Tuesday, April 1, 2014

EARLY REVIEW — CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER


At this point, Warner Bros. should just get Marvel to produce their superhero movies. Superman Vs. Batman (or whatever it’s going to be called) is looking more and more like a desperation move, while Marvel’s latest cinematic offering, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, raises the bar and sets a new standard for the genre. It continues Marvel’s remarkable winning streak, delivering a film that manages to be highly enjoyable in its own right, while remaining faithful to its comic-book roots.

Like last year’s Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, it opens some time after the events of 2012’s blockbuster The Avengers. Steve Rogers—Captain America (played once again by the perfectly cast Chris Evans)—is now working for the international peace-keeping organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D., partnered with agent Natasha Romanoff—the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, who more than holds her own)—under the command of Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, of course). But as Fury is about to launch a new initiative called Operation: Insight, designed to stop threats before they happen, Cap finds himself having difficulty reconciling his personal values with the activities of the agency giving him his orders. Meanwhile, as Fury discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. itself may have been compromised, enemy forces make their move, aided by a near-mythical assassin called the Winter Soldier—a brutal and merciless operative who also serves as a painful reminder of Cap’s past. 

The Winter Soldier. No, this is not a crossover with The Six Million Dollar Man.

That’s about as much as I can say without getting into spoiler territory (although Marvel did a pretty thorough job blowing one of the movie’s biggest surprises—at least for those not familiar with the comic-book lore—in its Assembling a Universe TV special that aired on ABC on March 18). 

Even if you’ve read the comics upon which the film is based, there are plenty of twists and turns that should leave you reeling. Even I, a jaded comic-book reader who actually worked at Marvel for nearly seven years, found myself gasping in surprise—and delight—by the revelations sprinkled throughout.

The Winter Soldier is a high-octane thriller with jaw-dropping action sequences and eye-popping special effects. But it also has substance. It explores the difficult question that we’ve all been asking ourselves since 9/11: How willing are we to give up our freedoms and our rights as American citizens in the name of security? What’s especially thrilling to me is that the film also has so much heart. The character dynamics are simply fantastic and touching. There’s one scene in particular, early on, that picks up on some key continuity from the first Captain America movie, and it’s both bittersweet and absolutely heartbreaking.

As an aside, I love the fact that, as with the previous Cap movie, the filmmakers make no apologies for the fact that Captain America is not some complicated, angst-ridden figure filled with inner conflict. He’s a straight arrow, completely noble, and sure of himself and what’s right. If that makes him seem boring or square to some audience members, tough. 

And I have to note that while there are long stretches in the movie where Steve Rogers is dressed in his civilian clothes, he does get to wear two versions of the Captain America uniform, and I heartily approve of both.   

The interaction between Steve and Natasha is one of the main highlights of the film—the chemistry between Evans and Johansson is rock-solid. 

Expect some major character building for the Black Widow in this film. 

Ditto the burgeoning relationship between Steve and incoming character Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, played by the excellent Anthony Mackie. I’ve liked the Falcon ever since I first encountered him in Captain America #230, published in 1978, and I’m extremely pleased that his live-action debut has been handled so well. 

Captain America and the Falcon: Teaming up on the big screen at last. 

Samuel L. Jackson has an integral role in this film, and is given more to do than usual—and of course, he’s great. (There’s one particular in-joke having to do with Fury that should give the more observant—and in-the-know—viewers quite a chuckle.)

And it’s very gratifying to see an actor of Robert Redford’s stature showing respect for the material. This may be a “comic-book movie,” but Redford is not slumming here. He turns in an effective, nuanced performance as Alexander Pierce, a major Washington, D.C. power player who also just happens to be Nick Fury’s mentor. (It’s interesting to note that had this movie been made about 40 years ago, Redford would have been perfect for the role of Steve Rogers/Captain America himself).

Pierce and Fury discuss the trouble brewing within S.H.I.E.L.D.

As is the norm for these movies set in the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe (namely, the movies produced by Marvel itself, which excludes the Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four films), there are references to past events and established characters. Iron Man and the Hulk are each referred to more than once. But there’s also a seed planted for a possible future film, one starring a character we haven’t met before: A certain master of the mystic arts. Wow. All I can say, is bring it on!

And yes, you have to stay to the very end to get the full experience. There are two brief epilogues, one during the end credits and one after. The former is the more intriguing one, as it helps set up the upcoming film Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What’s also of note is that this film can’t help but have a significant impact on the TV series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is set in the same universe. No lie: The Winter Soldier is a genuine game-changer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for S.H.I.E.L.D., so I’m very curious to see how the TV series—which has improved in a big way over the course of this first season—will be affected going forward.

Marvel has already announced that they’ve given the go-ahead for a third Captain America movie, to be released on May 6, 2016. It’s a vote of confidence that is very much deserved. Go see The Winter Soldier, and enjoy. 


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A BIONIC LOOK BACKWARDS, PART III


Well, we’re back to wrap up our retrospective look at The Six Million Dollar Man, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect, what with Dynamite Comics having just released the first issue of their new comic-book series THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN: SEASON SIX on March 12.



It basically picks up where Season Five of the TV series left off, and apparently—and unfortunately, in my humble opinion—it dumps the three reunion TV movies from the continuity. But it’s great to see the original Steve Austin back in action, albeit in comic-book form, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the creative team takes things. And now back to our show: 

SEASON FIVE

Let’s face it: The Six Million Dollar Man was always an uneven series. You can’t point to a particular season as a whole and say, “That’s the one to watch, nearly every episode in it is a gem.” In each season, the quality varied—sometimes wildly—from episode to episode. There were high points, low points, and many points in-between. But the same can’t be said about Season Five, the final year of the series. There’s a real deficit of high points in that season. There are no major stink-bombs either, but the vast majority of the season’s installments fall squarely into the “mediocre” category, sometimes amusing but rarely more than by-the-numbers efforts. And when an episode does show a spark of creativity and some genuine effort, it gets hobbled in the execution.

