Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Show Review: The Wild Wild West



Very few shows these days garner my interest. The mountains of garbage that are on screen today frequently leave me bored or wanting to put my fist through something expensive out of rage from the idiocy I'm witnessing. Sure, there are a few legitimately good shows these days such as River Monsters or Holmes, but they are often vastly overshadowed by the legions of trash reality TV shows. Ugh.

To find solace I often look into the past, where normally only things that are somewhat good manage to survive in today's world. It was thus poking around that I found what quickly became one of my favorite shows: The Wild Wild West. Yeah, one of the most generic titles you can come up with, but at least it isn't false advertising!

Many are somewhat familiar with the 90's remake of The Wild Wild West with Will Smith, and while I haven't seen it recently, doesn't feel particularly offensive or irritating. I was merely vaguely aware that it was a remake of an older show of the same title. So when I accidentally stumbled across the pilot on Youtube I was surprised at the quality of what I'd found. Never had I been so angry at myself for something that brought me so much joy! I'd been aware that this existed and had never even bothered looking it up? The shame!

As many of you may be aware, Western shows and movies were very big in the 40's and 50's. People couldn't get enough of them. Then the 60's came and interest began to swing towards the spy and espionage genres. A group of folks wanted to keep doing Western stuff but also knew that public interest was finding greener pastures. So, they came up with one of the most simple yet effective concepts ever: Take cowboys and the wild west and mix it with something else. This fill in the blank combination can lead to unspeakably awesome results, and this was perhaps the first. Mix secret agent spy plot with gadgetry with Western cowboy stuff. Thus The Wild Wild West was born!

Alright, setup time!
It's the 1970's and President Ulysses Grant assigns two Secret Service men to combat the subtle but despicable forces brewing in the shadows to protect the United States and its people. These two men are James West and Artemus Gordon. James West, the main character and protagonist, is given an alias as a rich eccentric, which doesn't last long though, and lend him a personal train that he can direct anywhere he wants and is loaded to the eyeballs with awesome gadgets. Oh boy, the gadgets! Okay, can't spoil anything. Gotta keep ahold of myself.

James West is our main protagonist and is pretty darned cool. Swaggering about at the height of manliness, I've heard the show had a decent crowd partly due to women finding the guy awesome to look at. I'm straight and I can't blame them in the least! Look at the guy! He exudes confidence like no one else I've ever seen.

He's a superb gentleman, having excellent manners and selflessly throwing himself into harms way to save people whether he's on assignment or if he just happens to be around when things are taking place. He is shrewd enough to pick up on very subtle things but, as per usual for spy stuff, he gets caught constantly. Say what you want about women having to get rescued (Although that really should change) but this guy gets captured more often than any other character I can think of.

As is standard of a spy in any age he is excellent in various forms of hand to hand combat, can pull off acrobat maneuvers, has ninja stealth, is skilled with many types of weapons and is of course intelligent, although not exactly a scientist. Although there is some darned good action in this show, I was always a little disappointed at how very little actual shooting took place. We mostly get creative hand to hand combat that is entertaining to watch, but rarely does anyone actually catch a bullet and die. Oh, it happens sometimes, but for a western it's quite surprising how little lead gets thrown around. I've read that there was controversy over violence on TV at the time, which hasn't exactly slowed down, and many wanted there to be less violence for worry that it would inspire other people to do violent things. That's kind of garbage, but whatever.

Of course he gets all kinds of hidden gadgets and weapons. He has Derringer handguns hidden everywhere form his sleeves in special extension rigs to having parts and ammunition hidden in his belt buckle and shoe heels that he can assemble. He has tiny smoke bombs that he can use to ninja his way out of tough situations and lock-picking tools. Also very fun are tiny high powered explosives  that he can plant to surprise other people. Every episode he gets another fun toy, although they are usually one offs. Still, part of the fun of the spy genre!

While West is officially in the service of his government he makes it clear again and again that he wishes to protect the innocent people wherever he goes, making him very heroic. But what always stood out to me in his interactions is his unbelievable skill in dealing with women. The cast in this show is loaded with gorgeous ladies with all kinds of personalities and roles, yet this guy is able to get on their good side with uncanny skill. If he were a D&D player he'd have a 20 in Charisma. At least. He has swept women of all factions off their feet, anyone from scientists, aides, assassins, workers, politicians, everyone! In one episode he was able to switch the allegiance of an assassin who was out to kill him, and didn't lose stride even after she shot him in the chest. Thank heavens for the bullet proof vest. Crap, his skill was so good that the main villain was taking bloody notes on it!

This guy is like a combination of James T. Kirk, James Bond and... wait a second... What is it with people named James and ladies? Anyway, maybe it's just me, but I got the impression that he usually takes them out to dinner and then they part on good terms than him being a womanizer. But maybe that's just my naiveté.

