I’ve talked in the past on this blog about my fondness for RoboCop: The Series and my opinions about the movies, so it seems appropriate to post my thoughts about the new movie version directed by José Padilha and starring Joel Kinnaman. I’ve seen mixed reviews, but it seems to be more popular with audiences than with critics, at least going by Rotten Tomatoes, so I figured it was worth a try.
I was never opposed to the idea of a RoboCop reboot; if anything, the issues of corporate power and robotic law enforcement are even more relevant today, so it seemed like a worthwhile and timely idea to revisit the concept in a way tailored to 2010s concerns rather than 1980s concerns. I wanted a film that would not try to copy the original, but would instead take the core concept in a distinct and fresh direction. Now, the last remake I saw of a Paul Verhoeven film, Len Wiseman’s 2012 Total Recall, was a big disappointment in that regard, superficially attempting something new but ultimately too slavish in its imitation of the forms of the original without the substance. So what I heard about this film’s fresh approach was encouraging.
And in that respect, I wasn’t disappointed. Padilha’s RoboCop is a radically different take on the premise, a more serious and realistic film than the comedy-satire Verhoeven made — perhaps fittingly, since its premise of a cyborg enforcer in a decayed Detroit is far closer to reality today than it was in 1987. Its version of Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) doesn’t even die; he’s just horribly injured and retains his identity and memories. And the story focuses more on his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son, and on the scientist who creates and mentors him, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), than on the criminals who attempted to kill him — although the machinations of the corporate executives led by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) are about as prominent as in the original. It definitely meets the criterion of being a novel take. There are a couple of subtle nods, but they don’t get in the way of the new story being told: The Basil Poledouris theme is briefly heard at times; the original Rob Bottin costume design is glimpsed as a “combat mode” concept (and there are some nice echoes of Bottin’s classic work in the first version of Murphy’s armor); a character at one point says “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar”; and there’s a variant on the original’s Directive 4, a program block prohibiting Murphy from turning on his corporate controllers, though it’s handled in a very different way (and Chekhov’s-Gunned in the opening sequence of the film). And the line “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” is used, but in a way that cleverly inverts it and gives it new meaning. So even in those rare cases where it references the original, it doesn’t feel gratuitous or derivative. (Though I admit, I was a little disappointed that Murphy never said “Somewhere there is a crime happening.”)
It’s also a very well-made movie, with good designs and cinematography and convincing CGI, though a couple of the big action set pieces seem a bit video-gamey. The cast is solid and effective. (And as a fan of the TV series, I’m pleased that much of the location filming was done in Toronto, where R:TS was made.) I don’t get why they had to gender-swap Lewis (Michael K. Williams), but they also replaced Sgt. Reed with a female Chief Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and built up Mrs. Murphy’s role as well as giving prominent roles to Jennifer Ehle as Omnicorp’s legal executive and Aimee Garcia as Norton’s assistant, so I guess it balances out.
But is it a good story? I felt it was rather slow-paced in the first act, taking quite a long time to establish things that could’ve been handled more concisely. But I appreciated that increased level of detail when it came to delving into Murphy’s family life (in the original, we barely met him before he was killed) and into the mechanics of his rehabilitation and operations. Once it got into the meat of the story, it held my attention quite adequately through the end of the movie.
But after the movie, I began to realize some things were lacking. For a movie inspired by contemporary concerns about drone warfare and the surveillance state, it didn’t really do anything with those concerns. It set up a political conflict between a senator and his constituents who didn’t want unfeeling robots to wield deadly force on US soil and the corporation that sought to increase its profits by putting drones n the streets, but we never saw any actual negative consequences to individual liberty or safety once Murphy’s emotions were suppressed to let him operate in full-on drone mode. If anything, the movie presented ubiquitous surveillance as a pretty unambiguous positive, letting Robo track down bad guys in mere moments. (And it just now occurred to me to wonder, why couldn’t the rest of the police use the same tracking software?) The only people he endangers in emotionless drone mode are criminals and corrupt cops. The only negative consequences to Omnicorp’s progressive dehumanization of Murphy were the emotional consequences to Murphy himself and his family, and those prove pretty easy to overcome. So not only does the film not have much to say about the issues it superficially engages with, but it has little in the way of stakes. It tries to make Murphy the test case and linchpin for a national debate about drone warfare — played out through talk-show segments hosted by Samuel L. Jackson as the type of pundit of which Stephen Colbert is a parody — but it’s all just Greek-chorus exposition that doesn’t really connect to the small-scale story of Murphy and his family and doesn’t have any real payoff or impact. So the attempt at social commentary is all telling and no showing, and no clear point of view on the issues really comes across.
Also, Oldman’s Dr. Norton is somewhat unfocused as a character. He seems at first like a total do-gooder, but then is shown being willing to do some pretty nasty and dehumanizing things to Murphy in the name of Sellars’s profits, but then ends up on Murphy’s side once again in the final act. Maybe they were going for something about how easy it is for decent people to be persuaded to obey immoral orders, the Milgram experiment and all that, but Norton’s inner life isn’t examined enough for any such arc to become evident. It’s more like he’s just switching back and forth between two ethical states to serve the momentary needs of the script.
So in the end, I think all I can say about this movie is that it’s decent. It’s easily the second-best RoboCop movie, but only because the two sequels to the original were so weak. It’s an adequately well-told and extremely well-made story without a lot of substance to it. It’s nowhere near as good as the original — not because it’s different, since it should be different, but because it’s just not as interesting or clever or substantial. It’s worthwhile for the production values and the performances, and for the freshness of its take on the concept, but it had the potential to be so much more, potential that it never really embraced.
Once upon a time, before home video and cable movie channels, network television showed movies in prime time. Usually it was either edited theatrical films or original TV movies. Occasionally, though, the slots would be used to burn off failed pilots — often two hourlong pilots shown back-to-back. By their nature, these rejected pilots usually weren’t all that good, but sometimes there were some interesting might-have-beens.
One such pilot, aired in 1990, was called Project: Tinman, and it interested me because it was along similar lines to Gene Roddenberry’s The Questor Tapes: An android protagonist fleeing the government, searching for his creator and the mysteries of his origin, and bonding with a human who helps him navigate the world. It also interested me because said human was played by the gorgeous Catherine Mary Stewart. Thus, I’ve kept it around, on the same VHS tape that contained my copy of Questor (or rather, the copy I just replaced with the legitimate DVD release, reviewed in my previous post). Now that I’ve begun archiving my old tapes on DVD-R, I’ve revisited Tinman for the first time in quite a few years. But I find it holds up more poorly than I remembered.
