The Reluctant Superhero: The Bionics

Television sci-fi finally landed on a winning formula with the reluctant, cyborg-like bionic superheroes, Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers.

The Six Million Dollar Man is doubly singular: a familiar sci-fi property untouched by remakes or reboots, and the genre’s breakthrough hit on US network television. As noted previously in this article-series, earlier sci-fi hits were genre blends, and/or assisted by low expectations, as with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea‘s run on a formative ABC (1964-1968).

In cultural terms, the bionic man is a transitional figure, both grounded astronaut and reluctant superhero. Whereas the grounded astronaut grew from a national identity crisis, the reluctant superhero must overcome such worries to meet the great responsibilities that come with great power; namely, protecting others. The reluctant superhero flourished in the Silver Age, with Marvel’s accidental adepts: the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men. These updated the Western cowboy hero — who always wanted to be left alone until forced into conflict — with a hip edge for the youth culture that was making “freak” a compliment.

Even as Marvel’s sales peaked in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Hollywood saw superheroes and the like as pure camp, in the vein of the Adam West’s Batman (1966-68). Indiana Jones was a decade away; Christopher Reeve’s mildly campy Superman was a 1976 release (it was preceded by 1975’s fatuous Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, loathed by purists.) Despite its many flaws, The Six Million Dollar Man was a Superman for the post-Vietnam/Watergate era, complete with (occasional) self-doubts and after-effects from his surgeries.

Americans were reeling from a discredited war and the consequent decade of fierce infighting and profligate compensation (the moon landings, the “War on Poverty”). Even as the US embraced bionic special-agents, the US Senate’s Church Committee investigated CIA excesses, including spying on US citizens and assassinations of foreign leaders. We distrusted authority, especially the government, which is why detective protagonists of the era are always quirky mavericks driving muscle cars.

The maverick persona didn’t fit the bionic shows, which were aimed largely at children. Still, Steve Austin (Lee Majors) is an unlikely enforcer: he’s an astronaut who’s walked on the moon, and now works for the fictional (and vague) “Office of Scientific Investigation”. As the iconic opening credits relate, Steve had no choice: after a terrible crash leaves him “barely alive”, he wakes up with bionic parts. This masterful sequence includes real crash footage, an encapsulation of America’s fall from grace: “I’ve got a blow-out … I can’t hold-it-she’s-breaking-up-she’s-breaking-up — “.

Although effectively a superhero, Steve Austin had much in common with American soldiers returning from the Vietnam War. Indeed, both Steve and The Bionic Woman‘s Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) could be considered disabled, albeit with the benefits of technology far beyond today’s prosthetics. The bionic franchise was an island of sympathy for the cyborg, which was more often a focus of fear or sorrow, from Westworld and The Stepford Wives to The Terminator and Robocop. (The pilot makes clear that unlike Robocop, Steve is “still a man in every way”.)

The backstory allowed the franchise to have it both ways: though reluctant, Steve and Jaime have an obligation to the US greater than any soldier, simply because they can do things no one else can (and their powers are a state secret). This made for a comforting fantasy: rarely does either show imply the viewer need do anything — let Steve and Jaime handle it.

The saga of Steve Austin began in the novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin. A prolific author of beach-and-airplane reads, Caidin was also an aviator and all-around character: in 1944, the 16-year-old Caidin was questioned by the US government for predicting the atomic bomb (in a magazine article); in 1986, he claimed to be telekinetic (in Starlog #111, Oct. 1986). As with adaptations of Michael Crichton (Westworld) and Ira Levin (The Stepford Wives), ’70s Hollywood preferred mainstream fiction with speculative elements over the harder-core science fiction of Heinlein, Asimov, et al. Note that both “bionic” and “cyborg” were scientific terms, and the eventual series was as much espionage and law enforcement as science fiction (the bionic shows also update B-Westerns, with lots of stunts and fistfights as the principles contest arid locations). The producers wanted every hedge against the sci-fi curse: the 1973 pilot was called Cyborg until days before broadcast.

