Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The New Adventures of Wonder Woman: "The Starships Are Coming"

In “The Starships Are Coming,” Diana Prince (Lynda Carter), and Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) watch local news reports from a small town called Berryville that suggest an attack by alien invaders has begun. News footage shows flying saucers strafing and blasting a vehicle convoy and pedestrians.   

Diana heads to Berryville, along with Colonel Robert Elliott (Tim O’Connor), to investigate the invasion’s veracity.  

Unfortunately, they come to different conclusions about it.  Elliott unexpectedly encounters aliens, and is told that a starship fleet will soon launch to destroy America…from mainland China.  The only option is for Colonel Elliott to launch America’s nukes (at China…) before that can happen. Fearing the end for his country, Elliott prepares a strike against China.

But Diana learns that the alien invasion is a clever hoax constructed by uber-“patriot” and capitalist Mason Steele.  He has orchestrated the alien attack in a warehouse-turned-studio using actors, rear-projection screens, and sound-effects. 

My hands are not tied by red tape,” he explains.  Specifically, Steele sees Red China as an enemy and is determined that American democracy should “outlive” all other forms of government.

Now, Diana must escape from Steele’s custody, and convince Colonel Elliott not to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Red China that will instigate World War III…

The Wonder Woman episode “The Starships Are Coming” plays on a couple of significant ideas that found currency in the American culture and national dialogue of the late 1970s. 

The first was an all-out fascination with UFOs, stoked by films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and by television programs such as Project: UFO (1978 – 1979).  

The second was a movement in American politics to declare nuclear war a “winnable” enterprise.  Some individuals -- especially on the far right edge of the political spectrum -- labored to explain how a nuclear war wouldn’t be that bad and, in fact, could be vetted in a successful fashion.  These same voices attempted to pressure Ronald Reagan, in the late 1980s not to negotiate with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.  Fortunately, Reagan didn’t listen.

Anyway, “The Starships Are Coming” is about a business-man who fancies himself a “patriot” and hopes to trigger a nuclear war that will destroy an enemy that hasn’t even attacked: Red China.  But to get his way, and his war, this businessman, Steele, must first stoke fear in the American people, which he does by staging lightning strikes on a small-town.  And he blames invading aliens for the attacks, though it seems it might have been more convincing to frame China for them.

Wonder Woman -- perpetual guardian of peace – sees through Mason Steele’s madness and notes, trenchantly, that his attempts to coerce a nation into war and kill millions of innocent people have “done more to destroy democracy” than any “communist country” in history.  It’s an effective rebuke against those who would turn life and death, war and peace into a game of winners and losers, profit and loss.

With patriots like these, the country doesn’t need any enemies,” suggests the dialogue in “The Starships are Coming,” and the episode’s last moments involve a countdown to the launch of deadly nuclear mission.  Finally, Wonder Woman appears on television to stop the count-down, and calm the panicky populace.  

Although the outcome is good, I often find it funny that the Wonder Woman character as portrayed in the 1970s series isn’t nearly as proactive as she might be, given the high stakes she often faces.  For instance, Diana Prince is captured by Steele in “The Starships Are Coming”, and tied to a chair in a warehouse while the countdown to World War III commences. 

Instead of trying to break free, or otherwise engineer her own escape, Wonder Woman just sits…and is conveniently rescued by a local man named Henry.  First, I think Wonder Woman could have found her way out of that chair and warehouse on her own.  Doesn’t she have extraordinary strength?

And secondly, why did her savior have to be a man?

It’s funny how entrenched sexism can be, even for a series about a feminist icon. Often, Wonder Woman, the series, gets by on the pure charisma and charm of Lynda Carter, and this episode, although it is timely, is not an exception.

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