REVIEW: RETRO-STYLE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN COL. STEVE AUSTIN
In the 1970's one of the most popular television shows on the air, at least from something of a sci-fi standpoint, was "The Six Million Dollar Man". This series, starring Lee Majors, told the story of Colonel Steve Austin (not Stone Cold the wrestler, I hasten to add), a former pilot and astronaut who suffered grievous injuries in a crash, but whose right arm, both legs, and left eye were rebuilt with "bionics", high-tech replacements that afforded Austin a form of super-powers. He became a special agent working for the Office of Special Investigations, and had a long-running TV series.
Also in the 1970's, the top action figure company at the time was unquestionably Mego. Their formula of creating 8", cloth-costumed action figures, that used common bodies, easily plugged-in heads, and a variety of costumes, allowed them to dominate the action figure market, and acquire a wide variety of licenses, including DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Wizard of Oz, and seemingly less-likely candidates, such as Starsky and Hutch, CHiPs, Dukes of Hazzard, and even produce a number of public domain properties, such as a series of Pirates, Western characters, and Robin Hood.
Surprisingly enough, The Six Million Dollar Man was one of two major licenses in the 1970's that, for whatever reason, Mego missed. The other one was Star Wars, and that was arguably one of the main factors in Mego's ultimate downfall. When the Star Wars line set a new standard for action figures at 3-3/4" in height, with a host of vehicles and other large accessories, the day of the 8" cloth-costumed action figure was on its way out.
However, in recent times, it's made a comeback, thanks to companies like Mattel, EmCe Toys, and another company with the rather distinctive name of Bif Bang Pow. Mattel, of course, focused their efforts on a line of retro-style DC Universe figures. EmCe, with the blessing of Mego's founder and a logo that even looks a lot like Mego's original logo, has created precise duplicates of the Mego figures from lines such as Star Trek and Planet of the Apes, even as they've expanded the cast, especially with Star Trek.
Bif Bang Pow, for the most part, has taken a "what if" approach. Suppose Mego had had certain licenses in the 1970's that they didn't actually have? What would those products have looked like? Think of it as action figure wish fulfillment -- several decades after the fact. One of these is a superb line of figures based on the classic Battlestar Galactica. Another line is based on -- The Six Million Dollar Man.
This review will take a look at the retro-Mego-style figure of the central character, the six million dollar man himself, Colonel Steve Austin. But let's also see where this character and his popular television series came from.
The Six Million Dollar Man was a television series which ran from 1974 to 1978, following several successful made-for-TV movies, initially based on a novel by author Martin Caidin, titled "Cyborg", which was first published in 1972.
Cyborg is the story of an astronaut-turned-test pilot, Steve Austin, who experiences a catastrophic crash during a flight, leaving him with all but one limb destroyed, blind in one eye, and with other major injuries.
At the same time, a secret branch of the American government, the Office of Strategic Operations (OSO) has taken an interest in the work of Dr. Rudy Wells in the field of bionics - the replacement of human body parts with mechanical prosthetics that (in the context of this novel) are more powerful than the original limbs. Wells also happens to be a close friend of Austin's, so when OSO chief Oscar Goldman "invites" (or rather, orders) Wells to rebuild Austin with bionics limbs, Wells agrees.
Steve Austin is outfitted with two new legs capable of propelling him at great speed, and a bionics left arm with almost human dexterity and the strength of a battering ram. One of the fingers of the hand incorporates a poison dart gun. His left eye is replaced with a false, removable eye that is used to house a miniature camera. Other physical alterations include the installation of a steel skull plate to replace bone smashed by the crash, and a radio transmitter built into a rib. This mixture of man and machine is known as a cyborg, from which the novel gets its title.
The first half of the novel details Austin's operation and both his reaction to his original injuries, and his initially resentful reaction to being rebuilt with bionics. The operation comes with a hefty price tag, and Austin is committed to working for the OSO as a reluctant agent. He is teamed with a female operative and sent to the Middle East as a new weapon against extremism.