(Note: I don’t usually bother to include screencaps, but I’m doing it here for several reasons: One, because I can, now that it’s on DVD. Two, because it’s obscure and there can’t be many images of it out there. And three, I specifically wanted to show the title screen because I’ve seen the title misreported in various places, e.g. as Project: Tin Men. Unfortunately, my DVD-player program has flattened the aspect ratio on the screencaps to fit modern widescreen format, and I can’t figure out how to fix that, so I apologize for the distortion of the images.)
The android hero — called simply “The Man” on IMDb, though he briefly adopts the alias Daniel — is played by an actor with the improbably macho name of Hunt Block, who reminds me of a cross between Kevin Sorbo and Robert Hays in the Starman TV series. Apparently he was a pretty prominent soap-opera actor and more recently played the US president in Angelina Jolie’s Salt.
The pilot opens with a vaguely Clockwork Orange-y scene of The Man watching violent footage from films and cartoons (all from the Warner Bros. library, for they produced this) — although it’s not to create an aversion to violence but to train him for it. He walks out into Hazzard town square — err, the WB backlot — where Stewart’s Dr. Naomi Fischer (or Fisher?) is in a wedding dress, throwing her bouquet, which provokes a kid to run out into traffic and almost get run down by a speeding car before The Man — aw, heck, Daniel — saves her. The car is driven by a mad gunman who goes around shooting people at random, and Daniel spots a dropped gun and picks it up, with Naomi exhorting him to fire. But he can’t shoot, instead starting to sing “Frere Jacques” and passing out. Turns out the whole scene was a simulation to get the android to kill, and it failed. Nice use of the backlot as they reveal the rear of one of the building facades, exposing the illusion. But the whole thing seems kind of weird. Wouldn’t the government want him for military use? Why not simulate combat? And was the kid supposed to run out in traffic? What would’ve happened if they’d been more successful at eradicating Daniel’s regard for life?
Cut to exposition scene in dark, smoke-filled conference room, where it turns out the reason The Man can’t kill is that his creator, Dr. Robert Alan Craig, hardwired him with a moral sense. The government didn’t even build him, they stole him and wiped his memory, but couldn’t wipe his conscience. (This is another similarity to Questor: There, the android was built by a scientific consortium that didn’t understand the advanced work of its missing creator, and they’d inadvertently erased half his memory tapes. Here, it’s just a bit more sinister.) So they decide to shut him down, attempting to neutralize him by cutting off all light so he can’t recharge the solar cells in his palms. That’s actually kind of clever, a sensible way to deal with the risk that this superstrong, bullet-resistant android might fight back against annihilation. Except it’s combined with the totally non-sensible choice to leave his door unlocked so he could wander the base looking for light, then confront the project director, try to shoot him in self-defense, fail, and accidentally electrocute him anyway, then manage to flee to the outside just before his batteries run out.
After which the new project director, the chain-smoking Forrest (Leon Russom), fires Naomi, because apparently she disapproves of the project, even though we were shown no real sign of that before. It’s not clear why he wants her gone, except that they generally dislike each other — and except that it gives Daniel a way to smuggle himself out in her car, which the guards don’t bother to search even though the facility’s on total lockdown as they hunt for what they believe is a killer android. So, scorecard: one smart decision, two monumentally stupid ones. Advantage, stupidity. (Again, kind of like TQT, in that the android escapes with a human who’s mistrusted by the project’s leader. The details are quite different, though.)
Naomi isn’t pleased to find the killer android in her car, but a feeble “It was an accident?” is enough to convince her to take him home with her. The fact that she’s stopped in the middle of the road and almost gets run over is a factor too. Once at her implausibly palatial home, they start bonding, and she tells him the truth about his origins. And she lets her hair down for maximum hotness:
Yup, sure didn’t take long for those puppy-dog eyes and broad shoulders to win over this clear-headed scientist.
But Forrest has figured out the obvious and sends his security people to stately Fischer Manor. (Seriously, how many scientists make that kind of money?) Daniel speaks over the gate intercom in Forrest’s voice (edited from a conversation he overheard) to send them away, but that only works long enough for him and Naomi to make a break for it in her car. After they ditch pursuit, she suddenly wants him to hold her because she’s scared, and then they go to a bar and talk about his desire to find his creator and how she wishes it were that easy for her to get answers to her questions. It’s vaguely touching on the same “search for our creator” themes as Questor, but doesn’t examine them in any depth. Because it’s time for them to go to the supermarket so Daniel can have some cute “android puzzled by everyday items” bits, followed by a confrontation with the police (at least Forrest had the sense to put out an APB), in which he uses his glowy-palm interface to do something to the checkout scanner that magically causes every electrical device in the store to go crazy, up to and including the coffeepots spilling over. This is 1990. I doubt every item in the store is wirelessly networked. So how the hell did he do that?
They end up at the company where Craig worked — which just seems to be some fancy private home with a tech-company sign stuck by the front door — but find it’s vacant, its personnel fled because Forrest’s men were there first, although they’re gone now. They study Craig’s lab, and Naomi plays a tape of his music for some reason while Daniel discovers a video disc showing some of his “infancy” as Craig taught him like a child. Daniel recognizes a coded pattern that Craig meant for him to find in the music, even though Craig had no way of knowing that Naomi would be there and would randomly play the tape. It’s an exhortation from his creator to live up to his potential, saying that he’ll need help from others so he should help them in turn, and that he should reach for the light. Basically he’s advising Daniel to act like the protagonist in a Fugitive knockoff. So maybe you can see where this is going, especially once the pathetic-fallacy rainstorm starts up: Forrest’s people show up with snipers, Naomi throws herself in front of Daniel, Naomi gets shot…
…Naomi tells Daniel to run before the authorities arrive, Naomi dies, and Daniel walks off into the rain like Bill Bixby, albeit with a cheesy 1990 synth score instead of Joe Harnell’s piano.
Writing it out like that, I see it really is a lot worse than I remembered. It isn’t structured or developed all that well. The villains are blatantly cartoon evil with no ambiguity. The characters and their motivations are thinly drawn. Perhaps worst of all, The Man/Daniel doesn’t make a choice to be good. He doesn’t refuse to kill — he makes a sincere effort to become a murderer, but fails because of a hardwired prohibition, and isn’t at all bothered about killing the director by accident. He has no motivation beyond self-preservation; even Craig’s message tells him to help people so that they’ll help him in turn. He’s nice enough, even mildly charming, but he’s not heroic. Granted, Questor’s prohibition against killing was also a programmed block rather than a moral choice, but at least he has goals more altruistic than self-preservation — indeed, he’s quite willing to sacrifice himself to protect lives — and he has Jerry Robinson as a moral compass, a role Naomi doesn’t bother with and wouldn’t have been there to provide in a series. (The extent of her moral guidance is telling Daniel that people love Twinkies even though they’re lethal. And then eating one before she’s paid for it.)
