‘The Bionic Woman’ (Season 1): 70s hit still enjoyable today

Bionic babe captures reviewer’s heart…all over again.

By Paul Mavis

One of television’s most familiar faces, character actor Richard Anderson, passed away on Thursday (August 31, 2017) at the age of 91. One of those performers that instantly conveyed calm, cool, buttoned-down authority, tempered by a measured, professional geniality, Anderson appeared in countless productions, both on the big and small screens. However, as he himself admitted, his most famous role was as Office of Scientific Intelligence commander Oscar Goldman, the supervisor of bionic secret agents Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers from the hit 1970s adventure series, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. In honor of Anderson’s many contributions, let’s look at the first season of The Bionic Woman.

With the turmoil of Vietnam, Watergate, and acrimonious social disorder ripping apart the country in the late 60s and early 70s, it’s not surprising that America would turn to fantasy and escapism in its media for a little psychological relief. With the huge successes of sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Planet of the Apes series, along with the burgeoning “disaster” genre that also emphasized special effects (Earthquake, The Towering Inferno), it was inevitable that TV would follow suit. Arguably, The Bionic Woman was the most successful example, at least in terms of ratings, of this copycat trend (as well as being one of—if not the—highest-rated sci-fi series ever on network television). Still fun after 40+ years, with Lindsay Wagner effortlessly charming and natural in the role of the bionic teacher/spy Jaime Sommers, The Bionic Woman works as an effective adventure drama that kids and families will still find entertaining.

The set-up. Tired and burnt-out (and no doubt in need of a complete lube job up on the rack), United States Air Force Colonel/human cyborg Steve Austin (Lee Majors) returns to his hometown of Ojai, California, to purchase a ranch and to visit his parents, mother Helen (Martha Scott), and stepfather Jim Elgin (Ford Rainey). Completely unaware that their astronaut son had earlier suffered a near-fatal accident during a test flight, and that his legs, his right arm, and his left eye are in fact robotic replacements with superhuman capabilities, Steve’s parents do what any parents would do with their happily single, preternaturally-handsome son: they immediately clue him in on the hometown return of Steve’s closest childhood friend: top-seeded tennis pro Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner).

Jaime, the one that got away in Steve’s life, is equally taken when she reconnects with her best friend, and the two soon fall in love. But tragedy strikes from the heavens when, skydiving with Steve, Jaime is critically injured. With her vital signs fading, Steve asks Jaime if she’ll trust him to save her and she weakly agrees before almost checking out for good. Calling up his superior and good pal Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), who commands the Office of Scientific Intelligence (a super-secret branch of U.S. intelligence that previously saved Steve’s life with bionic replacement parts in return for Steve’s espionage–smashing skills), Steve begs Oscar to do the same for the dying Jaime. Oscar, with the help of bionic surgeon Dr. Rudy Wells (Alan Oppenheimer in the first two-parter, and then Martin E. Brooks for the series), reluctantly agrees. However, he warns Steve that when it eventually comes time to pay the government piper for this million-dollar repair job, Steve’s love for Jaime will get in the way.

With Steve’s constant support, a recovering Jaime comes to terms with her rather advanced case of body issues, before she willingly goes along with the inevitable request by Oscar to put her newly developed bionic skills to work—a move that, just as Oscar predicted, sends Steve into systems overload. Almost getting herself and Steve killed on her first mission, what the OSI team soon learns is that Jaime’s body is rejecting her bionic replacements, and after a Bride of Frankenstein freak-out…she flat-lines. Steve Austin loses the love of his life (next to that trash compactor from Cleveland), and the story ends…at least until the Nielsen’s came in.

What Steve didn’t know is that over the summer hiatus of re-runs, Jaime didn’t die on that operating table, but was saved at the last second by “cryogenic therapy,” with a nasty side-effect of complete memory loss. Once she regains her memory—now free to put Steve’s love aside as a pleasant-but-confusing diversion—Jaime is given a new life teaching problem children at Ventura Air Force Base, near her hometown of Ojai, where she lives above the carriage house on Jim and Helen Elgin’s new ranch. And of course, in-between rapping with her students and clapping erasers together, she has plenty of time to help out Oscar with his various OSI missions.

