Six million bucks

steveaustinThat’s $29,003,975.66 today, according to the CPI which may even be lowballing it. So keep your “one … million dollars” quip to yourself.

I’m trying to recall any SF cyborgs before the 1970s, which is a little bit tricky considering androids, which have a much more detailed history beginning with R.U.R., Asimov’s best work (I Robot, The Caves of Steel), Star Trek‘s “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and more. I am not really sure that explicit half-and-half man-machine had been introduced much at all before Robotman in Doom Patrol, and he’s pretty close to an android or, well, a robot, as a brain in a fully mechanized body. I’m thinking about characters for whom the remaining original parts might at least conceivably live and function, so the machine parts are prosthetics – but so extensive that they literally “restore” life and human identity as conceived by others to the person. There’s a grey area there, but even for characters like Robotman who couldn’t survive without their machine parts, enough of the people-parts remain to comprise a necessary part of the whole arrangement – he does, after all, have a working human brain. The 70s comics would bring Deathlok, a badly underrated and unacknowledged player in the history of science fiction, but in addition, nothing can be said on this topic without considering Steve Austin. No, not that guy. The one before that guy.

I want you to work with me a little bit here. Please don’t say “j-j-j-j-j,” or sing the theme tune, or start in about Farrah Fawcett. Never mind Bigfoot, which was a late-addition artifact and doesn’t pertain to anything I’m writing about. All of that is meme talk, disconnected from the experience of watching the show at all, destructive to the understanding of what it actually depicts, and deceptive regarding what it might have meant to watch it at the time. Bluntly, that the show is seriously a 70s Marvel comic right there onscreen: my disability is my superpower, my identity as human, my struggle to find a way among the obviously dysfunctional roles of the day, my responsibility to examine my conscience in the thick of danger, and my disagreements with my powerful nation’s policies.

My copy, released during the early crossover into TV

My copy, released during the early crossover into TV

The word “cyborg” was coined in the novel of that title by Martin Caidin, published in 1972 and an instant minor hit, especially since it was marketed as as a thriller and not so much as science fiction. Much of the familiar details come from it: the former astronaut and test pilot, the iconic crash, the name Steve Austin, his slightly troubled relationship with the intelligence agency, and (at the very end) super-heroic covert ops. It went on for a few much less interesting sequels, by which time the TV show had eclipsed the book presentation. The hero’s situation illustrates the whole human-to-machine spectrum of the prostheses, from a valve in his heart (which most people don’t think of as “cyborg”), the non-seeing false eye (ditto, possibly to a slightly lesser extent), the eye’s photographic capacity (which neatly straddles the line; is it “seeing?”), and then the limbs. It’s well to remember that in the 70s, even a single missing limb was grounds for visual horror, with few social means to cope on anyone’s part. A disabled person generally had to apologize for it constantly, and for the extensive inconveniences it “made” everyone else go through – therefore android-style limbs like Austin’s restore “humanity” to him. That issue is both taken as given, along the lines of “no one should have to live like this,” and also called out as an identifiable prejudice.

Taking replacement parts’ performance to superhuman capacity rather than merely compensatory is a very big deal too, which I’ll get to a bit later, but for now I’m putting forward that there’s an Uncanny Valley at either end of the machine-prosthesis spectrum: hobbling, semi-compensatory things not much different from a peg leg, vs. a limb you thought was ordinary except this guy just ripped a vault door off its hinges.

The conversion to TV was definitely not seamless. The original TV movie (1973) is a pretty good transcript of the novel, with the majority of the plot being the adjustment to disabled status, then the trauma of re-enablement. A lot of it shows up in the series as repurposed footage, including the intro but also certain scenes or action shots. The intelligence agency is quite amoral and Oscar is definitely not Steve’s friend. There are some minor changes in detail: the artificial eye can see; the arm is switched from left to right. Then there were two series pilots, which are fucking awful, as apparently they were going for a Roger Moore style Bond presentation, and I’m pretty sure they were using rejected Bond plots (the unspeakably bad theme song is here). Finally, the series begins with no reference to these and picks up pretty much from where the original pilot left off, with Austin’s characterization consistent with it, but with Oscar turned into a trustworthy buddy.

