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THE BIONIC WOMAN thoughts, Season 1: Episodes 10-13 and overview (spoilers)

“Fly Jaime” is a remake of the Six Million Dollar Man episode “Survival of the Fittest” by Mann Rubin, with the screenplay credited to Rubin and story editor Arthur Rowe. The story structure is about the same, except that Steve and Oscar are swapped out for Jaime and Rudy Wells, who’s making his second appearance in TBW itself — really his first, technically, since “Welcome Home, Jaime Part 1” was filmed as a 6M$M episode. In this version, Rudy is bringing home a formula for some kind of weapony McGuffin thing, which doesn’t really come up beyond the teaser except as a motivation for the bad guys to want to kill him. Jaime is undercover as the flight attendant on the charter plane taking him home, because of course she is. (She’s chosen the, um, imaginative alias of Jaime Winters.) The supporting characters are much the same — the two main bad guys with an undercover boss called Bobby, the guy with medical training who’s too squeamish to use it, etc. — but with the addition of Vito Scotti as Romero, a lecherous Italian who spends the whole episode ogling and hitting on Jaime to an extent that was creepy even by ’70s standards, although it’s still played mostly for laughs. Steve didn’t have to contend with anything like that. But the story unfolds the same way: The plane crashes, the survivors end up on an island, and the bad guys try to kill their target before the rescue plane arrives (with Oscar aboard it, making him the one character who’s in both episodes, though he doesn’t comment on the similarity).

The emphasis on Romero seems to come at the expense of another plot point or two, since the original episode’s trick of having several characters named Robert, Bob, or Roberta as red herrings for “Bobby” is dropped; there are never any real suspects for the unidentified boss. I felt the choice-of-Bobbies thing was very contrived in “Survival,” but its absence isn’t really an improvement.  There’s also a part where Jaime must reveal her bionics to the washed-up med student when he needs wires to cauterize Rudy’s bullet wound; I think that part was in “Survival” too, but it’s more awkwardly handled here, because apparently they couldn’t afford to rig up a prosthetic hand, so the whole thing is done off-camera and described in dialogue. It isn’t very convincingly played. All in all, this is an even more mediocre remake of an episode that was very mediocre to begin with.

But my favorite blooper is in the end credits. The white text of the credits had slightly offset black “shadow” text underneath to give it more contrast and legibility, but one of the white letters is missing and only the black “shadow” is visible. Amusingly, it’s on the credit that reads “Titles & Optical Effects: UNIVERSAL TITLE.” How embarrassing to make a mistake on their own name!

“The Jailing of Jaime” by Bruce Shelly is mercifully not the women-in-prison exploitation episode I feared from the title. Instead, it has Oscar assigning Jaime as a courier for a cryptographic analyzer invented by Dr. Hatch (Barry Sullivan), because — as Hatch patronizingly notes — she’s too “young and pretty” for anyone to suspect that she’s the actual courier (rather than the heavily guarded decoy). Although, of course, the teaser ends with a bad guy identifying her as the courier and assuring his boss that it’ll be the last delivery she ever makes. Dramatic music sting!

The plan is for Jaime to be helicoptered to the secret test center that night, and she meets the pilot at Ventura AFB. She doesn’t ask him for any kind of credentials or proof of identity, and at night she has no way of telling where they’re going, so it’s already obvious that she’s being set up, and that the general she meets is a fake. The next day, she finds out the analyzer is missing, and “National Security Bureau” investigator Gregory (Skip Homeier) is quick to presume Jaime guilty of selling out, throwing her in a private cell with absurdly clean grafitti on the walls (how many hardened criminals are named “Foo-Foo”?). “The Secretary” pulls Oscar off the case since he’s too close to Jaime, but he advises Jaime not to break out after she demonstrates how easily her bionic arm can bend the bars. Amusingly, once she bends the bar, it’s totally flattened by her grip, but when she bends it back, it’s perfectly cylindrical again. Who knew her arm had time-reversal powers?

Anyway, it isn’t long before she breaks out after all, which she does in order to call Oscar (breaking into a pay phone’s coin box, shame on her) and tell him about the license plate of the woman who dropped the pilot off, so she can get her address and go investigate. Why didn’t she just tell Oscar and Gregory about that right away? The whole thing could’ve been cleared up easily. The car’s license plate read “MILLE 3,” but apparently the script intended it to point to Milly Wilson (Anne Schedeen), the accomplice in question. Anyway, Jaime gets there just in time to see Milly visited by the fake general (Philip Abbott), and she follows them to Hatch’s company, finding that the “general” is actually Hatch’s assistant Naud (which was already revealed to the audience earlier). She breaks in to tell Hatch, somehow aware that Naud is pronounced “Node” even though she’s never heard it spoken. (Well, I wouldn’t have known that.) Hatch pretends to call Oscar, but of course he’s really calling Naud; he arranged the theft of his own decoder because it doesn’t work, and the whole thing was just a scheme to embezzle from the government. He plans to lock Jaime in the vault and set off the self-destruct, destroying the incriminating files, but Jaime drags Hatch into the vault with her and holds the door shut until he retrieves the incriminating files. But Naud locks them in, planning to abscond with all the loot. Gregory and Oscar arrive in time to stop him, and Oscar rather redundantly calls to Jaime about the self-destruct countdown that she can clearly see inside the vault. She manages to get out with the files and Hatch just in time. Just in time for Oscar to make a lame joke about almost going out with a bang. Then in the tag, Jaime gets a personal call from The Secretary, assuring him she has no trouble understanding his German accent. This is no doubt a reference to Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state under President Gerald Ford at the time. That’s surprising, because I would’ve assumed that “The Secretary” that Oscar answered to was the secretary of defense, who at the time would’ve been Donald Rumsfeld (in the first of his two stints in the post). But I guess Kissinger was an easier figure to make indirect allusions and jokes about.

Kind of a mediocre episode that depends on some rather nonsensical premises — Jaime not verifying the pilot’s identity, Jaime not giving a full accounting of events before her jailing. As usual, the main appeal is in Wagner’s charm and interplay with Anderson.

“Mirror Image” by James D. Parriott is almost a remake of The Six Million Dollar Man‘s second-season episode “Look Alike.” At least, the first half uses nearly the same plot beats: Protagonist goes on vacation, is replaced by a plastic-surgery double who’s sent to spy on Oscar, survives a murder attempt, exposes the impostor, then takes a chance on going undercover as the impostor despite knowing virtually nothing about them. But the specifics are different. The double is Lisa Galloway, secretary of the villainous spy Dr. Courtney (Don Porter), and she’s defined by a few simple character traits: Southern-caricature accent, chain smoking, and amorous relationship with boyfriend, all of which Jaime discovers and has to contend with in the course of her impersonation. Before then, Jaime’s vacationing in Nassau, and we get a nice look at her in a very tiny bikini before she discovers that bionic limbs don’t tan and has to cover up to maintain her secret. A henchman of Courtney’s (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.) pretends to recognize her from her tennis days and tries to murder her by drugging her drink and dumping her into the ocean in a box, an overly elaborate scheme that serves only to give her a chance to break out bionically. (One would think, also, that her reduced organic body mass would mean that a given dose of sedative would have a greater impact.) And while Steve’s double in “Look Alike” was killed before long, Lisa just gets captured but refuses to say a word. Eventually she escapes and gets to Courtney’s clinic, which Jaime has already infiltrated as her, so there’s a comedy of errors for a while before the bad guys figure out that their impostor has been… err… imposted. Leading to a showdown in the laundry room where Courtney’s vault is hidden, ending up with Oscar arriving and not knowing which “Jaime” is which (even though the real one should have Lisa’s poison darts embedded in her bionic arm, but they disappear until later in the scene), so Jaime jumps to the ceiling to prove her biona fides. Then there’s a tag scene where Jaime teases Oscar about having a double by using the life-size photographic standup of him that Courtney was inexplicably using as a target for Lisa, and it’s cute, but Oscar seems to have forgotten his own robot-double experience from the year before along with Steve’s doubling.

I guess it’s fitting that an episode about a double would end up being remade. But the episodes they’re choosing to redo are very formulaic ’70s-TV tropes, the kind of story that could be repurposed for just about any show and thus don’t have a lot of real substance or character relevance. It’s all rather superficial. And while I was pleasantly surprised at how well Lee Majors altered his performance as his double, Wagner doesn’t really do much as Lisa besides putting on a broad Southern accent. But then, the script didn’t really give her anything to work with. Lisa will return, however, in the second-season 2-parter “Deadly Ringer.” Maybe she’ll get more personality there.

The first season wraps up with “The Ghost Hunter,” written by Kenneth Johnson & Justin Edgerton. Oscar is concerned when an invisible, seemingly supernatural force is disrupting the Alpha Sensor project of Dr. Alan Cory (Paul Shenar), since it’s important to watch out for those pesky alphas, I guess. So he sends in Jaime to be the governess to Cory’s daughter Amanda (Kristy McNichol), who misses her deceased mother and feels neglected by her father, and who’s the descendant of a woman convicted of witchcraft in the Salem trials. Dr. Cory initially comes off as a cold, aloof scientist who would’ve been perfectly at home in a ’50s B-movie, but just one conversation with Jaime switches him to goofy flirtation mode with whiplash-inducing speed, and she clearly reciprocates. Cory lets on that his late wife was telekinetic, like her “witch” ancestor, before taking Jaime and Amanda out for a picnic by the lake, leading to a strange sequence where he and Jaime are attacked in their canoe by a supernaturally propelled log. There are attempts to pin the supernatural occurrences either on the ghost of Amanda’s mother or on the creepy Emil Laslo (Bo Brundin), a psychic researcher/illusionist from East Germany, who talks like a townsperson straight out of a Frankenstein movie and who may be a spy trying to sabotage Cory’s project. But it’s already obvious at this point that Amanda’s the one causing it all out of her subconscious resentments toward her father’s work and toward Jaime. After Laslo is injured (and cleared) while saving Jaime from a falling bookcase, he utters the word I saw coming a mile away, “Pol-ter-geist!” Jaime and Cory figure out what’s really going on, that Amanda’s subconscious is attacking the things she fears, so Jaime must get home, wake Amanda up, and help her understand what’s really happening — which requires getting past the Collapsing Bridge attraction from the Universal Studios Tour, which the episode was written to make use of. So Jaime uses her bionics to dodge Amanda’s subconscious attacks and gets through to Amanda in time to calm her, though not before an Exorcist riff with Amanda’s bed jumping around “telekinetically” (thanks to some special-effects air rams underneath). And afterward, Amanda is disturbingly chipper about her father’s plan to study her like a lab rat for the rest of her life, because it means she’ll finally get to spend time with him. That gal’s got problems.

A pretty predictable and corny episode, and undermined by a really lifeless, blank-eyed performance from Kristy McNichol. I remember McNichol being a really big deal back in the day, an extremely popular child star, in particular for her work in the TV series Family starting the season after this. Apparently she won a couple of Emmys. But you’d never know it from this episode, because she’s terrible in it. Paul Shenar was given such an inconsistent character that he didn’t come off too well either. The main point of interest is an early sequence where Jaime is reading a book about the ordeal of Amanda’s ancestor during the Salem witch trials, illustrated by a sort of audio flashback to the trials accompanying closeups of a painting of same. (Oddly, the accused witch is named Rebecca Putnam, which in real life was the name of one of the accusers in the Salem trials, not the accused.) It’s an interesting sequence, but has no real relevance to the story and is thus kind of a self-indulgent digression. The most noteworthy feature of the episode is that it has an almost entirely original score, by Luchi de Jesus in the first of his four scores for the bionic franchise.

The last two episodes have commentaries, “Mirror Image” by writer James D. Parriott and director Alan J. Levi and “The Ghosthunter” by Kenneth Johnson. The former commentary isn’t that good, just a couple of guys trying to remember what was going on in an episode they made decades before and being overly self-congratulatory about a rather weak episode. The latter is a thoughtful and detailed technical discussion of the production, as Johnson’s previous commentaries have been, but the mediocrity of the subject matter doesn’t help.

But I found something out. When I listen to DVD commentaries, I tend to turn on the episode subtitles so I can follow the dialogue. And the subtitle interpretation of the bionic “ta-ta-ta-tang” sound effect is “[BIONIC POWERS ACTIVATING].” Is that anything like Wonder Twin powers?

The brief first season of The Bionic Woman unfortunately didn’t live up to its early promise. Johnson’s three 2-parters that shepherded Jaime Sommers from her introduction as a guest star to her debut on her own spinoff were all quite solid and engaging, but most of the rest of the season was fairly mediocre. After “Welcome Home, Jaime,” the only really strong dramatic episode we got was the excellent “Jaime’s Mother.” “The Deadly Missiles” was relatively strong, but mostly the rest of the season consisted of fairly routine, often formulaic adventure stories that often labored to find an excuse for Jaime’s involvement in an OSI mission. Ironically, though, the percentage of episodes featuring Jaime on official missions is much higher than on the Six Million Dollar Man seasons I’ve seen. Only “A Thing of the Past,” “Claws,” and “Jaime’s Mother” don’t involve Jaime going on missions for Oscar, although “Canyon of Death” was only peripherally about a formal OSI assignment and “Mirror Image” only had the mission kick in midway through the story.

