The iconic opening credits have been parodied ever since the show originally aired – even AOL riffed on them. Virtually everyone remembers the voiceover from those credits: ‘Steve Austin. A man barely alive… We can rebuild him… make him better than he was…’ Now TimeLife has put together what has to be one of the most complete packages for a classic TV series – 40 DVDs containing the three TV Movies of the Week that served as pilots; the crossover episodes shared with spin-off series The Bionic Woman; the three reunion movies and over seventeen hours of other bonus material.
With all that care and attention comes one question – is The Six Million Dollar Man worth all that effort? The short answer is yes.
In 1972, Martin Caidin wrote a science fiction novel called Cyborg. It introduced test pilot/astronaut Steve Austin, the first cyborg – rebuilt following a spectacular crash by Dr. Rudy Wells [Martin Balsam] at the behest of Oscar Goldman of the Office of Strategic Operations. With his bionic replacement parts, Austin becomes a reluctant agent for the OSO – but not reluctant to kill in the line of duty.
The TV Movie of the Week, The Six Million Dollar Man aired in March of 1973 and was – except for the willing killer part – a reasonably faithful adaptation. The biggest difference was that the TV version of Austin [Lee Majors] wasn’t a killer – he was more of an All-American hero. Another difference was that the Oscar Goldman character was changed to Oliver Spencer [Darren McGavin], a gruffer blunter character.
The second and third TV Movies of the Week – written and produced by Glen Larson – turned Austin into a bargain basement James Bond – and introduced Oscar Goldman [Richard Anderson]. Goldman’s agency was transformed from the OSO to OSI – the Office of Scientific Intelligence. Austin and Goldman seemed to be on somewhat better terms, as well – though not yet friends. Alan Oppenheimer tool over the role of Dr. Rudy Wells – who was definitely Austin’s friend by this point.
All three films drew tremendous ratings for ABC and the network decided to go to series, hiring Harve Bennett [who later did several Star Trek movies] to put the show on the air in six weeks. Bennett immediately jettisoned the quasi-Bond idea and went back to the original movie for Austin’s character – the easygoing Gary Cooper-like guy who walked out of the desert with a toothpick between his teeth at the beginning of that film.
For the series, Bennett commissioned the now iconic opening credits that, in essence, told Austin’s story from crash to OSI agent. It was the forerunner of what is now called the ‘saga sell’ – and remains one of the best opening credits sequences ever filmed. The film used in the crash sequence is actual NASA footage of a real crash involving astronaut Col. Bruce Peterson. It gives the credits a little extra edge because it’s not faked footage.
The series premiered as a mid-season replacement, in January of 1974, to terrific ratings – despite not having had any real time to promote it.
Considering the effects of the day, and the fact that episodes ran for fifty minutes, the series was remarkably strong [and versatile] for its first three seasons – with episodes ranging from human drama [especially in the second season two-parter, The Bionic Woman] to tech based [series premiere Population: Zero]; from serious science fiction alien stories [Straight On ‘Til Morning] to campy SF alien tales [season three’s The Secret of Bigfoot].
Though the series faded a bit over its last two seasons, it continued to hit it out of the park here and there. The season four crossovers with The Bionic Woman, the two-part The Return of Bigfoot and the three-part Kill Oscar [which introduced fembots almost twenty years before Austin Powers cribbed them] combined the heart, fun and action that made the best 6MDM eps memorable.
If network mandated backdoor pilots The Bionic Boy and The Ultimate Impostor [a concept that flew much later as The Pretender] were less than stellar, there were still eps like Rollback and The Madonna Caper to balance them out.
While, like most fans of the series from when it originally aired, I have a soft spot for the Lindsay Wagner/Bionic Woman eps, the first Movie of the Week and the first Bigfoot two-parter, I was really pleased to see that Straight On ‘Til Morning still held up to my memory of it.
