On November 7, 1975, ABC aired a made-for-TV movie called The New, Original Wonder Woman. It was a ratings success, and the network quickly authorized the production of two one-hour episodes which aired the following April.
These episodes scored strong enough ratings that ABC commissioned a further 11 episodes for the 1976-77 season, several of which were used to fill in for The Bionic Woman television show, after production had to be suspended while its star, Lindsay Wagner, recovered from a car accident. Notably, two stories (one of them a two parter) introduced Debra Winger as Wonder Girl, in one of her first on-screen roles.
Few changes were made between the pilot episodes and the continuing series, titled Wonder Woman. The most memorable change, indeed what became the 'signature moment' of the show, was the introduction of an explosion effect to the twirling transformation, to change Diana Prince into her super-heroic counterpart. This magical sequence, which appeared at least once in most episodes, has been incorporated into both the comic book and animated versions of the character.
In the first episodes, this sequence was performed by fading between two synchronized shots, both filmed with an over-cranked camera to create a slow motion effect. A twirling Diana would gradually dissolve into Wonder Woman. But this sequence was too expensive, in time and money, to maintain. A camera would need to be 'locked off' (secured in place), and Carter's costume, make up and hair altered between shooting the two segments which made up the sequence. The "thunderclap" was added to mask the join between the two segments, allowing each segment to be shot independently, without need for a locked off camera, at more convenient points in the shooting schedule. Apparently, the sound effect is only audible to the audience and to Diana; she uses this change adjacent to a dormitory of sleeping women, in adjoining office spaces, backstage at a live show, in the woods behind a crowd of soldiers, and other locations where she would attract attention if the "boom" was heard.
Another change involved the relationship between Steve Trevor and Wonder Woman. Although Carter and Waggoner had good chemistry, it was decided to play down the romantic aspects found in the comic, and, ultimately, the characters remained simply good friends. Executive producer Douglas S. Cramer noted the difficulties inherent in maintaining long-term romantic tension between leads, with the resolution of that tension often resulting in the cancellation of the series.
The series began at a time when violence on television was under intense scrutiny. As a result, Wonder Woman was less frequently shown punching or kicking people the way she did in the early episodes. The character would usually be shown pushing and throwing enemies, or using creativity to get them to somehow knock themselves out (jumping high into the air causing pursuers to collde). Despite the wartime circumstances, the character never resorted to deadly force (the only exception occurs in the pilot film when she sinks a Nazi submarine with an explosive plane, although the fate of the sailors aboard is never actually specified).
Wonder Woman herself was occasionally defeated by the Nazis, but she always came back in the second half of the show to save the day. Among the things the Nazis used on her were chloroform and poison gas. Her enemies also occasionally stole away her belt (leaving her without her super strength), her lasso, and her bracelets (leaving her defenseless against gunfire), but Wonder Woman always recovered the respective stolen component by the end of the episode.
Despite strong ratings, ABC stalled on commissioning a second season causing the show's frustrated production company, Warner Brothers, to offer Wonder Woman to CBS. While ABC dithered, CBS took the series on condition that the setting is switched to the modern day. Changing the title to The New Adventures of Wonder Woman, the series was nudged away from sophisticated humor towards a more conventional action-adventure take.
Princess Diana, ageless due to her Amazon nature, returns from Paradise Island after a 35-year absence to become an agent with the Inter-Agency Defense Command (IADC), a Central Intelligence Agency-like organization fighting criminals and the occasional alien invasion. Infrequent references to her World War II experiences were made in early episodes.
Changes in the first CBS season included Wonder Woman's costume being redesigned. Her invisible plane became a jet aircraft, though it only appeared a couple of times. Waggoner still appeared as Wonder Woman's friend Steve Trevor; however, he was now Steve Trevor Jr., the look-alike son of the heroine's World War II ally. The episode "The Return of Wonder Woman" revealed that Trevor Sr. had attained the rank of major general and had died some years earlier. As with the first season, the producers chose to downplay and later drop any suggestion that Steve and Wonder Woman were anything more than friends.
