Sunday 1 September 2019

Airwolf season 2 (1984-85)

Airwolf was created by Donald P. Bellisario and any series that Bellisario was involved in is  likely to be unexpectedly intelligent and complex. The first season of Airwolf was dark, edgy, cynical, moody and with multiple layers of ambiguity. There was pressure from the network to lighten things up a bit in the second season (which ran from late 1984 to 1985).

Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) is still working with Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine) flying commercial helicopters doing stunt work and film work, and still carrying out assorted crime-fighting and intelligence missions in his ultra-advanced combat helicopter Airwolf, which he sort of stole from the U.S. Government. He still enjoys unofficial protection from Michael Coldsmith Briggs III (Alex Cord), code-name Archangel, who is very very highly placed in The Firm (which is clearly meant to be the CIA), on the condition that he uses Airwolf for the occasional very secret probably totally illegal covert operation for The Firm.

The season opener introduces Jean Bruce Scott as girl helicopter pilot Caitlin O’Shannessy. She will become a semi-regular character in season two. The series certainly doesn’t need yet another helicopter pilot but I guess they figured that adding a feisty gal pilot would please the network. She’s an unnecessary character but she’s harmless enough and manages not to be irritating. She even becomes vaguely likeable.

Throughout its run the series struggled to find an audience and it became obvious that the network was likely to exert even more pressure to dumb things down. There was also the problem that this was a very expensive series to make. It’s not surprising that Bellisario severed his ties to Airwolf after the end of the second season.

What makes Airwolf really stand out is that it has an absolutely vital extended story arc, a very unusual thing to find in an 80s action series. That story arc concerns the fate of Stringfellow Hawke’s brother St John. It also explains a great deal about String’s character and motivations and how he came to steal an advanced combat helicopter and why he’s prepared to allow The Firm to make use of it. String and St John were ace combat helicopter pilots in Vietnam and they were involved in covert operations. String made it back home after the war but his brother didn’t. String strongly suspects that his brother is still alive and possibly still a prisoner-of-war. He also suspects that there may have been treachery involved in St John’s disappearance and that treachery may have involved U.S. government agencies, and that there may be people within those agencies who know the truth about mission prisoners-of-war.

So this extended story arc adds a hefty dose of paranoia and obsession to the series. And this story arc continues through season two, popping up in several key episodes. String keeps coming across coincidences and hints that suggest that he’s getting close to finding out the truth but it seems that every time he gets close the evidence turns out to be inconclusive, or ambiguous, or it simply vanishes. It’s rather similar to Mulder’s search for evidence of aliens - the evidence that would clinch the case is always just out of reach. And Stringfellow Hawke is every bit as obsessive as Fox Mulder.

Vietnam is the key to the whole series. Stringfellow Hawke learnt his combat helicopter skills there and he certainly had dealings with The Firm (which obviously represents the CIA which was popularly known as The Company). He also learnt not to trust people, especially people from the government, especially people from the intelligence community and most of all he learnt not to trust The Firm. It’s not that The Firm is portrayed as being evil as such. Sometimes The Firm does things that are good and necessary. Sometimes its motives are murkier. But String thinks that The Firm can help him to find his brother, so he’s prepared to be coöperative, up to a point.

String’s attitude towards Archangel is also complicated. String trusts Archangel, within very narrow limits. He doesn’t trust him enough to tell him where he has Airwolf stashed. Archangel is an intriguing character. He’s ruthless and since he’s a  a career intelligence man lying and deception and manipulation come as naturally to him as breathing. But only up to a certain point. Oddly enough Archangel does have some morals. There are some things he won’t do. He really believes he’s one of the good guys and there are things that the good guys don’t do. Archangel’s assistant and confidant Marella (Deborah Pratt) initially seems to be an even more cold-blooded version of Archangel, but there’s more to it than that. Like Archangel she’s in a profession that has no room for ideals or personal loyalty but she’s not quite as cynical as she appears to be.

The politics of Airwolf is interesting. Mostly it’s sceptical and cynical towards all sides of politics. The message is don’t trust the government but also don’t trust the enemies of the government. It’s not taking a left-wing or a right-wing position. Just don’t trust anyone in any official position. Don’t trust anyone really.

At times the paranoia level reaches X-Files proportions. What saves it from complete nihilism and despair is that String and Dom have been through enough together that they know they can trust each other. So it’s kind of like Stringfellow Hawke against the world, but he knows Dominic Santini will stand by him. And in season two he’s pretty sure Caitlin will stand by him as well. So you can trust friends, if they happen to be people you know real well.

String’s relationship with Archangel is also somewhat similar to Mulder’s relationship with various powerful authority figures who are prepared to help him and protect him but within limits and as long as it serves their agenda. I’m not suggesting that The X-Files was directly influenced by Airwolf, but the similarities of tone suggest that The X-Files was tapping into an already existing reservoir of paranoia that had been growing throughout the 80s.

