Thursday, October 15, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: The Night of the Golden Cobra

"The Night of the Golden Cobra"
Written by Henry Sharp
Directed by Irving Moore
Synopsis: The Indian Territory Commissioner recruits James West to investigate the strange occurrences at the reservation. West soon finds himself the unwilling guest an émigré maharajah who wants his sons to be tutored in the fine art of killing.

Trey: I feel like a line from Boris Karloff as Mr. Singh sums up my feelings about this episode: "I grow annoyed with this ridiculous ape."

Jim: That dancing ape is pretty ridiculous. 

Trey: I think this is the weakest episodes we've seen so far. It's amusing in places, makes good use of color, and has decent action scenes, but I struggle to see what the point of it was other than the high concept of "Real Indians in the Indian Territory!" [cue laugh track]. And then there are bizarre things like the dancing gorilla. And of course there's all the Orientalism.

Jim: Oh yeah, this episode is easily the worst we've seen on a number of levels. The use of color and action scenes, like you mentioned were nice, but when I remember that there were critics who found "Night of the Eccentrics" off-putting, I gotta wonder what they thought when the dancing gorilla appeared?

Trey: It seems very campy.

Jim: Do you think Batman's success was having an effect?

Trey: Well, Batman started in January 1966, and the two episodes with just watched aired in September of that year. I don't know there shooting schedule, but given that Batman was a success out of the gate (it's two nights each occupied slots in the Top 10 shows of the 65-66 season--and it wasn't even on that whole season) it certainly would have been the sort of thing people wanted to emulate.

Jim: Audrey Dalton as the Sultan’s daughter Veda is a real mismatch here. I would have much rather seen someone like Caroline Munro in this role.

Trey: Yeah, I guess we should be glad they didn't put her in brownface. Caroline Munro was a mere 17 at this point, but surely they at had some other darker-hued actress--maybe even, somehow, an actress of South Asian descent?

Jim: That's asking a lot in 1966 Hollywood, apparently. But hey, Boris Karloff is good here!

Trey: True.

Jim: The cane he uses is most likely to accommodate Karloff’s back problems. He apparently hurt his back wearing the harness in the Frankenstein movies and required multiple surgeries to alleviate pain over the years.

Trey: Kesler's book says everyone found him a joy to work with on set. 

This episode was written by Henry Sharp who wrote the excellent "The Night of the Puppeteer" and the pretty good Bond riff (that you haven't watched recently, probably) "The Night of the Glowing Corpse," but he didn't do so well here.

Jim: I don't know if it's just the episodes we are watching, but man does this show lean hard on the "female helps West out" thing!

Trey: Well, that's pretty much all of them, I think. If we only watched the episodes where that didn't happen, we might be through with our rewatch by now!

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: The Night of the Eccentrics

"The Night of the Eccentrics" 
Written by  Charles Bennett
Directed by Robert Sparr
Synopsis: Jim and Artie find themselves pitted against the Eccentrics, a league of assassins commanded by the theatric Count Manzeppi with a plot to kill the Mexican President.

Trey: Here we are at season 2 and the Wild Wild West is now in vibrant, 60s TV color. This episode was the sixth produced, but CBS chose to air it first, probably because it made such strong use of that color. What better showcase for it than villains out of a circus sideshow?

Jim: It's a good choice. There is an almost Batman-like use of color in this episode with the carnival scenes and costumes. I will say, I wasn't wild about Jim West's gray suit in the first few scenes, but everything else would have made a big splash on 60's color televisions. One slight slip up is Artemis's make up when he's dressed as a guard. It doesn't look quite right which makes me think the make up department was still getting the hang of color television. 

Trey: This episode introduces Count Manzeppi who was intended to be a recurring villain like Loveless. He does return, but only once. The critical reviews on this episode were not great. By and large, they seem to have not liked a shift to a more fantastic material.

Jim: Victor Buono definitely had the chops for the role.  I like his appearance here much better than in Season one's Night of the Inferno. I'll go so far as to say, if you can only watch one WWW episode with Victor Buono that has a face mask reveal scene in it, make it this one!

