Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Six Million Dollar Diary Part One: THE TV MOVIES (1973)

The cult action series The Six Million Dollar Man started life in the imagination of prolific SF author Martin Caidin, who wrote four pulp Cyborg themed novels between 1972 and 1975 based on the adventures of his ‘bionic’ protagonist Colonel Steve Austin -- a former NASA astronaut-turned-US Air Force test pilot, who becomes a cyborg secret agent working for a shadowy black ops organisation after losing several limbs and an eye in a flying accident. But, although the long running ABC series, starring Michigan-born actor Lee Majors, which eventually emerged as a result of Caidin’s work is fondly remembered by those of us who grew up in the 1970s, it was in actual fact preceded by three made-for-TV movies, the first of which was produced by Universal Studios executive Richard Irving, and originally intended merely as a one-off ABC ‘film of the week’ screened under the station’s Wednesday Movie banner.

This ‘pilot’ film differs significantly in tone to the later series; many of the details of Steve Austin’s backstory, suggested so evocatively in the subsequent memorable title sequence that headed up each weekly episode, turn out to be quite different in practise when viewed here. All three movies were later extensively re-edited and re-scored, and in the process padded out with interminable extraneous library footage (and even some material taken from later episodes) which, rather ironically, slows their narrative pace to that of a snail in order to turn each film into special two-part episodes, screened as part of the regular, syndicated TV series despite numerous differences in casting and the change in general style and approach between the two.

All of the films work best when seen in their original telemovie format, though, and are perhaps best considered an interesting variant or ‘test run’ for the later series episodes, which began airing several months after the third movie version was screened, in early 1974.

 In this first of a series of blog posts celebrating the upcoming release of all five series, plus the spin-offs and movie length episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, included together as part of one, massive, definitive UK DVD boxed set from Fabulous Films, I take a look at that initial trio of TV movies, as we begin our journey by exploring more closely how Steve Austin -- “a man barely alive” -- actually came to be “better than he was before”.

As the original film opens, Steve Austin emerges as an easy-going, laid back nonchalant type of guy, happy to thumb his nose at authority. Previously a NASA astronaut during the Apollo Moon missions (and frequently publically recognised as such by many other characters across all three movies), his current employment as an air force pilot, paid to test-fly experimental jets for the military, seems to be his way of getting as close as possible to experiencing once again that same transcendent feeling of calm he got back in the days when he walked on the moon, although he clearly has little tolerance for the regimented attitude of his military superiors.
While Steve prepares for his latest test flight, a secret Governmental group is convening in the meeting rooms of the OSO – or the Office of Strategic Operations. Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin, later known as the cult character Kolchak, Night Stalker), a cold, stern-faced man with a pronounced limp, is heading up the assembly – and plotting a whole new approach with regard to the department’s future operations. Too many assets are being lost in the field, apparently, so $6 million dollars has been allocated with a view to building the ultimate compromise between the need for a militaristic hardware solution in some instances and the benefits of having experienced agents on the ground. (Six million dollars must have seemed like an unimaginable amount of money back in 1973 of course – but this was before the days of Euro Lotteries and bankers’ bonuses.) The sum is to go towards developing a weapon: ‘one single force’ that is ‘especially equipped’ for certain special projects which can’t be tackled by firepower alone and yet are too risky to sacrifice valuable agents on. Volunteers won’t be required, says Spencer, ‘because accidents happen all the time’ and they can work with ‘scrap’. At that very moment, Steve Austin’s experimental aircraft is seen plummeting to the ground in just such an accident …    

It’s heavily suggested here -- especially since Spencer later emerges as such a coldly calculating and unfeeling sort of fellow -- that Steve’s crash might not be the accident it at first appears to be. It is rather convenient, after all, that Steve Austin just happens to be exactly the kind of man the OSO would want to be a part of its proposed experiment in the use of cyborg technology, and even more of a coincidence is the fact that Austin’s best friend, Dr Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam), is the surgeon whose theoretical ideas about super robotic limbs (the word ‘bionic’ is not used once in this version of the story) have been silently studied by Spencer and his cabal from afar, with a view to adapting his expertise for the OSO’s espionage-related purposes. However, this suggestion is never picked up on, despite the fact that Spencer later proves himself perfectly capable of treating people as the mere means to achieving his ultimate goals, and repeatedly refers to Steve as if he is simply a weapon rather than a human being.

