Friday, January 13, 2023

My Friend Jim

Jim Shelley, the founder and primary writer of this blog, died last Sunday, January 8th. He was a little over a month shy of his 59th birthday. 

He had been battling colon cancer for 8 years. It was enough time for him to publish two Northstars graphic novels he co-wrote with his daughter, to teach that daughter how to drive, and see her get her license. Time enough to play in D&D campaign and assist his wife in publishing a D&D adventure. Time enough to co-host 15 episodes of a Bronze Age comics podcast. Time enough to watch most of the episodes in the 4 seasons of Wild Wild West and blog about it.

Time enough for those things and more. More time than Jim expected to have, really.

But not nearly enough time. Not for his friends and family.

Anyone who has been a follower of this blog knows that Jim was a creative person. What's perhaps less apparent is that Jim had a real fondness for fostering creativity in others. On Facebook, comics writer Chad Bowers noted that he probably wouldn't have had a comics career if Jim hadn't pushed him to take a story to publishers. I know I wouldn't have been blogging for 13 years or have authored 5 rpg books without Jim's encouragement and help. Jim was a creator, sure, but he also just liked to see things get created. 

There were other projects he and I started together that we never got to finish. In the end, there wasn't enough time.

Jim hadn't been blogging much for a while. Some of that was him losing interest in the original concept of the blog, and the rest was his illness. A few weeks before his death, we talked about this blog. I told him I would write a post after he was gone, which he whole-heartedly approved of. I also told him I would try to keep it alive in some way, at least to the extent it had been in recent years. He was happy with that, too.

Back in 2008, Jim wrote a memorial to his older sister Carter who had recently passed. I'm going to echo his closing in that post here: These past few days, I have had a lot of time to think about what having Jim as a friend meant to me and to see others say what he meant to them. A short post can't really express it. But I thought I'd let you know what a great person Jim was.

Thank you.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Revisiting The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Tycoons

"The Night of the Tycoons"
Written by  Barney Slater (story) & Louis Vittes (teleplay)
Directed by Mike Moder
Synopsis: West investigates the suspicious deaths of members of the board of directors of the Jupiter Corporation with the help of the privileged son of one the former chairman. 

Jim: Following the wisdom of Silver Age DC comics, this episode entices us us with an ape, specifically one in a Union soldier uniform! 

Trey: "You Can't Pin A Medal on a Gorilla"....But I digress. This one definitely has the elements of a number of good episodes:  an elaborate plot, high concept goons, a simian throwing an explosive, but...

Jim: Let's not get to that final judgement so quickly! It is a weird episode in that its corporate intrigue plot is more fitting for a show like Mannix or Banacek. Even the chauvinistic comments by West would fit shows like that better.  Then there's scene with the circus seals goes on for quite a long time! Also, where is Artemus Gordon? 

Trey: Yeah, I think this is the most sexist episode of WWW we've watched. It's not that our heroes have never made sexist comments before, but not this number and not in such a way it seemed almost an ethos.

As to Artemus, well this is an episode from before Martin's return. It was produced right before "TNOT Diva." But as to my final judgement...

Jim: Oh no!

Trey: Here it comes! Despite its good qualities, the episode fails for sexism, but mostly because it lacked a strong or at least suitably eccentric main villain.

Jim:  Yep. I enjoyed the circus of crime and the crossbow death trap, but outside of that, this was a sadly lackluster finale for the series. Now, I'm wondering what would've been a good last episode? One final battle with Dr. Loveless perhaps?

Trey: Another appearance by Loveless would have been great. I think getting any recurrent villain like Valentine or Count Manzeppi would have been good, too. A team up, would have been awesome, but probably more than one could reasonably hope for.

Jim: And with that, our heroes rode into the sunset!

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Revisiting The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Plague

"The Night of the Plague"
Written by  Ed Adamson (story) & Frank L. Moss (teleplay)
Directed by Irving J. Moore
Synopsis: West and Gordon must protect the royal family of Karovnia who have traveled to the U.S., fleeing an assassination attempt in their homeland. They are pursued by Count Balkovitch who seeks an icon he needs to possess in order to usurp the throne.

Jim: The stagecoach comeuppance at the start kicks off this episode with a bit of humor, and lets us know what we need to know about the character of Averi Trent. We can already tell it's going to be a different type of story with the way West is dressed.

With its spoiled governor's daughter and plague-related ticking clock, this has a very 60's television vibe, but I appreciate the touches humor. There are times when the tone even reminds me of the Coen Brothers' movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou, mostly due to William Bryant's stage actor patter and his slight resemblance to George Clooney in that role.

f I have any qualms with this episode, it's that the whole plague plot point seems completely unnecessary. Outside of spurring Gordon to find West (something he could have done anyway) the plague angle doesn't present any real motivation or tension. It does give us an anticlimactic ending by providing a reason for the bandits to surrender. I almost wonder if it was tacked on during a rewrite? 