Jim: I find the critical reviews interesting because it didn't really feel that more fantastic than a number of other episodes so far. With the classic introduction to all the main villains in the first few minutes, it actually felt like a Kenneth Robeson Doc Savage pulp story. I think Count Manzeppi would have made a fun recurring villain.

Trey: Well, you have to remember, we only rewatched a selection from season one. Also, this episode doesn't have Victorian science fiction, but maybe magic.

As much as I like this episode and Manzeppi, I have to say he does irritate me a bit in the context of the show because it's never is clear whether he uses magic (which would be a departure from S1, but ok) or stage magic plus some Loveless-esque Victorian technology. He seems to dabble in both. It's like the writers don't want to commit. As I recall this is not an uncommon problem with some classic TV shows faced with stage magician villains, though I can't immediately think of another specific example.

Jim: I found this a little perplexing, too. On one hand, you could say it's all gadgets and stage magic, but his finger controlled security screen seems to stretch the concept. One fun "blink and you'll miss it" scene is when Manzeppi is having trouble with the security screen and he crinkles his nose - not unlike Samantha Stevens on Bewitched. I don't know if that was a Buono ad lib, but it's a cute touch. (And does add fuel to the whole, is this really magic, question.)

Trey: Some historical notes here: Juarez is President of Mexico (he died in office in 1872) and West tells us it has been 4 years since Maximillian's death (June 1867), so this episode must take place in 1871-72. The phonograph is (again) an anachronism, though the music played as the amusement park "The Flying Trapeze," was first published in 1867.

Speaking of music, the score is more energetic here, I think. They did record new music for this season.

Trey: This time the young woman betrays the villain for money, not attraction to West!

Jim: That was a nice change of pace.

Trey: Richard Pryor is here in an early tv appearance, though it's Ross Martin that voices the dummy, Julio.

Jim: It was fun seeing Pryor in this role, though I must confess, I'm not sure what his exact purpose in Manzeppi's gang was.

Trey: I was waiting for him to kill someone with ventriloquism.

Jim: I liked the way they showed Manzeppi had escaped. It was a playful final touch to a playful episode.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Revisiting The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Sudden Plague

"The Night of the Sudden Plague" 
Written by  Ken Kolb
Directed by Irving J Moore
Synopsis (from Wikipedia): Upon arriving in Willow Springs, Jim and Artie find that a band of thieves have struck and are somehow managing to paralyze everyone in the entire town.

Trey: Here we are at the end of Season 1 with probably the most "Western" episode we've watched so far: An outlaw gang, several one horse towns, and an abandoned fort in the desert.

Jim: That stone fort is quite the set! Is it a real place? Was it ever used anywhere else? Seems like it would be ideal for a Star Trek episode.

Trey: You are apparently not the only one to think so! The fort was attacked by the Gorn in the episode "Arena." It's located near Vasquez Rocks . It was built for the 1956 film Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers. It also showed up in episodes of Bonanza and Mission: Impossible.

Given your stated preference for episodes with fewer Western genre elements, what did you think of them here?

Jim: Oddly enough, I was all in at the beginning of the episode, but as it moved into the Fort, I sort of got cold on it. 

Also, I feel like I counted three instances where West could have solved issues faster by using a gun. I'm not sure, but I think he only uses his gun once in the entire episode when he fires a warning shot. There were times when it just felt like the writer forgot West has a gun.

Trey: I think it's less that and more the propensity of 60s TV Westerns to prefer fistfights over gun battles.

Jim: I think you're right. 

Trey: The episode is also less "spy-fi" than a number of others. It's really more a Weird Western. It could have been an episode of Brisco County Jr. 

It was written by Ken Kolb who wrote "The Night of the Burning Diamond" and is a similar "pulp" sort of plot with a mad scientist with a science fictional invention that winds up being used for mundane criminality. It could have been a Doc Savage story, now that I think about it.

Jim: Yeah, this definitely has a pulp feel to it with a criminal gang working with a mad scientist. The lovely Asian assistant and germ culture feels  like it is from that sort a story.

