RIP Diana Rigg

I’m a little late posting this, but I’m also leery of having this site turn into an Obits page, and reluctant to acknowledge yet another lousy development in what’s been hands down the crappiest year in my lifetime. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t make note of the passing of Dame Diana Rigg.

Some time ago, I wrote a tribute to Emma Peel of The Avengers, and while Ms Rigg was obviously a separate person entirely with a long line of impressive credits to her name, it’s equally obvious that much of the charisma and wit and style of the character was inextricable from the performer.

Much of that carried over into other roles, notably that of the Countess Teresa diVincenzo, aka Tracy Bond, the only woman capable of compelling confirmed batchelor 007 to walk the aisle in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Ms Rigg didn’t physically resemble Fleming’s character from the novel, but she was the best and only choice for the role on screen, with her ability to be feminine and alluring but also tough and capable at the same time.  In 1969, that was fairly uncommon combination on screen, especially in a series not exactly renowned for promoting feminist ideals.  Indeed, Dame Diana’s established bona fides as a capable performer and believable action hero made her the perfect “insurance policy” for a film that starred a new lead actor as-yet unproven on either front.  George Lazenby as Bond acquitted himself fairly well on some fronts, less so on others, but ultimately it was Diana who embued the proceedings with a sense of gravitas and import, and Tracy’s fate on which the film turned.  When, a couple of years ago, I was able to see it again on the big screen at a local cinema, one lady in the audience who’d obviously never seen it before (in some ways, it is the “forgotten Bond”) let out a shocked yell when Tracy met her doom in the last scene.  It was funny in way, given that we’re talking about s a 50-year-old movie and a predictable fate for the wife of a franchised action hero, but it also spoke to the power of Diana’s performance: she gave us the first Bond Girl in whose welfare we were at all interested.

More receently, she won over a whole new generation of fans with her role on Game of Thrones, of which I confess I have seen not a single episode, but it’s telling that even in her 70s and 80s, she never lost the screen presence and audience appeal she’d mastered half a century before.  Time can be tough on a pretty face, but a truly attractive soul exerts its draw til the end.

Rest in peace, Dame Diana.  You may not have had “all the time in the world” any more than the rest of us, but what time you had you made great use of, and we’re the richer for it.

Six Million Dollar Man, meet Bionic Woman

bionic-mad400At one point I had grand plans for this blog to review whole seasons of a favorite old TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man.  Ultimately, I made it as far as the pilot movie, two follow-up TV movies and the first proper episode (which was probably also the best) before the wheels came off.  To a degree, this was due to the dozens of other things always vying for my time and attention, but in all honesty, there was one other important hurdle that derailed my plans.

Turns out the show wasn’t all that great.

Don’t get me wrong; in its day, The Six Million Dollar Man was terrifically entertaining to 9-to-13-year old me, but watching it now, I’m struck by how formulaic, cheap and downright sloppy it all was.

Lots of TV shows operate on a “shoestring budget,” but TSMDM often seemed to limp along with no shoestrings at all. Universal Studios was a tightwad operation that never filmed cheaply what it could get away with not filming at all; basically any shot that couldn’t be easily captured on a studio backlot was lifted from an old film in the Universal vaults or even public domain footage from the U.S. government.  If the script calls for a helicopter to fly over, why spend money renting one when you can just recycle combat footage of Huey choppers in Vietnam?  Scenes of Steve running are recycled repeatedly, often showing him in a California desert whether the story is set there or not.   Why? Because there was plenty of desert “running” footage already in the can from “Population Zero.”

Having recently read a couple of books detailing the painstaking process of turning a Star Trek script into a filmed episode, its amazing how little planning seems to have gone into TSMDM.  You get the distinct impression the editors kept finding episodes five or ten minutes short or missing information key to understanding the plot, necessitating all sorts of editing room fakery.  A scene with multiple actors in the frame will switch suddenly to a blurry close-up of a lone performer (enlarged from the original, wider shot) to cover the fact that additional dialog has been added in post-production.  Or maybe that new time-killing dialog is covered by a thrilling view of vehicular traffic outside Oscar’s office building.  Maybe audiences were too unsophisticated or indifferent to care about this stuff in the 70s, but in an age where everyone has their own smartphone camera and Youtube channel, its impossible not to see through such clumsy tricks.

