Friday, February 12, 2021

Steve Canyon: Operation Towline (Pilot)

It was like Dragnet for the U.S. Air Force, but there were no guilty parties whose names needed to be changed in its episodes supposed based on “declassified” files. The stories really came from the funny pages. Milton Caniff created, wrote, and drew his beloved action comic-strip for over forty years and received story credits on the short-lived 1958 TV series adaption. Produced with unprecedented support from the USAF, Steve Canyon still impresses for its aviation scenes when it reruns again on Decades, either for early birds or serious night-owls tomorrow morning on Decades, starting with the pilot episode, “Operation Towline.”

Lt. Col. Steve Canyon’s leadership and presence is respected by the men up and down his chain of command. That is why Gen. “Shanty” Towne requested him for a special mission and also why Washington dispatched him to put the kibosh on it. Yet, Canyon will do his due diligence before issuing the shut-down report DC is hoping for.

Concerned about the response time to launch interceptors to respond to a missile attack, Towne hatched a scheme to keep fighters permanently in the air, hitched to a tanker plane, ready to separate and engage at a moment’s notice. Of course, the Soviet or their proxies could shoot down the tanker, but the same is true of aircraft carriers. In this case, towed planes could potentially fare better than fighters stranded on a sinking carrier. However, there are still a lot of bugs to be worked out and not a lot of patience among the top brass.

It is interesting to watch “Towline” in retrospect, years after the controversy of Reagan’s SDI initiative and the celebrated use of Patriot missiles against Saddam’s Scuds. You would think even doves would see merit in missile defense technology, but instead they have usually preferred greater vulnerability, at least for the West. Towne would not get that. Neither would Canyon.

Regardless, it is too bad (and rather baffling)
Steve Canyon was not more popular on TV during its initial run. At the time, it was the most expensive episodic series yet produced. The aviation scenes look legit and very cool, in a retro late 50’s kind of way. The casting of Dean Fredericks as Canyon might be part of the reason. He had plenty of TV credits at the time, but was never truly a star—and he doesn’t really look like the Canyon, as Caniff drew him (due to bone structure differences). Fredericks is also a bit stiff in the pilot, but his military bearing is certainly spot-on. Ironically, veteran TV character actor Harry Townes really helps humanize the pilot as his near-namesake.

Steve Canyon
was an interesting show, not just because of the flashy hardware. It also seriously depicted the challenges of serving in uniform, perhaps more so than the USAF expected (as Gen. Towne’s experiences will attest). Yet, it was always as patriotic as Caniff’s newspaper strip, which is why it is so refreshing to revisit it now. Recommended for fans of vintage TV and Caniff’s character, Steve Canyon starts a fresh broadcast run tomorrow morning (3/13) at 7:00 on Decades.