For part one of our series click here.
So ABC’s first shot at launching a Wonder Woman TV series did not exactly hit it out of the park. But they still thought the property had potential (and I assume, didn’t want to waste their rights to the character), if only they returned her to her old/new comic-book roots. Gone would be Diana Prince, mod super-spy, instead we would get a flashback to even earlier days, featuring a buxom brunette fighting off the Axis with every blow, while preaching the power of sisterhood to the women of the Reich. To ensure no-one confused this latest incarnation of the character with the pale imitation offered up merely one year earlier, they would saddle this pilot with the not at all confusing or cumbersome title The New, Original Wonder Woman.
I believe I speak for a generation when I say that, to we children of the ’70s, Lynda Carter is the definitive Wonder Woman. Leggy, dark-haired and looking fabulous in those tights, she truly appeared to have leapt straight from the comics page onto our screens. Lynda had a realism, warmth, and charm that shined through, no matter the ridiculous circumstances in which she found herself and she made us believe she truly was a superheroine.
The New, Original Wonder Woman (1975)
1942 – We open with newsreel footage of the Axis powers and a solemn voiceover in the familiar dulcet tones of Paul Frees, “Mankind is being threatened by these despicable villains.”
Kaboom! And it is instantly apparent that this is not last year’s Wonder Woman as the screen erupts in four colors, with full screen cartoon panels, and the soundtrack erupts with the familiar funk bassline of one of the greatest TV theme songs ever penned. It could not be a more different approach to the material.
“Get us out from under, Wonder Woman!” indeed!
The cast too lets us know that while this may be a TV production, it is not another bottom of the budget barrel attempt; the familiar (to 70s TV watching audiences, at least) names Red Buttons, Stella Stevens, Fannie Flagg, Henry Gibson and Cloris Leachman all make appearances under the guest star banner.
One of my favorite devices that the series uses throughout (even in the more serious seasons) to keep their world grounded in the comics, is the use of traditionally inked dialogue boxes in an upper corner to set the scene. This starts from the first scene of the pilot when we open in a Nazi castle, with the German villains explaining that they are speaking English for secrecy’s sake in case they are overheard. I love it when shows feel the need to answer questions the audience isn’t asking.
The plan is to send an ace Nazi pilot in a special new long range bomber, the XV 13, to blow up an American factory producing a new kind of bomb sight, located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Meanwhile, another agent will steal the only set of plans for said sight from a location in Washington DC. Somehow, this will set the US war effort back by a full year and, naturally, cause a huge blow to wartime morale when the US citizenry see that the Germans have a plane capable of striking US soil. It’s better not to think too hard about any of this.
Disconcertingly, there is a much greater use of comic elements here than would be usual later in the run. For example, this will be the start of a running gag where bumbling servant Nikolas (Henry Gibson) continually steals secrets from the Nazi high command while remaining totally unsuspected, despite being the only person present every time Colonel Von Blasko (Kenneth Mars, reprising his accent from last year’s Young Frankenstein) speaks about his plans. And how ‘funny’ it is that the Nazi’s keep torturing and killing mechanics for the leaks instead. That sort of stuff isn’t much to my taste, so I’m glad they dropped it when the show went to series. It is never as willfully silly as Batman (1966), but it’s still a bit out of place.
Due to the arrival of a carrier pigeon from Nikolas, US Intelligence is alerted to the bomber plot and Major Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner, who would eventually regret giving up his gig as straight man on The Carol Burnette Show for this) volunteers for a secret mission to stop the bombing. There can be no publicity due to the morale issue. This is all discussed not only with General Blankenship (John Randolph), but with Steve’s winsome blonde secretary, Marcia (Stella Stevens), whom he appears to be dating. No points for guessing which of these is the Nazi mole.
My favorite part of the plan is when Steve announces that he will try to shoot the enemy ace down over the Bermuda Triangle, because then the Nazis may think he has gone down due to supernatural activity rather than enemy action. Because that’s likely. Hmm, the area is full of uncharted islands, could this be a plot point?
Steve and the Nazi pilot have a stock footage dogfight over the ocean that’s mostly interesting for the fact that it is intercut from both European and Pacific theater footage, so it’s a mix of b/w and color film stocks. Both planes explode and the pilots parachute out. On the way down, Steve is shot by the Nazi, who is promptly (and poetically) eaten by sharks.
Steve however, being the good guy, lands on an entire island of pulchritudinous young women in diaphanous nighties.
It’s a man! They’ve never seen one of those in the flesh before! They run him to the hospital where he can be properly cared for by Dr. Fannie Flagg. Princess Diana, who found him, offers to act as his nurse, much to the dismay of her mother Queen Hyppolyta (Cloris Leachman).
