Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: The Night of the Burning Diamonds

"The Night of the Burning Diamond" 
Written by Ken Kolb
Directed by Irving Moore
Synopsis (from Wikipedia): West and Gordon investigate the mysterious disappearance of Serbia's Kara Diamond, which leads them into the lair of Morgan Midas. He has mastered a formula that can make him move so quickly that he becomes invisible to the naked eye.

Jim: This episode starts with a quick, economical setup with James explaining the theft of jewels all across the country. Before the title sequence we get a perfect hook with the diamond stolen from under West's nose. The fluttering newspaper with it’s “Mysterious Jewel Thieves Baffle Police” headline is a playful touch.

Trey: There are a lot of nice directorial flourishes like that, including several humorous cuts between scenes.

This is the first of several episodes written by Ken Kolb. Based on this one, I think he had a good feel for the material.

Jim: I agree. We're only a few minutes in and we get the gas filled cane Jim uses to escape the Serbian embassy: a good, era appropriate spy gadget.

Trey: The Serbian Embassy here is a bit of an anachronism, I imagine. Serbia gained de facto independence in 1867 from the Ottoman Empire, but its independence was only official recognized in 1878, which is probably a bit late for this episode. Which is, you know, oh so historical otherwise.

Jim: Oh, of course! The villain here is the evil scientist Morgan Midas is played by Robert Drivas, a lesser known staple of 60’s and 70’s television. One of his more famous roles is as Chris Vashon in Hawaii 5-0.

Trey: In Kesler's book The Wild Wild West: The Series, she reports that Drivas had a hard time remembering his lines. He had them written in various places all over the set.

Jim: As a kid, I found this episode exciting as Midas’s super speed was an early example of a character with “super powers” on a television show. Midas was a sort of evil Old West Flash.

Trey: Kolb gave his inspiration as the H.G. Wells short story "The New Accelerator." That's the first real connection of the show to Victorian science fiction I can think of. 

The producer on this episode was Gene Coon, who would go on to write the story for the third season Star Trek episode "Wink of an Eye" with a similar super-speed angle. This episode is a bit more rigorous in thinking through it's premise than "Wink of an Eye," though.

Jim: Is it my imagination or is the odd clicking sound that Midas says is people talking not the same foley sound used for Star Trek communicators?

Trey: Yeah, it's the same.

Jim: The fight choreography is a little more campy in this episode, especially when we get to the West’s attempt to escape Lady Margaret’s house, but I like it. It fits the tone of the episode. 

Trey: There's a bit of a Batman tv series feel to them. I think we're going to see more of these sorts of "fun fights" in Season 2.

Jim: Midas's death by super-speed side effect is set up well early in the episode. It makes for a good, quick resolution.

Trey: Death by the use of his own invention is a classic mad scientist end.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: The Night of the Druid's Blood

"The Night of the Druid's Blood" 
Written by Henry Sharp, from a story by Kevin De Courcey
Directed by Irving Moore
Synopsis: Jim and Artie investigate the connection between a beautiful young woman; an evil magician, and the deaths of several distinguished scientists.

Trey: This episode has me conflicted. It is pretty enjoyable, but it's also bad in several ways. First, the episode has nothing to do with druid or blood so the title makes no sense. Second, the episode makes gestures toward some common action/adventure TV tropes that would have made solid episodes in their own right, then under utilizes those: There's a bit of "it looks like magic but it's  really trickery" going on, but it's only half-hearted, and no explanation is given for why the villains would use it at all.

Maybe the first time Jim comes upon the pagan/Satanic ritual, you could argue it was part of a plan to discredit him, but the second? Having a fake occult ritual in a mausoleum would seem to invite attention that would reveal Tristam's plan, not help conceal it.

Jim: I agree. 

Trey: Then there's "the villain undermines confidence in the hero or gaslights him" thing. This is floated, but it creates no dramatic tension because the audience never doubts West, and it doesn't create any significant obstacles to him solving the mystery, because all they happens is he's ordered to take a leave of absence for a rest--at some point in the future, apparently.

