Days of future past

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One of the neat characteristics of a legacy blue collar industrial city like Green Bay, Wis., is the endurance of commercial markers long since erased from mainstream America. You’ll find them hidden in plain sight, typically in older parts of town — the shoe repair shop on University, the hardware store on East Mason and Main where the guy will make duplicate keys for you, and, dotted around pockets of downtown with surprising frequency, the traditional barbershop.

To walk into a barbershop on Broadway on the west side of downtown, as I did recently, is to glimpse vestiges of not just the past, but a host of pasts associated with various period accoutrements. Like an archaeologist digging through layers of history, you’ll find pieces of the 1940s in the building’s size (tiny); the ’50s in its male-only clientele; the ’60s in the classic stainless steel chairs and other barber paraphernalia; the ’70s in the bulky (not flat screen) TV affixed to the wall; and ’80s and ’90s in the VCR and DVD player connected to it. It seems any number of bygone eras find representation here.

The most interesting archaeological discovery for me was a hardcover booklet, mixed in with the assorted Field & Stream and Sports Illustrated magazines spread around a table in the waiting area, based on the popular 1970s “Six Million Dollar Man” TV series. Part kids reader and part graphic novel, such digests were fairly common as producers tried to cash in on a hit show with accompanying light literature, posters and lunch boxes. I remember as a kid happily thumbing through beat-up “Star Trek”- and “Star Wars”-associated publications at our public library. They tended to be heavy on visual elements to go with simplified variations on the plots established by the parent franchise.

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The adventures of Steve Austin were never that complex. But the idea of a six-million dollar man was fairly high-concept, in effect juicing up the traditional superhero narrative with highly plausible technological underpinnings. Spiderman derived his powers from the bite of a radioactive spider, and failing further explanation, you simply had to take it on faith that that could happen. “The Six Million Dollar Man” gave you a wonderful mix of robotics and medicine that, while fantastical, didn’t require too large of an imaginary leap from the actual advances of the 1970s (much less today). How Col. Austin’s bionic eye actually worked, or how, as my sister once pointed out, his unbionic back could withstand the strain of lifting a car, weren’t of much concern if you accepted, as Americans have done since the latter half of the 20th century, that scientists and doctors knew what they were doing and it was Luddite to question them.

As little understanding as I had of science and technology as a youngster, the appeal of a show like “The Six Million Dollar Man” having a foundation in reality would connect with later pseudo-scientific adventure series like “MacGyver.” Even the feature film “Back to the Future” captivated me with its fairly detailed, although entirely ludicrous, explanation of how time travel could be achieved. The whole idea was to marry fantasy with reality via test tubes and beakers.

So what happened? Hollywood’s current addiction to superhero franchises like “Spiderman” and “X-Men” has shifted the adventure narrative toward men and women transformed by murkier processes than doctors in lab coats. But really, we’re talking about distant cousins here — these are all stories that involve people coping (and sometimes struggling) with superhuman powers. Given their preference for established brands, it wouldn’t surprise me if studio executives saw easy dollar signs in a TV reboot or even feature film version of the “Six Million Dollar Man.” I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but for now, Steve Austin belongs, like the Green Bay barbershop, to another era.

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