‘The Secrets of Isis’: A Look back at Golden Age live-action on Saturday morning

Hey 70s Saturday morning TV fans—do you remember when the word “Isis” conjured up not some p.o.s. terrorist, but rather the knee-weakening presence of a gently-scolding Joanna Cameron, calmly gazing at you…right before you passed out in pre-teen ecstasy?

By Paul Mavis

You do? Well…then you’re just as screwed up I am, so no doubt you know that 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of Isis’ cancellation (it can not be that long ago…), and the 10th anniversary of BCI/Eclipse’s much sought-after DVD release of Filmation’s iconic live-action series. The much mourned-over BCI/Eclipse, of course, is no more—the death of DVDs began the day Navarre dropped the hammer on them—so unless you’ve got $200 bucks for some scalper like me, you’re going to have to check out your local library to see if their copy of The Secrets of Isis: The Complete Series 3-disc set hasn’t been stolen yet.

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No kid who grew up during the mid-seventies ever forgot Joanna Cameron as the lithe, confident, serene super-heroine Isis—the first female superhero on television (she beat out The Bionic Woman by a couple of months). When dreamy Cameron, she of the mini-skirted tunic and four-inch heeled go-go boots, looked right into the camera at you, gently but firmly reminding you to play by the rules before she gave her trademark sexy smile and little wave-off, man and boy were powerless to resist.

Introduced with the already popular Shazam! live-action series, Filmation Studios teamed up Captain Marvel with Isis in 1975 for The Shazam!/Isis Hour on CBS, and the ratings went through the roof. Week after week, each episode of Isis opened with the same prologue, setting the backstory of the series. Wanna hear the words? Sure you do!:

‘Oh my Queen!’ said the royal sorcerer to Hatshepsup, ‘With this amulet, you and your decedents are endowed by the goddess Isis with the powers of the animals and the elements. You will soar as the falcon soars. Run with the speed of gazelles. And command the elements of sky and earth!’

3,000 years later, a young science teacher dug up this lost treasure and found she was heir to: The Secrets of Isis! And so, unknown to even her closest friends Rick Mason and Cindy Lee, she became a dual person: Andrea Thomas, teacher, and Isis, dedicated foe of evil, defender of the weak, champion of truth and justice.

On an archeological dig in Egypt, foxy high school science teacher Andrea Thomas (Joanna Cameron) unearthed a small box that contained an amulet that when worn, gave her powers delivered by the spirit of the Egyptian goddess Isis. When her powers were needed, Joanna simply exposed the amulet, put out her arms in divine supplication (sometimes held up, sometimes down) and calmly called, “Oh Mighty Isis!”. Ka-blam-O! Instantly transformed into a cross between Nefertiti and a tennis pro, Joanna became Isis, holder of super powers that enabled her to perform telekinesis, see into the future, possess super strength and speed, and of course, to fly (“Oh zephyr winds which blow on high, lift me now so I can fly!“).

With these powers, Isis could literally crush the world like a tin can, but instead, she chose to help troubled teens and students see the errors of their ways. Most episodes of Isis found a student reluctantly falling in with mobsters or gangsters or evil businessmen or scientists, aiding their plans to defraud or steal from someone. Just prior to Isis’ arrival, the young adult would start to have second thoughts about their deeds, and as Isis moved in for the collar, they would start spilling their guts and singing like canaries, gently guided by Isis’ requests to look inside themselves, to see if they were acting the way they should act.

In keeping with a society that hadn’t quite yet solidified the “I’m okay, you’re okay” mentality that rewards so-called “honesty” by doling out clemency, the students didn’t get off scott-free here for just owning up to their mistakes. They still expected themselves to be punished, and for the most part, they were punished. But Isis always smiled at the end, because she knew that deep down, those teen punks had learned a valuable lesson—one that they wouldn’t likely repeat…lest they be ground into dust.

