Tuesday, June 21, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #135: The Bionic Woman: "Doomsday is Tomorrow" (1977)



A touchstone for Generation X'ers, Kenneth Johnson's The Bionic Woman aired for three popular seasons (two on ABC and one on NBC) and fifty-seven hour-long episodes.  The series depicted the continuing adventures of Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner), the world's first bionic woman. 

The character of Jaime was first introduced on a popular two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man before she headlined her own spin-off. 

To re-cap the series premise quickly: Jaime is a tennis pro and girlfriend to Colonel Steve Austin (Lee Majors) before a skydiving accident nearly kills her. 

At Steve's urging, government official Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) and Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin E. Brooks) arrange for Jaime to receive experimental bionic replacements for her shattered legs, a destroyed arm, and an ear.   These bionic parts grant Jaime superhuman strength, speed, and hearing.

In return for these life-saving mechanical prosthetics, Jaime agrees to work from time-to-time for Oscar at the O.S.I. (Office of Scientific Investigation) on dangerous assignments involving espionage, crime and international diplomacy.  Unfortunately she has almost no memory of her previous romantic relationship with Steve.

No cheap spin-off of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973 - 1978), The Bionic Woman emerged rather fully from the shadow of the Lee Majors series during its high-quality second season.  In that memorable span, lead character Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) faced a bionic opponent equally as powerful as Ted Cassidy's Bionic Bigfoot: the famous "Fembots" (in a three parter, "Kill Oscar.")  Wagner also nabbed a well-deserved Emmy Award for her (double) performance in the suspenseful episode "Deadly Ringer."



However, perhaps the finest episode of The Bionic Woman remains "Doomsday is Tomorrow," a spectacular two-parter written, produced and directed by Kenneth Johnson.   

This epic installment traps Jaime in a vast subterranean complex and pits her  in a duel against a powerful super-computer programmed "to win" at all costs. 

In this case, the computer's victory means the detonation of a doomsday device, and the destruction of all life on Earth.

In "Doomsday is Tomorrow," the pacifist inventor of a new "cobalt bomb," Dr. Elijah Cooper (Lew Ayres) breaks onto airwaves around the globe to announce that he has developed another weapon that can literally destroy the world.  He then summons four respected nuclear physicists to visit his complex in the American northwest and confirm his frightening story.

The OSI's Jaime Sommers masquerades as a French scientist, and accompanies Dr Wells to the Dakota Base.  There, they learn that the 78-year old Cooper has indeed created a "doomsday device;" one based on a toxic new isotope that can create a shroud of deadly radioactive particles in the upper atmosphere when combined with a cobalt bomb detonation. 

A man of peace, Cooper has no desire to actually kill all life on Earth.  Rather, he is hoping to blackmail the warring nations of the world into a final, lasting peace.  For the only thing that can trigger Cooper's doomsday device is the "air burst of a nuclear bomb." 

So long as no country in the world deploys a nuclear bomb or conducts nuclear testing, Earth and mankind are safe.


Growing increasingly infirm, Dr. Cooper entrusts the care and protection of his doomsday device to a "master computer" called ALEX 7000.  Alex is the "highest form of computer art" and can defend himself and his facility with lethal force. 

Unfortunately, Alex is also incapable of human emotions or feelings, which means that he will fulfill his programming...no matter what. 

"I am programmed to show no mercy," Alex reports to Jaime.

Almost immediately after Cooper's warning is broadcast, a small Middle-Eastern country led by the suspicious Satari (David Opatoshu) violates Dr. Cooper's terms and conditions by detonating a test nuke.  Satari believes that the doomsday device is merely a ruse to keep Third-World countries out of the nuclear "club."  Almost immediately, the test blast activates Alex 7000's countdown clock. 

In six hours, the Earth will be destroyed...

Jaime Sommers and a Russian agent (Kenneth O'Brien) attempt to infiltrate Alex's vast complex, and run a veritable obstacle course of deadly defense mechanisms.   In short order, they must evade laser beams, navigate a mine-field, elude machine gun fire, and more.  The Russian agent is injured in the attempt, leaving Jaime alone to stop the final countdown to global destruction.



