Long before Robocop or the Borg or even the Cylons, TV was already exploring the storytelling possibilities of a man augmented by artificial limbs and implants. It may look horribly dated now – there’s plenty of evidence on YouTube to giggle at – but here we have a show that was in many ways ground-breaking at the time.
The Six Million Dollar Man (100 episodes, 1974-78. Also six TV movies.)
Astronaut Steve Austin (Lee Majors) suffers crippling near-fatal injuries after crashing his experimental spacecraft. His body is rebuilt with bionic technology which gives him superhuman abilities that he uses on missions for a covert government agency, battling foes ranging from crime syndicates to an indestructible Russian space probe and Bigfoot (actually an android constructed by aliens – no, I’m not kidding).
The intro sequence comprises three distinct segments. In the first part, we are played film and radio footage from the test flight and crash which nearly kills Steve Austin. This leads into scenes of Austin undergoing the surgery which replaces his right arm, both legs and left eye with bionic parts, with descriptive computer text and graphic layovers. This is accompanied by the regular blip of a heart monitor and the following narration (the first part done by producer Harve Bennett, the second by Richard Anderson in the role of Austin’s boss Oscar Goldman):
Steve Austin. Astronaut. A man barely alive.
Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.
Finally, this segues into a sequence demonstrating the results of that surgery. Austin is seen lifting impossibly heavy gym weights with his bionic arm and running at 60mph. The latter was filmed using a slow-motion technique which became the show’s characteristic method for portraying action scenes in which Austin used his bionic abilities to run or fight. Only in this last segment does the show’s stirring, high-tempo theme music kick in.
At the end of the intro, we see Austin running at top speed wearing a red jump-suit which will be familiar to many boys-now-men of a certain age – including the younger version of myself – as the attire worn by the Steve Austin action figure. Believe me, at the age of seven this was the coolest thing ever from the coolest show on TV. Although admittedly now, watching back old clips, the outlandish plots, slow-motion action sequences and accompanying electronic sound effects – many of which would later be recycled by executive producer Glen A Larson in Battlestar Galactica and Knight Rider – are more than a bit naff by modern standards.
Even so, The Six Million Dollar Man was immensely popular during its run, and has become an iconic part of Seventies culture. I defy any forty-something male not to prick up their ears in recognition at the theme tune, or to deny that at some stage they didn’t attempt to imitate Austin’s slow-motion high-speed running in the school playground. It wasn’t just me, right?
The programme is based on the 1971 book Cyborg, written by former US Air Force pilot and NASA PR man Martin Caidin.
The lifting body spacecraft seen crashing in the show’s intro is real footage of the Northrop M2-F2, which crashed during a test flight in 1967. However, the sequence also incorporates images of a different model, the Northrop HL-10. The latter has a distinctive central fin which is absent on the M2-F2.
Austin works for the OSI, the Office of Scientific Intelligence. However, it was also referred to as the Office of Scientific Investigation or the Office of Strategic Intelligence.
When the show was broadcast in Israel, it was called The Man Who Is Worth Millions, as the number six million is associated with the Holocaust.
Before production started in 1977 on the show’s last season, Lee Majors refused to work until his contract demands were met. The producers reportedly considered a number of other actors to take over the lead role, including Gil Gerard (who later went on to play the lead in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) and Harrison Ford, who was thought to be unsuitable as an action hero. Oops.
The programme gave birth to the spin-off The Bionic Woman, which featured Lindsay Wagner as the titular Jaime Sommers.