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Population: Zero

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“Population: Zero”

S1 E1

Production 40013
Original Airdate: 18 January 1974
Sub Zero Steve
Steve's bionics get temperature-tested
Produced by
Sam Strangis
Donald R. Boyle
Written by
Elroy Schwartz
Directed by
Jeannot Szwarc
Guest Cast
Guest Star(s)
Penny Fuller as Chris Forbes
Special Guest Star(s)
Don Porter as Stanley Bacon
Co-starring
Paul Carr as Paul Cord
Paul Fix as Joe Taylor
Walter Brooke as General Harland Tate
Morgan Jones as Major Phillips
and
Colby Chester as Joe Hollister
With
John Elerick as Corporal Ed Presby
Virginia Gregg as Mrs. Nelson
Stuart Nisbet as Harry Johnson
Bob Delegall as 1st Technician
David Valentine as Teletype Operator
Mike Santiago as Frank
Broadcast Order
Season 1
← Previous Next →
"The Solid Gold Kidnapping" ""Survival of the Fittest""

Summary

When all 23 residents of the small town of Norris appear to have died simultaneously from an unknown cause, Steve Austin dons a spacesuit and ventures into the town to investigate. He soon discovers that everyone was only unconscious. Dr. Chris Forbes utilizes narcosynthesis in order to elict the memory of what occurred from the residents.

The cause is eventually identified as being high frequency sound waves. The source of these is soon revealed: deranged former OSI employee Dr. Stanley Bacon is embittered that the OSI failed to continue his work into the military benefits of using high frequency sound waves to immobilize enemy forces. He demands a $10 million ransom and threatens to use his technology to kill people if his terms are not met. The government refuses to pay up believing that the sound waves cannot be fatal.

However, anticipating that this will not be the case – as is soon confirmed – Steve defies the orders of Oscar Goldman and surrenders himself empty handed to Dr. Bacon and his men. Imprisoned in -20°C conditions in a walk-in freezer, Steve has precious little time to escape and stop Bacon from carrying out his murderous intentions. The cold conditions severely impair Steve’s Bionics but by severing a gas pipe and igniting it in order to gain a blowtorch effect, he eventually succeeds in escaping.

As he runs towards the location of Dr. Bacon’s control van, his bionics slowly regain their full functionality. The high frequency sound waves are on the verge of causing death - in the temporary camp set up to deal with Bacon - when Steve destroys the van by launching a large metal fence post at it.

Deconstructed

Quotes

Oscar: What are you doing, what is this?
Steve: It's a roll bar for my dune buggy. I figured if you ever run out of things for me to do, I'll open a machine shop.


Oscar: We've ordered the army to seal off the town.
Steve: Well what's the name of the town?
Oscar: A place called Norris.
Steve: Norris? I went to high school 20 miles from there.
Oscar: Steve, will you stay out of this, please.
Steve: But Oscar, I know those people.
Oscar: You're too valuable for this job, besides I've got another assignment for you. If I need you, I'll let you know.
Steve: Well fine Oscar, you do that. You can reach me at Army headquarters in Norris.


Dr. Forbes: Well, thanks for saving my life, but would you mind telling me how you did it?
Steve: Did what?
Dr. Forbes: Jumped across the room like that.
Steve: I eat a lot of jumping beans.
Dr. Forbes: (disbelieving) Steve!


Dr. Forbes: Oscar Goldman has a reputation for getting things done. Have you known him long?
Steve: About a year.
Dr. Forbes: Is he your boss?
Steve: He thinks so. (Steves pauses, then adds) No, that's not fair. I like Oscar. He's bright, straight, and underneath that shell of red tape, he's even got a heart.


Dr. Forbes: (in regard to his being bionic) Steve, how has it affected you? What does it feel like?
Steve Austin: (dripping with sarcasm) It feels just peachy, Doctor!


Bacon: (examining Steve Austin) A pulse on one side only?


Bacon: Do you realize that for one sixth of your cost, they could have had my weapon system perfected?
Steve: I think you've given them some second thoughts about that.


Bacon: In order to make them understand I must destroy government property. In this case a battalion of the army, our friend Oscar Goldman, and for the cherry on top, you, Mr. Austin. I will reduce you to a six million dollar pile of junk.


Steve: Say, what ever happened to Peanuts Donnely, that kid I used to play football with?
Joe: Oh, oh, Peanuts. Well, he was killed in Vietnam. One of the first ones.


Oscar: How do you tell a man who saved your life that he disobeyed an order?
Steve: You don't.
Oscar: I agree with you.


Dr. Forbes: Want some company?
Steve: Ok, eh, if you don't ask a lot of questions.
Dr. Forbes: No, I don't have any questions. I figured you out all by myself.
Steve: Oh, and that's the end of your curiosity?
Dr. Forbes: My medical curiosity...
Steve: You know, I just ran that through my computer.
Dr. Forbes: And?
Steve: I like the read-out.