Inside, Jaime  meets with Dr. Cooper as the old man dies, and as Alex 7000 vows to defeat her at all costs.  Feeling confident of his abilities, Alex 7000 informs Jamie that she will never reach sub-level 8, where his central memory core and the doomsday device are stored. 

But Jamie makes a game effort of it, evading incineration underneath the engine of a fiery rocket, escaping through a corridor of fire-fighting foam that removes all oxygen from the chamber, and even repairing her own damaged bionics following an injury.

Finally, Jamie reaches the core and confronts Alex one last time.  Unfortunately, events spiral out of control.  A B-52 bomber has been launched and is en route to the facility, carrying a nuclear bomb that could also, in conjunction with Cooper's weapon, irradiate the planet...

Today, "Doomsday is Tomorrow" still plays as tense, ambitious and worthwhile, despite the Cold War context of the U.S. and Soviet Union in perpetual rivalry.  What makes the tale hold up rather well is the fact that these two Super Powers cooperate, in the age of detente, and both act responsibly to avoid Armageddon.  It's not just Us vs. Them, Yanks vs. Commies. 

Here, the catalyst for near global-disaster is actually a Third World country trying to "catch-up" to  the U.S. and Russia.  It's interesting: Satari's nation is clearly responsible for its own transgression, and yet the warring Super Powers are also at fault too, at least indirectly.  America and Russia have shown the world the respect and deference afforded nuclear nations.  Who wouldn't desire  the same respect and deference?

In 2011, this type of scenario is probably even more likely than it was in 1977 (think of Iran's attempt to develop nuclear weapons; or North Korea's repeated efforts to launch missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.)   In The Bionic Woman, entry in the nuclear club is a right of passage that Satari believes will afford his country prestige.  Instead, those attempts initiate a countdown to worldwide disaster.  In real life, the same could happen.  It wouldn't be a doomsday device, of course, causing the problem, but the threat of a regional nuclear war, one that could blossom out of control very quickly as the big players (China, the U.S.) pick sides.



If you've seen this two-part episode of The Bionic Woman (and I don't want to spoil the ending...), you know that it boasts an incredibly powerful anti-war message.  Lew Ayres -- Hollywood's most famous pacifist -- plays the role of Cooper, and it's easy to see why the well-known conscientious objector  took the part, given how things turn out. 

The message, of "Doomsday is Tomorrow," as voiced by Cooper and written with care by Johnson is that human beings never feel more alive or more in love with life than when they are attending a funeral and thus really, truly contemplating what death means.  On a global scale, Cooper has arranged not Doomsday, but the proverbial funeral...an opportunity for reflection.

This anti-war (and anti-nuke) episode of The Bionic Woman also comments on another 1970s worry; the fear of "technology run amok," also seen in such contemporary films as The Andromeda Strain (1971), Westworld (1971), Demon Seed (1977) and other productions. 



Although Dr. Cooper is legitimately a pacifist he makes a terrible mistake in judgment by entrusting his machine, Alex 7000, with the future of the human race.  Unable to measure or understand the value of life -- as Jaime points out to the super-computer -- Alex 7000 treats Armageddon as a game, and nothing more.  It's a contest simply to be won, a view of computer "thinking" that forecasts the 1983 blockbuster, War Games.  There the message about nuclear war was that the only way to win was "not to play."

Based in equal measures on Kubrick's Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Colossus from Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Alex 7000 is the avatar for all our fears about automation, and about machines controlling the destiny of mankind.

In The Bionic Woman's "Doomsday is Tomorrow," it's a little bit more than that as well.  Oscar Goldman and Dr. Wells devise a back-up plan to save the world, assuming that Jaime fails.  Unfortunately, their answer to saving the world is another nuclear bomb detonation...and it is the very thing that nearly kills everyone.  Alex 7000 jams communications with the in-flight B-52, and so the plane cannot be recalled...even after the primary threat is passed.  Again, man's dependence on his technology is the issue, in both the case of Cooper and even series hero Oscar Goldman.

