On 16th March 1984, “my” Doctor regenerated. He collapsed in the TARDIS, and a new man sat up in his place. I didn’t like him. After another four episodes that ended the season, I really didn’t like him. He was nasty and arrogant, and had tried to strangle his companion. He was the Doctor, whether I liked it or not. Not.
Four months later, The A-Team started up on ITV, and I was instantly hooked. By the time Doctor Who returned with Doctor Nasty on Saturday 5th January 1985, the arrogant strangler had some stiff competition, because on the other channel was Hannibal, BA, Face and Murdoch. I knew what I was going to watch. Eventually I returned to Doctor Who, but for a few years I wasn’t interested in flying in the TARDIS. I wanted to ride in the A-Team van instead. So I thought it would be interesting to take a journey back to the first ever episode of The A-Team and see what it was that got me so hooked, and stole me away from the wonders of the universe.
We start with silence, no music, just a peaceful Mexican village, and then trucks approach to disturb the peace. These are the bad guys, the men with guns. For some reason they shoot at the bell tower. One of them goes into a house and carries out a young woman. Watching this at the age of 5 I had no idea of the implications of that. The bad men with guns want a journalist named Al Massey. The locals seem to be completely helpless, so of course they need somebody to help them. In fact, they need four somebodies, The A-Team, and a journalist called Amy who wants to find her missing friend.
Eventually The A-Team would become a series with an entirely male cast, but at the start we had Triple A. Her lame nickname might not have been a good sign, but she was at least initially a great character here. The first time we see her she is standing up to her boss. That was no mean feat at the time. For some context about the attitudes towards women in a newsroom in the mid 80s, take a look at the third season of Stranger Things. But Amy is equal to the men, and earns her place in The A-Team. She’s the driving force in this episode.
As for the team themselves, three of them are instantly brilliant. Hannibal has a great sense of humour and is the brains of the team, although his yellowface disguise is very unconvincing and a little bit uncomfortable to watch nowadays. BA is in the best traditions of the muscle man with a heart of gold. He is physically intimidating but that doesn’t stop kids from following him around wherever he goes, hero worshipping him, and in return he loves children, mentors them and helps them to better themselves, and this was before the days where that kind of thing left us feeling uneasy because he hadn’t been background checked before being within 100 yards of a child. Murdoch was apparently considered to be over-the-top by the TV execs, who were going to write him out until they realised he was by far the most popular thing about this show. He was always my favourite character. He’s not mad of course. I might have thought he was when I was a child, but it’s pretty obvious now that he simply feigns madness as a tactic, and it serves him well. On rewatching there’s a part of my adult brain that’s telling me his whole character is a joke about mental illness and maybe that’s not ideal, but I’ll have to ignore that because the part of my brain that’s still in touch with its childhood still adores Murdoch. Finally we come to the member of the team who isn’t instantly brilliant: Face. I’m not surprised he was recast. It’s a competent performance, but it’s completely forgettable. He lacks the charisma needed for the role. He’s kind of just there.
As for the story, it’s what the A-Team does best. They stand up to a bully. Importantly, that’s not easy for them. Along the way there are failures. BA might be big, but he comes up against somebody bigger. They get captured and have to escape. And they can’t save the day without help. They have to inspire the locals to help themselves as well, to stand up to their oppressors.
Right from the first episode, some ground rules are being established. There is violence, but no blood. There is a big fight, with lots of punches to the face, but no serious damage. Guns are fired all the time, but nobody gets shot. Everyone aims at the ground beside people, or at the tyres of vehicles, or at buildings. There are spectacular car crashes, but they don’t burst into flames when they crash. They roll over onto their roofs and the occupants climb out. Nobody dies in The A-Team. This is of course simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing. It can’t be a family show if people actually get shot and killed, but it’s not a good show for teaching children about the consequences of their actions. I loved this as a child at the time. As a parent now I think I might have nagging worries about a show that teaches children to stand up to bullies, but also shows people punching each other as if it’s cartoon violence, with no acknowledgement of the potential to do some real damage to another human being.
Right from the first episode, we can see the familiar formula for an A-Team episode here. There are fights and chases, with plenty of stuntmen flying through the air. There is Murdoch being a crazy pilot, and there is BA cobbling something together out of whatever bits of junk are lying around. In this instance he turns a bus into a tank, which is great fun. And of course Hannibal loves it when a plan comes together.
Rewatching this has been a fascinating experience. Thinking back to the day I made the decision to watch The A-Team instead of Doctor Who, did I make the right decision? What would I say to my child self, his finger hovering over the buttons on the television, trying to decide between a van or a TARDIS? I would say pick the van. It was absolutely the right decision. Doctor Who means far more to me now than The A-Team, but in 1985 there was no competition. A mean Doctor, or Mad Murdock? The TARDIS could wait… RP