Monday, September 24, 2012

The Secrets of Isis episode 1: "The Lights of Mystery Mountain"

Sorry! I accidentally hit the wrong button and released my review of episode three, "Fool's Dare" into the wild before I gave it a thorough fact-checking. Certain online info led me to believe it was the second episode, and I needed to fill in some names. So now everything is pretty well bolixed up. No matter. Isis would have some comforting words about doing your best but understanding your limitations.

 This is the premiere episode of the Filmation live action TV series Isis, or The Secrets of Isis. It aired Saturday morning, September 6, 1975 on the CBS Television Network.  I was largely an ABC-NBC sort of kid, but I usually flipped over to watch this and Shazam!  Unfortunately, I retained very little of my impressions of either show.  Re-watching Isis now is revelatory.  So I'm going to review them all right here in this very blog, and you can watch with me and see what I get wrong.  Let's begin.

When high school student Cindy Lee takes photos of strange lights in the sky, teachers Andrea Thomas and Rick Mason accompany her back to a small mountain town where they investigate burned spots, abandoned cars and possibly missing tourists.  When Cindy involves herself with a couple of local teens and their shady boss, can Isis save her and solve the mystery?

I don't know about you, but the first ten minutes or so probably scared me out of my pajamas when I was 7 years old.  At one point our intrepid academics see the strange lights and Cindy runs back to the car alone to retrieve her camera.  Yikes!  Then again, I was the kind of kid who, if I'd read a horror comic the day before or watched a TV commercial for The Exorcist that night during M*A*S*H, would have to fight the screaming terrors simply walking into my darkened room at bedtime.

Even though logically Cindy is roughly a football field's length away from her teachers and the cops, for just a moment the danger seems real, as if UFOs truly are soaring around making those creepy noises and vanishing people into pocket universes or space-napping them for hideous experiments like buttocks transplantations between humans and animals.  You know, the usual alien gimicks.  The true culprit turns out to be much more banal.  Just an old dude in a western shirt, with motives that were probably a Saturday morning cliche even in 1975.  The tension seeps out of the show as we realize Cindy was never in any real danger and Isis can easily handle the greedy chump with a couple of rhyming couplets and arms akimbo poses.

JoAnna Cameron displays a ton of easy charisma here, both as teacher Thomas and goddess Isis.  It certainly helps that she's gorgeous-- obviously she was in great shape.  But she doesn't cop out on her performance.  If she had any doubts about maintaining her dignity while pretending to fly in what was probably a low rent Chroma key blue-screen shot hardly more advanced than a local station's weather news technology, she doesn't let them show.  In fact, she does a fantastic George Reeves impression throughout, finally giving the camera a knowing glance as she parries Cindy Lee's Lois Lane/Jimmy Olsen-like observation that she's never around when Isis soars into action and sarcastically agrees with Rick Mason's old fashioned ideas about women in times of crisis.

The supporting actors are fine, too.  Beefy character actor Kelly Thordsen plays the villainous Mr. Moss with just the right note of mild menace-- jerky enough to seem committed, but ultimately hapless in a way that soothes young psyches.  He passed away in 1977, but wow, he played a lot of cops in his career.  Joanna Pang conveys Cindy's youthful enthusiasm with a breathy voice and jittery energy, and the show quickly establishes her danger-prone personality.  Brian Cutler doesn't get much to work with here, with Rick Mason functioning mostly as the thick-skulled skeptic to Cameron's open-minded teacher.  Later episodes give Cutler the opportunity to portray Mason with a more engaging personality and a self-deprecating sense of humor.  The conflicted teens-- they initially work for Moss as a joke but become increasingly disenchanted when they realize the consequences of their actions towards Cindy-- are a nice touch.

Few people in the Isis world are truly bad, simply misguided and they usually provide their own conscience-based epiphanies.  The heroic character Isis therefore becomes a device for reinforcing lessons learned from the situation at hand-- usually involving Cindy Lee in a dilemma.  Isis helps and her remonstrations are gentle; she doesn't force issues, or impose.  In this way, the show's philosophy tends toward a positive view of humanity.

In terms of kid-vid, and despite its paltry budget, Isis is vastly superior to most of its contemporaries and even flashy schlock with Power Rangers or whatever the hell kids got into in the 90s.  It may lack the colorful, trippy acid-rush quality that makes Sid and Marty Krofft's offerings perennial faves of the post-modern deconstructionist crowd (you know, like me), but unlike a typical episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? or The New Adventures of Gilligan, Isis doesn't assume its audience consists of tiny idiots on a sugar-rush from Fruit Loops cereal.

This episode never condescends or talks down to its young viewers as it presents simple yet thoughtful concepts such as a short debate over the existence and nature of UFOs ( with Dr. Barnes wisely pointing out that term isn't synonymous with flying saucers but simply implies the unknown), or coming to the realization you've made some bad decisions and doing the right thing to fix them, even if it means owning up to your responsibilities and accepting punishment in the end.  It features characters capable making mistakes, of inner conflict and change.  All with a spunky, positivistic vibe and an appealing lead.

As such, it doesn't descend into camp enough to charm the college kids, but it still provides some solid entertainment even to someone like me.  It beats ironically appreciating poorly animated hijinks and brainless slapstick.  You know, the kind of absolute crap we try to pretend isn't an entertainment nadir or wasn't a complete waste of our lazy, privileged, suburban childhoods.  And inspires insipid live-action remakes that inevitably drive Internet fan rage.

One thing bothers me, though.  The show never explains why the two dudes leave yet another burned circle for Thomas, Mason and a couple of cops to ponder after they pick up Cindy.  Cindy says nothing about it, yet she must have noticed.  I doubt I questioned this the first time I watched it.  I just felt worried for Cindy Lee.  Mr. Moss would stop at nothing to get her camera!  Well, if "stop at nothing" consist largely of shouting ineffectually as the kids drive away.

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