Reviews

Steve Austin, Rebuilt: 'The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection'

Anyone born during the Nixon presidency is likely to get just a little excited about this set.

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.

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