SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 21-22 and overview (Spoilers)
“Outrage in Balinderry”: Balinderry is basically ’70s Northern Ireland, an occupied island country ravaged by terrorism, but with much worse Irish accents. Steve and Oscar are at a NATO conference with Steve’s friend Ambassador Collins (William Sylvester), who’s been working on a peaceful compromise between a moderate faction of the freedom-fighters and the (implicitly British) government, when he learns that his wife has been kidnapped, ostensibly by that same faction. The US can’t officially get involved, but somehow Steve, despite being a USAF colonel and OSI agent representing the United States government at a NATO convention, is able to say he’s not acting on behalf of the US when he goes in with Collins to help find his wife. En route, he meets a Balinderry-native stewardess, Julia (Martine Beswick), who’s sympathetic about the kidnapping. When he’s left a message by another passenger inviting him to meet the moderate faction’s mysterious leader Commander 10, he convinces Julia to be his native guide, since Collins is too distraught to help. Or maybe it’s just since he wants to spend half the rescue mission flirting with her. Look, I know continuity was not the order of the day back in the ’70s, but Steve just lost the love of his life last week in “The Bionic Woman,” so you’d think they could’ve at least had the consideration to schedule an episode without a romance plot the following week. Consideration and continuity aside, the complete lack of chemistry between Majors and Beswick, and the detached way they go through the motions of their whirlwind courtship, is quite the anticlimax after the great rapport Majors and Lindsay Wagner had.
Anyway, they go to meet the moderates, and ironically the actor with the most painfully inept Irish accent is the one with the most Irish-sounding name, Gavan O’Herlihy as resistance member Dan (the guy who left the note on the plane). Dan assures Steve that his unit had no raisin to sabotage the pace talks (honest, that’s what he said). They’re being framed by a radical faction that wants to scuttle the pace, err, peace process by discrediting the only faction that can bring it about. Anyway, Dan conveniently knows of a witness to the kidnapping and leaves the meeting, after which the others are taken captive by the government — including the traitor in the ranks, Slayton (Richard Erdman), who’s the actual kidnapper, working for dam operator Breen (Richard O’Brien), leader of the militant wing. Slayton bargains for his freedom by revealing that Commander 10 is actually Julia herself. Pause for reactions of complete lack of surprise. What is surprising is that the general (writer/actor Alan Caillou, whom I recognize from several Man from UNCLE episodes) lets Slayton go immediately, without any paperwork or anything, so that Dan can conveniently follow him back to Breen’s dam and then report back to Steve and Julia after the former breaks the latter out of jail. But the government troops think Breen’s on their side and are protecting the dam, so there’s some conflict as Steve tries to break in with the resistance members and rescue Mrs. Collins.
I appreciate the episode’s effort to resonate with the political issues of the day, and it’s unusual to see an episode this political at all on this show, given that the international intrigue is usually kept quite distant and vague. But this attempt at allegory for the complex Northern Ireland crisis is awkward, unfocused, and unsuccessful. Not to mention sluggishly paced and kind of imbalanced. Steve doesn’t do anything bionic until nearly 20 minutes into the episode (counting main titles but not commercial breaks), when the eye comes into play, and he doesn’t use bionic strength until 26 minutes in. As Kenneth Johnson said in his commentary on the preceding 2-parter, they liked to pepper the show with brief “bionic gags” to satisfy the kids in the audience. The kids must’ve been getting very restless on this one. It’s not really a bad episode — at least it has an original score — but it’s relentlessly mediocre and nobody’s heart really seems to be in it. (And the fact that every single citizen of Balinderry has a different idea of what an Irish accent sounds like is not easy on the ears.) It’s a disappointment in the wake of “The Bionic Woman,” and it’s a disappointment in relation to the serious issue it tried to address.
“Steve Austin, Fugitive”: Wait a minute… the fugitive is the one-armed man?? Anyway… The episode opens with Steve getting acquainted with Oscar’s new secretary, Miss Callahan (Jennifer Darling), while Oscar and Rudy are out of the country. (Allegedly they’re at a nuclear arms conference, but why would Rudy need to be there? In retrospect, I’m tempted to believe this was a secret mission to gain some technology necessary for reviving Jaime Sommers, and Oscar lied about it to Steve.) Peggy Callahan will become a recurring presence on both this series and The Bionic Woman for the next three years, even though Oscar says here that he changes secretaries every three months for security reasons. Jennifer Darling, for her part, will later go on to be the voice of Irma in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, as well as one of the main villains on the 1987 animated series Bionic Six, which is otherwise unrelated to this franchise.
