SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps.1-4 (spoilers)
It’s been over a year since I reviewed the pilots and season 1 of The Six Million Dollar Man (Part 1, Part 2), but I finally got season 2 from Netflix, so now I can offer my thoughts on it as well. This time I’ll be going into a bit more depth, since these posts aren’t as much of an afterthought as they were before.
This season opens with the more familiar version of the main title sequence, with animated “computer graphics” showing schematics of Steve’s bionic bits against a wireframe human body, and with a statement of the main musical theme toward the end.
“Nuclear Alert”: When Arab sheik Sid Haig is outbid in an auction for a stolen nuclear bomb, he narcs to Oscar Goldman about the theft. Except it turns out the bomb hasn’t been entirely stolen yet; the auctioner still has to steal a “reflector fuse,” basically a large metal cheese log festooned with mirror discs and blinky lights. Half the episode is just Steve Austin following the McGuffin as it’s delivered in a truck, which is kind of underwhelming compared to what the title promised. The thief turns out to be a member of the OSI’s inner circle, and he abducts scientist Carol Lawrence in order to force her to assemble it. She’d told Steve how to sabotage the fuse so it wouldn’t work if it did fall into the villains’ hands, but he foolishly just puts the removed part in his pocket so that he still has it on him when he’s caught by the bad guys. So we get a relatively more intense climax aboard the villain’s private passenger jet which has the bomb aboard, with Steve having to beat the bad guys and defuse the bomb before the military shoots them down. Given that his plan turns out to be largely brute force, I had to wonder why he waited so long to enact it, except to build dramatic tension.
To my surprise, the show still hasn’t begun using the familiar “ta-ta-ta-ta-tang” sound effect for Steve’s bionic limbs. But we get a rare shot of sped-up film to represent Steve’s superspeed as glimpsed by a farmer whose field he runs past. It’s rather unconvincing, with things in the background clearly moving faster too, which helps explain why they adopted the paradoxical use of slow motion to represent superspeed.
“The Pioneers”: This is an old favorite of mine, largely due to a memorable guest appearance by Mike Farrell and an unforgettable score by Oliver Nelson. (Literally — I’ve forgotten so much of this series, but Nelson’s score for the climactic action has always stuck with me.) Farrell plays David Tate, one of a pair of scientists secretly testing a cryogenics process in space when their capsule crashes in the Minnesota woods. Oscar sends in Steve and Rudy Wells (still played by Alan Oppenheimer), who was also part of the project, but won’t fill in a frustrated Steve on the details until he needs to know. They find one of the astronaut-scientists, Nicole Simmons (Joan Darling), in an intact cryogenic pod and start working to revive her, but the other pod is empty. David got too much of the regenerative serum they were testing, and his body and mind are supercharged, running far too hot and turning him into a superstrong wild man driven by overwhelming pain. Steve must try to stop him from hurting anyone or being hurt himself, for the local lawmen led by Sheriff Robert F. Simon are combing the woods for the “wildman.”
This episode has more flaws than I remember. There are some continuity glitches. When Rudy is using Steve’s bionic power source to revive Nicole, he tells Steve repeatedly that he can’t move his bionic arm, but Steve jumps back and forth between two different positions in different camera angles, a continuity error between takes. There’s a part where Steve and Nicole are tracking David and pass through the same area where he tossed aside his spacesuit gloves, but all they find is a tiny scrap of cloth on a branch. There are a couple of “it’s in the script” moments where characters have knowledge they shouldn’t have; for instance, the sheriff says the campers attacked by the “wildman” described him as “strong as anything,” even though he didn’t actually demonstrate superstrength in the attack. And the episode evokes the hoary old “we only use 10% of the brain” myth, although it extends it to “10% of our full potential, mental and physical” (in Rudy’s words).
But it still holds up very well despite the glitches. In addition to the terrific music, the choice to cast Farrell as David is inspired, letting us see him as a decent, intelligent, sympathetic man during his moments of lucidity and thus highlighting the tragedy of what’s happening to him. There’s some nice characterization with Nicole as she and Steve bond as fellow experiments of Oscar’s, making them family of sorts (“country cousins,” as Steve puts it); and there’s a real poignancy to David’s lucid scenes, and to the superb closing scene where Steve helps Oscar cope with the guilt of his decisions in the name of science. Lee Majors isn’t quite up to the demands of the material, but Richard Anderson knocks it clear out of the park and I’ve got tears in my eyes just writing this sentence. (Although really, Oscar shouldn’t have been forgiven for his actions here. Secretly undertaking such a premature experiment with two people’s lives, going behind the government’s back? He should’ve lost his job and probably gone to prison for this. But it wouldn’t be the first or last time by a long shot that a TV series regular was forgiven for actions that would’ve been career-enders in real life.)
