"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.
Flat-out one of the most beloved Saturday morning TV shows ever produced, no kid who grew up during the mid-seventies ever forgot Joanna Cameron as the lithe, confident, serene super-heroine Isis. Introduced along 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 (that's the dialogue quoted above), setting the backstory of the series. On an archeological dig in Egypt, high school science teacher Andrea Thomas unearthed a small box that contained an amulet that when worn, gave her powers delivered by the spirit of the goddess Isis. When her powers were needed, Joanna simply exposed the amulet, put out her arms in supplication (sometime held up, sometimes down) and calmly called, "Oh Mighty Isis!". Instantly transformed into a cross between Nefertiti and a tennis pro, Joanna became Isis, holder of super powers that enabled her to fly ("Oh zephyr winds which blow on high, lift me now so I can fly!"), perform telekinesis, see into the future, and possess super strength and speed.
With these powers, Isis could figuratively crush the world like a tin can, but instead, she chose to help teens (usually students of hers) who got into trouble with the law, 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 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 to be punished, and for the most part, they were punished. But Isis smiled, because she knew that deep down, they had learned a valuable lesson; one they that they wouldn't likely repeat.
It's very difficult to convey to younger TV viewers exactly what it was like to watch television 30-odd years ago (uh oh; here comes the "in the old days" speech again) when there were no 24-hour cable networks devoted solely to kids programming. The Big Three's Saturday morning kids line-up was the only significant block of hours aimed at us (except for maybe the two hours or so afer school, before the local news, when old cartoons and sitcoms were run). So when a show like The Secrets of Isis (the series' name during its aborted second season) came on the scene, kids took notice. Playing like mini-movies every week, these fantasy-based, limited 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 (don't email; I love those cartoons).
And while most kids couldn't have cared less about learning a "lesson" while watching these shows, the deeply moralistic nature of Isis didn't seem to grate on us - perhaps because they were delivered in a cool, direct manner by the unnaturally gorgeous Joanna Cameron. Within each storyline of the Isis episodes, issues of honesty, integrity and personal responsibility were relentlessly explored, and to further hammer home the point, Cameron, still in her Isis outfit (my knees just buckled), looked directly into the camera, with that disarming suggestion of a smile at her lips, and restated what we the viewers were supposed to have just learned from the stories (criminally, these famous "morals" were eliminated from the film masters in the 1990s -- not a good time for morals, I guess; a few have been gathered together for this DVD). If you could concentrate on what she was saying (trust me; it's hard to do the first few times), you heard the same lessons we were hearing in our schools, in our various churches, and at home from our parents.
But The Secrets of 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 the dopes who bought this stuff decades ago, but don't feel too superior; we knew they looked cheap and unconvincing, too. We just didn't care about that stuff as much as technologically-savvy kids do today. We didn't care if Isis looked like she was hanging from wires, or that they never showed 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 walking around in her polyester-only outfits or her sexy tennis dress tunic?
It's too bad Cameron couldn't cross over into larger, more prestigious productions after Isis. 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 particularly recalcitrant crow named Tut (Cameron has stated in interviews she hated the 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 bit of a let down. And not even prime-time TV, but Saturday morning kiddie shows, the last 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 crisply at around 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 speedily move along according to the clock, but there's this almost weird, languid feel to the shows, almost 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 cars (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 "California." After about two decades now of filmmaking that has, like it or not, been partially influenced by the rapid cutting and flash of MTV-style music videos, it's amazing to go back and watch these shows and see how relatively calm and sedate they appear. And despite the budget limitations, the series maintained a professional tone due to the solid TV directors who worked on it, including those old pros 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 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 The Secrets of Isis (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 vast array of supporting players that look so familiar, but whose names escape you. That may be one of the best parts 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
The Spots of the Leopard
The Sound of Silence
To Find a Friend
No Drums, No Trumpets
Dreams of Flight
The Seeing Eye Horse (the first episode of Season Two)
The Class Clown
Year of the Dragon
Now You See It...
...And Now You Don't!
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.