And I’ve always felt that killing Naomi was a wasted opportunity. Not only would it have been a shame to lose the gorgeous Ms. Stewart, but she could’ve served the same role as Jerry in Questor or Jenny Hayden in Starman (or Scott Hayden in its TV sequel): the guide to humanity, a vehicle for commentary about human nature and discussion of the episodes’ themes. But I suppose they wanted to go the Fugitive route instead. I mentioned before that the reason The Questor Tapes was abandoned as a series was that the network wanted to write out Jerry and make Questor a solo hero on the run, adhering to the Fugitive formula, and Roddenberry refused, preferring to scrap the project altogether. Project: Tinman gives us a hint of what it would’ve been like had he given in. (Although it occurs to me now that Naomi’s death scene is ambiguous enough that she could’ve been easily enough revived for a series, if Stewart had been available and the producers so inclined.)
This pilot’s creator and writer, Lawrence Hertzog, went on to create another Fugitive-style series five years later: UPN’s Nowhere Man, a conspiracy-thriller series that was basically “Like The Prisoner, but with the whole country instead of one controlled village.” Which did not work at all for me, since it pretty much required that 95% of the entire United States population be complicit in the conspiracy against this one guy, a conspiracy that never really made sense anyway.
I’ve always wondered whether Hertzog was inspired by Questor, though it’s distinct enough to count as a variation on the theme, a second try at the format. Of course, it could be coincidence, since every story gets told more than once; there are only so many ways to put ideas and tropes together. Given the timing, The Man could’ve been inspired by Data, making its descent from Questor more indirect — although in that case it’d be quite a coincidence if it independently retroengineered something so close to the original story. But it’s definitely not as well-told as Questor was. It’s never ambiguous who the good guys and bad guys are, there’s no more than a passing attempt at philosophy, there’s no nuance to the characters, and the ending set up exactly the kind of formulaic continuation that Roddenberry killed his own series rather than settle for. I think I was so attached to this pilot because it felt to me like the closest thing we’d ever get to a continuation of Questor. But it really doesn’t hold up very well in comparison.
I finally got around to buying the print-on-demand DVD of Gene Roddenberry’s 1974 pilot The Questor Tapes, featuring the android character who would be the prototype for Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data. The reason it took me so long, after acquiring his Genesis II and Planet Earth pilots on DVD last year, is that I already had TQT on VHS tape and figured I’d use my VCR/DVD dubbing deck to archive it digitally. Now that I’ve actually found the time to begin transferring my old tapes, though, I realized my copy of TQT was way too low in quality — I’m pretty sure my VHS tape was copied in turn from a Beta recording off a TV movie — and that I’d be much better off paying for the inexpensive DVD release. Granted, the quality of that release isn’t that much better. It’s not remastered from the source, but is apparently just a reissue of a pay-TV edition, judging from the opening copyright disclaimer. Still, it’s the best we’ve got.
Questor was Roddenberry’s attempt to revisit the Kirk-Spock dynamic, with a logical, hyperintelligent lead character relying on the moral and emotional guidance of his human best friend. For the pilot, he brought in former Star Trek writer-producer Gene L. Coon to cowrite the script, which was a great choice, since Coon had a knack for writing close friendship between men. Batman producer Howie Horwitz is the credited producer (with Roddenberry as “executive consultant,” a title generally used for a creator who’s no longer in charge of the production), and the pilot was directed by Richard Colla, who would later direct the pilot movie of Battlestar Galactica.
The pilot is interesting in that it’s structured as a mystery revolving around the title character’s purpose for existence, creating a lot of ambiguity about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. It opens at Cal Tech, where top scientists from five nations (evidently including the US, the USSR, China, France, and one other) have come together in Project Questor, an initiative to assemble a revolutionary android designed by the Nobel-winning Dr. Emil Vaslovik, who’s been missing and presumed dead for three years. It quickly becomes evident that nobody understands the advanced technologies underlying the android’s components, not even the lead assembler, Vaslovik’s protege Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell). And the programming tapes Vaslovik left have been half-erased by the project’s attempts to decrypt them. At first, the programming seems to fail; the android remains inert. But that night — as project head Geoffrey Darro (John Vernon) is digging into Robinson’s background, suspicious that he may know more than he’s telling about Vaslovik’s intentions for the android — Questor himself awakens and gives his smooth plastic form a makeover using the project’s equipment, turning himself into Robert Foxworth. It’s actually a very clever effect — in continuous shots, we see the equipment removing the “robot” makeup and revealing Foxworth’s features underneath, creating the illusion that it’s actually molding those features onto the mannequin-like form. I’d forgotten that these scenes have a horror-movie quality, since at this point the audience has no way to know whether Questor is the hero or the villain.
Indeed, his actions are quite morally ambiguous at first. Once he breaks out of the lab, he forces a terrified Jerry to come with him, although it gradually becomes clear that he is programmed to be incapable of killing. Still, Jerry convinces Questor to accede to his guidance on matters of morality. Although he lets that slip a bit when they get to a casino in Universal-backlot London and Questor uses his computer senses to cheat at craps in order to obtain “specie,” as he keeps calling it. Virtually this same sequence, right down to the android using his superstrength to unload a pair of loaded dice, was later reused with Data in TNG’s “The Royale.”
Questor remembers enough about Vaslovik’s past to lead him to the home of Lady Helena Trimble (Dana Wynter), a prominent socialite and alleged courtesan,who turns out to be an information broker who worked with Vaslovik, leading Jerry to suspect that Questor may have been built for espionage purposes or worse. Especially once he discovers the secret information center where Questor, like Vaslovik before him, can monitor spy images and sensitive secrets from all over the world, possibly affecting millions of lives. Helena insists the motives behind this technology are benevolent, but Jerry has already called in Darro. Will his trust in Questor’s friendship win out over his doubts, and can Questor win over the cynical Darro to their side?
Spoiler alert: The movie climaxes at Mt. Ararat, where we learn that Vaslovik was himself an android, the latest in a line of androids who’ve been subtly guiding and safeguarding humanity for 200,000 years. Their mission is not to control us, but only to assist us to make our own decisions. But Questor is the last; if humanity survives to the end of his 200-year lifespan, it will have outgrown its childhood and won’t need a nanny anymore.
I think the pilot still holds up pretty well, although it’s not perfect. Foxworth’s jerky line delivery as Questor is a bit annoying after a while, although it gradually softens over the course of the movie. The Questor-Jerry relationship maybe develops a bit too quickly, but the same can be said of many TV relationships; a certain amount of shorthand is just part of the form. And some of the dialogue doesn’t flow as smoothly or logically as it could, and there are some abrupt transitions. It feels like a fair amount was cut out, although the running time on the DVD (96 minutes) is consistent with what the runtime for a movie in a 2-hour time slot would’ve been in 1973, so the cuts would’ve been in the original.
