March 11, 2020

What I've been watching: February 2020

Shows I’ve Watched:

Shows I’ve Bought:
The Wild Wild West
Doctor Who: The Moonbase
Star Trek: The Original Series
Doctor Who: The War Games
The Outer Limits

It’s often said that nostalgia is a way of reliving the past; detractors often accuse us of simply living in the past, as if we refuse to avoid or inhabit the present. I suppose I’d have to consult one of the doctors on The Eleventh Hour to find out the truth of that, not that I don’t on occasion get nostalgic for the days when I had more hair and carried fewer pounds. But then, you don’t want to hear me natter about a post-midlife crisis, or any such nonsense. You came here to read about old television shows, and by golly, I’m going to do my best to satisfy that desire.

Let’s take The Wild Wild West, for example. It’s the leadoff program on our Friday night viewing, having filled a role once occupied by The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and I link those two series deliberately, because they have a lot in common. Both series ran for four seasons, in each case the first season being black-and-white. Both owed a considerable debt to the success of the James Bond movie franchise; both featured a dynamic duo of suave agents dedicated to combating some kind of ridiculous, overly-complicated plot for world domination constructed by an absurdly colorful, egomaniacal villain living on the wrong side of sanity. In both shows the second banana served to soften the edges of the actor playing the hero, allowing the emergency of a humanity that might not otherwise be apparent to the viewer. And, most relevant to this discussion, neither The Wild Wild West nor The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are series that I watched regularly when they were originally on. It’s true that I might have been a bit young for them when they first started, but certainly by the time each series went off the air, I would have matured enough to enjoy the fast-paced action, the outrageous storylines, and the beautiful women that were hallmarks of the two.

So why didn’t I? I’m not entirely certain. It’s possible that the adults in the household wanted to watch something else, although I seem to have a vague memory of being told to watch U.N.C.L.E. once when I was bored and fussy, the idea being that this was the kind of show I ought to be enjoying. Certainly, at that age the most important thing on television for me was sports, but it’s impossible to think that there would have been a game on every single night that these programs aired. Barring some kind of regression therapy to take me back to the past, which might not answer these questions and certainly wouldn’t help me either grow hair or lose weight, I’m afraid we may never know.

I’m off on another tangent, aren’t I? All right, let’s get back to the point. If it’s true that I didn’t watch either of these shows back in the day, then it’s hard to accuse me of trying to relive the past by watching them now. Perhaps the best way to put it is that I’m trying to understand the past, particularly an era that for some reason continues to fascinate me. If this is what I’m doing, then I’m also discovering the added benefit that I enjoy both of these shows immensely.

The Wild Wild West stars Robert Conrad as James West and Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon, agents of the United States Secret Service working under the direction of President Ulysses S. Grant. We don’t often see Grant in the series, because their job isn’t to protect him bodily, but to foil plots that are usually aimed at toppling the United States government. West is the more prominent of the two, which you can tell right away because his name is part of the title (hence, the implicit pun, because West does indeed lead a wild, wild life), in the same way that Robert Vaughn was the titular Man from U.N.C.L.E. West is fast with his fists, with words, and with the ladies, which usually puts him in a fair degree of danger each week. And although he seems to specialize in extricating himself from these threats, it’s a good thing that he has Gordon, a master of disguise and dialect, backing him up.

Gordon, although he seems to spend a good amount of time unconscious as the result of the villain or his henchmen, is a good second to West for a couple of reasons. First, his disguises often allow him in to the villain’s lair, where he proves to be both clever and a tough customer to deal with, occasionally bailing West out at the last moment. Perhaps more important to us as viewers, though, Ross Martin performs that service I mentioned back at the outset: as David McCallum does with Robert Vaughn in U.N.C.L.E., Martin helps to soften and humanize Robert Conrad, who can often come across as abrasive and arrogant, without threatening his status as the show’s star. In West, Conrad’s ego is put to good use, as Conrad displays the confidence necessary for a hero, and his insistence on doing his own stunts is both effective and very impressive. The chemistry between Conrad and Martin, in fact, is one of the show’s best traits; although we’re not quite sure what the relationship is supposed to be at the outset, when the two agents refer to each other as “James” and “Artemus,” by the end of the first season they’ve become “Jim” and “Artie,” and their loyalty and devotion to each other is as great as that which they both show to their government.

