Though it has become something of a pop-culture institution unto itself, The Six Million Dollar Man will undoubtedly look like a relic to modern viewers used to original tough-guy cyborg characters like the Terminator and Robocop. Lee Majors’s star vehicle doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny, mostly because it’s rather lifeless and entirely too silly to cohere into something more than an iconic template for superior TV action dramas that would come later on, like Human Target, which recently featured Majors in the season-one finale as the original Christopher Chance. Time has not been kind to Steve Austin’s antics, making Time Life’s new exhaustively comprehensive The Six Million Dollar Man collection a time capsule only diehard fans will want to dig up.
The Six Million Dollar Man’s stories are essentially cobbled together from a Mad Libs fill-in-the-blank story arc that treated both human-interest stories and action-adventure intrigue with the same vague indelicacy. Though astronaut Steve Austin was positioned as an extraordinary man serving his country and the world with his extraordinary abilities, the show never really engaged with the real world. If anything, the only thing the show’s rotating cast of writers and directors agreed on was the show’s apolitical stance. Though Steve’s whole shtick was that he was engaging with ideas and people that an average American might never get to, the show’s writers refused to step on anyone’s toes. The Six Million Dollar Man’s politics are too diffuse to be truly objectionable. This wouldn’t matter if the show weren’t as cheap-looking, repetitive, and utterly boring as it is.
The show’s first pilot movie establishes Steve as a milquetoast test pilot serving his country. He gets into a horrible accident testing a space module not because he’s inattentive or inexperienced; it’s just bad luck. Steve’s additionally not too cocky or too compliant for his own good: He’s a perfectly middle of the road, personality-less average American. The government, represented by Darren McGavin’s sleazy man in the shadows, subsequently decides to rebuild him, not because Steve is such an outstanding pilot, but because he provides Darren with an excuse to create a robot man. Steve’s left eye, right arm, and both of his legs are replaced with enhanced parts, which automatically makes him a more interesting character as he’s now essentially less human than he was before when he was just a nondescript cipher.
Steve’s decision to embrace his new powers—super-strength, super-vision, and the ability to run up to 60mph—is a tough one because he knows it will define him as a government tool. This pilot is one of the only times you’ll see Steve questioning authority and/or his role in enforcing the status quo. He doesn’t want to be less than human, but neither does Darren, who feeds Steve outdated intelligence on his first mission so that Steve can figure out for himself whether or not he can live with being a machine man. If Steve dies on his first mission, that’s perfectly acceptable to Darren; they can always rebuild someone else, regardless of the seven-digit price tag.
Steve naturally survives that first initial encounter with a group of Israeli terrorists (the show’s writers make a point of distancing them from the Israeli government so that one can’t imagine that they’re making any kind of political commentary). From there, Steve is thrust into numerous situations where he’s forced to rescue kidnapped Americans or look for missing persons. All nationalities, all belief systems, all people are equal in Steve’s eyes: He’s just trying to understand them all, regardless of whom they are or what they do. In “The Last Kamikaze,” Steve grows to admire a kamikaze pilot from WWII for his unwavering sense of honor and even begins to understand women better in “The Peeping Blonde,” where Farrah Fawcett, at the time married to Majors, plays a reporter that wants to be respected for her work, not her looks (“People want to help me because I’m pretty,” she says, to which he responds, “What’s the matter with that?”).
Steve was positioned as a man of the people, even if the show milked Majors’s sex-symbol status to death: As the years went on, the zippers on his track suits continually lowered, as if they had a mind of their own. And most of the time, Steve didn’t even use his super powers to fight bad guys, but rather to do mundane nonsense like changing a tire with his bare hands or straightening out the handlebars on a child’s bicycle. If the proof is in the pudding, then six million dollars can’t buy very much in the way of a hero.
And that’s basically why the show is so boring: The Six Million Dollar Man’s creators did everything they could to make the fantastic seem commonplace, even downright boring. It’s telling then that “Burning Bright,” an episode guest starring William Shatner as an astronaut whose consciousness is altered after being exposed to a cloud of electricity while on a space walk, is one of the most unusual and hence exciting serial narratives in the show. Shatner’s mind, now transformed into a super computer somehow, allows him to talk to dolphins using magical mathematical equations: “It’s mathematics…They’re communicating in math—to me!” That preposterous scenario doesn’t make much more sense than the idea of a kamikaze pilot waiting 20-plus years to surface, armed with an experimental nuclear weapon no less, but it’s a good deal more engaging.
And what of the show’s action scenes? That is, after all, what the show largely remembered for: the bionic sound effect, shots of Majors running in slow motion, and the phrase “Better, stronger, faster.” Well, tonally, The Six Million Dollar Man is firmly positioned between the delirious camp of shows like The Avengers, The Prisoner, Batman, and relatively more straight-laced, self-serious spy shows like The Saint and Danger Man. It was never too adventurous in that way and as a result the show’s relatively flamboyant signature slow-motion action scenes the most dynamic thing about The Six Million Dollar Man. Steve unceremoniously bursts through walls and drop-kicks bad guys and never makes a sound while doing it: Only the bad guys grunt or moan while fighting, as in “Day of the Robot,” when Steve has to fight an android (John Saxon) that only looks human. It’s endearing the first few times, but watching guys fall over in slow motion gets tedious quickly, unless the combatants in question really look like they have no idea what they’re doing. (See “Dr. Wells is Missing,” in which Steve and four other bionic dudes fight; one of them, a black dude “trained in savate,” squeals like a third-rate Bruce Lee every time Steve tosses him into the same pine tree.) If that’s not a synecdoche for the show’s shortcomings, I don’t know what is.
The image and sound quality is decent considering that nothing was done to restore these episodes. As with many Universal TV show releases from the ’70s, The Six Million Dollar Man looks like it was directly ripped from high-quality VHS masters. Minor hisses and pops on the show’s soundtrack are par for the course and the sound in general is pretty flat and undynamic, which is to be expected. But the picture quality is holistically clean and largely unmarred, though infrequently grainy.
Time Life went above and beyond with this collection’s comprehensive collection of supplementary features. From audio commentary tracks from writer and show directors to a plethora of documentaries that contextualize the show’s importance, this box is a totally overwhelming set. While quite a few of the featurettes overlap each other in terms of content, many of them stand out as particularly informative and engaging, especially "The Pop Culture Effect" and "The Stunts of the Bionic Age." The interview footage featured within are pretty dated, but cumulatively, the bonus feature in this box are a surprisingly authoritative collection that only sometimes comes across as a series of fawning promo materials for a schlocky and dated TV show. I particularly recommend writer/producer Kenneth Johnson’s audio commentaries on the second season; he has a grasp of the show’s content and production history and is both lucid and energetic.
Time hasn’t been kind to Steve Austin’s antics, making Time Life’s exhaustive The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection a time capsule only diehard fans will want to dig up.