Trivia

Storyline
  • The story for this episode is remarkably similar to the 1971 Universal Studios film The Andromeda Strain, in certain respects. Both feature a small town whose entire population has apparently died, the cause initially unknown. Both also feature someone investigating the town while wearing an isolation suit to protect against any undiscovered hazard.
  • The story for The Bionic Woman episode "The Deadly Missiles" shares some superficial similarities with this episode. Both episodes feature sonar/jammer devices. Both feature the protagonist's bionics not working correctly for a time. And both show the protagonist ripping a metal pole out of the ground, and flinging it at said sonar/jammer. In fact, select footage of the metal pole being ripped from the ground and thrown in this episode, is used in "The Deadly Missiles."
  • For the first time we start to connect with people from Steve's past. This becomes an occasional recurring theme in the series, later manifesting in episodes such as "The Coward" and "The Bionic Woman".
  • Austin says he has known Oscar for about a year at this point. Given the retconning involved with Oscar replacing the character of Oliver Spencer, it is unclear whether that means it has been a year since Steve's accident and/or bionic surgery, or if it has been a year since Oscar replaced Spencer.
Cast
  • Both Paul Carr and Paul Fix appeared as crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise in the second Star Trek pilot episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Carr's character was killed off and Fix, playing the ship's doctor, was later written out in favor of DeForest Kelley. (Carr and Fix also appear together in an episode of The Time Tunnel, and Carr also guests on The F.B.I., a series in which Fix was a regular.)
Production
  • As Steve runs at the end, his left side is covered in sweat, while his bionic right arm is dry, a clever piece of verisimilitude.
Characters
  • Oscar must be very fond of Steve, since he has a framed photo of the astronaut near his desk.
Locations
  • Steve says he went to high school 20 miles from Norris. Based upon later episodes, that means the town must be in the vicinity of Ojai.

Firsts

As the first episode of the first season, "Population: Zero" includes many firsts:

Bionics
  • This episode establishes that bionics do not function correctly in very cold temperatures, however a misconception exists that this means any cold temperatures; the episode clearly indicates that a deep-freeze is required. (This is supported by the fact Austin is later seen working perfectly well in "Dr. Wells is Missing," which takes place in snowy conditions.)
  • Another fact, established by this episode, is that Austin's bionics give off trace amounts of radiation. This radiation is picked up by a geiger counter used by Dr. Bacon on an unconscious Austin, thereby revealing the artificial nature of his limbs.
  • The episode establishes in dialogue that Austin's top achieved running speed to date is 60 mph; the pilot telefilms were ambiguous in this regard. However Austin just says, "I've hit 60" when asked, suggesting a greater speed is possible.
  • Austin also states in dialogue that his bionic eye has 20:1 zoom capability. Up to this point, however, his eye has only been shown providing night vision along with general restoration of sight; this is the first on-screen indication that the eye also provides Steve with long-distance vision.
  • Early in the episode, we see Austin working on a dune buggy, bending a roll bar using his bionic arm. This is the first example of what would come to be known as "pocket bionics" (a term reportedly coined by Kenneth Johnson for The Bionic Woman) - the non-mission-based use of bionics in everyday situations. "Pocket bionics" would become a recurring and endearing part of the bionic franchise, especially in the Bionic Woman series. As for the dune buggy, Steve will be seen working on it again in the season 2 episodes "The Midas Touch" and "The Peeping Blonde"
Music
  • Oliver Nelson's iconic theme music makes its debut. In the version of the opening credits used beginning with this episode, only a brief "sting" from the theme is heard. The proper melody line is heard from the first time over the episode credits (as Steve drives towards the road block), and is used over the tail credits (although before this it was also featured prominently in network promos for the episode (see link below)).
Opening Credits
SMDM-popzero seriestitle

The Series Title, first seen in "Population: Zero"

  • The famed series intro debuts here, in a form slightly different from what would be used later, yet using very little from the TV Movie intro from "Wine, Women and War." Also, the communications between Austin and ground controllers before the crash are completely different from that heard on Wine, Women and War or the original pilot film. Heard in the credits are communications from actual flights. Lines heard in the intro are from:

1. NASA Flight-Com, the flight communications officer on the ground,
2. The B-52 pilot carrying the lifting body,
3. An SR-71 Pilot, and
4. Four lines from Lee Majors inserted in.
Since most of it is coming from recorded transmissions, then mixed in with the music and sound effects, the spoken flight communications dialogue is often hard to understand and has been misinterpreted/misquoted by many fans over the decades. The following is a transcript from the actual dialogue, which has been triple checked against the audio of the intro, for accuracy (it also corresponds with DVD subtitles).