And this is where the ‘comedy’ really gets out of hand. Cloris Leachman actually has great comic chops, but not a one is on display here. She was reportedly paid $25,000 to show up and shoot her scenes in a single day, and it shows, as she appears to be in a totally different movie than everyone else. Her description of the founding of Paradise Island, as she tries to dissuade Diana from her fascination with ‘Man’s World’ is a hoot, “I named this island Paradise for a reason. There are no men on it. Thus it is free of their wars, their greed, their hostility, their barbaric (pause) masculine (pause) behavior.” *bites knuckles* She hams it up so badly here that I really just want to serve her up on a biscuit. Possibly with red-eye gravy.
Of course Hyppolyta’s real fear is that her only daughter will lose her immortality if she returns with Steve to ‘Man’s World’, so she organizes an Olympic-style competition to determine the strongest Amazon to accompany him home and forbids Diana to take part. One of the traditions of all Amazonian competitions is that the contestants compete anonymously, wearing masks. I wonder if that will be important somehow?
After the inevitable montage, two contestants are tied. So they play the traditional Amazon game ‘Bullets and Bracelets’, because only women are quick enough to use bracelets alone to deflect bullets fired at close range (um, nope, not that confident in my femininity). And no, I have no idea where they acquired pistols if they have been isolated on this island for 1000 years. Parallel development of technology? After several exchanges one of the girls is wounded and the winner is revealed. Why, it’s Diana, she was competing in disguise the whole time (cue shocked face)!
And we finally get our first glimpse of the famous costume, designed by the queen herself, the colors chosen to represent freedom and democracy (um, OK). A nice touch here is that the costume has a short skirt in homage to the skirted version of Wonder Woman’s costume that was used in the first issue of the comic but, as Hyppolyta points out, it “can be discarded if cumbersome” and is never seen again after this scene. The fabric is conveniently indestructible. She is also gifted with the magic belt that will allow her to retain her cunning and strength away from the island (which would be stolen about once an episode during the show’s first season) and, of course, the Lasso of Truth.
“Remember that in a world of ordinary mortals, you are a Wonder Woman.” Ooh, she said the title!
Our setup and origin conveniently out of the way, Diana flies Steve back to an Army hospital in DC with her invisible plane. It’s time to start her own adventures.
It turns out that if you walk down the streets of Washington, DC in 1942 dressed in a star-spangled bathing suit, you draw a smidgen of attention (as opposed to being totally ignored and avoided as just another crackpot protestor in 2015). Appropriate clothing costs money however, so isn’t it convenient that impresario Ashley Norman (Red Buttons) happens to have seen her doing her ‘bullets and bracelets’ bit while foiling a bank robbery. They can make a fortune! (minus his 50% cut)
If only Marcia (remember her?) hadn’t heard about the theater gig. Audience members are given the opportunity to come forward and try to shoot Wonder Woman. I don’t really think they were expecting little old ladies with show up their own Thompson sub-machine guns, but hey, that’s show business and Diana doesn’t even break a sweat when the latest of Marcia’s unlikely accomplices tries to take her out.
Back in Germany, Colonel Von Blasko is preparing to take the XV 13 bomber to New York himself to destroy the bomb sight. Nikolas sends one last pigeon off to the Allies, flashing V-signs as he releases them to show whose side he’s really on.
The next day, Diana is running into trouble with Ashley as he wants to take the show on tour for the next year. Regardless of the money to be made, that wasn’t part of her plans, but seeing a newspaper report showing that Steve has recovered well enough to speak means that she wants to resign on the spot. We go through a tedious little comic routine as Ashley tries to walk with her half of the money, then pulls a gun on her when she claims her share. Nevertheless, her honesty compels her to leave him his 50%.
And I roll my eyes as it is revealed that he too is a Nazi spy, who tips off Marcia that Wonder Woman is on her way to see Major Trevor.
At the hospital, Steve has (finally) figured out that the new bomb sight is the real objective of the Nazi plot. He asks to have his new plane warmed up despite orders to stay in the hospital as he believes that no one else can keep the bomber from reaching New York. Needless to say, he tries to arrange this through Marcia (sigh) and tells her the exact shortcut he will be using (double sigh) so she can arrange an ambush by Ashley. On my most recent viewing, I did have one real moment of happy surprise here when I realized that Steve’s cab driver is Anne Ramsey of Throw Momma from the Train (1987) in a very early appearance.
Disguised as an Army nurse, Diana discovers that Steve is gone from the hospital and realizes he must be in danger. (How? Who cares?) This leads to the first use of the famous Wonder Woman Spin to change from street clothing into her costume. Later episodes would cover the actual change with a flash effect to avoid the need for a camera lock-off and make filming quicker, but this first time we actually see the spin and the slow changeover from one outfit to another, leaving her with clothes in her hands, and a need to stash them somewhere.
