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”?

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