Six Million Dollar Man, meet Bionic Woman

bionic-mad400At one point I had grand plans for this blog to review whole seasons of a favorite old TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man.  Ultimately, I made it as far as the pilot movie, two follow-up TV movies and the first proper episode (which was probably also the best) before the wheels came off.  To a degree, this was due to the dozens of other things always vying for my time and attention, but in all honesty, there was one other important hurdle that derailed my plans.

Turns out the show wasn’t all that great.

Don’t get me wrong; in its day, The Six Million Dollar Man was terrifically entertaining to 9-to-13-year old me, but watching it now, I’m struck by how formulaic, cheap and downright sloppy it all was.

Lots of TV shows operate on a “shoestring budget,” but TSMDM often seemed to limp along with no shoestrings at all. Universal Studios was a tightwad operation that never filmed cheaply what it could get away with not filming at all; basically any shot that couldn’t be easily captured on a studio backlot was lifted from an old film in the Universal vaults or even public domain footage from the U.S. government.  If the script calls for a helicopter to fly over, why spend money renting one when you can just recycle combat footage of Huey choppers in Vietnam?  Scenes of Steve running are recycled repeatedly, often showing him in a California desert whether the story is set there or not.   Why? Because there was plenty of desert “running” footage already in the can from “Population Zero.”

Having recently read a couple of books detailing the painstaking process of turning a Star Trek script into a filmed episode, its amazing how little planning seems to have gone into TSMDM.  You get the distinct impression the editors kept finding episodes five or ten minutes short or missing information key to understanding the plot, necessitating all sorts of editing room fakery.  A scene with multiple actors in the frame will switch suddenly to a blurry close-up of a lone performer (enlarged from the original, wider shot) to cover the fact that additional dialog has been added in post-production.  Or maybe that new time-killing dialog is covered by a thrilling view of vehicular traffic outside Oscar’s office building.  Maybe audiences were too unsophisticated or indifferent to care about this stuff in the 70s, but in an age where everyone has their own smartphone camera and Youtube channel, its impossible not to see through such clumsy tricks.

All of which brings me, in my usual roundabout way, to “The Bionic Woman,” a second-season two-parter that stands out for all kinds of reasons, not least because it’s actually well-written, tightly edited and emotionally involving.  The production values are still pretty skimpy, but for once, you get the feeling some thought and planning went into things ahead of time.  As slowly as plots would typically unspool on this show, you’d think a two-parter would be the last thing anyone needed, but this story keeps things moving fast enough to avoid boredom, but not too fast to keep all the characters from getting a moment in the sun.

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So, the story: After a brief “mission” sequence to add some action and set up a (largely unimportant) subplot, the story finds Steve taking a rare vacation in his (previously unseen) hometown of Ojai, California.  Once there, he finds another famous former resident is also visiting; his childhood sweetheart Jaime Sommers, now a celebrated professional tennis player.  The two rekindle their old romance and seem headed for matrimony when a devastating skydiving accident leaves Jaime nearly dead.  Calling in every favor he’s ever earned with Oscar Goldman, Steve begs his boss to authorize life-saving surgery to replace Jaime’s shattered legs, right arm and ear with bionic versions.  Oscar warns Steve that if he does green-light the surgery, Jaime will be expected to serve her country in the same capacity as Steve, and he’s sure Steve won’t like it when she gets that call to duty.  A desperate Steve is willing to agree to any conditions, so the surgery proceeds.

On waking, Jaime is at first horrified to find herself a “freak” of science, until Steve reveals he’s bionic, too.  After that, she adjusts well and the two go forward with their wedding plans.  Sure enough, however, the day comes when Oscar needs Jaime for a job, and as predicted, Steve’s not happy about it.  Jaime has a mind of her own, though, and wants to go through with it, albeit with Steve along for support.  Complicating matters, Jaime experiences strange side effects of her surgery, including a lack of control over her bionic arm and eventually, terrible headaches.  Her debut mission is mostly successful but nearly goes very wrong when she suffers a bionic flare-up. Eventually we find that Jaime’s body is rejecting its bionic enhancements and a dangerous clot has formed in her brain (because of the ear implant), necessitating immediate surgery.  Before she can get it, though, she runs off in a headache-induced panic, and Steve must chase her down in the middle of a thunderstorm.  He catches her, but too late, and she dies on the operating table despite Rudy Wells’ best efforts. Steve is left alone and broken-hearted.

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After nearly two years of watching our imperturbable hero knock down various straw men in simple “out of the frying pan, into the fire” action plots, this all makes for a remarkable left turn into emotion-based, character-oriented storytelling, with a surprisingly downbeat ending.  Yes, there’s a “mission” to complete and a running subplot about a villain who’s out to find and kill Steve, but all that takes a back seat to the romance and tragedy of Steve and Jaime’s story.  You can sense just how grateful the cast is to have something to sink their teeth into for once, and they rise to the occasion.

