Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jim West Faces a "Night of the Puppeteer"

The Wild Wild West was one of the most entertaining television shows of the mid to late 60s. Creator and producer Michael Garrison conceived the series as a sort of “James Bond in the Old West” which cleverly combined elements of the hugely popular spy genre with the traditional Western. The show followed the adventures of Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), who battled all kinds of outlandish and colorful villains in the 1800s. West was the two-fisted man of action, and Gordon was a master of disguise, as well as the provider of unique gadgets the duo used to escape the deathtraps devised by evil criminal masterminds such as their frequent foe, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, masterfully played by Michael Dunn. Like the Batman series, the show featured a variety of famous guest stars portraying the villains, including Boris Karloff, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Ricardo Montalban, and Agnes Moorehead.

Lloyd Bochner
One of the more memorable episodes of the show’s first season (filmed in black & white) is “The Night of the Puppeteer,” which opens with Jim West visiting a Supreme Court Justice. Jim warns the man that two of his colleagues have been murdered, and they are concerned for his safety. During a puppet show being performed for the judge’s grandson, one of the puppets tries to shoot the judge! Fortunately, West foils the attempt. Jim later examines the puppets, and finds a clue, which leads him to a bar called Triton’s Locker. While there, he gets into a fight with the patrons, and ends up in an elevator, which speeds him to an underground lair. There he meets Zachariah Skull, the mastermind behind the killings. It seems Skull has a bone (pun intended) to pick with the judges, and society in general. He intends to put Jim on trial for his life....though the final verdict has already been decided.

Skull is also a brilliant inventor, and has surrounded himself with life-size, steam-powered puppets that do his bidding, including a ballerina who dances with West. There are some nicely played scenes between Robert Conrad and character actor Lloyd Bochner, who imbues Skull with a subtly menacing quality. The sequences in Skull’s underground home are strikingly lit, and well staged by Irving J. Moore, who directed many episodes during the course of the series.  There’s a nice twist at the episode’s climax which recalls a classic horror film I won’t mention here, in order to avoid spoilers. Along with other eerie episodes of the series, like “The Night of the Druid’s Blood” and “The Night of the Man-Eating House” this entry veers into territory which might seem more at home on The Twilight Zone or Thriller, with some very effective results. The one drawback to the episode (written by frequent contributor Henry Sharp) is that the wonderful Ross Martin isn’t given much to do as Artemus Gordon.

The tone of The Wild Wild West shifted somewhat from darker episodes in the first year of its run to more outlandish adventures in subsequent seasons (and sometimes back again to more traditional, action-oriented Western tales) due to some behind the scenes shuffling of producers. But the series was always enjoyable, thanks to the chemistry between the two appealing leads, as well as the colorful villains, the lovely damsels in distress, and those amazing gadgets. And let’s not forget that wonderful train the duo used as their base of operations! The show ran for four seasons, and remains a fan favorite, thanks to syndicated reruns and DVD releases of the entire series. There were also two “reunion” telefilms produced, The Wild Wild West Revisited in 1979, and More Wild Wild West in 1980. Both featured Robert Conrad and Ross Martin reprising their roles. The Wild Wild West is a fanciful and delightful series combining elements of Westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, and action-adventure. It's well worth checking out.


  1. Dum-de-dum-dum-de-dum-dum-dum...

    In case you don't recognize it, you have started me hum/singing the theme song and I'll be doing that for the rest of the day.

    1. Now you've got me singing the theme song, too! Thanks for reading!