How does one begin to describe The Six Million Dollar Man? During its run, it ranked as one of the biggest shows on television, capturing astonishing ratings in an era when people had far fewer entertainment options than they do today. When viewed from a thirty-five year distance, it seems all the more threadbare: conjured out of cheesy sound effects and a few hastily decorated sets on some studio backlot. The new definitive collection doesn’t provide any answers for its success… but if you pick it up, you need never make another Steve Austin-related purchase again. Hit the jump for my full review.
The show itself retains a certain clunky charm, though it definitely hails from another era. Each episode begins with a summation of the origins story: an accident turns Austin (Lee Majors) from he-man astronaut into human roadkill. Saved by a shadowy government agency, he gains replacement parts for his legs, arm and eye, granting him superhuman strength and the ability to run really fast in slow motion. He then becomes an indispensable operative for said agency, facing off against various swarthy foreigners and domestic criminals straight out of central casting.
Most of the plots display overt comic-book sensibilities, featuring lost islands, stranded aliens and a few throwdowns with Bigfoot, as well as more “realistic” espionage stories. For 70s kitsch, it ranks second to none, and while we can no longer take it as seriously as it clearly takes itself, that doesn’t mean it lacks in entertainment value. Its comparatively slow pace leaves plenty of room for affectionate snarking, and a certain child-like sensibility elevates the enjoyment factor tremendously. (The show clearly had kids on its mind more than adults.)
You can also have fun playing “Spot the Guest Star,” since the show featured a who’s who of disco-era celebrities. Sci-fi fans should keep an eye out for George Takei and a very young John de Lancie as well as Yvonne Craig from the old Batman show. Carl Weathers popped in, as did Cathy Rigby, Suzanne Sommers, and Majors’ then-wife Farrah Fawcett in a number of episodes. Most prominent among their ranks, of course, was Lindsay Wagner, playing Austin’s girlfriend and eventual recipient of her own spin-off show.
For all the flaws, however, the boxed set makes a truly impressive collection. Indeed, it may be too much for all but the most devoted Austin-ites to handle: 40 discs collected in six cases and held by a box the size of a car battery. When you open the box, it plays back the famous spiel from the opening credits (“gentlemen, we can rebuild him…”), which starts out cute, but gets really irritating as time goes on. Time Life, which released the set, leaves absolutely nothing out. It starts with the three original made-for-TV movies, which did so well that they prompted the creation of the series. The 99 episodes of the show itself follow–including several crossovers with The Bionic Woman–capped by another three made-for-TV “team-up” movies made after the show ended. The latter provide some of the set’s greatest camp treasures, with Wagner aging like fine wine and Majors’ girdle straining mightily to disguise his growing gut. (To his credit, he slimmed down considerably for the later comments.) The second team-up movie also features a then-unknown actress named Sandra Bullock… who I’m guessing no longer uses it to top her resume.
Extra features are scattered throughout the set, though most of them appear in the sixth and final DVD case. They include new interviews with Majors, Wagner and Richard Anderson as the stalwart Oscar, as well as a comprehensive look at the show’s genesis and cultural impact. The set also holds syndicated versions of the original movies, audio commentary on several key episodes, and featurettes covering everything from the sound effects to the toy line. All that and an Oscar winner in a leotard to boot. There’s a hefty price tag attached to it–$240 straight to the eager hands of Time-Life–but you can’t say they don’t give you your money’s worth. For serious fans looking for the last word on bionics, your long wait is finally over.
(Note: Don’t look for this in stores. Time-Life is selling it exclusively online and only until October, 2011. You can find all the details on ordering it at http://www.6mdm.com.)