SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps.5-8 (spoilers)
“The Seven Million Dollar Man”: Author Martin Caidin, who created Steve Austin in the novel Cyborg, wanted Monte Markham to play the role on TV. The part went to Lee Majors, of course, but here Caidin got a consolation prize of sorts, for Markham guest stars as the title character, the second bionic man.
We open with Steve undergoing his regular psych review with Rudy and his nurse, Carla Peterson (Maggie Sullivan). We learn that Carla helped Steve through his post-bionic depression and had a romance with him at the time, but has now moved on. This means that Carla is taking the place in series continuity that was filled by Barbara Anderson’s Jean Manners in the pilot movie, much as Oscar Goldman (from the original novel) replaced the pilot’s Oliver Spencer as the head of the project. Plus, of course, Steve was a civilian astronaut in the pilot and an Air Force colonel in the series. Still, it’s too bad they didn’t bring back Anderson, who was far more appealing than Sullivan’s Carla.
Anyway, Steve spots Carla handing his evaluation tape to a man who’s cleared to leave by the gate guard, but the guard, Rudy, Carla, and Oscar all deny that any such man was ever in the facility. Resenting being “gaslighted” by his closest friends (of whom Carla is suddenly one even though we’ve never seen her before and never will again — ahh, ’70 TV), Steve presses and finds that the man is former racing champion Barney Miller (Markham), who somehow survived a horrific crash about 18 months earlier. It’s not hard for Steve to put the pieces together. Barney is bionic too, and is having trouble adjusting, as Steve learns when he confronts a drunk, depressed Barney in a bar and loses to him in a tense arm-wrestling match. Oscar comes clean; he resisted making a second bionic man, not liking the idea of his superiors considering Steve expendable, and kept the secret to spare Steve’s feelings. But now that the truth is out, Steve volunteers to chaperone Barney on his first assignment, retrieving some plutonium stolen by agents of an unspecified foreign power. (Richard Anderson pronounces “plutonium” with a short o, like “plutahnium,” oddly enough.) The depressed Barney has a mood swing when he gets to use his strength, getting carried away by the rush and beating the bad guys pretty seriously, within the limits of ’70s censorship, until Steve (who took forever to carry the plutahhnium to their van) stops him. Barney is now addicted to the power and it becomes clear he can’t handle it. It makes sense, in a way: Steve’s an astronaut, a team player, while Barney’s a racer, a highly competitive adrenaline junkie. He feels as driven to compete with Steve as he does to beat up the bad guys, and it’s making him dangerous. So Steve convinces Oscar to dial his bionics down to normal strength. But Barney fights back and tries to destroy all of Rudy’s files on bionics so that he’ll remain indispensable — or maybe he’s just trying to give them an excuse to kill him. Steve is determined to take him down before that happens.
This is a potent, dramatic episode by Peter Allan Fields, whose work on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. didn’t impress me much but who went on to do terrific work on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It’s good to revisit the issues Steve had to face as a result of his transformation, something that hasn’t been touched on much in the series — although it’s disappointing that Steve is a bit too idealized, his problems all totally conquered, leaving all the character flaws to the guest star. But that’s ’70s TV for you, and within those strictures, it’s a strong dramatic piece. Markham does a very effective job as Barney, his expressive acting a drastic contrast to Lee Majors’s deadpan. One wonders what the series would’ve been like with him as Austin, but it’s hard to tell from this, since he’s playing a troubled and dangerous man rather than a clean-cut hero.
Still, the final fight between Barney and Steve is underwhelming. Since they’re evenly matched, there aren’t many strength gags, aside from a shaking of the image (created in post-production) when one slams the other into a wall. Aside from the slow motion and one smashed door, it could’ve been a fight between two normally powered men. (And watching the fights on this show drives home how much the influence of Hong Kong cinema and mixed martial arts has changed American film and TV. These days the fights in a show like this would be so much more sophisticated in technique, as opposed to the cruder brawling style used in this show.)
Barney will return in season 3, but with a name change to Barney Hiller, since the police sitcom Barney Miller premiered in the interim.
Sound effects watch: The ta-ta-tang sound is used repeatedly for people or fists flying laterally, consistently with its earlier usage, but in this case every instance is the result of bionic strength (Steve’s or Barney’s), so we’re getting a bit closer to the familiar standard. The bionic-throw whistling sound — let’s call it the ballistic whistle — is still in use, so I guess we can call that one standardized now. And there was another bionic-jump sound here, when Barney and Steve(‘s stunt doubles) jumped down from a telephone pole to attack the plutahhhnium thieves.
