With the release of a mammoth 40-disc DVD box set, featuring all 99 episodes and six TV movies in their digitally remastered glory along with hours of features, including cast interviews, the new box set is going to be of huge interest to fans of the series and those interested in sci-fi action adventure or retro-television. Within this boxset, you’ll find the complete series, including the crossovers with The Bionic Woman as well as plenty of background material casting a fresh light on this iconic 70s series.
Martin Caiden’s novel, Cyborg, was the basis for The Six Million Dollar Man series, a long running TV series starring Lee Majors. Quite bizarrely, the series doesn’t start with a pilot and then launch into season one, instead starting with three TV movies that aired in 1973, before the series started in 1974. Running for 99 episodes, across five seasons, it would return in the form in which it started, with a further three TV movies.
The Six Million Dollar Man title doesn’t come from the title character’s salary, it’s the cost of rebuilding him (plus up to a million a year to keep the project running) after a crash. The plan was to use ‘scrap’ – or an accident victim – as the subject of the project, creating a one-man fighting force to take on the nasties of the world. It could have been anyone, but fortunately it was Steve Austin, world-renowned astronaut. Unfortunately, he wasn’t consulted on the whole cyborg implant scheme and is, obviously, a bit reluctant at first.
Steve Austin, to start with, is a tad arrogant (he is, after all, one of the best test pilots in NASA history) becoming shattered by his accident and further damaged by the burden of technology that is thrust upon him. Bionic arm, bionic legs and bionic eye are all installed and, at first, he resents each implant, but as time progresses he adapts to his new abilities by running very fast, rescuing children, and punching through walls. We discover that his eye can zoom to a 20:1 ratio and has infra-red capabilities, his bionic parts are radioactive and they stop working in extreme cold. He can reach speeds of 60mph, which would later be doubled, and can jump considerable heights.
The first of the TV movies is a rather slow affair that ends with an incredibly short incursion into terrorist territory before Austin escapes. That said, the first hour manages to set up the series incredibly well, with Majors playing the newly augmented Austin in a decidedly melodramatic way as he gets used to the new lease of life and his awkward relationship with OSO director, Oscar Goldman.
The second and third TV movies see Austin becoming more comfortable with his role and adopting a more Bond-like strategy, with his relationship with Goldman improving. Together, they stop a weapons merchant who wants to buy nuclear submarines and a kidnapper who wants a billion dollar ransom.
In these three movies, we get an oddly prescient overview of what is to come from the series. We have a ladies’ man, secret agent in Steve Austin, with super powers who is equally at home tackling everything from terrorists, to home threats to the bizarre. Very much like the TV series, the movies don’t really have any cohesion across the storylines, with simplistic references made to past adventures or activities. Things are always tied up quite neatly, and Austin is on his way to save another day.
The series proper starts with an episode that continues the mad scientist formula. Population: Zero is set in Norris, a town with a population of only twenty-three at the start of the episode, most of whom are now dead. A scientist has decided to unleash his fury on the US by using his knowledge to render unconscious the population of Norris. If he doesn’t get his way, he’ll do it again, but with deadly force, so Steve has no choice but to stop him.
From these beginnings, we have a run of ninety nine episodes with Majors working closely with the OSI to prevent bad guys of all ilk, from scientists to terrorists and aliens, from destroying any manner of objectives. The series didn’t just do ‘terrorist of the week’ stories, it spread to natural disasters, nuclear threat and then onto aliens, robots, clones and ESP, stretching the limits of credibility even for the bizarre concept of the series. There were also attempts to improve upon The Six Million Dollar Man template, usually by the villain of the week. It seemed that there were lots of folk out there with the resources to build their own robot or cyborg and deploy them accordingly. Sadly, few of them seemed able to build an army of them, so Austin was easily able to best even the best of the bionics.
With a much reduced run-time (the usual 50 minutes instead of an hour and a quarter), the pacing of the series proper is faster, though not to the degree we’ve become used to in modern television. As the series progressed, the filming techniques were refined – in particular, super-fast movements were shown in slow motion, instead of being sped-up Benny Hill style. The individual episodes were occasionally formulaic – mission outlined, Austin goes on mission, meets attractive and essential-to-plot young woman, he gets imperilled, escapes to save the day, and ends with a quip aimed at bagging him, quite often, yet another date with the attractive young woman at the heart of the plot. The imperilled bit is quite important as it’s often the time when he gets to show off his bionic abilities, along with the various saving the day bits, or just to impress those around him. He’s also quite happy to discuss his abilities with anyone with a passing interest and is quite often recognised as a NASA employee, celebrity or OSI employee.
His mission destinations were varied too, not limited to the United States. He would visit other countries and even go up into space in order to save the day on a weekly basis. The OSI clearly had varied interests and, quite progressively for American television of this era, showed foreigners as the good guys and bad guys, with Austin working along side every from the Russians to African freedom fighters. That said, there was little moral ambiguity in the series and the lines were clearly drawn between good guys and bad guys.
