Home > Reviews > SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Pilots and early Season 1 (spoilers)

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Pilots and early Season 1 (spoilers)

I’ve been Netflixing the first DVD volume for The Six Million Dollar Man, containing the three pilot movies and the first season, and I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts, but haven’t gotten around to it until now.  These can’t be the kind of detailed reviews I gave for Mission: Impossible, since I don’t remember enough details and don’t have the time or inclination right now, but I’ll just give some general observations.

6M$M was based on Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg, which as I recall was more of a violent spy novel than the series, and also treated the technology in a relatively more realistic and limited way; for instance, Steve Austin didn’t have superspeed so much as improved endurance, and his bionic eye was just a disguised film camera that didn’t give him any actual vision.  The series, of course, ramped it up to give him superstrength, superspeed, and telescopic/infrared vision.

The original pilot movie, called simply The Six Million Dollar Man, was written by Howard Rodman (pseudonymously) and Terrence McDonnell and produced and directed by Richard Irving.  It’s a prototype for what’s to come, and some things haven’t quite fallen into place.  Steve is a civilian astronaut here, and instead of the novel’s and series’s Oscar Goldman, the man behind the bionics project is the stern, manipulative Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin), who’s introduced in an interminably slow, boring, and totally unnecessary elevator sequence intercut with the far more fascinating sequence of Steve’s preparations for the test flight that will lead to his crippling accident.  Those portions are compelling because of the evident cooperation the production had from NASA and/or the Air Force, letting them film with an actual test vehicle and use real flight footage. The sequence feels totally real with all the technical chatter over the radios and is intriguing to watch.

After Steve’s crash, Spencer convinces Dr. Rudy Wells (portrayed here by Martin Balsam) to give Steve his prototype bionics, the price being that Steve will be essentially chattel to Spencer’s intelligence agency and run special missions for him.  This fairly dark idea is one that didn’t last past the pilot movie, and has been explored more fully in later superpowered-spy series like The Invisible Man (2000) and Jake 2.0.   Anyway, the bulk of the pilot is devoted to Steve being convinced to accept the bionics and then trying to learn to use them while coping with the post-traumatic stress from his crash, plus his developing romance with his nurse (played by Barbara Anderson, fresh from a recurring stint as Mimi on Mission: Impossible).  Eventually he gets sent on a rescue mission that turns out to be just a test of his abilities, he survives it, and then the movie just kind of ends, with no resolution to the romance or to the question of Steve’s future with the agency.  It’s a disappointing fizzle after an interesting beginning.

Lee Majors actually surprised me here and in the movies to follow.   My impression was that he was a pretty bland, one-note actor, and while it’s true that he’s fairly deadpan and understated, I found he was pretty good at conveying an underlying emotional intensity or sincerity, at least up to a point.  And his performance style fits his character, an astronaut trained to be cool and controlled under pressure.

A lot was retooled for what followed, so the pilot can’t be considered quite canonical.  Steve was retconned into an Air Force colonel, and Spencer was forgotten, with Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson, of course) being retroactively established as the man behind his creation.  The latter two pilot movies were produced by Glen A. Larson, who approached them as James Bond-style spy thrillers, complete with a horrible theme song written by Larson (“He’s the ma-a-a-a-n!”).

Wine, Women, and War is the more Bond-like of the two, opening with Steve attending a party in a tuxedo that then converts into a wetsuit — though Steve isn’t quite the womanizer Bond is, spending most of the movie mourning the death of a female contact from that initial mission and rebuffing the advances of the curvaceous Michele Carey, though he eventually ends up at least literally in bed with Soviet agent Britt Ekland.  And Larson gives Steve some of the most sophomoric, crude sexual innuendoes in history, like “Sorry I had to violate your porthole.”  The movie has a somewhat unfocused story in which the grieving Steve is trying to avoid further assignments but gets manipulated into taking his vacation right next door to the bad guys, and eventually gets with the program just in time to discover an underground bunker of stolen nuclear missiles (including an American Polaris missile that everyone said had to be fake because none were missing, but turned out to be real after all, without any explanation being given), culminating in a totally ridiculous climax whose death toll must implicitly have been enormous.  The only advantages the movie has are special effects by the great Albert Whitlock and a score by Larson’s frequent collaborator Stu Phillips (who employs a leitmotif that’s a prototype for his Battlestar Galactica theme a few years later).

