During the heyday of ABC-TV’s cyborg-action series “The Six Million Dollar Man” (1973-1978), a spinoff was created in 1976 centered around bionic astronaut Steve Austin’s childhood sweetheart, Jaime Sommers; a tennis pro who is badly injured in a skydiving accident (both legs, right arm and right ear critically damaged) with Steve during their renewed courtship, resulting in her becoming “The Bionic Woman” (1976-1978). “The Bionic Woman”as overseen by talented, groundbreaking TV writer/producer Kenneth Johnson (“The Incredible Hulk” “V”), with memorable music by Joe Hartnell (who went on to compose the haunting “Lonely Man” theme for Johnson’s “The Incredible Hulk”) and Jerry Fielding (“The Wild Bunch”).
Note: Hartnell’s opening theme for “The Bionic Woman” is quite different from Oliver Nelson’s more adrenaline-pumping opening titles of “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Hartnell’s theme is adventurous (plenty of brass, sound effects), yet not-unfeminine, either, with light jazz piano and strings.
From her first episode on “The Six Million Dollar Man,” it was clear that star Lindsay Wagner had great chemistry with costars Lee Majors and Richard Anderson (“Oscar Goldman”). In her second episode, Jaime suffered painful bionic rejection and ‘died.’ Her later resurrection was explained away with a “flash-freezing” process (aka cryogenics) used to keep her alive after her apparent death (“The Return of the Bionic Woman, Parts 1 and 2”). Once recovered, the amnesiac Jaime’s location at an OSI facility was kept quiet for fear that her recovered memory might permanently traumatize her (OSI is the Office of Scientific Investigations; the franchise’s fictional government agency that’s one-third NASA, two-thirds CIA).
Note: As with the parent show, you have to ignore most laws of physics for bionics to ‘work’; one mechanical arm lifting a car ignores laws of leverage, for example, while two heavy atomic-powered legs wouldn’t make someone faster, either (let alone jump over a tall fence). Only Jaime’s bionic hearing makes any kind of sense, as it suggests a very powerful, imbedded hearing aid of some kind.
This top-secret return of Jaime Sommers was kept from her former fiancé Steve Austin, which caused the anguished bionic astronaut considerable grief later on. Once Jamie recovered, and her memory was (safely) restored, the former pro tennis star went to work as a school teacher on an Air Force base near her hometown of Ojai, California (a real town, incidentally), where she lived in a spacious attic loft above her adopted parents (Steve’s mother and stepdad). As part of the price for her bionic resurrection, a grateful Jaime made herself available to OSI chief Oscar Goldman and pioneering bionics scientist Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin E. Brooks) for occasional classified government operations. These ‘occasional’ assignments quickly became her life.
The stories in the show’s first year were typically spy capers, top-secret government rescues, acts of sabotage/espionage, and even an animal rights story (“Claws”). There were also many crossovers with its parent series, “The Six Million Dollar Man,” which created a shared bionic universe (take that, Marvel). Jaime even got to tangle with Bigfoot. Having switched broadcast networks from ABC to NBC in the the show’s final year, crossovers between “The Bionic Woman” and “The Six Million Dollar Man” were no longer possible (adieu, Sasquatch). The series had to rely on broader sci-fi/fantasy/occult concepts for ratings’ sake, but to no avail. Later episodes would begin a slow slide towards mysticism, pyramid power, space aliens and even astral projection. In earlier episodes, such concepts were usually debunked—in later episodes, they were played straight.
After three years of slo-mo running and later chasing after her bionic dog, Max, star Lindsay Wagner wanted out. Not ungrateful for the series and the Emmy award it afforded her, Wagner’s exit left a door open for Jaime Sommers’ future return in a trio of Bionic TV movie sequels, which aired from 1987 through 1994. The once-promising, exceptionally well-acted “Bionic Woman” was cancelled in 1978, the same year as its parent series, “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The following are a few of my personal favorites from the show, as well as a few cheesy, goofy honorable mentions.