But while there were few high points, there weren’t any terribly bad ones either, just fairly run-of-the-mill ones. My least favorite were “Canyon of Death,” due to its awkward treatment of Native American issues and a really weak performance by its adolescent guest star, and “The Ghosthunter,” due to its schlocky horror-movie qualities and a really weak performance by its adolescent guest star (I detect a trend). “Claws” was pretty weak too, and frustrating in that its supposedly humane treatment of animals was actually pretty inhumane by modern standards. (I still feel sorry for that poor elephant.)Beyond the general bionic stuff, the season was remarkably light on science fiction premises. There are a few high-tech McGuffins like the radar jammer in “The Deadly Missiles” and the jet pack in “Canyon of Death,” but nothing especially beyond the state of the art for the day. The only episode that was really driven by the speculative was the telekinesis/poltergeist-driven “The Ghosthunters,” and that was more fantasy than science fiction, despite the popular belief at the time in psychic pseudoscience. This is the most SF-light season of the series, since the remaining two seasons will feature Bigfoot, the Fembots, the mad computer of “Doomsday is Tomorrow,” and the occasional alien.

All in all, this season was a reminder that American sci-fi TV in the ’70s wasn’t really all that good. The main thing the season had going for it was Lindsay Wagner’s immense charm and her interplay with the also-charming Richard Anderson. Also, it managed to be reasonably feminist and non-objectifying, perhaps thanks to Lindsay Wagner’s clout as a breakout star and her thoughtful involvement in the production. Wagner, reportedly, took her position as a role model seriously, and I definitely respect that, although I wish she’d had better stories in which to be impressive.

THE BIONIC WOMAN thoughts, Season 1: Episodes 3-5 (spoilers)

Past the pilots now and into the regular series. By the way, I’ve realized the main titles are lying to us. After the recap of Jaime’s operation, the onscreen “computer” text says “Second bionic replacement complete.” But we know she’s not the second bionic human; she’s at least the third, after Steve Austin and Barney Miller. Also that premier in “The Pal-Mir Escort” got a bionic heart.

“Angel of Mercy” is written by James D. Parriott, making it the first time anyone other than Kenneth Johnson has written about Jaime Sommers. It’s also the first story about Jaime in which Steve Austin is neither present nor mentioned. The episode also introduces a new, revised version of Jerry Fielding’s main and end title themes.

We open with Jaime teaching her class at Ventura Air Force Base (consisting of the base personnel’s children), including a precocious kid named Andrew played by a very young Robbie Rist, whom I’ve mentioned before as the first portrayer of the dreadful Doctor Zee character in the pilot of Galactica 1980. Rist will be in several episodes this season. The story involves Oscar calling in Jaime to rescue a US ambassador trapped by a civil war in the small South American country of Costa Brava. His thinking is that if she goes in as a nurse, the guerrillas might let her pass. This gives Jaime pause, since she has no medical skills of any kind. I’m not sure I buy that; I’d think a tennis pro would have some familiarity with first aid and injury treatment, if only from being on the receiving end. Anyway, her ride into the country is provided by none other than Andy Griffith as hotshot chopper pilot Jack Starkey — who has the dubious honor of being the first character in the series to overtly question Jaime’s qualifications on the basis of her sex, something that was mercifully avoided in Johnson’s episodes. I should’ve known that as soon as anyone else wrote a script for the series, the issue would crop up.

Anyway, under protest, Starkey choppers her into the country, and the guerrillas shoot them down, with Jaime secretly using her bionics to work the chopper’s busted control cables so they land safely, then tearing off the door to save Starkey, and giving him all the credit. Now they’re stuck in a “jungle” that looks exactly like the sparse forest of the Los Angeles hills, and Jaime does a mediocre job of bandaging Starkey’s head. So far she’s not impressing him much. Soon we discover that Jaime has a fear of snakes that makes her all whiny and panicking, not a good look on her, but also causes her to rather brutally crush a snake to death with her bionic grip, which seems a little out of character.

They soon pick up a straggler, an orphaned local boy named Julio (Claudio Martinez), and have little trouble evading the searching guerrillas. They make it to the base and discover the ambassador and his wife are trapped under tons of rubble, but naturally Starkey conveniently goes searching for a ride home and leaves Jaime alone to remove the rubble. Once she gets them out, Starkey boggles at how she was able to move the rubble. He insists the plane he found can’t fly because its landing gear is bent, but by this point Jaime’s gotten sick of Starkey telling her what she can’t accomplish and starts using her bionics openly. Then the guerrillas, who’ve been driving around rather pointlessly for most of the episode, show up in time to shoot at them as they fly off.

All in all, not a particularly noteworthy story. Jaime’s still coming off as a pretty brave and confident character, determined to get the job done and not quailing from danger, but Parriott’s script undermines that a bit with her anxieties about medicine and snakes, which seem to have been put in to make her seem more conventionally, vulnerably feminine. Which makes for an odd contrast in an episode that’s mainly about her proving how awesome she is despite the doubts of a crochety old chauvinist.

Still, Lindsay Wagner is a delight to watch. It is endless fun to observe the play of expressions across her ever-kinetic face. There’s a terrific moment where Griffith is chewing her out nose-to-nose, and her silent reactions during his colorful diatribe are hilarious. A big part of acting is reacting, showing that you’re listening to the other characters’ lines and playing off their performances, and Wagner is a master of that.

What strikes me is how much high-speed aerial commuting Oscar Goldman is doing these days. In The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve is generally based in Washington, DC and can just drop in to Oscar’s office. But Jaime lives in Ojai, CA, yet Oscar is constantly showing up in person to check up on her or give her assignments. Even with his top-level access to military aircraft, that’s got to be a fairly lengthy commute. It probably would’ve made more sense to introduce a new character to be Jaime’s handler, based in Ojai and reporting to Oscar back in Washington. But I guess the show wanted to capitalize on Richard Anderson’s popularity and use him as a bridge between the series, and really, who can blame them?

“A Thing of the Past” is written by story editor Philip DeGuere Jr. (who would later produce the first Twilight Zone revival) from a story by Terrence McDonnell & Jim Carlson. It revolves around Harry (Donald O’Connor), the beloved local school-bus driver that Jaime’s supposedly known for 15 years (and there’s some playful flirtation between them about how she was in love with him as a kid and he was waiting for her to grow up, which sounds so much creepier to modern ears). We get to know him during a school picnic where Jaime teaches the boy students that girls can play baseball too (though her use of her bionics to prove her point actually kind of works against it), but then there’s a random bus accident and Harry rushes back into the burning bus to save a child who was left behind. So he gets his photo in the papers and is recognized by thug Morgan (Don Gordon) as a witness to a mob killing 15 years earlier. Morgan finds out that the killer, Stone (Roger Perry), will pay him for Harry’s location, but Morgan wants to extort money out of Harry not to turn him over, then turn him over anyway for a double payday.

Eventually Jaime figures out what’s really going on (after Morgan questions her under the guise of an insurance man but asks nothing about the actual accident) and convinces Harry to testify, calling Oscar to make the arrangements. She fights off Morgan and his sidekick when they show up at Harry’s garage, then takes Harry to the Air Force base to keep him safe. There’s a random cameo by Lee Majors as Steve Austin flies out to Ojai to pick up the bus driver. But while he’s en route, Stone sneaks into the oddly deserted airbase (it’s Saturday, but still) and happens across Harry while Jaime’s conveniently on an errand. (What, they couldn’t have spared an airman to guard a federal witness?) So Jaime has to save him once again with some rather awkwardly executed slow-motion stunt work, including one bit where Jaime(‘s stunt double) jumps from a plane in a hangar and lands on Stone’s (stunt double’s) shoulders from directly above, which somehow causes Stone’s double to run forward several steps so he can crash into some barrels and boxes that are farther in front of him than I think the intent behind the stunt warranted. And that’s about it aside from a very brief tag with Steve.

Kind of a mediocre one overall, and like “Angel of Mercy” before it, it suffers from the rather crude production values of Universal’s ’70s shows — such as a part in Jaime’s classroom where a wide shot of Jaime, Harry, and the students was grainily blown up to focus only on the two adults because the director evidently failed to get closer coverage for the scene. But it is notable as the debut of the standard “sonar chirp” sound effect for Jaime’s bionic ear. Composer John Cacavas, who was the main composer for Kojak and whom I know from a few Columbo revival movies, contributes his only score for the series.

“Claws,” by Sue Milburn, opens with Jaime’s student Katie (Alicia Fleer) bringing a live lion to show-and-tell, courtesy of Susan Victor (Tippi Hedren), who runs a local preserve/halfway house for wild animals, where Katie volunteers. Yep, the lion, Neal, is actually there in the classroom set with the child actors, no split screen or special effects, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the lion was sedated. Even so, I doubt that would be allowed today, and it struck me as a bad idea both in-universe and in reality, even given that the lion was tame — in story, a former circus lion driven to panic by his trainer’s gunshots. Susan favors a technique called “affection training,” which is basically taming wild animals by being really, really nice to them — which sounds a little idealistic even to me. The preserve is a very ’70s view of “kindness” to wild things; the episode assumes that making lions and bears tame and obedient to humans, even if it means giving up their natural behavior patterns, is the most humane way of treating them. And don’t get me started on their poor elephant, living apart from others of its kind and with a chain around its leg. Today we understand how abusive it is to force such highly social creatures to live in solitude.

Anyway, Jaime ends up taking over the ranch for the weekend when Susan gets an offer to use her animals in a TV series and she has to fly off to New York for the weekend. Surprisingly, there’s a parrot in the scene where she gets the phone call; I would’ve thought Tippi Hedren had had her fill of birds some years earlier. Anyway, a local cattle rancher, Keys (Jack Kelly), shows up and accuses Neal the lion of killing his cattle. He’s accompanied by Jaime’s “uncle” Bill Elgin (William Schallert), the brother of her foster father — introduced here and never seen again, probably because Ford Rainey was unavailable to play Jim Elgin that week. Jaime insists the free-roaming lion is harmless, but Keys is convinced he’s the killer, and this goes around and around for half the episode before we finally discover there’s a cougar killing the livestock, but by the time Jaime helps Bill catch the cougar, Keys has organized a posse and driven the lion to hole up in a barn that they intend to burn out (not bothering to ask the barn’s owner, apparently). Jaime actually had the lion caged at the preserve on the sheriff’s orders, but Keys lets him out so he can drive the lion to his own property and shoot it there so he’ll be in the clear. Anyway, Jaime goes into the barn and has to use bionics and affection training to talk the injured lion down (if garishly colored fake TV blood smeared on one of his paws constitutes “injury”). The most hilariously awkward moment is when Jaime supposedly kicks the lion across the room, which is accomplished by: 1) Showing the stunt performer”s legs kicking the lion’s side; 2) playing the stock sound effect of a bionically propelled object flying through the air (the “ballistic whistle,” as I call it) during a close-up on Jaime’s face; 3) playing a shot of the lion leaping up from a bale of hay in reverse, so that it seems to land backward on its hind legs; and 4) cutting away midway through said shot so that it doesn’t look any more ridiculous than it already does.

Oh, and then there’s the part earlier where Jaime’s spending the night in the house with Neal to keep an eye on him, and he sneaks out while she’s asleep by opening the front door. Now, I can buy a cat opening a door. It’s one of their well-documented skills. But the fake paw that’s shown operating the doorknob is laughable.

This is a weak one, though there are some intense moments with Jaime bravely facing down the wounded, angry lion. She continues to be quite headstrong about rushing into danger, and I wonder how much of that is the bionics giving her confidence and how much is just her natural impulse. But it’s quickly become clear that Jaime has to deal with something Steve never did, which is having the men around her constantly assume, with the best of intentions, that they need to protect her. Which could get irritating if Jaime weren’t so easygoing and patient about it, either reasonably persuading them to let her act or just finding ways to divert their attention while she does. It’s a good thing Lindsay Wagner has such a bottomless well of charisma, because it’s the only thing that carries episodes like this.

Also, I’d forgotten how lush and flowing her hair was in this show. Well, it was the seventies.

“The Deadly Missiles”: Writer Wilton Denmark gives us a lame title but a more intrigue-driven story as an unarmed missile is fired into the Los Angeles Reservoir. Steve Austin is on the scene as Oscar’s people retrieve the missile, and he reports that the military radar system in the region (the charmingly named MEWS, for Military Early Warning System) was mysteriously jammed. Oscar recruits Jaime to investigate the ranch from which the missile was probably launched, because its owner, defense contractor J.T. Connors (Forrest Tucker), is an old friend of hers and the first sponsor of her tennis career. He’s also a loudmouthed right-wing Texan who’s become even more hawkish and contemptuous of the long-haired hippies in government since his son was killed in Vietnam — which suggests a rather poor understanding of the issues involved in the war, but that’s another discussion. Jaime refuses to believe her old friend could have evil intentions, but she grudgingly agrees to investigate.

