Tuesday, August 16, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #139: The New Adventures of Wonder Woman: "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" (1979)



Although producer David E. Kelley's 2011 Wonder Woman pilot starring Adrianne Palicki didn't make it to regular series status, longtime fans of the Amazonian super-heroine can continue to make do with the classic 1970s series starring Lynda Carter, currently available on DVD. 

As you may recall, this cult-tv program ran for three seasons and 59 episodes on both CBS and ABC, and went first by the name The New, Original Wonder Woman and then The New Adventures of Wonder Woman.

In its first regular series iteration, Wonder Woman was set during the World War II era of the 1940s, as Wonder Woman (Carter) and air force pilot Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) battled the Axis Powers.  In its second, perhaps more hip iteration, the still-youthful Wonder Woman/Diana Prince returned to America during the disco decade and again allied with a man named Trevor, only this time with Steve's son: Steve Jr. (also played by Waggoner).  Like her comic-book counterpart, the TV version of Wonder Woman possessed an arsenal of fanciful weaponry, including a lasso that could make men tell the truth, and bullet-proof gold bracelets made of "feminum."  On some occasions, the TV series even utilized Wonder Woman's famous invisible plane.

In the 1970s-era stories of the final two seasons, Diana Prince worked for a top-secret government agency called IADC (Inter Agency Defense Command), and often undertook solo missions of great danger, ones involving alien invasions and other diabolical, earth-shattering threats.  She battled the Skrill and the evil Sardaur in "Mind Stealers from Outer Space" and also fought statue-makers, toy-makers and  assassins galore.  In the end, however, potential boyfriend and lover Steve Trevor became a desk bound boss like The Six Million Dollar Man's Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), far removed from the action.   Instead, Wonder Woman occasionally teamed in the field with resourceful teenagers, or even sassy kids ("The Man Who Could Not Die.")

I watched Wonder Woman regularly as a child, and one particular episode has stayed with me ever since.  It was the May 1979 two-parter entitled "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret", and it arrived very near the end of the series run. 

This episode, written by Anne Collins and directed by Leslie H. Martinson, absolutely terrified me as a nine year old kid, though today one can easily detect how it owes very much indeed to the Body Snatchers franchise initiated by novelist Jack Finney in 1954.

In "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret," Diana Prince heads off to Crystal Lake -- no, not that one -- to investigate a strange meteor shower.  A concerned and inscrutable scientist, Dr. Jaffe warns Diana that these meteors are no mere rocks, but alien objects that have intentionally  "landed" on Earth. 

Investigating, Diana learns that the scientist's bizarre assertion is correct. Ninety-nine pyramid-shaped devices have landed in the vicinity of Crystal Lake.  When a human being comes in contact with one of these silver pyramids, he or she exchanges souls with an alien life-form trapped within the strange container.  The human soul then becomes trapped in the tiny device, unable to escape, and the alien soul gains full possession of the body. 

This exchange procedure is apparently "painless," but it certainly doesn't appear painless.  In fact, this episode is dominated by weird, almost surreal imagery of distorted human faces trapped inside the pyramidal structure.  This is the disturbing visual I recall most from when I was a child: an almost unbearable combination of terror and madness in that caged human expression

In Crystal Lake, a local high-school boy named Skip (Clark Brandon) watches helplessly as his mother and father both become possessed by the Pyramid Pod People.   No one will believe his wild story that his parents "look like" his Mom and Dad, but aren't truly human.   And again, this subplot closely mirrors various incarnations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Even Diana herself nearly falls prey to the alien danger.  After she escapes from possession, she notes that something in the pyramid "was trying to trade places" with her, and that even she "couldn't stop it." 

Soon, Skip and Diana join forces to learn more about the nature of this threat.  It turns out that the ninety-nine alien pyramids and their masters have come to Earth to stop a more dangerous alien: a criminal responsible for the murder of 800 of them.  This alien is difficult to trace, unfortunately, because he is a shape shifter. Only by assembling all 99 separate pyramids into one huge pyramid can the Pyramid Pod People stop the shape shifter once and for all.

