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The Bionic Woman 3.22 – On the Run

As I mentioned the other day, the series finale as we know it wasn’t the sort of thing that producers did back in the sixties or seventies. It was seen as an impediment to successful syndication, back when that was the main way that studios and production companies got their money back. Strangely, there was some reason to think this was true: two shows that did have celebrated final episodes, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and The Fugitive, were not as successful in 1960s-70s syndication as their fame might suggest.

But the producers of The Bionic Woman wanted to give Jaime a proper sendoff, while also leaving the door open for future missions. So “On the Run,” written by Steven E. DeSouza, isn’t the end-all that it might be if it were made today. It seems to take its inspiration from The Prisoner, with Jaime ready to resign and just be a normal person again, and government agents, led by Andrew Duggan, wanting to send her to a resort that sounds an awful lot like “The Village” to keep other countries from abducting or dissecting her. Duggan was in all sorts of movies and TV shows in the seventies, usually playing some high-ranking government jerk.

Both Richard Anderson and Lindsay Wagner get some real meat to chew on in this story, with both actors putting in some of their very best work. Oscar is outraged on Jaime’s behalf and rails against his superiors, and Jaime is just about to crack and needs to see the light at the end of the tunnel for once. She has some additional support from a third season supporting character we’d missed in our viewing, a boyfriend called Chris Williams played by Christopher Stone. This character appeared in four episodes, but gets unceremoniously killed off sometime after this story so that Jaime and Steve could be together again in the reunion movies!

After The Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner became one of the networks’ most in-demand actresses for TV movies-of-the-week. She made dozens over the next twenty years, perhaps most famously Stranger in My Bed and She Woke Up. Her TV series weren’t as successful, but I think 1989’s family drama A Peaceable Kingdom was unfairly wasted by CBS, thrown away against established hits on the other networks without any support.

Richard Anderson, who passed away earlier this year, also stayed very much in demand, mainly in guest star roles, until he retired in the late 1990s. Both Anderson and Wagner appeared as guests in Lee Majors’ hit series The Fall Guy, although sadly not in the same episode! Anderson got to play another female secret agent’s boss in the 1984-85 series Cover Up, which starred Jennifer O’Neill. (It’s sadly better known as the show where her co-star, Jon Erik-Hexum, was tragically and accidentally killed after a couple of months filming than as one of the rare eighties action shows with a female lead.) In another notable appearance, Anderson played Lyndon Johnson in the syndicated miniseries Hoover vs. The Kennedys, which I think was the last big production from that old “Operation Prime Time” quasi-network.

This wraps up our look at the bionic action shows. I’d like to thank all the people who maintain and update The Bionic Wiki for helping me pick which episodes to watch with our son and providing all sorts of background information.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.18 – Dead Ringer

For our final episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, I’m afraid that I picked another turkey. Linda Dano, who would later star in more than 1000 episodes of the soap opera Another World, plays a parapsychologist who helps Steve investigate the possibility of his spirit finally coming to kill him after those 52 seconds that he spent clinically dead in the accident that launched the series. This spirit is, of course, a Scooby Doo hoax by enemy agents. This isn’t merely telegraphed in the first scene after the opening credits, it’s skywritten in neon pink.

So while our favorite six year-old critic was taking this creepy-to-the-young story at face value and worrying about spirits and psychic phenomena, the grownups were questioning each new addition to the story. How’d the bad guys arrange this, and that? It’s all very straightforward until we get to the doctor’s apartment and she becomes possessed by the spirit and tries to kill Steve. Good grief, I wondered. How on earth will they explain that?

They don’t.

I was pretty amazed. In the traditional “here’s how the baddies did it” scene at the end, they explained the this and the that, but they don’t even mention the elephant in the room! That’s one heck of a plot hole.

ABC showed three more episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man and canceled the program, too late for the producers to consider making a final episode. That was very rarely done in the seventies, of course, but by chance, Universal was pretty sure that NBC was going to ax The Bionic Woman, and so they did give that one a proper sendoff. More on that one day next week.

As for Six, I think that overall I enjoyed this more than I thought I might. I certainly picked some turkeys, like this one, the second half of that first Death Probe story, and “The Deadly Test,” but most of what we watched was reasonably entertaining and I enjoyed seeing some good guest stars. The nicest revelation was learning that Lee Majors is actually a much better actor than I had credited him. His performances in the first Bionic Woman adventures, and in “The Seven Million Dollar Man,” were all really good.

