Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Children of a Lesser Bond, pt. 1: "The Wild, Wild, West" Season 1

The Wild, Wild, West was not the first American show to come out of the spy craze of the 1960's but it was arguably the most variant on the theme.

In the mid-1960's spies were not the only popular genre in TV and movies -- Westerns were also making a strong showing on both the big and small screens. Series creator Michael Garrison came up with the bright idea to marry the two genres in hopes of creating something wildly popular. The result was a kind of James Bond in the 1870's. Garrison also wanted to make sure he kept the James Bond trappings of the wild spy gadgets so the writers took mostly modern devices and cleverly transposed them to the time frame -- deliberate quasi-anachronisms which winked at the modern audience. For example, in one episode Artemus Gordon, fellow agent and gadget guy, invents tear gas. In another episode, since radios didn't exist as a form of communication in the 1870's, instead of having a radio hidden in a cigarette case Agent James West produces a telegraph apparatus hidden in a cane and a cigar case. In another episode West is given a carriage with various gadgets -- including a spring-loaded 'ejector seat'! It is interesting because those elements now lend the show a kind of proto-Steampunk and proto-Teslapunk feel making it seem ahead of it's time.

The series adopted a tongue-in-cheek tone focusing on action, adventure, and exaggerated villains with a heavy dose of humor.

For the main lead, James West, young, athletic actor Robert Conrad was chosen. Conrad was a natural man of action and insisted on doing his own stunts. He argued with studio executives until he got his way but this would come back to haunt Conrad and the whole production team in a later season… something I hope we’ll get to in another post. Conrad’s desert-dry line delivery paired well with his co-star…

Character actor Ross Martin was picked for the role of West’s partner – Artemus Gordon. Martin had gained his start in radio where his ability to do different accents and change his voice was a considerable boon. He made the move to movies and then television but his career did not really take off until he played the villain in the movie The Great Race. It was on the strength of that role that he won the part in The Wild, Wild, West.

The premise was simple – Secret Service Agents James West and Artemus Gordon traveled around the country in their private train stopping threats to the President of the United States and the country at large. Along the way they meet lovey ladies in distress and some who cause the heroic agents a bit of distress, diabolical villains, and deadly perils.

So let’s look at the fist season, shall we?

With the aforementioned simple premise there really wasn’t a lot of tweaking of the series that occurred over the course of the first season. A character called Tennyson – West and Gordon’s British butler on the train – was added but he only lasted three episodes before being quietly jettisoned. The only other noticeable change was the growth of Ross Martin’s role. In the first produced episodes Martin’s Gordon didn't really add much to the stories. He tended to appear at the beginning, sometimes in the middle, and then at the end dropping in only to dump some necessary exposition to move the plot along then heading off to ‘investigate other leads’ – which were often never mentioned again. The writers, however, soon realized that Martin and Conrad’s obvious on-screen chemistry and Martin’s comedic timing and ability to create characters out of whole cloth were benefits and began increasing his role. And it should be noted that Martin was given pretty much free reign on the disguises that Artemus Gordon utilized throughout the series – he would decide on the costuming, wigs, make-up, prosthetics, and voice -- which showed his innate talent.

Shows from this era also really can’t be judged on characterization – and particularly not this show where the focus was always on the plot rather than on the characters. Out of all who appear the villains often get the most character development. The two leads – West and Gordon – were pretty much exactly the same when you first met them as at the end of the season and you never learn much about their pasts. West is originally an Army officer and a trained fighter. Gordon is a former stage actor, inventor and chemist. You get all of that within the first few episodes and that’s all you get for all 28 episodes in the first season.

Two groups in general kind of suffer here as well… women and minorities. The series has just about zero feminist credibility today as women appear in the episodes to either provide someone for West to flirt with and seduce or to be the villains. And outside of the villains very few of the women who appear are shown to be strong, capable, figures. Even the villains tend to fall apart at the end and repent of their evil ways thanks to Wests’ charms.

(and a charming backside it was, too...)

In regards to minorities – well, there aren’t too many in the first season but the ones who do appear tend to suffer from painful racial stereotyping. A few manage to escape this – and it’s a real breath of fresh air to see from that time period – but most are simply a product of less enlightened times and less enlightened writers bowing to terrible social conventions of the time period. Additionally, a great many roles were often played by white actors in make-up. It's kind of wince inducing today -- although even today it's a battle still being fought in Hollywood.

Where the show excelled – even here in the first season – was with the humor, the plotting and the villains. The writers knew how to amp up the action. The threats were nicely threatening and nearly each commercial break ended on some kind of cliffhanger. Conrad threw himself into fight scenes and stunts with abandon and the result was that most of them were really action packed melees and stand up well today. This, too, though would come back to haunt the show as the level of violence there made it a target for various anti-violence crusade groups. In the first season alone we see a (relatively) innocent woman impaled (bloodlessly) on a thrown sword, another unarmed and non-threatening woman take a knife to the stomach, and four men hung from rudimentary scaffolding. And those are just a few of the examples. People tended to die in the show… a lot… and often violently… and not just the villains either.

The humor though was a much tighter wire to balance on. The writers deliberately threw in puns and word-play and often relied on somewhat broad humor but at the same time they rode the delicate line between gently satirizing the spy genre without going over the top into parody or spoof.

