THE BIONIC WOMAN thoughts, Season 1: “Return” and series debut (spoilers)
Well, Netflix still doesn’t have anything past season 2 of The Six Million Dollar Man, but I got impatient waiting and decided to go ahead with season 1 of The Bionic Woman, since it was so nice to see Lindsay Wagner again in her debut episodes. I’d been hoping I could watch the TBW seasons in parallel with the corresponding 6M$M seasons, but it looks like the DVDs for TBW include all the relevant crossover episodes, so that’s something.
Indeed, the first disc in the Season 1 set only includes one episode from TBW itself, following four episodes from 6M$M: the original “The Bionic Woman” 2-parter from season 2 and its followup, the third-season premiere 2-parter ‘The Return of the Bionic Woman.” Since I’ve already covered the original episode, I’ll lead off with the sequel.
“The Return of the Bionic Woman” is a spoiler title if ever there was one, and the episode makes no secret of what it’s about. It opens with Richard Anderson narrating a recap of the original 2-parter — and I think these narrated recaps are really cool, a practice that might be nice to have today, at least in some cases. Anyway, it ends with Anderson saying that Jaime Sommers died — “Or did she?”
Cut to Steve and Oscar in a helicopter going on a mission, with Steve distracted by his memory of the same slow-motion shot of Jaime on horseback that closed out the previous story (well, three episodes ago in sequence). He then gets his mind on the mission, but in the course of chasing the bad guys, he has something heavy fall on his bionic legs and cripple them. At least, that’s the idea, but the thing that falls on them (evidently the top part of a warehouse rolling door or something) looks way too light to do that kind of damage to his superstrong limbs, a failure of direction. Anyway, he ends up in Rudy Wells’s bionic hospital for repairs, and Rudy has apparently been experimenting with hair restoration, since he’s now played by the less gray, less bald Martin E. Brooks (made up with grayish hair to better resemble Alan Oppenheimer, but that will change over time). This, by the way, is Rudy’s second recasting, since Martin Balsam played him in the pilot movie. While recovering, Steve believes he sees Jaime alive in the hospital, but Oscar and Rudy tell him he was delirious. But his bionic eye susses out the truth and he confronts the two men, who confess that they were able to revive Jaime using an experimental cryogenic procedure developed by Dr. Michael Marchetti (Richard Lenz), a young member of Rudy’s team who’s suddenly been retconned into existence. But it left her in a coma and barely clinging to life, so they didn’t tell Steve because they didn’t want to get his hopes up only to force him to watch her die again. As retcons go, it’s fairly believable — certainly more so than Rudy’s sudden change of appearance (especially since Oppenheimer’s Rudy appears in the recaps at the start of the show).
When Steve is finally brought in to see Jaime, she doesn’t recognize her former fiance. She has… amnesia!! Okay, that’s pretty soapy, and you can see the formula writing at work, the need to keep the action hero from having a permanent romantic relationship. And just to make it soapier, Jaime has not only forgotten Steve but fallen in love with Michael. Michael recognizes that this is just a standard patient infatuation, but — this being the 1970s — is not unwilling to pursue it. Still, it’s handled with more sensitivity than it could be. Rudy convinces Steve not to pressure Jaime to remember, since remembering brings back the severe pain that drove her mad before (although that’s a bit iffy, the idea that just remembering the physical pain of the clot that almost killed her could have a comparable medical effect). So he has to settle for being in the friend zone and not pressure her. He and Michael are actually very civilized and mutually respectful about their competition, which is basically a symptom of ’70s TV’s need to have its heroes be as clean-cut and flawless as possible; but I still like it, because it’s refreshing to see these two men recognize that the woman is not a piece of property they’re competing to possess, but an independent person who’s free to make her own decision. Steve and Michael are not only respecting each other by being so civil and philosophical about their competition, they’re respecting Jaime by recognizing that it’s ultimately not up to them. And I really like seeing that.
