ComicsAlliance Reviews The ‘Wonder Woman’ Christmas Episode (1977)
Chris Sims: Hello everyone, and welcome back to our series of in-depth reviews of movies based on comics. This week, though, we’re doing something a little different! With Christmas just around the corner, we wanted to hit something holiday-themed, and while we debated checking out the Star Wars Holiday Special or one of the three – three! – Christmas episodes of Lois and Clark, we eventually found something that interested us a little more.
Matt Wilson: Our choice came down to continuing our ’90s trend with the Christmas episode of The Mask cartoon or the Christmas episode of the 1970s Wonder Woman TV show. Only one of these choices, Wonder Woman, had Frank Gorshin in a guest-starring role, so we went with that one.Chris: Frank Gorshin doing a hilarious German accent, no less.
Matt: And with a hilarious goatee!
Chris: This particular episode, “The Deadly Toys,” comes from the second season, and if you feel like watching along, it’s available to stream for free (along with the entire rest of the series) over at the WB’s website. You know, while this show was pretty important in terms of Wonder Woman’s place in pop culture, it’s… well, it’s kind of a complete and utter mess.
Matt: It’s a really weird artifact. The first season, which aired on ABC, was a period-piece World War II superhero show with Wonder Woman and lover Steve Trevor fighting Nazis. It was too expensive to produce, so ABC didn’t renew it. Then CBS picked up a second season, but as an entirely different show: A 1970s spy/detective show with Wonder Woman (who just didn’t age) hanging out with Steve Trevor Jr., with whom she’s just friendly. That’s nuts.
Chris: Yeah, despite Lynda Carter, whose performance was justifiably regarded as iconic, it is all over the map. And hoo boy, this Christmas episode is no exception at all.
Matt: It is as goofy as it can be, even though it’s about the serious, Cold War issues of the day.
Chris: Just to give you an idea of exactly where we’re at with this thing, there’s a point where Wonder Woman will be in serious danger of being killed by a toy airplane. What do you say we jump right into it and see how it all works out?
Matt: After an establishing shot that might as well just be a card that says “The 1970s!” on it, we open up on a boardroom in which a scientist talks to a group of military officials about he and two other scientists working on “Project XYZ,” which created a highly dangerous weapon. He starts blinking wildly and twitching as he reveals he destroyed the project and all the research and, ain’t it always the way, that results in him melting into goo right there on the table.
Chris: How will we ever beat those damned Russkies if our zippers remain unexamined?!
Matt: One of the other two scientists, Dr. Prescott, exclaims “It’s an android!” because how else would we know? And it just goes from this melted man straight into the jaunty opening credits music. The transition made me laugh aloud.
Chris: This entire cold open is one of the weirdest things I’ve seen outside of Japanese Spider-Man. The entire bunch of scientists – save for one weak-stomached woman, of course – just kind of sits around watching their colleague’s face melt off with mild disinterest, until they all decide to stand up in unison and declare that it’s an android, because apparently androids melt into goo a lot? You’d think the first sign of face-melting would’ve prompted at least a little concern for their colleague, but no.
Matt: It’s the scientific method, Chris. No jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions! Test, analyze, then conclude!
Chris: Call me old-fashioned if you will, but face-melting is the sort of thing that should prompt immediate action.
Matt: It is extra weird because that room was mostly military guys. One of those military guys, the head of Project XYZ, Major Dexter, is completely committed to American Zipper Safety and heads off to the CIA stand-in where Diana Prince and Steve Trevor Jr. work to ask for an investigation into when this now-melted scientist was switched out for an android.
Chris: There is… there is a lot of hair in this scene.
Matt: A lot of glasses, too, but Diana is the only one wearing any. I think she can see 360 degrees around her with those things.
Chris: Wonder Woman, in her guise as secret agent Diana Prince – a secret identity that I believe is only maintained by the severity of her ponytail -decides to go check out the scientist’s laboratory. And by that, we mean “bare brick-walled room with a chemistry set and a few beakers from the prop room.”
Matt: A swarthy goon is in there with her, playing with toy Army men (yes, toy Army men) when she comes into the Rehabbed Loft Apartment of Science. When he notices her gravitating toward his toys, he grabs a knife and threatens her with it as he tries to sidle out. She gives chase to some funky, funky tunes.
Chris: Three things about this chase scene: 1: When they run out of the laboratory into the hallway, they are very clearly in a completely different building. They don’t even try to hide that fact. 2: Diana transforms into Wonder Woman for the sole purpose of an awkward trampoline jump over the gap between buildings. 3: When she finally catches up with the thug and gets him with her lasso, and he tells her that he can’t tell her what he was doing there, she seems genuinely confused about how her own powers work.
