Jun 7, 2009

Men Versus Steam-Powered Machines: Technology In The Wild Wild West

One of the many traits that separates The Wild Wild West from the TV Western genre at large is its love of gadgetry. Jim West’s spy gadgets (courtesy of Q-like inventor sidekick Artemus Gordon) go a long way towards keeping at least one spur-heeled foot distinctly in the realm of espionage. He’s always outfitted with a quick-loading rig up his sleeve that surreptitiously delivers a Derringer into his hand at a twist of the wrist. The tiny pistol can even be modified to accommodate a Batman-like piton trailing some lightweight rope strong enough to hold Jim. That apparatus comes in handy time after time, as does Jim’s "Rosa Klebb" boot, which springs a knife from its toe. Furthermore, Jim and Arte ride around in a 19th Century version of 007's Aston Martin–a customized train car equipped with all sorts of useful spring-loaded gizmos.

The the gadgetry and gimmickry aren't limited to the heroes of the program, though. The villains are also fond of all the steampunk apparatuses they can dream up (no matter how anachronistic). Most fond of such toys is the diminutive diabolical mastermind Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn). Loveless's love of technology results in all sorts of sinister mechanisms, from hot air balloons designed to deliver a payload of nerve gas over a city to mechanical suits of armor (shades of The Avengers' Cybernauts there) that allow the dwarf to fight Jim on roughly equal footing to things so utterly outlandish that they leave the realm of "machine" altogether and enter that of outright fantasy, like cigars that shrink a man down to the size of a mouse.

Some of Loveless's greatest machinery comes in his final appearance, "Night of Miguelito's Revenge." Perhaps taking a page from the Joker’s playbook, the short-statured supervillain is kidnapping various people he wants revenge on in order to put them on trial before a jury of clown puppets. As you do if you’re a supervillain, even a diminutive one. He’s also created a steam-powered robo-man who wears a judge's wig that Loveless (dressed as a ringmaster, naturally) controls by playing a pipe organ. The steambot never actually passes judgement on anyone, though; all its creator really uses it for is fighting Jim. That makes sense, but as remarkable as the technology is, the robo-judge proves a somewhat limited fighter owing to its short range steamhose connecting it to the pipe organ.

Loveless's love of steampunk technology was carried even further when he was played by Kenneth Brannagh (legless rather than loveless) in the disastrous 1999 film version of the Sixties series. Brannagh's Loveless had a particular proclivity towards mechanical spiders (borrowed, according to Kevin Smith, at least, from the film's producer Jon Peters). He uses robotic spider legs to augment his own legless torso and skitter about his lab, and he echoes that design on a much larger scale with a giant, steam-powered robotic spider for... I honestly have no recollection at all of what it was for and also no desire to rewatch the film to find out. If the film even bothered to explain it at all, which isn't a given.

Loveless isn't the only villain on the series who employs futuristic technology to carry out his evil deeds. Other villains create mechanical krakens to terrorize the coastline from their Stromberg-like underwater lairs, or "cars" seemingly inspired by Dr. No's dragon tank. "Night of the Juggernaut" is a familiar story from TV Westerns of homesteaders 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. Although it shares a similar design to Dr. No’s dragon and a similar destructive capacity, this vehicle is painted bright orange. It’s a story we’ve seen before, yes, but the futuristic technology combined with a great villain lifts this telling well above average. This was a feat the show pulled off again and again thanks to its fantastical mechanical inventions.

Metallic robo-men return in the series finale. The Wild Wild West 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. In addition to a monkey assassin dressed in a Civil War uniform, we're treated to 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. It doesn't matter if they don't turn out to be actual robots; the iconography is what's important to the scene. And The Wild Wild West exploits steampunk, "Man vs. Machine" iconography again and again throughout its run, probably moreso than any other spy show save for maybe The Avengers. If you like your spies fighting machines, be sure to give this series a look.

Read my full review of The Wild Wild West - The Second Season

Read my full review of The Wild Wild West - The Third Season

Read my full review of The Wild Wild West - The Fourth Season

1 comment:

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

I like what you "Spy Guys" are doing with this collaborative effort. Great overview of this concept as seen on TWWW and I encourage anyone reading to check out your other reviews of the series.

Great stuff!