Anyway, in the iffiest decision in the episode, they decide that the best way to take Jaime’s mind off the pain of trying to remember her past is to take her to her childhood home of Ojai… where she can’t avoid being reminded of her past. The results are somewhat predictable, though it’s strange that nobody in Ojai seems to have been aware of Jaime’s death, given that she was a world-famous tennis star and all. Was her demise covered up because of its connection to bionics? This is never explained. Anyway, Jaime then decides she needs to take her mind off the past by looking to the future and doing some work for Oscar. He sends Steve and Jaime on a mission to blow up a munitions plant run by Carlton Harris (Dennis Patrick), whom Jaime snows with her feminine wiles (though in a wholesome and sweet way) in order to get to a control she needs to activate to let Steve into the plant so he can sabotage it. But her resurging memories confuse her and she thinks Steve needs her help, so she runs to him and botches the mission. (Continuity error: It was set up that they both had to pull switches in two locations simultaneously to keep from being blown up, but when Steve pulled the switch without Jaime pulling hers, nothing happened.) They both get out, but the mission is a failure. Steve realizes that he himself is the problem –as long as she’s with him, the memory and pain will continue to trouble her. He has to let her go, and suggests that Rudy and Michael take her to their Colorado Springs facility for further treatment.
This sequel 2-parter isn’t quite as good as the original. Since Jaime is now a blank slate with no memory, more distant from Steve, she doesn’t have the same texture to her personality or the same rapport with Steve that she had before, so the relationship and Wagner’s performance aren’t as engaging. And I don’t know if they needed 2 hours to reach the conclusion they did. The previous 2-parter was a bit padded, but the slow pace worked because of the believable relationship and naturalistic dialogue and interplay among the characters. This one could’ve stood to be more compressed.
The 2-parter, written by Kenneth Johnson, leads into the series debut of The Bionic Woman, “Welcome Home, Jaime,” another 2-parter by Johnson, this one split across two discs. Oddly, part 1 of this episode is listed on IMDb as both a 6M$M episode and a TBW episode, and the DVD seems to list it under 6M$M bonus episodes, but it has the TBW main and end titles on the disc. Wikipedia reveals that it was originally intended as a 6M$M episode, presumably part 1 of a crossover introducing the spinoff, but it was re-edited with TBW titles in order to let that series premiere a bit earlier. That would explain its hybrid musical score, which is mostly Oliver Nelson cues with a few interpolations by TBW’s first-season composer Jerry Fielding. I imagine the Fielding cues were added as part of the changeover. It apparently also explains why Part 1 is lumped together with the 6M$M bonus episodes; the DVD set counts it that way even though it has TBW titles.
Anyway, given that it’s Johnson’s direct continuation of his previous storyline, it’s odd that it reverses so much that “Return” set up. Jaime’s had more operations to restore most of her memory (except her relationship with Steve, conveniently) and all her pain, and she returns to live in Ojai (with Steve’s parents Jim and Helen Elgin, now retconned to have been her legal guardians since she was 16 — presumably after Steve went off to join the Air Force, since he’s a few years older). Also she gives Michael the brush-off (not even on camera) and soon learns that she and Steve were once engaged, though she doesn’t remember the feelings and Steve accepts her need to start over. I suppose the setup and reversal made more sense in the original broadcasts, when the episodes were four months apart. I guess I’d always assumed they led more directly into each other.
Anyway, the first half is largely focused on Jaime’s adjustment and settling into her new life in Ojai, taking an apartment above the barn in Steve’s parents’ new ranch (and using bionics to clean it up) and getting a job teaching at the local Air Force base school, thanks to her retconned education degree (and how she managed to find the time to both get a college degree and become a world-class tennis pro is questionable, unless it’s because she’s just that awesome, which I can totally buy). But she’s still willing to go on missions for Oscar, though Oscar is willing to just take a loss on her bionics and let her go back to her normal life, saying she’s been through enough already. To his credit, and Johnson’s, the issue of Jaime’s gender is never raised as a factor in Oscar’s reluctance. It’s implicit that he’s more solicitous with her than he’d be with a male agent, and certainly the episode takes a more “feminine” tone with the domestic scenes and the teaching and the easy-listening theme music, but there’s no point where anyone in the episode says she shouldn’t be risking her life because she’s a woman. The only character who calls attention to Jaime’s womanhood is Jaime herself.
