What started as a really bad 1974 TV movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby eventually morphed into the classic and definitive small screen version of Wonder Woman – although regular viewers really know the series starring Lynda Carter as Diana Prince was actually three shows with connecting continuity.
So let’s walk down the hall to the Wayback Machine, set the dial loosely for the 1970s and see what is going on.
In ABC’s second attempt at the Princess, scripting duties were given to Stanley Ralph Ross, who was instructed to be more faithful to the comic book and to create a subtle “high comedy.” Ross set the pilot in World War II, the era in which the original comic book began.
After an intensive talent search, Carter, who had done some minor acting jobs and had been the 1972 Miss World USA, was chosen to play the lead role. For the role of Steve Trevor, the producers chose Lyle Waggoner, late of The Carol Burnett Show. Waggoner at the time was also considered a pin-up hunk, having done a semi-nude pictorial in the first issue of Playgirl.
Although the pilot followed the original comic book closely, in particular the aspect of Wonder Woman joining the military under the name Diana Prince, a number of elements were dropped. The comic book Diana obtains the credentials of a look-alike nurse. Although the pilot shows Diana briefly as a nurse at one point, Diana takes on the identity of a Navy Yeoman Petty Officer First Class. As it was set during World War II, many of the episodes involved Nazis and war events.
One change, which was later to become synonymous with the show, was the transformation of Diana Prince into Wonder Woman by spinning. During the filming of the pilot, producers were trying to figure out a way to show how Diana Prince became Wonder Woman, when Carter suggested that she do a spin. The spinning transformation was later incorporated into the comics and into animated appearances such as Justice League Unlimited. Prior to the Carter series, the transformation was depicted in the comics by way of Diana spinning her magic lasso around her body, with the lasso changing her clothes, or by simply changing at super speed.
Unlike the Crosby movie, the comic book origins of the character were emphasized by the retention of the character's traditional uniform (the design of which was interpreted by Donald Lee Feld, credited as “Donfeld”) and original setting and through the use of comic book elements. The series' title sequence was animated in the form of a series of comic book panels featuring Wonder Woman performing a variety of heroic feats. Within the show, location and exposition were handled through comic book-style text panels. Transitions between scenes and commercial breaks were marked by animated starburst sequences. Very cool.
Despite good ratings for the series, ABC stalled on picking up the show for a second season. This was because Wonder Woman was a period piece; being set in the 1940s. Period pieces are generally much more expensive to produce when necessities like the set, clothing, automobiles, furniture, etc., are factored into the show's budget. While ABC had not yet committed, the show's production company Warner Bros. listened to an offer from rival network CBS. While ABC continued to make up its mind, CBS agreed to pick up the series on condition that the setting be changed from World War II (the 1940s) to the modern day (the 1970s). Thus, the series was nudged away from historical World War II writing to a more conventional police/detective action-type show that was more common in the 1970s.
Princess Diana, aging slowly because of her Amazon nature, returns from Paradise Island after a 35-year absence (looking virtually the same) to become an agent with the Inter-Agency Defense Command (IADC), a
Strictly speaking, Lynda Carter was the only cast member whose character continued into the second and third seasons (aside from a brief cameo appearance of Major Trevor/Waggoner) in Diana's flashback when she first encountered his son). The original Steve Trevor was revealed to have risen to the rank of major general and died in the 35-year interim between the first and second seasons, although Lyle Waggoner remained with the series, portraying Trevor's effectively identical son, Steve Jr. The wartime existence of young Steve Jr. was never mentioned in the first series.
The producers chose to drop any suggestion that the new Steve and Wonder Woman were anything more than good friends. Indeed, when an imposter posing as Steve Jr. attempted to seduce Diana, she made it quite clear that she had no sexual interest in him.
Whereas Waggoner returned in a technically new role, Diana's mother Hippilyta was, conversely, the only other first season character to be seen or mentioned, but Beatrice Straight succeeded Carolyn Jones and Cloris Leachman in the role. The post-war fates of Phil Blankenship, Edda Candy, and Drusilla/Wonder Girl were never revealed.
Diana, Steve and Joe Atkinson (Normann Burton), a weathered IADC agent, received their orders from a Charlie’s Angels-like character who is heard but never seen. Diana and Steve would go out and work the field while Joe assisted from the office. The Atkinson character was dropped after the ninth episode of this season, and Steve was given a promotion, becoming IADC Director, and Diana's boss, in the process. This promotion for Steve Trevor meant that Lyle Waggoner was seen less in subsequent episodes for the remainder of the series run.
In this season, the computer IRAC (Information Retrieval Associative Computer), more informally known as "Ira," was introduced: its first appearance is in Season 2, Episode 1, where Diana introduces her Diana Prince identity into its records, over IRAC's protests. Ira was the IADC's super-intelligent computer, who deduces that Diana Prince is really Wonder Woman, although it never shares this information with anyone, except Diana herself. Towards the end of the season, in the episode “IRAC is Missing,” a small mobile robot called Rover was added for comic relief.
Wonder Woman's invisible plane appeared a couple of times in Season 2, and not at all in Season 3. The plane's shape was updated with the change in temporal setting, losing the rounded fuselage and modestly curved wings evocative of a WWII-era pursuit-fighter, in favor of a dart-like, delta-winged jet.
With the beginning of the third season (its second on CBS), further changes were made to target the show at a teenage audience. The use of Rover was increased for comic effect and episodes began to revolve around topical subjects like skateboarding, roller coasters and the environment. Teenagers or young adults were commonly used as main characters in the plot lines. Episodes during this season showed Diana on assignments by herself far more often (particularly outside of Washington DC), and Steve Trevor was seen less.
Wonder Woman was also allowed to become a bit more physical in the third season and could now be seen throwing the occasional punch or kicking. The writers also came up with several unusual ways for Diana to execute her spinning transformation, the most notable instances occurring in the episode “Stolen Faces” in which Diana makes the change while falling off a tall building.
In the final episode produced, the writers attempted a relaunch of sorts by having Diana reassigned to the Los Angeles bureau of IADC with a new supporting cast. Though done in anticipation of a fourth season, the revamp was seen for only a single episode (“The Man Who Could Not Die”). This episode was actually the last to be produced and should have ended the third season, but was shown out of sequence with the two-parter “The Phantom of the Roller Coaster.” These final three episodes aired by themselves in August–September 1979, months after the broadcast of the rest of Season 3, creating a mini-season, though they remain grouped as part of Season 3 as opposed to being considered an abbreviated fourth season.
CBS ultimately decided to move The Incredible Hulk up to the Friday 8 p.m.hour from 9 p.m.to introduce the new series The Dukes of Hazzard.
No further episodes of Wonder Woman were made, but Lynda Carter had won the hearts of TV and comic book nerds alike as the definitive living Wonder Woman.