By, Scott Collins
May 21, 2007
Of all the new fall series unveiled by the broadcast networks last week in New York, the title that got the most attention was familiar to anyone who trod grade-school corridors between, say, the Watergate hearings and the Tehran hostage crisis.
Some of today's most serious-minded career women once carried a metal lunchbox bearing a scene from "The Bionic Woman," the sci-fi/action series that ran on ABC and NBC from 1976 to '78 (those seeking their lost youth could last week buy one of those original lunchboxes, now battered and missing the matching thermos, on EBay for $20). And then there was "The Bionic Woman" doll, with pop-open flaps on the forearm and thigh that revealed the biomechanical enhancements to heroine Jamie Sommers, the pretty blond tennis pro-turned-cyborg and the once and future girlfriend to Steve Austin of "The Six Million Dollar Man" fame ($9.99 and that doll is yours).
NBC will rebuild "Bionic Woman" (the network has dropped "The" from the original title) for this coming season. But can the long-suffering network actually make her, if not faster, at least better and stronger? Katherine Pope, the NBC Entertainment executive vice president who served as an internal cheerleader for the new effort (and who copped to owning one of those "Bionic Woman" lunchboxes as a girl), admitted in an interview last week that the original series was "kind of cheesy." It wasn't a smash hit back in the day, either; with Lindsay Wagner in the title role, the series, a spin-off of "Six Million Dollar Man," ran just 58 episodes. A DVD version, while available in the United Kingdom, has yet to land in the U.S. market.
But NBC Universal isn't simply chasing nostalgia; it's trying to pull off an excavation-and-salvage project similar to Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica," another dated, damaged TV franchise from the 1970s that the company rehabilitated into an award-winning series that routinely lands on critics' best-TV lists.
The NBC line is that the new "Bionic Woman" is a "re-imagining," not a remake. Executive producer David Eick, a "Galactica" veteran, believes that the familiar title and premise may in fact give the writers more room to monkey with the concept, paradoxical as that sounds.
"The title gives you permission to push in certain directions you couldn't without it," Eick said.
And push in new directions they did. Based on a cut of the pilot NBC provided last week — Pope said more special effects will be added before broadcast — pretty much only the bionics have survived from the original series. But even those are improved: This time, in addition to her super-sensitive synthetic ear, Jamie has a computerized eye with a built-in magnification function, much like Steve Austin's. (Side note: Although scripts have traditionally referred to the character as "Jaime," NBC's publicity materials use "Jamie," so it's up to viewers to decide how to spell her name.)
Comparing the new version with the old underscores, in fact, how much the imperatives of TV drama have changed over the last three decades. Specifically, the new "Bionic Woman" reflects a much broader industry trend toward darker, more complicated stories and characters than would have been imaginable in the three-network era. The pilot has a lot more in common, visually and conceptually, with "24" or "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" than it does "The Six Million Dollar Man."
Not everyone is welcoming this switch. On the Internet, fans of the original show are already threatening a boycott of the new version, even though few people outside the studio have seen more than a brief promotional reel. These foes may have some well-connected supporters too: Kenneth Johnson, a veteran writer-producer who created "The Bionic Woman" in 1976, is not involved with the new project. Although he expressed admiration for Eick's work on "Galactica," he's skeptical about "re-imagination" projects in general.
"That's a big word in Hollywood," Johnson told me by phone. "If they're remaking something and want it to sound fresh, they say 're-imagination.' "
A sense of humor was important to the original "Bionic Woman," Johnson said, adding: "I'm sorry to hear they went in that other direction. Friends of mine who've read the script felt it was not what we'd done before, that it was not the same direction."
Of course, that seems to be the entire point. The series that spawned all those plastic dolls and rust-susceptible lunchboxes seems more innocent than ever alongside the new, noir-ish "Bionic Woman," which tosses '70s optimism (technology can make us stronger!) in favor of post-9/11 paranoia (technology can make us expire!). It even concludes with a rain-soaked, city rooftop fight that looks descended from "Blade Runner," that ultimate classic of sci-fi noir. This is a "Bionic Woman" for anxiety-ridden grown-ups, not lunchbox-toting kids.
Even the circumstances under which Jamie (now played by 23-year-old British actress Michelle Ryan) acquires her new body parts have darkened. Involved in a horrific car crash (it was a sky-diving accident in the original), she becomes an unwitting participant in a many-layered espionage caper involving her medical-genius boyfriend. Her nemeses this time are not the "fembots" of the old series but a shadowy criminal network led by another cyborg, the lethally lovelorn Sarah Covus (Katee Sackhoff, another "Galactica" veteran). The producers have also given Jamie a hearing-impaired teenage sister (Mae Whitman), whose safety seems destined to be imperiled somehow by the heroine's new identity.
Eick said that reinventing "Bionic Woman" wasn't his original intention. He became attached after helping develop a different series, about a white-collar woman who winds up operating a criminal syndicate out of her home. That show never materialized, but Eick remained interested in how to make a non-traditional drama with a female lead.
"I was very intrigued by the principle of how to push a female protagonist in a new direction," he said. "What does it mean to be an empowered woman in the 21st century?"
NBC inherited the rights to "Bionic Woman" after purchasing Universal in 2004. Re-imagining the show, however, wasn't always a smooth process. Network executives insisted on lots of changes in early drafts of the script, by Laeta Kalogridis (who worked on the WB Network's ill-fated "Birds of Prey"), which played down the action elements in favor of character development and, among other eyebrow-raising details, had Jamie working as a Starbucks barista (she's a bartender in the final version). Eventually another writer was hired to polish the draft.
"There was an intensive process of development around this one," Pope said. "We really liked the original script, but we wanted to give a little more complication to her life."
Eick downplayed any hint of trouble with the studio: "People were excited about it, and if they're excited I expect them to have an opinion about it," he said.
It's clear, though, that "Bionic Woman" will need every ounce of her strength to compete on the schedule this fall. Despite its new hit "Heroes" and the addition of Sunday football, NBC is coming off another disappointing season. And its 9 p.m. Wednesday slot hasn't proved hospitable for NBC shows in the recent past.
"Competition will have an impact on the success of 'Bionic Woman,' especially when 'American Idol' kicks in" starting in January, Brad Adgate, senior vice president at New York ad firm Horizon Media, wrote me in an e-mail last week. Furthermore, in addition to "Heroes" and a "Heroes" spin-off next season, NBC is bulking up on the sci-fi genre, with the time-travel drama "Journeyman" and the high-tech thriller "Chuck."
"They have several shows about sci-fi, and it's unrealistic that all of them will succeed," Adgate said.
As Jamie Sommers will soon learn, TV, like hemlines and hairstyles, has changed an awful lot since 1978. So how bionic is she? Will her reinvention prove the cultural breakthrough that makes the original a mere footnote? Or is the "re-imagination" destined for cultural obscurity?
Are you willing to bet your lunchbox on the answer?
Today's song is The Bionic Woman Theme Song