Anniversaries and Hurricanes and Twisters, Oh My

Well, this blog is long overdue for an update again, so I’ll try to recap some recent adventures in digest form.

First up, Laura and I celebrated our 25th (!) wedding anniversary at the end of August with a trip to Boston, marking our first trip together away from the kids in 15 years.  (Thanks to Laura’s mom for minding the home front!).  We’d had vague plans to return to Nova Scotia, where we honeymooned way back in nineteenmumblemumble, but with all we’ve had going on this year, plans just never came together.   It’ll happen one day, though.

Anyway, Boston’s always been on our “someday” list, and it turned out to be a very enjoyable visit.  Of course, we took the Virginia heat with us: highs were in the 70s before we arrived and after we left, but the entire time we were there, the city suffered record heat (upper 90s). That seemed fitting, given that our wedding day was also a sweltering record-setter, but such was probably small consolation to the people of Boston.  (Sorry, folks).  The heat wave meant the Bunker Hill monument was closed to visitors out of safety concerns (it’s basically a giant chimney) but it was still an interesting place to see, especially since I’d just read James Nelson’s account of the battle, With Fire And Sword, earlier this year.  Other than that, we got to see all the historic sites on our list, including a walking tour of the Freedom Trail with a costumed guide and a visit to “Old Ironsides” herself, the USS Contitution.   Then we just concentrated on attractions that would keep us  indoors, like the truly remarkable Museum of Fine Arts (where I fell in love with Van Gogh’s Houses At Auvers) and the very impressive Public Library, where a free tour highlighted the architectural genius of Charles Follen McKim (who I was interested in from his designs of NY’s old Pennsylvania Station and the Agricultural Building at the 1890 Chicago World’s Fair, as featured in Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City) and murals by John Singer Sargent.   And of course we fit in a lot of great seafood, though we broke the rules a bit and skipped the Italian restaurants;  all that heavy fare just didn’t appeal in the heat.

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We skipped the rental car and used Lyft, which quickly started adding up, but once we got a gander at what passes for urban planning in Boston, we were happy not to have to navigate those byzantine streets, deal with the crazy drivers or try to find a place to park.  Between that and staying at an AirBnB, this was our “Internet Age” vacation.

On our return, we celebrated Grace’s 10th (!) birthday, another reminder of how fast life’s speeding by.  Grace continues to be a source of great joy in our lives, of course, and I think she had a good time on her big day, which she shares with her fish, Ballou (who’s only 1).

Then it was time to start fretting about Hurricane Florence, advertised as the worst weather event since Noah gathered the animals.  In the end, it bypassed us completely in favor of hammering the crap out of the Carolinas.  We spent one night camped out downstairs in the room furthest from any trees, but about 2AM I woke up to dead silence and a general feeling of foolishness.  VCU closed for two days out of an abundance of caution so I got a four-day weekend, but all we ended up with were intermittent showers.

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Just when we thought we were in the clear, though, what was left of the storm swung North and sparked seven tornadoes in the Richmond metro area, an unprecedented occurrence here. The most powerful of them touched down about two miles from our house in the parking lot in front of our favorite pizza shop, damaging a gym and flipping over a car before crossing all six lanes of Hull Street and demolishing a furniture store and a flooring warehouse, the latter sadly resulting in a fatality.  Good Minnesotan that she is, Laura’s twister radar was up and she crammed herself, the kids and several visitors into the laundry room until things died down, while I obeyed VCU’s (seemingly endless) alerts and stayed put in my office.  For once I was glad it’s in a basement.

Anyway, that should bring us more or less up to date.

RIP Steve Ditko

One of the key architects of the “Marvel Age of Comics,” Steve Ditko passed away last week at age 90.  I was going to write that he “left us,” but for most of his career he wasn’t really among us, choosing a life of privacy over celebrity, shunning conventions and interviews and earning himself (fairly or not) a reputation as a hermit and recluse, “the JD Salinger of comics.” Unlike his collaborator Stan Lee, who’s basked in the limelight longer than most people have even been alive, Ditko never seemed to feel comfortable in the public eye, preferring to let his work speak for itself.