Season 1 Favorites:
“Welcome Home Jaime,” Parts 1 & 2 sees a recovering Jamie returning to Ojai, California to accept a teaching job at an Air Force base, while adjusting to her new life as a part-time super-agent. We even get to meet some of the kids in Jaime’s classroom. More earthy and grounded than most action series, the first official episodes of the show also see Jaime getting into the spy game after various attempts are made on her life by an old nemesis (Dennis Patrick).
“Thing of the Past” focuses almost entirely on Jamie’s teaching gig, as she learns that a kindly, beloved bus driver (Donald O’Connor) shuttling her kids on a class field trip is an incognito witness to a mob killing who is trying to live down his shady past—which catches up to him, of course. Much of the story focuses on Jaime’s life as an Ojai schoolteacher. Sadly, this side of Jaime’s double-life is largely lost as the series progresses.
“Jaime’s Mother” is another deeply human story that only peripherally involves super-agent shenanigans. Orphan Jaime sees a woman (Barbara Rush) at the local cemetery who looks very much like her dead mother—only to learn that their ‘chance encounter’ was entirely by design. The compassionate resolution to this story is just one of the ways this series sets itself apart from its more macho predecessor.
“Fly Jaime” sees Jaime acting as an airline flight attendant while trying to keep her OSI friend and doctor Rudy Wells safe, along with Rudy’s top-secret formula for cobalt-247. The “Six Million Dollar Man” did a very similar marooned-on-a-desert island story (“Survival of the Fittest”), but it’s great fun to see Jaime keeping her bionic superpowers a secret from the passengers while pretending to be little more than a good flight attendant. Jaime also meets her future beau, Chris (Christopher Stone), one of several boyfriends of hers we see on the show.
Note: Wagner would later play heroic, real-life German flight attendant Eli Derickson in the 1988 TV-movie “The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story.”
“Mirror Image” is the first of an arc involving a criminal named Lisa Galloway, who’s surgically altered to resemble Jaime, but who is unaware of Jaime’s special bionic abilities. While this first episode of a three-part arc (ending in season 2) is the least dramatic, it sets the table for its far more effective concluding acts.
“Bionic Beauty” features Jaime in a beauty pageant to stop the illicit sale of a microchip (as you do), where she gets to sing the ‘70s soft-pop hit, “Feelings” (to her credit, Wagner really can sing, but the song is just lousy). Sadly, the notion of educator/secret-agent Jaime forced to pose in beauty pageants speaks to the state of sexism on TV in the 1970s.
“Ghosthunter” is a bionic updating of “The Turning of the Screw,” with some spooky spectral shenanigans involving a ghost-hunting widower who’s unwittingly neglecting his tween daughter (Kristy McNichol), whom OSI assistant Jaime befriends. Funny how no one seems to see ghosts anymore, now that everyone has a digital camera on their phones…
Season 2 Favorites:
“Return of Bigfoot” Part 2 is the second part of several “Six Million Dollar Man” crossover specials while the two series still shared a network (ABC). Bigfoot is back, but is now played by the late, great Ted Cassidy (“Lurch” on “The Addams Family”). In the second of two parts, Jaime learns that the shaggy alien robot is evolving into consciousness. The Bigfoot episodes are always great fun, despite their inherent silliness—or perhaps because of it. The late John Saxon also costars.
“Kill Oscar” Parts 1, 3 is another crossover event, which introduces another piece of fondly-remembered bionic lore (and future “Austin Powers” punchline); the fembots. The second part of this three-part crossover sees Jaime shattering her bionic legs during an exceptionally high jump onto concrete, while escaping a deadly fembot attack (leaving her sidelined for Part 2). While the exposed mechanical faces of the fembots are cheesy-looking today, they were quite terrifying to young kids in 1976.
Note: Series semi-regular Jennifer Darling, who plays Oscar’s sweetly-neurotic secretary and Jaime’s bestie, Peggy Callahan, is given a nicely nasty dual role as the fembot imposter of her character.
