I Am Woman, See Me Fly
by Saab Lofton
The Greatest American Hero was cancelled in the spring of 1983, but three years later, Robert Culp proposed the following concept to series creator, Stephen J. Cannell: What if the alien supersuit was given to a woman?
Cannell gave the greenlight for a pilot to be produced. Unfortunately, the networks didn't buy it, so The Greatest American Heroine only aired in syndication (fortunately, it's now available on DVD). If you ask me, those network executives were threatened by the prospect of a woman being even more powerful than Superman -- since the wearer of the suit can do things ol' Kal-El can't (the ability to shrink and see a "holograph" of a person's whereabouts while handling an object with their "vibes" on it -- not to mention telekinesis and invisibility).
Every once in a while, some gratuitously coy, smug, snide, sarcastic cynic will review The Greatest American Heroine with utter disdain. One online reviewer in particular wrote the following: "Unfortunately for Bill, Ralph picks a woman with huge 'save the world' issues."
What the fuck is wrong with having "huge 'save the world' issues"?! I shutter to think how many potential activists were discouraged by some asshole who accused them of having "issues" simply because they wanted to make the world a better place ...
The Greatest American Heroine opens with Bill Maxwell, alone in his office late at night and talking into a tape recorder. He initially reminisces about how the aliens brought him and Ralph together and the years they spent making a difference. Then Bill shifts emotional gears and describes what he calls the "worst case, nightmare scenario."
At some point, the media and the government became aware of Ralph's powers and arranged for a woman to pretend she was in danger in order to lure him out into the open. After Ralph rescued her, she saluted him, and to Bill's horror, cheering throngs of people streamed seemingly from nowhere. Moments later, a secret service detail parts the crowd to make way for a limousine escorted by a precession of police cars. Out of the limo steps the President of the United States, who shakes Ralph's hand and calls him "the greatest American hero."
Since the media learned of Ralph before or at the same time the government did, he escaped the fate Bill was afraid would befall him: In the second season episode, Captain Bellybuster and the Speed Factory, Bill told Ralph and Pam ...
"Boys and girls, if it ever gets out about the suit, I'm gonna tell you what happens: The first thing that happens is our government drops a net on the three of us. You, Ralph, you're gonna wind up in a steel cell someplace in deepest Arizona, while the eggheads from the Pentagon try to figure out what you can do with the suit. And since there's no answer to that [due to the loss of the instruction book], they're gonna take the suit and lock it up and never let the three of us out. Ever. Because they're gonna be scared to death that the commies get their hands on this thing. So the whole thing goes in the dustbin for the next 50 years and we wind up packing parachutes in a room with no windows."
From the very first episode of The Greatest American Hero, it was made clear -- or at least heavily implied -- by both Bill and the aliens that Ralph should keep a low profile. Bill's motives for insisting on such secrecy, however, were a bit self-centered: So long as Ralph remained incognito, he could take credit for whatever Ralph did, which accounted for the stellar track record spoken of in the episode, This is the One the Suit Was Meant For (then again, it would've been problematic for Ralph to show up at a police station in red tights and a cape demanding that people he assaulted be arrested, even if his face was masked -- Bill's badge does serve some purpose).
In contrast, the aliens suggested in the pilot that Ralph use the suit's power of invisibility because they were motivated by a genuine concern over a) how effective he'd be in the field, and b) whether being considered a hero by the public would go to his head (in episodes such as The Price is Right and The Two-Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Fastball, Ralph did exhibit a slight weakness for gratification).
Sure enough, when the world realizes a high school teacher from Los Angeles named Ralph Hinkley has a wide array of superhuman powers, he becomes an overnight sensation without precedent -- and as a result, Ralph is so consumed with publicity tours, autograph seekers and Hollywood offers that there's no longer any time to save the world. The aliens then recall Ralph and orders him to find a successor; they say this is necessary for them to be able to give the entire planet a case of amnesia when it comes to Ralph, which is curious, because it makes one wonder wouldn't it have been possible for Ralph to keep the suit AND have the world forget about him.
At any rate, this paves the way for Holly Hathaway (played perfectly by the lovely Mary Ellen Stuart) -- an even bigger commie than Ralph ever thought of being. Whereas Ralph taught a class of juvenile delinquents from the ghetto/barrio, Holly VOLUNTEERED to be a single, foster parent who also teaches at a day care center, runs/lives in a safehouse for abused/abandoned animals and even sports a bumper sticker that reads, "One Atom Bomb Can Ruin Your Whole Day."
The great thing about Holly is she puts Bill in his place more than Ralph ever did by only accepting leftist missions. For instance, their very first adventure together is in Newfoundland, where they go up against a bar full of cutthroat whalers -- it's an adventure Greenpeace and Earth First! would love ...