Like any kid of the ‘70s I was a fan of The Six Million Dollar Man; but then, I was so young at the time I thought Steve Austin and Jaime “Bionic Woman” Summers were not only real people but a real couple. I recall watching the show on syndication and the later seasons in primetime – I probably started watching the show shortly before it ended, with its fifth season – but I’ve always meant to go back and check it out again. Now, thanks to the complete series being released on DVD, that’s a possibility; for too long The Six Million Dollar Man was way too hard to find.
The first season only ran for 13 episodes, starting as it did in January of 1974 as a replacement series for another that had been cancelled. However the series was preceded by a trio of telemovies which were each tonally different from one another – and all of them were pretty different from the series itself.
The Television movies
“The Six Million Dollar Man” (1973): The telefilm that started it all is wildly different from the series that ensued – indeed, only Lee Majors himself would be the sole remaining element. The rest of the cast, the production crew, even the soundtrack composers, would all change by the time the series began in early 1974. This grim, leisurely-paced movie faithfully follows Martin Caidin’s source novel Cyborg, with only minor changes, particularly when it comes to the bionic augmentations test pilot/former astronaut Steve Austin receives after a horrendous crash. For one Caidin’s character received a bionic left arm (rather than the right of the show), a metal-covered skull, a finger capable of shooting a poison dart, and legs with all sorts of augmentations (scuba gear, etc). The show whittled it down to a bionic left eye, right arm, and legs. But it takes its good ol’ time getting there; the movie moves at a snail’s pace, focusing more on Steve’s internal plight of grief and remorse – at one point he begs his nurse to kill him. This vibe would be quickly jettisoned, as was the shady motives of the government organization, OSO (changed to OSI in the series), which wants to use Steve as its bionic agent. Represented by a scenery-chewing Darrin McGavin, OSO is not the family-like agency that OSI would become, and Steve Austin is basically considered replacable junk. But the telemovie is very static and only picks up here and there. The highlight by far is when Steve finally goes on a mission; dropped into the desert he must fight off some soldiers and even a tank; he definitely kills the tank driver (by dropping a grenade inside the tank), but it’s left up in the air if he kills any of the others. The best part of this episode is the song composer Gil Melle crafts for this sequence, a two-minute masterpiece that starts off sounding like leftover material from Jerry Goldsmith’s bizarre Planet Of The Apes soundtrack before veering into jazz-funk. (Oliver Nelson – and his famous theme – wouldn’t become involved until the series itself.)
“Wine, Women, and War” (1973): The grim, fatalistic feel of the first telemovie is abruptly gone, replaced by the campy, self-spoofing tone of the Roger Moore Bond films. In the first minutes we already know it’s a completely different beast, with a tux-clad Steve Austin taking on a commando mission on a yacht at sea, spouting double-entrende quips that even Moore wouldn’t touch. The measured pace of the previous film is just a memory, something which is quickly displayed as Steve’s tux becomes a wetsuit and he takes out a bunch of terrorists. The confusing, muddled plot eventually has a grief-stricken Steve (mourning the lost of a female agent killed early in the film) going on vacation – whereas in reality OSI chief Oscar Goldman (the iconic Richard Anderson) has swindled him into taking another mission, Oscar here displaying some of the shadiness of McGavin’s earlier character. The babe factor is nicely improved this time out – this was inspired by the Bond movies, after all – with the appearance of Britt Ekland as a Russian agent. It gets even more Bond-like in the climax, which sees Steve infiltrating the underground base of the villain which is stockpiled with stolen nukes. This movie doesn’t get much love but I actually enjoyed it, despite the goofy camp of it all. Plus David McCallum co-stars as an old Cosmonaut pal of Steve’s, sporting the same pseudo-Russian accent he employed in The Man From UNCLE.
