The Six Million Dollar Man can be digitally restored. We have the technology.
OK, that was just wrong. But if you were born during the Nixon Presidency, its hard not to get a bit giddy that the sci-fi /espionage series that originally ran from 1974-1978 is available in watchable form. In fact, this feels less like a DVD set and more like a complete archive of Six Million Dollar Mania.
Its hard to believe that anyone who has trawled even briefly through the cultural flotsam and jetsam of the last 40 years doesn’t know the story of Steve Austin, astronaut as portrayed by Lee Majors. After barely surviving the crash of an orbital lifter, Austin is saved with bionic implants in an arm, a leg and an eye. He goes to work for the OSI (Office of Strategic Intelligence) under the guidance of Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson). Over five seasons, Austin fought super-criminals and super-conspiracies as a posthuman superhero with a tough guy drawl.
The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection may seem like simply a guilty pleasure, but it’s actually a look at the roots of contemporary cybernetic fictions. Lee Majors, in one of the set’s many excellent extra features, describes meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger who respectfully called Majors “the real Terminator.” This incredible set allows us to see one of the first popular reflections on post human transcendence.
It’s a guilty pleasure to pick out all the series many guest stars and then look up their often long careers as character actors. Terri Carr (later Colonel Tigh on the original Battlestar Galactica), Cathy Rigby and John Houseman all make appearances. William Shatner and George Takei show up in a couple of episodes and John Saxon plays a scary robot.
And of course there’s Farrah Fawcett and Lindsay Wagner. Fawcett was Farrah Fawcett-Majors in the mid-’70s, soon to star in Charlies’ Angels and become one of the decade’s most recognizable icons from a poster of her in a bikini that may have sold as many as 12 million copies . These were then lovingly posted on the walls of 12 million dorm rooms.
Lindsay Wagner, meanwhile, appeared in season two as Steve Austin’s girlfriend, Jaime Sommers. The two-part episode The Bionic Woman had Wagner’s character dating Austin and then, like him, have a catastrophic accident. Oscar and the gang at OSI rebuilt her, or at least tried to. Most fans will forget than Wagner’s character actually died in the second episode in which she appeared. A metric ton of angry fan mail convinced the shows producers to both bring her back from the dead for season three and to give her a successful spin-off series.
If you want to revisit this world, The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection is your all access pass. I have to confess that I have not even come close to watching the entire set, some 40 DVDs in all. Since this was long before every TV series had to have a narrative arc, it’s certainly possible to dip in almost anywhere. It’s also worth admitting that I loved the series and that it was maybe the most important thing in my life between the ages of three and about six (in ’77 Star Wars swept everything else away in one gigantic space opera tide).
My own fanboy-dom aside, there’s no question that a number of the episodes bomb. The worst tend to be those that adopt a kind of procedural plotline involving some mystery or crime that Austin has little need for his bionics to solve. “Burning Bright” in season one, for example, features William Shatner as an astronaut whose exposure to a space anomaly allows him to talk to dolphins—in mathematical equations in his head. This is as dumb as it sounds and worse, there is a lot of standing around and talking with a quick action scene to wrap everything up.
In contrast, the best episodes pit Austin’s cyborg skills against some manner of supervillain, such as the classic season one episode, “Day of the Robot”. Famed character actor John Saxon appears as Austin’s old NASA buddy, kidnapped and replaced by an exact duplicate who is actually a powerful android. This sets up a battle between cyborg and android that had a sequel episode in season two.
Obviously, this was a television show geared toward children. This is evidenced in part by the generally simplistic premises and, at times, baffling plot development. Moreover, this was one of the first TV series that merchandised its characters in a serious way, particularly in the manufacture of action figures. And, excuse my geekstalgia, but these were some of the most awesome toys, ever. Don’t picture the post-George Lucas molded plastic figures. These were original GI Joe influenced 12-inch dolls with lots of accessories and, in Austin’s case, realistic feeling rubbery skin that could peel back on his forearm to reveal the tech underneath. Way cool.