At Connors’s ranch, she meets Rayker (Ben Piazza), an engineer who’s helped Connors with his research, including a security installation he won’t tell Jaime about. She goes in that night to investigate and finds that it is indeed a radar jamming system. But she triggers a security sensor, and apparently Connors hired Gary Owens to record the security system announcements, which helpfully tell Jaime exactly what security is in place so that she can evade it with her bionics. But she gets a bad electric shock kicking through the door, causing something to blow out in her right leg. Unable to walk, she lets a solicitous Connors take her back to her room over Rayker’s objections, and she’s alarmed when he slips her a sedative. But in the morning, she’s still in her room and Connors is still solicitous, so she decides to trust him and tell him why she’s there. Turns out he was testing the jamming system to sell to the US government, not to its enemies. Naturally it turns out that Rayker’s been doing all the missile-launching stuff behind J.T.’s back, and he has them captured and makes Jaime call Oscar so he can demand ransom — the then-princely sum of 15 million dollars — lest he launch an unstoppable missile at the target of his choice.

Steve is still overprotective, wanting to rush in to save Jaime, but Oscar shows commendable faith in her abilities and leaves Steve behind to monitor the MEWS system, which apparently he’s suddenly the greatest available expert in. But Oscar’s right; Jaime confides in J.T. about her bionic injury and gets his help to make temporary repairs, enough to let her break them out.  (J.T. is the one to knock out the guard once she kicks down the door; I’d initially assumed this was because the network censors wouldn’t let a woman throw a punch, but on the DVD’s bonus feature they talk about how Wagner herself didn’t want Jaime to use her bionics offensively, since she saw herself as a role model for young viewers.) They get to the jamming installation, where she gets pretty far in a plan to take out the radar dish before Rayker’s men catch her and J.T. and take them to the rendezvous with Oscar.  J.T. pounces on Rayker, which triggers the radar jamming and the missile launch (way to ruin everything, man), and the missile’s aimed directly at MEWS, where Steve is. So Jaime has to run for the installation to take out the dish, even though her leg is failing again. But the ex-tennis pro is surely an old hand at playing through injury (not stated, just my extrapolation), so she keeps going and eventually takes out the dish with the old “pull a pole out of the ground and use it as a concrete-tipped javelin” trick. (The rather elaborate radar dish was evidently a real installation they got to use, so they couldn’t actually destroy it, just set off some pyrotechnics around it to make it look like it blew up.) That clears the radar jamming so that the military can intercept the missile.

Afterward, she and Steve finally get together at her place, and Oscar tells them that the government’s finally interested in buying J.T.’s radar jamming system. Once the older men leave, Steve and Jaime get surprisingly romantic before the freeze-frame — much more so than I remembered them being once Jaime got her spinoff. It’ll be interesting to see whether that continues or gets dropped.

A much more solid episode than the previous two, with some effective action and danger and a nice chance for Jaime to be the rescuer and Steve the damsel in distress for a change.

THE BIONIC WOMAN thoughts, Season 1: “Return” and series debut (spoilers)

October 28, 2014 2 comments

Well, Netflix still doesn’t have anything past season 2 of The Six Million Dollar Man, but I got impatient waiting and decided to go ahead with season 1 of The Bionic Woman, since it was so nice to see Lindsay Wagner again in her debut episodes. I’d been hoping I could watch the TBW seasons in parallel with the corresponding 6M$M seasons, but it looks like the DVDs for TBW include all the relevant crossover episodes, so that’s something.

Indeed, the first disc in the Season 1 set only includes one episode from TBW itself, following four episodes from 6M$M: the original “The Bionic Woman” 2-parter from season 2 and its followup, the third-season premiere 2-parter ‘The Return of the Bionic Woman.” Since I’ve already covered the original episode, I’ll lead off with the sequel.

“The Return of the Bionic Woman” is a spoiler title if ever there was one, and the episode makes no secret of what it’s about. It opens with Richard Anderson narrating a recap of the original 2-parter — and I think these narrated recaps are really cool, a practice that might be nice to have today, at least in some cases. Anyway, it ends with Anderson saying that Jaime Sommers died — “Or did she?”

Cut to Steve and Oscar in a helicopter going on a mission, with Steve distracted by his memory of the same slow-motion shot of Jaime on horseback that closed out the previous story (well, three episodes ago in sequence). He then gets his mind on the mission, but in the course of chasing the bad guys, he has something heavy fall on his bionic legs and cripple them. At least, that’s the idea, but the thing that falls on them (evidently the top part of a warehouse rolling door or something) looks way too light to do that kind of damage to his superstrong limbs, a failure of direction. Anyway, he ends up in Rudy Wells’s bionic hospital for repairs, and Rudy has apparently been experimenting with hair restoration, since he’s now played by the less gray, less bald Martin E. Brooks (made up with grayish hair to better resemble Alan Oppenheimer, but that will change over time). This, by the way, is Rudy’s second recasting, since Martin Balsam played him in the pilot movie. While recovering, Steve believes he sees Jaime alive in the hospital, but Oscar and Rudy tell him he was delirious. But his bionic eye susses out the truth and he confronts the two men, who confess that they were able to revive Jaime using an experimental cryogenic procedure developed by Dr. Michael Marchetti (Richard Lenz), a young member of Rudy’s team who’s suddenly been retconned into existence. But it left her in a coma and barely clinging to life, so they didn’t tell Steve because they didn’t want to get his hopes up only to force him to watch her die again. As retcons go, it’s fairly believable — certainly more so than Rudy’s sudden change of appearance (especially since Oppenheimer’s Rudy appears in the recaps at the start of the show).

When Steve is finally brought in to see Jaime, she doesn’t recognize her former fiance. She has… amnesia!! Okay, that’s pretty soapy, and you can see the formula writing at work, the need to keep the action hero from having a permanent romantic relationship. And just to make it soapier, Jaime has not only forgotten Steve but fallen in love with Michael. Michael recognizes that this is just a standard patient infatuation, but — this being the 1970s — is not unwilling to pursue it. Still, it’s handled with more sensitivity than it could be. Rudy convinces Steve not to pressure Jaime to remember, since remembering brings back the severe pain that drove her mad before (although that’s a bit iffy, the idea that just remembering the physical pain of the clot that almost killed her could have a comparable medical effect). So he has to settle for being in the friend zone and not pressure her. He and Michael are actually very civilized and mutually respectful about their competition, which is basically a symptom of ’70s TV’s need to have its heroes be as clean-cut and flawless as possible; but I still like it, because it’s refreshing to see these two men recognize that the woman is not a piece of property they’re competing to possess, but an independent person who’s free to make her own decision. Steve and Michael are not only respecting each other by being so civil and philosophical about their competition, they’re respecting Jaime by recognizing that it’s ultimately not up to them. And I really like seeing that.

Anyway, in the iffiest decision in the episode, they decide that the best way to take Jaime’s mind off the pain of trying to remember her past is to take her to her childhood home of Ojai… where she can’t avoid being reminded of her past. The results are somewhat predictable, though it’s strange that nobody in Ojai seems to have been aware of Jaime’s death, given that she was a world-famous tennis star and all. Was her demise covered up because of its connection to bionics? This is never explained. Anyway, Jaime then decides she needs to take her mind off the past by looking to the future and doing some work for Oscar. He sends Steve and Jaime on a mission to blow up a munitions plant run by Carlton Harris (Dennis Patrick), whom Jaime snows with her feminine wiles (though in a wholesome and sweet way) in order to get to a control she needs to activate to let Steve into the plant so he can sabotage it. But her resurging memories confuse her and she thinks Steve needs her help, so she runs to him and botches the mission. (Continuity error: It was set up that they both had to pull switches in two locations simultaneously to keep from being blown up, but when Steve pulled the switch without Jaime pulling hers, nothing happened.) They both get out, but the mission is a failure. Steve realizes that he himself is the problem –as long as she’s with him, the memory and pain will continue to trouble her. He has to let her go, and suggests that Rudy and Michael take her to their Colorado Springs facility for further treatment.

This sequel 2-parter isn’t quite as good as the original. Since Jaime is now a blank slate with no memory, more distant from Steve, she doesn’t have the same texture to her personality or the same rapport with Steve that she had before, so the relationship and Wagner’s performance aren’t as engaging. And I don’t know if they needed 2 hours to reach the conclusion they did. The previous 2-parter was a bit padded, but the slow pace worked because of the believable relationship and naturalistic dialogue and interplay among the characters. This one could’ve stood to be more compressed.

The 2-parter, written by Kenneth Johnson, leads into the series debut of The Bionic Woman, “Welcome Home, Jaime,” another 2-parter by Johnson, this one split across two discs. Oddly, part 1 of this episode is listed on IMDb as both a 6M$M episode and a TBW episode, and the DVD seems to list it under 6M$M bonus episodes, but it has the TBW main and end titles on the disc. Wikipedia reveals that it was originally intended as a 6M$M episode, presumably part 1 of a crossover introducing the spinoff, but it was re-edited with TBW titles in order to let that series premiere a bit earlier. That would explain its hybrid musical score, which is mostly Oliver Nelson cues with a few interpolations by TBW’s first-season composer Jerry Fielding. I imagine the Fielding cues were added as part of the changeover. It apparently also explains why Part 1 is lumped together with the 6M$M bonus episodes; the DVD set counts it that way even though it has TBW titles.

Anyway, given that it’s Johnson’s direct continuation of his previous storyline, it’s odd that it reverses so much that “Return” set up. Jaime’s had more operations to restore most of her memory (except her relationship with Steve, conveniently) and all her pain, and she returns to live in Ojai (with Steve’s parents Jim and Helen Elgin, now retconned to have been her legal guardians since she was 16 — presumably after Steve went off to join the Air Force, since he’s a few years older). Also she gives Michael the brush-off (not even on camera) and soon learns that she and Steve were once engaged, though she doesn’t remember the feelings and Steve accepts her need to start over. I suppose the setup and reversal made more sense in the original broadcasts, when the episodes were four months apart. I guess I’d always assumed they led more directly into each other.

Anyway, the first half is largely focused on Jaime’s adjustment and settling into her new life in Ojai, taking an apartment above the barn in Steve’s parents’ new ranch (and using bionics to clean it up) and getting a job teaching at the local Air Force base school, thanks to her retconned education degree (and how she managed to find the time to both get a college degree and become a world-class tennis pro is questionable, unless it’s because she’s just that awesome, which I can totally buy). But she’s still willing to go on missions for Oscar, though Oscar is willing to just take a loss on her bionics and let her go back to her normal life, saying she’s been through enough already. To his credit, and Johnson’s, the issue of Jaime’s gender is never raised as a factor in Oscar’s reluctance. It’s implicit that he’s more solicitous with her than he’d be with a male agent, and certainly the episode takes a more “feminine” tone with the domestic scenes and the teaching and the easy-listening theme music, but there’s no point where anyone in the episode says she shouldn’t be risking her life because she’s a woman. The only character who calls attention to Jaime’s womanhood is Jaime herself.

Meanwhile, Carlton Harris is still around, trying to track down the woman who attempted to sabotage his plant, and he finds her and sends his agents to Ojai to spy on her and test her superhuman abilities, which he saw during her escape. The only real action in part 1 is when his men stage a car crash so she’ll use her bionics to rescue an “injured” driver. But once Harris arrives in Ojai in part 2, things begin to heat up. He rigs another accident, a blowout of Jaime’s brakes on a downhill road — and for some reason Jaime never tries using her parking brake, which was how my father told me he dealt with that situation when it happened to him once. Instead she opens the door and uses her bionic leg to brake, although it’s pretty blatantly a mannequin leg that the stunt driver was holding out the door. And I’d think that applying braking force in such an unbalanced way would probably cause the car to spin out or something.

Anyway, Jaime proves her smarts when she convinces Oscar that Harris could kill her more easily than this and must instead be testing her, like a potential buyer test-driving a car. Aware that she’s under surveillance, she comes up with a plan to stage a fight with Oscar on the grounds of wanting more money, in order to make Harris think he can buy her. This successfully lets her infiltrate his organization, in hopes of finding the elusive proof that he’s a criminal (he’s stayed clean enough that he actually has government contracts). So she plays greedy and goes along with Harris’s plans to steal some important defense components, while politely rebuffing his seduction attempts. But Harris suddenly has a son, Donald (Kip Niven), who’s fresh out of Harvard Law and conflicted about his father’s dirty dealings, but devoted enough to the man he sees as kind and loving to put up with his corruption. When he discovers that Jaime is spying for the OSI, he’s conflicted about whether to tell his father or not, but Jaime ultimately convinces him to dig deeper and find the truth about the murders Harris has committed. Unfortunately, Oscar’s been having one of his reckless moments, blabbing to the defense contractor (Gordon Jump) that Jaime burglarized that he has an agent in the thief’s organization — and forgetting that Harris is another contractor on the same project, so that Jump calls him up to warn him and tell him the reassuring news about the spy. Thus forewarned, Harris tricks Jaime into robbing his own company, showing off her bionics to his foreign buyers. But Donald shows up at the right time to get her out of trouble and together they save the day (well, mostly Jaime does).

