June 25, 2006

THE WILD, WILD WEST: Alan Moore's Favorite TV Show?

(Updated on 2/2/2020; contains affiliate links) 

Often, I lay awake in bed at night, wondering if Alan Moore watched television as a child.

Yes, it's one of those unusual thoughts that I have frequently. But in watching and viewing media, I often see connections that may or may not necessarily be there, whether through synchronicity or coincidence.

Because there's rather a lot of similarities between both volumes (soon to be three) of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and The Wild Wild West (available on DVD).

It may be a stretch, but WWW was steampunk before there was such a term. Like LOEG, it was a heady mixture of secret agents (it was produced in the late 60s, after all, and managed to make the Secret Service look cool), westerns, a liberal approach to technology (showing things like machine guns, torpedos, and computer dating ahead of their time) and a sly, slightly knowing 20th-century sense of humor. Like many shows at the time, it does have a slightly patronizing attitude towards women (after all, secret agents were always the most handsome men in the world). It is good, solid escapist entertainment, and was eventually canceled not because of ratings, but because it was perceived as being "too violent". (The first season, in black and white, has a slightly more serious tone, embracing its pulp roots). It was a heady brew of genre-mixing, just-this-close-to-anachronistic entertainment that was 30 years ahead of its time.

Much of the success of the show has to fall on its two leads - first, Robert Conrad. Grew up, like many cool people, on the south side of Chicago. Able to play the role of Jim West at just the right level - not too campy or not too serious. Challenged people in the 1970s to knock batteries off his shoulder. Has the sheer power of both the Silver Age and current Wildcat. The only other person on the planet who is cooler than Shatner.

I said it. Cooler. Than. Shatner. Deal.

(It's that knowing, sly sense of humor that helped make the show, and why Will Smith was such a bad choice for the movie version. Mario Van Peebles could have pulled it off. Trust me on this).

The other key was Ross Martin, who played Artemus Gordon, Man of 1,000 Faces (unlike Terry Sloane, Man of 1,000 Talents, or Lefty Brown, Man of 1,000 Mixes who, despite popular rumor, is not the same person as I am. My apologies, Lefty). As "Artie", Martin played a rather fussy, almost egotistical actor, and the comic interplay with Conrad contains genuine affection. (Hey, if you want to go for subtext, that's fine too - their chemistry avoids the overt affectations of, say, another dynamic duo). Plus, since his character was a "master of disguise", Martin handled each of his "disguises" as separate characters (even caricatures, if you want to be honest), doing makeup and avoiding the "latex-mask-and-jump-cut" cliches of most spy shows of the era.)

EDIT: Intrepid comics fans might want to hunt down the four-issue "Night of the Iron Tyrants" mini-series from Millennium comics. It's a great note-by-note recreation, and worth investigating.

Now, admittedly, Alan Moore's writing is not as basic as WWW's - simply put, it's a great, pulpy piece of entertainment. (It's one of the few shows that, when it comes on, I must sit and watch). It is slightly sexist and ethnocentric, but it was produced during a time when we were an extremely unenlightened culture. But who knows, maybe between viewings of each episode, and between trips to the library to check out Victorian literature, Alan Moore's creativity was sparked...

...at the very least, it is one of the coolest (and underappreciated) television shows of the 1960s. Worth a look.

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