“Straight on ’til Morning”: Star Trek‘s D.C. Fontana is back with another script, and fittingly, it brings aliens into the bionic-verse for the first time. Steve is consulting (or something) on the impending launch of a lunar probe, one of Oscar’s projects, when he spots a UFO (read: a small blue dot) similar to one he saw three years ago during a spaceflight. He’s one of many to report the sighting, so the next morning he goes to the nearby town of Denbow to investigate and discovers a local man has suffered radiation burns when confronted by a prowler who stole clothes from his line. The prowler is actually one of four aliens — whose alienness consists of shiny reddish pancake makeup — whose ship crashed in the sea nearby and are trying to survive. Apparently they burn humans just by touching them, and are harmed by the touch in turn, though the reverse mechanism is unclear. They’re telepathic, with specialized skills so that only one of them, Minonee (Meg Foster), can communicate verbally. She tries to reason with the local hick cops who find the aliens, but TV hick cops are immune to reason and it doesn’t go well. The aliens flee, leading the search party astray with a psionic illusion, but Steve’s infrared vision sees through it and he finally catches up to them, after some futile attempts by the group’s guardian Eymon (Christopher Mears) to fend him off by telekinetically hurling rocks and trees at him. Finally Minonee has found someone who’ll listen to reason, and she explains they’re a family of marooned explorers, and Eymon and their parents are dying from being touched. Minonee expects she’ll die here too, but Steve gets an idea when he learns they have a mothership standing by near Pluto’s orbit. The others soon die, and Steve sneaks Minonee onto the base, planning to send her up in the lunar probe where she can get picked up when it passes behind the Moon (aggravatingly, they refer to the “dark side of the Moon” instead of the far side). But sending the signal alerts Oscar, who confronts Steve because he wants to take Minonee prisoner and study her for the good of Science (and the millions of dollars that would be wasted if Steve sabotages the probe to get her home). Will Steve be able to convince Oscar to choose compassion over duty? Well, duh. We all know by now that Oscar’s a complete teddy bear.
The addition of aliens to the series was a big step, but it’s a weaker episode than I would’ve expected from Fontana. The aliens are too cliched in their mental and physical powers, piled on with whatever attributes the story needs. Maybe it would’ve felt less hackneyed and corny in 1974, but if so, it hasn’t aged well. It isn’t helped by the cheesy sound effects when the aliens use their powers — and though Oliver Nelson’s score is pretty good, he falls back on the cliche of using a Theremin-like sound for the aliens. Too much time was wasted on the manhunt in the woods, and there’s not much thematic weight to the story. Sure, it shows ordinary humans fearing what they don’t understand and hounding the peaceful aliens because of it, but that idea just sort of lays there, and it’s already familiar from films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space. It’s not a bad story, but it’s weaker than it deserved to be.
(Oh, and Steve and Minonee don’t actually learn each other’s names until her final scene, where she actually says “I don’t know your name” shortly before they part. Huh? She’s a telepath who’s been reading his mind for half the episode, and she hasn’t come across his name? Not impossible, I suppose — we probably tend to think of ourselves as “I” most of the time — but it’s the sort of thing that seems to warrant an explanation, at least.)
“The Midas Touch”: Back down to Earth now, in more ways than one. Oscar arrives at a closed government gold mine in Nevada, now reopened and run by a bunch of hired thugs led by MacGregor (Noam Pitlik, who coincidentally would later become the main director for the aforementioned Barney Miller). Oscar seems oddly pleased by how much gold they’ve mined. Has Oscar gone bad? Are we already at the one where he got replaced by an android? (Oops, spoilers!)
When Steve investigates Oscar’s disappearance, he finds that Oscar was researching some handwavium byproduct of a new gold-smelting technique, with potential applications for energy generation. So naturally Oscar’s interest in the mine is above board. But the project director, Oscar’s oldest friend Carrington (Farley Granger), tells Steve that he’s been getting strange orders from Oscar, issued from a private office Steve doesn’t know about. It looks like he’s been planning a gold heist for which Carrington would be framed. Not believing it, Steve goes out to the mine himself and gets captured by MacGregor’s men. The main thug is Connors (Rick Hurst, who would later be Cletus Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard), whose manner toward Steve is probably meant to be amiably threatening, but comes off as almost flirtatious, particularly given how he calls Steve “pretty boy.” (At least, I assume it was accidental. Although Connors did have a line about not knowing Oscar’s whereabouts because “I don’t date him.” Hmm.) MacG has Connors put Steve to work in the mine, where there’s a convenient accident that lets Steve save Connors from a runaway ore tram. (And for the duration of the scene, Steve’s left arm seems as powerful as his right.)
