Jul 5, 2008

DVD Review: The Wild Wild West - The Fourth Season

DVD Review: The Wild Wild West - The Fourth Season

After the surreal, mod genius of its incredible second season, The Wild Wild West reigned itself in with Season 3, and perhaps wisely so. The fantastic, over-the-top scenarios of Season 2 were great while they lasted, but may not have been able to sustain the show much longer. Still, even if a return to more realistic (and more standard Western) stories was a good move in the long term, it did make the third season a bit of a disappointment after the way-out second season. I’m happy to report that Season Four (the final one, sadly) is something of a return to form for the show. This time around, the producers strike a compromise similar to that of the black and white first season: a good mixture of believable secret service exploits, traditional Western plots and fantastic Jules Verne-style sci-fi. It doesn’t go overboard with the fantasy like Season Two may have, but it does offer enough of those episodes to make the series stand out from the glut of other Westerns that still clung to life in 1969.

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.)
"Night of the Gruesome Games" deserves mention as a decidedly Avengersy affair. An eccentric millionaire hosts a fancy dress party for the rich and famous where the entertainment is a series of deadly parlor games. As each guest tires of putting his or her life on the line for amusement, the host keeps them going by appealing to their greed, dangling exactly the sort of precious trinket that would appeal most to that individual. The winner (that is, survivor) stands to become very rich, and most of these guests are ready to shed their dignity at a moment’s notice to achieve that prospect. Into this hedonistic backdrop come Jim and Arte, hot on the trail of a deadly disease stolen by a nefarious doctor. One of the guests is clearly his accomplice, and it’s up to them to divine who before the host’s unique brand of entertainment kills them all!
The season hits its high point in "Night of the Egyptian Queen," an all-around classic. This episode has it all: a great villain (in the person of the memorable Mr. Jason), a great girl (who spends the duration in her skimpy belly-dancing attire), secret societies, cool fights, waterfront settings, Arte in disguise as an Australian sailor, and an Indiana Jones-ish treasure plot complete with an ancient mechanism that depends on moonlight hitting a gem at the perfect angle. A highlight finds Jim and the girl trapped inside an icehouse and slowly freezing to death. It’s pure adventure, with Robert Conrad at his very best.
"Night of the Pelican" is a terrific quasi-serious spy episode. Largely set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, it’s got enough murder, disguises and conspiracy to pass for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Charles Aidman ably fills in as frequent Arte surrogate Jeremy Pike. Aidman is good at disguises (more convincing than Martin at times) and makes the most of a losing situation in filling in for the much-missed regular. He also makes a surprisingly convincing "Chinaman!" The plot is basically that of The Rock: a great Chinese villain played by Steve McGarrett’s Hawaii Five-O nemesis Khigh Dheigh (who sadly spends too much time in disguise) teams up with a much less memorable French baddie to take over Alcatraz (then a prison fort for reprobate soldiers) to use as a platform from which to launch rockets! They’re not aimed at San Fran this time, but at the American fleet preparing to make port there. Jim goes undercover as a prisoner at Alcatraz in order to expose the scheme, and once again spends a lot of time shirtless.

Arte sits out Dr. Loveless’s final scheme as well, the aptly-titled "Night of Miguelito’s Revenge." Pike fills in again. Jim goes in for a shave from a barber named Delilah, but refuses a haircut. (Maybe he shouldn’t have, considering his ‘do this season!) As you set yourself up for when frequenting a barber named Delilah, he finds himself drugged by Loveless and stuck in a funhouse full of scary clowns. Yes, we’ve seen it before on the show, but it still works... and it’s nice to see again!

Perhaps taking a page from the Joker’s playbook, Loveless 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 that he controls by playing a pipe organ, but he doesn’t really use his steambot for anything other than fighting Jim. As usual, Dr. Loveless manages to escape at the end, shooting himself out of a cannon. Sadly, that means there’s no real conclusion for the villain (Michael Dunn had sadly passed on by the time of the first reunion movie, leaving Loveless’s son to carry on his legacy of lunacy), but at least we’re treated to an episode that not only works on its own, but serves as a good tribute to the mad genius’s past plots as well. And, dependably, Dr. Loveless brings the weird, making sure that the final season isn’t altogether without its share of steam-powered robots and the like!

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."
As has become the practice with these seasons following the fantastic, feature-laden first one (which boasted introductions by Robert Conrad with every episode!), there are no extras. That’s too bad, because I had really hoped that the two TV reunion movies would be included with the final set. Hopefully their absence just means that Paramount wants to squeeze one last DVD release out of The Wild Wild West, and we’ll see them sometime down the road (if Paramount even owns the rights). The video quality is also not quite as good on Season 4 as it was on previous releases. It’s a little darker and grainier. (Not enough so to make any substantial difference, though.) And, as long as I’m nitpicking, Arte’s name is consistently misspelled ("Artie") on the packaging! Overall, I would rank the final season as my third favorite, after 1 and 2. If you’ve already got the others, then by all means get this one too; there are plenty of great episodes. If you haven’t yet plunged into the wild, wild world of The Wild Wild West, though, definitely start at the beginning.

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


C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Although I got the first three seasons as they were released (S3 thanks to you, Tanner), I didn't get season four until this past Christmas.

Maybe I'm just in a HUGE Jim and Artemus mood, but this season four is really hitting the spot! I hadn't seen this season in over twenty-five years but I recall Robert Conrad's "flat" hair style and the fact that Artemus was absent some of the time. That said, I'm three discs into the season and have loved every one of the episodes! Artemus' impersonations are hilarious and ingenius, and Jim kicks more butt than ever before. We even see him fall from a chandlier and hit his head on a concrete floor in TNOT Fugitives! The show's pacing is improved; it combines the best aspects of the first season along with a darker, almost gothic feel to some of these fourth season tales. "The Night of the Sedgewick Curse" being a fine example.

I'm a big film music fanatic and I think the musical direction for season four is fantastic! With composer Jack Pleis and especially Harry Geller's music being standouts. Relying less on the main theme and using more "Eastern" instruments and "Swingin' '60s" sounds makes the fourth season distinctive just as the other three have their individual differences. The stage lighting in S4 is also a plus. The great thing about The Wild, Wild West is that regardless of one's mood, there's a flavor for whatever you're in the mood for.

Tanner said...

That's an excellent assessment of the season, CK. It was a good mix of all the various genres and types of episodes we expect from WWW. And you're, right, both the music and the lighting were exceptional. I still wish there had been more of Arte, though--especially in the final episode!

As for your huge Jim and Artemus mood, I certainly find that absence makes the heart grow fonder. If you haven't seen any since Season 3 came out, that would explain it! I find I start getting Mission: Impossible pangs every five or six months, usually right before a new season is due to be released. I don't know what I'll do the next time that happens, with now more seasons left to come!