THE BIONIC WOMAN - CREATING A CYBORG FOR THE 70'S

by ISOBEL SILDEN

Starlog #1The now-famous bionic lady is, in the words of her creator. Kenneth Johnson. "the bride of Frankenstein." That hardly does her justice. How many everyday girls do you know with legs which permit her to run like sixty legs, a left arm with the clout of a headache ball, and a right ear more sensitive than an olive in a CIA martini? To top it all off. she is portrayed—on ABC-TV every Wednesday night—by beautiful Lindsay Wagner. a talented actress who manages to keep the superhuman Jamie Somers vulnerably human.

To review what has gone before. in case you've been sealed in a cryo-genic tube. it all started back in 1973 when ABC brought forth a new TV show entitled The Six Million Dollar Man. starring Lee Majors.

Television critics the nation over snorted. but audiences soon found the show and made it a hit. Ratings zoomed. Our hero was a practically invincible government agent whose body was "recreated" via biological and electronic (hence the term bionic) science after he was chewed up in the crash of a re-entry vehicle he was testing for NASA.

ABC viewed their creation, decided they had done well. but resolved to make bionic Steve Austin more human and sympathetic.

That's when Kenneth Johnson . but let's let him tell it.

Kenneth Johnson is barely past his thirtieth birthday and had accomplished quite a lot prior to his association with Jamie Somers.

He was born in Pine Bluff. Arkansas and educated in Olney. Mary-land-25 miles from Washington, D.C.—where as he puts it: "My classmates were farmers' children and those of Cabinet officers."

He was graduated from Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh. where some of his classmates in the drama department were Frank Converse and Robert Foxworth.

The year was 1964: Johnson was graduated as a full-fledged producer-director, and commenced his show business onslaught in New York where he worked on WCBS and WPIX producing local specials. In 1966, he became associate pro-ducer of the Mike Douglas show. during which period the show won an Emmy Award. In 1968. he was asked to direct Richard Nixon's television campaign. Instead. he came west to Hollywood and became the maven of the game shows—producing and directing them by the dozens.

"I was typecast. and this was not why I had graduated from Carnegie Tech. I had to get out of my rut, so I made the decision to stay home for a year and become a writer. My in-come went from a respectable five• figures to poverty-level. but it worked.

"I met Harve Bennett. who was producing The Six-Million Dollar Man. for which he needed scripts."

Parenthetically. in between his game-show-producing stints. Johnson had written TV episodes for Adam 12 and the short-lived Lome Greene series, Griff. Bennett had produced the first Johnny Carson daytime shows, and understood Johnson's need to get out of his creative rut.

"So. I suggested the 'Bride of Frankenstein'—give hint a bionic woman; and everyone liked the idea. I went home and wrote the script in it week."

(Author's note: this is unheard of. completing an hour-long TV script that rapidly. The creator was obviously inspired!)

The first Bionic Woman"I brought the script in. Everyone said 'Fine. go home and take another week: we want a two-parter."'

Johnson has a keen sense of humour. So obviously does Bennett. Both men arc intensely hardworking. low key, quick to laugh and rapid at running with commercially viable ideas. The success of both shows has proven that.

The Six-Million Man had been top-rated from the outset. and his Bionic Woman zipped into the top ten. where they have both remained ever since.

Why did it work?

"It gave Steve a deep romantic relationship with an exciting. attractive woman. Originally. 1 had felt he was lacking in humor, and some of the reviews said the same thing. Actually. Lee had to grow into the part, as all actors do. The show worked. just the same. because we have always admired super-heroes.

"With Jaime Somers introduced at the end of the first season, she gave the women a hero to root for and to identify with. I designed her as the complete woman. She is not self-conscious. or a second-class citizen. She is a very together woman. She had been a tennis pro. now she teaches sixth and seventh grades at a school in Ojai. We arc injecting satire and humour, as you know.

"I was very pleased. walking by a school playground just this week. and noticed some little children running in slow motion. The little boy said 'I'm the six-million-dollar man.' and the little girl retorted: 'I'm Jaime Somers.' "

It is a source of tremendous pride to Johnson that children can identify with his creation and respect her. He is the parent of three—two boys, 12 and 6. and a girl 9. At the end of the first introduction of the Bionic Woman. daughter Juliet Johnson wept bitterly, when Jaime died. Death was due to a combination of her rejection of bionics and a cerebral haemorrhage.

"I had to bring her back very carefully." Johnson laughed. One gets the impression his daughter would never have spoken to him again, otherwise. Neither would Universal Studios, under whose aegis the series is made.

