Having gotten the complete 5-season/3-reunion movie boxed set of The Six Million Dollar Man for Christmas, shortly after getting season 1 of The Bionic Woman, all I can say is, WHY oh WHY did they not release all three seasons of The Bionic Woman as a boxed set??? I spent Christmas week in a bionic stupor. I breathed, ate and slept Steve Austin (I wish). And it left me wanting MORE.
The astronaut’s pilot
The most obvious point I can make about The Six Million Dollar Man (aside from its very 1970s obsession with Russian enemies and Native American equality) is that the show got SO much better after The Bionic Woman spin-off. But I’ll give the first two seasons their fair share of attention.
First there are the three “pilot” movies. The first is a real treasure because it’s a lot deeper than the sci-fi silliness the show would eventually become (pretty much by the second pilot movie). This is the big one, where Steve Austin, astronaut, actually crashes. And in retrospect, the crash sequence used in the intro of the series each week is more exciting than in the pilot movie, which really downplays it!
The first movie quickly establishes that Dr. Rudy Wells has a close relationship with Steve and cares very much about him. But Rudy is not the Rudy I know and love from later seasons. This Rudy stranger would appear in only this first movie before being replaced for a couple of seasons by another actor. Meanwhile, instead of Oscar Goldman being the head of OSI who orders up Steve’s bionic limbs, the character name is different and is portrayed by Darren McGavin, who heads the OSO! McGavin is a grouch who only cares about his experimental bionics (the real Oscar was somewhat self-serving, but became much more concerned with both Steve and Jaime as their series progressed).
What’s most notable about the first pilot movie is how much it humanizes Steve and deals deeply with the psychological impact prosthetic replacement limbs can have on a person. Steve also falls for his nurse, but I’m happy to say that relationship doesn’t last. Steve Austin needs to be with Jaime Sommers!
The name’s Bond. Bionic Bond.
What a difference a second pilot movie can make. First, our ears are assaulted by a horribly campy theme song sung by none other than Dusty Springfield! This song has to have been a rejected theme from Diamonds are Forever or something. And Steve, now suave and sauntering like James Bond, has definitely gotten over the mental and physical trauma of his near-fatal accident, because he is all about scantily clad ladies and sexual innuendo, like when he smashes a window on a boat and then says to the woman in the room, “Sorry I had to violate your porthole.” Or a woman saying to him, “In Russia they say all American men are soft,” to which he replies, “Yeah, well, we rise to the occasion.” And here I thought Soap was the first perverted show on television in the 70s. I can’t believe this stuff passed the sensors in 1973!
Sadly, all this fun and filthy camp was gone from the third pilot movie (although Dusty’s theme song was still present), so the final pilot movie was super generic. Something to note about all three pilots is the absence of any bionic sound effects!!! That’s right. No fit-chi-chi-chi-chi-chi sounds!!! So every time Steve grabs a hunk of metal and begins bending it, there’s no bionic magic—it’s just an actor bending a rubber pipe. Sometimes you’re not even sure that he’s doing anything bionic! But the best has to be the bionic run—the run that is NOT in slow motion, but in fast motion instead. It actually looks kind of cool and makes it really clear how fast exactly he runs.
Bionic basics: the series begins
By episode one of the official series, the real Oscar Goldman was in place, as was the second, almost bald Dr. Rudy Wells and the OSI title. Gone was Dusty Springfield’s theme song, replaced by an early version of the Oscar Goldman dialogue about building the first bionic man. We also get the first bionic jump in episode 2, and in episode 3, an early version of the bionic eye sound. Episode 6 delivers the missile sound that accompanies everything Steve throws (awesome).
Only one episode of this season really stands out for me though, for several reasons. First, it stars the yummy John Saxon (who would appear seasons later as a different character!). More importantly though, Saxon is seriously an early version of a fembot! Yes indeed, John Saxon is a fricking robot whose face gets ripped off to reveal all the digital components behind it! Talk about recycling storylines. At least they had the technology to rebuild an even better three-part episode three seasons later. Finally, this episode marks the first time you hear the fit-chi-chi-chi-chi sound…delivered by the John Saxon robot! The bionic sound would begin to be assigned to Steve occasionally, first showing up in the second to last episode of season 1.
One final important episode in season 1 introduces Steve’s mother, who would play a much bigger role a few years later as a semi-regular on The Bionic Woman.
By season 2, the correct theme song was finally in place at the beginning of the show and more exciting plotlines were introduced. For instance, before he was Blanche Devereaux’s gay brother Clayton on The Golden Girls, Clayton played the seven million dollar man, a true bionic challenge for Steve in two different episodes, once in season 2 and again in season 3. The maker of the first “fembot” from season 1 is back in season 2…with an Oscar robot! So the Oscar fembot wasn’t the first Oscar robot! I got a little offended when Steve meets up again with an old flame with whom he claims to have talked marriage. What about Jaime??? She will always be his one and only.
