SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 13-16 (Spoilers)
“Lost Love”: Steve is reunited with Barbara Thatcher (Linda Marsh), an old flame whom he was willing to marry but who couldn’t stand to compete with the time demands of his astronaut training, so she left him and married an older man, scientist Orin Thatcher. But Oscar tells Steve that Dr. Thatcher died in a plane crash at sea three months ago, so Steve promptly shows up at Barbara’s door (he says he got her name from the phone book, but didn’t do her the courtesy of calling first) and starts in with the re-romancing. He promises to take it slow, but Steve Austin doesn’t do “slow” (unless you count slow motion), so we go right into a courtship montage consisting mostly of stock footage of Washington, DC landmarks at which Majors and Marsh are conspicuously not present. After he drops her off that night, she’s attacked by a couple of badly-acted thugs (neither of which is even credited) and Steve saves her. Oscar explains her late hubby was working on a gas to purify the air in case of bioweapon attacks, and the baddies may think she knows the formula, so he assigns her protection, though Steve insists on doing the bulk of it himself. Although when he’s with her, he’s clearly not only interested in guarding her body.
But before he can get past first base, Barbara gets a phone call from her not-dead hubby, who’s apparently defected to the “Begarian” embassy in Lisbon and insists she come to him immediately. Steve insists on tagging along, and they’re met by the embassy attache Markos (Joseph Ruskin), who explains to Steve that Thatcher has defected. (Orin Thatcher is unfortunately not played by Torin Thatcher — they got Jeff Corey instead.) Steve is shocked when, after talking with her husband, Barbara says she’s staying with him. But all is not as it seems; he’s actually faked his own defection to help another scientist defect in the other direction (by insisting they work together in a neutral country, thus getting him out from behind the implied Iron Curtain). Steve helps them escape the embassy, and naturally Barb goes back to her heroic hubby.
This is a decent episode, but it’s undermined by the fact that Linda Marsh, to put it simply, is no Lindsay Wagner. She’s blandly pretty, but doesn’t have a great deal of charisma and tends to overact. Plus the outcome of the relationship is rather predictable, although one could say that about every romance episode in a ’70s TV show. Still, maybe it’s unfair to “Lost Love,” but I can’t help being aware that the 2-parter “The Bionic Woman” begins only six episodes from now, making this episode feel rather extraneous, like a failed first draft.
I’m starting to realize that a lot of the bionic stuff in this show consists of beats that could’ve easily been done without bionics — like Steve using his bionic eye to look at someone who’s just downstairs and across the room, or using his bionic arm to shove one of the thugs into a wall. A lot of the time they’re just using slow motion and sound effects to make fairly conventional beats play as superhuman. Although he did get a fair amount of legitimate bionicking, like jumping over a car when the thugs tried to run him down (though the wire catches the light and becomes quite visible when the stuntman descends), breaking a wooden beam he’s been chained to (though one would think his left arm would’ve been broken/dislocated in the process), and using infrared vision to take out the bad guys in the dark. The “ta-ta-tang” is used for Steve jump-kicking a door open, so it’s still technically being used for people or things moving sideways in slow motion, but the lines are starting to blur a bit more. It’s still never been used for bionic running, jumping, or feats of strength that don’t involve rapid horizontal motion of some sort.
“The Last Kamikaze”: A private defense contractor (Ed Gilbert) confesses to Oscar that they were illegally shipping a prototype tactical nuke aboard a passenger aircraft that just went down on an island in the South Pacific. The contractor warns that the prototype could be detonated by fire or shock (seriously? A nuke?), not to mention the danger if it falls into the wrong hands. Cut to the wreckage on the island — and at this point I was thinking it would be so perfect if Gilligan came into the frame. But no, it’s John Fujioka as Kuroda, your standard “WWII Japanese soldier who doesn’t know the war is over” type. (Come to think of it, Gilligan met one of those too.)
The first team sent in gets attacked by Kuroda, and the island is in “another country’s” territory, so Oscar sends in Steve along with a Filipino guide, Gabella (Robert Ito), who has experience tracking down Japanese soldiers who don’t know the war is over (were they really that common?). He guides Steve through various booby traps but then falls afoul of one himself; Steve saves him from a grenade but gets caught in the blast and knocked out. Gabella feels his bionic arm and gets no pulse, so assumes he’s dead and reports to an ally, revealing he’s an enemy agent looking for the bomb. (That’s hard to reconcile — why not just let a booby trap get Steve?) Kuroda shows up and conveniently chooses Steve’s left wrist to feel for (and find) a pulse. He also rifles through Steve’s wallet, revealing that Steve’s address is 13537 Federal St., Washington, DC, and his number is 555-7892. (Oddly, that info is on his OSI ID card rather than a driver’s license.)
