The Wonder Woman series had a few false starts before the 1975 TV movie, which spawned the well-remembered Lynda Carter series. Even when it finally got off the ground, the show — full title, The New Adventures of Wonder Woman — only lasted one season before it was retooled and moved to another network (CBS).
In recent years, other attempts at bringing the DC Comics property to the small screen have failed, including one led by Joss Whedon. You could hardly escape last year’s debate about Adrianne Palicki’s pants. Why is bringing the Amazonian princess to life such a challenge? And what did the 1970s series get right that others missed?
The pilot takes us right into the era of the comic book (early 1940s) with a newsreel about the ongoing war. The bright, brash opening sequence that follows features pointillist comic book panels and a theme song promising patriotism and ass-kicking.
But the tone quickly moves from color and excitement to something more grave. Inside a Nazi headquarters, a general gives orders to bomb a factory in a Brooklyn shipyard, a blow that will set the Allied war effort back by a year. Stateside, Major Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner), his superior officer (John Randolph), and his coquettish blonde assistant, Marcia (Stella Stevens), learn of this plan and plot to quietly thwart it. Their main concern is American morale; they fear what an attack on American soil would do to the national psyche.
Think for a moment about this time period. It’s the mid-1970s. The American pride that accompanied victory in WWII and the ensuing prosperity had been displaced by cynicism about Vietnam and Watergate. In stark contrast to Smallville (the most enduring show in recent memory based on DC characters), made for a teen adult audience, this show was clearly targeting adults, i.e. the predominantly male audience who grew up reading the comics. There was probably a need for some good old American patriotism and clearly delineated good- and bad-guys. The Nazis are summed up as simply “evil men.”
Trevor flies to the Bermuda Triangle to intercept the German pilots bound for the shipyard. He is shot down in what may be the worst use of special effects ever. Here we finally meet Princess Diana, frolicking on a beach with one of her Amazonian sisters. It’s awful. Where did women on a remote island get little nighties that look like they came out of the Sears catalog? Paradise Island is a weird mash-up of ancient Greek culture and technology, true to the comic, but nonsensical anywhere else. To get through the island scenes you really have to suspend your disbelief. Or just get distracted by boobs and then you won’t think too hard. They find Trevor unconscious on the beach and bring him back to the palace.
Cloris Leachman plays a striking queen, Diana’s mother. She decrees an Olympics-style tournament among the women to decide who will return Trevor to the U.S. Diana’s mother forbids her to participate, so Diana wears a disguise and wins. The tournament gives the creators a chance to showcase the Amazonians’ abilities and Diana’s determination. Her mother rewards her with a special suit, conveniently in American red white and blue, along with the golden lasso, and sends her off in the invisible jet to see Trevor home. There are faint glimmers of romance between Wonder Woman and Trevor.
Back in the U.S., Diana attempts to blend in to society but, naturally, stands out in a crowd. Because she comes from a sheltered background, it never occurs to her that anyone might underestimate her based on her gender; this outsider perspective allows for some cursory exploration of feminist ideas. “Any civilization that does not recognize the female,” she tells us, “is doomed to destruction.”
As the plot proceeds with the battle of Allies vs. Axis, it boils down to a battle of woman vs. woman. Marcia is actually a Nazi spy and so Wonder Woman is forced to kick her butt — hand-to-hand and with the destruction of much office furniture — then compel her to confess her secrets by using the golden lasso. Thus the day is saved and the American public goes on unaware of the Nazi plot. The overarching war story plot moves at a pace that must be what the world looks like to The Flash. What holds the whole TV movie together is the charisma of Lynda Carter. She embodies the boldness of Wonder Woman while remaining beautiful and charming. She commands attention every moment she is on screen. She wound up reaching a whole other audience, a generation of girls growing up in the 70s (like me) who wanted to be her, making stuff like this sell like hotcakes:
Super70s.com has some more dirt on the background of this show.