It is rare that an illustration for a technology article arrests my attention through its art, but this one sure did.
Not only is it a great sketch, but that kid looks a lot like I did in fifth grade. At that age 35 years ago I had to content myself with a pad of paper, not a technological marvel like the iPad. I was using my fingers to bang out class “newspapers” with ditto masters on a manual typewriter, not exploring space or examining elements or using other fantastic tools. What will kids be using 35 years from today?
When I was ten years old I loved Star Trek and The Six Million Dollar Man, fascinated by the technology and heavily influenced by their technological optimism as well as the moral messages communicated in one episode after another. Both shows stressed morality, honor, and problem solving in a science fiction setting that viewed technological progress with great optimism and celebration. Yet both also showed humans struggling to adapt to technological change and repeatedly warned of the dangers of technology unbound by human moral codes.
The Six Million Dollar Man was about an astronaut who crashes a test plane and his legs, an arm, and an eye are replaced by electromechanical implants. For years I could only find the fantastic credits sequence for The Six Million Dollar Man online, and could only get a few bootleg episodes on VHS tape via eBay. But last year TimeLife finally cleared the rights and released a massive box set. I pre-ordered it and am halfway through the second season. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed rewatching episodes burned into my childhood memory like Day of the Robot and will no doubt celebrate once again viewing the wonderful John Houseman as Dr. Franklin with his Fembots. These were like cotton candy for a smaller-than-average kid with an active imagination, agile mind, and no athletic prowess.
But from the start the show made it clear that Steve Austin struggled with his sense of identity and self-worth as a cyborg. In the pilot movie he attempted suicide after learning of his catastrophic injuries, and I remember my own sense of shock when he rescues a boy trapped in a car, injures his arm, and the boy’s mother treats him like a monster when she sees electronics poking out of a damaged portion of Austin’s arm. “What are you?” she screams, a question that will always haunt our hero.
There were several morally instructive episodes which made a lasting impression on me. Straight On ‘Til Morning, written by Star Trek’s D.C. Fontana, showed humans justifiably frightened by aliens whose inherent radioactivity is quite deadly. A sheriff is trying to protect citizens from what appear to be hostile killers, and Steve and Oscar have to oppose him and even sabotage a costly space mission in order to save the last of the peaceful aliens and sneak her home.
Steve: Was your ship launched from a planet or a larger spaceship?
Minonee: A large spaceship.
Minonee: Out there, near Pluto’s orbit. (points to the sky with two fingers)
Steve: (quoting J.M. Barrie) Second star to the right, straight on ’til morning.
The Coward was a powerful and emotional episode in which Steve visits the recently discovered wreckage of his father’s plane in the Himalayas to try and show whether or not his father bailed out, abandoning the other crew members. George Montgomery and Lee Majors play against each other wonderfully, and there is a nice plot twist at the conclusion. One cannot help but empathize with Steve as he struggles with the possibility that he has discovered his long-lost father. If he’s right, this man abandoned him as a baby just as he abandoned his fellow servicemen. It taught me that people can make poor decisions yet learn from them and their later actions can be truly redemptive.
The 1970s were when public schools were mandated to serve children with special needs. That era of progress in how we treat the disabled was reflected in Stranger in Broken Fork, when Steve helps protect a convalescent home for mental patients from frightened locals. I’m reminded of recent controversies in Tulsa and the many misconceptions the public holds about everything from serial killers to sex offenders.
Jody: Mister, are you crazy too?
Steve: Well, that’s a mighty big word for such a little girl.
Jody: Mama says everybody here is.
Steve: Well, I bet if your mom tried real hard, she could find another word to use.
It is touching and quite realistic that it is that little girl who takes the first step in finding common ground.
Steve: I think you know by now that the people who have been living in this house don’t want anything from anybody, except friendship. Will one person in this town take a chance and be a friend?
For young people are often more accepting, both out of love and naivety. I was struck this week by an article in Time highlighting findings in an immense Pew Research Center study about generational differences in America, something I delve into in a later post.
I hardly watch any television any more, so I don’t know how much of this sort of uplifting and morally instructive entertainment is watched by the children of today. My impression is that shows like these are few and far between in our cynical age. Can such tales thrive in this era? What is that kid watching on his iPad?
If you haven’t checked out the new Doctor Who series (which has already had 6 seasons, but it’s newer than the old 1960s-80s series), you should… it may not be as wholesome as the Six Million Dollar Man, but it does seriously explore the morals and ethics of various far-fetched situations in ways that the old series rarely did. For that matter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was pretty profound and deeply ethical throughout.
I have seen all of the Ninth Doctor episodes with Christopher Eccleston and a few of the later ones involving the Daleks. I’m glad they revived that old show – I grew up watching them on late weekend nights on PBS back when Tom Baker was The Doctor. Their budget back then was minimal and I remember once when a weapon was clearly a repainted coat rack!