Last week, the great character actor John Saxon passed away. We’ve seen him as a villain at least four times in this blog; if we were writing a broader blog about the film and television of the sixties through the eighties, we’d certainly see him many times more. He was regularly cast as villain, a cop, or a heavy, and if you’ve never seen him in Enter the Dragon, you really should. Our condolences to his family and friends.
Happily, our son wasn’t horrified by tonight’s conclusion to this epic two-parter. How could he be? Jaime plays defense against Bigfoot in her two fights much more effectively than Steve does, and doesn’t get thrown like a rag doll against any power converters with exploding sparks everywhere. From the evidence provided by this show, the main strategy one should employ when fighting cyborg sasquatches is to fight them outside. Indoors, you get clobbered.
I tease, but this silly story is a downright masterpiece in writing for under-tens. It has Bigfoot and it has an erupting volcano. Our son was a little leery when we got started, and was really worried about Jaime at first, but then he realized that the villains had moved their headquarters underneath an inactive volcano. He’s savvy enough to realize that in adventure fiction, volcanoes rarely remain inactive for long.
The pre-credits scene revealed that Bigfoot was back, and things looked good. Our son glowed. “He caused so much destruction last time! Don’t you remember all that destruction that he caused?!” But before the hour was up, things would fall apart.
So, famously, the 1976-77 season of the Bionic series opened with a very celebrated crossover, the seventies ABC equivalent of the annual Arrowverse get-together on the CW. The aliens who control Bigfoot have had an uprising, and a gang of them have stolen both the Sasquatch and their wonder drug, and are now pilfering top secret facilities to get the parts they need to build a force field. One of the aliens restores Steve’s memory, he tries to stop Bigfoot alone, fails, finally tells his co-stars, including Jaime, what’s going on, nobody believes him, and he makes another attempt as they go for the last isotope they need.
And Steve Austin gets his ass handed to him. It is a beatdown to remember.
But first, let’s look at just how forward-looking Kenneth Johnson’s story is. This episode is more than just simply crossing over the two shows with the extremely popular Bigfoot. It’s done with some really impressive guest casting. Severn Darden and Stefanie Powers are back from the first Bigfoot story, and they’ve brought Sandy Duncan along as a newly-introduced alien, and the leader of the villains is that omnipresent baddie of seventies teevee, John Saxon. That’s a great cast, and everybody is working hard to sell this silliness. I love the way that the plot of the story is simplicity itself, but explaining all this stuff about hidden aliens and time-dilation devices and Bigfoot is so convoluted and ridiculous that Steve looks completely crazy telling his friends about it. I really like Lindsay Wagner’s acting in this scene; her life is already unbelievable, but this tall tale is pushing it.
Our son was enjoying it even more than I was until that second fight. Again, you have to consider the time and the audience. Television superheroes suffer a lot worse these days with all sorts of blood and bruising, but for a seventies show, in the eyes of a six year old, this is horrifying. Bigfoot’s been amped up by John Saxon, and Steve doesn’t have a prayer. Andre the Giant did not return to the role; Ted Cassidy plays Bigfoot this time out, and he just makes mincemeat of our hero. It finally ends with Steve’s bionic legs being crushed underneath some huge thing or other, which made even me gasp, and that’s with me knowing the grievous injury that we’re going to see Jaime suffer in a few days’ time.
Our son couldn’t bear to watch. He left the room completely with his security blanket, and came back shaking. He was a mess. He curled up on the couch as Dr. Wells gave Steve less than 24 hours to live, and Steve whispered instructions to Jaime, to get help from the aliens. We did our best to assure him that Jaime will save the day. Man, I hope so…
Our summer season of Star Wars cash-ins comes to a crashing finale with the much-maligned Battle Beyond the Stars, a movie so derivative that it recycles sound effects from Battlestar Galactica, making it a cash-in of a cash-in. It’s also a remake of The Magnificent Seven, with George Peppard in the Steve McQueen role and Robert Vaughn in the Robert Vaughn role, which was itself a remake of The Seven Samurai… could you tell that Roger Corman produced this?
