RETROSPECULATIVE TV: The Six Million Dollar Man: “The Moon and the Desert” (Pilot Movie)

Kevin Long
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My memories of this are all wrong.

In one of his books, Harlan Ellison talks about spending the summer in Miami as a small boy, and going to see the movie, “Mister Bug Goes to Town.” It’s a great story about his parents putting their foot down and saying he couldn’t go, him escaping from his hotel room and making it to the screening, then getting found out and dragged to the hotel, from whence he escapes again and again. It’s a great story, but as he points out in the end it couldn’t possibly have happened exactly as he tells it because Mister Bug didn’t come out that year. His memory is faulty. The event happened – the escape and return and escape and return – and I’m sure there was a movie involved in Miami, but it couldn’t have been Mr. Bug. He’s conflated episodes in a way commonplace to little kids.

Similarly my exposure to this movie can’t possibly have happened the way I remember it.

It was the winter of 1970, in Montana. We were driving through a blizzard after dark. I was in the back seat playing with toys. The next think I knew, the car was at a crazy angle, the door was open, and my dad was yelling at me to come to him. I did. I later found out that the car had spun around in the storm and ended up in a ditch. Later retellings always include my parents saying I was crying and terrified, but I remember being perfectly calm. One moment I was playing, the next my dad was yelling at me to come to him. There were no moments connecting the two. Maybe I was stunned, or took a blow to the head or whatever. I know I didn’t have seatbelts on. Heck, it was 1970, our car may not have even HAD seatbelts for all I know.

Huh. Maybe I did bonk my head. Maybe that’s the cause of all my problems. Maybe if not for that car accident, I’d be able to do basic math today….

Ah well. I digress. So my dad flagged down a truck which took us to a motel, then he went off to do dad-in-a-disaster stuff, while I settled down to sleeping on one of those portable foldaway beds they have in motels when there’s too many people in the room. We ate food from the snack machine, and then my mom, dad, and I watched TV. It was the premier of the Six Million Dollar Man, a TV movie. We all enjoyed it, and there was a blurb at the end saying it would return as a weekly series. I distinctly remember my mom saying “Oh, that’ll be nice. I enjoyed it.” Uncommon as my mom has a life-long hatred of TV.

The next morning the sun was up, the parking lot was half-full of water, but plowed of snow, and we continued on our way.

Here’s the problem: The story I’m telling took place in the winter of 1970, and the Six Million Dollar Man didn’t premier until the spring of 1973.

I can’t account for that. Like Harlan Ellison, I’m just wrong, but I can’t figure out how it happened, apart from the entirely-possible notion that I took a bad blow to the head. But a three-year-blackout is unlikely, even for me, especially since I remember a lot of other crap in there.

Anyway:

This is a pretty good TV movie, and a reasonablyyyyyyyy faithful adaptation of Martin Caidin’s novel, “Cyborg.” The plot is the same: a former astronaut/test pilot cracks up his X-plane in the desert and loses an eye, both legs and his right arm. Meanwhile, the evil Darren McGavin the Office of Special Operations on an idea to build a cyborg. “What, do we call for volunteers?” “No. Accidents happen all the time. We’ll just use scrap.”

Ouch!

Steve’s transition from test pilot to cripple to cyborg is extraordinarily well handled, and while Lee Majors is a pretty limited actor, he does it well. He speaks little, he turns away to avoid things he doesn’t want to deal with, he’s clearly depressed. He attempts suicide once. He rejects his new parts, and is briefly overcome with paranoia about them. He’s very defensive. At one point he asks his nurse if he can touch her face, and she allows it. She goes to reassure him, and he grabs her arm and holds it away. “I didn’t say you could touch me.”

There’s an extended Occupational Therapy sequence in which he learns to use his body again gradually and painstakingly. It’s surprisingly good stuff. One wishes Majors were a bit more expressive, as the character is in a lot of turmoil, but for TV in 1973, it’s a really good performance.

He goes on a date with his nurse (Who looks a lot like Christie Brinkley, but isn’t of course) and they pass an unrelated car accident. Steve rescues a burning child from the car, but tears up his new arm in the process. The mother thanks him, then sees wires an stuff poking out from his prosthetic and freaks out. “What are you?” she asks, and Steve is back in crippling depression city.

As a kid, that’s where I thought it ended. I really don’t remember anything beyond that. As it’s about midway through the ep, I’m figuring this must have been broken in half for syndication, and that’s where part 1 stopped.