Spencer is on site when Wells first operates to save Steve’s life at the expense of the loss of the patient’s left eye, both his legs and the right arm. The secretive official offers Wells all the funding he will ever need in order to bring about full development of the cyborg technology he’s been proposing, with Steve Austin as the test subject. But Rudy Wells is also well aware that Spencer belongs to a shadowy Government organisation specialising in ‘espionage, sabotage and assassination’ and that it will surely expect something in return for such generous largesse. Nevertheless, Wells agrees, and after the heavily bandaged pilot is informed of his terrible injuries (sparingly achieved by director Richard Irving without the use of any dialogue but by simply cutting to a close-up of the machine monitoring Austin’s pulse, which at first remains steady, but then speeds up frantically at the moment he learns the truth) he is transported to a special facility, already set-up in Colorado for just such an operation as will be needed to make the world’s first living cyborg out of Steve Austin.

During the middle section of this film version, the tone gets noticeably much darker and more fraught than that which would be seen in the later TV series. Austin is understandably psychologically bruised by his predicament and even at one point begs his nurse, Jean Manners (Barbara Anderson), to kill him. Dr Wells tries to prepare the distraught patient for what’s coming by presenting him with a sneak look at his soon-to-be-attached robotic arm while it’s still in its box, even offering him the ‘800 page instruction manual’ that comes with it, but Austin can’t get to grips with the idea at all. Nevertheless, the flint-like Spencer bullies the surgeon into getting on with doing his job and the operation proceeds apace, with Austin then seen, over the following four months or so, gradually gaining the use of his new arm and learning to walk on his electronically controlled legs -- eventually building up the ability to run at speeds approaching at least 60 miles per hour!

Lee Majors later portrayed Steve Austin as an unflappable action hero type, always quick with a wise crack, someone who rarely breaks into a sweat. Here he’s rather more of a troubled soul, inclined towards much fretting and existential angst, and someone who instinctively rails against the plans for his future that are being drawn up behind the scenes by such shady governmental forces. After pontificating on his new half-man half-robot status and the price he’ll inevitably have to pay in terms of the freedom which Spender and the rest of the OSO board intend to extract from him, Steve eventually ‘tests out’ the touch sensors in his new hand on Jean Manners -- his rather willing blonde nurse. Before long they’re having romantic picnics in the Colorado countryside (Majors sporting a fetching denim suit and check shirt ensemble), and the moody seventies cyborg hero looks like he’s gradually coming round to his condition … just as those investing in him as a weapon had always planned.

Steve’s bosses really are a dubious bunch in this first incarnation of the franchise, and clearly view him as nothing more than a piece of machinery rather than a thinking, feeling man; at one point Spencer even inquires of Wells whether it might be possible to keep Austin sedated between missions to stop him making a nuisance of himself! This comes after one of his countryside strolls with Jean gets interrupted by a road accident which leaves a small boy trapped inside an upturned truck that has just crashed into a ditch. After Austin selflessly rescues little Johnny from certain death, though, the boy’s mother reacts with horror and distress when she spots electronic circuits protruding from his arm (which has become damaged during the rescue), hissing -- rather rudely in the circumstances -- ‘what are you?!’ and recoiling in disgust.

Blimey, keep this woman away from the Paralympics – she’d have a heart attack!
Despite this rather churlish mother’s apparent inability to come to terms with the concept of artificial limbs (for that’s all the arm is in reality -- even if it is a more powerful one than average) being surely all her own hang up, the incident sends Steve Austin into an almighty sulk and he refuses to accept the mission Oliver Spencer has lined up for him. After more agonising and soul searching, during which nurse Jean Manners admits to having fallen in love with him, Steve finally agrees to parachute into the middle of an encampment in the Arabian Desert on a mission to rescue an important Arab diplomat judged to be vital to the Arab-Israeli peace process, but who’s been kidnapped by terrorists.

