Al-Maydeen TV Interview with Sheikh Nabeel Naiem: stunning revelations about ISIS connections with the US

“ISIS: The Bombshell Interview to Impeach Obama” – Al-Maydeen TV Interview with Sheikh Nabeel Naiem at SyriaNews (3 July 2014)

Recommended by Moon of Alabama and The Vineyard of the Saker blogs, this interview which can be viewed over at the SyriaNews blog is a real humdinger in that all the way through the conversation the interviewee Sheikh Nabeel Naiem, a former Al Qa’ida commander and founder of the jihadi movement in Egypt, links the creation and funding of the jihadi terrorist group ISIS with the United States.  In a nutshell, Sheikh Nabeel Naiem explains that ISIS head Abu Bakr Baghdadi demands allegiance from Al Qa’ida leader Dr Ayman Zawahiri as he (Baghdadi) has funding and resources from the US government, that ISIS began in Iraq and received training from US marines in camps in Jordan, that the Americans are using ISIS and the Sunni-Shi’ite split within Islam to create continuous instability in the Middle East and keep the Arab peoples weak, and that politicians within the US and Israeli governments have been working together since 1998 to destabilise and overthrow the governments of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In particular, takfiri elements – the term refers to Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy against Islam – in Saudi Arabia are being groomed to overthrow the Saudi royal family and government.

The interview is 40 minutes long and carries on at a fairly fast clip. Everything the interviewee says about ISIS and its fighters is riveting. Those who cannot understand Arabic will be relieved to know that the SyriaNews blog carries an English-language transcript by Arabi Souri of the interview. Much of the early part of the talk revolves around where ISIS gets its funding, arms, other resources, advice and training from. The topic later switches to discussing the kind of people who join ISIS and what ISIS offers that attracts Muslim youth from across Europe. Nabeel Naiem identifies takfiri ideology as being ISIS’s main attraction but does not say why this should be so. One guesses that takfiri ideology appeals to young idealistic people because it concerns itself with sweeping away perceived corruption within Islam and Islamic societies, cleansing the religion and its principles and laws, and starting afresh with a pure and idealistic interpretation of Islam as they believe must have been practised by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers. In this way the Islamic Caliphate will be restored throughout the Muslim world and reach out beyond. It’s not difficult to see how a simplistic paradigm appeals to naive people ignorant of Islamic history and their original cultures who see around them corruption running deeply through the world. In particular young Muslims living in Western societies who experience discrimination simply because they are Muslims or Arabic-speaking, who have grown up with limited experience of their own cultures and whose experience of Western culture has not enriched them very much because it is mediated through an infantilising Americanised filter with exploitation as its tool and financial profit as its goal, may be vulnerable to ideologies promising an alternate path to a utopia in which absolute obedience to a narrow and literalist interpretation of Islam replaces mind-numbing consumerism with its cynical treatment of people.

The most chilling parts of the interview include those passages where Nabeel Naiem admits that ISIS is fighting both Sunnis and Shi’ites and has no hesitation in killing anyone and everyone who does not or will not submit to the ISIS takfiri ideology. Absolutely no-one is safe.  The sheikh also refers to Western writings and plans such as the Project for the New American Century as providing the blueprint for ISIS actions in the Middle East which do not discriminate between governments and ordinary people: all are equally apostate and therefore kuffar (infidels) to be killed if they will not submit.

Naturally the interviewer says the phenomenon of ISIS and the takfiri ideology needs more discussion and research and Nabeel Naiem states that all Islamic countries, Sunni and Shi’ite, and others, must work together to get rid of such jihadi groups as these represent the new and brutal face of Western neo-colonialism. The sheikh emphasises that the Prophet Muhammad met similar firebrand ideologues, known as Khawarij (outlaws), and condemned them.

If what Nabeel Naiem says is accurate and not exaggerated, then the conclusion is that the US and Israeli governments are even more depraved and psychopathic in their exploitation of the Middle East and its conflicts and problems so as to maintain control over the region and get what they want out of it. In spite of many historical examples demonstrating that manipulating other people’s conflicts for the purpose of controlling them does not succeed – one would think that the US would have learned something from meddling in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s and from interfering in the affairs of Latin America throughout the 20th century – the Americans and their Israeli ally blunder on ahead immersing themselves in more violence and chaos while their peoples sink further into poverty. Eventually if ISIS fails to establish a secure caliphate across the Middle East and suspects that it was betrayed by the US and Israel – and these countries are likely to betray ISIS if only because ISIS can’t be allowed to be more than a gadfly causing irritation and upset – then its fighters will turn upon their sponsors and the American and Israeli public will be victims.