As was the norm in during the 70s and 80s, the series didn’t have a season-wide story arc and, broadly speaking, it wasn’t necessarily essential to watch every episode through fear of losing the plot. As the series progressed, however, a smattering of two-parters popped up, some characters would re-appear, including an alien race along with the Sasquatch, whilst a few other villains would pop their heads up more than once to challenge Austin. Many fans claim that the appearance of the Sasquatch was too much for regular fans, though the programme would continue to have decent ratings for quite some time after this particular incident.
According to Lee Majors, he did most of his own stunts, adding to the action hero persona of the man and the character. Some of the stunts (particularly where flying kicks were involved) look a tad more dangerous than they probably should. Lee Major’s Austin was, in essence, an augmented Bond meets The Fall Guy. Attractive to any woman who came within five metres of him, envied by the men and the bane of the bad guys, he cut a swathe through his opponents. There are witty quips (“I’m sorry I had to violate your porthole!”) and plenty of sequences of Austin bursting through walls, running very quickly and carrying out a series of action-packed, super-heroic set pieces. His relationship with Oscar Goldman became less tense after the initial TV movies, with the two working together in a similar way to many TV series that would follow; think Michael Knight and Devon Miles in Knight Rider.
The series attracted many stars of TV and film – Britt Eckland appears in the second TV movie, with other luminaries from genre television appearing throughout the run, such as William Shatner, George Takei, David McCallum, John Saxon, Andre the Giant and even Yvonne Craig swapping her Batgirl garb for a stint in the series. Andre the Giant clearly wasn’t booked for his acting ability, instead playing the hulking Sasquatch. Farrah Fawcett, then married to Majors, appeared in a number of episodes, whilst Lindsay Wagner would appear as Jaime Sommers before appearing in her own series, The Bionic Woman.
With a character as versatile and appealing as The Six Million Dollar Man, it wasn’t long before he had his own action figure. It was a bizarre-looking thing, with an eye that you could look through, magnifying your surroundings (at least that was the theory), skin that could be peeled away to reveal circuitry and wearing a rather fetching red jump suit. Before it reached the market, however, Hasbro managed to release their own version; The Atomic Man as part of its Action Man/GI Joe range, which included a nuclear powered heart (activated by pressing the button on his chest) and bionic arm that could crush steel and power the included hand-held helicopter device. His eye wasn’t without function either; Atomic Man had a signalling eye, all you had to do was put the head to a light, put your finger on his head and his eye would flash! Hasbro had tried to secure a deal for an official figure, however the plan had failed, so the release of The Atomic Man was seen as a coup when it was released before the official figure made it to the market. Despite this, Hasbro and Palitoy didn’t particularly like the character and, according to Ian Harrison’s Action Man: The Official Dossier, both companies tried to distance themselves from the release.
Whilst Caidin would write four books based on his character, other authors would create tie-ins for the series. To appeal to the younger audience, comics, board games and other novelty items would join the inevitable torrent of products for the increasingly popular series. Capturing the imagination of children, the merchandise would go on to include lunchboxes and other child friendly accessories, which led to a change in the nature of the character – away with the killing and in came a more heroic, less gung-ho Steve Austin.
With the success of the series, there was the launch of a sister series, with The Bionic Woman being introduced part way through the run in a two-part story entitled The Bionic Woman and a season three opening two-parter entitled The Return of The Bionic Woman. A former girlfriend of Austin, prior to his bionic days, she suffers an accident of her own and it’s up to Austin to convince Goldman to enhance her too. The respective TV series would have a handful of cross-over stories and one-off cameo appearances until The Bionic Woman switched network, putting an end to the cross promotion. Back in this era of action-adventure, character development wasn’t high on the league table of importance. That said, the relationship between Austin and Sommers does allow for something bordering on character development, with the various stories in which they appear showing an element of their burgeoning love for each other, before the three TV movies allow this to really take off.
In early 1978, the series came to an end. It would be nine years later that the first of the TV movies would reunite Sommers and Austin, introduce their son (who would be subjected to bionic improvement) and wouldn’t be until 1994 that the pair would live bionically ever after… fighting the various evils of the worlds as they went along. Think of them as a bionic Hart to Hart.
Lee Majors would have varied success in movies and television, though would later go on to portray another action hero in the TV series The Fall Guy. He continues to work today, but will probably always be best remembered as Steve Austin.
The series executive producer, Harve Bennett, would have success in the Star Trek franchise, whilst producer and creator of the The Bionic Woman, Kenneth Johnson, would later go onto success with the series V.
Whilst The Bionic Woman would see a less-than enthusiastically received remake in the 21st Century, there hasn’t been a successful attempt to reboot the original The Six Million Dollar Man. There’ve been hints that people have tried, even resulting in a comic series based on Kevin Smith’s abandoned script, with the latest rumour being a Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle. If a reboot, in TV series or movie form, ever happens, let’s hope it isn’t a comedy or pastiche!