This is the first piece of action – culminating with the bionic man facing down an armoured tank in the desert sands --  in what is otherwise a sombre, often serious-minded episode, but even this turns out to be all part of a rather diabolical, fiendish trick designed by Spencer  to test Austin’s will to live. Once again Austin is portrayed as merely a pawn in a wider espionage racket being played by hard-faced people who are quite prepared to sacrifice him for their own personal political goals. This “reluctant agent” angle would be dropped almost completely by the next TV film, which eases in a whole new approach and engages in a certain amount of back-tracking and retrospective tinkering with the origins story in order to do so. Although Richard Irving can be thought of as the man primarily responsible for the series by bringing Caiden’s original idea to the screen in the first place -- making use of the author’s original novel as the main source of the screenplay and producing and directing the resulting film himself -- this pilot was to be his sole involvement with The Six Million Dollar Man series. A brand new production team moved in for the next two TV movies with Russ Mayberry in the director’s chair, both of which appear to have been originally planned as episodes of a monthly series before the show was revamped yet again, with a weekly format of hour long episodes heralding yet another production team taking over the reins.
In the two remaining films, Steve Austin becomes slightly more of a ladies man (goodbye Jean Manners … it was nice knowing you, but you’ll never appear or be mentioned ever again by anyone!), still prone to going AWOL whenever the fancy takes him, but basically now a willing agent for a department that is here re-titled the OSI (Office of Scientific Information) and helmed by one Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), the series second most recognisable recurring character and a much more agreeable type than the deeply sour and cynical Oliver Spencer ever was. Dr Rudy Wells is retained, but he’s now played by Alan Oppenheimer rather than Martin Balsam. The new title sequence presents an altered version of the backstory to account for these cast and character changes, with Oscar now being the man responsible for putting Steve forward as a candidate for the cyborg programme after his accident (still the word ‘bionic’ isn’t mentioned at any point in the second film, although it’s used once for the first time during the third) and Dr Wells now becomes an employee of the OSI rather than Steve’s close personal friend. 

Wine, Women and War signals a marked change of atmosphere and tone from that of the rather sombre movie that came before it, with a lengthy opening pre-credit sequence that repositions Austin as a smooth Bond-like agent, dressed in a tuxedo and on a mission that involves him going undercover as a rich magnate in a fancy casino, apparently living the high life on the Mediterranean coast. The jet set locations and preponderance of scenes set in and around posh casinos amid copious glasses of flowing campaign become motifs that recur throughout the remaining two films, as do Austin’s often frightful dinner jackets and bowties. The opening mission leads into a hugely dated and cheesy title sequence set to a tune by Dusty Springfield, in which the husky-voiced pop chanteuse coos lyrics of a ‘he’s my man … my six million dollar man!’ variety -- over a jaunty, sixties-sounding pop theme. Majors is the only member of either the cast or the production team of the first movie to appear again, so the story is slanted here in such a way that the character of Steve Austin at least appears to retain some elements from the  anti-authoritarian side to his personality made so prominent in his previous outing.

After the mission in Egypt comes a-cropper, a young lady who provided Steve with information is killed by agents of the International arms dealer that the OSI had in its sights, prompting Colonel Steve Austin to decline to play any further role in the agency’s operations. Instead, he opts for healing the pain by absconding to the Bahamas for a holiday, after an old friend from his Air Force days offers him the use of his private rented villa. En route he bumps into Britt Ekland, who turns out to be the Russian associate of a former Soviet colleague, Alexi Kaslov (a moustachioed David McCallum reprising that Russian accent of his from his “Man from UNCLE” days) who instantly suspects Steve is in the country for the same reason as he is, especially as his accommodation turns out to be bang next door to the Russians’ residence.  
It turns out Steve has been manipulated into the trip after all: the pal who rented him the villa is also an agent at the OSI, and Oscar Goldman is responsible for organising the whole scam to get Steve to this location. It seems the arms dealer responsible for the death of Steve’s informant in Egypt, and who goes by the name Arlen Findletter (Eric Braeden), is on the island as well, intending to preside over an illicit ‘nuclear auction’ and claiming to have black market Polaris nuclear missiles for sale to the highest bidder. In between bouts of romancing Ekland and other Bond-like past-times such as playing golf (his bionic arm providing him with an unbeatable swing), appearing on the beach in tight swimming trunks and propping up the casino table, Steve infiltrates Findletter’s underground base, which indeed turns out to be a massive missile silo-cum-showroom for potential rogue buyers of his lethal wares.     

