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John Wilson

Bionic Woman

You have to be of a certain age to remember The Bionic Woman, the late Seventies TV series that spun off from The Six Million Dollar Man and later spawned several made-for-TV movies reuniting Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) and Steve Austin (Lee Majors), the woman and man in question. It was brought to mind by Scott Collins' article for the Chicago Tribune, "New 'Bionic Woman' battles the old image" (May 28, 2007). "Of all the new fall series unveiled by the broadcast networks recently in New York," Collins writes, "the title that got the most attention" was Bionic Woman (no The), a remake of the show that originally aired from 1976 to 1978.

Well, maybe not anything as declasse as a "remake": rather it's a "re-imagining," NBC execs explain to Collins, reflecting an "industry trend toward darker, more complicated stories and characters than would have been imaginable in the three-network era." Forget the "cheesy" humor of the original, not to mention the Bionic Woman lunchboxes with matching thermoses beloved by schoolgirls thirty years ago (available on eBay for $20, Collins reports). And be prepared for a re-imagined Jaime Sommers: "What does it mean to be an empowered woman in the 21st Century?", executive producer David Eick wonders. For starters, whereas the Lindsay Wagner version was a tennis pro whose radical surgery followed a skydiving mishap (her parachute didn't open), the new Jaime (Michelle Ryan) is a bartender who nearly dies in a "horrific" car accident. Hmm.

"Cheesy" doesn't begin to describe the original series, so ludicrous as to approach the sublime. (Remember the episode in which Jaime was disguised as a nun?) As with so many products of the televised imagination, there was a doubleness to the premise, barely developed in the series itself yet present beneath the surface. On the one hand, Jaime Sommers was a corny Role Model of empowerment (hence all those girls with their lunchpails), coeval with Ms. magazine and "I Am Woman" and watered down for TV consumption. On the other hand, the show raised profound questions about embodiment, especially for its male viewers. (What did the bionic woman look like with her clothes off? What would it be like to make love with a bionic woman? And so on.)

Jaime Sommers is a primitive model of the cyborgs who turned up a few years later in William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy. On the other side of the family, she's related to mermaids and seal-women and fox-women. Plenty of imaginative capital there, but the original series, as if by perverse deliberation, settled for gimmicky kitsch. Will the re-imagined series do any better? I'm not sure, though I'm tempted to check it out in the fall. In the meantime, here are a few ideas for shows I'd like to see.

Bionic Housewife. Madison Miles is a young lawyer on the fast track. She and her husband, also a lawyer, have a daughter who is enrolled in an elite preschool. Madison is fluent in Chinese, Arabic, and Turkish and unwinds by playing the saz (a long-necked Turkish lute: the theme music for the series will feature Talip Ozkan). In the first episode, Madison is rushing to pick up her daughter when she is broadsided at an intersection by a drunk driver. When she regains consciousness, she finds herself in what looks like a futuristic hospital room. Turns out that Department 911, a shadowy unit formed when Homeland Security got bogged down in bureaucracy, has been keeping an eye on Madison with hopes of recruiting her. Intervening after her accident, they have rebuilt her shattered body. She is now a bionic woman.

The plan calls for her to resign from the law firm and become a stay-at-home mom who does a little "consulting" on the side: cover for occasional clandestine trips abroad. Many of her friends, despite their sympathy for her after the accident, berate her for her decision to give up a very promising career. After all, they argue, she seems to have made a phenomenal recovery. Now she's setting such a bad example.

Of course she can't tell them about her spywork, a secret that only her husband shares. What's worse, she finds that she is actually enjoying being a mother at home. And when her daughter is at preschool or asleep, Madison can use her bionic powers for homemaking. In fact, much as she's loyal to her country, she'd really like to quit the spy business, but the department informs her—none too gently—that she owes the government her life. Moreover, she is no longer the person she was before the accident: she is a walking weapon.

How will she resolve this conflict? How will she fare against experienced foreign agents and the machinations of rogue elements in the U.S. intelligence community (not to mention bungling incompetents)? Will her bionic powers be inadvertently revealed in the wrong setting? Will her happy marriage survive the new realities? Will her daughter be put in jeopardy? Will all of her old friends forsake her? Was the "accident" that changed her life really an accident? Stay tuned.

Bionic Grrrls. This is more inchoate. I can give you the elements. Set in the future, but not too far distant. A girl band, all four members of which have chosen some form of bodily re-engineering. Global warming has started to have more pronounced effects (so much for the skeptics). Weird endtime cults flourishing. One member of the band is a Christian. Lots of music in the show (flavors of Beirut, Slavic Soul Party, Anouar Brahem).

Bionic Seniors. This is also set in the future, in an old folks' home. People are routinely living to 120 years or even more. Enhancement of various kinds, including via genetic engineering, is commonplace. Alas, there has been such a hodgepodge of devices and techniques, the field rapidly advancing, that "maintenance" becomes increasingly difficult for aging subjects. A black comedy, extrapolating current trends, with some of the humor deriving from the human situation and some from the enhancements: one fellow has an extendable arm like the grabber in The Straight Story, and so on. Maybe this would be best in animation.

In his story about the re-imagined Bionic Woman, Scott Collins says that executive producer David Eick was "interested in how to make a non-traditional drama with a female lead," though Collins doesn't explain what "non-traditional" means in this context. And when Eick says he "was very intrigued by the principle of how to push a female protagonist in a new direction," we're again left wondering what "new" is intended to suggest.

I've just been emailing with a friend about Julian of Norwich. I would love to see a series about Julian, re-creating her era in the manner of Tarkovksy's Andrei Rublev (and avoiding the ludicrous dissonance of so many historical epics). Or a series set today with a protagonist based on Julian. That would be new, in a way, "non-traditional."

And maybe something about a mother with a houseful of children. Of course she'd have to be stunningly attractive (that part would be traditional), and the joys and sorrows of everyday life would need to be heightened and focused for dramatic impact. But such an old story, at this time and place, might seem new.

In this year when the Christian Vision Project centers on mission—"What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world?"—it occurs to me that a tv series featuring a missionary woman as protagonist would certainly be non-traditional. Maybe Mischa Berlinski's novel Fieldwork (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which we'll be reviewing soon, will inspire a producer with its tale set among missionaries in Thailand. I hope so.

As for Bionic Woman, check back with me in a couple of months.

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