After the look at various fan works, it’s time to get back to the professional works. This time out, Airwolf, specfically, the series’ fourth season.
Airwolf debuted in 1984 on CBS, were it ran until 1986, and starred Jan-Michael Vincent as Stringfellow Hawke, Ernest Borgnine as Dominic Santini, Alex Cord as Michael “Archangel” Coldsmith-Briggs III, and, starting in the second season, Jean Bruce Scott as Caitlin O’Shannessy. Airwolf was part of a wave of TV series built around high-tech, almost super, vehicles. The wave had been building easily since 007 drove his heavily Q-modified Aston-Martin DB-V in Goldfinger, climaxing in 1982 with the film adaptation of Craig Thomas’ Firefox and the Glen A. Larson TV series, Knight Rider. In 1983, the film Blue Thunder was released to theatres and was centrered around the police use of a military helicopter. The following year, a TV series spin off of Blue Thunder aired as well as Airwolfe.
The difference between the two super-helicopter series was in their use. Blue Thunder still had the military/militarized chopper in police hands. With Airwolf, the one-of-a-kind helicopter was strictly military, and taken by Hawke as collateral to ensure that Archangel and the secret agency, the Firm, would keep their word in finding Stringfellow’s missing brother, St. John, who was Missing-In-Action in Vietnam. Airwolf also was moody, sombre, and serious.
A typical episode of Airwolf could go one of three directions. The first is Airwolf and its crew being given a mission by Archangel to complete, either flying Airwolf in on stealth or going undercover using Dom’s company, Santini Air. The second is being in the wrong place at the wrong time, getting involved in local affairs or machinations within the Firm. The third is Hawke following up on news of St. John or of a friend who might know of his brother’s location. No matter the initial direction, the climax would be a helicopter dogfight involving Airwolf and the villain of the episode. Once in a while, Soviet MiGs would be part of the fight, just to demonstrate how much Airwolf could punch up.
The series lasted three seasons on CBS. Ratings had been low despite attempts to bolster them, and the influence of Miami Vice could be seen as part of the changes. With other factors involved, CBS cancelled the series in 1986. However, the cable station USA Network was expanding to a 24 hour format and needed new programming, so it picked up Airwolf for second run syndication and commissioned a fourth season, airing in 1987. With the changes necessitated by the change of both network and production company, the fourth season is more a remake of Airwolf than a continuation.
With one exception, none of the original cast appeared. The exception is Jan-Michael Vincent, who appeared in the first episode of the season, “Blackjack”. The episode gave Stringfellow’s quest to find his brother closure, with St. John working for the Company as an agent. The new cast comprised of Barry Van Dyke as St. John Hawke, Geraint Wyn Davies as Mike Rivers, Michele Scarabelli as Dom’s niece, Jo Santini, and Anthony Sherwood as Jason Locke.
With a reduced budget, other changes occurred. The shooting location is most obvious. There are far more pine trees and much fewer deserts thanks to the move to Vancouver. Airwolf’s hiding spot got more detail as the series relied less on Santini Air exterior shots. Stock footage from the previous three seasons were used of Airwolf in action, though editing allowed for new ways to show the air battles despite the limitation.
The nature of episode plots tended towards missions for the Company, allowing for Locke to join the team in Airwolf. With all four members of the team capable of handling at least one aspect of flying the helicopter, either as pilot or flight engineer, the characters could split off to do more work on the ground, avoiding the lack of new aerial Airwolf scenes. There is still some in-fighting at the Company, in part because Locke is keeping Airwolf away from the agency for his own purposes.
The tone is the biggest change. The first three seasons, even with the influence of Miami Vice forcing its way in, was moody, dark without being grim, reflecting Stringfellow’s emotions. The action is stylized. The fourth season is a straight up action series, losing the mood of the previous seasons.
Why treat the fourth season as a remake? The time between being cancelled on CBS and being aired on the USA Network is under a year and the episode “Blackjack” hands off the series to the new cast. That would imply that the series continued. However, with a drastic change of cast and approach, the fourth season of Airwolf is closer to being Star Trek: The Next Generation than a hypothetical fourth season of the original Star Trek. Wrapping up String’s quest to find his brother was a nod to continuity, providing closure to the first three seasons. Afterwards, the series is more about using Airwolf on missions, a complete change from the original approach. Unlike ST: TNG, there wasn’t the time between the seasons to allow for a gap.
Season four of Airwolf is a unique case. It was meant to be a continuation of the series, but with the drastic change of cast, the fourth season became its own entity in the shadow of the original. It’s not a bad season, but it couldn’t live up to what had passed before it.