All of which brings me, in my usual roundabout way, to “The Bionic Woman,” a second-season two-parter that stands out for all kinds of reasons, not least because it’s actually well-written, tightly edited and emotionally involving.  The production values are still pretty skimpy, but for once, you get the feeling some thought and planning went into things ahead of time.  As slowly as plots would typically unspool on this show, you’d think a two-parter would be the last thing anyone needed, but this story keeps things moving fast enough to avoid boredom, but not too fast to keep all the characters from getting a moment in the sun.

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So, the story: After a brief “mission” sequence to add some action and set up a (largely unimportant) subplot, the story finds Steve taking a rare vacation in his (previously unseen) hometown of Ojai, California.  Once there, he finds another famous former resident is also visiting; his childhood sweetheart Jaime Sommers, now a celebrated professional tennis player.  The two rekindle their old romance and seem headed for matrimony when a devastating skydiving accident leaves Jaime nearly dead.  Calling in every favor he’s ever earned with Oscar Goldman, Steve begs his boss to authorize life-saving surgery to replace Jaime’s shattered legs, right arm and ear with bionic versions.  Oscar warns Steve that if he does green-light the surgery, Jaime will be expected to serve her country in the same capacity as Steve, and he’s sure Steve won’t like it when she gets that call to duty.  A desperate Steve is willing to agree to any conditions, so the surgery proceeds.

On waking, Jaime is at first horrified to find herself a “freak” of science, until Steve reveals he’s bionic, too.  After that, she adjusts well and the two go forward with their wedding plans.  Sure enough, however, the day comes when Oscar needs Jaime for a job, and as predicted, Steve’s not happy about it.  Jaime has a mind of her own, though, and wants to go through with it, albeit with Steve along for support.  Complicating matters, Jaime experiences strange side effects of her surgery, including a lack of control over her bionic arm and eventually, terrible headaches.  Her debut mission is mostly successful but nearly goes very wrong when she suffers a bionic flare-up. Eventually we find that Jaime’s body is rejecting its bionic enhancements and a dangerous clot has formed in her brain (because of the ear implant), necessitating immediate surgery.  Before she can get it, though, she runs off in a headache-induced panic, and Steve must chase her down in the middle of a thunderstorm.  He catches her, but too late, and she dies on the operating table despite Rudy Wells’ best efforts. Steve is left alone and broken-hearted.

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After nearly two years of watching our imperturbable hero knock down various straw men in simple “out of the frying pan, into the fire” action plots, this all makes for a remarkable left turn into emotion-based, character-oriented storytelling, with a surprisingly downbeat ending.  Yes, there’s a “mission” to complete and a running subplot about a villain who’s out to find and kill Steve, but all that takes a back seat to the romance and tragedy of Steve and Jaime’s story.  You can sense just how grateful the cast is to have something to sink their teeth into for once, and they rise to the occasion.

The scene in the hospital where Steve pleads with Oscar is particularly strong: Richard Anderson does a great job as Oscar, torn between his sympathy and affection for Steve and his weighty responsibilities as head of the OSI.  Obviously he can’t just go handing out bionics to every hard-luck case that comes along: Steve was different, being an Air Force officer already sworn to serve his country and a reasonable candidate for special ops work.  Jaime, however, is a tennis player and civilian; how can he justify the expense of her surgery, and if it works, how can he know she’ll have the desire, let alone the competence, to be an agent?  Lee Majors also seems eager to dig into something substantial for the first time since the pilot movie.  He does a great job conveying the desperation and anguish of a man who’s used to being able to handle anything, now powerless to save the woman he loves and reduced to abject begging.  When Oscar tells him he’s out of his head with grief and doesn’t understand the full implications of what he’s asking, we know Oscar’s right.  It’s a rare moment in a series where Steve’s judgement is usually unassailable; here, reason takes a back seat to passion.  You can’t help but wish there had been a few more moments like this in the series.