Aside from some ’70s-Universal clunkiness, this is a pretty solid 2-parter. Donald’s sudden existence in part 2 feels tacked on, but there’s some engaging drama in his conflicted feelings toward his father, even if Niven is not the most effective actor. And Johnson established Jaime as a smart, resourceful, courageous protagonist; if anything, Jaime is a lot more gung-ho about her OSI work than Steve is about his, considering how often he rebels against Oscar and goes on vacation at every opportunity. She’s not above using her femininity to catch Harris’s interest and win his trust, but in a demure and wholesome way, without the blatant sexualization of near-contemporaries like Charlie’s Angels. Now that Jaime’s finally moved past being the suffering girlfriend and become the lead in her own right, she’s taking to the role quite well. I think it’s a pretty good start for the series.

The continuity across these three 2-parters is pretty good for ’70s TV, thanks to Johnson being the writer and producer of them all (well, he wasn’t nominally the producer on the original 2-parter, but was being groomed to become one, so he was allowed to effectively function in that role during its making). But there are a couple of glitches. For one thing, the tree with “Steve + Jaime” carved into it is different in “Welcome Home, Jaime” than it was in “Return.” But the main thing is the timing. The original 2-parter was said to have spanned 7 months, and “Return” says Jaime was in a coma for months, suggesting that more than a year has passed. But Steve says in “Return” that his reunion with Jaime was “last spring.”  And “Welcome”‘s references to the time since her last tennis tournament also suggest that less than a year has passed. The later episodes seem to have defaulted to the assumption that the passage of story time matched that of real time.

Sound-effects watch: The bionic sound that I’ve been rendering as “ta-ta-ta-tang” is definitely standardized by this point, to the extent that it’s even heard at the end of the main titles (accompanying a bionic jump) as a sort of coda. It’s even used for a bionic run at one point, something that’s been done inconsistently at best up to now. I also heard the first occurrence of the deeper, repeating thud sound effect that was used for impacts or rebounds of things struck bionically, although I think that sound was standardized in 6M$M season 3 before it showed up in TBW. Unfortunately I can’t find out for sure, because Netflix doesn’t have season 3 yet! So I’ll just proceed with TBW season 1.

Gene Roddenberry’s THE QUESTOR TAPES

February 19, 2014 4 comments

I finally got around to buying the print-on-demand DVD of Gene Roddenberry’s 1974 pilot The Questor Tapes, featuring the android character who would be the prototype for Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data. The reason it took me so long, after acquiring his Genesis II and Planet Earth pilots on DVD last year, is that I already had TQT on VHS tape and figured I’d use my VCR/DVD dubbing deck to archive it digitally. Now that I’ve actually found the time to begin transferring my old tapes, though, I realized my copy of TQT was way too low in quality — I’m pretty sure my VHS tape was copied in turn from a Beta recording off a TV movie — and that I’d be much better off paying for the inexpensive DVD release. Granted, the quality of that release isn’t that much better. It’s not remastered from the source, but is apparently just a reissue of a pay-TV edition, judging from the opening copyright disclaimer. Still, it’s the best we’ve got.

Questor was Roddenberry’s attempt to revisit the Kirk-Spock dynamic, with a logical, hyperintelligent lead character relying on the moral and emotional guidance of his human best friend. For the pilot, he brought in former Star Trek writer-producer Gene L. Coon to cowrite the script, which was a great choice, since Coon had a knack for writing close friendship between men. Batman producer Howie Horwitz is the credited producer (with Roddenberry as “executive consultant,” a title generally used for a creator who’s no longer in charge of the production), and the pilot was directed by Richard Colla, who would later direct the pilot movie of Battlestar Galactica.

The pilot is interesting in that it’s structured as a mystery revolving around the title character’s purpose for existence, creating a lot of ambiguity about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. It opens at Cal Tech, where top scientists from five nations (evidently including the US, the USSR, China, France, and one other) have come together in Project Questor, an initiative to assemble a revolutionary android designed by the Nobel-winning Dr. Emil Vaslovik, who’s been missing and presumed dead for three years. It quickly becomes evident that nobody understands the advanced technologies underlying the android’s components, not even the lead assembler, Vaslovik’s protege Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell). And the programming tapes Vaslovik left have been half-erased by the project’s attempts to decrypt them. At first, the programming seems to fail; the android remains inert.  But that night — as project head Geoffrey Darro (John Vernon) is digging into Robinson’s background, suspicious that he may know more than he’s telling about Vaslovik’s intentions for the android — Questor himself awakens and gives his smooth plastic form a makeover using the project’s equipment, turning himself into Robert Foxworth. It’s actually a very clever effect — in continuous shots, we see the equipment removing the “robot” makeup and revealing Foxworth’s features underneath, creating the illusion that it’s actually molding those features onto the mannequin-like form. I’d forgotten that these scenes have a horror-movie quality, since at this point the audience has no way to know whether Questor is the hero or the villain.

Indeed, his actions are quite morally ambiguous at first. Once he breaks out of the lab, he forces a terrified Jerry to come with him, although it gradually becomes clear that he is programmed to be incapable of killing. Still, Jerry convinces Questor to accede to his guidance on matters of morality. Although he lets that slip a bit when they get to a casino in Universal-backlot London and Questor uses his computer senses to cheat at craps in order to obtain “specie,” as he keeps calling it. Virtually this same sequence, right down to the android using his superstrength to unload a pair of loaded dice, was later reused with Data in TNG’s “The Royale.”

Questor remembers enough about Vaslovik’s past to lead him to the home of Lady Helena Trimble (Dana Wynter), a prominent socialite and alleged courtesan,who turns out to be an information broker who worked with Vaslovik, leading Jerry to suspect that Questor may have been built for espionage purposes or worse. Especially once he discovers the secret information center where Questor, like Vaslovik before him, can monitor spy images and sensitive secrets from all over the world, possibly affecting millions of lives. Helena insists the motives behind this technology are benevolent, but Jerry has already called in Darro. Will his trust in Questor’s friendship win out over his doubts, and can Questor win over the cynical Darro to their side?

Spoiler alert: The movie climaxes at Mt. Ararat, where we learn that Vaslovik was himself an android, the latest in a line of androids who’ve been subtly guiding and safeguarding humanity for 200,000 years. Their mission is not to control us, but only to assist us to make our own decisions. But Questor is the last; if humanity survives to the end of his 200-year lifespan, it will have outgrown its childhood and won’t need a nanny anymore.

I think the pilot still holds up pretty well, although it’s not perfect. Foxworth’s jerky line delivery as Questor is a bit annoying after a while, although it gradually softens over the course of the movie. The Questor-Jerry relationship maybe develops a bit too quickly, but the same can be said of many TV relationships; a certain amount of shorthand is just part of the form. And some of the dialogue doesn’t flow as smoothly or logically as it could, and there are some abrupt transitions. It feels like a fair amount was cut out, although the running time on the DVD (96 minutes) is consistent with what the runtime for a movie in a 2-hour time slot would’ve been in 1973, so the cuts would’ve been in the original.

Still, Foxworth, Farrell, and Vernon are strong leads, and the core relationship is pretty solid — inspired by Kirk and Spock, but different enough to be fresh. Jerry is no Kirk, particularly not where women are concerned; at one point, Questor encourages him to seduce Lady Helena for information, but he’s terrible at it and can’t bring himself to use her that way. And Questor, much like Data, is rather the opposite of Spock: lacking the inbuilt potential for emotion (part of what was erased from the programming tapes) but eager to learn more about how to be human. The suspense over the purpose and morals of Questor’s creation is interesting, although resolved a bit too easily. And I kind of like it that there’s no villain in the story, just people with conflicting views and goals, doing what they think is right.

And there’s a lot here that seeded later SF productions. I’ve mentioned Questor as the inspiration for Data. Also, the music cue that composer Gil Melle uses in the Project Questor lab scenes would be repurposed later that year as the theme for Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And when Questor finds Vaslovik’s Mt. Ararat lair, the device that “heals” him and infuses him with his missing knowledge makes the same “ta-ta-tang” sound effect (albeit truncated) that would later become the trademark sound of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman (also from Universal).

The sad thing about TQT is that it almost became a series. As detailed in this excellent overview article (no longer “live” but preserved in the Internet Archive), a season of the show was actually commissioned, but the executives insisted on changes to make it more like The Fugitive — drop Jerry, ignore the ending where Questor found his answers, and have him be a lone hero on the run from the authorities. Apparently they wanted the benign-intervention angle dropped, uneasy with the idea of alien androids playing God — which I think was unfair, because the movie made it clear that Questor’s interventions were meant to be rather subtle. Rather than cave to network pressure, Roddenberry walked away from the show altogether, killing the project. This one movie is all we got. Although maybe that’s just as well, if the only alternative was to see a watered-down version that eliminated the core relationship and the core premise. (Said premise itself being Roddenberry’s latest attempt at the “aliens secretly guiding humans” premise from his Star Trek backdoor pilot episode “Assignment: Earth.”)

There was an attempt to reboot the series in the early 2000s, under the guidance of Herbert J. Wright, a former TNG producer who’d been attached to the abortive 1974 Questor series. Unfortunately, Wright passed away in 2005 and the project fell through. The rights are currently held by Imagine Entertainment, and in 2010 there was talk about a reimagining to be developed by Tim Minear; but nothing seems to have come of it. They keep trying, but they just can’t seem to get it off the ground.

Foxworth would later go on to play two major villains in the Trek franchise: Admiral Leyton in Deep Space Nine‘s “Homefront”/”Paradise Lost,” and Administrator V’Las in Enterprise‘s Vulcan Civil War trilogy. Farrell would never appear in another Trek or Roddenberry-related production, nor would Vernon. However, the pilot features a couple of Trek veterans in bit roles at the Project: Majel Barrett (who was in every Roddenberry production from TOS onward) as Dr. Bradley, one of the scientists, and Walter Koenig (unrecognizable under a Sonny Bono-ish hairdo and mustache) as Darro’s assistant Phillips. The matte paintings and visual effects in the movie were done by the great matte artist Albert Whitlock, who had previously done the matte paintings for TOS. (His paintings do enhance the “Ararat” location, but there are enough moving shots to make it clear that the featured mountain peak is real; I just wish I could find out where it was. It looks nothing like the real Mt. Ararat, but is extremely striking.)

Despite the abandonment of the series, the pilot got a novelization by Roddenberry’s former Trek colleague D.C. Fontana — the only novel on her resume other than Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory, although oddly the front matter of the book credits her with a Ballantine title called The Winds of Space, which was actually the title of a TV pilot that Fontana reportedly had in development around 1972-3. Perhaps there was a plan for her to novelize the pilot script, but it fell through.

Although it was Fontana’s first novel, it reads pretty well. It’s quite faithful to the script for the most part, but it adds a lot of material that fleshes out the story considerably and fills in a lot of the gaps in the movie. Notably, there’s a new thread of intrigue as the various nations partnering in Project Questor are all eager to get possession of the technology for themselves and trying to co-opt or bribe Jerry into selling out to them. It helps raise the stakes and helps explain why Darro is so concerned about Questor falling into the wrong hands. We learn a lot more about Lady Helena and Dr. Vaslovik, and there’s an added subplot about Questor using his precise computer projections to play the stock market and make millions by buying and selling at exactly the right moments — somewhat prophetic, I think, given how much stock trading today is dependent on computers. Although it clashes a bit with the movie plot, since the reason Questor suggested that Jerry seduce Helena was because they didn’t have the means to pay her. Fontana doesn’t provide a suitable alternative motivation for the wealthy Questor of the novel to suggest seduction.

The biggest departure from the movie is in the third act. The movie gives Questor a deadline of three days (after their time at Helena’s) to find Vaslovik, or something terrible will happen, and he figures out Vaslovik’s location just before he’s recaptured by Darro’s men. In the book, though, the deadline is extended to seven days, and he doesn’t get the vital clue before his recapture. Instead, there’s a sequence where he’s given the resources and personnel needed to attempt to track down Vaslovik — which seems a rather pointless addition, since after days of futile searching, he ultimately ends up getting the vital clue in the same coincidental way he did in the movie. It’s the one part of the novel that feels like it serves no purpose beyond padding the word count.

But it’s also just about the only part that doesn’t feel like an improvement. Although the novel is long out of print and much harder to track down these days than the DVD, I recommend it as a valuable supplement to the film. Some parts of it should be taken with a grain of salt, but others enhance the “reality” of the film considerably.