It’s impossible to convey to younger TV viewers exactly what it was like to watch television, as a kid, 40-odd years ago (uh oh…here comes Gramps with a shotgun…) when there were no 24-hour cable networks or streaming services devoted solely to kids programming and their instant gratification viewers. The “Big Three” networks’ Saturday morning kids line-ups were the only significant block of hours specifically aimed at us (except for maybe the two hours or so after school when old cartoons and sitcoms were run on local and independent stations). So when a new live-action show like Isis came on the Saturday scene, kids took notice. Playing like mini-movies every week, these fantasy-based, zero-budget, live-action morality plays really connected with kids who needed a break from the heavy rotation of Pink Panther and Heckle and Jeckle cartoons.

And while most kids couldn’t have cared less about learning a “lesson” on Saturday morning (my old man wasn’t peeping over his newspaper to listen to Cameron, that’s for sure…), the deeply moralistic nature of Isis didn’t grate on us—perhaps because they were delivered in such a cool, direct manner by the unnaturally gorgeous Joanna Cameron. Within each Isis storyline, issues of honesty, integrity and personal responsibility were explored within the fantasy/action framework. To further hammer home their points, the producers then had Cameron, still in her Isis outfit (I’m getting the vapors…), look directly into the camera, with that disarming suggestion of a smile at her lips and that throaty, even voice, to restate what we the viewers were supposed to have just learned from the stories. The networks wanted non-violence at that time for their kiddie audiences? Well, they got it with Isis…while we plotted at home to rob a liquor store so Isis would show up and admonish us to absolute distraction.

If you could forget for a second what Cameron looked like in that outfit (it wasn’t easy) and concentrate on what she was saying during these epilogue “morals,” you heard the same lessons most of us were hearing in our schools, in our various churches, and at home from our parents. Criminally, back in the 1990s (not a good time for morals), the Hallmark company which then owned the Filmation library destroyed the original Isis video masters, and edited out the “morals” from international syndication prints—the only surviving (as yet) episode elements of Isis (a few “morals,” taken from other video sources, have been gathered together as extras for this DVD).

However, Isis wasn’t just about lecturing kids; it had plenty of action—albeit rather laid-back, California-styled action—that served the point of the story, and not the other way around. Watching Isis today, it’s easy to laugh at the chintzy blue-screen flying sequences, and goof on dopes like us who bought this stuff decades ago…but don’t feel too superior: we knew the shows looked cheap and unconvincing, too. We just didn’t care about that stuff as much as fanboy nerds do today. We didn’t care if Isis looked like she was hanging from wires, or that they never filmed her except from the waist up when she lifted off to fly (the better to hide the spinning platform she was on). It just wasn’t that important an issue. We knew it was a goof, so we just got on with it and didn’t worry about mattes and blue screens and process shots. Besides, who really was paying attention to all of that when Cameron was either charging around in her skin-tight polyester pants or her sexy tennis dress tunic?

It’s too bad Cameron couldn’t cross over into larger, more prestigious productions after Isis…but starring in a cheapjack Saturday morning kiddie show sent out the wrong message to producers and cooled interest in the actress. Aside from her stellar, athletic, all-American good looks, there’s a gravity about her, a very calm center to her thesping that considerably dampens any “camp factor” inherent in the episodes. After all, we’re talking about a woman running around dressed as the tennis pro from Cheops Pyramid Country Club, making do with frankly ridiculous special effects, while trying to dodge a recalcitrant crow named Tut (Cameron has stated in interviews she hated that goddamned bird). The budgets on Isis are obviously small, and to an actor who started out making a splash in big-screen efforts like Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row and the topless fest B.S. I Love You (wearing a white bikini like nobody’s worn one before or since), playing TV had to be a let down. It wasn’t even prime-time TV, but Saturday morning kiddie shows, the final step, at that time, before doing the weather on the local news. So enormous credit has to be given to Cameron for investing the show with a seriousness—with just the right amount of suggested laughter—to bring it all off.

