I can't think of any such show from the era that changed more than 'Airwolf' did. From its dark, moody (and ahead of it's time) first season, changes were forced in the second, still watchable season, but by the third season had very much become a much more generic action-adventure show. But that's nothing due to the infamously bad fourth season... but I'll save that for future reviews!!
When I was growing up, 'The A-Team', 'The Dukes of Hazzard' and 'Knight Rider' were my three favourite TV shows, but when it came along in 1984, 'Airwolf' wasn't far behind in that ranking, and usually held fourth place in my favourites. (BTW, I still love all of those shows; I even run my own detailed 'A-Team' fan-site, check my profile for more!).
'Airwolf' was first shown here in the U.K. on ITV in a Friday evening slot, but from it's second season moved to a Saturday lunchtime slot (my local region, London Weekend Television, rotated it with runs of "CHiPs"); for some years, I only had a couple of odd late recorded episodes to remember the series by (not realising it wouldn't be repeated for almost a decade).
In the early 1990s, the Pilot was released on video, with a couple of other hotchpotch releases, in a heavily rejigged form, re-editing the entire film, substituting many shots and sound effects, eliminating many scenes - and dubbing profanity IN! (This re-edited Pilot was re-released in the U.K. on DVD a couple of years ago along with a few other seemingly random selected and poorly presented episodes, by which point I was holding out for season-by-season box sets).
ITV re-acquired the rights to show 'Airwolf' in September 1995, and I managed to record the entire run. However, in the 1990s LWT were very shoddy and would often happily lop five or six minutes run-time out of episodes (for no apparent reason), often leaving them impossible to watch as a result. I could also receive adjoining region Meridian, who were generally much more reasonable with what they did(nt) cut out, though it was swings and roundabouts as my reception wasn't as good. Either way, the Pilot has many more adult sequences which most regions removed for their daytime broadcast, so it wasn't until the Season One DVD box set that I finally got a copy of the complete original version of the Pilot.
Although I love all old 1980's action-adventure shows (as my other reviews reflect!), and I have a definite fondness for 'Airwolf', I've actually had mixed feelings about it for the past few years. Part of this is due to the "chequered" personal life of Jan-Michael Vincent (some of the other cast and crew have tactfully said that he wasn't exactly the easiest person to work with) which has maybe made the series a bit hard for me to watch - though in a way, maybe this lends itself to Vincent playing such a troubled character as Stringfellow Hawke! But I also associate those 1990s re-runs with a fairly unhappy period in my life (an association that I hope this re-viewing on the series on DVD will finally erase), and the chopped up nature of the episodes as they were shown certainly didn't help this.
Anyway, this Pilot itself... I've always had very mixed feelings about it. Stephen J. Cannell ('The A-Team', etc.) would typically go for the wise-cracking knockabout stories; Glen A. Larson ('Knight Rider') would go for the more fantastical-driven family show, and Donald P. Bellisario (also behind another of my favourites, the classic 'Magnum, p.i.') would go for something deeper, often with darker undertones. And deeper and darker is certainly what we get here. And heavy religious infleunce, too.
The story opens spectacularly, with Moffet giving Airwolf a test-flight, as Archangel and Marella show it off to an uninterested senator (played by Eugene Roche, who played the recurring gumshoe Luther H. Gillis in 'Magnum'), before Moffet turns the chopper on them and blows everyone (bar Archangel and Marella, miraculously) away. It's a very impressive start.
After that, as we are introduced to Hawke and see his interaction with Gabrielle, things slow down a bit. These scenes are undoubtedly well written and well executed, and wonderful vignettes in themselves, but, I can't help but feel we get a few *too many* of these, and they start to really slow the story down after a while; there is a definite patch where – as clever as these scenes are, very little happens plot-wise.
The production is cast well; Vincent, who I've covered above, has what it takes to bring to life the deeply troubled Hawke, and Ernest Borgnine adds just the right level of relief as the ever-cheery Dominic (after Borgnine came to Bellisario's attention after appearing as an ageing wrestler in the third season 'Magnum' episode 'Mr. White Death'). Alex Cord is also just right as the mysterious Archangel, and as a guest star, Belinda Bauer makes an impact as the doomed Gabrielle. But I must mention the late David Hemmings, who cheerfully parades around carrying out his various sadistic pass-times, as the warped genius Dr. Moffet.
My favourite scene in this half comes as Moffet demonstrates Airwolf's one vulnerability (a bullet in the fuel intake) as he pretty much plays Russian roulette with the chopper (by the way, this is the one scene that I feel plays better on the hacked up video version, as Moffet's theme plays away, almost cheerfully, in the background).
It's certainly a well-written, very thoughtful Pilot, but as I say, I feel there are one (or two..) to many slow wordy scenes that start to take their toll. Summing up the pros and cons, I give this half 8.5/10.
(Review continued in Part 2...)