Wednesday 31 August 2022

Mediterranean Caper (It Takes a Thief tie-in novel #2)

Published in 1969, Mediterranean Caper was the second TV tie-in novel based on the very successful 1968-1970 American TV spy series It Takes a Thief.

It was written by Gil Brewer, much better remembered as one of the great hardboiled/noir writers of the 1950s.

If you’ve never seen the TV series (and if you haven’t you should because it’s terrific) Al Mundy is a cat burglar facing a long prison sentence. One of those shadowy US intelligence agencies offers him a deal - he can stay out of prison if he agrees to steal for the government. He finds himself, very reluctantly, working as a spy.

He doesn’t like it. The SIA (the agency in question) is pretty ruthless. They offered him his freedom but he isn’t free at all. He’s under permanent house arrest and he has to do whatever they tell him to do. Sometimes he thinks prison would have been better - criminals have better ethical standards than intelligence agencies. But he has no choice.

Looking at it another way, he has no skills other than being an extremely accomplished thief and at least he gets to do what he does best. And his missions always seem to bring him in contact with beautiful glamorous women. Al likes beautiful glamorous women. And they tend to like him.

In this case he has to steal a coded formula and he has to rescue a Soviet defector named Marina. Her defection went wrong and she’s fallen into the hands of the KGB. She’s being held somewhere in Marseilles. And the Red Chinese are after her as well.

And, as luck would have it, this Soviet defector happens to be a beautiful glamorous woman.

This mission turns out to be a very easy one. Too easy. He gets the formula but he loses it. He gets the girl but she’s the wrong girl.

It gets worse. Not only has Marina been captured, the bad guys have Miss Agnew as well. Miss Agnew is Al’s parole officer but she also works for SIA. She’s more or less his keeper. Al has a thing for Miss Agnew. His feelings are not reciprocated but that doesn’t worry Al. He’s sure that eventually his charm will win her over. But now she’s in the hands of a madman, the fiendish Red Chinese spymaster Hu Yang who has an obsession with American women. Al has a fair idea what Hu Yang plans to do to Miss Agnew and it isn’t a pretty thought.

TV tie-in novels were often written by authors who had only seen the original outline for the series in question and maybe the first couple of episodes. Sometimes they hadn’t seen a single episode. As a result the tie-in novels often have a slightly different feel compared to the TV series. Sometimes they’re a bit sleazier. That’s not the case here. But this novel does have more of a Bond movie feel than the series. Hu Yang is very much a Bond villain.

Brewer certainly does know how to tell an action-packed tale.

The Al Mundy of the TV series is a charming rogue and Brewer gets that part right. The character in the book is recognisable as the character from the TV series.

Brewer also captures the essential element of the series - Al is very unhappy about working for SIA. Al’s moral standards are flexible but he’s basically a decent guy. He likes stealing but he’s not keen on violence unless he has no alternative. In this novel Al really doesn’t care about the secret formula. He’s not unpatriotic but he’s not overly patriotic either. Politics bores and disgusts him. He does however very much dislike the idea of pretty girls falling into the hands of lust-crazed madmen. His main motivations are to do what he has to do to avoid getting sent back to prison and to rescue the two girls. If the SIA ends up getting that formula then that’s fine but Al doesn’t care.

Brewer was a noir writer so the idea of writing about a man forced into spying against his will would have had some appeal to him.

Mediterranean Caper is lightweight but it’s fun and breezy. Highly recommended, especially if you’re a fan of the TV show.

I reviewed the first season of It Takes a Thief a while back.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of Gil Brewer’s noir novels, The Three-Way Split and The Vengeful Virgin.

Monday 1 August 2022

The Bionic Woman season one (1976)

The Six Million Dollar Man had been a big success so when writer Kenneth Johnson came up with a story idea for an episode featuring a bionic woman the producers were enthusiastic. After all if a bionic man was super-cool then a bionic woman would be totally awesome. And so the bionic woman, Jaime Sommers, was launched on the small screen with a two-part Six Million Dollar Man episode. The original intention was that this would be a one-off appearance but it didn’t take long to figure out that featuring her in a spin-off series would be an even better idea.

