Flush with the success of their two bionic shows, the producers made two attempts in the fourth season of Six to expand the OSI’s roster with another spinoff. First up was “The Bionic Boy,” in which Vincent Van Patten became a teen bionic hero, and in January, they tried a backdoor pilot, with Steve Austin taking a two scene back seat to Joe Patten, a schoolteacher played by Stephen Macht, whose brain can be programmed for secret missions.
Using superspeed computer-learning that’s quite a lot like Gerry Anderson’s Joe 90, Patten can be primed with all the background, languages, chemistry, or blueprints necessary to complete any mission. When his girlfriend, an OSI agent played by Pamela Hensley, is captured on an undercover assignment, Joe gets to learn all about the world of counterfeiting to rescue her.
My son was a little disappointed with this one, because Joe’s chemistry wizardry is no match for bionic thrills. It’s not bad for what it is, and probably a shame that Joe was never seen again. Even without his own show, he could have been an interesting recurring character to provide some in-the-field help for Steve and Jaime. But another bionic action show certainly wasn’t in ABC’s plans, as I’ll mention in a couple of weeks.
The writers, Lionel E. Siegel and William Zacha, kept their programmed agent concept alive for one more try. After the bionic shows had ended, they wrote a movie-of-the-week for Universal, also called The Ultimate Imposter, in 1979, starring Joseph Hacker as the agent.
There’s a bit in part two of this story where Jaime punches a hole in the trunk of a runaway car in order to hold on. Our son loved that. He also really liked it when George Maharis’s character rides a motorcycle through a door. I didn’t like much of anything about this. At least part one had an interesting mystery about which cadet was the foreign agent. This is just another seventies cop show. There were dozens of cop shows on the air in 1976. The Bionic Woman should have been doing something with lions or Fembots in it, and not what every other series of the time was doing.
We’ve deliberately skipped a lot of episodes in which Jaime goes undercover in some unlikely profession. Steve got to go undercover in various blue collar jobs, never anything exciting, but Jaime got to do the inevitable beauty contest, and she was a wrestler, and a nun, and, in this two-part story, she gets sent to the nation’s quickest police academy for a week or possibly two as a cadet before getting assigned to the town of Santa Regina’s Fifth Precinct. I wanted to see this one because George Maharis plays a beat cop. His Route 66 co-star Martin Milner had played a beat cop for years on Adam-12. James McEachin plays the academy’s captain. This is one of what looks like seventy-two police roles in McEachin’s career. He must have played every single rank at one time or another.
As befits a basic counterfeiters-in-turtlenecks story, there’s really not a lot to this one, and certainly not enough to warrant a two-part story. It’s written by James D. Parriott, and his then-wife Diane Cary plays one of the other cadets. The most interesting part, honestly, was the strange decision to take the cadets to a “Tinseltown studio” for their final exam, in which they drive around the backlot on a fake chase. I enjoyed the chance for our son to see what a backlot looks like when they’re not pretending it’s a real street.
For the November 1976 sweeps month, The Six Million Dollar Man went big, with a pair of feature-length audience-grabbing episodes. One featured nineteen year-old Vincent Van Patten as the fourth bionic operative, about which more in a couple of weeks, and the second movie featured the USAF Thunderbirds precision flying team.
The Bionic Woman, meanwhile, went with an all-star comedy episode. “Black Magic” is a live-action Scooby Doo story written by Arthur Rowe. It’s got a big spooky house full of secret corridors and dungeons, and a weird monstrous figure in the bayou outside. Jaime goes undercover as the long-lost relation of a family of thieves and swindlers played by a downright fantastic cast. It’s got three – three! – Batvillains: Vincent Price, Julie Newmar, and Hermione Baddeley (Egghead, Catwoman, and Shame’s mother-in-law-to-be Frontier Fanny), along with Abe Vigoda as a creepy butler and William Windom as a scheming lawyer.
The episode is completely ridiculous, of course. It’s played strictly for laughs and it works perfectly. Our son adored it. I think he recognized that he’s precisely the age bracket for whom this was pitched. Nothing was really scary, even though, like Scooby Doo or The Ghost Busters, it plays with the imagery at a kid-friendly level. I might need to remember to dust this one off next Halloween.
Happily, our son came around for the memorable conclusion of this story. He thought Steve and Jaime fighting the Fembots amid the forces of a hurricane was incredibly exciting, and he’s right. Taken as a whole, this three-parter is a master class in plotting, moving through the creepy, conspiratorial Body Snatchers business of people you can’t trust, to some good action sequences, to a tremendously busy hour with our heroes storming the island in the middle of a… well, a storm.
And since the Fembots have remained hugely troubling for him, he got to punch the air when lightning fells three of them. He was also really taken with Jaime finally getting practical with her power and doing something deadly against an implacable enemy. She uses a rock as a weapon and throws it at 60 mph into one Fembot’s back, instantly smashing it.
