Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Six Million Dollar Man: Pilot

The Six Million Dollar Man remains an iconic fixture in our science fiction history.

Fans of classic science fiction are often looking for something more than what much of today's special effects-heavy fare offers- something special.

Complaints are sometimes registered today that science fiction productions are lacking of genuine science fiction writers. Series can sometimes fail to temper the human drama and struggles with true science fiction ideas and concepts. The good ones sometimes succeed like The X-Files. Star Trek: The Original Series was certainly a recipient of those strong science fiction scriptwriters, a beneficiary of a sound science fiction foundation. All of this, of course, before the creators were manipulated by outside forces in the third season of its run through the mis-guided leadership of producer Fred Freiberger. Additionally, Space:1999 also floundered under Freiberger's direction in Year Two following the much darker, search into the unknown that truly captured the imagination of viewers during Space:1999 Year One. Yes, striking just the right balance in science fiction between concept and action is an often tenuous ideal.

Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic is here to present one of those rare, retro classics that seemingly managed a perfect fusion of comparably lo-tech effects, by today's standards, with that all important component of genuinely compelling human drama. My initial reaction to the arrival of this DVD box set was one of astonishment in its glorious packaging. Apart from a wealth of goodies the transfer is quite remarkable for a series of this vintage.

In the 1970s amidst a tide of classics, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk and Space:1999, another show arrived walking the tightrope of ideas and entertainment immersed in human truths. The Six Million Dollar Man [1974-1978] was born of the mind of writer Martin Caidin and based upon his source book Cyborg [the planned title of series originally].

While producers and creators behind The Six Million Dollar Man were relatively pleased with the results of The Six Million Dollar Man Pilot [also referred to as The Moon And The Desert], many were uncertain of its direction.

Producer Glen A. Larson, who would later work magic on Battlestar Galactica [1978-1979] and Buck Rogers In The 25th Century [1979-1981], came on board for two additional pre-series movies taking Lee Majors, as Steve Austin, into 007, James Bond territory.

The move rankled author Martin Caidin as it generally splintered away from the original human cyborg concept as developed in Cyborg.

The opening of the Pilot reads, "Cy'Borg. A human being whose original human parts have had to be replaced to one extent or another by machines that perform the same functions." Taking the character of Steve Austin into superhero territory was not going to work. The Six Million Dollar Man was clearly a hero reluctantly given superhuman abilities through cybernetics. The Bionic Man character was brought crashing down to Earth and back to its origins when Season One commenced.

The irony of the Pilot episode was its positively appropriate and fitting title for The Six Million Dollar Man opener given the occupation of our beloved Steve Austin. It definitely set the table by introducing the charismatic Lee Majors and establishing his role as a regular everyman. He was the kind of classic American hero a nation was ready to stand behind given the tumultuous political times and the scandal of Watergate. Lee Majors firmly established himself and his bionic strength within an American consciousness ready and hungry for something good.

These few moments of Austin speak volumes about his personality, pre-accident, about to be forever transformed.

A juxtaposition occurs as Austin's test flight of an experimental craft takes place while members of the OSO discuss the future of their experimental program. The OSO [Office of Special Operations], eventually OSI [Office of Scientific Intelligence], convenes to discuss the details of a top secret project one that will result in minimal cost and employ funding using "scrap." Steve Austin, sadly, will become OSO's scrap, but more positively reflected "one single force," speaking to the underlying distrust of government treating their employees as mere puppets. There are elements in play that underscores a governmental approach of human expandability.

Austin's test flight results in a disaster. His crash nearly takes his life and the visceral power of stock footage of the actual crash feels painfully real for a reason.

"On May 10, 1967, NASA... pilot Bruce Peterson, 33, crashed his M2-F2 while attempting to land at Edwards Air Force Base.... Distracted by a rescue helicopter, and blown off course by crosswinds, his flying machine hit the ground at 250 MPH and rolled over six times, bouncing along from wing tip to wing tip, before coming to rest on its flat back.... The crash wreaked terrible facial injuries on the pilot, whose skull was fractured and whose torso was battered by fragmenting sections of the aircraft's nose. Each time the vehicle rolled, a stream of high-velocity lakebed clay assaulted Peterson's face. Apparently, if he had just had a second more, he would have landed the aircraft safely." Author Martin Caidin recalls Peterson "was absolutely shredded in that cockpit."

Peterson himself recalls, "what is seen on the TV screens every week is what I remember." The survivor blacked out and the rest is history and well documented in the assembly of The Six Million Dollar Man's powerful opening credits each week. The series opening credits remains one of the most potent ever edited in television history. In the end, miraculously, Peterson somehow survived.

