Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Six Million Dollar Diary Part Two: SERIES ONE (1974)

The first mini season of The Six Million Dollar Man consisted of only thirteen hour-long episodes instead of the traditional twenty-two. This was because the series was introduced to the public as a mid-season place filler for another show that had failed in the ratings during its initial run and was then cancelled by the network, leaving Universal in urgent need of a last-minute replacement. Even so, it was this first truncated batch of 6MDM episodes that firmly established most of the iconic elements of the series, and set the particular tone of it for some time to come … It was a tone that very soon made the weekly show quite distinct from all attempts by the producers of the preceding two TV movies to bring a jet set image to the character of Steve Austin. Perhaps the main feature that sticks in the memory the most firmly for those of us who first saw this programme when growing up in the pre-computer dawn of the 1970s, is its beautifully constructed, superbly paced and edited title sequence delivered in tandem with the urgent voice-over of Richard Anderson accompanying its rich flow of layered images. The sequence establishes from the get-go a set of signs and signifiers implying heroism and an all-American technological ‘can-do’ attitude, and suggesting a sense of guileless optimism in its implicit message that one might rise up and overcome apparently overwhelming odds to become stronger and better than before.

Jointly conceived and designed by executive producer Harve Bennett and titles director Jack Cole (the latter having previously designed the title sequence for the successful weekly series Ironside),  it’s a masterpiece of audience manipulation, confidently setting up expectations anew each week for the episode that was to come, while imbuing each one of them with a sense of excitement and tension they frankly sometimes didn’t deserve; as well as doing the necessary job of filling in (and improving upon) the backstory details for those viewers who hadn’t seen the previous TV movies … all this being achieved in the space of just one minute of screen time!
Looked at today, the sequence still retains its original tightly-edited power to grab the attention and pique dreams of gaining superhuman powers with the aid of some beguilingly advanced (and secret) technology. Steve Austin already embodied many boyhood fantasies in his pre-bionic secret agent jobs as an astronaut and an Air Force colonel, but this sequence sees him eventually delivered to new highs of human excellence to become simultaneously both a down-to-earth ‘everyman’ and the ultimate action superhero.

A robot double in the episode Day of the Robot

With its clever audio synching of a sombre military drum tattoo to build tension, combining with the beep of life support systems and then an electronic pulse and computer ‘chatter’ to signify through sound Steve’s newly augmented bionic status after the depiction of his test craft crash (which was taken from real NASA library footage of just such an incident), a sense of  urgency is efficiently implied, and then given added import in the form of executive producer Harve Bennett’s succinct introductory voice-over line: ‘Steve Austin – Astronaut – a man barely alive’. This is accompanied by an overlay of images and graphics that was way ahead of its time in its utilisation of computer-derived imagery: X-ray photographs combining with on-screen countdowns and computer graphic reconstructions of Steve’s bionic limbs (or animated anticipations of them at least … In 1974 there were no computer graphics as such!); then images of surgeons manipulating artificial limbs on the operating table and (in later seasons) a heavily bandaged Austin under sedation. Over these latter images the voice of Richard Anderson is heard intoning the immortal words: ‘Gentlemen, we can rebuild him …’ and from that moment on, TV history was born!

John Saxon moves in for the kill at the climax of the episode Day of the Robot
This sequence excises completely the soul searching nature of the original pilot episode with regard to Steve’s initial ambivalence about his cyborg status: instead, evocative images of limbs being attached give way to iconic images of Lee Majors as the masculine, bionic Steve Austin, apparently untroubled by his newly augmented status, lifting heavy training weights and running at terrific speeds on a treadmill, the tension in the initial urgent rapping of military drums now building to a final release with a rising pitch of electronic noise, culminating in the first use of a slow motion shot of Austin exercising his bionic running capabilities, accompanied by a payoff in the form of a second-long ‘sting’ of Oliver Nelson’s unforgettable theme music (in later series this brief stab of a cue was expanded to allow the, by then, instantly recognisable theme music to accompany all the shots of Steve demonstrating his post-crash bionic powers).  Entertainment Weekly once called this ‘the best main title sequence in the history of television’ and it’s certainly up there with the greats.

As well as informing the tone and texture of the series to come, the sequence’s brief, totemic use of slow motion (taken from the pilot movie) in the context of demonstrating bionic power, was latched onto and developed as a motif which subsequently dominated the structure and determined much of the content of many future episodes. Most stories in this first season hold back on all but the briefest, sometimes even jokey demonstrations of bionic capability during their first two acts, until a climactic moment comes in the episode near the end when there is usually a great need introduced into the plotline for Austin to be seen extensively exercising his powers. This means that there is often quite lengthy use of slow motion during the final acts of most episodes; and, accompanied by Nelson’s main theme, the effect is to concentrate the attention of the viewer on Steve Austin’s mechanically augmented physicality in a way that is almost a homoerotic invitation to worship at the shrine of male perfection.

