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.

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