Still, Foxworth, Farrell, and Vernon are strong leads, and the core relationship is pretty solid — inspired by Kirk and Spock, but different enough to be fresh. Jerry is no Kirk, particularly not where women are concerned; at one point, Questor encourages him to seduce Lady Helena for information, but he’s terrible at it and can’t bring himself to use her that way. And Questor, much like Data, is rather the opposite of Spock: lacking the inbuilt potential for emotion (part of what was erased from the programming tapes) but eager to learn more about how to be human. The suspense over the purpose and morals of Questor’s creation is interesting, although resolved a bit too easily. And I kind of like it that there’s no villain in the story, just people with conflicting views and goals, doing what they think is right.
And there’s a lot here that seeded later SF productions. I’ve mentioned Questor as the inspiration for Data. Also, the music cue that composer Gil Melle uses in the Project Questor lab scenes would be repurposed later that year as the theme for Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And when Questor finds Vaslovik’s Mt. Ararat lair, the device that “heals” him and infuses him with his missing knowledge makes the same “ta-ta-tang” sound effect (albeit truncated) that would later become the trademark sound of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman (also from Universal).
The sad thing about TQT is that it almost became a series. As detailed in this excellent overview article (no longer “live” but preserved in the Internet Archive), a season of the show was actually commissioned, but the executives insisted on changes to make it more like The Fugitive — drop Jerry, ignore the ending where Questor found his answers, and have him be a lone hero on the run from the authorities. Apparently they wanted the benign-intervention angle dropped, uneasy with the idea of alien androids playing God — which I think was unfair, because the movie made it clear that Questor’s interventions were meant to be rather subtle. Rather than cave to network pressure, Roddenberry walked away from the show altogether, killing the project. This one movie is all we got. Although maybe that’s just as well, if the only alternative was to see a watered-down version that eliminated the core relationship and the core premise. (Said premise itself being Roddenberry’s latest attempt at the “aliens secretly guiding humans” premise from his Star Trek backdoor pilot episode “Assignment: Earth.”)
There was an attempt to reboot the series in the early 2000s, under the guidance of Herbert J. Wright, a former TNG producer who’d been attached to the abortive 1974 Questor series. Unfortunately, Wright passed away in 2005 and the project fell through. The rights are currently held by Imagine Entertainment, and in 2010 there was talk about a reimagining to be developed by Tim Minear; but nothing seems to have come of it. They keep trying, but they just can’t seem to get it off the ground.
Foxworth would later go on to play two major villains in the Trek franchise: Admiral Leyton in Deep Space Nine‘s “Homefront”/”Paradise Lost,” and Administrator V’Las in Enterprise‘s Vulcan Civil War trilogy. Farrell would never appear in another Trek or Roddenberry-related production, nor would Vernon. However, the pilot features a couple of Trek veterans in bit roles at the Project: Majel Barrett (who was in every Roddenberry production from TOS onward) as Dr. Bradley, one of the scientists, and Walter Koenig (unrecognizable under a Sonny Bono-ish hairdo and mustache) as Darro’s assistant Phillips. The matte paintings and visual effects in the movie were done by the great matte artist Albert Whitlock, who had previously done the matte paintings for TOS. (His paintings do enhance the “Ararat” location, but there are enough moving shots to make it clear that the featured mountain peak is real; I just wish I could find out where it was. It looks nothing like the real Mt. Ararat, but is extremely striking.)
Despite the abandonment of the series, the pilot got a novelization by Roddenberry’s former Trek colleague D.C. Fontana — the only novel on her resume other than Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory, although oddly the front matter of the book credits her with a Ballantine title called The Winds of Space, which was actually the title of a TV pilot that Fontana reportedly had in development around 1972-3. Perhaps there was a plan for her to novelize the pilot script, but it fell through.
Although it was Fontana’s first novel, it reads pretty well. It’s quite faithful to the script for the most part, but it adds a lot of material that fleshes out the story considerably and fills in a lot of the gaps in the movie. Notably, there’s a new thread of intrigue as the various nations partnering in Project Questor are all eager to get possession of the technology for themselves and trying to co-opt or bribe Jerry into selling out to them. It helps raise the stakes and helps explain why Darro is so concerned about Questor falling into the wrong hands. We learn a lot more about Lady Helena and Dr. Vaslovik, and there’s an added subplot about Questor using his precise computer projections to play the stock market and make millions by buying and selling at exactly the right moments — somewhat prophetic, I think, given how much stock trading today is dependent on computers. Although it clashes a bit with the movie plot, since the reason Questor suggested that Jerry seduce Helena was because they didn’t have the means to pay her. Fontana doesn’t provide a suitable alternative motivation for the wealthy Questor of the novel to suggest seduction.
The biggest departure from the movie is in the third act. The movie gives Questor a deadline of three days (after their time at Helena’s) to find Vaslovik, or something terrible will happen, and he figures out Vaslovik’s location just before he’s recaptured by Darro’s men. In the book, though, the deadline is extended to seven days, and he doesn’t get the vital clue before his recapture. Instead, there’s a sequence where he’s given the resources and personnel needed to attempt to track down Vaslovik — which seems a rather pointless addition, since after days of futile searching, he ultimately ends up getting the vital clue in the same coincidental way he did in the movie. It’s the one part of the novel that feels like it serves no purpose beyond padding the word count.
But it’s also just about the only part that doesn’t feel like an improvement. Although the novel is long out of print and much harder to track down these days than the DVD, I recommend it as a valuable supplement to the film. Some parts of it should be taken with a grain of salt, but others enhance the “reality” of the film considerably.
In my Genesis II/Planet Earth review, I talked about how I choose to interpret them as an alternate timeline of the Trek universe. But I’ve always liked to think that Questor actually took place in the Trek universe itself — and that maybe Data’s creator Noonien Soong learned some of what he knew about androids from Questor somehow. (Although a direct lineage doesn’t work, because Questor’s brain was based on something called “bionic plasma” rather than a positronic matrix.) Of course, since TQT was from Universal, that can never be officially asserted, but there have been several references in various Trek novels implying that Questor may have existed in that universe:
In Greg Cox’s Assignment: Eternity, Roberta Lincoln reminisces about helping Gary Seven retrieve some secret robot plans called “The Quasar Tapes, or something like that.” Roberta recalls that they were in the Pentagon rather than Cal Tech, but that still fits; maybe the Pentagon stole the plans from Vaslovik, and Gary and Roberta got them back into civilian hands.
In Jeffrey Lang’s Immortal Coil — and its followup, the Cold Equations trilogy by David Mack — we see that Flint, the immortal android-builder from “Requiem for Methuselah,” would live on into the 24th century and adopt the pseudonym Emil Vaslovik, becoming a mentor to Noonien Soong. There’s no mention that Vaslovik was the name of a real historical figure — indeed, given that TQT’s Vaslovik was a famous Nobel laureate, it might’ve been a bad idea for Flint to choose such a conspicuous pseudonym — but it’s possible to fudge things and surmise that Flint had known Vaslovik and/or Questor back in the 20th century and learned about androids from them.