 

 

 

A tale of two countries, the question of independence and misrepresentation of the truth on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 17)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 17)” (RT.com, 8 March 2014)

I haven’t been following this weekly series of interviews since December 2013 – I made up my mind to tune in only if someone of interest featured on the show – and Episode 17 piqued my interest as it features RT.com legal commentator Alexander Mercouris giving his opinion and insights on the Western media’s presentation of events in Ukraine since November 2013. As a visitor to and commenter on Russia-related blogs The Kremlin Stooge and Da Russophile, I’ve come across Mercouris’s comments on many topics that the blog authors and their guests post and have occasionally conversed with Mercouris myself. If this background means of course that I’m biased in my assessment of this episode, then so be it: at this point in time, I think it impossible to be impartial on the events in Ukraine and how they are being interpreted in the Western press, if one believes that the role of the media is not only to report accurately on events as they occur but also strive for truth and be an advocate for those whose interests are not served or enhanced by violent seizures of power from legitimately elected governments (no matter how incompetent and corrupt those governments may be) by groups who pretend to be one thing but serve hidden masters and agendas.

Mercouris is a clear-voiced and articulate speaker who is easy to follow, thanks to his careful arguments which are evidence of his ability and legal experience in analysing complex issues. Galloway’s interview of Mercouris focuses largely on the telephone conversation between Baroness Ashton, chief foreign envoy of the European Union, and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet who at the time of their conversation had just returned from a fact-finding mission about the demonstrations and shootings on the Maidan in Kyiv over February and March in 2014. In their conversation (hacked and made public by Russian hackers), Paet speaks of talking to a woman doctor who is not identified in the conversation but is known to be Dr Olga Bogomolets, a pro-Maidan supporter, about the attacks on the Maidan demonstrators by unknown snipers on 22 February 2014. Bogomolets mentions that she treated both the police and some of the demonstrators for bullet wounds and noted that the bullets that hit the police were similar to those that hit the demonstrators: an indication that the bullets came from the same fire-arms.

Galloway and Mercouris note that the phone conversation is calm in its discussion of the sniper attacks and that Ashton expresses surprise and shock and makes noises about investigating the sniper attacks. Since the attacks though, Ashton appears to have done little to start an investigation. Mercouris  compares the sniper attacks with the ongoing war in Syria, noting that the same people who funded the neo-fascist seizure of power in Kyiv, forcing the legitimate if weak President Yanukovych to flee for his life to Russia, are much the same people funding the Free Syria Army and jihadi forces in Syria against President Bashar al Assad. Both interviewer and interviewee agree that if Ukraine is to avoid falling apart, with eastern Ukraine threatening to break away after the recent Crimean referendum in which Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the West must work together with Russia to help Ukraine financially.

In just under 14 minutes, both interviewer and interviewee can’t hope to cover all aspects of the crisis in Kyiv and Ukraine. They note that the Western media has done a poor job in reporting the situation there: while mainstream news media in the US have completely ignored events in that faraway country, so-called quality news media like the BBC have misrepresented the situation as one in which Russia is the villain threatening Ukrainian integrity and must be stopped with threats of war or actual war. Unfortunately neither Galloway nor Mercouris touch on why the Western media might be doing such a shoddy job, nor why a situation exists in which the quality news media tells more lies than the tabloid news media, for all its obsession with celebrity gossip and sport, does. The time passes very quickly and Galloway is forced to cut off his interview quite abruptly.

Galloway’s second interview is with a former UK Labour Cabinet minister, Brian Wilson, who happens to be a long-time friend of Galloway’s and who plans to tour with Galloway promoting the “No” case against Scottish independence ahead of the September 2014 referendum. Surprisingly, Galloway does not compare the upcoming Scottish referendum on the question of independence with the mid-March referendum in Crimea on whether to accede to Russia or revert to the 1992 Ukrainian Constitution’s position on Crimea’s status in Ukraine (in which the peninsula would enjoy autonomy under Ukrainian sovereignty) though I suppose to have done so would have bogged him and Wilson down in a long discussion comparing the two.

