If you were a child in the middle of the 1970s, then you probably have very fond memories of The Six Million Dollar Man, the TV series that mixed espionage with science fiction, as bionic man Steve Austin battled everyone from Russian agents to Bigfoot. It was an essential part of every kid’s viewing back then, and spun off action figures, games, novels and other merchandise that we all wanted. More than any other show, it epitomises the 1970s and is burned into a collective memory, from the slow motion running and bionic sound effects that we all imitated through to the iconic opening sequence that showed Steve Austin’s plane crash (using actual footage of a real disaster) and the narration from Oscar Goldman telling us that he was “a man barely alive… we can rebuild him… better than he was before… better, stronger, faster.”
The series began with a TV movie in 1973. Based on the novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin, the original pilot film does feel very much like a stand-alone movie – opening with astronaut Steve Austin (Lee Majors) crashing during the test flight for a new NASA aircraft, the film follows his reconstruction as a bionic man (though the word ‘bionic’ is never used in this film), his right arm, legs and left eye replaced by nuclear powered(!) robotics. The bill is being footed by shady government agent Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin), who sees Austin as merely spare parts in his quest to create a cybernetic super agent, and while Austin struggles to come to terms with his new ‘improved’ body, Spencer is making plans to send him on a suicide mission, the idea being that if he makes it out alive, he’s proven his worth.
The action adventure element doesn’t kick in until the end of the film, allowing plenty of time for character development – having McGavin and Martin Balsam lends the story some gravitas – and a developing romance between Austin and his nurse (Barbara Anderson). It’s a well made, entertaining movie and the series potential is obvious. But there would be two more TV movies first, where the concept was fine-tuned.
Wine, Women and War and The Solid Gold Kidnapping see several changes – Spencer has been replaced with Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), a somewhat less ruthless head of the OSI (an opening title redux removes Spencer from the story entirely) while Balsam has been swapped for Alan Oppenheimer to play Rudy. Austin, a civilian in the first film, is now an Air Force Colonel, as he was in the original novel, and his love interest has also gone. While this story still has our hero butting heads with his bosses, the story is much more like a James Bond spy romp – something reinforced by the presence of The Man with the Golden Gun’s Britt Ekland and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s David McCallum making guest appearances in the first film. There’s also a shockingly bad new theme song performed by Dusty Springfield (unsurprisingly, this didn’t make it onto her recent exhaustive box set). Still missing are what would become familiar bionic staples – the slow motion and the mechanical sounds during the bionic action. At this point, the show is still clearly a work-in-progress, and while Wine, Women and War is still a lot of fun, The Solid Gold Kidnapping is oddly uninvolving.
After these movies, the series proper began – the familiar opening titles and the theme tune now in place (and, with a few tweaks over the years, the same titles that would be used throughout the whole run of the show), and a much chummier relationship between Austin and Goldman (a good drinking game could include the number of times Goldman calls Austin ‘pal’). By around the third episodes, the slow-mo and bionic sound effects are also in place. The Bond elements have been dispensed with, and while our hero would still occasionally deal with secret agents, he was more likely to be combating extortionists and other criminals, with considerable effort going into making Austin a more down-to-Earth character than the one seen in the second and third pilots. And while the use of bionics remained relatively minimal, the show began to take a more science fiction slant – while many episodes remained grounded in a sort of reality, things like ESP and robots (John Saxon playing a remarkably inefficient android in early episode Day of the Robot) also make appearances in the first season. There are a few episodes with a space theme – as befitting the fact that Austin is an astronaut – though these tend to remain grounded in the reality of space travel – more Marooned than Flash Gordon. The show would become rather less grounded in subsequent seasons.
The second season sees a move towards more outright science fiction – in Straight On Til Morning, a spaceship crashes and Steve has to rescue radioactive aliens, while the robot maker from season 1 also makes a return, this time with a fake Oscar Goldman.
