The fourth season of Airwolf opens with an ambitious episode that attempts to knit together the previous three years with a new era, and new cast. It ends up being a bit of a “jack of all trades, master of none”, in which it adequately does the job it needs to do but both alienates fans of the previous three years whilst not giving the new cast a properly effective “pilot” episode. Something along the lines of a action-oriented two-parter with sufficient time to introduce the new cast might have served the new series better.
In the Burma Highlands, guards move towards a hastily constructed prison. They begin moving the four prisoners towards the outside but when one prisoner proves too weak to move, one of the guards begins beating him. A fellow prisoner leaps in to help by giving the guard a taste of his own medicine. The leader of the guards approaches as he hears the noise while other guards point their guns at the heroic prisoner. The prisoner, called Hawke, is allowed to assist the beaten man to walk. The leader is concerned that he hasn’t heard from “the other side” and so tells his men to prepare to “raise the stakes”…
At Santini Air Dominic’s niece Jo Santini is demonstrating a new device fitted to one of her uncle’s JetRanger helicopters. The device has been designed to allow for “hands-free” hovering during really erratic wind conditions. Her co-pilot, Stringfellow Hawke, is impressed but is not convinced that such a device could live up the its claims. Jo demonstrates by taking the JetRanger through some high-speed manoeuvres.
As Jo powers the helicopter through perilous power-climbs and hair-raising dives, the device out-performs its expectations. With the experiment complete, she takes them back to Santini Air where her Uncle Dominic is working on other helicopters with a colleague.
As they land, a concealed man watches from a distance. Walking towards the hangar, String commends Jo on her skill with the JetRanger and Jo recognises that those skills were taught to her by Uncle Dom. While they are talking, the concealed man races towards the JetRanger and places an envelope on the back seat. String suggests it’s time for a coffee break and Jo agrees but she wants to remove the device from the helicopter first. She goes back and sees the envelope with large lettering. The lettering says “Stringfellow Hawke”.
At “Company Headquarters”, String has enlisted the aid of a technical expert to clear up the noise on the tape that was in the envelope. A strained voice can be heard but not many words can be made out. String is convinced that the voice belongs to his brother, Saint John, but before he can investigate further an offical man walks into the room saying that he will take over now. The man takes the tape and begins to seal it away. Quickly, String grabs the man by his jacket telling him that he’s not going anywhere with the tape until he’s spoken with Archangel. The man replies…
“All you’re seeing is me – and you’re not going to be seeing much of that if I don’t feel some space between us quick!”
String relaxes his grip but fixes the man with a steely-stare. He insists on some answers and wants to know where Saint John is. The man refuses to answer and begins to walk away. Hawke leaps on him and pressures him for answer, but two security guards restrain him.
The man takes Hawke to his office and tells him that Archangel is unavailable because he’s on a top-secret undercover mission in the Far East. For the time being he has taken over Archangel’s workload – and that includes Hawke and his brother. String asks again for more information but the man is still not prepared to say anything. Hawke snatches the envelope back and proclaims that the tape is conclusive proof that Saint John is still alive. The man disagrees and believes it adds up to nothing, but he does agree to check into the files to confirm what he’s saying. In the meantime, String has to be patience. With a calming growl, String tells him – “I have..!”
In the highlands, the man known as Hawke is taken before the leader. The leader’s name is Buchard and he wants to know about Airwolf. Hawke refuses to tell him anything. Buchard reveals that even without Hawke’s help, things will fall into place very soon. After a beating, Hawke is returned to his cell where a fellow prisoner tells him that he was able to get Hawke’s message out. However, the prisoner tells him that they will need proof because the message could have been sent by anyone. Hawke thinks for a moment and then gives the man his ring.