Actually, one of the most delightfully Cormanesque qualities of this movie is that all of the principal actors, except for John Saxon, who plays the Vader Villan Sador, were probably only required on set at the same time exactly once. Saxon never interacts with any of the principal characters, who also include Richard Thomas, Sybil Danning, Marta Kristen, and Sam Jaffe, who plays a cyborg. I think that if I were casting a movie in 1980, Sam Jaffe would not be the first name I’d come up with to work for about eight hours as a disembodied head stuck on top of a bunch of wires and machinery.
I can’t credit this turkey with much of anything myself, except that I was genuinely impressed with at least the first two-thirds of the script, which is lean and mean and moves absurdly fast, all character and nuance chopped for the bare bones of a fast-moving plot. It makes a huge error in breaking the battle against Sador into two chunks; the momentum vanishes when they return to the planet Akir (as in Akira Kurosawa) for the respite between fights with Sador. The last half-hour of the movie drags.
But it certainly didn’t drag when I was ten or so. This was one of those movies that was shown on HBO about thirty times over a couple of months and I saw most or all of it about twenty-nine of those times. I don’t know why bits of it were so unfamiliar this time around, though. I’d forgotten all about the collective-consciousness aliens who join the fight, but remembered Sybil Danning’s last line exactly. This is a movie that you watch when you’re a kid for all the space explosions and the illicit thrill of some mildly bad language because your parents see this and assume it’s more kiddie space junk and they don’t need to monitor it.
There are other cute little bits. I like that John Saxon’s character is in search of a new arm, and there’s one of the all-time great “Show me more of this Earth thing you call kissing” scenes between Thomas and Darlanne Fluegel, in a very early role. George Peppard’s Cowboy character has a belt that dispenses scotch, soda, and ice.
I nearly fell asleep during the last half hour, and my wife cringed and winced through the mess, as indeed she did with all the other outer space dramas we’ve watched this summer. But our son whooped and hollered and punched the air and had the best time in the galaxy again. He has, in that delightful way of six year-olds, decided that each and every one of the eight silly movies we watched during this season of cash-ins was better than the previous one, and this – this! – was the best of them all. I’d say that it’s not half as good as Starcrash or Message From Space, but it’s his opinion that counts the most.
We’ll head back to Earth for our next few Sunday movies, but we’ll let him see the actual sequel to Star Wars one day next month, so stay tuned!
“Mom! Instead of a face, it was just wires and metal stuff!”
The Six Million Dollar Man‘s first recurring villain is introduced in this episode. Steve and Oscar don’t meet him yet, but he’s a guy called Dr. Chester Dolenz, played by Henry Jones, and he makes robots. Dolenz appears three times in the first two seasons. This time out, he builds a robot duplicate of Steve’s pal Major Fred Sloan in order to steal an anti-missile guidance system. Our son was very worried when the villains abducted Sloan, and a strange and unlikely little coda that reveals the villains later dumped Sloan in a Washington park with some of his memories erased, rather than killing him outright, went some way toward reassuring him. I thought it would have been a better and more bleak end had Sloan never been found, but this is a kids’ show.
John Saxon plays Sloan and the robot, and it’s interesting how he plays him, with stiff body language and cheerful line delivery. Structurally, it’s pretty unsophisticated from a contemporary perspective. Del Reisman’s script shows us the robot in the pre-credit scene and then leaves Steve wondering for half the episode what’s going wrong with his buddy.
This leads to a very, very long fight scene that ends with the robot being unmasked, naturally, and then impaled by Steve. For its time, though, this was pretty entertaining. John Saxon and Lee Majors have good chemistry together, and the fight does have an interesting angle. This is the first time that Steve fights a superpowered opponent. He can’t use his left arm against the robot, and he can slug the villain in the head all he wants and just hope for the best. But if the robot catches Steve in the head or chest, he’ll be in serious trouble. Eventually he does take a blow on his left arm and can’t use it again after that.