"I decided to treat her with cryogenic therapy and neurosurgery. A few weeks later. quite coincidentally I met a NASA scientist and a neurosurgeon. I posed my hypothetical problem to them, asking what procedures they would have followed had this been an actual circumstance. They both agreed with my handling of the case!" he said triumphantly.

Next week, brain surgery? Hardly. Johnson is not only aware of his limitations, but also the intelligence of his audiences.

"I am dealing in science fact. rather than science fiction. The difference? What is really here. I take it only a half-step beyond so people will say. 'Oh yes, I've heard of cryogenics.' I want it to be believable. We do not deal in a lime-warps.' We keep it credible." Johnson repeated.

Interestingly enough. there are bionic pans currently in existence in humans around the world. even as this is written.

"There is a 52300-arm on a man. which can pick' up a cup of coffee and hold a newspaper. As yet. he has no feeling in the arm. the scientists who supplied us with this information have assured us that next year he will have feeling. Wright Patterson Field in Ohio is replacing parts of people right now. Will there ever be a totally bionic person? No." Johnson corrected the premise. "You wouldn't have a person then: you'd have a robot."

Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Sommers
Most importantly." says Bionic Woman creator Kenneth Johnson. we want Jamie involved In hard adventure. Her limitations? "Whatever we decide they are." Here are four shots taken on location with Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Somers

That the show is taken seriously by scientists is rewarding to him: We get letters from scientists. Recently one enclosed silicone chips. explain-ing that they were instrumentation to be used inside people."

Brave new world indeed, and to-tally possible. Los Angeles scientist Mike Honigman. of Human Ecology and Follicle Bionics Inc., has been working in the field of bionic devices to replace human organs in appearance and/or function for years. His is the result of heavy aerospace technological research. dealing with phantom nerve endings felt by amputees. The research now has diversified into bionic hair for balding men, thus proving that what man can envision can indeed come to fruition.

"One of the episodes of Bionic Woman was used as a teaching tool at Harvard University." Johnson continued. "as an example of male and female models in the proper use of power. Yes. I'm very proud of this.

"Gene Roddenberry once told me that Slat Trek gave him a chance to philosophize. If I can make our shows convey a message like a morality play. I'll be very content. I keep remembering Emily, in Our Town, saying—'Doesn't everyone realize how beautiful life is?' "

His deep-set blue eyes looked far away into other countries for a moment. He was no longer the epitome of a Hollywood producer, with his long-at-back sandy hair, his care-fully-trimmed beard, slim jeans. windbreaker and tennis shoes. He was a god of sorts, creating people to do good in a confused world.

"As a kid" he admitted. "I read all the science fiction I could—H.G. Wells. Asimov. Heinlein. all of them."

It has rubbed off, and translated well into television. "Most importantly we want Jaime involved in hard adventure. Her limitations? Whatever we decide they are" he chuckled. "For instance. she can jump as high as a two-story building, but not a three-story. She is human and there is vulnerability within, beyond those wires and steel. We have her running in slow motion to indicate speed. But she has humour, too. In one show we have her lifting an oven off a truck. 'Steve's' father says 'That's really impressive.' and she smiles, saying 'It impresses me too'"

It ties in with Lindsay's own evaluation of the character. when she said. "I don't want the character to turn into a 'Wonder Woman' type. Jaime leads a double life as a teacher and a secret agent. but I want to keep her as 'real' as possible. She is a sensitive, warm. human woman. She is very feminine. After all. the only bionic parts about her are the legs. arm and the car."

Lindsay can even handle with equanimity some of the Ins-than-hilarious jokes that have been made about her character. Consider:

There once was a woman bionic.
Whose story was rather ironic.
When her counterpart kissed her.
She blew a transistor:
Now relations are strictly platonic.

As evidence of Kenneth Johnson's total involvement with the fast-moving world of science fact. he has in the works a show for the 1976.77 season involving biofeedback with a "Sam Jaffe-type guru who will work closely with Jaime." he reported with satisfaction.

There remained but one unanswered puzzle. About that name. Jaime Somers? How did he conic up with it?

He is so glad someone asked the question.

"She is a real person." he pro-claimed proudly. "I produced the killer-whale shows for Sea World. and we worked with a water skier named Jaime Somers. I decided that was the ideal name for our heroine. The real Jaime is very pleased."

Cyborg note: Jaime's surname is spelt 'Somers' in the article, however on the show it was 'Sommers'.
© Starlog group Inc. 1976