The theme song was re-written to remove references to the Axis powers, reflecting the series' new present-day setting, and the action depicted in the opening's animated comic book panels was similarly updated. Beginning with the episode "The Man Who Made Volcanoes", the opening title sequence was changed again to an instrumental and more traditional "action scenes" opening.
Trevor was promoted to a desk job midway through the season, leaving Diana to go out on missions alone in most episodes. By this time, Diana was no longer simply Trevor's assistant, but was now an accomplished solo agent.
Unlike the first season, Wonder Woman's sources of power (her belt, bracelets, and lasso) were never stolen by villains in any of the CBS episodes.
Several other changes occurred as the second season progressed. Joe Atkinson (Normann Burton), a weathered IADC agent, was dropped after the ninth episode, as was a regular segment showing Diana, Steve and Joe receiving orders from a "Charlie's Angels"-like character who is heard but never seen. Midway through the season, this was replaced with regular briefings by IRAC (or more familiarly, "Ira"), IADC's super-intelligent computer, who deduces Diana's secret identity. Saundra Sharp joined the cast as Eve, Steve's assistant (the job held by Diana at the start of the season). Near the end of the season, in the episode "IRAC is Missing," a tiny robot called Rover was added for comic relief. An offshoot of IRAC who performs duties such as delivering coffee and sorting mail, Rover speaks with a high-pitched voice, occasionally makes "Beep Beep" sounds (borrowed from the Road Runner cartoon series) and, like IRAC, is aware that Diana Prince and Wonder Woman are one and the same.
The character of Wonder Woman maintained her no-kill policy, although there were exceptions: in the episode "Anschluss '77" she destroys a clone of Adolf Hitler, and another episode made reference to a villain who was believed drowned following a previous unseen encounter with Diana and Wonder Woman.
Multiple costumes are introduced. Wonder Woman still wears the red-white-and-blue cape for special events or appearances from the first season, but without the skirt. A diving costume is introduced; a navy-blue lycra body suit with matching gloves, gold bracelets, flat boots, and a flexible tiara is featured whenever aquatic activity is necessary. The same costume, with low-heeled boots and a gold helmet, is used to ride motorcycles.
With the beginning of the third season, further changes were made to target the show at a teenage audience. The title theme was reworked again to give it a disco beat, the use of gimmicky little robot 'Rover' was increased for comic effect and episodes began to revolve around topical subjects like skateboarding, roller coasters and the environment. Teenagers or young adults were commonly used as main characters in the plot lines. Eve disappeared from the cast although she is mentioned once or twice.
Wonder Woman was also allowed to become a bit more physical in the third season and could now be seen throwing the occasional punch or kicking. The writers also came up with several unusual ways for Diana to execute her spinning transformation, one of the most notable occurring in the episode "Stolen Faces" in which Diana makes the change while falling off a tall building.
Diana's powers were also increased, particularly in the third season episode "Deadly Dolphin" in which she is shown communicating telepathically with animals and generating "bursts" of some sort to scare away a killer shark. The animated stars used before and after commercial breaks were dropped.
The show continued to gather a strong audience. In the final episode produced, the writers attempted a "relaunch" of sorts by having Diana reassigned to the Los Angeles bureau of IADC with a new supporting cast and Steve Trevor, whose presence had decreased throughout the season, was finally written out of the series. This new take on the format lasted for merely a single episode ("The Man Who Could Not Die"), which set up an assortment of new supporting characters, including Bryce Candall, an indestructible man (the titular character of the episode), as well as a streetwise youngster named T. Burton Phipps III who for some unexplained reason is allowed to hang out at the IADC. Also added to the cast was a chimpanzee who like Bryce, is also indestructible.
CBS ultimately decided to strengthen its sitcom offerings and Wonder Woman was suspended from the network schedule, though it was never formally canceled.