 Jim: Well, I guess I should say what was good about it: For one thing, this episode starts with one of the best build ups I’ve seen so far in these rewatches. Between Professor Robey’s fearful actions and pronouncements and the antiquities adorning his study, it’s got a bit of a Victorian horror feel to it. It also is the third time we've seen a bait and switch villain, and I haven't got tired of that yet.

Trey: All true. I appreciated the bait and switch of the faux-magic villain to the pure pulp science one. It still carries through the horror vibe, though: a madman killing renowned scientists to harvest their brains to put their brainpower to work for, well, some evil end.

Jim: Seeing Don Rickles was a nice bit of stunt casting, as well.

Trey: Yeah, though he may get too much screen time or have a role underserved by the script, depending on your perspective. The best player here to me was Ann Elder as Astarte. I never once believed she could convince folks she was totally not pursuing stodgy old professors with nefarious intent, but her edge of cold cruelty and her platinum blonde locks make for a good femme fatale.

This, by the way, is the only episode we've watched so far without at least a sympathetic female co-star, much less a love interest for West.

Also: West does a turn worthy of James T. Kirk in exhorting those brains to turn against Dr. Tristam.

Jim: It does feel bit slipshod, though.

Trey: Maybe two episode ideas that got stitched together: A femme fatale in a cult (or fake cult) with a theatrical wizard as villain, and a femme fatale marrying and killing old men for their brains to be harvested by a mad scientist?

Jim: I still wonder where the druid's blood went.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: The Night of the Puppeteer

"The Night of the Puppeteer"
Written by Henry Sharp
Directed by Irving Moore
Synopsis (from IMDB): The mad puppeteer Zachariah Skull re-creates a courtroom drama, using life-size puppets, to seek revenge on both Jim and the Supreme Court Justices who sentenced him to death.

Trey: This is one of my favorite first season episodes. It makes good use of the lack of color. The mostly dark setting and it's obvious staginess adds an air of the surreal. This was all the idea of the director, Moore, who had been told he had to bring the elaborate episode in under budget.  It reminds me of the sort of story that might have been on the British contemporaneous show, The Avengers.

Jim: It reminds me of some Twilight Zone episodes. I'm thinking of "Five Characters in Search of an Exit," particularly. There's definitely a creepiness factor, too. Normally my teenage daughter joins me as I rewatch the shows, but the first appearance of the puppets and she was out.

Trey: Those puppets were the work of Bob Baker, who worked the alien puppet in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and some monsters in other sci-fi films.

Jim: One of the things I’ve noticed watching the episodes again is how often the same sets were reused. In this case it’s the huge alcove with the marble staircase that was the stage for West’s big battle in "The Night of the Grand Emir." The show does a good job in redecorating the sets in each case.

Trey: That probably helped keep those costs down, too.

Jim: West seems atypically astute in this episode as he remarks on theme of deformity in the dolls, and he figures out the connect to Triton. I’m not suggesting that West is normally a dumb character, but here his powers of observation seem to have a temporary boost.

Trey: Maybe. We're rewatching less that half the episodes, so far, so we might not have the full extent of his capabilities. And he still gets in a lot of fights, including with a caveman puppet! It is interesting he easily makes the mythological connection and it takes Artemus (the smart one) a bit longer.

Jim: Muted shades of Holmes and Watson there.

Trey: Lloyd Bochner is great here as Skull with his urbane bearing, and the silky menace of his voice.

Jim: He really is. Bochner’s screen credits run long, as he was a staple of television during the 60’s through the 80’s. One of his most notable genre roles would be in the Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man" where he appeared with another WWW regular, Richard Kiel. 

I also like the reveal of the real Zechariah Skull (played by Bochner in makeup), like a big, black spider in a center of his web.

Trey: It works really well. I think the actors playing his puppets did a good job. Bochner plays a puppet, too. The bit where West grabs his invisible "strings" and Bochner sort of floats up then slouches down when released works surprisingly well.

Jim: A feel like there's an acting class exercise in that, but you're right: everyone gets an "A."

