The coming months will see the return of Luke Skywalker, Mad Max and Special Agent Dale Cooper, among other character absent from the screen for 25 years or more. These day it seems it’s never too late for the beloved icons of Generation X to reclaim their place in the pop culture firmament, but until recently there has always been one notable exception: Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive.
The Six Million Dollar Man was my childhood hero, but he was never really cool. Our entertainment options were much more limited in the heart of the ‘70s and we took what we could get. With his wide-collared leisure suits and penny-pinching special effects, Steve Austin could hardly be separated from his time. He belonged to the ‘70s, despite a couple of reunion TV-movies a decade after his prime. Viewed today, now that they’re finally available on DVD (appropriately an almost obsolete technology – the episodes are still nowhere to be found on streaming services), it’s hard to imagine The Six Million Dollar Man catching on with Millennials. The plots are threadbare, the visuals are indifferent, and the effects belong to an era of much lower expectations.
Perhaps perversely, these are the very qualities that made The Six Million Dollar Man ideal entertainment for children of the ‘70s. Most of it was left to the imagination. Our backyard slow-motion bionic battles took on a life of their own. My handmade Six Million Dollar Man comics dug deep into a barely-imagined mythology. My Steve Austin action figure remains the most mourned lost artifact of my childhood.
We can rebuild him. We have the technology. But we never have. The Bionic Woman was briefly rebooted in 2007, but Steve Austin remains a prisoner of the ‘70s. That’s not to say Hollywood hasn’t tried to revive him: Kevin Smith wrote a script for a proposed big-screen update in the late ‘90s. It was never produced, but Smith turned his screenplay into a comic book miniseries called The Bionic Man, published by Dynamite, an imprint specializing in licensed properties like The Terminator and RoboCop. In November, it was announced that Mark Wahlberg would team with director Peter Berg for an update called The Six Billion Dollar Man. (Make your own inflation joke.)
Dynamite’s latest bionic-based comic series, the six issues of which are collected in this trade paperback (Amazon, IndieBound, Powell’s), is something different. Neither a remake nor a reimagining, it is, as the title Season Six suggests, a continuation. This is a conceit only comics (or, I suppose, an animated series) could attempt: picking up the adventures of Steve Austin right where they left off, still stuck in the ‘70s. It’s a fun idea, but it’s fueled almost entirely by nostalgia; only people in their 40s could possibly care.
It’s not as if the TV series ended with some long-unresolved cliffhanger. That’s not how television worked at the time (with the exception of nighttime soaps like Dallas). One of the strange things about the comic series is the way it filters the original show through the current vogue for heavily serialized storytelling, complete with an intricate mythology. The Six Million Dollar Man would bring back characters if they were popular (such as Bigfoot and the robot maker Dr. Chester Dolenz), but stories were always resolved at the end of the hour (or two, in the case of two-parters). The show’s seasons had no larger arc; you could pretty much watch the episodes in any order.
Season Six pretends otherwise. It mashes up elements from the throughout the series, peppering the issues with obscure references and inside jokes only the most devoted bionic fanatics would recognize. It’s amusing to see the character of Oliver Spencer, the Oscar Goldman-esque head of the “OSO” played by Darren McGavin in the pilot episode, return here wearing a fedora that recalls McGavin’s run as Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The robots are here, along with the Venus death probe, the bionic woman Jaime Sommers, the “seven million dollar man” Barney Hiller, and even, in a brief flashback, our old friend Sasquatch. All of these elements are woven into a story about the government shutting down the bionics program in favor of a new militarized robotics initiative that works out about as well as you might suspect.
Unlimited in terms of “special effects,” the comics show us some things the series never could: robots with buzzsaw hands, giant lizard-like aliens, an armless bionic man. Mostly, though, it’s content to push easy nostalgia buttons, right down to replicating the TV show’s DA NA NA NA and BLOOP BLEEP BLOOP sound effects. It’s mildly engaging on that level, but the writing is generally corny and the art is nothing special (although to its credit, it never goes too campy with ‘70s fashion and décor). Only the vivid covers by Alex Ross really hit the sweet spot in capturing the curious appeal of this artifact from another time.