Barbary Coast didn't last very long, in fact it consisted of a TV movie pilot and then only thirteen episodes during its run on CBS from mid-1975 through January of 1976. While it may have drifted into obscurity the show had an interesting pedigree to boast about both in front of and behind the camera. The series was created by Douglas Heyes, who scripted and directed classic TV shows like Night Gallery and Maverick and it remains a cult favorite in the eyes of many fans simply because it was William Shatner's first post-Star Trek starring role. Appearing alongside Shatner in the pilot was Dennis Cole, but Cole's role would be handled by Doug McClure in the thirteen episodes that would follow it.
The series is set in San Francisco in the 19th century (the 1880's to be more precise) where we follow the exploits of a government agent named Jeff Cable (Shatner) and his right hand man, a gambler named Cash Conover (McClure/Cole). In the pilot movie length episode (which was directed by none other than Bill Bixby!), Cable needs some help tracking down a Confederate Army bigwig (Charles Aidman) who is involved in a pretty serious extortion scheme. To help him bring the man to justice, he recruits the help of Conover, who runs a casino called The Golden Gate on the titular coast which at this point in time was a fairly lawless portion of the Wild West. This ties into the clan and a prospecting woman's (Lynda Day George) intentions of marrying a rich man when he's shot dead in a shootout.
This first pilot episode sets up the characters nicely and while it borrows some ideas from The Wild, Wild West (Shatner's character is even a master of disguise) it's delivers some solid entertainment. Shatner is charming enough here to pull it off while Cole is not and it's easy to see why after this movie launched he was replaced by the more charismatic Doug McClure. The pilot is a self-contained story but it does what any good pilot should do and that's to establish the characters and set up what could (and would) come in the episodes to follow. Speaking of which, the episodes that make up the entire series of Barbary Coast are spread across the four discs in the set in their original broadcast order as follows:
DISC ONE: The Barbary Coast (Pilot) / Funny Money / Crazy Cats
DISC TWO: Jesse Who? / The Ballad Of Redwing Jail / Guns For A Queen / Irish Luck
DISC THREE: Sauce For The Goose / An Iron-Clad Plan / Arson And Old Lace / Sharks Eat Sharks
DISC FOUR: The Day Cable Was Hanged / Mary Had More Than A Little / The Dawson Marker
A few other recurring characters pop up in the series worth mentioning. The piano player at The Golden Gate is named Thumbs (Dave Turner). While he pops up in the pilot he doesn't have too much to do there but as the series starts to expand a bit he takes on a larger and more interesting role. It's also amusing to see none other than Richard Kiel (probably best known for playing Jaws in the James Bond movies) show up as a big lug named, appropriately enough, Moose Moran. He also works for Cash as a bouncer and his might and size frequently come in handy as Jeff and Cash, the only honest casino operator in town, do what they can to clean up the area. Both of these actors also popped up in Wild, Wild West.
Of course, pretty much everyone else in the show is either on the take or up to no good in some way or another. Jeff and Cash chase women like nobody's business and they're not quite angels themselves but they have fun with their work. This gives Shatner and McClure ample opportunity to make wise and deliver some occasionally effective and funny snappy dialogue. The action scenes are handled fairly well for a mid-seventies western series while the stories often lean towards preposterous over realistic. The whole mystery/western hybrid thing works, for the most part, but you can't take any of it too seriously at all. Then, it wouldn't appear you were ever supposed to.
Production values are good throughout the show, with the set used for the interiors and even the exteriors of The Golden Gate showing some nice design work. Costumes seem authentic enough to work and some of the fancy dress on display, usually from the female characters, is impressive. As the episodes progress, the writing seems to get lighter and more kid-friendly. This hurts the show and waters it down, taking away from some of the more hardboiled mystery elements that worked in the pilot and replacing them with what the producers probably hoped would be more accessible humor and action. Even as the writing slides downhill and resorts to goofy slapstick comedy at times, we still have the endless watchable cast to keep this from ever getting too bad. The entertainment value is there if you aren't too demanding. This isn't deep, it is often derivative, but more important than any of that it is a fun show. It's nothing more than light entertainment but for some that'll be enough.
Barbary Coast arrives on DVD in 1.33.1 fullframe and it looks fine (despite a warning before the menu loads that the age of the materials may show imperfections), if fairly unremarkable. Detail isn't outstanding and sometimes things do wind up looking a little bit soft but this is definitely more than watchable. Colors are reproduced quite nicely and black levels are solid if sometimes a little closer to a really dark grey than a true black. Skin tones are fine, not too pink or too orange, and the elements used for the transfers are clean and free of any major damage. Some minor compression artifacts do pop up in some of the darker scenes but outside of that, the video quality is decent enough.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono track is the only sound option for the entire series and it sounds okay. Dialogue is pretty easy to understand and the levels sound to be balanced properly. Things are a little flat in some spots but the music and sound effects used throughout the series have a bit of depth to them. There are no alternate language tracks or subtitles offered but optional English closed captioning is provided.
There are no extras, just menus and chapter selection, though the DVD case does come housed inside a cardboard slipcase and there is an insert booklet inside the case containing information on other Acorn DVD releases available now.
Barbary Coast is a lot of fun and you don't have to be a Shatner fanatic to get in on that. The stories aren't always flawless but they're creative and quirky enough to work most of the time and there's some effective action and humor mixed in alongside the more esoteric elements to ground things well. Shatner and McClure are both good in their respective roles and the series definitely gets points for trying something different. The set from Acorn isn't going to blow anyone away but it is of decent quality and comes casually recommended despite the lack of extra features.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.