It certainly spoke to me, and rather against the odds.  Young Me was a DC fan, whereas Ditko’s most notable works were produced for Marvel.  Further, I was a devoted fan of Neal Adams and the “realistic” approach to comic art that took hold in the Bronze Age, whereas Ditko’s style was pretty much the opposite of all that; quirky, cartoony and what you might call “oddball.”  Nonetheless, when I saw his work on “Shade: The Changing Man,” “The Creeper” and one of the million-and-one variations on “Starman,” it was oddly compelling.

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Some time in the late 70s, Pocket Books released a series of paperbacks collecting vintage Marvel comics in vivid color, and for the first time, I had an opportunity to read the earliest issues of The Amazing Spider-Man.  I’d always liked Spidey’s costume and power set, but I was turned off by the never-ending sob story that was Peter Parker’s life by the 1970s.  Nevertheless, I took a chance on these little books and was blown away.

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The earliest Spidey stories, I learned, were inventive, energetic and delightfully quirky.  A lot of that came from Stan Lee’s distinctive flair for witty dialog, but it was Ditko’s art that signaled this was not your average superhero book.  Where other heroes flexed massive chests and biceps and stood around with their fists on their hips, Spidey was a spindly little teenager who moved in spider-like ways that made him equal parts “cool” and “icky.”  He had a degree of super-strength, but he didn’t plant his feet on the ground and deliver haymakers; he did back-flips and somersaults and stood on the ceiling to punch down at you.  And while Lee and Ditko’s Peter Parker had problems, they often had a sense of the absurd about them, making the book seem almost like a spoof of the superhero genre.  Unlike Bruce Wayne and a host of other millionaire playboy heroes, Pete had to worry about paying the rent.  Superman had a Fortress of Solitude, but Pete was relegated to a cramped room in his Aunt’s house that afforded little privacy. Batman had a cave full of costumes for every occasion, but Pete had just one and he had to sew it himself.  When he lost it, he had to borrow a copy from a costume shop, only to find it didn’t fit and had to be held together with webbing.  When Ditko left the book, Pete’s problems persisted — and multiplied — but that sense of the absurd left, replaced with soap-opera melodrama.  Pete turned movie-star handsome, pretty girls filled the book and in short order, Spidey was as muscular and hunky as any other superhero.  Everything looked glossy and beautiful, but the soul of the feature was forever altered.

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Those little Pocket Books also introduced me to the earliest adventures of what would become my favorite Marvel character, Dr. Strange.  Dealing with sorcery, demons, nightmares and journeys to dimensions unbound by earthly rules of logic or physics. these stories gave Ditko’s imagination free reign.  Doc’s expressive hand gestures and the swirling, pulsing, crackling light effects they generated created a sort of guidebook for future artists tasked with illustrating “magic.”  His trippy extra-dimensional landscapes were equally definitive; with no “ground” to stand on, characters moved about on pathways that hung in the air like unfurled scarves, meandering at times through the disembodied jaws of serpents to little “islands” that seemed to be melting away like warm ice cream, while the “skies” were filled with spheres sprouting slithering tendrils of who-knows-what.  In Ditko’s hands, landscapes seemed not only alive but predatory.

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Years later, I would buy this material again as a hardbound “Marvel Masterwork,” and then again as a “Marvel Omnibus.” And odds are the next format it’s released in, I’ll buy it again.

When he left Marvel after a dispute that will forever be shrouded in mystery (because he thought it was none of our business, and didn’t care if we were on his side), Ditko went to Charlton Comics long enough to revamp Blue Beetle with a new man behind the mask and a new costume as eye-catching as its predecessor was deadly dull.  Like Spidey’s costume and Strange’s, it remains in use to this day, fully 50 years after Ditko designed it, and despite the fickle tastes of changing fandom.

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Designing enduring costumes was something of a specialty for Ditko.  Somewhere along the way, he also re-imagined Jack Kirby’s clunky, “walking tank” version of Iron Man with the streamlined red-and-gold armor that has survived, with variations, through decades of comics and films.

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In fact it’s fair to say that no matter what “superstar” artist works on Ditko’s creations, whether it’s Spidey or Strange or the Creeper or Blue Beetle or The Question, there always remains some intrinsic “something” that draws a straight line back to the creator.  His fingerprints are unmistakable.

On the flip side, there is also the matter of Ditko’s politics, or maybe I should say his worldview.  As a devoted admirer of Ayn Rand, Ditko’s most personal works reflected his Objectivist beliefs, most notably in the form of his self-owned character “Mr A,” who saw life in black and white with no shades of gray.  In his first story, Mr A refuses to save the life of a villain about to fall to his death, noting that “to have any sympathy for a killer is an insult to their victims.”  To put it mildly, this sort of approach proved divisive in fandom, but it’s pretty clear the mind behind this material isn’t interested in seeking approval from anyone.