The series entered the fifth season at a major disadvantage. For reasons I haven’t been able to confirm, Executive Producer Harve Bennett, who had overseen the show since it became a weekly series, departed—somewhat abruptly. He’s still credited as the EP in the two-part season premiere, “Sharks,” but his name is never seen again after that. The show-runners who took over—one of whom was the notorious Fred Freiberger, the gentleman responsible for the third and final (and, overall, less-than-stellar) season of the original Star Trek—just didn’t seem to have the will or the ability to wring any true greatness out of the scripts they had on hand. (In the case of Freiberger, that doesn’t come at all as a surprise.)

Another major problem: The Bionic Woman was canceled by ABC after its second season, and then picked up by NBC. While Richard Anderson and Martin E. Brooks were allowed to continue playing, respectively, Oscar Goldman and Dr. Rudy Wells, in both shows, actual crossovers were now out of the question. Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers could no longer appear together. Steve never mentions Jaime throughout Season Five of TSMDM, and Steve is only referred to once, in passing, during TBW Season Three—in the first episode, which, incidentally, introduced Max the bionic dog.


Woof.
To top it all off, absolutely no effort is made to provide Steve with any depth or substance. There’s virtually no exploration of his character, aside from revisiting his past as an astronaut in several episodes, including one storyline that sends him back to the moon. As a result, Lee Majors basically sleepwalks his way through the season, given no chance to really stretch his acting muscles. He’s never allowed to show Steve’s vulnerable, more human side, the way he was in the first TV pilot and in “The Bionic Woman” and its sequel. He is, however, allowed to grow his hair out to epic proportions—perhaps to compensate for the loss of his mustache at the end of Season Four? 


Let it fly in the breeze, and get caught in the trees...

With a run of mostly unremarkable episodes, and no trace of Jaime, my daughter Maddie lost a lot of interest over the course of the fifth season, so she doesn’t have much to say about it. So, alas, you’ll be hearing mostly from me this time around. Let’s get to it.

One of the most notable things about Season Five is that there are quite a few two-parters—five in all. Presumably this was done as a cost-cutting measure rather than for any creative reasons, because most of the stories didn’t really warrant the extra time. “Return of Deathprobe,” a sequel to Season Four’s “Death Probe,” is probably the best of the two-parters. I remember really liking it as a kid, but I was a bit underwhelmed watching it again on DVD. That said, in some ways it’s actually an improvement on its predecessor.    

For me, “Bigfoot V” and “The Lost Island” are the closest that Season Five comes to having actual highlights.

“Bigfoot V,” titled thusly because it’s the fifth episode to feature Sasquatch (his two previous appearances were both two-parters), does a semi-decent job picking up on where the character was left off and wrapping up his storyline. That in itself is a major achievement, since writer/producer Kenneth Johnson, who created the character and was responsible for all of the previous episodes involving him, has nothing whatsoever to do with this one. 


Eye feel a change coming on...

It’s an interesting, compelling episode, with a genuinely touching ending, but there’s some truly bizarre stuff in there, and some mangling of continuity. For example, the aliens who created Sasquatch had mentioned at the end of “The Return of Bigfoot” that their people would not come to Earth to take them home for about 100 years, but in “Bigfoot V,” Steve mentions in passing that he saw the aliens off when they departed our planet. When—and how—did that happen? And if Steve was there when the aliens left, how could he not know that Sasquatch had decided to stay on Earth?  

Near the end of “Bigfoot V,” when Steve plays a video message from the aliens explaining Sasquatch’s current condition, it features some guy we’ve never seen before. What, the producers couldn’t bother to ask Stefanie Powers to do a 60-second cameo as Shalon, or, at the very least, Severn Darden as Apploy, both of whom were so memorable in the previous Bigfoot shows? For that matter, “The Return of Bigfoot” ended with Shalon’s fate uncertain, but there’s no resolution to that plot thread to be found in “Bigfoot V.” Had Shalon been the person in the video, there would have at least been the implication that everything turned out okay for her. 

As for the bizarre, there’s a scene early on where Steve, commenting on new reports of Sasquatch’s aggressive behavior, says, “That sounds more like the legendary Earth Bigfoot, not the Sasquatch I know.” Uhhhh... it was clearly established in “The Secret of Bigfoot” that the alien-built creature is the legendary Earth Bigfoot, since the aliens had been living on Earth for several hundred years. (Not to mention the fact that in all of their previous encounters, Steve saw just how aggressive and destructive Sasquatch could be.) And later on, when a battered Steve returns to Rudy’s mobile lab, he tells the scientist, “I found Bigfoot,” and Rudy replies, “Which one is he?” I can’t imagine why writer Gregory S. Dinallo even introduced this train of thought—it wasn’t necessary at all. You could remove every line of dialogue about the “Earth Bigfoot” as opposed to the “Space Bigfoot” and it would not change or hurt the episode in any way.

As for “The Lost Island,” it was an expanded episode that originally aired as a TV movie. Like “Bigfoot V,” it’s more science-fiction oriented, focusing on a radioactive satellite that crashes on a remote island and mutates some of the peaceful inhabitants into hairy, super-strong, power-hungry brutes. I watched this when it first aired on January 30, 1978, and I thought it was great. Watching it again years later, I didn’t think it was nearly as good as I remembered it being, but it was still a cut above most of the other episodes of the season.


"Yeeaaah, radiation, bitch!"

Other notables:

“Just a Matter of Time” features Steve returning from an orbital test flight to find that he’s apparently been thrust six years into the future—and is wanted for treason. It’s not a masterpiece, but I give this episode points for at least attempting to be a little more creative and innovative. Interestingly, variations of the central plot were used years later in the 1988 Star Trek novel Timetrap by David Dvorkin, and in “Future Imperfect,” a 1990 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, both of which I enjoyed.       

“Killer Wind,” in which Steve, while contending with a trio of bank robbers, has to rescue students and their teacher in a stalled cable car halfway up a mountain as a tornado approaches. (Lee Majors did the death-defying stunt himself!)