In my Genesis II/Planet Earth review, I talked about how I choose to interpret them as an alternate timeline of the Trek universe. But I’ve always liked to think that Questor actually took place in the Trek universe itself — and that maybe Data’s creator Noonien Soong learned some of what he knew about androids from Questor somehow. (Although a direct lineage doesn’t work, because Questor’s brain was based on something called “bionic plasma” rather than a positronic matrix.) Of course, since TQT was from Universal, that can never be officially asserted, but there have been several references in various Trek novels implying that Questor may have existed in that universe:

In Greg Cox’s Assignment: Eternity, Roberta Lincoln reminisces about helping Gary Seven retrieve some secret robot plans called “The Quasar Tapes, or something like that.” Roberta recalls that they were in the Pentagon rather than Cal Tech, but that still fits; maybe the Pentagon stole the plans from Vaslovik, and Gary and Roberta got them back into civilian hands.

In Jeffrey Lang’s Immortal Coil — and its followup, the Cold Equations trilogy by David Mack — we see that Flint, the immortal android-builder from “Requiem for Methuselah,” would live on into the 24th century and adopt the pseudonym Emil Vaslovik, becoming a mentor to Noonien Soong. There’s no mention that Vaslovik was the name of a real historical figure — indeed, given that TQT’s Vaslovik was a famous Nobel laureate, it might’ve been a bad idea for Flint to choose such a conspicuous pseudonym — but it’s possible to fudge things and surmise that Flint had known Vaslovik and/or Questor back in the 20th century and learned about androids from them.

And I’ve followed their lead and inserted a reference in my own work: in Watching the Clock, a member of Gary Seven’s Aegis organization refers to “those damn androids” as if they were the competition. And there’s another very subtle nod coming up in my DTI eBook The Collectors.

Although that competition thing is the main problem with having Questor in the Trek universe: aren’t he and Gary Seven basically doing the same thing? And since Gary and Roberta have been doing it six years longer, are Questor’s efforts even necessary? But seeing the movie again, I’m thinking maybe they don’t overlap that much. We know that Gary’s mission was to prevent humanity from destroying itself as it moved through the era of its greatest crisis. So he and Roberta are dealing fate-of-the-world stuff. By contrast, the Vaslovik androids are on a much subtler mission, just guiding and protecting human beings who have the potential to do good and make the world better — not making their decisions for them, but helping them survive or get the education or resources or opportunities they need to fulfill their potential. Maybe speaking a word in the right ear, as Questor puts it, to nudge someone in the right direction. They’ve been at it since the dawn of Homo sapiens‘ existence as a distinct species, and while there have been times in that 200,000-year span when we were at risk of extinction, it probably hasn’t been a concern for most of that span — or at least it wasn’t something that could’ve been affected by the ability to influence human decisions, not until the nuclear age. So maybe Questor’s activities are on a small enough scale that Gary’s activities don’t render them redundant. They could have even complemented each other, with Gary and Roberta tackling the big crises and Questor and Jerry and Helena helping out the little guys who fell through the cracks. Maybe that’s why Gary wanted to make sure the Questor Tapes ended up in the right hands.

Of course, that idea is somewhat dependent on the fact that neither show went past the pilot stage. If both shows had been made, they might have ended up telling fairly similar stories — and of course neither would’ve acknowledged the other. But then, if A:E had been made, Roddenberry wouldn’t have tried to revive the concept with Questor anyway. As it is, though, we’re free to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have been.

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 21-22 and overview (Spoilers)

February 8, 2014 2 comments

“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).

Green Blaze powers addendum: The high jump

February 5, 2014 5 comments

I’ve added a new paragraph to my earlier post “ONLY SUPERHUMAN reader question: Measuring the Green Blaze’s powers,” since I realized there was one aspect of Emerald Blair’s superstrength that I forgot to address, one that occurred to me as a result of watching The Six Million Dollar Man on DVD. Here’s what I added:

It’s occurred to me to wonder: How high could Emry jump? Of course, that depends on the gravity, so let’s assume a 1g baseline. According to my physics textbook, the maximum height of a projectile is proportional to the square of its initial velocity (specifically, the velocity squared times the square of the sine of the launch angle, divided by twice the gravity). So if we use my earlier, very rough assumption that Emry’s speed relative to an unenhanced athlete goes as the square root of her relative strength, that would cancel out the square, and thus jumping height (for the same gravity and angle) would increase linearly with strength. If she’s four times stronger than the strongest human athlete today, then, it follows she could jump roughly four times the world record for the high jump. Except it’s more complicated than that, since we’re dealing with the trajectory of her center of mass. The current world record is 2.45 meters by Javier Sotomayor. But that’s the height of the bar he cleared, not the height of his center of mass. He used a technique called the Fosbury flop, in which the body arcs over the bar in a way that keeps the center of mass below it. So his CoM was probably no more than about 2.15 meters off the ground, give or take. And he was pretty much fully upright when he made the jump. since he’s 1.95 meters tall to start with, and the average man’s CoM height is 0.56 of his total height (or about 1.09 m in this case), that would mean the world-record high jump entailed an increase in center-of-mass altitude of slightly over one meter. So if we assume that Emry is doing more of a “bionic”-style jump, keeping her body vertical and landing on her feet on whatever she’s jumping up to, then she might possibly be able to raise her center of mass up to four meters in Earthlike gravity. Which means she could jump to the roof of a one-story building or clear a typical security fence — comparable to the jumping ability of Steve Austin or Jaime Sommers.

And just a reminder: I’m open to more reader questions about Only Superhuman or my other writing.

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 19-20: “The Bionic Woman” (Spoilers)

February 2, 2014 2 comments

“The Bionic Woman”: We open with Steve actually on a mission, to recover a stolen US-currency printing plate from Ronaugh (Malachi Throne), who sees Steve’s face and swears revenge. But then we cut to Steve going on his third vacation in the past four episodes. He’s now officially the laziest TV action hero ever. This time, though, he’s gone home to Ojai, California to buy a ranch and put down roots, helped by his mother Helen (Martha Scott, returning from “The Coward”) and stepfather Jim Elgin (Ford Rainey, debuting here). He’s excited to learn from them that another famous Ojai native is back in town: tennis pro Jaime Sommers (do I even need to say Lindsay Wagner?), who was as close as a sister to him growing up, but that he’s long harbored more than brotherly feelings for. They reconnect effortlessly, and though screenwriter Kenneth Johnson (making his 6M$M debut) puts up the token obstacle of another guy she’s dating, she breaks up with that guy off-camera and without explanation, leading to the inevitable courtship montage. Except this montage has a cheesy twist. It features “Sweet Jamie” [sic], the second of two songs written for the episode, the first one being “Got to Get Loose,” which was played under the first-act opening. The songs, with music by Oliver Nelson and lyrics by Lionel E. Siegel, are performed by Lee Majors himself. They, um, aren’t especially good, with lyrics rather baldly and unsubtly stating the emotions being expressed. And Majors is the kind of singer who doesn’t feel any need to come anywhere close to the rhythm of the musical accompaniment. Which can work well — cf. Sinatra — but only if the singer really knows what he’s doing, and I didn’t get that sense from Majors. (Majors’s other, uhh, major singing credit would be the theme song to his later series The Fall Guy.)

But the slow pace and cheesy songs are more than made up for by Johnson’s witty dialogue and Lindsay Wagner’s amazing charm and animation. I’ve always found her an absolute delight to watch and listen to, so expressive and fun and spontaneous, with such a marvelous naturalness and humor to her delivery. (Great legs, too. I’d forgotten that. I’ve always really liked her but never really seen her as a sex symbol. In retrospect, I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because her own show didn’t really sexualize her the way something like Charlie’s Angels did with its leads. She was more of a girl-next-door, best-friend sort of presence. At least, that’s my recollection.) And she brings out the best in Majors too. They have excellent chemistry, and he’s as relaxed and animated with her as he was in the closing scene of “Taneha” that I liked so much. (In Kenneth Johnson’s commentary — the only one on this season’s set — he says that Wagner’s spontaneity tended to bring out a similar quality in the performers who played off of her, and that’s entirely clear in her scenes with Majors. She makes him a better actor.) Their relationship is much more credible than the out-of-nowhere old flame from “Lost Love” a few episodes back. That’s partly due to the chemistry, but just as much due to the writing. Making them friends since childhood,giving them a history and a well-established ease with each other, makes it less contrived that she could’ve been out of his life for the duration of the series so far and yet quickly fall into a devoted relationship with him.

Of course, it can’t last. Just as things are getting serious, they go skydiving, and Jaime’s chute inexplicably fails. The accident isn’t very clearly depicted — since it was constructed from stock skydiving footage and a few close-ups of the actors — but the chute evidently gets tangled in its lines somehow. (Johnson’s commentary explains it was based on a real type of skydiving accident where a chute gets caught in an updraft and “streams,” collapsing in on itself.) Her injuries are coincidentally similar to those that befell Steve three years earlier: both legs and her right arm and shoulder a total loss, her right ear deafened. Apparently she’s in danger of dying from her injuries too. A desperate Steve goes to Oscar and pleads with him to make Jaime bionic. Oscar insists it’s not that easy, that the cost has to be justified to the government. If she becomes an OSI agent as Steve suggests, there will come a time (says Oscar) when he’ll need her for a mission and Steve will refuse. Steve promises he won’t, pleads with Oscar, and it’s the finest acting I’ve seen from Majors up to this point. He really pulls out all the stops here, even without Wagner to play off of. Oscar is convinced, so Rudy (making his first appearance in 14 episodes) brings in his team and bionicizes her. (Fittingly, the bionic ear implant looks like a larger version of a modern hearing-aid battery.) Steve helps her through the recovery, revealing to her that he’s bionic too, and by the end of the therapy sequence, he proposes marriage, and she accepts (oh, she’s so doomed). Ronaugh (remember him?) sees the wedding announcement in a Russian-language paper (on the front page, because of course it is), so now he knows where to find the guy he wants to kill. To Be Continued!

Part 2’s recap montage is narrated by Richard Anderson (out of character, since he refers to Oscar in the third person), and reveals that, contrary to the impression given by the editing in part 1, Jaime’s surgery and therapy took months. Ronaugh will later say it’s been seven months. Perhaps some of the earlier episodes took place during the time that Jaime was in therapy?

Anyway, Jaime begins to question what Uncle Sam expects in return for her bionics, but Steve dodges the issue. They bionic-race each other home, and Helen sees them running at superspeed and jumping over tractors, so Steve has to have a talk with her. This is handled very nicely; in lieu of audible dialogue, the conversation is revealed through facial expressions and illustrated with sound and sepia-toned image clips from the main titles and the pilot. (Johnson’s commentary says this was inspired by a scene in North by Northwest.) Anyway, Oscar then shows up and says it’s time for Jaime to pay the piper; Ronaugh has a perfect counterfeit plate now and they need Jaime’s bionic ear to crack his safe — plus he conveniently hosts a tennis tournament (something that never came up until now), so she has a way in. Steve predictably tries to renege on his word, insisting Jaime’s not ready, but of course she hears every word of their conversation from outside and insists on going in. Steve comes on the mission as her fiancé and backup, unaware that Ronaugh saw his face in their earlier encounter, though Ronaugh isn’t exactly subtle about hinting they’ve met before. Jamie performs the switch smoothly, and is inexplicably unable to hear Ronaugh and his men waylaying Steve at gunpoint in the hallway outside, even though it should be easier than her former feat of bionic hearing with Steve and Oscar. (Johnson’s commentary doesn’t address this inconsistency.) But then, her bionic arm is glitching, causing her to trigger an alarm, so let’s be generous and assume the ear was glitching too. They break out and run from Ronaugh, who ends up getting accidentally shot by his own henchman (Paul Carr).

But that’s far from the end of the story, for Jaime’s bionics keep glitching. She hasn’t been telling anyone since she thinks it’s normal adjustment, but when Steve finds out, he takes her to Rudy, who can’t find anything wrong with the equipment. But she has mood swings and personality changes that keep getting worse, and eventually Rudy finds her body is rejecting the bionics and a clot is forming around the control processor in her brain. He says he needs to operate right away, but Jaime has a freakout and runs out of the hospital, and Steve follows the trail of property damage she leaves. The pathetic fallacy kicks in and a thunderstorm begins, yet another surefire sign that she’s doomed for a tragic end. (Johnson does this a lot; see the pilot and the “Married” episode of The Incredible Hulk. Not only does the first Hulk transformation scene in the pilot take place in a rainstorm, it uses one of the same stock lightning-bolt shots used here.)  By the time Steve finds her, it’s too late; she dies on the table. There’s some more really nice editorial work here, with a slow-motion “memory” shot of Jaime superimposed on a close-up of Steve’s face and slowing to a stop at the moment she flatlines. I originally wrote “nice direction,” but Johnson says this was a replacement for the scripted action that the director somehow failed to film. Harve Bennett was already grooming him to become a producer, so Johnson was given unprecedented access in the editing room and suggested this editorial fix, or so he recalls the event decades after the fact. In any case, it works very well.

