“Steve Austin, astronaut; a man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. We can make him better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.”
If you grew up in 70s Britain, particularly if you were a boy, you probably already know those words off by heart. They’re from one of the most iconic title sequences in TV history, and anyone who was anyone used to watch the show every week. The show was, of course, The Six Million Dollar Man in which former astronaut turned test pilot Steve Austin (Lee Majors) is seriously injured while testing a new plane. He loses his right arm, his right eye and both his legs, but the government nevertheless has plans for him. They’re going to turn him into a ‘bionic man’, giving him mechanical replacements for his missing limbs so he can perform missions that no normal man – or even team of men – could do.
See if this brings back any memories for you.
The Six Million Dollar Man started off as a novel by Michael Caidan called Cyborg, but over the course of its development from book to movie to TV show, it not only changed name, it changed tone.
The book is essentially a thriller that tries to ground itself in reality as much as possible to make Steve Austin a super-spy. Sure he has a bionics left arm (yes, bionics in the book, not bionic), bionics legs and bionics eye. But he can’t feel anything in his bionics limbs and his bionics eye won’t let him see, only take pictures. And sure, he’s very strong, but when he kicks a golf ball, that bionics toe of his still gets crushed by the impact.
It was bionics, but still tried to be relatively aware of the laws of physics and what was practical.
Austin, an air-force pilot, is also a ruthless killer. His boss Oscar Goldman is an even more ruthless spy, who would happily keep Austin in a coma between missions and wouldn’t mind losing him if he hadn’t cost so much to make in the first place.
By the time Cyborg became a TV movie, things changed. Oscar Goldman was still ruthless, but he was now Oliver Spencer and played by future Night Stalker Darren McGavin. Steve Austin has left the air force and joined NASA and wasn’t too happy about killing people. He’d also become right-handed, his bionic eye could see and had a zoom lens, infrared and a targeting system and yes, he could feel (kind of).
The pilot movie was actually very good. Quite substantial portions of it have Steve Austin tussling with what it means to be human. Athletic, a high-achiever, he now feels less than a man. He even tries to commit suicide at one point when he realises his future involves being part-machine. When he rescues a mother and child from a burning car, he starts to see the benefits of his bionics and begins to feel more like his old self again – until the mother recoils when she sees some exposed wires in his arm which has been damaged in the rescue. By the end of the movie and his first mission, however, he’s more reconciled to his fate, able to run quickly, jump great heights, be very, very strong and see long distances.
The pilot movie wasn’t enough to entice the networks to go for a full series but another movie, Wine, Women and War, got the go-ahead instead. This was a pure spy thriller, with Steve Austin enjoying all three Ws of the title (including Britt Ekland) in his efforts to stop a madman with nuclear missiles on his tropical island from starting a war. It also saw the return of Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), here a slightly warmer – but only slightly – version of Oliver Spencer.
Wine, Woman and War was followed by the more down-to-earth Solid Gold Kidnapping with the TV series not far behind. The transition to series necessitated that Goldman be a bit more friendly – frequently calling him “pal” – but otherwise, it wasn’t much different from the movies, beyond giving Austin more mundane missions that didn’t involve Britt Ekland. It wasn’t until the second season, in fact, that the show eventually standardised all the now-famous methods to convey Austin’s bionic skills: slow-motion to convey fast running rather than the movies’ speeded up film; the much-imitated accompanying sound effect for anything bionic, when the movies had been content with silence; and the “jumping” music.
The show still managed to touch on some of the themes of the movie, with Austin still not quite happy with his bionic condition (eg An angry “How does it feel? Just peachy” at one point and his bitterness at being one of the only men on Earth “who comes with an instruction manual”) but better adjusted than racing car-driver Barney Miller, “the seven million dollar man” who appeared in the episode of the same name, Oscar having turned him into a bionic man after an accident as a back-up, complete with two bionic arms.
Over the course of the series, Austin began to face more and more sci-fi foes, ranging from aliens with a bionic Bigfoot through to robots. William Shatner turns up with enhanced mental powers and the ability to talk to dolphins in one episode.
Austin also became more sci-fi as his abilities veered more and more away from physics, with incredibly fast speed-reading suddenly being one of his skills, for example. With the arrival of Fred Freiberger as producer in the final seasons (you may know him as the producer of the final season of Star Trek and the producer of the final season of Space: 1999 – spotting a trend here), the show also went for a far younger audience, with the show visibly becoming stupider.
Nevertheless, the impact of the show was big. It was a ratings success – and then some. It was the first TV show that really became a merchandising machine, with spin-off toys and action figures for every occasion. More intriguingly, there was many a disabled kid in playgrounds across the country who either became very popular for being “bionic” or who got a merciless ribbing for it.
So popular was The Six Million Dollar Man that it spawned several a spin-off show. Steve Austin’s former girlfriend and tennis star Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) turned up in the two-part The Bionic Woman. However, after a skydiving accident nearly kills her, Austin begs for her to be given bionics, which Goldman does – on the condition she become a secret agent like Austin. It’s all actually quite moving:
With two bionic legs, a bionic arm and a bionic ear, Jaime does well at first, but Austin swiftly becomes protective and tries to prevent her from going on more missions. However, it all becomes a moot point when it turns out that Jaime’s body is rejecting her bionic limbs – and she dies.
Except she doesn’t. She got a spin-off series, The Bionic Woman, in which she’s revived, having been put into a form of suspended animation, and operated on to remove the clot that had formed in her brain as a result of the rejection. But to avoid romantic complications, Jaime gets amnesia as a result of her operation and doesn’t remember Steve at all.
The show was more geared towards girls than the “mother show” and tried to be softer as well. Jaime, instead of returning to the tennis pro circuit, becomes a school teacher, using her bionic hearing to find out what kids are muttering at the back of the class. It also attempted, at times, to be more scientifically accurate than The Six Million Dollar Man, with Jaime pointing out in one episode, for example, that since she only has one bionic arm, she can’t simply tear handcuffs off her wrists since her flesh-and-blood arm couldn’t take it – something TSMDM never really bothered with and which The Bionic Woman also only remembered intermittently (Jaime’s “phone book tearing” trick being impossible for the same reason).
Both shows eventually got cancelled at the same time (although Bionic Woman got cancelled by ABC then picked up by NBC, before being cancelled for a second time), either because the public was tired of bionic adventures or they’d tired of the sillier plots and adversaries, such as “the Fembots”. Maybe it had even become too “family”, with a bionic boy and a bionic dog, Max, turning up on the scene.
Whatever the reason, the characters were popular enough that there were various movie attempts to revive the show during the 80s. All of them featured Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner, usually fighting Russians, but each introduced a new bionic character with more modern bionics.
Most notable was Bionic Showdown, which saw a young, wheelchair-bound Sandra Bullock get super powers:
The movies also addressed Jaime’s amnesia, with her memories of Steve returning enough that by the end of the final movie, Bionic Ever After, the two are married. Ah!
Since then, there have been attempts to revive both shows. A comedic movie version of The Six Million Dollar Man starring Jim Carrey was on the cards for a while, but seems to have fallen out of existence. And, of course, NBC recently remade The Bionic Woman with Michelle Ryan as Jaime Sommers. That died after just a season though.
There have also been “bionic-inspired” shows along the way. Most notably, Jake 2.0 gave a lowly lab tech bionic-like skills and abilities, to the extent that when the part of Jake’s father was cast, Lee Majors was hired for the role.
But for many, the originals are still the best thanks to their mix of spies, technology and pathos. And that groovy title sequence.