Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Six Million Dollar Man: "The Secret of Bigfoot" (February 6, 1976)

I watched The Six Million Dollar Man religiously – and I mean religiously – as a six year-old boy. But truth be told, I never much cared for the espionage stories, the ones with Steve going undercover to topple a foreign dictator or help an Eastern Bloc scientist defect to the West.

No, the stories I loved were the ones in which the bionic Colonel Austin (Lee Majors) battled nemeses that more than matched his unusual strength and power. 

Prime among such villains was the Bionic Bigfoot, first introduced in this two-part episode, “The Secret of Bigfoot.” 

As I’ve written before, the 1970s for some reason saw a Bigfoot or Sasquatch Craze on TV (In Search Of, Bigfoot and Wild Boy, etc.) and at the movies too.  But no depictions of Bigfoot were more fun, in my opinion, than The Six Million Dollar Man’s. 

It’s one thing to contemplate the existence of the Sasquatch.  It’s another to mark him as an extra-terrestrial. 
And then, of course, to make him a cyborg (like Steve) is a stroke of wacky brilliance.

In “The Secret of Bigfoot,” Steve and his boss at the OSI, Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) are assigned to the forests of the Pacific Northwest to provide security for two friendly seismologists testing classified earthquake sensors.  While deploying these new sensors, the scientists are attacked by a creature that appears to be the mythical Sasquatch (Andre the Giant).

Steve tracks the beast’s footprints, and comes face to face with the inhuman monster.  After Steve rips off one of the beast’s arms in a (slow-motion…) scuffle, he realizes the truth: Sasquatch is a bionic robot!  Steve follows the injured machine back into a mountainside, and falls unconscious in a strange, glowing tunnel.

When Steve awakens, he finds himself the guests of an alien community, led by Battle for the Planet of the Ape’s Severn Darden (as Apploy). Steve promptly becomes friends with the colony’s physician, the lovely Shalon (Stefanie Powers).  He learns that Sasquatch is the creation of these aliens, and that the beast serves as the Colony’s “protector and defender.”  Austin also learns that each scientist is equipped with a device called a “TLC” which allows people to disappear from sight, and move at speeds undetectable by the human eye. 

While spending time with the E.T.’s Steven comes across another unique discovery: Time for the alien explorers passes more slowly than it does for humans, so while legends of Bigfoot go back some two centuries or more, the aliens have only been on Earth conducting their studies for a few years, their time.

The aliens sent out Bigfoot to sabotage the sensor equipment in the first place because they did not want to be discovered by mankind.  But this fear of discovery diminishes compared to another problem. Oscar plans to detonate a small underground nuclear device in the forest to forestall an upcoming earthquake. Unfortunately, the aliens’ mountain base will be buried, unless Steve and the Sasquatch can work together to prevent the apocalypse.

“The Secret of Bigfoot aired in early February 1976, and -- no exaggeration -- it was the TV event of the season for the primary school set. As a six-year old, I enjoyed every aspect of the two-hour program, from the camping to the aliens, to Bigfoot, to the bionic brawls.  As an adult, what I enjoy most about the episode is the fact that there really aren’t any overt bad guys or evil-doers.  Sasquatch is only a tool of the aliens and not malicious, and Oscar’s nuke plan -- though foolhardy -- is not intended to kill anyone.

Remarkably, the Sasquatch costume still holds up pretty well after all this time.  Director Alan Crosland goes out of his way not to reveal too much detail in the episode’s first acts. Instead, we are’ treated to suspense-maintaining P.O.V. shots from the Sasquatch’s perspective as he lumbers through the woods.  The episode also opens with views of the beast’s hairy legs and feet as they traverse the wild forest

Even the first big attack scene -- at about the nine minute point -- hides the creature’s face.  In a spectacular composition, Bigfoot steps out into the open in a low-angle shot, and the radiant light of the sun occludes his monstrous visage.  This saves the first full reveal for Sasquatch’s initial encounter with Steve.  We see during that sequence that the monster boasts glowing, inhuman eyes.  And to some extent, those glaring, bright eyes divert attention away from any inadequacies of the hairy costume.

The first battle between Steve and the Bionic Bigfoot is still spectacular too.  The slow-motion photography makes it seem that every punch, hit, and blow is earth-shattering, and the battle goes on and on for something like five minutes.   I noted while watching that there is virtually no dialogue at all in this lengthy interlude, just fight music, bionic sound effects, and fearsome animal grunts. 

This, my friends, is Bionic nirvana.

Another visual I remember from my childhood is the long, weird, glowing tunnel that leads into the mountainside alien base.  This tunnel was actually an attraction at Universal Studios called Glacier Avalanche, just re-purposed for the series.  In 1982, when I went to Universal Studios on a cross-country camping trip, I got to ride through this unearthly tunnel and my first thought was of The Six-Million Dollar Man.  The only disappointment in this scene is that, on DVD, it is all-too easy detect that the floor of the (spinning) tunnel is not rock, but earth-tone blankets draped across the floor.

The depiction of the aliens in “The Secret of Bigfoot” feels very 1970s today.  The aliens wear brightly-colored jump suits with bell-bottoms, and Stefanie Powers looks as though she’s crossed right over from the set of Charlie’s Angels.  Still, I appreciate the fact that the aliens aren’t malevolent in nature, and that cooperation with them is possible.

Today, perhaps the most horrifying aspect of “The Secret of Bigfoot” is the fact that OSI’s man in charge, Oscar Goldman, deploys nuclear weapons inside the continental United States as though they are just another run-of-the-mill fix-it too.  Could you imagine the PR disaster were it learned that a United States government agency were detonating nuclear bombs in an unspoiled forest?  

If “The Secret of Bigfoot” possesses any dramatic failing, it’s only that the story does not go much beyond entertaining escapism.  The Bionic Woman, by contrast, often featured overt social commentary in its tales, such as in the great two-part episode “Doomsday is Tomorrow.”

Bigfoot returned to The Six-Million Dollar Man on several more occasions, and even crossed over to Bionic Woman episodes as well.  After a while, however, the law of diminishing returns came into full effect and the great Beast (played in later incarnations by Ted Cassidy) lost some of his mystery, majesty, and menace.

But “The Secret of Bigfoot” endures -- 38 years later -- because it handles its monster with restraint, and then, delightfully with affection.  

I haven’t watched many Six Million Dollar Man episodes recently, but watching this fun two-part installment makes me want to haul out “Death Probe” (wherein Steve fights a malevolent Russian space probe) and the Bionic Woman cross-over episode involving Fembots and a scientist’s devious plans to control the weather…

Since The Six Million Dollar Man has been out of circulation so long, and wasn’t available on DVD till three years ago, I don’t know how well it translates to the younger generations.  But the action-packed bionic nirvana of “The Secret of Bigfoot” may be a good place to start the bionic journey if you’re interested. 

At the very least, you’ll be able to talk about it with your Generation X aunt and uncle next time you get together…

1 comment:

  1. I just did a retro-review of the entire SMDM series, with my 11-year-old daughter providing her own insights and opinions, over at my blog. So if you really want to know how the show translates to younger generations--look no further! Here are all three parts:


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