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This is also a moment where the story could have gone in a very different direction that might have been even more interesting, but never would have flown in 70s prime time.  To wit: What if Oscar had said “no”?  Surely, he’d have been within his rights, and logically it would’ve made a lot more sense than agreeing to the surgery, thus placing personal friendship above national security (let alone the federal budget).  We’re cool with it because hey, it’s Steve, but objectively, isn’t Oscar in the wrong to green-light the procedure?  If he had said no, and Jaime had died from her injuries, what would have happened with Steve?  Would he have gone rogue?  Turned against Oscar and the OSI?  Would he have just sulked and continued to do his job, but not with much heart, and hating Oscar all along?  Would he have sunk into a depression that made him sloppy enough to end up getting killed? Maybe all this factored into Oscar’s thinking: maybe he looked at saving Jaime as his best chance to hang on to Steve?  Anyway, if he’d said no, Universal and ABC would have lost out on a hit show when Jaime returned from the dead, so I guess it worked out.

Looking back, what’s most remarkable is that such a hokey concept works as well as it does.  On the face of it, this whole thing seems like the kind of bad idea only a studio “suit” could come up with: a bionic woman to go with the bionic man (Jaime herself brings up the “Bride of Frankenstein” comparison), who just happens to suffer almost exactly the same injuries suffered by Steve.  The only two bionic people in the world and they just happen to be romantically linked, and from the same small town.  She gets a blue jumpsuit to match his red one so they can tun around in slow motion together, sharing lovesick glances.  On paper, everything about this scenario says it should have been an eye-rolling, shark-jumping moment for the series, but somehow it actually works.

A lot comes down to the casting: Lindsey Wagner is perfect here, bringing a humanity and sensitivity to Jaime that makes her tremendously endearing and sympathetic.  Beautiful but in a less glamorous way than many of the women Steve dallies with through the series, she has a “girl next door” quality that fits the down-to Earth, “everyman” qualities Majors projects onto Steve.  It’s entirely believable he would fall in love with this woman.  When Jaime’s bionics begin to fail her, Wagner is great at wordlessly conveying her unease, making furtive attempts to hide her condition from Steve and his parents, and ultimately, we sense, coming to understand on some deep, scary level that her story is going to end very badly. Before everything goes south, she asks Steve “We’re going to have a happy ending, right?”, the foreshadowing laid on pretty thick, but not without impact. We’ve all seen enough episodes of Bonanza to know what happens to would-be brides of TV heroes, but in this case there’s a real feeling of disappointment that Jaime’s days are numbered.  It’s frankly impossible to imagine another actress in this series who could’ve done as well in the role as Wagner; certainly Majors’ real-life wife Farrah Fawcett, already a two-time guest star, would’ve been in way over her impressively-coiffed head.

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The other key to making this story work is the writing of Kenneth Johnson, who would go on to shepherd Jaime’s adventures in her own show as well as those of The Incredible Hulk.  There’s a humanity to the proceedings that keeps us from stopping to ask questions that would make the whole thing fall apart.

And yet, there are indeed questions. For instance: Since when is bionic enhancement a “life saving” surgery?  Yes, Jaime’s legs and arm are crushed beyond repair, but why would that lead to death?  If the limbs are bleeding uncontrollably, wouldn’t amputation be enough to prevent fatality?  If there are internal injuries threatening her life, why would prosthetic limbs change anything?  In the original pilot movie, Steve endures numerous surgeries to fix his internal injuries first, then spends weeks, maybe even months as a bedridden amputee while his bionic limbs are assembled (at one point rousing from his medically induced coma long enough to realize his fate and attempt suicide!)  so why, in Jaime’s case, do the prosthetics have to go on right now, at risk of death?

As far as that goes, how is Rudy Wells able to produce custom-made bionic limbs at a moment’s notice?  Again, Steve’s new limbs had to be custom designed to mimic the originals perfectly, and it took a lot of time.  With Jaime, Rudy just opens up a box and voila — there’s a pair of lady legs that’s just the right size and shape to fit Jaime.  Does he have a storeroom at OSI full of limbs in all shapes, sizes and colors?  (“Hey, quartermaster?  Please send up a pair of legs for a 5-foot-7 caucasian female, size 6 shoe.  Thanks.”)