Jaime Sommers, explicitly described in this episode's dialogue as "a cyborg," represents a pointed contrast to both Oscar and Cooper.  Where they have ceded their lives, essentially, to the control of the machine, Jamie is different. 

She controls the machines (the bionics) in her body. She is fully integrated with them and thus her human, emotional mind still holds sway over how the machines work.  In other words, in Jamie's case it is a human who harnesses the machine; not vice-versa.   In this episode, we see Jaime out-think, out-perform and out-feel the Alex 7000, proving the superiority of human judgment.  



As always, Wagner makes an incredibly charismatic and likable lead, and in this episode, Jaime is nearly driven to despair by her inability to beat the powerful machine, which commands a huge complex and vast store of resources. 

There are a few moments in the second part of "Doomsday is Tomorrow" in which we see Jamie just inches away from losing her composure, and Wagner isn't afraid to play those moments for all their drama and power.

Yet -- importantly -- there's nothing "edgy" or "angry" about this Bionic Woman, to use the terms Wagner herself applied to the moribund 2007 remake.  This Jaime is just a regular human being with extraordinary abilities, and the belief that she alone can help (since Steve Austin, a strong ally, is currently stationed on Skylab...).  Today, as the 2007 version proved, Jaime would be rageful, hungering for revenge against an enemy, and saddled with a boatload of personal "baggage."

But Wagner's performances here (and throughout the series) prove a valuable point: Jaime doesn't have to be moody or angsty for audiences to identify with her or her important  missions.  She doesn't need manufactured "issues" for us to root for her success. 

Instead, Kenneth Johnson's intelligent  writing and Wagner's human, good-humored performance are more than enough to accomplish that.  All the bells and whistles of today's dramatic conceits are unnecessary, and worse, cliche.  All superheroes don't need to be revenge-a-holics and rage-a-holics.  Sometimes they can just be people called by destiny to help.  Sometimes they can just be people doing their best in a tough or even seemingly impossible situation.  That's Jaime Sommers, in a very real way, and it's certainly no coincidence that another great female superhero (the vampire slaying sort) is also named Summers.  Jaime was one of the first -- and still one of the best -- of this breed.

I first saw "Doomsday is Tomorrow" as a child (I believe I had just turned eight), and I must admit that it scared the crap out of me.  In part this is because Alex 7000 holds all the cards, and is one tough nemesis.  In part it is also because the episode suggests that our world is just twenty-four hours from Armageddon.  When Alex 7000's countdown to destruction arrives at zero, the episode cuts to a long-shot view of the Earth, and there's silence on the soundtrack.  A sense of anticipation, and fear too, accompanies the edit. According to movie and TV convention, the next shot should be of the planet blowing up.

Thanks to Jamie Sommers, the Earth avoids that fate here, but the haunting last words of the episode were enough to give me pause as a child.

"But what about tomorrow?"

16 comments:

  1. John, I hate to have to point this out, but the last season of "The Bionic Woman" ran on NBC, not CBS.

    Not having seen this episode since it originally aired, the part that stuck with me all these years was when Alex points out that Jaime was running at 62.5 miles per hour, or faster than Steve Austin's limit of 60 mph. It was the first and only time that the idea that Jamie's bionics might be a bit more advanced than Steve's was ever put forward.

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  2. Howard,

    Don't hate to point it out! Everyone makes mistakes. I've fixed the error and set it straight. Thanks for noticing!

    You're right to remember that particular moment. Alex does say Jaime is running at 62.5 miles an hour, which is faster than Steve's limit, but also faster than Jamie's stated limit too. She really pushes herself past the breaking point here, which is part of the point, I think, about the difference between man (or woman) and machine.

    best,
    JKM

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  3. Some great points.