Trey: Kesler, author of Wild Wild West: The Series, doesn't like this episode much. I think she's a bit unduly harsh, but I would agree it could really have been an episode of a lot of Western shows, minus the plague angle--and even potentially including that.

As you point out, though, they don't leverage the plague for increased tension. They teased "West is going to get sick!" but then resolves it so quickly. I wonder if rather than that being tacked on, it was actually a bigger point in the initial story, but it got slimmed down in favor of a lighter tone and cute interplay between Wood and Conrad?

I also wonder about Conrad's wardrobe change, here. Was it merely that he is supposed to be "undercover?" If so, why does he wear different outfits so rarely. I wonder as the 70s were looming if they were thinking about moving out of the so very mid-60s tight blue suit in favor of something grittier, and this was like a test run?

Jim: Another Conrad related note: it seems like he still does a lot of his own stunts here. I was under the impression he stopped after his skull injury in Season 3 ("TNOT Fugitives") that he had stopped that.

Trey: I thought the same thing. It certainly looks like him doing a number of those things. And their are a number of impressive for TV stunts here. The episode follows the trend of S4 of having more action.

This episodes most famous guest star is Lana Wood as Averi Trent. She's not as famous as her sister Natelie, true, but she is in The Searchers and was a Bond girl in Diamonds Are Forever.

Jim: You're burying the lead! She was also in the second Reb Brown Captain America TV movie!

Trey: And here I didn't even know there was a second one!

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Revisiting The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Cossacks

"The Night of the Cossacks"
Written by  Oliver Crawford
Directed by Mike Moder
Synopsis: West and Gordon must protect the royal family of Karovnia who have traveled to the U.S., fleeing an assassination attempt in their homeland. They are pursued by Count Balkovitch who seeks an icon he needs to possess in order to usurp the throne.

Trey: It seems to me episodes with Russian/Eastern European visitors often have decent action, but are otherwise lackluster. I feel like this one fits that pattern.

Jim: Lackluster? I think that's a harsher criticism than this episode deserves! I actually found the character drama, political intrigue and use of Eastern Slavic culture in this episode a welcome change of pace. It gave the story a bit more depth than the average would-be tyrant storyline.

Trey: Slavic culture or Slavic caricature?

Jim: Well... Anyway, I did find amusing  how West has to really play diplomat here. He's got to tactfully correct his visitors who lack cultural fluency with American customs and are perhaps a bit rustic without insulting them. It strikes me as one of those quaint examples of the paternalistic notion of America during this era as the more experienced, older brother on the world stage that was so dominant in television at this time.  

Trey: It's a quaint notion at the best of times, but it's downright anachronistic here! It's the 60s seeping through. 

There are a couple of guest stars of note, here. Aliza Gur plays Maria. She was Miss Israel 1960, and perhaps best known for her role in From Russia With Love. The Prince is played by Guy Stockwell, younger brother to Dean.

Jim: When you say that, I can see the resemblance, but I would have never got there on my own.

Trey: That's what I'm here for! Well, one of the things.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Revisiting The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Bleak Island

"The Night of the Bleak Island"
Written by  Robert E Kent
Directed by Marvin J Chomsky
Synopsis: West goes to the aptly named Bleak Island to retrieve a diamond bequeathed to the National Museum. When howls of a ghostly hound are heard and a murder occurs, He teams up with another invitee and an old acquaintance, Sir Nigel Scott of Scotland Yard, to solve the mystery.
Jim: Given the opening shots of the tiny ship tossed amongst the waves, this really would have been the better episode to have Alan Hale Jr. guest star on. They even use the same ship from Gilligan's Island in one shot.

Trey: The little boat they were in I'm pretty sure was the same one in "The Night of the Pelican," too.

Jim: All the guests talking on the small boat as they ferry to Bleak Island gives us an appropriate And Then There Were None vibe, though the actual episode leans more on The Hound of the Baskervilles. With a slight nod to Wilke Collins' The Moonstone! This episode manages to find a way to tip its hat to at least three classic English mystery stories.

Trey: The title may even be a reference to Dickens' Bleak House, too, but that could be just a coincidence.

Jim: I'm curious when this episode was filmed. Was it during Martin's absence? If so, they sat on it for a bit before showing it.

Trey: Looking at production order, this the last episode filmed before Ross' return in "The Night of the Diva." I don't know why they saved it.

Jim: Interestingly, it has some Gothic trapping and tropes in common with that episode.

Trey: Agreed!

Jim: John Williams, as Sir Nigel Scott, makes  a good Sherlock Holmes analog. Though, I think I would have enjoyed seeing a much younger man portraying the real Sherlock Holmes. However, given the way the plot plays out, though, it makes sense why they didn't go that way.