What surprised me about this movie was how the Soviet agents weren’t portrayed as the enemy; rather, they and the US had a mutual enemy in Eric Braeden’s arms-dealer character, and they formed an uneasy alliance to defeat him.  (David McCallum gets to haul out his Ilya Kuryakin accent as a cosmonaut friend of Steve’s who’s also moved into intelligence work.)  That kind of friendly attitude toward the USSR was unexpected from Larson, given how in the original Galactica, every peacemaker character in the entire series was either a deluded appeaser or an evil quisling.

Oscar is introduced here and portrayed as the same kind of manipulative hardass as Spencer, but Richard Anderson is a much more amiable performer from the start, so it doesn’t really fit him as well as the characterization he developed in the series.  And the role of Rudy is taken over by Alan Oppenheimer, best known these days as the voice of Skeletor in He-Man, as well as numerous other animation credits such as Ming in Filmation’s Flash Gordon (using the exact same voice he later used as Skeletor) and Merlin in The Legend of Prince Valiant.  He, too, is more amiable than Balsam.

The second Larson movie, The Solid Gold Kidnapping by Alan Caillou (story) and Larry Alexander (story and teleplay), is the better of the two.  It involves an attempt to expose an international kidnapping ring led by the ever-charming Maurice Evans and rescue an American official pivotal to peace talks with China.  Elizabeth Ashley, who impressed me greatly in her two Mission: Impossible appearances, plays a scientist who injects herself with memory RNA from a dead kidnapper in hopes of discovering where the bad guys are.  This leads to some interesting debates with Steve about the ethics of human experimentation (Steve knows a thing or two about being a guinea pig and is still ambivalent about his lot in life), and a subplot involving the risk that the procedure could damage her in some ill-defined way, yet that subplot fizzles out as abruptly as the romance in the pilot.  Future Galactica regular Terry Carter appears as a US agent who shepherds the ransom in gold bars, hoping to track it to the kidnappers, although they manage to sneak the gold out from under him through a clever misdirect.  All in all, it’s probably the best of the three movies, although it has the same weak-ending problem as the first and some more of the painfully bad sexual innuendo from the second.

The portrayal of Steve’s bionic powers is slow to develop.  He doesn’t even use his bionic eye in the pilot, and in the other two it’s mainly for night vision, though I think it has telescopic uses as well.  But it has no “boop-boop-boop” sound effect yet, and the sound effect for his bionic limbs hasn’t emerged yet either.  Also, he never uses a bionic jump in any of the movies.   Still, aside from the problematical ending of WW&W, I’d say these two fit fairly well with series canon.

The weekly series was produced by Harve Bennett (no relation), future producer of Star Trek II-V, and introduces the familiar musical themes of jazz musician Oliver Nelson.  Lee Majors and Richard Anderson were the only regulars at this point; Rudy was occasionally mentioned, but Alan Oppenheimer appeared infrequently.  Steve’s ambivalence about his work was largely dropped, although he retained an everyman, do-gooder mentality that sometimes clashed with Oscar’s more bureaucratic priorities and a tendency to break the rules and do things his own way; however, Anderson made Oscar such a sweetheart that it was always a given that he’d come around and do the right thing.  I know I always liked Oscar, but watching these episodes again has reminded me just what a fine, charismatic performance Anderson gave and what a good rapport he had with Majors.  In the series, the characters rapidly become best friends, routinely calling each other “pal.”

