Dec 17, 2007

DVD Review: The Wild Wild West: The Third Season

DVD Review: The Wild Wild West: The Third Season

The first two seasons of The Wild Wild West followed the Avengers formula, albeit in a more compressed time-frame. Season One, in black and white, was a slightly grittier, slightly more realistic secret agent show set in the Old West and populated by eccentrics. In Season Two, the eccentrics took over–literally! The season premiere–and first color episode–saw Jim West face off against a nefarious cabal called "The Eccentrics." The landscape was no longer recognizable as the Old West, but a highly fictionalized–and stylized–version of it, just as the color Avengers seasons take place in a highly stylized fantasy version of Sixties Britain. The threats faced by West and his partner, master of disguise Artemus "Arte" Gordon, became more science fiction in nature, no longer grounded in ordinary secret agent stuff. This was largely thanks to diminutive recurring villain Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn), whose increasingly far-out schemes for world domination came to involve elements of pure fantasy, such as a method of teleporting oneself into and out of paintings in order to steal crown jewels! Another one of his plots shrank West down to a few inches tall, the same fate that befell Steed in the Avengers episode "Mission: Highly Improbable." The Avengers never came back down to earth after venturing so far out (in fact, the series ended with Steed and then-partner Tara King blasted out into space!), but The Wild Wild West does, in Season Three.

The colors, like Jim’s electric blue suit, are still as vibrant and bright as in the second season, but the Western landscape has been tamed. There are no signs of shrinkage or jaunts into paintings this season. In fact, Dr. Loveless is limited to just one appearance, after four in each previous season, effectively neutered in the weird science chaos he loves to cause. It’s as if the producers felt they’d stretched credulity as far as they could in Season Two, and had no choice but to reign themselves back in. However, the eccentric villains are still in place, ensuring that The Wild Wild West never becomes a run-of-the-mill Western. In fact, the most traditional Western storylines, as the one found in "Night of the Iron Fist," are made more fantastic by the inclusion of a bizarre villain, in that case a Serbian nobleman with a literal iron fist. The villains are usually the last person you’d expect to encounter in the Old West–a sheik or knight or an Indian rajah, often embodied by a major guest star. And they ensure that The Wild Wild West won't be mistaken for any other Western.

Another trait that separates The Wild Wild West from that genre is the gadgetry. Jim’s spy gadgets go a long way toward keeping one spur-heeled foot distinctly in the realm of espionage. He’s still outfitted with a quick-loading rig up his sleeve that surreptitiously delivers a Derringer into his hand at the twist of a wrist. This season, the tiny pistol has been 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, as well as one-off gadgets like a nifty glass-cutting ring. And Jim and Arte still ride around in their 19th Century Aston Martin–a customized train car equipped with all sorts of useful spring-loaded gizmos.

The glass-cutting ring appears in the season premiere, "Night of the Bubbling Death," which nicely establishes the back-to-the basics formula by evoking the series premiere. Following an updated credits sequence, Jim and Arte venture into an entire lawless town that’s against them (a source of contention between the United States and Mexico) in order to ferret out the villainous Victor Freemantle, who’s stolen the Constitution. In keeping with past seasons, Arte is introduced in disguise–just in time to save Jim from a hulking, shirtless henchman (decked out in bandoleers) named Clint Cartwheel. We get to see the inside of Arte’s jacket, and it’s lined with enough gadgets to make Q jealous. Arte also supplies a 3D scale model of the Freemantle’s hideout (an old conquistador fortress), enabling Jim to virtually retrace his blindfolded steps and infiltrate it later, bypassing the titular "bubbling death" (acid, naturally) via his piton gun. As usual, there is a beautiful woman, Carlotta. Her treachery sets the tone for this season. In seasons past, about half the time Jim was able to seduce such vixens onto the side of law and order, but this time around the women are far more often treacherous than trustworthy. Jim rarely gets the girl in Season 3, instead awkwardly ending up with a random floozy as arm candy for the tag scene.

“Night of the Firebrand” features an exception in the form of Vixen O’Shaugn-essy (played by Diamonds Are Forever’s Lana Wood), who despite the most treacherous of names is convinced to give up her lawless ways... but not by Jim’s charm. The strong-willed young woman (the titular “firebrand”) is a senator’s daughter who’s run off from Miss Primwick’s Finishing School to stand up for her (admittedly misguided) political ideals. She hasn’t been brainwashed like Patty Hearst; she’s doing what she thinks is right. Yet she’s treated as a comical character for her beliefs, and becomes the victim of a running gag in which Jim shuts her up whenever she goes off on a rant by knocking her out with the touch of a pressure point. In the end, once she’s seen the error of her ways, she starts talking about all the good she can do in the world, standing up for the oppressed, only to fall victim once more to the old pressure point trick. It’s all pretty chauvinist, even for the Sixties. Still, the same episode offers some good action, like Jim taking another page from 007's book and rigging his covered wagon with a smoke screen during an exciting chase, or Arte proving he’s handy enough with throwing knives to join the Eccentrics himself.