The pilot movie, ghost-written by Stephen Bochco, is surprisingly stark: Steve’s suicidal, and it’s implied the government staged the crash as an excuse to rebuild him into a useful cyborg. At the time, even made-for-TV features were seen as fundamentally different from series, and the series ultimately backpedals, blaming the crash on one greedy technician.

After three more TV movies (known for their unwise straying into James Bond territory), the series settled in for a five-year run. Typically, The Six Million Dollar Man serves up meat-and-potatoes Cold-War suspense, with lots of stolen WMDs, industrial espionage, and revenge plots. Occasionally, we’re reminded Steve’s an astronaut: the Moon totters in “Dark Side of the Moon”; Soviet technology becomes a “Death Probe”; and astronauts brave peril in “The Deadly Countdown” and “Rescue of Athena One”. The latter paired Lee Majors with his famous wife, whose (then) name remains a retro-futurist incantation of the decade: Farrah Fawcett-Majors.

A number of stories pit Steve against his own government, even against his no-nonsense handler Oscar Goldman (a mannered Richard Anderson), but always because of malfunction or sabotage: these were law-and-order shows, and most of the time the counterculture might’ve never happened. With names that evoke the Old West, Austin and Goldman represent traditional American values, including frugality: it was comforting to see Federal employees justifying the expense of the title. It may not be coincidence that Steve and Oscar, in both looks and personality, recall the leaders of the then-imminent conservative comeback, Reagan and Bush (41).

The Six Million Dollar Man was designed to appeal to non-fans of sci-fi, but as it became a hit things loosened up, thus the recurring use of Bigfoot as foil for Steve’s more-controlled physical might. In one storyline, Sasquatch (Andre the Giant) turns out to be a disguised robot assigned to guard secretive aliens (well-of-course-it-is). The bionic genius Dr. Rudy Wells is also recurring, although he’s ultimately played by three different actors, possibly a sign of anxiety over a scientist (so often “mad” in the movies) close to national security. If you’re an Austin Powers fan, don’t miss “The Last of the Fourth of Julys”, which illustrates global espionage with a vast power plant and its fleet of yellow golf-carts.

On the bionic shows, aliens are shy. The Six Million Dollar Man‘s “Straight On Till Morning”, a fan favorite, anticipates a sci-fi classic of 1976, but whereas David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth was corrupted by sex, drink, and TV, Meg Foster and family find Earth’s biosphere fatal. The episode isn’t as bleak as the Nicholas Roeg film, but as the aliens’ (stolen) clothes and blonde hair mark them as mid-American pioneers, it’s bleak enough. (Compare the 1972 TV movie The People, based on the stories of Zenna Henderson, also about aliens hiding in farm country.)

As may be clear by now, I’m not above junky TV (past faves include The Brady Bunch and 21 Jump Street). I’ve never been a bionic fan, but then I was never a comics fan, and that’s very much the formula here: a simple plot with a prolific hero fighting a villainous alter ego, basic imagery, shaky continuity. The bionic powers are communicated mostly with slow-motion, reversed film, miming, and distinctive sound effects, creating a rough TV equivalent to the dynamic panels of comic books. In simpler times, these bionic tropes were essayed on countless playgrounds.

From today’s vantage, the bionic series aren’t good television; I was unable to find standout episodes. The plot holes are legion, for example in “The Last of the Fourth of Julys”; why exactly does the villain want to blow up an international conference? Why is Oscar surprised by Interpol’s agent, already in place? Why does US intelligence employ an instructor who makes Don Rickles look like an optimist?

Still, there’s something that doesn’t fade: corny as it may be, Steve and Jaime were people to make their parents proud. Both are attractive (and Wagner and Majors had great screen chemistry), unassuming, and reluctant to hurt others (even Steve dislikes guns). Kids need heroes, and Steve and Jaime met the need, thus the continuing popularity of the shows on DVD (all segments are available, with lots of extras, but no Blu-rays), and the extensive bionic wiki, which is more articulate than the show itself.