Wilson makes a point that Scottish people living and working in England apparently will be unable to vote in the referendum; though he does not elaborate further, that fact may well suggest that the organisers of the referendum have chosen to obscure the extent to which the Scottish economy is enmeshed with the economy of the rest of the UK and independence could have quite adverse consequences on Scottish employment levels. Would Scottish people living and working in other parts of the UK be forced to return to Scotland where there may not be any jobs available in the general industry area these people work in? For that matter, would non-Scottish UK citizens have to leave Scotland to try to find work elsewhere in the UK – and end up finding none? Additionally Wilson points out that the obsession with independence and Scottish identity might be obfuscating other more pressing issues that Scots are interested in. If Scottish identity depends on Scotland being independent, then Scottish identity might be very weak to begin with and independence will not solve that problem. The experience of Ukraine as an independent country since 1991, during which time the government made few attempts to establish a Ukrainian identity and a Ukrainian culture to bring together and unite different groups with varying histories, languages, religions and cultures, should serve as a warning.

There’s much to be said for Wilson and Galloway’s case against independence for Scotland but 13 minutes just aren’t enough time for a deeper discussion and the “No” case seems a bit superficial. I’ll have to find out more myself about what independence might mean for Scotland and whether there’s a real case for the “No” cause.

Though Galloway and his missus Gayatri Pertiwi might not have realised at the time, Scotland could learn something from Ukraine’s experience of independence and proceed a bit more cautiously down the road towards breaking away from the United Kingdom. The case for independence may not be as clear-cut as Scottish voters might be led into thinking it is.

Hidden truths revealed (or maybe not) on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 2)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 2)” (RT.com, 23 November 2013)

Broadcast on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas, this episode partly focuses on the various conspiracy theories surrounding the death and whether any of these might be closer to the truth of what actually happened and if Lee Harvey Oswald really had been capable of shooting JFK on his own. Interviewee Michael Yardley, a weapons expert, talks at length on Oswald’s background and on the physical context of the shooting as it related to the wounds suffered by the President and the film evidence of the shooting. Yardley regards Oswald as a “deeply suspicious” character whose loyalties and ideological beliefs are extremely dodgy, and refers to a number of conspiracy theories revolving around Oswald in which the CIA and other organisations seem to be linked to him. Yardley discusses the logistics of the killing and finds that Oswald could have killed Kennedy. The interviewee also delves into the circumstances of Robert Kennedy’s killing in a Los Angeles hotel in 1968.

In the episode’s second half, the focus switches to the Chilcot inquiry into the British government’s conduct in the period leading up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 with interviewee David Davis, a Conservative Party politician. Davis refers to the snail pace at which the inquiry has proceeded due to the obfuscation thrown up by the political establishment and the embarrassment this has caused as the delays only confirm the public distrust of the government and its agencies. Davis looks at likely reasons as to why the Chilcot inquiry is blocked by the refusal of relevant institutions to co-operate with the inquiry. Despite having supported the intervention in 2003, Davis acknowledges that the invasion has failed in its supposed aims of delivering democracy to Iraq and freedom for its people, that it has caused much suffering to Iraqis and damaged US and British standing in the Muslim world, and that it has discredited the US and UK political establishments in the eyes of their people.

The switch from the JFK assassination to the Chilcot inquiry is rather abrupt – I was watching the episode on Youtube so all the advertisement had been removed – and I’d have liked the assassination to have taken up the entire episode rather than half. Admittedly while the details of the assassination are interesting, they add nothing new to the topic that most people already know. What really was interesting was Galloway and Pertiwi’s brief chat about the Kennedy brothers’ link to President Sukarno of Indonesia; whether the assassination marked a turning-point in Indonesia’s relationship to United States and might have led to Sukarno’s overthrow in 1965, and the subsequent bloodbath that followed as the Indonesian Army pursued, imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of people suspected of Communist sympthaties, was not discussed and perhaps we shall never know. Perhaps if Galloway had steered Yardley away from the details of the shooting and the two discussed the conspiracy theories surrounding the killing, why they continue to persist and what the persistence of these theories suggest about people’s views of JFK himself, the discussion might have been much more riveting.

Both interviews are very absorbing and the time passes so quickly that when Galloway terminates both interviews, the shock that the minutes have sped by is truly disorienting.

As usual with these episodes, Galloway and Pertiwi converse a little about the topics under scrutiny and Galloway casually mentions that former US President George H W Bush, the then CIA Director, happened to be in Dallas at the time of JFK’s shooting.

Spotlighting systemic racism in Britain on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 4)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 4)” (RT.com, December 2013)

In this episode, the Galloways enquire into institutional racism in the United Kingdom. First off, Gayatri Pertiwi tours the streets of London collecting opinions of the general public on whether they consider Britain to be a racist country; not surprisingly, she finds the responses depend very much on the perceptions and experiences of the individuals she stops. Taken together, the responses point to an underlying racial prejudice that persists thanks to a worsening economic situation, a rise in social inequality and deliberate fanning by the nation’s media and institutions including the Cameron government, the police and the court system.