Earlier in this blog, I compared him favorably to David Janssen, and I stand by that. Like Janssen, Majors seems more expressive and natural in the television medium than on film. Majors made some features after Six, but his next big success was in another action series, The Fall Guy, which, like this series, ran for five years. He was still believably an action star in CBS’s 1990s series Raven, and more recently he’s had recurring roles in Dallas and Ash vs. Evil Dead.

Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers were revived for three reunion TV movies in 1987, 1989, and 1994, the first two of which were positioned as pilots for new series with younger bionic characters. I’m not planning to track these down for the blog, but if I run across inexpensive copies of them one of these days… who knows?

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The Bionic Woman 3.15 – The Martians are Coming, the Martians are Coming

When NBC picked up The Bionic Woman, they asked for one of those pre-credit showreels that you often saw in the seventies, with clips from the episode you’re about to watch. These are always obnoxious, but I liked the way they did this one. All the clips are from about the first seven minutes of the story.

I’m not giving away too much when I reveal this is one of those incredibly common hoax flying saucers that we often saw on TV in that decade, because the show gives it away after about ten minutes. These always let me down as a kid. But to their credit, the bad guys behind this hoax stick to their guns and keep their “holograph” projectors going even once the heroes and the audience are in on the scam. That way the kids in the audience can still have a special effect to look at.

Speaking of effects, while these are about as good as what you could expect to see on TV in 1978, there are a couple of shots where the plate which is used for the image of the flying saucer is pockmarked by two big black blobs right in the center of the picture and what looks like a huge ink smear in the upper left of the frame. Kind of hard to suspend disbelief when Universal’s special effects crew couldn’t even wipe down the plate with some glass cleaner, really. On the other hand, it gave us the opportunity to wind it back and talk with our son how they used to do special effects like this. I used to absorb every article about visual effects in magazines like Dynamite to understand how things like this were made.

In the cast, Jon Locke, who had played the leader of the Sleestak and a couple of other monsters in the last year of Land of the Lost the previous season, has a small part as one of the townspeople excited by the flying saucers. Jack Kelly plays a scientist who has been “abducted” along with Rudy Wells. Kelly is shamefully misused by this story and given next to nothing to do. Since Kelly was all over television doing guest parts during this period, often for Universal, perhaps he was only available for what looks like just two days of filming. That’s idle speculation on my part, but there are three other adult male roles in this story with much more meat on them where I’d prefer to have seen Kelly, who I really enjoy.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.15 – Return of Deathprobe (part two)

That was actually much more entertaining than the first story. It was still pretty tedious, but never as stupid as the original one. It’s remarkable just how short and to-the-point this one is. There are virtually no other speaking parts beyond Steve and Oscar. Everybody else who does appear gets maybe two scenes. Steve and Oscar try a tactic to stop the Probe, it doesn’t work, they go back to the command post, get another idea, and go try again.

And do not let our son fool you. He certainly claimed to hate the Probe, but he got incredibly excited this time out. He was enjoying the heck out of this… and then he realized I had noticed him and he tried to downplay things. “Yeah, that was pretty cool…” he said at the end. If you’re between the ages of about six and nine, this is probably going to be some epic, memorable television. Older than that… well, the most challenging thing for Lee Majors in this one was maintaining his composure when the Probe blasts the engine of the bulldozer he’s driving, sending sparks everywhere. Everybody’s playing second fiddle to a big black tank. It’s not really an hour of entertainment for grownups.

This was the final appearance for the Probe, and indeed the last time any of the recurring villains or baddies would appear in either of the bionic series. But the Probe had one last outing in another time and place. The prop was redressed and used in 1980 as the Crimebuster in the Andy Kaufman comedy Heartbeeps. I can appreciate Kaufman, but the Crimebuster is the only good thing about that movie! I wonder whether the prop ever appeared anywhere else, or whether it was sold off to a collector. It was probably scrapped, but maybe it’s still in some garage someplace.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.14 – Return of Deathprobe (part one)

The original Death Probe two-parter may have been unbelievably dopey, but it was also unbelievably popular, inspiring a toy in Kenner’s line of Six Million Dollar Man dolls and accessories, and, heck, somebody already paid for that big prop, so they might as well use it again. Happily, this sequel is at least starting out much, much more interesting than the original one.

In the first story, we had all this nonsense with comedy small-town cops and Russian sleeper agents in the way of any mechanical mayhem. This one still leaves the Probe rolling around the desert not doing much of anything for half of the hour, but there’s an interesting mystery about who these villains are, and what they have to do with both the Soviet Union and a middle eastern Nosuchlandia – kind of a Kuwait substitute, I think.