Trey: Yeah, if we go by fandom theorizing, Holmes would have been in his 20s probably here. He's like 10 years younger that West. As you say though, Sir Nigel presents the aging British Empire and West up and the up and coming United States. I don't think the SPOILER--reveal of Sir Nigel as the villain plays a part in the allegory, though.

Jim: I'm gonna have to think about that.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Revisiting The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Diva

"The Night of the Diva"
Written by  Alf Harris (story) and Ken Pettus
Directed by Herb Wallerstein
Synopsis: In New Orleans, West and Gordon struggle to protect an opera diva from Italy from a plot to kidnap her. They discover she's not the only opera singer to meet with foul play recently.
Jim: New Orleans is a welcome change of venue! Also good to get the real return of Artemus. During the opening scene, Gordon is really on emotive fire, and Conrad seems to be genuinely enjoying his performance.

Trey: New Orleans is one of WWW's "go to" locales, but you're right, it has been a little while.

Jim: I loved the humorous tone of this episode. It may be a bit more tongue in cheek than some fans would like, but it hits the sweet spot for me. I also liked the natural convergence of both West's and Gordon's plots. The villain's identity reveal was a shocker too. Overall, this was excellent episode.

Trey: While I agree there are humorous parts to this episode, there are certainly aspects that are far from humorous. It's another with Gothic touches, and the reveal of its primary villain is positively Hitchcockian! Without Artie's travails with the Opera Singer, I'd call this one of the more horrific/thriller-like of Wild Wild West episodes.

Jim: Good point. It goes from a mildly humorous beginning to women in cages in a dungeon!  Did the cinematography seem different this episode? They must've used a hand held camera for the alley fight, because the frame was jumping all around, almost cinéma vérité.

Trey: I thought the same thing regarding the alley fight. I think it did use a shaky camera, much like part of the opening of last episode. This more cinematic camera work and shots at times definitely positions us more like the 70s TV to come than the mid-60s TV where we started. Another indication of changing times: the addition of Mason and other women secret service personnel in a few other episodes this season makes it seem to me they were considering adding a regular female cast member, but they never fully committed for one reason or another.

Jim: A female agent would have been a smart addition to the series. I'm a bit surprised they didn't use Gordon's medical leave as an opportunity to team West up with a female agent. I would've cast either Sandy Duncan, Teri Garr or Marlo Thomas in that role.

Trey: All good choices! But man, Diana Rigg as a visiting British agent would have been awesome.

Jim: Right?!

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Revisiting The Wild Wild West: The NIght of the Pistoleros

"The Night of the Pistoleros"
Written by  Earl Barret and Robert C. Dennis
Directed by Bernard McEveety
Synopsis: Called to an isolated border fort by an old friend, West and Gordon stumble upon an elaborate scheme involving imposter army officers to provoke a war with Mexico.

Jim: It's great to see Ross Martin return to the show, even if this was actually shot before he returned.

Trey: It is, but yeah, since this episode doesn't mention Artemus being away in Washington and the next does, it seems like this was shown out of production order. I also note  I think this is the first we've heard of Artie's Civil War service.

Jim: I found the focus on Artemis Gordon in this episode very interesting. It added a bit of mystery to the corrupt cavalry plot. When he was shot, I kept expecting to see him return in the next scene. This is probably one of the better fake outs we've gotten in the series.

Trey: The episode may be only the second we've seen that we've watched that truly integrated a Bond/Mission Impossible style plot with a Western one. That makes it better than a lot of the straight up Western riffs. It's also seems to be a notably violent episode. It opens with a shoot out, which is a rarity for this show.

 Jim: Yeah, I totally get a Mission Impossible vibe from this episode as well. Part of it is all extensive use of doppelgangers. The perfect duplication of a person's features via plastic surgery feels like a very 60's thing. The ambush and standoff made for a good cold open, and the pink smoke providing cover for their escape was a nice way to add some color to the scene.

Trey: 60s TV does love it's pinkish smoke! I'm disappointed that we don't get to know more about the villain, particularly because I believe he's unique in the series: a Mexican (I assume) mastermind. Most villains in the episodes set in Mexico are gringo interlopers. Mexican characters are at best supporting cast and at worst window-dressing. This guy is local, and has a plot that seems centered locally. The U.S. army is just the instrument he's employing. The surgeon seems extraneous to me, though. Why not have the mastermind also be the surgeon?

Jim: Yeah, the main villain and the surgeon could have been easily combined, but I would have wanted a better actor for that role -  maybe a reappearance by Ricardo Montalban?

Trey: Well, we didn't get Ricardo Montalban, but you know who we did get? A young Robert Pine of CHiPs fame.

Jim: I think Erik Estrada is really the only actor that deserves to be in the same sentence with "CHiPs" and "fame."

Trey: Good point.


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