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Apparently, Ditko died as he’d lived: alone and in privacy; as much as two days may have passed before anyone realized he’d expired. I can’t help but feel sad about that.  But then, the only way I’d ever “known” him was through his work, stories that are still on my shelf to be pulled down from time to time and be found exactly the way I remember them. So in a way, I guess nothing’s really changed much for me.  But somehow, it was cool to know that holed up in a little apartment somewhere was a genius artist who changed pop culture with his talent, then disappeared because he felt like it; a guy who valued his own personal belief system more than applause and fame. To some folks, that would make him kind of a nut, but then guys who think like the rest of the world are never going to give us something like Spider-Man or Dr Strange.  And even if he wasn’t the type to mingle or grant interviews or show up at premieres of multi-million dollar films based on his creations, he somehow seemed paradoxically “there” all my life.  Knowing that he’s not anymore makes the world feel a little emptier.

Anyway, whatever dimension he’s moved on to, I hope he’s at peace.

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Interlude in Vegas

Last week saw me at InfoComm for the first time in six years, and in Las Vegas for the first time in 16.

The show itself was fascinating as always, showcasing all the latest gee-gaws in production, presentation and display technology for live events, schools, churches and so on.  In particular, video displays seem to have no limits to how big, how thin and how sharp they can get.  In that respect, Vegas is a logical host city for the event, with all the gigantic video billboards dotting the Strip.  Just outside my hotel window I had a never-ending cycle of ads for Jennifer Lopez’ live act, a nightclub called “Jewel” and the bizarre, cycling animation that served as a “masthead” atop the Cosmopolitan hotel.

The trip out took about 8 hours all told, followed by a shuttle ride from the airport that ended in a fender-bender and a walk the rest of the way to my hotel (Bally’s).  I was ready to take the accident as an ill omen, but then who should come puttering past but Elvis himself, all 300 pounds of him in a white, sequined jumpsuit with high color and cape, and riding on a “Rascal” scooter.  That’s when I knew everything was going to be alright.

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I’d forgotten a lot about the town in the 16 years since my last visit.  For one, the smoke in the casinos.  Cigarette smoking is so out-of-favor now in the US that it’s hard to believe I  used to work in an office where folks would light up right at their desk, and eat at restaurants that didn’t even bother with smoking and non-smoking sections.  Vegas is still firmly stuck in that Yesteryear, with folks puffing away at the slot machines day and night.  I noticed a “Smoker’s” area in the airport that came complete with slot machines and figured it was a brilliant move, since a Venn diagram showing “smokers” and “gamblers” would probably have about a 90% overlap.

The other thing I was reminded of was the “showgirl waitress” uniform.  Whether it was cocktail waitresses in the casinos or waitresses in burger joints or sports bars made no difference; if they were on hotel property, they had to prance around in a teddy, period.  This rule seems iron-clad, irrespective of whether you’re 20 or 50, heavy or thin, college co-ed or mother of eight.  Because, hey, hiring someone based on their physical appearance would be sexist, right?  But now that you’re on the payroll, get into that teddy.  Frankly, I felt pretty bad for these gals, given that the male staff wasn’t asked to wear leather briefs and fishnet t-shirts.  But who knows, maybe they’re cool with it.  The Paris hotel even had a girl dancing on the bar.  I’m pretty sure I’ve only seen that in movies before.  From the 60s.

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I guess I lucked out with the hotel room; Bally’s ran out of single rooms with King-size beds so I got a double with two Queens for the same price.  Just outside my window was the “Eiffel Tower” with a clear view of the Bellagio’s twice-hourly fountain show, which seemed like a good thing until I tried to go to sleep, and had to listen to those jets of water shooting off to the tune of Celine Dion belting out the “Titanic” theme at about a thousand decibels.

I opted to take the Monorail to the Convention Center, which was pretty cool.  Lots of interesting sights out the window, like a golf course that I understand has actually been closed for 6 months but is still watered and maintained so as not to scare off hotel guests with a view of it.  The plan is to tear it up and put in a man-made lake for visitors into boating and skiing.  Take that, Lake Mead.  Way off by itself (it seemed) was the Drumpf Hotel, trying desperately to look more impressive and important than everything else with giant gold lettering, which seemed apropos.

