Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bionics, a Treasure Hunt and THREE Batman Villains!

I don't know why, but my memories of The Six Million Dollar Man are much stronger than those of The Bionic Woman. I did watch both shows and, though I was still just a kid, I was far enough past the "girls are icky" stage not to be bothered by a female protagonist. I was, in fact, old enough to appreciate how nice it was to look at Lindsay Wagner--the actress who played the bionic Jamie Sommers.

For those of you who need a review: The Six Million Dollar Man, the 1970s TV series about a secret agent with bionic limbs and a bionic eye, came first. The Bionic Woman (who had bionic limbs and a bionic ear) was the spin-off.

So perhaps I remember the original show better because it came first and was my introduction to the then-new-in-science-fiction concept of bionic body parts. Also, it's on that show we eventually learn that Bigfoot is an alien robot--which is such an awesome explanation for Bigfoot that I gladly accept it as true.

But whatever the reason, I can recount the plots of a number of Six Million Dollar Man episodes that I haven't seen for years, while my memory of Bionic Woman episodes is a lot hazier.

There is a couple of exceptions to that. One of them is an absurdly entertaining three-parter in which a mad scientist played by John Houseman hatches a scheme involving weather control and Fembots.

Interestingly, the other episode I remember is (in a way) more mundane, with no overt science fiction elements other Jamie Sommers' bionics. "Black Magic" (broadcast on November 10, 1976) has Jamie assigned to impersonate a relative of a recently deceased scientist named Carstairs. Her mission is to recover a secret formula before one of the other relatives finds it and sells it to a foreign power.

That the other relatives would do this is a given. The Carstairs family is entirely made up of thoroughly rotten people, all willing to lie, cheat and perhaps even kill to get the family fortune for themselves.

The will is being read (or rather, played on videotape) at the family mansion on the remote Lafitte Island, meaning Jamie is pretty much on her own. The will specifies that the relatives are to be sent on a scavenger hunt--the first one to figure out a riddle (based on a modified version of the Lewis Carroll poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter") will find the hidden family fortune and get to keep it all.

But someone is "disappearing" the relatives as they search the mansion. Soon, only Jamie and one other is left--they don't trust each other, but they'll have to team up to solve the riddle and save themselves.

It's a fun story--the riddle's solution turns out to be quite clever, the setting gives the story an effective atmosphere and the supporting cast is great. William Windom is the sleazy family lawyer and Abe Vigoda is the creepy butler. But the real treat are the actors playing the Carstairs relatives. This includes Vincent Price (who played Egghead on the Adam West Batman series), Julie Newmar (who was the second-best Catwoman on that same series) and Hermione Baddeley (who played a character named Frontier Fanny on Batman in several episodes involving the Old West-themed villain Shame). Yes, that's right. THREE Batman villains in a single episode! With all of them playing their roles with the same over-the-top glee that was part of the charm of the Batman series.

I have no idea if that fact registered with me when I originally watched the episode nearly 40 years ago, but by golly it jumped out on me when I recently Netflixed the DVD and watched it again.

The episode is a mystery-comedy, with science fiction barely rearing its head. Jamie uses her bionics a few times to get out of tight spots and catch some foreign agents, but it would have taken only a minor re-write of the script to allow an agent without superpowers to accomplish the same things.  It was a story where SF elements simply weren't essential and the show's creative staff was savvy enough to realize this.

It can be argued that with a few exceptions (such as the original Star Trek), science fiction shows from the 1960s and 1970s were best experienced when we were children--when illogical plots and inconsistent continuity wouldn't have been noticed. Then, with memories of the fun these shows once gave us, we can enjoy them as adults even as the flaws become more apparent to us. Many of these shows really were good despite their flaws--I don't mean to issue a blanket condemnation of them. But they were made at a time when science fiction didn't get the respect that it deserved and so plot holes and illogical storytelling were sometimes excused simply because of the genre. So it might be that I grew up at the right time to enjoy the bionic shows, Irwin Allen's shows and live-action Saturday morning fare with an uncritical eye that allowed me to embrace them more fully than I would otherwise have done.

But "Black Magic" is a great episode exactly as it is--whether you're a kid or an adult, you can enjoy it enormously.


  1. Julie Newmar and the words "second best Catwoman" should never be in the same sentence.
    I have the Six Million Dollar Man DVD set with the Fembots crossover episodes on it, it was very enjoyable.

    1. What can I say? I'm a Lee Meriwether kind of guy.


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