Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Further Viewing, Ghosts of Christmas Past Edition Vol. II: The Six Million Dollar Man "A Bionic Christmas Carol"

In our second look at TV shows riffing on Dickens' A Christmas Carol, we focus on The Six Million Dollar Man? Family Ties made some sense, and surely shows like Happy Days and ALF might have gone this route, but The Six Million Dollar Man? Yes, The Six Million Dollar Man. Despite the science fiction trappings, however, we get a fairly grounded variation of the story with a bevy of recognizable guest stars. "A Bionic Christmas Carol" aired December 12, 1976, as part of season four, less than a month before "Death Probe Part I."

Steve arrives at Oscar's office for their annual Christmas Eve lunch before flying home to Ojai for Christmas with his family. Oscar--or should we say Scrooge in this case--has bad news. He needs Steve to visit an aerospace company working on a Mars life support system. They've had a number of accidents, and the OSI suspects sabotage. Steve lodges a complaint via some bionic vandalism of his present for Oscar.

Then we meet the true Scrooge of the episode Horton Budge. One of TV's greatest curmudgeons Ray Walston plays Budge with all the grump, bluster, and officiousness one would expect.

"Here's your Christmas bonus.
Now endorse it back to me."

Dick Sargent (the second Darren from Bewitched) plays Budge's chauffeur Bob Crandall, who owes some kind of debt to Budge, immediately returning a Christmas bonus to help pay it off. Budge explains to Steve that he's doing everything within the specs for the project. He also lays down the law about Christmas--no Christmas tree for the Mars test subject stuck in a tank for Christmas, no office workers singing carols on their own time, and fewer workers to save on double pay. Something goes wrong with the Mars test, and Steve has to use some bionic door busting to save the test subject.

Later, Crandall gives Steve a lift to hotel and ends up inviting him to a Christmas dinner he himself won't get to celebrate (he has to go back to the plant in case Budge needs him). Steve buys some presents for Crandall's kids, hears townspeople gossip about Crandall's cheapness, and then at the Crandall home immediately bonds with the three kids (played by future Oscar nominee Quinn Cummings, future Eight is Enough moppet Adam Rich, and, um, another kid).

L-R: Adam Rich, Quinn Cummings, some other kid.

He even uses some bionic jumping and chopping to sunder a branch from the top of a tree for a makeshift Christmas tree and offers Christmas wisdom to the kids (more wishes come true at Christmas than any other time of the year).

More importantly, he learns the truth of the Budge-Crandall situation. Budge is Crandall's uncle, and a few years ago when Mrs. Crandall had health problems, Budge wouldn't help. Crandall, then Budge's accountant, helped himself and has been paying for it ever since. Steve arches an eyebrow in thought.

How can he help?

It takes a while, but we finally get into the Dickens motif. After stopping in town to rent a Santa costume from the school janitor (it makes sense in the show), he bionic runs to the plant. Budge has gone home ill, but Steve runs tests on the materials, even doing some bionic speed reading and bionic calculating (if only the Death Probe had been a calculator). Budge has done everything within specs...but just within specs, so the project has no room for error. Steve heads off to confront Budge, learning that he's sick. He sends Crandall home, then hears a delirious Budge hollering for help. Steve runs in just time to catch Budge after he falls over a banister.

Budge has ODed on some sort of medicine (he's been chugging the stuff all episode), and the doctor gives him an antidote. The antidote contains a sedative, and that creates a problem. Steve and Crandall must keep Budge awake for three hours or risk him slipping into a coma. Still delirious, Budge thinks the angel of death caught him when he fell. Steve sees his opportunity. Using Dickens as a starting point and dressed as Santa Claus, he takes Budge on a journey.

First stop, a headstone. A few minutes before, Steve had lifted up a paving stone and bionically carved this as a symbol of a future that could happen.

Next, they head into town, where some carolers try to get Budge to join in. He takes a program and stuffs it in his pocket, even admits they sound nice, but when it comes to singing, he won't...budge. Ha! Finally, they head over to the Crandall house to eavesdrop. Mrs. C speaks some hard truths about Budge, but Crandall, having seen his uncle so ill, worries.

Then Santa Steve takes a bionic leap onto the porch roof so they can spy on the kids. Yep, just two men sitting on the roof of a porch, peering into a window at three children. Weird of course, but it also risks pulling the Santa beard off Steve's plan. Unlike a usual Christmas Carol tale, Steve and Budge aren't ghosts. They're real guys sitting up there. Oldest child Elsie offers some practical wisdom about ol' Uncle Budge, that sometimes people who love you don't get you presents, but she also questions his love. Outside, Budge says, "Oh, but I do love you all," and prays, telling God he will change his way.

Will he, though? After sleeping, he wakes up raring to get back to his hard work and explaining to regular shirt-open-to-his-navel Steve that an accident of birth doesn't mean he should love the Crandalls. Yep, same old Budge...until he finds that Christmas carol program in his pocket. Then we get the Scrooge epiphany and soon enough Budge in the Santa suit, toys for the Crandall kids, forgiven debts (no goose, though), and Budge's first steps into becoming a sociable human being. Miracles do happen on Christmas! Even Steve and Oscar mend fences.

"Why does this suit smell like burning wires?"

While this episode didn't offer the actors the chance to role-play quite the way many of these do, it fits in nicely with many of the wandering hero type shows like The Incredible Hulk. We know Steve Austin tends to do the right thing, but between this and his philosophical musings at the end of "Death Probe," we also see a warmhearted, thoughtful guy underneath all the circuitry, transistors, and solid masculinity. Surely Steve Austin didn't need bionics to become a hero. He had it in him all along...just like Horton Budge.

One mystery remains, though. What did Oscar get Steve for Christmas? Actually, two mysteries. We've confirmed the bionic mustache, but now I'm wondering about the chest hair.

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