The scene in the hospital where Steve pleads with Oscar is particularly strong: Richard Anderson does a great job as Oscar, torn between his sympathy and affection for Steve and his weighty responsibilities as head of the OSI.  Obviously he can’t just go handing out bionics to every hard-luck case that comes along: Steve was different, being an Air Force officer already sworn to serve his country and a reasonable candidate for special ops work.  Jaime, however, is a tennis player and civilian; how can he justify the expense of her surgery, and if it works, how can he know she’ll have the desire, let alone the competence, to be an agent?  Lee Majors also seems eager to dig into something substantial for the first time since the pilot movie.  He does a great job conveying the desperation and anguish of a man who’s used to being able to handle anything, now powerless to save the woman he loves and reduced to abject begging.  When Oscar tells him he’s out of his head with grief and doesn’t understand the full implications of what he’s asking, we know Oscar’s right.  It’s a rare moment in a series where Steve’s judgement is usually unassailable; here, reason takes a back seat to passion.  You can’t help but wish there had been a few more moments like this in the series.

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This is also a moment where the story could have gone in a very different direction that might have been even more interesting, but never would have flown in 70s prime time.  To wit: What if Oscar had said “no”?  Surely, he’d have been within his rights, and logically it would’ve made a lot more sense than agreeing to the surgery, thus placing personal friendship above national security (let alone the federal budget).  We’re cool with it because hey, it’s Steve, but objectively, isn’t Oscar in the wrong to green-light the procedure?  If he had said no, and Jaime had died from her injuries, what would have happened with Steve?  Would he have gone rogue?  Turned against Oscar and the OSI?  Would he have just sulked and continued to do his job, but not with much heart, and hating Oscar all along?  Would he have sunk into a depression that made him sloppy enough to end up getting killed? Maybe all this factored into Oscar’s thinking: maybe he looked at saving Jaime as his best chance to hang on to Steve?  Anyway, if he’d said no, Universal and ABC would have lost out on a hit show when Jaime returned from the dead, so I guess it worked out.

Looking back, what’s most remarkable is that such a hokey concept works as well as it does.  On the face of it, this whole thing seems like the kind of bad idea only a studio “suit” could come up with: a bionic woman to go with the bionic man (Jaime herself brings up the “Bride of Frankenstein” comparison), who just happens to suffer almost exactly the same injuries suffered by Steve.  The only two bionic people in the world and they just happen to be romantically linked, and from the same small town.  She gets a blue jumpsuit to match his red one so they can tun around in slow motion together, sharing lovesick glances.  On paper, everything about this scenario says it should have been an eye-rolling, shark-jumping moment for the series, but somehow it actually works.

A lot comes down to the casting: Lindsey Wagner is perfect here, bringing a humanity and sensitivity to Jaime that makes her tremendously endearing and sympathetic.  Beautiful but in a less glamorous way than many of the women Steve dallies with through the series, she has a “girl next door” quality that fits the down-to Earth, “everyman” qualities Majors projects onto Steve.  It’s entirely believable he would fall in love with this woman.  When Jaime’s bionics begin to fail her, Wagner is great at wordlessly conveying her unease, making furtive attempts to hide her condition from Steve and his parents, and ultimately, we sense, coming to understand on some deep, scary level that her story is going to end very badly. Before everything goes south, she asks Steve “We’re going to have a happy ending, right?”, the foreshadowing laid on pretty thick, but not without impact. We’ve all seen enough episodes of Bonanza to know what happens to would-be brides of TV heroes, but in this case there’s a real feeling of disappointment that Jaime’s days are numbered.  It’s frankly impossible to imagine another actress in this series who could’ve done as well in the role as Wagner; certainly Majors’ real-life wife Farrah Fawcett, already a two-time guest star, would’ve been in way over her impressively-coiffed head.

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The other key to making this story work is the writing of Kenneth Johnson, who would go on to shepherd Jaime’s adventures in her own show as well as those of The Incredible Hulk.  There’s a humanity to the proceedings that keeps us from stopping to ask questions that would make the whole thing fall apart.

And yet, there are indeed questions. For instance: Since when is bionic enhancement a “life saving” surgery?  Yes, Jaime’s legs and arm are crushed beyond repair, but why would that lead to death?  If the limbs are bleeding uncontrollably, wouldn’t amputation be enough to prevent fatality?  If there are internal injuries threatening her life, why would prosthetic limbs change anything?  In the original pilot movie, Steve endures numerous surgeries to fix his internal injuries first, then spends weeks, maybe even months as a bedridden amputee while his bionic limbs are assembled (at one point rousing from his medically induced coma long enough to realize his fate and attempt suicide!)  so why, in Jaime’s case, do the prosthetics have to go on right now, at risk of death?

As far as that goes, how is Rudy Wells able to produce custom-made bionic limbs at a moment’s notice?  Again, Steve’s new limbs had to be custom designed to mimic the originals perfectly, and it took a lot of time.  With Jaime, Rudy just opens up a box and voila — there’s a pair of lady legs that’s just the right size and shape to fit Jaime.  Does he have a storeroom at OSI full of limbs in all shapes, sizes and colors?  (“Hey, quartermaster?  Please send up a pair of legs for a 5-foot-7 caucasian female, size 6 shoe.  Thanks.”)

