Judge Victor Valdivia is an ornery hombre with a heart of gold, except without the "heart of gold" part.
Wagon Train: The Complete Color Season compiles the complete seventh season of the long-running series, a season that was notable as it was the only one in the show's history that was shown in color. While longtime fans will find it satisfying, those who aren't as familiar with the show might not be able to overlook its defects, even if the show has some impressive qualities.
Facts of the Case
Since 1958, Wagon Train was one of the highest-rated shows on TV. The basic story consisted of a train of settlers traveling out west to California from Mississippi. In its seventh season, the one collected on this set, the show switched from black-and-white to color and expanded its running time from 60 to 90 minutes with commercials. Led by Wagon Master Christopher Hale (John McIntire), the show's regular cast included scouts Cooper Smith (Robert Fuller) and Duke Shannon (Denny Scott Miller) and cook Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath). This set compiles all 32 episodes from the seventh season on eleven discs. In addition, it also compiles 16 episodes on four more discs taken from other seasons throughout the series' eight-season run. Here are the episodes collected on this set:
Star Trek was once famously described by Gene Roddenberry as "Wagon Train to the stars." That description was meant to convey the basic storyline of a group of people who embark on a long-term journey and meet various adventures on the way. It also worked on another level, however. Star Trek was famously considered the most intellectual and character-driven sci-fi show of its day, and the same could be said of Wagon Train. It's a show more dependent on writing and acting than action, especially for a Western. That dependence, however, does lead to its weaknesses. The writing isn't always strong enough to carry the show and since the show doesn't have a particularly well-developed cast of characters or main storyline, each episode winds up rising or falling on its guest stars. When they're good the show is remarkable, but there are far too many episodes that seem rather pointless, adding nothing to the overall story or series.
Wagon Train does have a considerably smarter sensibility than some shows of its era. Because the show was expanded to 90 minutes with commercials (or about 70 without) this season, the writing became more meticulous and dense, even more than usual. Indeed, the biggest characteristic that stands out about Wagon Train is that the guest characters are extraordinarily detailed. Every episode begins with as much as 30 minutes devoted to laying out the story and background of each guest character. Given such detailed writing, most of the guest stars, ranging from Peter Falk to Ronald Reagan, rise to the challenge and turn in generally solid to impressive performances. The writing is also not afraid to go into unusual places, addressing dark and complex topics and even taking unpredictable twists. Even characters you think are safe aren't, and the good guys don't always win.
That level of depth makes Wagon Train still watchable and surprisingly not as corny or dated as it might otherwise be. It does, however, highlight the show's biggest flaw: the actual regular cast members are, more often than not, barely developed at all. In most episodes, all of the emotional heavy lifting is done by the guest stars, and the regulars mostly just stand around as observers. Only rarely do the regular characters (mostly Cooper, the scout) join in or participate. As a result, though the guest characters grow and change by the end of every episode, the regulars remain poorly defined ciphers. Far too often, Wagon Train feels less like a regular series and more like an anthology show (like The Twilight Zone) set in the old West. It's not that the show has sci-fi elements, but rather that each episode is completely self-contained and has no impact at all on any other, even though they're all supposed to be part of an overall story.
It's not that Wagon Train should necessarily be an intricate serial, a la Lost. Certainly, back in 1963, such an idea would have been unheard of. Besides, the premise of the show isn't complex enough to really sustain such an idea. Still, it's genuinely disconcerting how often the regular characters basically disappear from the screen for as much as half the episode, and how little they usually do when they are present. What's more, they don't seem to actually change or learn from any of their experiences at all. This total lack of continuity at times becomes unintentionally comical. At the end of one episode, for instance, Charlie the cook is shot in the hand and complains loudly that he won't be able to cook or serve the wagon train. In the next episode, he's ladling out nourishment and no one says anything about his injured hand.
There are other flaws as well. Like so many shows of its era, Wagon Train does display the prejudices and attitudes prevalent then. Native Americans (or "Indians," as the show calls them) are occasionally depicted as three-dimensional characters, but for the most part, they're usually little more than murderous nuisances that the wagon train must either kill or avoid. Similarly, the episode called "The Widow O'Rourke Story" is centered on a group of mysterious (or, as was probably said at the time, inscrutable) Chinese immigrants and traffics in some of the worst stereotypes, as well as one of the worst makeup jobs, of its day. Also, as with most shows that last into a seventh season, some of this season's episodes are essentially rewrites of earlier ones. This season's "The Fort Pierce Story," in which Ronald Reagan plays the conflicted soldier with an alcoholic wife stuck on an isolated fort in the middle of a possible war, is basically the same episode as the first season's "The Clara Beauchamp Story," in which Sheppard Strudwick plays the conflicted soldier with an alcoholic wife stuck on an isolated fort in the middle of a possible war. All of these defects only accentuate how uneven Wagon Train really is as an overall series. It's the sort of series where if you don't like the first 10 or so minutes of an episode, you can be sure that the rest of it isn't going to be any better, even when the regular cast shows up.
Technically, the set is decent. The show is over forty-five years old, so the color sometimes looks washed out, and there are some scratches and flaws in the film. For the most part, though, it looks surprisingly viewable. The PCM Mono mix is actually quite good. It's certainly not spectacular, but it's not as muffled or crackly as one might expect. In addition to the episodes from previous seasons, the set includes a disc of interviews with Fuller and Miller. Each interview lasts 30 minutes, and both are as exhaustive on these actors' careers as one could possibly want. Casual fans might find them tough going, however, as both are presented with no chapter stops.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When Wagon Train is good, it's very good indeed. Episodes like "The Gus Morgan Story," in which Peter Falk (Columbo) plays a hardhearted railroad mogul, and "The Eli Bancroft Story," about a family forced to turn to violent crime to survive, are superbly written and acted. Even better, both of these use the regular cast members as full participants rather than passive observers, making them feel more like parts of a continuing story rather than standalone episodes. If all of the episodes were this consistently good, Wagon Train might be more well-known to current audiences. It would have been wiser for the showrunners to make better use of the cast, all of whom (especially Fuller) were talented and appealing.
Fans who grew up watching Wagon Train will easily find this a must-buy, as it's the show they know and love. Anyone who isn't familiar with the show, however, would do better to preview a few episodes first. With sixteen discs and a list price of $119.98, it's just too big and expensive to buy blind, even if you're a devout Western fan. The writing on the show can be very good, but it's not consistent, and when it's bad it's either tedious or dated. For a set this massive, that's a huge flaw.
Guilty of wandering off the trail too often.
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