The Six Million Dollar Man: Population Zero

Back in the blow-dried, bell-bottomed 1970s, I was one of the millions of little boys who ran around a playground in simulated slow motion pretending to fight robots and death probes as The Six Million Dollar Man.  Nowadays, the miracle of DVD lets me revisit that era again whenever I like, even if sometimes the cold reality of what was actually preserved on film doesn’t nearly measure up to the nostalgia-tinged half-memories I’d harbored since childhood.

Still, I find it can be more fun to watch a 40-plus-year-old TV show than a lot of what’s on now, and it’s certainly more fun to write about it here than to comment on the relentlessly depressing headlines of 2017, so here we go with a look at Season One of TSMDM.

The debut episode of the series proper, “Population Zero” is also a strong contender for its best.

After a strong debut in the original Cyborg telefilm and two misguided forays into James Bond territory in a pair of mostly lousy sequels, Steve Austin finally finds his footing as Harve Bennett (later of Star Trek movie fame) takes the producer’s chair.   Where before Lee Majors had struggled awkwardly with a “suave superspy” routine that ran completely counter to his nature, now we find him re-imagined as an aw-shucks, plain-spoken man of the people, essentially a TV cowboy transported to the disco era.  It’s an approach that will play much more to his strengths.

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Things get off to a spooky start when the entire population of a small town apparently drops dead in the middle of their daily routines (in a sequence “borrowed” from 1971’s The Andromeda Strain).  Then follows an equally arresting visual as Steve Austin takes an eerie journey through the “dead” town wearing his Apollo space suit, but not before we’re re-introduced to the the formerly glamorous superspy in his new “casual cool” iteration, hanging out in an auto body shop and enjoying the decidedly unBondian hobby of customizing dune buggies (a hobby which, yes, will never be mentioned again in the course of the series, but by golly, ain’t it a “regular Joe” kind of hobby?).

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The script is structured to perform “pilot” chores despite the fact that it’s not the debut of either the character or concept, what with three TV movies “in the tank” already.  That’s partly because “Population Zero” actually represents the third “soft boot” of the premise in the space of a year.  Steve Austin started off in “Cyborg” as a rebellious, anti-authority test pilot and “civilian member of the space program,” morphed into a jet-setting Bond clone for the next two films and is now “ret-conned” yet again as a career Air Force officer more at home on a ranch or in a garage than at the roulette wheel of a European casino.

Some of the changes boil down to mere matters of tone, but others rewrite Steve’s history.  For instance, “Cyborg” established OSO [sic] director Oliver Spenser (Darren McGavin) as the architect of Steve’s bionic resurrection, with no Oscar Goldman in sight.  Oscar shows up in the subsequent films as someone who has (or thinks he has) the authority to order Steve around, but may or may not have been involved in making him bionic in the first place.  In “Population Zero,” however, the villain calls the concept of a bionic man “Oscar Goldman’s pet project,” suggesting that it was Oscar who masterminded Steve’s “upgrade” from the start.  This assumption is confirmed later in the series, retroactively erasing Spenser from the mythos entirely.

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Indeed, in the opening credits sequence aired through all five seasons of the show, Oscar appears to be watching Steve’s fateful crash in real time, which subtly changes the whole dynamic of Steve’s origin story.  In Cyborg, Oliver Spenser tells us he’ll settle for any mutilated test subject (“We’ll start with scrap!”) and Steve’s selection is a matter of random chance and timing.  It’s a whole different story if Oscar already knew Steve before the crash and was the one who arranged his physical rehabilitation.  That alteration transforms the whole scenario from that of an impersonal, military-oriented government project that might just as easily have worked with any old “guinea pig” to more of a humanitarian, medical project, undertaken to salvage the shattered life of a valued American space hero and patriot.  If Oscar really was there at the crash, then why was he?  Was the test plane itself part of an OSI project and if so, is it guilt that motivates him to rebuild Steve?  Was Oscar already an acquaintance of Steve’s and if so was friendship a motivation?  If Oscar was half as dark a character as Spenser, we might even suspect he was there because he engineered the crash as Step One of the Bionic Man Project.

