The Six Million Dollar Man (Video Title: Cyborg: The Six Million Dollar Man; Syndication Titles: “The Moon and the Desert, Parts 1 & 2;” Made-for-TV 1973)
The basic plot: After civilian astronaut Steve Austin (Lee Majors) is critically injured during a test flight (completely destroying his legs, right arm, and left eye), government scientist Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam) is ordered by Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin) – the chief of the Office of Strategic Operations (“OSO”), a secret government branch – to rebuild Steve’s missing limbs and eye with special “bionic” replacements that Dr. Wells has specifically developed with the interest of the OSO. The new bionic limbs give Steve virtual super-strength and incredible speed, while his bionic eye functions as near-telescope – but Steve pays a heavy price for his abilities as he is now expected to act as a special agent for the OSO.
Det. Abilene’s rating: 4 (out of 5)
Analysis: A telefilm based on Martin Caidin’s best-selling 1972 science fiction novel Cyborg, The Six Million Dollar Man film was a ratings smash and was quickly followed by two more telefilms: Wine, Women & War (1973) and Solid Gold Kidnapping (1973). When both of the follow-up telefilms were equally successful, “The Six Million Dollar Man” was quickly green-lit as a mid-season weekly series in spring of ’74 and became an instant hit with viewers, running for five successful seasons and spawning an equally popular spin-off series, The Bionic Woman. Lee Majors as Austin became one of the true television icons of the seventies, and remains a common pop culture reference on today’s television and in current movies even nearly 40 years since this initial made-for-TV adventure. Even elements of the weekly series such as the use of slow motion for the “bionic” feats of strength and the unique “bionic” sound effects (neither of which are utilized in this first film, interestingly) have become instantly recognizable and frequently parodied pop culture trademarks that are well known to even contemporary teenagers and young adults who were not yet born when the series originally aired.
Yet, of course, this initial telefilm was produced and aired before any of that future success occurred, and it refreshingly has a different feel from the more upbeat, action oriented weekly series that followed. Although described by many as a “loose” adaptation of Caidin’s novel, I actually find that the first half of the telefilm actually follows Caidin’s text with reasonable accuracy. This film does not shy away from the darker, more serious aspects of the novel’s themes, such as Steve’s understandable contempt for being treated as a machine by his superiors and even his unsuccessful suicide attempt – elements that would never be referenced and all but glossed over in the weekly series. This also keeps the original agency name of “OSO” from the original novel (which would be changed to Office of Scientific Intelligence – “OSI” – in the weekly series), although Steve is oddly made a civilian astronaut in this film rather than an Air Force Colonel as in the novel (starting with the second telefilm and throughout the weekly series, Steve would regain the military background of the novel).
The telefilm only significantly differs from the novel in the second half, where Steve’s initial mission for the OSO has been completely re-written. In last half of the novel, Steve is partnered with a female OSO agent and is sent off to the Middle East to fight extremism. In the telefilm, Austin is now sent on a solo mission to Saudi Arabia to execute the more tradition mission of rescuing an important individual who is being held prisoner. In more arbitrary changes, the film sees Steve’s right arm replaced with a bionic limb instead of his left arm as in the novel (for practical reasons as Majors is right-handed), his bionic eye is now used as a telescope and for night-vision rather than as a mere camera as in the novel (though his bionic eye is strangely not utilized in this first adventure), and the term “bionic limb” and “bionic eye” is used instead of the novel’s terminology of “bionics limb” and “bionics eye” (most likely because it sounded better and was less awkward for the actors to say).
The telefilm also differs from the eventual weekly series in several ways. In addition to the “OSO/OSI” change, Richard Anderson’s Oscar Goldman (a lead character in both the original novel and the following TV series) is not present, but a similar character named Oliver Spencer (played by veteran character actor Darren McGavin) is featured for the first and only time in the series. This is also the only time that Dr. Wells was played by Martin Balsam, as the part was re-cast with Alan Oppenheimer in the future series on a reoccurring basis, and eventually re-cast again with Martin E. Brooks (my favorite of the three) when Dr. Wells became a regular character on the series. Also, as mention in the introductory paragraph, the weekly series’ trademark sound effects and iconic “slow-motion” running sequences were not yet incorporated into the action at this point, which will seem more than a little odd to fans of the weekly series who have never seen this original telefilm before.
So now that I’ve hashed through the film’s origin and it’s differences from it’s source novel and following weekly series, the obvious question should be, “Is this telefilm any good on it’s own accord?” As stated before, this film is darker than the series and actually addresses the pathos of Steve’s situation, and, as a result, Steve feels much more fleshed out and multi-dimensional than he became on the weekly series. Although not as cold-blooded as in the novel, this original pilot gives Majors his only chance to play Austin as a more morose, bitter character and he responses to this challenge admirably. Majors is particularly effective in the heartbreaking, Frankenstein-like moment where Steve rescues a young boy’s life, but is then looked upon with terror as the boy’s mother discovers the exposed circuitry in Steve’s bionic arm - themes that would not be explored again in such a frank manner on the following series.
Darren McGavin’s portrays the Goldman-substitute Oliver Spencer as a sincerely manipulative and cold-hearted tyrant, something that is truly a contrast to the stern-but-fair fatherly quality that Richard Anderson would later bring to the weekly series as Oscar. I have always admired the crusty McGavin’s considerable talents throughout his legendary career in everything from The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) to A Christmas Story (1983), and he expertly plays Oliver here – however, I can see why series developer Kenneth Johnson chose to replace him with the more sympathetic Oscar in the weekly series. Academy Award –winning big-screen character actor Martin Balsam is also terrific as Dr. Wells, yet his prolific film career (he was in three theatrical films and two other telefilms in ’73 alone) unfortunately prevented him from continuing to play the role in the subsequent telefilms and weekly series. The beautiful Lee Remick-lookalike Barbara Anderson is also very affecting as the compassionate nurse who inevitably has a fairly complex relationship with Steve, and it’s slightly disappointing that she never made a return appearance in the proper series.
NOTE: As with the other 90-minute Six Million Dollar Man telefilms (Wine, War, and Women and Solid Gold Kidnapping), the syndicated version of The Six Million Dollar Man pads the running time out to two hours by recycling badly-dubbed stock footage. This makes portions of the film incomprehensible, so watch the original 90-minute (which is roughly 73-minutes without commercials) on the DVD set.
Bottom Line: The telefilm that later inspired one of the most popular and iconic television shows of all-time, The Six Million Dollar Man is different from the weekly series that it eventually spawned. It is actually much darker and more interesting than the more upbeat proper series that followed but will still highly appeal to fans of the weekly series as well as those of ‘70s telefilms in general.