This film gives us the first instance of Steve using his bionic eye, in this case as an infra-red camera that enables him to see in the dark. There’s a strange subplot introduced early on involving Steve’s arm starting to malfunction when he loses his temper, a problem caused by damage sustained at the time of his escape by sea during the Egyptian preamble, usually with the result that he ends up constantly crushing drinks glasses in his hand by accident. But this never goes anywhere, even though great emphasis is put on it in the first half of the movie. The slow motion footage and the accompanying simultaneous ‘bionic’ sound effect which later became so associated with the use of Steve’s bionic powers are elements not yet in place, but the character is generally a much less tortured personality here than he was previously. There’s no soul-searching about his half man, half machine status; he seems quite at home with his powers, and devotes his energies instead to chatting up both Cynthia (Michele Carey) -- the female agent posted with him on the Caribbean assignment -- and Britt Ekland’s Russian spy, who tries to hold him hostage on a yacht in shark infested waters at one point, to stop him interfering with her colleague Kaslov’s negotiations with Findletter.

The whole thing plays out as a light, spirited adventure film, hugely indebted to James Bond in approach, both in subject matter and visuals, but obviously done on the cheap, Findletter’s vast underground base achieved through the clever use of traditional in-camera trick photography rather than with lavish sets, while the apparently globe-trotting parade of settings is realised on-screen with frequent recourse to plenty of stock library footage. Overall, there’s a distinct matinee movie feel about it, though Steve does use violence more often than he would in the weekly series during both these first two films -- dropping grenades into a tank during his first mission in the pilot movie and delivering quite a nasty head chop to one of Findletter’s henchman in this one. The film ends with a typically absurd adventure movie scenario whereby Austin is able to destroy the missile silo simply by setting off one of the nuclear rockets within it, with apparently no concern for the general death and destruction and the ill-effects this would have on the surrounding environment!

The Solid Gold Kidnaping, the third and final film in the initial TV movie run, sees the same director and producer once more overseeing an adventure which mines similar areas of the espionage genre as the previous film. The opening pre-credit mission this time takes place in Mexico, where a gang of revolutionaries are holding a US ambassador hostage in a Mayan temple while their superiors attempt to extract ransom from the US government. Austin manages to distract the gang by setting off a series of grenade explosions, and later punches his way out of the apparently exit-less stone room in which the ambassador is being held with just enough time to helicopter him out -- Austin all the while hanging on to the undercarriage with his bionic arm, as the gang fire on the fleeing copter. The rest of the film essays the already proven mix of jet set globe-trotting, light comedy, some action (including a motorboat chase) and an enemy which, once again, takes the form of an international criminal syndicate, this time made up of kidnappers who run their operations like a worldwide business conglomerate, led here by chairman Maurice Evans -- better known as Dr Zeus from the first two “Planet of the Apes” movies!
This group manage to kidnap yet another important VIP, an American diplomat, William Henry Cameron (Leif Erickson), who’s about to fly out to take part in some important negotiations with the Chinese when he’s abducted right from under Oscar Goldman’s nose while staying in the Paris hotel  the OSI is supposed to be guarding. Called back from an Aspen skiing holiday, Steve finds himself accompanying Dr Erica Bergner (Elizabeth Ashley) on a trip to Switzerland in search of the syndicate’s hideout. Bergner has developed an amazing technique which enables the recovery of memories by transplanting brain cells from one person to another. This “weird science” aspect introduces an offbeat feel to proceedings which emphasises more prominently an outlandish science fiction area that the series was able to tap in some of its narratives, something it would do more and more of over the course of its five year run. Here, one of the more ambitious members of the kidnapping syndicate murders a colleague to advance his own promotion up the ranks of the organisation, and in doing so unwittingly gives doctor Bergner the chance to test her thought transference techniques by having some of the unfortunate victim’s brain cells implanted into her own head, thereby giving the OSI their only lead in the case when her appropriated memories help implicate the Contessa de Rojas (Luciana Paluzzi) in Cameron’s kidnap, while the doc and Steve pose as husband and wife gamblers at a Swiss casino.