I was a little worried, as this episode does have a fair amount of old men – generals and admirals – sitting around a big table grumbling while the weather forces stock footage of jets and aircraft carriers to turn back. Fortunately, one of the admirals is played by Sam Jaffe with a twinkle in his eye, which more than excuses the story regularly returning to the war room.
This story marked the end of an era. This was the last time the two bionic series crossed over, and in fact they apparently barely mentioned each other going forward. In part that’s because ABC canceled The Bionic Woman at the end of this season, and NBC picked it up with the understanding that there wouldn’t be any more crossovers. I may have given my son a somewhat flawed presentation of the programs, since we’ve watched all of the crossover stories, even the ones with very small appearances, but only a few of the many “counterfeiters in turtlenecks” that really dominated the actual schedule. But in our memories, Steve and Jaime were always teaming up anyway. That’s maybe the way it should have been.
I swear, my kid must be the only one in history who prefers the episodes of the Bionic shows that don’t have Bigfoot or the Fembots in them. This is so strange, because he enjoyed Steve Austin’s fights with Dr. Dolenz’s robots in seasons one and two, and against the second bionic man, played by Monte Markham. But the Fembots somehow have a more sinister edge, and it’s made worse by Jaime telling Steve that the Fembots are stronger than they are. He has never liked seeing his heroes in serious trouble, and says that he really doesn’t like not being able to tell who has been replaced by a duplicate.
Never mind him, this is a great story. The pacing is a little “off,” perhaps, which also led him to become restless. Steve’s rescue of Oscar and Lynda is staged like the big end-of-show action finale, but it happens halfway through the episode. Since, like every six year-old, ours has no concept of time, I think he was satisfied that the show was over, but it kept going, and going, building up to the real end-of-show action finale, in which Steve battles an Oscar robot for the second time in the show. This is probably why Oscar issued standing orders that he’s to be killed if ever captured. You wouldn’t think that getting replaced by look-alike robots was part of the job, but there you go.
I also love the design of the Fembots. There was something in the air in the mid-seventies, with female robots losing their face-plates to reveal fake eyeballs and circuitry. About a year before, there were very similar creations in a Doctor Who serial called “The Android Invasion,” leading to a classic cliffhanger where it’s revealed that Sarah Jane has been replaced by a robot. About a year later, there was a villain in the Japanese sci-fi series JAKQ Attack Squad who also looked a little like this. She was called either “Atomic Mary” or “Atomic Witch,” I understand.
I know exactly where I was just after Halloween in 1976. I was in a hospital having my tonsils out and insanely worried that I would miss part three of this story. Well, I don’t know which hospital, so maybe I don’t know exactly where, but that’s not important. I was assured I’d get ice cream and that I’d get to see the story. They gave me a fudgesicle, which everybody knows isn’t ice cream. Worry accelerated.
“Kill Oscar,” which introduced a new recurring foe for our heroes called the Fembots, didn’t have quite the same impact on our son. He didn’t get quite as upset by Jaime injuring herself escaping from two of the evil robots as he did when Bigfoot thrashed the daylights out of Steve the other night, but he was still really bothered and hid his eyes while holding back tears with a pouting lower lip. The situation is much the same as we saw in that story: one of our heroes gets injured and it’s up to the other to save the day, but, as we’ll see, there will be a little more to it than that.
The Fembots have been invented by yet another disgruntled ex-OSI scientist, Dr. Franklin. He’s played by John Houseman, about whom more next time. Financing his work is a guy played by Jack Colvin, a Universal contract player who later became famous when this show’s producer, Kenneth Johnson, remembered him when he was casting The Incredible Hulk and needed somebody to be warned about making Bill Bixby angry. This story is one of eight that features Jennifer Darling as the recurring character of Peggy Callahan, Oscar’s secretary. She’d been introduced a couple of years previously, but it looks like I didn’t pick many of her appearances for this rewatch.
I enjoy seeing how television in the seventies was more modern than we might think. Look how they started the ’76 season of the Bionic shows. They opened with the crossover story with Bigfoot, and then in week two, they brought back arguably the most popular actress in America, Farrah Fawcett, for another appearance as Major Kelly Wood. Fawcett was starring in a new series on the same network that year. Charlie’s Angels had premiered six months previously as a movie-of-the-week. The first regular episode had actually just been shown four days prior to this. I bet ABC’s marketing team enjoyed that. I wonder why they didn’t get Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson for guest star parts while the iron was hot, though!
But it wasn’t just Fawcett that got viewers tuning in to the new season. This one’s about an experimental jet that can be disassembled in just ten minutes – that’s actually a plot point – and I bet the TV commercials were full of footage of the aerial dogfight between the jet and a “holograph” of a Japanese Zero over the southern California desert. Any under-tens in the house would be in heaven watching the airplanes roaring around each other, just like ours was. (And here’s another note about the evolution of the language we use; I bet any modern TV show would use the word “hologram” instead.)
The villains this week are played by Dana Elcar and Donald Moffat, who were probably a little familiar from all the one-off guest roles they’d played until that point. The following season, Moffat would appear as Rem in Logan’s Run, and Elcar would later land the role of MacGyver‘s boss.