The heat hovered between 100 and 107 but the old saw is true; it’s not the heat but the humidity.  I found it pretty tolerable.  Along the sidewalks every now and then were these misting “showerheads” to keep you cool; I avoided them at first because I didn’t want to get wet, but eventually realized I wouldn’t, anyway.  The water they shot out evaporated immediately, creating a sort of cool fog.  If they did the same thing in Richmond, I’d come out sopping wet.

While I was in town, the Golden State Warriors finished off the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA finals and the Capitals beat the Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup, so there was plenty of betting going on, I’m sure.  Certainly there was a lot of yelling at TVs in the restaurants, especially with the hometown team in the mix and playing in an arena just down the street.  I’ve never been that into sports, but it was easier to feel the excitement in a place where everyone in the room is a potential winner or loser.  On the other hand, it was vaguely depressing to realize no one in Vegas probably ever enjoys sport for it’s own sake, since it all comes down to wagers.  Anyway, it was cool to see lot of Caps fans walking around and feel a bit closer to home.

On the walk to the monorail, I saw a poster for Wayne Newton’s “comeback show.”  I’m not sure how old he is at this point, but by now he’s had so much surgery he looks like Jack Nicholson as the Joker, with his mouth in a permanent smile and one eye apparently unable to open.  Barry Manilow did a little better job of finding a promo picture that made it look like his age is still in the double digits.  I also saw ads for shows starring Donny and Marie, Rich Little and something called the “Australian Bee-Gees,” so basically if you were a big deal forty years ago or can do a reasonable impersonation of someone who was, you’re a potential Vegas headliner.

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I didn’t spend much time on the slots, but I did spot a fun machine with graphics of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, and that claimed a couple of bucks.  Mostly I spent time at a virtual Blackjack table.  “Virtual” because the dealer was a lady who exists only as a video recording, but the money involved was all-too real.  After doubling my stakes the first night, I was hooked, then of course it was all downhill from there.

Much ado was made about a party hosted by an AV vendor, but once I got there it was too crowded and noisy for me, so I lasted all of ten minutes.  Just in general I think I’m not the Vegas type.

All things considered it was one of those trips where you’re glad you went but the best part is getting home.  I tend to most cherish time spent at home.  So naturally it’s off to Summer Camp in a week.

Six Million Dollar Man, meet Bionic Woman

bionic-mad400At one point I had grand plans for this blog to review whole seasons of a favorite old TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man.  Ultimately, I made it as far as the pilot movie, two follow-up TV movies and the first proper episode (which was probably also the best) before the wheels came off.  To a degree, this was due to the dozens of other things always vying for my time and attention, but in all honesty, there was one other important hurdle that derailed my plans.

Turns out the show wasn’t all that great.

Don’t get me wrong; in its day, The Six Million Dollar Man was terrifically entertaining to 9-to-13-year old me, but watching it now, I’m struck by how formulaic, cheap and downright sloppy it all was.

Lots of TV shows operate on a “shoestring budget,” but TSMDM often seemed to limp along with no shoestrings at all. Universal Studios was a tightwad operation that never filmed cheaply what it could get away with not filming at all; basically any shot that couldn’t be easily captured on a studio backlot was lifted from an old film in the Universal vaults or even public domain footage from the U.S. government.  If the script calls for a helicopter to fly over, why spend money renting one when you can just recycle combat footage of Huey choppers in Vietnam?  Scenes of Steve running are recycled repeatedly, often showing him in a California desert whether the story is set there or not.   Why? Because there was plenty of desert “running” footage already in the can from “Population Zero.”

Having recently read a couple of books detailing the painstaking process of turning a Star Trek script into a filmed episode, its amazing how little planning seems to have gone into TSMDM.  You get the distinct impression the editors kept finding episodes five or ten minutes short or missing information key to understanding the plot, necessitating all sorts of editing room fakery.  A scene with multiple actors in the frame will switch suddenly to a blurry close-up of a lone performer (enlarged from the original, wider shot) to cover the fact that additional dialog has been added in post-production.  Or maybe that new time-killing dialog is covered by a thrilling view of vehicular traffic outside Oscar’s office building.  Maybe audiences were too unsophisticated or indifferent to care about this stuff in the 70s, but in an age where everyone has their own smartphone camera and Youtube channel, its impossible not to see through such clumsy tricks.

