SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: The rest of Season 1 (spoilers)
Continuing my run through the Season 1 DVD set:
“Little Orphan Airplane”: The most entertaining episode yet, courtesy of writer Elroy Schwartz (brother of Gilligan’s Island creator Sherwood Schwartz, though some sources say he’s Sherwood’s son and IMDb says both). A US agent played by Mission: Impossible stalwart Greg Morris is shot down over Africa, Steve parachutes in to save him, they’re taken in by a pair of very funny Dutch nuns, and Steve bionically rebuilds the plane so they can escape. Effective and fun on every level, except for the fact that most of the anti-American rebels in this African country have wholly American accents.
“Doomsday, and Counting”: Gary Collins plays another cosmonaut friend of Steve’s who’s working to convert an old Soviet missile base into a base for a joint US-Soviet Mars mission, but an earthquake endangers his fiancee and they must go down into the depths to save her, oh, and defuse the nuclear self-destruct mechanism while they’re at it. William Smithers is a Soviet general who bonds with Oscar as they mutually agree to stay and support the people down below in their hopeless effort to defuse the bomb. A nice one, though it again suffers from the blatantly American accents on the Russian characters. (Collins’s lines were clearly written to convey “foreigner speaking slightly stilted English,” and he even delivers them that way, yet without trying to change his accent at all; it’s bizarre.) It’s fascinating to see the Soviets again portrayed in such a friendly light; the episode basically treats the Cold War as a relic of the past and looks forward to a new era of cooperation. I wonder, were US-Soviet relations really this warm in 1973-4, or was this a consequence of US television being reluctant to risk antagonizing the Soviets by portraying them as outright bad guys? And Collins’s proposal for a nuclear-powered Mars rocket was poignant to hear, given that in 1974, this would’ve actually been seen as a realistic possibility for the relatively near future.
“Eyewitness to Murder”: Steve identifies a sniper (Gary Lockwood) with his bionic eye and must try to save a federal prosecutor while keeping his classified abilities secret from the authorities. Decent, but a classic example of the much more leisurely pace of ’70s TV, to the point that it gets tedious at times. The best part is the interplay between Oscar and Steve early on, when Oscar is trying to talk Steve out of getting involved in a civilian matter. The dialogue between friends on opposite sides of an issue feels very real and natural and Anderson is in superb form.
“The Rescue of Athena One”: This episode by former Star Trek story editor D. C. Fontana comes close to being an absolute classic. Majors’s then-wife Farrah Fawcett-Majors plays the first American female astronaut, trained by Steve and clashing with him at first. (And yes, her famous hairdo is there as well at the beginning and end, though she spends most of the episode with her hair tied back and is hardly recognizable.) When her mission suffers an accident that injures her copilot, a rescue mission led by Steve must rendezvous with them at Skylab and figure out how to get them down safely. The early stuff at NASA is magnificent; as with the pilot, it has great verisimilitude and feels like the Moon-landing stuff I actually watched on the news when I was a small child. It’s a palpable reminder of how the Space Age looked to us back then in the early ’70s, when we really believed we’d continue forward from Apollo rather than all but giving up on manned spaceflight. I almost wept at getting to relive what it felt like to be in those times. And the idea of the US sending a woman into space nearly a decade before Sally Ride was an engaging fictional premise, another facet of this show’s delightful optimism about the possibilities of spaceflight in the ’70s. Unfortunately, this marvelous vision of spaceflight is badly undermined by the episode’s zero-budget effects (pretty much entirely stock NASA footage and simulation animations/paintings) and the worst attempts to fake zero gravity that I think I’ve ever seen (you could see the characters moving their upper bodies as if to pretend they were floating between handholds, but due to inept directing, the camera was far enough back that you could clearly see them walking). So, yeah, a marvelous evocation of the golden age of spaceflight, except for the actual spaceflight parts.