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This episode picks up an interesting thread from earlier in the season when we met “The Seven Million Dollar Man,” another would-be bionic ally who doesn’t work out.  In the case of Barney Miller (later Hiller), the problem isn’t physical but mental; he can’t handle his new abilities and goes rogue before having to be de-powered.  But the end result is the same; Steve is left the only one of his kind.  The opening credits call him “The worlds first bionic man,” hinting at Steve’s role as a prototype and insinuating that in time he’ll be joined by others, but now after two dramatic failures he’s still the world’s ONLY bionic man, and Oscar Goldman’s expensive pet project has achieved only a 33% success rate.  When Steve confesses to “a lot of loneliness” in the first half of “The Bionic Woman,” we can imagine he’s referring not only to his romantic status but his unique status as a bionic being.

This sense of isolation is touched on again when Steve’s mom catches him engaging in bionic horseplay with Jaime on the farm, and he has to explain how their feats are possible.  Here we learn for the first time that his bionic nature has been kept secret even from his closest family members, for “security reasons” he says (although he’s quick enough to fess up once the cat’s out of the bag).  This, too, is a nicely handled scene, as we see Steve and his mother talking at a distance but hear audio snippets from the “origin” sequence that opens the show: the test flight, the crash, the operation.  It’s a clever and artful approach that, again, shows a polish not found in the average episode.

 

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A welcome (and rare) moment of continuity comes in a scene between Steve and his “dad” Frank, who we learn is actually his step-dad.  They even mention that it was Steve who got Frank and Steve’s mom together.  This is cool as it doesn’t undo the first season episode, “The Coward,” which establishes that Steve’s birth father died in the Korean War.  It would’ve been easier (and frankly, typical) to just ignore this earlier entry, so the extra effort here is appreciated.

Okay, I almost got through this whole review without acknowledging the elephant in the room: Yes, this is the episode where Lee Majors sings.  And not just one song, but two.  First up is a honky-tonk diddy about “cuttin’ loose” and then the supremely sappy ballad, “Sweet Jaime.” (Follow that Youtube link at your own risk). Let’s just say if “actors who think they can sing” was a medically recognized disorder, Lee Majors would be the poster boy.  Not only does he have trouble staying in tune, it almost seems he doesn’t have the breath to get through the attempt.  Considering it must have been his idea (has any producer ever approached an actor in a dramatic series and said, “You know what would really sell this episode?  You should sing!”), he sounds like the effort is hurting him worse than that plane crash.  Here we seem to have reached one of the pivotal “mile markers” in any long-running series: the moment when the star begins throwing his weight around and demanding “vanity” bits, more often than not involving singing, and usually with similar results.  Yes, it does spoil the mood of an alternately sweet and tragic episode by inviting giggles; as a youngster it brought the crushing realization that my idol wasn’t so perfect, after all.  But in a strange way, it kind of works if you forget it’s Lee Majors and think of it as Steve, an otherwise imperturbable (some would say wooden) paragon of male machismo exposing his heart to perform such a treacly tune in such an awkward and potentially humiliating way (“I don’t know how to sing, but baby, you make me want to try!!!!”).  It certainly makes him seem more vulnerable than he’s ever been.  Admittedly I might be blocking memories in self-defense, but I think this was his only stab at crooning in the series, meaning we’d have to wait until “The Fall Guy” for another fix of musical Majors magic.

On the whole — and even with the singing — this entry stands out as one of the high points of the series. Audiences agreed, with Jaime’s character proving popular enough to return from the dead in the third season opener before spinning off into a series of her own.  Eventually she would become arguably a bigger deal than Steve himself as an icon of 70s TV.  I kind of resented that as a kid, and after all these years I’m still fairly conflicted over whether it was a good thing to undo the end of this story. Judged on its own merits, however, the “Bionic Woman” two-parter ranks up there with the best of The Six Million Dollar Man.

 

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.

 

It’s 1974: What’s On the Tube?

We try to keep down the TV time in our house, but it occurs to me even if my kids are watching a lot less than I did at their age, they’re still getting a lot more out of it.  Thanks to cable (meh), on-demand (pretty cool) and streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix (awesome!), not to mention our way-too-large collection of DVDs, they have lots more choices than I ever did, whether it’s modern fare tailored to their age group (and far superior to 95% of the “limited animation” drivel I had in the 70s) or all the best old shows of past decades, available for viewing on the merest whim.

It feels ridiculous to invoke the “you kids have it easy” rant about such a first-world extravagance as TV, but doggone it, watching the Boob Tube in my youth often was the viewing equivalent of walking two miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways.  We had all of three channels in rural Virginia…when they came in on our set-top rabbit ears…and most of what was on was garbage.

