Tuesday, April 16, 2013

“The New Original Wonder Woman” (TV-Movie/Series Pilot)

Airdate: 11/7/75

In the series pilot broadcast by ABC in November, 1975, we are first introduced to Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner), a United States army major working for the War department during World War II. The Nazis are planning a full-out assault on a naval yard factory in Brooklyn, where the Americans are working on some powerful anti-aircraft weaponry. Trevor attempts to thwart the assault but gets shot down over Paradise Island, an isolated land of beautiful, age-defying Amazon women. The island princess, Diana (Lynda Carter), helps
nurse Trevor back to health, and it’s love at first sight, but when she asks her mother, the Amazon queen (Cloris Leachman), for permission to escort her new hunk of burning love back to his home, her request is refused. The queen believes men are warlike and destructive, and wants her daughter to have no part of their bellicose ways. However, she proposes a tournament of strength to select which Amazon should be the one to escort Steve back to the U.S.  Surprise! – The winner is Diana herself, who had competed in disguise, clinching a neck-in-neck tiebreaker of bracelet bullet-deflection.

Outfitted with a new spangled uniform and a few handy gadgets like a truth
lasso and keys to an invisible plane, "Wonder Woman," as she's now called, returns to Washington D.C. with Steve, and drops him off at a VA hospital. But as a stranger in a strange land, she discovers being a hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – even halting would-be bank robbers requires filling out forms! To make money, she gets talked into performing a stage show by a smooth-talking theatrical agent (Red Buttons), but something seems afoot when a “volunteer” from the audience tries testing her magic bracelets with a machine gun.

The Nazis make another attempt to destroy the U.S. base, with a high-raking S.S. officer on the job this time. His spies turn out to be the theatrical agent, as well as Steve’s secretary, Marcia (Stella Stevens), who had arranged for the volunteer to try and kill Wonder Woman at the theater.  When Marcia kidnaps Steve, it’s Wonder Woman to the rescue, and, after a lengthy, wild catfight, she leaves the shady secretary in the dust. After defeating the SS officer with her invisible plane, Wonder Woman returns to Steve’s side as her bespectacled alter-ego, Diana Prince, working as his new secretary. Of course, he doesn’t know who she really is, owing to the classic superhero rule that only glasses can make an alias completely unrecognizable!

Who needs a vest when bulletproof bracelets are so much more stylish?
Though a ratings dud, the 1974 Cathy Lee Crosby Wonder Woman movie had merit enough to convince a few producers that it had potential. A year later, their hunches paid off when the Carter-Woman pulled in enough viewers that ABC ordered two more one-hour specials airing in April, 1976 (these became known as episodes #1 and #2). Again, ratings gold, so ABC ordered 11 more for the 1976-77 season. All of these episodes are collectively considered he first season of the series.

Batman scribe Stanley Ralph Ross was enlisted to write this pilot, and he loyally kept the comic book setting of WWII intact. He was also advised to play it slightly comedic (in keeping with his Batman roots), and so we do get some tongue-in-cheek touches here and there, most notably in the casting of Laugh-In’s Henry Gibson as an Igor-like Nazi lackey (remember this was when Nazis were still being used for comedy) and Cloris Leachman (yes you heard right) as the Amazon queen. Thrown in for good measure is Candid Candid’s Fannie Flagg as another Amazon, although she plays it pretty straight. (Not sure if buxom Flagg quite fits in as one of the lithe Amazons, but oh-well.)  Add to the mix the casting of Red Buttons an Stella Stevens, both co-stars of The Poseidon Adventure, as the heavies and you have a glorious mix of camp and comic. I’ve always maintained that tone counts for everything, and we get enough wink-wink here that we overlook some of the hilariously bad action sequences, including the Nazi-ally dogfight that uses B&W stick footage mixed with painfully obvious blue screen shots.

And then there’s Lynda Carter, who plays the balance of wide-eyed innocence and strength just perfectly. I was reminded of the classic "innocent female in the big city" formula (Splash, Enchanted, Mannequin), but this predates those offerings by several years. Her mantra is that no society that treats its females as second-class citizens will ever survive, and this can be seen as a feminist clarion fitting in just right with the age of Ms. and Gloria Steinem. But it’s never preachy – the message is clear and true, and even if it’s not subtle it sure isn’t sanctimonious.

Well, enough of my yammering; on we go to show #1…

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