Which is why season 2 comes to an end with a crucial episode: the introduction of the bionic woman herself! Just like Steve Austin, Jaime Sommers would get three pilot movies in the form of extended episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man. Her presence not only helps season 2 close strong, but season 3 begins just as strong with the return of the bionic woman.
Building the perfect bionic seasons
With the introduction of Jaime Sommers, the bionic sounds were pretty much introduced on a regular basis, for Steve Austin as well. Season 3 also introduces Oscar’s awesome squeaky-voiced secretary Callahan, who would be a semi-regular on both bionic series. Shockingly, in her first episode, Oscar suspects her of leaking OSI secrets! But of course, Callahan is too professional for that.
Meanwhile, aside from her two pilot crossover episodes in season 3, Jaime also has two really short cameos in Six Million Dollar Man episodes near the end of the season that seem forced but are still welcome surprises as they remind us that Steve and Jaime are MEANT to be together, dammit!
Jaime can also be spotted in none other than the absolutely perfect “Secret of Bigfoot” 2-part episode. This is where the Steve Austin series took off. Bigfoot (aka: wrestler Andre the Giant) fricking grabs Steve by the crotch to give him a body slam! How jealous am I? Then there’s Stephanie Powers as the alien who created Bigfoot, Sheriff Brackett of Halloween as an alien, and the aliens probing Steve…well, only his memories, which reveal a clip on their widescreen monitor of Steve running with Jaime (but you have to wonder, why does the bionic pair run in slow motion in his memories???).
With Bigfoot being a huge ratings grabber in season 3, what better way to begin season 4 than with the return of Bigfoot…which also happens to be a 2-part crossover episode with The Bionic Woman!!! Wow. On top of that, Steve has grown a mustache, we are finally treated to the REAL Dr. Rudy Wells (actor Martin E. Brooks, who would finish out the role on both bionic series), Stephanie Powers and Sheriff Brackett return, Sandy Duncan and her roving eye join in the fun as another alien, and John Saxon pretends he was never an early incarnation of a fembot, now portraying an evil alien. The bionic duo creates magic together…
…and that magic extends into the 3-part classic crossover fembot episode “Kill Oscar.” Naturally, the ultimate moment is Jaime fighting Callahan fembot in her apartment and then jumping out a window too far from the ground, which causes her bionic legs to explode. Other highlights of the best TV show episode EVER include an early appearance of a video cassette, Steve kissing Jaime (wahoo!) and Steve running in the rain in nothing but square cut shorts, and I’m telling you, you can clearly see that he is going commando. You can see buttcrack hair, I’m sure of it!
Sadly, after defeating the fembots, Steve and Jaime would never appear in another episode together, but season 4 had some other notable moments, like Rudy obtaining some powerful strength of his own after getting bitten by a juiced up monkey, the introduction of the Bionic Boy (played by Dick Van Patten’s son), and a Farrah Fawcett in-joke while Steve is flipping through a magazine. A single in-joke becomes an unintended double in-joke in retrospect as in one episode, Steve is in a toy store standing next to a Six Million Dollar Man doll on a shelf, while the girl from Jaws 2 who screams “Sh-sh-sh-sh—SHARK!!! SHARK!! SHARK!” stands beside a Jaws toy on the counter next to her register (about a year before she’d actually be in the movie!). There’s also one of the most laughable ‘adaptations’ of the Dickens’ holiday classic in “A Bionic Christmas Carol” (would have been better if it had been a crossover episode with Jaime!).
One last cool foe in season 4 is Steve taking on the robotic vehicle called the Death Probe. This 2-part episode has some great bionic action. And personally, I think this one should have been another Jaime crossover episode. Tragic. There are also two more tragic situations in season 4. First, there’s an episode that seems to have been some sort of attempt to make a spin-off based on one of Rudy Wells’ other pet projects, and this boring episode features Steve for maybe two minutes at the most. Plus, Steve ditches his mustache for the last two episodes of the season!
The Bionic Breakup
Steve’s mustache didn’t return for the fifth season. Sadly, neither did Jaime. For what would be the last season for both shows, The Bionic Woman would move from ABC to NBC, severing all possibilities for any crossover episodes. Personally, I think this ridiculous move is what caused the demise of both shows. Steve spends much of the last season getting cozy with a bunch of blondes who aren’t Jaime! Boo! Hiss!