Steve breaks out and finds Oscar, who’s been drugged, but they get caught — just in time to discover that the real bad guy is Carrington, a totally unsurprising development since otherwise Farley Granger would’ve only had one scene. Carrington intends to make Oscar use his security clearance to help get the gold out of the country, threatening Steve’s life if he doesn’t. But he offers Oscar a quarter of the worth of the gold if he goes into a willing partnership with Carrington. Which means, given that the worth of the gold is $25 million, that he’s just offered Oscar the opportunity to become The 6.25 Million Dollar Man. But the show can only have one title character, so Oscar refuses the deal, but still has to help Carrington to save Steve’s life. Carrington puts on a show of having Connors and another thug take Steve out two days’ walk into the desert and give him a canteen of water, but instructs Thug #2 to kill him. Once Connors figures out what’s really going on, he helps Steve escape.
Steve catches up with MacGregor’s gold-laden truck in a Jeep, and is somehow able to climb out of the driver’s seat and onto the truck without the Jeep swerving out of control the moment he lets go of the wheel. Is that some hitherto-unmentioned bionic power? He gets into the passenger seat and is somehow able to intimidate MacG into playing along even though he’s unarmed — though I guess he’s made it clear enough that he’s very strong. Steve is waylaid by one of MacG’s men, but once he gets into the plane, he’s able to save Oscar. Oscar’s bummed about his oldest friend turning out to be a murderous criminal scumbag, but given the track record of hitherto-unknown best friends in ’70s TV, it was either that or dying.
A decent run-of-the-mill episode. I suppose it illustrates the versatility of this show that it could go from a personal drama in “Seven Million” to high-concept sci-fi in “Straight on” to a more conventional heist story here, but this does feel kind of ordinary by comparison. It has a good score, but that’s kind of a given, at least if you like Oliver Nelson’s style.
“The Deadly Replay”: Once again, we get an episode that revisits — and retcons — Steve’s origin story. Last time it was his bionic recuperation, this time it’s the test-flight crash that precipitated it. Steve’s old engineer colleague Rogers (Robert Symonds) has rebuilt the test vehicle that crashed — herein depicted as the Northrop HL-10, although the footage used in the pilot and main titles is a blend of that and the similar M2-F2 (specifically a crash involving the latter), while Martin Caidin’s novel and the ’87 revival movie designate it as the fictional M3-F5. Upon seeing the rebuilt HL-10, Steve gets a flashback to audio and footage from the main titles — and it would’ve been such a clever segue if they’d had his flashback actually be the main titles, but TV shows hadn’t yet started getting creative that way with their title sequences, so instead we get the same audio and some of the same images replayed a few moments later when the actual titles start.
Anyway, Steve decides he has to get back up on the horse, but Oscar warns him that there was evidence — which Oscar had flimsy reasons for not revealing until now — that the vehicle was sabotaged. That makes it basically a mystery story, and the five members of the flight crew are all suspects — the most obvious suspect being surly Ted Collins (Jack Ging), who resents Steve for a former relationship with the flight doctor who’s now his wife, Andrea (Lara Parker). They make him so obvious a suspect that he’s never a remotely plausible one.
The plan is to run Steve through a simulation that will recreate the malfunction that almost killed him before, to see if he cracks under the pressure. At first, he seems to, getting disoriented in the cockpit, simu-crashing, and then collapsing. Oscar comes running, and Steve insists to him that he was drugged by some conveniently undetectable substance. He convinces Oscar to let him run the simulation again, and he passes with simulated flying colors. So the actual flight goes ahead, and the HL-10 is sabotaged, conveniently in a way that can be overcome with a superstrong bionic arm. The saboteur turns out to be the least noticeable, least developed member of the group of suspects, which feels like a cheat. Turns out he was working for an aerospace mogul who wanted to poach the lucrative NASA contract for his own firm.
For a revisit of Steve’s origin, this feels a little underwhelming. The formulaic mystery structure and weak payoff thereof don’t do it any favors, and the motive for the sabotage seems anticlimactic. These days, there’d turn out to be some massive evil conspiracy underlying the hero’s origins, and while I don’t suppose I’d want it to go that far, it would’ve been nice if the secret behind the series’ formative event had been a bit more interesting than it was. It’s also a bit annoying that every time Steve flashes back to the crash, it’s the exact same audio sequence used in the main titles. The original pilot used a much more extensive sequence and it would’ve been nice if they’d drawn on that material for some variety.
But the strength of the episode lies where it did in the pilot: in the cooperation of NASA and Edwards Air Force Base in providing the vehicles, filming locations, footage, and presumably technical advice to make the test flight seem authentic. And given that the pilot is not strictly part of series canon, I suppose this is as close as we’ll get to a new canonical version of those events. (Although as I mentioned, later productions would disagree with this episode’s details. Continuity was a flexible thing in ’70s TV.)