Early in the season, we get the appearance of The Seven Million Dollar Man – another bionic character who hasn’t adjusted to his new powers too well. It makes sense that the government wouldn’t stop at just one cyborg – not to mention given someone that Austin can have a lengthy fight with, always an important consideration (the previous episode had seen M.A.S.H. star Mike Farrell as an astronaut who escapes his crashed experimental spacecraft from suspended animation with unlikely super-strength) and it paves the way for the appearance of The Bionic Woman later that same season. This two-part story introduced Lindsay Wagner’s Jaime Summers, the girlfriend of bionic man Steve Austin (Lee Majors), who is badly injured in a sky-diving accident and then given similar bionic replacement parts to Austin – new legs, right arm and ear. These give her super-strength, but things go wrong and she apparently dies after her body rejects the bionics. That should’ve been the end of it, but audience reaction was so strong – and so outraged that the character had been killed off – that some storyline fudging was rapidly worked out so the character could be brought back, firstly in another two-parter and then quickly spun off into her own show. It’s understandable that audiences took to well to her – Wagner is remarkably likeable, and her relationship with Majors has a genuine chemistry.
In fact, Season Three opens with The Return of the Bionic Woman. Seemingly ignoring the final two episodes of the last season (which included Steve flirting with gun-toting terrorist Martine Beswicke in an episode set in Northern Ireland – oddly rebranded Ballinderry! – that has all the understanding and subtle nuances you’d expect from a USTV show set around The Troubles), the show sees the seemingly dead Jaime brought back to life after some dubious medical chicanery – but with her memory wiped. As attempts to bring her past back result in excruciating pain, Steve has no choice but to pretend their relationship never happened, paving the way for her to go on to her own popular spin-off, The Bionic Woman – of which more shortly. The Seven Million Dollar Man also returns for an episode. Not returning (apart from in one episode) was Alan Oppenheimer, replaced by Martin E. Brooks as Rudy Wells. Brooks would also be edited into the syndicated versions of the original pilot.
The other standout of the third series was the two-part The Secret of Bigfoot, where Sasquatch is revealed as a cyborg member of a colony of aliens! With wrestler Andre The Giant as Bigfoot, this was one of the most popular episodes of the series, and so it was no surprise that Season Four opened with The Return of Bigfoot (this time with Ted Cassidy of The Addams Family taking the role). This story was split between The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman – something that was repeated even more ambitiously with the three-part Fembot story soon afterwards (the story was actually called Kill Oscar, and the first and third episodes were part of the Bionic Woman series, while part two was a Six Million show). Crossing the two series over like this kept them connected and made The Bionic Woman seem less of a cynical spin-off and more a valid extension.
Season four is the notorious ‘moustache’ season – Majors having returned to work with a ‘tasche that apparently went unnoticed until shooting had begun! Oddly, it also features two double-length episodes (filling two-hour time slots on original broadcast), one of which – The Bionic Boy – hinted at a further spin-off: though the teen in question, powered by bionic implants that returned function and granted super-strength to his paralysed limbs, was so annoyingly unappealing that the story didn’t go anywhere.
Other significant / odd episodes this season include The Most Dangerous Enemy, where Rudy gets super powers after being bitten by a chimp that has been subject to dubious medical experiments, the lightweight A Bionic Christmas Carol, which uses the Dickens story quite amusingly, The Ghostly Teletype with prematurely ageing psychic twins, and the two-part Death Probe, where a crashed Soviet Venus probe rampages across Wyoming. The strangest episode is The Ultimate Imposter, planned as a pilot for a potential spin-off series – Steve Austin barely appears at all, the bulk of the action featuring new OSI agent Stephen Macht, who is subject to a new technique where information is imprinted directly into his brain. Pamela Hensley (Princess Ardala in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) guests here, and turns up again in the opening two-part episode of Season Five, Sharks, playing a different character (this was not unusual – several actors would appear in more than one episode as different characters. Mrs Lee Majors Farrah Fawcett makes four appearances, as three different characters!).
Season four showed signs of fatigue, and the next – and final – season continued the decline. A clean-shaven Majors, now sporting a trendy perm, encounters Bigfoot yet again – this time is a single episode story – and also encounters another Death Probe. There’s more oddball stuff in Just a Matter of Time, where Steve is catapulted six years into the future, and in the two-part Dark Side of the Moon, where he has to stop a deranged scientist who is mining on the moon and causing climatic chaos on Earth. There’s another alien story (The Lost Island) and a pseudo-supernatural story (Dead Ringer) – showing that, while espionage tales were still a big part of the show, the series had moved a long way from the realism of the first movie. Like most series of the time, the show fizzles out – the final episode, The Moving Mountain, leaves things open-ended, with no wrap-up or natural conclusion.