    Yes, a terrific story. Probably the show's best. It has a wonderful Joe Harnell soundtrack, also. The CD of which was one of my first online purchases, many years ago.

    BW's second season is a remarkable season of TV. Easily establishing the show as better than SMDM (which was in decline by this time) and rivaled - as far as 70s TV goes - only by Johnston's own Hulk series which came afterward.

    And Jaime is so heroic (thanks, in part, to Wagner's performance). Her most heroic moment comes, I feel, in the closing sequence of Deadly Missiles, but her entire adventure in this movie comes close. Jaime is awesome (without all that nonsensical baggage the 2007 series tried to give her).

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  4. It's interesting how computers were often portrayed as omnipotent and that we mere humans could construct a computer that we would be powerless to control. This was at a time when very few people came in contact with computers in their everyday lives, so they were a mystery to many. As with all mysteries, they can be objects of fear. Now that we all interact with computers every day, such a notion would probably not fly with today's viewers.

    I like your points about the 2007 Bionic Woman. I had a similar reaction to the 1998 version of Lost in Space. Why do all characters in modern stories have to have baggage or hidden agendas and all organizations have to be corrupt or have evil moles? Sometimes there are good people who just want to do the right thing. To me, watching good people struggle to succeed against adversity is more compelling than watching broken people react in selfish, self-serving ways.

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  5. Hello RikerDonegal and Neal P.

    Riker: I'm glad you pointed out the excellent soundtrack, as well as the general high quality of Bionic Woman in this season. More often than not, the program is highly compelling, and well-written and well-performed. I had not intended to stay up late and watch both parts of Doomsday is Tomorrow, but that's what I did. I stayed up until the wee hours, because I just had to see how the thing finished. It's a very strong episode of a strong season. Great comment!

    Neal P: "Sometimes there are good people who just want to do the right thing. To me, watching good people struggle to succeed against adversity is more compelling than watching broken people react in selfish, self-serving ways."

    -- Man, I would like to trademark those words and use them over-and-over again in my reviews. I love how you put it, and I'm 100% on the same page. The dark, angsty superheroes and heroes have grown enormously tiresome. It's time for a new paradigm (or a different, old paradigm, even...). The new Bionic Woman was dire, because it was about broken people reacting in selfish, self-serving ways, just as you put it.

    Gosh, I wish I had written those succinct, perfect words. You nailed it. You absolutely nailed it.

    best,
    JKM

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  6. Yes, those fembots may have been the logical realization and evolution of technology run amok in humanoid form, thus taking the issue a step further than the mechanized cyborg.

    I truly enjoyed your visit to the Bionic Woman John. A pleausure.

    I read the Bionic Book and there was a real reluctance to take the role on by Lindsey Wagner. But, as you point out in many ways, she was a wonderful actress. She was beautiful to boot.

    But, how many actresses have headlined action programs since 1970 that really gave us this kind of quality in performance. SHe was something special.

    I know we could turn to Buffy and I'm sure a few others might come to mind, but Jamie Sommers was a wonderfully realized character that we were fortunate to enjoy for three seasons.

    Today, how many of our heroes, male or female, show genuine vulnerability? It's a rare thing and as you pointed out she really knew how to bring us the raw dramatic power in her role.

    In fact, Lee Majors brought a similar depth to the Bionic Man.

    Your example of the NEW Bionic Woman is perfect. They simply repackage these classics for today's audience but forget what made them human and believable to begin with.

    We also have to thank Kenneth Johnson- a true gift to television.

    Honestly, with all of the cliched television out there today, as you noted, how refreshing and original does something like Bionic Woman feel like when seen today. It's a treasure!

    All the best
    sff

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  7. Hello, SFF!

    I agree with you about Lindsay Wagner's acting ability and looks.

    She's a very good actress, and also, in my opinion, incredibly charismatic. Watching Bionic Woman again, during this go round, I find myself really taken with her charm. Wagner doesn't approach Jaime in a conventional or two-dimensional way, at all. She makes Jaime fun, funny, and light-hearted, but also, when need be, serious. Sommers seems like a real person and not a construct of writers.