Chris: “I can’t tell you!” “You have to. You… can’t lie?” It’s like she’s looking it up on her character sheet to prove she has truth powers.
Matt: If I learned anything from watching this show here and there on FX in my early teen years (it was a formative experience, let me tell you), the writers would use any excuse to get Wonder Woman in costume. It was like the anti-Smallville. And she sort of has a reason to be confused. A person would immediately have to answer truthfully, but Swarthy Thug isn’t a person. We have another melter.
Chris: As Diana calls Steve on his car phone (hellooooo, the ’70s) to report the melty puddle of thug that was just goofing off with army men, we get the first actual sign that this may in fact be a Christmas episode in the form of a Santa decoration outside the safehouse where they’re keeping the scientists. Awfully festive, wouldn’t you say?
Matt: Almost as festive as Steve’s three-piece suit. That is a party in wool right there.
Chris: Diana brings up the army men, and the guy with the perm, Dex, explains that all three scientists play war games with miniatures to relax. Nerrrrrrds.
Matt: Speaking of which, a military police officer arrives at the safehouse just as Steve and Dex are leaving to deliver some toys to Dr. Prescott, who is in a real huff. The toys cheer him up considerably. The MP, who doesn’t get paid enough for this s**t, steps out to find a wind-up toy dog, which proceeds to BITE HIM AND KNOCK HIM OUT.
Chris: Prescott immediately goes from literally saying “this is torture!” to giggling to himself as he sets up his army of Blood Ravens, which I can confirm is exactly how WarHammer players are when separated from their armies. But yeah, you’d think that an MP who lived in a world with Wonder Woman would know better than to pick up a mysterious barking dog toy that showed up unbidden. That s**t has “supervillain” written all over it.
Matt: Meanwhile, Prescott is playing away with his Army men when one of the cannons actually goes off and shoots a little needle into his arm. The phone rings and a monotone voice commands him to leave and take his little dog, too. In comes Android Prescott, and the MP’s none the wiser.
Chris: And by “none the wiser,” you mean that he wakes up, rubs his eyes, and shrugs, having apparently forgotten the entire episode with the little robot dog.
Matt: That little toy wiener dog really packed a punch.
Chris: With Prescott thoroughly androided, we cut now – twelve minutes into a 45-minute story – to the actual villains of the piece: Frank Gorshin and Frank Gorshin’s Ridiculous Fake Goatee!
Matt: It’s also the first part of the episode that really feels like a Christmas episode, with Joy to the World playing in the background and decorations outside Gorshin’s toy store, where he talks to the toys like he’s some kind of prototype for J.F. Sebastian from Blade Runner.
Chris: Frank Gorshin is awesome, and much like when he played the Riddler, his introduction here is equal parts silly and creepy. He’s talking to his toys and telling the new one that it has so many friends to meet, then tells a little girl doll that her “flirty smile” will help with the introductions. Weirded. Out.
Matt: The toys are also extra-creepy. The props people did a nice job of finding the most unsettling toys they could.
Chris: I think that might just be what toys were like in the ’70s.
Matt: Fair point. Some guys arrive with Prescott in a Christmas tree crate and Gorshin, whose character is named Hoffman but we might as well call him Toyman, observes his is better. “Mine are always better.”
Chris: From there, we cut back to Fake CIA Headquarters, where hunky Lyle Waggoner is having a sarcastic argument with a talking Lite-Brite.
Chris: Have we mentioned this is the ’70s?
Matt: Not even all the lights on the Lite-Brite’s screen work. I take my praise back, props department!
Chris: The “computer,” which appears to be named Ira, suggests that Steve check out the “present domicile” of the scientists, but he’s already on top of that, so he starts asking what to buy Diana for Christmas. That’s what’s happening, right? I’ve taken a lot of NyQuil over the past few days, but I’m pretty sure I’m not hallucinating right now.
Matt: That really did happen. The computer answers, “I suggest you talk to Wonder Woman,” because the machine is more perceptive than Steve is. Back at the safehouse, Diana arrives to see Dr. Prescott, who is just a ball of energy (and wax, and assorted circuitry). Diana asks about the toys and Prescott says he and his colleagues wanted to keep war “on the level of fantasy.” Then he puts his hand on a burner and doesn’t flinch, which clues Diana in to his non-human state. Diana looks annoyed that she has to deal with another one of these things.
Chris: She could not be less into this whole thing. The scene cuts, and when we rejoin our story, Wonder Woman is explaining to Steve how she took Prescott to the hospital to have his android status confirmed, and really, that’s a scene I would’ve liked to see. How exactly did that go down?
Matt: “We took his blood pressure and he has neither.”
Chris: “He is just straight up a Ken doll down there.”
Matt: “We asked him what his diet is like and he coughed up a rotary phone dial.”