Trey: Skull would have been a great villain to make a return appearance. We don't even see the body, so it has the perfect setup for that.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: The Night of the Whirring Death

"The Night of the Whirring Death"
Written by Jackson Gillis
Directed by Mark Rydell
Synopsis (from IMDB): Jim and Artie are collect money from millionaires buying bonds to save California from bankruptcy. The problem is, Dr. Loveless is back and blowing up the would-be benefactors with booby-trapped toys to steal the money.

Trey: This is the closest WWW came to a Christmas episode. It isn't stated in the episode to be Christmas, but the winter weather, focus on toys, and other story elements give they vibe. It aired, however, in February of 1966.

Jim: It starts off with a nice tip of the hat to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Jeremiah Ratch taking the place of  Scrooge. Ratch is played by Norman Fell, aka Mr. Roper from Three’s Company. Fell’s comedy chops come in handy as he hams it up with the Ratch character for the short time he’s on the screen.

Trey: This is Dr. Loveless' third appearance and the first not written by his creator. It sticks pretty close to the establishe Loveless schtick though: he's still trying to carve his own kingdom out of part of California. Voltaire (Richard Kiel) and Antionette (Phoebe Dorin) are back, as well.

Jim: I believe this is the one and only time Loveless is ever shown smoking. It’s mostly for comical effect, admittedly, after he's revealed as the “child” who gifted Ratch toy soldiers.

Trey: Voltaire speaks for the first time, too. It's note as being a change within the episode. One Loveless related conundrum: Why does the brilliant doctor continue to employ lovely female assistants in his plans, who he knows by now are only going to fall for West's charms?

Jim: He tries to maneuver Priscilla away from it, but to no avail! She is the most wide-eyed innocent of the group, so far.

Trey: Unbelievably naive is the better descriptor! I wonder if her toy maker grandfather raised her with no contact with the outside world?

Jim: A funny bit is the look of cynical disbelief on lovely Antionette’s face when Priscilla is convinced by Loveless that the exploding toy train is a perfectly fine toy.

Just putting this out there: with the naivete Priscilla displays, I think a nice plot twist for the episode would’ve been to have her be revealed as a human sized animatronic created by Loveless. 

Trey: I could buy that.

Jim: In general, I think the level of technology in this episode seems a bit advanced. We see electric trains and phonographs.

Trey: The phonograph was an anachronism noted in Loveless's first appearance. The electric train is similarly just a bit ahead, having been invented in the 1890s. Incidentally, this episode actually gives us an onscreen place and time: "San Francisco, 1874."

Jim: One of the unintentionally funny bits to me: After West is ground zero at the explosion in Ratch’s shop, Gordon proclaims that he's fine and just needs some rest. Supporting him in this dubious claim is a city cop who says, “He’s right lady. Working this beat, I’ve seen enough to know he’ll be fine.” Just how violent is this neighborhood?

Trey: Thinks are hard in California in this alternate 1874, apparently. I mean, the governor's plan here is explicitly laundering money for rich people with shady, possibly criminal, business practices to keep his state solvent. 

Jim: Vote Loveless! How could it be worse?

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: The Night of the Grand Emir

"The Night of the Grand Emir"
Written by Donn Mullally
Directed by Irving J. Moore
Synopsis (from IMDB): Jim and Artie try to protect the Grand Emir of the Ottoman Empire from members of an assassin's club who have set their sights on his murder.

Jim: This episode wasn’t originally on our list, but you mentioning it had Yvonne (Batgirl) Craig in it was all it took for me to agree we should review it.

Trey: And in it she is! As a dancing girl and would-be assassin with the pretty Bondian name of Ecstasy La Joie.

Jim: Craig was a ballet dancer before going into acting. This episode makes use of Craig’s years of dance training--a lot. She's got like three dance numbers in this episode: can-can,  flamenco, what they call Egyptian dancing.

Trey: And at least twice, there's a hidden weapon involved: an exploding garter and a razor-edged tambourine. She never actually kills anybody, though.

Dance numbers aside, I feel like this episode has a lot of things going for it. In fact, it forces me sort of re-examine my premise that Wild Wild West is best when it's weirder. This is a fairly straight forward "Bond type" episode, and it's better than the last two, I think.

