Six Million Dollar Silliness

I found myself thinking, the other day, about the Six Million Dollar Man. You know the one: that series from the seventies where former astronaut Steve Austin crashes an M2-F2 lifting body and nearly dies, but luckily the technology’s there, in this exciting post-Apollo world, to rebuild him as the world’s first ‘bionic man’ – stronger, better, faster.

The show ran for several increasingly silly seasons from 1974, featuring the bionic hero running in slow-mo, all with annoying ‘bip bip bip’ noises from his bionic zoom-vision eye and his nuclear powered artificial legs and arm. Nuclear powered? Sure. The show made clear the artificial limbs got their juice from radioactive isotope generators of the kind usually fitted to deep space-probes and then lobbed on one way journeys far, far away from Earth.

The New Horizons probe at Pluto. That thing with the fins, lower left, is the cool end of the radioactive isotope generator. NASA, public domain.

Here’s how it works. Take a bi-metal strip (let’s say platinum and molybdenum, because it’s less likely to be transmuted by the radiation) – stick one end in a lump of plutonium, and put a radiator at the other. Electricity flows through the bi-metal strip between the hot and cool ends. No moving parts, and they last for decades. Dead simple. Dead, of course, being the operative word if the plutonium containment ruptures. There’s a reason why you don’t want to share close quarters with one of those, let alone three of them. The bionic man, of course, ended up in the line of danger all the time. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

Oh wait, they weren’t going to work anyway because for the electricity to flow, you need a cool end to the thermocouple, which means fins and radiative surfaces. Quite big ones. Of course, our bionic man might have hidden them under his trousers – this being the seventies and the age of ‘flares’. But the cloth would have stopped the radiator working – and might have got rather warm. (‘Excuse me, Colonel Austin, your trousers appear to be on fire.’)

Then there was the problem with Colonel Austin’s feats of strength. His artificial arm and legs allowed him to pick up cars. Only problem is that the rest of him wasn’t bionic, which to me suggests they should have called the show The Six Million Dollar Hernia, or Bad Back Man or something (the original novel addressed this issue, but the show didn’t).

The final piece of silliness was that he needed enemies that provided some sense of drama, with the result that the series offered an endless succession of super-powered robots on the rampage, drug-enhanced chimps with super-strength, alien robots disguised as Bigfoot (really!) and so on. See what I mean about silly?

One of the saving graces was the theme music by Oliver Nelson, who was a prodigiously talented jazz composer and musician – he also wrote Stolen Moments, which is sublime. But there was something else about the show, too; the optimism. As the line at the beginning said, ‘we have the technology… we can rebuild him’. Humanity had gone to the Moon. Anything was possible. This was true, too, of the original book – Martin Caidin’s 1972 novel Cyborg – on which the premise was based.

Never mind that the plots were silly, the technology implausible and that the bio-mechanical side wouldn’t work out. Going to the Moon opened doors to the impossible. Anything might follow, it seemed, if only humans put their minds to it. ‘We have the technology… we can rebuild him’. Naturally better, stronger and faster. And isn’t that a wonderful vision?

It was a kind of optimism that, in general, we seem to have lost today.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

6 thoughts on “Six Million Dollar Silliness

  1. I wonder if that kind of optimism would help with the climate change problem? But maybe we’re collectively bummed out by the idea that our inventiveness and some other qualities created the climate change problem. Which hadn’t been identified when this show was running. Have to admit I didn’t know all these details, even though I was still watching TV at the time. Thanks for the reminder!

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    1. I guess even in the mid-late twentieth century humanity (meaning, really, western industrial culture at the time) still believed that technology and engineering could overcome all problems. There was even the idea that we might learn how to control the weather. It was an extension of the nineteenth century notion that the new technology (of that day) was transformational of environment. And it was… just not in the way anybody imagined. I still recall watching a rather geeky but very cool 1970s Brit sci-fi series as a kid, ‘Moonbase 3’, where a nuclear device was exploded over the North Pole specifically to melt it, thus opening up the Arctic to travel and exploitation. All of this was observed from the viewpoint of the moonbase, and of course it went wrong, and the inhabitants of the moon-base believed they were the last humans left alive. I guess it was riffing off the counter-culture opposition to industrial exploitation of the day, but it seems rather prescient today as we face the loss of the Arctic ice for different reasons – and with it, climate dislocation on a civilisation-wrecking scale.

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  2. The show was cheesy and even I, someone who knows little of such technology, didn’t believe it. Still, like you say, there was the optimism, which I appreciated the few times I saw the show. That “we can and we will” attitude first was implanted in my brain when I was extremely little and attended the New York World’s Fair (both years). I still want to believe we can do right by the planet while simultaneously moving forward, but what that child of long ago had that I’ve long since lost is the trust.

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    1. I agree. There was a promise – and optimism – in the mid-late twentieth century that is gone now. And it was, I think, an optimism too for the human spirit. The original Trek, particularly, presented a ground-breaking vision of the future. It has not come to pass. As you say, the trust is gone – loss of trust in the capability of technology to solve human problems, and (perhaps more fundamentally) loss of trust in the goodness of society. As a species we tend to behaviourally play ‘follow my leader’, and the examples set of leaders in recent years and even decades has not been great. Not just political leaders but also cultural and social; the past thirty-odd years has seen an age of personal greed and exaltation of self and of personal power which is almost unparalleled in western civilisation. I think it is approaching its use-by date, and I can’t see it ending well, somehow.


  3. Optimism yes, but without action, it is nothing but a dream. I sat many a times breathlessly watching the episodes. He always triumphed. I wouldn’t have it any other way. There was nothing silly about it. There was, but I didn’t care. He was mighty cute and my very young me had a crush that no improbability could undermine.

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    1. That sense of triumphing against all odds was what I liked about the show too – I used to watch it regularly. You always knew that he’d win, somehow, despite everything. It’s an aspect of optimism that, too, has been somewhat diluted of late in popular entertainment.


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