A bit overlong at two-parts, "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" certainly won't win any awards for subtlety or nuance.  Every time the evil shape-shifter appears on screen, he is accompanied on the soundtrack by what sounds like an exaggerated rattlesnake hiss.   And when the alien criminal finally takes on Wonder Woman, he turns into a rather lame, curly haired cave man (wearing fur, no less), who growls like a lion.  Their final battle takes place in a barn, and guess who wins?

And yet, even today, I can see why "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" stuck with me for all those years.

It's not just the creepy pyramid/entrapment imagery, although that's a big part.  It's that the episode successfully generates an atmosphere of intense paranoia and even scores a a few nice points about high school life at the same time. 

In particular, all of Skip's friends, and even his girlfriend, Mel, are possessed by the aliens.  Almost immediately, they exclude Skip from their new clique.  "He's not one of us," they declare, and well, that's the point.  Teen kids -- even without alien influence -- select their peers and friends, and exclude others.  It's a fact of life.  But it never feels good to be on the outside, or to be judged according to what feels like an "alien" or unknown system of merit. 

There's even a nod to the bugaboo of peer pressure in this two-part episode of Wonder Woman as unfortunate high school students are urged to "touch" the pyramids and welcome their new alien overlords.  Again, it's not subtle in any meaningful way, but the underlying idea resonates on some kind of gut level, I suppose.  We all fear being left out and being ostracized by others.  In its own way, "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" plays on the universality of that human fear. I do know this for certain: it worked on me as a kid, and I still felt some traces of that irrational fear when I watched "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" as an adult last week. 

This kind of thing happens a lot with 1970s TV movies and series, I would submit. Although these older productions lack what we would today term convincing special effects or even much by way of persuasive action, their weird, occasionally creepy 1970s vibe shines through.  The idea and imagery central to this episode -- human souls locked inside silver space pyramids -- is both unsettling and inventive enough to sustain at least the first hour of "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret."
  
Geared towards the young (and the young-at-heart), this two-part episode of Wonder Woman thrives not only on the sub textual aspects of its Invasion of the Body Snatchers premise, but on Carter's sincere central performance too. 

Obviously, Carter is an incredibly beautiful woman, but -- not unlike Lindsay Wagner on The Bionic Woman -- she manages to imbue Diana Prince with a brand of fetching openness, curiosity, and warmth.  

In other words, the actress creates an admirable, distinctive individual without relying any of the "character" trappings we today commonly associate (unfortunately) with superheroes.  She's not the victim of a tragedy.  Diana's not filled with hate and angst.  She's not on a mission of revenge, either.  Instead, Carter's Diana Prince is centered, balanced and not wholly unaware of the humor in the situations she encounters.   She has a twinkle in her eye.  These qualities somehow makes her easier to relate to and root for.

In "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret," there's clearly  a bit of wish-fulfillment going on too, as socially-awkward Skip teams up with Wonder Woman and learns the truth about her secret identity.  Every adolescent boy would love to draw the attention of a funny, smart, heroic woman like Diana, and find, quite amazingly, that she can really relate to him.  For instance, Skip pretends to be "a dummy" in school so as not to disappoint anyone.  He likens it to his own "secret identity," and Diana identifies with this facet of his character.  She too must keep her super-heroic abilities close to the vest as Diana Prince.

Many episodes of Wonder Woman suffer from a dearth of resources.  The use of stock footage is pervasive in the third season, for isntance.  And yet, certainly, the series' heart was in the right place.  What Wonder Woman seems to have definitively lacked was the presence of  a consistent, guiding intellect behind-the-scenes, a man such as Kenneth Johnson.  He toiled on competing programs such as The Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Woman and truly raised the bar for superhero series of the late 1970s early 1980s.  Lynda Carter still shines on Wonder Woman, but the stories she was sometimes forced to vet fell short of being authentically "wondrous."  "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" is likely one of the better 1970s-styled adventures, at least, and is filled with creepy imagery that still carries an impact.