Our son somehow remains the only child in America who does not like the Death Probe. It’s too powerful, too scary, and now it’s got these big mean drills on the front. Weird kid.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.9 – Dark Side of the Moon (part two)

Overall, the main problem with this story is that it’s one missed opportunity after another. It all climaxes with yet another very boring “time is running out to do something about the bomb” situation, and what they do about the bomb is so amazingly improbable that Dr. Science’s acid reflux started acting up again. Jack Colvin’s flunkies are operating under the delusion that their crimes on the moon will work wonders for their careers. Steve never thinks to tell them that they have already killed hundreds of people and will probably end up killing millions before they’re done. There may not be a United States to come back to, and they’ll certainly never see the money Colvin promised them.

But if we must have this nonsense of a megaton bomb that can’t be moved because of a fluid motion sensor, Marie spotted the obvious solution. They’ve gone on and on about the dark side of the moon being at absolute zero and punched a hole from the surface into the mine shaft to freeze Steve’s bionics via a long steel rod. (That’s ten shades of Dr. Science having a headache, so we won’t go into how they’re keeping their artificial underground environment stable with an open borehole to the surface…) Why didn’t they just freeze the fluid in the sensor when they had a hole to the freezing surface right there?

I’d like to not be too critical, because this is for kids, and there’s some science that children can use and bring back to school Monday morning, but the rest of this is just painfully silly! Ah, well, Colvin does a good job playing the calculating and emotionless villain… even if he is pretty blasted wrong to calculate that he’ll return to Earth a rich scientific hero, he comes pretty close to getting away with it.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.8 – Dark Side of the Moon (part one)

Afraid it’s been an unhappy Thanksgiving around the Secret Fire-Breathing Headquarters. Our son is down with a stomach bug – on all the days! – and so he was curled up under a quilt for tonight’s episode. He didn’t enjoy it a whole lot, but we have to grade on a curve because he doesn’t feel all that well.

It’s commonly understood that Star Wars killed Six and all the super-agent shows of the seventies, but they went down fighting against the space invaders with some more overt sci-fi storylines. Wonder Woman, for example, had its celebrated and ridiculous “Mind Stealers From Outer Space” story, and then there’s John Meredyth Lucas’s two-part episode “Dark Side of the Moon” from November 1977, which blows kisses of plausibility at Dr. Science and then runs off and elopes with Dr. Whatever, Man, Anything Can Happen in Science Fiction.

The villain is played by Jack Colvin, who, like the other main guest star Simone Griffeth, was a Universal regular at the time. He’s a scientist with apparent access to many millions of dollars and he secretly redirects a mission to mine some Unobtanium from an asteroid to the dark side of the moon, where he’s convinced that it can be found in abundance. His whole plan reeks of being a cover story for something more sinister because, of course, there isn’t any unobtanium to be found and he says to keep blasting, but he never even blinks to say “that’s odd.” Colvin plays the character as though he’s looking for something else, which is very strange.

So Steve has to go to the moon to find out what’s going on, because Colvin’s blasting has knocked the moon slightly out of its orbit and the weather has gone haywire. In the universe of Six, Apollo rockets are ready to go at a moment’s notice, and the landers can fly around from asteroids to the moon and back without adaptation or detection from Earth. Sometimes when a show like this, which pretends to be “the real world” with just a few changes, goes off into fantasyland it can’t help but grate a little. Lee Majors is the best thing about this hour by miles. When he picks up a frisbee left behind on a previous moon mission and tosses it into the horizon, he looks like he’s having a blast.

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The Bionic Woman 3.7 – Motorcycle Boogie

Bigfoot wasn’t the only major seventies icon to appear on the bionic shows. Evel Knievel, the idol of every under-twelve in that decade who ever aspired to pop a wheelie on their bike, got to play himself and brought along some 16mm stunt footage of him jumping thirty-odd junk cars. He gets to dodge bullets and rockets, although the great big super-jump in the end is done with edits and trick photography, sadly. For those of you who like other familiar faces and places from the seventies, Spencer Milligan plays an East German agent and the Rose Bowl pretends to be a stadium in West Berlin.

Our son tried to be all cool and say that this was only kind of exciting and kind of weird, but we know better. He was in seventh heaven, of course, incredibly thrilled and happy with the story. There were motorcycles and explosions and a very straightforward, simple, and easy-to-follow story by James D. Parriott and Kenneth Johnson. It’s a light and silly adventure, along the comedic lines of the previous year’s “Black Magic.”

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