It makes sense to review why ’70s shows were made, and how Americans watched them. In the pre-HBO era, the main reason for bad TV was high profits: as long as shows like Charlie’s Angels and Hunter were cash cows, there was little reason to change. Arguably, conditions were at their worst in the ’70s, when almost everyone watched nightly TV and almost no one had home video: we were a captive audience. The TV sets were less advanced then, of course, and there was less solitary viewing. Typically, a bionic episode might be watched by one or two kids (as bedtime approached), a babysitter, and maybe an older relative, any of whom would miss parts of the show for various reasons. The distraction factor helps explain why plots and dialogue were so simple, and why the characters sometimes synopsized the-plot-so-far.

The all-ages viewership inspires episodes like The Bionic Woman‘s “Fembots in Vegas”, which pits Jaime against, well, fembots in Vegas. Clearly, the producers were winking at adult viewers and giving them glamorous showgirls to gawk at. The same story, however, had to pass as adventure for the young and young-at-heart: it’s an uneasy mix. (Of course, many of those watching TV in the ’70s would think it odd we preserve, study, and write about television shows.) Even the worst old series tend to at least have catchy opening credits, to hook the viewer.

The other aspect that still commands respect is the rare breed of actor capable of fronting an hourly network TV series. Then, as now, he or she needed a formidable combination of talent, charisma, and sheer stamina (nervous breakdowns aren’t unusual). Lee Majors had the right stuff: he was on his way to racking up five primetime successes. Majors had another quality that was probably necessary for US TV’s first sci-fi star: while a traditional hero-type, there’s the vaguest hint he’s in on the joke.

The winning Lindsay Wagner needed all her charm to quiet resistance to a female action hero. Jaime Sommers (that name is often misspelled, sometimes even on the show) was a groundbreaker: until Jaime, violent femmes circled Hollywood in exploitation films like those of Russ Meyer and Pam Grier. Even Batgirl was a late addition to Batman.

If nothing else, The Bionic Woman documents the era’s sensitivities: between missions, Jaime’s shown cooking and sewing, and her opening-credits dossier lists her “present occupation: school teacher” (busy woman). Even the bionic transplants align with gender tradition: Steve has a bionic eye, while Jaime has a super-ear. At the time, these were quibbles: Wagner’s iconic character became a role model to millions of American girls, some of whom, no doubt, grew up to be special agents of the US government.

The quicksilver trail of feminism can be traced by watching the era’s sci-fi. As late as 1969, Star Trek patronized with “Turnabout Intruder”, the one with the crazy ex-girlfriend stealing Kirk’s (William Shatner) body to break into the boy’s club of starship captains. Compare that to a poignant scene in “No Way Out”, a 1977 episode of Quinn Martin’s underrated anthology series Tales of the Unexpected (no relation to the British series). In this episode, Bill Bixby (soon of The Incredible Hulk) plays a Navy sailor in the ’50s. After his buddy defects to an unnamed Caribbean nation, Bixby somehow washes ashore in the ’70s, a world he doesn’t understand. One of the people he questions is a 30-ish female passerby; Bixby’s character casually grabs her elbow, she answers but yanks the elbow back — both register hurt and confusion. It’s one of those revelations stumbled upon in old video; it also justifies the fantastic genre.

The Bionic Woman eclipsed its manly forerunner, hitting the Top 5 in the 1975/76 season, and Wagner won a well-deserved Emmy (Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, 1977). She also secured the less-official honor, America’s sweetheart. (Speaking of that, a pre-stardom Sandra Bullock plays “Katie the Bionic Girl” in the 1989 reunion Bionic Showdown). Still, it was a lot of bionic slow-motion for one decade, and The Bionic Woman lasted only three years; a bionic boy and a bionic dog became mere footnotes. Like Marlo Thomas, Elizabeth Montgomery and Jane Seymour, Wagner parlayed her popularity into dozens of TV movies.

The audience may’ve been diluted in early days by Wagner’s car accident. Looking for a temporary replacement, ABC poured Lynda Carter into a red-white-and-blue costume, and Wonder Woman became another icon of the feminist ’70s. This casting was so perfect, no one else tried the togs for more than 30 years.