Of course, the real-world reason Oscar shows up in those “origin”-recapping credits is because it’s the easiest way to show us what Richard Anderson looks like when his “also starring” credit appears.  (For the record the footage of his worried gaze is lifted from the “Solid Gold Kidnapping” movie, from a scene that has nothing to do with plane crashes.  But it looks good, so what the heck.)  Anyway, starting with this episode, Oscar is “rebooted” from his previous incarnation as a stuffy, bossy authority figure to be rebelled against, argued with and outwitted into a now-benevolent “big brother” type and sometimes partner/sidekick on missions afield.  He’s a sort of hybrid of “M” and “Dr Watson.”

The “pilot” also establishes that Steve is still trying to come to grips with his transformation into a “freak of science,” a subplot that calls back to the first movie but which will become less important as time goes on, and be a non-issue by series’ end (when being “bionic” is considered so cool, half the kids in America would willingly trade in their flesh-and-blood limbs for enhanced versions).  In a conversation with the villain, it’s further established that Steve’s bionic eye is capable of 20x magnification and that his top running speed is 60 mph.

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At this early stage, bionic feats of strength are shown minus the famous sound effects we’ll later come to know; instead we usually get the sound of metal creaking under great stress.  At one point Steve makes a bionic leap in silence, which makes it seem more spooky than “cool.”

The high point comes in the last third of the episode.  Steve is placed into a refrigerated chamber because extreme cold renders his bionics inert (introducing a “kryptonite” element to the mythos, though like the buggy-customizing, it’ll ultimately be ignored).  After he escapes (more by brains than brawn), we get a great sequence as Steve races to prevent the deaths of Oscar and numerous assembled extras, stumbling through the desert on bionic legs that are slow to thaw out, falling flat on his face repeatedly only to get up and try again. When he finally does power up fully to run at top speed it’s depicted in slow motion, a seemingly counter-intuitive approach that actually works very well.  Certainly it works better than the more literal approach taken in the earlier TV movies, where Steve is shown zipping along at superspeed like the Keystone Kops.  The slow-motion treatment, partly because it’s accompanied by the sound effect of Steve’s thumping heartbeat and partly just  by the nature of Major’s beefy physique, creates the impression of an unstoppable man-machine barreling towards the camera like a human freight train.  You do not want to get in this guy’s way.  (In fairness, it should be noted that like the “dead town” opening, the slow-mo gimmick was also borrowed from a then-hot property, in this case the TV series Kung Fu.)

Adding to the awesomeness of this scene is the attention to a minor, important detail: Steve is sweating profusely under his left — still human — arm, while his right, bionic arm is dry.

Then of course follows arguably the single coolest moment in the series and the one that exploded the heads of every red-blooded nine-year-old boy in America, when Steve ends the bad guys’ threat as only he can.

It’s safe to assume the villains are very much deceased after this encounter.  Today, Lee Majors likes to promote the show as good, clean fun for the kids with a hero who never kills.  The former is certainly true, but in the earliest episodes, Steve’s not above using lethal force.  In this case, it’s absolutely justified and quite exciting.  Certainly it would have spoiled the fun considerably if the villains had come staggering out of the still-smoking van, coughing and brushing the dust off their tattered clothes, and if this episode had come in a later season, that might’ve been exactly what we got.

Also, just as an aside, note the awesome musical cue provided for the above clip by the great Oliver Nelson, whose jazz-infused compositions constantly elevate this show beyond its low-budget roots to a whole new level of coolness.  Nelson’s untimely death in the middle of Season 3 would be keenly felt, and qualifies for me as a “shark-jump” moment for the series.

So there you have it; the first episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.  After a bit of shaky start, we’re off and running (ahem) with Steve Austin as we remember him.  Next time I’ll take a look at more episodes from the first season.  It’s probably it’s not too much of a spoiler to warn you the quality goes up and down as dramatically as Steve leaps on and off rooftops, but for us kids of the 70s, it was all pure gold.

 

Dr Strange on the big screen

Last month I got got to see my personal “most anticipated” Marvel film: Dr Strange.  The good doctor has always been my favorite Marvel character, and while I don’t know if I’d call this entry my favorite Marvel film, I was very pleased with it, overall.