Anyway, what follows is a rather predictable tale of Steve trying to convince Kuroda that the war is over and Kuroda being all kamikaze this and bushido that, with Steve eventually protecting Kuroda from Gabella’s men and winning his respect. It’s kind of a nice character interplay, and it comes to a rather touching resolution, but it has some conceptual problems. For one thing, there’s the episode’s assumption that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were something unprecedented, that those were the only two Japanese cities destroyed in the war. In fact, at the time the atomic bombs were dropped, most of Japan’s major cities had already been destroyed by a systematic Allied firebombing campaign, some of them suffering even greater damage than the atomic bombs inflicted (at least in the short term). The other problem is that the episode treats convincing Kuroda that time has passed and technology has advanced as equivalent to convincing him that the war is over. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. Okay, he’s probably lost track of exactly how much time has passed, but he was a teenager when he crashed on the island and is fiftyish and bald as of this story, so surely his own body must be sufficient proof that a long time has passed. It shouldn’t be a shock to him that it isn’t the 1940s anymore, so there’s no reason that alone should convince him that America is no longer Japan’s enemy.
There’s also a bit of a conceptual mismatch toward the end, since in the climactic action it looks very much like Gabella shoots one of his own men (whom Steve has hurled toward him) and then gets felled by a land mine, but then in the tag Oscar says he and his men will be put on trial. I understand they wanted to tone down the violence, given the show’s popularity among children, but this one seemed to be sending mixed messages.
Oliver Nelson contributes a mostly original score again, with some Japanese-sounding elements to it, but not to the point of caricature.
“Return of the Robot Maker”: Henry Jones is back as Dr. Dolenz, last seen in the first season finale “Run, Steve, Run.” This time, Dolenz has built a near-perfect “robut” replica of Oscar (he still pronounces it Zoidberg-style), one that can even eat and drink — and it’s supposed to be unclear who it is until he puts the face on, but it’s clearly Richard Anderson’s voice coming out of the robut (though the hairline of the faceless robut is completely different). While Dolenz tranks Real Oscar and substitutes Robut Oscar, Steve is chatting with Barney Barnes (Troy Melton), a wannabe Q who’s kind of the inverse of a cliche: a field agent who desperately wants to get into the lab. So he’s invented various spy gadgets he shows off to Steve, all but one of which will inevitably come into play in the course of the episode. (The odd one out is a bulletproof glove to protect Steve’s bionic hand. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the left glove to be bulletproof?)
So anyway, Robut Oscar is a great improvement over Dolenz’s first robut, giving a performance that totally convinces Steve, aside from the minor glitch of being able to drink large quantities of wine or scalding coffee without being affected. (But he has a pretty good sense of humor, chalking it up to a cast iron stomach.) At dinner with Steve and a couple of ladies (and Steve’s date seems more into Oscar), he gets a call from Dolenz and pretends it was “the Secretary” ordering Oscar to use Steve to test the defenses of a secret government facility. He tells Steve it’s a mock exercise that the facility will be in on, but of course that’s a lie. This serves two purposes: one, as a distraction to let Robut Oscar photograph the secret plans (which are in a heavy vault that for some reason is not locked), and two, to kill off the one person who could detect and stop Robut Oscar. (Does this mean Steve is Oscar’s only friend close enough to recognize any flaws in the impersonation, or the only one familiar with Dolenz robuts? What about Rudy Wells?) But one of Barney’s inventions is a really thin bulletproof vest, so when Robut Oscar and Dolenz think Steve is dead (overlooking the conspicuous lack of blood), he’s able to trail the automaton and interrupt him and Dolenz before they can bump off the real Oscar. There’s a half-hearted attempt at “which one is the real Oscar,” but Dolenz forgot to design his robut to sweat, so Steve has no trouble discerning them. A superfight ensues, with plenty of ta-ta-tanging from both Steve and Robut Oscar, but still in the usual contexts. Steve ultimately karate-chops the robut’s head off, and Oscar decides to keep it as a macabre souvenir. The last shot is a closeup on the robut’s head in Oscar’s hand, actually Richard Anderson’s head matted into the shot and turning back and forth — which I think is the most elaborate optical effect this show has ever done up to this point, and surprisingly well-done by this show’s primitive VFX standards. When you throw in the split-screen shots of the two Oscars, this is probably the most opticals-heavy episode in the series so far.
