The New, Original Wonder Woman (Made-for-TV 1975)
The basic plot: At the height of WWII, US military pilot Major Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) crash lands on the uncharted Paradise Island, where he is nursed back health by the super-strong Greek Amazons, including their Amazon Queen (Cloris Leachman) and her daughter Princess Diana (Lynda Carter). Learning of the worldwide threat that is the Nazi party, Diana assumes the mantle of “Wonder Woman” – with her bullet-proof bracelets, magic lasso of truth, and nifty Invisible Plane - to return Major Trevor to America and help the allies win the war.
Det. Abilene’s rating: 4 (out of 5)
Analysis: Created by William Moulton Marston in 1941, D.C. comic’s character Wonder Woman is unarguably the most famous and recognizable female superhero of all time, and considered one of the “big three” heroes in the D.C. universe (along with Superman and Batman). Given the character’s enduring popularity, she had a remarkably difficult time making the transition to live action television. The first attempt was a 15-minute demonstration reel in 1967 by “Batman’s” (1966-68) William Dozier called “Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince?” that was produced as a situation comedy and bore little relationship to the comic book (it fortunately never aired on television, although the 15-minute presentation is widely available on the internet). In 1974, a full-length “Wonder Woman” pilot finally aired on ABC television, but it bizarrely followed the unpopular late-sixties incarnation of the comic, in which Wonder Woman lost her superpowers and became an Emma Peel/Honey West-like secret agent – this film, staring a miscast Cathy Lee Crosby in the title role, was a success in the ratings but received horrible notices from critics and viewers alike (thus nixing any chance of potential Crosby-led series to be spun off).
Still believing that there was an audience for a “Wonder Woman” TV series, ABC executives opted to try yet again the very next year with third attempt at a pilot film in 1975. Executive producer Douglas S. Crammer (who later became executive producer of the massively popular primetime soap opera “Dynasty”) and writer Stanley Ralph Ross (who wrote numerous episodes of “Batman,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and “All in the Family”) wisely realized that most television audiences were craving to see the “Golden Age” Wonder Woman of the 1940s on the small screen instead of some largely forgotten then-recent incarnation. Crammer and Ross decided to draw their telefilm from the original Wonder Woman origin story that debuted in All Star Comics #8, first published all the way back in December 1941. The new telefilm would be set during WWII in 1940s, with Wonder Woman and her alter ego Yeoman Diana Prince fighting the Nazi threat in the name of the red, white, and blue.
In order to announce their faithfulness to the Golden Age comic book and to distance themselves from the 1974 telefilm, Crammer and Ross christened their film with the odd title The New, Original Wonder Woman (although it was retitled simply Wonder Woman in syndication packages and on the Warner Bros. DVD) and it aired in November of 1975 to positive critical reception and strong viewer ratings. The telefilm opens delightfully with Phill Norman’s Emmy-nominated animated opening credits (which were slightly altered in the subsequent series and on the telefilm’s DVD release) and the charmingly silly title song by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, and the introductory scenes in Germany and Washington D.C. truly have the look of the comic book-funneled world of the 1940s. The ABC production crew did a remarkable job (considering the meager budget) in dressing their existing sets to match both the WWII time period, awash with the right amount of nostalgia and the bright, three-panel color of the ‘40s comic books. Veteran episodic director Leonard Horn (who sadly passed away at age 48 in May 1975, three months before the telefilm actually aired) drapes the first scene with stylized shadows that creates an intriguing look and makes the feature appear more expensive than it was in reality.
Sadly, the tackiness starts to show through once Trevor gets up in the air and we have some of the most beat-up, dog-eared, most poorly incorporated stock footage of WWII fighter aircrafts that are supposed to contain Steve and a Nazi enemy. The Paradise Island sequences are more hit or miss, as the location filming (perhaps Hawaii?) definitely enhances the film, yet the Queen’s place and throne room looks like the set of community theatre production. The contest sequence is well done considering the budgetary limitations, however, with an impressive amount of extras playing amazons (many of whom probably tested to play Diana in reality) and reasonably moving scene when a disguised Diana is revealed to be the victor – even if Cloris Leachman is a bit too predictably hammy as the Queen. The shoddy “Invisible Plane” effect is something that always gets an easy laugh from audiences, but I was impressed that more effort was put into this telefilm by actually placing Lynda Carter and Lyle Waggoner into the shot via rear projection, as opposed to simply using obvious miniature dolls as they would in the later series.