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This episode picks up an interesting thread from earlier in the season when we met “The Seven Million Dollar Man,” another would-be bionic ally who doesn’t work out.  In the case of Barney Miller (later Hiller), the problem isn’t physical but mental; he can’t handle his new abilities and goes rogue before having to be de-powered.  But the end result is the same; Steve is left the only one of his kind.  The opening credits call him “The worlds first bionic man,” hinting at Steve’s role as a prototype and insinuating that in time he’ll be joined by others, but now after two dramatic failures he’s still the world’s ONLY bionic man, and Oscar Goldman’s expensive pet project has achieved only a 33% success rate.  When Steve confesses to “a lot of loneliness” in the first half of “The Bionic Woman,” we can imagine he’s referring not only to his romantic status but his unique status as a bionic being.

This sense of isolation is touched on again when Steve’s mom catches him engaging in bionic horseplay with Jaime on the farm, and he has to explain how their feats are possible.  Here we learn for the first time that his bionic nature has been kept secret even from his closest family members, for “security reasons” he says (although he’s quick enough to fess up once the cat’s out of the bag).  This, too, is a nicely handled scene, as we see Steve and his mother talking at a distance but hear audio snippets from the “origin” sequence that opens the show: the test flight, the crash, the operation.  It’s a clever and artful approach that, again, shows a polish not found in the average episode.

 

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A welcome (and rare) moment of continuity comes in a scene between Steve and his “dad” Frank, who we learn is actually his step-dad.  They even mention that it was Steve who got Frank and Steve’s mom together.  This is cool as it doesn’t undo the first season episode, “The Coward,” which establishes that Steve’s birth father died in the Korean War.  It would’ve been easier (and frankly, typical) to just ignore this earlier entry, so the extra effort here is appreciated.

Okay, I almost got through this whole review without acknowledging the elephant in the room: Yes, this is the episode where Lee Majors sings.  And not just one song, but two.  First up is a honky-tonk diddy about “cuttin’ loose” and then the supremely sappy ballad, “Sweet Jaime.” (Follow that Youtube link at your own risk). Let’s just say if “actors who think they can sing” was a medically recognized disorder, Lee Majors would be the poster boy.  Not only does he have trouble staying in tune, it almost seems he doesn’t have the breath to get through the attempt.  Considering it must have been his idea (has any producer ever approached an actor in a dramatic series and said, “You know what would really sell this episode?  You should sing!”), he sounds like the effort is hurting him worse than that plane crash.  Here we seem to have reached one of the pivotal “mile markers” in any long-running series: the moment when the star begins throwing his weight around and demanding “vanity” bits, more often than not involving singing, and usually with similar results.  Yes, it does spoil the mood of an alternately sweet and tragic episode by inviting giggles; as a youngster it brought the crushing realization that my idol wasn’t so perfect, after all.  But in a strange way, it kind of works if you forget it’s Lee Majors and think of it as Steve, an otherwise imperturbable (some would say wooden) paragon of male machismo exposing his heart to perform such a treacly tune in such an awkward and potentially humiliating way (“I don’t know how to sing, but baby, you make me want to try!!!!”).  It certainly makes him seem more vulnerable than he’s ever been.  Admittedly I might be blocking memories in self-defense, but I think this was his only stab at crooning in the series, meaning we’d have to wait until “The Fall Guy” for another fix of musical Majors magic.

On the whole — and even with the singing — this entry stands out as one of the high points of the series. Audiences agreed, with Jaime’s character proving popular enough to return from the dead in the third season opener before spinning off into a series of her own.  Eventually she would become arguably a bigger deal than Steve himself as an icon of 70s TV.  I kind of resented that as a kid, and after all these years I’m still fairly conflicted over whether it was a good thing to undo the end of this story. Judged on its own merits, however, the “Bionic Woman” two-parter ranks up there with the best of The Six Million Dollar Man.

 

Bat-Signal Over LA

The city of Los Angeles arranged a nice tribute to Adam West yesterday, flashing the bat-signal on the side of City Hall.

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The cool part is they got the symbol right: there have been several iterations over the years, but this one matches the one on West’s costume (on the show, the shape of the projected signal was different, but why quibble?).

What makes it doubly awesome, though, is that LA City Hall doubled for the Daily Planet starting with the second season the old “Adventures of Superman” TV show, making for a cool, if probably unintentional, cross-reference.  Wish I could’ve seen it in person.

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Adam West RIP

batman-mobileThis is shaping up to be one lousy year. Mere weeks after the death of Roger Moore,  I’ve lost another childhood hero, Adam West.

