The Bionic Woman

The Bionic Woman

1976 - United States

For many women, being the girlfriend of a superhero has its advantages and pitfalls. For Jamie Sommers, it had a distinct advantage.

The love interest of Six Million Dollar Man Steve Austin (Lee Majors), Jaime, his sweetheart since high school, is a professional tennis player who suffers a horrific injury in a skydiving accident when her parachute fails to open. Suffering injuries to her head, legs and right arm, she lies in critical condition when Austin pleads with his boss, Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), to give her the same life-saving bionic implants that had saved his life. In return, she commits to becoming an operative for OSI (the Office of Scientific Investigation). But soon after, the implants malfunction and she is rushed back to the operating theatre and dies. And that, it would seem, is the end of the Bionic Woman.

The Bionic Woman

Playing the role of Jaime Sommers was former model and Dating Game contestant Lindsay Wagner. A contract player at Universal Productions, Wagner had made her primetime debut in Adam-12, and for the next few years she turned up in a number of popular TV shows such as Marcus Welby, M.D., and The Rockford Files. Wagner was cast in the role of Sommers based on her appeal and spontaneity but was only supposed to appear in two episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man after which her contract with Universal was due to expire. But the public response to the character was so overwhelming that her death was retconned into a cover story for a protected secret, and The Bionic Woman debuted in January 1976.

The Bionic Woman

The first episode of the new series continues from the two-part Six Million Dollar Man story. But it is only now revealed that Jaime had not died after all. Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin E. Brooks) has developed secret cryogenic techniques to keep Jaime in suspended animation until a cerebral clot can be safely removed, after which she is successfully revived.

Although Jaime has been outfitted with two legs, a right arm and an artificial ear, has incredible strength and speed, and while her ear can detect nearly any sound regardless of distance, volume or frequency, the production team made sure that there were certain rules about the use of her bionics. Creator and executive producer Kenneth Johnson set very specific limits on her abilities. "When you're dealing with the area of fantasy, if you say, 'Well, they're bionic so they can do whatever they want,' then it gets out of hand, so you've got to have really, really tight rules. They (Steve and Jaime) can jump up two stories but not three. They can jump down three stories but not four. Jaime can't turn over a truck, but she can turn over a car." This is illustrated in one episode where Jaime jumps out of a window that is too high for her implants to withstand. Her legs explode upon landing, nearly killing her.

The Bionic Woman

With fourteen episodes airing from January to May 1976, The Bionic Woman became the fifth-most-watched television show of the 1975–76 season ranking behind Maude, Laverne & Shirley, Rich Man, Poor Man, and All In The Family, but ahead of The Six Million Dollar Man. The series also proved to be immensely popular in the UK where it was shown on ITV, the first episode pulling in an audience of around 14 million. It also spawned several spin-off items such as a Bionic Woman doll, a Bionic Beauty Salon playset and a board game.

During the first year of The Bionic Woman, Wagner was involved in a car accident with her then-boyfriend, actor Michael Brandon, who almost lost an eye. Wagner received a severe cut on her upper lip which left a small but permanent scar. Her injuries halted production on the show for weeks.

Wagner’s portrayal of Jaime Sommers was both vulnerable and strong, showcasing her acting prowess and earning her an Emmy Award in 1977 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Dramatic Role. Her role also welcomed a wave of empowered women on US television such as Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman and Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly in Cagney & Lacey.

Following the cancellation of The Bionic Woman in 1978, Wagner continued to act, predominantly in television miniseries and television films. In 1979, she was scheduled to be a passenger on American Airlines Flight 191 from Chicago to Los Angeles, when she suddenly felt very ill while waiting for the plane. She missed the flight which crashed only minutes after take-off, killing all 271 people on board.

Sandra Bullock in The Bionic Woman TV Movie

Three TV movies were later made. The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (1987), saw Jaime and Steve reunited after nearly ten years of living separate lives. The second film, Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (1989), introduced Sandra Bullock as paraplegic Kate Mason who becomes a next-generation bionic woman. In the final reunion film, Bionic Ever After? (1994), Jaime gets a major upgrade, which increases the power of her bionics and gives her night vision. It ends with the bionic couple getting married.

An entirely new version aired on NBC in the USA in September 2007. British actress Michelle Ryan (EastEnders) took on the role of Jaime, a bartender who has a horrific car crash and is saved by her boyfriend who performs a lifesaving operation by repairing her body with advanced cybernetic replacement parts. Jaime's modifications include bionic legs, a bionic right arm, a bionic right ear, a bionic right eye, and nanomachines called anthrocytes which are capable of healing her body at a highly accelerated rate. Due to a strike by the Writers Guild of America, production of the series was halted in mid-November 2007. Only eight episodes had been made and it never returned.

The success of The Bionic Woman can be attributed to its enigmatic leading star and its seamless blend of thrilling action and progressive portrayal of women. From battling evil scientists to thwarting terrorist plots, Jaime Sommers proved time and again that women are just as capable as their male counterparts, laying the foundation for the rise of the female-driven action series that we see today.

Published on December 9th, 2023. Written by Malcolm Alexander for Television Heaven.

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