With both these butt-kicking babes, a choppy production history might imply sexist discomfort. Jaime actually died at the end of her debut on The Six Million Dollar Man (the network demanded a bionic Love Story), and returned only when sacks of fan mail demanded it. Wonder Woman started as a World War II-era show before being updated. Most curiously, each show began on ABC, but switched networks in the fall of 1977, as ABC managed to become even more escapist (The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew, The Love Boat). (The Bionic Woman‘s move to NBC forced a separation from Steve Austin, but love conquers all: they get hitched in the 1994 reunion, Bionic Ever After?)

The bionic franchise helped ABC become a major network. It also pioneered various now-familiar TV tactics: the extended flirtation, the one-hour spinoff, and two-part and crossover episodes like the popular “The Return of Bigfoot” and “Kill Oscar”. In 1978, Battlestar: Galactica debuted on ABC; even with a bigger budget, however, it wasn’t able to replace the bionic heroes, lasting only two seasons. Despite enduring name recognition, the bionic franchise stalled in the ’90s, with Kevin Smith’s script notable among the unconsummated projects (it was adapted for the 2011 comic series The Bionic Man).

The Bionic Woman was briefly rebooted in 2007, on NBC, retitled Bionic Woman. The reviews describe a cluttered, gloomy show, amid complaints Katee Sackhoff’s evil “first bionic woman” gets more play than the title character (Michelle Ryan). It was a tall order to reboot this property, its quality dwarfed by its legacy: multiple versions of La Femme Nikita, Lara Croft, Sydney Bristow of Alias, and vampire-slaying Buffy Summers (Jaime’s distant kin?).

As indicated throughout this article-series, most of the industry’s ’70s execs knew nothing about science fiction, so anyone connected to the bionic franchise became an instant expert. This was inevitable after the mid-’70s failure of the live-action Spider-Man (though fondly recalled by George Costanza (Jason Alexander) of Seinfeld) and The Man From Atlantis (Liz Lemon [Tina Fey], 30 Rock).

Much of the high-profile sci-fi of the ensuing years has a bionic pedigree. Glen Larson, producer of the four Steve Austin TV movies, gave us the original Battlestar: Galactica, then tried again with his disco-styled Buck Rogers before scoring a commercial hit with Knight Rider. Larson’s replacement as six-million-dollar producer, Harve Bennett, produced most of the original-cast Star Trek films and, less memorably, the syndicated series Time Trax. James D. Parriott, a prolific The Bionic Woman scribe, created the series Voyagers!, Misfits of Science, Defying Gravity, and the cult item Forever Knight.

For anyone with an incurable attachment to small-screen sci-fi, however, the epoch-making bionic conjunction was that of writer-producer Kenneth Johnson. The creator of Jaime Sommers, Johnson assumed the thankless (if not impossible) job of keeping decent science fiction on US network television during the dark age between Star Trek (cancelled 1969) and The X-Files (debuted 1993). Johnson began and ended the ’80s producing well-received narratives about mysterious aliens visiting Earth: the original V miniseries (1983) and the lamented Alien Nation series (1989-90). (Johnson remains active, including his entertaining commentaries for various DVDs.)

V was a mash-up: if conceived today, it might be The French Resistance vs. Space Lizards. It wasn’t the first time Kenneth Johnson tapped French history to give substance to video sci-fi: as the bionic trend stalled in 1978, he drew on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in adapting The Incredible Hulk for CBS. Although built on ABC’s bionic successes, The Incredible Hulk emphasized the gothic tragedy that had been latent in the bionic shows.

For five years, Dr. David Banner wandered the countryside helping strangers (like Caine in Kung Fu), looking for America (like Simon and Garfunkel), and seeking a cure for embarrassing lapses into animal behavior (like most of us). In my next installment, I’ll consider The Incredible Hulk, perhaps the most reluctant superhero of them all.

Thomas Lalli Foster writes about popular culture in the context of social change. He has written for Video Watchdog, Rue Morgue, and Senses of Cinema.