“The Solid Gold Kidnapping” (1973): The third and final TV movie is closer to the spirit of the ensuing series, though still very much in the “Bond for TV” mode of the previous film. The Moore-esque quips have been whittled away and Steve is closer to the laconic but quick-witted character of the series. The plot is also similar to later episodes, with a SPECTRE-like cabal led by Maurice “Bewitched” Evans which specializes in kidnapping notables for exorbitant ransoms. (And as double bang for your Bewitched buck, David “Larry Tate” White also appears!) It’s pure ‘70s TV as Elizabeth Ashley guest-stars as a scientist who has some RNA/memory serum or somesuch which she eventually injects herself with, giving herself the memories of a dead man. On the babe meter we also have Luciana “Thunderball” Paluzzi as a contessa Steve scores with (in the line of duty, of course – the price a secret bionic agent must pay!). The shadiness Oscar Goldman displayed in the previous film is mostly gone, with he and Steve now the “pals” they would be later in the show (you could almost base a drinking game off the number of times these two would go on to call each other “pal”), and Alan Oppenheimer is still playing Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam played him in the first movie and Martin E. Brooks eventually took over the role in the series). While it doesn’t have the constant action of the previous movie, this one does have a more-grounded tone, and is probably the best of the three telefilms. Plus it’s got John Vernon!
Season 1 (1974)
1: Population Zero: After three TV movies in 1973, the Six Million Dollar Man series proper debuted in January 1974 with this episode, which is basically The Andromeda Strain on a TV budget. This early in the series various elements that would soon become patented are nowhere to be found; for example, when Steve Austin uses his bionics we do not hear the famous bionic sound effect. Also the relationship between Steve and OSI boss Oscar Goldman is more factious here, with Oscar sternly issuing Steve orders – orders which Steve disobeys. The residents of a tiny town have all mysteriously died, and Steve insists on going there, despite Oscar’s orders to stand down; in an unneccessary subplot, the producers have it that Steve grew up near here. Thus he knows everyone; apparently this was intended so as to add a personal layer to the story, but not much is done with it. Turns out though the people aren’t really dead, despite the creepy opening of the ghost town. A somewhat-attractive scientist on the scene informs Steve that the town was hit by ultrasonics. Eventually it will be learned that a former government-contracted scientist is using his ultrasonic weapon on the town; he threatens to really kill everyone if he isn’t paid ten million bucks. Some of the episode is laughable, like when the villain buzzes the army compound with his private plane and the general and the soldiers stand around like morons, just watching. But Lee Majors carries the episode, and he’s perfect for the role of Steve Austin. Here in these early episodes Steve is more laconic and grim, and it’s notable that he kills off the villains in the finale, something you wouldn’t see happen in later seasons – he blows ‘em all up with a hurled metal pole which somehow causes their van to explode. Oliver Nelson’s music is the exceptional jazz-funk expected of the dude, but a bit muted in this episode, as is the theme – only a few bars of it play in the opening credits. Overall this is a fine intro to the series and more of a sign of things to come than the three TV movies that preceded it.
2: Survival Of The Fittest: Cleary The Six Million Dollar Man hadn’t yet figured out what kind of show it wanted to be, for this second episode seems to be a TV version of Airport. Steve and Oscar are somewhere, perhaps Hawaii, boarding a plane filled with military people, when Oscar reveals to Steve that someone’s been trying to kill him. We learn that the plotters are a corrupt Air Force major and a Navy officer played by veteran B-movie villain William Smith. But shortly the episode becomes Lost a few decades early, as the plane enters a heavy storm and ditches in the ocean. Suddenly it’s a survival tale as the passengers find themselves on a barren island and must wait until help arrives. Meanwhile the two assassins, who were also on the doomed plane, continue to plot Oscar’s death. Steve’s bionics are only sporadically used, from ripping open the plane’s escape hatch to running (in slo-mo, of course). The bionic sound effect still isn’t heard, but we do see some hazy infra-red through Steve’s bionic eye, as well as telescope crosshairs. It’s also implied that Steve kills again, hurling a rock with his bionic right arm at one of the would-be assassins. Oliver Nelson provides the score and gets a chance to groove things up with some Afro-Cuban drumming.
3: Operation: Firefly: This episode is for the most part just goofy fun, as Steve contends with a rubber alligator and a somewhat attractive female colleague who dabbles in ESP. Some scientist has devised this laser gizmo but he’s been kidnapped, reported as missing in the Florida everglades or something. Oscar follows the obvious logic: he has Steve team up with the scientist’s young daughter, because she has ESP and might know where he is! The pacing is measured as the two go down the river, with lots of weird jungle sound effects on the soundtrack. The attack by the rubber alligator is pretty great, and the episode gets even campier when the gal falls in quicksand – and her clothes are magically clean the very next scene. Steve only uses his bionics sporadically, like when he breaks out of the jail he’s wrongly placed in toward the climax. All told though this one’s only marginally entertaining for the campy aspects. We also get some early ‘70s psychedelic fades and whatnot during the “ESP” sequences.