And that, aside from a bit more flashbacky stuff and a reprise of “Sweet Jamie,” is the last we ever see of Jaime Sommers.

Or is it…?

Well, as far as the episode itself was concerned, it definitely was. Johnson’s original plan was to leave Jaime in a coma, but Love Story had just come out and the network insisted the girl had to die. (Uhh, spoilers for Love Story, I guess.) But Lindsay Wagner’s charm won over the audience, this 2-parter got the series its best ratings yet, and the network demanded more, quite understandably. However, this is the last time we ever see Alan Oppenheimer as Rudy Wells, to my regret. For the rest of the franchise, he’ll be played by Martin E. Brooks, whom I never liked as much as Oppenheimer. (Sure, he may have had a full head of hair, but he never played Skeletor.)

Perhaps it’s fitting that here is where the “ta-ta-tang” sound effect really begins to become standardized as a bionic exertion sound. It’s used here for a lot of bionic stuff, including jumps for the first time, as well as throws, kicks, fence post driving, and rowing a canoe really fast. Still not used for running or crushing/bending things, though. We get the first bionic-ear sound effect here, but it’s not the sonar-like double chirp we’ll later come to know — more a single, drawn-out, descending chirp.

This was a solid 2-parter, though it had room for improvement. The first act or two are kind of slow-paced, and Jaime’s accident is rather random and contrived. It might’ve worked better if, say, her accident had been caused by Ronaugh’s men as they attempted to assassinate Steve — like if they sabotaged the wrong parachute. Then it wouldn’t seem like such a huge coincidence that the love of Steve’s life just happened to have the same kind of accident. It also has kind of a weak ending. Plus they seem to have blown the music budget on the songs for Part 1, since Part 2 is saddled with a stock score that’s a letdown after the fully original score to Part 1. We don’t even get a reprise of Oliver Nelson’s Jaime theme (the same melody as “Sweet Jamie”) until her final minutes.

(About the song title — there’s a story that her name was originally spelled “Jamie” until Wagner misspelled the name on a chalkboard, but Johnson says it was always supposed to be “Jaime” and they got it wrong here. I always figured it was from the French j’aime, “I love you,” but Johnson says she was one of many characters he named after people he’d known.)

But there’s still a lot of strong writing here from Kenneth Johnson, especially in the endearingly witty yet natural-sounding dialogue among Steve, Jaime, and his parents. And Lindsay Wagner really makes it shine. She was still quite young and showed some signs of inexperience as an actress at the time, but her charm and exuberance more than made up for it, and her spontaneous, natural delivery was a rare talent in the ’70s. It’s easy to understand why the network rushed to give Wagner her own series — and rather startling and disappointing that it was her only series lead role.

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 17-18 (Spoilers)

January 30, 2014 1 comment

Just doing two in this post, since these next few came out pretty long:

“Look Alike”: As the title suggests, this is our second impostor story in three episodes (although it aired after a 2-week hiatus, so it was just under a month after “The Return of the Robot Maker”). While Steve is on a fishing vacation, using his bionics to cheat and catch more fish, a lookalike for Steve shows up at the OSI and convinces Oscar to leave him to lock up his top-security vault for the night, whereupon he takes spy-cam photos of everything in it. He also convinces Oscar to show him “the Omega Project,” which seems to be just a laser/holography research project, so it’s unclear why it’s so top-secret or has such an ominous name. And I have to say, for someone who was replaced by an android duplicate less than a month before, Oscar is remarkably unsuspicious about the flaws in the fake Steve’s impersonation. Anyway, the impostor’s employers — including a man called Breezy (Robert DoQui) — have sent some thugs to take out the real Steve at the lake, but he bionics them into submission and goes back to Washington. On spotting him, the impostor anticlimactically runs into traffic and gets killed. Learning that he’s an ex-boxer, John Dine, who had plastic surgery and studied recordings of Steve’s voice, Steve decides to turn the tables and impersonate Dine to get to his employers and the stolen films.

Making time with Dine’s girlfriend, Steve learns of his manager Jasper, who’s played by The Incredible Hulk‘s Mr. McGee himself, Jack Colvin. Steve tries to get info from him about Breezy’s bosses, but Mr. McGee warns Steve that he wouldn’t like Breezy when he’s angry. (I’m sorry. I had to.) Indeed, Breezy tries to have him killed, but Steve survives (in part by throwing a piece of wood at a stuntman who would’ve been missed cleanly if he hadn’t deliberately lifted his arm to be struck), then bionic-boxes Breezy into submission to get him to take Steve to the big boss, leading to a climactic fight with a bunch of thugs (including Dick Durock) in a boxing arena, one which I recognize from other Universal shows including an Incredible Hulk episode or two. Boxer George Foreman is crowbarred into the story as an OSI agent who shows up in the last act to help Steve pummel the thugs, and then grills him (I’m sorry, I had to) about where he got such a strong right hook.

This is a mix of a formulaic plot used in countless old TV series with a contrived setup for a George Foreman guest appearance, so it’s not all that impressive, but it has a few noteworthy features. For one thing, Lee Majors is surprisingly good at giving Dine a different voice and personality in the one scene where we get to see him out of character. Sometimes Majors proves he’s a better actor than he usually seems to be, and that just makes me wonder why he doesn’t do it more often. There’s also a full original score which is pretty good, and amusingly features some Nelson Riddle-ish trumpet stings when Steve bionically punches Breezy in their bout (although there’s no BAM! or POW! superimposed on the screen).

Most notably, this is a key episode in the evolution of the “ta-ta-tang” sound effect. It’s consistently used for everything Steve does with his bionic arm, as well as for a bionic kick — and at one point it’s even used in the boxing ring to represent his footwork on the mat (I guess he was moving his feet really fast or something?). And it isn’t used for George Foreman’s punches, even though he’s shot in slow motion too. It still isn’t used for bionic jumps, but this is the first time it’s been unambiguously coded as a “bionic” sound effect rather than a “forceful motion through the air” sound effect.

One thing that struck me — the last episode ended with Steve taking some vacation time, and this one began with Steve on vacation. It made me realize — for a show about a government agent, 6M$M has surprisingly few episodes involving government missions. I’d say only five of the season’s seventeen episodes so far (“Nuclear Alert,” “The Pioneers,” “The Pal-Mir Escort,” “The Cross-Country Kidnap,” and “The Last Kamikaze”) have had a government mission for Steve as the driving factor of the plot, although a few others (including this one) have had him take on an assignment as a consequence of the inciting incident. And the international-intrigue elements are always so nebulously defined. This isn’t the spy show the pilots set it up to be.

“The E.S.P. Spy”: Okay, so sometimes it’s a spy show. One of Steve’s many never-before-seen friends, Harry (Dick Van Patten), is arrested for selling secrets to the enemy, since he’s the only person who knows all the details of the laser weapon he’s designing (not the same laser project as last week, apparently) and a component he hasn’t even put on paper yet has been built in the Ukraine (the closest the series has come yet to identifying the USSR as an enemy; in the pilots and season 1 they were portrayed in more friendly terms). We’ve already been shown that it’s actually the titular psychic spy reading his mind with the help of a mental power booster device. Oscar lays out the damning evidence that Harry’s the only possible culprit, but as a total non sequitur, Steve guesses that his mind has been read. Oscar is a skeptic, even though he’s already met a telepathic alien in “Straight on ’til Morning,” but Steve takes him to meet a “super-psychic,” a teenage girl named Audrey (Robbie Lee), who has an annoying, maudlin voice that sounds very much like Sniffles, the cutesy mouse character from those very early Chuck Jones cartoons before he learned how to be funny. Audrey can read minds with perfect clarity, but still struggles to learn her school subjects. Huh?

Somehow, just being shown that psychics exist in general is enough to convince Oscar that a psychic is actually being used in this specific instance, which doesn’t make any sense. Not only is this a basic logical fallacy, but the scientist studying Audrey claims there are only 4-5 “super-ESP people” in the world, so statistically speaking it’s still overwhelmingly more probable that Harry just turned traitor. Nonetheless, Oscar and Steve free Harry and tell him to pretend to work on a fake project. Dudes! Don’t tell him that, the psychic’s going to know what he thinks! Except we later see Harry working on the fake project with an echoey voiceover of Oscar’s instructions, which is a standard Hollywood device to tell us that he is thinking about that, and yet somehow the power-boosted psychic doesn’t notice it. Meanwhile, Steve and Audrey drive interminably around Malibu psychically scanning houses (which surely constitutes an illegal search and violates an amendment or two) until they find where the bad guys are, and…

Um. You know how I’ve been saying they sometimes cheat by applying bionic effects to actions any ordinary person could perform? This time, Steve, while parked on the street in front of the house, uses his bionic eye to zoom in on… the address plaque by the front end of the driveway.

Yes. He needs his bionic eye to look at the one part of the property that’s specifically designed to be legible from the street.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the part where Steve is attacked on the beach by some thugs, and then later — while he and Audrey are searching for a mind-reading enemy agent — he wonders how the enemy could possibly have found out where he was.

(Safety tip: facepalms and bionic arms don’t mix.)

So Steve decides the way to keep this teenage girl safe while he goes after the bad guys is to drop her at a gas station, give her money, and tell her to go to the airport and fly home all by her lonesome. Were the ’70s really that innocent? He needs to drop her at the gas station so she can call Oscar from a phone booth, since for some reason they’ve switched cars since an earlier scene where they had a car phone. There’s actually dialogue earlier mentioning the car switch, but it feels kind of arbitrary. And why wouldn’t the new car also have a phone in it? If Steve could afford to rent one car with a phone, why not two? The OSI is paying his expenses, after all.

Okay, so Steve breaks into the bad guy’s house and gets captured, and the first thing he does is tell the bad guys that the false intelligence Harry’s been feeding them to sabotage their project is false. Um, why, exactly? Doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole purpose of feeding them false intel? Gee, he goes on so few spy missions that he must be out of practice. Anyway, he gets a tranquilizer injected into his bionic arm (how the heck did the bad guy find a vein?) and fake-thinks something that the enemy psychic reads that convinces the bad guys to bug out, I’m not sure how or why. Then he just attacks them and beats them up anyway, and I wonder why he didn’t do that to start with. And then we get an awkward scene on the beach where Steve tries to teach Audrey a shallow self-affirmation mantra to compensate for the crushing insecurity about being a weirdo that she’s exhibited exactly never prior to this scene. Which means my final auditory memory of this episode is that whiny voice just going on and on and on and oh gods why did this have to be the last episode I watched before going to bed?

And it won’t even be the last time we have to endure her voice. She’ll be back in another episode in season 3. *shudder*

So… yeah. The worst episode yet. It combined the ’70s obsession with “ESP” with a story seemingly written largely as an excuse to let the production crew spend a week in Malibu. No new music, but there were some brief reprises of some very nice cues from earlier episodes, which were just about the only worthwhile things here.

Well, I lived through the ordeal of “The E.S.P. Spy,” and now the healing can begin, for next comes the long-awaited debut of “The Bionic Woman!” Oh, Lindsay Wagner… you make everything better…

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 13-16 (Spoilers)

January 25, 2014 2 comments

“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.

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 9-12 (Spoilers)

January 22, 2014 1 comment

“Act of Piracy”: Steve is on a research vessel laying earthquake sensors in the Caribbean (introduced via an oddly antique map at the start of the episode), near the island nation of Cuba Santa Ventura, which has just broken off diplomatic relations with the US. Oscar warns Steve to get out of there, but Steve can’t be bothered with petty politics, since he has important sciencing to do. Not to mention flirting with team member Sharon (Lenore Kasdorf), who’s really hot (and braless — I love the ’70s) but only has eyes for the sciencing. Anyway, there’s a spy on board who arranges for the ship to cross within the 12-mile limit so that the Venturan General Ferraga (Carlos Romero) can arrest them on trumped-up espionage charges to embarrass the US, or something. (The Santa Venturans have no specified political ideology beyond general villainy.) They strike just when Steve is down in a diving bell that looks antiquated even by ’70s standards, and the spy makes sure he isn’t brought up before Ferraga’s lieutenant cuts Steve’s line and sends him to the bottom (leading Sharon to lament later that she wasted the opportunity to be his latest weekly conquest). Not to worry, though! Steve has his bionic powers, so he escapes certain death by… um… putting on an oxygen tank, opening the bell’s hatch, and swimming to the surface, just like any other competent diver could probably have done in the same circumstances. I dunno, maybe he was supposed to be kicking the hatch open with his superstrength, but it didn’t play that way. (The lack of a standardized bionic sound effect at this point may be creating confusion.)