All of which brings me, in my usual roundabout way, to “The Bionic Woman,” a second-season two-parter that stands out for all kinds of reasons, not least because it’s actually well-written, tightly edited and emotionally involving.  The production values are still pretty skimpy, but for once, you get the feeling some thought and planning went into things ahead of time.  As slowly as plots would typically unspool on this show, you’d think a two-parter would be the last thing anyone needed, but this story keeps things moving fast enough to avoid boredom, but not too fast to keep all the characters from getting a moment in the sun.

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So, the story: After a brief “mission” sequence to add some action and set up a (largely unimportant) subplot, the story finds Steve taking a rare vacation in his (previously unseen) hometown of Ojai, California.  Once there, he finds another famous former resident is also visiting; his childhood sweetheart Jaime Sommers, now a celebrated professional tennis player.  The two rekindle their old romance and seem headed for matrimony when a devastating skydiving accident leaves Jaime nearly dead.  Calling in every favor he’s ever earned with Oscar Goldman, Steve begs his boss to authorize life-saving surgery to replace Jaime’s shattered legs, right arm and ear with bionic versions.  Oscar warns Steve that if he does green-light the surgery, Jaime will be expected to serve her country in the same capacity as Steve, and he’s sure Steve won’t like it when she gets that call to duty.  A desperate Steve is willing to agree to any conditions, so the surgery proceeds.

On waking, Jaime is at first horrified to find herself a “freak” of science, until Steve reveals he’s bionic, too.  After that, she adjusts well and the two go forward with their wedding plans.  Sure enough, however, the day comes when Oscar needs Jaime for a job, and as predicted, Steve’s not happy about it.  Jaime has a mind of her own, though, and wants to go through with it, albeit with Steve along for support.  Complicating matters, Jaime experiences strange side effects of her surgery, including a lack of control over her bionic arm and eventually, terrible headaches.  Her debut mission is mostly successful but nearly goes very wrong when she suffers a bionic flare-up. Eventually we find that Jaime’s body is rejecting its bionic enhancements and a dangerous clot has formed in her brain (because of the ear implant), necessitating immediate surgery.  Before she can get it, though, she runs off in a headache-induced panic, and Steve must chase her down in the middle of a thunderstorm.  He catches her, but too late, and she dies on the operating table despite Rudy Wells’ best efforts. Steve is left alone and broken-hearted.

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After nearly two years of watching our imperturbable hero knock down various straw men in simple “out of the frying pan, into the fire” action plots, this all makes for a remarkable left turn into emotion-based, character-oriented storytelling, with a surprisingly downbeat ending.  Yes, there’s a “mission” to complete and a running subplot about a villain who’s out to find and kill Steve, but all that takes a back seat to the romance and tragedy of Steve and Jaime’s story.  You can sense just how grateful the cast is to have something to sink their teeth into for once, and they rise to the occasion.

The scene in the hospital where Steve pleads with Oscar is particularly strong: Richard Anderson does a great job as Oscar, torn between his sympathy and affection for Steve and his weighty responsibilities as head of the OSI.  Obviously he can’t just go handing out bionics to every hard-luck case that comes along: Steve was different, being an Air Force officer already sworn to serve his country and a reasonable candidate for special ops work.  Jaime, however, is a tennis player and civilian; how can he justify the expense of her surgery, and if it works, how can he know she’ll have the desire, let alone the competence, to be an agent?  Lee Majors also seems eager to dig into something substantial for the first time since the pilot movie.  He does a great job conveying the desperation and anguish of a man who’s used to being able to handle anything, now powerless to save the woman he loves and reduced to abject begging.  When Oscar tells him he’s out of his head with grief and doesn’t understand the full implications of what he’s asking, we know Oscar’s right.  It’s a rare moment in a series where Steve’s judgement is usually unassailable; here, reason takes a back seat to passion.  You can’t help but wish there had been a few more moments like this in the series.