In any event, part 2 is less interesting: Steve is sent to recover an Arab diplomat who’s been captured by terrorists. After putting up some resistance (“I don’t want to kill anyone” “You won’t have to if you’re clever enough to figure a way around it” – I told you, Darrin McGavin is evil in this!) and offering himself as a 1:1 exchange for the hostage (Steve has depression issues), he reluctantly agrees.

He’s dropped in the “Empty Quarter” of Saudi Arabia, and told to free the diplomat, get on an old DC3 and fly out. Turns out, however, that he’s been set up and the diplomat was actually killed five weeks ago. He’s captured and thrown in a cell with the only other surviving hostage, an Israeli pilot. Steve busts them out, lobs hand grenades all over the place, and drops one in a tank (Evidently he got over the ‘I don’t wanna’ kill’ thing) and he and the pilot escape, though Steve got shot in the side.

Back in the States, it turns out McGavin knew it was a suicide mission, and sent Steve in to either (A) get rid of an unreliable loose end if Steve wouldn’t play ball or (B) prove to Steve that he needed to play ball. Either way he wins. Steve says he wants to live, and calls McGavin a really bad name that we can’t hear. McGavin talks to Steve’s doctor about possibly keeping Steve in Electro-Sleep until he’s needed for missions, then shut down again afterwards, but his doctor refuses.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

My own messed up memories notwithstanding, this was a pretty good TV movie, though the second half wasn’t nearly so good as the first. Darrin McGavin plays an unapologetically Machiavellian character with no conscience whatsoever, and I think he plays him a little too well, since the character is so unlikable he didn’t make it into the series. It’s sort of an unlikely coincidence that Dr. Rudy Wells happens to be best buddies with Steve *AND* the leading expert in Bionics in the world, but, hey, whatever. It’s not unreasonable, and it tightens up the story.

In the mid-to-late 1970s, TV movies were considered ideal for testing out new series. The 6 Million Dollar Man, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Kolchack The Night Stalker, The Night Gallery, and Man From Atlantis all started off this way. If the movie did good, they commissioned another one. If that did good, they commissioned another one, and so on. Depending on how well they did, they might order another movie or go to series. In general, it took two TV movies before they’d greenlight a series (Love Boat, Fantasy Island). The Six Million Dollar Man had three. Man From Atlantis holds the record at four. It’s worth noting that Battlestar Galactica was conceived of as three movies of the week, but they decided to go to series before the first one aired.

The word “Bionic” is nowhere used in this movie. Also interesting: Steve’s prosthetics take about two months to build, and cost six million dollars. They point out, however, that maintenance and general upkeep on his prosthetics will cost between half and a million dollars a year in perpetuity! Neat!

Steve’s eye is not utilized at all. One nice touch is that when Steve’s running in the desert, his face and chest and left arm get all sweaty, but his legs and right arm don’t. Nice attention to detail!

There’s a romance angle that really doesn’t go anywhere in this. It’s not exactly padding, as Steve needs someone to emote to, but when it goes beyond that, it seems forced. Steve’s abrupt desire to nip it in the bud and not have a permanent nurse from then on in saves it, though he undoes that a little bit in the end. AFAIK, the nurse/love interest was not in any subsequent episodes.

I had a buddy who had a job who wasn’t able to take personal calls, but he had a medical condition and WAS allowed to take calls from his doctor. He was away from his desk a lot, so if I called pretending to be a doctor just to shoot the bull. Sometimes he was out and I was asked to leave a message. I didn’t want to freak him out, and I also wanted to let him know he could blow off the call if he was doing something more important when I called, so I always identified myself as “Doctor Rudy Wells.” That’s the guy who made Steve’s bionics, but it was the 1990s and I don’t think anyone in the world remembered that but him and me. It was a good fake name.

They must have actually had access to the X-24-B for some of the scenes with Steve and other actors marching around the aircraft. Though some pretty good editing makes it hard to spot, there are actually three aircraft in the crash sequence: The X-24-B on the ground and in flight, the Northrop HL-10 being dropped from a B-52 (Seen from above) and the crash of the Northrop M2-F2. All three aircraft were Lifting Body designs and looked similar.

Interestingly: the famous crash wasn’t all that impressive. The F2-F2 was a glider. It was launched by being towed behind a jeep. It was mostly made of plywood with a thin sheeting of aluminum and a Plexiglas cockpit. The crash looks much worse than it is as it cracked up on a dry lakebed in significant winds, kicking up a ton of dust which looked like smoke, but wasn’t. There was no fire. The Pilot was Milton Thompson, who lost an eye in the crash, but suffered no other injuries. It ended his career as a test pilot, however. Thanks to this show, it’s probably the most famous aircraft disaster after the Hindenburg and Challenger. Ironic in that no one died.

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