“The Vega Influence” is a genuinely creepy sci-fi thriller featuring a remote US Air Base whose personnel are slowly disappearing, one by one, only to return as zombified, meat-puppet slaves of a rocky, disembodied alien intelligence. Jaime befriends a hearing-impaired serviceperson’s daughter (Jamie Smith-Jackson) living on the base, whose condition blocks the alien signal’s controlling influence.
“Doomsday Is Tomorrow,” Parts 1, 2 sees the world given an ultimatum to disarm by a dying pacifist scientist (Lew Ayres), whose deadly supercomputer ALEX 7000 (voice of Guerin Barry) takes up his late creator’s mission of destroying the world when a rogue nuclear power refuses to comply. Jaime is pushed to her physical and emotional limits trying to outwit the clever computer, which is a transparent ‘homage’ to (or ripoff of) HAL-9000 (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). Despite the shamelessly borrowed villainy, this two-parter is perhaps the ultimate test of Jaime’s resourcefulness.
“Deadly Ringer” Parts 1, 2 sees the return of Jaime’s criminal doppelgänger Lisa Galloway, who is freed from prison by corrupt guards, with Jaime kidnapped and left in Lisa’s place. Lisa is secretly using a poisonous super-drug to emulate Jaime’s super-strength, but it’s slowly killing her. Caught in the ultimate identity crisis, Jaime hits rock bottom as she’s forced to prove herself to disbelieving authorities, even her mentor and father-figure, Oscar Goldman. The ending sees Jaime talking Lisa down, and ultimately befriending her jealous nemesis.
Note: Lindsay Wagner gives a series-best performance in this episode, as both a distraught Jamie and the drug-addicted Lisa.
“Black Magic” is a silly, circus fortune-teller tale with a campy cast that includes Julie Newmar and Vincent Price. The colorful, larger-than-life guest stars make the episode.
“Sister Jaime” sees undercover nun Jamie helping to rid a convent’s prized winery of an inside drug smuggling ring. Predates 1992’s nun-comedy “Sister Act” by almost two decades.
“Biofeedback” sees Jaime teaming up with an astro-projectionist named Darwin Jones (Granville Van Dusen) who can leave his body at will—a silly gimmick the series would revisit in season 3’s “Out of Body,” but with a terribly clichéd Native American-perspective.
Season 3 Favorites:
“The Bionic Dog” Parts 1, 2 sees Jaime stumbling across the very first recipient of Rudy Wells’ bionics; a depressed German Shepherd named Max (short for Max-a-million; the dog’s cost in bionics), who is earmarked for destruction as a ‘failed experiment’. Feeling a natural empathy with the cyborg canine, Jaime frees the dog (against Rudy and Oscar’s wishes) and tries to prove the pooch is still worthy—which she does, after Max saves Jaime and her beau Chris (Christopher Stone) from a raging forest fire.
Note: Much like her former (and future) fiancé Steve Austin, Jaime is also seen having a healthy collection of boyfriends during the series. This is nice to see, and it’s in-keeping with the show’s many other demonstrations of equality. All of this was rare for TV in the 1970s, where single women characters usually fell into unsubtle, madonna-whore tropes; for example, we never saw any of the Charlie’s Angels on a date.
“Fembots in Las Vegas” Parts 1, 2 brings the fembots’ return. The series most popular villains (the Borg of this series) cause Jaime to experience (understandable) moments of PTSD at the prospect of having to face these nearly unstoppable robots, who nearly killed Jaime in their last encounter. Callahan is similarly disturbed, especially after her deactivated fembot doppelgänger from the previous story is reactivated. The heavy action quotient of the story is nicely balanced in the fist half as Oscar takes Jaime for a night on the town in Vegas before they get to the mission at hand.
Note: The paternal warmth that series costar Richard Anderson felt for Wagner radiates right off the screen. Anderson himself once told me (when I met him in 2012; see below) that he just adored Wagner. While some might cringe when Oscar Goldman refers to Jaime as “babe” multiple times during the series, it’s more in the context of a loving paternal figure, not as a creepy predator.