Okay, so maybe that last part hasn’t changed; 500 channels of crap isn’t a big improvement over three. On the other hand, in such a wasteland, the great stuff really stuck out and made a big impression that lasted well into adulthood.  Since I’ve resolved to look back at 1974 in this blog, let’s look at some of the content that might have greeted you had you switched on your set that year.

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Back in that pre-Nickelodeon, pre-Cartoon Network era, the big day for kids was Saturday morning, when we’d rise from bed and turn on the set quietly so as not to wake Mom and Dad while we ate spoonfuls of the kind of classic, crunchy sugar cereals that have helped earned this country the title of “Fattest Nation on Earth.”  (USA! USA!)  Frankly, even at age 9 I could tell the glory days of cartoons were behind us.  Getting up super-early meant you might get a peek at reruns of canceled classics like Space Ghost, Jonny Quest or Bullwinkle, but once the “all-new” network programming kicked in, we were pummeled with tripe like Yogi’s Gang, which force-fed us ecology-minded propaganda with a “sugar coating” of barely-animated and not-even-close-to-funny gags (preferably verbal gags, since sight gags meant animating more frames).  Then there was U.S. of Archie, which had the gang from Riverdale meeting historical American figures in  a successful bid to turn a whole generation into  history-haters.  It should be noted that in 1974 we were well into that dark and joyless period where groups of “concerned parents” had exorcised all violence, humor and joy out of cartoons in favor of “educational content.”

Only when you consider the general awfulness of the Saturday morning landscape will you understand the fondness some of us had for something like Sigmund and the Sea Monsters or how any of us could have considered it even remotely exciting to have Captain Marvel perform bargain-basement super-feats on Shazam.  I also remember sort of enjoying the mercifully mindless and message-free Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show, or at least the slapstick segments featuring Ron Hull and his “Emu.”

Outside of Saturday mornings, a kid’s best shot at entertainment was in the after-school slot, which these days is devoted to People’s Court imitators and talk shows featuring on-air paternity tests, “I married my sister” confessions and Slut vs Slut throwdowns, but back then was a wonderland/graveyard for old sitcoms and adventure shows.  This is how I was introduced to shows like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, The Addams Family and the Munsters, Get Smart, Andy Griffith, Green Acres, Hogan’s Heroes and Leave It To Beaver.  I used to get up before the sun on weekends to see The Adventures of Superman, which came on right after a short music video of “the Star-Spangled Banner” launched the broadcast day on the local CBS affiliate (my kids will never know what a “test pattern” looks like!).  The time slot right before or right after dinner got the really awesome stuff: Mission Impossible, Star Trek and the Wild Wild West. But, as with the cartoons, I was learning that I’d been born just a little too late to see the really good stuff in its prime.

Come prime time, Mom and Dad were in control of the dial (there was no remote!), but some of the stuff they enjoyed rubbed off on me, like the NBC Mystery Movies with Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife, winners all.  I remember one episode of McCloud where Dennis Weaver (or rather his stunt double) hung perilously off the landing skid of a helicopter over Manhattan for what seemed like forever; I recreated the scene more than once by hanging from a tree limb and imagining the city below me, but I doubt I ever hung on more than a minute and a half.  The network tried to expand the winning formula on another night (Wednesday, maybe?) but George Peppard’s Banacek was never in the same league as those other guys, though I remember kind of liking Helen Hayes in The Snoop Sisters.

I remember 1974 as a time when pop culture was obsessed with horror and the occult in general, but generally I was uninterested.  I did love The Night Stalker (which I’ll save for another post) but otherwise the “creepy” viewing experience that left a lasting impression was the made-for-TV movie Killdozer, featuring Clint Walker and Robert Urich.  

The premise of the film was that a bulldozer at some remote construction site becomes possessed by a hostile alien intelligence and runs amuck, killing the workers one by one.  

killdozerIt’s one of those goofball concepts that makes you go, “Wait…what?” but it was just insane enough to really “click” with kids.  After all, thanks to Herbie the Love Bug and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the big screen and Speed Buggy and Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch on TV (soon to be joined by Wonderbug), the initial, major “logic leap” of a sentient vehicle was essentially pre-sold.  Killdozer simply asked, “What if that mind in your ‘living vehicle’ turned out to have homicidal tendencies?”  I gather the film has developed something of a cult following over time, and even spawned a Marvel comic.  Personally I was haunted by the scene where one hapless victim decided the best way to escape a multi-ton killing machine was to hide in a length of flimsy corrugated pipe.  What a way to go, squeezed flat like a tube of toothpaste! (By the way if you’re interested, you can watch the whole movie on Youtube.  There are worse ways to spend a couple hours).

