Review: The Bionic Woman

DVD. Fabulous Films

Spinning off from 1970’s smash hit series The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman ran for three seasons between 1976 and 1978, briefly outstripping its parent series in the ratings during its first year. The show was one of a handful of female-fronted action TV series of the time – others included Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman and Police Woman – and starred Lindsay Wagner as the title character, Jaime Summers.

First introduced in a Six Million Dollar Man two-parter, Jaime was the girlfriend of bionic man Steve Austin (Lee Majors), who is badly injured in a sky-diving accident and then given similar bionic replacement parts to Austin – new legs, right arm and ear. These give her super-strength, but things go wrong and she apparently dies after her body rejects the bionics. That should’ve been the end of it, but audience reaction was so strong – and so outraged that the character had been killed off – that some storyline fudging was rapidly worked out so the character could be brought back, firstly in another two-parter and then quickly spun off into her own show.

In the new series, Jaime returns home to the small town she grew up in, taking a job as a teacher at an air force base, but still also employed as an agent of the OSI. Her teaching career plays a part in some early episodes, which sometimes come awfully close to being twee kiddie shows, but as the series progresses, it’s frequently forgotten as she heads out on assorted undercover missions (at one point, it’s explained that there is a government agreement to cover her absences) that are generally more lightweight than those of The Six Million Dollar Man. The show takes advantage of her gender to stick her in situations that require female agents – or more often than not, female stereotypes. Hence, she goes undercover as a beauty contestant, a flight attendant, a female wrestler, a nun and a country singer – to name a few – to uncover assorted acts of espionage.

bionicwoman02The first season – a mid-season replacement series of fourteen episodes – does a good job of allowing the character to develop, even if the quality of the stories varies wildly. The opening episode, Welcome Home Jaime, was originally shot as part of The Six Million Dollar Man series, but then pulled before broadcast and given new titles to introduce the spin-off series. As such, it sets things up nicely, and also shows just how closely the two series were connected. While most spin-offs simply take a single character and transplant them into a different world with different supporting characters, The Bionic Woman remains a strong part of the Six Million Dollar Man universe. Not only does Lee Majors make several guest appearances as Steve Austin – one at least one occasion in a minor role unconnected to the main action – but Richard Anderson and Martin E. Brooks would appear on both shows as Oscar Goldman and Dr Rudy Wells, ensuring that a strong thread of continuity ran through the series. And there were the notable cross-over episodes – The Return of Bigfoot and Kill Oscar (which introduced the Fembots) – that ran for multi-episodes across both series – something rare now, and unheard of then.

Season One also introduces Lisa Galloway, Jaime’s surgically created double, who would also be a returning character, and ends with The Ghosthunter, where an apparent haunting is revealed to be the work of telekinetic teen Kristy McNichol – a rare fantasy-based story in a series that was otherwise espionage based. Things become more overtly science fiction inspired in season two though, which opens with The Return of Bigfoot (a sequel to a Six Million Dollar Man episode involving extra-terrestrials and a robotic sasquatch). There’s also a Scooby Doo like episode involving a Native American demon (or at least someone pretending to be one), a tale of alien mind control, a HAL-like computer out of control and Biofeedback, where Jaime oddly plays second fiddle to an agent who has mastered self mind control. The fembots also make their first appearance in the three part (split with The Six Million Dollar Man) story Kill Oscar.

The most entertaining episode of the second season, however, is a fun, comedic take on The Cat and the Canary. Black Magic has guest appearances from Vincent Price, Julie Newmar and Hermoine Baddeley , all having fun hamming it up, and you really wish it’s been a full length film.

bionicwoman03Season Three is where the show jumped the shark – or more accurately, mechanised the pooch. Yes, this season opens with the two-part Bionic Dog story (rather laughably planned as the pilot for another spinoff series), and if that isn’t information enough, then let me confirm it – the show really does go downhill in this final series. Not that it stops being entertaining, but it increasingly seems to be running out of ideas. There’s another two-part fembot story, a guest appearance (as himself) from Evel Kneivel, a couple of alien invasion stories (plus a fake UFO episode that has the most shockingly bad special effects imaginable), killer sharks, spiritual possession and – midway through the season when someone remembered about him – the return of Max, the bionic dog, as a regular character. Head writer and producer Kenneth Johnson had left the show by now, and it does seem to suffer from a lack of direction. More notably, the show had switched networks, and this meant that although Oscar and Rudy continued as regular characters, Steve Austin was conspicuously absent – he doesn’t even get mentioned in passing. Instead, Jaime is paired with OSI agent Chris (Christopher Stone) as a new romantic interest, though his only powers seem to be a loud moustache and continual look of confusion. Also returning as a semi-regular is Jennifer Darling as Oscar’s secretary – previously seen in Kill Oscar, she now turns up more often whenever the show writers remembered her.

The final episode, On the Run, is interesting for what it could have been. Unusually for a US show of the time, The Bionic Woman reached a natural, planned conclusion, and so this final episode was written to be just that – a wrap up of the show. It features a frustrated Jaime, tired of her constant work for the OSI and disillusioned with what they do, resigning – only to find that it’s not that easy. With the government trying to imprison her in a luxury resort that she can never leave, she goes on the run. It’s a dark story with shades of The Prisoner, and has some of the best performances of the series from Wagner and Anderson – but it’s fatally compromised by a tacked-on ending that returns things to the status quo, all the better for syndicated episodes to be shown out of order in the future. That’s what TV was like back then.

Despite the decline of the final season, The Bionic Woman remains a lot of fun. It’s generally lighter than The Six Million Dollar Man, right down to the soft-focus visuals and less dramatic theme music, but still manages to have moments of real darkness. The double episode Deadly Ringer from season two in particular is surprisingly harrowing, as Jaime starts to lose her mind and her identity. These darker moments are helped by Wagner’s performance, which is excellent throughout the series – she has a natural charm and her acting seems effortless – unlike much of what we’d see on TV at the time. Yet when called on to do so, she could be genuinely convincing as someone in a state of panic, fear or emotional trauma.

Anderson too is excellent. His Oscar Goldman here is a more human character than in The Six Million Dollar Man, though no less determined. His habit of called Jaime ‘babe’ in season three would probably have him up on a sexual harassment charge these days though…

Those of you who own The Six Million Dollar Man box set will get a certain amount of deja ju here, as all the crossover episodes (including the original appearances of the Bionic Woman on that show) and the later TV movies are also, naturally, included here. Like that set, this collection comes with plentiful extras – several featurettes featuring interviews with the major players and a number of commentary tracks. It makes a great companion piece to that epic collection and is almost as essential a slice of 1970s nostalgia.