    I want to watch more Six Million Dollar Man, vis-a-vis your Lee Majors comment. As a kid, he was the man I wanted to be when I grew up (Along with James Kirk and John Koenig). I have watched only a few Six Mill episodes recently, and hope to get into that series soon. Your review of the pilot was perfect, and absolutely accurate.

    Great comment, my friend. Thank you for stopping by.

    Warmest regards,
    John

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  8. Another great flashback. Her performance in pt. 2 is more impressive in that she's by herself for most of the episode.SPOILER ALERT I love how her hand shakes as she's pulling the modules out. (Shades of HAL being disconnected.)Whereas the "modern" bionic woman would have just ripped them all out. Thanks for the post.

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  9. Decided to post again after reading the new posts.

    I, too, feel that Neal P's comment "Sometimes there are good people..." is on the money.

    It comes close to the one of my chief comments about the new BW series, at the time (and I had many!): I didn't like/admire this woman at all. And when they showed me that she couldn't cook without causing disaster I was bewildered as what they were trying to make me feel for her.

    Re: SMDM. It has always been one of my favourite shows and I'm currently rewatching it. I'm on the second season at the moment. Having last watched most of this season a couple of years ago.

    Here's my own pilot review for anyone who is interested: http://abriefingwithmichael.blogspot.com/2009/03/mon-feb-2-09-z-rock-six-million-dollar.html

    SFF, I'll read your pilot review tomorrow (as it's 2.48am here now!!) and I want do do it justice, since it's very long.

    Majors was fantastic in the role, and - indeed - I've been a fan of every TV role he's had since. He made Steve human. And super-human (and I don't mean in terms of bionics!). Corny as it sounds, I will paraphrase one episode and say that - when I watch now, as an adult - it's not the bionics makes think that Steve is cool.

    As for the show: it changed a lot. What started as a drama-show-with-action-elements became an action-show-with-drama-elements. I'm proud to be a fan of every episode, but I'll admit that in the latter two seasons it became a more juvenile show, more kid-friendly. I don't think it ever became as bad as the worst s3 BW episodes but I could be wrong, as there are some I've not seen since the '90s.

    No matter, those first three seasons are quite close behind Hulk and BW in the list of '70s superhero shows. And while I'm a fan of everything from Gemini Man to Man From Atlantis, I don't think anything (even good Wonder Woman episodes) rivals the top three.

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  10. Thanks RikerD! I was fortunate enough to discover your site, A Briefing With Michael long ago thanks to John.

    I couldn't agree more with all of your closing remarks.

    SMDM definitely became a little more comic booky in some entries. Like you, there still very good, but they did kind of invert the approach to the series as it went along.

    Also, like you, while there may have been some fun Wonder Woman episodes, nothing comes close to The Hulk, SMDM or BW. They were the big three from Kenneth Johnson.

    Enjoyed all of the commentray along with this terrific retro entry John- an entry that feels surprisingly new.

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  11. More great comments on The Bionic Woman here!

    jdigriz: I'm so glad you mentioned the fact that Lindsay Wagner is virtually alone on stage throughout the second hour of this episode. Boy, she holds the attention, doesn't she. Even though she's playing to a disembodied voice, she does an amazing job of selling the episode's threat. Really a terrific actress. Like I said, I find myself more taken with her now, than ever.

    Rikerdonegal: I need to read your review of the SMDM episode pronto. I'm a fan of that series even though I recognize the content switch you note about, going from drama to more action, to ultimately a more juvenile approach. My memoy is that Majors is consistent, however. Consistently strong. I also agree with you about The Incredible Hulk. I love that series as well. Sometime back here on the blog, I reviewed my favorite episode, "Married," with Mariette Hartley.