Now there’s one thing I have to say upfront. It’s impossible to discuss The Bionic Woman without discussing the episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man which introduced the character and which preceded The Bionic Woman series. And it’s impossible to say anything about those episodes without revealing some spoilers for those episodes. It probably doesn’t really matter because anyone interested in either series is almost certainly already aware of certain events that happen during those episodes. The very existence of The Bionic Woman series is in some ways a spoiler for those episodes.

But if you’ve never seen those two early two-part episodes and you’re really spoiler-phobic you might want to skip the next section and jump ahead to the episode guide for The Bionic Woman.

The early crossover episodes

Jaime made her first appearance in a two-part episode called The Bionic Woman (written by Kenneth Johnson) which went to air during the second season, in March 1975.

The Bionic Woman

Steve decides he wants to buy a ranch in his home town as a way of getting back to his roots, and to have a refuge from the craziness of his life as a secret agent. It just so happens that this small town has produced two celebrities - Steve Austin the astronaut (obviously) and Jaime Sommers, a rising star on the women’s professional tennis circuit. Steve and Jaime were high school sweethearts years earlier but they both had ambitions that made marriage seem impractical. But Steve soon discovers that he’s still in love with Jaime.

Their newly rekindled romance is just starting to blossom when Jaime has a terrible sky-diving accident. She’s dying but Steve knows that there’s a way to save her - all he has to do is persuade Oscar Goldman that the government really needs a bionic woman. And all Oscar Goldman has to do is persuade the US Government to shell out another six million dollars to rebuild Jaime.

The first instalment of this two-parter takes a long time to get going. There is perhaps too much time spent on the Steve-Jaime romance, and way too much time spent on Steve’s parents doing folksy things. The extended treatment of the romance was I guess necessary in order to make it plausible that Steve would do anything, absolutely anything, to save Jaime.

The transformation of Jaime into the bionic woman is also pretty much travelling ground that was already travelled in the first of the Six Million Dollar Man TV movies. On the other hand Lindsay Wagner is cute and likeable and she and Lee Majors do have some genuine chemistry.

The producers didn’t want Jaime to be an exact clone of Steve Austin so instead of a bionic eye she has a bionic ear.

There is a spy plot mixed in here somewhere but the main focus is very much on the Steve-Jaime love story. It’s not the sort of thing that you would have expected the Six Million Dollar Man target audience to have gone for but in fact the viewers loved it.

This is a very emotion-heavy episode with an ending that was not only daring for network TV in the mid-70s but turned out to be rather rash. The ending does pack a punch.

The Return of The Bionic Woman

The Return of The Bionic Woman was screened during the third season of The Six Million Dollar Man in September 1975.

This episode also introduces the third actor to play the rôle of Dr Rudy Wells, the medical genius responsible for Steve’s bionics.

Steve is badly injured on a mission involving a gangland war. He is rushed to the hospital in which Dr Rudy Wells does his bionic surgery. Steve is only semi-conscious but he is sure he sees Jaime in an adjoining room. But that can’t be. It can’t be her. Oscar assures him that he was delirious. Then he sees her again. Oscar has a lot of explaining to do. There’s also a lot of explaining to do to the audience but writer Kenneth Johnson comes up with an explanation that doesn’t stretch credibility too far (given that this is a science fiction series).

Jaime is alive but not she’s not exactly well. She has lost all her memories. She has no idea who Steve is. Which is a bit of a blow, considering that they were engaged to be married. Steve has other blows to deal with, such as Jaime falling in love with the young genius doctor who saved her.

So, like the earlier two-parter, this is going to be another very emotion-driven episode. It has to be emphasised just how bold a move it was in the mid-70s to have two two-part episodes of an action-adventure-science fiction series devoted almost entirely to romance plots.

It was also quite an acting challenge for Lindsay Wagner. She has to play Jaime as Jaime, but as a slightly different Jaime. Without her memories she is just a little bit child-like and innocent. The whole world is new to her. She has to rediscover the world, and she has to face the most complicated human challenge imaginable - she has to start her emotional life all over again.