Spin-off series The Bionic Woman was a significant hit in its own right, and ran for three seasons between 1976 and 1978, briefly outstripping its parent series in the ratings during its first year. The show was one of a handful of female-fronted action TV series of the time – others included Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman and Police Woman – and starred Lindsay Wagner as the title character, Jaime Summers.
In the new series, Jaime – now strictly on ‘friends only’ terms with Steve – returns home to the small town she grew up in, taking a job as a teacher at an air force base, but still also employed as an agent of the OSI. Her teaching career plays a part in some early episodes, which sometimes come awfully close to being twee kiddie shows, but as the series progresses, It is frequently forgotten as she heads out on assorted undercover missions (at one point, it’s explained that there is a government agreement to cover her absences) that are generally more lightweight than those of The Six Million Dollar Man. The show takes advantage of her gender to stick her in situations that require female agents – or more often than not, female stereotypes. Hence, she goes undercover as a beauty contestant, a flight attendant, a female wrestler, a nun and a country singer – to name a few – to uncover assorted acts of espionage.
The first season – a mid-season replacement series of fourteen episodes – does a good job of allowing the character to develop, even if the quality of the stories varies wildly. The opening episode, Welcome Home Jaime, was originally shot as part of The Six Million Dollar Man series, but then pulled before broadcast and given new titles to introduce the spin-off series. As such, it sets things up nicely, and also shows just how closely the two series were connected. While most spin-offs simply take a single character and transplant them into a different world with different supporting characters, The Bionic Woman remains a strong part of the Six Million Dollar Man universe. Not only does Lee Majors make several guest appearances as Steve Austin – one at least one occasion in a minor role unconnected to the main action – but Richard Anderson and Martin E. Brooks would appear on both shows as Oscar Goldman and Dr Rudy Wells, ensuring that a strong thread of continuity ran through the series.
Season One also introduces Lisa Galloway, Jaime’s surgically created double, who would also be a returning character, and ends with The Ghosthunter, where an apparent haunting is revealed to be the work of telekinetic teen Kristy McNichol – a rare fantasy-based story in a series that was otherwise espionage based. Things become more overtly science fiction inspired in season two though, which opens with The Return of Bigfoot. There’s also a Scooby Doo like episode involving a Native American demon (or at least someone pretending to be one), a tale of alien mind control, a HAL-like computer out of control and Biofeedback, where Jaime oddly plays second fiddle to an agent who has mastered self mind control.
The most entertaining episode of the second season, however, is a fun, comedic take on The Cat and the Canary. Black Magic has guest appearances from Vincent Price, Julie Newmar and Hermoine Baddeley , all having fun hamming it up, and you really wish it’s been a full length film.
Season Three is where the show jumped the shark – or more accurately, mechanised the pooch. Yes, this season opens with the two-part Bionic Dog story (rather laughably planned as the pilot for another spinoff series), and if that isn’t information enough, then let me confirm it – the show really does go downhill in this final series. Not that it stops being entertaining, but it increasingly seems to be running out of ideas. There’s another two-part fembot story, a guest appearance (as himself) from Evel Kneivel, a couple of alien invasion stories (plus a fake UFO episode that has the most shockingly bad special effects imaginable), killer sharks, spiritual possession and – midway through the season when someone remembered about him – the return of Max, the bionic dog as a regular character. Head writer and producer Kenneth Johnson had left the show by now, and it does seem to suffer from a lack of direction. More notably, the show had switched networks, and this meant that although Oscar and Rudy continued as regular characters, Steve Austin was conspicuously absent – he doesn’t even get mentioned in passing. Instead, Jaime is paired with OSI agent Chris (Christopher Stone) as a new romantic interest, though his only powers seem to be a loud moustache and continual look of confusion. Also returning as a semi-regular is Jennifer Darling as Oscar’s secretary – previously seen in Kill Oscar, she now turns up more often whenever the show writers remembered her.
