Sunday 6 March 2022

The Six Million Dollar Man season 1 (1974)

The three TV movies having been successful The Six Million Dollar Man was given the go-ahead as a regular series in 1974. With Lee Majors as the star, obviously. Richard Anderson, who took over from Darren McGavin as Steve Austin’s boss in the second TV movie, remains in the regular cast.

Astronaut Steve Austin (Lee Majors) loses an arm, a leg and an eye in the crash of an experimental aircraft but he is rebuilt - faster, stronger and better. The only catch is that in return he has to work for a government intelligence agency known as OSI. He gets assigned the missions that only a cyborg can carry out.

The Six Million Dollar Man made Lee Majors more than just a star. He became an icon.

And of course if you are of a certain age its nostalgia appeal is immense.

One thing that is rarely mentioned is that The Six Million Dollar Man is very similar in concept to the earlier (and vastly superior) British series The Champions which dealt with three secret agents who possessed superhuman powers. In fact the beginning of the opening episode of The Six Million Dollar Man follows the same pattern as The Champions which invariably began with one of the three agents demonstrating his (or her) super powers in an everyday setting.

The Six Million Dollar Man can certainly be cheesy at times but it was a bona fide television phenomenon and if you have any interest at all in 70s pop culture it can’t be ignored. The series ran for five seasons, it was preceded by three TV movies and followed by another three TV movies and of course it spawned a very successful spin-off series, The Bionic Woman. And it was a marketing bonanza with Steve Austin action figures being particularly popular. It was the most successful American science fiction TV series of its era.

It was also hugely influential. The series permanently added the word bionics to the language. It really introduced the idea of human-machine hybrids (or cyborgs) into mainstream popular science fiction. Just about every movie and TV series made since then that has addressed that concept has been influenced by this series. You could go so far as to say that it made the idea of posthumanism (or transhumanism) one of the enduring themes in modern science fiction.

Adding to its appeal (as was the case with The Champions) is that it straddled the boundaries between the spy thriller and science fiction (although the first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was actually the first TV series to do this).

There are occasional fascinating subversive moments. For Steve Austin to breathe a word to anybody about his bionic abilities would be a major breach of national security but in one episode he tells his buddy Vasily Zhukov the whole story even though Zhukov is a colonel in the Soviet Air Force. To hell with national security - you don’t keep secrets from a buddy. In any case Steve’s attitude towards rules and orders is that if you don’t like them you just ignore them. What is the US Government going to do to him? He’s an astronaut who walked on the Moon. He’s a national hero.

One of the show’s signatures was the use of slow motion to represent Steve’s ability to run super-fast. In the earlier TV movies they tried speeding up the action but it just looked silly. The slow motion idea worked much better. It was a clever way to give the impression that something extraordinary was happening - a fine example of an improvised inexpensive special effect that works. The show’s fans loved it.

Episode Guide

The opening scene of Population: Zero takes place in a tiny town called Norris where the entire population is suddenly and mysteriously dead. It’s is a direct rip-off of The Andromeda Strain (one of the best sci-fi movies of the ’70s). In fact it even uses footage from the movie! But it’s really quite a different story. It’s all about blackmail for very high stakes. There are some plot holes but generally speaking it’s a pretty good way to kick off the series.

In Survival of the Fittest someone is trying to kill Oscar Goldman. They try again when Oscar and Steve are on a flight to Washington and the plane goes down and they end up on an uninhabited island and they know that one of the survivors is the killer. It’s a solid story with a decent surprise ending.

In Operation Firefly an American scientist has perfected a new portable laser weapon but an international crime syndicate has kidnapped him. Luckily there is a way to find out where he’s being held - his daughter Susan has extra-sensory perception. She knows he’s somewhere in the Everglades. She and Steve set out to rescue him but they’re being trailed by the bad guys and there are other obstacles to overcome as well. Luckily wrassling ’gators is child’s play for Steve Austin. It helps that the ’gator is obviously made of rubber. This is an episode in which nothing quite works and the silliness level is a bit too high and it just generally falls flat.

Day of the Robot
involves a conspiracy so over-complicated and so silly that it simply has to fail but there are compensations. We get to see Steve battling with a killer robot and we get the awesome John Saxon as Steve’s buddy, missile scientist Fred Sloan, and as the robot! Saxon does the robotic stuff just right - he’s almost convincingly human but he’s not quite right and this leads to Steve’s suspicions that something weird is going on. The robot effects are good and they’re creepy. A pretty good episode and pitting the bionic man against a robot is an obviously excellent idea.

In Little Orphan Airplane an American spy plane has come down in an African country. The US Government wants the film that the pilot (played by Greg Morris from Mission: Impossible) took but they don’t want to risk starting a war. Retrieving the film has to be a one-man job, and of course it’s a job for Steve Austin. He finds the plane, and the film and the pilot but the plane is totally smashed up. Unfortunately there’s no other way out so Steve will have to use his super powers to rebuild the plane. He also has to rescue two Flemish nuns who were hiding the pilot. The biggest failing of this episode is the ill-advised decision to speed up the film to show Steve’s ability to move super-fast. It looks embarrassingly silly. In fact the whole episode is far-fetched and silly. This one just doesn’t work.

