Spin-offs, as mentioned before, are another form of adaptation. Instead of taking a work and translating it to another medium, a spin-off takes a popular* character and presents him or her as a lead, exploring how the character would react and develop. Today, Lost in Translation will look at the 70s TV series, The Bionic Woman.
The Seventies saw a break out of science fiction on the big screen and on television. Star Wars had its debut in 1977, but Star Trek turned into a force thanks to syndication, leading studios to realize that science fiction had a loyal audience. Helping the interest in science fiction was actual science happening. The Space Race between the US and USSR drove interest in the probes launched and led to the first American space station, Skylab, and the first probes, from the Russian Venera series, to land on Venus.
Along with the interest in space exploration came the use of computers. The integrated circuit had made huge improvements since its first development, allowing for the reduction of computer size. Computers still weren’t ready to be on everyone’s desks; the furniture still couldn’t deal with the weight. The banks of computers, though, had more processing power. The silicon chip led to the idea of miniaturization of computers; can they be made small enough to bring the Dick Tracy wrist communicator and the Star Trek electronic clipboard to reality**?
Science fiction has the benefit of not needing to be tied to what current technology can do. If current technology is leading in one direction, science fiction can extrapolate not only the technology but the reaction to it. Even if the story doesn’t get every detail right, it is impressive at what it predicts. Science fiction is also a reflection of the time when it is written. With Martin Caidin’s 1972 novel, Cyborg, it reflects the Space Race and the Cold War in its lead character, Colonel Steve Austin, former astronaut and test pilot. Col. Austin became the first cybernetically enhanced human after his test plane crashed, leaving him with severe injuries. With his bionics, Col. Austin became one of America’s top secret agents, dealing with threats to the nation.
Hollywood is known to adapt, to understate the matter. Glen A. Larson licensed the idea in Cyborg and turned the book into a series of TV movies, the first being called, The Six Million Dollar Man, airing in 1973. Once again, former astronaut Col. Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors, suffered a horrific crash during a test flight, requiring bionic replacements for his right arm, both legs, and his right eye. The success of the TV movies led to a proper TV series, also called The Six Million Dollar Man.
The series was lighter fare. Col. Austin was still a bionically enhanced agent working for the Office of Scientific Intelligence and Oscar Goldman, played by Richard Anderson. His foes were terrorists from various national stand-ins***, rogue Soviet agents, greedy businessmen, robots, and even aliens and psychics. Several characters returned, including Bigfoot, as played by André the Giant, and the Seven Million Dollar Man, played by Monty Markham. One character, though, wasn’t originally planned on being brought back.
A two-part season two episode, “The Bionic Woman”, introduced Jaime Sommers, played by Lindsay Wagner, an old flame of Steve’s from his hometown of Ojai. Jaime had also left Ojai to pursue her dreams of being a professional tennis player, and had great success in doing so. When both she and Steve returned to Ojai to visit friends and family, their long dormant romance rekindled, leading to an engagement.
But first, “The Bionic Woman” needed a bionic woman. During a skydiving outing, Jaime’s parachute failed. She survived, barely, but lost the use of her right arm, both of her legs, and her right ear. Steve convinced Oscar and Dr. Rudy Wells, played that time by Martin Balsam****, to give Jaime bionics, which they reluctantly did. Jaime’s recovery mirrored that of Steve’s in the first TV movie; slow, steady, and then reaching beyond human capabilities. However, Jaime had fallen victim to the Cartwright Curse.
Television in the Seventies and, indeed, through most of its history until recently, was episodic. A series featuring a single person had to leave room for the romance of the episode. Marrying the main character meant limiting some subplots. The Cartwright Curse, named after the main characters on Bonanza, would see any serious relationship end, usually through the death of the woman. With “The Bionic Woman”, the engagement reduced Jaime’s life expectancy. One of the fears mentioned in the original TV movie was the chance of Steve’s body rejecting the bionics. While Steve didn’t have those issues, Jaime did. She was rushed back to the clinic, but died.
The two-part episode aired near the end of season two. Over the hiatus, the production company realized how popular a character she was. Bringing her back meant doing something so that she was alive again. The season three opener for The Six Million Dollar Man was the two-part episode, “The Return of the Bionic Woman”. The key question for the audience; “How are they going to have Jaime not die when we saw her die on screen?” The answer was a new medical procedure, one that slowed down brain death long enough to adjust her bionics. The solution came in just as Jaime’s heartbeat flatlined and, since the camera was focused on Steve and his reaction, having a new character call Dr. Wells out to the hall was easily missed. Jaime Sommers would live again!
Steve slowly learns that Jaime hadn’t died. He was kept out of the loop because Oscar and Rudy didn’t want to put him through a second emotional wringer if the experiment failed. Jaime did lose some of her memories. Older memories weren’t a problem and she remembered everything from recovering from the surgery. The trauma surrounding her parachute accident, though, caused memory loss before and after the event. The engagement, in particular, became a painful memory. Steve and Jaime get a second chance at the failed mission from “The Bionic Woman”. This time around, the mission is successful.
The Bionic Woman first aired in 1976, during The Six Million Dollar Man‘s third season. Richard Anderson and Martin E. Brooks appeared in both series, with Anderson getting starring credit in both shows. The two series crossed over a few times, including the three-part episode, “Kill Oscar”, introducing the Fembots and the two-part episode, “The Return of Bigfoot”. The series ran three seasons total, ending in 1978 due to the network wanting a different demographic than what the show was drawing.
With the two shows working closely with each other, shaing core cast members even after The Bionic Woman switched networks, they were able to maintain a continuity, as seen with the crossover episodes. But if Jaime was written and portrayed as Steve in a dress, the show wouldn’t have done as well as it had. Steve, with his military background, was more likely to resort to violence, though it isn’t his first choice. Jaime, whose was an Education major in college and had no military background at all, seldom resorted to violence, preferring a more human approach.
The Bionic Woman was its own show, taking the situations seen in The Six Million Dollar Man and adapting them to fit the character of Jaime Sommers. The show was successful, despite the network’s beliefs.
* Usually popular, but there have been spin-offs based on characters whose popularity have been misread. The short-lived NBC series, Joey, spun off from Friends, is a good example.
** Yes. Apple now sells the iWatch, which, when connected wirelessly to an iPhone, works like Dick Tracy’s watch. Star Trek‘s electronic clipboard was available first as the Apple Newton then as Palm Pilots, both of which have been superceded by smartphones and tablet computers.
*** No real country name was used for the terrorists, though locations were obvious. Some areas were Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and Central America, but not called as such.
**** Three actors played the role over the run of both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. Martin E. Brooks took over the role in season three of the former and the entire run of the latter.