At Santini Air, the following day, Jo is seeing her uncle off as he starts up one of his helicopters in preparation for a short cargo trip up the coast. Hawke arrives and needs to urgently discuss his brother with Dom. As he races towards the helicopter, he is caught in a tremendous explosion from the aircraft. Jo can only look on helplessly as she screams for her uncle…
Some time later, the tearful Jo takes some flowers to her uncle’s memorial unknown that she is being watched over by the man who has taken over Archangel’s job.
Later, at the V.A. Hospital, Jo storms through the corridors with a mission in her heart. She confronts a suited man at the door to String’s hospital room. Jo wants to see the patient but the man has orders not to let anyone in. The reason for Jo’s heated expression becomes clear when she tells the man that she has been hearing the same thing for the last three days and she’s not prepared to put up with it any longer. During the argument, the mysterious man walks from a nearby room. He shows her his credentials and introduces himself as Locke. Locke wants to talk to Jo about her Uncle Dom and Stringfellow Hawke. Jo asks what they have to do with him and Locke replies that they have a “mutual interest” in Airwolf. Jo pleads ignorant and, eventually, the two men let her into String’s room. Jo sees String on the bed strapped to many machines. He is in a coma but Jo is sure that he can hear her. She tells him that he is the only family she has left and she won’t leave him until he is well again.
Locke realises that he will need to locate Airwolf by a different method. He seeks out Major Mike Rivers who is curently leading a survival training mission. For Mike’s part, this involves reading a book, listening to his favourite music and drinking champagne as he waits for the others to catch up. Locke tells him that he has a new assignment for him.
Back in his cell, Saint John is told by the prisoner who he saved from the guard that preparations have been made which involves him as bait and also that the ring he gave to his “friend” was passed along to Buchard..!
At “Company Headquarters”, Major Rivers is acting more like a big kid than a Major of the U.S. Air Force – much to Locke’s dislike. Locke shows him a tape recording of Airwolf in action and explains to him some of the helicopter’s many advanced features. He asks Mike if he thinks he can fly it and the Major is confident that he can.
At the hospital, Jo’s concern for String is beginning to show as she reminisces and tries to remain cheerful for her friend…
“You remember the first time Dom took us up in that junky old chopper? He shoved the stick in your hand and I screamed… and Saint John and you told me to ‘shut up’ or bail out…”
Slowly, String’s hand moves and clasps Jo’s. Through pain, Hawke tells Jo that Saint John is alive and that she must take Airwolf to find him…
Meanwhile, Locke is working on the “Company” computers as he tries to find out more about Saint John Hawke. He keeps running into a “NO SUCH FILE” error. Searching for clues, he plays String’s tape – which has been cleaned up even more since he listened to it. The recording ends with the word “Blackjack”. Locke types this into the computer but still gets the “NO SUCH FILE” error. Other words on the tape lead Locke to a mission entitled “Storm Season”. He types this in and a list of people who were involved in the 1985 mission for the Company scrolls up the screen. Of the names, Locke picks out “HAWKE S.J. (FILE DELETED)”. Two other members of the mission are dead but the final one, Alexander Montrose, is still alive. Locke calls up the man’s address…
Locke goes to the man’s house but finds himself facing a huge bodyguard. Locke deals with him and demands to see Montrose. Montrose is confined to a wheelchair but a loaded pistol forces Locke to show his credentials. Montrose reveals to Locke that he doesn’t work for the “Company” anymore. Locke asks about “Operation Storm Season” and Montrose tells him that the mission was a complete disaster. Lead by Buchard, the only man who survived was Montrose himself – and even then a bullet in his spine spelled the end for his legs. When Locke asks about Saint John, Montrose reveals that Saint John was killed in action – a fact reported by the mission leader Buchard. Locke asks about “Blackjack” and Montrose knows that as Buchard’s nickname.
In the Burma Highlands, Saint John makes another escape attempt. He is chased through the trees and the undergrowth and is eventually captured when he stumbles across an army of mannequins – dressed to resemble Buchard’s men.