Alright, he's not exactly the deepest character in the world, but he's certainly fun and his heroic endeavors make you want to root for him. He doesn't go around doing horrible things and he gets the job done. That's the least you can do, something Hollywood still has trouble with.
Still, to the actor's credit, he does a very good job in the role, and even performed the majority of the stunts throughout the show, only letting professional stuntmen take over during the more dangerous parts. The guy actually suffered a major concussion in one event! That takes some guts!

Artemus Gordon is Jim's partner and close friend although I wouldn't call him a sidekick. While Artemus isn't a gunslinger, fist fighter or ladies man in the same way Jim is Artemus makes up in his own way. He is amazingly fun and possibly my favorite character in the show. He's an inventor, master of disguise, infiltrator and a good bit of a scientist which makes him a superb backup when things go wrong. In fact, Arty here more than once saved the day with his quick wits and cunning.

I don't exaggerate when I call him a master of disguise. In the show he is an actor who has joined the Secret Service, and I always find myself tickled when there is an actor portraying an actor in a movie or show. Oh my gosh though does he have fun with it here. In a testament to his skill as a real life actor, the makeup artists and costume department he goes into most episodes in some form of disguise to infiltrate an enemy stronghold, get information, or just to distract people from carrying out their plans in astonishingly convincing ways. Heck, I'm great at recognizing faces and I found him slipping past my radar more than once! Take a look at that face up there: They were able to convince me hook, line and sinker that he was an Ottoman Turk vizier. Do you have any clue how hard that is?

And this guy pulled more than one hundred different disguises in this show! You can tell he had an absolute ball during this gig and it's hard not to have fun with him. Arte also comes up with a bunch of fun inventions including things like a breathing mask, mechanically manually aimed mounted firearms like primitive turrets, can turn almost anything into a smoke bomb and all manner of hidden weapons. He even helped design some of the cool gear inside the train, which is so cool!

Even when he isn't in disguise the old boy has a most impressive range of acting ability, allowing him to bypass all kinds of security. Jim usually punches his way through, but Arte convinces the guards that he's actually supposed to be there!

All of the villains of course are very entertaining and memorable. Some are ambitious politicians or military men trying to seize power, others are mad scientists, but there are so many others that defy the general cast. There is a blind riverboat captain who forms a clever scheme to make the Mississippi traffic grind to a halt unless he is given a ransom. In Night of the Steel Assassin we actually get a cyborg out for revenge played by the amazing John Dehner who brings some amazing weight to the roll along with another lead role in the episode Night of the Casual Killer. We even get an entire club full of assassins!

Few of them are recurring characters though, with one amazing exception: Doctor Miguelito Loveless. Pictured above and played by the dwarf Michael Dunn, Dr. Loveless is one of the most interesting and powerful villains I have ever seen. He is the best kind of bad guy: The kind who you can see yourself agreeing with. Loveless is a brilliant inventor, philosopher and idealist who at first glance seems like nothing short of an idol.

We very quickly see that he is an amazing inventor who is easily on par with Nikola Tesla, churning out dozens of designs far before their time. He creates designs for airplanes, phonographs, electrical devices, all kinds of stuff! And yet he doesn't quite fall into the trope of mad scientist, as his personality extends beyond that. His knowledge extends into many realms from philosophy, politics, anatomy, just about every realm you could think! The man is extremely competent in devising plans but also hopes to build a utopian society where the impoverished and physically decrepit can live happily. Not only that, but he wishes to use his astounding inventions to better the world at large.

Well, he seems like a right dandy selfless chap! How could he possibly be a primary villain in the series? Well, that's the tricky part. His family once owned a large part of land in California that was granted by Mexican officials. However, when California became a part of the United States he and his family lost their land. In order for him to get his land back and build his ideal society he must get it back no matter the means. It is here that we find the lengths Loveless is willing to go in order to get his way, and in his début he constructs a bomb and plans to kill 5,000 people unless the Governor of California gives up the entire state to Loveless.

This is part of what makes Loveless a great villain: His motivations make sense and you can even sympathize with him, but when he goes too far you realize you must work against him. Although he is initially thwarted Loveless lives to continue his endeavors, which thank freaking heavens he does as he is an amazing person to watch on screen.

Despite his intense schemes and the lengths he is willing to go to achieve them he doesn't come across as insane or despotic. In fact, much of the time he seems like a perfectly fine gentleman. Often he can be found singing with his female companion Antoinette, showing his great appreciation for music and song. His more notable henchman however is the mute giant Voltaire. An imposing figure, Voltaire seems quite childlike and is never far from the Doctor's side, helping him in everything from getting around to battling those who oppose him. Initially in the first episode they tried to make Loveless look like a physical threat in addition to a mental one, fighting several men in a practice session while using a cane, which he does with some skill. But I think they realized that they just couldn't get him across as a physical threat. And lets face it, getting a dwarf to seem like a hard core fighter is kind of hard.
See what I mean?

Even so, Doctor Loveless is one of the most strongly characterized villains I've ever seen and is one of my favorite antagonists in any movie, show or book series. His personality is amazingly strong and genuinely feels like someone you could talk do and debate with. Many of his ideas make sense and you can see what a shame it is that he's willing to become so violent to achieve his goals. That just makes him that much more of an excellent villain though!

