In 1972, Martin Caidin published his novel Cyborg. When his protagonist, Steve Austin, crashes during a test flight, he suffers numerous injuries. Steve's friend, Dr. Rudy Wells, is a pioneer in the field of bionics. He operates on Steve, and gives him mechanical parts to replace limbs and organs damaged in the crash. His prosthetic legs allow him to run faster than before. His replacement arm affords him the strength of a battering ram. His replacement eye includes a camera, and can be taken out of its socket when desired. One of the fingers in his new arm contains a gun. A radio transmitter is even implanted in a rib. With these expensive bionic aids, Steve utilizes his new abilities as an agent for the Office of Strategic Operations (OSO).
The novel proved popular, and in 1973, three TV movies were made. The following year, “The Six Million Dollar Man” debuted as a weekly TV show. Steve became a less dark and isolated character. While he lost his implanted gun and radio-rib, his other bionic abilities were enhanced. These changes helped adults and children bond with him, and Steve Austin became a household name. When Jaime Sommers arrived in the two-part special, “The Bionic Woman,” she proved so popular that she soon gained her own weekly show. Many children (including this author) grew up playing with Steve Austin action figures, or acting out imaginary bionic adventures with their friends.
Recently, my wife and I rediscovered “The Bionic Woman” on DVD. We enjoy this older show’s slower pace, the less gritty storytelling, and the warmth between Jaime, Steve, Dr. Rudy Wells, and Oscar Goldman, the head of the Office of Strategic Intelligence (OSI). As a child, I envisioned Steve and Jaime as superheroes, and dreamed of having my less powerful limbs replaced with enhanced bionic ones. As an adult, what struck me was Steve and Jaime’s fragility. Sure, their bionic limbs granted them increased strength and capability. Yet, through continually utilizing such super-abilities, they occasionally exceeded the limitations of their bionics. In the two-part special, “The Return of Bigfoot,” Steve faced off against the even-stronger Sasquatch. During a fight, the nuclear power packs in Steve's legs burst. His life was only saved once Jaime acquired a miracle drug from the aliens controlling Sasquatch. Likewise, Jaime must be careful not to exceed the capabilities of her own bionics, or the stress could initiate a fatal cycle of bionic rejection.
As this was a realization that occurred to me forty years after Steve Austin first appeared, I wondered if I was reading too much into the shows, or if they resonated in a special way with the handicapped community during the original broadcast years. I wrote to Kenneth Johnson, who created Jaime, and served as executive producer for "The Bionic Woman." I asked him this question. To follow is his response:
Yes, the disabled community had a special connection to the bionic shows. I got many heartrending letters -- particularly those from disabled kids -- who wanted to know where they could get such parts for themselves. I always wrote back to explain that they didn't exist at that time, but maybe someday. As indeed they now do - though not to a super extent.
So, while I was playing with my Steve Austin action figure, and naively imagining having my arms and legs cut off and replaced with superhuman limbs, there were thousands of viewers who lacked flesh-and-blood limbs. They didn’t seek superhuman enhancements, just the abilities I took for granted.
I realize many will excuse my hubris on the grounds of age, and I agree that we grow in knowledge and wisdom as we age. But I wonder what the dreams of childhood say about my character today. Does our basic character change that much? Or is my vision still too inward? Is that why I periodically struggle with my moods? And if so, how can I widen the scope of my vision--perceive those in need that I could help, and lend them what assistance I can--while still remaining focused upon achieving my own goals?
With thanks to Martin Caidin, Kenneth Johnson, and all those involved in the books and the shows that inspired our bionic dreams,
In the next post, I’ll talk about those who dreamed much nobler dreams than I, and how those gave birth to a better reality.
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