Spin-off though it may have been we have had over a dozen occasions on which to mention The Bionic Woman (1976-78) so we take the opportunity of its star’s D.O.B. to flesh out the portrait some. And to talk about the historic moment. (oh yes, Lindsay Wagner, BOTD in 1949)
But for the fact that the E.R.A. (the natural climax of the woman’s movement) didn’t get passed, and change in all realms of society was incremental at best, one would like to call the 1970s the decade of the woman, if only in pop culture. All sorts of claims are made about various TV shows of that time featuring “the first female action hero”, conveniently forgetting, oh Anne Francis as Honey West (1965-66), or Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel on The Avengers (1965-68), and I bet there are other earlier ones. There always are. But in the mid ’70s, there came a wave: off the top of my head, Police Woman (1974-78), Wonder Woman (1974 tv movie, then 1976-79 series), The Secrets of Isis (1975-77), Charlie’s Angels (1976-81), and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (1976), to name a few.
The Bionic Woman was on the leading edge of that wave, for though the series didn’t premiere until 1976, the character had been launched with a “very special” two part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man in 1975. The concept, let’s be honest, is very much reminiscent of Bride of Frankenstein. This very unusual man needs a companion! Cyborg secret agent Steve Austin (Lee Majors) encounters his high school sweetheart Jaime Somers (Wagner), now a pro tennis player (which of course reminds us of Billie Jean King, whose 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” victory against Bobby Riggs was another pop culture feminist milestone). Unfortunately, Somers has a sky diving accident. Her chute doesn’t open! After much pleading by Austin, government scientists give her dying body the same kind of bionic enhancements that had worked on him. Unfortunately, the operation doesn’t take, and she dies. OR SO IT SEEMS. A write-in campaign by viewers convinced the show’s producers to revive the character and give her her own show, now employed as a female cyborg secret agent! In addition to the obvious anatomical differences between her and Austin, she had a bionic ear instead of a bionic eye, allowing her to eavesdrop electronically — a very ’70s concept. And occasionally there were crossover episodes, as when the pair encountered Bigfoot.
As a star, Wagner combined a healthy, “Ivory Girl” sort of beauty with a mellow, nearly soporific quality not unlike that of Peggy Lipton of The Mod Squad. Previous to The Bionic Woman, she had been a model, appeared in the film The Paper Chase (1973) and been on such shows as Marcus Welby MD and The Rockford Files. Like most of the lady action heroes of the era, when she wasn’t delivering karate chops to moronic thugs she was busy being soft and lovely.
After the series was cancelled in 1978, there were two bionic reunion movies in 1987 and 1994. Wagner also starred in two TV movies in 1979, The Incredible Journey of Doctor Meg Laurel and The Two Worlds of Jenny Logan, appeared in Nighthawks (1981) with Sylvester Stallone, and starred in two more short-lived series, Jenny (1984) and A Peaceable Kingdom (1989), among other things. She also wants you to get a good night’s rest on a Sleep Number Bed. Which, who wouldn’t after all that running and jumping and punching and falling out of airplanes?
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