Callahan fields a call for Steve from Rudy’s assistant Charlie (Andy Romano), who tells him that some of Steve’s bionic data has been stolen and he’s being blackmailed, insisting that Steve come to his apartment at once. Turns out he’s actually working with Hopper (Gary Lockwood), a returning villain from season 1’s “Eyewitness to Murder.” Charlie thinks he and Hopper are partners in a scheme to extort money out of the OSI for the stolen data, but actually Hopper has used the data to make a glove duplicating Steve’s bionic hand, which he uses to kill Charlie and plant Steve’s fingerprints all over the gun and the apartment. He then tranquilizes Steve on his arrival, so he’s there when the cops arrive and seems drunk or stoned. Somehow, the dart leaves no mark that police lieutenant Dobbs (Bernie Hamilton) can find on cursory inspection. Dobbs lets Steve go on the strength of his reputation, but keeps him under surveillance. Steve calls Oscar to fill him in, and Oscar instructs Callahan to help Steve as needed. Then the cops come to arrest Steve. He goes quietly, but when he spots Hopper in the street, he breaks out to chase him (as Hopper planned) and gets shot in the bionic leg. (Per the resulting APB, Steve is 6’2″ and 185 pounds. IMDb says Lee Majors is only 6’0″. But then, people sometimes lose height as they get older.)
So he goes to Callahan’s apartment for her help in getting parts to repair the leg, verbally elevating her security clearance three levels when he reveals his bionics to her. The electronics store clerk she goes to for parts appears to be Hopper in disguise, but this is never addressed as a plot point, aside from the same set being reused as Hopper’s lair later; I think something was lost in editing. Anyway, Steve breaks into an OSI office for files on Steve’s past nemeses; he’d requested those files before his arrest, but Callahan doesn’t have clearance for the building. Meanwhile, Callahan uses her own initiative to interview Charlie’s neighbors — one of whom is Hopper, who gaslights her with fake info on the shooter, then follows her home and spies on her and Steve with a shotgun mike. Turns out the Hopper that Steve arrested died in prison; this Hopper is the twin brother he used to give him alibis. Which I suppose explains why he wants Steve to rot in prison rather than just shooting him, although he had no trouble shooting Charlie.
Anyway, Hopper kidnaps Callahan and uses that leverage to get Steve to meet him in a park, and tips off the cops to his location. But Oscar is back in town and convinces Dobbs to let him come along. Steve spots Hopper watching and he and Oscar convince Dobbs to work with them to sting Hopper and give Steve a chance to rescue Callahan. This is set up to make it look like Steve made a run for it and was killed by the police, but we already know he’s playing for Hopper’s benefit, so it’s never a remotely convincing fakeout for the audience. But it leads to a fight between Steve’s bionics and Hopper’s warehouse vehicles. Guess who wins.
This is the season finale, but of course it would still be some years before season finales became big events rather than just normal weekly episodes. But as ’70s finales go, this is an okay one, and certainly a marked improvement over last season’s clip-show finale. While the story is imperfect, it’s pretty entertaining, mainly due to Darling’s performance as Callahan. Oddly, although she’s the most central guest star, she isn’t billed until the end titles. But she’ll get a recurring role on two series out of this, so I guess it worked out okay. (And I guess the fact that she found out Steve’s secret is why Oscar kept her around for three years instead of three months. No sense changing secretaries for secrecy’s sake if your secretary’s already in on the secret.)
Oh, and I think we get the first use of the “ta-ta-tang” sound for the bionic grip, when Steve forces open a doorknob. Another slightly novel use is when he raises his legs to block a descending wheel-loader bucket. Even this late in the season, it’s still unusual to hear the sound used for bionic-leg stunts.
The bonus features on the season 2 DVD, aside from Kenneth Johnson’s “Bionic Woman” commentary, are deeply lame. One is a piece about the sound effects that’s more about random fans making awful attempts to imitate the bionic noises than it is about providing useful information such as how the sound effects were created (there’s a vague speculation offered for the origin of the “ta-ta-tang,” but it’s unconvincing). It acknowledges the sound-effect evolution I’ve been tracking, though asserts that the “ta-ta-tang” was established as a bionic exertion sound earlier than I’m willing to admit. (Since it was originally used as sort of a “swish” sound for things swinging or flying through the air in slow motion, I don’t count it as a bionic sound effect until we hear it used for other types of bionic actions, which didn’t happen until late in the season.) It does confirm, however, that the sound effects don’t become truly standardized until season 3, which also introduces the “bionic impact” sound (a sort of electronic “thud-thud-thud” that echoes at about the same pace as the exertion sound) and the standardized bionic jump sound (a rising or falling electronic tone accompanying the rising or falling jumper, rather cartoonily).
