A year after ABC and Warner Bros failed attempt at a strangely powerless and updated Wonder Woman the studio decided to go back to the source material and give the world the hero everyone had been waiting for, and finally Wonder Woman is allowed to wear the costume from the comic book. The story takes place during World War II, the time period where Wonder Woman first appeared, and all her Amazonian powers are there and in full force, but of course the key ingredient to the success of this incarnation was in the casting, and the choice of novice actress Lynda Carter for the title role goes done as one of the best decisions as studio has ever made. I can’t think of another actress who has ushered more boys through puberty than Lynda Carter, but it wasn’t just how good she looked in that costume it was how effortless charming and sweet she was. She may have had the power to pick the back end of a car up, or toss Nazis around like tinker toys, but she never took herself too seriously, and certainly never lorded her strength and ability over anyone else. She truly was the first comic depiction that looked like she stepped right out of the comic book and as the opening narration by President Roosevelt states, “The only hope for freedom and democracy is…”
As mentioned the pilot, and ABC’s first season, takes place during World War II and so the show’s villains would of course be the Nazis. Right out of the gate we are introduced to Colonel Von Blasko (Kenneth Mars) a top Nazi officer who is orchestrating a plan to destroy a top secret American installation that is manufacturing a superior bomb targeting device. To carry out this dastardly mission is Captain Drangel (Eric Braeden), who sneers more than Snidely Whiplash, but lucky for America Von Blasko’s aide decamp Nikolas (Henry Gibson) is a spy working for Washington and he is able to send out information via messenger pigeon to warn of the upcoming attack. When authorities in Washington DC learn of this Major Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) is quickly dispatched by General Blankenship (John Randolph) to intercept Drangel, and after a brutal dogfight which results in both planes being destroyed, our hero is shot and wounded by Dragel as they both float down into the Bermuda Triangle.
Steve Trevor is shot, in what looks like the heart, but before Drangel can gloat too long his parachute drops him in the middle of a pool of hungry sharks. Miraculously Trevor is washed ashore without being eaten, you’d think a bleeding man would have attracted at least of few of those sharks eating Drangel, but as in most cases he is able to pull the “Hero Death Exemption Card” and he safely arrives on the beach of Paradise Island. How do we know this is a paradise?
It’s here we meet Princess Diana (Lynda Carter), who immediately becomes fascinated with this hunk of a man, and despite her mother Queen Hippolyta’s (Cloris Leachman) objections she does her best to spend time with the wounded airman. The Queen, afraid of this man’s corrupting influence on their idyllic paradise, orders the man be returned back to his own world, and because a chance to see the outside world is something most of the Amazons would desire they hold a contest to decide who gets the honor. The Queen refuses to let her daughter enter so Diana is forced to enter the contest in disguise, and the fact that this plan works is a bit of a stretch as I doubt a blonde wig and a domino mask would fool anyone as there appears to be only a couple dozen Amazons on this entire island, and being the residents of the island are immortal and thousands of years old you’d think the Princess’s face would be as recognizable as your own by this point. Regardless the contest ends in a tie and as ancient Amazonian tradition dictates the only way the deadlock can be broken is with “Bullets and Bracelets.” Wait…what the hell is that? All of the events of this contest had been mostly traditional Olympic events; javelin, discus throwing, hurdles, and archery but all of a sudden we learn a tie can only be broken by contestants shooting at each other with guns. According to the Queen, “Only women have the necessary speed and coordination to attempt Bullets and Bracelets without the loss of life.” So that’s all women and not just Amazons? If that’s truly the case how come this has event never appeared in any Miss America or Miss Universe Contest?
Even if they acquired these weapons from one of the countless ships or planes that have gone missing in the Bermuda Triangle (I’m going to assume the Amazons didn’t just happen to event identical modern weapons), why would they use something of man’s world which the Queen finds so distasteful? Sure this is all to set up Wonder Woman’s ability to deflect bullets but here it seems so anachronistic, regardless of the weirdness of the contest Diana of course wins and she is given the job to return Steve Trevor to America.
Before she leaves she is outfitted with a golden belt which we are told is, “A symbol of Amazon supremacy and so long as you wear it you will retain your cunning and strength away from Paradise Island.” It’s here that the show alludes to an Amazon possibly losing her powers and becoming human when away from Paradise Island, and later in the series she does seem quite mortal when not in costume. She is also giving the Lasso of Truth and a kick ass costume that the Queen explains the reason behind her design choices being, “The Colors were chosen to show your allegiance to freedom and democracy. The skirt can be discarded if it becomes too cumbersome.”
