Bionic Woman: “Pilot”

Bride of Frankenstein

By Sarah Stegall

Copyright © 2007 Sarah Stegall

Bionic Woman

NBC, Wednesdays, 9/8 E/C


Written by Laeta Kalogridis and Jason Smilovic

Directed by Michael Dinner

NBC, apparently jumping on the recycling bandwagon with a vengeance, launches its 2007 season with “Bionic Woman”, a remake of the 70s version starring Lindsay Wagner. The show actually resembles “Dark Angel” more than it does the earlier “Bionic Woman”–it’s dark, moody, shot in Canada, and features a shadowy quasi-governmental lab churning out cybernetically enhanced women right and left. In a concept that crosses Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with a little Henry Ford, this lab appears to deal wholesale in artificially created women. (Sorta like Hollywood, come to think of it.) In any case, don’t come looking for Steve Austin, Fembots, or bionic dogs in this remake; it’s a complete do-over.

Michelle Ryan, late of “Eastenders”, plays bartender Jaime Sommers. Jaime dates a super-brainy thirtysomething doctor, Will, (Chris Bowes, “Law and Order: SVU”) who neglects to mention his job in the shadowy quasi-governmental lab. Driving home from a date, they are T-boned by a speeding truck. And just as Kenneth Branagh’s version of the story had Victor Frankenstein restoring his dead wife to life, Dr. Will gives his fiancée back a life as a whole woman. Jaime wakes up in said shadowy quasi-governmental lab as Will tells her that he has “replaced” both her legs, one ear, one eye and one arm. Angry at this shocking act of presumption, she casually tosses him against a wall, then complains that she is being held against her will. Which, in light of the tossing bit, is a little hard to believe. Fortunately, Jaime soon “escapes” and goes right back to her apartment  where her pursuers are sure to find her. Dr. Will persuades his cold-blooded boss (beautifully rendered in shades of irony by the always excellent Miguel Ferrer) to cut her some slack. Jaime takes up her life exactly where she left off–bartending.

In all of this, however, there has been a more interesting story peeking through from the background: Bionic Woman 1.0. It seems that an earlier version of the bionic woman, one Sarah Corvis (Katee Sackhoff, “Battlestar Galactica”), has gone rogue. She appears to have made it her mission to destroy everyone who turned her into what she is. Like Frankenstein’s monster, she targets her creator’s beloved–she drove the truck into Will and Jaime’s car on the night of the fateful accident. Jaime soon meets her nemesis, takes down a mugger, and saves Will’s life in a rain-drenched duel. In the end, she grudgingly tells Miguel Ferrer’s delightfully corrupt Jonas that she maywork with him.

NBC is careful to play up the psychological angle to “Bionic Woman” in its press releases, rather than harp on the technology that, frankly, is not all that futuristic. (My dog has an RFID chip–does that make her a bionic dog?) Supposedly, future episodes will focus on how Jaime integrates her new body into her self-image, deals with the changes in her life, and finds her powers and her place in the world. Rather like the Creature himself, in Shelley’s novel, she is “not even of the same nature as man”:

“I was more agile than they … I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?”  [Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, chapter 13]

Shelley, writing at the dawn of the Machine Age, re-worked the age-old existential question — “Who am I?” — into a new version — “What am I?”, and science fiction has been exploring that theme from “Bladerunner” to “Kyle XY” ever since. If that’s where this series wants to go, I’ll stick around for another couple of episodes. It’s a lot more universal and interesting a premise than yet another cyborg showing off her powers. I especially look forward to seeing how the relationship between Jaime and Will plays out–will Jaime, like the Bride of Frankenstein, reject her creator? Will she seek someone “of her own kind”? Where is Steve Austin when we need him?

Michelle Ryan portrays Jaime as rather unformed and bland, which makes sense at this stage in her development, but it’s less than riveting. The supporting cast, however, is excellent. Katee Sackhoff, after years of fighting Cylons on “Battlestar Galactica”, now gets to play one. Her Sarah struts across this story with dash and swagger. From her first words — “Tell me that you love me” — to her would-be executioner and lover (Will Yun Lee, of “Fallen”), to her final smirk at Jaime, Sackhoff owns this show. Mark Sheppard, a veteran of “The X-Files”, “Firefly” and other SF classics, here appears as the acid-tongued criminal father of Dr. Will — more layers. And as noted, Miguel Ferrer’s thuggish Jonas packs a world of exposition in a few merciless lines and that patented scowl. Production values are high–the lab is full of clanky elevators reminiscent of the James Whale version of Frankenstein. The gray skies of Vancouver do for “Bionic Woman” what they did for “The X-Files”: imbue every scene with a brooding light and a sense of looming disaster. The music by Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (Wendy and Lisa, former band mates of Prince) sells the emotional subtext with a refreshing lack of pop-tune tie-ins.

There isn’t much story in this episode, but that’s all right. We get an excellent introduction to the characters and the premise. In the hands of executive producers like David Eick (“Battlestar Galactica”) and Glen Morgan (“Space: Above and Beyond”, “The X-Files”), we can expect a grownup treatment of speculative subjects, something beyond the usual cartoon and comic-book approach. Like Jaime herself, not everything works yet, but for the most part, Bionic Woman has — you must pardon the expression — legs.