This first season was only thirteen episodes, and the famous introduction is much shorter and more spare than the one you know; I think I like it better. There’s no sound effect associated with using his limbs (it briefly shows up for a robot adversary), and the filming-effects team takes a while to figure out what combination of undercranking vs. overcranking produced a watchable effect. The general look-and-feel for the introduction and the show didn’t fully develop until the middle of the second season. However, certain things were nailed right out of the gate. First, Lee Majors is remarkable, both in action and in drama (despite some awful direction like winking at the camera, which fortunately fades fast). He might be the last truly outstanding old-school athlete actor, as his celebrity contemporary Charlton Heston ushered in the sculpted male porn alternative which has remained with us since. Second, a good half of the episodes are clearly spawn of The Twilight Zone, in tone, in moral quandary, and in bringing out as much weirdness as possible with the naturalistic filming techniques.

kennethjohnsonI don’t know exactly when the great Kenny Johnson’s production, directing, and scripting came in – I think after the pilots, at the start of the series, or soon after. But it marked the beginning of a pioneering and incalculably influential voice in social science fiction. I confess I didn’t manage to get committed to The Bionic Woman as a show to watch then or now, but there’s much to be said for what it meant and accomplished. From there you need only consider the TV version of The Incredible Hulk, the concept and initial installment of V, the TV version of Alien Nation, and a considerable contribution to Farscape.

Honesty compels me to admit that both the first season and the show overall made about a 50% bipolar hit rate for outstanding vs. godawful episodes, but sometimes which ones succeeded was surprising. The one in which his friend is turned into a robot is stylistically rank but ends up truly chilling, and what seems to be a gimme concept – another guy gets to be bionic and turns out to be an asshole – probably set the motifs for cinematic robot/android combat forever. When his ex-and-reunited girlfriend gets to be bionic, she does not go on to become a superheroine; that’s retconned later. I’m impressed by a lot of the action sequences which took surprising care to add details, like the way a pickup truck slews around when Steve jumps into it, reflecting the added force of his landing.

I’ve watched the first and second seasons. You’ll spot a lot of the politics of the day, including liberal Soviets, black people including an extremely famous guest star, a truly of-its-era look at mid-70s Israel, Irish radical militants, and more. The men-and-women content is a Master’s thesis waiting to happen, and if whoever it is can refrain from OMG-sexist sudden inhales, possibly a pretty good one. Austin is clearly in “learning to be sensitive” mode. This is the 70s version of Looking for a hero – written absolutely in the context of the same dialogues which produced The Hazards of Being Male, and a lot more hopeful. If you don’t mind a little TMI, here are the scribbles I did while watching the show recently for the first time since the mid-70s. Warning: very revealing and rude.

The first TV episode’s ending may simply be my favorite moment for the show (sorry about the stupid ads).

Steve has been locked in a freezer-room, which borks his bionics. He MacGuyvers his way out (plus smooshing the guard with the door), and must get across much southern California hills & brush to stop the bad guys who are aiming a truly Marvel villain evil ray-machine at people. The run is fantastic because his limbs barely work, and he is quite literally crippled, beginning with a full-length fall and then struggling across the landscape. The shot of him death-glaring his way forward as he limps along is great … and then motion by motion, body part by body part, he’s able to run, first badly, then well, and you can see that the effort precedes the performance with every improvement. The only sound effect is his heartbeat. The shot of him in full sprint, filthy with dust, shirt soaked in sweat, would be plain action porn, except that the death glare is still there, nailing the point that all of this is an act of will, that he’s using the limbs; they are not carrying him along. He’s unarmed, and the guys in the ray-van have guns, and they are turning the ray on him anyway, so he yanks the nearby metal fence-post out of the ground, then runs as close as he can and javelins the fucking thing into the van which explodes with great verve and kills them all to death. It’s not easy – he has to be smart enough to know what he can do tactically, quick enough to spot the most useful object toward that end, and strong and skilled enough to throw it. His “powers” aren’t magic. His look right after says it all – he’s got nothing left, that throw took all he had.

So if you haven’t figured out why I’m posting this, here it is: all of the above corresponds perfectly to what the superheroes were going through in the 60s and 70s, and using the very same SF/superhero motifs. We’ve got the origin, the reconstruction of identity, the powers-and-responsibility, the self-society grappling, and all the stuff I’ve been posting about. An enormous amount of both SF and superhero comics from this point on is a footnote to The Six Million Dollar Man, not least in the redesign of Wolverine as effectively a cyborg which took place at the height of the series’ cultural presence especially for kids. As usual, the genuine source of inspiration is reduced to a false array of memes to dismiss it.