Galloway interviews social and political activist Lee Jasper who wrote a report on racism in Britain. Jasper reveals that racism is deeply embedded in current government policies and government agencies and that this is generating wide consequences throughout society. The racism is directed not only against black British and Asian British (“Asian” in this context refers to people whose antecedents come from the Indian subcontinent) but also against travellers, Roma, Bulgarians and Romanians. Especially worrying is how racism has become rife in the police force and the law courts.

Next up is Stephen Norris, a former London Mayor candidate and member of the Conservative Party, who discusses racism in the police force. He and Galloway refer to various scandals that have dogged the police including the death of Mark Duggan in police custody in 2011 which set off riots across Britain and agree that the police have not dealt with these scandals sufficiently enough that perpetrators have been arraigned and charged with serious crimes. Particularly alarming is the extent to which police supply information to a greedy press in exchange for money.

The Galloways sum up the episode by canvassing Twitter responses on the extent of institutional racism in the UK. They find that most people agree that while Britain is much less racist than, say, France or the Netherlands, and indeed most other countries in western Europe, the situation is worsening; one respondent says that the media is stoking fear of immigrants and blacks among the general public. Galloway himself observes that as the economy declines and people compete for a shrinking share of jobs, racism will increase and politicians will whip it up for what it’s worth as they see votes in it.

This is a highly informative episode on how racism has become resurgent in a country under enormous social and economic pressure, and how governments and media collude in dividing people and encouraging mutual hostility and distrust among them, the better to control them and profit from their divisions and suffering. The racism comes at a time when the Cameron government is floundering in its management of the economy and government, and needs something to divert public attention away from its general incompetence and isolation from the public (several of Cameron’s Cabinet ministers have little real-world experience in industry and are basically career politicians and party bureaucrats), and its genuflections before powerful hidden corporate interests. The suspicion that in spite of the tapping scandals at News Corporation the Cameron government continues to work secretly with the Murdoch-owned media for cash is never far away. At the same time, the Galloways and their interviewees do not offer any suggestions as to how racial prejudice can be eradicated from the police and judiciary. At the very least, this last episode in the Galloways’ Sputnik series serves to alert people to a deep and ongoing problem in British society.

Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 3) – talk-show politics and current affairs with a very slick media performer

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 3)” (RT.com, November 2013)

In addition to representing Bradford West in the British Parliament, the politician / writer George Galloway found time to make a 4-episode series on global politics and current affairs with his wife Putri Gayatri Pertiwi. In Episode 3, he interviews John Wight on peace talks between the US and Iran over the Iranian nuclear energy program and Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross on the plight of Christian communities in Syria during the Syrian war between the Bashar al Assad government and so-called “rebels” fighting for its overthrow.

The episode divides into two parts each dominated by Galloway’s two guests. John Wight discusses the situation in Syria and how it reflects the posturing of the Western powers, in particular the US, and their allies in Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia who have interests in the continuation of the Syrian war. The influence of the Western general public and the British government on delaying (temporarily at least) the Americans’ headlong rush into committing US troops to support and fight alongside the Free Syrian Army and other insurgents is touched upon. In the second half of the episode, Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross talks about the difficulties and dangers faced by Syrian Christians from extremist Islamic militants in the FSA.

Galloway is the dominant figure throughout the episode with his slick presentation style (though perhaps he should have been advised that some viewers would find his high-collared suit, reminiscent of suits once worn by Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, somewhat disturbing – but he would probably tell such viewers to bugger off) that is finely attuned to hosting a current affairs talk show. Pertiwi plays distinct second fiddle and side-kick to Galloway by presenting additional information and videos of questions posed to the general British public on Iran and Syria. John Wight knows George Galloway and is able to hold his own in discussion while Mother Agnes Mariam is a very softly spoken interviewee.

For those who know a fair deal about Syria from following alternative news media on the Internet, Wight and Mother Agnes Mariam do not add much new information. Those following mainstream news media are not likely to have heard of Mother Agnes Mariam or her organisation Mussalaha (Reconciliation), which strives to mediate disputes, and thus do not know of the harassment and slandering that follow her in the West due to her support for the Syrian government. In recent months, the nun has been trying to call attention to the FSA rebels’ kidnapping of women and children from villages in parts of Syria in August 2013 and the kidnapped people’s exploitation as apparent victims of chemical warfare supposedly waged by the Syrian government later in month on videos made by the rebels. The nun has been met with silence at least and outright vilification by anti-war groups in the West. Indeed, Galloway refers to an incident in which Mother Agnes Mariam was barred from attending a Stop the War Conference in London by Owen Jones and Jeremy Scahill. It would have been most informative had Galloway devoted the entire interview to the nun and discussed with her what she thought of the incident and why it happened.