Okay, I guess it would take bionic legs to swim the 10 miles to Santa Notcuba. Once there, he hooks up briefly with a token member of the resistance who only seems to be there to give Steve someone to talk to and to forward a message to Oscar, who’s on his way to an aircraft carrier to supervise… things. Then Steve breaks into Ferraga’s compound to rescue his friends, and the spy tries to warn the lieutenant, but the Santa Venturan military is kind of a bunch of overconfident idiots, which may be some kind of “lazy Latinos” stereotype, I suppose, and really undermines them as a threat. So it’s not really all that hard for Steve and his pals to escape, although Ferraga’s men chase them in a motorboat (Steve disabled their patrol boat) and Steve has to stop them from… err… shooting a few rifles at a much larger boat and somehow theoretically impeding its escape by doing so.

So, yeah, not a very substantial narrative. And it’s hampered by an apparently severe lack of budget. Oscar’s entire subplot, aside from the closing scene aboard the sciencing yacht, takes place in his car (don’t phone while driving, Goldman!) and in a tiny set representing an aircraft carrier’s cabin; the rest is Oscar talking to disembodied voices speaking over stock footage of Washington buildings, aircraft, and carriers. And there are a couple of points where Steve does underwater sabotage to Venturan boats, but they couldn’t afford the stunt/FX work so it’s all sound effects. I also could’ve done without the cheesy Latino accents. Basically all this episode has going for it, aside from Lenore Kasdorf, is the musical score. Oliver Nelson provides two new musical motifs, breaking down more or less as one for the Americans and one for the Venturans, and in the climactic action he has both of them and the main title/Steve Austin theme playing simultaneously, which is kind of confusing, but he somehow makes it work.

“Stranger in Broken Fork”: Man, does this episode have a lame beginning. While Steve is up in a jet, Oscar is meeting with Dr. Carlton (Arthur Franz), who was obviously meant to be Rudy Wells, but Alan Oppenheimer must not have been available. Dr. Fake-Rudy warns Oscar that there’s a “short” in Steve’s nuclear power pack that will cause a “bionic spasm” and nerve damage to his shoulder and neck, which Dr. Fake-Rudy reports will cause amnesia — “Amnesia!” Oscar gasps in full-on soap opera mode — and then kill him. Okay, I’m really not clear on the pathogenesis here. Shoulder damage causes amnesia, so predictably that Dr. Fake-Rudy can know in advance it will happen? Anyway, Oscar gets on the phone to try to reach Steve, but of course it’s a given that Steve will develop bionic spasmnesia while he’s up in the jet, and Dr. Fake-Rudy’s dialogue telegraphs that likelihood just like it’s telegraphed the rest of the plot. Naturally the jet goes out of control, flips over, and is going down — and the clouds behind it are upside-down too! Gee! Almost like they took stock footage of a climbing jet and inverted it. Then they cut from this scene of Steve Austin crashing an aircraft to… the main titles, in which Steve Austin crashes an aircraft. Why do they keep letting him up in these things?

Hey, this episode is directed by Christian Nyby, and the previous one was directed by Christian I. Nyby II. Son and father doing back-to-back episodes. Cool! I don’t think I ever quite realized there were two Christian Nybys.

Anyway, Steve bailed out during the commercial (cheaper that way), but now he’s lost in the woods without his memory. He runs across Angie (the striking Sharon Farrell, whom I recently saw in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s “The Minus-X Affair,” though she’s 8 years older and more Farrah-haired in this one), who’s a psychologist running a sort of halfway house for nonviolent mental patients (which this episode interprets as mute and withdrawn — perhaps she specializes in autism?). The house is on the outskirts of a small town of bigoted hicks who hate and fear the mentally ill, because apparently Angie’s boss thought that would be therapeutic, I guess? The lead bigot, Horace, is played by the go-to actor for violent small-town bigots or fanatics in ’70s and ’80s TV, Robert Donner. He’s trying to bully Angie and her people into leaving, and takes an instant dislike to Steve when he stands up for her. Horace tries to manhandle the amnesiac Steve, who pushes his arm away without knowing his own strength, and somehow just tosses Horace bodily into a stack of cans rather than fracturing his arm or dislocating his shoulder or something.

Anyway, the rest is Steve not remembering who he is and being disturbed by the powers he’s discovering, while occasionally confronting Horace’s goons and having to fight them off. Interestingly, during the first big fight, he’s using his bionic strength, but without slow motion being used — perhaps because he doesn’t know he’s doing it? Oh, and he’s periodically experiencing twinges of pain in his shoulder, because apparently that’s where his memory center is located. Amnesia! Plus there’s a subplot about a little neighbor girl who’s curious about one of the mental patients, an elderly gardener, and whose mother is a bad guy for telling her to stay away from him, because this was the seventies and times were still innocent enough that encouraging a little girl to reach out to a strange older man wasn’t seen as a dangerous thing. Although it plays out very awkwardly, not for those reasons but just because it’s ineptly written. And in the climax, when Horace’s goons try to drive the patients away and take Steve off to be killed, and afterward when Steve has been rescued by Oscar and makes a speech to the watching townspeople about the terrible thing they almost allowed to happen, many of the shots of the townspeople (who are just standing there watching dully, pretty much indistinguishable from the borderline-catatonic mental patients) are shot in very poor quality, like 8mm home movies or something. I’m not sure if Nyby was trying to be stylish and experimental or if it was just sloppy work. Either way, it’s bizarre.

So yeah, this is a mess. It doesn’t even have new music. Farrell is a fairly entertaining presence, though, perpetually bright and brassy and optimistic and rather nice to look at.

“Stranger in Broken Fork” feels like one of those ’70s TV scripts that got dusted off and rewritten from some earlier show. The bionic elements seem tacked on to a rather generic “hero wanders into small town and helps the locals” plot. But I can’t find any similar episodes in the bios of the credited writers, Bill Svanoe and Wilton Denmark. Maybe it was a generic spec script that got tailored to this show on its first and only outing.

Sound effects watch: We get a couple of “ta-ta-tang”s for Steve throwing people through the air, and the standard bionic-jump sound effect seems to be in place now, along with the “ballistic whistle.”

“The Peeping Blonde” is the unflattering nickname for Farrah Fawcett-Majors in her second guest role on her husband’s series. She plays Victoria Webster, an ambitious reporter for KNUZ TV (pronounced “Kay-News”), who stumbles upon — and films — Steve using his bionic strength to fix a malfunction at a rocket-launch site. She tells Oscar and Steve what she’s got and that she plans to expose them, for the good of the world but mainly for her own career advancement. Even after she finds out that her film was somehow left blank, she continues to bluff them into giving her more, and Steve convinces Oscar (who’s making insinuations about having her bumped off for national security) to take them with her on their Baja vacation so they have time to convince her to keep the secret. But Victoria’s unscrupulous (and sexually harassing) boss Colby (Roger Perry) has actually swapped the films, and calls some unspecified foreign power asking how much they’ll pay for a bionic man. He hires a couple of thugs led by Karl (Hari Rhodes) to hunt down and capture Steve, and insists on coming with them.

Now, a plan depending on Steve Austin’s eloquence is flawed on the face of it, so they don’t have much luck dissuading Victoria, who goes so far as staging a literal cliffhanger in order to get film of Steve bionically rescuing her. But since she’s played by the lead actor’s wife, it doesn’t take long before she finds herself overcome by Steve’s laconic charms and begins doubting her laser focus on her career instead of all that touchy-feely stuff that wimmenz is supposed to care about. She’s almost won over when the bad guys arrive, which she takes as a ploy by Oscar to convince her of the danger she’s putting Steve in, until she discovers Colby’s really behind it — while Karl is tying her up in her camper with the gas stove turned on. (Why not just shoot her? He’s been making tough and ruthless noises all episode, and they’re in the middle of the desert with plenty of handy places to bury her body.) This, of course, gives Steve time to break free, disable the baddies, and save Victoria (the gas flow in that range must’ve been really feeble). And she’s naturally convinced to squelch the story — though she and Steve (who’s on her side) use that last can of film to blackmail Oscar into getting her a job at a Washington news station. (He demurs that he has little clout with TV news people, which is unconvincing when it comes just seconds after he was threatening to ensure her story never got broadcast.)

This is certainly an improvement over the last two episodes, and actually ties into the core ideas of the series rather than being a generic adventure. Fawcett is pretty good in her way, and we get a few minor moments of character insight into Steve as she interviews him about what he went through after the accident. There are some awkward contrivances in the story, but mostly it works reasonably well.

Musically, the score is largely stock (drawing heavily on “Act of Piracy”), but I think there’s an original motif used for Steve and Victoria’s romance (at least it’s a consistent motif, and I don’t remember hearing it in previous episodes). Sound-effects-wise, we get two uses of “ta-ta-tang,” once for Steve kicking someone out a camper door and once for him throwing someone through the air. It’s still fitting the “lateral movement through air” motif for that sound effect, but particularly in the former case, it’s starting to move toward becoming a “bionic exertion” sound effect at last. There’s also a new sound effect, a jackhammer sound as Steve drives a metal tube into a rock face to restrain the bad guys.

By the way, IMDb says that Hari Rhodes was billed herein as Harry Rhodes, but that’s wrong. It definitely said Hari.

“The Cross-Country Kidnap”: Liza Leitman (Donna Mills) is a top computer scientist who’s just programmed the government’s secret communications network, making her a target for kidnappers working for the usual undefined enemy powers, and led by Ross (Frank Aletter). She’s also an equestrian determined to compete in the Olympic trials despite Oscar’s concerns about the kidnapping rumors he’s picked up. He insists that Steve shadow her for her protection, but she insists that if she sees him, she’ll call the police and “scream rape” — and I’m not crazy about the implication of women using rape charges as deception, but, well, I don’t always love the ’70s. Although when she does catch him shadowing her anyway, he manages to convince her to tolerate his presence as a bodyguard. Which provokes the kidnappers to try to bump Steve off so they can get to Liza, it seems. And Liza’s trainer buys it in the crossfire, driving home the seriousness to her. But there’s a deeper level to the villains’ plans; the hitman they’ve hired is really a diversion for something else (though I don’t want to spoil it).

This episode seems like mostly an excuse to show off a lot of horse-jumping, though it’s not a bad story. There’s a moment where a couple of random people with no other role in the episode and no evident acting talent congratulate Liza on her form, making me think they were real Olympic equestrians making a cameo, but IMDb says nothing about them. There’s also something unusual for the ’70s under the Act 1 credits: a flashforward to action from later in the episode. (Which is something The Outer Limits did all the time in its teasers, but is generally seen more as a modern trope.) But the footage also freeze-frames under each credit, which is very ’70s.

Random production glitches: Both the villains and the OSI evidently rent their helicopters from the same company, for its logo is on the side of both. And when Steve breaks into the villains’ facility and trips their security camera, the footage on the security monitor is from a handheld camera aimed at his feet — and showing the same footage of him that’s used several shots later (another flashforward!) Musically, we get another mix of new and stock cues. Sound effects watch: We get the first use of the “ta-ta-tang” for an action that doesn’t involve something flying or swinging horizontally through the air, for a shot of Steve swinging his arms upward to disarm two guards flanking him (and somehow both arms are equally effective at this), as well as a more conventional use when he hurls a bale of hay to knock down a sniper. In any case, it’s coming to be more consistently used for Steve; it’s been a while since we’ve heard it used for anyone else.

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps.5-8 (spoilers)

January 14, 2014 2 comments

“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.)

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.

What would SFTV have been like in the STAR TREK universe?

One of the characters in my novel Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock was Clare Raymond, the 20th-century housewife from TNG’s “The Neutral Zone,” and while working on scenes involving her thoughts and recollections, I got to wondering what mass-media science fiction would’ve been like in a universe where there was no Star Trek TV series in the ’60s. I vacillated between positing a reality that simply lacked such a series altogether and inventing a substitute series that could go in its place and fill the same role. (I was tempted to use Astro Quest from the CSI episode “A Space Oddity”. Galaxy Quest wouldn’t have worked, since it was supposedly made in the ’80s.) I ended up going the former route, but I didn’t really develop it in detail.

But the subject recently came up in a thread on the TrekBBS,  and I got into a more in-depth analysis of the subject, which I want to repost here.

The thing is, Star Trek had such a major influence on popular culture that it’s hard to imagine how different the media landscape would be without it. Star Trek did a lot to make science fiction a more respectable genre in the mass media. It pioneered or popularized many aspects of the modern fandom experience — conventions, fanzines, even slash fiction. The success of ST in syndicated reruns proved that reruns were more viable than broadcasters had thought and led to a rise in rerun use and a decrease in season lengths. Later on, TNG’s breakthrough success in first-run syndication paved the way for the syndication boom of the ’90s.

So without Star Trek, there might never have been a Xena or a Babylon 5. Not to mention all the shows that have spawned directly from Trek veterans like Michael Piller, Ron Moore, Ira Steven Behr, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Rene Echevarria, and so on. There’s no telling if they would’ve ever gone into SFTV if not for ST. If it hadn’t existed in the ’60s, then SFTV and first-run syndication in the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s would be a lot sparser. Heck, without B5 breaking new ground in serialized storytelling, we might not have as many of the heavily arc-driven shows we have today, in SF or otherwise. It’s a ripple effect.