Meanwhile, Carlton Harris is still around, trying to track down the woman who attempted to sabotage his plant, and he finds her and sends his agents to Ojai to spy on her and test her superhuman abilities, which he saw during her escape. The only real action in part 1 is when his men stage a car crash so she’ll use her bionics to rescue an “injured” driver. But once Harris arrives in Ojai in part 2, things begin to heat up. He rigs another accident, a blowout of Jaime’s brakes on a downhill road — and for some reason Jaime never tries using her parking brake, which was how my father told me he dealt with that situation when it happened to him once. Instead she opens the door and uses her bionic leg to brake, although it’s pretty blatantly a mannequin leg that the stunt driver was holding out the door. And I’d think that applying braking force in such an unbalanced way would probably cause the car to spin out or something.
Anyway, Jaime proves her smarts when she convinces Oscar that Harris could kill her more easily than this and must instead be testing her, like a potential buyer test-driving a car. Aware that she’s under surveillance, she comes up with a plan to stage a fight with Oscar on the grounds of wanting more money, in order to make Harris think he can buy her. This successfully lets her infiltrate his organization, in hopes of finding the elusive proof that he’s a criminal (he’s stayed clean enough that he actually has government contracts). So she plays greedy and goes along with Harris’s plans to steal some important defense components, while politely rebuffing his seduction attempts. But Harris suddenly has a son, Donald (Kip Niven), who’s fresh out of Harvard Law and conflicted about his father’s dirty dealings, but devoted enough to the man he sees as kind and loving to put up with his corruption. When he discovers that Jaime is spying for the OSI, he’s conflicted about whether to tell his father or not, but Jaime ultimately convinces him to dig deeper and find the truth about the murders Harris has committed. Unfortunately, Oscar’s been having one of his reckless moments, blabbing to the defense contractor (Gordon Jump) that Jaime burglarized that he has an agent in the thief’s organization — and forgetting that Harris is another contractor on the same project, so that Jump calls him up to warn him and tell him the reassuring news about the spy. Thus forewarned, Harris tricks Jaime into robbing his own company, showing off her bionics to his foreign buyers. But Donald shows up at the right time to get her out of trouble and together they save the day (well, mostly Jaime does).
Aside from some ’70s-Universal clunkiness, this is a pretty solid 2-parter. Donald’s sudden existence in part 2 feels tacked on, but there’s some engaging drama in his conflicted feelings toward his father, even if Niven is not the most effective actor. And Johnson established Jaime as a smart, resourceful, courageous protagonist; if anything, Jaime is a lot more gung-ho about her OSI work than Steve is about his, considering how often he rebels against Oscar and goes on vacation at every opportunity. She’s not above using her femininity to catch Harris’s interest and win his trust, but in a demure and wholesome way, without the blatant sexualization of near-contemporaries like Charlie’s Angels. Now that Jaime’s finally moved past being the suffering girlfriend and become the lead in her own right, she’s taking to the role quite well. I think it’s a pretty good start for the series.
The continuity across these three 2-parters is pretty good for ’70s TV, thanks to Johnson being the writer and producer of them all (well, he wasn’t nominally the producer on the original 2-parter, but was being groomed to become one, so he was allowed to effectively function in that role during its making). But there are a couple of glitches. For one thing, the tree with “Steve + Jaime” carved into it is different in “Welcome Home, Jaime” than it was in “Return.” But the main thing is the timing. The original 2-parter was said to have spanned 7 months, and “Return” says Jaime was in a coma for months, suggesting that more than a year has passed. But Steve says in “Return” that his reunion with Jaime was “last spring.” And “Welcome”‘s references to the time since her last tennis tournament also suggest that less than a year has passed. The later episodes seem to have defaulted to the assumption that the passage of story time matched that of real time.
Sound-effects watch: The bionic sound that I’ve been rendering as “ta-ta-ta-tang” is definitely standardized by this point, to the extent that it’s even heard at the end of the main titles (accompanying a bionic jump) as a sort of coda. It’s even used for a bionic run at one point, something that’s been done inconsistently at best up to now. I also heard the first occurrence of the deeper, repeating thud sound effect that was used for impacts or rebounds of things struck bionically, although I think that sound was standardized in 6M$M season 3 before it showed up in TBW. Unfortunately I can’t find out for sure, because Netflix doesn’t have season 3 yet! So I’ll just proceed with TBW season 1.