seawasp (seawasp) wrote,

"Steve Austin... a man barely alive..."

Recently I acquired the first two seasons of the classic '70s TV show The Six Million Dollar Man. I had an ulterior motive for doing so -- my wife Kathleen decided she was going to run a FTF RPG based on the show Torchwood and in a burst of inspiration I asked whether it would work to have Steve Austin drop in on Torchwood through the Rift. (it works very well, actually)

This gave me the excuse to actually buy a couple seasons of the show. We've been watching them since they came in when we get the chance.

It's astonishingly good overall. The show started when I was 12, and ran until I was 16, so -- seeing as it (and its spinoff The Bionic Woman) were just about the only SF game in town on TV -- it wasn't surprising that I'd have fond memories of it. But having seen other shows I remembered fondly not do so well (the biggest other exception being Airwolf, biggest disappointment being MacGyver, which while I couldn't point to any one specific problem just failed to grab me again), I was braced to discover unwatchability.

Instead, despite undeniably cheesy and dated moments, these are overall usually tightly plotted, well-paced episodes which often evade the stereotypes one might expect. The first major appearance by Russian characters ... features not a single one of them as a villain, but all of them are instead sympathetic characters, even noble, who are simply unfortunately opposed to our heroes under some conditions (and not, really, in the situation presented to the main characters). There's some continuity -- our characters remember, and refer to, events that happened in prior episodes.

Steve's bionics remain as advanced now as they were in 1974, however -- a technology we'd love to have, and still can't make today; some parts are basically physically impossible, something I couldn't have realized as a kid (e.g., the 20:1 zoom bionic eye; the physics of optics would require Steve to extend a three-foot lens assembly from his head to do that). And they still have their odd "but that shouldn't work that way" moments (although for the purposes of the Torchwood game there was an easy explanation: Rudy Wells had reverse-engineered alien tech, and it incorporates some interesting things like a reinforcing stabilization field that keeps the user stable when using the bionics). Yet the focus of the show remains the characters we encounter, even if the plot invariably forces Steve to use his bionic capabilities to solve the problems.

Watching shows of this era does make you realize how very dependent on situation many plots were. Quite a few of these could have been solved trivially today, by making a cell phone call. One has to remember when watching Steve desperately running through a city to reach somewhere in time to prevent an assassination that in 1974 there probably WASN'T any good way for him to reach Oscar Goldman in transit, unless he was carrying a specially made portable radio and had it switched on.

There are little details I didn't remember; for example, the iconic and unforgettable "bionic" sound effects didn't make their appearance immediately, and aren't in regular use even at the beginning of the second season (the bionic eye sound effect has become reliably present, but not the main bionic effect (that was, in fact, first used not for bionics, but for one of the robots Steve fought). I also thought the first Bigfoot episode was earlier in Steve's run, and that the really wierd stuff didn't show up until later (in point of fact, by the third episode we're dealing with someone who has reliable ESP).

We're having a lot of fun watching these!
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