I believe this may be a start-up post for some content tracking, including Cyborg in The Teen Titans, and whatever suggestions you readers may provide.

Links: Kenneth Johnson (homepage)

Next: Pinky fingernail o’doom

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on October 1, 2015, in Filmtalk, Heroics, The 70s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. epweissengruber

    In terms of disability and sci fi there was also “Gil ‘the Arm’ Hamilton” in the Larry Niven stories. Never read them but I saw covers with different depictions of Hamilton. The severed limb was replaced by a psychic manifestation of that phantom limb phenomenon that some people who have lost limbs report. So he had to live with the stigmas and stares while still having this capacity that no-one else had. That visual icon accompanies my viewing of Steve Austin.

    http://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0188/6068/products/Long_Arm_of_Gil_Hamilton_The_-_Larry_Niven_-_Del_Rey_-_1977_-_5_1024x1024.jpg?v=1363833380

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    • Absolutely. The two are strongly allied in my experience and memory, also in the context of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970), which both represented a lot of the SF of the 60s and informed a lot of it in the 70s. Yes, Christopher, I can feel you about to say John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider.

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  2. I loved T6MDM as a kid, but admittedly some part of that was the fact that the main character shared my first name. 🙂 Looking back on it, it was probably the first Science Fiction I truly liked and paid attention to, years before I actually started reading the stuff. And as you say it tied in neatly with my love of comics. 😉

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  3. That’s why I didn’t get the buzz around cyberpunk or steam- . A lot of 70’s sci-fi was about working stiffs trying to make it in a fantastic but still screwed up future. The flatlanders in Niven’s cosmology looking for some break to make it up into space, putting themselves in hock. Hamilton was one of those: he was broken and disfigured but didn’t change himself to fit in. The space workers hoping to get their “shares” for stopping to pick up the Alien in Alien. Dark Star and Bruce Dern in Silent Running.

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  4. If we’re talking SF in general, I don’t think you can broach this subject without talking about Cordwainer Smith’s (Paul Linebarger) “Scanners Live in Vain”. That’s 1950, but I point at it more for its importance than its age. (Still – really, 1950? How is it that I – who couldn’t have read it until at least 20 years later – still remember it as a foundation of my SF experience?)

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  5. It may be a false memory, but I believe I remember a scene from the pilot where Austin awakens in the hospital and Majors delivers a very moving performance of reacting to his injuries. Just a man, alone in a hospital room.

    I saw the pilot after the series as a kid, on a TV matnee show or something like that. My memory of this scene, real or not, colors my memory of the show considerably. Likewise, the internal struggles Jaimie Sommers faces, which Austin must find a way to help her with, seem in my mind to, as you said, make this show more than the action figure, the SFX, and Bigfoot.

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    • Having re-watched the pilot, yes, that’s in there (also, very faithful to the novel, which I think you’d really like). I was generally impressed by how often Majors brought several emotions into a scene without histrionics throughout the series, like the fireside conversation in the episode I linked above. A bit too often the script gave him absolutely nothing to work with, but when it did, he was really good. I have to say I was sort of relieved at the lame-ass song during the two-parter with Jaimie, because the emotional tensions in the plot were pretty raw and bordered on scary. I almost wanted him and Jaimie to get “downgraded” parts (like they did for the 7 mil guy) and go off and live far away together.

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    • And now I’m reminded of the “show me” scene in the recent RoboCop remake- probably the only part of that film worth watching, but with every bit as much gut-punching body horror as its progenitor.

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  6. I think the first cyborg story I read was Pohl’s Man Plus, in which an astronaut is rebuilt into a demonic (no really) bionic body in order to survive on Mars. It was dark and tense and gave me the willies. I haven’t read it since, but it’s Frederick Pohl so I’m sure it holds up decently.

    Oh and of course as Gordon mentions above, Scanners Live in Vain- although at the time I thought they were just *wearing* the haberman devices, it wasn’t until after several rereadings that I realized they were built in- inseperable from the men themselves.

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  7. YES! Man Plus was also around the school library. Didn’t pick it up but was freaked out by the cover!

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