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Steampunk Classics: The Wild Wild West

This classic television series exemplifies the fun of fictionalized history. For those of you who are too young to remember, it was a western historical drama created by Michael Garrison, set during the 1870’s. It starred Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as Jim West and Artemis Gordon, dashing Secret Service agents. I loved it for the gadgetry and its sci-fi elements. I wasn’t the only one since it is cited as a favorite by many steampunk aficionados. Ironically, fans have revised the history of the show itself, declaring it as an example of steampunk before the term had been coined. (Tucson’s annual steampunk convention takes its name from this show.)

When I was a child, Wild Wild West was my second favorite show, after Star Trek, of course. West and Gordon were like American versions of James Bond, in a more family-friendly setting. One of coolest things I remember was their mode of transportation, which doubled as their headquarters. They had their own private train, which included a laboratory and a stable. It had great villains, too, particularly the Spanish dwarf Dr. Miguelito Loveless, played by Michael Dunn. An evil genius, he invented the airplane, the cathode-ray tube, and an LSD-like drug. Another thing I enjoyed about the show was the animated title sequence, a montage which showed a heroic cowboy fighting the bad guys and kissing the girl at the end. At the commercial breaks, they would replace each of these pictures with a scene from that episode.

Wikipedia notes that the series was canceled not due to bad ratings but because of the outcry over “television violence.” Was that the real reason, or was it political correctness that pushed the Western genre off of television? It’s not a scientific study by any means, but I remember cowboy shows as being less violent than the 1970’s crime dramas that replaced them. The Wild Wild West, with its campy good guy vs bad guy action, did not deserve this early death.

Younger readers may recall the 1999 feature film version starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline as West and Gordon, with Salma Hayek as the damsel in distress. Its quality was nowhere near that of the series, earning only 17% on Rotten Tomatoes. Though I’m a big fan of Smith, I thought it strange to cast a black man as a Federal agent a mere decade after the abolition of slavery. On the other hand, if it’s steampunk, anything can happen.

Another plot element that changed in the movie was West and Gordon’s nemesis. The scheming little person became an embittered Southern amputee, Dr. Arliss Loveless. The PC anti-Confederate message was obvious, though at least he had a great first name.

DVD’s of the original series are available for rent on Netflix or for purchase on Amazon. I haven’t been able to locate it in streaming form.

If you like steampunk cowboy adventures you’ll love my book Fidelio’s Automata. Get your copy on Amazon.

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  1. I loved all the cool weapons!

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