I was thrilled to have an opportunity to write an article focused on one of my favorite television programs – The Wild Wild West. Not long after high school I discovered the world of pulp fiction and began to gobble up the text where ever I could find it.
As I read the tales of Operator #5, The Shadow, Doc Savage, and Nick Carter I had this sense of deja vu. The prose was in lockstep with the 1960s small screen adventures the of shows two protagonist Secret Service agents West and Gordon.
In 2019 PulpFest announced their convention theme, Children of the Pulps, and I felt a calling to share my long felt beliefs in the links between the two entities.
The Night of Pulp Fiction Television
It was 1965, the peak of television’s golden age. The first National Geographic Special would air, A Charlie Brown Christmas would premiere, and Friday night viewing would get more exciting with the debut of a program that was a true child of the pulps, The Wild, Wild West.
Westerns were a dying breed on television in the mid-1960s as the 007-fueled spy-genre swept over the landscape. In a somewhat bizarre concept to merge the two themes, a member of the CBS development team pitched an idea for a show that featured a James Bond-style secret agent on horseback. Deemed somewhat crazy, the show would find leadership, go into development, and claim a spot on the network schedule.
The show’s dime-novel titles, “The Night the Dragon Screamed,” “The Night of the Fatal Trap,” and “The Night of a Thousand Eyes,” created a sense of the show’s potential to fuel both dreams and nightmares.
Keeping the show moving were its two heroes, Jim West and Artemus Gordon. Don Hutchison in his book The Great Pulp Heroes provides not only a description of Jimmy Christopher, alas Operator #5, but also Jim West: “To be frank, Jimmy Christopher was a Superman. Like most of the pulpwood heroes, Jimmy was a larger-than-life figure absolutely dedicated to the eradication of America’s enemies.”
In fact, as the TV series would progress, West’s ability to survive and win countless battles with armies of men, and falls from balconies, cliffs, and racing wagons might even give him an edge over Operator #5, Secret Agent X, and, lord knows, Doc Savage.
Meanwhile, West’s partner, Gordon, is trained more in line with pulp hero Nick Carter’s early days. Gordon embraces advances in technology as displayed almost weekly through the inventions he supplied West. (Although never stated, I always believed Gordon invented West’s spring-loaded sleeve gun, something featured in the Carter novellas.) Gordon is cultured with a comprehensive understanding of languages, chemistry, engineering, magic, and most importantly, the art of disguise.
Throughout pulp literature, greasepaint, wigs, putty, false teeth, or other gimmicks allowed heroes to transform themselves into another person, as impossible as it may have seemed, and get into the action. Within the framework of this pulp device, Artemus Gordon filled that extremely important role. While West was battling his way through the front door, they invited in Gordon (in disguise) through the back. It never mattered that we could always tell it was Gordon under that fake nose and glasses, disguise was a time-honored convention with a role to perform.
While most of the first season scripts successfully emulated the patterns established by the ballooning espionage craze, others stood far above the rest. Many hinted at the cheap thrills and sensation-packed adventures simmering in the show’s pulp DNA.
In “The Night of the Steel Assassin,” the show’s heroes face Colonel ”Iron Man” Torres, who has rebuilt himself as a man of living metal, seeking revenge on President Grant. This science-fiction element provided the episode with movement, action, raging emotion, and suspense. It opened the possibilities for the show to explore a different way of using the program’s themes and time period. The story idea came from Steve Fisher, who had written extensively for the pulps throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and into the ’50s.
However, it would be “The Night of the Puppeteer” and “The Night of the Druid’s Blood,” two shows that ventured into the weird worlds of fantasy and horror, that set the stage for the program’s future development. A former illustrator and writer for the Ziff-Davis line of pulp magazines, Henry E. Sharp had written both scripts. His touches of the surreal in each teleplay added a thrill-seeking sensationalism to the program.
Deep in an underground lair, mad puppeteer Zachariah Skull controls an army of life-size puppets powered by steam. Skull plans to use his puppet warriors to seek revenge on the Supreme Court justices who had sentenced him to death. The action is a macabre daydream filled with a ballerina, caveman, joker, and a twist ending that paints the subterranean grotto as a giant spider’s web. Then from the darkness of Skull’s cave, we have a story of spontaneous combustion and an evil scientist’s method of keeping brains alive in a viscous solution to harness their intelligence for his own purposes. The script, probably inspired by Edmond Hamilton’s 1930 Weird Tales short story, “The Mind-Master,” gave the program a shot of Victorian Gothic horror. It was evident that the show was beginning to carve out its own identity as a freewheeling adventure series with elements of the fantastic.
“The Night of the Freebooters” harkens to the days of Operator #5, as West and Gordon infiltrate a renegade army poised to seize control of the United States. The army’s leader, Thorald Wolfe, has two secret weapons: a steam-powered tank, and grenade launching rifles. Savage armies, led by disgruntled military men (Union or Confederate), equipped with advanced weapons, ready to march on the country, the territory, or the region were repeated themes of the series. These overheated paranoid tales seemed like possible histories in a country torn apart by the civil rights movement where some still laid blame on the nation’s troubles at the feet of 100-year-old post-Civil War reconstruction.
Robert Sampson writes in Yesterday’s Faces: Strange Days, “The pulps were voracious. They swallowed everything — Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare, western adventure and the speculation of astronomers.” In spring 1966, Ken Kolb (screenwriter for The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) would submit a teleplay reworking “The New Accelerator,” a 1901 science-fiction short story by H.G. Wells. “The Night of the Burning Diamond” would pit West and Gordon against Morgan Midas who has mastered a formula that can make him move so quickly that he becomes invisible to the naked eye. The series, having borrowed from the classics, was now officially full-grown, but more exciting changes were yet to come.