As related in an earlier post, I first encountered Mr West’s Batman in a television airing of the 1966 feature film starring the cast of the TV show.  It’s fair to say it blew it my young mind, with its outlandish sets, gadgets, vehicles and costumes.  It was, in essence, a comic book brought to life.  A couple of years later, the show itself turned up in syndication and watching it became a highlight of my daily routine.

I would’ve been about 9 when I saw the movie, maybe 11 or 12 for the series, so I may or may not have caught on at first that it was all a gag.  Not that it would have necessarily mattered: I knew Get Smart was played for laughs but I still viewed Max as a hero, and when Uncle Arthur put on a Superman costume and flew around the neighborhood on Bewitched, I didn’t think “that’s hilarious” (as the laugh track seemed to encourage) but rather, “Wow, I wish my Superman suit made ME fly.”

Similarly, even if I realized that the central joke of Batman was what a square the caped crusader was — that he was a postmodern lampoon of straight-shooting, tea-totaling heroes like Clayton Moore’s Lone Ranger (with a similar delivery) — it wouldn’t have mattered to me.

There’s a really great post at NPR that sums up my own experience with the Adam West Batman; like that author I was a kid devoted to law and order and rule-following.  As a toddler I lectured strangers on the perils of smoking and chastised my grandfather for improperly disposing of litter.  Neighbors said I wouldn’t get out of my pedal car until I’d properly parallel parked it next it to the house.  Naturally I’d be a sucker for a hero who ordered orange juice in a nightclub and refused to start the Batmobile until Robin had fastened his safety bat-belt.

As has been noted endlessly everywhere, Adam West’s portrayal of Batman was aimed at two audiences;  kids who took him deadly serious and their parents who chuckled at his cornball earnestness.  The interesting thing, for me, is that even though in the short run the bread and butter of the show was in that older audience, who after all were the potential customers for the show’s sponsors, in the long run it’s the younger audience that’s defined the show’s legacy.  For years, I’ve frequented a message board devoted to ’66 Batman and its members aren’t the least bit self-conscious about declaring this Batman as their personal hero.  His straight-laced morality may have been the butt of the joke in ’66, but it’s made him a role model to generations.

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I believe this is the genius of West’s approach; it would’ve been easy to aim for full-on comedy with the role and make Batman an utter doofus…and maybe that would’ve helped the actor keep the character enough at arm’s length to have shed the image when the show was canceled…but by adding that layer of earnest sincerity, he ensured the longevity of the show through the younger fans.  Because as sure as we may have been in ’66 — and are today — that we’re above corny ideals like “fair play” and “good citizenship” and the like, the truth is every generation is hungry for heroes who understand there are such things as “right” and “wrong” and are willing to step up and do what’s right.  The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy generation got that kind of hero straight up and without irony.  Kids of the 60s and 70s happily settled for a Batman who was cut from the same cloth even if Mom and Dad did laugh at him.

After the show was cancelled, Adam went through a long rough patch, career-wise, having been typecast as a caped crimefighter at a time when live-action superhero projects were rare as hen’s teeth.  People only wanted to see him as Batman, so with a family to feed he packed up the cape and cowl in a traveling case and made the rounds of car shows, county fairs and mall openings, playing the Caped Crusader well into middle-age.  In the time-honored tradition of kicking a guy while he’s down, he was mercilessly parodied for this and held up as a kind of cautionary tale for actors nervous about taking on similarly iconic roles.  But to his eternal credit, he never gave up and never lost his sense of humor, poking fun at himself and turning his public persona into sort of 24/7 in-character performance: “Adam West” the kooky eccentric.  It won him a new generation of fans and gave his career a second wind as a celebrity spokesperson, voice artist and frequent guest star “as himself” in the grand tradition of Hollywood legends who end up “famous for being famous” long after we forget what they were originally famous for.  If anyone ever had a reason to resent Batman and want to bury him, it was this guy, but he remained a fan and champion of the character until the end, which was awesome.

