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.


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