THE BIONIC WOMAN thoughts, Season 1: Episodes 6-9 (spoilers)
“Bionic Beauty”: It figures that they wouldn’t have taken long to foist a beauty-pageant plot on Jaime; this one is courtesty of writer James D. Parriott. At least Jaime herself is totally unenchanted by the prospect when Oscar pressures her into becoming Miss California to investigate some nebulous security threat at the Miss United States pageant. Helen (Jaime’s foster mother, remember), who comes along as her chaperone, is much more into it, and is disappointed when Jaime eventually confides that she’s really on a mission. The OSI has learned that Miss Florida, aka Sally (Cassie Yates), would be picked as the winner and used for some nefarious espionage-related purpose, so Jaime has to try to figure out what’s going on. It’s a pretty vague justification for the plot. Anyway, Sally turns out to be in cahoots with the pageant host Ray Raymond, who is actually played by perennial Miss America host Bert Parks, playing an evil version of himself. He and his henchman Brady (Gary Crosby) are going to use her as a courier to smuggle a stolen defense circuit, as Jaime learns upon sneaking out of her room, whereupon Sally gets her in trouble with the pageant officials. But Jaime still plays along in the competitions. I was expecting her to do some bionic karate or something for the talent show, but instead she sings. She sings… “Feelings.” The most stereotypically ’70s pop song of all time. And as much as I admire Lindsay Wagner, her singing voice is not spectacular. Not actually bad, but not good enough to earn her the finalist status the script conveniently affords her. Although that may have had something to do with the swimsuit competition. Jaime tells Helen that she liked her old legs better, but the bionic ones look pretty darn impressive to me.
Anyway, Brady catches her snooping around and chloroforms her, but when Raymond tells him to knock her out for longer, he conveniently injects the sedative into her bionic arm, so she’s up and about quite soon. But Raymond and Brady spot her and control her both by putting her on live TV and holding Martha at gunpoint in the wings. But she manages to get a message to Oscar in her finalist speech. The bad guys change their plan and keep her under control by naming her, rather than Sally, as the winner, planning to deliver the circuit themselves as her escorts — which makes me wonder why they needed to bother colluding with Sally in the first place. But when Sally follows them to protest, Jaime gets the bionic drop on them and has them beaten when Oscar shows up, just in time for Jaime to reveal the already-obvious fact that the circuit is in the winner’s scepter. We then get a final scene where Jaime tells Sally that the judges actually picked her fair and square, though neither woman seems to place much stock in a beauty-contest crown anymore.
I guess that, for a ’70s beauty-pageant episode, this could’ve been worse. It’s contrived and silly, sure, but Jaime wasn’t particularly objectified, and her total disenchantment with the whole thing helped her maintain her dignity. I could’ve done without the two (live and taped) performances of “Feelings,” though. But aside from that, the episode is notable musically, for it features the debut of Joe Harnell, who would become the series’ main composer starting with season 2. Interestingly, the theme and ostinato that would form the basis of Harnell’s main-title theme and episode scores for seasons 2-3 are already fully developed in this score, without any references to Jerry Fielding’s theme. It’s like a season-2 score that somehow ended up in season 1. I remember being rather confused by that when watching the series in TV reruns in the ’80s or ’90s. (Harnell would collaborate with Kenneth Johnson on an ongoing basis, not only on this series but later on The Incredible Hulk, the original V miniseries, and the Alien Nation pilot movie.)
“Jaime’s Mother” is a surprisingly potent dramatic episode by Arthur Rowe, from a story by Worley Thorne. We see a couple of bad guys pursuing a woman with lethal intent; one of them learns that she was headed to Ojai, and they’re concerned that she’ll tell Jaime Sommers that she’s her mother. By coincidence, Jaime is dreaming about her mother, whom she believes was killed in a car accident along with her father — and the date of that accident seems to have been retconned, since “Welcome Home, Jaime” said that Jim and Helen had been her legal guardians since she was 16, but she’s a child in the flashbacks. Anyway, she starts to see signs that her mother may still be alive and watching her, but Helen is concerned she’s hallucinating, given Jaime’s past mental problems (as seen in her first and second appearances). There’s some rather tense stuff as Jaime begins to question her own sanity. Oscar shows up, believing that her hallucinations represent the reawakening of some lost memories, so he thinks it might help to reveal something she may have forgotten about her mother: namely that, in an Alias-worthy plot twist, Jaime’s mother also happened to be a secret agent. But Jaime never did know that after all, and Oscar fears he’s only made things worse for her by revealing that her mother was not who she thought.