But these paeans to human heroism and modern technology working together in harmony are contrasted throughout with Lee Majors’ portrayal of Austin as a laid back, sanguine and modest individual. The James Bond image of the TV movies has been stripped away and the character has returned to the soft-spoken, dignified persona glimpsed in the opening moments of the original pilot movie of the week. Steve Austin is a normal, everyday guy, who just happens to have the power to do extraordinary things in this formula version of the series; many of the stories in the first mini season emphasis the relationships of his past, regularly introducing old friends or mentors to better demonstrate the character’s humanity and his homespun values rather than his transformative acts of heroism. In fact, there is often a contrast between Steve as a warm, approachable, likable type of guy who’s been saved and enhanced by the implementation of modern technology, and the foes he comes up against, who invariably turn out to have developed some form of equally advanced technological weapon with which they intend to do harm for purely selfish or else politically fascistic reasons.

The first episode of the run, Population: Zero, demonstrates these polarities clearly. The episode even begins with Steve thinking about starting up his own machine shop so that he will have something to do in the downtime when there are no missions for him to go on -- something that straightaway marks him down as a regular Joe in his general attitude to life; you wouldn’t catch James Bond considering doing something like that, after all! 

In this first story, when the inhabitants of a small town -- near the one Steve himself grew up in -- are used as guinea pigs by an ex-OSI scientist, Dr Stanley Baker (Don Porter,) to test a sonic weapon that can kill people en masse with ultrasonic sound, Steve goes in on a mission to deliver the non-existent ransom money, hoping to persuade the rogue scientist to give up his genocidal plans, against the wishes of his boss Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson).
This is one of the few episodes in which Austin still retains some lingering angst over the potential dehumanising elements of his bionic transformation. At one point he appears to resent the implication that the beautiful Dr Forbes (Penny Fuller) -- a medic posted with the military to look into the sonic death phenomena taking place in the town -- is only interested in him as a technological specimen rather than as a human being when she starts questioning him about the amazing feats she’s witnessed him perform, although this soon proves not to be the case. But when he’s later captured by Dr Baker, whose been plotting to wreak havoc by turning his device on a major city simply because his research was axed by the OSI, the deranged scientist can indeed only relate to Steve as a depersonalised weapon, and wants to destroy him simply to get back at OSI head Oscar for spending government money on the development of bionics instead of continuing with his own research into ultrasonic weaponry. There’s a scene near the end when Steve catches up with an old college tutor who’s been living in the affected town targeted by Baker, and asks about his old school pals, one of whom turns out to have died in Vietnam -- once again demonstrating Steve's humanity in stark contrast to the ruthless self-interest of his foe throughout the rest of the episode.

Lee Majors in typically dynamic pose from The last of the Fourth of Julys
There are several other episodes which feature the same mixture of elements designed to emphasis Steve’s moral decency in opposition to the technologically obsessed villains he battles, who only ever wield advanced technology as a weapon and a means of gaining power. The Last of the Fourth of Julys features the closest thing to a James Bond villain this series possesses in the heavily coiffed guise of Steve Forrest as Quail – a criminal mastermind who has somehow set up a large facility protected by thirty-foot high electrified fences in a neutral region of Norway, from where he plans to turn an advanced laser weapon on the world’s cities. Steve needs special military training for a one-man mission in which he will have to infiltrate the compound alone, although he is eventually aided by one of Quail’s personnel, who turns out to be an undercover Interpol agent. 

The secret base of yet another criminal mastermind in The last of the Fourth of Julys
The most notable example of this style of ‘technology-weapon’ plotline comes in an episode called Day of the Robot, and features John Saxon guest starring as Major Fredrick Sloan, a close friend of Steve’s from his Air Force days who has developed a new circuit card that is the only means of activating the country’s nuclear defence systems. In what is one of the more science fantasy-based episodes in the series run, a criminal gang turn out to have employed a genius scientist to develop a super-strong robotic replica of Sloan to replace the real one during the Major’s trip to the defence facility, where he is scheduled to deliver the new card. Steve has been assigned by Oscar the task of escorting Sloan on the trip, but the gang manages to switch the real Sloan with the robot one during a rest stop. After minor malfunctions in the robot’s driving skills -- its progress is constantly monitored by its creators (by way of cameras implanted in its eyes) from a central computer room where its behaviour can be constantly adjusted! -- lead Steve to suspect something is wrong with his old friend, he figures out the truth by repeating the same question about Sloane’s past again and again -- fooling the robot into simply repeating a programmed statement in an unvarying tone of voice, and thus revealing it to be on a programmed loop. The ensuing slow motion battle between robot and bionic man is one of the series highlights.

Steve Austin’s friendship with the real Sloan is re-established in the episode’s final scenes and is another example of the importance this series attaches to stressing the qualities of friendship, loyalty and family responsibility. One of the weirder, more ‘way out’ episodes continues this theme: Burning Bright features William Shatner as another former colleague of Steve’s, this time from his days as a NASA astronaut. Shatner plays astronaut Josh Lang, who comes back from a space-walk mission around Earth’s orbit with crazy ideas, spouting long rambling monologues that seem to make no sense, about ‘the origins of space’ etc. (in other words, he just sounds like an average William Shatner!). His mind seems supercharged after encountering some kind of abnormal electricity field in space, and his old pal Steve is assigned the task of assessing Josh’s behaviour to determine if he is really fit to go back into space for his next mission.

