A while back, io9 was doing a fantastic "Spy Week" with great features on spies, real and fictional. Great stuff all around but sadly, to me, missing a key entry. A show that not only stood as a great mix of sci-fi, fantasy, western and spy but in many ways helped create what we now call "Steampunk."
The Wild Wild West.
I'm not talking that God-awful 1999 Will Smith movie. No, I mean the real WWW. The 1965-69 series on CBS. Its creation was probably inevitable: The spy craze brought about by James Bond was taking off all over and networks wanted in on that. At the same time, the Western was still dominant with Bonanza and Gunsmoke riding high. So, in one of the greatest strokes of brilliance in Hollywood history, Michael Garrison hit upon the idea of combining the two genres. In the process, he crossed into a third as sci-fi came into play as well as a motif we now associate with steampunk.
The story of the show was that throughout the 1870's, the United States was under regular attack from foreign agents, mad scientists and more. To combat this, President Grant assigned two special agents: James T. West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin). The two traveled throughout the west on a special train car decked out with trick gadgets: Billard balls were gas grenades, a pool stick a gun, escape tunnel through the fireplace and more.
The two leads were great opposites. West was the man of action, all business, the straight man a lot and doing fights with marital arts despite wearing the tightest pants you'd ever see on television. Gordon was the inventor coming up with futuristic items to help out. A running gag would be him inventing everything from basketball to early traffic lights with West going "nah, it'll never catch on." Gordon was also a master of disguise and Martin himself would come up with the great makeup for many roles: a salty seaman, a master magician, an old prospector, an insane former Legionairre and more. Martin prided himself on playing at least two disguises every episode and Conrad often credited him with helping the show work.
What set things apart was how the duo would face a variety of enemies whose methods were more 20th century warfare than 1870's actions: Brainwashing machines, robots who moved under steam power, flamethrowers, feeding off psychic energy, paintings that were dimensional portals, cyborgs and more. Their foes would include great actors like Ricardo Montalbaln as a Confederate general intending to go back in time and help the South win or Victor Buono as Count Manzeppi. Agnes Moorehead won an Emmy as Emma Valentine, just one of the many beautiful women that crossed their paths as the show would feature both West and Gordon as good ladies men. But far and away, the best of the bunch was arguably the greatest mad scientist in the history of television: Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless.
Brilliantly played by Michael Dunn, the Mexican dwarf (His name translates as "Little Michael") Loveless was out for revenge on 1) The United States for stealing the land of his Mexican ancestors; 2) all the people who looked down on him because of his size; 3) Jim West for preventing his attempts to crush the first two. In his first appearance, after being defeated, he wanted to bring a light bulb to jail with him to continue his experiments in bending light. He made ten appearances in all, his episodes always better as he would bring about a true genius warped to evil yet you couldn't help rooting for him even as he put West and Gordon through wild death traps. His schemes involved everything from doping the US water supply with LSD to a powder that shrunk people. A sadly troubled man who would commit suicide in 1973, Dunn earned an Emmy nomination for his work, crafting a character that set a bar for many a TV villain to follow.
The show had amazing humor, poking fun at modern times through the past. The style was unique, mixing everything from pure magic to science stuff that seemed fantastic even for the 1960's but somehow it all worked. It really set a trend later used for steampunk, the past twisted with a great alternate history of the United States, mixing real events into stories for a "what really happened" motif. Throw in the touch of how every episode was named "Night of..." even if it took place during the day and you had a series unlike anything else on television at the time.
The show had ups and downs, Garrison forced to exit and a move toward more camp. Martin suffered health problems, necessitating shut-downs and occasional "guest actors" for West's partner. The best was Alan Hale, who finished his episode noting how this was too much excitement and he wanted to go on a boat trip as the soundtrack shifted to the Gilligan's Island theme. It didn't help that Westerns began to lower in popularity as the 1970's dawned and concerns over the show's violence ended in its cancellation.
In 1979, Conrad and Martin reunited for the TV movie The Wild Wild West Revisited. The two faced off against Paul Williams as Loveless Jr. ("I tower over my father!" "Well, who didn't?") who was replacing world leaders with doubles and plans involving an atomic bomb and robots he called his "$600 dollar men." A follow-up film followed but plans for more were ended when Martin died in 1981 and Conrad declared the show couldn't go on without him.
It remained popular in syndication so hopes were high when a big-screen movie was planned. Sadly, it was a disaster with the idea of casting Will Smith as West wrong; not because of his skin color but because making the jokester Smith the lead ruined the "straight-man" appeal of West and having Kevin Kline's Gordon be an adversary soured things more. Throw in how Loveless was transformed into a Southerner who had half his body and Kenneth Brangh overplaying him, some raunchy humor and the wild giant spider and you can see why fans of the series were appalled.
It's a damn shame as the show itself still holds up today as fantastic action that mixed genres better than most. Again, you can see origins of steampunk beliefs in the mix of history, how modern-day gadgets and weapons were developed for a past time and the overall sense of fun. If you haven't already, check it out on DVD or online and enjoy a show that...oh, what the hell, offered up a wild time of fun.