THE BIONIC WOMAN thoughts, Season 1: Episodes 3-5 (spoilers)
Past the pilots now and into the regular series. By the way, I’ve realized the main titles are lying to us. After the recap of Jaime’s operation, the onscreen “computer” text says “Second bionic replacement complete.” But we know she’s not the second bionic human; she’s at least the third, after Steve Austin and Barney Miller. Also that premier in “The Pal-Mir Escort” got a bionic heart.
“Angel of Mercy” is written by James D. Parriott, making it the first time anyone other than Kenneth Johnson has written about Jaime Sommers. It’s also the first story about Jaime in which Steve Austin is neither present nor mentioned. The episode also introduces a new, revised version of Jerry Fielding’s main and end title themes.
We open with Jaime teaching her class at Ventura Air Force Base (consisting of the base personnel’s children), including a precocious kid named Andrew played by a very young Robbie Rist, whom I’ve mentioned before as the first portrayer of the dreadful Doctor Zee character in the pilot of Galactica 1980. Rist will be in several episodes this season. The story involves Oscar calling in Jaime to rescue a US ambassador trapped by a civil war in the small South American country of Costa Brava. His thinking is that if she goes in as a nurse, the guerrillas might let her pass. This gives Jaime pause, since she has no medical skills of any kind. I’m not sure I buy that; I’d think a tennis pro would have some familiarity with first aid and injury treatment, if only from being on the receiving end. Anyway, her ride into the country is provided by none other than Andy Griffith as hotshot chopper pilot Jack Starkey — who has the dubious honor of being the first character in the series to overtly question Jaime’s qualifications on the basis of her sex, something that was mercifully avoided in Johnson’s episodes. I should’ve known that as soon as anyone else wrote a script for the series, the issue would crop up.
Anyway, under protest, Starkey choppers her into the country, and the guerrillas shoot them down, with Jaime secretly using her bionics to work the chopper’s busted control cables so they land safely, then tearing off the door to save Starkey, and giving him all the credit. Now they’re stuck in a “jungle” that looks exactly like the sparse forest of the Los Angeles hills, and Jaime does a mediocre job of bandaging Starkey’s head. So far she’s not impressing him much. Soon we discover that Jaime has a fear of snakes that makes her all whiny and panicking, not a good look on her, but also causes her to rather brutally crush a snake to death with her bionic grip, which seems a little out of character.
They soon pick up a straggler, an orphaned local boy named Julio (Claudio Martinez), and have little trouble evading the searching guerrillas. They make it to the base and discover the ambassador and his wife are trapped under tons of rubble, but naturally Starkey conveniently goes searching for a ride home and leaves Jaime alone to remove the rubble. Once she gets them out, Starkey boggles at how she was able to move the rubble. He insists the plane he found can’t fly because its landing gear is bent, but by this point Jaime’s gotten sick of Starkey telling her what she can’t accomplish and starts using her bionics openly. Then the guerrillas, who’ve been driving around rather pointlessly for most of the episode, show up in time to shoot at them as they fly off.
All in all, not a particularly noteworthy story. Jaime’s still coming off as a pretty brave and confident character, determined to get the job done and not quailing from danger, but Parriott’s script undermines that a bit with her anxieties about medicine and snakes, which seem to have been put in to make her seem more conventionally, vulnerably feminine. Which makes for an odd contrast in an episode that’s mainly about her proving how awesome she is despite the doubts of a crochety old chauvinist.
Still, Lindsay Wagner is a delight to watch. It is endless fun to observe the play of expressions across her ever-kinetic face. There’s a terrific moment where Griffith is chewing her out nose-to-nose, and her silent reactions during his colorful diatribe are hilarious. A big part of acting is reacting, showing that you’re listening to the other characters’ lines and playing off their performances, and Wagner is a master of that.
What strikes me is how much high-speed aerial commuting Oscar Goldman is doing these days. In The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve is generally based in Washington, DC and can just drop in to Oscar’s office. But Jaime lives in Ojai, CA, yet Oscar is constantly showing up in person to check up on her or give her assignments. Even with his top-level access to military aircraft, that’s got to be a fairly lengthy commute. It probably would’ve made more sense to introduce a new character to be Jaime’s handler, based in Ojai and reporting to Oscar back in Washington. But I guess the show wanted to capitalize on Richard Anderson’s popularity and use him as a bridge between the series, and really, who can blame them?