Jim: True. It is again not very Western, though.

Trey: No it isn't. More straight Victorian, though the international politics of an Ottoman (leaving aside I don't believe the Ottoman Empire used that title in this era) Emir's visit and Turkish dissidents in the U.S. in large numbers is likely straight up ahistorical. While I'm on historical stuff, dialogue at the end of the episode dates it as being something more than 12 years after 1860. Since the entire series is during Grant's presidency, it must take place between 1873 and 1877. However, the villains' plot involves the building of the Suez Canal, which was completed in 1869. In our history.

Jim: The one without miniaturized spy gadgets! 

Trey: True. But like I say, this episode has a lot going for it. The almost immediate bait-and-switch of the sinister Dr. Bey appearing to be the villain, but turning out to only be a pawn of the Assassins' Club.

Jim: Then there's Richard Jaeckel's Cable who does the deed not being the main villain, but instead being just a flunky...

Trey: And finally, the annoying society columnist T. Wiggett Jones (Don Francks) winds up being the badass head of the Assassin's Club.

Jim: In a twist that was not surprising, he dies in a one on one fight with West, and accidentally stepping into his own death trap!

Trey: There were a lot of fights this episode. West party crashes the Assassin mansion singlehandedly.

Jim: Yes, this episode probably gives us the most actual fight scenes we've seen in an episode so far. My favorite is the one between West and the assassins on the staircase.

Trey: All an attempt to recruit him, apparently. Of course, it doesn't work out, and equally of course, there back up plan of just killing him is foiled by Ecstasy La Joie falling for him and getting him out of the death trap.

Jim: Some things never change in the Wild Wild West.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: Night of the Steel Assassin

"The Night of the Steel Assassin"
Written by Calvin Clements and Steve Fisher
Directed by Lee Katzin
Synopsis (from IMDB): Jim and Arte must stop Torres - a man more metal than flesh, with superhuman strength, the power of hypnosis, and a taste for revenge - from killing President Grant.

Jim: This episode starts off with yet another moody night time dock setting. There is something about such locations that enhances the intrigue of the show in a way that the Western locales do not.

Trey: They do love those. It makes me wonder if they regretted not explicitly making their base of operations in San Francisco like the WWW adjacent, if not inspired, tv shows Barbary Coast (1975) and Brisco County, Jr. (1993).

Jim: We jump right into an action scene as our Victorian cyborg villain Torres (John Dehner, a frequent tv villain) smashes his way into a local shop with an iron fist! The shop owner defends himself with a harpoon, but it proves useless against this armor-plated killer.

It’s more than just a little coincidental that Jim West is walking by the shop when the attack takes place. Did I miss a bit of dialogue later that might explain this fortuitous timing?

Regardless, West finds himself unable to stop Torres; even bullets proved useless! We are left with Jim facing certain strangulation as a cliffhanger before we jump into the title sequence. When we return, Jim uses a smoke bomb to escape. A bit of an anticlimactic resolution, but it unfortunately sets the tone for the rest of the episode.

Trey: Yes, this episode has a problem with before cut cliffhangers that amount to not much. I do like seeing West use a gadget, though. 

Jim: In several instances, the episode brushes over some moments of tension with a wave of the hand. Chief among them is Artie supposedly being hypnotized, which the next seen immediately deflates. I also think Artie’s fall into a watery doom later in the episode is glossed over. He says he just swam out into a river, but the explanation comes late in the episode. 

Trey: Don't forget the bit where the carriage driver leaps at West with a knife, and we go the break. When we're back, West just shoots him with no struggle.

Jim: I also felt a physical confrontation with West and Torres never quite played out like I wanted it to.

Trey: Yeah. I realize they wanted to establish Torres as superhuman, but then that's just a situation where Jim should fight smart.

Jim: Speaking of smart, this episode doesn't seem to think much of educated women. After meeting the independent thinking Nina Gilbert, Artemus says, “There should be a law against educating women.”

Later, Torres uses a spinning lamp to hypnotize her. He wants to make her less serious and more childlike, because he suggests she does too much thinking.