“The Cheshire Project,” in which Steve rekindles his romance with an old girlfriend, Jenny Fraser (played by Suzanne Somers, whose star was on the rise at the time). Jenny is piloting a top-secret fighter jet that can be rendered invisible to radar, but when the plane mysteriously disappears in mid-flight, Steve sets out to investigate—and makes an unsettling discovery.


Can't help thinking that under different circumstances, Farrah Fawcett would have played Jenny.

“The Deadly Countdown” is nothing special, but it does feature the lovely Jenny Agutter and author Martin Caidin, who wrote the novel Cyborg upon which The Six Million Dollar Man is based. Apparently, Caidin’s performance was below par, or his voice sounded like Mickey Mouse’s, because all of his dialogue seems to have been dubbed in by another actor, to unintentionally hilarious effect. It’s so poorly done, so distracting, I can’t believe the producers allowed the episode to air like this. Honestly, it’s akin to this:  


   

And I have to mention the two-parter “Date With Danger” solely for the presence of guest star Elaine Giftos, who brought vitality, energy, personality, and a sense of fun to an otherwise fairly standard installment. You’ve no doubt seen Giftos elsewhere—she appeared in virtually every TV series during the 1970s and early ’80s. 


Bringing a spark of life to a dying series...

Among the lowlights:

“Dead Ringer,” a sloppy exploration into the paranormal suggesting that Steve is being haunted by his own restless spirit, which was set free when he was clinically dead following his plane crash. There’s a particularly gaping plot hole in this episode, along with the surprising suggestion that both Steve’s mother and stepfather are dead, even though Jaime Sommers was still living on their ranch over in The Bionic Woman and had never made any mention of their deaths. Helen and Jim Elgin had been important elements of both shows, so to reveal their offscreen deaths so casually, so abruptly, is extremely puzzling. Presumably this was just a careless continuity gaffe on the part of the SMDM crew, because, based on the episode, I can’t think of any story-driven reason to go there.     


“The Moving Mountain” is not a good episode, nor is it an awful one, but it’s exceedingly mediocre. The only thing notable about it is that it’s the last episode of the series, and it’s unfortunate that after five seasons, The Six Million Dollar Man ends with such a whimper. True, most TV series of that time didn’t go out with an extra-special finale that wrapped everything up, but even The Bionic Woman, which ended the same year, was given a send-off that provided at least some degree of closure for Jaime. TSMDM just... stops. And it doesn’t even go out on a high note. We’ll see if the new comic-book series can make up for that. As for live-action, we wouldn’t see Steve or Jaime again until 1987’s reunion movie, The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman. (Though, amusingly enough, Lindsay Wagner did guest-star on a 1983 episode of Lee Majors’s next series, The Fall Guy.)

THE REUNION MOVIES

Yeah, they’re sort of cheesy. But come on, they aren’t any more cheesy than the two series they were based upon. And I’ll go out on a limb and say that despite all of its flaws, I really enjoyed—and still get a kick out of—the first one, the aforementioned Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman.


Embracing the '80s.

It adheres to the original series continuity, with a mention of Max and an in-depth explanation of what happened to Chris Williams, the O.S.I. agent played by Christopher Stone who became Jaime’s ongoing love interest during the third season of The Bionic Woman

MADDIE: “I didn’t like Chris Williams. Why? Because he wasn’t Steve.” 


He did have a better mustache than Steve's.

Reference is made to the final episode of TBW, “On the Run,” which concludes with Jaime convincing Oscar to let her cut back on her involvement in O.S.I. operations. And more importantly, Jaime’s memory loss, established in “The Return of the Bionic Woman,” is addressed and finally resolved.

MADDIE: “I was really excited that Jaime got her memories back because it meant that maybe she and Steve would get back together, or she would at least feel a stronger connection to him.”

There’s some fudging with Steve’s backstory, what with the establishment of his very brief marriage and the son that resulted from it, but it worked well enough for me, and I liked the character of Michael Austin, played by Tom Schanley—it’s a shame he wasn’t seen again in the two follow-up movies. Return was clearly set up to be a launching pad for a new series featuring Michael, but it never materialized.    


A (computer) chip off the old block. 

MADDIE: “I thought that adding Michael would bring a lot to the storyline and I thought that what happened to him was very clever, because now that he’s bionic, he can join the O.S.I. in place of his dad.”

Both Majors and Wagner, while significantly older, still look good and slip back into their roles quite smoothly. More importantly, in this film, when Michael Austin experiences the same tragic accident that befell his father, Lee Majors is given the opportunity to really perform as Steve, to react to events on an emotional level, to show human vulnerability, for the first time since he discovered Jaime Sommers was still alive.         

I liked the new character of smarmy O.S.I. agent Jim Castillian, played by Lee Majors’s real-life son, Lee Majors II. 


Wonder how he got the gig...


MADDIE: “I liked Jim Castillian! He was so goofy and cracked jokes and made the movie even more enjoyable. He would always introduce himself by saying, ‘I’m Jim Castillian, and that’s with two i’s and two l’s!’ He was so full of himself that he always said it. It just made me smile.”  

And to top it all off, a very young Bryan Cranston shows up in a small role. (For those of you who don’t know, I have a completely heterosexual man-crush on Bryan Cranston. I admit it freely!) 


And I think it’s cool that actor Gary Lockwood, who guest-starred on both bionic shows, turns up as a new character. A nice nod to the past. 

But I do have some issues with the movie. First, there’s the plot. Steve and Jaime are pulled back into action by Oscar to deal with the return of a criminal group called Fortress, led by a man named Lyle Stenning (played by future Oscar winner Martin Landau), whom, we are told, Steve put behind bars years ago. But we’ve never seen or heard of Fortress or Stenning before. It would have been so much stronger, and would have really resonated with longtime fans, had the main villain been someone from one of the original episodes. Hell, Gary Lockwood was right there on the set—why not just make him the main villain and have him reprise the role of Hopper, the criminal he portrayed in Season Two“Steve Austin, Fugitive,” who had plenty of reason to want revenge on Steve? Just establish that he’s out of prison and now hooked up with a paramilitary criminal group out to cause mass mayhem. The rest of the story would play out exactly the same.