Chris: The possibilities are endless. And the show just rubs it in when Diana brings a doctor to check on the last scientist, only for us to miss that examination as well. He’s still human, though, and pretty grumpy that he’s now under suspicion of being a traitor. It seems like the investigation is at a dead end, but Diana decides for absolutely no reason to investigate the source of his WarHammer figures.
Matt: Dr. Lazar leads Diana to Toyman’s toy shop in Georgetown, where she reacts to the various horrors within by looking mildly amused rather than utterly mortified. Maybe someone replaced her with an android.
Chris: Frank Gorshin’s reintroduction in this scene, in a Santa hat and beard, sitting silently on a hobby horse and petting a doll, is one of the creepiest things ever committed to film. I don’t know why Diana decided to check out the toy soldiers, but upon seeing that, she might as well have just said “Oh hey, you’re the bad guy.”
Matt: Diana asks about the toy soldiers and Toyman tries to sell her Japanese Spider-Man’s megazord, but she wants to see the small ones for “a friend.” (Great cover!) Toyman says he doesn’t carry them, gives her a dashboard Santa and pushes her out the door.
Chris: It’s actually Mazinger Z! The robot, I mean. Dashboard Santa is exactly what it sounds like.
Matt: So it is! Not suspiciously at all, Toyman closes up shop as soon as Diana’s outside and starts talking to his big model airplane, which he sends after Diana. This chase sequence is just ludicrous.
Chris: It goes on for roughly four hours, too, alternating between shots of a model plane flying around and Diana looking nervously over her shoulder as she drives her gigantic Oldsmobile down the highway. It’s exciting stuff, but it eventually comes to an end when Diana pulls over, turns into Wonder Woman, and grabs the plane right out of the sky.
Matt: The plane and Diana don’t appear in the same shot until that very last one, which makes me think that model airplane must not have flown too well. Wonder Woman quickly deduces the plane was tracking the Santa Toyman gave her (which would make one wonder why the plane shot at and not her car’s dashboard). So she knows who the bad guy is now.
Chris: I am shocked, shocked to find out that the bad guy must be the incredibly creepy liar that just tried to kill her.
Matt: And who just built a perfect android clone of her in, what, an hour? An evening, at most.
Chris: I’m just going to come right out and say it: I don’t care how much the Russians were paying this dude for the XYZ project, if he could make perfect robot clones of Lynda Carter, he was in the wrong business.
Matt: No joke. Back at not-CIA HQ, Diana reports her findings back to Steve and Dex bursts in saying Dr. Lazar is missing. Diana says she had him moved but won’t give up exactly where. Dex tries to weasel the information out but doesn’t get it. Diana gets suspicious and asks the All-Knowing Lite Brite if Dex may know Toyman, and it turns out he might. Diana and the computer exchange holiday pleasantries, too.
Chris: Diana seems weirdly miffed that the computer responds to “Merry Christmas” with “Ho ho ho,” which seems pretty appropriate to me, but whatever. Back at the toy shop, Dex confirms that he’s behind everything by ranting like a lunatic at Frank Gorshin about how the culmination of his sinister plan is nigh!
Matt: It’s the computer’s tone. It’s being glib. Apparently Dex’s motivation is that he “won’t have to take orders” from anyone again after he sells XYZ, but he’s still got a buyer to answer to, right? This is an awful plan.
Chris: Dex calls up Wonder Woman, and in order to lure her into a trap, he gets Frank Gorshin to play a tape of Steve Trevor’s voice while operating a puppet and generally looking pissed off about it.
Chris: He is… the prototype hipster.
Matt: He’s got the hat and everything. They needed Steve’s voice to convince Diana to show up for a meeting so she can, she’s told, find out where the real Prescott and Tobias (the melty scientist from the cold open) are.
Chris: And of course, like all government business, this happens out in the woods at midnight.
Matt: Diana shows up to find…Wonder Woman, and instead of calling bulls**t and going home, she follows the fake her to the toy shop anyway!
Chris: Presumably, she has to protect her identity, which is somehow still secret even though she and Wonder Woman look and speak exactly alike. Thus, she is led into the trap, where Dex holds her at gunpoint, brags about how nobody knew he was behind it, and then instructs Frank Gorshin to open up a case of paper butterflies.
Matt: Which knock her out somehow and also administers some kind of truth serum? She awakens to questioning from Dex, who asks where Dr. Lazar is. She gives up all the info: He’s at her apartment and the password is “alphabet soup.” Dex leaves, promising Toyman and Android Wonder Woman they’ll kill Diana once this is all over.
Chris: It was nice of Diana to take the show’s location budget into account when she was figuring out where to stash Lazar, wasn’t it?