Trey: As an episode, it's well-paced in general and has a number of good action sequences, which likely show the hand of both Kolb and director Irving Moore. It has the humor Kolb evidenced before. It is probably inferior to "Burning Diamond" in terms of structure though.

The mad doctor feels underdeveloped. I understand why they wanted to not have him show up much because they wanted to save the reveal that Kirby is the villain, but it winds up making him less entertaining than most of the villains this season.

Jim: The double reveal of Kirby as 1) the real mastermind and 2) a bald Dr. Evil type villain reminds me of "The Night of the Inferno."

Also, Kolb must  really liked the imagery/idea of unmoving people because he used it in "The Night of the Burning Diamond" too!

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: The Night of the Murderous Spring

"The Night of the Murderous Spring" 
Written by John Kneubuhl
Directed by Richard Donner
Synopsis (from Wikipedia): West and Gordon meet Dr. Loveless for the fourth time. The doctor has now invented a hallucinatory drug which, when used on Jim, makes him believe that he has shot and killed Artie.

Jim: This episode starts up with one of the more comical openings as the plus-sized Miss Kitten Twitty is laughed at by the locals as she gets off the carriage. Then the hotel clerk laughs at her as she signs into the hotel with X signatures. Then we see Jim West, acting gallantly to help her with her really heavy bag, has unwittingly carried Professor Loveless into the hotel room.

Trey: It's notably comical given the nastiness of Loveless' plot this episode. It's such a change in character you might think it was a different writer, but no, it's Loveless' creator and most frequent chronicler, John Kneubuhl. He does address Loveless' changed goals and greater bloodthirstiness in the episode.

Jim: He usually had a noble reason for his brutality, but in this one, he vows to kill every man, woman and child in America.

Nice use of the song between Loveless and Antoinette as we hear the screams of violence as the staff kills each other!

This is another episode were a number of empty sets and short haunting music cues, has a bit of a Twilight Zone feel to it. Also, like the Puppets episode we get a bit more “acting” from Conrad in various scenes. Was this in fact the same director?

Trey: It was not. Actually, It was Richard Donner of Superman: The Movie and Lethal Weapon fame! I can see what you're saying, though for me the weirdness being the result of a drug made me think more of The Prisoner

Jim: Richard Kiel appears to have been replaced by the "deaf mute" orderly. I suspect this was done to reduce costs as Kiel could ask for more due to his speaking role in a previous episode. It’s unfortunate, because with a bit of script tweaking, all of Kitten’s lines and actions could have been performed by Voltaire.

Trey: Interestingly the deaf mute guard is played by Leonard Falk--Robert Conrad's father! 

Giving Kitten's lines and actions to Voltaire would have deprived us of the standard Loveless episode trope of his assistant being convinced to betray him by West. Can't have Loveless without that!

Jim: Well, that's true!

Here's an interesting tidbit: According to [Phoebe] Dorin, Michael Dunn [Loveless] saved her from drowning during filming of this episode, plunging underwater to tear her free, when her costume became entangled in machinery used to sink a boat on the set.

Trey: The lake that happened in at the end of this episode is actually the same man-made body of water that served as the lagoon in Gilligan's Island. It was later filled in and covered over with a studio parking lot.

Overall, I'm a bit disappointed with this last Loveless outing in the first season. It's not bad, but a bit of a let down after the strong last two episodes we've watched. I do think it has more 60s Zeitgeist to it than recent ones.  A drug that would drive a man crazy in his shaving water or drugs attached to migrating duck, seem realistic examples of the sort of crazy stuff the CIA was pulling to try to get rid of Castro!

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!

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth

"The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth"
Written by John Kneubuhl
Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski
Synopsis (from Wikipedia): West and Gordon have their first encounter with the brilliant but evil dwarf, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, along with the doctor's two assistants, the lovely Antoinette and the mute and simple-minded giant, Voltaire. Dr. Loveless is planning to take over California from control of Governor Newton Booth, which the doctor claims rightfully belongs to him through his mother's venerable Ranchero family line.