Plus there’s the fact that Fortress turns out to be not all that impressive a threat, a fact presumably dictated by a limited production budget. 

The absence of the iconic Six Million Dollar Man theme music is a major source of disappointment, as is the lame synthesized ’80s-music soundtrack—composed, believe it or not, by Marvin Hamlisch—that sounded woefully dated even when the show first aired. 

But the film’s heart is in the right place, and all of the character stuff rings true. It ends with the promise of Steve and Jaime making an effort to get to know each other again, giving bionic fans everywhere hope for the future.         
     
MADDIE: “The ending made me think that Steve and Jaime could actually end up together without something or someone coming between them—someone like Michael Marchetti!”

I missed the second reunion movie, 1989’s Bionic Showdown, when it originally aired. I watched it for the first time only recently, via the DVD box set. Like its predecessor, it introduces a new bionic character. This time, it’s a second bionic woman, Kate Mason, played by a very young Sandra Bullock. 


Passing the bionic baton? Not so fast!

Kate is a paraplegic who is outfitted with experimental bionic implants designed by Rudy Wells, and she’s also close friends with Jim Goldman, Oscar’s nephew, who is played by Jeff Yagher. Jaime is on hand to help Kate adjust to her new condition, while Steve is overseeing security for the World Unity Games, an international sports competition that’s an obvious stand-in for the Olympics. Kate eventually ends up going undercover as an athlete at the Games to root out a traitor within the O.S.I. who is leaking top-secret information—and she faces off against a brutal enemy operative who, it turns out, is also bionic.

MADDIE: “I liked Kate Mason, how young she was and how she got to compete in the Games like an Olympic athlete. And I liked the storyline between her and Oscar’s nephew, how they get together. They made a cute couple and I liked how Jim was protective of Kate, even though he wasn’t bionic.”   

Bullock, here in the earliest days of her career, exudes the down-to-earth, girl-next-door sweetness and charm that would serve her so well in years to come. Jeff Yagher is slightly more likable here than he was in the original V weekly TV series—he’s still doing his cringe-inducing “I’m so slick and cool and witty and don’t you wish you were me” routine, but he’s added a dash of humbleness here, which makes him a bit more tolerable.


Gotta love that combination mullet/pompadour.

While Steve and Jaime are actively involved in the storyline, and their relationship is taken one step further, the movie is really a showcase for Bullock’s Kate Mason, serving as a pilot for a new Bionic Woman series. But it ultimately didn’t go anywhere and Bullock obviously went on to bigger things.

I have to mention that Lindsay Wagner looks terrific in this film—she’s ditched the short “woman of the ’80s” hairstyle she sported in Return and has let her hair grow long again, which makes her look more youthful than she did in the previous film.  



Not that Lindsay Wagner could ever look bad, but still...



MADDIE: “I liked the fact that Jaime’s hair was long again, because I prefer her with long hair—it reminded me of how she looked in her TV series.”    

It took five long years for Steve and Jaime to reunite one last time (I guess Bionic Showdown didn’t garner huge ratings—this movie even jumped networks, airing on CBS instead of NBC, which aired the previous two films). In 1994’s Bionic Ever After?, the focus is squarely on the original pair, with no new bionic characters being introduced. Even Michael Austin and Kate Mason don’t appear. 


"Steve Austin, I will not honeymoon in Silicon Valley!"

Steve and Jaime are finally headed to the altar, but Jaime is hit by a mysterious illness that causes her bionics to start breaking down. As Rudy Wells races around the clock to find a cure, Jaime calls off the wedding, leaving a heartbroken Steve to accept an O.S.I. mission paired with beautiful young agent Kimberly Harmon, played by Farrah Forke. (Yes, that’s right—Lee Majors found himself playing opposite an actress named Farrah Forke. Gotta wonder what was going through his mind during those scenes.) 


The other Farrah.   

While on assignment with Kimberly in the Bahamas, Steve starts showing signs of having contracted the same illness as Jaime. Gee, you think this mystery sickness was arranged?

Bionic Ever After? is okay. It gets the job done and provides a crowd-pleasing ending. I liked Farrah Forke ever since I first saw her in the sitcom Wings, and she does a nice job here. Wagner still looks great, Majors a little less so.


>Sniff< Excuse me, I've got something in my eye...


My main gripe with the movie is that once again, the main villains leave a lot to be desired. They’re not memorable at all (at least the first movie had Martin Landau and Gary Lockwood) and their ultimate plan isn’t all that impressive. They just don’t seem worthy of, or enough of a challenge for, the combined efforts of Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers—even an older Steve and Jaime. Since this was the last go-round for these two characters, it would have been nice to do what hadn’t been done in the previous two films, and finally bring back an already-established threat from the original series, something or someone from the past having returned to menace them again. Not necessarily Bigfoot or the Death Probe, which probably would have seemed too outlandish, but what about the Fembots, which were so popular and so fondly remembered? Just spitballing here, but they could have brought back Dr. Chester Dolenz, the evil robotics expert who appeared in “Day of the Robot,” “Run, Steve, Run,” and “Return of the Robot Maker,” and have him take over the work of John Houseman’s now-deceased Dr. Franklin, introducing a new series of Fembots in a last act of vengeance before he dies of old age. Henry Jones, the actor who played Dolenz in all three of those episodes, was still alive and working in 1994. Ah well. We got what we got, and it was satisfying enough. It ends our time with Steve and Jaime on a happy note, and provides a nice farewell.

Let the fighting begin! 

MADDIE: “I was really happy when Steve and Jaime got married because that’s what I wanted for them since Jaime was first introduced. I was really scared at the beginning of the movie, when Jaime’s bionics started to break down, because it was like deja vu, she was going to die again right before they were going to get married, and that would have been awful. I liked the twist about there being an O.S.I. agent who intentionally caused the bionics to start breaking down. I thought this was a good way to end everything, because it was on a happy note. I don’t think we needed to see any more movies with them.”

And that wraps up our look back at The Six Million Dollar Man. I want to thank my wife Ginny for buying me the DVD box set for my birthday a few years back. It is, without a doubt, a gift that keeps on giving! 