That Mother Agnes Mariam supports the Syrian government in the war does not automatically mean she supports or has supported its style of governance or the policies it has pursued. The Syrian government has followed secular policies since a group of army officers who were members of the Ba’ath Party seized power in a coup in 1963. All the army officers involved were Shi’a Muslims of the Alawite sect. In the years that followed, one of the officers, Hafez al Assad, removed his fellow coup leaders and became President in 1971; he replaced the old Syrian power elite with one of his choosing. Now ironically, the power elite he installed is intent on maintaining power (and perhaps forcing or persuading al Assad’s son and successor Bashar in continuing the old ways). Under Alawite rule, religious minorities may not have had very much freedom but they at least enjoyed security and stability so in the current chaos it should be no wonder that they prefer the devil the know to the devil they don’t.

I did respect Jeremy Scahill before for previous investigative reporting he has done on Blackwater Inc and the Obama government’s secret drone wars in the Middle East but my opinion of him since has been dropping so I was not too surprised to discover that he’d been instrumental in pushing Mother Agnes Mariam out of the StW Conference.

I did find the Galloways a little too slick and “media-whorish” for my liking. They are very highly opinionated and I suspect they only invite those interviewee subjects whose views and opinions match or correspond with their own. Their hearts and minds are in the right place and I sense they are basically decent so I will try to follow the other episodes they have done if only to confirm my intuition which is usually only 50% right.

 

Out of the Trees: uneven pilot comedy episode rehashing tired Monty Python sketches

Ian MacNaughton, “Out of the Trees” (1975)

Huge surprise when I was surfing Youtube.com one day: a pilot for an abandoned TV show written by former Monty Python man Graham Chapman and rising star script-writer Douglas Adams of “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame! The pilot film was thought lost for a long time but happy serendipity decreed that a low-quality recording of the original master tape be made and it is this humble if overlooked recording that has survived to the present.

Billed as “A British Rail Film”, the pilot episode opens as long-haul passenger journey in which three sets of passengers share a berth and engage in odd conversations. Two of these passengers are a voice-over actor Michael (Roger Brierly) and a links man Ken (Graham Chapman) whose conversation wends from a documentary the actor has done of the exploits of Ghengis Khan across Mongolia, several Central Asian and European states, and finally Britain itself where Ghengis (sic) Khan sets about remaking the country in his own name. From there the episode dives into a skit about bureaucrats in fire-fighter uniforms trying to make speeches and chiding one another about the correct way to address their audience while a junior civil servant leaps about yelling that a nearby building is on fire. Concluding the episode is a skit about a young couple in love who pluck a peony from a tree and are immediately accosted by two coppers who harass them over stealing private property while just down the road there is mayhem as an elderly woman is bashed by a thug, another yob steals a man’s bicycle and several punch-ups break out. The police officers’ attempt to apprehend the couple leads to a chain reaction of emergencies and call-outs to the paramedics, the fire service, emergency services, the army, the navy, the airforce, the bomb squad … all resulting in explosions galore that all but finish off the entire planet. While Earth is consumed in a fiery holocaust, two bureaucrats, the last survivors on the planet, complement one another on their speeches.

Unfortunately the episode is no great masterpiece: it feels rather stale in parts and some sketches are too long and the dialogue in them too contrived, droll and twee. The usual Monty Python satirical targets make their appearance and while they are funny, the sketches lack freshness and gaiety. Graham Chapman was obviously missing the Monty Python TV series, the team probably having broken up at the time, never to reunite for another series, and his contributions look rather like those skits from the series that originally ended up on the cutting-room floor. The best skits are the peony-stealing skit that features Mark Wing-Davey as one of the errant peony-pickers and the parts about Ghengis Khan. Apparently not all of the pilot episode ended up on the low-quality surviving tape and there are sections missing from Ghengis Khan’s tale. The dialogue can be clever and silly.

Women engaged in social one-upmanship, an apparently innocent action engendering severe consequences for the planet, bureaucratic bungling leading to disaster, a ruthless and bloodthirsty dictator wanting a sea-change from all the excitement of conquering the known world, pillaging towns and raping virgins … they must have all looked very good on paper but translated to the screen, the result is uneven. Compared to many modern comedies though, even when average this film still pulls quite a few laughs from unusual juxtapositions of ideas and issues.

