve been waiting for you”

If excitement about tonight’s UK premiere of Fox’s Batman prequel series Gotham has got you caterwauling the lyrics to the Smallville theme tune on rooftops in anticipation, early whispers from fellow Bat-fans over in the US who’ve had a look at the first episodes are saying there is much for us to look forward to as we wait for it to descend on Channel 5 here.

So far, we know that the timescale Gotham sticks with sees Batman as barely a notion to the boy-Bruce Wayne, and instead takes Detective James Gordon as its central character. Gordon here is a little different to the ‘Jim’ we’ve come to know, as we’ll be meeting him young and un-moustached, right at the start of his career in the Gotham P.D. Working with him in the series is the cynical and not-as-into-the-‘law and order’-part-of-being-a-cop Detective Harvey Bullock, and against him, new takes on a selection of Batman’s classic gallery of rogues.

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Gotham is going out to an audience already fully primed for watching superheroes and their human friends/foes on mainstream TV over suppertime, having made its US debut alongside the return of the Marvel universe’s Agents Of SHIELD. The entertainment market at the multiplex and at home is saturated with comic book adaptations, and super-powered characters aren’t so surprising in a TV schedule filled with EastEnders or The X-Factor any more, but that doesn’t mean a path to success is instantly assured for new costumed crusaders hitting the small screen. Audience reaction to the first season of SHIELD was mixed, after all, so Gotham could take some heart – and tips – from the solid nine-year run of the aforementioned and swellingly theme-tuned Superman prequel series Smallville.

Getting the right cast to flesh out iconic characters already very well-known to the audience will be vital for Gotham, and was one of Smallville’s key strengths. Expanding upon the standard five-minute movie montage of a young Clark growing to understand his powers could have been a tough sell, but Tom Welling brought a quiet thoughtfulness to the character, making Clark’s selflessness and integrity believable instead of eye-rollingly cheesy each week.So far on the screen we’ve seen Jim Gordon (whether Lieutenant or Commissioner) as world-weary but noble, a good cop to be relied upon – Ben McKenzie’s version in Gotham is likely to add a gruffness to the character we haven’t seen before. McKenzie comes from playing a cop in Southland and looks to be bringing a mix of that surly chap he played in The O.C. plus a dash of young Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential to this role, a prospect which is intriguing as hell. Add in Donal Logue as Bullock, and you have your ‘good cop and bad cop’ pairing, but who they’ll be fighting against is even more intriguing…

Cast the wrong actor for The Joker, and you have a lot of very angry super-fans – the initial outrage over the announcement of Heath Ledger (who turned out to be the hero we needed, indeed) as our beloved Mr. J is a case in point. Smallville solved this potential problem with canny choices of actors who already had a cult following among the geek contingent of the audience.  There was Spike from Buffy as Brainiac, Battlestar Galactica’s Colonel Saul Tigh as General Slade Wilson… and, uh, Simba from The Lion King as a dude who could replicate himself, if you remember that guy. For its proto-versions of Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler, and Poison Ivy, Gotham has cast fresh faces to bring new twists to the city’s mischief-makers, but who knows how many familiar faces from the Batman filmic canon may show up along the course of the series. Smallville gave us Annette O’Toole as Martha Kent, Christopher Reeve as Dr. Virgil Swann, and Margot Kidder as Bridgette Crosby, so perhaps Billy Dee Williams or Cristi ‘Ice Princess’ Conaway could show up in Gotham’s streets down the line.

Familiar elements from the films and original comics creeping their way into Gotham is another really exciting prospect about the series. Picking up on costume cues to figure out who’s likely to turn into a super-villain, remembering particular cop’s names and linking them to their originals in the graphic novels, as well as scrutinising scenes for Easter eggs hidden in the background, will be extra bits of fun for viewers while taking in the new universe the series will be creating. Hearing strains of the 1978 Superman film theme as Clark got closer and closer to discovering the full extent of his powers and responsibilities in Smallville were nice nods to fans of the Christopher Reeve era, and added a bit of extra meta-awareness to proceedings as well as teases for future plot points – that maybe Clark would be getting his blue and red suit soon, maybe he’d learn to fly. Both Superman and Batman have such rich screen histories to take from, and the shared touchstones and memories of viewers are also there to enrich Gotham.

Not that everything should stay the same. Fresh takes on characters, while keeping them recognisable, are a great way to move a story beyond its previous tellings. Making The Joker the killer of the Waynes in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was a controversial choice for many, but it offered some cool new Freudian readings to the Joker/Batman relationship. Smallville’s Jor-El, in comparison to his comic version, is… not the most supportive bio-dad you could hope for as an alien adopted by earth, if we’re honest. Gotham looks to be taking new directions for certain characters also, making Sarah Essen, a Frank Miller creation for Batman: Year One, the Police Commissioner in this universe and Gordon’s boss. Comic-Essen, who bore a weird resemblance to Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale from the first Burton Bat-film, worked alongside Gordon in the police force and eventually became his second wife. But luckily, Gordon cheating on first wife Barbara with Essen doesn’t seem to be on the cards this time in Gotham. Phew. Rest easy, Barbs.

Among the completely new characters who’ll be slinking around Gotham’s shadowy streets is Jada Pinkett Smith’s Fish Mooney, who sounds like she’ll shape up to be as dangerous as her boss Carmine Falcone, and as good an addition as Lex’s right-hand woman Tess Mercer was to Smallville. If Gotham’s Catwoman will be as an ambiguous and alliance-free a presence as she seems to be, Mooney could be the one to really get her claws into Gordon, and become a major player in the Batman villain roster.

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Ultimately, what will make Gotham a really exciting addition to TV screens this autumn is an embracement of the strange and outlandish elements of its source material – something Smallville didn’t always get right. Back in dark days of 2001, vampire slaying was long-gone from mainstream terrestrial TV, if you remember. The aliens of Roswell were forever on the verge of cancellation, and young TV viewers were watching the decidedly human Dawson’s Creek in their droves instead. Young Clark and co.’s sighing teen angst and overwrought romantic entanglements in series one seemed an imitation of what was acceptable on TV at the time, too hesitant to show a flying fella shooting lasers from his eyes and battling intergalactic beings in case it was too ‘silly’ for viewers now used to Joey Potter and Dawson Leery sitting around and talking about their homework, or their relationship. Smallville incorporated more and more comic canon as it went along, fully embracing the science-fiction elements of its source material, and hopefully Gotham won’t shy away from being as odd as the original Batman comics. The city of Gotham is very strange, after all; just take another look at its inhabitants…

Gotham premieres in the UK tonight, Monday the 13th of October, at 9pm on Channel 5

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