Steve tries to come to grips with the madness of William Shatner in Burning Bright
After Josh goes on a mad spree and starts talking to a non-existent person called ‘Andy’ and climbs up a live electricity pylon in pursuit of him, Steve, reluctantly, is forced to conclude that his friend is no longer fit for service. But then several things happen that persuade him that Josh has actually come back from space with weird powers of unearthly insight and special ‘mind powers’: firstly he is demonstrably able to communicate with the dolphins at Ocean World; his ravings about there being a mistake in a NASA computer program turns out to be correct; and his bizarre theory about the origins of space turns out also to be ‘valid’ (whatever that means) according to Oscar’s ‘computer checks’.

The episode eventually turns into a weirdly trippy sci-fi outing in which Lang proves unable to control the superheated ramblings of his enhanced brain and becomes haunted by tragic childhood memories  that unhinge him and cause him to threaten innocent people with his rampaging mind powers; but what is notable about this crazy episode is Steve’s devotion to his former colleague, even going so far as to argue in favour of Josh’s wild idea that the two of them should go up into space with a dolphin in order to learn from it the mysteries of the Universe! 

Everybody was Kung Fu fighting in the episode Dr Wells is Missing
The extent of Steve’s loyalties are demonstrated again in the episode Dr Wells is Missing. Dr Rudy Wells (Alan Oppenheimer, appearing once again in the role he inherited from Martin Balsam) is kidnapped in Austria by another criminal network, and held captive in a remote castle until he agrees to build the gang its own bionic man. Steve doesn’t hesitate to drop everything and fly off to rescue the man who designed his bionics and now helps maintain them in working order. This episode reveals its early-‘70s origins when Steve is forced to engage in a battle with several heavies employed by the gang, one of them exercising then-trendy Kung Fu skills!

It becomes clear during the course of episodes like these that the relationships between Dr Wells, Steve, and their mutual boss Oscar, have now become more like those of a close-knit family rather than merely work colleagues. Oscar in particular has become almost like a brother to Steve by the end of this series. He’s frequently shown to be worried about him and, in a complete reversal to the pilot episode, in which Oliver Spencer tried to manipulate him into going on dangerous missions, Oscar quite often tries to prevent or dissuade his bionic friend from doing dangerous things that might jeopardise his life, while Steve’s inherent fealties and his sense of loyalty often drive him on to go ahead anyway. The contrast between Oscar as Steve’s OSI boss, and Oscar as Steve’s buddy, is summed up at the end of episode one when Goldman rhetorically asks ‘how do you tell a man who saved your life that he disobeyed an order?’ ‘You don’t,’ counters Steve. ‘I agree with you,’ Oscar responds.

Mountain climbing with George Takei in the episode The Coward
There is a sense then, throughout these early episodes, that Oscar and Wells occupy a unique quasi familial role in Steve Austin's life, being somewhere between brothers and surrogate fathers. This appears to be borne out in a late season episode entitled The Coward, in which the issue of Steve’s true parentage is raised. Steve’s mother, Helen (Martha Scott), is introduced as a semi regular character here, after Steve’s latest mission to retrieve secret WW2 papers from a crashed DC-3 in the Himalayas brings up the issue of his late father’s war record when the craft’s position is revealed by a weather satellite -- since Captain Carl Austin was the original pilot of the newly discovered craft! The episode revolves around a quest, with Steve attempting to discover once and for all during his dangerous mission, whether or not his father really abandoned his crew and bailed out of his craft during WW2, as at least one witness claimed at the time. This story tacitly says a lot about what motivates Steve Austin’s heroism and his homespun attitude to life, and must also be a rarity for 1970s action drama in that it prominently features (in close up) the hero shedding tears when, after many trials and tribulations to get to it, he finally reaches his father’s crashed craft in the desolate mountains.

Steve Austin's tears in the episode The Coward
This first season of The Six Million Dollar Man helped lay the foundations for what was to come, setting the general tone and establishing the parameters of the kinds of stories it could tell within the format; stories that ranged  quite widely from mad sci-fi concepts to espionage thrillers and low-key character-based adventures. The series features a few ragged episodes thanks to the fact that executive producer Harve Bennett was given only six weeks to get the series on the air, and was constantly working against the clock for most of the season to get episodes out on time. Nevertheless, he and his crew, and lead actors Majors and Anderson, created the series blueprint for a show which grabbed audiences straight away and prepared the ground for the next full season of episodes -- which was, by its end, to see the introduction of a womanly mate for Steve Austin in the attractive form of Jaime Sommers: the bionic woman!  


1 comment:

  1. Great stuff!! But with regard to the 1st episode, it was Stanley BACON, not Baker.. :-) Take care.