Trey: So this episode introduces West's most ardent foe, Dr. Miguelito Loveless played by Michael Dunn.

Jim: Indeed! This episode starts on a foggy, waterfront dock which is always a good sign to me. I tend to prefer the episodes that take place in gaslit cities more than those that take place in actual western towns. 

We jump right into the action with Miguelito Loveless--really more his henchman Voltaire, played by Richard Kiel--subduing a dockworker.  In the past, I’ve written my appreciation of Richard Kiel on this blog but I’ve not discussed Michael Dunn’s performance on Wild Wild West. In short, I’ve always found him to be a perfect mix of Shakespearean elocution and Broadway theatrics. 

The pairing of Kiel and Dunn was only used for a couple of episodes which is a shame. Their physical extremes provided just the right tone of camp for Wild Wild West. I feel like the flavor of the show is diluted when a conventional villain is the focus. 

Trey: Richard Kiel is probably best known to our readers as Jaws in the Bond films The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). It's ironic, because this episode, the 6th produced and the 3rd aired, is much more firmly Bondian than the 1st--and much less of a Western.

Jim: The gadget quotient is upped in a way that's Bond-like. Dunn uses an actual pea shooter with a telescopic scope to shoot a super-explosive pellet. Now that I think about it, This is a perfect example of the level of sci-fi technology the show should feature. It’s not really Steampunk, as later commentators have called it, but just a clever, ahistorical use of the items of the time.

Trey: Brisco County, Jr. would do the same thing decades later. Tech that feels like it might have existed, though it didn't.

Jim: A specially designed spy coach is presented in this episode, since the tricked out train couch isn't good for in town. Is this the only time it’s ever used? Anyway, with the ghost of Chekhov looking on, Artemus warns James that he needs to be careful of the arm rest in the coach.

Trey: That will come in handy later! So, West who has sussed out that Greta is an agent of the bad guy,  plays double agent and goes to meet with Loveless. These pretenses at West turning coat never seem to be believed by the villain, nor does West seem to expect them to be believed. It usually seems like both sides are just being polite.

West's arrival interrupts Dr. Loveless in a sparring match, where he shows he’s quite physically formidable (which is the point of this villain introduction cliche), at least when he has his cane. This doesn’t really bear out in the rest of the episode or in his other appearances, as I recall.

Jim: We get a more consistent Loveless bit soon after. Loveless sings "Bring Me A Little Water, Sylvie," while accompanied by harpsichordist, Antionette. Antionette is played by Phoebe Dorin, who had performed with Dunn in an off-Broadway show, Two by Saroyan

Trey: They get a song every episode he appears in, or nearly. So, Loveless wants to keep the super-explosive from the hands of the U.S. government, because he wants to use it to make terrorist demands to the governor of California.

Jim: He wants to build a refuge for disadvantaged children in the “worthless” desert of California. Apparently, this land belonged to his family, which might explain some of his fortune, but it was stolen from them by the the Spanish government at some point, and then it ultimately became a U.S. state. This, coupled with his name and cultured tastes, suggest Loveless is of Spanish descent, perhaps even aristocracy.

Trey: Like many a super-villain, Loveless' morality is sort of incoherent. He has ostensibly a noble goal but horrible means, and a streak of sociopathy that makes his noble goal hard to believe.

West, of course, double-crosses Loveless and exposes the plan to the Governor of California, who doesn't believe it really (as well he might not!).

Jim: West is waylaid on his own coach by three goons, but he dispatches them using the hidden features of the coach--one of which is a spring powered ejector seat! Still, Voltaire manages to capture West.

Trey: Now we come to the deathtrap portion of our episode, but before that, Loveless shows off his invention prototypes...

Jim: TV, penicillin, the automobile and the airplane.

Trey: West is weirdly unimpressed with any of this. Maybe he doesn't believe it? Anyway, into a trapdoor and an automatic gibbet cage. Loveless leaves to come back and torture him later. When will these guys ever learn? With the help of a gadget and the smitten Greta, West escapes to confront Loveless in a clock tower full of explosives.