4: Day Of The Robot: The series finally finds its footing with this episode based on a story by Harold Livingston, who wrote some of the whackier episodes of Mission: Impossible. This is also the episode which inspired the ‘70s Six Million Dollar Man toy Maskatron. John “Enter The Dragon” Saxon plays two roles: Steve’s old astronaut buddy Sloan, who is now part of some missile development deal which the bad guys want to steal. Enter Saxon’s other role: the robot created in Sloan’s likeness which the villains replace the real Sloan with, monitoring his every move. Steve, assigned to act as Sloan’s bodyguard, slowly begins to suspect something weird about his old friend, though it would be obvious to anyone that something very strange is going on – again, the show has a subtle campiness to it, which adds to the charm. This one culminates in an 8-minute brawl between Steve and the Sloan-robot (in slow-motion throughout, naturally) as Oliver Nelson’s theme song plays over and over again. Also Steve again kills, flipping a car over on a would-be assassin. However the good guys suffer no losses, with a bizarrely happy ending in which Steve, assuming the real Sloan is dead, just sort of stumbles upon him, sitting in confusion at a park bench.
5: Little Orphan Airplane: Greg Morris, of Mission: Impossible (where he played Barney, aka “the black one”) guest stars as an Air Force reconnaissance pilot whose plane goes down over contested area in the new African republics. The episode replicates the feel of a mini-Bond movie, with the Air Force going to Oscar at OSI, requesting their “special man,” and then Steve briefed by Oscar before heading to Africa. He’s to parachute in and rescue Morris and destroy the plane – and look out for a brief appearance by future B-movie lunkhead Reb “Space Mutiny” Brown as an Air Force dispatcher Steve briefly talks to via radio after landing in Africa. The Bond feel is quickly lost as Steve drops into Africa and meets two Dutch nuns who take him in. Coincidence be damned, they’ve also found Greg Morris’s character, and are hiding him from the local army – a group of “Africans” who sound suspiciously American and appear to be familiar faces from Blaxploitation movies of the time. Also their leader seems a bit too affable to be the villain of the episode (“All right, men, move ‘em out!”), which makes later scenes where he threatens the nuns a bit hard to buy. Rather than action this one focuses on Steve’s MaGuyver-esque abilities, particularly how he can use his bionics to fix Morris’s broken airplane using jerry-rigged parts from old trucks. While a bit plodding and certainly padded, this one nonetheless is entertaining, and plus those “jungle noises” from “Operation: Firefly” return.
6: Doomsday, And Counting: This episode’s like The Posidedon Adventure or another of those ‘70s disaster flicks on a TV budget. Steve’s old Cosmonaut pal (the actor speaks with an American accent but a “foreign” diction, which again sounds super campy) comes over to the US to discuss some new projects with Steve and Oscar, when he’s called away to the island base where he’s working on a new rocket or somesuch with his fiance. Turns out an earthquake has hit the island and, when Steve and his pal get there, they discover that the fiance, Irina, has been trapped underground. Here the disaster movie parallels begin as Steve and comrade work their way into a massive factory-type building, navigating through collapsed tunnels and whatnot. Things get more dire when Irina reveals that the computer which guards the base has gone into safeguard mode and is about to launch nuclear missiles. Steve reveals his bionics to the couple, using his arms to pull down girders and etc. Overall this one was pretty tepid, very static, however Irina would return a few seasons later.
7: Eyewitness To Murder: It’s The Six Million Dollar Man meets Mannix as Steve just happens to witness the member of a legal team being gunned down on a street outside the restaurant Steve’s dining in. The assassin is played by Gary “2001” Lockwood, sporting the same awful, shaggy hairdo he wore in his guest appearance a few years earlier on Mission: Impossible. Turns out he was actually gunning for the leader of the legal team, who is preparing a big case against the syndicate. Steve desperately tries to track Lockwood down and uncover his supposedly-solid alibi in another leisurely-paced episode. However this one’s saved by the awesome ‘70s fashions sported by Steve throughout, accessorized with his cool tan-lensed Ray Ban aviators (as seen above, in a screengrab taken from this episode). His bionics are relegated to telescope eyes (the “radar” sound now firmly in use) and the occasional running/stopping a truck with his arm (but still no “bionic sound effects” for this stuff yet.) Oliver Nelson says “to hell with it” and funks up random scenes with some jazzy grooves. Despite the leisurely pace I actually enjoyed this one more than the last few. And like Irina in the previous episode, Gary Lockwood’s character would also return.