13 comments:

  1. This episode is also subtly poking fun at "pyramid power", the '70s phenomenon that came up around the time King Tut's mummy got exhibited. (If Wonder Woman's budget were any lower, she would've been menaced by alien Pet Rocks!)

    Anyone know whatever happened to Clark Brandon? He seems to have dropped out of the spotlight by the mid-'80s, according to IMBD.

    Nice rundown of this third season episode, JKM! I must give it another look today!

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  2. If you are in the mood for a real hoot, check out the "Hamlin Rules" episode of Wonder Woman. It's got:

    -Martin Mull
    -The premise that all the kids are totally into a "rock" band fronted by a guy playing a flute
    -Multiple flute solos
    -Jan Brady having a flute induced freak out as she is hypnotized.

    There is also a great scene where WW (spoiler alert!) lassos Piper as he is "running away" in his apartment that is shot in such a way as to reveal that Mull would have tripped over his couch had she not caught him.

    Truly awesome '70's viewing.

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  3. Helz yeah! My Wonder Woman!

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  4. There was something about Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman that never worked for me. She's very pretty, but in a soccer mom sorta way. At the time, I couldn't help but compare her to the animated Wonder Woman on Super Friends. There, she was drawn with a leaner, more serious countenance and the woman who provided her voice had a low, authoritarian vocal style that sounded like she meant business. I just couldn't take Lynda Carter seriously.

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  5. Neal, I'd love to come play soccer in your town if the moms all look like Linda Carter.

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  6. Great comments here on Wonder Woman and this third season episode.

    R.A.M.'67: Great thought there on pyramid power, and the context of the 1970s. That's perfect, and it seems so true. I admit that the conceit here is super low budget, but on some level, it really works!

    BT: Oh my goodness, I must have suppressed all memory of that episode. Jan Brady AND Martin Mull? Wow. I will now have to watcth this episode immediately. Sounds absolutely berserk. And it reminds me of another Jan Brady tale: She's in a Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected episode that re-makes Cape Fear, with Lloyd Bridges in the Mitchum role. The actress who played Jan (Eve Plumb was it?) is the imperiled, rebellious teen...and it is hysterical!

    davidfullam: I'm with you, brother. I'm with you.

    Neal P: To each his own, of course, but in this case I have to side with BT. Lynda Carter is statuesque and smoking hot. Soccer mom isn't a descriptor I would tag her with, but I understand taste is subjective. That said, she truly gets my motor hummin' :)

    Great comments all, my friends.

    best wishes,
    John

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  7. Anonymous7:44 PM

    I always preferred the CBS Wonder Woman eps for their contemporary setting. Many eps did rely on stock footage (This Island Earth, Space:1999's Texas City,Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's Seaview), but a few mangaged some kinda cool original effects ("The Starships are Coming).

    Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman is sort of like Catherine Schell as Maya...despite some of the corny material they performed, I'll always love them.

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  8. Hi Anonymous,

    You know, I always enjoyed the seventies episodes too, despite their relative cheapness.

    I also hold both Catherine Schell and Lynda Carter in high regard. They both brought dignity and humor to their respective roles, I feel. They both have that marvelous twinkle in their eyes.

    Like you, I'll always love 'em too!

    Great comment,

    best,
    John

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  9. Hi John... Typing on wee little keypadnso please excuse any spelling errors.

    I haven't fully invested in my box sets but I did check them out. Threenseasons of this colorful foray into adventure and excitement is pretty amazing. Why can't they make shows like see wonderful things today? It's hard to understand.

    Anyway your point about her working with the kids is like an early version of e Sarah Jane adventures.

    Linda was terrific in the part. She made it special. Between her and Lindsay the seventies were stacked ...oops cough.

    I haven't seen this one but I understand those prepubescent nightmares. I remember them well a la Dragons Domain.

    Your points about the series shortcomings are certainly valid and well articulated as always my friend. Wonder Woman really looks terrific on dvd in all it's glorious vibrant color. They did a nice job bringing this comic book to life and feels just like that even though it's a fairly simplistic show.

    It lacks much of the depth of Kens work on those other three fab shows. He was busy bringing comic books to life and injecting them with heavy doses of reality and pathos.