Jim: A bit of acrobatics in a clock tower allows Conrad to once again demonstrate his own formidable athletic skills. Loveless seems unafraid to be on site when the bomb in the tower is detonated. 

Trey: He's a madman, I guess. He throws a tantrum like a toddler when he's defeated, though.

John Kneubuhl wrote this episode and goes on to script most of Loveless’ other appearances. I guess he knew a good idea when he found it! He wrote 8 episodes of Wild Wild West in all, though not all with Loveless. He also wrote the Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses” although he did not receive on-screen credit for the aired  version.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Revisiting the Wild Wild West: Night of the Inferno

"Night of the Inferno"
Written by Gilbert Ralston
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian
Synopsis (from Wikipedia): Posing as a rich eastern "dude" traveling west in his own private railway car, Jim goes to the New Mexico Territory to track down General Juan Manolo, who is trying to take over the region.

Trey: So this episode, at least, gives West a cover story. In a way, sort of two cover stories.

Jim: Yeah, we meet James West as he's being escorted in handcuffs, as a prisoner of the army. The reason for this is to provide a cover so Jim can meet with the President, but it's mostly a viewer hook. Then Grant (played by James Gregory) introduces Jim to the idea of his undercover identity as a rich dandy traveling the US in his own lavish coach car. Jim likes this idea and when next we see him, he seems well at home in his coach, down to knowing the names of hidden carrier pigeons. He also seems very well acquainted with Artemus. So, presumably, this is not their first mission, but some time may have gone by since we last saw them together at the previous train depot. Neither Artie or Jim remark on the luxury stylings of the coach.

Trey: And this never comes up again. Mostly, West seems to be recognized and his dandyish attire--purple bolero jacket and all--is just the way he dresses. I kind of like this explanation, but repeating it every episode might have been a chore.

I should also note that the two explain the workings of the hidden guns and explosive cue ball. All this will be used later.

Jim: A word on Robert Conrad's acting. Series writers often expressed some angst that Conrad was a bit wooden or delivered all his lines the same, I believe. On that, I would say, such a show doesn't need two Falstaffs, but rather a Romero and a Mercutio. As such, Conrad and Martin fit the bill quite well.

Trey: I always felt there was an archness to Conrad's delivery. He's a spy playing a game, where most of the time both sides know it's a game. He's never trying to deceive, just trying to be coolest in any exchange. It reminds me of more than one Bond actor.

The central concept of this episode is that somehow the border situation is so difficult that the U.S. Army can't go in to squash these raids but instead has to send in West and Gordon to the town of Quemada to stop Manolo--assassinate him, if he can't capture him. This reticence to act seems more Cold War than 1870s. It will be interesting to see how Mexico and it's relationship to the U.S. is portrayed through the lens of the era in which the show airs as we go forward.

Jim: So in Quemada, we meet the amazing Victor Buono, best known as King Tut from the Batman tv series, as Wing Fat, the Asian import shop owner, who is more than he seems. Jim remarks that he's "the biggest Chinese" he's ever seen, which may be foreshadowing.

Trey: Buono is great. It's unfortunate this episode has him in yellowface and (spoilers) brownface. But we'll get to that last part in the bit.

Jim: Wing Fat directs West to the "love interest of the week," Lydia Monteran played by the captivating Suzanne Pleshette, famous as Bob Newhart's wife on 1970's The Bob Newhart Show and from Support Your Local Gunfighter. Monteran operates a gambling establishment in a casa on the hill, and she has history with West. He arrested her before!

Trey: Not a willing source of information on Manolo, yet. West and Gordon are forced to do some snooping in the crypt beneath the house and find stores of gunpowder and weapons. West confronts Monteran about this, but she is genuinely unaware. It's all the doings of General Cassinello, who makes his appearance. He ruffs West up a bit, but no fancy death-trap like we will get later in the series.

We think he's Juan Manolo at first (he even seems to appear as Manolo in a montage during the early exposition) but he's a stand-in, though it takes a while before West finds this out.