“Dr. Wells is Missing”: Alan Oppenheimer makes his first post-pilot appearance as Rudy, who’s lured to Austria and kidnapped by a bad guy hoping to force Rudy to make a bionic goon for him. Steve tracks him down and manages to get himself caught, but Rudy is clever and resourceful at conning the bad guys. But the head bad guy tricks Steve into revealing his bionics and pits him against several of his goons in a slow-motion gauntlet. A mediocre episode aside from Rudy’s resourcefulness, and there are moments where Steve is remarkably callous about dealing with bad guys in lethal or potentially lethal ways, more so than I remember him being or than was typical for ’70s action heroes (indeed, in the pilot and “Little Orphan Airplane,” Steve made a point of not wanting to use guns or lethal force). It is notable, however, as the first time that the later-familiar “ta-ta-ta-ta-tang” sound effect was used to represent Steve wielding his bionic strength — although it’s only used once that way and is then, bizarrely, used twice more to accompany a freakishly but naturally strong goon swinging a lamppost at Steve.
“The Last of the Fourth of Julys” (Shouldn’t that be “the Fourths of July?”): Bad guy Steve Forrest (plus a young Kevin Tighe) plans to use a laser in a major terrorist strike, and Steve must be trained for an infiltration mission involving being launched in a torpedo, climbing a cliff, and pole-vaulting an electric fence. (Here it was established that jumping a 30-foot fence even with a pole was at the very limits of Steve’s capabilities; I think maybe later his jumping ability was amped up in the usual sort of power drift that superheroes tend to get. But then, maybe Rudy made some improvements.) But the radiation from his nuclear-powered bionic limbs tips off the bad guys’ sensors (hope you weren’t planning on having kids, Steverino) and he’s caught. But not to worry, double agent Arlene Martel helps him escape and sabotage the laser, and again Steve is a lot more casually lethal in dealing with the bad guys than I remembered. Interesting mainly for the training sequence, the idea that Steve had to be specially prepared for a mission instead of already being a superagent ready for anything.
“Burning Bright”: This is William Shatner’s notable guest turn as Josh, an astronaut friend of Steve’s whose brain gets supercharged by some kind of “electrical field” in space, rendering him superintelligent but unstable. It’s an interesting and unusual episode by screenwriter Del Reisman, more a character drama than an action piece, and at times quite a compelling one as Steve tries to help a friend who’s becoming increasingly, tragically beyond help. I’m enjoying the extent to which this season has embraced Steve’s astronaut identity almost as much as his secret-agent identity, and the way it continues to reflect the seventies’ sense of optimism about the future possibilities of manned spaceflight. Of course, even watching the show back in its initial run (though probably a couple seasons later than this), I was aware that the show’s space program was a whole lot more active than the real one, but still, it’s an enjoyable alternate history to revisit. The episode does have a few drawbacks, though. There’s some silly technobabble about “the Sun as the origin of space” (origin in the coordinate sense, not the generative sense, so it could be worse) and about how Oscar’s OSI computers are somehow able to prove the validity of Josh’s ideas from a distance and with only Steve’s single-sentence summaries to go on (and it’s amusing to see the idea of testing something on a computer presented as a major investment of funds and effort that only a government agency was capable of). In fact, Oscar’s whole presence serves little purpose beyond contractual obligation. There are some silly bleepy sound effects representing Josh’s “computer brain.” The climax is a little weak, and Shatner is kind of hammy at times, though otherwise not bad. Also, Shatner’s wearing the scraggliest and most unflattering toupee I’ve ever seen on him, though not the fakest (that would be the one in the first TekWar movie). Overall, though, it’s still an excellent episode (and is producer Harve Bennett’s favorite, as well as his first time working with Shatner, whom he’d later work with on several Star Trek movies).
“The Coward”: Another strong dramatic episode, though with an action plot too. Steve is sent to retrieve sensitive files from a recently-discovered WWII plane that crashed just outside of China, and learns that his long-lost biological father was accused of bailing out of the plane in cowardice and causing his crewmates’ deaths, so he’s on a quest to learn the truth about his father as well. It’s an excellent script from Elroy Schwartz (and uses the same location seen as the mission house in Schwartz’s earlier “Little Orphan Airplane,” also involving a plane wreck), and in addition to giving us a couple of nifty scenes with Steve and his mother (Martha Scott), it features a bumper crop of Star Trek veterans, predominantly George Takei as an Army mountain-climbing instructor who trains Steve, and also including France Nuyen (“Elaan of Troyius”), Ron Soble (“Spectre of the Gun”), and stuntman/actor Robert Herron (“Charlie X,” “The Savage Curtain”). Also notable for two more uses of the “ta-ta-ta-ta-tang” sound effect for Steve’s bionics in action in the climactic fight, once when he swings a heavy pole, once for a flying kick. So far if there’s an underlying theory to their use of that sound effect, it seems to be “use for things forcefully swung through the air during slow-motion shots.”
