Books: Visions Before Midnight — March of the androids |
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March of the androids

The Six Million Dollar Man (Thames) has acquired a steady girlfriend, called Bionic Woman. Since either of them, in a careless moment, would be capable of pushing over a building with one hand, the question arises of how they manage their love life.

Although a fairly steady follower of Six’s adventures, I long ago forgot which bits of him have been replaced with high-performance hardware. The eyes and legs for certain, and at least one arm. It would be indelicate to speculate whether more intimate sections of his bodily fabric are similarly crammed with transistors and solenoids. The same inhibition applies to discussing some of the attributes of Bionic Woman. But even granting that the two lovers remain organic in those areas, they would still surely be capable of doing each other fearful damage in the spasms of rapture. Six can carve a doorway through a brick wall with his index finger. Imagine what he would do with a single misplaced caress. He could break every circuit in her body. They’d be lying there in a heap of wires and a puddle of hydraulic fluid.

Cultural analysts in the future will no doubt make much of our current preoccupation with bionic man, which in all probability reveals a profound lack of faith in the chances of the standard model to survive and prosper. And by that time the truth might have been established about what is now only a matter of suspicion — that bionic man is already with us, not just in fictional but in factual form. What else is Terry Wogan, for example, but a Six Million Dollar Man with a shamrock in his buttonhole?

As a radio compère Wogan gives a reasonably convincing impersonation of a human being, but for all we know his fluent line of patter might be coming off a cassette. On television, particularly when he hosts Come Dancing (BBC1) — the latest series of finals now, alas, drawn to an end — his eyes are a dead giveaway. They catch the light like quartz, and when the camera goes close you can practically see those little range-finding etched grids on them, just like Six.

Wogan’s is a bionic smile if I ever saw one. My guess is that the BBC built him in their own workshops, under licence from General Dynamics. Unfortunately they had to skimp slightly on the brain. Hughes Electronics wouldn’t come through with the advanced technology for anything else but cash on the nail, so the Beeb’s engineers had to solder together their own version on a restricted budget.

Nevertheless he does very well. Programmed with standard phrases denoting enthusiasm (‘Feeling’s already running high here at the Lyceum’) he maintains an even tone of involved enjoyment while the teams of dancers go through their endlessly repetitive routines. This is where bionic man scores: he can keep a straight, if stiff, face where an ordinary person would either burst out crying or collapse with the giggles.

An increasing number of the dancers themselves look bionic, too — which is perhaps how they manage those sudden manoeuvres in the tango that by rights ought to result in slipped discs and snapped Achilles tendons. In the Grand Final between Scotland and Midland-West, a Scots girl in the cha-cha-cha kicked herself in the head. I thought at the time that this might have been a misguided attempt to score points, but now realise that it must have been a power-surge. And the growing presence of Japanese competitors is easily explained, once you accept the possibility that Sony and Honda might be branching out into a new field.

The Japanese couples, all with names like Micky and Suzy Sokatumi, have been looking better each year. It’s because at the end of the European season they get shipped straight back to Japan for redesign. No wonder all those characters in their entourage wear white overalls and carry slide-rules. And that big Datsun van parked outside is full of spare components — swivelling hip-units for the samba, power-assisted right elbows for the military two-step.

This Week (Thames) had an excellent documentary on franchise selling rackets, called ‘Get Poor Quick’. Pronto snack-bars, Medi-search energy replacement drink machines, Happy Hampers fast foods and similar questionable ventures were all revealed to be run by the same overlapping cast of characters, who are permanently in business even though their actual companies fold one after the other. What they are really selling is an idea — the idea of ‘a second income that could quickly outstrip your first’. Dejected gullibles who had handed over their life savings in return for worthless promises were interviewed. More remarkably, some of the men who had made the promises were filmed with a hidden camera. Like all good conmen, they appeared to convince even themselves. The fantasies they were projecting seemed to spring form the all-too-human need to paint glowing pictures. It was the suckers who looked bionic. Perhaps they were still in shock.

Whicker (Yorkshire) was still Down Under, this time interviewing three odd poms who had built a life for themselves in the South Land. There was a jokey bishop, a surfie and a gung-ho brigadier. Despite their claims to individuality, they all had the six million dollar look: the only thing they lacked was aerials. Whicker himself, however, is obviously organic. Nobody would build a machine as eccentric as that. The same goes for Malcolm Muggeridge, currently fronting a drone-in called Stop to Think (BBC2). Aided by learned panellists, Muggeridge hopes that we will storp to think about topics sent in by viewers on post-cords. The atmosphere surrounding the panel is more self-congratulatory than electric, except in the sense that a certain tang of ozone hints at the presence of non-organic structures under the epidermis of the guests. But the host was definitely bred rather than built. A Muggeridge machine would have been back to the factory for reprogramming long ago.

Horizon (BBC2) says watch out for the sun: it’s misbehaving. One of its products, the neutrino — such a gay little particle, only showing up as a line of bubbles in shampoo — is not arriving here in sufficient quantities. Hence, presumably, the sinking pound.

20 June, 1976

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]