And I’ve followed their lead and inserted a reference in my own work: in Watching the Clock, a member of Gary Seven’s Aegis organization refers to “those damn androids” as if they were the competition. And there’s another very subtle nod coming up in my DTI eBook The Collectors.
Although that competition thing is the main problem with having Questor in the Trek universe: aren’t he and Gary Seven basically doing the same thing? And since Gary and Roberta have been doing it six years longer, are Questor’s efforts even necessary? But seeing the movie again, I’m thinking maybe they don’t overlap that much. We know that Gary’s mission was to prevent humanity from destroying itself as it moved through the era of its greatest crisis. So he and Roberta are dealing fate-of-the-world stuff. By contrast, the Vaslovik androids are on a much subtler mission, just guiding and protecting human beings who have the potential to do good and make the world better — not making their decisions for them, but helping them survive or get the education or resources or opportunities they need to fulfill their potential. Maybe speaking a word in the right ear, as Questor puts it, to nudge someone in the right direction. They’ve been at it since the dawn of Homo sapiens‘ existence as a distinct species, and while there have been times in that 200,000-year span when we were at risk of extinction, it probably hasn’t been a concern for most of that span — or at least it wasn’t something that could’ve been affected by the ability to influence human decisions, not until the nuclear age. So maybe Questor’s activities are on a small enough scale that Gary’s activities don’t render them redundant. They could have even complemented each other, with Gary and Roberta tackling the big crises and Questor and Jerry and Helena helping out the little guys who fell through the cracks. Maybe that’s why Gary wanted to make sure the Questor Tapes ended up in the right hands.
Of course, that idea is somewhat dependent on the fact that neither show went past the pilot stage. If both shows had been made, they might have ended up telling fairly similar stories — and of course neither would’ve acknowledged the other. But then, if A:E had been made, Roddenberry wouldn’t have tried to revive the concept with Questor anyway. As it is, though, we’re free to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have been.
I realized it’s been nearly three years since I last posted a list of the word counts of my published works. I’m curious to see how much I’ve added since then. This is counting everything I’ve sold and finished writing to date, so there are a couple that haven’t yet been published.
- Only Superhuman: 115,000
ORIGINAL SHORT FICTION
- “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide”: 12,000 words
- “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele”: 9400
- “The Hub of the Matter”: 9300
- “The Weight of Silence”: 7600
- “No Dominion”: 7900
- “Home is Where the Hub Is”: 9800
- “Make Hub, Not War”: 9800
Total original fiction count: 180,800 words
- X-Men: Watchers on the Walls: 83,500
- Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder: 71,000
Total Marvel novel count: 154,500 words
STAR TREK NOVELS
- Ex Machina: 110,000
- Orion’s Hounds: 105,000
- The Buried Age: 132,000
- Places of Exile: 55,000
- Greater Than the Sum: 78,500
- Over a Torrent Sea: 89,000
- Watching the Clock: 125,000
- Forgotten History: 85,500
- A Choice of Futures: 80,500
- Tower of Babel (pending): 84,000
Total ST novel count: 944,500 words
STAR TREK SHORT FICTION
- “Aftermath”: 26,000
- “…Lov’d I Not Honor More “: 12,000
- “Brief Candle”: 9800
- “As Others See Us”: 9100
- Mere Anarchy: “The Darkness Drops Again”: 28,900
- “Friends With the Sparrows”: 10,300
- “Empathy”: 11,000
- Typhon Pact: “The Struggle Within”: 25,000
- “The Collectors” (pending): 35,000
Total ST short fiction count: 167,100 words
STAR TREK MAGAZINE ARTICLES
- “Points of Contention”: 1040
- “Catsuits are Irrelevant”: 1250
- “Top 10 Villains #8: Shinzon”: 820
- “Almost a Completely New Enterprise”: 800
- “The Remaking of Star Trek“: 1350
- “Vulcan Special: T’Pau”: 910
- “The Ultimate Guide: Star Trek: Voyager Season 3″: 1170 (not counting episode guide)
- “”Star Trek 45s #11: Concerning Flight”: 1000
Total article count: 8340 words (Counting only paid articles — excluding articles written for websites)
- Novels: 1,214,000 words
- Short fiction: 347,900 words
- Nonfiction: 8,340 words
Total fiction: 1,561,900 words
Total overall: 1,570,240 words
So since last time, I’m up 365,000 words in novels, I’ve more than doubled my short fiction count, and I’ve gained a measly 2,170 words in paid articles. In total, in the past three years, I’ve increased my published (or soon-to-be-published) word count by over 50 percent!
Note that I’ve now written over 1 million words of published (or nearly-published) Star Trek fiction. My next novel, Rise of the Federation: Uncertain Logic — which I’ve just been cleared by CBS to begin writing — is contracted to be 80-100,000 words, so that will put me over a million words in Star Trek novels alone. That’s one more milestone to look forward to.
Well, not anymore. For many years, I’ve had a small TV in my bedroom, equipped with an antenna (no cable hookup) and attached to a VCR. But a few years ago, the broadcast stations switched to digital and I didn’t bother to buy a converter; I figured I’d just keep the TV around if I wanted to watch a tape before going to sleep or something. But I hardly ever did that (I prefer to read before bed), and the VCR doesn’t work well anymore — the playback head seems dirty or corroded and I have nothing to clean it with. So the whole thing was basically taking up space. But I’m a pack rat by nature, loath to get rid of things in my possession and preferring to keep them around “just in case.” So I just left the TV and VCR where they were, atop my dresser.
Yesterday morning, though, the thought finally overcame my mental inertia: Why do I even keep them plugged in if I don’t use them? I don’t even bother to set the VCR clock, since there’s a clock radio right next to it. Having them plugged in may have only used up a trickle of power, but it added up over time. So I figured I might as well unplug them until or unless I had reason to use them. So once I’d done that yesterday morning, it only took until afternoon for me to take the next step: If they’re unplugged now and just taking up space, why not just put them in the closet and clear up some much-needed surface area in my bedroom? So I did that, and I moved a crate which I use as a bookshelf into the vacant space, which cleared up some room to rig a couple of makeshift bookshelves where the crate had been (one out of a cardboard box with its flaps duct-taped back, one out of a plastic drawer I recovered and cleaned from someone’s curbside trash, which is almost exactly the same size as the box), and that let me ease the overcrowding on the bookshelves for my general SF/fantasy/other paperbacks.