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A BIONIC LOOK BACKWARDS, PART II


Picking up from last time, my 11-year-old daughter Maddie and I continue our overview of The Six Million Dollar Man, which we watched via the superb Complete Collection DVD box set.

NOTE: This “bionic retrospective” was originally intended to run in two parts, but I’ve decided to expand it into a three-parter. This time around, we’ll look at Seasons Three and Four, and we’ll conclude next time with Season Five and the three reunion movies.   

SEASON THREE

The third season of The Six Million Dollar Man was arguably the most pivotal, as it included some truly key episodes, ones that broadened the scope of the series and expanded its universe and the cast of characters populating it. 

As I mentioned last time, the season kicked off with the two-part “The Return of the Bionic Woman,” which brought back Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Sommers and “undid” the death that traumatized viewers across the nation. Of course, millions of jaws dropped when, during this sequel storyline, the revived Jaime sees Steve Austin for the first time since her “death” and asks plainly, “Who are you?” 

"Who who, who who…?"

Writer/producer Kenneth Johnson did an admirable job reversing the end of Jaime’s origin story, but in the name of compelling drama, he went one step further—he resurrected Jaime, but in wiping out her memory, he also killed the romance between her and Steve.

MADDIE: “I was really happy when Jaime came back, and I was excited to see her and Steve back together. But I was really upset that she couldn’t remember him. I didn’t know what would happen from there. They had carved their initials in a tree, and they were in the newspaper together for their engagement announcement, and Steve’s parents loved her as their own daughter, so it was really complicated!”

To make matters worse for Steve, Jaime has fallen for Dr. Michael Marchetti, the brilliant scientist who used cryogenics to save her life.  

MADDIE: “I hated Michael Marchetti. He was a jerk. He had no business getting involved with Jaime—he was her doctor and she was his patient. That’s not supposed to happen. And I felt really bad for Steve. It must have really hurt him to see the woman he wanted to marry falling for someone else.”


Dr. Michael Marchetti—BOOOOOOOOOOO!

I have to note that when Jaime “died” at the end of “The Bionic Woman Part II” and a heartbroken Steve mourned her, Maddie did not shed a tear. But at the end of “The Return of the Bionic Woman Part II,” when Jaime drives off with Michael to try to forge a new future for herself—with Steve downgraded to the “just good friends” category—Maddie was fairly inconsolable.  

MADDIE: “I was very unhappy when she drove off with Michael Marchetti. I felt that Steve was her soulmate and Michael was not. I didn’t like Michael to begin with. I guess Steve was doing the right thing for Jaime when he convinced her to go away from him, but I didn’t like it. They were the perfect couple and I think if she had stayed, maybe she would have fallen for him all over again.”

“The Return of the Bionic Woman” is a crowd-pleaser—that’s exactly what it was intended to be—and it’s a treat to see Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner sharing the screen again. The chemistry between them is as strong here as it was in the original two-parter, and it’s very clever how the script puts a completely different spin on their relationship so that they’re not just repeating themselves. Overall, I don’t think “Return” is quite as strong as its predecessor, but it’s still very enjoyable and creative.

Of course, “The Return of the Bionic Woman” led to the weekly Bionic Woman TV series, which launched just four months later. One of the most fondly remembered things about The Six Million Dollar Man is how it interacted with its spin-off series, and how Jaime became a recurring element for the rest of the third season and well into the fourth. (More on that shortly.) 

MADDIE: “I was glad that Jaime got her own series. It was exciting, and the best part was that Steve and Jaime appeared on each other’s shows. Those were the episodes that stood out the most and were among the best  ones.”

But Jaime wasn’t the only bionic character to return in Season Three. In “The Bionic Criminal,” the world’s second bionic man, Barney Miller—his surname now changed to Hiller in the wake of ABC’s launch of the unrelated police sitcom starring Hal  Linden—is back in action, only now he’s being blackmailed and thus forced to commit a series of crimes.  

Monte Markham is back as Barney and is clearly having a good time, but due to the nature of the story—Barney is under duress and functioning as a reluctant antagonist this time around—he’s not quite as over-the-top, and is therefore not quite as much fun, as he was in his previous appearance.

"Mmmmmm, I smell ham—oh wait, it's ME!"

MADDIE: “That was a good one, but not as good as the first episode with Barney. I was scared when they tuned his bionics back up and gave him back his super strength, because I remember what happened last time and how dangerous he was. Though I did always enjoy the moments when Barney was out to show how much better he was than Steve, and that’s what was missing in the sequel.” 


The episode is also notable for the one-shot return of Alan Oppenheimer as Dr. Rudy Wells, presumably because there are flashbacks to Season Two’s “The Seven Million Dollar Man” that feature Oppenheimer’s Rudy. After this episode, Martin E. Brooks would inhabit the role permanently.  

But probably the biggest story of the season, in terms of scope, audaciousness, and popularity, was “The Secret of Bigfoot,” written and produced by Kenneth Johnson. (Note that Johnson also created Jaime Sommers—his value to the series can’t be overemphasized.) In this two-parter, Steve Austin encounters Sasquatch, a super-strong creature that turns out to be the bionic-like protector of a hidden society of extraterrestrials living in the California mountains.

"Chewie, is that you…?"

I watched this when it originally aired, and as I recall, it absolutely blew my mind. It had everything a fan of the show could want: mystery, suspense, action, the lovely Stefanie Powers as alien scientist Shalon, a surprise (and uncredited) guest appearance by Lindsay Wagner as Jaime, and, most importantly, a truly intimidating, worthy—and even downright scary—opponent for Steve in the form of wrestling legend Andre the Giant as Sasquatch. 

"Turn around, bright eyes…"

MADDIE: “This one was very good. I loved the fight scenes between Bigfoot and Steve, because it was one of the very few times where Steve faced an enemy who could really challenge him. I liked the way the aliens could move through time with their little devices, and the whole plot was really strong. It was really different from most of the other episodes, and it was the first time in the series that we really got deep into science fiction. It was a real twist to find out that Bigfoot was a lot like Steve. He was so big, and his eyes were really creepy! I liked that they gave Jaime a little tip of the hat, it was nice to see her. Shalon was very pretty. I liked her character. It was clear she had a crush on Steve, but then again, every episode is like that!”