Just to avoid the emails: I’m not a The Bionic Woman “expert” (and sweet jesus please don’t start with The Fugitive and Mannix crazies emailing, either). I don’t know all the trivia; I don’t know the serial numbers of every replacement part that got plugged into Jaime Sommers. And I haven’t seen the show since it originally aired back in 1976 (if it was syndicated, it didn’t show up in my TV market). Even though I never missed The Bionic Woman, as a nine-year-old kid I certainly preferred the more little boy-centric The Six Million Dollar Man. I had the works, man—the metal lunch box, the action figures, including Maskatron and yes…Bigfoot, the Bionic Transport and Repair Station and Mission Control playsets (I might even have the board game floating around here somewhere…). Those I had…but no way would I have played with a Jaime Sommers doll.

However, watching The Bionic Woman again with my two youngest daughters as co-pilots, I was reminded of what an enjoyable show it was, and how the combination of the silly-but-amusing bionic action scenes, coupled with the sweet, sexy appeal of Lindsay Wagner, made it a knockout with kids and families back in the mid-70s. I’m sure there are quite a few newer sci-fi/fantasy bloggers and reviewers (blech) out there who may look down on a 40-year-old “relic” from the past like The Bionic Woman. They’ll cynically laugh at its primitive (but still effective) special effects and its relatively simplistic storylines, lamenting how it isn’t “important” enough—read: “affected” and “pretentious”—compared to today’s sci-fi (it’s remarkable how the whole fanboy movement has taken so much fun out of this particular genre, perversely seeing a simple, effective entertainment like The Bionic Woman as somehow lacking).

But I didn’t get any of that from my daughters who have been raised on the very latest cutting-edge technology and special effects in movies and TV. Simply put: they loved The Bionic Woman, responding to its comparatively child-like simplicity with an immediacy that surprised me. Watching this as a father now, The Bionic Woman suddenly seems rather influential in the context of its TV history timeline—at least on a stealth level. Indeed, what I found most appealing about The Bionic Woman at this second viewing was how matter-of-fact is its (gritting my teeth…) “feminist” outlook. Never wearing a political viewpoint on its sleeve concerning Jaime’s “worth” compared to a man, it’s presented as a given that Jaime’s just as capable an undercover agent as arguably the world’s strongest man, Colonel Steve Austin. Hard-line feminists may scoff that it took bionics for Jaime Sommers to be taken seriously by men (don’t mess with her or she’ll crush your head like a tin can), but the show never presents it that way, taking instead a relatively realistic approach to Jaime’s bionic conversion (Wagner’s scene where she first realizes she may be a medical “freak,” is particularly well-acted), and then going from there, assuming she’s just as capable as Steve not because of her bionic powers, but in addition to them.

Granted, many of the scripts for The Bionic Woman lack any in-depth exploration of these potentially rewarding dramatic conflicts (at least in this first season). And it’s always important to remember that the show is primarily aimed as an entertainment for young viewers and families. But too often that simple, admirable goal, then and now, has been looked down upon by critics and writers as somehow “lesser” to more serious-minded fare…which of course is nonsense. The Bionic Woman, taking into account its sometimes iffy construction and a few simplistic (by design) scripts, still delivers the goods as far as serving up tight-running little drama/espionage playlets, anchored by old-fashioned (not a pejorative here) sci-fi/fantasy elements that give it a little additional spark, a little oomph.

Aided by the instantly recognizable production services of Universal Studio (the Universal “house style” look for 70s network TV series; the famed back lot location work; all of that marvelous stock footage—you can play “spot the movie” with every episode), The Bionic Woman not only hits the older viewer with a heavy dose of nostalgia for the way TV looked and played back then, it also shows newcomers how to deliver a consistently reliable, entertaining one-hour adventure drama with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of entertainment value—something that is sorely needed today.

