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The Six Million Dollar Man 2.5 – The Seven Million Dollar Man

I decided to jump straight into another “best of” season, and I’ve picked six episodes from season two of The Six Million Dollar Man, shown from 1974-75. This story by Peter Allan Fields, a drama writer who worked on dozens of American shows but had the most check marks on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with contributions to ten installments, introduces a second cyborg: Barney Miller, a former race driver who lost all his limbs in an accident and has been lined up as the next agent in the OSI.

Unfortunately, Barney, played by Monte Markham, doesn’t take to becoming a metal man very well. He’s rash and violent and turns what should have been a super-speed snatch into a chance to throw four armed men around like rag dolls long after the goods are secured. Inevitably, this leads to a fight with Steve, which really entertained the daylights out of our son. I’m glad he’s enjoying these slow-motion scraps. It’s just possible that after we let him watch his first Marvel movie in a year or so, they’ll look a little less thrilling.

Incidentally, not only is the character named Barney Miller – the celebrated and long-running police precinct sitcom of that name would begin two months later on the same network – but the bartender who gives Barney one drink too many is the spitting image of Abe Vigoda.

Actually, the most surprising part of the episode comes right after the opening titles. Oscar, Dr. Wells, and a nurse at the secure facility – a different character than Jean, who was played by Barbara Anderson in the original movie – all deny that the nurse had given a mysterious man in a red Mercedes a confidential tape. The gate guard denies the guy existed. Steve tells his friends not to gaslight him. I honestly was not aware of that term before 2014, when I read about gaslighting and the word’s origin in an old film noir, but clearly misunderstood that it was a reasonably new word. Yet here the word is shown to be in use forty years earlier. And it’s indisputably 1974 – the lavender-and-white leisure suit that Lee Majors wears in the show’s final scene couldn’t have come from any other time.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 1.13 – Run, Steve, Run

Dr. Dolenz, the robot maker from “Day of the Robot,” returned in this end-of-season cheapie written by Lionel E. Siegel and mostly set on a Utah horse ranch. There are few speaking parts, and while Noah Beery Jr. – Jim Rockford’s dad! – enlivened things a little bit as an old pal of Steve’s, this is a dull story padded out with clips from previous episodes as Steve tries to figure out who is after him. Dr. Dolenz doesn’t have a robot this time out; he’s trying to engineer accidents so he can observe Steve’s bionic powers from a distance.

I thought this was as dull as could be, but perhaps because westerns are not part of any modern kid’s television diet, our son was surprisingly pleased by the bits with runaway horses and bucking broncos which I found tedious. He was really talkative this evening, but genuinely curious about how fast horses can run, and why Steve and his girlfriend-of-the-week had lassos with them while riding around the ranch.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 1.12 – The Coward

Looks like I picked this episode for one point of continuity and one entertaining guest star. This installment is the first appearance of Martha Scott as Helen Elgin, Steve’s mother. She’ll return in several future episodes, and is seen here without her husband Jim, who raised Steve after the death of his father when Steve was an infant.

Carl Austin was killed in action in World War Two, and there’s a report that he bailed out when the plane he was flying over China was attacked by Japanese fighters. The plane is spotted again in the present day by a weather satellite, and so Steve goes to the Himalayas to retrieve the confidential documents the plane was carrying, and, hopefully, to find his father’s body there and prove he didn’t dishonorably leave his crew to to die.

The notable guest star is George Takei, who plays an experienced Chinese mountain climber who gives Steve a little training and is supposed to make the Himalayan climb with him. It doesn’t work out so well for George; they get attacked by Nepalese (?) bandits as soon as they parachute down and Takei’s character is killed. Fortunately, Steve gets some assistance from a mysterious older American who’s been living in these hills for many years…

The story is by Elroy Schwartz, Sherwood’s brother, who wrote for lots of sitcoms in the sixties and seventies. Looks like he wrote or co-wrote five episodes of this show. The tease throughout, of course, is that the older American is Steve’s father, which seems to be confirmed when they make it to the plane’s wreckage and find a body wearing another man’s dogtags and bury him. But three decades in the wild can make a fellow grow up. After a fight with the bandits that leaves this man mortally wounded, he confirms that the body in the plane was actually that of Steve’s father, Carl Austin. Steve’s dying friend is Christopher Bell, who was the real coward and bailed out. He’d climbed the mountain almost immediately and switched his tags with Carl’s, assuming the plane would be exhumed a whole lot earlier than now and he could live in peace among the nomads, farmers, and bandits instead of going home to a court martial.

I think that a lot of The Six Million Dollar Man is like this. There are few science fiction or super-spy elements to the story and the bionics are barely used. Still, I picked a pretty good one for the character drama. It was a little slower than I think our son was ready to try, but he says that he enjoyed it, and all the mountain climbing scenes certainly kept his interest. He says that he’d like to climb a mountain himself one day, but the boy can barely make it across a simple suspension rope bridge without wincing, so that day may be far off.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 1.2 – Survival of the Fittest

I don’t want to watch all of the Bionic shows – we’d be here for years! – but I wanted to show my son some of the classic episodes, and that meant picking up some low-priced sets of the series, and so we might as well look at a few other installments, principally the ones with interesting casts. So about eighteen months ago, I had a careful look over an episode guide – yes, eighteen months ago, I enjoy planning ahead – and picked five of the first thirteen episodes.

