Home > Reviews > SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 19-20: “The Bionic Woman” (Spoilers)

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 19-20: “The Bionic Woman” (Spoilers)

“The Bionic Woman”: We open with Steve actually on a mission, to recover a stolen US-currency printing plate from Ronaugh (Malachi Throne), who sees Steve’s face and swears revenge. But then we cut to Steve going on his third vacation in the past four episodes. He’s now officially the laziest TV action hero ever. This time, though, he’s gone home to Ojai, California to buy a ranch and put down roots, helped by his mother Helen (Martha Scott, returning from “The Coward”) and stepfather Jim Elgin (Ford Rainey, debuting here). He’s excited to learn from them that another famous Ojai native is back in town: tennis pro Jaime Sommers (do I even need to say Lindsay Wagner?), who was as close as a sister to him growing up, but that he’s long harbored more than brotherly feelings for. They reconnect effortlessly, and though screenwriter Kenneth Johnson (making his 6M$M debut) puts up the token obstacle of another guy she’s dating, she breaks up with that guy off-camera and without explanation, leading to the inevitable courtship montage. Except this montage has a cheesy twist. It features “Sweet Jamie” [sic], the second of two songs written for the episode, the first one being “Got to Get Loose,” which was played under the first-act opening. The songs, with music by Oliver Nelson and lyrics by Lionel E. Siegel, are performed by Lee Majors himself. They, um, aren’t especially good, with lyrics rather baldly and unsubtly stating the emotions being expressed. And Majors is the kind of singer who doesn’t feel any need to come anywhere close to the rhythm of the musical accompaniment. Which can work well — cf. Sinatra — but only if the singer really knows what he’s doing, and I didn’t get that sense from Majors. (Majors’s other, uhh, major singing credit would be the theme song to his later series The Fall Guy.)

But the slow pace and cheesy songs are more than made up for by Johnson’s witty dialogue and Lindsay Wagner’s amazing charm and animation. I’ve always found her an absolute delight to watch and listen to, so expressive and fun and spontaneous, with such a marvelous naturalness and humor to her delivery. (Great legs, too. I’d forgotten that. I’ve always really liked her but never really seen her as a sex symbol. In retrospect, I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because her own show didn’t really sexualize her the way something like Charlie’s Angels did with its leads. She was more of a girl-next-door, best-friend sort of presence. At least, that’s my recollection.) And she brings out the best in Majors too. They have excellent chemistry, and he’s as relaxed and animated with her as he was in the closing scene of “Taneha” that I liked so much. (In Kenneth Johnson’s commentary — the only one on this season’s set — he says that Wagner’s spontaneity tended to bring out a similar quality in the performers who played off of her, and that’s entirely clear in her scenes with Majors. She makes him a better actor.) Their relationship is much more credible than the out-of-nowhere old flame from “Lost Love” a few episodes back. That’s partly due to the chemistry, but just as much due to the writing. Making them friends since childhood,giving them a history and a well-established ease with each other, makes it less contrived that she could’ve been out of his life for the duration of the series so far and yet quickly fall into a devoted relationship with him.

Of course, it can’t last. Just as things are getting serious, they go skydiving, and Jaime’s chute inexplicably fails. The accident isn’t very clearly depicted — since it was constructed from stock skydiving footage and a few close-ups of the actors — but the chute evidently gets tangled in its lines somehow. (Johnson’s commentary explains it was based on a real type of skydiving accident where a chute gets caught in an updraft and “streams,” collapsing in on itself.) Her injuries are coincidentally similar to those that befell Steve three years earlier: both legs and her right arm and shoulder a total loss, her right ear deafened. Apparently she’s in danger of dying from her injuries too. A desperate Steve goes to Oscar and pleads with him to make Jaime bionic. Oscar insists it’s not that easy, that the cost has to be justified to the government. If she becomes an OSI agent as Steve suggests, there will come a time (says Oscar) when he’ll need her for a mission and Steve will refuse. Steve promises he won’t, pleads with Oscar, and it’s the finest acting I’ve seen from Majors up to this point. He really pulls out all the stops here, even without Wagner to play off of. Oscar is convinced, so Rudy (making his first appearance in 14 episodes) brings in his team and bionicizes her. (Fittingly, the bionic ear implant looks like a larger version of a modern hearing-aid battery.) Steve helps her through the recovery, revealing to her that he’s bionic too, and by the end of the therapy sequence, he proposes marriage, and she accepts (oh, she’s so doomed). Ronaugh (remember him?) sees the wedding announcement in a Russian-language paper (on the front page, because of course it is), so now he knows where to find the guy he wants to kill. To Be Continued!

Part 2’s recap montage is narrated by Richard Anderson (out of character, since he refers to Oscar in the third person), and reveals that, contrary to the impression given by the editing in part 1, Jaime’s surgery and therapy took months. Ronaugh will later say it’s been seven months. Perhaps some of the earlier episodes took place during the time that Jaime was in therapy?