Locke visits Jo at Santini Air and asks her about Hawke and Saint John. Jo tells him that Uncle Dom was like a father to all three of them. As Locke questions Jo, he implies that there was more to Santini and Hawke’s work than ordinary helicopter piloting. Jo skirts around the question by returning with her own questions.
Realising that he isn’t going to get any answer from Jo, Locke leaves the hangar. As he does so, Jo discovers another envelope with the words “Stringfellow Hawke” on it. She opens it and finds Saint John’s ring inside.
Locke reports back to his boss that Jo Santini doesn’t know anything about Airwolf. His boss insists that he finds out for certain because the “Company” wants Airwolf back! His boss asks about Stringfellow Hawke and Locke tells him that he still hasn’t spoken. He’s put the word out that he’s on a special undercover mission. His boss seems pleased and dismisses Locke. Before he goes, Locke asks about the information leading to Saint John. He is told that the Saint John Hawke case is closed but Locke objects…
“He spent two and a half years M.I.A. before we got him out… Then the fool went into deep undercover work for the agency – just like the rest of us. If he is alive, we HAVE to find him…”
“What you do in your spare time is your own business. Good night, Mr Locke!”
Back at Buchard’s camp, the “dummy soldiers” are being set up. Buchard tells Saint John his plan to capture Airwolf. He believes that the rescue mission will be flown by St John’s brother and he also believes he knows the man’s method of attack. The “soldiers” will be cut down by Airwolf’s guns and when String lands, poison gas will be released – thus killing the pilot but leaving the helicopter ready for the taking.
The following day, Locke is working on his files when Major Mike Rivers enters his office. He has high-resolution aerial photographs in his hands and he believes he has located Airwolf’s base by the patterns on the sand above an abandoned volcano.
Mike leads Locke to the location but before they get there, they spot Airwolf high in the sky. As Airwolf returns to the Lair, the two men find a way into the volcano. Inside they discover a whole host of advanced computer equipment. Locke raises his gun and points it at Airwolf ordering the pilot to get out. With a resigned sigh, Jo Santini climbs out of the aircraft. Locke insists that the helicopter is handed over to the Company but Jo has a different agenda for she intends to rescue Saint John. Locke wants to help but admits to not knowing where Hawke is. Jo takes the ring from her pocket and highlights coordinates that have been etched on the inside.
Mike takes the pilot’s position inside Airwolf as Jo moves into the engineer’s seat. Locke climbs in next to Mike as Mike familiarises himself with the controls and armament options he has at his fingertips. He is impressed.
The new crew of Airwolf take the helicopter up out of the volcano and Jo programs the on-board computers with the co-ordinates. Mike hits the “turbo” controls and they fly towards Saint John’s location. At supersonic speeds, it doesn’t take Airwolf long to reach Saint John. Jo detects life on the ground and they realise that they’ve been expected. Mike takes Airwolf over the area once and Jo scans the ground for Saint John. They locate him in his cage as he tries to wave them away from the area. Jason suspects something when he realises the armed men haven’t turned around. They scan for heartbeats and all of the mannequins show a fake heartbeat – but all are paced identically.
Realising that Saint John is the bait in a trap, Mike prepares to take Airwolf in. As Airwolf swoops in low, Buchard activates the gas but inside the helicopter, the crew are safe. As Mike begins to take out the real ground forces, Saint John escapes from his cage and heads towards Buchard.
Later, Saint John visits his brother in hospital. String pleads with him not to let him die in the hospital. Saint John promises that he won’t.