And finally there were the villains. There are a number of great ones here in the first season. Many… okay, probably most… are simply one-note wonders with a gimmick and some style but a few had genuine reasons for wanting to lash out and there is a bit of sympathy for these devils written in. This is surprising for the time period and makes the villains more rounded characters. None perhaps more so than Miguelito Loveless – played by dwarf actor Michael Dunn. The writers treated the character with a great amount of respect – always taking care to show the villain as supremely intelligent, crafty, able to defend himself, and complex – showing a great compassion for some people and things and a chilling disregard for others. More to the point, the character’s size was never treated as the main aspect of his personality.

The first season was the show’s only season to be filmed in black and white. It debuted in 1965 when American television was beginning the conversion to color. The various directors managed to use the black and white to their advantage though – playing with light and dark and using shadows to help hide some cheap and obviously reused and reused and reused sets.

So all that’s left here is to look at the good… And the bad.

Surprisingly, none of the 28 initial episodes are outright bad. There are a great many that are watchable but overall either forgettable or simply mediocre. There are a few though that stood out for me as being really well done…

The Night of the Torture Chamber”: A state governor is replaced by a double so that an avaricious art collector can pursue a mad scheme. What I loved about this one is that the villain’s plot is an eminently personal one instead of being a national threat. Ross Martin gets to do a truly hilarious turn as a French art agent (and for the record, Ross Martin really could speak French – among several other languages) and the way the villain is ultimately defeated is exceedingly clever.

The Night of the Steel Assassin”: Here is another one where I simply loved the villain… get used to it; most of these I’ve picked are because of the villain. Horribly disfigured in an explosion, Torres recreates his body in steel and wire and goes out seeking vengeance on those he feels should have been the ones to suffer. Okay, so the whole ‘cyborg’ aspect of this one is stretching the disbelief on the anachronistic gadgets (and no, they DON’T use the term ‘cyborg’ in the story) but the execution is just too good. The sound effects add a metallic overlay to the actor’s voice lending a creepily inhuman quality to it. The idea of Torres developing his mind because his body is little more than a shattered shell is compelling and, more to the point, there is some question as to whether or not he has a legitimate beef. Torres was blown up in a raid on an ammo depot because he had drawn the lowest card among his fellow Army unit members and thus had to do guard duty on the ammo depot. The thing is his card had been a Jack and the other six members of his unit had all drawn higher cards. He accuses them of cheating and really… he might be right! Because of this you actually feel a bit of sympathy for him and understand his anger… but his way of seeking “justice” – by killing all those who were in his unit including Ulysses S. Grant now President of the United States -- is still wrong. He also makes a truly noble exit -- adding to the feeling of respect for this villain.

The Night of the Grand Emir”: First thing: yes, it’s white guys playing really, really stereotypical (for the time period) Middle Easterners. It isn’t pretty. It frankly leaves kind of a bad taste in your mouth. Once you get past that though there is, again, a great villain here in T. Wigget Jones. Sure, you know he’s the villain right from the start but he’s got panache and style and actor Don Francks delivers the dialogue with obvious relish – but without chewing the scenery. On top of all of that there is an ‘Assassins’ Club’ here that is just a plain neat idea. And as a trivia note – the requisite lovely woman this episode is played by Yvonne Craig – who is more well remembered for her role as Batgirl in the 1960’s Batman TV series.

The Night of the Puppeteer”: Oooo, this one is just firing on all cylinders. Everything about this story just plain WORKS. The villain is a man (perhaps) wrongfully accused of murder. He was believed killed in an escape attempt but now all those Supreme Court Justices who turned down his appeal are dying one-by-one. Again, we have a sympathetic villain and the idea of him building life-sized puppets is just creepy. The actors playing the various 'puppets' do a wonderful job at it, the set design is avaunt-garde and loaded with symbolism, and the music by composer Dave Grusin has some great cues. The best scene in the episode is when West dances with what he believes to be the life-sized ballerina puppet Vivid. He loses himself in the dance and then is visibly disturbed that he did so – forgetting momentarily that Vivid was not real. The scene is well done and well-acted by all involved.

The Night of the Murderous Spring”: In Miguelito Loveless’s fourth outing he sends James West on a bad drug trip but that is only the first step in his plan to restore what he sees as balance to the world. Although I really like Loveless as a villain this is the only one of his stories to make my list. The others were good, don’t get me wrong, but this one had other elements which just make it the best of the bunch. Loveless, however, as a recurring villain actually does have some character development growing a little more unhinged with each appearance. By the time he arrives here he has reached a new, terrifying level of madness. Determined to wipe all of humanity off the face of the Earth he has created a drug which causes people to hallucinate and lose control. This episode features a really chilling scene in which Loveless, to demonstrate the power of his drug, gives it to his staff – 20 men and women – who then go mad. The whole thing is unseen – happening behind closed doors – but the old truism of horror remains true – what you can’t see is more horrifying than what you can. There are screams and cries and violent pounding on the closed door and then everything falls to a deathly silence. It sends a real shiver up your spine. Another good aspect of the story is the character of Kitten Twitty. Tall, overweight, and implied as illiterate, Kitten is devoted to Miguelito but in a heartbreaking soliloquy she tells James and Artemus exactly why – forever laughed at due to her size, all she wants is to be pretty, to be normal, and to have a chance at true love – and Loveless has promised to use his science make her into the woman she wants to be. Finally, there is the banter between James and Artemus. It’s particularly good here and is needed to bring levity into what would otherwise be a heavy and depressing script.

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