When the action returns to Washington D.C., the production values increase in quality again, and there are many wonderful little moments in Diana’s “Pollyanna”-like discovery of this new world. She quickly has to learn the value that the civilized world places on money and gets to show off her strength and agility while foiling a bank robbery, which is still a wonderful “Greatest Hits”-like sequence for showcasing several of Diana’s superpowers all at once. My favorite moment, however, is the hilarious comedic scene in which Diana uses her “feminum” bracelets to deflect the rapid-fire bullets from a machine gun (!), which utilizes some still-effective stop-motion animation. It is during this portion of the telefilm that we are also first introduced to the soon-to-be-iconic “transformation spin” in which Diana would spin from her Diana Prince disguise into her Wonder Woman costume – although the spin in this telefilm (and the next two “specials”) is different from the more-famous “lightening flash/thunder bolt” spin that would be featured in the later series and here is achieved by a simple dissolve.
Unfortunately, the last half of the telefilm also reveals it’s biggest weakness: lame cartoon villains and that the powers of our heroine are inconsistently depicted. The characters played by always-lovely Stella Steven (one of my favorite actresses) and the likable personality Red Buttons are easily the two silliest villains imaginable, and easily could have been eliminated from the final screenplay. The delightfully snarling Kenneth Mars fares much better and is both genuinely menacing and wickedly funny as the Nazi Colonel – frankly, I think that the telefilm would fare much better if the teleplay had dropped the Stevens and Buttons characters and promoted Mars to central baddie. This problem with the villains also stems over to the issue of Diana’s powers being inconsistently depicted, as Diana irritatingly seems to take a surprisingly harsh beating from the skinny, mortal Marcia (Stevens), while a much more imposing foe like Colonel Von Blasko (Mars) is too easily defeated with one single punch.
Yet such issues seem less and less important at any moment when the truly luminous Lynda Carter is onscreen. Truly one of the best marriages between a character and performer, Carter is so ideal as Wonder Woman that it still seems impossible to imagine anyone else playing the role (and the failure of subsequent films and TV series to get off the ground seems to support this). No matter how silly the film may become at times, Carter’s performance impresses with the perfect mix of sincerity, strength, and a femininity that is refreshing when compared to the overtly masculine female actions heroes that have emerged in the decades since. From absolutely stunning moment when she seamlessly steps out of the comic book panel to her closing appearance in the guise of Yeoman Prince, Carter’s effortless charm keeps the film on track.
Also deserving of credit is Lyle Waggoner’s charismatic performance as Steve Trevor, and his instantly appealing chemistry with Carter. A veteran of “The Carol Burnett Show” and a hunky male sex symbol as the centerfold in the first issue of “Playgirl” magazine, the strapping, masculine Waggoner standing at over 6’3” in height was the perfect physical match for the statuesque, nearly 5’10” Carter – an important factor in preventing Steve from being completely overshadowed and pushed off the screen by his powerful Amazonian costar. Waggoner also displays a charming self-deprecating wit at Steve is continually being kidnapped and rescued by Diana, which makes a potentially dull character into an effective foil for our heroine. There’s definitely a twinkle in Waggoner’s eye and spark to his scenes with Carter, which sells the sweet romance between Diana and Steve and makes it one of the most appealing aspects of this telefilm (as well as many of the best, earlier episodes of the eventual series).
When this third attempt to launch a “Wonder Woman” series was successful, ABC ordered two more “Wonder Woman” specials that were aired in spring of 1976. After these specials proved successful, ABC granted the heroine her own series and aired 11 episodes over the 1976-1977 television season. In spite of the ratings success of these episodes, ABC declined to renew “Wonder Woman” for a second season (the price tag of producing a weekly show with a period setting was cited as the reason behind this), but CBS quickly picked up the series and added it to their lineup. CBS decided to update the action from the ‘40s to then-modern times (i.e. 1977) and rechristened the series “The New Adventures of Wonder Woman” (with the first episode being another telefilm titled The Return of Wonder Woman) and it successfully ran for another two years and another 46 more episodes.
Bottom Line: After two disastrous previous attempts, the third time proved to be the charm for Wonder Woman on TV. Although the production values are sometimes shoddy and the villains are mostly lame, the charm and chemistry of Lynda Carter and Lyle Waggoner carry the telefilm over such obstacles and keep it all enjoyable.