Stefanie Powers as Shalon. >Sigh<

Ask anyone what they remember most about The Six Million Dollar Man and chances are, Sasquatch will be one of the top three responses. The character was brought back numerous times—more on that later—and was even turned into a Kenner action figure.  

Alas, I never got to own one. >Sniff!<

For fans like myself, who fully embraced the science-fictional “otherworldly” elements introduced in “The Secret of Bigfoot,” and were hoping that the series would continue in that direction from that point on, it was a bit disappointing to see the return to down-to-earth stories focusing on Steve combatting espionage and organized crime. That said, there’s a surprisingly small number of third-season episodes that qualify as genuine clunkers. For me, the weakest of the bunch were:

“The Song and Dance Spy,” in which guest-star Sonny Bono plays Steve’s old college roommate, who has gone on to become a successful singer—and is now believed to be a courier for an espionage ring. It’s a dopey, silly episode no matter what—and the presence of Sonny Bono does not help matters. This isn’t just me looking back at 1970s culture with irreverence. Even as a little kid growing up during that era, I had come to the conclusion that a guest appearance by Sonny Bono meant a weaker-than-usual episode of The Love Boat or Fantasy Island.     

Well, at least Lee Majors seems happy to have him there.

MADDIE: “This was just a stupid episode. I didn’t care what happened in it, and the fight scene at the end was dumb, with Steve’s friend trying to act like he’s tough.”  

“The Wolf Boy,” a riff on Tarzan in which Steve searches for an orphaned boy—the son of a U.S. ambassador and his wife—who is now living amongst wolves.

But the rest of Season Three’s episodes were all compelling enough in their own ways. Among the most notable:  

“One of Our Running Backs is Missing,” the only episode of the series directed by Lee Majors, in which Steve’s old friend, football player Larry Bronco (played by real-life pro football star Larry Csonka) is kidnapped as part of a betting scam. Like “The Song and Dance Spy,” it’s dopey as hell, but I found myself enjoying it quite a bit—and I’m hardly a football fan. 

“The Winning Smile” is another episode in which Oscar Goldman’s secretary Callahan figures prominently. Callahan, played by Jennifer Darling, was one of the best additions to the series, and the episodes featuring her were among the most enjoyable. This time, she’s suspected of leaking top-secret information out of Oscar’s office.  

Lovely lady, lovely smile… awful hairdo.

MADDIE: “I liked this one. I was really scared that they were going to send Callahan to jail because everyone thought that she was guilty. If she was guilty, that meant that her seeming all innocent was just an act, and that would have made me very sad, because I liked her so much. It was very clever that it turned out that her boyfriend, who was also her dentist, was the real criminal. He planted a tiny microphone in her teeth and she had no idea. Callahan picked really bad guys to date—the same thing happened to her on The Bionic Woman!”

“Hocus-Pocus” brings back Audrey Moss, a character introduced in Season Two’s “The E.S.P. Spy.” Audrey, once again played by Robbie Lee, is brought in to use her E.S.P. abilities to act as Steve’s assistant when he goes undercover as a nightclub magician. Their mission: to recover the U.S. Navy’s top-secret code book, which has fallen into the hands of a club-owning mobster. Audrey is somewhat like Callahan—very cute and likable, with a, shall we say, unique speaking voice.  

In “The Golden Pharaoh,” Farrah Fawcett, shortly before the debut of Charlie’s Angels, makes her annual guest appearance, though she’s playing a completely new character—Trish Hollander, an old flame of Steve’s, whom he enlists to help him recover stolen Egyptian treasures. But Steve may not be able to trust her, as it turns out that Trish has her own agenda. Watching Majors work with his then-wife is always interesting. By the way, in one amusing moment, Steve tells Trish, “You’re an angel.” Talk about foreshadowing!

What a difference a year will make...

And Jaime Sommers makes a cameo appearance in both “Love Song for Tanya” and “Big Brother.” I actually remember my seven-year-old self watching “Love Song for Tanya” the night it aired, on February 15, 1976, and being quite excited about seeing Jaime show up—and also thinking guest-star Cathy Rigby, playing a Soviet gymnast wanting to defect to the U.S.—was really cute. The episode itself is not quite as good as I remember it being, but I don’t want to crush my seven-year-old self, so I continue to think of it fondly. 

MADDIE: “I liked when Steve was going to show Tanya how to play pinball and she thought you play by sticking a pin in a ball! She was very funny and cute, and she was fun to watch.” 

Obviously, she's just beaten Steve's high score.

“Big Brother” is a well-meaning episode written by Kenneth Johnson that helps promote the Big Brothers organization (now known as Big Brothers Big Sisters) and features Steve coming to the aid of a troubled ghetto youth. Watching it again, I’d say that the Jaime appearance is the best thing about it.

(Incidentally, Lee Majors returned the favor by appearing as Steve Austin in several episodes of the first season of The Bionic Woman, including “Welcome Home, Jaime, Part I,” “A Thing of the Past,” and, most significantly, “The Deadly Missiles,” which featured Steve in a more prominent role and hinted strongly that there was still a romantic spark between him and Jaime.)  

MADDIE: “I was so happy watching ‘The Deadly Missiles,’ because Steve and Jaime kiss at the end. I was like, ‘Goodbye, Michael Marchetti!’ And it was a good episode anyway!” 

"Hey, speaking of 'deadly missiles'…"

In the third season, The Six Million Dollar Man really came into its own. It is arguably the best season, overall, of the series. And while the subsequent seasons would not maintain a consistent level of quality on a week-to-week basis, there were a number of fine episodes still to come.             

SEASON FOUR

Without a doubt, the fourth season includes some of the most iconic, most fondly remembered episodes that the series ever produced. It also includes some real lame-0s, along with a somewhat desperate attempt to expand the bionic franchise even further. 