Oh, one more category of opticals in this episode: Shots of Steve running are matted into the security monitor in the installation. Hilariously, Steve is running in slow motion on the monitor while the security officer’s hand is moving at normal speed — and then the officer voices amazement at how fast he can run!
One more case of the show dressing up normal action as bionic: A bionic-jump sound effect is added to a shot of Lee Majors vaulting a low fence entirely by himself, no stunt doubles, no springboard, no cutaways, no slow motion. Okay, technically any jump made by Steve is a bionic jump, but it wasn’t a super-jump, so it’s kind of stretching the point.
Despite the quibbles, this is actually a pretty fun episode. It’s quite insubstantial, with no real character drama or emotional conflict or thematic weight, just pure plot and action. It’s probably the shallowest episode of the series so far, though probably just the kind of episode the network wanted. It has another original score, though not as strong as the “Day of the Robot” score was. I’m actually surprised Nelson didn’t reprise the robot motif from that episode.
“Taneha” is the name of an endangered cougar, the last male of his subspecies, that ranger Bob (Jim B. Smith) is trying to capture and take to a preserve. But E. J. Haskell (Jess Walton) wants to kill it to avenge her father’s death, and the local ranchers want to kill it for preying on their livestock. When Bob is injured by the very cougar he seeks to protect, he calls in his old friend Steve, the only man he knows with government contacts, to try to get an injunction to protect the cougar. It must be a slow week at the OSI, since Oscar tries to help Steve with this problem (in his one brief, contractually obligated scene in the episode), but doesn’t have the right contacts in that branch of the government. (Maybe he should’ve said he wanted to make the cougar bionic.) So Steve decides to catch Taneha himself. The ranchers tell him to take E.J. as his guide, knowing she’ll do her best to sabotage his efforts. (They insist on calling him a “dude,” i.e. a city boy/Easterner out of his element in rural country, despite Lee Majors’s downhome accent coming out more strongly than usual.) Indeed, she tries to ditch him, but isn’t counting on his bionic speed.
Of course, this is 1975, so even though the episode is written by a woman (former Star Trek scribe Margaret Armen), E.J. can’t just be a tough woman, she has to be a tomboy desperately trying to be the son her father wanted and ashamed even to acknowledge her feminine given name (Ellen Jane). She’s got such a huge chip on her shoulder about Taneha that she seems to genuinely believe the Paiute legend that the cougar is a demon. She’s so broadly painted in her hatred that it’s unconvincing when a little talking-to by Steve in the climax leads to a complete turnaround as she protects Taneha from the hunters.
For the most part, this is a weak episode. Even by the standards of a ’70s show with no story arcs, it feels like filler, and the conflict is too histrionic and melodramatic. Jess Walton is striking to look at, with beautifully dark, intense eyes — the kind of woman who makes me understand the saying “You’re beautiful when you’re angry” — but prone to overacting. And the ’70s gender attitudes make it hard to like her character or Steve’s relationship with her. On the plus side, though, she and Majors have pretty good chemistry. The high point of the episode is the final scene where, their mission achieved, Steve and E.J. just hang out on the courthouse steps watching small-town life go by, and Steve is happier and more in his element than we’ve ever seen him. It feels like they just pointed a camera at Lee Majors and let him ad-lib — he’s never been so animated and natural and charming, never come alive so much until this scene. It’s loads of fun to watch, and almost worth sitting through the rest of the episode.
Nothing gets bionically thrown or swung through the air here, so no ta-ta-tangs, though the bionic-eye boops get quite a workout as Steve scans for the cougar by day and night. (I was about to say I’d forgotten how much use the show made of Steve’s infrared vision, but then, when I watched this show growing up, it was on a black-and-white TV, so I just wasn’t aware of the red filter they used for that effect. I’m sure I saw it in color later on at least once, but not enough that I remembered this.) The most interesting thing here technically is that several shots use what we now call speed ramping, going from regular speed to slow motion and back within a single continuous shot to show Steve shifting gears. Presumably they shot the whole thing with a high-speed camera and removed frames from the portions they wanted to play at normal speed. But it’s an interesting stylistic innovation in a mostly unremarkable episode.