Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Greatest Collection of Villains Television Has Ever Seen!

It's always fun to examine how different pop culture media cross-pollinate each other. For instance, if it weren't for the influence of pulp magazines and comic books (combined with the popularity of spy stories and Westerns), then we would never have gotten to watch one of the rare jewels in the barren wasteland of television--Wild Wild West.

Wild Wild West was set in a steampunk universe before the term "steampunk" was even coined. It was completely unashamed of itself as it went as far over-the-top in plot and character as it could go--giving us bizarre plots and hammy villains that would have been perfectly at home in a Silver Age comic book. And it did all this perfectly, providing us with a steady diet of entertainment. My nephew Josiah considers Wild Wild West to be the greatest TV show ever. Of course, he likes Captain Picard better than Captain Kirk, so his opinions can't be completely trusted. But he is right in W.W. W. being at least near (if not at) the top of the heap.

The first four episodes of the second season are prime examples of just how much pure fun the show could be. In fact, it is very possible that the bad guys who appear in these episodes represent the greatest collection of villainy that has ever appeared on the small screen.

"Night of the Eccentrics" (9/16/66) was the second season premiere. Here we have Victor Buono in the first of two appearances as Count Carlos Mario Vincenzo Robespierre Manzeppi, a magician who leads a small circus troupe. This particular troupe, though, does not depend on ticket sales to turn a profit. Rather, they use their individual skills to work as assassins. Here, they have been hired to kill the president of Mexico.

I'm just guessing, but I'm going to say that Buono had fun playing the count. He certainly appears to have a ball hamming it up while still giving the role just the right element of real menace.

Buono was frequently appearing on Batman about the same time, playing the villain King Tut. When asked why he kept returning to that role, he said  "Batman lets me get away with doing the one thing that we're taught not to do in drama school... overacting!" The same attitude probably applies to playing Count Manzeppi as well.

By the way, the count's minions include Richard Pryor as an evil ventriloquist.

The wonderful Boris Karloff was next. "Night of the Golden Cobra" (9/23/66) has James West getting kidnapped by Mr. Singh, an Indian Rajah with a charming manner and a murderous soul. Mr. Singh has a lot on his table--aside from engineering a bizarre swindle to take land away from an Indian tribe, he also wants West to tutor his sons in the "gentle art of killing."

Mr. Singh also has a dancing gorilla, who appears in a bizarre scene that does nothing further the plot, but adds enormously to the episode's atmosphere.

Michael Dunn shows up in "Night of the Raven" (9/30/66) in one of ten appearances as Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless--James West's true arch enemy. Gee whiz, if ever there was an instant when just the right actor turns out to be the perfect person to play a specific role, than this is it. Hammy, funny, childlike, murderous and scary all at the same time, there isn't a single episode of Wild Wild West featuring Dr. Loveless that isn't wildly entertaining simply because of his presence.

Here, Loveless has kidnapped an Indian princess to lure West and Gordon into a trap that will involve--among other things--West in a battle to the death with a... kitty cat?

"Night of the Big Blast" (10/7/66) brings us a female villain. Ida Lupino is Dr. Faustina, a mad scientist who can resurrect the dead, give them the appearance of someone else, and use them as walking time bombs. Her plan is to kill President Grant (it was dangerous to be a president in the W.W.W. universe) because he turned down her request for federal funds to continue her research.

Though if she managed to build a Frankenstein-like lab and bring the dead back to life on her own dime, you have to wonder why she needs our tax dollars.

Anyway, this episode is unique in that James West is presumed dead for most of it, giving Artemis Gordon a chance to shine on his own, including an opportunity to show off his remarkable fencing skills. The one slight disappointment is that neither West nor Gordon get a scene in which they can verbally spar with Dr. Faustina--the repartee between the heroes and the villains in the other three episodes are among their high points.

Not all the villains survive to the end. That's too bad. because these four villains would have made a wonderful Legion of Doom for West and Gordon to battle.  Though, come to think of it, if they had teamed up, their conflicting egos probably would have destroyed the universe.


  1. Don't forget Agnes Moorehead's Emmy winning Miss Emma Valentine in "The Night of the Vicious Valentine".

    1. True. Season 2 of the series really does represent TV's best bad guys.


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