Review: Bionic Woman

[Commentary] | [Spoilers]

Bionic Woman 2007 Review with Michelle Ryan from promotional material

Jaime Sommers is now a bartender with an angry kid sister and a professor boyfriend outside her socio-educational demographic. After a horrific car accident, her boyfriend has her rebuilt, because it turns out he is also working for a top secret bionics program. Sommers becomes the new Bionic Woman and at this point the viewer could care less.

NBC’s Bionic Woman is both a disaster and an insult in a long history of anti-technology storytelling. English actress Michelle Ryan as Jaime Sommers is wasted in a plot that attempts to convey angst, history, and mythology via relentless exposition and hurt looks. The characters speak exposition-ese without the audience getting any opportunity to truly know them or care for them. The accident comes after rapid-fire angst and tears, unexpected, yes, horrific, true, but without any emotional investment.

Superhero origin stories are difficult to tell on film. Audiences who eagerly anticipate heroic actions and special effects must wait while the protagonist is introduced, experiences an accident, evolves into a transhuman entity, and begin to learn about his or her new powers. Origin stories told well allow the audience to feel for the protagonist almost immediately, with nuanced scenes that whisper “See? I’m just like you!” until the character is no longer like you at all.

The worst, like Bionic Woman, paint angst with broad strokes, just annoying filler leading up to the inevitable accident and transhuman capabilities. Even worse, in this telling Jamie Sommers, rapidly cured and enhanced, hates her apparent health and new capabilities. She is so angry and hurt that her boyfriend would successfully attempt to save her life that she throws him across the room, screams, cries, and walks sullen in the pouring rain. When she is reunited with her sister, she immediately lies about her whereabouts as both characters attempt to out angst each other in the limited time they are given.

More pain is ahead. The original bionic woman 1.0 – Katee Sackhoff, so good as Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica and badly acting here – is a violent wreck, presumably because someone also successfully attempted to save her life. Throw in mysterious figures, other actors from Battlestar Galactica, and hints at a larger – and dark! – mythology, and the result is a great depression for the characters AND the viewers.

Show creators apparently hate technology, especially when used to successfully save lives. At what price, they want to explore, do we do so? A character who suffers terrible trauma must continue to suffer long after they have transcended their human weaknesses and been relieved of their pain. The price, we learn, is generally too high, and it would have been better if the character had just died. Because they did not die, they now must spend the seasons performing altruistic acts, to give back to simple unenhanced humans who are owed some unexplained debt. The moment the transhuman start enjoying her powers, she will be taught a terrible lesson.

This bionic woman is a creation of nanotechnology and cybernetics, packaged in a beautiful and indistinguishable-from-human body. A simple bartender enriched by her involvement with a man of education and science must now pay the ultimate price for becoming transhuman. We do not learn in one episode, of course, exactly what price she will pay during her upcoming ordeals, but we can be sure it will be gratuitously gory and tearful.

Modern medicine is marvelous and technologies in labs and on the horizon suggest great things ahead. We know from experience that most people in pain, experiencing great suffering, or nearing death, will, no matter what their prior belief system, embrace relief. Relief is so obviously joyful that relief as horror as depicted in fiction simply rings false, yet writers go back to that same dark well over and over again.

Could there be conflict in a depiction of a transhuman that was joyful and thankful for her transcendence? Absolutely. We have already seen one such character on television, albeit with her own moments of angst and depression and confusion. Her name was Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and she was always at her best when she gave into the morally valid pleasures of her power.

And Buffy Summers, of course, was partly inspired by another woman of incredible power who could, sometimes at least, enjoy her powers. She was the original Jaime Sommers in the original 1970’s Bionic Woman. If her joy was not always apparent, she was a superior role model compared to the current ungrateful incarnation. Until writers embrace the potential joys of transhuman existence, they will continue to “re-image” old material while popular storytelling continues to stagnate.

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