The aircraft (an M2-F2 "flying wing") malfunctions causing a crash, which severely injures Austin, who loses his right arm, both legs, and his left eye. Austin's best friend Dr. Rudy Wells is a doctor and scientist who has been experimenting in the science of bionics - the replacement of damaged human body parts with mechanical prosthetics capable of not only replacing the lost function, but enhancing it to superhuman levels. Meanwhile, the secret US government spy agency the OSI has been looking for a way to reduce agent casualties. After Austin's accident, the OSI recruits Wells into replacing Austin's missing limbs with bionics, in hopes of creating a super-agent who is a cyborg.
Steve Austin was created by Martin Caidin in his 1972 novel Cyborg, which depicted Austin as a more cold-blooded character than that depicted in the TV version, which debuted as a made-for-TV movie entitled The Six Million Dollar Man in 1973. Lee Majors portrayed Austin in the movie and subsequent TV series. In the novels and weekly TV series, Austin's superior was Oscar Goldman played by Richard Anderson. In the original TV movie, however, the character was replaced by Oliver Spencer, played by Darren McGavin. The literary relationship between Goldman and Austin was much less friendlier than the TV version's relationship. Rudy Wells remained constant throughout the series, played initially by Martin Balsam in the TV movie, followed by Alan Oppenheimer and finally Martin E. Brooks.
Numerous changes were made to Austin when translating him from book to TV series. His tendency to kill people was downplayed and ultimately eliminated from the series. His bionics were also depicted differently. In the novels it's Austin's left arm that is bionic and it includes a concealed gun that fires deadly poison darts, and Austin also has numerous other replacements such as a steel skullplate that are not mentioned in the TV series. Austin's eye is given abilities for TV not featured in the books, in which it is little more than a glorified camera.
When Charlton Comics adapted the character for both a regular comic series and a black and white magazine, additional changes were made. Several features introduced in the books but omitted from TV, such as a radio concealed in one of Austin's bionic legs, were reintroduced, and in the first issue of the regular comic, Austin's bionic eye is shown to have the ability to fire a laser. In a later issue Austin's eye is powerful enough that he is shown viewing a man standing on a street corner from dozens of miles away.
The Six Million Dollar Man gave birth to one of the best known television quotes in history " Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster " Caidin's series of Cyborg novels ended by the mid-1970s, while the TV series ended in 1978. It began a spinoff, The Bionic Woman, in 1976.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Lee Majors reprised the role of Steve Austin for a trilogy of TV movies. There have been periodic media reports of a big-screen reimagining of the series being considered. As of 2014, no such production has been made.
One filmmaker who attempted to remake the series was Kevin Smith. His unproduced script was adapted by Dynamite Comics for its The Bionic Man comic book. Many changes were made to the character and his bionics to update for 21st century readers. The comic ran for approximately two years before being replaced by The Six Million Dollar Man Season Six, a more faithful adaptation of the original TV series.
The colonel had his left eye blinded, his right arm shorn off, and both legs crushed in the crash, in addition to sustaining other injuries that are not detailed in "The Moon And The Desert" ("The Six Million Dollar Man (1973)"). All of these were replaced with bionic hardware prostheses. (The estimated cost of the entire project is stated as, at least at its start-up phase, approximately six million American dollars, hence the title of the series).
Steve's legs allow him to run over 60 mph (the highest speed ever shown in the series on a speed gauge is 66 and 70 mph; the later revival films suggested that he could run faster at a speed of 120 miles per hour) swim at 40 mph and jump over 40 feet high. Steve's legs are also very strong and can kick any door down; he can even lift/push a car with his legs, and when he kicks an object, it is usually seen flying away. His legs give him amazing agility, allowing him to leap well over 30 feet horizontally. His legs are also extremely durable. His arms and legs give him amazing acrobatic abilities.
Steve's bionic right arm has the equivalent strength of a bulldozer, lifting well above 1,000 pounds. With his bionic arm, Steve can perform feats of great superhuman strength, including breaking steel chains, lifting cars, throwing boulders, ripping guns in half, bending metal bars, crushing concrete, knocking down and lifting trees, throwing objects incredably far, and so on. His strength is great enough to flip an entire car and lift a small plane. In many episodes he has moved his bionic arm at great almost superhuman speeds.
He also uses his arm as a shield as objects usually bounce off or break when they hit it. Blows from the bionic arm against human opponents are usually depicted as being devastating but not fatal. Austin is able to exercise a degree of control and is usually able to deliver non-fatal blows, but Steve typically tries to avoid this, saving the bionic right hook for a crisis. In the season 2 premiere of The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin’s bionic arm has a facility to connect a tracking device to it. Dolenz calculates that Steve can lift 2,420 pounds six feet off the ground.
