In this year of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, I’d like to call attention to another pioneering series: The Wild Wild West. In my childhood, it was my second favorite show. For those of you who are too young to remember, it was a historical drama created by Michael Garrison, set during the 1870’s and starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as Jim West and Artemis Gordon, dashing Secret Service agents. I loved it for the gadgetry and its science fiction elements. Its fanciful treatment of America’s past has caused many steampunk aficionados to declare it a forerunner of their favorite genre.
West and Gordon had the coolest ride, which doubled as their headquarters: their own private train, which included a laboratory and a stable. It had great villains, too, particularly the Spanish dwarf Dr. Miguelito Loveless, played by Michael Dunn. An evil genius, he invented the airplane, the cathode-ray tube, and an LSD-like drug. Another thing I enjoyed about the show was the animated title sequence, a montage which showed a heroic cowboy fighting the bad guys and kissing the girl. At the commercial breaks, they would replace each of these pictures with a scene from that episode.
I didn’t know this, but the show’s Wikipedia article notes that the series was canceled not due to bad ratings but because of the outcry over “television violence.” Was that the real reason, or was it political correctness that pushed the Western genre off of television? It’s not a scientific study by any means, but I seem to remember cowboy shows as being less violent than the 1970’s crime dramas that replaced them. The Wild Wild West, with its campy James Bond light-heartedness, did not deserve this early death.
Many of my younger readers may recall the feature film version which was made in 1999, starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline as Agents West and Gordon, with Salma Hayek as the damsel in distress. Sadly, its quality wasn’t up to that of the series, earning only 17% on Rotten Tomatoes. Though I’m a big fan of Smith, it seemed strange to have a black man as a Federal agent so few years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. Then again, it’s steampunk; anything can happen.
Another plot element that changed in the movie was that West and Gordon’s nemesis changed. The scheming little person became an embittered Southern amputee, Dr. Arliss Loveless. The PC anti-Confederate message was obvious, though at least they gave him a cool name.
DVD’s of the original series are available for rent on Netflix or for purchase on Amazon. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate it in streaming form.
If you like steampunk cowboy adventures you’ll love my book Fidelio’s Automata on Amazon.
Photo is from Wikimedia Commons.