Flight Com: It looks good at NASA One.
SR-71 Pilot: Roger.
B-52 Pilot: BPS arm switch is on.
Flight Com: Okay, Victor.
B-52 Pilot: Landing rocket arm switch is on, here comes the throttle, circuit breakers in.
Steve: We have separation.
SR-71 Pilot: Roger.
B-52 Pilot: Inboards and outboards are on. I'm coming forward with the sidestick.
Flight Com: Looks good.
B-52 Pilot: Eh, Roger.
Steve: I've got a blowout in chamber three! (The "flying bathtub" Steve is flying has four rocket chambers, according to the novels.)
SR71 Pilot: Get your pitch to zero.
Steve: Pitch is out! I can't hold altitude!
B-52 Pilot: Correction: alpha-hold is off, threat selector is emergency--
Steve: Flight-com, I can't hold it! She's breaking up! She's brea--
Narrator (Executive Producer Harve Bennett): Steve Austin. Astronaut. A man barely alive.
Oscar Goldman: We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster.

  • There is a photograph of Steve in his Air Force uniform (seen later for his wedding announcement in The Bionic Woman (Part II)), used as Harve Bennett says: "Steve Austin: a man barely alive." This photo was removed from the intro after several episodes, and then removed from all episodes for later airings.[citation needed] (Note: the 2010 DVD release does not show this photograph.) (The opening used during the first season does not include the close-up of Austin's bandaged face seen in the introduction to later seasons). Richard Anderson then narrates the Season One version of the intro with the lines, "We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster." At this point, unlike later seasons which cover the remainder of the intro with music, we hear heartbeats and a rising "buzztone," finishing with a minor musical flourish just as the image of Steve running freezes for the show title.
Visual Effects
  • This episode marks the first consistent use of a slow-motion effect, to indicate Steve Austin is moving at bionic speed. Slow-motion was used in the prior movies as well, but not consistently. The slow-motion effect becomes a series trademark from this point forward. However the sound effect associated with bionics is not yet in place; instead, Steve's bionic running is punctuated by the sound of a slow heartbeat.
Locations
  • The Russell Senate Office Building appears as OSI headquarters for the first time.

Gaffes

Real Science

There are many issues arising from the description of bionics in this episode:

  • The idea that bionics immediately begin to malfunction when the temperature starts to drop below 32°F or 0°C, does not make sense. Using logical deduction, certain conclusions exposing the fallacy of this idea can be made.
  • The bionic limbs operate on atomic power. This is established in the pilot, The Six Million Dollar Man. While heat from fissionable material — either Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239, which are readily available — is used to generate electricity to power the limbs: the majority of that heat is actually wasted. Neither a generator nor a thermocouple would be 100% efficient in converting the heat to electricity.
  • Other inefficiencies would create additional heat. These would consist of resistance in the electronic components and wires, and minimal friction in the joints and other mechanical components.
  • Heatsinks are shown inside the bionic limbs, whenever internal bionics are exposed in episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. A notable example is in Bionic Woman episode Kill Oscar. An electric charge strikes Steve Austin's bionic arm, damaging it. The exposed area, clearly shows a heatsink. The purpose of a heatsink, is to absorb and radiate heat from electronics, in order to keep them functioning properly. This heat would be transferred to the air inside the cavity of the arm, and even the "plastiskin" (as it is referred to in the Martin Caidin Cyborg novels) sheath.
  • This waste heat would keep the bionic limbs warm. The heat would also be used to imitate the warmth of real human skin, whenever someone touches a bionic limb. The plastiskin would also act as an insulator and restrict the emission of the waste heat.
  • Therefore, we can conclude that the limbs would be kept warm enough to function correctly in the cold — at least for a time. For them to begin failing almost immediately, is not credible whatsoever. Only extreme cold should have that effect, and even then not right away. In fact: Steve or Jaime could die of exposure to extreme cold, before their bionics fail.
  • The opposite problem should have been true. Exposure to heat could cause the bionics to fail, because they would not be able to get rid of excess heat as easily. Which would mean that in such cases as the desert scenes in the pilot and "The Bionic Boy", Austin's bionics should have malfunctioned.
  • The idea that Steve and Jaime's bionics give off a constant amount of low-level radiation, is not sensible. Why would Dr. Rudy Wells not make the radiation shielding of the bionic limbs (the shields are mentioned in the episode "Run, Steve, Run"), such that they would block all radiation? First, the radiation emitted, immediately raises suspicion about Steve and Jaime's nature. Second, constant low-level emissions are unhealthy for them, as well as any friends or relatives they are continually in contact with.
  • When Dr. Bacon uses the geiger counter on Steve, it also gives a reading when held over his head. This indicates an atomic power source for the eye. First, how could even a thermocouple powered by a fissionable pellet, fit inside his head? Second, once again the radiation emitted would be dangerous to Steve: especially so close to his brain.