But that got me looking at the other bookshelves I have on top of the general-SF bookcase, the shelves where I keep my non-Star Trek tie-in books, mostly a whole bunch of Target Doctor Who novelizations from way back. (I used to have a comprehensive collection, though eventually I got rid of many of them, keeping only the novelizations of stories I liked and all the missing stories. But it’s still a pretty sizeable collection.) The main case I use there is one of a pair of cardboard bookcases, printed with a wood grain pattern, that I realize I’ve had for over 30 years. Each of the cases has three shelves, the top two of which are just tall enough to hold paperbacks and the third of which is just tall enough for standard hardcovers or trade paperbacks. The problem, though, is that I mostly just have standard paperbacks in the bottom shelf, and an extra row of paperbacks on top of the case adding weight, so one of the sides of the case is buckling at the bottom and the structural stability of the unit is compromised.
So clearly I need a new bookcase to put there, but my search online has been unproductive. Bookcases are expensive, more than I’m comfortable spending right now. And I can’t find anything like those cardboard bookcases. I found one site that seemed too good to be true, offering a 3-foot by 3-foot oak bookcase for under 15 bucks when it was normally sold for over 200 bucks — but then I found out that the catch is that the shipping cost is nearly 150 bucks. So much for that idea.
Maybe the problem is that people don’t read as much anymore. Perhaps I should be looking into DVD shelving instead, since DVD cases are a little taller than paperbacks.
Anyway, I’m just glad I’ve finally made at least a small start at rearranging my bedroom. I get tired of living in the same unchanging environment after a while, and I’ve been in this apartment over 10 years now. Sometimes I look sideways into my bedroom mirror to see the reflection of the room, and I always think “Wow, that room looks so much nicer than mine.” Because it’s different. When I was younger, I’d periodically find ways to rearrange my existing furniture and bring some novelty to the space I inhabited. Unfortunately, the layout of my apartment and the configuration of my furniture leaves me very few options for rearranging things. Even making a small change is rewarding. I just hope I can solve the bookcase problem before I have a collapse.
I just got Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium from the library, and I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it, since it wouldn’t have been worth it. Blomkamp’s District 9 was a very imaginative and powerful SF allegory, albeit overly violent for my tastes, so it’s startling how poor a job he did with his followup. Elysium is a clumsy, heavy-handed allegory about the one percent and the hoarding of health care, trying to be about something but ultimately being about little more than over-the-top, lowbrow violence.
Matt Damon is reasonably sympathetic as Max, a reformed felon trying to get by in the horrific poverty on Earth while the wealthy elites live in paradise on the Stanford torus space habitat Elysium, where Sufficiently Advanced Technology medical beds can instantly “re-atomize” anyone back to perfect health. When an industrial accident gives him a lethal dose of radiation, he hooks up with a former criminal colleague who runs a rather ill-considered operation to smuggle “illegals” up to Elysium to steal medical care, and makes a deal to steal personal data from an Elysian’s brain in order to make megabucks. But his target just happens to have the key to taking over all of Elysium, because he’s working for the evil government official Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who plans a coup to take over the habitat, and who sends her ruthless mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to hunt Max down. Oh, and there’s Max’s token love interest, childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), whose daughter is coincidentally terminally ill and could use a trip to Elysium herself.
But although Max gives the story a reasonably strong center, none of the other characters have much substance. Delacourt and Kruger have little motivation beyond being the designated villains, and many of their actions make little sense. Particularly, in the third act, Kruger suddenly decides he wants to take the data in Max’s head so he can personally rule Elysium — and nothing in this thuggish mercenary’s established character has provided any precedent for the idea that he has ambitions of conquest on that scale. And at the same time, Delacourt, who has had clear political ambitions and makes more sense in that role, is unceremoniously tossed aside for reasons I have trouble fathoming — unless it’s simply the fact that she lacked a Y chromosome. This is a very guy-focused action film, like something out of the ’80s, with few female characters, and Frey is basically just there to fill the traditional damsel role. The film doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test unless you count a single “No” from Delacourt to Frey as a conversation. Meanwhile, Foster’s performance is strident and awkward, partly due to the French (?) accent she employs, but largely because of the one-dimensional characterization she’s saddled with.
Elysium itself is pretty, thanks to Syd Mead’s conceptual designs, but the physics in the film are atrocious. Heck, not just its physics, its sense of scale. Elysium’s curvature is pronounced enough that it can’t be more than a few kilometers in diameter, and yet it’s depicted as being so immense that its disk can be clearly discerned from the surface of Earth at daytime — and in one shot it’s even shown rising from behind the Earth’s horizon in a shot that would require it to be probably a couple of thousand kilometers across. It’s somehow able to hold in an atmosphere just with rotational gravity alone, with the habitat sections open to space on top — which would not work on that small a scale, since an air column less than a kilometer deep wouldn’t have remotely enough weight. Not to mention the lack of radiation protection. Also, Elysium seems to be keeping permanent station over Los Angeles, which isn’t possible since LA isn’t at the equator. And in some shots, Elysium looks far enough from Earth to be in geosynchronous orbit (if you assume it’s immensely larger than it appears in closeups), while in others, particularly the shots of shuttles traveling up to it from Earth, it seems vastly closer. Oh, and the shuttles thrust continuously in a straight line directly for Elysium, which is not even remotely how orbital maneuvering works.
The physics of explosions in the action scenes are pretty inept too, like a grenade going off in an enclosed space and only injuring the guy closest to it (Kruger), while everyone else is unharmed and even Kruger suffers no brain damage; realistically, they’d all have been killed by the concussive shock propagating in that enclosed space and Kruger’s brain would’ve been jelly. Even by the fanciful standards of Hollywood explosion physics, that one’s hard to swallow. Oh, and when the magic medbed rebuilds Kruger’s face post-explosion, it comes complete with a full beard! Couldn’t they at least have bothered to have Copley shave for the final act?
There was one bit that seemed like a mild concession to good physics, since in the climactic battle in some kind of huge industrial underbelly of Elysium, there was a wind continuously blowing through in one direction, a nice nod to the Coriolis effect resulting from the habitat’s rotation. But the way we knew the wind was there was because it was blowing cherry blossom petals around. Okay, a climactic battle accompanied by blowing cherry blossom petals is a nice stylistic touch, very samurai-movie-ish — but in the middle of a gigantic industrial complex? Granted, that’s part of the established aesthetic of Elysium, plants growing all over everything, and that’s fine in residential or governmental sectors. But it seems like a bad idea to have petals blowing about down below and getting into the vital machinery.
The ending is as overly simplistic as the rest; the heroes supposedly bring the system down and restore justice and health care for all, but it’s pretty clearly a temporary victory at best, and will probably bring even harsher crackdowns once the Elysian authorities reimpose control. After all, the big change is brought about only through a computer hack, not by changing anyone’s minds, so the elites wouldn’t just accept it. I suppose it could work as an ending if you interpret it as a token victory, a gesture of defiance and a statement that needed to be made; but it’s unclear whether the film is treating it that way or just expecting us to assume it’s a permanent solution. And the rest of the film hasn’t given me any reason to expect that kind of nuance or complexity. It’s all really very big, dumb, and heavyhanded.