Oh, and sound-effects tracking: As in “Dr. Wells is Missing” from season 1, the “ta-ta-tang” sound effect is used, but only to accompany fists or objects being swung laterally through the air. (There’s one point where I initially thought it was being used for Steve lifting a railroad tie, but on rewatching — yes, I like this one so much I watched it twice — I realized that David was swinging another tie at Steve at that moment, so the sound must’ve been meant to represent that instead.) But the standard “bionically thrown item hurtling through the air” whistle is used when Steve kicks away the sheriff’s rifle, making it the second bionic sound effect to be standardized, following the bionic eye beep.
“Pilot Error”: This one’s back to the first-season title sequence for some reason, maybe because it’s shorter — though this episode is slow-paced enough that I don’t see why it would’ve needed a shorter main title. Pat Hingle plays Senator Hill, also a general in the Reserves, whose plane suffered a fatal crash when he was piloting it for recertification. Steve has been called in as an expert witness on the plane, and is unconvinced by Hill’s story that it was his deceased copilot’s oversight that caused the crash. Oscar wants Steve to support Hill’s story since he appropriated a certain Six Million Dollars for Oscar a while back (reportedly two years, though this aired only 18 months after the pilot — although a later episode will establish that Steve needed months to recuperate), but Steve is too clean-cut to play politics and promises only to tell the truth. Nonetheless, he agrees to accompany Hill in the latter’s private plane when their ride to the hearing is delayed, and they take off along with Hill’s son Greg (Stephen Nathan) and his sketchy aide Lannon, who you can tell is not a nice guy because he’s played by Alfred Ryder. Anyway, Steve and the others take naps while Hill foolishly changes the radio away from the tower frequency to listen to music (Steve is actually awake at that point but doesn’t notice it’s a bad idea), so he doesn’t get a weather warning. Hill then suffers a loss of focus and a partial blackout, and as a result they end up way off course and have to make an emergency landing in the desert. An electrical short in the panel flash-blinds Steve in both eyes, even the bionic one. So he needs to rely on the others’ help to fix the plane and clear the runway, and is in danger when Lannon decides to try to bump him off so he can’t testify against the senator — though this backfires against Lannon. Finally they get in the air, but Hill suffers a worse blackout (his son briefly thinks he’s dead even though his head is still upright, casting serious doubt on Greg’s competence as a pre-med), so Steve must fly blind with help from Greg and a perky female airman (Susanne Zenor) in the control tower, even though they have no transmitter and he’s only able to communicate via Morse code through the transponder.
In short, it’s your pretty basic small-plane-crash episode of the sort that many ’70s and ’80s shows did, where most of the story is about solving the various problems. There’s not really a lot of drama beyond that; the threat Lannon poses is rather half-hearted. It is sort of interesting to see Oscar’s more Macchiavellian side rear its head again, but it isn’t really followed through. There’s nothing really bad about the episode, but it’s pretty ordinary.
“The Pal-Mir Escort”: Salka Pal-Mir (Anne Revere) is a Golda Meir-like prime minister of an Israel surrogate called Eretz, and the organizer of a peace conference with the guerrillas her people have fought for decades. But she has only days to live unless Rudy Wells can give her the world’s first bionic heart. Oscar assigns Steve as the bodyguard for her escort, as much to reassure her about bionics as to protect her from the various factions that want to subvert the peace talks — including her own chief of security (Nate Esformes), who can’t tolerate the thought of peace with their longtime enemies and would sooner kill his own leader. (This is sadly prophetic — Meir’s successor Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 for that very reason.) Pal-Mir insists that planes don’t agree with her and they must travel by land, and Steve suggests using a “mobile command unit” that was used in Steve’s bionic testing and has full medical equipment — which sounds impressive until it turns out to be just an ordinary RV, an odd disconnect with the script. (It also supposedly only has room for Steve, Pal-Mir, and her doctor, but in fact it’s easily roomy enough to have held a couple more guards.) It’s supposed to be a nonstop trip to Rudy’s Tennessee facility, but Pal-Mir is stubborn and authoritative and insists on stopping to help a couple of stranded hippies (one of whom is played by future director John Landis, who’s credited for the role but is only glimpsed in the distance meditating — his lines must’ve been cut) and to stop at a vegetable stand to talk with a local farmer. This makes it easy for the bad guys hired by the security chief to overtake them and set up an ambush. (The chief gave Pal-Mir a rose with a tracking device, and she gives the rose to the vegetable-stand operator, yet this never becomes a plot point, since the bad guys have already found them.)
Sound-effects watch: We get a prototype for a bionic-jump sound when Steve leaps up to a helicopter, but it’s not the sound that would later become standard.
All in all, it’s a pretty effective episode if you can look past the plot and production glitches. Pal-Mir is an effective character and a good foil for Steve, who lets his old-fashioned male chauvinism show, admitting that the idea of a woman in charge isn’t something that he or other Americans have come around to yet. The resonances with Meir (and, unintentionally, Rabin) add some stakes to the story. As it happens, eight years after this, the show’s producer Harve Bennett would produce a Meir biopic, A Woman Called Golda, starring Ingrid Bergman as Meir, the final role of her life.