Another movie I saw on TV that year (but was made for the big screen, of course) was the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.  I remember really enjoying the music and the animation.  In retrospect I gather the look of the film was considered “trippy” and “psychadelic” for its era, but by this point I was already a veteran viewer of HR Pufnstuff and Liddsville, and compared to those video equivalents of an LSD trip, Submarine was as tame as Woody Woodpecker.  I think it’s interesting that this early exposure to the Beatles did not make me an instant fan; that would come later, in my teen years.  Maybe that’s because at age nine I was convinced no group was cooler than The Monkees.  And while I may or may not have pegged the Beatles as “Monkee imitators” (I know, I know), I did make a mental note that this “rock and roll” stuff tended to revolve around the names of living creatures: There were the Monkees, the Beatles, the Turtles, the Birds, the Crickets and (rather unimaginatively, I thought) The Animals.

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When it came to movies on TV, though, no one was bigger than James Bond.  This was the year I saw Goldfinger, Dr No and Thunderball for the first time, most likely providing my introduction to the suave superspy and igniting an obsession that would stick with me for the next 40 years.  In those pre-VCR days, you had to just pay attention so you could remember everything to talk about it the next day at school.  I recall one of my friends insisting that in the scene where Oddjob puts a Lincoln Continental through a junkyard car crusher to dispose of a man’s body, a stream of blood could be seen trickling from the resulting metal cube as it’s lowered onto the bed of a pickup truck.  I was astonished that I’d missed such an awesome detail, let alone that it had made it onto TV, but I chalked it up to the fact that we were still using a black and white set.  Only years later did I realize that kid was full of beans.

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Anyway, the only down side to 007 was watching the kissing and “sex” scenes with Mom and Dad in the room.  Before every viewing, they’d say, “Now we’re going to let you watch this, but we want you to understand we don’t approve of James Bond’s lifestyle.”  By which of course they meant sleeping around; shooting people with spear guns or dropping them into giant snowblowers was okay.

Impressive as James Bond was, though, 1974 belonged to the Six Million Dollar Man.  For a kid like me, this guy was an embarrassment of riches:  a super hero, a secret agent AND an astronaut?  All in one? I mean, come on!  I first met Steve Austin in the show’s original Friday night slot, after a cub scout meeting at a friend’s house.  After that, I planned my week around the show and when Steve moved to Sundays I followed (allowing the possibility, a couple of years later, for a 7-10PM block of Hardy Boys, Six Million Dollar Man and Live and Let Die!  If I could’ve voted, the head of ABC programming would’ve been President of Earth!).  Like a million other kids, I bought the action figures, collected the trading cards and spent countless hours running in slow motion in the backyard to be like my hero.  I even folded back the cuffs on my Toughskins leisure suit to mimic Lee Major’s style and practiced constantly to get my left eyebrow to raise on demand (though it never did trigger telescopic vision).  Of course the fun couldn’t last forever: things took a nose-dive by Season 4 and at the end, I considered the show’s cancellation a mercy killing. But in 1974, I was convinced it was not only the best thing on TV but quite possibly the reason the medium had been invented in the first place.

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Prior to Steve Austin’s amazing debut, my biggest hero on TV was probably Bill Bixby as The Magician (which actually debuted in 1973).  Again the premise was a canny combination of two things kids love, in this case magic and crime-fighting.  Apparently Bixby went to some lengths to learn magic tricks so he could perform them himself, and the results were impressive, at least to my young eyes.  This was also the first character I remember having a car phone, which was kind of a big deal.  I gather the show had some problems with ratings and production thanks to labor strikes and scheduling issues, which contributed to an early demise.  Too bad: I’d much rather have had more seasons of this than The Incredible Hulk.  Interestingly, this is another show that figures, at least tangentially, in X-Files lore: It’s the show Fox Mulder says he was watching the night his sister was abducted by aliens.

So there you have it, a brief look at the stuff that occupied an inordinate amount of my time as a 9-year-old, and possibly some useful data when it comes time for my psycho-analysis.  I sometimes wonder what shows will leave a lasting impression on my kids, if any:  Will they look back on SpongeBob Squarepants as a classic of the medium?  Will they still think “Wipeout” was the height of humor?  Or will TV matter at all to their generation, given how ubiquitous and accessible it is today?  When I grew up, we had no controls over the vagaries of programming: we had to wait until ABC was good and ready to show us another Bond movie, and when it came on we had to rearrange our lives to make sure we were there to see it.  Power outages, snow storms, breaking news bulletins, road trips, church meetings and (most likely of all) punishments could all keep us from seeing the show we’d waited all week — or longer — to lay eyes on.  And with no VCR, DVR or “on demand” service, we had to pay close attention to everything, because who knew when we might get to see it again?  These days kids know they can see what they want when they want as often as they want, so like as not they’re “watching” while playing on their hand-held game systems or listening to their MP3 players or surfing the internet, or all three.  Maybe in 20 years if you ask them what was on when they were kids, they’ll say, “Hmmm….no idea.”

 

 

 

It Happened in 1974

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At some point in the last few months, I noticed everything happened in 1974.