The final episode, On the Run, is interesting for what it could have been. Unusually for a US show of the time, The Bionic Woman reached a natural, planned conclusion, and so this final episode was written to be just that – a wrap up of the show. It features a frustrated Jaime, tired of her constant work for the OSI and disillusioned with what they do, resigning – only to find that it’s not that easy. With the government trying to imprison her in a luxury resort that she can never leave, she goes on the run. It’s a dark story with shades of The Prisoner, and has some of the best performances of the series from Wagner and Anderson – but it’s fatally compromised by a tacked-on ending that returns things to the status quo, all the better for syndicated episodes to be shown out of order in the future. That’s what TV was like back then.
Despite the decline of the final season, The Bionic Woman remains a lot of fun. It’s generally lighter than The Six Million Dollar Man, right down to the soft-focus visuals and less dramatic theme music, but still manages to have moments of real darkness. The double episode Deadly Ringer from season two in particular is surprisingly harrowing, as Jaime starts to lose her mind and her identity. These darker moments are helped by Wagner’s performance, which is excellent throughout the series – she has a natural charm and her acting seems effortless – unlike much of what we’d see on TV at the time. Yet when called on to do so, she could be genuinely convincing as someone in a state of panic, fear or emotional trauma.
Anderson too is excellent. His Oscar Goldman here is a more human character than in The Six Million Dollar Man, though no less determined. His habit of called Jaime ‘babe’ in season three would probably have him up on a sexual harassment charge these days though…
A decade after the series finished, there were three TV movies, starting with 1987’s The Return of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, where the long-retired Steve Austin and Jaime Summers are brought back, and we meet his previously unmentioned son, who follows in daddy’s footsteps by crashing his air force jet and having bionic limbs fitted, eventually joining the team to defeat a right-wing terrorist group. Majors looks rather out of shape here (perhaps fittingly, given that his character has left his old life behind), and the film is pretty poor, with a truly horrible music score and a clunky plot. 1989’s Bionic Showdown is better, as young Sandra Bullock is given the latest bionic technology and helps our heroes foil a plot to keep the cold war going while Steve tries to summon up the courage to ask Jaime to marry him. 1994’s Bionic Ever After? is less effective, but manages to be reasonably entertaining, and at least wraps things up nicely.
While modern US TV tends to go with over-riding story arcs that span a whole season, back in the 1970s, such ideas were unknown. Although the odd character would make a return appearance, referencing what had gone before, for the most part all the episodes are stand-alone and, aside from hair styles and the odd actor switch, entirely interchangeable. This is both good – no need to worry about continuity too much – and bad – there’s little room for character development. Personally, I would’ve preferred McGavin (or at least his character) to have remained – the idea of Austin being forced to work for an amoral, somewhat shady government organisation has a lot of appeal (and it’s one that various series would explore decades later). Richard Anderson is excellent as Oscar Goldman, but his relationship with Austin seems too chummy for modern tastes. It is hard to imagine the series without him, though.
There are plenty of other elements that anchor The Six Million Dollar Man in the time period it was made of course – the truly heinous fashions that Austin wears (I recall that even in the 1970s, some of these seemed ludicrous), the almost-always positive story wrap-ups, and the rather black and white morality – like with The A-Team, Austin’s opponents almost always live to be arrested, even if they’ve been punched by a man who man who can knock a wall down with his hand. Interestingly, the Cold war paranoia of the Seventies is played down in the series – while Austin would occasionally come up against foreign agents, there is no blatant anti-Commie undercurrent, and in some episodes, the Soviets are actually shown in a fairly positive light, collaborating with, rather than conspiring against, the Americans.
Seen thirty years on, there’s a lot of fun to be had from these series. Shot on film, they still looks great, it’s consistently exciting and Majors makes for a great hero – not the world’s best actor perhaps, but he looks the part, has just the right level of self-deprecation and most significantly is doing many of his own stunts. Normally, when actors boast of doing their own stunt work, we can scoff, but here, the star of the series is clearly involved in a lot of very physical action – he must’ve been full of bruises every night – and in some cases is performing ridiculously dangerous activities. It gives the show a curious realism, no matter how ludicrous the plot might be. Nobody could’ve played this part better.