But as it was so long ago, I didn’t remember who was in these episodes that made me want to pick them! So in this story, written by Mann Rubin, in which our heroes and some other survivors of a plane crash are being stalked on a Pacific island by villains who want to kill Oscar Goldman, we got to see Laurette Spang, who we’ve seen in a later episode of Isis, along with Christine Belford, who would play Baroness Von Gunther in the first episode of Wonder Woman, as a nurse.

Our son didn’t remember either of them, but what he did recall pleasantly surprised us. Among the cosmetic changes that the show’s new executive producer, Harve Bennett, initiated when he took the show from movie-of-the-month to a weekly series, there’s the iconic “running in slow motion” to indicate super speed. Steve shows off this power when one of the villains coshes Oscar and leaves him unconscious with a huge snake bearing down on him. Steve slow-motion-rushes to save the day, and our son said “Hey! He runs slow like they did in that Bigfoot show!” I’m glad that he remembered that. It bodes well.

The other cast reasons I probably picked this episode out for a watch: James McEachin, whose Universal series Tenafly had just been axed by NBC, plays one of the villains, and Jo Anne Worley, who was spending her post-Laugh-In days appearing as a guest star on everything, is the comic relief character. It’s not a bad story. Our son enjoyed it and was able to follow along, and it has a few pretty good action scenes.

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The Six Million Dollar Man: Wine, Women and War (1973)

There has been a time or two where I’ve picked a screencap, I admit, to show off a pretty girl. I trust this picture of Steve Austin in Jamaica redresses any grievance caused.

Anyway, this morning we watched the second of the three Six Million Dollar Man movies, and it went over much better than the slow origin movie. It was really full of surprises, not least of which was the theme song. This movie opens and closes with a none-more-seventies theme belted by, of all people, Dusty Springfield. It’s kind of interesting the way this whole thing plays out as a kid-friendly James Bond adventure involving an actual real-world foreign country, Russia, rather than the sort of Eastovia and Nosuchlandias that you usually see on seventies adventure teevee, and hiring Springfield for a big booming Bond theme helps cement it. There’s even a big underground base, albeit not in a volcano.

And speaking of James Bond, I looked over the cast lists of the second and third movies, intending to watch just one for the blog, and had the choice of Britt Ekland, who’d be the lead Bond girl in The Man With the Golden Gun, in this one, and Luciana Paluzzi, who played Fiona in Thunderball, in the next one. I shrugged and went with this because David McCallum is in it as well. He plays a Russian, because he did that well enough in The Man from UNCLE.

The great irony is that this shot opens with Michele Carey’s character asking Steve “Is there anything you’re not good at?” Yes. Choosing a tuxedo.

New to the regular cast this time out, it’s Richard Anderson as Oscar Goldman, the new head of the OSI. Darren McGavin’s character from the previous film is not mentioned, and Oscar is largely kept out of sight, just being unpleasant, secretive and bossy from afar. Alan Oppenheimer takes over from Martin Balsam as the second Dr. Rudy Wells, and the bad guy is an arms dealer played by perennial seventies teevee baddie Eric Braeden.

Our son really did enjoy this a lot more than the origin movie, as well he should. It’s a much better and much smoother film, with a solid and entertaining plot by writer Glen A. Larson. He produced this and the next movie for Universal in between seasons of McCloud, though he did not produce the series proper, and I was interested to see that he had used Britt Ekland twice for McCloud as well, and would hire her yet again for a memorable Battlestar Galactica installment.

But our son started the movie a little restless again, perhaps worried that this would be a long character drama with angst and debates instead of opening with bionic night vision eyes, super strength, and depth charges like it does. He enjoyed it, but was still a little confused about something that was keeping him from understanding the story and embracing it. Finally, Mom figured it out: he didn’t understand that Steve Austin’s powers are a secret. That’s completely different from today, when kids are used to their favorite superheroes being celebrities. It works better these days, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the day is saved once Sapphire and Steel show up and — wait.

Anyway, the day is saved once Steve follows his old Russian buddy Alexi and his girl-of-the-week Katrina into the villain’s underground base where he’s got eight nuclear weapons stored. Braeden is reliably evil, McCallum sounds reasonably Russian, and Ekland is easy on the eyes. Steve gets to punch through walls and cold-cock henchmen, and he does that thing he will always do in the series, when the power needs to be shut off and so he closes down some high voltage terminal and cables erupt and sparks go everywhere. There’s a countdown and a big explosion, and the youngest member of this audience was thrilled, much more pleased than he was with the origin movie.