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First up, I knew we were in good shape when Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as Strange.  Everything I’ve ever seen this guy in has been great, and he’s proven with Sherlock and The Imitation Game that he can do the “super-intelligent oddball” routine very well (if you’re going to be typecast, there are worse labels to bear than “smartest guy in the room.”)  He didn’t disappoint, and the rest of the cast was terrific, as well.  Beyond that, the special effects were fantastic, as well as the music (Michael Giacchino is probably my favorite film composer working today), so I have few complaints.

There’s been criticism from some quarters that the script is too derivative of earlier Marvel entries, which I anticipated, but actually the reverse is true.  The first thing I said to Laura when we came out of the first Iron Man film was “they stole the origin from Dr Strange,” by which I meant “super-talented but selfish, arrogant jerk redeems himself through heroic acts.”  In the comics, Tony Stark was a millionaire genius inventor, yes, but — at least in the early days — he wasn’t presented as a self-centered jackass.  Yes, he made his fortune from munitions, but in the early, Commie-bashing Marvel Age, that was presented a virtue, not a sign of moral compromise.  The movie’s presentation of Tony as a tragic figure with boundless creative potential yet locked in a tragic cycle of bad behavior, scandal and substance abuse was NOT a feature of the comics; it was a meta-textual nod to the real life story of star Robert Downey, Jr.  As much as Downey became Iron Man, with that film Iron Man became Downey.

Having proven a box-office winner, Iron Man went on to…let’s say “inspire”…other super-hero films, like “Green Lantern” and “The Green Hornet,” both featuring selfish, immature jerks who fall more or less sideways into heroism in spite of themselves, even though this formula runs entirely counter to how either character was portrayed in their decades-long histories in other media.

In the comics, it was Stephen Strange who was the self-absorbed jerk who for all his talent as a surgeon was falling far short of his potential as a human being.  Obsessed with fame and fortune, he refused to help patients who couldn’t afford his fees, or to contribute to any efforts that might advance medicine unless they were sure to increase his personal fame.  After a truly life-changing experience, he ends up at the extreme opposite end of things: dedicated to the welfare of all mankind at great personal risk to himself, and with no hope of recognition or reward. (Since he battles threats mankind must never perceive, to reveal his victories would, in effect, reverse them.)

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The movie did a pretty good job of portraying this, I guess.  It’s established from the start that he’s a brilliant surgeon, but it’s not until the last few moments before Strange’s fateful accident that we see he’s only willing to take on the “glory” jobs (later reinforced in a scene with Benjamin Bratt as a would-be patient once rejected by Strange).  Certainly he turns into a Class-A creep after the accident, driving away the woman who loves him (Rachel McAdams as Dr Christine Palmer) in his prolonged spiral into bitterness and self-pity. For me the pay-off comes late in the film, when Strange and The Ancient One converse in their astral forms and The Ancient One tells him that for all he’s learned, he’s still missed the most important lesson of all: “It’s not about you.”  This was the moment where I thought, “Yes.  This film gets it.”

I will admit, though, that the efforts to cast Strange in the “smart ass” mold were only partially successful, not really true to the character and not the best idea unless you want to invite comparisons to RDJ, who can never be beaten at his own game.  I also didn’t appreciate the couple instances of foul language in the film, especially from Strange himself.  I like to think I’m not prudish, but in a film with obvious appeal to kids, and which is on the whole far more accessible to and appropriate for young audience than any of DC’s sick efforts, these moments were jarring and unwelcome.

But let’s focus on what they got right.  One thing I always dug about Strange was that he operates in his own little corner of the Marvel Universe, with whole worlds and dimensions to explore on his own without running into other superheroes all the time or crossing over into company-wide “event” stories.  Both readers and Marvel accountants alike always loved the way Spider-Man was running into Daredevil, or the Hulk was trading punches with The Thing, because it meant in order to really enjoy your favorite book you had to know what was going on with the rest of Marvel, and every now and then if you wanted to see the end of your Avengers story, you had to buy an issue or two of The Defenders, or whatever.  I never dug that, partly because I frankly considered some Marvel characters nowhere near as good as others, or as deserving of my change, but also because I grew up in the boonies where I was lucky to find two consecutive issues of any title on the spindle rack, much less the entire Marvel line.  Due to his nature, Dr Strange could usually be counted on to star in self-contained storylines in his own little sandbox, and that’s carried over into the film, which despite a few Easter eggs and call-outs to other characters is not at all dependent on the rest of the MCU to work.

