The Wild Wild West was one of the most successful American action adventure series of the 1960s. Beginning in September 1965 it ran for four seasons and would have run longer had it not fallen victim to pressure on the networks to reduce the level of violence on television. It’s hard to imagine today that this series could haver been seen as excessively violent!
The basic premise is one of those brilliant ideas that work so well that you wonder why it hadn’t been tried before - a James Bond-style spy thriller set in the Wild West.
Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) are US Secret Service agents who battle a variety of foes from their headquarters aboard a special train. Since they take their orders directly from President Grant we can assume it’s set in the 1870s. They are equipped with the kinds of gadgets James Bond would have employed had he been a spy in the 1870s. This series is often credited (rightly) as being one of the major inspirations for the steampunk style of science fiction.
Jim West is your standard square-jawed action hero. Artemus Gordon relies on brains rather than brawn and is a master of disguise (although when disguised he still looks remarkably like Ross Martin). Conrad had been reluctant to audition for the rôle of West believing that he had no chance whatsoever of landing it. Fortunately he decided to give it a go and he makes a fine hero. It’s obvious from his brief introductions to each episode on the DVDs that Conrad remembers The Wild Wild West vividly and with a great deal of fondness. Ross Martin complements him perfectly. Conrad is proud of the fact that he did most of his own stunts, leading Ross Martin to remark (much to Conrad’s amusement) that, “Conrad did all his own stunts. I did all my own acting.”
The first few episodes were produced by Collier Young and it’s clear that he saw the series as basically a western with just the barest hint of the secret agent genre. Episodes like The Night of the Double-Edged Knife are pretty conventional stuff. Young also decided to give Jim West an English valet, Tennyson, an idea that was immediately dropped when Young departed after just three episodes. Tennyson was a harmless character but not really necessary. The Night of the Fatal Trap is particularly weak - really not much more than a routine western.
The Night That Terror Stalked the Town is absolutely classic cult TV. You just can’t do better in the cult stakes than evil midget mad scientists. Plus a whole town of creepy wax dummies. And very steampunk-ish gadgetry in the mad scientist laboratory.
Despite the behind-the-scenes turmoil the first season of The Wild Wild West proves that American television in the 60s could produce a series that could match the best British series of that era such as The Avengers for originality, style and quirkiness (if perhaps not quite achieving the same degree of wittiness). The Wild Wild West is clever and it’s enormous fun. Highly recommended.