Author Herbie Pilato wrote succinctly of the historical incident in his own classic The Bionic Book: The Six Million Dollar Man & The Bionic Woman Reconstructed [2007]. It's really the must read book on the subject of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. It is a detailed, thorough analysis of the two aforementioned series right down to the minutia.

Following the crash of Steve Austin he is barely kept alive. He has lost his left eye, right arm and both legs. Oliver Spencer, played by Darren McGavin [Kolchak: The Night Stalker, A Christmas Story], director of the OSO, finances the top secret project that will enable Austin to live. Doctor Rudy Wells, a recurring character throughout this series and The Bionic Woman, played one time here by Martin Balsam, is clearly a friend of Austin, and inquires what will become of the major's character once equipped with bionics. Austin would become a colonel in the series. Spencer indicates Austin will become an agent with certain covert responsibilties. Sitting at a table, surrounded by ashtrays, an obvious sign of the times, the doctor cares for Austin so deeply he would almost rather see him die than become some kind of freak pawn of higher corporate powers. The icy, clandestine McGavin informs the doctor that he and his staff will accompany Austin on a flight to their research facility in Colorado and repair him at any cost. I'm guessing roughly six million dollars.

What's most sobering and appreciated by this fan of the series for which I have little recall, is that it is played for deadly serious. Austin, with face bandaged and essentially unconscious through the first 25 minutes is clinging on to life. There isn't the slightest wink or nudge to be found. This is science fiction, based on Cyborg, played as fact with genuine stakes involved. The Six Million Dollar Man is coming, but like the Pilot for The Incredible Hulk, another classic Kenneth Johnson production, emphasis is placed on character and situational reality. Austin's status is grave and sincerely conveyed to the audience as such. We care about what happens. Of course, there's no such thing as a Bionic Man or a green Hulk, but for five seasons each we believed in the plight of Steve Austin and David Banner affected by circumstances beyond their complete control. This is the beauty of the writing for these two classics. The writing for these fantastic ideas was tantamount to the survival of these series and their believability, their credibility. It was one of the hallmarks of their success.

The pace of the opener is slow, methodical and meticulous in execution. There's nothing rushed about it and this is certainly a credit to the show's authenticity and ultimate survival.

Austin gains consciousness briefly and the doctor is given the chance to be upfront explaining to Austin everything that will happen to him.

It's off camera so we can only assume he has been given everything.

Later, in the dark, Austin regains consciousness again, but is clearly trembling, depressed, understandably emotional and unstable concerning his situation. With his left arm he begins knocking medical equipment about until a nurse arrives to restrain him. A depressed Austin cries "Please" to the nurse and suggests in fact he may have removed equipment to take his own life to end the physical pain he's enduring. The creators genuinely take their time in building sympathy for the Austin character by working off Caidin's script. Austin passes out.

Four months later, Austin indicates to the visiting nurse he has not spoken with her almost as a means of self-preservation. It is here Austin begins to realize he must deal with his reality, the fact he is still alive if not completely whole. A restrained nurse smiles at this turn in his attitude.

The doctor visits and presents Austin with what will become his new arm and a new eye. The doctor explains how the arm is "nuclear-powered." Now that sounds rediculous on its face, but it's all in the delivery, and the writers sell it.

Majors really nails the part of Austin with a reaction that is completely natural. Who wouldn't be alarmed and frightened in this way? The doctor narrates that he has omitted certain information regarding what precisely Austin would become- a man of superhuman ability. His freakish physical strength and vision would make him different and it's interesting to hear them qualify how these traits would make him "abnormal." This is not the feel good superhero of our comic book dreams. This isn't a Superman where heroes are immediately embraced and welcomed. Austin's humanity is at stake and how he contends with his transformation, like Banner's own changes, is at the heart of this journey. Caidin's concepts compelled that Steve Austin be a regular man, changed and left to deal with the aftermath of those changes. Austin wouldn't necessarily embrace those changes with the zeal and vigor traditionally associated with some superheroes of the period, but of an extraordinary man seeking normality. This simple and realistic approach worked as viewers connected to the character for years. Like David Banner, there is an aspect of change at work that forces the hero underground emotionally.

The One To Be Pitied scoffed at the notion of a nuclear-powered arm, but this was the 1970s. The issue of nuclear power and concerns with its applications were always at the fore. The ramifications of its raw power and use were a seemingly constant concern. Take, for example, Space:1999 [1975-1978] and its pilot episode, Breakaway, where nuclear waste disposal was transported to the moon and was now an issue for Moonbase Alpha and the Alphans. It was indeed a hot button issue of the day. The Incredible Hulk [1977-1982] and David Banner's experiments with radiation offered yet another avenue resulting from exposure to the issue.

