When Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to NBC, he described it as “Wagon Train in space.” Without Wagon Train, there might well have been no Star Trek – or any of its sequel [and prequel] series. But Wagon Train influenced Star Trek in more ways than simply trekking through space. The series, which had a nine-year run – of which, only the eighth was filmed in color – was, along with Half Gun, Will Travel and a handful of other westerns a series that featured high quality writing and productions values. Combined with a talented cast, the series often featured stories that delved deeply into its characters – both regular and, especially, guest cast. This DVD set includes all thirty-two ninety-minute episodes from season eight and sixteen classic eps from the series’ black white sixty-minute format. I’ll use two specific episodes that have similar basic situations, but totally different points, to illustrate.
From the eighth season, I choose the season’s second episode, The Fort Pierce Story, and from the black and white classic eps, I’ll choose The Clara Beauchamps Story – in both of which an officer’s wife has a drinking problem.
In The Fort Pierce Story, Captain Paul Winter’s [Ronald Reagan] wife, Nancy [Ann Blyth], drinks because she’s the only woman in the fort and can’t cope with the thought that her husband might not come back from patrol one day. The situation is compounded by the arrival of Chris Hale’s [John McIntire] wagon train – and orders from Washington that the garrison is to maintain a purely defensive presence that means the army won’t be able to give the wagon train an escort through Indian territory. Only the cleverness [and hidden compassion] of the garrison’s commander, Col. Wayne Lathrop [John Doucette], manages to work things out for everyone.
In The Clara Beauchamps Story, from the show’s first season, Clara [Nina Foch] drinks because of frustrated ambition. All of her friends’ husbands have been promoted while her husband, Col. Beauchamps [Shepperd Strudwick] commands a fort in the middle of nowhere. Their situation is complicated both by the death of an Indian by arriving reinforcements and the arrival of Major Seth Adams’ [Ward Bond] wagon train. Clara’s actions nearly unravel a delicate balance the colonel has maintained with the Indians, and the episode ends in both tragedy and triumph.
Wagon Train was always about people, though each episode had to have a certain amount of adventure to keep people interested. Like the Trek series it influenced, though, these stories were about character and issues, however outwardly camouflaged. Another classic first season episode, A Man Called Horse, is more about a man’s search for identity – an identity that might be found when he is captured by the Crow Indians. The idea here is that sometimes a man can literally make a name for himself, and in so doing, find a home.
While the series always looked good – and drew top flight guest stars – the color season showed its location work to great effect. Some of the panoramic vistas wouldn’t be out of place in a John Ford film. In any event, the DVD release of Wagon Train: The Full Color Season is cause for celebration. After decades of knowing, anecdotally, that the show influenced so many others [and especially Gene Roddenberry], there are now forty-eight episodes of the classic series available.
Because of the age of the series, and the varying condition of the archived episodes, there are some episodes that aren’t in pristine condition, but the quality of the series shines through.
The only features are half-hour interviews with two of the series’ most memorable stars – Robert Fuller [scout Cooper Smith] and Denny Scott Miller [Duke Shannon].
Grade: Wagon Train – The Complete Color Season – A
Grade: Features – C
Final Grade: A-