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Second, I always enjoyed Strange’s trippy sojourns to other dimensions, as first imagined by artist/creator Steve Ditko and later by such talented illustrators as Gene Colan, Frank Brunner, Marshall Rogers, Paul Smith, etc. Again, the film does a great job of this with its take on The Dark Dimension, home of the Dread Dormammu. Like Ditko’s original, it’s a topsy-turvy dimension full of weird, seemingly organic structures, including orbs connected by creepy tendrils. Laura mentioned that they looked like neurons and dendrites, which I confess never occurred to me but, if intentional, makes wonderful sense in a film about a superhero neurosurgeon.

Also great fun are scenes that fold reality in on itself like a sort of origami-on-LSD. Rooms, buildings, streets, whole vistas are twisted sideways and upside down in kaleidoscopic fashion, lending an Escher-like quality to several battle scenes.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

Then, there’s a third effect at the end of the film as Strange invokes a time-reversing spell that causes everything and everyone to move backwards except the principal characters, all sorcerers engaged in half-magical, half-martial arts combat.

Throughout all this, bystanders go on about their lives unaware of what’s happening under their noses, which checks off another item from my wishlist. In the comics, Dr Strange conducts his battles above, below, around and through the forms of mortals who are oblivious to these goings-on, and the stakes involved. Besides just being a cool concept in general (who’s to say what’s going on right now on a plane we can’t see?) this also gets us past the thorny issue of collateral damage in superhero movie throw-downs, an issue which has caused some controversy in several films, including casting a pall over “Man of Steel” that more or less powered the entire plot of Batman v. Superman (about which the less said, the better). Dr Strange finds a way to have its cake and eat it, too, giving audiences the big-budget effects they’ve paid for, but without inviting the “disaster porn” label.

Waaaaaay back in the 70s, I watched the original Dr Strange TV movie with high hopes that came to naught. There, we got a permed Stephen Strange with a bland costume and cheapo special effects. It took four decades, but at last we’ve got something awfully darned close to the movie I was hoping for, with the Cloak of Levitation, the Eye of Agamotto, the Sanctum Sanctorum, Dormammu, Mordo and Wong, so I’m happy. With the success of this film and before it The Guardians of the Galaxy, we can now hope for all kinds of Marvel B-listers to have their day in the sun, and that’s awesome. Especially since after all this time, the only thing DC’s had any luck with is still Batman.

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Star Trek at 50

Star Trek characters

The first episode of Star Trek aired on NBC fifty years ago today, Sept. 8, 1966, kicking off a three-year run on network TV.  I missed the whole thing.

In my defense, I started that run as a baby and ended it as a preschooler, but when the show aired in syndication in the early to mid-70s, I made up for lost time.  I’m reasonably certain I was introduced to Trek by my grandfather, who was a big fan.  My earliest impression was that it was scary, but in a cool way.  Every new planet posed a new set of threats: deadly viruses, hissing lizard men, sparkly clouds that sucked out your red blood cells, the still-living spirit of Jack the Ripper…heck, even the landscapes could kill you, with acidic soil, flowers that exploded in your face and rocks that stood up and started fighting you.  Just the everyday routine of “beaming down” unnerved me, as it involved disintegrating living bodies to their component atoms and reconstructing them somewhere else (Dr McCoy shared my unease, and with good reason, as the technology frequently failed, with all kinds of nasty results).

pikeThe creepy Spock character, thought young me, was kind of like Barnabas Collins but with pointy ears instead of pointy teeth.  And I must not have seen Part 2 of “The Menagerie,” because I was convinced the scarred, disabled Captain Pike was forever lurking in a room somewhere deep in the bowels of the Enterprise.