In 1973, Cyborg was adapted as a 90-minute made-for-TV movie titled The Six Million Dollar Man. The film begins with a computerized text scroll explaining the term "cyborg" and since the word "CYBORG" is the first word seen on screen, some sources, including the ABC network's own promotions for the telefilm, give the full title as Cyborg: The Six Million Dollar Man.
The film starred Lee Majors as Austin and Martin Balsam as Rudy Wells. For reasons unknown, it was decided to change the name of the OSO chief to Oliver Spencer. Real-life footage of a test plane crash was incorporated into the film to depict Austin's accident.
The first half of the film follows Cyborg fairly closely, including Austin's dealing with his injuries and reconstruction, and Wells' reluctance to operate on his friend. The second half of the telefilm differs from the novel, with Austin dropped into a remote part of Saudi Arabia on a solo mission and ordered to rescue a prisoner from a group of extremists, a mission later revealed to be a test of Austin's abilities.
The film was a ratings hit. A second film, Wine, Women and War was commissioned, but this was not based upon a Caidin work. For this second film, Oscar Goldman was reinstated, with Richard Anderson playing the role, but the agency was renamed the Office of Scientific Intelligence.
Alan Oppenheimer replaced Martin Balsam as Dr. Wells. A third TV movie, Solid Gold Kidnapping followed, after which The Six Million Dollar Man was launched as a weekly TV series in 1974, running until 1978; five seasons in total. The original pilot film was re-edited with new footage to make it a "flashback episode" and syndicated as the two-part "The Moon and the Desert". Author Martin Caidin served as an uncredited consultant on the series throughout its run and ultimately made a cameo appearance in one of its final-season episodes.
A number of changes to Austin's bionic abilities and his demeanor were made as Caidin's dark-in-tone original novel and its concepts were adapted.
In order to increase the science-fiction appeal, Austin's bionics were made more powerful, and he had abilities his literary counterpart lacked. Most notably, the first telefilm revealed that Austin's replacement bionic eye had a telescopic feature (later expanded to include nightvision), whereas Caidin originally had Austin's eye be little more than a mini-camera, and the character was still blind in it.
Austin was made to be less cold-blooded in the TV series. In the novel, Caidin depicts Austin as being prepared to kill without pause during his missions - for example, he kills a truck driver in order to prevent the man from identifying Austin to the enemy. The TV version, however, is shown stating outright that he has no desire to kill people, and tools such as the poison dart gun in the bionic arm were dropped. Also, since actor Majors was right-handed, it was decided that Austin's bionic arm would be his right, not his left as depicted in the novels. In Caidin's novel, the bionics arm was essentially a bludgeon and battering ram, whereas in the televised version the arm is more sophisticated and Austin is shown bending bars and throwing objects great distances with it.
In the novel, Austin is described as having a military and astronaut background. In the telefilm adaptation, he is explicitly described as a civilian test pilot, although also a former astronaut. For the television series, Austin's background was changed to match that of the books, and he was given the rank of US Air Force Colonel.
The initial movies were followed by the debut, in January 1974, of The Six Million Dollar Man as a weekly hour-long series. The last two movies, produced by Glen A. Larson, notably introduced a James Bond flavor to the series and reinstated Austin's status from the novels as an Air Force colonel; the hour-long series, produced by Harve Bennett, dispensed with the James Bond-gloss of the movies, and portrayed a more down-to-earth Austin.
The show was very popular during its five-season run and introduced several pop culture elements of the 1970s, such as the show's opening catch-phrase ("We can rebuild him...we have the technology," provided by Richard Anderson in his Oscar Goldman character), the slow-motion action sequences, and the accompanying "electronic" sound effects.
As to the character of Steve Austin himself, as originally conceived by Caidin, Austin is a former US Army helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam before being transferred to the Air Force and then into NASA. As backup Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 17, he became one of twelve astronauts to walk on the moon when the prime Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) broke an arm before launch.
In the pilot episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, Austin's background is adjusted: he is a civilian test pilot who was the only civilian to walk on the Moon. In the regular series, however, Austin once again became a military man, holding the rank of colonel in the Air Force.