Without ST, sci-fi would probably have maintained a reputation as kid stuff, since the most successful exemplars of the genre in TV would’ve been Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space. I think my conjecture in Watching the Clock that the bionic shows would still exist is pretty sound, since they were based on a novel and weren’t really seen as hardcore sci-fi; series producer Harve Bennett wasn’t an SF-oriented type and wasn’t very familiar with Star Trek prior to being pegged to produce the movies, so his ’70s career wouldn’t have been affected much by the absence of ST. Ditto for Bionic Woman creator Kenneth Johnson, who went on to do The Incredible Hulk, V, and Alien Nation. If Roddenberry hadn’t made his mark in SFTV, maybe we’d look back on Johnson as the man who proved that science fiction could be an adult genre, though that proof would’ve come along much later. And we might’ve still gotten Earthbound genre shows like The X-Files and Buffy.

And would there even have been a Star Wars without Star Trek? In the Trek Nation documentary, George Lucas says he’d attended some Trek conventions before creating Star Wars, and he says ST helped pave the way for SW by proving that sci-fi could be successful — and that it could be produced impressively on a tight budget. So without ST, with mass-media American science fiction in the ’70s lacking that one massive success story, would any movie studio have been willing to take a chance on Lucas’s idea to do a Flash Gordon pastiche as a big-budget movie? If they had, it probably wouldn’t have been called Star Wars, a name that I’ve read Lucas chose because it evoked Star Trek. And it might’ve been a much smaller, lower-budget film, and there would’ve been less of a pre-existing genre fanbase for it. And its effects might not have been as sophisticated, since the FX studios for Star Trek pioneered new techniques on that show. Without Star Wars as we know it, there wouldn’t have been an ILM, let alone a Pixar. Sci-fi and fantasy wouldn’t have become the giants in the motion picture industry that they are in our world; the films and franchises that would never have been made are too numerous to list. Nor would there have been a Battlestar Galactica or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or Jason of Star Command. And without Donald Bellisario cutting his genre teeth on Galactica, there might never have been a Quantum Leap.

So probably the biggest SF fan community would be for Doctor Who, and maybe Blake’s 7 would have a big following too. England would most likely be seen as the vanguard of science fiction in popular culture, though SF would be seen as a genre characterized by cheap production values, and thus would have trouble gaining more than a niche fanbase in the US.

And what about all the people inspired to become scientists and engineers because of Star Trek? If that show had never existed, then modern technology might be less advanced in some respects. There might not have been as much incentive driving people to invent flip phones or pad-style computers. Which might explain why some aspects of technology do seem to have advanced more gradually in the Trek universe itself, although its 20th century clearly had much more impressive progress in crewed spaceflight and genetic engineering than ours.

So all in all, as utopian as Star Trek‘s 22nd through 24th centuries are, it looks like their 20th and early 21st centuries would’ve been rather deprived where mass entertainment was concerned. Maybe that’s why ST’s characters are mainly fans of detective fiction and Westerns and gothic romances and the like — maybe science fiction never really caught on outside its particular niche audience.

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.)

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Pilots and early Season 1 (spoilers)

February 22, 2012 6 comments

I’ve been Netflixing the first DVD volume for The Six Million Dollar Man, containing the three pilot movies and the first season, and I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts, but haven’t gotten around to it until now.  These can’t be the kind of detailed reviews I gave for Mission: Impossible, since I don’t remember enough details and don’t have the time or inclination right now, but I’ll just give some general observations.

6M$M was based on Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg, which as I recall was more of a violent spy novel than the series, and also treated the technology in a relatively more realistic and limited way; for instance, Steve Austin didn’t have superspeed so much as improved endurance, and his bionic eye was just a disguised film camera that didn’t give him any actual vision.  The series, of course, ramped it up to give him superstrength, superspeed, and telescopic/infrared vision.

The original pilot movie, called simply The Six Million Dollar Man, was written by Howard Rodman (pseudonymously) and Terrence McDonnell and produced and directed by Richard Irving.  It’s a prototype for what’s to come, and some things haven’t quite fallen into place.  Steve is a civilian astronaut here, and instead of the novel’s and series’s Oscar Goldman, the man behind the bionics project is the stern, manipulative Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin), who’s introduced in an interminably slow, boring, and totally unnecessary elevator sequence intercut with the far more fascinating sequence of Steve’s preparations for the test flight that will lead to his crippling accident.  Those portions are compelling because of the evident cooperation the production had from NASA and/or the Air Force, letting them film with an actual test vehicle and use real flight footage. The sequence feels totally real with all the technical chatter over the radios and is intriguing to watch.

After Steve’s crash, Spencer convinces Dr. Rudy Wells (portrayed here by Martin Balsam) to give Steve his prototype bionics, the price being that Steve will be essentially chattel to Spencer’s intelligence agency and run special missions for him.  This fairly dark idea is one that didn’t last past the pilot movie, and has been explored more fully in later superpowered-spy series like The Invisible Man (2000) and Jake 2.0.   Anyway, the bulk of the pilot is devoted to Steve being convinced to accept the bionics and then trying to learn to use them while coping with the post-traumatic stress from his crash, plus his developing romance with his nurse (played by Barbara Anderson, fresh from a recurring stint as Mimi on Mission: Impossible).  Eventually he gets sent on a rescue mission that turns out to be just a test of his abilities, he survives it, and then the movie just kind of ends, with no resolution to the romance or to the question of Steve’s future with the agency.  It’s a disappointing fizzle after an interesting beginning.

Lee Majors actually surprised me here and in the movies to follow.   My impression was that he was a pretty bland, one-note actor, and while it’s true that he’s fairly deadpan and understated, I found he was pretty good at conveying an underlying emotional intensity or sincerity, at least up to a point.  And his performance style fits his character, an astronaut trained to be cool and controlled under pressure.

A lot was retooled for what followed, so the pilot can’t be considered quite canonical.  Steve was retconned into an Air Force colonel, and Spencer was forgotten, with Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson, of course) being retroactively established as the man behind his creation.  The latter two pilot movies were produced by Glen A. Larson, who approached them as James Bond-style spy thrillers, complete with a horrible theme song written by Larson (“He’s the ma-a-a-a-n!”).

Wine, Women, and War is the more Bond-like of the two, opening with Steve attending a party in a tuxedo that then converts into a wetsuit — though Steve isn’t quite the womanizer Bond is, spending most of the movie mourning the death of a female contact from that initial mission and rebuffing the advances of the curvaceous Michele Carey, though he eventually ends up at least literally in bed with Soviet agent Britt Ekland.  And Larson gives Steve some of the most sophomoric, crude sexual innuendoes in history, like “Sorry I had to violate your porthole.”  The movie has a somewhat unfocused story in which the grieving Steve is trying to avoid further assignments but gets manipulated into taking his vacation right next door to the bad guys, and eventually gets with the program just in time to discover an underground bunker of stolen nuclear missiles (including an American Polaris missile that everyone said had to be fake because none were missing, but turned out to be real after all, without any explanation being given), culminating in a totally ridiculous climax whose death toll must implicitly have been enormous.  The only advantages the movie has are special effects by the great Albert Whitlock and a score by Larson’s frequent collaborator Stu Phillips (who employs a leitmotif that’s a prototype for his Battlestar Galactica theme a few years later).

What surprised me about this movie was how the Soviet agents weren’t portrayed as the enemy; rather, they and the US had a mutual enemy in Eric Braeden’s arms-dealer character, and they formed an uneasy alliance to defeat him.  (David McCallum gets to haul out his Ilya Kuryakin accent as a cosmonaut friend of Steve’s who’s also moved into intelligence work.)  That kind of friendly attitude toward the USSR was unexpected from Larson, given how in the original Galactica, every peacemaker character in the entire series was either a deluded appeaser or an evil quisling.

Oscar is introduced here and portrayed as the same kind of manipulative hardass as Spencer, but Richard Anderson is a much more amiable performer from the start, so it doesn’t really fit him as well as the characterization he developed in the series.  And the role of Rudy is taken over by Alan Oppenheimer, best known these days as the voice of Skeletor in He-Man, as well as numerous other animation credits such as Ming in Filmation’s Flash Gordon (using the exact same voice he later used as Skeletor) and Merlin in The Legend of Prince Valiant.  He, too, is more amiable than Balsam.

The second Larson movie, The Solid Gold Kidnapping by Alan Caillou (story) and Larry Alexander (story and teleplay), is the better of the two.  It involves an attempt to expose an international kidnapping ring led by the ever-charming Maurice Evans and rescue an American official pivotal to peace talks with China.  Elizabeth Ashley, who impressed me greatly in her two Mission: Impossible appearances, plays a scientist who injects herself with memory RNA from a dead kidnapper in hopes of discovering where the bad guys are.  This leads to some interesting debates with Steve about the ethics of human experimentation (Steve knows a thing or two about being a guinea pig and is still ambivalent about his lot in life), and a subplot involving the risk that the procedure could damage her in some ill-defined way, yet that subplot fizzles out as abruptly as the romance in the pilot.  Future Galactica regular Terry Carter appears as a US agent who shepherds the ransom in gold bars, hoping to track it to the kidnappers, although they manage to sneak the gold out from under him through a clever misdirect.  All in all, it’s probably the best of the three movies, although it has the same weak-ending problem as the first and some more of the painfully bad sexual innuendo from the second.

The portrayal of Steve’s bionic powers is slow to develop.  He doesn’t even use his bionic eye in the pilot, and in the other two it’s mainly for night vision, though I think it has telescopic uses as well.  But it has no “boop-boop-boop” sound effect yet, and the sound effect for his bionic limbs hasn’t emerged yet either.  Also, he never uses a bionic jump in any of the movies.   Still, aside from the problematical ending of WW&W, I’d say these two fit fairly well with series canon.

The weekly series was produced by Harve Bennett (no relation), future producer of Star Trek II-V, and introduces the familiar musical themes of jazz musician Oliver Nelson.  Lee Majors and Richard Anderson were the only regulars at this point; Rudy was occasionally mentioned, but Alan Oppenheimer appeared infrequently.  Steve’s ambivalence about his work was largely dropped, although he retained an everyman, do-gooder mentality that sometimes clashed with Oscar’s more bureaucratic priorities and a tendency to break the rules and do things his own way; however, Anderson made Oscar such a sweetheart that it was always a given that he’d come around and do the right thing.  I know I always liked Oscar, but watching these episodes again has reminded me just what a fine, charismatic performance Anderson gave and what a good rapport he had with Majors.  In the series, the characters rapidly become best friends, routinely calling each other “pal.”

A quick look at the first several episodes:

“Population: Zero”: A whole small town near where Steve grew up has seemingly been struck dead and Steve goes to investigate, with shades of The Andromeda Strain.  Turns out they’re just unconscious thanks to a sonic weapon developed by a disgruntled scientist.  An okay story, but the main thing that stands out for me is Nelson’s music.  Features the debut of the paradoxical use of slow-motion photography to represent Steve’s superspeed and other bionic feats.

“Survival of the Fittest”: Two weeks in and they’re doing a plane-crash episode, with Steve and Oscar stranded on an island with two agents sent to kill Oscar.  Feels like an attempt to cash in on the airline-disaster-movie trend.  Not bad, but has an awkward conceit: the agents have an unrevealed accomplice they call Bobby, and there are multiple characters named Bob, Roberts, etc. to create a multiplicity of suspects (though I guessed well in advance who it actually was).

“Operation: Firefly”: The title refers to an advanced laser powered by firefly glowjuice, developed by a scientist who’s apparently been kidnapped.  Luckily, his daughter has ESP (oy) and can lead Steve to him through psychic flashes.  Lots of slow scenes of canoeing through the Everglades (with a kookaburra sound effect left over from a jungle picture), a fight with a rubber alligator, the psychic girl falling in quicksand in one scene and having her jeans magically clean again by the next shot, etc.  Forgettable overall, and notable mainly as the debut of the bionic-eye sound effect.

“Day of the Robot”: Steve’s friend John Saxon gets kidnapped and replaced by a robot built by Henry Jones so he can steal an antimissile defense system.  Saxon acts stiff and robotic throughout but Steve is slow to catch on.  Still, Saxon strikes a good balance between robotic and convincing, and it’s fun to watch the bad guys dealing with the glitches in this imperfect prototype technology.  Culminates in an extended slow-motion robotic/bionic slugfest, and the familiar bionic-limb sound effect makes its debut as one of the noises made by the robot, while the whistling sound effect that will come to be used for objects bionically hurled through the air debuts as the sound of antimissile missiles.  Most of the music is stock, but Nelson kicks in with a major musical set piece in the final act, one that will often be heard as stock later on.  (Oddly, the robot’s leitmotif here is a variant on the timpani rhythm that opens the show’s main-title theme.)

More to follow…

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