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Film & TV

Wild Wild West – Precursor to Steampunk

steampunk

The Wild Wild West is an American science fiction western television series that ran on the CBS television network for four seasons from September 17, 1965 to April 4, 1969. The show incorporated classic Western elements with an espionage thriller, science fiction/alternate history ideas (in a similar vein to what would later be called steampunk).

steampunkThe writers created an unforgettable series of megalomaniacs, supervillains, deranged inventors, evil sorcerers, ninja warriors, invisible assassins, and the occasional giant ape. As gadgets and extreme technology were a feature of the secret agent movies of the period, these villains’ arsenals bulged with earthquake machines, steam-powered tanks, clones, tidal-wave machines, flamethrowers, radio-controlled torpedoes, steam robots, and disembodied human brains.

Set during the administration of President Ulysses Grant (1869–77), the series followed Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) as they solved crimes, protected the President, and foiled the plans of megalomaniacal villains to take over part or all of the United States. The show featured a number of fantasy elements, such as the technologically advanced devices used by the agents and their adversaries. The combination of the Victorian era time-frame and the use of Verne-esque technology has inspired some to give the show credit as being one of the more “visible” origins of the steampunk genre. These elements were accentuated even more in the 1999 film adaptation.

steampunkThe agents traveled in luxury aboard their own train, the Wanderer, equipped with everything from a stable car to a laboratory. James West had served as an intelligence and cavalry officer in the American Civil War (1861-1865) on the staff of Ulysses Grant; his “cover,” at least in the pilot episode, is that of “a dandy, a high-roller from the East.” Thereafter, however, there is no pretense, and his reputation as the foremost Secret Service agent often precedes him. According to the TV movies, West retires from the Service by 1880 and lives on a ranch in Mexico. Gordon, who was a captain in the Civil War, returns to show business when he retires as the head of a traveling Shakespeare players troupe.

Despite high ratings, the series was cancelled near the end of its fourth season as a concession to Congress over television violence.

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