So a couple of years back, I picked up the complete DVD set of Wild, Wild West (1965-9) but dropped watching it while working on Now and Then We Time Travel. So it’s only recently I found time to finish the first season. It’s fun but frustrating.
The premise: James Bond in the wild west. Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) are Secret Service agents in the post-Civil War Southwest. In the wake of the Civil War, President Grant tells Jim in the first episode, the country is unstable; plenty of people think they could succeed where the South failed (the secession, not the slavery). Jim and Artie are to patrol the lawless frontier, posing as a wealthy playboy and his buddy, watching for trouble (the secret-identity angle was never used again).
What’s fun. The steampunk. Long before the William Gibson/Bruce Sterling novel The Difference Engine established steampunk as a subgenre, this series was doing it.
•In Night of the Human Trigger — all titles start with The Night Of — Jim and Artie battle a professor (Burgess Meredith) who can create artificial earthquakes.
•Night of the Howling Light involves a disciple of Pavlov using conditioned reflex to brainwash James West into killing on command.
•Night of the Steel Assassin has a vengeful veteran (John Dehner) who’s become a 19th century cyborg, out to kill the man he blames for his injuries.
•And most memorably, starting in Night the Wizard Shook the Earth we met Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn), dwarf super-genius, arrogant egotist and mad scientist par excellence. Beautifully played by Dunn, Loveless would continue as a running foe to the end of the series.
CBS had seen the show more as a mundane but tongue-in-cheek Western, so quite a few episodes are mundane, pitting West against outlaws who wouldn’t be out of place on most Westerns of the day (and in the 1960s there were a lot of Westerns on TV). As someone who doesn’t like Westerns, that’s a drawback, but overall the first season is a blast.
Except … the sexism. The show’s handling of women has not aged well. Most of it is the standard cliches of 1960s adventure series. Women are beautiful, they’re totally into the heroes, gone the next episode. Like a good Bond clone, West can turn a bad girl good with a single intense kiss. While their are exceptions, such as the villainous Dana Wynter in Night of the Two-Legged Buffalo, if you’re looking for women to be anything but eye candy, this ain’t the place to find them.
And then there are episodes that surpass that simple baseline. In Howling Light, the finish is the villainous doctor’s experimental subjects turning on him with murderous intent. Jim and Artie suddenly realize his conditioning technique could be used to train a wife to always be sweet, never nag, never be late with dinner … and so they rush to save the doctor. In Night of the Red-Eyed Madmen, Col. Grim (Martin Landau) has recruited an army to conquer the Southwest, and it includes women — Grim allows complete equality for those who can earn it. At the end, Jim and Artie have ensured the women get off scott-free because, cute women. And then to reaffirm the decision and show how silly that equality stuff was, the show ends with the two supposedly liberated women cooing and gushing over fashions and fabrics while the men stand and smirk.
If you can get past the sexism, Wild, Wild West is a lot of fun. If you can’t, I certainly wouldn’t blame you.
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