There is also no specific explanation as to why Bacon's truck explodes so violently. The nature of his weapon appears to be purely electronic, with no indication of any combustable compounds or unique energy sources. Of course, this was the 1970's, so it was not uncommon for vehicles on action-adventure series to be prone to overly dramatic detonation.

Conjecture

  • While there are no particular issues arising from Norris being a small town, 23 seems a ludicrously low figure, given the glimpses we see of it. It is somewhat implausible that Norris' tax base would have allowed a defined "city center" of any kind, especially with sidewalks, paved streets, and an apparent business district (not to mention apparently city status according to the population sign). One imagines that, perhaps, the town marker (from which the population figure is derived), is a few years out of date. Or Norris experienced a drastic decrease in its population for an undisclosed reason.
  • One would imagine the discovery of Austin's weakness (his bionics malfunctioning in subzero temperatures) would have caused some distress at the OSI as it would limit the types of missions Steve could be sent on -- for example, wintertime missions into the mid-United States, or missions to arctic or antarctic climates. Indeed, a blizzard and cold snap hitting Washington might have been enough to render Austin incapacitated.

The Andromeda Strain Connection

  • As mentioned before certain elements from the plot of this episode (the small town stricken by an unknown agent that renders its inhabitants dead or unconscious, and the use of an environmental suit) are taken from Michael Crichton's "The Andromeda Strain", another Universal production directed by Robert Wise. The aerial pictures shown to Steve by Dr. Forbes are also still frames taken directly from the reconnaissance aircraft footage from that movie. This kind of practice was common in television at the time, to add production value. None of the 4 structures visible in the photos (church, school, store and corral) are present in the actual episode.

Environmental Suit

  • Steve's environmental suit in this episode is a NASA Project Gemini Space Suit (G3C). Oxygen was pumped into the suit through a hose that attached at the waist. During transfer to the spacecraft, the suit was ventilated by a portable unit carried by the astronaut. Once inside the spacecraft, the oxygen hose was connected to the spacecraft's environmental control system, which provided oxygen to both the spacecraft and the suit.
  • There are some inaccuracies regarding the capabilities and characteristics of the suit as portrayed in the episode:
    1. The real-life G3C consisted of six layers of nylon (the innermost containing a rubberized nylon "bladder") and Nomex, with a link net retaining layer and an outer layer of white Nomex fabric, not as multilayered as the Project Apollo Space Suit (A7L), that would offer more protective features against radiation and other enviromental agents.
    2. The suit was made in common sizes, both for training and actual missions. It's not custom sized to fit an individual user, as wrongly stated by the NASA personnel in this episode, and can't be used in Moon walking missions. The G4C version of the Gemini suit (that has extra Mylar layers) was used for space walks, but was never intended for planet landing. Actually, the AL7 is the one that was custom-made for its wearer. Modern space suits are conformed by multiple interchangeable parts, both for practical and economic purposes.
    3. The portable unit seen in this episode is basically an air-conditioning unit, that lacks of proper filters for decontamination of Chemical and Biological Agents. It lacks from a self-contained oxigen supply, as the one present on the A7L.
  • It's fairly possible that the writers of this episode were meant to use and portray the A7L suit, that would be self-contained, protective and custom sized, besides properly fitting with Steve Austin's Moon walker background. However, the production costs, classified nature of the actual suit when the episode was shot and availability of props would be the cause of a G3C being used instead.
  • The ID tags in NASA space suits are white letters against a dark blue background, instead of the blue letters against a white background as seen in Steve's suit.


Dr. Bacon's Ultrasonic Weapon

  • Ultrasound is a cyclic sound pressure wave with a frequency greater than the upper limit of human hearing.
  • Sonic and Ultrasonic Weapons (USW) are weapons of various types that use sound to injure, incapacitate, or kill an opponent. Some sonic weapons are currently in limited use or in research and development by military and police forces.
  • Extremely high-power sound waves can disrupt and/or destroy the eardrums of a target and cause severe pain or disorientation. This is usually sufficient to incapacitate a person, as seen in this episode. Less powerful sound waves can cause humans to experience nausea or discomfort. Studies have found that exposure to high intensity ultrasound at frequencies from 700 kHz to 3.6 MHz can cause lung and intestinal damage in mice. Heart rate patterns following vibroacoustic stimulation has resulted in serious negative consequences such as atrial flutter and bradycardia.
  • The effects portrayed by the ultrasonic weapon in this episode are entirely pausible. However, the highway patrolman's helmet or placing the hands against the ears wouldn't offer protection or relief against this kind of weapon. Recovery would include some kind of disability from eardrum damage. A direct hit against Steve would create disorientation and loss of equilibrium, interfering with his aim while attacking the van. It's also reasonable to assume that increasing the power output of the weapon would kill its intended targets.

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