This review contains spoilers.
The penultimate episode of 'Airwolf's impressive first season, 'Mind of the Machine' is another high quality instalment.
This episode has sort of crept up on me over the years. When I first recorded it, along with the rest of the series, from my local ITV region in the mid-1990s, I typically got two 'Airwolf' episodes per week (one from scissor-happy LWT, and one from adjoining region Meridian), as well as a 'Knight Rider' from Meridian, and often a (seemingly randomly picked) 'A-Team' from LWT – all on one Saturday afternoon! So 'Mind of the Machine' kinda got lost in the swamp of things a little. Then when I was sorting my old tapes out a few years ago, I found that I really liked it. Watching it again on DVD tonight to review, I realise that it is an incredibly strong episode.
The episode starts straight into action, with Hawke and Santini flying Airwolf at top speed along a dangerous chasm – and exploding! ...Turns out they're in a sophisticated simulator programme, which is at the centre of this story. (Trivia: The build of the simulator is actually the mock-up front-half of Airwolf used to film interior shots for the episodes.)
The project is run by Dr. Robert Winchester, played very well by David Harradine. Winchester is bitter that he never got selected to fly Airwolf, which naturally has caused resentment towards Hawke. This leads to some nice subtle red herrings, as he is played quite dark, and we suspect him to be the villain of the episode.
But the villain turns out to be his assistant Diana, played by the gorgeous Sondra Currie (a regular guest star on such 1980s TV shows, and who went on to marry regular 'Airwolf' director Alan J. Levi a few years later). Currie always livens up anything she is in (and not just for her striking looks), and it's a shame she never really made it past occasional B-movie star.
Anyway, her romantic manipulation of Winchester plays out nicely – we are given subtle indication that maybe Winchester has thrown his life into his work and so maybe has led a slightly solitary existence; so can't see how Diana – actually a K.G.B. agent – is manipulating him for her own means.
But even before this K.G.B. unfolds, we get some interesting and enjoyable sequences. In fact, the whole of the first act revolves purely around the test simulator programme, and Hawke's distrustful response to it – a welcome change of pace from some of the more adrenaline-charged stories. Although we are given some hints that Winchester might want Airwolf for his own, it is not until we head towards the second act that we realise a sinister plot may be afoot.
The episode is also notable for featuring two Airwolfs. Sort of. Hawke and Winchester take on each other in the simulator, each flying a version of the super-chopper (look out for the faint join in the picture as two shots are merged together, to make it look as if there are two Airwolfs!). This element of the story is fun but relatively shot lived (things are interrupted by a raid on the project); fans would have to wait until the third season episode 'Airwolf II' for more of a direct "two Airwolfs" showdown.
Naturally, by the peak of the story, Diana has revealed her true purposes, and is taking off back to Russia with her cohort, with detailed schematics that can let them build their own Airwolf. This leads to a great climatic aerial sequence – their computers are able to second-guess Airwolf's every move, leaving Hawke unable to outmanoeuvre them and shoot them down. Winchester (near dead after being shot) gives them the clue that Airwolf must "fly cold" to outwit their enemies. The agents are trying to escape in a pretty standard chopper, and with their predicting Airwolf's every move, it makes for a nice variation on the standard weekly beefed-up helicopter duel. Finally, with Winchester's advice, Hawke and Dom outwit the agents and blow them out of the sky.
The final scene is very memorable – Hawke and Dom try to race the badly wounded Winchester to hospital. Unable to use the turbos as it might traumatise Winchester further, Hawke finally gives Winchester his dream goal of piloting Airwolf, which he does, moments before he dies. This scene is a perfect example of how strong Airwolf could be in its first season.
So in all, this is a terrific episode. As I say, whilst I've always liked it, it's kinda "crept up on me" over the years for me to realise just *how good* it is. I give it a 10. It's probably on the lower end of a 10 (if that makes sense), and – while it currently (as of April 2011) ranks tenth in TV.com highest 10 rated episodes – I'm not sure if it would quite scrape my personal top 10, but that's just because there are so many other greats in the series. Still a wonderful episode.