    SFF: Thank you for the kind words about this review, my friend. I very much appreciated your retrospective and critique of SMDM's pilot as well: thorough and impressive, as usual!

    best,
    JKM

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  12. Jaime's character is still my all-time favorite lady on television. (Insert knowing looks about crushes here.)

    I watched Steve's adventures, and SMDM was my second favorite show after Star Trek. I really enjoyed Jaime, too. I remember when my local independent station ran BW (among the plethora of sf tv and cinema they showed me over the years) and I was able to see a few episodes I didn't recall.

    As much as I love the Bionic Shows (and never bothered to watch the remake), I rarely got to see episodes of either series rerun. So it is very telling when I can recall a specific episode, at least moments of it.

    I remember all of the Bigfoot episodes, at least partially (helped in the case of the first one by the novelization). I remember Steve going into space and having troubles with his bionics in zero g. I remember the first part of the Dark Side of the Moon, with the mad scientist who wanted to mine the Moon...and the cliffhanger of Steve handcuffed to a post, a bomb ticking, the Moon's orbit shifting and heavy rains falling in Washington...and never got to see the second part! (The Six Million Dollar Man, and the Bionic Woman, THRIVED on two-part episodes!) The Death Probe stories were tense. And the Bionic Boy was a neat concept.

    I don't recall any of the fembot stories. But I do recall both of the BW intro stories on SMDM. I recall when Oscar's secretary was accused of leaking secrets. When Jaime became spun off, I recall her moving in with the Elgins and her schoolteacher episodes (including the jetpack episode with her Native American student and Robbie Rist), Mirror Image (the first Lisa Galloway identical twin tale), Max the bionic dog, and...the first part of Doomsday is Tomorrow (I STILL haven't seen the second part of THIS story, either!) with the intense ending and Alex's line.... "May the best ... one ... win." I also fervently remembered that Steve couldn't help out because he was in Skylab.

    The NASA elements were some of my favorite portions of Steve's show; while I greatly enjoyed the 'family' nature of Jaime's show: the Elgins; the schoolkids; and Max. They gave Jaime some wonderful touchpoints to have a normal life; it wasn't all jetsetting to fabulous foreign locales to run fast and break locks. (I recall one of Steve's episodes where he goes to some building behind the Iron Curtain...but that's it.)

    Like you, Kirk and Koenig and Steve were among my favorite characters, whose universes I wanted to inhabit. My first fanfiction...written back in the mid-70s... was a SMDM tale. "Steve Austin Battles the Bad Nurse"

    And when you look at the cast lists for both Bionic Shows, there are many names, who really helped them out. From Robert Loggia a few episodes after this one, to Lew Ayres and David Opatoshu (Trek: Anan 7 from A Taste of Armageddon), an earlier episode called Black Magic with Vincent Price and William Windom and Hermione Baddely and Julie Newmar and Abe Vigoda; the appearance of Shatner in the first season of SMDM, a few appearances by Farrah and and Monte Markham and ... you get the idea.

    I also agree that I think that the first few seasons of SMDM are the best; then the magic went over to BW; and then it transferred to Hulk. One wonders if Johnson's best writers and producers and directors kept migrating with him...

    Gordon

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  13. Hi PDXWiz (Gordon):

    A wonderful and detailed comment remembering The Bionic Woman and growing up in the 1970s, with these fanciful and fun series.

    For some reason, BW and SMDM have not been rerun as many other programs from the era, and so I'm having a great time catching up with them. I agree with your perception that Kenneth Johnson seems to be the key to the high quality episodes. I'm a longtime fan of his work (on the V miniseries, as well...).

    Great comment!

    best,
    JKM

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  14. Good catch on Mr. Johnson's work on V's miniseries! I'd forgotten... For nearly 10 years, he was involved in some of the all-time best sf tv genre work.

    Sounds like a good candidate for a future blog post :)

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  15. Hi John Kenneth,

    Any ideas where this two parter episode was filmed, outside of Universal Studios, that is? I know it went on location
    somewhere, but I have been unable to get that info.

    Thanks.

    Frank Rendo

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