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This is also a moment where the story could have gone in a very different direction that might have been even more interesting, but never would have flown in 70s prime time.  To wit: What if Oscar had said “no”?  Surely, he’d have been within his rights, and logically it would’ve made a lot more sense than agreeing to the surgery, thus placing personal friendship above national security (let alone the federal budget).  We’re cool with it because hey, it’s Steve, but objectively, isn’t Oscar in the wrong to green-light the procedure?  If he had said no, and Jaime had died from her injuries, what would have happened with Steve?  Would he have gone rogue?  Turned against Oscar and the OSI?  Would he have just sulked and continued to do his job, but not with much heart, and hating Oscar all along?  Would he have sunk into a depression that made him sloppy enough to end up getting killed? Maybe all this factored into Oscar’s thinking: maybe he looked at saving Jaime as his best chance to hang on to Steve?  Anyway, if he’d said no, Universal and ABC would have lost out on a hit show when Jaime returned from the dead, so I guess it worked out.

Looking back, what’s most remarkable is that such a hokey concept works as well as it does.  On the face of it, this whole thing seems like the kind of bad idea only a studio “suit” could come up with: a bionic woman to go with the bionic man (Jaime herself brings up the “Bride of Frankenstein” comparison), who just happens to suffer almost exactly the same injuries suffered by Steve.  The only two bionic people in the world and they just happen to be romantically linked, and from the same small town.  She gets a blue jumpsuit to match his red one so they can tun around in slow motion together, sharing lovesick glances.  On paper, everything about this scenario says it should have been an eye-rolling, shark-jumping moment for the series, but somehow it actually works.

A lot comes down to the casting: Lindsey Wagner is perfect here, bringing a humanity and sensitivity to Jaime that makes her tremendously endearing and sympathetic.  Beautiful but in a less glamorous way than many of the women Steve dallies with through the series, she has a “girl next door” quality that fits the down-to Earth, “everyman” qualities Majors projects onto Steve.  It’s entirely believable he would fall in love with this woman.  When Jaime’s bionics begin to fail her, Wagner is great at wordlessly conveying her unease, making furtive attempts to hide her condition from Steve and his parents, and ultimately, we sense, coming to understand on some deep, scary level that her story is going to end very badly. Before everything goes south, she asks Steve “We’re going to have a happy ending, right?”, the foreshadowing laid on pretty thick, but not without impact. We’ve all seen enough episodes of Bonanza to know what happens to would-be brides of TV heroes, but in this case there’s a real feeling of disappointment that Jaime’s days are numbered.  It’s frankly impossible to imagine another actress in this series who could’ve done as well in the role as Wagner; certainly Majors’ real-life wife Farrah Fawcett, already a two-time guest star, would’ve been in way over her impressively-coiffed head.

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The other key to making this story work is the writing of Kenneth Johnson, who would go on to shepherd Jaime’s adventures in her own show as well as those of The Incredible Hulk.  There’s a humanity to the proceedings that keeps us from stopping to ask questions that would make the whole thing fall apart.

And yet, there are indeed questions. For instance: Since when is bionic enhancement a “life saving” surgery?  Yes, Jaime’s legs and arm are crushed beyond repair, but why would that lead to death?  If the limbs are bleeding uncontrollably, wouldn’t amputation be enough to prevent fatality?  If there are internal injuries threatening her life, why would prosthetic limbs change anything?  In the original pilot movie, Steve endures numerous surgeries to fix his internal injuries first, then spends weeks, maybe even months as a bedridden amputee while his bionic limbs are assembled (at one point rousing from his medically induced coma long enough to realize his fate and attempt suicide!)  so why, in Jaime’s case, do the prosthetics have to go on right now, at risk of death?

As far as that goes, how is Rudy Wells able to produce custom-made bionic limbs at a moment’s notice?  Again, Steve’s new limbs had to be custom designed to mimic the originals perfectly, and it took a lot of time.  With Jaime, Rudy just opens up a box and voila — there’s a pair of lady legs that’s just the right size and shape to fit Jaime.  Does he have a storeroom at OSI full of limbs in all shapes, sizes and colors?  (“Hey, quartermaster?  Please send up a pair of legs for a 5-foot-7 caucasian female, size 6 shoe.  Thanks.”)

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This episode picks up an interesting thread from earlier in the season when we met “The Seven Million Dollar Man,” another would-be bionic ally who doesn’t work out.  In the case of Barney Miller (later Hiller), the problem isn’t physical but mental; he can’t handle his new abilities and goes rogue before having to be de-powered.  But the end result is the same; Steve is left the only one of his kind.  The opening credits call him “The worlds first bionic man,” hinting at Steve’s role as a prototype and insinuating that in time he’ll be joined by others, but now after two dramatic failures he’s still the world’s ONLY bionic man, and Oscar Goldman’s expensive pet project has achieved only a 33% success rate.  When Steve confesses to “a lot of loneliness” in the first half of “The Bionic Woman,” we can imagine he’s referring not only to his romantic status but his unique status as a bionic being.