Well, okay so maybe not everything, and certainly not everything good.  In the headlines that year, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace to avoid impeachment in the wake of the Watergate scandal, celebrity hostage Patty Hearst held up a bank with her captors in the Symbionese Liberation Army, Ethopia suffered a civil war and Jack Benny, Duke Ellington, Bud Abbot, Ed Sullivan and Charles Lindbergh all dropped dead.

Not that any of that mattered to me, mind you, as I turned nine that year and didn’t really read the papers.

In celebrity news, devoted husband, father and spokesman for peace John Lennon ditched his wife and kid to indulge in an extended drunken “hiatus” with his mistress and punch out random bar patrons in California,  Paul McCartney hit a post-Beatles career high with his “Band on the Run” album and George Harrison went on tour for the first time since 1966.   Not that I’d have noticed that, either, as I hadn’t quite discovered the Beatles yet and all the records in the house were show tunes, comedy albums or Christmas music.  I did probably care that Sonny and Cher were getting a divorce, but only because my family enjoyed their variety show and now my folks would have to explain to us kids about divorce.  Worse yet, with Cher gone  we’d soon be subjected to the “Sonny Comedy Revue.”

The big movies of the year included The Godfather: Part II, Young Frankenstein, Death Wish and Chinatown, not one of which I’d have been allowed to see (though I did get to see Herbie Rides Again.  Whoopee)

Like most kids (I guess) my focus was on things closer to home: playing astronaut or “Army” in the back yard, bike rides to my friends’ houses, adding to my Matchbox cars collection and mooning over whatever cute girl I’d fallen in love with at church or school that week.

And comics.  And TV.  And more comics.  And more TV.  We didn’t have video games yet, or I’m sure they’d be on the list, too.

For a while now, I’ve noticed that  the things I was interested in when I was nine years old are often the same things I’m interested in, now. Which just to clarify is not so much comics and TV per se, but comics and TV from 1974.  Not that I haven’t picked up a lot of new interests over the years (some of them not even related to comics and TV), but the ones that have stuck with me the longest, and made the biggest impression, all seem to have originated in my childhood and in more cases than not, they all go back to that one year.

I’m not really sure why that would be, honestly.  I don’t know that the stuff from 1974 was any better than the stuff from say 1973 or 1975, but it seems like whenever I check out the copyright on some vintage book or movie or show I like, I keep coming up with 1974 over and over.  My current theory is that it’s because 1974 was also a year of upheaval for me, personally.  It’s the year I moved from Saluda, VA, a place I still think of as an idyllic, “Mayberry”-like small town where everyone knew (and seemingly liked) me to Cobbs Creek, a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” whistle stop with a tiny school, a tinier post-office and basically one little cul-de-sac of houses in the middle of freaking nowhere, and where nobody knew or cared who I was.  Fittingly, my house was right at the terminus of that dead-end street.

As the son of a Methodist minister, I got used to moving around (sort of), but that was easily the hardest of all the moves.  And so it occurs to me that maybe the diversions and silly entertainments in my life took on a greater significance that year, as the real world kept letting me down. I’m reminded of a “Funky Winkerbeam” comic strip from the early 80s (back when it was still funny).  The character known as “Crazy” is reading an X-Men comic (okay, it was #136, prequel to the death of Phoenix issue.  Yes, I know I have a problem) and his (maybe?) guidance counselor, suspecting Crazy’s feeling kind of down, is trying to bond with some small talk.

COUNSELOR: “Comic books, eh?  You know, I used to collect those, too.  I remember when I went away to college, I was feeling really lonely and miserable in this new town full of strange faces.  But then one day I was in a drug store and I came across a spindle rack full of comics, and seeing those characters was like catching up with old friends again, and I didn’t feel so lonely any more.  You ever feel like that?”

CRAZY: “Nah, I just read ’em for the ads.  Did you know you can buy x-ray glasses that see right through people’s clothes!?”

In retrospect, I wonder if I didn’t form such powerful attachments to escapist fare in 1974 because those fictional characters and adventures took the place of real friends and good times.  Certainly I can remember taking some comfort in finding that Batman and Superman were still on the stands, even if the pharmacies and grocery stores I found them in were new to me.  And when the new season of the Six Million Dollar Man kicked off in the fall, I must have felt a little more confident I could tough it out with my old pal Steve Austin along for the ride.

Anyway I figured I’d devote a few blog posts to 1974 since I imagine I’ll have it on my mind from time to time this year, what with hitting the 40th anniversary and all.  Plus as my age inches ever closer to the number-that-must-not-be-named, I’ll doubtless be going through a second childhood soon, anyway.

I was going to end this with some kind of amazing clip from 1974, but the best I could turn up was this Burger King ad.  What the heck, though; it qualifies since anyone who heard the jingle still remembers it 40 years on.  And for all you kids who complain about how tough it is working in fast food, be grateful at least they don’t force you to wear these outfits any more.

