Critics of contemporary movie and TV culture often bemoan its reliance on sequels, spin-offs and nostalgia, as if things like this were somehow new.
But the idea of pop culture re-masticating itself has been with us for a long time now, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. If you want evidence of this, look no further than the made-for-TV movie The Return of The Six-Million-Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, which premiered on NBC on May 17, 1987.
The film deserves to be remembered not for its quality (because there was little of that) but because of how many strands of pop culture it tied together. It was a sequel to a TV show and that show’s spin-off, a nostalgic return to an earlier era of television and American culture. It spawned two more made-for-TV films and served as an integral part of a franchise that somehow managed to stay in existence from 1973 to 2007, with a long-hinted-at reboot still surfacing from time to time.
The origins of all of this lie in a 1972 novel called Cyborg by Martin Caidin. Combining elements of James Bond imitation, the American fascination with space flight – which had peaked in 1969 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s famous moon landing – and a late-’60s air of techno-futurism, the novel was not a huge seller, but it provided great source material for a TV show.
Watch the Original Intro to ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’
ABC scooped up the rights and made three TV movies based on Cyborg in 1973, followed by a show that ran for five seasons, from 1974 to 1978 called The Six Million Dollar Man. They detail the escapades of Steve Austin (Lee Majors), an astronaut who is injured in a crash landing. He manages to survive only because of the $6 million surgery that replaces his right arm, his legs and one eye with mechanical parts, giving him superhuman strength, speed and vision. The rebuilt Austin then goes to work as an agent for the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI), preventing all kinds of criminals from committing all sorts of crimes.
The show was a huge success, and Austin became a cultural icon in the ’70s, festooning kids’ lunchboxes, being made into action figures and inspiring comic books. And this was despite the bonkers nature of many of its plots, like the episode in which William Shatner plays an astronaut who can communicate with dolphins or the multiple episodes involving a Sasquatch, first played by Andre the Giant and then by Ted Cassidy. But maybe the most popular episode of the series came in 1975, in its second season, when the show introduced a Bionic Woman: Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner), an old flame of Austin’s who is now a professional tennis player.
When she is injured in a skydiving accident, the folks at OSI give her the bionic treatment, and she, too, ends up with a rebuilt arm and legs. The only difference is that instead of a mechanical eye she has a mechanical ear, which allows her to hear things no one else can.
Watch the Bionic Woman and the Six Million Dollar Man Confront Sasquatch
Although Sommers was initially killed off to create a heartbreaking storyline for Austin, she proved to be so popular with fans that she was brought back in the first episode of Season Three and then given a spin-off of her own, called The Bionic Woman.
In 1978, both shows were canceled, but their cultural mystique lingered long enough that NBC released The Return of the Six-Million-Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman in 1987.
The plot of the film is about exactly what you would expect. There’s a shadowy group named Fortress stealing weapons and explosives to pull off nefarious acts of domestic terrorism. Steve Austin – now a charter fishing boat captain – is summoned out of retirement to defeat them. In the process, he reunites with Sommers and also reestablishes his relationship with his estranged son Michael Austin (Tom Schanley). As is to be expected, Michael is injured in a terrible accident upon his graduation from flight school and has to be made bionic like his dad. Together, the three souped-up heroes defeat Fortress, and in the end, Austin and Sommers rediscover their love for one another.
It’s a strange film to rewatch now. The writing and direction are insipid, and the effects feel incredibly dated, even for ’80s television, with virtually every action sequence being shot in slow motion. This includes the moment near the end when Michael runs so fast that he’s a blur, which somehow manages to combine super speed and slow motion in a remarkably cheesy way.
Watch an Action Sequence From ‘The Return of the Six-Million-Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman’
Beyond this, the movie feels outdated even for its own time, broadcasting instead a nostalgia for a kind of ’70s television simplicity. There is an absolute lack of the kind of edginess that had already come to define so much of American TV by 1987, in the mode of Hill Street Blues or Miami Vice, and which would reach its climax in the crime boom of the ’90s with films like Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects.
There also isn’t any hint of the growing distrust of technology that was already coming to dominate the screen, in the form of movies like Robocop and The Running Man and the TV miniseries V.
Despite this, it helped keep the strange Six Million Dollar Man franchise going. The film was a hit, landing in the ratings top 10 and spawning two sequels, Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (1989) and Bionic Ever After? (1994). A remake of The Bionic Woman appeared on NBC in 2007, and in 2021, Mark Wahlberg was planning to appear in a reboot of the original show called The Six Billion Dollar Man. If a reboot does manage to get made, it will cement the franchise as one of the longest-running in Hollywood history.
Not bad for a story that got its start with excitement building up around the idea of putting people into space all those years ago.