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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

‘The Six Million Dollar Man’: A toolbox for television

Updated: 5 days ago

“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better... stronger... faster.” Those words, this title sequence and that theme together form one of my earliest cultural memories, since I’m old enough – just – to have caught the programme first time around and remember playing with schoolfriends’ action figures. I’d never seen it since, so watching every episode recently has been fun but also – given four and a half decades of perspective – revelatory; so revelatory in fact that I think it might be one of the most influential SF series ever made, albeit quietly.

The massive theatrical success of Star Wars in 1977 exploded onto American television a year or so later with expensive, populist series that rebooted existing properties or aped the newcomer: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Battlestar Galactica, Logan’s Run. But also appearing on the small screen in these years, and emulating its own cinematic precedents such as The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Phase IV (1974), was a rather different type of speculative fiction. This more grounded strand included the prescient Salvage 1 and the atmospheric Project U.F.O., and it was this world that polymath Martin Caidin entered in 1972.


His novel Cyborg featured a critically-injured astronaut and test pilot called Steve Austin who receives advanced, nuclear-powered prosthetics that not only repair his body but give him increased strength, speed and vision. The cost of merging his shattered body with these ‘bionics’, leaving aside the trauma that sees him contemplate suicide, is an offer he accepts with reluctance – becoming a uniquely capable operative for a CIA-like government agency. His first mission is a success, though, and so was Caidin’s book (three more followed, developing the story). The following year Howard Rodman, with additional work by Terrence McDonnell, Tom Greene and Melvin Levy, adapted the first book into a television movie for Universal entitled The Six Million Dollar Man. It starred Lee Majors as Austin, Darren McGavin as agency chief Oliver Spencer and Martin Balsam as bionics creator Dr Rudy Wells.

Produced and directed by Richard Irving with Caidin as consultant, the film cleaves closely to the book and the tone throughout is reflective, sober, even cynical; asked if he will seek volunteers for his scheme to make the world's first bionic man, Spencer replies: “No. Accidents happen all the time. We’ll just start with scrap.” Wells resigns himself to the thought of his pioneering surgery being used for “espionage, sabotage, assassination”, whilst Austin, briefly roused from an induced post-operative coma, whispers “Please…” – the sentence is never completed but his wish is clear.


Two further TV movies followed, with changes to the supporting cast and, crucially, to that tone, before a full series was commissioned in 1974. Harve Bennett produced, a job later taken by Fred Freiburger, and the rest, as they say, is history with sales around the world, a line of merchandising (those toys from my youth) and the last of more than a hundred episodes only screening four years and five seasons later. Majors became an international star and married another, model and actress Farrah Fawcett of subsequent swimsuit poster and Charlie’s Angels fame.


Most of those seasons’ content is wholly conventional. Steve Austin is a modest, clean-cut hero, battling uncomplicated villains typical of the genre (rogue computers, mad scientists, foreign potentates) and helping women in distress. He is aided by an avuncular boss (Oscar Goldman, played by Richard Anderson, replacing Oliver Spencer) and dedicated doctor (Martin E. Brooks for Balsam). He fights heavies but never uses a gun, and certainly never kills anyone*. A determinedly family-friendly affair, then, and indeed when Austin’s bionic fingers rapidly remove a wheel nut to the sound effect of an air wrench, the exploits of this human Swiss Army knife appear to be aimed squarely at children.


But concealed between these episodes, with their teatime plots and obvious constraints, are others evidencing real ambition. Scenarios so audacious in context they make you sit up; guest stars who elevate the entire enterprise; impressive locations or hardware that would be hard to obtain even today. Then there are the returning characters, multi-part stories, spin-offs and crossovers – that is, narratives that continue in, or even arrive from, other series. All of this suggests the makers were using The Six Million Dollar Man as a test bed, a Trojan Horse if you will, for more sophisticated and innovative production techniques, writing styles and conceptual approaches. It is in these moments that the series anticipates an extraordinary number of future programmes, setting itself up as something of a creative toolbox into which others dipped repeatedly in the years to come.


In ‘Clark Templeton O'Flaherty’, a good-natured janitor (played by Louis Gosset Jr.) is accused of treason when government secrets disappear and a Playboy lifestyle emerges. Further revelations about this double life, his true identity and who is fooling who continue until the very last scene, with Gosset shifting effortlessly from homespun ‘aw shucks’ to laid-back self-assurance in his acting. It’s an absorbing episode and its deftly woven themes of disguise, loyalty and individuality were fundamental, a generation later, to almost every instalment of hits Alias (2001-06) and Dollhouse (2009-10).

