For my birthday this year one of the things I directed my money toward was a complete series collection of The Wild, Wild West that ran for four seasons in the late 60s. Like I did with The Avengers a little while ago, I thought I’d write up some mini-commentaries on different episodes as I watch through them.
The Wild, Wild West is a series that I’ve only ever seen a few episodes of, back when I was a kid visiting my grandparents’ place in Colorado. I enjoyed it at the time, funny mix of western, espionage and science fiction that it is. The set that I’ve bought contains all the episodes of the show, spread across some random number of DVD’s. It’s hard to know how many since the packaging is truly terrible. The box is hugely fat but contains only four “pages” for the DVD’s to be stored, so there are multiple disks stacked on top of each other that you have to dig through in order to find what you want.
Anyway, this is Disk 1.
The Night of the Inferno
The first episode of the series is all about a rogue Mexican general who is trying to take over Texas (or part of it? I’m not sure). We are introduced to series hero Jim West as apparently a disgraced criminal, but this turns out to be a cover story to just get him into the presence of US President Ulysses S. Grant (in case they are being observed by foreign agents?) The other main character, Artemus Gordon, enters the story as a bit of a man of a 1000 faces, who seems to follow Jim around unobserved until he needs to help him spring into action. Both characters are fun and work well, but we don’t go anywhere deep with them, although we do see Jim West’s stoic resolve. “Your a hero, but who will ever know?” asks his dying enemy, to which Jim replies, “Does it matter?”
For much of the episode, the story seems to be a fairly routing law-enforcement story, just with bigger stakes than a normal Western, and the odd gimmick of the hero having his own decked-out train to travel in. As I was watching it, I began to wonder whether I was misremembering the show as being more quirky and even “spy-fi” than it was. But in the last third suddenly Jim begins to make use of all sorts of special devices to escape captivity, including a hidden lockpick, a gun broken up into pieces in his shoes, and a smoke bomb. There is a nice twist about who the real villain of the story is, and Jim does some clever stuff on board his special train to win the day (including killing the bad guy with a harpoon hidden in a pool cue!)
The Night of the Inferno is the show’s pilot episode and thus from what I read has some general differences to all the rest of the series. One of those is that for what may be the only time, the series is titled The Wild, Wild West, complete with a comma after the first “wild”. Others apparently include the fact that the animations used in the opening credits and commercial bumpers is a bit different, and there is apparently a different train used than normal, although I’d have no way of knowing.
The guest cast of the episode includes Victor Buono as Wing Fat, aka Juan Manolo (in a bit of casting you’d never get today, we have here an American actor playing a Mexican character who is himself disguised as a Chinese man!) He appeared in lots of things but is best known to me as King Tut from Batman. Suzanne Pleshette plays Jim’s girlfriend for the episode, Lydia Monteran–she’s well known as Bob Newhart’s wife on The Bob Newhart Show, and also the doomed school teacher in The Birds.
Nehemiah Persoff (General Cassinello) is one of those actors who has hundreds of appearances on IMDb in all sorts of things, but who I would never recognize. Amongst his roles was a small part in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Most Toys. James Gregory plays President Grant in this episode (his only time, after this the part was recast)–he’s best known to me as Inspector Luger in Barney Miller and Dr. Adams in Dagger of the Mind, an early episode of the original Star Trek. Tom Reese plays the driver–apparently he was in a children’s mystery-adventure show I used to love as a kid called The Red Hand Gang.
The Night of the Deadly Bed
I’m still discovering how The Wild Wild West is going to work episode to episode. This time around, the story has got a pretty silly title. The so-called “Deadly Bed” only appears once in the story, and quite early on…and doesn’t actually kill anyone! The main female guest star / love interest of the episode, Gatita (who for the second time in a row starts off more on the side of the villains before reforming) is following orders when she drugs Jim West, and then places him on the “deadly bed” in question. This turns out to have knives in the canopy, which then lower toward its victim extremely slooooowly. Certainly long enough for Jim to wake up, get his head together even though he’s drugged, and then get away. It’s about as ineffective an execution method as most traps from the 1960s Batman. And other then Jim being briefly startled when he wakes up on a completely different (and harmless) bed a bit later in the story.
Most of the episode is actually about Jim and Artie investigating a plot by the villainous Flory to take control of Mexico using a powerfully explosive coal to destroy America’s railroad system. Flory, a Frenchman, has enslaved a Mexican community to do his mining. But Jim and Artie, with the help of Gatita, are able to rally them to revolt. The action scenes around all of this are pretty well done, including an exciting bit where Jim has to improvise a battering ram to get out of room before an explosion goes off. This helps to make up for some repetitive and weaker bits earlier (Jim gets knocked out three times in this episode, for example, once by his own sleeping gas, and at one point is able to burn through ropes with sunlight reflecting off his ring!?)
The episode has some other nice touches: Jim knocks out a bad guy with a gong, for example. Someone tries to kill Jim with a guitar string. There is this extended sequence of trains which are obviously miniatures, which plays out for quite a while before revealing that they are supposed to be miniatures, in a funny little moment. The death scene of a minor character at the start is played as a very strong homage to the death of the title character in Citizen Kane, for some reason. And my favorite dialogue for the episode comes when Jim tells Artie to create a distraction for a whole bunch of soldiers, to which an exasperated Artie replies, “I could recite!”