“Brain Wash” sees Callahan’s suspicious new hairdresser boyfriend John (Michael Callan) using a mind-controlling shampoo to force Callahan into revealing OSI secrets, which he intends to sell to the highest bidder. This is an absolutely inane premise that is salvaged by the very real emotional sparks produced when a jealous Callahan fires back at Jaime’s accusations of John. Something similar happened to Callahan before, in “The Six Million Dollar Man” (“The Winning Smile”). Actress Jennifer Darling (whose unique voice led to a prolific voice-acting career) gives her all in this episode.
“Sanctuary Earth” is another utterly ridiculous premise buoyed by Lindsay Wagner and a very young, future Oscar-winning Helen Hunt, who plays a stranded alien princess who hitches a ride on a US satellite in an effort to outrun twin alien bounty hunters from her home star system. Hunt’s planet is in the grip of a galactic war, and her planet’s enemies hope to capture the princess. However, the two terminator-like bad guys don’t count on Jaime opening a can of bionic whoop-ass, which delays their attempted capture of the space princess just long enough for the war to abruptly end (convenient). What sounds like an episode of Disney’s “The Mandalorian” (with Jaime as Mando) feels more like a missing sequel to Disney’s “Witch Mountain” movies instead.
“On The Run” is a series best. Very consciously designed as a series finale, something rarely afforded most cancelled US TV shows in those days. Written by future “Die Hard” screenwriter Steven E. de Souza in collaboration with Wagner herself, the result is a very meta story which sees Jaime growing increasingly tired of being identified as “the robot lady,” and questioning her own humanity (this was something seen in Martin Caiden’s original “Cyborg” novel as well, with a newly-bionic Steve wondering how much of his humanity remained). In her wish to resign from the OSI and return to teaching full-time, Jaime is mortified to learn that she is considered ‘government property’ because of her bionics. This forces her to flee. Ultimately, Jaime turns herself in, but conditionally—she will only do future missions at her discretion; a condition the sympathetic Oscar Goldman readily agrees to. This ending leaves the character of Jaime Sommers alive and well for future sequels and spinoffs.
“Motorcycle Boogie” sees a truly clueless Jaime unwittingly teaming up with motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel in an utterly silly East-Germany caper. Full disclosure: I had that Evel Knievel windup motorcycle toy as a kid, and I loved that stupid thing, I won’t lie…
“Max” is a backdoor pilot for a potential Bionic Dog spinoff, which would’ve seen Max adopted by an OSI scientist and her orphaned nephew, played by “The Brady Bunch” costar Christopher Knight. As with several episodes of the third season, Jaime is hospitalized for a bionic tuneup, keeping her out of the action for the most part.
“The Martians Are Coming…” sees Jaime foil a fake flying saucer in a bizarre, overly-convoluted hologram-UFO scheme hatched by a rogue veteran OSI agent and his wife, who are simply out to make a quick buck by selling secrets.
“The Pyramid” sees Jaime and her sometimes beau, Chris (Christopher Stone), discovering a pyramidal, subterranean alien base deep under an LA warehouse—think “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” but lobotomized.
Bionic TV-Movie Sequels
Three sequel TV-movies featured both the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman. The first of the three was 1987’s “The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman.” The second was 1989’s “Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman,” which also saw the emergence of a young Sandra Bullock as a next-gen bionic woman in another backdoor pilot that went nowhere.
Jaime and Steve would (finally) tie the knot in the final moments of 1994’s “Bionic Ever After.” After Steve and Jaime’s wedding, the sun had officially set on the original bionic TV saga, which began with 1973’s pilot of “The Six Million Dollar Man.”
2007 Remake: “We can rebuild her.…sorta.”
The rebooted “Bionic Woman” starred Michelle Ryan, with Katee Sackhoff as “Sarah Corvus” (a villain similar to Steve Austin’s bionic nemesis, Barney Hiller, in “The Seven Million Dollar Man”). One of the show’s biggest missteps right out of the gate was in not casting Sackhoff as Jaime Sommers, as she was so perfectly suited for the role (see: “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Mandalorian”). Instead of a bionic dog for a sidekick, this Jaime Sommers had a teenaged kid sister (Lucy Hale) who gave orphan Jaime many of the same headaches as a young single mother.