Anyway, Jaime begins to question what Uncle Sam expects in return for her bionics, but Steve dodges the issue. They bionic-race each other home, and Helen sees them running at superspeed and jumping over tractors, so Steve has to have a talk with her. This is handled very nicely; in lieu of audible dialogue, the conversation is revealed through facial expressions and illustrated with sound and sepia-toned image clips from the main titles and the pilot. (Johnson’s commentary says this was inspired by a scene in North by Northwest.) Anyway, Oscar then shows up and says it’s time for Jaime to pay the piper; Ronaugh has a perfect counterfeit plate now and they need Jaime’s bionic ear to crack his safe — plus he conveniently hosts a tennis tournament (something that never came up until now), so she has a way in. Steve predictably tries to renege on his word, insisting Jaime’s not ready, but of course she hears every word of their conversation from outside and insists on going in. Steve comes on the mission as her fiancé and backup, unaware that Ronaugh saw his face in their earlier encounter, though Ronaugh isn’t exactly subtle about hinting they’ve met before. Jamie performs the switch smoothly, and is inexplicably unable to hear Ronaugh and his men waylaying Steve at gunpoint in the hallway outside, even though it should be easier than her former feat of bionic hearing with Steve and Oscar. (Johnson’s commentary doesn’t address this inconsistency.) But then, her bionic arm is glitching, causing her to trigger an alarm, so let’s be generous and assume the ear was glitching too. They break out and run from Ronaugh, who ends up getting accidentally shot by his own henchman (Paul Carr).

But that’s far from the end of the story, for Jaime’s bionics keep glitching. She hasn’t been telling anyone since she thinks it’s normal adjustment, but when Steve finds out, he takes her to Rudy, who can’t find anything wrong with the equipment. But she has mood swings and personality changes that keep getting worse, and eventually Rudy finds her body is rejecting the bionics and a clot is forming around the control processor in her brain. He says he needs to operate right away, but Jaime has a freakout and runs out of the hospital, and Steve follows the trail of property damage she leaves. The pathetic fallacy kicks in and a thunderstorm begins, yet another surefire sign that she’s doomed for a tragic end. (Johnson does this a lot; see the pilot and the “Married” episode of The Incredible Hulk. Not only does the first Hulk transformation scene in the pilot take place in a rainstorm, it uses one of the same stock lightning-bolt shots used here.)  By the time Steve finds her, it’s too late; she dies on the table. There’s some more really nice editorial work here, with a slow-motion “memory” shot of Jaime superimposed on a close-up of Steve’s face and slowing to a stop at the moment she flatlines. I originally wrote “nice direction,” but Johnson says this was a replacement for the scripted action that the director somehow failed to film. Harve Bennett was already grooming him to become a producer, so Johnson was given unprecedented access in the editing room and suggested this editorial fix, or so he recalls the event decades after the fact. In any case, it works very well.

And that, aside from a bit more flashbacky stuff and a reprise of “Sweet Jamie,” is the last we ever see of Jaime Sommers.

Or is it…?

Well, as far as the episode itself was concerned, it definitely was. Johnson’s original plan was to leave Jaime in a coma, but Love Story had just come out and the network insisted the girl had to die. (Uhh, spoilers for Love Story, I guess.) But Lindsay Wagner’s charm won over the audience, this 2-parter got the series its best ratings yet, and the network demanded more, quite understandably. However, this is the last time we ever see Alan Oppenheimer as Rudy Wells, to my regret. For the rest of the franchise, he’ll be played by Martin E. Brooks, whom I never liked as much as Oppenheimer. (Sure, he may have had a full head of hair, but he never played Skeletor.)

Perhaps it’s fitting that here is where the “ta-ta-tang” sound effect really begins to become standardized as a bionic exertion sound. It’s used here for a lot of bionic stuff, including jumps for the first time, as well as throws, kicks, fence post driving, and rowing a canoe really fast. Still not used for running or crushing/bending things, though. We get the first bionic-ear sound effect here, but it’s not the sonar-like double chirp we’ll later come to know — more a single, drawn-out, descending chirp.

This was a solid 2-parter, though it had room for improvement. The first act or two are kind of slow-paced, and Jaime’s accident is rather random and contrived. It might’ve worked better if, say, her accident had been caused by Ronaugh’s men as they attempted to assassinate Steve — like if they sabotaged the wrong parachute. Then it wouldn’t seem like such a huge coincidence that the love of Steve’s life just happened to have the same kind of accident. It also has kind of a weak ending. Plus they seem to have blown the music budget on the songs for Part 1, since Part 2 is saddled with a stock score that’s a letdown after the fully original score to Part 1. We don’t even get a reprise of Oliver Nelson’s Jaime theme (the same melody as “Sweet Jamie”) until her final minutes.

(About the song title — there’s a story that her name was originally spelled “Jamie” until Wagner misspelled the name on a chalkboard, but Johnson says it was always supposed to be “Jaime” and they got it wrong here. I always figured it was from the French j’aime, “I love you,” but Johnson says she was one of many characters he named after people he’d known.)

But there’s still a lot of strong writing here from Kenneth Johnson, especially in the endearingly witty yet natural-sounding dialogue among Steve, Jaime, and his parents. And Lindsay Wagner really makes it shine. She was still quite young and showed some signs of inexperience as an actress at the time, but her charm and exuberance more than made up for it, and her spontaneous, natural delivery was a rare talent in the ’70s. It’s easy to understand why the network rushed to give Wagner her own series — and rather startling and disappointing that it was her only series lead role.

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