Two episodes, seen back-to-back* on Bellingham, WA-based MeTV’s Saturday afternoon schedule. Obviously, The Wild Wild West means much more to me, having been a staple of childhood reruns, but I absorbed a lot of episodes of The Big Valley, too.
The Big Valley episode: “The Disappearance,” from 1967, directed by Virgil W. Vogel, written by Michael Gleason from a story by Lou Morheim. Missed the first ten minutes or so, but this episode entirely leaves out the sons of Victoria Barkely, as she travels to a cattle town with daughter Audra (Linda Evans, even more somnolent than usual, which is explained by the circumstances of the plot). Some rather creepy overtones throughout the show, as Audra has been kidnapped from her hotel room, while everybody in town tells Victoria that she was never there at all. Very So Long at the Fair kind of thing, with horrible implications about what might be happening to Audra with those rough cowboys lurking around (or perhaps Linda Evans has already been whisked away to John Derek’s compound).
Like so many 60s TV dramas, a really solid and intelligent script, within the confines of the formula. Along with the menacing bad guys who rule the town, the moral focus is on the sheriff, a good man but a doormat who allows bad things to happen because he’s been promised a cushy retirement. He’s played by Lew Ayres, in fine form. He’s at the receiving end of Victoria’s forceful arguments, and he’s lucky that’s all he’s receiving from her, because Barbara Stanwyck’s Victoria is taking no prisoners in this one.
Stanwyck is awesome. As always. But even more so: she runs down hallways, crawls through walls, gets thrown into piles of junk, and at one point makes a jump – and in those shots it’s really Stanwyck doing the stunt work. “Send the stunt person home, Mister, I’ve been doing this since silent pictures. Now how would you like me to take that punch?” Fantastic. The cowboys don’t stand a chance against her.
Spoileropolis: The reason Audra was “disappeared” was not for the dire reasons you imagined, but because she had anthrax. Big cattle auction about to happen in town, which would’ve been threatened if the word had got out. (See, not unlike So Long at the Fair.) The show also helpfully notes that cattle can’t actually catch anthrax from humans.
The Wild Wild West episode is “Night of the Green Terror,” from season 2 (thus just after the accidental death of series creator Michael Garrison), directed by Robert Sparr and written by John Kneubuhl. (IMDb’s random tantalizing treasures: Kneubuhl wrote mucho TV and the feature The Screaming Skull; he was born in Pago Pago and, 72 years later, died there.) But what you really need to know is that it’s a Loveless episode. Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn) is dressed like a Robin Hood character, but by clambering into a large suit of armor, he has convinced a group of Indians to follow his advice about how to run their economic system – part of his plot to make them entirely dependent on him, which will put an army under his control. (The writing of Loveless’s master plan is pretty sophisticated, an early critique of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, in its own way.) The funniest thing in the show is that when Loveless is dressed up in the armor, pretending to be a great and mighty warrior, he has to keep reminding the skeptical Natives that this tiny Dr. Loveless is indeed a great, great genius and is to be obeyed.
There’s plenty of wacky. Loveless and Annabelle (Pheobe Dorin) do one of their ancient ballads, which turns up again at the end of the show for a stinger. (Garrison had seen them doing folk songs in a New York cabaret act.) The “Indian” actors include Paul Fix and Anthony Caruso. Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) dresses up as an Indian and does some wonderfully absurd chanting. Jim West (Robert Conrad) is tied to a stake inside a teepee and, instead of being killed outright (like any Bond villain, Loveless wants him to die slowly), is held for hours as a arrow-shooting contraption menaces him – when it dries out, it will contract and shoot the arrow. Conrad looks pissed about being tied up for that long, but he often looked pissed.
Decades collapsed when I saw that arrow-shooting thing, which I suddenly remembered in a flash from childhood (true for almost every gizmo in the show, and Loveless’s great costume). Michael Dunn is in good exasperated form in this one, too, communicating how difficult it can be when mere mortals can’t keep up with the glorious workings of your over-developed genius.
I can’t be objective about the show. But this is a good one. And to anyone who sees a resemblance between The Wild Wild West and the graphic novel Rotten, I can only say, “No comment.”
* Not back-to-back. I was making chili during The Big Valley and then set it to simmer. Felt like reading during Rawhide, which actually follows The Big Valley, so I turned it off after the first few minutes. TWWW is next in the schedule.