The Secrets of Isis introduced an unmistakably bold feminism and multiculturalism to American kids’ television, albeit with the lightest and friendliest touch. The program certainly moved things in the right direction for Saturday morning programming and for children’s television in general. Indeed, its impact likely transcended the domain of kids’ TV.

Lyndsey Wagner’s Bionic Woman (1976) and Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman (1976) would arrive shortly thereafter, but for a shining season and half, countless kids, with cereal spoons poised before their mouths, watched a woman kick ass every Saturday morning. She was a female super hero who sorted stuff out, confidently and without violence, in a very grounded and real-world context. It was exciting.

The Secrets of Isis is a textbook superhero show, but it’s a little bit more as well. Science teacher Andrea Thomas (Joanna Cameron) unearths Queen Hatshepsut’s ancient Egyptian amulet while on an (unexplained) archeological dig in Egypt.

Image result for secrets of isis

Figure 1: Teacher Andrea Thomas’ (Joanna Cameron) chemistry class probably suffers from constant crime-solving absences by the teacher.

The amulet, when accompanied by now-famous incantations (“Oh Zephyr winds that blow on high”…), gives her power over the elements, and turn her into a modern avatar of the goddess Isis. From this enviably advantageous position, Isis busts car theft gangs, breaks up confidence rackets, rescues kids from fallen trees and junkyard dogs, and otherwise does a whole lot of good stuff. She is fresh, bold, effective, and super-competent.

Image result for secrets of isis

Figure 2: Isis never lays a hand on anyone, but always bring bad guys to justice… usually while vindicating the young multi-ethnic class of the nearby high school.

A Diversifying TV Landscape

Isis’ heroics are always accompanied by a defensible, if somewhat bland moral: be fair to people unlike you… don’t give in to pride… trust your dad…. None of these morals, however, capture the magic and the memorable politics of the show.

These are instead manifest in the cast. With no fanfare and without any effort to call the fact out, the lead cast was multiracial and gender-diverse, including clueless but helpful fellow white teacher Rick Mason (Brian Cutler) but also the thoughtful (incidentally-) Asian student Cindy Lee (Joanna Pang) and the reliable black headmaster Dr. Barnes (Albert Reed). Right here, among the regulars, we have black leadership, a diverse student body, and a female-powered team. And the show’s writing, for all its innovation, seems to go to lengths to not draw attention to this simple fact (a notable one in 1975), making it all the more radical. All this difference, just… is.

Image result for secrets of isis

Figure 3: Joanna Pang’s Cindy Lee, is way more resourceful than all the boys around her, but gets into her fair share of trouble as a result.

Of course, the early seventies opened a revolutionary window for critical television more generally, a victory typically thrown at the feet of Norman Lear and others, who broke open radical discussions in American living rooms using the prime time slots to address race, class, power, war, resistance, and women’s rights in a whole new way. But beyond prime time, and especially in the obscure domain of kids shows, this discussion was already ongoing. There was the singular urban vision of childhood with Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972), and The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan (also 1972) was a down-to-Earth Hanna Barbera riff on Scooby Doo (1969-1975), with an all-Asian cast, which unquestionably shattered stereotypes for any kid that got a chance to see its short run. I can recall almost every episode.

But The Secrets of Isis opened up new territory, insofar as it was live-action program, with a real-life female lead, who operated without any help or support of other characters. And the plots that Isis tackles, which include some odd and shady characters, never cause her to flinch for a moment.

Image result for secrets of isis

Figure 4: Isis is unflappable, even when she flies.

As science teacher Andrea Thomas, Cameron is incredibly calm, and maybe just a little ironic as she sleuths to the bottom of odd and disturbing occurrences. Stolen force field generator? Follow its radioactive signal. Alien sightings over the mountains? Track them down in your station wagon.

And as Isis, Cameron is better still. Landing smoothly from flight across the mountains, she points her finger and levitates a rock or tree to save a fallen teen. Presented with dangerous thieves, she levitates stacks of old tires and captures the bunch without breaking a sweat. Her near-winks at the camera seem to suggest that, through as all this, she is having a lot of fun, and unaffected by the remarkable ignorance of everyone around her: somehow, after all, they can’t image that Andrea Thomas, without glasses, looks a heck of a lot like Isis. That’s magic.

Image result for secrets of isis

Figure 5: If you try to keep your sister out of a model airplane competition, you’re likely  to get a stern talking-to from Isis!

Making Soaring Kids Television on the Fly

Much of the credit for this memorable experiment has to be given to Filmation Studios, the cut-rate imagination factory of the era, for whom Isis was merely one strand in a giant plate of spaghetti they threw at the television wall in the late 60s and early 70s, much of which stuck quite well. The show memorably accompanied its twin program, Shazam (and the show’s title was thereafter reduced to simply ‘Isis’ as a result; to wedge it into the “Shazam/Isis Hour”). Both shows had a good-deed, diverse-public feeling about them. Shazam‘s Captain Marvel was arguably even more of a social worker than Isis, working with troubled teens and people down on their luck. But Isis gave us something special, though it unclear how Filmation created this recipe.

Secrets of Isis creator Marc Richards, after all, was basically a Filmation industrial, company man and a television stalwart (he originally wrote for Soupy Sales in 1966). But in Secrets of Isis he found a vehicle for live action, woman-driven, popular entertainment that managed to eclipse his cartoon work (think: The Brady Kids, 1972). And he brought in competent staff who had a vision for diversity. The writing staff is a who’s who of Filmation screenplay freelancers, including Susan Dworski, who helped write episodes of the multi-ethnic post-apocalyptic kids’ show: Ark II (1976),and Sidney Morse, who wrote half the episodes of Amazing Chan. This was a crew on a mission to change how TV looked.

Fimation itself was a television-factory that churned out cheap product, however, mostly animation, and Isis suffers as result. The location shooting is memorable, mostly in the dry hills and forest country surrounding Los Angeles (chilling sidebar: some filming occurred on the Spahn Ranch, home to the Manson family only a few short years earlier!). But budget limitations meant that that the production team shot everything in the mid-day California sun, grafting a washed-out look to the show. All the special effects are done with editing, including the sloppy shots of Cameron flying in front of a sky-colored backdrops, which are canned and repeated throughout the series.

Image result for secrets of isis

Figure 6: Isis’ flying sequencers recall nothing more nor less than those of George Reeves in the Adventures of Superman. Seriously: it feels like 1952.

The show was also shot heavily in an urban LA school and its surroundings, during the summer while the students were on vacation. This lends the show a sort of realism, but also gives it the creepy, empty-lot landscapes more typical of contemporaneous episodes of troubling cop dramas, like Adam-12 or late-era Dragnet.

All this means that the show is unquestionably inaccessible to a contemporary children’s audience. The grainy footage, washed-out film quality, and earnest delivery would probably not keep the attention of a contemporary eight-year old.

That’s too bad. Isis provides a super-calm, super-woman, superhero that would take decades to replicate. The show is worth revisting not only for the nostalgia factor, but to draw into question the idea that strong women in television are a recent innovation. If it took so long for us to field Agent Carter (2015-2016), Xena (1995-2001), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), it’s not because someone wasn’t trying all the way back in 1975. The Secrets of Isis deserves another viewing and a respectful tip of the hat for the right-on political urges of the mid-1970s .

My enjoyment of the show: Good, but buoyed by nostalgia.

Chances Alexander will enjoy this show: Poor.


Noe: Thanks to my friend Chuck for editorial help on an earlier version of this essay.