In that ep, a family of explorers from another world crash on Earth and, in trying to survive, accidentally injure someone because of a difference in body chemistry that gives humans radiation burns. The burnings spark a wave of panic and the aliens are hunted by the equivalent of the villagers with torches and pitchforks that populate certain horror movies. What they don’t know is that while the aliens’ touch burns, the human touch is fatal to the aliens!
Meg Foster is arresting as the alien explorer who has her family die before her eyes. She and Majors have great chemistry – and Steve Austin is, of course, the only human who can survive her touch. This ep, which uses a quote from Peter Pan as its title, is one of those pieces of work that [it turns out] is as affecting as I recalled. Few series have produced eps that stay with me like this one.
Overall, the series moves a sedate pace when compared with today’s compact, edit-heavy storytelling. Great care is taken with character details, and stunts take up a very small part of each episode. Effects are pretty primitive, but many of the show’s iconic bionic feats are pretty ingenious. Many of the show’s two-parters are genuine events and justly remembered. In fact, once you get past the bell-bottomed pants and the leisure suits, many of the best eps are genuinely timeless.
Then there are the three reunion movies that aired between 1987 and 1994. According to information from the set’s bonus material, all three happened largely because of Richard Anderson’s desire to see the story continue.
The Return of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, Bionic Showdown, and Bionic Ever After? Are most notable for two things: Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers finally get married [in Bionic Ever After?], and Bionic Breakdown marks the film/TV debut of Sandra Bullock.
Written, or co-written, by Michael Sloan [The Equalizer, The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., King Fu: The Legend Continues], the three movies are breezy and entertaining. They capture the essence of the series though they don’t match its heights.
The Return of has Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers going after an organization called Fortress. In return for Oscar Goldman’s arranging for Dr. Rudy Wells to give his estranged son, Michael [Tom Schanley] bionics after a plane crash that echoes his own. The film’s main guest stars are Martin Landau, as Fortress’ imprisoned leader [put there by Austin a decade earlier], Lyle Stenning and Gary Lockwood, as Oscar Goldman’s boss, John Praiser. The always reliable Terry Kiser also guest stars and Stenning’s right-hand man, Santiago.
Part of the fun comes from Michael’s updated bionics [he has a laser in his left eye and the updated tech in his legs lets him run at near Mach 1 speeds – but the highlight is the revelation that Jaime has regained her memory in regard to her feelings for Steve [and the ensuing awkward moments just pile up…].
Bionic Showdown finds Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers being asked to work security for the World Unity Games – a huge step in the development of glasnost/détente. Someone with bionic abilities is part of a group that intends to kill a top Russian official to prevent that. Bionic Showdown also marks the first time that a volunteer – Kate Mason [Sandra Bullock], a young woman who hasn’t been able to walk since she was six – joined OSI and received bionics. Other highlights: the introduction of James ‘Jimmy’ Goldman [Jeff Yagher], Oscar’s nephew; the resignation of Oscar Goldman, and the engagement of Steve and Jaime. Geraint Wyn Davies [Forever Knight] appeared as OSI agent Allan Devlin; Lawrence Dane played the Russian general, Dzerinsky, and Josef Sommer was Senator Charles Estiman. Robert Lansing’s General McAllister also appeared – setting up Goldman’s resignation.
The bionic effects for Kate were even more impressive than for Michael Austin in the preceding movie, and the story was even more convoluted. Bullock was terrific in her first TV role and all the elements added up to a more satisfying experience that the first reunion movie
For Bionic Ever After?, the twist is a combination of mercenaries taking over the American Embassy in Nassau, The Bahamas and sabotaging Jaime with a computer virus. The mercenaries are lead by former OSI operative Miles Kendrick [Geordie Johnson] and the sabotage is coming from within OSI. The object of the assault on the embassy is tennis star Astaad Rashid [Ivan Sergei], whose uncle is an arms dealer. Safeguarding the mercs is a SCUD missile with a nuclear warhead – aimed in the general direction of downtown Nassau. Other guest stars include Farrah Forke as Kimberly Harmon, Alan Sader as Ambassador John McNamara, and Anne Lockhart as Carolyn McNamara.