It is revealed, in this episode, that Austin's bionic arm contains a geiger counter for detecting radioactivity. Steve's arm can also somehow absorb electricity. His arm is also extremely durable. In the episode "The Blue Flash" Steve gains the ability to detect microchips with his arm, resulting in a blue flash in his bionic eye.
His left eye has not only restored his vision, but also features a telescopic zoom lens (the ratio is cited as 20.2:1) that allows him to see things far away. It also has a microscopic lens in which he can magnify his vision to see smaller objects. Additionally, the eye is equipped with an infrared function that allows him to see in the dark and the ability to detect heat (as in the episode "The Pioneers").
One early episode, "Day of the Robot", shows the eye as a deadly accurate targeting device for his throwing arm, implying that it may have a targeting system in it. In the episode "The Bionic Woman", Steve scanned a $20 bill with his eye using his macro lens at Oscar's request, and determined that it was genuine. In "Straight On 'Til Morning", Steve was able to see past the illusion the aliens had created to fool their pursuers, and determine it to be fake. Steve displays a unique ability in this episode "The Secret of Bigfoot". After he rips Bigfoot's arm off and pursues him into the cave, his way is blocked by a false wall.
Austin looks at the wall and as an electronic sound effect is heard, the portion of the wall that opens up begins to glow. Although it is possible that this is a presentation of Austin's infrared vision capability, by this point in the series the usual presentation of this was a red-filtered version of the usual crosshairs which followed the usual close-up of Austin's eye; this does not occur in this instance.
"The Secret of Bigfoot (Part II)" features another unique use of Austin's bionic eye. He can view humanoid beings moving too fast for a normal eye to see. While the standard crosshairs are visible, a different form of filtering is used for the image, a lower-pitched version of the "bionic eye beep" is heard, and the close-up of Austin's eye is different from the usual one used.
His eye allows Steve to see things that would be invisible to a normal eye. In "Divided Loyalty", Steve was able to see motion sensor beams when Leon Jackson and his son could not; also, in the same episode, when Leon was blinded, Steve was able to use his eye to tell him that the blindness was only temporary and that his vision would come back. In "Clark Templeton O'Flaherty", his bionic eye is given a infrared fingerprint scanner. And in "The Return of Bigfoot", Steve's eye can detect radiation. In Nightmare in the Sky, Steve uses his eye to see a holographic plane.
Details of the Hardware
All bionics are powered by nuclear power generators that provide the user's bionic parts limitless endurance and stamina, while Steve's heart and lungs need only to provide for his torso, head and remaining arm, increasing the capacity of the remaining organics.
The implants have a major flaw: extreme cold interferes with their functions and can disable them given sufficient exposure. However, when Austin returns to a warmer temperature, the implants soon regain full functionality. This weakness is shared by Jaime Sommers, and other bionic persons. Bionic hardware has another flaw; as seen when Steve's legs were destroyed, it leads to harmful radiation leaks throughout his body.
Austin's bionics in the novel have some additional capabilities, not seen in the show. A finger on his bionic hand is capable of firing projectiles (specifically poison darts). Storage compartments in the legs allow him to carry concealed items, such as an oxygen tank and breathing mask. Austin's eye was originally depicted as simply a camera (which had to be physically removed after use) and Austin remained blind in the eye; later, he gained the ability to shoot a laser from the eye (this ability is also demonstrated in the first issue of the Six Million Dollar Man comic book issued by Charlton Comics).
A radio transceiver can be equipped in one leg, and his partially metallic rib cage can be used as an antenna. A good portion of Austin's skull has also been replaced with metal. Although not utilized in the TV series, many of these extra features, especially the poison dart gun and metal skull replacement, are featured in several of the novels adapting Six Million Dollar Man episodes, especially those by Mike Jahn. The Charlton Comics Six Million Dollar Man magazine included several stories that incorporated some of these extra features, too, such as the radio transceiver in Austin's leg.
In the epilogue of the novel "The Secret of Bigfoot Pass", the aliens attempt to erase Austin's memory of his encounter with them, but while this is successful in the televised episode (requiring Austin's memories to be restored in the later sequel episode), the novelization ends with Austin telling the aliens that the steel plate used to replace his skull (per Caidin's version of the character) renders such memory-erasing efforts useless.
In the reunion movies, the capabilities of Austin's bionic hardware seemed to have been increased: With his right arm, he could flip an entire car, and he seemed to be able to jump higher; the heights he could reach by that means appeared to be at least double those of the television show. In addition, it was also shown that the colonel could now run faster as well. His eye was also apparently upgraded, as it had new and improved functions, but how or why Steve had all these upgrades of all his bionic hardware prostheses is unknown.