This sense of isolation is touched on again when Steve’s mom catches him engaging in bionic horseplay with Jaime on the farm, and he has to explain how their feats are possible.  Here we learn for the first time that his bionic nature has been kept secret even from his closest family members, for “security reasons” he says (although he’s quick enough to fess up once the cat’s out of the bag).  This, too, is a nicely handled scene, as we see Steve and his mother talking at a distance but hear audio snippets from the “origin” sequence that opens the show: the test flight, the crash, the operation.  It’s a clever and artful approach that, again, shows a polish not found in the average episode.

 

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A welcome (and rare) moment of continuity comes in a scene between Steve and his “dad” Frank, who we learn is actually his step-dad.  They even mention that it was Steve who got Frank and Steve’s mom together.  This is cool as it doesn’t undo the first season episode, “The Coward,” which establishes that Steve’s birth father died in the Korean War.  It would’ve been easier (and frankly, typical) to just ignore this earlier entry, so the extra effort here is appreciated.

Okay, I almost got through this whole review without acknowledging the elephant in the room: Yes, this is the episode where Lee Majors sings.  And not just one song, but two.  First up is a honky-tonk diddy about “cuttin’ loose” and then the supremely sappy ballad, “Sweet Jaime.” (Follow that Youtube link at your own risk). Let’s just say if “actors who think they can sing” was a medically recognized disorder, Lee Majors would be the poster boy.  Not only does he have trouble staying in tune, it almost seems he doesn’t have the breath to get through the attempt.  Considering it must have been his idea (has any producer ever approached an actor in a dramatic series and said, “You know what would really sell this episode?  You should sing!”), he sounds like the effort is hurting him worse than that plane crash.  Here we seem to have reached one of the pivotal “mile markers” in any long-running series: the moment when the star begins throwing his weight around and demanding “vanity” bits, more often than not involving singing, and usually with similar results.  Yes, it does spoil the mood of an alternately sweet and tragic episode by inviting giggles; as a youngster it brought the crushing realization that my idol wasn’t so perfect, after all.  But in a strange way, it kind of works if you forget it’s Lee Majors and think of it as Steve, an otherwise imperturbable (some would say wooden) paragon of male machismo exposing his heart to perform such a treacly tune in such an awkward and potentially humiliating way (“I don’t know how to sing, but baby, you make me want to try!!!!”).  It certainly makes him seem more vulnerable than he’s ever been.  Admittedly I might be blocking memories in self-defense, but I think this was his only stab at crooning in the series, meaning we’d have to wait until “The Fall Guy” for another fix of musical Majors magic.

On the whole — and even with the singing — this entry stands out as one of the high points of the series. Audiences agreed, with Jaime’s character proving popular enough to return from the dead in the third season opener before spinning off into a series of her own.  Eventually she would become arguably a bigger deal than Steve himself as an icon of 70s TV.  I kind of resented that as a kid, and after all these years I’m still fairly conflicted over whether it was a good thing to undo the end of this story. Judged on its own merits, however, the “Bionic Woman” two-parter ranks up there with the best of The Six Million Dollar Man.

 

“Our asylums are full of people who think they’re Napoleon…”

For no particular reason, I started wondering today about all those portraits of historical figures standing around with their hands thrust into their vests or jackets.  It’s an affectation most often associated with Napoleon Bonaparte, but you see it everywhere in old paintings.

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So I looked it up and, at least according to Wikipedia, it has a name: “Hand in Waistcoat.”  Supposedly, the gesture goes back to ancient Greece, where Aeschines declared that speaking with one’s arm outside one’s toga was bad manners.  He consequently delivered his orations with his hand inside his toga, and it caught on.  The pose made its way into some classical statuary and when the 18th century rolled around, it became a sort of “shorthand” for artists trying to suggest that their subjects were statesmanlike and well-bred in the Classical tradition.  Or something.  After a while it got to be so ingrained that it even carried over into photography, which is what got me started thinking today; I saw a photo of Generals Sherman and McClellan striking the pose in a Civil War-era photograph.