Major Trevor at is being held in Marcia’s apartment, where she uses truth serum to get the combination to the safe in his office, which holds the only copy of the bomb sight plans. Her accomplices are to kill him if she’s not back by midnight. Otherwise she plans to take him back to Germany by U-Boat as an intelligence asset. This subplot will serve no purpose except to give Diana a deadline to work against if she wants to both save Steve and stop the XV 13.
Needless to say, Wonder Woman catches her breaking into the safe. But Marcia was the Nürnberg judo champ! Whatever, none of the upcoming cat fight will use Judo in any way shape or form. Wonder Woman is far more of a straight brawler, with a mighty right hook. It is still orders of magnitude better than the terribly one-sided bo staff fight in Wonder Woman (1974) (in point of fact, it would be studied by a future director when planning the frequent Alexis and Krystle catfights on Dynasty, really). There is much destruction of balsa wood furniture by the time all is done and Marcia is safely restrained with the Lasso of Truth. She spitefully tells Diana that she cannot both save Steve and stop the bombing as there is only one hour remaining before both Major Trevor’s death and the Navy Yard bombing are scheduled.
Ooh, a speech to Marcia on how the Nazi’s don’t care about women and will let her fend for herself now she’s been caught. Will the appeal to sisterhood work? Not in this case, but these speeches would become a mainstay of the show during its first season. Any time you see a Nazi villainess she will be smarter and often stronger than any of her male counterparts, who will nevertheless treat her, and all her ideas, with utter contempt. By the end of the episode Diana will have offered a rousing speech about sisterhood being more powerful than any political ideology (*cough* feminism *cough*) and the villainess will have turned against Naziism, either actively working to bring down the organization she so recently belonged to, or at least having a change of heart before heading to prison, with the implication that she will be wholly reformed and penitent at the time of her release.
Ah well, this one-time failure means little as Wonder Woman has the ability to disguise her voice perfectly and, pretending to be Marcia, pushes the U-Boat rendezvous (and Steve’s impending execution) back by an hour. She takes off to stop Colonel Von Blasko laughing all the time about how men are stupid and women devious. Because that’s funny stuff right there.
With the power of dodgy FX, Diana uses her invisible plane to stop the Nazis. She lands on top of the XV 13 and knocks out Colonel Von Blasko with a single punch before he even gets the opportunity to monologue, then sends his plane to crash into stock footage of a U-Boat explosion before turning the colonel over to a pair of paperwork obsessed policemen. They need her to fill out a report.
However, there’s no time as she must hurry to Marcia’s apartment to beat up Nazis and save Steve. There’s a lovely bit here where Red Buttons tries to shoot her down. He knows better than anyone that it isn’t going to work, but is obligated to try, and the look of eye-rolling resignation on his face as he keeps unsuccessfully pulling the trigger is actually very funny, he underplays it perfectly until the inevitable moment Wonder Woman knocks him cold.
Cut to a new day in the US Intelligence office, where Major Trevor decides that he needs a plain secretary from now on, after Marcia duped him so thoroughly. Fortunately, General Blankenship anticipated this and interviewed 15 candidates to find a WAVE of high aptitude but “duller than a fat lapdog after dinner.” This one won’t tempt Steve away from his duties with thoughts of romance.
The New, Original Wonder Woman would have much more success than its 1974 predecessor and, after a further two one-hour specials, would be picked up by ABC as, simply, Wonder Woman for their 1976 fall season. There were some tweaks as it went to series, General Blankenship would be recast as the far less comedic Richard Eastham and it would add Wonder Woman’s long-time sidekick and best friend Etta Candy, (Beatrice Colen) though they’d shave off about 100 pounds from the comics and reinvent her as a WAC. The biggest change is the loss of the intentionally campy edge that occasionally threatens to take over the pilot. Oh, the show never takes itself too seriously, but it never threatens to turn into Batman again either.
Sadly, the cost of producing a 1940’s period piece would prove to be too much for ABC (current home of Agent Carter, uh oh). Despite the show’s popularity, it would only last a single season in that format. Fall 1977 would see the series jump to CBS and be brought into the 1970s (as The New Adventures of Wonder Woman, this show had more names than Prince) when Diana goes to work for Steve’s identical son. Ironically, it would adopt elements of the 1974 film as Diana goes to work as a government secret agent in her civilian guise. The show would run another two seasons on its new network, and while those episodes would never be quite as well-loved as the ones set in World War II, Lynda Carter would forever be our favorite Amazon Princess.
Verdict: A little silly, but totally worth it to see Lynda Carter become the Wonder Woman.
Bonus feature: The fabulous theme song in its entirety-