The first thing you notice about "The Big Valley:" it's big. Really big. They weren't joking around with the title - instead of restricting the action to studio sets, the cast and crew took their show outdoors, allowing the cameras to pick up as much of the grand California vistas as can fit onto a television screen. This is, in fact, one of those rare TV shows that feels like it was made for the big screen.
The series, which ran on ABC for four seasons from 1965 until 1969, followed the adventures of the Barkleys, the millionaire family that held (with a wise and caring hand) great power over the San Joaquin Valley and neighboring Stockton, California, during the 1870s. Miss Barbara Stanwyck stars as matriarch Victoria Barkley, sophisticated, warm, but no stranger to adventure in her youth; the wise eldest brother Jarrod (Richard Long) has returned home to practice law; hotheaded Nick (Peter Breck) runs the family businesses with a hands-on approach; young Audra (Linda Evans) is the naïve little sister. Into their lives comes Heath (Lee Majors), the illegitimate son of the late Tom Barkley. He's certainly got the same kind heart, quick-to-action drive, and stubborn personality as his half-brothers, but will they accept him?
The answer, frankly, is yes - the writing staff fortunately figured out that this conflict could only sustain for a few episodes before growing redundant, and so they wisely (but carefully, slowly) drop the issue, allowing Heath to eventually become welcome in the Barkley house. Following a few highly effective episodes in which Heath and his brothers are forced to deal with one another (the writers get so much drama out of almost - but not - saying the word "bastard"), the series settled into a familiar but successful formula: someone from a character's past would show up in Stockton, often proving themselves to not be the wonderful person they once were. Other reusable themes seen in the series' first year include the redemption of a one-time criminal now looking to better himself; the tarnishing of the Barkley's good name and the struggles to redeem it; the Barkleys fight for the little man, often someone losing (or about to lose) his land; a Barkley (usually Victoria or Audra) getting kidnapped. (Often the writers would even mix and match these plot points within a single episode.) Not quite in full bloom for the first season, but with seeds duly planted, is a recurring gimmick that has a Barkley getting engaged or married, only to have the new spouse leave or die off by the end of the episode.
(It's also in the first season that viewers can get their only glimpses of Eugene, the youngest Barkley brother played by Charles Briles. Eugene was a college student, often absent at the ranch and, when present, never a major part of the action. He had so little to do with the story that he never appeared with the rest of the clan in the opening credits… a slight that was finalized when he was completely written out of the show by the end of the season, never to be mentioned again. Only a visit to the Internet Movie Database explains his absence: Briles was drafted into the Army in June, 1965.)
Although the plotlines find themselves facing repetition, the solid writing and top notch acting raise the series above any cliché dangers. The familiarity of the stories are immediately forgivable, because each episode is elegantly constructed and expertly told. The writing staff consistently delivered engaging, and at times emotionally powerful, character drama, while the cast - which worked together as a believable family, their rapport with one another driving everything forward - always found the heart of the material. In fact, Stanwyck would go on to win an Emmy for her performance in this season, which she would then follow with two more nominations in the coming years.
The directors, meanwhile, got to play with the great California sets, broad outdoor locations that refuse to turn the show into some cheesy backlot oater. The landscapes are simply beautiful, wide and lush and inviting, and seeing such images gives the series a realism often missing in TV westerns. Even when confined to indoor sets, the directors (which include "Casablanca" star Paul Heinreid and a young Michael Ritchie) find quiet moments to bring a more human touch to the storytelling. This is a series built around character, which is why it remains so watchable some four decades later.
Taking a cue from "Bonanza" and other westerns of the time, "The Big Valley" also gained plenty of momentum from a series of first rate guest stars, among them: Martin Landau, James Whitmore, William Shatner (!), Bruce Dern (appearing in two episodes as two separate characters), Charles Bronson, Ron Howard, Anthony Zerbe, Claude Akins, Yvonne Craig, George Kennedy, and Jill St. John, just to name a handful. All of those listed, and many more, pack so much into their performances, leaving us captivated episode after episode.