All in all, a very unsatisfying movie, considering the talent involved. So much less than it could’ve been.
“Outrage in Balinderry”: Balinderry is basically ’70s Northern Ireland, an occupied island country ravaged by terrorism, but with much worse Irish accents. Steve and Oscar are at a NATO conference with Steve’s friend Ambassador Collins (William Sylvester), who’s been working on a peaceful compromise between a moderate faction of the freedom-fighters and the (implicitly British) government, when he learns that his wife has been kidnapped, ostensibly by that same faction. The US can’t officially get involved, but somehow Steve, despite being a USAF colonel and OSI agent representing the United States government at a NATO convention, is able to say he’s not acting on behalf of the US when he goes in with Collins to help find his wife. En route, he meets a Balinderry-native stewardess, Julia (Martine Beswick), who’s sympathetic about the kidnapping. When he’s left a message by another passenger inviting him to meet the moderate faction’s mysterious leader Commander 10, he convinces Julia to be his native guide, since Collins is too distraught to help. Or maybe it’s just since he wants to spend half the rescue mission flirting with her. Look, I know continuity was not the order of the day back in the ’70s, but Steve just lost the love of his life last week in “The Bionic Woman,” so you’d think they could’ve at least had the consideration to schedule an episode without a romance plot the following week. Consideration and continuity aside, the complete lack of chemistry between Majors and Beswick, and the detached way they go through the motions of their whirlwind courtship, is quite the anticlimax after the great rapport Majors and Lindsay Wagner had.
Anyway, they go to meet the moderates, and ironically the actor with the most painfully inept Irish accent is the one with the most Irish-sounding name, Gavan O’Herlihy as resistance member Dan (the guy who left the note on the plane). Dan assures Steve that his unit had no raisin to sabotage the pace talks (honest, that’s what he said). They’re being framed by a radical faction that wants to scuttle the pace, err, peace process by discrediting the only faction that can bring it about. Anyway, Dan conveniently knows of a witness to the kidnapping and leaves the meeting, after which the others are taken captive by the government — including the traitor in the ranks, Slayton (Richard Erdman), who’s the actual kidnapper, working for dam operator Breen (Richard O’Brien), leader of the militant wing. Slayton bargains for his freedom by revealing that Commander 10 is actually Julia herself. Pause for reactions of complete lack of surprise. What is surprising is that the general (writer/actor Alan Caillou, whom I recognize from several Man from UNCLE episodes) lets Slayton go immediately, without any paperwork or anything, so that Dan can conveniently follow him back to Breen’s dam and then report back to Steve and Julia after the former breaks the latter out of jail. But the government troops think Breen’s on their side and are protecting the dam, so there’s some conflict as Steve tries to break in with the resistance members and rescue Mrs. Collins.
I appreciate the episode’s effort to resonate with the political issues of the day, and it’s unusual to see an episode this political at all on this show, given that the international intrigue is usually kept quite distant and vague. But this attempt at allegory for the complex Northern Ireland crisis is awkward, unfocused, and unsuccessful. Not to mention sluggishly paced and kind of imbalanced. Steve doesn’t do anything bionic until nearly 20 minutes into the episode (counting main titles but not commercial breaks), when the eye comes into play, and he doesn’t use bionic strength until 26 minutes in. As Kenneth Johnson said in his commentary on the preceding 2-parter, they liked to pepper the show with brief “bionic gags” to satisfy the kids in the audience. The kids must’ve been getting very restless on this one. It’s not really a bad episode — at least it has an original score — but it’s relentlessly mediocre and nobody’s heart really seems to be in it. (And the fact that every single citizen of Balinderry has a different idea of what an Irish accent sounds like is not easy on the ears.) It’s a disappointment in the wake of “The Bionic Woman,” and it’s a disappointment in relation to the serious issue it tried to address.
“Steve Austin, Fugitive”: Wait a minute… the fugitive is the one-armed man?? Anyway… The episode opens with Steve getting acquainted with Oscar’s new secretary, Miss Callahan (Jennifer Darling), while Oscar and Rudy are out of the country. (Allegedly they’re at a nuclear arms conference, but why would Rudy need to be there? In retrospect, I’m tempted to believe this was a secret mission to gain some technology necessary for reviving Jaime Sommers, and Oscar lied about it to Steve.) Peggy Callahan will become a recurring presence on both this series and The Bionic Woman for the next three years, even though Oscar says here that he changes secretaries every three months for security reasons. Jennifer Darling, for her part, will later go on to be the voice of Irma in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, as well as one of the main villains on the 1987 animated series Bionic Six, which is otherwise unrelated to this franchise.
Callahan fields a call for Steve from Rudy’s assistant Charlie (Andy Romano), who tells him that some of Steve’s bionic data has been stolen and he’s being blackmailed, insisting that Steve come to his apartment at once. Turns out he’s actually working with Hopper (Gary Lockwood), a returning villain from season 1′s “Eyewitness to Murder.” Charlie thinks he and Hopper are partners in a scheme to extort money out of the OSI for the stolen data, but actually Hopper has used the data to make a glove duplicating Steve’s bionic hand, which he uses to kill Charlie and plant Steve’s fingerprints all over the gun and the apartment. He then tranquilizes Steve on his arrival, so he’s there when the cops arrive and seems drunk or stoned. Somehow, the dart leaves no mark that police lieutenant Dobbs (Bernie Hamilton) can find on cursory inspection. Dobbs lets Steve go on the strength of his reputation, but keeps him under surveillance. Steve calls Oscar to fill him in, and Oscar instructs Callahan to help Steve as needed. Then the cops come to arrest Steve. He goes quietly, but when he spots Hopper in the street, he breaks out to chase him (as Hopper planned) and gets shot in the bionic leg. (Per the resulting APB, Steve is 6’2″ and 185 pounds. IMDb says Lee Majors is only 6’0″. But then, people sometimes lose height as they get older.)
So he goes to Callahan’s apartment for her help in getting parts to repair the leg, verbally elevating her security clearance three levels when he reveals his bionics to her. The electronics store clerk she goes to for parts appears to be Hopper in disguise, but this is never addressed as a plot point, aside from the same set being reused as Hopper’s lair later; I think something was lost in editing. Anyway, Steve breaks into an OSI office for files on Steve’s past nemeses; he’d requested those files before his arrest, but Callahan doesn’t have clearance for the building. Meanwhile, Callahan uses her own initiative to interview Charlie’s neighbors — one of whom is Hopper, who gaslights her with fake info on the shooter, then follows her home and spies on her and Steve with a shotgun mike. Turns out the Hopper that Steve arrested died in prison; this Hopper is the twin brother he used to give him alibis. Which I suppose explains why he wants Steve to rot in prison rather than just shooting him, although he had no trouble shooting Charlie.
