Please Stand By: A Journey Through The History of Television Super Heroes

 

Journey back to Yesteryear and the evolution of superheroes of the small screen. From Automan to Man From Atlantis to Xena Warrior Princess, these are the tales of shows you loved as a kid or didn’t even know existed…Please Stand By!

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Kung Fu
3 Seasons 1972-1975 (63 episodes)
Created by Ed Spielman, Jerry Thorpe, Herman Miller
Starring David Carradine, Key Luke, Philip Ahn, Radames Pera

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The 1970s began quietly on the superhero front. Television execs were still embarrassed by the campy Bat Man series of the 60s and weren’t eager to visit the genre again. But with interest kindled by Bruce Lee’s Kato from the Green Hornet series, Americans wanted to see more of this newfangled fightin’ and the Kung Fu Craze hit America in the early 70s. So it was, in 1972, a most unusual hero arrived from an unexpected place. His name was Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine son of the legendary film actor John Carradine. Kwai Chang Caine was a half Chinese, half American boy who grew up in a Shaolin Monastery in China under the tutelage of Master Khan and the blind Master Po. During a procession for the Emperor’s nephew, Master Po is killed by guardsmen and in a fit of rage, Kwai Chang kills the Emperor’s nephew. With a bounty on his head, Kwai Chang Caine flees to America and searches for his half-brother. He tries to lead a quiet life and not draw attention to himself but time and again circumstances call upon him to protect the weak and innocent. As he travels through the American Old West, flashbacks show his life growing up with the Shaolin priests. In one flashback it shows how he got his nickname “Grasshopper”.

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The show was a huge critical success with both audience and critics alike. Towards the end of the final season in a four-part episode, Caine’s quest comes to an end when he finds his half-brother. The series was revived in 1987 as Kung Fu The Next Generation with Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee’s son) as the great-grandson of Kwai Chang Caine, Johnny Caine. David Carradine reprised his role, only as a ghost who spoke to his grandson and great-grandson. Then in 1993 came Kung Fu The Legend Continues which brought back David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine but this time he was the grandson of the original as the show was set in modern times. Chris Potter co-starred as his son. The show lasted 4 seasons.

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Kung Fu has been up for revival again several times, most recently in September 2017 it was reportedly in the hands of Greg Berlanti (Arrow, Flash) and was undergoing a gender switch to a female lead. Sadly, David Carradine died in June 2009 accidentally from auto-erotic strangulation.

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The Six Million Dollar Man
5 Seasons 1973-1978 (99 episodes + 6 tv movies)
Created by Kenneth Johnson (novel “Cyborg” by Martin Caidin)
Starring Lee Majors, Richard Anderson, Martin E Brooks

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“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first Bionic Man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.” Each week The Six Million Dollar Man opened with those words spoken by Oscar Goldman, head of the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI). Adapted from the novel “Cyborg” by Martin Caidin, it was the story of Colonel Steve Austin, played by former football star and actor Lee Majors (The Big Valley), who survives a catastrophic crash but loses both legs, right arm and an eye and is given bionic replacements by Dr Rudy Wells (played by Martin Balsam in the pilot). He becomes the government’s top secret weapon and spy. The show would change the landscape of superhero television for decades to come. For the next, nearly 30 years superheroes would either be government agents or be on the run from the government. This meant that while the heroes often possessed extraordinary abilities, they mainly fought ordinary criminals and spies. The Six Million Dollar Man broke with this scenario on a few occasions which usually produced some of the best episodes; Steve fought a killer tank “Death Probe” which had crashed returning from space and battled “Fembots”, female robot assassins. He even fought an upgraded model, The Seven Million Dollar Man who had two bionic arms and two bionic legs. But his most popular and most unusual adversary was Big Foot, portrayed by wrestler Andre The Giant. Big Foot turned out to also be bionic and was created by aliens.

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The Bionic Woman
3 Seasons 1976-1978 (56 episodes)
Created by Kenneth Johnson (novel “Cyborg” by Martin Caidin)
Starring Lindsay Wagner, Richard Anderson

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The second season two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man called “The Bionic Woman” introduced Steve’s childhood sweetheart, Jaime Sommers. During a sky-diving outing, Jaime’s parachute fails and leaves her clinging to life, her legs and arm crushed as well as the loss of hearing in one ear. Steve convinces Oscar Goldman to give Jaime bionics. However, Jaime’s body rejects her bionics threatening her sanity and her life. She is saved by an operation but her memory of Steve and their relationship is gone. What to do next…why, spin her off in her own show, of course! The Bionic Woman aired on ABC for two seasons before moving to NBC for a third. It also marked the first time an actor (Richard Anderson) played the same character on two different shows on two different networks. In 2007 a remake starring Michelle Ryan aired with no ties to The Six Million Dollar Man but survived less than one season.

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The Bionic Fun didn’t end there. The Six Million Dollar Man introduced the Bionic Boy played by Vincent Van Patten, son of Dick Van Patten of “Eight Is Enough”. And there was Monte Markham as Steve’s evil counterpart The Seven Million Dollar Man (he had two bionic arms). And The Bionic Woman received a furry bionic companion, Max the Bionic Dog.

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Most people agree that The Bionic Woman turned out to be the better of the two shows, due largely in part to the appeal of star Lindsay Wagner. In the series finale in what is probably the best episode of the series, “On The Run”, which was written to be a resolution to the series, Jaime is guarding a diplomat’s daughter when men try to kidnap the girl. She quickly defeats them but doesn’t notice a tear in her bionic arm which the little girl sees and she tells her father “The robot lady saved me!”. This leads to Jaime questioning her life and being constantly on missions for the OSI and to her ultimately resigning only to be told she is the property of the United States Government and she can’t just quit. She can, however, go live in a community of retired agents where she can never leave. Instead, she and Max go on the run. In the end, she comes to terms with her bionics and agrees to return to the OSI on a part-time basis.

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Both series were canceled the same year but the Six Million Dollar Man did not receive any kind of wrap up. You just can’t keep a good bionic couple down, though. Both Jaime and Steve returned in three Bionic Reunion movies: The Return of The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (1987), Bionic Showdown (1989) and Bionic Ever-After (1994) where the two finally were married.
As with everything else, a remake has been in talks for awhile, the latest being the inflated Six Billion Dollar Man attached to star Mark Wahlberg.

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The bionic schtick was hugely profitable with lunch boxes, comics and action figures which go for a lot of money today.

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Next Time: Coverage of the 1970s continues with an invisible man, a water-breathing man, and a Wonder Woman.

Until then…Please Stand By.


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