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It’s hard watching these icons of my youth exit the stage one by one, and I know it’s not over yet.  But if there’s any comfort to be had, it’s from knowing that as long as there’s reruns and DVDs and Blu-Rays and Roku and Youtube and whatever comes next, they’ll live on, forever young and vital and handsome and courageous.  Somewhere out there right now on a screen somewhere in the world, the Caped Crusader is racing into action in the Batmobile, figuring his way out of a nefarious death trap, stopping for a lecture on traffic safety or good nutrition.  And that’s as it should be.

Still, it’s hard not to feel it’s a dark day in Gotham, with that red phone beeping away unanswered.

Rest in peace, old chum.

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The Six Million Dollar Man: Population Zero

Back in the blow-dried, bell-bottomed 1970s, I was one of the millions of little boys who ran around a playground in simulated slow motion pretending to fight robots and death probes as The Six Million Dollar Man.  Nowadays, the miracle of DVD lets me revisit that era again whenever I like, even if sometimes the cold reality of what was actually preserved on film doesn’t nearly measure up to the nostalgia-tinged half-memories I’d harbored since childhood.

Still, I find it can be more fun to watch a 40-plus-year-old TV show than a lot of what’s on now, and it’s certainly more fun to write about it here than to comment on the relentlessly depressing headlines of 2017, so here we go with a look at Season One of TSMDM.

The debut episode of the series proper, “Population Zero” is also a strong contender for its best.

After a strong debut in the original Cyborg telefilm and two misguided forays into James Bond territory in a pair of mostly lousy sequels, Steve Austin finally finds his footing as Harve Bennett (later of Star Trek movie fame) takes the producer’s chair.   Where before Lee Majors had struggled awkwardly with a “suave superspy” routine that ran completely counter to his nature, now we find him re-imagined as an aw-shucks, plain-spoken man of the people, essentially a TV cowboy transported to the disco era.  It’s an approach that will play much more to his strengths.

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Things get off to a spooky start when the entire population of a small town apparently drops dead in the middle of their daily routines (in a sequence “borrowed” from 1971’s The Andromeda Strain).  Then follows an equally arresting visual as Steve Austin takes an eerie journey through the “dead” town wearing his Apollo space suit, but not before we’re re-introduced to the the formerly glamorous superspy in his new “casual cool” iteration, hanging out in an auto body shop and enjoying the decidedly unBondian hobby of customizing dune buggies (a hobby which, yes, will never be mentioned again in the course of the series, but by golly, ain’t it a “regular Joe” kind of hobby?).

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The script is structured to perform “pilot” chores despite the fact that it’s not the debut of either the character or concept, what with three TV movies “in the tank” already.  That’s partly because “Population Zero” actually represents the third “soft boot” of the premise in the space of a year.  Steve Austin started off in “Cyborg” as a rebellious, anti-authority test pilot and “civilian member of the space program,” morphed into a jet-setting Bond clone for the next two films and is now “ret-conned” yet again as a career Air Force officer more at home on a ranch or in a garage than at the roulette wheel of a European casino.

Some of the changes boil down to mere matters of tone, but others rewrite Steve’s history.  For instance, “Cyborg” established OSO [sic] director Oliver Spenser (Darren McGavin) as the architect of Steve’s bionic resurrection, with no Oscar Goldman in sight.  Oscar shows up in the subsequent films as someone who has (or thinks he has) the authority to order Steve around, but may or may not have been involved in making him bionic in the first place.  In “Population Zero,” however, the villain calls the concept of a bionic man “Oscar Goldman’s pet project,” suggesting that it was Oscar who masterminded Steve’s “upgrade” from the start.  This assumption is confirmed later in the series, retroactively erasing Spenser from the mythos entirely.

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Indeed, in the opening credits sequence aired through all five seasons of the show, Oscar appears to be watching Steve’s fateful crash in real time, which subtly changes the whole dynamic of Steve’s origin story.  In Cyborg, Oliver Spenser tells us he’ll settle for any mutilated test subject (“We’ll start with scrap!”) and Steve’s selection is a matter of random chance and timing.  It’s a whole different story if Oscar already knew Steve before the crash and was the one who arranged his physical rehabilitation.  That alteration transforms the whole scenario from that of an impersonal, military-oriented government project that might just as easily have worked with any old “guinea pig” to more of a humanitarian, medical project, undertaken to salvage the shattered life of a valued American space hero and patriot.  If Oscar really was there at the crash, then why was he?  Was the test plane itself part of an OSI project and if so, is it guilt that motivates him to rebuild Steve?  Was Oscar already an acquaintance of Steve’s and if so was friendship a motivation?  If Oscar was half as dark a character as Spenser, we might even suspect he was there because he engineered the crash as Step One of the Bionic Man Project.