Jim: Nehemiah Pershoff plays the General. For whatever reason, Pershoff never really broke big in Hollywood, but he is, by far, the best actor in this episode (excluding Martin.) He was a staple of 60’s and 70’s television with tremendous range. For proof of that, one need only review his standout performance on Hawaii Five-0 in the episode "Will The Real Mr. Wrinkled Please Die."

Trey: Well, the General turns out just to be another stooge. West destroys the house and munitions, and just when our heroes seem free and clear, the real boss reveals himself--and it's Wing Fat! Or Juan Manolo.

Jim: Oddly, Buono never drops his Charlie Chanish articulation, even after he reveals himself as Manolo.

Trey: This was odd to me, too. He even gives the Mandarin pronunciation of "Juan Manolo" for some reason. I couldn’t figure if they were trying to tell us that Wing Fat was the real identity and Manolo a fiction.

Jim: We don't find out the truth until West and Manolo have a game of billiards. True to rules of drama, the trick cue ball and pool stick is used to dispatch Manolo.

Trey: And we discover that Manolo's Asian mastermind disguise was just a disguise. Manolo is the real identity. When West asks for the reasons for the subterfuge he replies, "Who would suspect a Chinese merchant of being a leader of armies?"

Strangely, a mastermind bent on hiding his identity taunts West with his dying breath that no one will know of his victory. West replies it doesn't matter. Espionage and spycraft is nodded at here, at least. I doubt we'll get many more such discussions.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Entering the Wild Wild West

In 1964, the British Invasion began transforming American pop music, but the influence of a much better groomed Brit was also been felt on television and in film. The first two James Bond movies had been hits both in the UK and the U.S., and the third, Goldfinger, which would arrive that year, would unleash a veritable spy-fi craze.

The Man from UNCLE debuted in the fall of 1964 on NBC. In the 1965 season, it was joined on NBC by I Spy, and on ABC, detective show Burke's Law transformed into Amos Burke, Secret Agent for its final season. CBS unveiled Wild Wild West.

Michael Garrison, the creator of WWW, had been early to catch on to spy-fi's appeal. He and a partner had bought the rights to James Bond and tried unsuccessfully to get studios interest in a film in 1955. In the mid-60s he had another idea. he pitched CBS a show with the high concept: "James Bond on horseback."

While Westerns were not as prominent on TV in the U.S. has they had been in the late '50s, there were 13 on the air in 1965. Combining the old standby with latest fad makes a lot of sense from a ratings perspective.

From any other perspective, it's a bit weird.

The spy-fi was an outgrowth of its early Cold War environment. The pulp hero who traditionally worked alone or maybe with a team became the representative of some government agency. While spycraft was a completely different beast in the 19th Century, to meet the expectations of its audience, James West's world had to look more like a funhouse mirror version of the 1960s, as reflected in the Bond films. West's Secret Service acts more like UNCLE or Bond's fictional MI6, than the fledgling organization of historical 1865. West doesn't spend much time chasing counterfeiters.

Spy-Fi also relies a lot on gadgets. This makes connects it to science fiction, but the gadgets tend to have a higher degree of verisimilitude (even when utterly implausible), so that it doesn't read as such to the audience. Gadgets in James West's hands are a different matter. Often, even the most rudimentary glosses of their function require reference to technologies or scientific theories that didn't exist in his time. The same gadget in West's hands is inherently more fantastical than in Bond's.

From the Western angle, the requirements of Spy-Fi necessitate more urban settings, or at least more civilized ones ,than might be typical for horse opera. West can spend little time in austere landscapes (which is good for a tv budget, admittedly), and can't consort with as many frontier-types as might be usual. It is perhaps more 19th Century, than genre Western.

My feeling is that Wild Wild West is at its best when it embraces these contradictions, rides right through basic genre conflicts, and dives into unreality and fantasy. The more James West's adventures seem to fit aesthetically with the voyages of the starship Enterprise or the crimefighting exploits of the Dynamic Duo (to name two contemporaneous shows), versus the dust-colored world of Gunsmoke or the comparatively mundane action on I Spy, the better it is.

So in coming installments, we're going to take a look at the series to see if that bears out!


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