8: Rescue of Athena One: Even the Six Million Dollar Man must contend with the Social Justice Warriors, as Steve finds himself having to instruct “the first female astronaut.” Despite her constant screwups (as if!!), Steve’s pressured by NASA/etc to ensure she’s fully capable of piloting her ship into deep space for some “energy research” project; due, of course, to all of the publicity the event’s getting. At any rate the astronaut, played by Lee Majors’s wife Farrah Fawcett, wilts under Steve’s humorously angry orders – the first half of the episode wouldn’t be possible in today’s proggressively-liberalized world…unless that is the instructing astronaut was a woman and the ill-equipped student was a man. Speaking of Farrah Fawcett, she gives a quality, reserved performance, not very recognizable as the pop culture sex icon she would soon become – only at the very end of the episode does she sport her soon-to-be-patented feathered hair. Throughout most of the episode she’s clad in a bulky space suit with her hair tied in a bun, and looks eerily like the future Jodie Foster! Anyway this episode is yawnsville. My guess is someone realized there was all this NASA moon/rocket launch footage lying around and decided to shoot an episode around it. When Fawcett’s ship, Athena One, encounters trouble in space, it’s up to Steve to blast off in a separate rocket to save the day, as apparently only his bionic right arm is capable of pulling off the wreckage which has trapped poor Farrah in her ship. This episode sees the now-recurring bit of someone outside OSI learning about Steve’s bionic parts; I like to imagine that Steve has orders to kill anyone who learns of this, orders which he carries out promptly after the end credits roll. Seriously though, this episode is only heightened by the fact that Steve’s bionic parts go screwy in space, with Farrah having to land the rocket herself. Oliver Nelson really gives an otherwise lackluster episode a rip-roaring fanfare of an ending; otherwise he puts a lot of weird synths and theremins on the soundtrack, sounding at times like the music in The Andromeda Strain. Also we get the hint that Steve scores again, at episode’s end, as Farrah (in an unflattering body-hugging pantsuit) invites him back to her place for “dinner.”
9: Dr. Wells Is Missing: One of the highlights of Season 1, this episode has Steve venturing to Austria to rescue the kidnapped Dr. Rudy Wells, the character who gave Steve his bionic parts and who hasn’t been seen since the TV movies which preceded the series (and here he’s again played by Alan Oppenheimer, returning from the second and third TV movies, but later replaced by the more iconic Martin E. Brooks in the role). Steve, as usual sporting his awesome ‘70s threads with aviator Ray Bans, snoops around a scenic Austrian village (aka the Universal backlot) and using his smarts he quickly finds the villa in which Rudy is being held. This episode, unlike the past few, really puts the focus on action; after being captured Steve is put through a series of challenges by the Bondian villain, who wants Rudy to create a bionic henchman for him. Steve must fight a handful of the villain’s men; one of them is a black guy who is a master of savate (which looks suspiciously similar to kung-fu, which had taken the world by storm at this point – and the dude’s fighting screams are even dubbed chop-sockey style). The fight goes on and on, in slow-mo, and gets to be annoying because in reality a man with a bionic arm and two bionic legs could rip off the limbs of his enemies and smash their skulls into jelly. But anyway Steve, after throwing them all around, is undone when one of them smashes a lampost into his bionic arm. This long fight is notable for the first appearance of the bionic sound effect which would soon become so famous; it’s briefly heard when Steve twists the arm of one of his opponents and flips him to the ground. The climactic escape is cool and maintains the Bond vibe; Rudy makes off downhill in a jeep and Steve, arm in a sling, jumps out to take care of their pursuers. First he leads them on a chase back up the mountain, running at speeds in excess of 60 mph. Then he flips their car over the cliff, causing it to explode, thus killiing both men; he takes out the final henchman with a bionic kick to the chest which surely ruptured something. This episode is tonally similar to the third (and final) TV movie, “The Solid Gold Kidnapping,” and shows what the series might’ve been like if it hadn’t become progressively campier and more kid-friendly.