I vividly remember the original two-parter The Six Million Dollar Man episode, The Bionic Woman, featuring the love story of Jaime and Steve and her traumatic death, when it aired in March of 1975. And obviously, I wasn’t the only one. The Bionic Woman series creator and head writer Kenneth Johnson credits this episode with kicking The Six Million Dollar Man into the ratings’ stratosphere, and obviously initiating the move to create a spin-off (I would argue that these two episodes returned The Six Million Dollar Man to ratings success, as you’ll see below). Again, not having seen these shows in over 40 years, what came up through my memory most was the palpable chemistry between Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner, and to their credit, it’s a pairing that still works today.

Now, to be fair, it’s entirely acceptable to laugh a little bit at Majors’ odd, gruff warbling on the classic, hilarious Sweet Jaime song that threads through their romance montages (please god tell me there’s a 45 single out there somewhere), where he sounds like a combination of William Shatner and Clint Eastwood from Paint Your Wagon (a delightful bit of fun helped enormously by Majors’ unbuttoned-to-the-chest hair leisure suits and of course the ubiquitous 70s gold chain). But Majors, a skilled, funny actor who wasn’t stretched often enough by his material, has never been better than when he’s interacting with the natural, charming Wagner. It’s easy to see that Wagner’s future on TV was assured with her initial appearance here (it’s a shame that her two immediate post-Bionic Woman big-screen efforts failed: Nighthawks and High Risk).

Too bad, though, that the romance became rocky. Either unwilling (from a thematic angle), or unable (from a storytelling or simply production logistics standpoint), to consistently link the two series with an on-going romance, the producers and writers don’t come up with an entirely satisfactory resolution to Jaime’s relationship with Steve. She’s always ping-ponging back and forth with him, first having no feelings for him anymore, to then being pally-pally with her co-worker, to strange non-committal drop-ins during a mission, all the way to Jaime worrying like Sandra Dee over whether or not Steve mentions her when he talks to Oscar. That connection between Majors and Wagner was, by all rights, the primary source of the resulting The Bionic Woman series, so to see that chemistry half-heartedly ignored does put a bit of a pall over the proceedings (not helped, either, by the several unconvincing stabs made to give Jaime new romances in these first season episodes).

Still…there’s Wagner, and she’s endlessly interesting, even if she’s basically asked to do the same few set-ups over and over again (a briefing from Oscar, a bit of espionage derring-do, some humorous “pocket bionics” sprinkled throughout the episodes to keep the kids happy, before the big action conclusion). Sporting an all-American, fresh-scrubbed, youthful “girl next door” appeal filtered through an engagingly open and warm spontaneity, Wagner can do no wrong here, defining the very notion of “star” (someone the viewer finds instantly likeable and attractive and emulation-worthy), while retaining an intelligence that only hints at what she could do as an actress with some weightier material. Anchoring an action-adventure/sci-fi/romance drama requires an actor who can move between these genre requirements, and Wagner does so with admirable ease (she gets weekly solid support from old pro character actor Richard Anderson; he takes his potentially silly role dead-seriously…and he’s a delight doing so).