Running a crisp 20-22 minutes or so (remember, the film masters were irretrievably edited back in the 1990s), the episodes themselves are marvels of economy. A brief introduction to the principles is undertaken; the conflict is immediately introduced; and we’re set up for the resolution before we know it. Now that sounds rushed, but there’s the strangest feeling about Isis. It may be speedy according to the clock, but there’s this weird, languid feel to the episodes, a drowsy, laid-back approach that original fans of the series will instantly recognize. Maybe it’s the combination of the blown-out, sunny desert/mountain locales, the sweet rides (I love Rick’s VW Thing and Andrea’s Camaro) or the plink-plinky synthesizer music score that finds its own groove, but everything about Isis cries out, “dude, we’re in sunny, groovy California. Relax.” After three decades now of filmmaking that has, like it or not, been heavily influenced by the rapid cutting and flash of MTV-style music videos, it’s amazing to go back and watch these 70s shows and see how relatively calm and sedate they appear. Despite the budget limitations, though, Isis maintained a professional tone due to the solid TV vets who helmed it, including those old pro directors Hollingsworth Morse, Earl Bellamy, Arnold Laven, and Arthur H. Nadel.

Isis also benefits from a well-chosen supporting cast, with Brian Cutler just fine as the handsome/goofy second banana to Cameron’s Isis (that’s certainly a break from the usual 1975 TV gender dynamics). Joanna Pang, cute and spunky as Cindy Lee, gets the “gee whiz” tone of her character just right; it’s too bad she didn’t come back for the second season (although Ronalda Douglas is good as student Renee Carroll). If you grew up watching TV during that time, you’ll also love Isis for the array of supporting players that look so familiar, but whose names escape you. That may be the best part of watching Isis today: spotting old favorites you grew up with, and looking them up on the IMDB.

Here are the 22 episodes of the three, single-sided box set The Secrets of Isis: The Complete Series:

The Lights of Mystery Mountain (September 6th, 1975)
UFOs in the sky convince Cindy that something’s wrong on Mystery Mountain, and she’s right: it’s all a real estate scam cooked up by a crook with the aid of two of Cindy’s teenaged friends.

Fool’s Dare (September 13th, 1975)
A stupid dare to stay in an abandoned junk yard gets Cindy involved with car thieves.

The Spots of the Leopard (September 20th, 1975)
A young girl falsely believes her ex-con father may be stealing diamonds, and it’s up to Isis to teach her to trust again.

The Sound of Silence (September 27th, 1975)
Andrea invents a force-field machine, but it’s stolen by one of her students who’s angry because he lost the science fair award.

Rockhound’s Roost (October 4th, 1975)
A student lies about having permission from his parents to go on a rock-hunting field trip, with potentially dangerous results.

Lucky (October 11th, 1975)
The story of a boy and his dog, and Isis’ efforts to help the depressed young child.

Bigfoot (November 3rd, 1975)
Of course they’d have an episode on Bigfoot—it’s 1975! A field trip to find Sasquatch goes wrong when the group becomes lost.

To Find a Friend (October 25th, 1975)
A lonely boy gives his father’s gun to a punk kid, just to buy his friendship. Will Isis avert a potential tragedy?

The Show-Off (November 17th, 1975)
A short kid out to prove himself a big man gets the whole group in trouble on their camping trip where there’s a…um…escaped gorilla on the loose.

The Outsider (November 8th, 1975)
A new kid in school has it tough fitting in, especially since he can’t adjust to city life. That’s why a nature preserve is so important to him. Will he and Isis stop the evil land developer from bulldozing it?

No Drums, No Trumpets (November 15th, 1975)
Hijackers based in a ghost town set upon Andrea and her students.

Funny Gal (November 22nd, 1975)
Rick’s cool boat is swiped by an unpopular girl running for Student Council President. Captain Marvel shows up to help out Isis.