“Run, Steve, Run”: After two gems, the abbreviated first season ends with a whimper, and worse, with a clip show. Well, it’s only partly a clip show. Dr. Dolenz (Henry Jones), the robot builder from “Day of the Robot” (who pronounces it “robut” like Dr. Zoidberg on Futurama), has been hired by George Murdock to build more robuts, but he wants to build bionic robuts so he observes Steve from afar and causes an accident to test his strength. Even though it looks like an assassination attempt, Steve somehow deduces that it was the work of someone who knows he’s bionic, and spends a lot of the episode reminiscing about villains who knew of his abilities, starting with the bad guys from “Population: Zero” and “Dr. Wells is Missing” before finally remembering “Day of the Robot.” Oscar, however, is bizarrely complacent for the head of an intelligence agency; when presented with the possibility that his most secret and valuable asset might be under threat, he doesn’t take even the most rudimentary precautions, but just dismisses Steve’s concerns as his imagination and tells him to go on vacation. So we get a bunch of fairly tedious horse-ranch stuff (mainly involving convincing a highly skilled, tomboyish young horsewoman that she should stop trying to compete with men and embrace being pretty and feminine) before Dolenz finally captures him. (The fact that half of Murdock’s lines are complaints that Dolenz’s plan is taking too long to get anywhere should’ve tipped off writer Lionel E. Siegel that he was in trouble here.)
In general, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Steve’s wit, the casual, deadpan snark with which he deflects questions about his bionic powers (“I eat a lot of carrots”) or interrogation by villains (“What is your name?” “Must’ve slipped my mind. It’ll come back to me.”) He was quite the wisecracker, and it’s a style of wit that Majors’s particular, narrow range as a performer is well-suited for. Still, there were times in the more dramatic episodes — particularly when playing against Shatner in “Burning Bright” and doing emotional scenes with Steve’s mother in “The Coward” — where Majors’s limits as an actor work against the story.
Overall, though the Larson-produced pilot movies and some episodes like “Operation Firefly” were in the vein of the cheesiness I thought I remembered, the first season as a whole was much smarter and more sophisticated than I remembered, especially in the latter half. (And you know, I’m surprised how much I’ve forgotten about this show, given how constantly I used to watch it in first run and reruns in my younger days. I guess it’s been off television for a pretty long time now.) On the other hand, I hadn’t realized just what a low budget this show had, with very little in the way of optical effects aside from Albert Whitlock’s work in the second movie. It relies mostly on stock footage, slow motion, and judicious editing to convey action (or sometimes not so judicious, as for instance in “The Last of the Fourth of Julys” where a shot of Steve grappling a rock in stateside training is reused when he’s on the actual mission in the Pacific). I wonder if that continued in later seasons.
The bonus features on the season 1 DVD set aren’t that great. The highlight is a 74-minute interview feature with Harve Bennett, just him talking about the show without any cutaways or clips or images. It was mostly interesting, and I learned some things, like the fact that the voice in the opening titles saying, “Steve Austin. Astronaut. A man barely alive” was Bennett himself. But it went on maybe a bit too long, and some portions of it are used in three of the other features. There’s a feature on real-life bionics which is kind of interesting but a bit superficial. There’s one on the construction of the main title sequence which is pretty interesting, and one about the first-season guest stars that’s kind of dull (and mis-edits a part of Bennett’s interview talking about Majors’s relationships with Farrah Fawcett vis-a-vis Lindsay Wagner so that something he actually said about Majors & Wagner’s friendship and chemistry was misrepresented as being about Majors & Fawcett). And there’s an “interactive dossier” about the bionic parts that’s really just a bunch of clips of their various uses in the show — cute at first but not worth watching every clip. And the features don’t include things I would’ve liked, such as more discussion of the pilots and maybe an episode commentary or two. So all in all, not a great set of features.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid I have to stop here, since Netflix doesn’t yet have the later seasons available for rental. I guess this turned out to be a pretty brief review series, at least for now. (They do have The Bionic Woman, apparently, but I don’t want to revisit that until I’ve gotten through season 2 of 6M$M, since I don’t want to jump ahead in the continuity.)