Wagon Train: The Complete Color Season (review)

Wagons Whoa

As classic TV goes, Wagon Train has never been on my radar. I can’t recall any syndicated reruns on TV when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s. (For the youngsters, that’s the only way any of us saw any 50s and 60s TV, if we hadn’t seen it the first time around, in the days before home video.) The only bell it rings for me is its role in the story of how Gene Roddenberry first pitched Star Trek to NBC — he now famously said that it would be “Wagon Train to the stars.” Which I never quite understood.

Now, I get it.
Wagon Train, it turns out, really is like Star Trek later was: it follows the adventures of a group of pioneers as they journey west from Missouri to California, and regales us with the stories of their encounters along the way with Indians, army posts, and other settlers from back east. I dunno how long a journey of that magnitude would have taken in the olden days, but I’m guessing it was considerably shorter than the eight years the show ran on TV, first on NBC from 1957 to 1962 and then on ABC from 1962 to 1965. It’s sort of bizarre that it never showed up in syndication later — or at least didn’t to a degree that impinged upon my young consciousness at the time — because it was hugely popular during its initial run.

So, as slices of TV history go, this first ambitious collection of just one year of Wagon Train is a wonder. For one thing, it represents something that weekly television is likely to never to see again: a season that consists of 32 — count ’em! — episodes (we’re lucky to get 22 in a season today), each an hour and a half long! Well, they would have been an hour and a half with commercials; without, they run about 70 minutes. Which is still longer than anything we’re likely to see on a regular basis ever again. And this is the only season of the series to be filmed in color, and it looks fantastic, even though it’s a half-century old. (The episodes have been remastered from the originals.)

The stories themselves? Sure, they’re a little dated — the very first episode in this collection features some quite astonishingly bigoted depictions of Native Americans (even the “progressive” characters are weighted down by some terrible prejudices). But the array of now-famous names that appears in guest spots is amazing — Ronald Reagan is the first one I stumbled across. And as drama, they’re more enthralling that I was expecting, and the extra-long format gives the stories and the characters room to breathe. I’ve said before that TV on DVD is great because it lets you gobble up a whole season in one weekend, but you wouldn’t want to do that with this set: it’s more suitable for enjoying at a more leisurely pace.

This 16-DVD box set — honestly, you could use it as a doorstop, it’s that massive — doesn’t feature many extras, though the new interviews with stars Robert Fuller and Denny Scott Miller are charming. (Miller’s story of being discovered by an agent on Sunset Boulevard, while he was working as a furniture mover, is the stuff of Hollywood legend.) But there are these bonuses: a selection of 16 episodes from the other seven years of Wagon Train — all shot in black-and-white, all the more standard one-hour length (minus ads: 45 minutes).

None of these episodes — B&W or color — have ever been released on DVD before. They’re worth a look… if only to see what your dad was watching when he was a kid.

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