Jaime eventually she tracks down the woman (Barbara Rush, with the hugest, poofiest ’70s hairdo I think I’ve ever seen) and is convinced that it really is her mother Ann Sommers. (Her father’s name, by the way, was James.) The woman is reluctant to admit it at first, but then breaks down and confirms that she is Ann. Still unsure, finding the woman far more melancholy and self-pitying than the mother she remembers, Jaime takes her to Helen, who is stunned to see Ann apparently alive again, but still isn’t completely sure. Jaime pulls the old “Tell me something only Mom would know” routine, and the answer, about a locket her mother gave her just before the car accident, is enough to convince her that this is really Ann. Giddy at being reunited with her mother, Jaime rather recklessly spills the beans about her bionics, showing off her abilities (including a jump down from a tree by a rather obvious male stunt double). Okay, maybe she figured it was okay since Mom was also an agent, but still, it wasn’t a great idea. Especially since Oscar has discovered that Ann had a double named Chris, a woman who stood in for her as a decoy while she was on missions, and he’s not sure which woman is in the grave and which is with Jaime. Ann has independently told Jaime about Chris, saying she was the one who died in the car; but Oscar is unconvinced and has the grave exhumed so they can check dental records. (See how much easier DNA has made things?) After all, Chris became a double agent, and the enemy wants her dead. Selling them the secret of Jaime’s bionics could be her only way out.
Ann, or Chris, tells Jaime about her double agency and the fact that both sides are after her, and Jaime is willing to empty her bank accounts to help her mother get away. But the exhumation confirms to Oscar that it is Ann in the grave, and Chris now has Jaime right where she wants her. But when they end up confronted by the bad guys and Chris goes to talk to them, leading us to expect that she’ll turn Jaime over, Chris instead pleads to them to take her and leave Jaime alone, since she’s just a harmless schoolteacher. But when they drive off with Chris, Jaime proves she’s far from harmless, felling a tree to stop their car. Chris takes a bullet to save Jaime, and Jaime bodily drags the shooter out of the car and throws him aside — which I think is the most direct act of personal violence she’s ever engaged in. (There was that time in “A Thing of the Past” where she landed on the bad guy’s shoulders and knocked him, err, forward, but that was more impersonal.) But the paramedics are conveniently at hand and Chris ends up alive in the hospital, with the prospect of a suspended sentence if she shares some information. She may not be Jaime’s real mother, but Jaime has still bonded with her. Yet Jaime later reassures Helen that she (Helen) is Jaime’s real mother in every way that matters.
Okay, there are a few minor plot holes, but this is a surprisingly tense and moving episode, with some solid dramatic acting from Wagner and Martha Scott as Helen. Barbara Rush does a good job too, although that huge hairsprayed coif was rather distracting. The music is a mix of stock Fielding and Nelson cues and what sounds like some new Harnell cues, although Harnell is uncredited; that means that this episode’s score features all three of Jaime’s themes (though only a fragment of Fielding’s is heard outside the titles).
“Winning is Everything”: James Parriott’s latest story has Jaime coming to Oscar’s Washington office for the first time, as he assigns her to be a navigator in an international dune-buggy race in Taftan, a Southwest Asian country that’s been taken over by a military junta, in order to retrieve a tape with vital intelligence info from a town along the route. The race, which always features man-woman teams (for no reason except to justify Jaime’s involvement), is a big tourist attraction, so the junta hasn’t shut it down. Oscar escorts Jaime to Taftan, playing a racing promoter called Oscar Bartholemew, observing that the name “Goldman” wouldn’t be well-received in this part of the world — which is odd, given that we later learn that there’s an Israeli car in the race, and one of the navigators on the position board is named Rubinstein. Anyway, the driver for whom Jaime will be navigating is a Grand Prix star named Tim Sanders (John Elerick), who used to be the greatest but has lost his nerve after a major crash. Jaime has to help him regain his edge and try to identify the enemy agents who are sabotaging other cars, all while hiding her bionics from Tim — much the same formula as Parriott’s “Angel of Mercy” earlier this season. Except it looks like the kind of episode that was written around stock footage, since a lot of the race footage has a grainier look than the rest of the episode. IMDb doesn’t say anything about what film the footage may have come from, though.
