In the Post

by wjw on June 3, 2014

Dead-Mans-Hand_cvr-200x300So today I find my prose in the Huffington Post.  Not a political article, but a brief appreciation of a long-defunct TV show.

Why?  It’s all in aid of promoting Dead Man’s Hand, the Weird West anthology edited by John Joseph Adams.  You’ll find a story of mine in there, but that’s not what I’m writing about.  I’m writing about The Wild Wild West, the Sixties spy/western mashup that ended up— inadvertently, I imagine— inventing steampunk.  (I really can’t think of any precursor that’s older.)

While the idea of mashing up Westerns and spy shows— both TV standards at the time— was probably sensible enough, the problem was that the United States really didn’t have any enemies during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant.  The Civil War was over, no other governments wanted to invade, and we didn’t have any secrets worth stealing.  Sure, there were bandits, but you didn’t need gadget-laden superspies to defeat them, you just needed some guys with badges and guns.

So what the series gave us was supervillains, mad scientists, and insane post-Vernian technology.  The most unforgettable of the villains was of course Dr. Miguelito Loveless, played with manic verve by the 3′ 10″ Michael Dunn— who up to that point in his career had been a cabaret singer, believe it or not.

The series also gave us a lot of villains who wanted to kill, depose, or kidnap President Grant. (I don’t know why, but movie and TV villains are always after Ulysses Grant.  Nobody ever takes a potshot at William Howard Taft.)

I suspect that The Wild Wild West is better in memory than it was on the screen, so I probably won’t be tuning in to a rerun anytime soon.  But still, it should have an honored place in the history of steampunk, as the series that started it all.

And incidentally, this is the second anthology titled Dead Man’s Hand with a story of mine.  The first was a Wild Cards anthology, Volume VII I believe . . .

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

David D. Levine June 3, 2014 at 4:54 am

Personally, I believe the first appearance of steampunk on screen, or indeed anywhere, was Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954).

wjw June 3, 2014 at 5:29 am

I don’t think it’s steampunk when you film an adaptation of Jules Verne. It may =look= like steampunk, but it’s actually just a fairly faithful adaptation of the original, which was science fiction.

And of course there were many adaptations before Disney, including the Melies made only a couple years after Verne died. Which was hardly steampunk at the time.

Ingvar M June 3, 2014 at 10:58 am

Hm, I’d argue that in non-visual media, Space 1889 (initial publishing date of 1988) is the very first thing I associated steampunk to.

Brian Borchers June 3, 2014 at 3:18 pm

Sue and I have been binge watching The Wild Wild West for the last couple of weeks- we got a deal on the DVD’s of the whole series.

wjw June 4, 2014 at 2:36 am

I think the Oswald Bastable series by Michael Moorcock was the first written steampunk I ever encountered— and “Warlord of the Air” was 1971!

I imagine that E. Nesbit would have been pretty surprised to find out what Moorcock did with her character.

Bruce Arthurs June 4, 2014 at 10:29 am

Michael Dunn was a heck of a good actor; don’t think I ever saw him sing. His portrayal of Loveless in the original WWW was a major reason Branagh’s version (as “Arliss Loveless”) in the 1999 movie was so disappointing; Branagh’s Loveless was pretty much a cartoon, while Dunn brought nuance and depth to his own portrayal of Loveless. There was no comparison.

But even Dunn couldn’t pull off some of the absurd roles his dwarfism got him cast in. Remember the Scary Clown hiding in the airducts (!) of the submarine in the Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea tv series? (Probably the worst episode of one of the worst shows ever.) Even watching that as a kid, I felt sorry for the actor playing the clown.

Brian Renninger June 6, 2014 at 1:51 am

At a bookstore I recently saw a collection of Wells and Verne novels that was labeled as Steampunk, I had the same though, it’s not Steampunk if it was written in the Age of Steam. Steampunk is almost by definition (if there is one) a nostalgic genre.

That said, I’m not a purist. I was recently upbraided for suggesting the S.M. Stirling’s Draka series could be considered Steampunk. It certainly has a lot of fanciful steam cars and dirigibles in it. My guess is that it isn’t “punk” enough. Whatever that means.

Warlord of the Air is I think the first thing I read that could be considered Steampunk. I’m not sure if it has the right goggle quotient to meet today’s standard for Steampunk. A while back I read an interview with James Blaylock about attending his first steampunk convention. He made a remark something like, “Apparently steampunk requires goggles. Who knew!”

wjw June 6, 2014 at 3:12 am

I don’t recall Michael Dunn on Voyage to the Bottom of the Barrel, but I always did wonder why the submarine had air ducts big enough for enemy spies to move around in. Even spies as small as Michael Dunn.

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