Before Steampunk Had a Name: THE WILD WILD WEST

www(A longer version of this post originally appeared on Comic Related) In our current media-saturated, cynically-ironic time, it’s easy to fall into the trap of liking something because it somehow “hits” the geek nerve – as viewers, we’re so jaded that some shows that are straightforward and simple seem…well, native. We also tend to put our emphasis less on originality and quality and more on anything that references other shows. It’s the fine line between nostalgia and appreciation….but The Wild Wild West, quite simply, was steampunk before there was such a word. Embracing a wealth of 1960s popular culture (including spies, Westerns, and sci-fi), as well as elements of pulp literature, The Wild Wild West has not dated at all (well, there is a slight chauvinism, but that’s indicative of the time it was produced), and provides that great genre-mixing spirit that can be found in shows like Firefly and Warehouse 13.

Created for CBS in 1965 by executive Michael Garrison, The Wild Wild West was initially conceived as a simple, high-concept pitch: “James Bond on horseback.” Its unique mix of gadgetry, straightforward plotting, and genre mixing give The Wild Wild West a timelessness lacking in many of its contemporaries and which enjoys a current run on Chicago’s ME-TV). Most of the plots and concepts of the show are lifted straight from pulp and popular literature. From the gimmick-laden vest of James West to more futuristic concepts (such as mechanical men, steam-driven computer dating and a league of assassins), The Wild Wild West created a much more intricate and forward-facing universe than other shows of its era. From the diminutive tyrant Dr. Miguelito Loveless to the maniacal magician Count Manzeppi, the show had its share of colorful antagonists, sharing a wide swath of motivations from political power to technological dominance. Most of the tech presented used fell within the bounds of 1870′s technology, and it’s that touch that gives a slightly steampunkish sparkle to the show.

(Ironically, the reason why it was ultimately canceled was due to parent-driven efforts to protest excessive violence on television, and The Wild Wild West was one of the first casualties of that battle. It never lagged in the ratings, and even survived the temporary loss of one of its leads)

Before he publicly dared people to knock batteries off his shoulder, Robert Conrad played the lead character, Secret Service Agent James West. Playing the role with the right amount of seriousness, Robert Conrad was able to provide not only a strong dramatic center, but also a strong action-based center. Like William Shatner, Conrad often found himself shirtless and wearing tight pants; unlike Shatner, Conrad always seemed to be in on the joke, taking the work – but never himself – too seriously. There’s a little bit of Conrad’s attitude – and swagger – in actors ranging from Bruce Campbell to Nathan Fillion.

The other major factor was Ross Martin’s work as Artemus Gordon, West’s partner and counterpoint on the show. As a master of disguise, it would have been easy to pull the actor-plays-a-role-then-pulls-off-a-latex-mask reveal (think Mission: Impossible), but Martin did a lot of character work. In fact, many of his “disguises” integrated both intricate make-up work and really strong character work, integrating accents, body language, and really building out what could essentially be “joke” performances. (Martin once remarked to Johnny Carson, “Conrad does all his own stunts; I do all my own acting.”). Conrad and Martin had a freewheeling, easy going chemistry that makes even the less-than-stellar episodes extremely watchable.

After the show ended, there were two made-for-tv reunion movies in the 1970s, both of which are included in The Wild Wild West: Complete Series DVD boxed set. (Each of the four seasons, including the first season in black & white, are available separately). As far as that Will Smith movie….all I’ll say is that you should read the end of this section in the Wikipedia article.

Some series not only hold up, but still seem fresh even after their first broadcast. The Wild Wild West is such a series, and for aficionados of steampunk, it’s a must-watch.

Actually, for nerds of all kinds, it should be viewed at least once. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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