Based upon a comic by the same name, Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter originally aired on November 7th, 1975. Changing the title to The New Adventures of Wonder Woman and switching to CBS for the second season, the show ran until September 11th, 1979. The show had decent ratings, but never spectacular. The importance of the show centers on the iconic title character, who rode in on the second wave of feminism, challenging cultural inequalities and gender norms.
The origin story of the character dates back to 1940. To help battle critics of comics, Maxwell Gaines, one of the pioneers of modern comic books, hired Dr. William Moulton Marston, who stated in a Family Circle interview that comics had “educational potential.” Dr. Marston’s diverse background included work as a lawyer, psychologist, academic, and consultant for Universal Studios, plus he invented the systolic blood pressure test which is part of the modern lie detector test. Dr. Marston wanted a comic superhero who defeated people not with violence, but with love. His wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, suggested that the character should be a woman. He intertwined female role-models of the time, like Rosie the Riveter, with Greek and Roman mythological figures to create Wonder Woman. He continued writing the comic until his death in 1947, after which the Wonder Woman comics returned to a more traditional role of femininity.
During the mid-1960s, Douglas S. Cramer approached William Dozier, the Vice President of Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems television division, about overseeing the production of Batman. The success of Batman led Dozier to start work on a short pilot based on Wonder Woman entitled, Wonder Woman: Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince? starring Ellie Wood Walker as the title character. Though Dozier wielded great influence at the network, ABC decided to pass on the project since Batgirl was already in production.
In 1972, feminist and journalist Gloria Steinem wanted to restore Wonder Woman to the empowering figure she’d been under Marston’s watch. She placed Wonder Woman on the cover of Ms. magazine, which led to the character becoming a face for second wave feminism. Wonder Woman moved out of the comic book culture and into the mainstream, making a cameo in 1972 during The Brady Kids, and eventually securing a starring role in the 1973 for the animated series, Super Friends.
In 1974, Warner Bros. produced Wonder Woman, a made-for-television movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby. The show featured a Wonder Woman who lacked superpowers and sported blonde hair and blue eyes. This program served as a potential pilot for ABC, and according to The Washington Post, the numbers were “respectable but not wondrous.” An ABC executive admitted to The Washington Post that it was a mistake to update the character.
ABC and Warner Bros. wanted to give the series another chance and turned to Douglas S. Cramer to produce a 1975 pilot. Cramer utilized the women’s liberation movement and revisited the original comic book source material -- he returned Wonder Woman to her Greek and Roman mythological roots. Stanley Ralph Ross, a writer for the original Batman series, wrote the pilot featuring the origin story of the Amazonian princess.
Alan Shayne, the head of casting at Warner Bros., brought a talented new actor, Lynda Carter, to Cramer for review. Many of the executives at ABC-TV and Warner Bros. felt that Lynda Carter didn’t have the experience to carry a television show on her own. Cramer continued to rally behind Carter and eventually was given the green light. Lyle Waggoner from The Carol Burnett Show auditioned for the part of Steve Trevor and received the role.
The pilot, “The New Original Wonder Woman,” was set in the 1940s and followed Princess Diana of Themyscira (aka Wonder Woman) when Major Steve Trevor crashes onto Paradise Island during a WWII dogfight. Princess Diana, wins the contest to accompany Steve Trevor back to the United States - in her invisible jet - a life-size Plexiglass airplane that was placed in front of a blue screen to give it a life-like appeal. Queen Hippolyta, Wonder Woman’s mother, played by Cloris Leachman, awards Wonder Woman with a magic belt to give her strength, the lasso of truth, and bullet-proof bracelets for her journey to the States. Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor share a common goal - battling the Third Reich - and a possible love connection. Ironically, Trevor doesn’t show the same level of affection for his secretary, Diana Price, who is Wonder Woman’s everyday alter ego.
One issue that the creators struggled with on the show was how to have the character morph from Diana Prince into Wonder Woman. Carter approached Cramer with the idea to twirl from one identity into the other. Cramer loved the idea. During the first two episodes, the effect was achieved by locking down the camera and over-cranking it to create a slow-motion effect. The two shots, one as Diana and one as Wonder Woman, were then slowly faded into one another. Starting in the third episode, a small explosion with a thunderclap was added, which sped up the effect. The twirl would go on to be one of the most iconic parts of the show and was incorporated into the comic books and animated appearances.
The costumes were designed by the Oscar-nominated designer Donfeld. Upon first sight of the designs, the producers were not sure if they could afford the elaborate costumes and forced Donfeld worked within a tight budget. The costume’s bullet-proof bracelets were rigged with small explosives by the special effects team. During takes, Carter would push a small button in her hand causing the mini explosions. In the second season, Donfeld created the full costume he had originally imagined for the main character. It included several custom-made secondary looks, such as a motocross one-piece and a skateboarding outfit with protective gear. His work on the episode, “Anschluss 77,” would go on to win the 1977 Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design for a Drama or Comedy Series.
Season one was met with strong ratings, but ABC hesitated to pick it up for a second season. CBS approached Warner Bros., the production company for the show, and offered to pick it up if the piece was updated from the 1940s to the then-current 1970s. The title was changed to The New Adventures of Wonder Woman and Diana Prince was now working for the Inter-Agency Defense Command (IDAC). The plot of each show moved from Nazi-centric themes to mystery themes. The show recast everyone except Lynda Carter and Lyle Waggoner, who now played Steve Trevor, Jr. To sidestep the troublesome issue of a romantic relationship with Steve Trevor’s son, the show avoided a courtship between Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, Jr.
Season three saw additional changes as CBS tried targeting a younger audience. The opening theme song was changed to a disco beat and the stories started focusing on teen activities. At the end of the third season, Diana Prince was reassigned to the Los Angeles IDAC with and several new cast members were added with the hopes of a new season. Due to deteriorating ratings, the show was canceled.
The character has been a cultural mainstay since her inception in the 1940s, and Lynda Carter is still synonymous with the iconic superhero more than forty years after the original series. She continued to play the Wonder Woman character in an episode of The Muppet Show and A Special: Olivia Newton-John. The LGBTQ+ communities rallied behind Lynda Carter’s representation of Wonder Woman since the community identified with a character hiding a secret identity and battling patriarchal norms. Wonder Woman gave a face to the Women’s Movement and represented empowerment and equality for generations of women.
-Jeremy B. Warner, Assistant Professor of Digital Media, California State University, Bakersfield, May 2019
Diana Prince/Wonder Woman............Lynda Carter
Colonel Steve Trevor, Jr./Major Steve Trevor, Sr.........Lyle Waggoner
General Phil Blankenship..........Richard Eastham
Etta Candy..........Beatrice Colen
Douglas S. Cramer, Charles B. Fitzsimmons, John Gaynor, Bruce Lansbury, Wilford Lloyd Baumes, Arnold F. Turner
DEVELOPED FOR TELEVISION BY
Stanley Ralph Ross
BASED ON ORIGINAL COMIC BY
William Moulton Marston
November 1975 - Pilot Movie
April 1976-February 1977 Friday 8:00-9:00
September 1977-September 1979 Friday 8:00-9:00
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