With the operation successful, the doctor is concerned with Austin's reaction to the changes and how he will respond. The cool Spencer, offers not a shred of emotion, urges the doctor to do his job and exits. Dr. Wells pleads "I know this boy," implying a long term relationship of years with Austin. Wells is a counterpoint to the cool, detached nature of the corporate and the governing.

When Austin regains consciousness his first words to Wells are "Dr. Frankenstein I presume," certainly suggesting a man not without humor. It goes a long way to break the melodrama of this first pilot. The slow pacing of this pilot is intended to convince us Austin has undergone a critical operation. The pacing is unfortunately a little too labored, a little too heavy complete with emotionally swelling music by Gil Melle, but it's the first time out and these kinds of issues are typically ironed out over a first season.

As Austin slowly [and I do mean slowly] raises his arm to the swell of musical success a smile overcomes all. There is something to be said about seeing Austin manipulate his fingers like a child for the first time. It does give the situation genuine weight. The movements end with a clenched, mighty fist. There is a real sense of rebirth in the character. This was clearly a man on the brink of death. Austin is whole again and hope inches into a fairly somber, downbeat affair. The powerful Six Million Dollar Man is born.

Later, Austin is visited by a nurse and Austin requests her touch. She concedes and he tests his "touch circuits." Austin is clearly coping with his new, synthetically-engineered components and a degree of frustration persists. The nurse tells him "They're not God you know." Austin quips, "Tell it to them," implying they are indeed playing the part as they utilize his life for their manipulations. She feels pity and reaches for Austin to touch him, but angry he grabs her and tell her "I didn't say you could touch me!" Austin is frustrated in his inability to exact self-contriol. It's like a modern day frankenstein's monster. The trials of Steve Austin are just beginning.

During physical therapy Austin's frustration boils over. It's the best moment by Lee Majors in the pilot.

Slowly, steadily, Austin grows faster, better and stronger packaged in some vintage 1970s fashion jumpers and sweat suits. It's a highlight of the pilot. The use of film sped up for dramatic effect was not nearly as successful as the slow motion footage. The show ultimately optioned for the latter. We so identify with The Six Million Dollar Man and the show's slow motion sequences. The slowed footage heightened the dramatic effect and was visually more effective. But, the sped up film stock served its purprose to create its own set of dramatic visuals. Here is Austin, with his heart now powering just one arm, while the rest of his body is fully generated by nuclear energy.

Austin enjoys a picnic lunch with the woman who has nursed him back to health. My first reaction to Austin in his denim jacket and 70s attire was that of the memory of a handsome male throwback. Majors was a man's man, sideburns and all. He was truly one of the last great Marlboro men types- cigarettes were even consumed filter-less. This was a guy, a fall guy maybe, but a real honest to God dude at a time when men were men and sheep were afraid. As Austin and the nurse lunch he helps her to her feet and nearly hurts her hand with the strength of his grip. It's a simple, nice touch illustrating the lack of control over his newly acquired parts. He simply doesn't fully comprehend his own strength.

Driving along a sunny, rural artery a woman runs into the road for help. It's time. It's time for Austin to show us what he's got and there is definitely a sense of serialized 70s television about the moment a la The Six Million Dollar Man series that would be. It's the Bionic Man to the rescue. As gasoline sparks and the tension builds, Austin saves a child just moments before the woman's van explodes. But apart from this particular moment, largely the Pilot works more like a lengthy installment of The Twilight Zone in mood. In a very unchacteristic serial-type moment, the woman thanks him for rescuing her boy and their is pride in Austin's eyes. Unfortunately she glances down to his right arm to find it damaged with wires hanging from it. There's nothing picture perfect about the moment. Gratitude turns to fear. The woman asks "what are you?" as Austin covers his arm. It is that question, "What are you?" this is central to the Austin character. It is this question that reverberates throughout the television series. Who is Steve Austin and what of his new life? Human. Hero. Freak. What has he become and how does he cope with it all? Austin becomes stoic following the incident.

Austin receives his first official assignment. This is a terrific dramatic moment and speaks to the mission of the OSO and why Austin is still very much alive.

The Pilot truly underlines Austin as a flawed, feeling human being and Austin tells Spencer "You're more of a robot than I am. You should have been me." Spencer admits, "Yes, It would have been simpler." But Austin's humanity is constantly at odds with the strings attached to his would be saviors. "All I want is to be left alone." This speaks to Austin's character. He is not the James Bond of secret agents. In the beginning we are introduced to a man who moves free of time. He is a man acting as the antithesis of scientific coordination. Spencer he is much more now. Austin is a simple man requested to do extraordinary things.