Class of a different kind came from the casting of Jenny Agutter in ‘Deadly Countdown’ as a fellow astronaut partnered with Steve on a space shot whose launch goes badly wrong not once but twice. Agutter brings her usual relatability (and a transatlantic accent) to this lavish two-parter whilst extensive shooting at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39 brought additional authenticity. The actors are seen outside, inside and on the roof of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building, running along one of those famous red gantries and using the emergency ‘slidewire and rarely-seen safety bunker to escape the pad at critical moments. High production values in this specialist field – putting many contemporary motion pictures to shame – are found in other episodes thanks to filming within the Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. It is here that Majors is observed climbing in and out of and ‘flying’ the unique HL-10 rocket-powered lifting body in both the series pilot and its later linked story ‘The Deadly Replay’, sitting in an F-104 Starfighter and exiting a T-38 Talon jet after it taxies to a halt. Continuing the techno-fetishism along with yet another eye-catching guest, crossover story ‘Kill Oscar’ features the great John Houseman as a scientist who replaces women in key government positions with evil Fembots – the term was borrowed for, and the idea parodied in, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) twenty years later.


More startling still when encountered amidst routine tales of threatened ranchers and troublesome children are the stories featuring aliens, parapsychology or jumps in time (‘The Lost Island’, ‘Dead Ringer’ and ‘Just a Matter of Time’ respectively), prompting obvious comparisons with the hugely successful The X Files (1993-2002) launched fifteen years later. In contrast, several of Austin’s feats of escapology, bionics aside, may have suggested the pacifist ingenuity of MacGyver (1985-1992). When considering the series overall it’s impossible not to think of the underrated Now and Again (1999-2000) in which a damaged man is also given a second chance at life with the exact same cost.


Several characters appear more than once, unexpectedly returning episodes or even years later. Sloan (played by popular Seventies actor John Saxon) and Barney Miller aka the Seven Million Dollar Man (Monte Markham, another familiar face from the period and the apparent first choice for the Austin role) are each seen in two single-episode stories and Kelly Woods, Farrah Fawcett’s pilot, in two more (confusingly Mrs Majors also popped up playing other characters). What might be called non-human supporting characters also come back, one of which achieved a cult following. The Venus Probe, a supposedly deadly robot, was battled by Austin across the final seasons though its merchandising potential was probably more sizable than its destructive abilities, and then there was Bigfoot, the Sasquatch of American folk legend, given a different explanation here and the distinction of being in more episodes – a pair of two-parters and a single – than any other character except Jamie Sommers. Ah yes, Jamie Sommers…


Steve Austin’s childhood sweetheart-turned-tennis pro first appears in ‘The Bionic Woman’ (spoiler alerts had not yet been invented, it seems), in which she is crippled in a skydiving accident. Austin pleads for her to be saved with bionics and Wells and Goldman agree but tragically Sommers dies despite her new gifts. So winning was actress Lyndsey Wagner’s performance, however, that her character was brought back in a sequel that opened the very next season. It explained away Sommers’s ‘death’ and her and Austin continue their relationship but remarkably the same story goes on to engineer an astonishingly downbeat ending in which Sommers suffers a memory loss due to a malfunction, treatment is deemed too risky and she moves away, troubled yet in the arms of a new lover and believing she and Austin are merely colleagues. Fortunately her own series soon began in order to satisfy fan demand and watching today it’s easy to see why that occurred. Wagner’s accessible, girl-next-door beauty and more adult and emotional storylines were coupled with her naturalistic acting style, peppered with little smiles and self-deprecating comments. This still seems extremely modern and respected genre historians John Clute and Peter Nicholls deem it “notably superior” to Majors’ own approach.

The Bionic Woman comfortably extends the importance of the original series even if a bionic boy and, yes, a bionic dog also featured. And if all this actual and possible spin-off material wasn’t enough, there is the one that got away.  


In ‘The Ultimate Imposter’, Austin's friend Joe Patton (Stephen Macht) willingly undergoes an experiment to transfer information from a computer to his brain and thus become a new class of super-agent; inevitably the process has hidden dangers that soon surface. Goldman and Wells appear throughout but uniquely Austin is present only at the start and end of the affair. Why? Because the episode was created as a backdoor pilot for an entirely separate series featuring the Patton character. To subtly emphasise this point of divergence, the opening credits are – again uniquely – rendered in the Westminster typeface, universally known to those of us who grew up in the Seventies as ‘computer writing’. Even with a young Kim Basinger as guest star this particular spin-off didn’t take, but the idea was considered worthwhile enough to be attempted once more in 1979 as a stand-alone TV movie with the same title, director and producers.


It doesn’t, then, take much effort to detect the roots of many of today’s most highly regarded genre programmes in this one single series. And whilst its hero might well have been quiet, decent, even a little dull, The Six Million Dollar Man was perhaps the sharpest tool in – and on – the box.



*Except when he does, in a sequence that sits uneasily with the remainder of the series

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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