Anyway, Hopper kidnaps Callahan and uses that leverage to get Steve to meet him in a park, and tips off the cops to his location. But Oscar is back in town and convinces Dobbs to let him come along. Steve spots Hopper watching and he and Oscar convince Dobbs to work with them to sting Hopper and give Steve a chance to rescue Callahan. This is set up to make it look like Steve made a run for it and was killed by the police, but we already know he’s playing for Hopper’s benefit, so it’s never a remotely convincing fakeout for the audience. But it leads to a fight between Steve’s bionics and Hopper’s warehouse vehicles. Guess who wins.
This is the season finale, but of course it would still be some years before season finales became big events rather than just normal weekly episodes. But as ’70s finales go, this is an okay one, and certainly a marked improvement over last season’s clip-show finale. While the story is imperfect, it’s pretty entertaining, mainly due to Darling’s performance as Callahan. Oddly, although she’s the most central guest star, she isn’t billed until the end titles. But she’ll get a recurring role on two series out of this, so I guess it worked out okay. (And I guess the fact that she found out Steve’s secret is why Oscar kept her around for three years instead of three months. No sense changing secretaries for secrecy’s sake if your secretary’s already in on the secret.)
Oh, and I think we get the first use of the “ta-ta-tang” sound for the bionic grip, when Steve forces open a doorknob. Another slightly novel use is when he raises his legs to block a descending wheel-loader bucket. Even this late in the season, it’s still unusual to hear the sound used for bionic-leg stunts.
The bonus features on the season 2 DVD, aside from Kenneth Johnson’s “Bionic Woman” commentary, are deeply lame. One is a piece about the sound effects that’s more about random fans making awful attempts to imitate the bionic noises than it is about providing useful information such as how the sound effects were created (there’s a vague speculation offered for the origin of the “ta-ta-tang,” but it’s unconvincing). It acknowledges the sound-effect evolution I’ve been tracking, though asserts that the “ta-ta-tang” was established as a bionic exertion sound earlier than I’m willing to admit. (Since it was originally used as sort of a “swish” sound for things swinging or flying through the air in slow motion, I don’t count it as a bionic sound effect until we hear it used for other types of bionic actions, which didn’t happen until late in the season.) It does confirm, however, that the sound effects don’t become truly standardized until season 3, which also introduces the “bionic impact” sound (a sort of electronic “thud-thud-thud” that echoes at about the same pace as the exertion sound) and the standardized bionic jump sound (a rising or falling electronic tone accompanying the rising or falling jumper, rather cartoonily).
The other feature is a guest-star overview that’s mostly just episode clips; I don’t think any of the guest stars themselves were interviewed for it. And it overlooks Jennifer Darling, who should’ve warranted mention as a new recurring player.
So how did season 2 stack up to season 1? Well, it was longer, for one thing, and it was pivotal in establishing important conventions of the series: The emergence of the bionic sound effects, the debut of aliens in the bionic universe, the introduction of Jaime Sommers (and Peggy Callahan), and behind the scenes, the grooming of Kenneth Johnson for the producer role he would assume on both bionic series the following season.
But was it better than season 1? Sadly, no. It started out very strong, with three excellent episodes out of the first five: “The Pioneers,” “The Pal-Mir Escort,” and “The Seven Million Dollar Man.” But after that, we don’t get a really good one until “The Bionic Woman” near the end of the season, although there are some decent but flawed ones like “Straight on ’til Morning,” “The Deadly Replay,” “The Peeping Blonde,” “The Last Kamikaze,” “The Return of the Robot-Maker,” and “Steve Austin, Fugitive.” It seems as though the attempt at intelligent drama that characterized the rear half of season 1 and the early part of season 2 gave way to a trend toward more superficial action stories. There was also a decreasing emphasis on Steve’s astronaut side, which figured into four episodes in the first half of the season (though just barely in the case of “The Peeping Blonde”) and none in the back half. I’m not sure why this is. True, the Apollo missions were a couple of years in the past by this point, but Skylab was still in active use, so at the time the US manned space program would still have been seen as a going concern. But maybe the popularity of it was waning as the Moon landings faded into memory.
As far as actual science fiction stories, there weren’t that many (not counting general bionics stuff or stories with “new technology” McGuffins): “The Pioneers,” “The Seven Million Dollar Man,” “Straight on ’til Morning,” “Return of the Robot Maker,” “The E.S.P. Spy,” and “The Bionic Woman.” Other stories driven mainly by scientific undertakings would include “The Deadly Replay” and “Taneha” (though that’s more conservation than research per se). The majority of the season was about more conventional TV fare, whether spy missions, crime stories, or bad situations the hero stumbled into.
Best episodes of the season: “The Bionic Woman” (both parts), “The Pioneers,” “The Seven Million Dollar Man.” All were strong character-driven dramas with ideas worth exploring. Worst episodes: “The E.S.P. Spy,” “Stranger in Broken Fork,” “Taneha.” “Spy” is painfully inept and annoying, and (as I forgot to mention before) contradicts prior continuity, in that Oscar doesn’t believe in ESP even though a psychic was already used in the first season’s “Operation Firefly.” “Stranger” is sluggish, generic, stupidly set up, and poorly directed. And “Taneha” is inconsequential, corny, and melodramatic, with annoying gender attitudes. The most promising episode that didn’t quite work: “Straight on ’til Morning.” The most science-fictional episode yet and the first alien story in the franchise, written by Star Trek‘s D.C. Fontana, but nonetheless cliched and having nothing of substance to say. Also “Outrage in Balinderry,” which made a respectable attempt to be socially relevant but sabotaged it with mediocre writing, a chemistry-free romance subplot, and astonishingly bad Irish accents. Most entertaining but completely insubstantial episode: “Return of the Robot Maker.” Lively and fun, with some of the series’ best special effects to date (which, believe me, is damning with very faint praise), but totally devoid of any meaningful characterization, emotion, or theme.
So basically this season offered generally superficial, generally passable but often cheesy action-drama stories, with occasional attempts at something more substantial. I think it was mainly nostalgia, and Oliver Nelson’s music, that made it generally entertaining for me, but it definitely could’ve stood to be better. (There were surprisingly few stock musical scores this season — almost disappointing, really, since there were some very good cues it would’ve been nice to hear repeated.) The heartening thing is that “The Bionic Woman,” basically the demo reel for incoming producer Kenneth Johnson, was so much stronger than the rest of the season. It gives me hope for future seasons (if they ever become available on Netflix) and for the spinoff The Bionic Woman (which is available now, so I might move on to that).