The Episode Guide

Sweet Britches takes String to a small town in search of a lost friend but the local sheriff is very unfriendly and the whole place turns out to be pretty deadly. It’s an action-filled season opener.

Firestorm is totally over-the-top. Dom’s friend Eddie, a burnt-out pilot who’s crawled inside a bottle and intends to stay there, drives Dom nuts with crazy stories of UFOs and weird lights in the desert. Eddie is obviously hallucinating, except that he isn’t, what he’s seeing isn’t UFOs but it is real and it’s a whole lot more dangerous than UFOs. It’s an outrageous episode but it works.

Moffett’s Ghost is a ghost story of sorts. The crazed and evil Dr Moffett, the man who designed Airwolf, is dead but his ghost lives on. His ghost is a kind of computer virus built into Airwolf. And his ghost is as megalomaniacal and malevolent as the real Dr Moffett. This one is every bit as good as the best of season one. An excellent episode.

In Sins of the Past Dom’s past comes back to haunt him in a major way.

The Fallen Angel of the title of this episode is Archangel and he’s in big trouble. The Firm is in big trouble. It seems that Archangel has kind of gone rogue. He’s set off to rescue a former lover but he’s actually walked into a trap, and a very dangerous one. It’s a great episode and it’s interesting in being a very character-centred episode, with Archangel allowing his emotions to cloud his judgment, and with Marella having to choose between loyalty to the Firm and loyalty to Archangel and displaying an unexpected side to her character. You don’t really expect to see supporting characters in an 80s action-adventure series having to deal with complex conflicting loyalties and emotional crises but this is Airwolf and this is the sort of thing that makes Airwolf such a fascinating series.

Flight #093 Is Missing is a kind of riff on Airport ’77 with a hijacked airliner on the ocean floor but the passengers are still alive, and Caitlin is one of the passengers. It’s perhaps slightly less silly than Airport ’77 but it’s still fairly silly. But kind of fun.

HX-1 is an attack helicopter that may be just as formidable as Airwolf and it’s been stolen.  The way it was stolen worries String. Certain elements of the theft were eerily reminiscent of his brother St John’s style. String becomes more and more convinced that St John was mixed up in it. But he’s going to have to prove it and that could get him killed and it could get St John killed, if he’s actually alive and involved. A good episode.

Once a Hero is another episode in which the Vietnam War plays a part. String hears a rumour that his brother is alive and in a POW camp in Laos. He puts together a team of Vietnam vets to undertake a rescue mission but there are a lot of things that happened in Vietnam that refuse to stay in the past. This is a pretty dark episode by season two standards but it’s pretty good.

In Random Target String and Dom are doing some aerial filming. And it soon becomes evident that someone is prepared to kill to get hold of the film. String and Dom have no idea why. It was a totally routine job, and now a friend of theirs has been murdered because he was believed to be in possession of the film. And the lady cop assigned to the case doesn’t want to listen to the theories that String and Dom have come up with to explain the killing. More trouble follows, while String and Dom desperately try to figure out why it was that they filmed. A very good episode.

Condemned takes place on a remote island on which a deadly bioweapon has gotten totally out of hand. If it spreads to the outside world the prospects are very grim indeed. String and Caitlin have to find out exactly what the situation is but there is also a party of armed Russians on the island and they’re there for the same purpose. The Russians are just as worried about the situation as the Americans. The immediate problem is that String and Caitlin have to find a way to work amicably with the Russians in an atmosphere of quite understandable mutual suspicions (since one side or the other has been doing very silly and very dangerous things with this bioweapon). This is very much a detente-influenced story, the message being that both sides have to learn to work together. It’s also a very tense and suspenseful and generally very effective episode.

The American Dream is another episode with its roots in the Vietnam War. Vietnamese immigrants are still being oppressed by the same warlord who oppressed them in the old country. It’s an OK story.

In Inn at the End of the Road terrorists have stolen a device that can make any aircraft unbeatable in air-to-air combat but now the terrorists are holed up in a remote cabin in the mountains and they’ve taken hostages. A solid episode.

In Santini's Millions Dom is on a mission of mercy with a heart for a transplant operation when he stops and does a good turn for a stranded billionaire whose plane has been forced down. The billionaire is impressed by Dom’s incorruptibility so he leaves Dom a huge share of his fortune in his will. And then promptly dies, leaving Dom in a difficult situation - he is now rich but that means the has a whole crop of dangerous enemies. A pretty good episode.