The other feature is a guest-star overview that’s mostly just episode clips; I don’t think any of the guest stars themselves were interviewed for it. And it overlooks Jennifer Darling, who should’ve warranted mention as a new recurring player.
So how did season 2 stack up to season 1? Well, it was longer, for one thing, and it was pivotal in establishing important conventions of the series: The emergence of the bionic sound effects, the debut of aliens in the bionic universe, the introduction of Jaime Sommers (and Peggy Callahan), and behind the scenes, the grooming of Kenneth Johnson for the producer role he would assume on both bionic series the following season.
But was it better than season 1? Sadly, no. It started out very strong, with three excellent episodes out of the first five: “The Pioneers,” “The Pal-Mir Escort,” and “The Seven Million Dollar Man.” But after that, we don’t get a really good one until “The Bionic Woman” near the end of the season, although there are some decent but flawed ones like “Straight on ’til Morning,” “The Deadly Replay,” “The Peeping Blonde,” “The Last Kamikaze,” “The Return of the Robot-Maker,” and “Steve Austin, Fugitive.” It seems as though the attempt at intelligent drama that characterized the rear half of season 1 and the early part of season 2 gave way to a trend toward more superficial action stories. There was also a decreasing emphasis on Steve’s astronaut side, which figured into four episodes in the first half of the season (though just barely in the case of “The Peeping Blonde”) and none in the back half. I’m not sure why this is. True, the Apollo missions were a couple of years in the past by this point, but Skylab was still in active use, so at the time the US manned space program would still have been seen as a going concern. But maybe the popularity of it was waning as the Moon landings faded into memory.
As far as actual science fiction stories, there weren’t that many (not counting general bionics stuff or stories with “new technology” McGuffins): “The Pioneers,” “The Seven Million Dollar Man,” “Straight on ’til Morning,” “Return of the Robot Maker,” “The E.S.P. Spy,” and “The Bionic Woman.” Other stories driven mainly by scientific undertakings would include “The Deadly Replay” and “Taneha” (though that’s more conservation than research per se). The majority of the season was about more conventional TV fare, whether spy missions, crime stories, or bad situations the hero stumbled into.
Best episodes of the season: “The Bionic Woman” (both parts), “The Pioneers,” “The Seven Million Dollar Man.” All were strong character-driven dramas with ideas worth exploring. Worst episodes: “The E.S.P. Spy,” “Stranger in Broken Fork,” “Taneha.” “Spy” is painfully inept and annoying, and (as I forgot to mention before) contradicts prior continuity, in that Oscar doesn’t believe in ESP even though a psychic was already used in the first season’s “Operation Firefly.” “Stranger” is sluggish, generic, stupidly set up, and poorly directed. And “Taneha” is inconsequential, corny, and melodramatic, with annoying gender attitudes. The most promising episode that didn’t quite work: “Straight on ’til Morning.” The most science-fictional episode yet and the first alien story in the franchise, written by Star Trek‘s D.C. Fontana, but nonetheless cliched and having nothing of substance to say. Also “Outrage in Balinderry,” which made a respectable attempt to be socially relevant but sabotaged it with mediocre writing, a chemistry-free romance subplot, and astonishingly bad Irish accents. Most entertaining but completely insubstantial episode: “Return of the Robot Maker.” Lively and fun, with some of the series’ best special effects to date (which, believe me, is damning with very faint praise), but totally devoid of any meaningful characterization, emotion, or theme.
So basically this season offered generally superficial, generally passable but often cheesy action-drama stories, with occasional attempts at something more substantial. I think it was mainly nostalgia, and Oliver Nelson’s music, that made it generally entertaining for me, but it definitely could’ve stood to be better. (There were surprisingly few stock musical scores this season — almost disappointing, really, since there were some very good cues it would’ve been nice to hear repeated.) The heartening thing is that “The Bionic Woman,” basically the demo reel for incoming producer Kenneth Johnson, was so much stronger than the rest of the season. It gives me hope for future seasons (if they ever become available on Netflix) and for the spinoff The Bionic Woman (which is available now, so I might move on to that).