SEPT / OCT 2014: BY CARISSA HORTON
All trendsetting has to start somewhere, usually in one place, at one time. For the world of steampunk on film, it literally began in 1965 with a show innocuously titled The Wild, Wild West. All westerns that came before it were completely straight-laced. Rawhide, Bonanza, Have Gun, Will Travel… they were the tried-and-true westerns of American television. This is why The Wild, Wild West stands apart. It blends the reality of the western frontier with the unreality of steam-powered weapons and some of the most fantastical, villainous plots ever hatched in a television script. This show was the forerunner of steampunk, before the term was invented.
(“Steampunk” is a modern trend that blends Victorian society and costume design with scientific advancements: steam power, hot air balloons, clocks, that sort of thing. It is enormously popular among a certain set.)
Robert Conrad and Ross Martin starred in this bizarre twist on a TV western, playing government secret agents James West (Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Martin). The show takes place during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Jim and Artie are two of his most trusted agents, often sent to eradicate the dastardly villains whose sole purpose is to destroy America. Jim West bleeds red, white, and blue with every pump of his heart, and it doesn’t hurt that he loves the ladies on the side, too. With Artie as his partner, Jim challenges every villain known to mankind, and then some, from Russians to werewolves to evil scientists. However, their chief villain, the nefarious Dr. Miguelito Loveless, was a stroke of genius for the show. Miguelito, played by the unforgettable Michael Dunn, is a dwarf but also the mastermind who sets out to thwart Jim’s daring-do and endless American optimism. In 10 episodes, the good doctor pursues his best efforts in destroying not only American civilization, but James West and Artemus Gordon along with it. Not every show writes in a character who develops a method of hiding literal people in paintings. But Miguelito does it and the audience believes that he can do it. Just as Jim and Artie can never fully stop Miguelito, neither can he defeat them, resulting in an endless battle of wills. He is the ideal villain to contrast with Jim and Artie.
Speaking of contrasts, James West and Artemus Gordon are also a contrast to themselves, as were the actors. Artie is the brains of the duo. He concocts ingenious mechanisms to get himself and Jim out of tight spots, and weapons hidden in shoes, sleeves, or behind the collar of a jacket. The clever gadgets mostly belong to Jim’s wardrobe, while Artie dons a different attire, that of an experienced thespian capable of turning himself into a fool, a doctor, a gypsy, or any one of hundreds of disguises. Every face Artemus Gordon wears was designed by Ross Martin, a credit to his skill as a stage actor and make-up artist. As for Jim, well, what can audiences say of him except that he is the brawn to Artie’s brains, a fact that never escaped Robert Conrad, but he never appeared to resent the tipping of the scales between the two characters. He did his job as the brawler, indulging in at least three fistfights per hour-long episode, while Ross Martin invented new ways of keeping them alive to fight another day.
Conrad did the majority of his own stunts, leaping from high buildings, plunging off precarious precipices, and enduring manhandling from his crew of stuntmen as he fell into surprisingly flimsy household furniture and walls, shattering solid crates as if they were, well, made of balsa wood. But the show wouldn’t have been The Wild, Wild West without James West brawling and Artemus Gordon in disguise. Audiences knew what to expect from these heroes in each and every episode. Jim West would never compromise his loyalty to the United States of America, and Artemus Gordon would never compromise his loyalty to Jim. Perhaps that’s what truly makes this show shine. Yes, it is dreadfully campy, stuck in a bad version of the 1960s with horrible, dated hair on all the women and dresses with zippers up the back, but there is a sparkle, a connection, a charisma between Martin and Conrad that cannot be denied. Martin was a good 15 years Conrad’s senior. They ran in different circles, with Conrad attending the fights while Martin visited the opera, but this show brought them together and brought out the best they had to offer. There are moments of jocularity between them that reveal the two men connecting as the friends they were. Once, when asked about the man who replaced Martin for several episodes when he’d broken his leg on set, Conrad merely said that you could never replace Ross Martin. No one could do what Ross did. Friendship is a beautiful thing to capture on film. It reminds us of that deep-rooted need we have to connect. If there had been no chemistry between Martin and Conrad, the show would have failed in its first season. But it didn’t fail. The camera captured those moments of genuine amusement and fondness the two men shared, preserving a series that lasted 4 seasons and produced 2 made-for-TV films.
Yes, this show is undeniably steampunk. How else do you describe a war machine that is solely steam-powered? It just didn’t know what it was back in 1965 because there was no such thing as steampunk. It was a very strange combination of western and science fiction that somehow worked. So, for the pure excitement of watching a trend being born, The Wild, Wild West is an absolute must-see. But it is more than that; the relationships and comradery between Robert Conrad and Ross Martin makes this series unforgettable. For me personally it is exciting to sit next to my mother and share with her a television show she loved when she was a child, a show whose popularity has somehow never entirely waned and whose fans still remain strong. It might not be all that well-known anymore, but The Wild, Wild West is still very much loved. ♥
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carissa Horton sews, knits, and writes. She works for Compassion International, which finds sponsors for third world children, and dreams of being an agent at a publishing house. She blogs about life, faith, relationships, and fandom in her free time.