The final reunion movie is the closest to today’s television in terms of pacing, but it’s still not as frenetic – and definitely takes its time developing characters. Of the three, it’s also the slightest in terms of substance, though it’s also possibly the most purely entertaining since it revolves around the impending marriage of Steve and Jaime, so everything else in movie impacts that event directly. Cool bit of trivia: the director, Steve Stafford, had been Lee Majors’ assistant on the original series.
Each of the season sets has its own box and each includes a twelve-page pamphlet that contains an episode guide, an overview and the DVD credits. Exclusive to the set [the season sets will eventually be available separately] is a five disc set that includes the reunion movies, the syndicated versions of the first three TV movies [with added footage], several featurettes and a final OSI Mission Debriefing [these consist of 90-minute interviews with key creators and cast].
The packing includes a cool package with lenticular artwork and an audio chip with the narration from the series’ opening credits.
It’s also worth noting, in passing, that the first two 6MDM reunion movies were broadcast by NBC and the third by CBS, making The Six Million Dollar Man the first show to gave its various iterations air on the original Big Three networks.
Six Audio Commentaries: Four excellent tracks by writer Kenneth Johnson on The Bionic Woman Parts 1 & 2, and The Secret of Bigfoot Parts 1 & 2; Two rather more pedestrian tracks by director Cliff Bole on The blue Flash and Vulture of the Andes.
Season One – Real Bionics: How Science Fiction Is Becoming Science Fact; An Iconic Opening: The six Million dollar Man Opening Credits Never disappointed; Season 1 VIPs: A Celebration of The six Million Dollar Man Guest Stars; Interactive Bonus Feature: Bionic Breakdown [a look at the various abilities of each of Steve Austin’s bionic parts]; OSI Mission Debriefing: Executive Producer Harve Bennett
Season Two – The Bionic Sound Effects; Season 2 VIPs
Season Three – The Search For Bigfoot; Season 3 VIPS; OSI Mission Debriefing: Kenneth Johnson
Season Four – The Six Million dollar Fans: So Loyal, So Bionic!; Season 4 VIPs; OSI Mission Debriefing: Richard Anderson
Season Five – The Six Million Dollar Man’s Best Villains and Best Fights; Season 5 VIPs; OSI Mission Debriefing: Martin E. Brooks
Exclusive Bonus Features
Disc One – The Return of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman; Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman
Disc Two – Bionic Ever After? The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman; The Moon and the Desert Parts 1 & 2 [Syndicated Version of TV Pilot 1]
Disc Three – Wine, Women & War Parts 1 & 2 [Syndicated Version of TV Pilot 2]; The solid Gold Kidnapping Parts 1 & 2 [Syndicated Version of TV Pilot 3]
Disc Four – TV Goes Bionic: The Origins of The Six Million Dollar Man; The Bionic Age of TV: The success of The Six Million Dollar Man; Top Secret: OSI, NASA and Bionics; The Reunion Movies: Life After The Series; Getting to Know Lee Majors and Steve Austin; Getting to Know Lindsay Wagner and Jaime Sommers; Getting to Know Richard Anderson and Oscar Goldman; Getting to Know Dr. Rudy Wells.
Disc Five – The Pop Culture Effect; Bionic Action… Figures; The Stunts of The Bionic Age; OSI Mission Debriefing: Lee Majors
Grade: The Six Million Dollar Man [TV Movie of the Week #1] – A
Grade: Wine, Women & War [TV Movie of the Week #2] – B-
Grade: Solid Gold Kidnapping – B-
Grade: The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Series – B
Grade: The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman – B
Grade: Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman – B+
Grade: Bionic Ever After?: The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman – B+
Final Grade: A-