The Bionic Woman Episode Guide

The Bionic Woman series kicks off with Welcome Home, Jaime and it’s another daring move - beginning an action/adventure series with a two-part episode focused almost entirely on emotional drama. This was just not done on network TV in 1976. In fact the whole “how Jaime Sommers became the bionic woman and it affected her emotionally” tale is a six-episode story arc (beginning with four episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man) and that was most certainly not done at that time. Kenneth Johnson (who wrote all six episodes and created The Bionic Woman) was years ahead of his time. Whether you think multi-episode story arcs are a good thing or a bad thing is another matter (I think that on the whole they’re a bad idea).

Jaime has had yet another operation, the hope being to regenerate some of her brain cells so that she can get her memory back. It works, up to a point. She now remembers a lot more. But she still doesn’t remember being engaged to marry Steve Austin. She is however about to find out.

In the second part we finally start to see Jaime doing some serious secret agent stuff, and showing off her bionic abilities. The big difference between Steve Austin and Jaime is that she has a bionic ear instead of a bionic eye and his story makes plenty of use of that bionic ear. It’s what keeps her one step ahead of the bad guys.

This two-parter is still basically part of the introductory story arc, giving us Jaime’s backstory and establishing her character and also establishing the vital fact that much of her past has been lost to her. She’s not just going to be battling bad guys but presumably also trying to re-establish her own identity.

So in some ways you could argue that the first season proper started with episode three by which time the format of the show had been more or less finalised.

There’s a definite Clark Kent vibe to the series - on the surface Jaime is a mild-mannered bubbly pretty young schoolteacher but she has a hidden identity as a secret agent with super-powers. This gives the series an interestingly different vibe to The Six Million Dollar Man. There never was anything ordinary about Steve Austin. Before he became the bionic man he was already a hero - a test pilot and world-famous astronaut. Being a hero comes naturally to him. Becoming the bionic man hasn’t changed his life all that much. He was already doing extraordinary things that no ordinary person could ever hope to do. But before becoming the bionic woman Jaime Sommers really was just an ordinary girl. Being a super-heroine does not come naturally to her.

Also interesting is that Steve Austin had to be coerced into becoming a secret agent and he was initially very resentful. Even though he’s a born hero there’s a part of him that would like to return to the small town in which he was born and become ordinary. Jaime on the other hand is not only a volunteer - she was the one who pressured Oscar Goldman into letting her become a secret agent. She’s the complete opposite of Steve Austin - she’s an ordinary girl who yearns to be extraordinary.

The series itself has a slightly different feel compared to The Six Million Dollar Man. In a lot of the stories Jaime isn’t doing the secret agent thing, she just gets involved in situations in which her bionic power happen to come in handy. The Bionic Woman at times feels more like a family-oriented adventure series while The Six Million Dollar Man was more overtly a sci-fi/spy series.

While The Six Million Dollar Man has Steve dealing with missions involving national security a lot of the stories in The Bionic Woman involve Jaime personally, or involve people she knows personally.

There was an intention to continue doing crossover episodes and in fact Steve Austin makes his reappearance as early as the fourth episode.

Angel of Mercy takes Jaime to the South American republic of Costa Bravo where the American ambassador is trapped in the middle of a civil war. Jaime has to get him out, with the help of hardbitten helicopter pilot Jack Starkey (played surprisingly by Andy Griffith). Her cover is that she’s a nurse. Maybe that wasn’t one of Oscar’s brightest ideas - she knows nothing about nursing and can’t stand the sight of blood (which adds some amusing moments). This one is rather similar to one of the first season episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, Little Orphan Airplane, with this time Jaime using her bionic powers to rebuild a broken-down aircraft. Jaime gets to use her bionic powers a lot in this episode.This episode works, largely because Lindsay Wagner is so charming and amusing. She really was starting to settle into the role.

A Thing of the Past takes Jaime back to her day-to-day life as a schoolteacher. The only excitement is that the school bus crashes but no-one is hurt thanks to the quick-thinking bus driver. And then the world of gangsters starts to intrude into Jaime’s small-town everyday life. That bus driver had a past and it’s caught up to him and Jaime is caught in the middle. It’s an OK episode. Lee Majors makes a totally unnecessary brief appearance but given that The Bionic Woman hadn’t yet established itself it made sense from a promotional point of view. It is however Jaime who does all the heroic stuff.

In Claws Jaime has to mind a wild animal farm for her friend Susan Victor (played by Tippi Hedren who in real-life was involved in caring for big cats). One of Susan’s animals is a ridiculously tame pet lion but the local ranchers are convinced that the lion has been killing their steers. If Jaime can’t discover what’s really going on then the future looks grim for the lion. This is an episode that veers dangerously close to heart-warming territory.

