President Grant enlists the aid of James West and Artemus Gordon to help battle increasingly nefarious criminals throughout the fairly new Western Territories. West and Gordon are equipped with a special train car and ride to various destinations throughout, battling wits with some crazed people along the way. During their adventures, West uses his wits and physical prowess while Gordon uses his skills at disguise and invention to come up with some interesting "James Bond"-like gadgets.
Basically, my one previous exposure to "The Wild, Wild West" came with the horrible 1999 movie adaptation of the popular 1960's television series. I couldn't believe Barry Sonnenfeld, Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh would perpetuate such a terrible film on the public, but there you have it. So, when I recently heard they were releasing the first season of the television series, starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, on DVD, I decided to give it a look.
From the first episode I was hooked. Combining elements of James Bond films, "Mission: Impossible" and the typical Western, series creator Michael Garrison came up with a fun, off-the-wall series which is surprisingly good.
The first thing that struck me was the show is played remarkably straight. Because Conrad and Martin, as Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon, respectively, take everything fairly serious, it makes the threat of danger more palpable and all of the fantastical elements more believable. Yes, they are frequently dealing with mad scientists and crazy generals, but they simply believe these people are real and provide real threat. So, when Burgess Meredith pops up as a mad geologist who sets off devastating earthquakes in Montana using nitroglycerin in an effort to take over the state, we believe it can happen. When Robert Drivas appears as a handsome scientist who can melt diamonds and use their properties to make him move at a speed undetectable to the human eye, we see the recognition of fear in West and Gordon's eyes. Then, during their run-ins with the popular Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn), we understand why they believe he wants to reclaim California for himself and realize why they have to stop him. A friend told me the series got progressively wild, which may have led to it's downfall after only four seasons, but during this first year, there is a remarkable sense of believability, the various elements just skirt the point of no return.
The second thing that struck me was the production value. Using a special train car provided by President Grant, West and Gordon travel through the West, trying to prevent various plots from coming true. The train is outfitted with a special room providing the duo with an arsenal to choose from and Gordon, an inventor, frequently comes up with new inventions, some of which are introduced early in the story and prove helpful later, some of which conveniently appear when the timing is right, much like a new addition to Batman's utility belt.
As they travel from 1880s San Francisco, to Denver, to a fort in the Arizona desert, to Montana, to Mexico, every location appears to have been researched at least a little. Clearly, they were built on sets, but there is a lot of attention to detail. Often, they have scenes set in mansions, or consulates, and the interiors are as grand as you would expect. A story involving a mad, blind Sea Captain and his Chinese lover is set in a particularly gloomy and wet lighthouse. All of these details add to the look, feel and mood of the stories.
On the DVDs, Robert Conrad provides an audio introduction to each episode and talks briefly about the story, or the idea, or how historically accurate the story was. One interesting thing he talks about is how the first executive producer on the show made the episodes he worked on too much like a conventional western. He was replaced and the new executive producer embraced the more outlandish elements of the series, making it more like a spy story. These early, more traditional western episodes are interspersed throughout the season and they are the least satisfying because they seem the most artificial. We don't want to see West and Gordon involved in shootouts, we want to see the duo outwit their opponents with wits and clever inventions. Then a third executive producer was brought in later who began to take the show in an even more fantastical direction, such as when West and Gordon have to save a Supreme Court Justice from life-size killer marionettes.
As you watch Robert Conrad, you begin to realize that he is better than you might remember. Yes, it is funny to watch him in highly choreographed fight movements, swinging his arm and stopping at a precise moment when the henchman falls to the ground. Or when he uses a combination of karate and ballet to create some unusual and theatrical fight moves. It is also amusing to watch the producers come up with endless ways to get his shirt off to show off Conrad's buff body for the delight of many viewers. The producers clearly wanted to give the female portion of their audience something to watch and since they couldn't get him out of his pants, they did the next best thing and made sure his pants were always a couple of sizes too small. Also, almost every episode ends with Conrad in a lip lock with one of the female characters. Occasionally, he ends up kissing a female villain, who they have conveniently decided was forced to participate in the scheme against their will.
Ross Martin is also enjoyable as the right hand man Artemus Gordon. Providing a little comic relief throughout (he frequently dons the disguise of a woman, at one point, an elderly grandmother, at another, a Senorita) and coming up with crazy accents and inventions, he often lightens the mood. A remarkable number of the episodes provide for him to disappear for long stretches of time, giving Conrad the spotlight. These episodes are less successful because "The Wild, Wild West" is all about the teamwork of the duo, their friendship, their camaraderie, their skill at catching criminals.
Each of the episodes is titled "The Night of…", a not uncommon method of titling used in television. The popular show "Friends" named each of its episodes "The One With…" The standouts in season 1 are:
The Night The Wizard Shook The Earth – Marking the first appearance of Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn) and his henchman, Voltaire (Richard Kiel, who would later play 'Jaws" in the James Bond films), this episode has the element of surprise. It isn't often we see a diminutive villain like Dr. Loveless. And his plan to use a professor's new explosive to reclaim California as his birthright sets the tone for his future appearances.
The Night of the Sudden Death – West and Gordon investigate a theft at the U.S. Mint in Denver. The best part of this episode is the actual theft, watching a series of black clad henchmen scaling the wall, entering a high window and infiltrating the Mint.
The Night of a Thousand Eyes – An early example of the sort of outlandishness that would become a hallmark of the series; West and Gordon do battle with a blind sea captain who lives in a lighthouse on the Mississippi river. He wants to take revenge on the shipping companies so he and his crew go about sinking any ship that comes near. The blind sea captain's lover is a Chinese woman who speaks in a strange sort of tone.
The Night of the Whirring Death – West and Gordon help the Governor of California, a man they dislike, pick up bribes from shady types who are buying respectability. The Governor of California needs these bribes to prevent the state from going bankrupt. Naturally, Dr. Loveless learns of the plan and begins killing the people who are "contributing" to the fund.
The Night of the Puppeteer – West and Gordon are out to prevent the further assassinations of Supreme Court Justices. At the home of one of these jurists, West is invited to a puppet show for his granddaughter's birthday. Then he notices one of the marionettes pull out a gun. He stops the assassination attempt and soon realizes there are stranger forces at work.
The Night of the Burning Diamond – San Francisco is hosting an exhibit of rare gems from around the world. West makes a personal plea to the Minister of the Balkans to protect their famous diamond and asks them not to show it. Some recent high profile thefts have everyone concerned. Just as he visits, a strange force enters the room and steals the diamond, literally right before their eyes. Soon, West and Gordon meet Morgan Midas (Robert Drivas), a young scientist who melts down the diamonds and drinks the elixir, speeding his metabolism until he is moving so fast, he can't be seen by the naked eye.
The last thing that occurred to me as I watched the first season of "The Wild, Wild West" is that despite the fact it is shot in black and white, or maybe because of this, the show appears remarkably timeless. Thankfully, the producers refrained from trying to introduce the 60s style of music or dress to the series. They centered their creative efforts on creating early examples of inventions which would later become a reality. For instance, in one episode, a madman uses an early example of a tank, which would've been invented a couple of decades later. In early episodes, Gordon talks about tubes that can transmit pictures and the like, adding a fun, lighthearted air to the stories.
"The Wild, Wild West: Complete Season 1" is a mix of wild west, spy, "Mission Impossible" and lighthearted elements which should appeal to a large number of people.