Matt: She’s a true hero. Dex goes to the apartment and puts “alphabet soup” into a goofy question instead of just saying it, so the MP lets him in. Fake Wonder Woman stands guard over Diana, who’s doing a terrible job of playing possum. When Fake WW leaves to help Toyman carry Tobias and Prescott out of the basement (the clone even has super strength!), Diana becomes Wonder Woman Original and busts out. All the toys go nuts over this for a reason that is beyond me.
Chris: I think it’s just to make sure things are super creepy at all times, hence the close-up on the monkey with the cymbals and whatever that weird-ass talking doll is.
Matt: The commotion alerts Toyman and Fake Wonder Woman, which leads to the inevitable fight sequence between Lynda Carter and some stuntwoman in a wig.
Chris: Wonder Woman also tells Hoffman that he “should’ve stuck with the toys you’re best at – the harmless ones!” And that’s not really fair, is it? This dude is actually really super good at making robotic duplicates! I mean, yes, they get all melty every now and then, but still. The fight scene is goofy as hell, too, with the Wonder Women using all the toys in Hoffman’s basement to attack each other with hula hoops, bop bags and honest-to-God boxing gloves on springs.
Matt: It’s intercut with even more creepy toys, too. We get it, show. Toys are terrifying. The fight sequence pretty quickly plays a shell game on the audience, so it’s impossible to know which Wonder Woman got hit with a boxing glove and went out cold. Toyman’s confused, too, so he asks the last Wonder Woman standing what she’s going to do now. She coldly says she’s going to get Dr. Tobias, but then grins a little grin after Toyman leaves.
Chris: Out in the desert, Hoffman meets up with Dex to get all three doctors together so they can… carpool to Russia, I guess? Who even knows anymore.
Matt: As Wonder Woman unloads Lazar from Dex’s car, Dex remarks that she doesn’t look like a clone. How can Dex tell when Toyman himself can’t? How could that work?
Chris: Maybe Hoffman was just being a gentleman and not peeking too closely? However he arrived at this conclusion, Dex is so certain that she’s the real Wonder Woman that he whips out a pistol and tries to shoot her just in case. Which… I mean, this guy knows that deflecting bullets is Wonder Woman’s entire deal, right?
Matt: Everyone in this episode is pretty unsure of Wonder Woman’s powers, I guess. Dex fires a couple shots at her, she deflects them, and the two bad guys take off running. Wonder Woman takes down Toyman with her tiara boomerang and she picks up the back of the van Dex tries to speed away in. “The disadvantage of rear-wheel drive,” she seventies at him.
Chris: Back at Fake CIA HQ, Diana tells Steve that she’s cooked up a plan that solves everything: Instead of publicly arresting Dex and Hoffman, Wonder Woman has brainwashed them into thinking their plan worked, and now she’s just going to send the scientist androids off to Moscow, where they will presumably melt. That way nobody will ever try to make the XYZ Weapon again! This makes absolutely no sense at all.
Matt: For one thing, the real scientists will be living easily traceable lives in the United States. For another, Dex can spot fakes. (And Hoffman just happened to keep extra fakes in his basement for…reasons.)
Chris: Sexy reasons.
Matt: Diana and Steve watch as Dex and Toyman load up the van and head off to their unceremonious executions in a gulag after the clones melt. Then Wonder Woman vandalizes the outside of Hoffman’s old store by spray painting “Merry Christmas” on the window. And that’s the end.
Chris: And that brings us to the end of today’s selection. Now, with a longer work, we’d hit the highlights and lowlights, but let’s just take a cue from your Arrow recaps and skip straight to the Final Thoughts. Matt, how’d this episode hit you?
Matt: For a Christmas episode, there was only a sprinkling of Christmas. Some decorations here and there, Steve asking about a gift, the dashboard Santa, the spray-paint thing at the end. And the toy connection, I guess. We didn’t even get to see what Steve ended up getting for Diana! That’s pretty disappointing.
Chris: There’s an awful lot that’s disappointing in this show. Frank Gorshin was awesome as always, but it seems like he was barely in this episode – and that’s from two guys who have just spent three hours watching it.
Matt: He was pretty low-key, too, but he still had a big impact. The moment you pointed out, where he was sitting on the toy horse with the doll in his hand, had more presence than everything anyone else did in this episode combined. A lot of the goofier stuff, like silly plot points and bad effects (the “melting” was literally just the picture getting wavy) seem pretty endemic to the series as a whole.
Chris: To me, this feels like a pretty standard episode that they found out was going to air in December, so they tossed a few strands of tinsel on it and shoved it out the door. Unfortunately for all concerned, it actually ended up airing after Christmas (on December 30, 1977, to be exact), so it was all for nothing. It almost makes me wish we’d gone with the Mask cartoon.
Matt: Maybe next year. For now, [Sprays "Merry Christmas" on your computer screen].
Chris: God bless us, every one!