Girl Driver (November 29th, 1975)
No girls allowed. The school’s auto club doesn’t want a girl for their president, because they’re icky. Can Isis show those sexist pigs the errors of their misogynist, Harvey Weinstein ways?

Scuba Duba (December 6th, 1975)
Rick can’t get it through one of his scuba club member’s head that safety always comes first. Will Isis convince the land lubber?

Dreams of Flight (December 13th, 1975)
The annual airplane flying contest at school turns deadly (well, not really deadly) when one of the planes is stolen. Can Isis help find it?

The Seeing Eye Horse (September 11th, 1976)
A student recently blinded gets a special “seeing-eye” horse from Andrea.

The Hitchhikers (September 18th, 1976)
Can Isis teach a young girl not to hitchhike?

The Class Clown (September 25th, 1976)
To make friends, a new student constantly plays practical jokes—to disastrous results.

The Cheerleader (October 2nd, 1976)
A cheerleader in danger of flunking off the squad creates a diversion to steal answers to a test she absolutely needs to pass.

Year of the Dragon (October 16th, 1976)
An Asian student is embarrassed by her father’s old-fashioned ways: can Isis teach her some respect?

Now You See It… (October 23rd, 1976)
Isis and Captain Marvel get help from The Supersleuths (in a blatant attempt at a pilot spin-off) when a weather machine is stolen and all fingers point towards Rick as the culprit.

…And Now You Don’t! (October 30th, 1976)
The thrilling conclusion to the weather machine caper!

Since these standard DVD transfers were taken from international syndicated prints, there are PAL-related conversion issues, including a bit of ghosting and jigger. Contrasty at times, blown-out, and with muddy color, it’s too bad some money couldn’t have been put into boosting these full-frame video elements (uh, yeah—just putting out these Filmation series pretty much tanked BCI/Eclipse). Plenty of compression issues, too, but if you switch to your small monitor (or even better: your tube black and white portable, if you want to go the whole nostalgia route), you won’t mind so much. You’ll notice the higher-pitched Dolby Digital English 2.0 sound mix, though, thanks to that PAL conversion.

As with so many of those great BCI/Eclipse Filmation releases, there is quite an assortment of extras for The Secret of Isis: The Complete Series 3-disc set. First, there are over two hours of new interviews with legendary producer Lou Scheimer, producer Richard M. Rosenbloom, stars Brian Cutler, Joanna Pang Atkins, and Ronalda Douglas Lombardo (tragically, Joanna’s a no-show), writers David Dworski, Michael Reaves and Davis Wise, designer Bob Kline, and assistant director Henry J. Lange, Jr. They’re very candid interviews, and you get quite a broad view of the series from many different aspects of the production.

Next, there’s a commentary track on episode #15, Dreams of Flight, with Lou Scheimer, Dick Rosenbloom, David Dworski and Henry J. Lange, Jr. It’s insightful, and pretty funny, too. Next, there are isolated music and sound effects tracks for episodes Funny Gal, Now You See It…, and …And Now You Don’t!, which are a lot of fun if you want to cool out with that groovy theme song, courtesy of Yvette Blais and Jeff Michael. Next, there’s a bonus episode of the animated The Freedom Force, with Isis making her animated debut. There’s a selection of rare footage of show commercial bumpers, alternate credits, teasers for upcoming episodes, and most importantly, 13 retrieved “morals” closers that have been culled from inferior video dupes. The quality of these dupes runs from barely fair to quite poor, but so far, until somebody locates those cut filmed elements (fat chance), this is it.

Next, there are four image galleries, focusing on promotional, behind-the-scenes, and memorabilia (they’re a lot of fun), plus a bonus Legend of Isis Bluewater Productions comic book that you can skip through. As well, you can access all 22 Isis TV scripts through the DVD-ROM extra feature, along with an informative, illustrated booklet with lots of trivia and production history.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

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