10: The Last of The Fourth of Julys: My favorite episode of Season 1 retains the action focus of the previous episode; this time scene-chewing Steve Forrest is Quail, a very Bond-style villain who has devised “the ultimate weapon” for his nefarious employer. When an undercover agent sends in word that the evil plot hinges around July 4th, Steve’s sent on the job – after that is some training courtesy a paunchy, ill-tempered drill seargent who steals the show. Curiously, most of the stuff Steve’s trained in – including being launched out of a torpedo tube from a submarine – is stuff we already saw him do in the second telefilm, “Wine, Women, and War.” This episode really harkens back to that TV movie, minus the groan-worthy quips, with a sometimes-flippant Steve presented more as a badass spy than the “average dude with bionic powers” he normally was in the series; also, the finale maintains the Budget Bond vibe, with Steve diregarding “orders from Washington” to score with a sexy babe. This sort of stuff would be gone in future seasons, as would Steve’s cold-bloodedness; this episode again sees him killing off a bunch of bad guys, indeed blowing up Quail’s entire fortress. This episode’s really a lot of fun, again providing a glimpse of the show that might have been, with a rousing and funky Oliver Nelson score – and a great stunt when a pole vaulter stand-in for Lee Majors hops a thirty-foot fence. There’s even a bit of Mission: Impossible-type stuff where a captured Steve is strapped to a revolving chair while a light flashes in his face, psychological torture courtesy Quail. And you have to love how director Reza Badiyi really capitalized on the low-cut dress Quail’s sexy henchwoman Violette (Arlene Martel, most known for playing Spock’s wife) wears in the final quarter of the film – particularly when she climbs into Steve’s escape torpedo, a gratuitous cleavage shot if ever there was one. (But who’s complaining?)
11: Burning Bright: Finally, the opening credits present us with the four words we’ve been waiting for: “Guest star William Shatner.” Eschewing the action-focus of the previous episodes, this one’s more of character study, with an emoting Shatner providing the OTT melodrama we love him for. (In 2000 I met Walter “Chekov” Koenig, whom we’d flown into the company I was then working for to narrate an audio book, and I kid you not, the very first thing I said to him was, “What’s William Shatner like?” After a pause his reply was: “Bill is an unusual guy. He’s a good guy, though.”) Shatner plays Josh Lang, another astronaut buddy of Steve’s, who has come back from his latest space mission a little shall we say batshit crazy. Spouting New Age claptrap about “the sun as the origin of the space vector” and carrying on conversations with an unseen entity called “Andy,” Josh is in danger of being removed from the space program. It’s up to Steve, called in to observe his behavior, to give the recommendation on whether he should be or not. Shatner gets ample opportunity to chew scenery as Josh becomes more and more insane; he was affected by some cosmic forcefield or somesuch which all astronauts experience (including Steve), but they usually shrug off the effects. Not so for Josh, who is soon conversing with dolphins at the local aquarium – time for lots of ‘70s-style faux-psychedelic close-ups of Shatner’s face while Oliver Nelson provides goofy bleeps and bloops on the soundtrack. Pretty soon Josh is using his mind to overpower people and, most damningly of all, accidentally kills a kindly old sheriff in Houston – Josh having gone back home, where it turns out “Andy” was a childhood friend Josh accidentally caused the death of by daring him to climb up a power line. I was hoping it would turn out to be some alien intelligence. The finale sees Shatner pulling out all the stops, emoting grandly as Josh goes from pleading with Andy one second to ranting at Steve to “stay back!” the next. All Lee Majors can do is hang there and squint and say nothing, which is pretty much all you can do when you’re in the presence of a master at the top of his form. The two actors reunited many years later, on Shatner’s short-lived sitcom Bleep My Dad Says, but the producers blew the potential. The episode climaxed with Shatner and Majors – each in goofy costumes – getting in a brawl (in other words, Captain Kirk versus The Six Million Dollar Man!), but the idiot producers chose to focus instead on Shatner’s dweeb of a son. This is the course they chose for most every episode, which makes it unsurprising that Bleep My Dad Says was cancelled.