In both versions of his origin, Austin is testing an experimental lifting body aircraft when a malfunction causes a crash. Austin's injuries are severe: both legs and one arm are lost, and he is also blinded in one eye and his skull is pulverized (the TV version does not suffer the skull injury).
One of Austin's best friends is Dr. Rudy Wells, a doctor and scientist who is a specialist in the newly emerging field of bionics; unknown to Wells, a secret American government intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Operations -- later changed to Office of Scientific Intelligence or OSI for TV -- has been looking at a way of reducing agent casualties. Their solution is to take a severely injured man, rebuild him with bionics, and create a cyborg—part man, part machine. Wells is ordered to perform the procedure on Austin.
The operation to rebuild him costs $6 million. Bionics are used to replace Austin's arm and both legs. Austin's eye is also replaced. In the TV series, these give Austin some extremely impressive superhuman abilities:
His bionic right arm has the equivalent strength of a bulldozer; that the arm contains a Geiger counter was established in "The Last of the Fourth of Julys."
Austin's bionic legs allowed him to run at tremendous speed and make great leaps. Austin's upper speed limit was never firmly established, although a speed of 60 mph is commonly quoted since this figure is shown on a speed gauge during the opening credits. The highest speed ever shown in the series on a speed gauge is 67 mph; however, the later revival films suggested that he could run approximately 90 mph.
Austin's bionic left eye had a 20.2:1 zoom lens along with a night vision function (as well as the restoration of normal vision). Austin's bionic eye also has other features, such as an infrared filter used frequently to see in the dark and also to detect heat (as in the episode "The Pioneers"), and the ability to view humanoid beings moving too fast for a normal eye to see (as in the story arc "The Secret of Bigfoot"). One early episode shows the eye as a deadly accurate targeting device for his throwing arm.
Both versions of the character are subsequently recruited into the OSO/OSI as a secret agent (and as an ongoing test subject for bionics). Austin becomes a top agent, travelling the world to fight everything from terrorism to alien invasion.
In Caidin's novels, Austin's superior is OSO chief Oscar Goldman. Goldman appeared in the regular series, played by Richard Anderson. The relationship between the TV version of Austin and Oscar was much friendlier than the literary counterpart, although numerous episodes show Austin being frustrated at being a "bionic lap dog" for the OSI.
Austin's backstory is barely described by Caidin. The TV series, however, introduced his mother and stepfather (who live in Ojai, California), and eventually, a fiancée, Jaime Sommers, who would herself become bionic after a skydiving accident, leading to a spin-off series, The Bionic Woman. Lee Majors made frequent guest appearances on the spin-off series, which springboarded from Jaime being brought back to life after her bionics failed; a consequence of this was she lost all memory of her relationship to Austin. Both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman went off the air in 1978.
A later episode reveals that Austin's biological father was also an Air Force pilot and was killed in the crash of his C-47 Skytrain in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II.
Further details about Austin's later life were filled in during three made-for-TV reunion movies that aired between 1987 and 1994. In the first (The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman), which takes place several years after Austin retires from the OSI, it is revealed that he had a son, Michael, born in the mid-1960s. His mother is not identified. Michael subsequently suffers traumatic injuries in a crash similar to which his father experienced, and undergoes bionic rebuilding which renders him more powerful than his bionic father. In exchange for Michael's operation, Austin agrees to return to OSI and his son also becomes an operative, though he would not appear in any subsequent films.
In the second film, Bionic Showdown, Austin is shown to be a senior OSI operative helping thwart a terrorist attack against an athletic event in Canada.
Bionic Ever After?, the final reunion film, saw Austin's bionics malfunctioning due to a computer virus, but in the end he is rescued by Jaime and the two finally marry as the film ends. Unlike Jaime, who undergoes an upgrade to her bionics in Bionic Ever After? which apparently adds new abilities, no such upgrade was ever evidenced for Austin in the telefilms, with the exception of an apparent enhancement to his bionic eye which is illustrated in the film.
So, how's the figure? Really very impressive. Now, I said that Mego didn't have the Six Million Dollar action figure license in the 1970's, but that doesn't mean that there weren't Six Million Dollar Man action figures. In fact, there were, and I owned many of them at the time.