    It just never happens here. Not really. I think o read in the bionic book that Lindsay agent was also darters agent or boyfriend or something. I'd have to check it up again.

    The whole pyramid thing was done ironically in DCs Superman II sort of.

    Anyway I loved your two closing paragraphs where you delve into the magic of the series which was embodied in Carter. She was the sell for it, because, as you said. It lacked a Johnson ... Boy that doesn't sound right, but it did. There was a serious shortage of smart risk taking. But yes Linda was really what made it work for me as a kid. It lacks a little something today to be honest but it's got heart as you say.

    Also, this is the kind of superhero as you mentioned that is all too rare. This is why I loved captain America. It's not surprising both wear the stars and stripes and carry a warmth and goodness in their characters motivations. Great observations about what worked for wonder woman,

    I also classify Linda as smoking hot. Absolutely,

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  10. Hi SFF:

    Your comment really made me laugh. That line about Wonder Woman lacking a "johnson." That's priceless, dude.

    But seriously, this series certainly had the ingredients to be in the same league with The Incredible Hulk or The Bionic Woman, but some of the stories didn't live up to the potential.

    I agree with you, however, that the show looks absolutely terrific on DVD and that the program boasts a legitimate "heart." Lynda Carter definitely sells the thing, and keeps you watching episode to episode.

    All my best,
    John

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  11. John, once again I must disagree.

    I use to love Wonder Woman when I was a kid, but seeing a few episodes as an adult recently has confirmed for me now how cheesy and unconnected with the actual comic book this show was.

    The villains on this show are what decides this for me; they're cheesy weaklings who could have been defeated by Napoleon Solo & Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.-they sure as hell didn't need to be handled by Wonder Woman, especially the villains of the week played by Martin Mull and Henry Gibson. And the villain of the week mentioned in this episode you're talking about couldn't be more tackier; a hairy humanoid alien being tracked down by a group of sentient crystal pyramids! Is this Wonder Woman or Doctor Who?

    I hope that the show-runners of any future Wonder Woman TV show/movie take into account the true fans of the character they're adapting, and have the REAL rouge's gallery be front and center, as was shown in the recent Wonder Woman animated DVD movie, as well as have read some issues of the actual comic book for research-there can't be any excuse for them not to now.
    As it stands, all I like about the show is Lynda Carter.

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  12. Hi Lionel,

    I don't disagree with you that there are some pretty spotty episodes of the classic Wonder Woman series.

    But I don't know that your comparison to Doctor Who (in describing "The sentient crystal pyramids") plays as the negative you hoped it would. If anything, it reveals that both programs -- short on funds -- did the best they could to offer unique villains and storylines. Most cult-tv shows would probably cherish a comparison to Dr. Who, frnakly...


    That stated, I don't disagree with you at all that the rogue's gallery, as you call it, from the comic-book would have been welcome. However, given the time, it wasn't to be. No villains from the comic books appeared here, or in contemporaries The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, or the Captain America TV movies with Reb Brown. So it seems unfair to attack Wonder Woman too strongly on this particular front.

    In part, the lack of comic-book villains was probably a result of the backlash against the 1960s Batman.

    Thanks for your comment, Lionel. It's always nice to hear from you!

    best,
    John

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  13. Anonymous8:39 AM

    I watched these two episodes recently on a large screen projector. Somehow seeing it that way made it more enjoyable than watching it on my small Samsung PC monitor. Despite its dated direction and storytelling, I did find the episodes good.

    These days, when I watch those series, I would be put off by her smirk or the roll of her eyes when she encounters foolishness. She comes off almost arrogant in that way. But not with these episodes. I liked how Steve Trevor expressed more faith in intelligence of the general public. The ending with Skip was pretty exciting, but like all other sidekicks he's just forgotten in the next episode. I wish somebody could have written some follow-up stories to that along with "The Girl from Ilandia" and "The Man Who Would Not Die". While the TV doesn't reflect today's comicbooks, it gave us some decent guest characters that we could empathize with today.

    best regards,
    Bernard B.

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