The significant historical value of the film is that it brings together Douglas Adams and actors Simon Jones and Mark Wing-Davey who became associated with Adams’ “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” saga.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 20: Night of the Vicious Valentine): fantasy, eccentricity and camp comedy in an original plot

Irving Moore, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 20: Night of the Vicious Valentine)” (1966)

This episode is notable for winning the series its only Emmy award for Best Actress, the gong going to noted actor Agnes Moorehead, better known for her role as Endora the witchy mother of main witch character Samantha Stephens in the famous TV show “Bewitched”.

The story is a murder mystery in that agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) are investigating a series of unfortunate and untimely deaths of wealthy industrialists linked by the fact that they’ve been married for several months to much younger women whom they’ve met through a match-making agency run by one Emma Valentine (Moorehead). The episode runs in a narrative similar to the Diana Rigg colour episodes of “The Avengers” series with the agents chasing various leads, trying to prevent more tragedies and nearly meeting with tragedy themselves – Gordon nearly losing his head in a print shop but not over some gaudy stationery – and the colourful, almost surreal and even saccharine sets and the lavish costumes on all characters suggest a Western fantasy-land not far removed from that inhabited by John Steed and Emma Peel a hundred years later. Oh, Grant might be President but then Avengersland also had Queen Elizabeth II and Carnaby Street. A dastardly, eccentric villain with a noble quest to save women from economic and social exploitation that hide an agenda to take over the United States’ wealth and gain power, attended by equally strange and eccentric minions and claiming some bizarre torture and death-dealing devices, including one that looks like a steampunk version of Barbarella’s Orgasmatron. West and Gordon are even equivalent to Peel and Steed: West does most of the strong-arming but ends up spending a good part of the episode tied up and Gordon inveigles his way into Valentine’s love-nest. The climax is one of the highlights with both men trussed up helplessly attached to a glass structure that will collapse on top of yet another hapless industrialist on his wedding day. As ever, improbably the agents get out of that bit of trouble and into another but fight their way out and all good people in that episode live to see another day.

Moorehead is the star of the show here and doesn’t everyone from Conrad and Martin down to the script-writers and technical crew know it: the plot revolves around her, the script-writers give her the best lines, the actors acknowledge her star presence and let her dominate, the sets are as luxurious, spacious and decadent as the budget allowed, and even the folks in charge of furniture and ornaments give her a set of dumb-bells in the shape of love-hearts to exercise with. Moorehead knows she is playing an essentially campy role and deploys all her witchy Endora charm in infusing it with drama, character and wit. The only let-down here is that she doesn’t get enough screen time with Martin’s Gordon so they could parry witticisms; Conrad’s character is clever and resourceful but not allowed to trade puns and double entendres with Valentine while trapped in her creepy touchy-feely contraption which doesn’t get much of a work-out. (What the script-writers for The Avengers could have done with those hands to Mrs Peel!) I tip my ten-gallon hat off to “The Wild, Wild West” for combining the surreal, the campy and the plain bizarre with the spy adventure form in a way that makes this fantasy-land plausible without it looking twee in the way many Avengers episodes do.

The episode is an amusing commentary on the status of women in the US in the late 19th century and also in the 1960s: West’s conversation with Valentine on women seeking political and economic equality with men plays safe so that West doesn’t come off as too conservative or too progressive on the idea of feminism. A minor female characters plays a stereotypical simpering type but shows unexpected courage in the plot’s climax. Perhaps the producers could have done much, much more with the theme but as is, “The Night of the Vicious Valentine” is a real highlight with everyone pulling out all the stops in creative flair, camp comedy and inventive plot devices.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 13: Night of the Skulls): an entertaining plot with surprises and running gags

Alan Crosland Jr, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 13: Night of the Skulls)” (1966)

A really surprising episode this turns out to be, with surprises and gags following after another, all done in such a way as to appear completely plausible in spite of many daft ideas. Firstly Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) fight over a woman, and West shoots Gordon dead. West then goes on the run while Gordon’s funeral, officiated over by Gordon himself in disguise as a priest(!), is held. Turns out the stoush is a set-up to allow West to infiltrate a secret cult that is swallowing up various murderers on the run and the only way West can penetrate this group is to be a murderer himself.

West not only infiltrates the cult but thanks to a bizarre trial in which he is tried by a jury of “peers” – that is, fellow murderers! – for the murder of Artemus Gordon, he is convicted and made a member of the cult. The cult leader (and trial judge) proposes a new trial in which the murderers whittle down their numbers – that is, one another! – to select three people for a special assignment. In the meantime, Gordon in yet another disguise infiltrates the cult and gets as far as contacting West before they’re both discovered by the cult members and imprisoned down a well. By means of an ingenious though the hokeyest of hokey escapes, the two agents emerge from the well and try to foil the cult members’ plot to kill US President Ulysses Grant, his Vice-President and the Secretary of State.

