By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Noel Kirkpatrick, and Cameron White
Season 1, Episode 3: “Thou Shalt Not Kill”
Original airdate: Sept. 21, 1974
The Secrets of Isis
Season 1, Episode 3: “Spots of the Leopard”
Original airdate: Sept. 21, 1975
Les: The very nature of superheroes means that they’re supposed to be role models, ideals for those who follow their exploits. Even though we’ll never be able to match their abilities or fight battles on the scale they do, it’s their innate goodness and nature that’s supposed to be what teaches us something from their exploits. We respect Superman for defending us and using his strength for good, even though he’s an alien with no obligations keeping him bound to our planet. We respect Batman for his unwillingness to take a life and the fact that he uses his brains almost as much as his brawn to defeat his enemies. We respect Wonder Woman for proving that women can be every bit as strong and tough as men. Sure, what they do can be outlandish and occasionally goofy, but when done right there’s still a core idealism that keeps their actions admirable.
However, there’s a difference between a hero proving their goodness in their actions, and beating you over the head with it in a matter that feels like a pillowcase stuffed with gravel. And the latter is the feeling I got out of watching this double feature of Shazam! and The Secrets of Isis, a pair of superhero shows produced by Filmation for CBS in the mid-1970s. Shazam! is an adaptation of the DC Comics superhero Captain Marvel [though now called Shazam because DC Comics is tired of legal issues and confusion with the character –NK], the alter ego of the young man Billy Batson who is chosen by a group of elders as a force for good in the world. The Secrets of Isis is a unique property, wherein mild-mannered schoolteacher Andrea Thomas discovers an amulet and becomes the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Both heroes are dedicated to spreading goodness and righting wrongs, which they discover either by traveling the countryside in an RV or by listening to the problems of their students.
And my description doesn’t do justice to how weak these shows are. These may be the worst things I’ve seen in the course of doing these roundtables (yes, even worse than Scarecrow and Mrs. King), a pair of episodes that were cheaply produced, clumsily written and full of wooden performances. Secrets of Isis at least had novelty on its side in that it was a unique property–and also the first female superhero on weekly TV, predating even the Wonder Woman pilot movie–and had a moment or two I enjoyed. Shazam! was simply awful, and not even having an actor named Les (Les Tremayne as Mentor to be specific) could keep it from seeming like an after-school special that I’d like to think even the most bored teacher would think twice about airing.
What I disliked the most about these episodes was both how utterly underwhelming anything that happened in them were. Noel and Kerensa talked about the necessity of stakes in one of their Wonder Woman discussions, and the lack of stakes here was almost comical. Captain Marvel has to save a horse from being killed by an evil cowboy, and Isis has to track down a burglar and prove one of her students’ father’s innocence. Granted, some of the villains we’ve seen have been impossible to take seriously (“Great Caesar’s Ghost,” anyone?) but the fact that superheroes with the powers of elders and gods would spend their time organizing lifeless protests and investigating penny ante crimes makes my head hurt. And the total lack of subtlety made it even worse as the moral lessons discussed were shoehorned in sloppily, particularly in Shazam!–Billy gets a series of three or four messages from the poorly animated elders and flashes to them at various points of the episode, at the point that I like to imagine him as zoning out for a full minute and upsetting everyone around him as they try to get his attention.
Plus as far as superheroes go, both Captain Marvel and Isis were incredibly lame. We’ve talked a lot in this roundtable how hard it can be to make superheroes come to life on the small screen without a proper budget, but this is simply pathetic. It amused me to no end how both episodes had a parallel structure that was similarly underwhelming: the hero goes for over half the episode without appearing, they appear on the scene where one person says their name excitedly and no one else bats an eye, and their sole duty is to lift a piece of obviously fake wood up off a person/horse and offer some platitudes. Thankfully Isis gets to at least exercise her powers in a later scene by lifting up a car with a wave of her hand–Captain Marvel’s power is used to obtain a court order. I almost cried at how weak the scene of Captain Marvel running out of the courthouse was, carrying the injunction I assume he obtained with the help of his sidekick Notary Boy.
So yeah, “underwhelmed” seems too kind of a word. The only enjoyment I got out of either of these episodes was that thanks to the RV in Shazam! and the fact that Andrea was a chemistry teacher in The Secrets of Isis I was reminded twice that Breaking Bad comes back next month, which is better in one five-second commercial than either of these were in a half-hour.
Cory: Shows like Shazam! and The Secrets of Isis prove one thing above all else: It’s not easy to be a superhero on TV. Wait no, that’s not it. Actually, these shows prove that it’s not easy to make good–or even decent–superhero television. Les’ fuming ran through most of the big problems with these two episodes, so I won’t hammer them home too much further. However, I was also greatly amused by the parallel structure of the episodes, which is not surprising considering that they aired in the same time slot starting in 1975 and were developed by the same folks. It’s bad enough that they were given one show to muck up, let alone two.
But again, I think these shows reflect the kind of care (read: a lack of care) that television put into superheroes for a very long time (probably at least until The Incredible Hulk). We can wave away certain lacking moments in The Adventures of Superman and Batman because of “age,” but also because we probably feel something for those characters anyway. But frankly, those shows were pretty simplistic in their plot structure and character development. I’d imagine that the industry’s attempts to appeal to young kids is a big reason these shows existed the way they did–bright colors, dumb plots, flying, and it’s over–yet there’s something to be said for how Hollywood looked at these characters before Incredible Hulk or Tim Burton’s Batman films. No one thought they could be, or even should be, taken seriously. That perspective trickled all the way down to the lower rungs of the TV industry where things like Shazam! and The Secrets of Isis lived. In that regard, it’s no surprise that these episodes are trash. The acting is bad, the writing is bad, the pacing is bad, the effects are bad. I could go on.