The original Six Million Dollar Man action figures were produced by Kenner, not a company especially known for action figures at the time. They would certainly become known for action figures several years later, as they would also have the license to Star Wars. But this is well before that took place.
The original Six Million Dollar Man action figure was slightly over 12" in height, and wore a cloth outfit that looked like a red jogging suit, as much as anything. The figure had certain "bionic" capabilities. There were little hatches on the legs which could be popped open to reveal little circuitry chips that could be removed (and lost in the carpet).
The "bionic" right arm worked on a button in the figures back, and could be made to lift a plastic engine block with a ratcheting sound that somebody apparently thought sounded like the bionic sound effect from the show. Additionally, the arm, from shoulder to wrist, was covered in a thin rubber "skin" that could be rolled up to reveal more circuitry chips.
The only bionic feature that was rather detrimental to the look of the figure was the bionic eye. Although for the most part the headsculpt was a capable enough likeness of Lee Majors, the left eye was essentially a hole with a lens in it, and there was a second hole on the back of the figure's head. Kids could look through this lens for a "bionic eye" effect, that was slightly less effective than the average front door peephole. It also made the figure look like he had a perpetual black eye -- a nasty one, at that
The line was a huge hit, and inspired a number of playsets, accessory sets (including special mission arms and other uniforms), and other figures, including Oscar Goldman, Jaime Sommers, and others. I had a fair number of these toys. I also had a large number of Megos at the time. Would it have been cool if Steve Austin had been a little more compatible? Yeah, it might've, but at the same time, I don't think Mego would've been able to put the same features into a standard eight-inch figure that Kenner put into their 12" one, so I'm not complaining.
Nevertheless, I have to say that it's very cool to have a Mego-esque Colonel Steve Austin figure after all this time. The figure is pretty much the dual creation of EmCe and Bif Bang Pow. EmCe Toys has the rights to produce action figures based on the classic Mego design. Bif Bang Pow has licensed that design, giving them due credit for it on the packaging, for their own product lines and licenses. They have made one modification to the body design, adding a swivel in the upper arm, and the hands are slightly different, but otherwise, it's very Mego in its appearance.
The headsculpt is a very capable likeness of Lee Majors, circa the 1970's. Some might say that it looks a little undetailed, but let's remember what the objective of this figure is -- it's supposed to look like it came from the 1970's. In that respect, it's excellent. About the worst thing I can say about it is that the eyebrows look a little -- off -- somehow. I can't quite place it any more than that.
Definitely in the headsculpt's favor is the gaping hole where the left eye should be isn't there. This figure doesn't have the "bionic eye" feature. No great loss.
The hands are a little different from traditional Mego-style, but not by much, and they still look good. The skin tone is relatively pale, an attribute I also noticed on BBP's Battlestar Galactica figures, but it's still an entirely acceptable skin tone.
The figure is dressed just like his 12" Kenner counterpart from the 1970's -- in a red jogging suit, with red sneakers. Now, when I first owned the Kenner figure, I thought that this was a rather odd wardrobe choice. It just didn't say "special agent" to me. Well -- I had missed the initial made-for-TV movies. I jumped right in with the TV series. I still haven't seen the original TV movies (although apparently they are included on a DVD boxed set of the first season), but I have seen some still images from those earliest adventures, and sure enough, there's Lee Majors, red jogging suit and all. So it is a legitimate look for the character. And in this case, it's a nice tribute to the original action figure, as well.
The outfit is made from the same sort of somewhat stretchy-knit material that you might expect to find in an actual sweatshirt, just a bit thinner, of course. What I can't figure out is how the heck they got the shirt on this figure. There's no zipper, snaps, or velcro. And the collar doesn't look wide enough to get past the head. I suppose it's possible that they put the shirt on first, and then the head, but it probably still was something of a challenge to dress this figure. The shirt does have two white stripes down the front, to emulate the look of a zipper, but they're strictly decorative.
The trousers have an elastic waistband. The shoes are plastic, and nicely trimmed. Somewhat amusingly, Steve Austin's feet have been painted white, to look like he's wearing socks.
