The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand): insubstantial plot wastes a good cast and some good ideas

Michael Caffey, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand)” (1967)

In this episode, government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) travel to the Oregon Territory to stop an insurrection fomented by outlaw Sean O’Reilly in Canada. Going their separate ways at first, West goes to Fort Savage to meet a Major Jason – and discovers the fort’s been taken over by O’Reilly (Pernell Roberts), aided by a comely lass Sheila O’Shaughnessy (Lana Wood, the younger sister of Natalie Wood). Despite O’Reilly’s best efforts to kill West, the agent escapes and continues on. Likewise Gordon meets a few colourful characters and despatches them to join up with West.

The episode is very slow to reach its centrepiece which comes about halfway through when West steals a Conestoga wagon, kidnaps Sheila from O’Reilly by making her comatose first and then high-tailing all the way from Oregon back to Fort Savage. This part of the film becomes a running gag: West and Gordon keep losing the wagon for some reason and Sheila keeps reviving only to be made comatose again … and again. The climax is an all-out catfight in which West faces down O’Reilly and a horde of henchmen; West however saves the day with a stack of dynamite which he throws one by one, eerily simulating a 20th century bombing raid. Eventually he has to get his hands dirty going mano a mano with O’Reilly and, well … no prizes for guessing who goes tumbling over a cliff.

I thought this would be a half-decent episode but it’s turned out to be a lot of fluff: the story is too insubstantial to sustain nearly 60 minutes of viewing-time. That’s a pity as some fine guest actors, notably Roberts and the horse playing West’s mount, appear: Roberts himself dominates the cast whenever the camera focuses on him. Conrad plays his usual all-American hero self who extricates himself from an apparently cast-iron deadly fate that Houdini himself would have gasped at, and Martin rises to the occasion of impersonating a French-Canadian diplomat and an ornery coonsman out of the backwoods. The story could have been beefed up a lot more by depicting the relationship between O’Reilly and Sheila as more complex than it is: Sheila the idealistic and starry-eyed proto-socialist following the more cynical O’Reilly who pretends to fight for the cause of the common man but who’s prepared to throw the girl to the wolves and take the money and run when it suits. The budding romance between West and Sheila is unconvincing: viewers know that in the next episode there’ll be another femme fatale waiting for him.

Although some ingenious fighting weapons are at hand for both West and Ward, the episode as a whole features few futuristic ideas and concepts. Aerial bombing as a form of warfare is the main futuristic technological idea here and a world in which ideologies favouring either the wealthy or the poor are at loggerheads is prefigured also. Historical accuracy was apparently a bit sloppy: in an early scene, a van passes through the forest in the far distant background.

Like many tongue-in-cheek TV drama series of its time, episodes of “The Wild, Wild West” usually feature so-called tag ends which comment on or parody the action that’s just concluded: in this respect, this series’ tag ends seem a lot less cute and more humorous than the ones for “The Avengers” (Season 5) which would have been screening in the same year.

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