SHEENA (2000-2002 TV series)
Page 1: The Concept

The character of Sheena had been around for over 60 years when Steven L Sears and Douglas Schwartz revived the idea in the late Nineties.  The concept of a live action Sheena based on the Fiction House Comics jungle character had first been raised in 1952, when publicity announced that producer Sol Lesser was searching for an actress to play Sheena in a feature film.  That project eventually metamorphosed into the Sheena Queen of the Jungle television series with Irish McCalla , filmed in late 1955 and early 1956.  The idea lay dormant for 19 years until producer Paul Aratow acquired the rights to make a Sheena feature film in 1975 (see 1984 Sheena Page 1: The Concept).  It took another 9 years for the project to reach fruition and the 1984 Sheena film starring Tanya Roberts was the final outcome.  A live action Sheena vehicle would not be seen for another 16 years until Columbia Pictures TV agreed to produce a new Sheena television series.  Thirty-five episodes were eventually produced and were screened in the US between October 2000 and February 2002.

If you have previously read Page 1: The Concept of the 1984 Sheena section you will be aware of all of the difficulties that Paul Aratow faced in his attempts to bring Sheena to the big screen after he had acquired the rights to the property.  I was
surprised to see that Aratow's name was not associated with the Gena Lee Nolin Sheena series.  On 12 May 1999 The Hollywood Reporter newspaper ran a story stating that Paul Aratow had filed a lawsuit against Sony Pictures , who own Columbia, in a claim that asserted that the studio had deprived him of his "first right of negotiation" by assigning the new Sheena television series to producer Douglas Schwartz (right) without giving Aratow an opportunity to try his hand at the project. Schwartz, along with Michael Beck, were responsible for developing the famed Baywatch television series (1990-1999).

When Paul Aratow first arrived in Hollywood in early-1975 he had originally formed a company with his friend Alan Rinzler, and it was their company, Rinzler-Aratow Productions, that acquired the rights to Sheena.  In 1980, long after Alan Rinzler had withdrawn from the Hollywood scene in disgust, Aratow assigned the film and TV rights to Columbia.  His contract, however, gave him the first right of negotiation on all future Sheena projects.  The Hollywood Reporter article quoted Sony Pictures as saying that, "The right of first negotiation is legally unenforceable.  Under California law, 'a contract which leaves an essential element for future agreement of the parties is held fatally uncertain and unenforceable.'"  Aratow's lawyer, Steven Eggleston, warned that the outcome of the case could have far-reaching consequences for movie producers.  Eggleston wrote letters to all of the Hollywood guilds asking for support in fighting to protect an important right, pointing out that many contracts could be placed in doubt if this clause was invalidated by the courts.  Sony's Picture's lawyers further claimed that Aratow had no standing to file such a complaint as the original agreement was with Rinzler-Aratow Productions, and Aratow's partner Alan Rinzler had not joined the suit (Worley).

Paul Aratow obviously lost that battle, for soon after he was scambling to develop an online web-based animated Sheena project - Sheena and the Lost River of Gold - promoting it as "the real Sheena" (Worley).  He had only signed over film and TV rights to Columbia, so The Net was fair game for a Sheena project.  Sony Pictures, however, saw the matter differently and in May 2000 filed a law suit - Columbia Pictures vs Galaxy Publishing, Paul Aratow - claiming that Aratow's sites, and were attempts at cybersquatting, even though no associated websites existed.  Cybersquatting is the practice of registering a popular internet address with the intention of selling it back to the rightful owner for an inflated price.  It appears Sony were successful in this action, because both web addresses are now defunct.

My personal feelings about the sidelining of Paul Aratow in this situation is that it was probably a fortunate outcome for Sheena fans.  When Aratow acquired the rights to the property in 1975 he did not do so out of an affection for and appreciation of the character.  He had never read any of the Sheena stories in Jumbo Comics and he had never seen any of the Irish McCalla Sheena Queen of the Jungle episodes.  For him it was merely a convenient windfall to have the opportunity to exploit financially a very popular character.  He clashed with Columbia studios and director John Guillerman over how the project should be realised, but this could possibly be used in his defence, considering how badly the project came out without his input.  I doubt it would have made much difference considering the horrendous interpretation of Sheena that resulted from his involvement in the  London Night's Sheena comics series.  Frank Bonilla assures me that Aratow only saw the liberties that London Night had taken with Sheena after it was published.  However, the previews of the new Sheena comic due for release in March 2007, which Aratow is taking a lot of credit for in the promotional releases, indicate he is still wide of the mark.  For some time I have felt that the wrong person controlled the rights to Sheena.  I am still unsure exactly how much influence Paul Aratow has over the live action component of the Sheena property, but I fear his questionable taste is sure to resurface again.

With the legal problems out of the way they were ready to proceed.  A test reel for the new Sheena series was shot at Vasquez Rocks in Southern California "a long time" before the series was actually filmed.  Gena Lee Nolin was already signed to play Sheena at that stage but John Allen Nelson was not yet signed to a contract, although he appeared in the test reel.  Multiple Emmy Award winning actress, CCH Pounder (Carol Christine Hilaria Pounder) (left), appeared as Kali in the test footage and Steven L Sears said they were very sad to learn that she was unavailable to do the series.  Margo Moorer was given the role instead and Sears said they were very happy and relieved to have discovered her (Sears).

We are fortunate to have an insider's view of the development of this television series because one of the producers, Steven L Sears (right), has written an informative web site about the project.  His Sheena Bible page gives lengthy explanations about the character's origin, according to the new series; descriptions of the personalities of all of the major characters; the approach taken to the writing and directing of the episodes; descriptions of all the sets and locations used for the series; the general tone of the show; and most importantly, the rationale behind the "the strange world of Sheena" - her special abilities and her relationship with animals.