In Doomsday, and Counting Steve flies to Khamkov Island to help out an old buddy, a Russian cosmonaut named Zhukov. Zhukov has a plan to turn the island into a base from which to launch a joint US-Soviet mission to Mars using a nuclear-powered rocket. Unfortunately there’s been an earthquake and Zhukov’s girlfriend is trapped in one of the underground levels of the reactor complex. Steve agrees to help Zhukov to rescue her, because that’s what buddies do. There’s an added complication - the whole base is about to be blown up by a nuclear explosion. They have one hour to prevent it. An exciting episode, surprisingly dark and without any hints of silliness. Excellent TV science fiction.

In Eyewitness to Murder Steve is not up against international spies or terrorists but plain old-fashioned gangsters when he witnesses a murder. The problem is that he saw the murderer from along way away with his bionic eye and nobody is going to accept his identification, given the distance involved. There’s another mystery as well - the killer has an absolutely water-tight alibi. And he will strike again since he missed his intended target. This one plays more like a cop show episode than an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man and the solution to the puzzle is a bit too obvious. An interesting experiment that doesn’t quite come off - the bionic/science fiction elements just don’t fi in here.

Farrah Fawcett, already married to Lee Majors, guest stars in Rescue of Athena One. This is just a straight space adventure story which I guess makes sense - there’s not much point in having an astronaut as your hero if he never goes into space. Farrah Fawcett is Major Kelly Woods and she’s about to be the first American woman in space. Steve has the job of training her. Her mission almost ends in disaster when there’s an explosion aboard the spacecraft and only Steve Austin can rescue her and her co-pilot. I always thought Farrah was at her best when she was being cute and ditzy (as she was in Harry O and Charlie’s Angels) but this time she has to play things dead straight. And she does OK. It’s an unusual episode but it adds a bit of variety to the season and it’s not too bad.

Dr Wells Is Missing takes Steve to Austria where Dr Rudy Wells, the man who gave him his bionics, has been kidnapped by gangsters who want to to build a bionic man for them. This is pretty far-fetched - it’s hardly likely gangsters are going to have the ultra high tech medical facilities that would be needed. This is an episode that makes very heavy use of Steven’s bionic capabilities. The slow-motion fight against four bad guys is a highlight. There are lots of fight scenes and they’re pretty violent. There are some odd touches - apparently everybody in Innsbruck drives vintage cars. Steve is in full-on James Bond mode which is something we saw in the third pilot but haven’t really seen in the series itself. It’s exciting and fun.

In The Last of the Fourth of Julys OSI have discovered that a mercenary named Quail has something big planned to happen in July. Something really really big but they have no idea what it is. It has something to do with a laser. So Steve is torpedoed(!) ashore to Quail’s secret island headquarters. This is a very very James Bond-style episode with a Bond villain equivalent (with a very Bondian plan in mind), a Bond girl equivalent (the glamorous but sadistic Violette), lots of gadgetry and lots of action. It’s just pure Bond all the way. And it works extremely well.

Burning Bright
is what you might call a high-risk episode. It could so easily have gone horribly horribly wrong. Josh Lang is an astronaut who absorbed a few too many gamma rays during a space walk. Now he appears to have gone crazy. But it’s not as simple as that. Josh always was an eccentric and always was somewhat attracted to off-the-wall ideas. It’s not that he’s gone crazy - he’s just an exaggerated version of what he always was. It’s as if his brain has been supercharged. And now he thinks he’s super-intelligent and the scary part is, he really has become super-intelligent. He really has developed psionic powers. Some of his crazy ramblings turn out to be absolutely correct and scientifically brilliant. The problem is that his brain is burning too bright. Much too bright. If he isn’t helped he could burn out completely and Steve discovers that persuading Josh to accept help is going to be a challenge. 

Against the odds this episode really does kind of work and William Shatner’s performance as Josh is typical Shatner - he manages to be totally over-the-top and emotionally complex at the same time. So Burning Bright is a high-risk story that pays off.

Steve will have to confront the past in The Coward. Not his own past, but his father’s. Steve has to retrieve documents from the wreckage of a World War 2 transport aircraft that has been located near the Chinese border. His father had been flying that plane and according to official records he abandoned his crew. To get to the aircraft Steve will have to climb a mountain that even he cannot climb alone. He knows he might not like what he finds there. He also has to battle bandits and that provides some action but the main focus in this episode is on Steve’s emotions. Not a bad episode.

In Run, Steve, Run the crazy Dr Dolenz (played the ever-wonderful Henry Jones) wants Steve’s bionics secrets, even if it means taking him apart piece by piece. It’s not a terrible idea but not very much is done with it and too much of the running time is taken up by flashbacks to earlier episodes. A disappointing end to the season.

Final Thoughts

I wanted to like this series more than I did. It has its moments but it hasn’t stood the test of time quite as well as some of the other science fiction series of its era and it’s not as good as the earlier TV movies. It’s still fairly enjoyable if very uneven. The fact that the season one boxed set includes the three original TV movies makes it worth a purchase.

1 comment:

  1. "Burning Bright" is somewhat similar to Star Trek's "Where No Man Has Gone Before" in concept but not execution. Several Six Million Dollar Man episodes were also very Bond-like, and they work better than the gangster and other "crime drama" episodes. I've never had any desire to watch any of it again.