Perhaps a bit shaky in tone at first due to some of the early episodes’ scattershot approach (why is multi-million dollar bionic spy Jaime protecting a lion, ferchrissakes, in the miscalculated Claws, or helping school bus driver Donald O’Connor in the thoroughly familiar mob/blackmail story, A Thing of the Past?), The Bionic Woman picks up speed as it finds its footing, eventually knocking out one entertaining episode after another. The Deadly Missiles features tons of fun bionic action as Forrest Tucker hot-wires Jaime’s injured leg (he asks her if they sent an owner’s manual along with her), before Jaime digs up a buried junction box like a hound dog on crack (the sound effects cues are uniformly excellent here—and always amusing). Bionic Beauty rushes firmly into “camp” territory as Wagner enters a beauty pageant and instead of bending iron bars for the talent portion, sings the single-most hated song of the 1970s: Feelings (I’ll admit it: when she finished up, I went into convulsions of short-circuiting ecstasy). And what would a TV episode about a beauty pageant be without Bert Parks, who shows yet again how subversively funny his whole pageant shtick was (when told about Goldman’s threat, Bert sneers, “There’s also an Oscar Meyer who makes weiners.” Classic). Winning is Everything gives Jaime a shot at her first post-Steve Austin romance, with dreamy manic/depressive race car driver John Elerick chickening out during some gnarly rally sport action (Jaime kisses him…but you can tell there’s no bionic “boiiiinnngggg“).

Canyon of Death has an intriguing subplot concerning Indian identity amid the hijinks of a stolen jet pack, while Fly Jaime combines Airport ’75 with Lost (or more accurately, Gilligan’s Island) as Jaime plays a stew (I’m feeling faint…) and helps Dr. Rudy who’s critically injured. The Jailing of Jaime could have done more to play up the rogue agent element of the plot, having Jaime unfairly accused of treason before she breaks out of jail, but the plot is solid, and the action credible. Mirror Image gives Wagner a chance to shine in a dual role, dredging up one of TV’s favorite goofy plots—the evil twin, in this case, a plastic surgery duplicate—for delightful results (watch the funny, farcical elevator sequence that’s perfectly timed by director Alan J. Levi). And finally, The Ghost Hunter, written and directed by series creator Kenneth Johnson, is a low-key but thoroughly enjoyable (and extremely well-directed) little ominous psychological/occult thriller, with Jaime encountering a very real supernatural presence troubling Kristy McNichol and her dreamy/angry scientist father.

The Six Million Dollar Man premiered way back in March of 1973, with the made-for-TV movie/pilot of the same name. A ratings-winner for ABC, this adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel Cyborg was followed by two more made-for-TV movies in November of 1973, before the series itself debuted as a mid-season replacement in January of 1974, where it managed the not-inconsiderable feat of becoming the eleventh-most popular series on the air for the entire 1973-1974 season (kids and families switched over from NBC’s huge hit Sanford and Son at 8:00pm to see Steve in action). Ominously, NBC counter-programmed this threat by moving Sanford and Son back to 8:30pm—directly against The Six Million Dollar Man—followed by the 12th biggest show of the year, The Rockford Files, with the result being The Six Million Dollar Man taking a huge hit in the ratings, dropping out of the Nielsen Top Thirty for the year.

Luckily, enough viewers were still watching when Wagner did her two-episode stint at the end of this 1974-1975 season, resulting in a significant spike in the ratings, as well as interest in the upcoming third season of The Six Million Dollar Man (which opened in the fall of 1975 with the two-parter, The Return of the Bionic Woman). Another two-part The Six Million Dollar Man episode, Welcome Home, Jaime, was split, introducing The Bionic Woman as a mid-season replacement on January 14, 1976 (unfortunately replacing the marvelously funny, criminally under-appreciated Mel Brooks Robin Hood spoof, When Things Were Rotten).

With only thirteen episodes for the remaining half-season, The Bionic Woman astoundingly became the fifth-most watched series for the entire 1975-1976 season (right behind Maude, Laverne & Shirley, Rich Man, Poor Man, and All in the Family), elevating interest in The Six Million Dollar Man (dodging a bullet by moving to Sundays), which climbed back to 9th for the year. Premiering on Wednesday nights at 8:00pm, the bionic latecomer to the season not only easily knocked out Tony Orlando & Dawn over on CBS (it had been a respectable 26th for the previous season), but also heavyweight kids’ favorite Little House on the Prairie on NBC, which had been 13th for the previous season, but which fell out of the Nielsen Top Thirty altogether against the onslaught of Jaime Sommers. So…why did ABC cancel it just a year later?…

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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