In their introduction to Pulp Culture: The Art of Fiction Magazines, authors Frank Robinson and Lawrence Davidson write, “No history of the old pulp magazines can be complete without a gallery of the cover art that enticed the reader and sparked the imagination.” Those same vivid colors gave The Wild, Wild West a similar jolt.
With the sweep of the brush, the brown dust of the Old West merged with the vibrant colors of the Victorian era creating a grandeur background for mystery, drama, suspense, and devious methods of death. Even the shows protagonists, Jim West and Artemus Gordon, moved to an elevated plane. Their wardrobes become more stylish, the fight scenes more choreographed, and the gadgets more fantastic. Now under the direction of story editor Henry E. Sharp, shows no longer were puddles of ideas. Each adventure was heightened beyond normal, with more intense drama, and at a pace designed to exhaust.
“The Night of the Big Blast” would rework Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with reanimated corpses as human bombs used to kill government officials. “The Night of the Flying Pie Plate” — a personal favorite — has West and Gordon foiling a bizarre con job with a green-skinned girl from Venus who wants government gold to fuel her ship. “The Night of the Skulls” could be the greatest testament to pulp-art skulls ever on the small screen. West and Gordon tackle a league of assassins who use the skull as its logo.
Each week stories leapt off the screen into the home, more incredible than the one before. Like its newsstand ancestors, this child offered a whirlwind of unfiltered dangerous escapades. One week, pursuing the Philosopher’s Stone; the next, battling the dangers of manufactured tidal waves; and then trying to discover the secrets of a ghost town without getting their necks broken by a phantom killer. Yet even with this outpouring of weekly frenetic action, three tent-pole episodes within the second season stand out as classics.
“The Night of the Returning Dead” would merge many story elements as West and Gordon confront a ghost rider connected to a much larger mystery. One of the second season’s most remembered episodes, “The Night of the Man-Eating House,” recalls the horror pulps as our heroes chase a prisoner to an old abandoned mansion haunted by the spirit of a dead woman, and containing a secret laboratory that holds an army of rats. Another episode, “The Night of the Lord of Limbo,” scripted by Sharp, uses the Welles concept of time travel and one man’s plan to alter history.
The program would slip in the ratings during the second season and fail to be among the 25 most popular shows of the year. It may have been that the viewing public wanted more camp (Batman), or more globally themed entertainment (Mission: Impossible), but you could see a change in the show’s tone when it returned in fall 1967. Many of the episodes reflected traditional westerns, while the villains and schemes seemed more political or protocol crime based. Not that the show could shed its remarkable storytelling style and feel. There were bubbling vaults of acid to cross, a search for Montezuma’s lost treasure, giant missiles leveling towns, and a battle against the Black Legion that was like Norvell Page’s work in The Spider’s Black Police trilogy.
Two favorites from that year still held that magic of a fight against incredible menace; “The Night of the Undead” tossed West and Gordon into the middle of voodoo ceremonies and battles with the walking dead. Then emoting the macabre and suspenseful atmosphere of an Edgar Allan Poe mystery, “The Night of the Simian Terror,” yields a tale of secret experiments with apes and its sinister effects on a U.S. senator’s son.
Whether it was a continued decline in the ratings or a war by parent groups on excessive television violence, season four would be the series’ swan song. As in the previous year, it was a mixed bag of storytelling concepts. Missing most of all was a sense of the fantastic; that a sudden bright flash of something would occur for you and your friends to debate the next day under a shady tree with an orange Tru-Ade and Moon Pie. Still, old habits were hard to break, and West and company faced a giant tuning fork radiating powerful sound waves, mysteries surrounding the development of a youth elixir, and of course, a land-grabbing devil attacking settlers with his tank.
Although season four exhibits all the signs of a series getting a little worn around the edges, it offers a few gems of reworked classics. “The Night of the Diva” features variations of The Phantom of the Opera, with a thrilling climax worthy of The Shadow. Finally, my all-time favorite, “The Night of the Bleak Island,” brings together, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Moonstone, and countless eerie island mysteries in a story worthy of its place next to the hundreds of sensational fiction titles of yesterday.
The Wild, Wild West’s roots ran deep and tapped into the sources of a simpler age of entertainment. For four years, it thrilled, startled, fascinated, and astonished with plots that never seemed remote or ideas too fantastic. The final episode, “The Night of the Tycoons,” ended the series without fanfare. Sadly, actor Ross Martin had suffered a near-fatal heart attack during the fourth season and did not appear in the final fade-out as their private train chugged into the sunset. Just as its forefathers had disappeared from the shelves of the newsstands, the program vanished.
Several attempts to revive the show resulted in movies that focused on gimmickry and frolicsome humor. Each effort missed the treasured artistry that had made the series so memorable. The show, like the tattered pages of its ancestors, lives on in our memories, and thankfully in reruns, DVD, and maybe one day online at the click of a button.
Update: September 21, 2019
Publisher Mike Chomko reports that back numbers of The Pulpster are in very short supply. Only numbers 27 and 28 are available in very limited quantities for purchase through Mike Chomko Books, the official distributor outside of PulpFest. All issues earlier are out of print.
There are a lot of great articles from a lot of great authors in each of those numbers. It would be a shame to miss out on them.
Mike has a post regarding number 28 on the PulpFest website.