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.
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