In an attempt to spice things up on Steve’s show, they relied way too much on 2-parters and 2-hour episodes. There are SIX two hour episodes in total! The most memorable one features the return of the Death Probe. Meanwhile, Bigfoot returns one last time, but he isn’t even given the respect of a 2-parter. His story is crammed into a single episode (called “Bigfoot V”, I guess because the other Bigfoot episodes were 2-parters, making this the 5th one hour episode?). It’s a hot episode, but is sadly missing some key ingredients: Steve’s mustache (will Bigfoot even recognize him without it?), Stephanie Powers, Sheriff Brackett, Sandy Duncan and her roving eye, and of course, Jaime! In fact, when Steve recalls the last time he said goodbye to Bigfoot, he doesn’t even mention that Jaime was with him! Argh!
Dr. Rudy Wells accompanies Steve on a majority of his adventures in season 5, which is why Martin E. Brooks will always be the definitive Rudy Wells. As the series comes to a close (with no official finale) Steve gets involved in the psychic realm and tells a parapsychologist that he was never married (LIE! You’ll see why in the reunion movies). But the worst offense is that the very LAST thing Steve does in the very last episode of The Six Million Dollar Man is kiss a blonde Russian spy! This bionic cheater deserved to be canceled! But true poetic justice would have had The Bionic Woman continue on for another two seasons instead of being canceled as well.
Fine tuning the bionic reunions—third time’s the charm
I can only imagine that the third and final reunion movie was made because bionic fans revolted against the first two disasters. WOW were the first two bad—not to mention that they both feel like they were intended to be pilot episodes for a whole new generation of bionic shows instead of reunions for the classic series.
Let’s start with the first reunion movie, called Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, from 1987. This is just filled with one awkward moment after another (like Jaime coming face to face with Steve in a restaurant after years of not seeing him and throwing him through a window bionically when he tries to touch her). The presence of Steve, Jaime, Oscar, and Rudy doesn’t help much (and there’s no Callahan! Boo!), because they all seem really rusty at playing these characters, with the chemistry between all of them way off. The plot tries to quickly sum up where everyone has been. Steve quit the OSI and bought a boat, while Jaime became a counselor for troubled people. Meanwhile, neither seems to have kept in touch with Rudy—but, wouldn’t that relationship need to be a lifetime commitment considering he is the only person who knows how to deal with any complications involving their bionics??? Oscar tries to get Steve out of retirement, tricks him into the reunion with Jaime, and breaks the news that Jaime was in another accident that brought back all her memories! So now she finally remembers that she loves Steve! Luckily, her boyfriend from the last season of The Bionic Woman (played by Dee Wallace Stone’s late husband Christopher Stone) had been in the accident with her and didn’t survive, so she’s all single to get back into it with Steve.
But the real focus of this horrible movie is Steve’s son. Yes, Steve, it turns out, WAS married for a short time, before he turned bionic, and only found out years later that the woman had given birth to his son! WHY WHY WHY would they ruin the purity of Steve and Jaime’s past??? Not to mention, Steve’s son has become…an astronaut! And guess what. Steve’s son gets into an accident just like the one Steve had. Steve’s son looses two legs, an arm, and an eye. Steve’s son becomes bionic. This has to be some sort of a joke. WHAT were they thinking??? And to add even less logic to this film, Lee Majors’ actual son, Lee Majors II, is cast in this film…but not as Steve Austin’s son! WTF?
This first movie is way up there in the 80s cheese as well. The new theme music sounds like something out of The A-Team or any other 80s action show, with constant drum machine rolls accenting the action. Hysterical. But even more laughable is Jaime’s hair. It looks like she went to the hairstylist who did the hair for Lisa Hartman as Ciji on Knot’s Landing circa 1982. This ridiculous feathered poof doesn’t even require Jaime to move her hair away from her bionic ear since it’s clearly been cemented to her scalp with Stiff Stuff! The movie is loaded with 80s hits like Rod Stewart’s “Love Touch,” Huey Lewis’s “Hip to be Square,” The Pointer Sisters’ “Automatic,” and Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years.” But don’t let the flawless soundtrack fool you. This movie is a mess. The only positives to find in this film are when Rudy references the bionic dog, saying, “After Max, I went back to the drawing board” and when Jaime calls Steve out on being such a manwhore for so many years.
The next reunion movie, 1989’s The Bionic Showdown, should have been titled The Bionic LETDOWN. Steve and Jaime are probably in it for a total of about twenty minutes. The movie focuses on the first bionic girl, played by a young Sandra Bullock! What a bunch of bionic bullocks!
Oscar resigns from the OSI, his nephew gets into an accident and is being considered for bionics. Meanwhile, Steve’s bionic son is never mentioned. However, Lee Majors’ real son returns in his role as an OSI agent from the original film, and like father like son, he is sporting a mustache! Jaime’s hair is less 80s, so she is back to moving it away from her ear—pretty much the only redeeming part of this film. Although it is pretty cool that when Sandra Bullock does her bionic run, she leaves a neon streak behind her like Kira the muse in the classic movie Xanadu. Most importantly, Steve and Jaime move one step closer to being married.