 

 

The Name’s Austin, Steve Austin

As noted in an earlier post, the highly-rated (and Hugo nominated) TV movie adaptation of Martin Caidin’s Cyborg aired in March, 1973, selling its audience on the outlandish notion of a half-mechanized superhero and launching the 70s cultural phenomenon we knew as the “Six Million Dollar Man.” The challenge faced by its inevitable sequel films, Wine, Women and War and The Solid Gold Kidnapping, was more prosaic but in some ways more daunting: Now that we’ve got a working cyborg, what do we do with him?

The most obvious solution was to turn Steve Austin into America’s answer to James Bond, the “clever” twist being that where 007 lugs around a cache of hi-tech gadgets, Austin himself is the hi-tech gadget.  And so in the two sequel films, the accent is on international intrigue, diabolical masterminds and glamorous babes.

Wine, Women and War opens in Egypt, and clues us in immediately that Steve is a secret agent because he’s wearing a tuxedo and sending signals with a pen light.

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Apparently it’s a bionic pen-light, since the previous shot established that Steve is standing on the balcony of one of many high-rise buildings in a brightly-lit city, and yet his signals are seen and read by observers on a U.S. submarine parked miles away in international waters.

Slipping out of the tux to reveal a wetsuit (reversing Bond’s striptease in Goldfinger), Steve uses a miniature rebreathing device (Thunderball) and swims out to a bad guy’s yacht, where he uses his night-vision-enabled bionic eye (replaced by the familiar “telescopic” model in the later series) to locate a wall safe and then escapes by swimming at torpedo-speed to the waiting sub.

Recuperating from his adventure in a high-security wing of a Washington hospital, Steve has a prickly chat with his handler in the OSI, Oscar Goldman.  This is our introduction to Oscar, the replacement for the more openly cranky, thoroughly unscrupulous and consequently much more fascinating Oliver Spencer character in Cyborg (played by Darren McGavin, who by the time of this film had moved on to The Night Stalker).  In contrast, Oscar comes off as merely shifty and vaguely disreputable, a typical government “suit” who uses phrases like “need to know” and, with Richard Anderson’s perpetual tan and then-stylish eyeglasses thrown in, seems fairly smarmy to boot, like a middle-aged swinger.

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Over time, Oscar would ostensibly evolve into a more charming and endearing character, as much a buddy to Steve as a boss.   Personally I never fully warmed to him, with his annoying habit of calling Steve “pal” and later his even creepier insistence on calling Jaime Sommers “babe,” which besides qualifying as sexual harassment (he was her boss, after all), also felt like a personal betrayal of Steve, the guy we all knew was meant for Jaime.  Some “pal!”

Anyway, at this point, the “friendship” hasn’t yet evolved, and Steve makes it clear he doesn’t care for his new line of work or his oily new boss.  Undaunted, Oscar uses Steve’s friend Harry Donner to help him manipulate the bionic man into traveling to the Caribbean, where he’ll be drawn into the mission Oscar wanted him on in the first place.

On what he thinks is a vacation, Steve acquires a female companion named Cyn, and as they enjoy a game of golf, Steve accidentally hits a ball hard enough to send it practically into orbit.  Pressed to explain this seeming impossibility, he deadpans, “It’s all in the wrist.”

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Thus begins a long tradition of one-liners aimed at explaining bionic feats to incredulous onlookers.  In the previous film, Steve was still traumatized by his accident and uncomfortable with his new cyborg status (to the point of attempting suicide!), but from here on in, he’ll seem to cope fairly easily with jokes like this.  A better line, and one with more of an edge to it, comes when Cyn calls Steve out for being cranky and asks what his problem is.  “The doctors say I’m not all there,” he answers.

That night Steve and Cyn visit a casino, or more accurately stand in front of the camera and look down at an imaginary roulette wheel, as the “casino” exists only in the form of stock footage from the Universal archives.  By now it’s becoming obvious why the “Bond” approach didn’t pan out for this show: despite the logic of using America’s bionic super-weapon for international espionage,  the hard truth is you can’t do a James Bond movie on a TV movie budget.  Steve may be worth six million dollars, but with Universal controlling the purse strings, he’s strictly a poor man’s 007.

On the other hand, the wardrobe is pretty impressive.  Take for example the timeless allure of this classy dinner jacket:

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The other ingredients in the Superspy Stew include a Soviet scientist/official played by The Man from UNCLE’s David McCallum, a nefarious arms dealer and Blofeld-wannabe called Arlen Findletter (played by Eric Braeden of Rat Parol and Young And The Restless fame) and Russian hotty Katrina Volana, played by Britt Ekland, a  mere year before her turn as a proper Bond girl in The Man With The Golden Gun.

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Okay, so Findletter has an arsenal of nuclear missiles for sale, the USSR wants to buy them, and it’s assumed Steve (whose known association with Oscar Goldman brands him a spy) was sent to bid on behalf of the Americans.  Steve is held on the boat to keep him out of the negotiations, but he ties up Katrina and makes his escape with relative ease.

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This leads to a rather unfortunate Bondian quip as Steve — about to jump overboard — tells the bound and gagged Katrina, “Sorry to violate your porthole,”  no doubt eliciting a groan even from Roger Moore.