Producer David Eick (“Battlestar Galactica”) tried to impart the darker, ‘edgier’ vibe of his successful “Battlestar Galactica” remake, but it simply doesn’t work here. The end result feels like a poor man’s “The Matrix,” with rainy rooftop battles, lots of bullet-time swiveling and an absolute dearth of likable characters (the new Oscar Goldman, played by the late Miguel Ferrer, is a complete d!ck). The remake is as much a time capsule of early 2000s TV as the original show was of the 1970s, but it lacks the simplicity and heart to connect with future generations, as the original still does today. The reboot was mercifully cancelled before the end of its first season.
While I never actually met star Lindsay Wagner, I did take a candid pic of her once, at San Diego Comic Con 2008, and she looked terrific. If she ever comes back to the convention, I hope to meet her. Sadly, I wasn’t a huge fan of “The Bionic Woman” back in my youth, but I’ve come to appreciate it since, based largely on the strength of her Emmy-winning performance.
I once had the good fortune to met and chat with “Six Million Dollar Man” costar Richard Anderson (1926-2017) at San Diego Comic Con 2012, when he came to a table where I was sitting and we enjoyed a lovely 40-odd minute conversation about all manner of things; the state of modern medicine, war, his career (“Forbidden Planet,” “Seconds,”), you name it—I tried really hard not to geek out. The gracious and gentlemanly Anderson also told me that he was a passionate advocate for his beloved costar Lindsay Wagner to gain her own spinoff, after the smash ratings success in her two-part “Six Million Dollar Man” episode, “The Bionic Woman,” Parts 1 and 2. Shortly before Anderson’s celebrity handler returned to take him to his next event, I asked him what he thought of Comic Con San Diego, and he told me “If they could have one of these in every city of the world, there’d be no wars.” I will never forget our delightful conversation together, and it remains one of my favorite convention memories ever.
More Than the Sum of Her Parts
The 1970s saw a significant rise in women-led action roles in crime dramas such as “Police Woman,” “Get Christie Love” (a milestone for women and Black representation), and, of course, “Charlies Angels” (which was one step forward, two backward; with a heavy reliance on the ‘jiggle factor’). However, “The Bionic Woman” was groundbreaking in that a seemingly ordinary woman schoolteacher from Ojai, California was leading a sci-fi action series. Mind you, this was three years before Sigourney Weaver’s “Ripley” in “ALIEN” (or even Erin Gray’s Col Wilma Deering in “Buck Rogers”).
For all its faults, “The Bionic Woman” featured a consistent believability and sincerity from its (deservedly) Emmy-winning star, Lindsay Wagner, for whom I developed a great admiration during this rewatch. While the often-silly stories dealt with such absurdities as astral projection, Bigfoot, pyramid power and teenaged space princesses, they were told with a sincerity and an almost ad-libbed spontaneity from Wagner that helped sell many of the show’s more ridiculous ideas.
It’s easy to see why star Lindsay Wagner wanted out after three years (the final episode, “On The Run,” is something of a confessional), but in those three seasons, the series and its star made a significant stride for women-led sci-fi/action; something that has evolved over time to become downright commonplace today (“Xena,” “Buffy,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” “Star Trek: Discovery,” “Supergirl,” and the upcoming “Ahsoka,” to name but a few). This is not ‘woke’; it’s evolution. And we can thank Jaime Sommers for using her bionic legs to kick that door down.
Lindsay Wagner’s Jaime Sommers made a bionic leap ahead for women everywhere. Given the sadly retrograde state of women’s rights in the 21st century, we could use an army of bionic women just like her today…
Where To Watch
“The Bionic Woman” is available to stream on Vudu, PrimeVideo and AppleTV. The series’ ‘official’ pilot, “The Return of the Bionic Woman Part 1” is available to stream on Peacock.com. The entire series is available on remastered BluRay from Shout Factory and on DVD from Universal Home Video. These box sets can be found on Bay and Amazon. com (prices vary by seller). I have to confess that I lucked out, when I found the entire DVD box set of the series at my local Barnes and Noble for a ridiculously low price.