Loveless’s one appearance finds the troublesome doctor faking his death and then impersonating his own “uncle,” a celebrated Swiss neurologist who exhibits a striking family resemblance. (Yes, Jim actually falls for that, somehow.) The whole scheme falls short of the criminal mastermind’s most diabolical ploys of the past, with the simple goal of revenge. Loveless does, however, retain his flair for the absurd, and the episode provides some of the season’s most Avengers-ish moments, like the doctor’s “recording” of his will, squawked out by a trained minah bird! He’s also still got style (delightfully Sixties style), accessing his cliff-side clinic via an ornate elevator lined in purple silk. Missing (and decidedly missed) once more is the fantastically love-crazed Bonnie to Loveless’s Clyde, Antoinette (Phoebe Dorin). A character named Triste fills a similar role, but it isn’t the same.

There aren’t many bad episodes in Season 3, but there also aren’t nearly as many outstanding ones to highlight, either. Most of the plots are pretty standard-issue Western or spy (with the occasional clever twist, like an OPEC-like Arab consortium trying to corner the market on cotton), but contained therein are a number of memorably off-kilter moments and striking images. Samurai warriors attack Jim and Arte in downtown San Francisco! Arte battles it out in the middle of a horde of Kubrickian mannequins! All we see of a mysterious villain is his arm on the armrest of a large chair, but when Jim turns the chair around, it turns out all there is is a disembodied arm... and a phonograph speaker issuing the voice. Jim follows some Mexican henchmen through into an Adobe hut that turns out to house a harem chamber out of the Arabian Nights, complete with a lounging Cleopatra-like consort. Mutated boll weevils get it on. Masked bandits broadside a bank with a cannon mounted on their armored wagon. Jim is lured into a stagecoach by a beautiful woman, only to have the windows suddenly shut and gas pumped into the coach, Number Six-style. And so on and so forth. Great moments instead of great episodes.

The aforementioned “Night of the Iron Fist” best exemplifies how the show’s producers tailor more traditional Western plotlines to meet their needs. It’s essentially a remake of 3:10 to Yuma, with Jim transporting the criminal Count to prison while Arte lures his gang away by impersonating the nefarious nobleman. Along the way, they encounter a lot more stock Western characters (roughnecks and bumpkins) than traditionally populate The Wild Wild West, but the fun lies in watching how sophisticates Jim and Arte deal with these types, because it isn’t usually how Marshall Dillon does it. Arte, though dressing more and more like a cowboy this season, generally does so through disguises. But, frankly, he’s no Rollin Hand, and it’s usually easy for the audience, at least, to see through them. Arte also gets to show off his tough side a bit, saving Jim’s hide more times than in the past.

It’s not all the same old thing in Season 3, however. The final disc of this set contains the season’s two best episodes, both cut from horror movie cloth. “Night of the Undead” is a good old-fashioned Southern Gothic in the guise of a zombie story. It’s got lost love, faked deaths, and revenge from beyond the grave, all served up with the creepy atmosphere of the classic Universal shockers. From its unsettling beginning (Jim interrupting a Voodoo ritual, ala Live and Let Die, and shooting a “zombie” in the heart without killing him) to its evocative bayou finale, this one’s a real treat. It also provides one of the season’s best surreal moments when a phrenologist talks to the mapped, bald model of a human head on her shelf. Suddenly the "head’s" eyes open, and the shelf itself opens up, revealing it to be a person! It’s a bizarre image, and an effective jolt. (Though it makes no sense.) The ending, with glowing, radioactive zombies enslaved by the mad Dr. Articulus, reminded me quite a lot of Mark Gatiss’ novel The Vesuvius Club. I wonder if Gatiss saw this episode?

“Night of the Simian Terror”* may tip its twist too much with that title, but it serves up another very atmospheric horror, this time mimicking the then-contemporary product coming out of England’s Hammer Studios rather than Universal. The boys visit the isolated Kansas estate of a senator who hasn’t been seen in D.C. in some time. The constant wind blowing on the eerie exteriors paints Kansas like Conan Doyle’s Dartmoor, and sure enough, there’s an inhuman creature on the loose killing people. It continues as a classic “Old Dark House” style mystery, with dark family secrets and forbidden rooms. Jim uses a stethoscope and a periscope to spy through some floorboards, and Arte dons one of his best disguises as a humorously simian ape expert. All of this leads to a very dark finale, with Jim fighting both Richard (“Jaws”) Kiel and, of course, a brutish gorilla. (At one point, the gorilla actually flings a barrel at him! Could this be the origin of Donkey Kong?) This very effective pair of atypically horrific episodes (which, somewhat distractingly, share a few sets as well as their tone) provides a satisfying conclusion to Season 3, and the hope that Season 4 (due on DVD this March) will benefit from this home-stretch burst of creative energy.

If you’re a Cathy Gale Avengers fan, give this season a miss and pick up The Wild Wild West: The Complete First Season for starters. If you prefer Emma Peel, go straight to the sublimely surreal Season 2. But if you’re already a dedicated follower of Jim and Arte’s exploits, then by all means pick up Season 3. It’s not the best, but there’s more than enough great material to make it worthwhile for fans of the series.
*When watching this episode on my DVD player, the disc inexplicably skipped an entire, crucial chapter. Suddenly Jim was fighting Jaws! The only way I was able to watch that chapter was to rewind; I couldn't skip back to it. Irritating, though I have no idea if this flaw is specific to my brand of player or universal.


Paul Bishop said...

Thanks for the (always) detailed rundown. This show does not get enough credit for it's innovative style.


TC said...
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