“A Thing of the Past” is written by story editor Philip DeGuere Jr. (who would later produce the first Twilight Zone revival) from a story by Terrence McDonnell & Jim Carlson. It revolves around Harry (Donald O’Connor), the beloved local school-bus driver that Jaime’s supposedly known for 15 years (and there’s some playful flirtation between them about how she was in love with him as a kid and he was waiting for her to grow up, which sounds so much creepier to modern ears). We get to know him during a school picnic where Jaime teaches the boy students that girls can play baseball too (though her use of her bionics to prove her point actually kind of works against it), but then there’s a random bus accident and Harry rushes back into the burning bus to save a child who was left behind. So he gets his photo in the papers and is recognized by thug Morgan (Don Gordon) as a witness to a mob killing 15 years earlier. Morgan finds out that the killer, Stone (Roger Perry), will pay him for Harry’s location, but Morgan wants to extort money out of Harry not to turn him over, then turn him over anyway for a double payday.
Eventually Jaime figures out what’s really going on (after Morgan questions her under the guise of an insurance man but asks nothing about the actual accident) and convinces Harry to testify, calling Oscar to make the arrangements. She fights off Morgan and his sidekick when they show up at Harry’s garage, then takes Harry to the Air Force base to keep him safe. There’s a random cameo by Lee Majors as Steve Austin flies out to Ojai to pick up the bus driver. But while he’s en route, Stone sneaks into the oddly deserted airbase (it’s Saturday, but still) and happens across Harry while Jaime’s conveniently on an errand. (What, they couldn’t have spared an airman to guard a federal witness?) So Jaime has to save him once again with some rather awkwardly executed slow-motion stunt work, including one bit where Jaime(‘s stunt double) jumps from a plane in a hangar and lands on Stone’s (stunt double’s) shoulders from directly above, which somehow causes Stone’s double to run forward several steps so he can crash into some barrels and boxes that are farther in front of him than I think the intent behind the stunt warranted. And that’s about it aside from a very brief tag with Steve.
Kind of a mediocre one overall, and like “Angel of Mercy” before it, it suffers from the rather crude production values of Universal’s ’70s shows — such as a part in Jaime’s classroom where a wide shot of Jaime, Harry, and the students was grainily blown up to focus only on the two adults because the director evidently failed to get closer coverage for the scene. But it is notable as the debut of the standard “sonar chirp” sound effect for Jaime’s bionic ear. Composer John Cacavas, who was the main composer for Kojak and whom I know from a few Columbo revival movies, contributes his only score for the series.
“Claws,” by Sue Milburn, opens with Jaime’s student Katie (Alicia Fleer) bringing a live lion to show-and-tell, courtesy of Susan Victor (Tippi Hedren), who runs a local preserve/halfway house for wild animals, where Katie volunteers. Yep, the lion, Neal, is actually there in the classroom set with the child actors, no split screen or special effects, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the lion was sedated. Even so, I doubt that would be allowed today, and it struck me as a bad idea both in-universe and in reality, even given that the lion was tame — in story, a former circus lion driven to panic by his trainer’s gunshots. Susan favors a technique called “affection training,” which is basically taming wild animals by being really, really nice to them — which sounds a little idealistic even to me. The preserve is a very ’70s view of “kindness” to wild things; the episode assumes that making lions and bears tame and obedient to humans, even if it means giving up their natural behavior patterns, is the most humane way of treating them. And don’t get me started on their poor elephant, living apart from others of its kind and with a chain around its leg. Today we understand how abusive it is to force such highly social creatures to live in solitude.
Anyway, Jaime ends up taking over the ranch for the weekend when Susan gets an offer to use her animals in a TV series and she has to fly off to New York for the weekend. Surprisingly, there’s a parrot in the scene where she gets the phone call; I would’ve thought Tippi Hedren had had her fill of birds some years earlier. Anyway, a local cattle rancher, Keys (Jack Kelly), shows up and accuses Neal the lion of killing his cattle. He’s accompanied by Jaime’s “uncle” Bill Elgin (William Schallert), the brother of her foster father — introduced here and never seen again, probably because Ford Rainey was unavailable to play Jim Elgin that week. Jaime insists the free-roaming lion is harmless, but Keys is convinced he’s the killer, and this goes around and around for half the episode before we finally discover there’s a cougar killing the livestock, but by the time Jaime helps Bill catch the cougar, Keys has organized a posse and driven the lion to hole up in a barn that they intend to burn out (not bothering to ask the barn’s owner, apparently). Jaime actually had the lion caged at the preserve on the sheriff’s orders, but Keys lets him out so he can drive the lion to his own property and shoot it there so he’ll be in the clear. Anyway, Jaime goes into the barn and has to use bionics and affection training to talk the injured lion down (if garishly colored fake TV blood smeared on one of his paws constitutes “injury”). The most hilariously awkward moment is when Jaime supposedly kicks the lion across the room, which is accomplished by: 1) Showing the stunt performer”s legs kicking the lion’s side; 2) playing the stock sound effect of a bionically propelled object flying through the air (the “ballistic whistle,” as I call it) during a close-up on Jaime’s face; 3) playing a shot of the lion leaping up from a bale of hay in reverse, so that it seems to land backward on its hind legs; and 4) cutting away midway through said shot so that it doesn’t look any more ridiculous than it already does.