This is an entertaining episode all the way right through to the end with perhaps the biggest surprise of all in the customary tag scene that takes place in West and Gordon’s private railway car. The cult members are rounded up and sent on their way to justice. There are at least three or four fights, the most notable being a swordfight between West and a Japanese samurai: West can’t handle a sword properly so the fight ends with an accidental tragedy. Conrad and Martin act out their parts in the way they’re supposed to, Conrad as the straight James Bond spy type and Martin as his comedy foil; they keep up the running gag of West nearly killing Martin yet again, and moreover include the cult leader who turns out to be a US senator suffering from a bad case of megalomania in a near-murder scene. The climax is cleverly done, taking place the next day after West has despatched the three would-be assassins, when viewers would have expected West to rejoin Gordon in seeking out the ring-leader.

The cheap budget for the episode gives it a clean bare-bones setting in which West has to keep negotiating a labyrinth of passage-ways and cul-de-sacs that end up as a closed maze. The ambience is somewhat austere as a result and the producers had to resort to unusual techniques, like filming one particular scene from a bird’s-eye view, to maintain the suspense and the shadowy nature of the cult.

The narrative of the plot plays with and confounds viewer expectations of how it should proceed while maintaining the series’ usual tropes of West playing straight man who attracts fights and femme fatales like a lamp attracts moths, Martin’s penchant for outlandish disguises, various eccentric villains, a main baddie with a swollen ego and bizarre motifs that reference and question aspects of modern society at a safe distance for viewers. In this episode, the theme is political corruption and the thin division between legitimate politicians who look and act squeaky-clean, and secret crime organisations on whose help those politicians rely. (Ironically President Grant, the ultimate employer of West and Gordon, in real life was sometimes associated with corrupt appointees, especially during his second term.) West’s trial and conviction appear to mock the rituals of court sessions in the US. At times the episode does not feel much like a Western at all, so closely does it depend on the plot and its characters to pull the story along.

Viewers will enjoy the emphasis on a secret cult within the US government plotting a coup against the President and his cabinet, and the various plot twists that advance the plot along, make it look plausible and tie up all loose ends. Surprisingly the plot and the ideas and issues associated with it resonate with modern conspiracy theories about the possibility that a secret government might exist within the nominal US government and the episode feels very fresh and contemporary.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 1, Episode 1: The Night of the Inferno): a cautious start to a classic TV series

Richard C Sarafian, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 1, Episode 1: The Night of the Inferno)” (1965)

With the Civil War over and the period of Reconstruction begun in the South, there is unrest aplenty in the western and southwestern territories of the United States and President Grant needs a man to go undercover and help bring order to these lands and their peoples. Enter one Jim West (Robert Conrad), brought to Grant in disguise as a renegade prisoner, and entrusted with a mission to seek and apprehend a Mexican revolutionary Juan Manolo in Texas. Travelling by private train given him by Grant and enlisting the help of Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), Jim meets a Chinese informant Wing Fat (Victor Buono) who introduces him to Lydia (Suzanne Pleshette), who turns out to be an old flame of Jim’s.

Gordon and West discover that Manolo is keeping gunpowder in barrels supposed to contain wine in the cellar of Lydia’s mansion. After going their separate ways, West is later captured by some of Manolo’s men and imprisoned with Lydia. West engineers an escape, rejoins Gordon and together they capture the man who they think is Manolo. West takes the man back to his train where he is ambushed by the real Manolo who has been disguised as Wing Fat all along.

There follows a billiards game during which West tries to buy time while Gordon and Lydia, having arrived at the train, battle Manolo’s men. Both agents quickly despatch the baddies and with Lydia ride off into the night on the train. All quite mundane really: but this episode was a pilot episode for the series so it erred on the side of caution.

The episode liberally borrows from the James Bond movie series and the tropes borrowed become part of the show’s regular props: the character of James West himself, a suave undercover agent who’s cool, calm and very collected in even the most dire and dangerous situations; a femme fatale who’s attracted to West but can’t always be trusted; eccentric villains; bizarre plots and plot devices such as the billiards game; and strange settings (a train as a secret hide-out?!) among others. An original touch is the character of Artemus Gordon who’s a dab hand at ventriloquy and outlandish disguises which come in handy in every episode. Conrad plays West as a straight, fairly colourless character, foil to the real star Martin who imbues Gordon with a distinctive cheerfulness and zest: no matter how far-out the disguise is, Martin’s Gordon pulls it off comfortably in a way that treads a fine balance between plausible (and not so plausible) camp and seriousness.