Sears explains that Sheena, a blonde white woman raised in the jungle after she was orphaned, has acquired a contempt for the cruelty and savagery of the outside world.  She has vowed to fight the encroachments of the "enemy" into her own world, by whatever means it takes.  She has also learned to read English from Kali, her shaman step-mother, and has acquired a detailed knowledge of the outside world from reading and from her prize possession, a ham radio (seriously).  Her main arsenal in this fight to protect her idyllic world are two special powers - the ability to communicate with animals and the power to morph into the bodies of warm-blooded animals.  She has a very direct manner and makes no allowances for emotional politics. Oh yes, she is also sexy, exotic and ferocious.

Sheena has an unusual relationship with a roguishly handsome local pilot named Matt Cutter.  She respects his ability to deal with difficult situations and is attracted by his strength, charisma, and when necessary, his gentleness.  She is, however, wary of his ambiguous morality.  Sears explains that the sexual tension between Sheena and Cutter is an essential factor of the series.  He is attracted to her, for obvious reasons, but is wary of getting involved with her sexually partly because of her shape-changing abilities.  When he wakes up she may not be the same creature he went to sleep beside.

In discussing the writing of the episodes for the series Sears says that the scripts need to be engaging and the writing has to be upbeat and forward, in respect to both the action and the characterisations.  The structure of each episode is: Tease; Act One; Act Two; Act Three; Act Four; and Tag.  In general, there are two action scenes per episode - one at the end of either Act One or the beginning of Act Two, and another comprising Act Four.  He points out that this arrangement can vary slightly between episodes but is used as a general rule.  Ideally, a strong "A" story with a "B" story that intertwines and resolves with the "A" story is desireable.  He points out that the shape-changing element should be used very sparingly to keep audiences wanting more.

Sears also explains that the direction of the episodes should give the series a unique, distinctive style - one that is not too distracting but that gives the series a signature style.  They wanted the camera to have a freedom that moved fluidly through the action, without the erratic effect of a hand-held camera.  He said that they wanted to push the boundaries of the special affects a bit and try to get the audience to see the unexpected, while trying to keep within budget.  He said that audiences have become very savvy to special effects so they want to challenge them.  In regard to action, he explained that Sheena never does martial arts, but fights like an animal at al times.  As an example he said that Sheena might clamp her fist on an opponent's throat the way a lion does when it brings down prey.  Sheena should move like an animal at all times.  This instruction obviously got lost along the way because the fight scenes in the series are based very heavily on martial arts.
Strangely, in his discussion of the Sheena character on his website Sears does not mention that Sheena has a third "special power" - the ability to become the Darak'na (left).  His Sheena Bible page was obviously written while the series was still in development, because he has included "all pending final location and budgetary decisions" in brackets beside the "Permanent Sets" heading.  This makes me conclude that the concept of the Darak'na was a very late addition to the show.  In an interview with Femme Fatales magazine, Gena Lee Nolin said, "It is sort of an old-time thing my mother Kali came up with when I was small" to scare strangers out of the jungle.  Sheena dresses in fangs, mud and tattered hair to protect herself and her family, but she also acquires superhuman strength when she is the Darak'na.  I suspect that this aspect of the program was the most difficult for old-time Sheena fans like myself to come to terms with.  The morphing and beastial transformation were obviously added to appeal to the contemporary audience, but the series never really explains how smearing herself with mud increases Sheena's strength so dramatically.

Steven L Sears explains that the world of Gena Lee Nolin's Sheena takes place in an imaginary, but contemporary, African country named Maltaka, located within a fictitous region of Africa called the LaMistas.  He also says that they wanted to give the series a grand, lush look, like a film set in Africa.  I feel that they have largely been successful in achieving that within the budgetary limations of a television series.  The Florida jungle locations are convincing (see Page 3: The Location) and stock footage of African animals is used with good effect.  When I first saw some of the series I was very disappointed by some of the dramatic license they had taken with my much-loved Sheena, but as I am revisiting the series in chronological sequence in order to write the plot summaries (see the link below) I find that I am having a lot of fun.  I guess a modern, sassy Sheena with super powers is better than no Sheena at all.

Click on the image below to read plot summaries and to see video captures for each episode of this series:

• Rob M Worley's website - comics2film's Sheena Web Show page

• Producer Steven L Sears personal website - Sheena Bible page and Sheena Photos page
Femme Fatales magazine, May/Jun 2001

• The photo of the cast of the new Sheena television series - (L to R) Kevin Quigley, Margo Moorer (seated), Gena Lee Nolin and John Allen Nelson - is from Femme Fatales magazine, May/Jun 2001
• The photo of Douglas Schwartz was pilfered from Steven L Sears' personal website for PondaLee Productions (apologies Steven)
• The photo of CCH Pounder was pilfered from the Probert Encyclopedia website
• The photo of Steven L Sears was pilfered from his personal website for PondaLee Productions (apologies again Steven)
• The photo of the Darak'na is a vidcap from Season 1, Episode 7, The Lost Boy, from my set of DVD-Rs of this series
• The vidcaps from the opening credits of this series are from my set of DVD-Rs of this series
• Columbia Pictures TV Producer Steven L Sears' Sheena pages; the extensive production photos are very good

SHEENA © is the property of Sony Pictures Corporation
This independent, fan-based analysis of the Sheena material is copyright © 2006 Paul Wickham