Oh, and then there’s the part earlier where Jaime’s spending the night in the house with Neal to keep an eye on him, and he sneaks out while she’s asleep by opening the front door. Now, I can buy a cat opening a door. It’s one of their well-documented skills. But the fake paw that’s shown operating the doorknob is laughable.
This is a weak one, though there are some intense moments with Jaime bravely facing down the wounded, angry lion. She continues to be quite headstrong about rushing into danger, and I wonder how much of that is the bionics giving her confidence and how much is just her natural impulse. But it’s quickly become clear that Jaime has to deal with something Steve never did, which is having the men around her constantly assume, with the best of intentions, that they need to protect her. Which could get irritating if Jaime weren’t so easygoing and patient about it, either reasonably persuading them to let her act or just finding ways to divert their attention while she does. It’s a good thing Lindsay Wagner has such a bottomless well of charisma, because it’s the only thing that carries episodes like this.
Also, I’d forgotten how lush and flowing her hair was in this show. Well, it was the seventies.
“The Deadly Missiles”: Writer Wilton Denmark gives us a lame title but a more intrigue-driven story as an unarmed missile is fired into the Los Angeles Reservoir. Steve Austin is on the scene as Oscar’s people retrieve the missile, and he reports that the military radar system in the region (the charmingly named MEWS, for Military Early Warning System) was mysteriously jammed. Oscar recruits Jaime to investigate the ranch from which the missile was probably launched, because its owner, defense contractor J.T. Connors (Forrest Tucker), is an old friend of hers and the first sponsor of her tennis career. He’s also a loudmouthed right-wing Texan who’s become even more hawkish and contemptuous of the long-haired hippies in government since his son was killed in Vietnam — which suggests a rather poor understanding of the issues involved in the war, but that’s another discussion. Jaime refuses to believe her old friend could have evil intentions, but she grudgingly agrees to investigate.
At Connors’s ranch, she meets Rayker (Ben Piazza), an engineer who’s helped Connors with his research, including a security installation he won’t tell Jaime about. She goes in that night to investigate and finds that it is indeed a radar jamming system. But she triggers a security sensor, and apparently Connors hired Gary Owens to record the security system announcements, which helpfully tell Jaime exactly what security is in place so that she can evade it with her bionics. But she gets a bad electric shock kicking through the door, causing something to blow out in her right leg. Unable to walk, she lets a solicitous Connors take her back to her room over Rayker’s objections, and she’s alarmed when he slips her a sedative. But in the morning, she’s still in her room and Connors is still solicitous, so she decides to trust him and tell him why she’s there. Turns out he was testing the jamming system to sell to the US government, not to its enemies. Naturally it turns out that Rayker’s been doing all the missile-launching stuff behind J.T.’s back, and he has them captured and makes Jaime call Oscar so he can demand ransom — the then-princely sum of 15 million dollars — lest he launch an unstoppable missile at the target of his choice.
Steve is still overprotective, wanting to rush in to save Jaime, but Oscar shows commendable faith in her abilities and leaves Steve behind to monitor the MEWS system, which apparently he’s suddenly the greatest available expert in. But Oscar’s right; Jaime confides in J.T. about her bionic injury and gets his help to make temporary repairs, enough to let her break them out. (J.T. is the one to knock out the guard once she kicks down the door; I’d initially assumed this was because the network censors wouldn’t let a woman throw a punch, but on the DVD’s bonus feature they talk about how Wagner herself didn’t want Jaime to use her bionics offensively, since she saw herself as a role model for young viewers.) They get to the jamming installation, where she gets pretty far in a plan to take out the radar dish before Rayker’s men catch her and J.T. and take them to the rendezvous with Oscar. J.T. pounces on Rayker, which triggers the radar jamming and the missile launch (way to ruin everything, man), and the missile’s aimed directly at MEWS, where Steve is. So Jaime has to run for the installation to take out the dish, even though her leg is failing again. But the ex-tennis pro is surely an old hand at playing through injury (not stated, just my extrapolation), so she keeps going and eventually takes out the dish with the old “pull a pole out of the ground and use it as a concrete-tipped javelin” trick. (The rather elaborate radar dish was evidently a real installation they got to use, so they couldn’t actually destroy it, just set off some pyrotechnics around it to make it look like it blew up.) That clears the radar jamming so that the military can intercept the missile.
Afterward, she and Steve finally get together at her place, and Oscar tells them that the government’s finally interested in buying J.T.’s radar jamming system. Once the older men leave, Steve and Jaime get surprisingly romantic before the freeze-frame — much more so than I remembered them being once Jaime got her spinoff. It’ll be interesting to see whether that continues or gets dropped.
A much more solid episode than the previous two, with some effective action and danger and a nice chance for Jaime to be the rescuer and Steve the damsel in distress for a change.