The robot would be the inspiration for a doll in the Six Million Dollar Man toy line called Maskatron. It wasn’t a very extensive line. These were twelve-inch tall action/fashion dolls with different outfits, and I think there were only six dolls in the line: Steve, Oscar, Jaime, Maskatron, Bigfoot, and a Fembot. I had Steve – all children did – and I wanted a Maskatron very badly because several friends had one. I didn’t start watching this show or The Bionic Woman until I was around five years old, after season four had started. I’ll probably come back to this when we get to “Kill Oscar” in the fall, but I thought that Fembots were related to Maskatron, and waited patiently through the end of both series hoping for Maskatron to appear, not knowing that the robot that inspired the doll had already come and gone.
So some Nazis attack Paradise Island. The reality of seventies television means that we didn’t get what modern superhero teevee would do in this sort of situation. I can totally imagine the team that makes those four shows on the CW pulling off a full-scale pitched battle, with Amazon archers bringing down German soldiers on the beaches. Here, bizarrely, the expeditionary force happens to choose to land on the remote part of the island where the Amazons mine feminum, from which they forge their bracelets. And so the eight soldiers run into Diana’s group of unarmed (!!!) Amazons, and they overcome the women with gas grenades.
No, nobody gets an arrow or a javelin in the chest. The Amazons are content to… well, throw the villains into the water. Oh, the seventies, how you disappoint us so. Even before the Nazis get their minds wiped before being shipped into Allied hands, they have no idea that the island has a large population.
On the other hand, our son was incredibly pleased by the stunts and the tame violence. He loved seeing the villains tossed into the pond, as well as the climax, in which Wonder Woman stops an experimental jet from being stolen by an agent by grabbing a wing and letting it spin in circles. Full credit to the producers and Lynda Carter for pulling that off: it wasn’t a stuntwoman, and it looked pretty dangerous.
Honestly, my favorite part of the episode came when John Saxon’s villainous character briefly justified the Nazi cause to Carolyn Jones’s Queen Hippolyta. I say this not because of the scene’s content, but because these are two really great actors working extremely well together. Saxon is still working; he has nearly 200 credits at IMDB and I notice that we’ll be seeing him again down the line in other projects.
Overall, it’s a good story, with some very intelligent bits – watching the villains determine Paradise Island’s location based on Drusilla’s recounting of constellations is really clever – and some very good acting, from the veterans as well as from newcomer Debra Winger. Times have changed and expectations have evolved, but for its day, this was not bad at all.
The first two-part episode of Wonder Woman is another that everybody remembers. It introduces Debra Winger as Diana’s younger sister Drusilla. In other Paradise Island news, Carolyn Jones takes over the role of Queen Hippolyta, and Erica Hagen, who had been in a couple of first season Land of the Lost episodes, plays another Amazon named Dalma.
The Queen has decided that Diana has spent enough time in America and should return home to fulfill her duties. This is set in June 1942. I was saying the other week that this show would make more sense if it had been set in ’43, but now we’re meant to believe that Major Trevor washed ashore on the island in the spring and the queen thinks Diana should have ended the war already? Oddly, that’s precisely what John Saxon’s bosses in Germany say this week: a proactive Wonder Woman would end the war within weeks.
The original story was written by Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday, who would later create the iconic cop drama Cagney & Lacey, and the teleplay credited to regular Hammer Films scribe Jimmy Sangster, who had moved to California in the early seventies and was popping around various studios writing TV episodes. The title is a cute pun on Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, but it doesn’t make any sense in this show yet. “Feminum” is the name of the indestructible metal that the Amazons use for their bracelets, but that is not explained in part one of the story.
Our son really enjoyed this one, and was excited when Drusilla does a spin and turns into a costumed hero. He was less happy when she gets into trouble and is captured by John Saxon’s gang. I enjoyed the way that Drusilla is shown to be naive and doesn’t understand our culture, the way that Wonder Woman was all too briefly in the original film. But our son is still learning our culture as well, and I had to pause a couple of times to explain things like code phrases and how Drusilla’s yellow dress is garishly unlike what teens in 1942 were wearing.