His first mission is to save one of the most powerful men in Israel held hostage by terrorists. Austin is disinterested in the assignment, but is the good soldier, a grateful, but reluctant hero in demeanor. The scene establishes what Austin must face going forward. He is no longer just Steve Austin and his circumstances are no longer just normal as much as he might wish them to be. He is given a new life and an entirely new set of circumstances, and it is these accoutrements that power his story, a story about one man, The Six Million Dollar Man.

Austin agrees to the assignment. He also requests to have Nurse Manners replaced because a permanant nurse "gets to personal." Austin clearly begins to define his new boundaries.

One of the beautiful elements of this science fiction drama was its fearlessness in coping with emotional issues. Take this scene, for example, as Nurse Manners [played by Barbara Anderson of Star Trek: The Original Series acclaim], confronts Austin about their relationship that grew out of months of constant, intimate contact.

Austin has an extensive process ahead reconciling his old and new life. Despite its deceptively simplistic title, The Six Million Dollar Man promises to cultivate a fairly complex super serial. The material on a psychological level has aged well in this respect.

Austin is briefed on his mission. He must rescue an Arab man who remained in Israel committed to detente between Israel and the Arab world.

Austin is dropped via parachute in the desert so that he may infiltrate the terrorist hive. Austin must get in close to the terrorist camp and much trademark running ensues to get him there. Who didn't love seeing The Six Million Dollar Man do some running. There are no slow motion effects shots utilized either. This is a straight pilot to sell the show.

It was clear to me as Austin invaded the terror base why I loved The Six Million Dollar Man as a kid. Majors was the epitome of heroic super cool and he delivers immediately. Surrounded, Austin is captured.

Back at OSO, Spencer and Wells argue over potentially sending Austin to his death. "I'm not concerned about feelings, his, yours or mine." My only trouble with the Pilot story is that it seems awfully risky, even downright presumptuous, to assume Steve Austin would be ready for a mission of this magnitude. Why not test him on a series of smaller, less significant missions first? You talk about being thrown into the fire. Austin's first mission is to be dropped into a desert to fight terrorists. Wow! That's confidence, poor strategic planning or outright expendability for a six million dollar project if ever there was one. Still, The One To Be Pitied believes this is an all or nothing scenario. It's balls-to-the-wall for Spencer and the OSO in order to make this project a success. Her argument runs contrary to my own, but she believes the initial testing was sufficient. But are we to assume pilot Steve Austin has had training in machine gun and grenade use? Sure, pull the pin and run I suppose. These small quibbles aside, the Pilot excites me for the series to come.

Unfortunately for the terrorists they have chained his right Bionic arm. In other words, they can kiss their asses goodbye. Once he breaks the chain, his fellow captor asks how exactly he could pull that off. "Vitamins." How about that for a response? Oh, and the use of classic sound effects is not included in the Pilot. All of that is still to come. It's also interesting to note the gunfire and explosions are muted in favor of the odd, musical score for those delicate, child sensibilities.

Following much mayhem and Austin being shot the two men make their getaway in a plane. The stunt work is relatively impressive as the man doubling for Austin needs to get on the plane as it is literally taking off.

The Pilot does an amazing job of portraying Austin as a troubled man following his accident. When he returns he shares these words with Nurse Manners and his expression of those words feels genuine to us.

"I didn't wanna die. I wanted to make it back." But clearly Austin had considered the alternative in what is an emotionally wrenching and sometimes labored pilot. The story ends nearly where it began with Austin in a hospital bed resting in "electro sleep." This is indeed a new world for a man who previously, freely walked about and made his own schedule and determined the time of day by where the sun rested in the sky. Austin clearly beat to his own drum before the accident. It's all changed now. Austin must come to terms with who he is outside of lab animal status. We, too, are eager to learn more. Facts be damned, the creators sold it. Production values for this show were incredibly strong for the period. There is a remarkable quality to the visuals. The Six Million Dollar Man was a ratings hit. It's easy to see from this Pilot why there was so much potential at hand for the series. Bionic sound effects, use of the bionic eye, the classic slo-mo work, Oscar Goldman and other trademark elements are still to come. This, without a doubt, feels like a TV pilot, a solid one mind you, but a bit like a diamond rough around those edges. The Six Million Dollar Man had yet to determine its identity when the Bionic Man would be clicking on all cylinders. Those elements and components of the series that would be burned in our collective memories and subconscious can't be found here, but Pilot teases us with anticipation.