And this is when every thing goes right in the bionic reunion world, finally. In 1994, Steve, Jaime, Oscar and Rudy returned one last time for Bionic Ever After? It seems like everyone involved in this reunion movie did their homework and watched all the old episodes to see what made them so magical. Our favorite characters are in true form once more as the actors totally tap into their personas and the chemistry of their relationships.
It helps that there are no ludicrous plots involving other bionic people to get in the way. Instead, the focus is on Jaime and Steve only a few days away from getting married—until Jaime begins to have a bionic breakdown. Oscar has to track down Rudy to help her (Huh??? If their wedding is in a few days, wouldn’t they be in touch with Rudy since they’ve been friends for two decades???). In the meantime, Steve is sent on a rescue mission. It’s not long before Jaime is back on her bionic feet and heading off to help him with this one last ISO mission before they tie the knot and head off for a bionic honeymoon filled with six million dollar sex (you know you’ve always imagined what that would look like).
They should have skipped the other ridiculous reunion movies and gone straight to this perfect finale. Again, Steve’s bionic son isn’t mentioned and doesn’t appear to come to his dad’s wedding, while Lee Majors’ actual son reprises his role from the other two movies.
The only real disappointment in this film is when Steve and Jaime are reminiscing about past missions—and neither of them mentions Bigfoot or the Fembots! Come on! Throw the fans a bionic bone! If I still talk about Bigfoot and the Fembots this many years later, surely THEY would!
Before they were stars: the Bionic Edition
So cool to watch this show and spot all the up and coming actors. As mentioned, we get Darren McGavin of The Night Stalker as the ‘Oscar’ character in the first movie. Lee Major’s main squeeze of the time, Farrah Fawcett, appears not once, but FOUR times in the first three seasons—playing the same character only two of those times! Talk about sleeping with the right people to get on TV. But you really can’t go wrong with Farrah, especially in her third appearance, when Steve calls her an “Angel” in a kind of wink wink to the audience. William Shatner does a guest spot. Donna Mills gets early practice playing the bitch she would perfect as Abby Cunningham on Knots Landing, while Joan Van Ark perfects her sym(pathetic) role for the same show, portraying, I kid not, a character named Val on an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.
The bearish dude who plays the killer in the misogynistic horror flick Don’t Answer the Phone has one line in a gym scene. The bearish little tyke known as Sonny Bono has a rather comic role as a nightclub singer in one episode and murders the Franki Valli and the Four Seasons’ hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” not once, but three times in the course of the episode. Erik Estrada plays a non-Chips role. Before she was funny lady Jessica Tate, Katherine Helmond was rather serious on one episode of this show, and has a classic case of jungle fever when asked about a stranger in town, who she describes to Steve as a “good looking black guy” (no wonder she was always so close to Benson). A young Louis Gossett Jr. has a guest role, as does Cathy Rigby, Doc from The Love Boat, and Flip Wilson.
There’s a double dose of six million degrees of Eight is Enough, because both Nicholas and Dick Van Patten have roles in episodes of the show (Van Patten making a cameo in the bionic boy episode starring his son). Veteran actor Ray Walston, best known as Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, acts exactly like Mr. Hand when he plays the Scrooge role on the Christmas episode, while the second Darrin from Bewitched takes on the Bob Cratchit role. The principal from the TV show Fame is in a couple of episodes, as is the guy who played the dean on a couple of seasons of The Facts of Life. Steve sweats it out in a sauna with the chick from An American Werewolf in London and sucks face with Suzanne Somers in season 5 (when he should be sucking face with Jaime Sommers!!!!).
What sound does bionic gaydar make?
I can not believe how gay this show is. I mean, it’s most obvious to begin with Dusty Springfield singing the original campy theme song. In the second pilot episode, one boobalicious chick even challenges Steve’s manhood, questioning, “Do you like girls?” And let’s not forget the two time appearance of Blanche’s gay brother!
But can we talk about the tight square cut shorts Steve often dons throughout the course of the series? YUMMY. As are the fricking cut off shirts that usually complete the ensemble, showing off his fuzzy abs. I’m pretty sure looking at Lee Majors made me gay.
Half his undercover disguises are right out of Tom of Finland: earring-sporting Steve as a longshoreman; Steve as a cop; Steve the lumberjack: Steve pimped out in a beard and leisure suit; Steve as a prize fighter; Steve in a tight wetsuit; Steve in a sauna in a towel. Lee Majors is 70 years old and I’d STILL do him.
Selective bionic memory
What rewatching The Six Million Dollar Man has taught me is that as much as I loved the show when it originally aired, the only episodes worth remembering are the only ones I did remember because they’re the most action packed. Of course, every episode is worth rewatching just to see Lee Majors in tight 70s bell bottoms and shirts unbuttoned down to his navel. Because that’s a whole different kind of action….