By now, Steve’s in the thick of things whether he wanted to be or not, and soon enough he ends up in Findletter’s secret missile storage facility, represented by what must be noted is a pretty darn good matte painting for TV of the day:

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Steve saves the girl (but not his Russian buddy McCallum) and booby-traps Findletter’s Polaris missile before making an exit through a convenient escape hatch.  As they climb from the subterranean missile hangar to the surface, Britt delivers a convincing Bond girl audition with  with classic lines like, “I’m tired!” and “I can’t go any farther!”  while Steve shouts up encouragement from beneath her, probably wishing this could at least have been a “bikini” scene.  When they reach the top (the exit hatch opens onto a cemetery), Steve exits first — meaning he’s somehow managed to pass Katrina on the ladder (a neat trick) — and gives her a hand up.

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Steve takes Katrina in his arms and breaks into a run.  As it’s still early in the game, we haven’t yet settled on the “slow motion” effect for bionic feats, so instead we see Steve hustling along in fast motion.  This is just as well, as Findletter has finally triggered Steve’s booby-trap and set off the Polaris missile’s warhead, triggering a nuclear blast.  Oops.

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And that’s the end of Mr. Findletter.  Along with all his flunkies, his home, the homes of his neighbors and anyone in them, not to mention anyone unlucky enough to be passing through the area at the time, probably a few local businesses, schools, hospitals, etc.  But luckily not Steve and the girl, who are huddled behind a nearby hill, entirely safe from atomic fall-out.  And so ends our tale, but James Bo…I mean, Steve Austin will return.

Which he does in The Solid Gold Kidnapping, involving (as the title implies), the kidnapping of a highly placed US diplomat who may be the key to world peace. Still in 007 mode, Steve is vacationing at a ski resort with a beautiful girl when he’s called to action by Oscar Goldman and — in a really weird turn — paired with a lady scientist (Elizabeth Ashley) who’s volunteered to have the brain cells of a dead bad guy transplanted to her own brain so she can “see his memories” and find the kidnap victim.  Don’t ask.

Aside from a wall-smashing rescue at the beginning of the film, there’s very little in the way of “bionic” action in this one.  Steve is essentially a generic superspy who only occasionally does something too “super” for a “mere human,” like opening a stuck door (I kid you not) or seeing in the dark with his infrared eye (something any spy character could’ve done with a handy gadget).

Visiting the local casino (surprise!),  Steve meets a mysterious countess with ties to the bad guys, played by ex-Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi, who looks pretty fantastic given it’s been nearly ten years since Thunderball.

Much more overtly promiscuous than his later “series” self, Steve wastes little time getting the countess into bed, only to wake up the next morning to two consecutive assassination attempts (probably engineered by the countess, but it’s hard to tell as shot).  In the first attempt, Steve is shot at (and hit! Oops!) but escapes his attacker by opening a door on him (it’s not really clear whether this qualifies as a bionic feat).  Then follows what I have to assume was meant as a more exciting sequence, as Steve engages in a speedboat chase brazenly lifted from  Live and Let Die (barely a year in the past at this point), ending dramatically (?) as Steve pushes on his boat’s throttle so hard he breaks it off, which, true to little-kid logic makes the boat go ULTRA-fast.

After that, it’s just a matter of Lee’s stuntman jumping overboard so the boat can slam into that of the baddies, triggering a deadly explosion.  Or rather, a stock Universal Studios “explosion” optical super-imposed over the boat footage.  After all, if they don’t return the boats after filming the rental agency will charge them more than the film’s entire budget.

Ultimately, Steve locates the ship where the US diplomat is being held and stages a one-man rescue, which again is pretty short on the bionics.   Here at last we break away from Bond formula, though not for the better; where 007 ends his adventures with epic raids and the explosive destruction of villains’ lairs, Steve simply slides across a table top to knock over the movie’s chief villain, played by Maurice Evans.

That’s right, Steve’s ultimate adversary here is Samantha’s dad from Bewitched, making for arguably the most suspense-starved grudge match since Godzilla vs. Bambi.  Maybe it would have been a smidge more thrilling if they’d put Evans in his Dr Zaius make-up from Planet of the Apes.

And so ends Steve Austin’s career as a 007 wannabe, not with a bang but a whimper.  As noted,  it’s pretty hard to compete with James Bond on a TV budget, but somehow it might still have worked with a different lead actor.  Ultimately a huge share of The Six Million Dollar Man‘s success came down to its star, Lee Majors, but the “international playboy” routine simply did not play to his strengths.  Majors seems much more comfortable in jeans than tuxedos, drinking beer not champagne.   He’s much more cowboy than superspy, and when producer Harve Bennett signed on for the weekly series, he recognized this, making the character more Gary Cooper and less Cary Grant.
Neither of these films has the gravitas or creepy-cool appeal of the first one, or the charm of the later series, but they’re entertaining in their way, and if nothing else, offer an intriguing hint of where the concept might have gone in different hands.