Note: The skirt is a nod to her original costume in the comics but once it came off the Networks never wanted to see her back in it.
After dropping Steve Trevor at a Washington DC hospital, much to the consternation of the duty nurse, Wonder Woman proceeds to wander around town where her skimpy attire attracts much attention, and we get a nice “fish out of water” moment when she learns that something called “money” is required to get things. This problem is kind of fixed when she is spotted beating up a bunch of bank robbers, deflecting their bullets with her bracelets, tossing a couple of them around with ease, and lifting the back of a car up to keep them from escaping, by Ashley Norman (Red Buttons) a crooked theatrical agent who will also turn out to be a Nazi spy.
We do get a bit of forced conflict when Steve Trevor’s secretary Marcia (Stella Stevens) is revealed to be a Nazi spy as well and when she learns that Steve Trevor didn’t die in the aerial battle with Captain Drangel she phones one of her Nazi operatives to tell him, “Steve Trevor is alive, apparently some woman is responsible, and she must be found and stopped.” So some random woman drops off a wounded American officer at a nearby hospital and suddenly that makes her a top enemy of the Third Reich? That’s got to be one of the reason they lost the war, lack of priorities. This does lead to one of my favorite moments in the entire run of the series; while performing for Ashley Norman at a local theatre she is to show off her amazing deflecting bullet trick, with audience members being allowed to come up and take shots at her, and an old lady approaches carrying an old carpet bag and asks if it’s okay if she uses her own gun, she then pulls out a Thompson machine gun.
Of course the little old lady had arrived with Marcia so we know her to be a Nazi agent as well, and it’s at this point you start to wonder if most of the population of Washington DC was going to turn out to be members of the Third Reich. Lucky for the Allied war effort Steve Trevor finally awakens from his Paradise Island induced coma, square jawed and ready to fight, and when he learns that Colonel Von Blasko himself has taken over the job to bomb the Brooklyn Naval Yard he leaps into action. Unfortunately he informs Marcia of his route and soon he finds himself captured by her Nazi confederates. They drug Trevor with truth serum to get the combination of the safe that contains the plans for the newfangled bomb sight, but when Marcia goes to retrieve it she runs into Wonder Woman. This results in a rather long and brutal fight that goes through office doors, down hallways and through more glass doors, and it really last much longer than one would assume a fight consisting of one Amazon and one average woman. And I don’t care if Marcia claims to know judo.
Are hero is able to thwart the Nazi plans by intercepting and capturing Colonel Von Blasko with her invisible plane, while sending his bomber crashing into the German U-Boat that had been sent to pick up the fifth columnists, and then she races back to the city to punch some more Nazi spies and rescue Steve. I key element in the first season is Steve Trevor becoming the defacto “Damsel in Distress” and my hat goes off to Lyle Wagner for taking the job where many a fragile male ego would have balked.
The pilot movie ends with Steve Trevor declaring to General Blankenship, after learning his secretary was the ringleader of the Nazi spies, that “At least I’ve learned one good thing; from now on I’m going to have an ordinary secretary.” Blankenship had anticipated this and he hired a woman who, “Scored well in all the office aptitude tests but she’s duller than a fat lap dog after dinner.” They have a good chuckle over that and Trevor states, “Good. I’ve had it up to here with pretty girls.” In the office we meet Wonder Woman in her new guise as Diana Prince, with glasses we assume she powered from Clark Kent.
Much of this show’s success is due to producer Douglas S. Cramer going out on a limb in casting the relative unknown Lynda Carter in the title role of a fairly expensive series (looking the part was obvious but could she carry a show?) and though the pilot did dance very close to camp at times it never crossed the line into self-parody as was the case in the 60s Batman show. Of course the reason the show worked as well as it did was because of how earnest and honest Lynda Carter’s portrayal of Wonder Woman was. No matter what insane thing was asked of her she pulled it all off with aplomb. In this pilot she played the “straight man” to some of the top comics ever assembled; her leading man had just come off the Carol Burnett Show, Red Buttons was a comic legend, Henry Gibson an ever popular Laugh-In regular, and Kenneth Mars who played the Hitler loving playwright in the Mel Brooks comedy The Producers.
The 70s television Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter is to me still a benchmark in translating comic books from page to screen, and even when it moved CBS and they shifted the series to the present day it never lost the core of what Wonder Woman stood for. Not to mention it had one kick ass theme song.