Anyway, I don’t feel very motivated to give a play-by-play, since it’s just race footage, setback, bionic repairs, pep talks, repeat. There’s a stereotyped Italian racer set up as a rival for Tim, a Russian team who are red herrings for the sabotage, and a Hong Kong team in a pickup truck — the only one where the woman is the driver rather than the navigator — who turn out to be the real bad guys (even though Hong Kong was a British colony at the time, an anomaly that goes unexplained). Jaime convinces Tim to stop blaming his poor performance on the car, the route, etc. and believe he can do better. They manage to get to the town ahead of their rivals despite all the setbacks, but when Jaime stops to pick up the McGuffin, Tim drives off without her — only to have a crisis of conscience portrayed through audio and video flashback clips, causing him to go back and help Jaime, who’s fleeing from the bad guys. Yet his epiphany that helping his friend is more important than winning is promptly discarded when the script then has Tim and Jaime striving to win after all and somehow managing to catch up with and surpass the obnoxious Italian racer despite his enormous lead.
As with “Angel of Mercy,” Parriott seems to want to play up Jaime’s vulnerabilities, having her not too thrilled about participating in a high-speed race. Yet she uses her bionics pretty effectively, particularly in the climax, where she’s shown keeping pace with a pursuing truck driving at nearly 100 MPH — faster than Steve Austin has ever been shown to run. Although that may have been a continuity error due to editing in stock footage.
“Canyon of Death,” by Steven Kandel, is a rarity — an episode I almost kinda remember, though not in a good way. It revolves around a new student in Jaime’s class, a Native American boy (Guillermo San Juan) nicknamed Paco (pronounced like “pay-ko” for some reason), who’s really caught up in a rather exaggerated version of his Indian heritage, to the point that it makes him a disobedient student and earns the ridicule of his classmates (with Robbie Rist’s Andrew in particular being a real jerk, making all sorts of Indian-stereotype wisecracks that he imagines are clever). Jaime soon learns from his aunt that he’s never actually been on a reservation and all his tales are from a book written by a Caucasian writer who never got out of New Jersey. He pathologically lies about his proud heritage because his grandfather really drank himself to death. And he’s constantly running off to the burial grounds next to the restricted land of Ventura Air Force Base, where Jaime teaches. This area is represented by the familiar Vasquez Rocks location, which is actually some 60 miles east of Ojai and Ventura, CA.
Meanwhile, Oscar is preparing to test a top-secret prototype personal jetpack at the base, and he brings Jaime in for the tenuous reason that the general who authorized her bionics is overseeing the test and wants to meet her. (He gives the exposition in a scene with terrible sound mixing, since the dialogue is barely audible over the chatter of the film projector he’s using.) But the security officer for the jetpack, Mallory (Gary Collins), plans to steal the suit and sell it to guerrillas overseas, and his henchmen are holed up in Vasquez, err, the land outside the air base. Jaime tries to get Paco to stop lying by betting him she can track him down in the desert, which she does bionically, of course — and her guy-in-a-wig stunt double makes a return appearance. They run afoul of the henchmen, who ambush them with an assortment of fake round boulders that just happened to be lying on top of a cliff (maybe the Metrons left them there?). After Jaime bionics them out, convincing Paco that she’s a spirit, she sends him back to the base on his horse (of course he has a horse) to warn Oscar, then gets herself captured. The teacher Paco encounters doesn’t believe his story, but Oscar conveniently shows up, and the mention of a “silver man” and Paco’s drawing of the helmeted figure on the chalkboard convince him to believe the story. But Oscar gets waylaid at gunpoint by Mallory and forced to go along with the theft, so Paco has to go find Jaime and gives her an opportunity to escape the henchfellow holding her at gunpoint. Then she (and sometimes her male double) runs to the base just as Mallory’s remaining henching professional takes off in the jetpack. Jaime makes the bionic leap of her life to catch the guy — who’s quite blatantly hanging from wires when she grabs him — and mashes the controls until they fall back down. Whereupon she asks Oscar to summon a blacksmith, for “I landed so hard I’m bowlegged.” She and Paco then have a final bonding moment talking about how it’s good to study his heritage but he needs to get it from authentic Indian sources.
I guess I appreciate Kandel’s effort, however clumsy, to subvert “Indian” stereotypes and portray Native Americans sympathetically, but the boy’s reliance on fake heritage kind of gives the impression that Kandel didn’t know much real heritage to write about. And it is kind of heavy-handed overall. The biggest problem is that San Juan is a very annoying performer, a mediocre actor with a creaking, whiny drone of a voice, and his character is so full of hot air that there’s nothing sympathetic about him. Also, the story is full of contrivances — not only the contrived way Jaime was involved in the jetpack storyline, but the way she conveniently neglected to tell Paco to stay off of restricted land when they made their hide-and-seek wager. Still, it’s a nifty showcase of the Vasquez Rocks scenery, and it features a really nice score by a new composer for the series, Richard Clements.