Add to that an endless list of space-borne threats including enemy ships, ion storms, radiation surges, meteor strikes, giant ghostly hands, you name it, and space travel was basically one big, 24-7 danger fest. Like most kids, though, I was attracted to scary things, at least scary things that could be decisively conquered in an hour’s time, so this was right up my alley.  After all, that constant undercurrent of danger was also a part of the real-life Apollo missions I watched with fascination during the same period.

The official line now is that Star Trek has endured because of its “positive view of the future” and progressive messages.  I’m not sure how radical optimism was in its day, though: a “gee whiz” outlook towards invention and technology goes way back to Buck Rogers, and it considering the 50 years prior to Trek had seen us progress from the Wright Flyer to lunar orbital missions, I’d imagine lots of people had an “anything’s possible” outlook towards tech.  Or maybe the point is that in an era of race riots, assassinations and a nasty war in Southeast Asia, the mere declaration that we would survive into the 23rd Century constituted audacious optimism.  If so, the strength of the show was that this was never dwelt on at length, just presented as fact; “Oh look, we’re still alive in the future.  Cool.  Now what’s the story this week?”  As for Trek’s stories “meaning something” and conveying social commentary, well that’s nice when it works, but I guarantee you nobody tuned in then or now to be preached to.  What made the show compelling was the drama, the humor, the excitement, the relationships between the characters, the cool (for their day) special effects, the great sets and gadgets, the generally excellent production values (especially for TV) and music.  It was just a quality show, period.

trek-tracerAnyway it certainly loomed large in my childhood.  I remember running around the back yard, battling imaginary Klingons with a plastic “phaser” that shot spinning helicopter-like wheels; it was one of those cheap toys you bought off a peg at the drug store.  I even talked my grandma into buying me a toy gun that shot discs just because the packaging said, “Star Trek,” though it didn’t look like anything ever seen on the show. As soon as you pulled it off the cardboard, it ceased to have any connection to Trek whatever.  Pretty sure I also had the “Parachuting Mr. Spock” figure, which made no sense at all. (Check out the Plaid Stallions site for a list of the coolest Trek toys of the 70s, too many of which I owned)

Between us, my brother and I collected every member of the Enterprise crew available as a Mego action figure (well, except for Uhura.  Girl “action figures” were dolls!).  There was even a bridge playset with a “transporter” that spun around and — voila! — the figure disappeared.  It’s still in my garage.

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I had jigsaw puzzles featuring the “animated series” versions of the characters (Spock’s skin was bright green!), and a Corgi die-cast model of the Enterprise that got just about everything wrong, from a saucer section that fired discs to a shuttle bay on the bottom (!) of the secondary hull that housed a shuttle five times too large.  Probably the coolest Trek merchandise we had was a set of walkie-talkies that looked — sort of — like communicators, complete with little doors that flipped up.  In the TV commercial, one of the kids using the “communicator” called his playmate and said, “Scott, this is Kevin, my bike is broken!” Every now and then I managed to talk my brother into playing Star Trek, which wasn’t easy because he could never be Captain Kirk (one of the pitfalls of being a little brother; he was always Robin to my Batman, Tonto to my Lone Ranger, etc).  Invariably, after I’d gone to some lengths to set up a Trek-worthy plotline to enact in our yard, he’d summon me via communicator with a breathless, “Captain!  Do you read me?  Come in, Captain!”  In my most earnest, ramrod-straight Shatner impression I would respond, “Kirk here, what is it?”  And he would answer, “My bike is broken!  HAHAHAHAHA!”

41se0y83chlThose were the “dry” years for Trek, with the show long out of production and the later movies little more than a pipe dream.  We got by on novelizations by British author James Blish, with plots and characterizations that always fell somewhere between “slightly off” and “wildly inaccurate.”  The library in my small town school had a copy of volume 8 of this series and I kept it out on near-permanent loan. Then there were the Gold Key comics, featuring an Enterprise crew that might have been named the same as they were on the show, but looked, dressed, talked and acted nothing like the real deal.