In The Deadly Missiles a ballistic missile with a de-activated warhead lands in a reservoir near Los Angeles. It appears to have been fired from the ranch of wealthy industrialist J.T. Connors (Forrest Tucker), an old friend of Jaime’s. Jaime refuses to believe that J.T. could actually be involved. But her job is to find out. And she has to find out before somebody fires another missile with a live warhead. Jaime is torn between her duty and her loyalty to a friend. A pretty decent episode.

In Bionic Beauty Oscar orders Jaime to enter a beauty pageant. The pageant is a threat to national security but he doesn’t know why. Jaime has to find that out. This episode is mostly filler with the beauty pageant stuff distracting from the actual plot. But since the plot isn’t particularly good maybe it was a good idea after all to focus on the beautiful girls. Not a very impressive episode.

In Jaime's Mother Jaime thinks she’s seen her mother. Which is disturbing, since her mother died in 1966. Jaime fears she’s going mad. Oscar isn’t happy. But Jaime still thinks her mother may be alive. This is another episode more focused on Jaime personally and on her emotional state than on secret agent missions although there’s more to the reappearance of Jaime’s mother than one might think. It’s all a bit contrived and with a bit too much emotional angst.

In Winning Is Everything Jaime has to enter a desert car race in a south-west Asian country. Oscar has hired failed Grand Prix driver Tim Sanders to drive with Jaime as navigator. Her real mission is to pick up a tape hidden by an American spy. Almost the entire episode is taken up with the car race (which I guess is exciting) and the very feeble plot gets largely forgotten. Not much of an episode really.

Canyon of Death is another episode in which Jaime gets personally involved. One of her pupils, John Little Bear, wanders off into a restricted area in the desert and discovers something very dangerous. It relates to the testing of a top-secret atomic-powered jetpack flying suit. This is definitely an episode aimed squarely at a very young audience. The idea of an atomic-powered flying suit is amusingly retro for 1976. Not a very good episode.

Fly Jaime is basically a rehash of the Six Million Dollar Man episode Survival of the Fittest. Rudy Wells has to fly to South America, on a charter flight, to pick up a secret formula. Jaime goes along as his bodyguard (masquerading as stewardess Miss Winters). The plane crashes and the survivors are stranded on a deserted island and among the passengers are killers after that secret formula. It’s OK but if you’ve seen the Six Million Dollar Man episode referred to then you’ve seen this one.

The Jailing of Jaime
starts out with Jaime getting a straightforward assignment - to deliver a top-secret code-breaking device to a military base. It turns out no to be so straightforward and Jaime winds up in jail, suspected of treason. Of course no prison can hold the bionic woman for very long. She breaks out, determined to clear her name. Her ability to break out of impossible places will come in handy again later. A routine but entertaining episode and we do get to see just how strong she really is.

It was an ironclad rule in the 60s and 70s that every action-adventure series had to have at least one episode in which an evil double of the hero or heroine was running around causing mayhem. And so we get Mirror Image. Yes, the bad guys have surgically altered a woman to make her look exactly like Jaime and her mission is to kill Oscar Goldman. The idea is hackneyed but it’s executed reasonably well with Lindsay Wagner varying her performance subtly when she’s playing the double. A good episode.

The Bionic Woman goes spooky in The Ghosthunter, with Jaime up against witches, ghosts and things that go bump in the night. A top government scientist and his daughter have been troubled by what appear to be ghostly visitations. The scientist’s wife, now deceased, had been the descendant of a woman accused of witchcraft in 1692. Jaime soon discovers that weird things really are going on. The episode does a good job of keeping us uncertain as to whether these are genuinely supernatural happenings. There’s a possibility it maybe be an elaborate espionage conspiracy, or it could be something paranormal or overtly supernatural. We’re also kept in doubt not just about the nature of these happenings but also the source. A pretty good way to end the first season.

Final Thoughts

The scripts are sometimes a little on the weak side but the coolness of the concept and Lindsay Wagner’s performances carry the show through a few less than brilliant episodes. On the whole it’s a fun series and it’s worth a look.