Still, I think it’s important we watched ’em. There was a time when superheroes didn’t rule the box office, or pop culture in general. This is a lovely snapshot of where they’ve been, and how far they’ve come.
Noel: Guys, I don’t really like either of these shows. I think Shazam! is particularly lousy, without much in the way of redeemable qualities (I rather like Isis, but it’s still not great), but, Les, your intense dislike of the shows has moved me to defend them! At least a little bit!
These shows are not for us. They weren’t even for mid-1970s us. They were for mid-1970s 8-year-old us while we’re eating cereal and still in our footie pajamas. They’re product of their times when production companies, TV affiliates and networks, and parents were worried about violence on television, particularly violence in programming targeting kids. Both shows have CREDITED education advisers, each of them with PhDs, no doubt to help the shows deliver a non-violent, moral message. Yes, those messages do hit you over the head again and again through the course of the episode, but neither message is horrible. Hell, I even like how Shazam! executes its message more than how Isis does.
To that end, I think it’s pretty neat that Shazam! basically told kids, “If you don’t like the law, protest it legally and peacefully. You have that right.” Yes, Captain Marvel flying off to get a court order is ridiculous, and it does undermines the message to a degree (“Hey, kids, if protesting doesn’t work, find someone with a lot more power than you to grease the wheels of government!”), but it teaches nonviolence and standing up for your rights, and I think that’s something we could probably stand to see more of in our scripted media today.
Isis‘s message is a little cloudier (I think it’s essentially “Trust your parents!” which isn’t always the best thing to tell kids sometimes, depending on their circumstances), but there are still nice things to take away from it. Les, you mentioned that Isis predates Wonder Woman, and I think it’s a great predecessor. Here’s a superhero show with a strong, narratively powerful female lead in Andrea who also happens to be a chemistry teacher and is interested in archaeology. A WOMAN IN SCIENCE. AND SHE’S THE LEAD CHARACTER. AND SHE’S A SUPERHERO. That’s awesome on a stick just from a representational standpoint. You know who I can point to that even has one of those traits today? Princesss Bubblegum on Adventure Time, and she’s sort of crazy.
So, no, neither show is great, and maybe not even good, but they’re making an attempt at a positive purpose, at least, and that’s nothing to scoff at.
Cameron: It seems both Shazam! and Secrets of Isis were developed to be pedagogical, shows that were more for teaching moralistic lessons than for setting up abstract good-vs.-evil conflicts that could be played out with capes and KAPOWs.
There’s a major problem with that kind of setup for a television show that makes it a poor approach. It’s what I like to call the Very Special Episode Conundrum: no matter how hard you try to write it, the fact that the show is intended to force a lesson down the audience’s throat makes it impossible to take seriously. Even these two shows seem of different minds about how to approach the lesson-teaching part: where Shazam!‘s main character is a young boy being mentored by an older man (and by cartoon incarnations of Greek heroes of old, apparently), Isis‘s main character is literally the teacher, scientist Andrea Thomas. In the former, the target audience is presumably supposed to identify with Billy Batson, whereas in the latter, they’re supposed to listen to the wise words of Andrea, AKA Isis. Both shows do share the same episodic structure of “cue up the lesson, reinforce the lesson through unbearably ridiculous riggings of plot and character, wrap things up with a short speech about how nice it is to be nice to other people or whatever, end on cheesy one-liner because this is television, dammit.” But the structure flatly demands that everyone in the story act according to the way the writers want everyone else in the world to act, with no room for dissenting or alternate voices.
And that brings up the larger issue of trying to appropriate new technologies for the purposes of education. Ostensibly, the idea behind these two shows (and other shows like them) was to reach out to a generation of kids who were being raised in increasingly technological homes, out of fear that traditional educational methods would eventually fail to retain kids throughout high school (and then college, though of course now it seems some of us will never see the end of college and the associated debt). Combine the climbing average number of televisions per household with the steadily declining number of visitors to religious services, and the setting is perfect for shows like these to claim the airwaves in order to provide “wholesome family entertainment” — whatever that means — to these apparently non-religious, television-watching homes. Maybe I’m just crazy for thinking we should put money and resources into education if we actually, you know, care about education, but I don’t think these shows were entirely thought-out to their natural end points. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the spirit of what they’re trying to teach (however poorly executed they are; Isis‘s lesson in particular is blind optimism bordering on pure naivety), but I think the manner of representation matters just as much as the matter itself.
Noel mentioned the pure progressive act of having Andrea Thomas as the lead role of Isis, particularly as a woman of science, and that reminded me of a recent interview with Nichelle Nichols for BBC Cult Online where she recounts the story of how Whoopi Goldberg landed her role of Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here’s Nichols quoting Goldberg:
She said, ‘Well when I was nine years old Star Trek came on,’ and she said, ‘I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, “Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!”‘ And she said, ‘I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be, and I want to be on Star Trek.’
Trekkies, civil rights activists, and feminists alike will of course know the story of Nichols herself, who was prepared to drop out of the original Star Trek until the man most commonly associated with the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., convinced her to stay on for the exact same reason that Whoopi Goldberg ran screaming through her house. That’s a very palpable lesson of representation, one that sticks in the mind more firmly than any television show’s attempts to present a vision of human society at its best — an ambition shared by most of the Treks as well as by Shazam! and The Secrets of Isis.
There’s three weeks left in the superhero roundtable. Our schedule is as follows:
7/25: The Greatest American Hero, “The Two Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Fastball” (S2E2, Hulu)
8/1: The Incredible Hulk, “Stop the Presses” (S2E9, Hulu and Netflix)
8/8: The Flash, “The Trickster,” (S1E12, Amazon Instant)