The figure has an excellent range of articulation. He is poseable at the head, arms, upper arm swivel, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees and ankles.
But there is a question -- what makes him bionic? The Kenner figure had removable bionic chips under little hatches on the legs, and a roll-up "skin" on the arm that revealed more such chips. But that figure had the size -- 12" -- and the specificity -- in other words, he wasn't part of a multi-concept group of action figures the way Mego's, or for that matter, Bif Bang Pow's, product lines have been. Kenner could afford to put such special treatment into the core figure of a very specific action figure line. Mego couldn't have, if they'd had the license, and realistically, neither can BBP.
But, that doesn't mean that the bionic effects have been neglected completely. Indeed, they have not been. Steve Austin's lower right arm and lower legs have been molded in clear plastic, not flesh tone, and have had silver circuitry designs imprinted on them. It's no great challenge to roll up the pants legs. The shirt is a little tougher, but you can still see it.
In essence, this is sort of a tribute to the early computer graphics of the opening credits, which showed a transparent outline of Steve Austin's body, with the various bionic parts filling in the necessary areas with assorted high-tech graphics. In a way, the transparent limbs are also a semi-tribute to another action figure of the 1970's, himself intended as a way of taking advantage of the popular "bionic" concept: Hasbro's Mike Power - Atomic Man, who came along at the end of the original G.I. Joe Adventure Team era, with a transparent arm and leg with assorted internal "machinery".
In any case - nice touch on this action figure. Nice to see the bionics acknowledged in some fashion.
Before I close this review, I'd like to discuss two additional things that I don't usually talk about much -- the packaging, and an accessory. Now, I may be reading too much into the package design, but I tend to think that if Mego had picked up the license, that package that BBP has come up with looks very much like what Mego might have produced. The primary color of the package is red, with a white border. The Six Million Dollar Man logo, with an image of Steve Austin, is prominently displayed on the upper left -- looking more than a little like the logo Kenner devised. The figure, of course, is packaged on the right. The rest of the front of the card shows an image of Steve Austin running.
The back of the package card offers an explanation for the concept, which is taken directly from the opening credit narrative, as Oscar Goldman says, "Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better... stronger... faster." Cue iconic opening theme music.
In circular images on the other side of the back are the various characters that have been made as action figures in this line, including two versions of Steve Austin, Bigfoot (see these reviews elsewhere here), Oscar Goldman, Fembot, and a character that was never made as an action figure in the original Kenner line, Dr. Rudy Wells.
Unfortunately, there is no figure of The Bionic Woman, Jaime Sommers. According to a friend of mine, that's a separate license. Hopefully it's one that BBP will consider, which they might, if these figures do well enough. So go buy some after you're through reading this!
The other accessory is a keychain, with a little sound-making device attached to it. There's nothing all that remarkable about the look of the device. It's the same color red as Steve Austin's suit, round on one end and squared off on the other, with the Six Million Dollar Man logo printed in white. But it has four very cool sound effects, that play in sequence at the push of a button.
The first two are the effects for whenever Steve Austin used his bionic arm to throw something -- usually large and heavy -- or his bionic legs to jump, if not over a tall building in a single bound, then at least over a high fence or wall. The other sound effect is the sound his bionic eye made whenever it was using its telescopic feature.
The other two sound effects are from the opening credits. Richard Anderson's voice saying, "We can rebuild him -- we have the technology", with some appropriately high tech sound effects in the background, and then, "Better, stronger, faster..." And it cuts off just as the music is starting up. Probably couldn't include that, darn it.
So, what's my final word? I was a huge fan of the show when it originally aired. I was glad to have the original Kenner action figures. Unfortunately, they didn't survive my childhood. Few of my toys did. This Mego-esque figure of one of my favorite TV shows from when I was growing up is really nicely done, and an awesome way to bring back some memories. I'm glad to have him. He's certainly well made, and if you have any fond memories of those days, and that show, then you'll be glad to have him as well.
COLONEL STEVE AUSTIN from THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN line of retro-Mego-style action figures by Bif Bang Pow definitely has my highest recommendation!