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Reviewed by Will Harris
ci-fi series have always been a dime a dozen on television, but precious few properties have made a successful transition from the TV screen to the playground. Those of you in your late 30s and early 40s know what I’m talking about: back in the dark days before the Atari 2600 made it worthwhile to stay inside, kids actually used to go outside and play, and if you weren’t playing some kind of sport, then you and your friends tended to fall back on your imaginations, pretending to be your favorite heroes. In my neighborhood, the girls outnumbered the boys, so there were a lot of reenactments of “Charlie’s Angels” episodes where I got stuck playing Bosley, but if they were feeling really charitable, I could talk them into letting me be Steve Austin to their Jaime Sommers.
That didn’t happen very often, though: there were too many girls…and they all wanted to be Jaime Sommers.
The ‘70s was the decade when bionics ruled the airwaves, thanks to “The Six Million Dollar Man” and its sister series, “The Bionic Woman,” but both shows were stuck in DVD release limbo for many years as a result of copyright over “Cyborg,” the original novel on which “The Six Million Dollar Man” was based. At last, however, a deal has been struck, but – surprise, surprise – it’s actually “The Bionic Woman” that’s making it onto DVD first. The reason for the shows emerging from the vaults out of order is probably because Time-Life is releasing a complete series set of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” while Universal is opting to release “The Bionic Woman” one season at a time. But those fearing that they won’t have any idea what’s going on needn’t be concerned: the entire first disc contains the episodes of “The Six Million Dollar Man” that set up the story of Jaime Sommers.
Jaime grew up with Steve Austin in Ojai, California, but while he went on to pursue a career as an astronaut, she became a famous tennis pro. The two reunite when Steve decides to return home to Ojai and buy a ranch, and they quickly rekindle their high school romance, but tragedy strikes when Jaime is injured in a skydiving accident. Desperate, Steve demands that Rudy Wells (Alan Oppenheimer) use his expertise in bionics to save Jaime’s life, and although the cost is great, the government accepts Steve’s rationalization that, hey, now they can see how bionics work with a woman’s body. It may surprise those who haven’t actually seen the series before that, in fact, they don’t work very well at all: Jaime’s body begins to reject the bionic implants, resulting in a cerebral clot, and by the end of the two-part episode…well, frankly, she’s dead.
Or is she?
Nah, she’s not. Instead, she’s put into suspended animation until they can repair her issues. Unfortunately, upon her revival, her memories are relatively scattershot, some of them so far buried that it causes her physical pain when she starts to remember. Unfortunately, pretty much everything about Steve Austin is part of the problem area. Bad luck for Steve, eh? Well, yes, but only for the duration of another two-parter: by the time Jaime had secured her own series, her memories still hadn’t returned, but they weren’t causing her pain, either, and since she knew that she’d had feelings for Steve once upon a time…
Yeah, yeah, I know – enough with the romance, make with the bionics. That’s pretty much what I said when I was six years old, too, so I get where you’re coming from. Unfortunately, you’re liable to be a little disappointed with how all of those awesome bionic moves have aged. What was completely kick-ass when you were in the single digits somehow isn’t quite as cool anymore, and when you see Jaime painting a house or writing on a chalkboard at bionic speed, you’re less likely to go “ooh” and “aah” and more likely to find yourself humming “Yakkity Sax.” The stunts aren’t nearly as impressive, either, but as soon as you hear that sound effect to indicate the use of bionics, you’ll still break out in a grin of significant width.
It’s an absolute blast to watch the “Six Million Dollar Man” episodes that set up Jaime Sommers’ story, but the storylines of the actual “Bionic Woman” episodes are more than a little scattershot in their successes. For instance, you’ll be hard pressed to maintain excitement for an entire hour of Jaime trying to save a lion on a nature preserve from being shot by local farmers, and there’s no way you’ll make it more than a few minutes into “Bionic Beauty” without laughing at the whole Jaime-enters-the-Miss-United-States pageant. (Six words: Bert Parks is the bad guy.) If you’re looking for classic adventures, however, look no further than “Mirror Image,” where a woman has plastic surgery to look exactly like Jaime Sommers, giving Lindsey Wagner the chance to play dual roles, one of them with a Southern accent! Also awesome: “The Ghost Hunter,” where Kristy McNichol plays a young girl with telekinetic abilities.
Wagner seems to be having a lot of fun on the show and manages to make her way through some pretty ridiculous material as a result, but, of course, the man who holds the whole thing together is Oscar Goldman, played by Richard Anderson. Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers were cool, but neither of them could take off their sunglasses half as impressively as Oscar. Seriously, though, Anderson’s got the kind of charisma you don’t see on TV anymore, and it’s no wonder they wanted him to serve as the link between “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman.” Hell, I would’ve tuned in for “The Oscar Goldman Prime Time Variety Hour” if ABC had greenlit it. And in 1976, that’s an idea that was probably on the table at some point.
There’s no point in damning “The Bionic Woman” with the faint praise that it’s better than the attempted reboot from a few years ago (even though it is), so let’s just be honest: kids today will laugh at it, and the adults who watched it when they were kids may not be interested in watching more than a few episodes. But I loved it when I was a kid, and the more I watched of it, the more I remembered why I loved it. If it’s an artifact of its time, so be it, but if you’re an artifact of the same time, I’d lay odds that you’ll enjoy revisiting it.
Special Features: Given that Universal is not exactly notorious for providing a wealth of bonus material for its older series, fans who buy this set will be thrilled to find that “The Bionic Woman” is an exception to the studio’s usual rule. First of all, as noted above, they’ve been considerate enough to include the five episodes of “The Six Million Dollar Man” that set up the series, which also serves as a nice teaser for the upcoming complete series set of Steve Austin’s own adventures. Beyond that, though, there are four highly informative audio commentaries from series creator/screenwriter Kenneth Johnson, a very nice featurette about the origins of the series (“Bionic Beginning”) which includes new interviews with Wagner, Anderson and Brooks, as well as many members of the show’s creative team, and a gag reel, which, despite being of decidedly poor quality, will still no doubt give fans the giggles.