Victor Buono brings flamboyant flair to the episode as the disguised Manolo, enlivening an otherwise run-of-the-mill story-line. America in the mid-1960s being a relatively innocent time, the producers dared to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to American TV audiences by portraying a Chinese character relatively sympathetically and then deconstructing it: in this way, the show called attention to racist stereotyping and the Hollywood tendency at the time to cast white people in roles of non-whites. (The series was unusual for its time in hiring non-white actors to play minor and sometimes major characters, to reflect the reality of the period in which it’s set.) The plot about a Mexican revolutionary thirsting for the return of US territory to his motherland soon after the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction might say something about how fluid territories and identities can be at a time when the civil rights movement was in progress and people generally were hit with the notion that what they considered “normal” was really unjust and degrading to people who through no fault of their own were born as social and economic inferiors.

The series was also pushing the portrayal of women just a little: women were no longer helpless but were as capable of throwing bombs or acting off their own bat. Still, compared to the British TV spy series “The Avengers”, “The Wild, Wild West” had a long way (literally and figuratively) to go.

And last but not least – why the Western setting? It provides a comfortable arena for a TV series to comment on and deconstruct familiar stereotypes about American society and history, past and present, and to present an alternate view of how America might or could have evolved. The Western genre had become tired and stale and was in need of a fresh approach in both TV and movies: shows like “The Wild, Wild West” by throwing and blending together the spy and Western genres breathed new life and eccentricity into both genres. Future episodes would feature science fiction and horror elements. Plus it’s just fun to think that “The Wild, Wild West” anticipates sci-fi steampunk about 20 years before William Gibson introduced the world to cyberpunk and all that followed in his 1985 novel “Neuromancer”!

Somehow it’s ironic that I’ve started watching this series at a time when American society in particular and Western society across the world generally seem to be retreating into identity politics and a crisis of confidence in its institutions, values and ideologies. West and Gordon might have been backing the “wrong” side as we moderns see it but whose side is really “wrong”?

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury): well balanced between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy

Robert Sparr, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury)” (1967)

In this episode, the two US government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) meet the diabolical master-mind magician Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono) who is seeking a toy bird that his assistant Gerda Scharr (Michele Carey) has stolen from him. Gordon has already stashed the bird in a locked safe after finding it abandoned in a building that Gerda had recently fled. Both West and Gordon are puzzled as to why Manzeppi and Gerda want the bird so desperately that they’re prepared to kill for it. West and Gordon subject the toy to various tests and find the name of the toy shop where it was made. West visits there with the toy where he watches an early form of motion picture in a box and is again introduced to Manzeppi who makes a grand entrance down from the ceiling on a crescent-shaped prop. After a fight and a chase, Manzeppi traps West in a bird-cage.

Buono over-acts magnificently as the dastardly devilish Manzeppi, particularly in the scene where he explains that inside the toy bird he seeks is the famed Philosopher’s Stone which also has the Midas touch on nearby objects when exposed to the full moon. Everyone else plays second fiddle to him though Martin’s Gordon almost steals the show in disguise as a Jewish travelling salesman. Minor characters can be quite eccentric and include a deadly Mexican dancer and an equally threatening Japanese fellow with an awfully long and vicious scythe. After a daring rescue and many fights, West and Gordon pursue Gerda who has taken the bird, only to discover that she has exposed herself and the Stone in the bird to the light of the full moon with a dire effect on her that recalls the famous murder scene in the James Bond film “Goldfinger”.

This episode treads an excellent balance between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy: it’s true that Manzeppi has too many far-out magic tricks up his sleeve that can’t be explained by science or logic to be completely credible but Buono carries off the character’s flamboyance and psychopathic villainy without a care in the world. Viewers can clearly see the actor was enjoying himself immensely in the role.  The sets for the toy shop with its labyrinth of dark passages and dead-end tunnels, and collection of sinister toys make for a magnificent backdrop for the action which ranges from all-out action-thriller Western to comedy to fantasy. There is an air of lushness and decadence to the entire episode: all the actors wear bright and lavishly decorated clothes, even for fighting – and that’s just the men alone! The coda to the story suits it well as West and Gordon voice a hope that one day Gerda could be restored to human form but the toy bird ends up in the ownership of someone who is completely unaware of the bird’s power.

Perhaps the silliest part of the whole episode is that something as mystical and dangerously powerful as the Philosopher’s Stone could be housed in a toy chicken of all things … no wonder in an early scene Martin is struggling not to laugh as Gordon and West face down a couple of villains.