Once again, Steve’s persona throughout most of this film finds him occupying the tux-wearing, casino-frequenting ladies’ man end of the personality spectrum more readily associated with James Bond. He even has a Bondian one night stand with the Contessa in order to facilitate an opportunity for searching her villa; and the early part of the film sees him also indulging in some risqué flirting with a young lady he meets on the holiday sky slopes. After she asks him if he gets up to Aspin often, Austin raises a Roger Moore patented eyebrow and quips ‘I try to get up whenever I can’! There’s a running gag with the stuffy receptionist at the Swiss hotel where Steve and his ‘wife’ are staying, who reacts with increasing bemusement each time Steve turns up at the desk to ask for his key in states of increasing dishevelment caused by various run-ins with the bad guys, after they decide he might make quite a good kidnap subject as well. Again, this all feels very Bondian in nature.

Naturally, there’s the usual doggerel here about science treading into areas it shouldn’t: Steve is against the cell transference experiment because it treats the mind as another organ to be broken up and replaced, just like the body parts which have transformed him. He says he likes to think of the mind being the one thing about him that science can’t replace, and now Bergner is challenging that belief too! After Steve’s fellow OSI colleagues' attempts at tracking the gold bullion that is being shipped out by the US Government in return for Cameron’s release end in embarrassment when the syndicate swipe the crates and replace them with gold-platted lead, Bergner’s dead man’s memories seem to be the only hope of tracing the organisation’s headquarters; but by now the doctor is paying the price for her rush to test an unproven technique, becoming disorientated and increasingly tormented by memories which recall events -- including the victim’s murder -- that now feel as though they happened to her.

Although this third film adventure would be the last instance of the jet setting espionage format that also featured in the previous film, we see a more sympathetic pairing between Oscar Goldman and Steve beginning to emerge here, with the latter now seeming to accept his status as a secret agent, even though we’re given yet another indication of a tougher side to the OSI chief after Dr Wells reveals that a lab rat which had also recently been tested with Dr Bergner’s new brain cell transference technique has just begun to break down and slide into a comatose state. Knowing the same fate could well be about to afflict Steve’s young partner, Oscar elects not to tell her and decides to let the two continue with their mission in Switzerland, since the deadline for rescuing Cameron is almost up and there’s not enough time to bring Bergner back for treatment. The film’s light action-orientated tone precludes there being consequences that are excessively drastic attached to this decision, but it still indicates an Oscar who, at this stage, might still be inclined towards treating people like pawns.   

The content of these three films as a whole puts enough of the series' basic elements in place to make it clear why the scenario proved such an attractive one as the mid-season replacement for one of ABC’s failed shows in the take-no-prisoners world of US prime time TV drama. The 1973 ‘origins’ film which kicked the whole thing off, takes this scenario totally seriously, and, in so effectively selling such a premise, sets in motion a much darker world for Steve Austin to inhabit than the subsequent weekly series would feel comfortable with. The two follow-up extended film episodes, meanwhile, lurch to the other extreme and take a much lighter approach, highlighting a traditional form of ‘hero’ masculinity as evidenced in the romantic, leading man style of persona Lee Majors adopts in both efforts; in doing so they unintentionally somewhat de-emphasise the unique cyborg nature of Steve Austin as a protagonist. However, the word bionic is finally mentioned for the first time in the third film, providing the impetus for another change of focus come the series proper, which I’ll be taking a closer look at in the next blog entry, as I present a complete overview of series one.


No comments:

Post a Comment