The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Six Million Dollar Man still
Good news: we have the technology to make him better, faster, stronger. Bad news: we don’t have the technology to make the plot better, faster, stronger. (credit: ABC)

Six Million Dollar snooze

Bookmark and Share

One of the things I still like about Netflix is that it allows me to rent movies and TV shows that I would never buy. Alas, in the past year I’ve noticed that my queue of reserved movies that Netflix does not have has grown much longer than the list of things that I want to see that they do have, and so, like a lot of people, I’ve been considering dropping them. But something did pop up recently that delayed my inevitable subscription cancellation—Netflix got season one of The Six Million Dollar Man.

The show premiered as several movies starting in 1973 and then became a series in 1974, lasting until 1978. Other than bootleg DVDs, it did not officially get released on DVD in North America until 2010, and the first season was not made available for rental until about a month ago.

As a young boy growing up in the 1970s I should have been a huge fan of the show. I enjoyed it at times, but often found it simply stupid, with UFOs and space aliens, “Fembots” and even Bigfoot.

The show featured Steve Austin, a NASA astronaut (and Air Force colonel) who is badly wounded while testing a NASA lifting body aircraft. A secretive government agency rebuilds him with artificial components called bionics. Austin, played by Lee Majors, then works for them as a special agent, using his speed, super strength, and enhanced eyesight to perform special missions that no other agent could perform. It’s an amazingly clever premise, especially for almost four decades ago. Credit belongs to Martin Caidin, who wrote Cyborg, the novel upon which the show was based (see “Making lemons into lemonade”, The Space Review, May 26, 2009). Certainly the concept of enhancing humans robotically had existed in the scientific literature for awhile, but Caidin found a way of incorporating it into the secret agent/action genres.

As a young boy growing up in the 1970s I should have been a huge fan of the show. I enjoyed it at times, but often found it simply stupid, with UFOs and space aliens, “Fembots” and even Bigfoot (who it turns out was a robot for a bunch of aliens, which makes a lot more sense than the myth). At the time I was more focused on endless reruns of Star Trek (which I like to think demonstrates that as a kid I had some taste). Because Steve Austin was an astronaut, the series featured a number of episodes where he either flew in space or his astronaut background or skills were important. Those were the only episodes that really interested me as a kid, and when the series became available on DVD, those are the episodes that I wanted to watch. So when the first disk arrived in my mailbox I popped it in to watch the original movie, which was about Steve Austin’s accident and his bionic reconstruction.

Wow, was it dull.

The major problem is the pacing. Television changed a lot in the 1990s and the last decade, adopting rapid cuts and quick edits and pounding soundtracks. It is often borders on seizure-inducing overkill. But even by 1970s standards this movie was slow, with long stretches of people walking, staring, looking at notebooks, or staring out the window. Our first introduction to Steve Austin, astronaut, is when he comes walking out of the Mojave desert toward the NASA B-52 “mothership” (known as “Balls Eight” for its 008 registry number—it currently sits outside of the Edwards Air Force Base north gate, fading in the sun). Steve was out in the desert watching the sun rise, which he said reminded him of being on the Moon.

After suiting up, he climbs into the HL-10 lifting body—the actual one that NASA tested in the mid-1960s—and is carried into the air underneath the B-52. He’s dropped, experiences some problems, and then crashes on the desert floor.

The remastered film looks very good, and even the NASA stock footage of the original flights is top notch as well. A sharp-eyed viewer will note that although Steve is shown in the HL-10, and some of the footage is the HL-10, much of the flight footage is taken from flights of the M2-F2, the aircraft that actually crashed. Although this should be an exciting sequence, it’s boring as heck. Later, a brilliant editor would take quick clips of this sequence and turn it into one of the most iconic television credit sequences of all time. But here it’s just sloooooowwwww.

After the crash, Steve Austin ends up in the hospital, mopey and depressed even after he gets his bionic implants. He is, frankly, a bore. Any person facing such a recovery would react similarly, but heroes are supposed to be heroic, and Steve’s struggle lasts way too long. Eventually, he’s thrown into the Middle East, ostensibly to rescue a hostage, but actually as a test of his suitability to be a super agent. Despite a great location shot, the action sequence is almost cartoonish. But the movie ends with Steve Austin accepting his new role as secret super agent.

It did have some great concepts and story ideas, although they usually fell apart in execution. And when was the last time that an astronaut was the hero of a television show?

Two more TV movies followed, and the second begins with some of the worst theme music you’ve ever heard. It wasn’t until later that they figured out how to pack Steve Austin’s backstory into a great 82-second clip. The producers also apparently decided that this was not really an adult show and so they aimed at a kid audience. The show’s budget must have been tiny, because I distinctly remember one episode where Austin ran around a roadside carnival, which was supposedly a covert Soviet missile site smuggled into America. The Ferris wheel was supposedly a radar. It was like a bunch of kids on the playground pretending that the jungle gym was a spaceship.

If later seasons also become available to rent there are a few episodes that I may give a try, primarily the ones with a space theme:

Rescue of Athena One
Steve Austin trains the first American female astronaut. When he has to travel into space to Skylab, his bionic systems malfunction. The only thing I really remember about this was that the show substituted animated footage of Skylab in orbit for at least a few scenes. Cheap.

The Deadly Replay
From what I vaguely remember this was one of the more clever episodes. Steve is told that the experimental airplane that nearly killed him may have been sabotaged. In order to capture the saboteur, he has to fly a rebuilt version of the crashed aircraft. Although the plot was primarily about espionage, Austin had to face his demons in order to complete his mission.

Death Probe (parts 1 and 2)
This is probably one of the best-remembered stories of the original show, and another clever idea in a series that had quite a few of them. A Russian Venus rover crash lands in the United States and starts wreaking havoc on an American town. Eventually Steve realizes that it may have been pressurized during its trip through Venus’ atmosphere and concludes that if they can haul it up to high altitude, it will explode. This makes absolutely no sense when you think about it, but then again, neither do the seventies.

Deadly Countdown (parts 1 and 2)
Steve is working with the first female British astronaut, played by the lovely Jenny Agutter. A lot of this two-parter was filmed at Cape Canaveral, which was experiencing a long hiatus in human spaceflight and was therefore available for filming (filmmakers of today take note!). There are several unique sequences, including a scene on top of the Vehicle Assembly Building, and another involving the underground bunker below one of the launch pads and the emergency chutes that lead to it. From what I remember, the plot is stupid, but Miss Agutter is beautiful.

Dark Side of the Moon (parts 1 and 2)
Steve flies to the Moon. Stuff happens there.

Return of the Death Probe (parts 1 and 2)
Give the producers credit: they could recognize a good idea when they came up with one, and then squeeze it for every bit of juice possible (not to mention recycle their props). A second Russian Venus probe runs amok, although this time it’s not an accident, but sabotage.

I’m not expecting much from any of these episodes. The show was fluff. But it did have some great concepts and story ideas, although they usually fell apart in execution. And when was the last time that an astronaut was the hero of a television show?

There have been a number of attempts to remake The Six Million Dollar Man as a movie, but they have all fallen apart. Perhaps some of that has to do with inflation—the reason to remake the show is its name recognition, but nobody would believe you could build a bionic man so cheaply. But it is also true that the idea of mixing humans and machines is now commonplace. Nobody needs to remake The Six Million Dollar Man when they can simply make their own version and not pay any royalties. Indeed, one of the most popular videogames right now is Deus Ex Human Revolution, where the player gets cybernetic enhancements that enable him to hack computers, lift heavy objects, and see in the dark. In the spirit of the times, he’s not an astronaut. He’s an ex-cop.