A quick look at the first several episodes:

“Population: Zero”: A whole small town near where Steve grew up has seemingly been struck dead and Steve goes to investigate, with shades of The Andromeda Strain.  Turns out they’re just unconscious thanks to a sonic weapon developed by a disgruntled scientist.  An okay story, but the main thing that stands out for me is Nelson’s music.  Features the debut of the paradoxical use of slow-motion photography to represent Steve’s superspeed and other bionic feats.

“Survival of the Fittest”: Two weeks in and they’re doing a plane-crash episode, with Steve and Oscar stranded on an island with two agents sent to kill Oscar.  Feels like an attempt to cash in on the airline-disaster-movie trend.  Not bad, but has an awkward conceit: the agents have an unrevealed accomplice they call Bobby, and there are multiple characters named Bob, Roberts, etc. to create a multiplicity of suspects (though I guessed well in advance who it actually was).

“Operation: Firefly”: The title refers to an advanced laser powered by firefly glowjuice, developed by a scientist who’s apparently been kidnapped.  Luckily, his daughter has ESP (oy) and can lead Steve to him through psychic flashes.  Lots of slow scenes of canoeing through the Everglades (with a kookaburra sound effect left over from a jungle picture), a fight with a rubber alligator, the psychic girl falling in quicksand in one scene and having her jeans magically clean again by the next shot, etc.  Forgettable overall, and notable mainly as the debut of the bionic-eye sound effect.

“Day of the Robot”: Steve’s friend John Saxon gets kidnapped and replaced by a robot built by Henry Jones so he can steal an antimissile defense system.  Saxon acts stiff and robotic throughout but Steve is slow to catch on.  Still, Saxon strikes a good balance between robotic and convincing, and it’s fun to watch the bad guys dealing with the glitches in this imperfect prototype technology.  Culminates in an extended slow-motion robotic/bionic slugfest, and the familiar bionic-limb sound effect makes its debut as one of the noises made by the robot, while the whistling sound effect that will come to be used for objects bionically hurled through the air debuts as the sound of antimissile missiles.  Most of the music is stock, but Nelson kicks in with a major musical set piece in the final act, one that will often be heard as stock later on.  (Oddly, the robot’s leitmotif here is a variant on the timpani rhythm that opens the show’s main-title theme.)

More to follow…

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  1. February 25, 2012 at 10:46 am

    I bought the first season box set and I’m now waiting for them to release season two- which I assume will be this coming November. I’m hoping enough people out there take enough of an interest in the series so that we fans at least get the first three seasons.Many studios put up enough money to release maybe two or three box sets and then stop- despite the length of any one series- depending on sales.

    In my opinion, seasons 4 and 5, while okay, were just about filling the time ( you can tell as – season 5 especially has a number of two part episodes).

    A stand out episode IN the first season (in my opinion) is Burning Bright. This episode stars William Shatner as an astronaut buddy of Steve’s who during his last mission, encounters an electronic field that super charges his brain to the point where he can talk to dolphins and do incredible calculations in his mind. But it gets out of hand and he actually kills someone! Steve has to stop him!

    Chris- if I may here is a link for the curious who want to know more about the epsiodes
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Six_Million_Dollar_Man_episodes

    Also- I am looking forward to Forgotten History!

  2. Frank Forrester
    March 4, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    I have had the complete set of all five seasons for a little over a year now and just finally am getting around to watching them. One thing that stood out for me in the episode Operation Firefly was the car wreck. They were in a Taxi cab and then when you see the car go over a cliff it is a different make and model of car than what they had been in. I am planning on watching all five seasons and the reunion movies along with all the extras that are on the DVD sets. I will say Time Life did a great job with their release of the DVDs. Frank Zubek you should have no problem getting all the season when they are released in stores as the DVD sets of each season being released are the same ones that Time Life released in their complete set.

  3. Jim
    October 6, 2012 at 5:53 am

    There was a jump down from a high ledge on the last movie. Where they were on the island from the plain crash .

  1. January 11, 2014 at 2:15 pm
  2. January 14, 2014 at 5:43 pm
  3. November 16, 2014 at 7:03 pm

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