Unfortunately, the Fourth Season suffers one flaw beyond anyone’s control: the loss of co-star Ross Martin from about a quarter of the episodes. Martin had a serious heart attack during this season, and had to take it easy, sitting out a number of shows. I’ll admit that Martin’s Artemus Gordon took a while to grow on me (during the first season I kept wishing West had a female partner), but he and Robert Conrad clicked so well that ultimately their chemistry was a key ingredient in the series’ success. A parade of able guest stars including Alan Hale, Jr., Steve Carlson and, most often, Charles Aidman as Jeremy Pike, take on the unenviable task of attempting to fill Martin’s shoes. All acquit themselves admirably, but none of them kept me from wishing Arte were there instead. Sadly, Martin even had to skip his show’s finale.
Arte is around and well, however, for the season premiere, "Night of the Big Blackmail." This fantastic episode eschews the Western setting altogether for intrigue in Washington D.C. instead. It’s an homage to/parody of Mission: Impossible, on which Wild Wild West star Robert Conrad guest-starred several times. When a Slavic ambassador (par for the M:I course) plots to discredit President Grant by exhibiting a kinotype of him (really a double) signing a treaty with an unpopular foreign power, Jim (sporting a new haircut that takes some getting used to) and Arte get the opportunity to engage in all the same sort of Impossible hijinks Jim Phelps and his team usually get up to. This Mission requires disguises, quick changes, blackmail, infiltration of an enemy embassy, an elaborate heist and manipulation of media (as well as the usual fisticuffs), all to the ends of discrediting the episode’s villain in front of his boss. Even without the usual Western scenery, it’s as fine a season premiere as an audience could hope for, and things are off to a good start. A terrific, unusually jazzy and Schiffrin-esque score solidifies the whole M:I tone.
Subsequent episodes find the Secret Service’s finest agents back in their more familiar environment, but forced to contend with the unusual, anachronistic technology and eccentric villains fans of the series have come to love. (As well as the occasional sea monster or erupting volcano!) As with Season 3, these elements are often injected into the sorts of standard Western plotlines featured on other cowboy shows. In "Night of the Juggernaut," for example, it’s the story we’ve seen dozens of times before of home-steaders being chased off their land because some tycoon wants it all for himself. Instead of being chased off by standard-issue gunmen in black hats and bandannas, however, they’re chased off by a fantastic tank-like vehicle concocted by an evil would-be oil baron ahead of his time. The tank itself looks like he got ahold of Dr. No’s "dragon" and painted it orange, and has the same destructive capacity. It’s a story we’ve seen before, yes, but the futuristic technology combined with a great villain lifts this telling well above average. Plus, we get one of Arte’s most flamboyant disguises!
Another superlative techno-heavy outing, the intriguingly-titled "Night of the Kraken," begins like Jules Verne and ends like James Bond. Jim and Arte investigate an eerie waterfront (a set that gets a lot of use this season) where Portugese fishermen have been disappearing–supposedly the work of a giant, tentacled kraken! It isn’t long before Jim is fighting the beastie, and its true mechanical nature is revealed. But what’s its connection to the local Naval station? Before the episode’s conclusion, we’re treated to a very Ken Adam-ish underwater base (a sort of proto-Atlantis from The Spy Who Loved Me, presided over by the impressive Branjalina of the supervillain set) and lots of shirtless Jim for the ladies. (He spends a lot of time underwater, including testing a prototype diving helmet.)
Speaking of disappointing character conclusions, poor Arte (as I mentioned) even misses the show’s series finale! He makes his own swan song in "Night of the Plague," but sits out the season capper, "Night of the Tycoons."
"Night of the Plague" is one of the most conventional Westerns in the series, but still off-kilter enough to make it fun. Jim and even Arte may wear regular cowboy duds in this episode, but they still pack gadgets in their leather chaps! (Wow, that sentence came out sounding way dirtier than I intended.) Jim uses one such device to rappel down a steep cliff, giving him the edge over other TV cowboys. Furthermore, the villains aren’t your standard Old West badmen; they’re a band of Shakespearean actors who mix treading the stage with robbing the stage (as in coach).
It’s a perfect opportunity for Arte to flex his Acting muscles once again (recalling Season 1's "Night of the Casual Killer") in order in infiltrate the gang, giving Ross Martin an appropriate curtain call for the series (even if it comes an episode too soon). As an added plus for spy fans, Lana Wood turns up as another treacherous child of entitlement (similar to her role in "Night of the Firebrand"). And rounding out the appropriate Wild Wild West weirdness, there’s the little matter of the deadly plague the gang have unknowingly contracted, a pressing enough matter to eclipse the stage robberies.
The series wraps up, appropriately, in the vein in which it began: with a very Avengers-ish plot about board members of a large corporation being bumped off one by one. Unfortunately, "Night of the Tycoons" lacks the originality of the best Avengers, or, worse yet, the best Wild Wild West. The rather mundane story isn’t very spy and isn’t very Western either, but it does, however, have a monkey assassin dressed in a Civil War uniform, so that counts for something!
Jim has no Secret Service partner on his final regular mission, just young corporate brat Lionel, played by Deadlier Than the Male’s Steve Carlson. Carlson and Conrad do manage to form a good rapport by the episode’s conclusion, though, and along the way we’re treated to a circus-themed nightclub with trained killer animals and a freaky group of mannequins who suddenly open their eyes revealing themselves to be people, looking like Fantomas in their mannequin get-ups. That’s a good shock moment, and a good bit of Prisoner-like imagery. Jim and Lionel face an old-fashioned "candle-burning-through-leather-thong" type deathtrap, and on the gadget front, Jim gets a lot of use out of his phony shoe heel. Disappointingly, the final tag scene doesn’t even mention Arte this time (some of the Ross Martin-less episodes did), and instead the series ends forever on an uncharacteristic and unpleasantly sexist note, with Jim advising Lionel’s new fiancé to "get some practical experience... in the kitchen" before adding to his newfound protégé, "Lionel, we’ve got to break these women in right."
Read my review of The Wild Wild West - The Second Season