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I guess it’s all a matter of perception.  Personally, I think it looks kind of rude: what sort of personal business is that person taking care of with their hidden hand?  Do they have eczema or psoriasis? Why would you want to suggest that the statesman in your image has something to hide?  But then, different cultures and generations look at things in different ways. Take for example table manners:  here in the States, it’s generally considered rude to rest your arms on the table at dinner, but in other cultures it’s far worse to keep them out of sight in your lap.  Who knows what’s going on down there?

As a kid, I always assumed one of two things was going on in those “hands in waistcoat” portraits: (1) the guy in the picture had a deformed hand and was self-conscious about it or (2) the artist was no good at drawing hands, so he cheated.  Of course both perceptions were colored by the fact that I was a wannabe artist myself; many of the faces I drew ended up with an improvised mustache or beard when things started going south (if it was a man’s face, I might even get away with it).  For me, it was always about hiding mistakes.  But okay, thanks to the internet, now I know there was a legitimate reason for the hidden hand, and the subject probably actually stood that way for the artist.

Posterstalin

Then again, we are talking about Wikipedia, so who knows? As Michael Scott of “The Office” says, Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.” I decided maybe it would be best to keep digging for some kind of corroboration.

So I looked around and found numerous sites that “reveal” the “truth” behind the gesture.  According to these sources, the hidden hand signifies membership in the Freemasons, the ancient and mysterious fraternity that by virtue of (1) having some members who played important roles in world events (and shhh! many others that didn’t) and (2) keeping many of its ceremonies and traditions secret, must therefore of course be EvilOne site I found at least tried to keep its “exposé” more or less academic in nature, but it still turns on a shaky hypothesis: “Considering the great importance of this gesture in Masonic rituals and the fact that all of the elite were either part of Freemasonry or knew of it, it is simply impossible that the recurrence of this sign could be the result of a coincidence.”   Notice the inclusion of the phrase “…or knew of it.”  So just hearing about Freemasonry made you as “bad” as a member.  Imagine a similar line of logic in court:

Prosecutor: “Sir, have you ever beaten your wife?

Defendant: “No, I have not.”

Prosecutor: “Have you ever heard of men beating their wives?”

Defendant: “Yes, I have.”

Prosecutor: “Your honor, let the record show the defendant admits he is no stranger to wife-beating!”

The other sites that delved into the “secret” meaning of the “hidden hand” felt distinctly more on the fringe of the Web, veering deeply into “tinfoil hat” territory with claims that it not only signifies membership in the Freemasons (aka “The Illuminati”), but that said membership constitutes allegiance to Satan, which explains how those folks got powerful enough to have their portraits done in the first place.  These sites go further by including photos of even modern-day celebrities caught with “hidden hands” that prove their own Satanic connections: Tom Hanks is spotted cradling one hand under the opposite armpit, Obama is caught tucking a folded speech into the breast pocket of his coat and so on.  Basically anyone photographed putting away a pen, checkbook or pair of glasses, tucking their tie back in place or scratching an itch is a servant of Satan, assuming their politics don’t align with the webmaster’s.  I think I’ll forgo providing those links, but they aren’t hard to find if you feel like living in a Dan Brown novel, or Fox Mulder’s basement office.

At this point I’m sorry I even asked, since thinking too long about hidden hands apparently paves the road to madness.  Now we’re right up there in “Paul is Dead” territory in terms of Diversions for People with Too Much Time To Kill.  In fact rather appropriately, I came across a photo of McCartney himself with “hand in waistcoat,” this time on a website claiming the gesture is a signal between intelligence agents (“spooks”), which of course would include McCartney’s post-“death” double, right?

mccartney-hand

Anyway, I’m not sure I know a lot more now than when I started, at least about the true origins of the hand-in-waistcoat pose.  I have learned something about the internet, I guess, but it’s nothing new (or good).  In the end, I’m writing off the “hand in waistcoat” as just another goofy fad, which after all is one thing society is really good at.  If you think about it, the practice of smiling for the camera is just as random and nonsensical (and started only after photography had been around for a long time).  As idiotic traditions go, it’s certainly not as bad as “throwing up signs,” “planking,” clumsy DIY Photoshopping to reduce waistlines or “selfies” in general (let alone taking photos of your food!).

One can only imagine what future historians will make of “duck lips.”

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