The guest cast includes Barbara Luna, who appeared in the classic Star Trek episode Mirror, Mirror. She also appeared in a couple of episodes of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as Hawk’s wife, Koori. Also, the producer of this episode (and several others–they weren’t shown in the order they were made) is Fred Freiberger, who produced the third and last season of the original Star Trek.
The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth
As I’ve mentioned, I haven’t watched The Wild Wild West since my childhood. I had a vague sense from then that it was good, but I didn’t really remember. The first two episodes were certainly enjoyable, but I wouldn’t call them “classic” on any level. But that all changes with The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth–this episode is fantastic.
Well, for the most part anyway. It does have one glaring weakness, and that’s the role of the show’s main female guest character–Greta Lundquist, as played by Leslie Parrish. She is, for the third time in a row, a one-episode love-interest for Jim West who starts off the story associated with the villain. But she seems way worse than the characters from the previous episodes, as she very knowingly and willingly participates in the murder of Professor Neilsen and the attempted murder of Jim himself, all so that the story’s megalomaniac can access an explosive that he might use to threaten tens of thousands of people. But she’s so taken by Jim’s machismo that she switches side. I don’t mind the idea of West using his charms to move forward in his mission, but the fact that he actually follows through on that romance and brings this genuinely terrible person back to his train for a bit of smoochin’ just because she’s good looking simply makes Jim and the whole thing look ridiculous.
This would have been an overwhelming problem in a weaker episode, but here it’s just a minor blip. The episode is still a great one thanks to the introduction of Dr. Miguelito Loveless, a character who will become the show’s most commonly recurring villain. Loveless is fascinating and fun, and actor Michael Dunn infuses him with loads of personality, whether he is looking to murder a single opponent, or plotting to destroy a whole city, or singing a lovely harmony with one of his devotees.
Coupling that with his ingenuity and apparently vast network of operatives and supporters (and the fact that he apparently, invented airplane, car, penicillin and radio , and you’ve got a villain that you want to see again, a potential arch-nemesis who can be used in a wide variety of stories, like Moriarity, Lex Luthor or the Master. So its nice to know that this is apparently the first of ten episodes that Loveless will feature in.
The episode has got some interesting guest performers. Michael Dunn, as mentioned, plays Dr. Loveless–he was also memorable as Alexander in the Star Trek episode Plato’s Stepchildren. Leslie Parrish also appeared on Star Trek, as Lt. Palamas in the episode Who Mourns for Adonais? Phoebe Dorin (Antoinette), Richard Kiel (Voltaire) and Sigrid Valdis (Miss Piecemeal), who are all playing allies or servants of Dr. Loveless here, all appear again as the same character in future episodes of The Wild Wild West. Phoebe Dorin was Michael Dunn’s singing partner, and it was one of their performances that won them the role on the show. And Richard Kiel is also very well known for playing the villainous Jaws in two James Bond movies from the 1970s, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.
The Night the Sudden Death
Things are getting crazier and crazier with The Night of the Sudden Death. This episode is filled with bizarre black-clad acrobats who sneak in through windows, hide on your ceiling and try to crush you to death with their legs! It’s pretty surreal stuff, like something out of The Avengers (which was being made at basically the same time). Later, a knife-thrower tortures an underling for potential betrayal, another guy is basically squeezed to death with a blanket, and a giddy ballerina laughs dances and laughs like a lunatic as she leads Jim into trap. Of course, it all makes sense when you find out the villains are all from a circus–or it sort of makes sense, anyway.
The plot this time has to do with counterfeiting money, but with the clever twist that the villains have taken the real plates used to print money and replaced them with the counterfeit ones, so if they had succeeded, they would have been able to print real money. Of course the government’s two most colorful secret servicemen are there to stop them, though they have to go t
It winds up being a good episode for Ross Martin’s Artemus Gordon. He gets his best disguise–a clown–and a cool scene where he burns all the illegally printed money. There are also two main women in this episode–Corinne and Janet–who are both part of the villain’s operation and who both end up helping the good guys. But even though Jim does romance Janet, they both end the episode on each of Artemus’ arms.
In the end, it’s quite a good episode to end our first disk on. It’s not as good as the Dr. Loveless episode up above, but still a solid piece of work, only let down by some lacklustre animal work–Jim wrestling an unconvincing crocodile, and a dude killing a tiger with an unconvincing arrow.
This time around the guest cast includes Robert Loggia as Warren Trevor. He’s a well known actor with hundreds of credited appearances, although he’s best known to me from Independence Day and its sequel. Antoinette Bower (Janet Coburn) played Sylvia on the Star Trek episode Catspaw. The episode was written by Oliver Crawford, who also was part of the writing of several episodes of the original Star Trek, including The Galileo Seven, The Cloud Minders and Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.
And that’s it for Disk One! Onward to Disk Two!