Trey: If it were just Torres you could blame it on his villainy, but Artie too? It's odd, because she's not played as educated but clueless, really. She's quite capable in that she figures the connection and tracks down Torres, though maybe she's a bit clueless in not seeing the potential danger. Still, the episode is invested in treating her as a figure of comedy much more so than the usual "woman of the week."

Jim: 1960s script writers being 1960s script writers, I guess.

Trey: Like the Loveless episodes, this one makes the villain out to be quite a remarkable man. Much more so than West or Gordon, despite their obvious talents. He taught himself hypnosis, engineering and surgery, apparently.

Jim: He does seem somewhat sympathetic, too, even we as deplore his murderousness. He says the officer's cheated in the faithful card draw that led to him being nearly killed by the enemy attack.

Trey: He says that, though the episode doesn't address the truth of his claim. I think WWW is too positive regarding Grant for that to be the case.

Did you notice that when West follows Nina to Torres's mansion, there is very much a horror vibe to it. Dracula's organ theme (Bach's "Toccata and Fugue") is even playing!

Jim: That was a weird, but a nice touch. My favorite part is when, early in the episode, Artie and Jim are seen going through paperwork. I love this visual. It tickles me to think of them having to wrangle bureaucratic red tape in between adventures. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: The Night That Terror Stalked the Town

"The Night That Terror Stalked the Town"
Written by John Kneubuhl
Directed by Alvin Ganzer
Synopsis (from IMDB): Dr. Loveless imprisons Jim and surgically creates his double called a doppelganger, code-named Janus. Arte must find Jim and uncover the truth behind the warped scheme.

Trey: So here we are with the second appearance of Dr. Miguelito Loveless, 8 episodes (by airdate) after his first appearance. The episode is co-written by Loveless' creator, John Kneubuhl, and references his first appearance several times, in a nice bit of continuity. Getting us here did require skipping over "Night of the Sudden Death" where West and Gordon engage in the genuine Secret Service activity of going after counterfeiters, but realism is not what we're after!

Jim: Nope! We're again in an urban setting, like the first Loveless episode. Jim is shown smoking a cigarillo in the first scene. I don't recall him smoking any other episodes, so this seemed a bit strange. He's jumped from behind, but during the fight, he manages to retain his hold on the cigar.

Trey: He's being sized up by a mysterious woman and her companion. She puts herself in a position to to attract West's attention in bar, which leads to him getting into a carriage with her--and into a trap.

Jim: The femme fatale is Marie, played by Jean Hale who has a number of TV appearances in the 60s and 70s. 

Trey: West is kidnapped by being gassed and he awakens in a somewhat surreal ghost town (rubber dummies for denizens, record players playing conversations and music). It sort of a prefigures The Prisoner (which won't show up until 1967).

Jim: Loveless and Voltaire have escaped from prison. Antoinette is also back for another chance at a song later. He's also got a new henchman, a guy named Janus. The name foreshadows future plot developments.

Trey: It practically screams them. Loveless tutors Janus to be a perfect imitation of James West, then he performs surgery to transform him into West's twin. 

Jim: Yes, to have a new West to eventually get the explosive from the first Loveless episode, so that the good Doctor can blackmail California for his family's land back.

Trey: Loveless' training of Janus may be the most fantastic thing in this episode, though obviously the surgery is super-advanced. The Doctor has a phonograph, which won't be invented for over a decade after the likely date of this episode. The heavy use of electricity is science fictional as well, though perhaps only in the way it's portrayed on screen. This episode I think could be reasonably considered "near future" sci-fi for the 1870s--well, except Janus stuff.

Jim: As well-prepared as he is, Janus tips Gordon off pretty easy.

Trey: Yeah, these Loveless episodes so far haven't given Artemus much to do, though he does have a bigger role in this one. He rides to West's rescue.

Jim: Janus can't replicate the power of Jim West's kiss, either. When Loveless is forced to try to figure out who's who, Marie figures it out.

Trey: And she and West put one over on Loveless. While Loveless is smart, he loses by under-estimating the cunning of his opponents. Like so many super-villains, over-confidence is his undoing.

Jim: But Loveless survives to fight another day!


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