In fact, even though most villains are one offs, almost all of them have distinct personas, powerful personalities, strong motives and many are even sympathetic. All are memorable to some degree or another and really reflects the good writing. They can range from pathetic sad people, intense and bent on revenge, idealism in hopes of bringing about better things, all kinds of folks! This makes each episode unique and memorable, with each villain bringing something new to the table.

Ah, but we mustn't forget the other fun parts of the series, the gadgets! Oh boy, all the gadgets. Well, let's start with the famous train, The Wanderer. The cars pulled behind the train and almost everything within it has some sort of hidden gadget or weapon. In Jim's personal room is a sliding wall that is loaded with rifles and revolvers, upon my first viewing made me squeal like a little girl in delight. On the pool table at least one of the balls is a gas bomb, which gets plenty of use. One of the pool cues has a hidden knife, where a flick of a switch pushes off the wooden shave and produces a good 16 inch blade. When this is shown to Arte he mirrored my thoughts saying "Oh not bad, not bad at all. But a gun barrel would have been better." Jim smugly points to the cue Arte is holding and says "The gun barrel is in that one." My manliness levels dropped sharply as a giggled like a schoolgirl, although I feel no shame.

The train cars have all kinds of hidden switches, locks, signals, lights, traps making them come across like a moving museum of spy gear. There is nothing that these guys can't MacGyver into some sort of spy gadget, and the innovation we get is amazingly charming. I could spend the entire article just listing all of the cool things they have tucked away!

Ah, but what do the villains have? A more accurate question is what don't they have? This series is touted as being a precursor to the popular Steampunk genre, and it most certainly is! In the episode The Night of the Puppeteer we have the villain Mr. Skull (Who surprisingly doesn't have most of his scalp removed or has skulls on his desktop) who is a masterful engineer and puppeteer, and actually creates life sized puppets that are completely human in appearance but are powered by steam pushed through their strings, allowing him to direct them like robots! If that isn't Steampunky, I don't know what is.

In the episode The Night of the Deadly Bed a military man creates a special locomotive that is basically a cross between Gordon from Thomas the Tank Engine and Hammerhead from the Spiderman series. The engine is a high powered, over engineered machine with an obscene battering ram on the front built for the sole purpose of ramming American trains in head on collisions to take them out of the system completely. Okay, it probably wouldn't work, but I'm not about to call the guy's bluff after seeing the thing!

In the aforementioned The Night of the Steel Assassin, we have a man named Torres who is like a 1870's version of Darth Vader minus the mask. He is literally a primitive cyborg, machine more than man. His bones are replaced with metal, his sinew with metal cables. The voice of the actor, John Dehner is already most intimidating, but here it's put through some sort of old synthesizer which gives him a chilling metallic timbre.

This is just stuff in the first season alone, which is pretty darned cool. But my oh my is there so much more!

Lastly, what about the weird traps and long, strangely inconvenient methods of killing Jim and Arte when they're captured? An unforgettable staple of the spy business!

Boy oh boy, the stunts they pull in this show! Where to begin!
Well, in The Night of the Sudden Death, our heroes are captured by a strange evil circus group, and to kill them they are placed within the recently cut skins of animals, sewn inside and placed in the sun. As the skins dry they tighten around our protagonists, slowly squeezing them to death. Gotta give them point on creativity on that one!
And in case you are wondering, yes, EVERY episode starts with the words "The Night of." Hey, if it ain't broke don't fix it.

In The Night of the Deadly Bed Jim is drugged and we literally see the top of his bed sprout spikes and slowly move down towards him like the world's most strangely disguised iron maiden.

In The Night of the Flaming Dragon Jim and Arte are thrown into a pit where steam pipes run through the rock walls, but the floor is an open grating where the tide can come in. This results in the steam bath from heck, and the villain proudly proclaims that they used this pit to once boil lobsters for dinner.

In The Night of a Thousand Eyes Jim is placed in a suspended cage in which the chain run to a lightening rod during a lightening storm in hopes of turning Jim into a crispy portrait of his former self.

In The Night (Take a shot) of the Puppeteer Jim is pitted against a puppet caveman and a clown puppet with a whip. No, I couldn't make this up. Believe me, I wish I could.

Again, there are dozens upon dozens of others that show up, and if you want to know more I guess you'll just have to watch the show now won't you!

Overall the show was a huge hit. It was inventive, fun, dramatic, dark, comedic, romantic (sorta), action packed and had something enjoyable for everyone. It was one of the first shows to integrate Steampunk elements and help start the genre. The writing and acting were superb and stands up quite well even today.

If you are at all a fan of westerns, steampunk, scifi, spy stuff, weird west, or just want entertainment that lacks a lot of the irritating garbage of today's television, then you owe it yourself to check it out. I highly recommend it and encourage you to take a look. Down below is a link to the pilot episode, and many can be found on Youtube without any problem.

Happy trails people, and stay tuned for more!

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