12: The Coward: Last time it was Shatner, this time it’s George “Sulu” Takei, in a much less important role – he has what amounts to a bit part as an Army climbing instructor who trains Steve for his latest mission: venturing into the Himalayas to retrieve intelligence documents from a recently-unearthed American plane which crashed in the mountains in WWII. But “this time it’s personal,” to quote the old cliché; turns out none other than Carl Austin was the pilot of that doomed plane…ie Steve’s dad. This entails a shaken Steve venturing home to talk to his mom – the first we’ve seen her or heard of her in the show (and it turns out Steve was raised by a stepdad, who is unseen this time) – where he learns that Mom never told him of the stories that Dad might’ve been a coward, bailing out of the plane and letting his crew die in the crash. This one, unlike the previous episode, includes action with the drama; when Steve and Takei parachute into Tibet they’re instantly attacked by Mongol warriors on horseback – the leader looks uncannily like Frank Zappa. Poor George is removed from the episode posthaste, and an escaping Steve runs into a grizzled old American expat – a dude who looks sort of similar to Steve. As a double bang for your “Star Trek” buck, this guy happens to be married to a lovely native gal who is played by France Nuyen, who played Elaan of Troyius. Humorously enough, Steve and his new pal never tell each other their names, but the writers don’t take the expected route – after the journey up to the crashed plane (where Steve sheds a few tears), and after a climactic fight with the Mongols – during which the old expat sacrifices himself to save Steve – it turns out that Steve’s dad did in fact die on the plane. The old expat was in fact the copilot, who bailed out and later climbed back up to the plane to switch dog tags, so no one would think him a coward. Or is that what really happened? It’s left intentionally mystertious, with it just as possible that the expat was in fact Steve’s dad, and the dog tag story just a lie.
13: Run, Steve, Run: So it’s come to this: A Six Million Dollar Man clip show. Steve is visiting a pal on a construction site when his elevator goes haywire and almost kills him. Turns out Steve’s being stalked by Dr. Dolenz, the old scientist from “Day of the Robot.” He’s been hired by a new Mafia boss who wants Dolenz to create a robot for him, one which he plans to rob Fort Knox with(!!). Talk about a guy who thinks outside the box. But boy this episode is lame. For one, Oscar, head of a friggin’ intelligence agency, waves off Steve’s concerns that someone is stalking him, and instead insists Steve go on vacation! This Steve does, and suddenly the episode becomes “The Six Million Dollar Hick” as Steve ambles around the ranch of an old friend, riding horses and trying to get a gangly but pretty young cowgirl to come out of her tomboy shell. Meanwhile he flashes back – at length – to previous episodes: “Day of the Robot,” “Dr. Wells Is Missing,” and “Population Zero.” The cheap producers even re-use footage from “Survival of the Fittest” when Steve takes a flight, early in the episode; you can even see the actors from that earlier episode in the background of the plane’s interior. The episode is dull as dishwater, only sparking in the finale, where Steve is caught again and must show off his bionics to Dr. Dolenz. We get more humorous quips from Steve at least, particularly when he insults Dolenz’s Sloan robot, saying it squeaked when it walked. But this is not a strong finale for the first season, and indeed they should’ve placed “The Coward” last.
Overall I really enjoyed this first season of The Six Million Dollar Man. Sure, some of the episodes were a bit static, but the relaxed pace was kind of refreshing when compared to the constantly-moving, cgi-ridden fluff of today. And Lee Majors is perfect in the title role, bringing to it the sort of square-jawed resolve impossible in today’s world, where Steve Austin would need to be bettered/ridiculed by a female partner and also have some sort of debilitating condition/issue which prevented him from being a “complete man.” In other words Steve would be more like the character presented in the first TV movie rather than the self-assured hero of the series. I also really enjoyed the lack of continuity, particularly when compared to the season-long story arcs demanded of today’s shows. Each episode resolves its central conflict before the end credits roll, and I really dug that. Today it’s like nothing can ever be resolved in most TV shows, which dangle subplot after subplot to the point where you figure even the producers have no idea where it’s all headed – and, as was proven by Lost, usually they don’t.
Now on to Season Two!