Pilot a.k.a. The Moon And The Desert: C+
Writer: Martin Caidin/ Henri Simoun [Howard Rodman]/ Steven Bochco. Director: Richard Irving.

Actress Footnote: Barbara Anderson [1945-present]. American born. Anderson is best known for her work on Ironside. She also guest starred on Star Trek: The Original Series for Season One, Episode 13, The Conscience Of The King. She would easily achieve Smoking Red Hot Babe Alert material.

Writer Footnote: Martin Caidin [1927-1997]. American born. The Six Million Dollar Man was based on Caidin's book Cyborg [1972], "a tale of one man's triumph over spiritual ruin" according to Author Herbie Pilato's The Bionic Book: The Six Million Dollar Man & The Bionic Woman Reconstructed. This theme would be at the core of The Six Million Dollar Man and the heart of why the series was so successful. His education included US Air Force pilot, teacher, lecturer, student of modern warfare [atomic, radiological, biological and chemical], stunt pilot, actor, war correspondent, talk show host and much more. Caidin was as well rounded as writers come. Caidin was well-versed on national affairs and aware of the US Air Force's interest in bionics and cybernetics.


Ray Rousell said...

I used to love this show when I was a lad, I even had the Steve Austin action man, with the bionic eye!

le0pard13 said...

Excellent examination of this classic show, SFF! You covered it well, my friend. The other thing I loved about this pilot was Darren McGavin. As you pointed out with references to Kolchak: The Night Stalker and A Christmas Story, he could be a irascibly lovable character. But, here he displays the other side: he could play such a good prick when called upon to do so. If you haven't seen them, check out three very good TV movies/shows that solidifies that claim:
• MISSION: Impossible - The Seal (1969, #96, spotlighted my our good friend JKM)
• The Challenge (1970)*
• By Dawn's Early Light (1990)

I agree with you, too, about the use of slow motion versus the sped up footage, with one caveat. The clip of Steve Austin running along side that fence line is really good and eye-catching. I think it worked because the subject (Mr. Six Mil) and the tracking camera were both in motion and in-sync. Because of that, it didn't obviously betray the accelerated film and gave an illusion the audience could buy. When the camera is not in such motion, then it stands out like a sore thumb as a trick. When done wrong, it takes people's suspension of belief right out of the story.

Man, this pilot was so good. As usual, another fine examination, my friend. Thanks.

* I'm pretty sure this one isn't on VHS/DVD, however

SFF said...

Thank you Ray for stopping. I know. I can't wait to dig into this series deeper.

Leopard13. As always my friend, thank you for your thoughts here.

Great point about McGavin's versatility. He's truly astonishing and far more varied than one might think in his roles.

I just finished watching an amzing episode of Millennium called Midnight Of The Century. You may have seen it. McGavin features as Frank Black's father and it is one of the most touching and emotional moments in the entire series. McGavin is responsible for it. Well, he and Lance Henriksen really capture the moment beautifully.

Anyway, great point about the late actor.

Thank you for the tips. I'll check those out.

I also enjoyed your technical commentary my friend. Great stuff!

my best to you both, sff

John Kenneth Muir said...


Well, I finished my deadline and am poking my head back up to see that I've missed a lot here! :)

I thoroughly enjoyed your review of The Six Million Dollar Man pilot. I think you do a very good job of charting how the series began in a more realistic mode, perhaps, than some of the later episodes. There's a trend in the program towards the more superheroic and fantastic; after the original focus on action and, actually, character too. Steve Austin doesn't have many regrets/second thoughts in later seasons, about his bionic direction.

I had forgotten that McGavin was in this pilot too! I love that guy; glad to see you also enjoyed his work in Millennium's "Midnight of the Century."

I also agree with your assessment of preferred bionic speed technique. Fast motion, in cinema history, generally denotes comedy, and that's not exactly the right touch for a show such as 6 Mill Man. The slow motion, while seeming counter-intuitive, is tremendously effective, making each footfall, each punch, each jump seem absolutely amazing, with incredible impact.

A terrific re-cap of this program!


SFF said...

Thanks for taking time out of the busy schedule John.

I agree. The Pilot is truly deadly serious.

I don't remember the bulk of The Six Million Dollar Man playing it quite as straight.

The character-heavy entry and seriousness taken toward the concept will get lighter and I know that. I look forward to seeing what we find as memory escapes me.

Boy, that Midnight Of The Century is quite an episode. Even my son remembered him from A Christmas Story.

All the best and thank you my friend,