Saint John returns to the Lair alone and finds his three rescuers waiting for him. Locke voices his plan for the future. He wants to keep Airwolf a secret from the “Company”. Jo tells Saint John that they need him to complete the team. St John considers his options and then agrees to join them…
Blackjack is the first episode of the fourth season of Airwolf and was written to introduce the new cast. This works well – especially with the use of Jan-Michael Vincent reprising the role of Stringfellow Hawke. There are a number of plot inconsistencies that have had to be altered from the previous three years of the show in order that the new season can continue the legacy of Airwolf. These inconsistencies are of little relevance for a number of reasons. While the idea of including Stringfellow Hawke was a remarkable one, one can’t help but feel that Jan-Michael Vincent is unable to give his fullest to the character. He seems almost ill in his scenes – there is no sign of the action-man of recent years and certainly none of the enthusiasm that we are used to. His speech is slurred and he appears to miss his cues on a number of occasions – thus forcing Anthony Sherwood and Michele Scarabelli to cover for him by continuing the scenes. Not knowing the background to Jan-Michael’s condition, it would be petty of me to find further faults in his performance but, based on this episode, it is with a certain amount of relief that the new season would feature a new cast.
Dominic Santini is, unfortunately, not portrayed by the ever-joyful Ernest Borgnine which is really quite a shame because it would have been lovely to see Michele’s Jo Santini interacting with her uncle. Instead, Dominic is seen only from a distance – played by a stand-in – just long enough to be killed in the helicopter explosion.
The new cast acquit themselves well with Barry Van Dyke having the almost impossible task of living up to the legend of Saint John Hawke as created by the earlier seasons of the show. His scenes in the Burma Highlands are very reminiscent of his adventure in The A-Team episode The Bend In The River. Anthony Sherwood portrays Jason Locke as a powerful force in the Company which is at odds with his performances later in the episode (and in the rest of the season) when he joins the team on various missions. Sherwood is well able to handle the official roles required at the Company but appears to have difficulty making any Airwolf/action scene realistic (admittedly this is difficult as it is all fantasy, but the rest of the cast seem better able to cope).
Geraint Wyn Davies initially portrays Mike Rivers as a brash playboy-type action man but, as we discover over the season, his character is the only one to mature (perhaps because Mike Rivers is the only character that needs to mature…).
Although everyone has plenty to do in this first episode, the whole story is held together by Michele’s Jo Santini. She copes well with Jan-Michael’s below-par performance; she makes the unspeaking “stand-in” of Dominic Santini seem real; she enables Jo to face off against Jason Locke with more determination than Stringfellow Hawke had done earlier and she shows that Jo as a very capable pilot – both in the JetRanger and in Airwolf. Michele is prominently instrumental in carrying the episode from the previous seasons into the new era of Airwolf. (But why the “shock” scene of the guys discovering that it was Jo pilotting Airwolf..? Surely it isn’t necessary to “prove” that a woman is as capable of flying as the guys? And if it is, why not have Jo flying the combat missions? As Jo is constantly left out of the combat missions, any “shock” scenes like this come across as totally ineffective – after all, why show a woman as a capable pilot if you won’t let her fly?)
The one major let down of this episode is something that would recur many times later in the season. Considering that Jo Santini has shown herself well-capable of piloting Airwolf (clearly having been taught by Dominic and String), isn’t it just the least bit strange that the rescue mission should be flown by Mike Rivers..? Sure, he’s an ace pilot but Airwolf isn’t the easiest helicopter to fly – especially with no lessons and no practice. And why would the “Company” man, Jason Locke accompany the mission? Putting aside the rather dubious benefits this “pen-pusher” could bring to the mission, wouldn’t the co-pilot’s seat be required for flying Saint John home?
It is a missed opportunity in that Jan-Michael Vincent wasn’t given the chance to pilot Airwolf one final time as Stringfellow Hawke but, considering his condition, it’s hardly likely that Jan-Michael would have been able to recapture the magical nostalgia of the previous three years.
In conclusion, this is a reasonable start to the season and every character has their place – Saint John as the square-jawed hero; Mike as the devil-may-care expert pilot; Jo carrying on her Uncle’s helicopter business; and Jason brilliantly official (being called “Mr Locke” by Jo and, in return, he calls Jo “Miss Santini” is a wonderful touch which was, unfortunately, not carried into future episodes). Blackjack is also a brave attempt at handing-over from one era of Airwolf to the next but better episodes were to come…