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The helmet lights are BACK ON! (or 'Why You Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Season 4')
on 22 May 2015
The much-maligned, Canadian-produced final season of 'Airwolf' finally appears on DVD in the UK after several years of waiting, courtesy of Fabulous Films (who have also made available the HD remasters of the first three seasons on DVD and also Blu-Ray). Season 4 sees a change in the ultimate helicopter's crew, but retains the consistently high quality of action-adventure which made the series great.
The torch is passed in the first episode, 'Blackjack' (which guest stars Jan-Michael Vincent as Stringfellow Hawke, reprising his role for the final time), as Stringfellow's MIA brother St. John (Barry Van Dyke) is finally located and rescued, whereupon he takes up the role of Airwolf's lead pilot. Supporting him are Dominic Santini's niece Jo (Michelle Scarabelli), wisecracking US Air Force Major Mike Rivers (Geraint Wyn Davies), and Archangel's replacement within 'The Company' (formerly the F.I.R.M) Jason Locke (Anthony Sherwood). Together, they undertake dangerous missions on behalf of the US and sometimes the world, battling terrorism, international espionage, nuclear threats, deadly viruses and drug dealers. William B. Davis (the infamous 'Cigarette Smoking Man' from the X-Files) appears as Locke's superior, Newman, and there's even a special guest appearance by Dick Van Dyke (Barry's dad!) as the diabolical mastermind 'Malduke', in an episode shot and intended as the series finale but presented here as the third-to-last episode which is how it was aired (my advice - save it til last!), and Airwolf fans will spot many guest stars from the show's past.
Season 4 has a reputation for being 'very poor' and often divides fans of the series (although most Airwolf fans who rubbish Season 4 do so purely because Jan-Michael and Ernest are not in it, or even - and this is no joke - on the basis that the crew have their helmet lights on all the time!) This is a very basic and unfair assessment for several reasons. Airwolf was cancelled by CBS in 1986 after season three, but more episodes were needed to fulfill a syndication deal with USA Network, and so the decision was made to produce another season - albeit in Canada, by a company called Atlantis. They had several things going against them - the loss of the original cast, the lack of the actual flightworthy Airwolf helicopter (the studio mockup was used for cockpit scenes and all flying scenes were either stock footage or model shots), and a lower budget than the CBS seasons enjoyed. But despite all this, both cast and crew tried their best and produced another whole season of Airwolf where there would have been no more. Fans, at the very least, should be appreciative of this.
As I go on to list some of the pros of this season for potential buyers, I invite Airwolf fans who continually badmouth it to pay close attention (swap your rose-tinted glasses for reading glasses where necessary) and hopefully you will re-evaluate and have a change of heart. Season 4 boasts some brilliant writing (frequently let down only by budgetary or other production constraints), and in this sense it is consistent with the rest of the series - Airwolf was never 'a show about a helicopter', it was all about the characters and Airwolf is merely a tool, a means to an end. This tradition of intelligent, exciting storytelling is continued here - there are a few dud episodes, but this trait began towards the end of Season 2 and was rife in Season 3. The use of stock footage from the previous seasons is understandably excessive (another trait of Season 3), but this has a benefit for fans in the form of unused (B-roll) footage appearing for the first time, and there are some instances of Season 4 making more out of certain footage than the previous seasons - as an example, the aerial battle between Airwolf and Redwolf in 'Airwolf II' (Season 3) is brilliantly re-edited into something longer and more involved in Season 4's 'Salvage', where Airwolf goes up against the Scorpion. Season 4 also employs a lot of new miniature work; the quality of this fluctuates but again, past seasons are also guilty of this. We're also treated to Season 4's attempt at showing features of the Airwolf helicopter which the designers intended it to have but for various reasons were never shown - specifically Airwolf's rear doors and its winch mechanism (which is used with a personnel harness in a couple of episodes, and once with an electromagnet when the team need to recover a video camera containing crucial film evidence...and yes, that crucial video evidence is still perfectly watchable afterwards!); neither of these new features are done plausibly (or as envisaged by Andrew Probert, at any rate) but it's a valiant effort nonetheless. Airwolf also receives upgrades including a laser weapon (which makes perfect sense following Season 3 episodes 'Airwolf II' and 'Annie Oakley') and a 'Whisper Mode' engine noise suppressor (borrowed from rival super-helicopter franchise 'Blue Thunder', but again perfectly logical given Airwolf's past tendency to be heard from miles away in some episodes, to being able to sneak right up on people in others!), whilst a minor story arc involving the 'Nova 7' satellite hookup - enabling hands-off flying and targeting - culminates in merely enabling the team to locate Airwolf when other methods have failed. The cast may not be JMV and Ernie and co, but their performances are really very good, Geraint Wyn Davies in particular shines and has some great comedy moments and chemistry with Michelle Scarabelli.
The quality of the prints on this release are superb, a nice restoration job has been done by Universal. It's a shame really that Fabulous Films chose to act like the more immature of Season 4-bashing Airwolf fans and not include this season with Seasons 1-3 (even going so far as to call that box-set the 'Complete' collection)...even if they were concerned about how it would look on Blu-Ray - understandable after their ill-advised Blu-Ray release of 'Airwolf the Movie' - not including it in the standard DVD box-set is just childish (and the German Blu-Ray 'Complete Series' release by Koch Media has shown Season 4 to look almost as good as Seasons 1-3)!. That being said, as a stand-alone set this release is priced very fairly and well worth purchasing, the packaging looks great and the only technical flaw is that on the final disc, the episode preview images are the same ones for the previous disc's episodes. I have always appreciated and championed Season 4 for what it is (fond memories of watching it on ITV in the mid-'90s) and I hope that with this release, existing Airwolf fans who have been unkind to this season in the past will keep an open mind and give it another chance. It is, after all, still Airwolf.