But more than anything else, Season Four is notable for being the “mustache season.” That’s the year Lee Majors decided that what Steve Austin really needed was a mustache. But not a cool, thick, bushy, masculine Tom Selleck style mustache. 


No, Steve’s mustache was meticulously groomed and thin, sort of like David Niven’s.   


My theory has always been that Majors was trying to emulate Burt Reynolds, who at the time was the biggest movie star in the world. 

Whatever the reason, I vividly remember that as those fourth-season episodes originally aired, I, and everyone I knew—including my dad, who was ALSO sporting a mustache at the time (and would retain it until the day he died in August 2013)—considered Col. Austin’s new facial hair a distraction and an impairment to his good looks. Apparently, a lot of the viewing audience felt the same way, but Majors stubbornly kept the ’stache for the majority of the season.

Watching the episodes again all these years later, I still find the mustache an unfortunate distraction. And I’m not alone.

MADDIE: “It looked like there was a pencil under his nose. You would just look at his mustache and block out everything else. It didn’t even really look like a mustache, it looked like dirt or a caterpillar under his nose.”

As for the episodes themselves—the highlights of Season Four were undoubtedly the two extended crossover storylines between TSMDM and The Bionic Woman: the two-part “The Return of Bigfoot,” which began in the season premiere of TSMDM and concluded in the first episode of TBW’s second season, and the three-part “Kill Oscar,” which began on TBW, continued in an episode of TSMDM, and concluded in TBW. This kind of storytelling has been commonplace in comic books for many decades, but was—and remains—a rarity in television.

MADDIE: “I liked the idea of the crossovers, because I got to see Steve and Jaime together. It was weird that the stories would jump from one show to the other, but I think they did that to get more people to watch both shows. The crossover episodes were among my favorites.” 

“The Return of Bigfoot,” written by Kenneth Johnson, was a totally obvious choice to kick off the fourth season, in that it took the two most popular elements from the previous year—Bigfoot and Jaime Sommers—and mixed them together into one big story. As a direct sequel to “The Secret of Bigfoot,” it brings back Stefanie Powers as Shalon and continues the story of the aliens that live secretly among us. However, Andre the Giant was apparently not available to reprise the role of Sasquatch, so Ted Cassidy—best known as Lurch from The Addams Family—took over.

"I'm a substitute for another guy…"

Cassidy performs well, but I prefer Andre, both in appearance and in overall approach to the part. 

MADDIE: “I liked the first Bigfoot better. He seemed more fierce and less human.”

The storyline acknowledges Jaime’s brief appearance in the previous Bigfoot story, which helps to bring her into this one in a way that feels organic. Part one, which ends with Steve near death after a brutal encounter with Sasquatch, and Jaime the last remaining hope to save the day, sent chills down my spine when I first watched it as a child. I still consider it very strong storytelling. In part two, Jaime forges a far less adversarial relationship with Sasquatch than Steve ever had, and, with a recovered Steve joining them, they manage to stop a rogue splinter group of aliens from carrying out their plans for world domination. 

"Interesting friends you have, Steve."

Admittedly, all the slow-motion action gets a bit tiresome after a while, and the production budget prevents the key set pieces from being truly impressive, certainly by today’s standards. But it’s exciting to watch Jaime become more immersed into Steve’s world and, of course, it’s always great to see the two of them together. However, their budding romance seems to have cooled somewhat—maybe Jaime didn’t like the mustache either.            

MADDIE: “I thought ‘The Return of Bigfoot’ wasn’t as good as the first Bigfoot story. The fight scenes lagged on a lot, and towards the end of part two, the special effects were pretty bad. But I liked Gillian (played by Sandy Duncan) because she helped Steve and Jaime—she sort of reminded me of Callahan. I liked how Jaime got involved in the Bigfoot storyline, and how she took over when Steve was injured. I liked seeing Shalon again, but I was sad that she ended up very sick at the end. I hope she survived and that her home planet sent more of the miracle drug that she donated to save Steve. She was supposed to use it to save herself.”

“Kill Oscar,” written by Arthur Rowe, introduced the “fembots” into the bionic universe. Created by Dr. Franklin, an embittered former OSI scientist played by John Houseman, the fembots are androids that look exactly like human beings and are designed to infiltrate OSI operations so that Franklin can seize control of an experimental weather control device. Oscar Goldman’s secretary Callahan is abducted and replaced by a lookalike robot, as is Dr. Rudy Wells’s assistant Lynda—and, ultimately, so is Oscar himself. In a reversal from “The Return of Bigfoot,” this time it’s Jaime who is near death at the end of part one, and Steve has to pick up where she left off to confront the threat. 

Talk about a face-off!

Parts one and two are great, thoroughly entertaining, and represent the bionic shows doing what they do best. But the storyline crashes right into a brick wall with part three, a talky, boring, and increasingly tedious exercise. Veteran actor Sam Jaffe shows up as an elderly U.S. Navy admiral, and he gets waaaay too much screen time and seems like he’s about to keel over at any moment. The scenes involving the U.S. military and government officials plotting a strategy against Dr. Franklin are deadly dull. It’s not a totally awful conclusion, but it certainly doesn’t live up to the two parts that preceded it, and is thus a big disappointment. It would also be the last time that Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers would be seen on screen together until the first reunion movie in 1987.

MADDIE: “I loved a lot of ‘Kill Oscar.’ The big twist, where we find out that Oscar has been replaced by a killer robot, was just so good. I did not see that coming. I liked the fight scene in part two, between Steve and the fembots—he throws a pole to destroy the device controlling the fembots, and then the fembots go blank and start walking around like zombies! My expectations for part three were very high, and I was disappointed. There was just a lot of long conversations, I found it hard to follow, and when Steve and Jaime make it to the island where Franklin is hiding, it feels like they’re running around for like a half hour and nothing happens. But parts one and two were really compelling.”