Of course, the real-world reason Oscar shows up in those “origin”-recapping credits is because it’s the easiest way to show us what Richard Anderson looks like when his “also starring” credit appears.  (For the record the footage of his worried gaze is lifted from the “Solid Gold Kidnapping” movie, from a scene that has nothing to do with plane crashes.  But it looks good, so what the heck.)  Anyway, starting with this episode, Oscar is “rebooted” from his previous incarnation as a stuffy, bossy authority figure to be rebelled against, argued with and outwitted into a now-benevolent “big brother” type and sometimes partner/sidekick on missions afield.  He’s a sort of hybrid of “M” and “Dr Watson.”

The “pilot” also establishes that Steve is still trying to come to grips with his transformation into a “freak of science,” a subplot that calls back to the first movie but which will become less important as time goes on, and be a non-issue by series’ end (when being “bionic” is considered so cool, half the kids in America would willingly trade in their flesh-and-blood limbs for enhanced versions).  In a conversation with the villain, it’s further established that Steve’s bionic eye is capable of 20x magnification and that his top running speed is 60 mph.

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At this early stage, bionic feats of strength are shown minus the famous sound effects we’ll later come to know; instead we usually get the sound of metal creaking under great stress.  At one point Steve makes a bionic leap in silence, which makes it seem more spooky than “cool.”

The high point comes in the last third of the episode.  Steve is placed into a refrigerated chamber because extreme cold renders his bionics inert (introducing a “kryptonite” element to the mythos, though like the buggy-customizing, it’ll ultimately be ignored).  After he escapes (more by brains than brawn), we get a great sequence as Steve races to prevent the deaths of Oscar and numerous assembled extras, stumbling through the desert on bionic legs that are slow to thaw out, falling flat on his face repeatedly only to get up and try again. When he finally does power up fully to run at top speed it’s depicted in slow motion, a seemingly counter-intuitive approach that actually works very well.  Certainly it works better than the more literal approach taken in the earlier TV movies, where Steve is shown zipping along at superspeed like the Keystone Kops.  The slow-motion treatment, partly because it’s accompanied by the sound effect of Steve’s thumping heartbeat and partly just  by the nature of Major’s beefy physique, creates the impression of an unstoppable man-machine barreling towards the camera like a human freight train.  You do not want to get in this guy’s way.  (In fairness, it should be noted that like the “dead town” opening, the slow-mo gimmick was also borrowed from a then-hot property, in this case the TV series Kung Fu.)

Adding to the awesomeness of this scene is the attention to a minor, important detail: Steve is sweating profusely under his left — still human — arm, while his right, bionic arm is dry.

Then of course follows arguably the single coolest moment in the series and the one that exploded the heads of every red-blooded nine-year-old boy in America, when Steve ends the bad guys’ threat as only he can.

It’s safe to assume the villains are very much deceased after this encounter.  Today, Lee Majors likes to promote the show as good, clean fun for the kids with a hero who never kills.  The former is certainly true, but in the earliest episodes, Steve’s not above using lethal force.  In this case, it’s absolutely justified and quite exciting.  Certainly it would have spoiled the fun considerably if the villains had come staggering out of the still-smoking van, coughing and brushing the dust off their tattered clothes, and if this episode had come in a later season, that might’ve been exactly what we got.

Also, just as an aside, note the awesome musical cue provided for the above clip by the great Oliver Nelson, whose jazz-infused compositions constantly elevate this show beyond its low-budget roots to a whole new level of coolness.  Nelson’s untimely death in the middle of Season 3 would be keenly felt, and qualifies for me as a “shark-jump” moment for the series.

So there you have it; the first episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.  After a bit of shaky start, we’re off and running (ahem) with Steve Austin as we remember him.  Next time I’ll take a look at more episodes from the first season.  It’s probably it’s not too much of a spoiler to warn you the quality goes up and down as dramatically as Steve leaps on and off rooftops, but for us kids of the 70s, it was all pure gold.