At last the drought ended with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which I managed to stay awake through in December of 1979 on my first visit to a “multi-plex” theater in Richmond.  My folks agreed to bring along a couple of my friends on the roughly hour and a half trip to the city, which they may have regretted when we had to take them all home again in a mini-blizzard.  A couple years later came Wrath of Khan, which blew my socks off despite the guy in the back of the theater who, when the USS Defiant flew across the screen, yelled out, “De Plane!  De Plane!” in his best Herve Villechaize impression (because Ricardo Montalban was also on…oh, never mind).  And then the rest of the sequels were cranked out more or less bi-annually in a seeming effort to illustrate the Law of Diminishing Returns.  Finally, the old cast moved aside to make way for the next generation of characters, and now Kirk and crew have been re-imagined in the form of pretty youngsters who look more suited to a remake of Saved By the Bell, with scripts to match.

It’s cool that Trek has become something of an institution I guess, but in a way, four spin-off series (with a new one on the way), 13 movies and countless books, comics and video games have built up a thick crust of barnacles on the Enterprise hull and blurred somewhat the magic of those original 79 episodes.  It doesn’t help that every detail of the show has been researched, documented and analyzed ad nauseum, so now we know how those effects were achieved, who was in that rubber suit, why that cast member stopped showing up.  Worse, we’ve seen the crumbling away of the carefully-constructed image of a cast who loved working together, leaving us with the reality of embittered 70- and 80-something ex-actors sniping at each other in the press like pouty teenagers.

BUT…at the end of the day, it’s those original 79 episodes that matter; everything else is apocrypha, mere distraction.  When I view them on DVD (or more likely, Netflix), the years fall away and I’m back on the original Enterprise, where everyone is young and vital again, wearing colorful uniforms and pointed sideburns and tackling the threat of the week with courage and teamwork.  Even at its worst (and it could get pretty bad) Star Trek was always interesting to watch, but at its best it was some of the greatest television to hit the airwaves.  More, it’s something that still connects me with my grandfather, though he’s gone, and something I can pass on to my kids, to maybe enjoy when I’m gone, too.  It’s the past and the future all at once.

Happy Anniversary, Star Trek.  Here’s to the next 50.

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Summer Adventures

Late June/early July saw the Morefield clan on a loooong car trip to Missouri for Laura’s bi-annual family reunion.  To make it more manageable, we broke it up with stops along the way, notably in St Louis to see the famous Gateway Arch:

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Later we took Jason to visit the St Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center, which was really impressive compared to anything similar here in Richmond (which is, basically, zilch).  Lots of boards to play on downstairs and up, weekly classes and lectures, a nice chess-themed restaurant next door and just across the street is the World Chess Hall of Fame.  Jason was pretty excited to visit the very room he’d seen in the live stream of the US Championship back in April.

 

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Some friendly staffers agreed to sit down for a blitz game or two with Jason, then he got a real treat when Grandmaster and four-time US Champion Yasser Seriawan showed up to join them for a few rounds of bughouse.

While this was going on, Gracie and I took a walk around the block before settling down to a game of our own at one of the tables lining the sidewalk outside the Chess Club.

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From St Louis, it was on to Tan Tar-A Resorts at the Lake of the Ozarks, where apparently I was too busy relaxing to bother taking any pictures.  But anyway it was good catching up with family we hadn’t seen in quite a while, even if the temperatures were generally brutal.

On the way back, we broke up the ride again with a stopover in Louisville, KY and a trip to the Derby Museum.

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After all that time behind the wheel, I was ready to chill at home, but Laura and Jason had only a day to unwind before hopping a train to Philadelphia for five days at the World Open 2016. Jason managed to win 7 of 9 games for a fourth-place finish in the Under 2000 division, and pushed his rating up to 2015, placing him at “Expert” status.

At this writing, the boys and I are gearing up for a week at Boy Scout Summer Camp, so the fun’s not over yet.  I just checked the weather forecast to make sure we won’t be melting under a hot sun, and the good news is it looks like that won’t be a big concern.  The bad news is that’s because we’re supposed to get rain 6 out of 7 days we’re there, and most of that involves thunderstorms.  Yippee.