Maddie says she lost some interest in the series following the conclusion of “Kill Oscar,” so she doesn’t have much to say about subsequent installments. But I consider these other Season Four episodes notable:


“Nightmare in the Sky,” in which Farrah Fawcett makes her final appearance in the series by playing astronaut/test pilot Kelly Wood, the character she portrayed back in the Season One episode “The Rescue of Athena One.” Kelly comes under suspicion when her plane—a $15 million aircraft—disappears. She claims the plane had been attacked by a World War II fighter, but no other aircraft was detected in the area. Steve, convinced of Kelly’s innocence, sets out to clear her name.    

“The Most Dangerous Enemy” is a rare chance for Martin E. Brooks as Dr. Rudy Wells to take center stage. Rudy and Steve fly to a remote island to check on a scientist who has been working on a drug to boost human intelligence. Things go very wrong when Rudy is bitten by a chimpanzee that was used as a test subject for the drug—and, like the chimp, he begins to exhibit increased strength and growing mental instability. By this point, despite the fact that Brooks was the third actor to play Rudy, he had proven himself to be a key element that should be used on a regular basis, much as DeForest Kelley had done by the end of the first season of the original Star Trek. It’s interesting to see him and Steve as opponents, especially when Rudy declares, “I made you and only I know how to stop you!”

The doctor is out—of his mind.
   
The oddball “A Bionic Christmas Carol” is exactly what you think it would be, with Ray Walston as Ebenezer Scrooge—er, I mean Horton Budge, a penny-pinching businessman developing technology for America’s space program. But it seems that the project is being sabotaged, so Steve is sent to check it out—over the Christmas holiday, much to his annoyance. Dick Sargent (Bewitched’s Darren No. 2) plays Bob Cratchit—er, I mean Bob Crandall. Steve ends up functioning as the ghosts from the Dickens story, subjecting Budge to a night that will transform him from a miser to a mensch. I got a kick out of this one, don’t ask me why.

"Bah-onic humbug!"

(By the way, there’s a scene in this episode where Steve is in a department store, and over his shoulder, in the background, you can see an original Six Million Dollar Man action figure on a shelf!) 

The two-part “Death Probe” was another popular storyline, and I remember  loving it when I was a kid. A Soviet space probe accidentally lands in Wyoming, and the Soviets want to get it back before the technology falls into American hands. The probe, however, thinks it’s on Venus, which is where it had been intended to land, and poses a threat to anyone who gets in its way. Steve is sent in to stop the probe, but the machine is damn near indestructible, more than a challenge for Col. Austin. 

"You up for a game of stickball?"

Watching “Death Probe” all these years later, it’s not nearly as exciting or as epic as I thought it was back in 1977. Cool story concept, and the probe itself has an interesting design, but the action gets a little tedious—a result of the limited production budget, no doubt. I’m sure it worked a lot better on paper.   

I liked “Danny’s Inferno,” in which Steve is assigned to protect teenager Danny Lasswell, who has inadvertently created a new form of thermochemical energy—and, as a result, has been targeted for kidnapping. I thought Lanny Horn put in a good, effective performance as Danny—he’s a Hollywood depiction of a stereotypical nerd, to be sure, complete with a bad hairstyle, shlumpy clothes, and oversized geek glasses. But I found him to be a likable character and I was rooting for him. 

This kid would probably be a billionaire today, laughing at the whole lot of us.

For the most part, other episodes in Season Four range from good (“Task Force,” another fun adventure pairing Steve with Callahan) to decent (“The Infiltrators,” guest-starring Yvonne [Batgirl] Craig, in which Steve goes undercover as a boxer and wears a hilariously ridiculous “belly shirt” while training) to mediocre (“Double Trouble,” featuring Flip Wilson, “Vulture of the Andes,” and the two-hour “The Thunderbird Connection”).

I must also mention “To Catch the Eagle,” the next-to-last episode of the season, which is most notable for featuring Steve without his mustache for the first time since Season Three. Perhaps to compensate, Lee Majors then started letting his hair get much longer and bushier.   


But there are two episodes in the fourth season that I place at the very bottom of the barrel, and both are backdoor pilots for new series that deservedly never got off the ground.

“The Bionic Boy,” which originally aired as a two-hour TV movie, takes everything that made the original “Bionic Woman” episodes so great and basically throws all of it out the window. It’s an attempt to capture lightning in a bottle a second time, but that’s never something you can plan for. 

One trip to the well too many.

“The Bionic Woman” wasn’t intended as anything other than a particularly good installment of The Six Million Dollar Man—there were no future plans for Jaime, so there was a lot of freedom to do whatever it took to make the story as strong as possible. Hell, they killed her, with no intention of bringing her back. By and large, the story is about Steve, and how he’s affected by what happens throughout. Steve has a personal history with Jaime right from the start, and we watch their love grow. The chemistry between Majors and Wagner was strong and unique.         

In contrast, Steve is basically a supporting player in “The Bionic Boy,” which focuses on teenager Andy Sheffield, a character with whom Steve has no personal connection. Andy, paralyzed in an accident, is given a chance to regain the use of his legs through bionic implants, and Steve is assigned to help the boy adjust to his new situation. It’s Andy’s story, pure and simple. Steve has no real personal stake here, there are large chunks where he’s not even on screen, and Andy, played by Vincent Van Patten, is just not an interesting enough character to pick up the slack. This was clearly intended as a launchpad for a third bionic series, and in that regard, as a pilot in which Lee Majors guest stars as Steve Austin, it’s effective enough—but as an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, which is what the audience is actually tuning in to watch, it’s a ripoff.  

And “The Ultimate Imposter” is even worse. This is an even more blatant attempt to use TSMDM to launch another series, with Steve Austin appearing only at the beginning and at the end. The rest of the time, we’re following the exploits of Joe Patton, subject of an OSI experiment to transfer information from a computer directly into a human brain. Patton, played by Stephen Macht, is by and large a charisma-free zone, providing no reason for people to want to watch him on a weekly basis. Once again, people tuning in to watch their favorite bionic man are left feeling cheated.  

Uh… who are you, and why should we care?

Overall, Season Four was creatively uneven, but still, by and large, it was enjoyable. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors, Season Five would not be an improvement.  


NEXT TIME: The end, a new beginning, and another end.

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2013.