Quick. Complete the phrase with a four-letter word (no, not that kind)…
Captain James T. ______
If you somehow ignored the title of this post and all of the visual cues and filled in the last name “Kirk”, then you’re wrong, wrong, wrong. I speak of none other than James T. West, former captain in the US Cavalry and special agent in the US Secret Service, main character in The Wild, Wild West.
No, I’m not talking about that feature length abomination that wasted the talents of Will Smith, Kevin Klein, and Kenneth Branaugh. However, I seem to have been coming across lots of references to that movie lately. IO9.com seems to refer to it frequently in various lists of failures of one type or another (10 Movie Flops that Totally Deserved It.) Seeing so many references to the 1999 movie made me long for the original Wild Wild West TV show, starring Robert Conrad as Jim West and Ross Martin as his partner, Artemis Gordon.
The series premiered in 1965 and ran for four seasons, until 1969. The original pilot was pitched as “James Bond on a Horse”, and there are lots of similarities between the two characters. The first name is no coincidence. Both James Bond and James West were secret agent types whose cover was as a playboy gambler type, and there were evil megalomaniacs, women, cool vehicles with extraordinary capabilities, and gadgets – lots of them. And that’s not all. Richard Kiel was a regular henchman (Voltaire) on Wild Wild West, but is best known as “Jaws” during the Roger Moore era of James Bond.
Truth be told, there was much more overlap between these 1960s franchises, and not just James Bond. The similarity with Star Trek was also not a coincidence. According to IMDB…
Television shows of the era that filmed at the same studios often shared minor cast members. It is common to see familiar faces in episodes of Star Trek, Batman, Mission: Impossible, The Wild Wild West, Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel. Many of these people had previously appeared on Twilight Zone which had just ended in 1964.
Each episode was entitled “The Night of The…” something or other. I knew there must be some episodes of the old show online somewhere, and I wasn’t disappointed. I watched the first episode, “The Night of the Inferno” which introduced the characters and their train, The Wanderer. The show wasn’t as campy as I had remembered, and was actually quite good, albeit with a somewhat predictable plot. However, I kept wanting to switch West’s name with “Bond”, and I laughed out loud when he introduced himself as “West, James West” at one point. I’m sure that was intentional. The show also featured a young Suzanne Pleshette.
As I watched the episode I was reminded of one other quirk. The show kept reusing the same sets. The sweeping staircase in the pilot episode was seen, slightly redecorated, in many other episodes.
The first couple of seasons were in Black and White, but switched to color for later seasons. It also featured an iconic theme song and some spectacular graphics that changed with, and became a part of each episode.
I seem to remember that the shows did get more over-the-top as the series progressed. There were more elements of steampunk and absurd plot lines. It was all still fun, though. I think this is where the movie fell flat. It focused too much on the steampunk, and left out most of the soul of the show that made it enjoyable.
The show was eventually cancelled, not because of ratings but largely due to CBS’s concerns over excessive violence. Oddly enough, this was one of the few shows my dad would let us watch, despite its violence. We used to joke that he would watch a dozen men shot and killed on TV and not bat an eye, but if you heard one swear word, or saw a scantily clad women, he would change the channel. Somehow WWW passed his filters. He certainly wouldn’t let us watch James Bond movies when they eventually made it to TV.
So here, for your viewing pleasure, in five parts on YouTube, I present “The Night of the Inferno.” Embedding seems to be disabled, but at least I can provide links. Enjoy.