Stand-out episodes for the series' first year include: "Forty Rifles," with its mammoth fight scene between Heath and a ranch hand who refuses to accept him; "Teacher of Outlaws," in which a thief, wanting to learn how to read, kidnaps Victoria, whom he thinks is the local schoolteacher; "The Death Merchant," with James Whitmore as the scrappy gunman who avenged Tom Barkley's death returning into the family's lives; "The Invaders," a particularly frightening episode with rawhiders overrunning the Barkley estate; and "The River Monarch," a mystery of sorts involving a sunken ship, stolen gold, and rumors that Tom Barkley may have been a thief and a killer.
But then, to call any episode a stand-out is to suggest that the other episodes are somehow lesser, which is most definitely not the case. There's not a down beat in the bunch, making "The Big Valley" one of those rare television series that remained consistently entertaining, intelligent, and impressive throughout. The show's first season is hit after hit after hit, episodes that even rival Hollywood's theatrical output of the time. Every single episode is a standout. The Barkleys and their San Joaquin Valley were larger than life, and "The Big Valley" does them plenty justice.
Fox has collected all thirty - thirty!! - episodes of the first season of "The Big Valley" onto five double-sided discs. Oddly, each disc features four episodes on the first side and only two on the second; surely the studio could have either spread them out with three on a side (for better use of the bit rate) or compacted them with eight shows per disc, thus eliminating the fifth disc and saving the customer a few dollars. Such are the mysteries of Hollywood, I suppose.
The five discs are kept in three slimline cases, which are then housed in an outer cardboard slipsleeve case.
Note: Each episode ends with a tacked-on copyright slate and a Fox logo. The slate shows a copyright date of 1998, which left me wondering if these were somehow syndicated versions marked with the date of their last edit. Sure, this idea of mine didn't seem right, considering each episode runs just under fifty minutes, suggesting these to be the original cuts of the show. But hey, I tend to get suspicious over any little thing, logical or not. Nothing to worry about, says a Fox rep: I learn that 1998 is the year Fox picked up ownership of the series when it acquired New World (the company that acquired Four Star, the company that produced "The Big Valley" - still with me?), meaning they had to stamp it with the date they began distribution of the series. These are indeed the show's original edits. Learn something new every day, don't we?
Included in this set are the following episodes:
Disc one: "Palms of Glory," "Forty Rifles," "Boots With My Father's Name," "Young Marauders," "The Odyssey of Jubal Tanner," and "Heritage."
Disc two: "Winner Lose All," "My Son, My Son," "Earthquake!," "The Murdered Party," "The Way To Kill a Killer," and "Night of the Wolf."
Disc three: "The Guilt of Matt Bentell," "The Brawlers," "Judgment In Heaven," "The Invaders," "By Fires Unseen," and "A Time To Kill."
Disc four: "Teacher of Outlaws," "Under a Dark Star," "Barbary Red," "The Death Merchant," "The Fallen Hawk," and "Hazard."
Disc five: "Into the Widow's Web," "By Force and Violence," "The River Monarch," "The Midas Man," "The Tunnel of Gold," and "Last Train To the Fair."
While the show certainly looks its age at times - a bit faded and grainy throughout - there are no complaints here. The show looks about as good as it can, really, barring a complete overhaul restoration which is most likely not feasible at this time; the issue isn't with the transfer as much as it is with the source material. In fact, some of the image's flaws are most likely unfixable, such as one shot in one episode that finds a hair intruding into the camera lens (but then, that was probably visible during its first broadcast, too, as it seems to appear only in footage from one camera, and not throughout the entire scene). It looks about as good as it ever will, all things considered - while far from perfect, at least it's better than broadcast or VHS, that's for certain. Presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The Dolby mono soundtrack comes off without a hitch, completely absent of any expected hiss or pops. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are offered.
Sadly, not a one.
The lack of extras makes me hesitate just a bit, but the quality of the show itself - not to mention the value of getting thirty shows in one box - gets me to announce this set as Highly Recommended, especially to any fans of western adventure, classic television, and fine drama in general.