Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky wonders when Joss Whedon is going to get hired to do a feminist update of this '70s superhero show.
"She became a dual person: Andrea Thomas, teacher, and Isis, dedicated foe of evil, defender of the weak, champion of truth and justice!"—Show Introduction
Female empowerment was having a tough time in the '70s. On the one hand, there was the ERA, bra burning, and Our Bodies Ourselves. On the other hand, Wonder Woman, Charlie's Angels, and Isis—all fashion models in action. Check out the miniskirt on—well, Isis is supposed to be a goddess, isn't she? The original Egyptian Isis was a maternal figure, mother of Horus and adopted mother of Anubis. The most prominent Isis myth I can remember is the one in which she collects the pieces of her dismembered husband Osiris (and I mean "dismembered," since she fails to recover a certain ahem part). But I don't recall her much playing the superhero, as she does in The Secrets of Isis: The Complete Series.
The Isis of the '70s, the estrogen-fueled counterpart to Filmation's Shazam!, is a science teacher by day. Andrea Thomas (Joanna Cameron) investigates local crimes and helps out students, which she has plenty of time to do, since there never appear to be many classes held on her campus. As Isis, she can defeat bad guys by commanding elements with a few well-chosen rhyming couplets. Need to catch up with a speeding car? Just announce, "O zephyr winds which blow on high, lift me now so I can fly!" Teenager gets a log stuck on her leg? Super strength sure comes in handy. She can levitate objects, control weak minds, and even stop or reverse time. It seems like a lot of power, considering that none of the villains are particularly threatening or dangerous. She stops car thieves in "Fool's Dare"; in "The Sound of Silence," a jealous student steals Andrea's new radioactive force-field generator, but never causes much damage. Bad kids always feel guilty when they commit crimes; they repent and apologize quickly, with complete sincerity. Bad guys are easily picked out by their sideburns. Since it is the '70s, Isis must obey the then-extant federal law that required all action heroes to meet Bigfoot for at least one episode.
For sidekicks, Andrea has a ditzy student (she can never figure out why Andrea and Isis are never in the same place) and a patronizing male professor (Brian Cutler) who must use up a case of hair spray per week. Andrea also has a raven named Tut, but he doesn't get many lines. Student Cindy (Joanna Pang) is usually the one that finds the trouble, but Isis solves it all pretty quickly. In the second season, Isis expands its ethnic diversity by replacing the Asian student with a black one (Ronalda Douglas), who needs rescuing just as often. Oh, and Isis always takes the time to give a moral lesson. In "Class Clown" (one of the few episodes in which we actually see Andrea teach some science), a prankster's tricks go too far, resulting in some finger-wagging from our miniskirted heroine. In "Funny Girl" (which also features an isolated music and effects track), Isis lectures a plump comedienne with a self-image problem. Captain Marvel (John Davey) drops by in that episode as well to offer a hand. The Big Red Cheese shows up again in the two-part series finale, in which an ethnically diverse crew of students called "The Supersleuths"—I recognized a young Evan Kim (from the classic "Fistful of Yen" sketch from Kentucky Fried Movie) as the Asian kid—tries to help Isis and friends find a stolen weather-control machine. I'm kind of surprised that the peppy multiethnic teens didn't get their own series. One kid even has a turban and can perform magic.
The show looks exactly like you would expect a '70s kiddie show to look. The acting is broad and forced, the costuming looks uncomfortable, and the sound editing is flat and a little tinny. The plots are right out of Scooby Doo. In "The Lights of Mystery Mountain," an unscrupulous real estate developer creates a UFO hoax. The Supersleuths drive around in a van on their way to solve the case in the series finale. If only Tut could talk and play comedy relief…
The entire Secrets of Isis run (which was usually paired up with Shazam! for a full hour of low-budget superhero action) ran 22 episodes, packaged by BCI on three DVDs. Disc 3 of The Secrets of Isis: The Complete Series includes a surprising number of separate interviews with most of the key players in the series: producers Lou Scheimer and Richard Rosenbloom; stars Brian Cutler, Joanna Pang, and Ronalda Douglas; three series writers; the production designer; and assistant director Henry Lange. Note that Joanna Cameron is nowhere to be seen on any of these supplements. (Nobody seems to have been personally close to her, and she is often described as "quiet" off camera.) As on the commentary track, Scheimer is proud of what he claims are the show's breakthroughs: a strong female lead on Saturday morning, a female Asian sidekick, and so on. He also seems genuinely grateful for the fan support of his old shows. Nobody dishes any dirt, and everybody claims to have had a wonderful time making a series that one writer describes as costing "about a dollar ninety-eight."
Producers Lou Scheimer (who also does the opening narration for the show) and Dick Rosenbloom, staff writer David Dworski, and assistant director Henry Lange turn in a commentary track for the first-season episode "Dreams of Flight," a story that features a rare (for the time) look at Chicano culture in Los Angeles, including some fascinating mural painting. Scheimer is the most talkative, running through the story of the show's genesis. He claims that Joanna Cameron was hired primarily for her great legs, while the others defend the show as a feminist forerunner to Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman.
If you enjoy the moral lessons imparted by Isis to the characters, you might enjoy the extra moral lessons Isis directs at you at the end of each episode. For better or worse, these lessons were cut from the master copies after the show originally aired, along with bumpers and promos. But BCI has managed to collect some of that material from what looks like old video dupes. It is amazing how much good advice you can get from an Egyptian deity, like "Being responsible means many things. It means helping Mom and Dad around the house when you'd rather be outside playing with your friends." Gee, thanks, Isis.
When budget cutbacks in Andrea Thomas's school district forced her out of the science classroom—who needs a teacher who never seems to actually hold class?—Andrea was apparently forced to give up her condo and move into a pyramid with a bunch of jock roommates: Hercules, Merlin, Sinbad, and Super Samurai. The "Freedom Force" likes to travel through time, righting wrongs and looking for some clothes to fit Hercules, who likes to walk around shirtless a lot. (Take your pick whether this is better than Sinbad, who opens his shirt to his navel and sports a huge gold medallion, like it is disco night every night.) In the bonus episode of The Freedom Force animated show, Isis and Hercules fight a sorcerer who wears a comical devil costume (complete with red horns) and controls an army of "plant soldiers." I kept waiting for Gatchaman and his Science Ninjas to fly in and offer assistance.
You may have feelings of nostalgia for Joanna Cameron (some of them may even be a little tingly, as she was pretty hot in that Egyptian tennis outfit). But be warned: your kids are not likely to warm up to this. The show is grindingly slow and filled with long passages of exposition. The special effects are spare (and you can do them all at home with your camcorder). Its moralizing is more heavy-handed than the counselor videos my wife shows for guidance lessons at her school. When I asked my daughter to watch an episode ("To Find a Friend," in which motocross teens get hold of a gun and go hunting for "fat and sassy rabbits"), she hated it. It wasn't because the show is old (I've got her hooked on all kinds of '60s and '70s pop culture ephemera)—it is because, as she told me point-blank, "This is no fun!"
As to the adults who remember this show fondly: my wife claims to have been a huge fan of Isis as a kid. After sitting through an episode of the DVD, she seemed amused by the show's campy qualities, but also a little hurt, as if she just lost a fond part of her childhood. I guess I have the same feeling.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BCI Eclipse
• Commentary Track for "Dreams of Flight"
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