Steve Austin. Astronaut. A man barely alive.
"Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. We can make him better than he was before. Better… stronger… faster."
There is a saying in SF Fandom: "The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12." The idea – and a fairly strong one – is that the SF that you encounter around that age (from say 10 to 14), when you are forming your own tastes clearly for the first time – will become one of the most powerful influences on you.
The Six Million Dollar Man certainly fit that profile for me. Oh, I was a fan of SF/F before that time, but in that era, before Star Wars broke the entire genre wide open, SF television worth watching was thin on the ground. I'd seen Star Trek, of course, and loved it, but little else was available. Then, at the age of 10, I saw some ads for an upcoming show which featured as a hero an astronaut who had once gone to the moon.
One should understand that I had stayed up to watch Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20-21, 1969, and to me that was the incredibly significant opening for my 7th birthday. Astronauts were THE heroes, none greater, none more significant.
I naturally HAD to watch this show, even though my bedtime would not normally allow it. I don't even know how I convinced my parents – possibly they simply said "yes" because they could see I REALLY REALLY REALLY wanted to see this.
And see it I did: even the title, The Six Million Dollar Man, seemed to resonate with import, a vast, even incomprehensible sum of money (to a 10 year old, the difference between millions, billions, and even mere tens of thousands isn't gut-level clear) invested into this single person to save his life. I don't remember – directly – much of that initial viewing, but one scene burned itself into my mind as a sort of symbol for the character, besides the more iconic images: Steve, just recovering emotionally from the unexpected gift or curse he'd been given, coming across an automobile accident and rescuing a child from certain death – only to have the mother see the electronics under the damaged bionic skin and shrink away, asking what kind of monster he was.
The emotional conflict portrayed in that show was almost more than I was ready for, but it impressed me with Austin's humanity more than anything else – that what made him a man wasn't a body, it was his will, his heart, and his mind.
And then came the series. Every week, Steve Austin faced a new challenge. Often it was a governmental or corporate plot to endanger or humiliate the United States; sometimes it was something much more mundane, such as an old friend in trouble. In some ways, Steve Austin was a modern, technological version of the original Superman; able to leap small buildings in a single bound, running as fast as a locomotive, see objects that no ordinary man could perceive, able to block iron bars if not bullets with his arm, and lift a car with one hand, and each episode would, of course, end up requiring Steve to use his bionics at a critical moment.
But the emphasis of the show wasn’t on Steve Austin as a bionic weapon or tool, but on Steve as a man with extraordinary gifts – and responsibilities. This makes him, in many ways, closer to Captain America – and indeed, the two men are very similar, more so now than when the Six Million Dollar Man was first shown, since now both are symbols and remnants of a time now distant for many of those watching.
More important to me was that this was my series. It was the first TV series I had discovered on my own which I liked, and it was good. More, it lasted. Steve Austin only stopped his adventures in 1978, five full years of adventures – not Star Trek's abbreviated three-year run or Trek's one-year animated series. I was able to occasionally catch an episode for some years in reruns, but it was really thirty years later that I managed to obtain the first season again on DVD… and I found, to my surprise, that the show was still good.
Oh, there were many aspects that were outdated (and, like many action-adventure shows of the older eras, quite a number of episodes which would have ended very differently if cell phones had been invented), but the essential stories were still sound – and often had interesting features I'd missed as a child not even in high school at the time. For instance, the first episode featuring the Soviet Union showed them as honorable, sympathetic adversaries with whom we need not even fight – and this in a network TV show at the height of the Cold War, when many other shows would be using "the Russians" as shorthand for "pitiless villain" second only to "Nazi". Later episodes continued this pattern; even when the Soviets were enemies, most of them were perfectly decent people, with only a few bad apples in the bunch.
Even more interesting were little details that in the era before VCRs were something that presumably only the production crew could really enjoy; for instance, the details of the bionics (while leaving out the one crucial piece that I assumed must have existed – a simple framework connecting the two legs with the arm, so that he COULD lift cars and so on) included all sorts of things such as the power source, the output in watts, the capabilities of the eye, and so on.
The numbers were even reasonable in at least the ballpark meaning, indicating that someone had spent an awful lot of time working out these details so that they'd make SENSE. That's the kind of craftsmanship you rarely see in ANY SF/F shows. I don't have the original novel (Cyborg by Martin Caidin) available, but even if those details were present in the book, it's still surprising to see them left in such a show – especially in an opening sequence which was clearly quite expensive to produce and in which such details would never be seen!
Steve Austin remains, to this day, one of my absolute icons and highest examples of American Hero, and has probably informed or influenced my writing of almost every single hero I've created. In Grand Central Arena, I deliberately named my heroine Ariane Stephanie Austin, and made her a test pilot – who eventually is the first to take the human race to a new world. Ariane isn't a spy or secret agent – but her courage, her fierce devotion to her friends, and her unyielding will are exactly the same as those of her distaff namesake.
The entire series is now available in a magnificent boxed set from Time-Life, and it holds up very well to this day (I'll do an actual review of the series at some point in a separate post)
And that opening monologue quoted at the beginning of this entry is the only rival, in my heart, to the sense of wonder generated by Star Trek's "Space… the final frontier…"