If you are of a certain age (over 30) and of a certain persuasion (geeky), you probably remember The Bionic Woman the softer-core peddling of American values designed to capture the female 15 and under audience that was being lost by The Six Million Dollar Man in 1976. A quick recap to freshen the memory for those of you with out the auto-geek switch.
The show’s central conceit wasn’t the bionic replacement of limbs and organs – the melding of human tissue with computer technology in an age when the average computer filled a 9′x12′ room – nor was it the idea that a government agency could be fielding operatives who were using experimental technology to achieve slightly shady mission objectives. After all, we’d just come off the Watergate Hearings so the idea that our government was doing something we didn’t know about seemed not only plausible but damn likely.
No, the central conceit of The Bionic Woman was that an operative, an employee of the U.S. government who was the equivalent of a GS 15 (Steve Austin, the titular Six Million Dollar Man), could lay a guilt trip on a Federal agency to the extent that they would spend millions of dollars to turn a school teacher into the first female cyborg and send her out in the field on black-bag missions that would probably have given the CIA pause if the show hadn’t been aimed at kids. The government doesn’t feel guilt. People do, though, and guilt plays a huge role in the new iteration of the show, Bionic Woman (pay attention to that missing article, it will be important later).
After a car accident that should be fatal – you have to give series producers this, they go for verisimilitude when they need to – Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan), a 20-something bartender with no military training at all, gets the cyborg treatment from Will Anthros (Chris Bowers) her college professor/surgeon/research director for a secret quasi-government project boyfriend. And Jaime’s bionic replacements come not just with the usual strength and speed that we of a certain age have come to expect from technology. They come with skills. Mad skills that life-long practitioners of aikido would drool to have. It seems, though, that the massive car accident just might not have been an accident after all.
Oh no, boys and girls, said government project, dark and spooky as it is, has that problem that is so handy for writers: it leaks like a sieve in a hurricane. So now project head Jonas Bledsoe (Miguel Ferrer in a sledgehammer subtle performance) has two problems on his hands. He has to figure out how to convince Jaime to “repay her debt” to the project and come work for him, and he has to figure out what to do about the project’s first bionic experiment Sarah Corvis (Katee Sackhoff, marvelously psychotic and chewing the scenery for all she’s worth).
The screener for this show felt like a thrown together pilot: just enough flash to sell the people who sign the checks but not quite finished around the edges. Executive producers David Eick (late of Battlestar Galactica, Glen Morgan, Jason Smilovic, (Laeta Kalogridis and Michael Dinner, pilot) hit most of the marks weaving in the government conspiracy angle (is this a private project or is it a black bag job?), the unpredictability of the lone assassin with skills (is all of Sarah’s crazy really just sexual jealousy?), our simultaneous dependence on and fear of technology (or is something in her bionics making her a whack job?), and, of course, a good looking cast. But if they’re going to make it work they need to go dark, not that sort of 80% black, construction paper dark that TV is so famous for. No, they’re going to have to go untrustworthy government, no hope, backed into a corner, ready to chew your leg off to get out of the trap dark if they’re going to make it work.
The question then becomes not can Michelle Ryan keep her American accent in place and develop more expressions in a range broader than stunned and totally pissed off. No, the question becomes, does NBC have the courage to put some grit into prime time or should they have put this on the Sci-Fi channel where it belongs?
One of the most interesting things about the old Bionic Woman (1976) television show is that it occurred at at the cusp of inter-generational American feminism: 1976′s Jamie summers wasn’t a placard-wearing NOW member, but she was a working, single woman – a school teacher.
Other reviewers have commented that the then-show was a peer of both ‘Charlie’s Angels’ (1976) and ‘Wonder Woman’ (1976) but both the Angels and Diana Prince were inherently subordinate to their male handlers. In The Bionic Woman ’76, it was clear that Jaimie (played by Lindsay Wagner) was the one with the Power and that she relished it.
In 1976, it was widely acknowledged that Jamie Summers was as good, as capable, as athletic as Steve Austin, yet Jaimie’s adventures never went quite as dark as Steve’s. Jaime never dealt with crises on the front-lines of the Cold War or many of the ‘harder’ scifi opponents and enemies that Steve did. Jamie put a kinder, gentler. more nurturing face on cyborgness.
This new Bionic Woman (played by Brit Michelle Ryan) is in her early twenties, as opposed to the original Jaimie’s 27 (as indicated in the show’s opening credits). The original Jaimie was a former tennis star and something of a daredevil, having gained her high-tech prosthetics in the aftermath of a a skydiving accident. NewJaimie acquires her bionic limbs after a tragic car accident in which she is only a blameless victim.
One aspect of the show that I do take strong objection to is lack of consent. In Bionic Woman ’76, it was fairly clear that Jaimie’s augmentation was an act of charity and regret – boyfriend Steve Austin crawled into boss Oscar’s office on bended knee seeking a reprieve for the life that he felt responsible for destroying. In this new thing, not so much. NewJaimie’s fiance Will Andros just happens to work in some top-secret nano-cybernetic lab and takes it upon himself to try his new toys out on Jaimie after a catastrophic accident. In 1976, the stakes honestly seemed higher – Steve had very strong feelings for Jaimie and the time he spent with her made a difference. She was part of an innocent past, a part of him that had gotten left behind when his experimental plane crashed and he was transformed into Oscar’s creature, the cyborg of wetwork.
With 30 years between myself and that first iteration of The Bionic Woman, I couldn’t get past a sense of the violation that boyfriend Will and his crew of tech-nerds had perpetrated upon that poor woman. The procedure was experimental, no? Did Will and the Federales seek consent? Did they seek out a relative – her Mother, Father or Deaf-turned-Hacker sister before they put her under the knife?
My response here may be over-sensitized, but I couldn’t get past an impression that NewJaimie had undergone a form of surgical rape, that she had lost an element of choice with regard to the destiny of her body. Somehow, more crucial than having a child taken from her womb or deciding whether she wanted to take responsibility for another human life, she had had her very humanity swiped from her. More than the fickle aspects of female biology, she has had body-parts replaced, body parts that she still does not have full control over, even as the pilot episode comes to a close.
What many of us have seen was an early cut of the Pilot, the one featuring a deaf, hand-signing sister that has since been re-cast and re-written as a precocious computer-hacker. Executive Producer David Eick (of Battlestar Galactica and Xena fame) has also made a lot of noise about NewJaimie’s ‘feminism’. If Eick is so concerned with feminism, why has he then cast NewJaimie so young, but also as a surrogate single-mother to a younger sister? So NewJaimie is both a triple-amputee and a single mother? As a show-runner encumbering his title character, Eick sounds like a misogynist rather than a Whedon-like champion of femininity.
Since David Eick’s true intentions and broken notions of feminism are the only evidence we have to work with here, we can only tread lightly and hope for the best. The younger casting choices seem to point at a younger (and more masculine) demographic than the original. In 1976, The Bionic Woman signified equal time for women during the 5-year run of ‘The Six-Million Dollar Man’. Without her own, corresponding Steve this NewJaimie faces the risk of overcompensation. NewJaimie isn’t an athlete. NewJaimie has to put her younger sister through school as she herself faces the challenges of a late college while she works as a bartender. NewJaimie is the victim of one of her fiance’s mad patients, who causes the accident that cripples her. I can only wonder if Producer Eick has a thing against women. Rating:
“Bionic Woman”, Wedneday nights at 9pm EST/8pm CST starting 9/26/2007.