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Pre-Star Wars, Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman were beacons for young nerds

Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

Make no mistake: Even in 1976, we had the technology. We had smart, ambitious fantasy writers, brilliant special-effects artists, and millions of potential fans, all hungry for stories about heroic adventurers wielding swords, ray guns, and/or superpowers. So why weren’t our movies and TV shows more awesome?

We did have some that were awesome in their way. For those of you who weren’t alive and aware in the mid-’70s, it’ll be difficult to explain what Steve “The Bionic Man” Austin meant to us who were young and geeky back then. These were lean times for our tribe. Superhero comics were lurching toward a high-school sophomore’s idea of maturity. Videogames were still rudimentary, Saturday-morning cartoons were stiff, and Star Wars didn’t exist yet. It was a stellar time for science-fiction and fantasy literature, but in the more mainstream media of movies and television, genre fare was primarily represented either by highbrow art films or B-level cheese. So we clung hard to our syndicated repeats of Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and Outer Limits, and suffered through Lost In Space and some of the zipper-suited superhero shows, because what else could we do? And then out of the blue came The Six Million Dollar Man, a kid-friendly action-adventure series as dopey as any of the others, yet about as good as we could’ve expected a TV show about a crime-fighting cyborg to be at that time.

Cyborg was the name of the Martin Caidin novel that producer-director Richard Irving first adapted into a TV movie in 1973, for Universal Television and ABC. Lee Majors starred as Colonel Steve Austin, an astronaut who suffered a catastrophic accident and then had both his legs, one of his arms, and one of his eyes replaced by super-strong electronics, at the behest of the Office Of Scientific Intelligence. After coming to grips with not being fully human, Colonel Austin embarked on a series of missions for the OSI, combating terrorists, gangsters, mad scientists, and all the other kinds of bad guys James Bond might’ve gone after in one of his movies—only with some more overt science-fiction elements, worked in increasingly over the run of the series. 

Three Six Million Dollar Man TV movies aired before the show went weekly in January 1974, and though Universal’s revolving creative team didn’t have the resources to mount their own Bond movie every week, they did try to come up with ideas that would make their largely pre-teen audience say, “Whoa, cool!” They also tried to build a detailed world around Steve Austin, this man unlike other men. Some of the best Six Million Dollar Man episodes involve Colonel Austin encountering other people with super-powers, including his former girlfriend, Jaime Sommers, a tennis pro who gained her own bionics after a skydiving accident. “The Bionic Woman” appeared on The Six Million Dollar Man a few times in seasons two and three, then headlined her own show starting in January 1976.

The Six Million Dollar Man embraced its times, though only to a degree. The show largely eschewed Church Committee-era politics. (There wasn’t much questioning about whether the government should be spending millions of tax dollars on super-spies, in other words.) But the actors, writers, directors, and costumers didn’t ignore fads and fashions. Their hairstyles and tracksuits were all on-point, as were the show’s occasional flashes of pop-art style. The opening credits—with their funky graphics overlays, coupled with the montages of surgery and explosive action—oozed ’70s-ness, as The Six Million Dollar Man so often did.

In fact, pop culture doesn’t get much more ’70s than “The Return Of Bigfoot,” the two-part, two-night season-première event that first aired on September 19, 1976 (as The Six Million Dollar Man’s season-four opener) and September 22 (as the kickoff to The Bionic Woman’s season two). This was the era when Majors sported a light mustache of the same nutmeg color and downy texture as the chest hair he made a point to flash several times an episode. Meanwhile, as Jaime Sommers, Lindsay Wagner had the quintessential ’70s fashion-model look: feather-haired and rail-thin, like a mop with shiny white teeth. 

In the context of the plot, these two characters are brought back together at the start of “The Return Of Bigfoot” so the OSI’s head honcho, Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), and chief doctor, Rudy Wells (Martin Brooks), can give their top agents an annual checkup. In the context of the TV business, this crossover represented ABC coming out strong at the start of a new season, looking to dominate two nights in première week.

And oh yeah, Bigfoot. The ’70s in North America were the age of In Search Of… and a culture-wide preoccupation with unexplained phenomena, such as the hairy woodland giant rumored to stalk the Pacific Northwest. The Six Million Dollar Man first introduced its Bigfoot character in the season-three two-parter “The Secret Of Bigfoot,” starring enormous wrestler Andre The Giant as Sasquatch, a hairy, hulking, half-mechanical beast who serves an ancient race of space aliens nestled in the California mountains. During Colonel Austin’s first encounter with the aliens, he learns all about their “Timeline Converter,” a device that enables them to speed up or slow down time, alternately serving the same function as a teleporter or a freeze-ray. Steve also learns about the fast-healing miracle drug Neotraxin and falls for one of the aliens, Shalon (played by Stefanie Powers). Ultimately, for the good of Steve and her people, Shalon fogs The Bionic Man’s memory and sets him free.