So yes, this show is kid-driven. Still, there were some interesting complexities that continue to give the show some resonance. The made-for-TV films, and a few of the episodes, raise some prescient questions about what becomes of the human self when it is radically altered by technology. One of the better single episodes, season two’s “The Seven Million Dollar Man”, features a second effort by Oscar to create an enhanced human being, an effort that comes close to having tragic results as the bionic implants lead, not to heroics, but to severe depression and uncontrolled rage in the subject.
Perfect for the Bionic Fanatic
It’s also worth noting that these bionic fables often did involve an interesting mash-up of espionage and science fiction. There are moments when Austin appears as a kind of good old boy Bond, fighting international criminal conspiracies while riding around in his ‘vette. But traditional sci fi elements appear, especially in the later seasons, as the series came to include downed UFOs, female killer androids and several chances for Austin to mix it up with Bigfoot .
TimeLife really threw everything they possibly could at the bionic fanatic. Along with the aforementioned made-for-TV films, each season comes with a floodtide of extras. Featurettes include behind the scenes production information, as well as a deep probing of the series’ effects on popular culture. One of the best of the featurettes explores the aforementioned action figure craze, including a peek into the world of the people that collect them.
Another wonderful inclusion is an extended interview with Lee Majors. This long chat covers everything from Majors early career to his stories about working with various special guests (including his friendship with Andre the Giant who portrayed Bigfoot). This is an important extra given how fully Majors inhabited the character and how seldom his pretty serious acting chops have been recognized. Its hard to imagine anyone else ever being colonel Steve Austin.
Completists will celebrate the inclusion of three made for TV films that preceded the series. Fans will likely be a bit disappointed in these. While many of the individual episodes are entertaining, there’s not really enough of interest to fill the hour and 12-minute running time. In both of them, Colonel Steve Austin seems a bit less bionic than in the regular series. Also missing is the signature bionic grinding sound when Austin would run or perform some feat of strength (this does not become a regular feature until the second season). Another interesting feature of the pilot films is there tendency to try and turn Austin into a cybernetic Bond, even putting him formal wear for some casino gambling at one point. Thankfully, this conceit was dropped.
The set even includes to made for TV films, the 1987 Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman and 1989’s Bionic Showdown. The latter features an early appearance by Sandra Bullock. I was mostly glad to see more of Jaime Somers and not just because she was one of my special, childhood TV girlfriends. The Bionic Woman shared many of the best attributes of the Six Million Dollar Man though the writing and pacing seems tighter. Luckily, the set also comes with crossover episodes with the Bionic Woman though I almost think it should have contained the complete series, given that this aims to be a mega-set of all the bionics you could ever want.
The set is boxed up well and, while there is a major gimmick in the packaging, you don’t have to worry about cardboard slots that scratch discs. Each season comes in its own separate, sturdy plastic case and all are packed tight into a well-designed box.
The gimmick will probably please any fan willing to admit how cheesy The Six Million Dollar Man is in the first place. The side of the box features a lenticular 3D image of Majors in the iconic red running suit, appearing to make a dash toward you. It’s weird but fun.
The box also comes equipped with an audio chip that plays the famous opening lines of each episode when the box is opened. I discovered this feature is great fun exactly seven times. After that it is infinitely annoying. It is also relatively easy to disable and re-enable this feature.
The series looks as good as can be expected from a ’70s TV show that has not been given the Blu-ray treatment. In fact, its perhaps best not seen in high definition as shows from this era often reveal their seams. The audio is scrubbed pretty clean and certainly sounds better than it probably did on your parent’s enormous, analog console TV circa 1975.
This is certainly a set for a niche audience and notably, Time-Life will only have them for sale until November of 2011. If you are not already a fan, picking this up will likely not turn you into one. However, if you are able to get past the ’70s fashions and the sometimes adolescent stories, this series will surprise you with its blend of action and speculative tech. For some fans, it will be an opportunity to travel back to the origin point of many of their current pop culture obsessions.