Prisoner of Yesterday isn’t a great episode but it’s intriguing for the political ambiguity. A revolutionary leader who became president of his country has been deposed by the military and now, in failing health, languishes in hospital. Or he did, until a revolutionary group led by his daughter snatched him from the military hospital. To care for him they have kidnapped ‘Doc’ Gifford (who appeared in an earlier episode) and String is determined to rescue Doc. But things aren’t so simple. Guzman, the old and ailing ex-president, had been a genuine idealist. Having gained office he either sold out the revolution, or he became a realist and concentrated on doing what was possible, depending on whose story you believe. He’s not a real hero but he doesn’t seem to be a real villain. The young revolutionaries have mixed motivations. Some are moderates, some are extremists who hope to provoke civil war. His daughter and political heir is ambiguous as well. She has to decide whether to choose the path of violence or the path of compromise. It’s not the most exciting of Airwolf episodes but the political and ethical ambiguities are interesting.

Natural Born is the story of a hotshot young helicopter pilot named Kevin with extraordinary flying abilities, and extraordinarily poor judgment. His uncle is murdered by drug dealers and he wants revenge. He’s also penniless and jobless but String and Dom take him on as a kind of odd-job man because they feel sorry for him. He manages to lose them an important job and almost get himself and Caitlin killed but the kid can fly so they are willing to forgive almost anything. An average episode.

In Out of the Sky String, Dom and Caitlin get mixed up in show business when they get a job doing filming and stunts for a concert tour featuring country music star Roxy Marvel. The main stunt involves slowly lowering a huge fake UFO onto the stage from a helicopter. Roxy is a troubled star and there are obviously some strains between her and her ex-husband and manager, the very sleazy and very creepy Nick DeSoto. String starts to fall for Roxy but he doesn’t realise that she could actually be in real danger. A route episode although the fake UFO is quite cool.

In Dambreakers Hawke’s job is to fly a reporter into a remote Christian community that has decided to shun the modern world and all its evils and live the simple life. In three days’ time Hawke will return to pick her up by which time she should have her story.  And it might not be the story she expected since this community might turn out to be not quite what it appears to be. A very good episode.

Severance Pay is one of the Airwolf episodes dealing with the murky world of The Firm. These episodes are very similar in some ways to the conspiracy episodes of The X-Files. Klein and Mason, a couple of analysts retiring from The Firm, believe they’re being cheated out of their retirement bonus. When Klein dies Mason decides to get even. But something much more sinister is happening behind the scenes. Mason had discovered that there was a highly placed mole within The Firm. Mason is releasing material to the press and so is the mole. Mason’s material is embarrassing - the mole’s information is treacherous. It’s a fascinating episode for the casual acceptance of the idea that of course The Firm has all sorts of dirty secrets to hide, secrets relating to all kinds of illegal activities. And the even more casual acceptance of the idea that The Firm doesn’t fire or prosecute unreliable employees, it liquidates them. What makes this episode so good is the combination of extreme cynicism and whimsy.

In Eruption Dom and String are collecting data from a volcano for a university when the volcano decides to erupt. It decides to erupt in a really big way, as in a whole mountain exploding. Dom and String are forced down and find themselves in the town of New Gideon. This episode is basically a western. The town is under the control of the evil Davenport Mining Company. The miners are exploited and their families face near-starvation. And the corrupt sheriff is owned by the mining company. String is the Stranger Who Rides Into Town One Day and sets things right. Instead of the climactic gunfight in the main street we get a helicopter duel but it’s the same principle. It’s still an entertaining episode and the post-eruption post-apocalypse scenes are quite effective.

In Short Walk to Freedom Caitlyn joins an archaeological dig in South America with a bunch of American kids and they manage to get captured by guerillas. String rescues them but then he gets captured and Airwolf is badly damaged. Dragging Airwolf across the desert is a bit silly but it adds some drama. There’s air combat, there’s ground combat, there are daring rescues. It’s the Airwolf formula and it works for me. Good stuff.

Final Thoughts

So Airwolf has lots of cool action scenes, lots of explosions and lots of air combat. It has some reasonably decent scripts. It has a very good cast. It’s an attempt to make a dumb action adventure series that isn’t actually dumb at all. So why wasn’t it a bigger hit? Why did it struggle in the ratings throughout its run?

I really don’t know the answers, but it may be that it was at times a bit too ambitious and also at times a bit dark. Even though the second season was an attempt to make the series a bit more commercial it still has the odd dark and edgy moment. It doesn’t have the pure fun comic-book feel of Knight Rider or The A-Team.

And maybe Jan-Michael Vincent didn’t have the charisma to carry a show like this. A few years earlier he might have but by the time he was cast in Airwolf he was having serious drinking problems. He was just short of 40 when the series began but he looked a rather ravaged 40. I think he gave an extremely good and subtle performance but it may have been a bit too unconventional for the target audience.

Maybe the second season doesn’t quite live up to the promise of season one but it’s still an exceptionally interesting and entertaining series. Highly recommended.

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