When “The Return Of Bigfoot” begins, Sasquatch (now played by Ted Cassidy, a.k.a. Lurch from The Addams Family) has traveled to the city and is robbing banks under the control of the evil Nedlick (John Saxon), who is threatening to kill Shalon if the creature doesn’t cooperate. Because the OSI has no record of Steve’s encounter with Bigfoot, the agency weighs the possibility that its man has gone rogue, given that he’d be one of the only men capable of bashing down a bank’s wall to steal its precious metals. Part one of “The Return Of Bigfoot” is all about Steve regaining his memory of Sasquatch, with the help of one of the aliens, Gillian (Sandy Duncan), who explains that Nedlick is using gold, emeralds, and Boron to build a device that will erupt a volcano. At the end of part one, Steve and Sasquatch reluctantly fight each other in one of those TV-ready “secure facilities” where the cardboard boxes are always empty and every button and storeroom is clearly labeled.

The fight ends with Steve’s legs getting crushed and him suffering from radiation poisoning, putting him in desperate need of Neotraxin. So he whispers the truth to Jaime about Gillian and Shalon, and The Bionic Woman heads into the hills to find the aliens, where she has her own tussle with Sasquatch, peppered with about 100 percent more Annie Hall-ish babbling than any of Steve’s fights. Working in Jaime’s favor? She reminds Bigfoot of his beloved Shalon, which causes the monster to question Nedlick’s orders. Ultimately, Jaime and Steve are able to defeat Nedlick when the villain’s erupting volcano escapes his control, and the heroes come up with the bright idea to hurl a Timeline Converter into the lava (with Sasquatch’s help), to freeze the flow.

It’s impossible to ignore the silliness of all this. The sets have a cartoonishly weightless look, especially when anyone with superpowers smashes or bends any part of them. The sound effects and Foley are often way out of proportion to the action on the screen. The way the actors move and talk, it’s easy to picture them quietly counting each step to their marks between lines of dialogue. And then there’s these two shows’ most famous recurring effect: the slow-motion running and jumping, meant to give the impression of great speed and power in a way regular-speed footage (or worse, high-speed footage) would not. But over the course of two full episodes, the syrupy movements become a drag on the pace, and every strange facial expression or stumble gets magnified.

The goofiest elements in “The Return Of Bigfoot,” though, are Nedlick and his minions. Saxon—an old pro at playing officious creeps—tries to give his character an air of haughty menace, whether he’s talking about “quaint Earth expressions” or denying medicine to a dying woman. But the other actors play their parts more like snappish petty thieves, not world-conquering aliens, and the disjointed pacing of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman is such that sometimes Saxon pauses too long before giving simple one-word answers to people’s questions. Plus, the plot requires that Nedlick reveal too much about his evil plan, so either Steve or Jaime will overhear and know where to go and what to do to defeat him.

And yet there’s an appealing handmade quality to much of “The Return Of Bigfoot.” The aliens’ advanced technology looks like it was cobbled together from Radio Shack leftovers, and Bigfoot’s primitive brain keeps flashing back to memories of Steve as a friend, in ways that are unintentionally sweet. Plus, the ostentatious swirling lights at the aliens’ secret lair—as well as the psychedelic tinting effects when Sasquatch flings his Timeline Converter into the lava—are genuinely beautiful, in part because they’re not really trying to look cool. That kind of casual psychedelia was just in the air at the time, as standard-issue as these episodes’ wide collars, big belt buckles, and offhand references to Nelson Rockefeller.

More importantly, it’s too limiting to talk about the Bionic franchise strictly in terms of what appeared on television screens. Superhero movies and TV shows were undeniably rinky-dink in the first half of the ’70s, but by God, we had great toys, puzzles, board games, lunchboxes, and T-shirts. The Six Million Dollar Man didn’t end when the credits rolled. It and The Bionic Woman both continued inside bedroom pillow-forts and backyard sandboxes, where dolls with “bionic” accessories starred in elaborate adventures alongside mismatched Matchbox cars and stuffed animals of varying sizes and secret skills.

Kids have always had it easy in that way: They’re able to use imagination to shade in the details TV writers forget. But The Six Million Dollar Man didn’t become a hit because of children alone. My dad sometimes watched the show with me, for the same reason he used to borrow each new issue of Justice League Of America that I’d bring home. He claimed he just wanted to check the comics out, to see if they were appropriate. Later, I realized he was just using that excuse so he could read JLA. Back then, grown-ups who liked stories about outer space or costumed heroes mostly kept that information to themselves. It took the success of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to make it safer to be publicly nerdy.

In the meantime, while The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman were less than ideal, they still loomed large in the consciousness of genre fans, because the shows had little competition. This may explain why later TV-movie revivals and straight-up reboots of the Bionic franchise have seemed so weak: We’ve had much richer alternatives post-1977. “The Return Of Bigfoot” is a dusty-but-charming relic of a time when those of us who loved science-fiction adventure knew that more often than not, the best we could hope for were imperfect pieces of what we loved, strewn haphazardly about. There was always some assembly required.

Next time on A Very Special Episode: Dollhouse, “The Left Hand”