Mommy suggested that he’d have enjoyed it as much if we just showed him the last ten minutes, but he really did get into things long before then. About halfway through, Alexi figures out that Steve is on a secret assignment – Steve himself hadn’t figured that out yet – and shoots him in the stomach with what turns out to be a tranquilizer gun. Our son was really worried for the hero then, especially since the story doesn’t come back to Steve for a couple of minutes. Was he dead? Grievously injured? Certainly not, but it was nice to see him worried for the hero. That bodes well for the scrapes he’ll be getting into soon.

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The Six Million Dollar Man (1973)

In 1980, Marv Wolfman and George Perez created the superhero character of Cyborg for DC Comics. He hung around on the B-list for a couple of decades before the TV cartoon Teen Titans made him a star for the under-tens. An actor named Khary Payton has been voicing the character for fourteen years now. The current cartoon, Teen Titans Go!, is shown about twenty-three hours a day, and, given the opportunity, my son would watch it for at least twenty-two of them. Ray Fisher will be playing the character in the Justice League movie later this year. Perhaps one-quarter of one percent of this movie’s potential audience will need a quick primer about who Cyborg is, or about what a cyborg is.

But in 1973, a “cy’borg,” as it was spelled in the opening moments of the first Six Million Dollar Man adventure, was largely unknown to the TV audience, and the concept was introduced very, very gingerly by way of a breathtakingly dull opening adventure. I found a little bit here of interest. Our favorite five year-old critic found rather less. This is a slow, slow movie that plays out as a character drama more than an action-adventure thriller. It’s mainly about Steve Austin coming to terms with his new life and robot parts. Some of it’s briefly fascinating. I enjoyed a scene where he is so repelled by the sight of the arm they plan to attach to his body that he covers his face, unable to accept it.

Lee Majors is surprisingly good in some of this movie, considering that the actor has honestly never had a reputation for a lot of range. He was best known in 1973 as the meathead muscle son in the cheesy western soap The Big Valley. Wooden would be a fair adjective. But there’s a bit here where he tries to kill himself (!) and pleads with guest star Barbara Anderson to let him die which is pretty shocking and very effective in its simplicity.

Watching classic television is more than just appreciating some really good actors, like Darren McGavin and Martin Balsam, and enjoying the bad old fashions and the amusing old technology and design, like those fabulous old vendomats in the hospital canteen. You have to make allowances for what Hollywood expected would play in Peoria, as they say. But this movie plays it way too safe. By 1973, sci-fi movies had been churning out all sorts of loopy ideas in hospital operating rooms, from saving Hitler’s brain to putting a white bigot’s head on a soul brother’s body, so this isn’t all that crazy. Even the audiences of 1973 Peoria really didn’t need fifty-odd minutes of a seventy-five minute picture to get used to the idea of two robot legs, a robot arm, and a bionic eye. Actually, the word “bionic” wasn’t actually used in this movie. That must come later.

Speaking of the actors, Darren McGavin plays Spencer, the ruthless head of the OSO. He’d be replaced in the next movie by a different character played by Richard Anderson. I thought for a minute that was a shame, because McGavin is just so darn good in everything, but I guess McGavin couldn’t hunt the creatures of the night in Chicago if he was being Steve Austin’s boss. (This film was made after the two Kolchak TV movies, but before the series.) Dr. Rudy Wells is here played by Martin Balsam as an old friend of Steve Austin’s. The character would later be played by Alan Oppenheimer and then Martin E. Brooks. Balsam is, again, terrific, and I like the way that the character drama is really between Spencer and Wells about Steve Austin. His decision to accept his new life and job is a foregone conclusion; there wouldn’t be a show otherwise. Lee Majors gets to sit like a block of granite while Balsam and McGavin do the debating.

Our son was less than thrilled. The show gets better, and is occasionally pretty entertaining. We’ll be picking it up after one more of the movies, and watching a selection of the episodes – not all of them, no – throughout the rest of this year. But this was talky and slow and while the series was made with one eye on the kids, this was made for grownups, an attempt at humanizing sci-fi concepts that doesn’t really work. Our boy was restless and squirmy and I’m still not sure he understands why Steve didn’t want a bionic arm. Kids want bionic arms. Who wouldn’t want a bionic arm? At least there’s a pretty neat rescue with some small explosions and a curious free jazz soundtrack. Steve even takes two bullets in the fight, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t happen very often after this. But the desert rescue is small potatoes stuff that’s dealt with in about ten minutes; all of this is introduction to a concept that kids can easily understand.

In fact, it occurred to me that when I was in elementary school, I didn’t need an introduction movie. All of us kids got the idea pretty easily even then. Man barely alive, rebuilt, fights Bigfoot, we got this. Mainly it was counterfeiters in turtlenecks and Steve going undercover because there’s labor unrest on Pier 14 or such, which is why we’re certainly not going to watch all of this show, but I never saw the pilot movie as a kid and I understood the series. Perhaps we should have skipped this in favor of something a little bit more outlandish.

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