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?”