I’d be way off base if I didn’t follow up on those colorful villains for a moment, the most famous and best-loved of them being the sinister Dr. Miguelito Loveless, played wonderfully by Oscar-nominee Michael Dunn. His appearances, from the very first, are one of the show’s highlights, but the over-the-top performances by various well-known actors each week ensure that West and Gordon face worthy rivals, to keep the show from descending into a complete cartoon.

I deliberately scheduled both The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West as Friday viewing not only because it’s historically accurate, but because they’re the perfect antidote to the workweek. After slaving over a desk for five days, who wouldn’t be happy to come home to such pleasant, reassuring company on the screen? It’s the perfect way to start a weekend.

My wife considers herself a purist when it comes to Star Trek: The Original Series, and so the enhanced special effects that come with the restored set didn't hold a lot of interest for her. We got the Blu Ray edition, though, because there was a sale going on at Amazon, and it seemed like the right thing to do. And boy, does it make a difference! It would be hyperbole to say that the new effects blew us away, because we're experienced television viewers who've seen a lot of special effects in the day, but it's difficult to describe how they bring Star Trek into, well, the present. It gives one the feeling of how it must have been to watch them during the original network run, even though they're much clearer now than they ever would have been then.

Original effects on the left, enhanced on the right

But for all that, the effects don't overpower what made the original Trek such compelling viewing. One of the things I always find interesting in these early episodes is how easy it could have been, as someone said, for the series to turn into The Mr. Spock Hour. He's an amazing character, even though he's not quite a finished product, with a superb portrayal by Leonard Nimoy. William Shatner, of course, is Captain Kirk, and these early episodes emphasize two things: the humanity of the man, and I don't mean that as charity, although that is present as well, but talking about the value of being fully human, something that neither machine nor Vulcan can replicate; and the importance to him of the Enterprise. As Harry Mudd tells one of his women, a Starfleet captain is married to his ship, and Kirk is a perfect example of this. DeForest Kelley's Dr. McCoy completes the trio that remains beloved for decades. All that, and special effects that are, dare we say it, out of this world? No, let's simply say that, like Baby Bear's porridge, they're just right.

t  t  t

I've alluded to it in the past, but I might as well make it obvious here: the only Doctor Who I'm interested in is the classic series. I'll live with Ecclestone, Tennant, Smith and Capaldi (and John Hurt as the War Doctor), but that's as far as it goes. You can probably figure out who I've left off that list, but from what I've read, I haven't missed anything in the last couple of years.

That's a discussion for another day, though. After all, the name of this feature is "What I've Been Watching," not "What I Haven't Been Watching." Allow me to mention two new acquisitions I haven't had the chance to watch—yet. With an opening on the Saturday night viewing horizon, it's time to begin planning a start-to-finish viewing of Doctor Who—the first time since I originally saw them 30-some years ago. One of the reasons I haven't done that yet is that I haven't yet succeeded in replacing my old VHS versions with DVDs. And in case you haven't checked lately, the price of some Doctor Who discs is off the wall, bec ause they've gone out of print in the United States. They haven't in England, however, and because 1) I happen to have a region-free DVD player, and 2) the Region 2 discs are less expensive, I've been filling in the gaps, particularly in my Patrick Troughton collection.

The Troughton era suffered greatly from the BBC's policy of wiping video tapes in order to reuse them; until the last few years, less than a dozen of his stories had survived, and the balance existed only as telesnaps, a combination of the original soundtracks (they survived the purge) and still photos that had been taken, as I recall, during episode rehearsals. However, in the past few years copies of additional stories have turned up, found in the storerooms of former British colonies, and storiesthat only partially existed were completed by animating the missing episodes.

With the addition of The Moonbase and The War Games (the final Troughton story), I only have two more to buy; then I'll have the full Hartnell and Troughton collections. I figure that will take over a year to go through, by which time I'll be able to fill in some more gaps down the line. Providing coronavirus doesn't get me, I might get the complete series one of these days. And you'll read about it here. TV  


  1. I agree with your wife, Mitchell. I miss the original effects in original Star Trek.

  2. Replies
    1. oneillb454: I couldn't agree more.

    2. Funny; my first thought was that you didn't have anything to do with "Doctor Who."


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