The West that Wasn't

Christian Doherty stars in...



By Tom Soter

WEST THAT WASN’T is the most morally conscious show we ever recorded. I don’t mean it preaches, but it is about moral choices. When Christian Doherty, Alan Saly, Tom (“Siny”) Sinclair, and I made the dozen or so episodes of the series between 1969 and 1971, I don’t think we were thinking much about that, however. We were more interested in Rod Serling-like twist endings. WEST THAT WASN’T was often a kind of HIGH NOON meets THE TWILIGHT ZONE, with a little spaghetti western sauce tossed in for flavoring. The morality was a side dish that came with the influences.

WEST THAT WASN’T – love that title – was created by Doherty and has all the hallmarks of his work: the eccentric character names (a whiny-voiced kid called Little Joe Petittee, a gunman improbably named Adolph Etler, MUGGER’s Sam Rosen as an equally improbable Mexican named Pedro Kleegas), fast-paced action, plotting that is more atmospheric than logical, lifts from TV shows and films, ridiculous dialogue (for a drink, one character orders a “red-eyed doggy with two eyes of ant”), and boundless energy as the auteur pushed his co-stars to new creative heights.

Doherty was most obviously influenced by THE TWILIGHT ZONE, as can be seen clearly in “Time for a Hanging,” which is based on “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge” (in both stories, a man about to be hanged miraculously escapes only to end up back in the hangman’s noose by story’s end). But he also picked up plot elements from some of the best westerns: HIGH NOON was used twice (as the basis for the first episode, and the eleventh and possibly best, “Ben Miller’s Comin’ to Town”); DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (“The New Sheriff”); and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (“He Left Unexpectedly”). All these films (and thus our versions) are about moral choices people make: about standing up for justice and for principles, about beating the odds and the expectations.

The flip side of WEST THAT WASN’T is its love of the macabre and the final O. Henryesque (or Serlingesque, since we had probably never heard of O. Henry) twist endings: whether it is the greedy brothers going back to the past in search of gold and finding themselves dead meat at the Little Big Horn (“I Want to Go Back”) or the vampire-like Mr. Purdy, who retains his youth through the blood of his victims, ironically being killed in a 1970 robbery (“Mr. Purdy Has a Room”).

There are also inspired performances, too, none better than Tom Sinclair, who is terrific as the “Old Man with a Gun,” Jed Heller, who refuses to believe he is getting old (“I’m still as young as I ever was”) and attempts to prove it by massacring anyone who refers to his age (in WEST THAT WASN’T, no one is ever shot – they are decimated in a hail of bullets, thanks to Christian Doherty, human sound effects machine). Siny is also wonderful as Jeb, the hard-drinking desert rat who, with his brother Pete, finds and loses a garden of Eden in “Paradise Regained,” a takeoff on LOST HORIZON. (The one oddity about this episode is why Siny uses his Marty Phillips nom-de-plume for Jeb, especially when paired with Sam Rosen – my nom-de-plume; Marty is a dead ringer soundalike for Sam’s brother Jack, also played by Siny.)

The atmosphere is helped by the scores. WEST THAT WASN’T has a great title tune – lifted from Elmer Bernstein's THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – and highly charged music from Ennio Morricone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. The one puzzling thing is why I, as the narrator of the closing credits, can’t ever seem to get Morricone’s name right – I call him “Enzio Morricona” and variations of that. Well, at least we were trying to credit him. Not that we ever paid the maestro for his work, of course. WEST THAT WASN’T may have been a moral show – but even our morality had its financial limits.

Listen to:

The Return of Clayton Rogers
Episode 2 Taped: September 27, 1969
Although he was gunned down in a shoot-out, gunslinger Clayton Rogers seems to be making good on his threat to come back from the dead and seek revenge on the man who killed him. Sheriff Haper: Charles Daggs. McQuinzie: Ed Booth. Rogers: Christian Doherty.

Time for a Hanging
Episode 7 Taped: July 24, 1970
A scientist in 1970 accidentally transports a convicted murderer from the old west, circa 1896. Ramar: Christian Doherty. Scientist: Tom Soter.

The Man from the Past
Episode 8 Taped: September 11, 1970
Two grave robbers in 1970 inadvertently revive a killer cowpoke from the old west. Man: Todd Richards.

Ben Miller's Coming to Town
Episode 11 Taped: December 22, 1970
In a takeoff of the film High Noon, gunman Ben Miller comes hunting for the lawman who sent him to jail. The problem: none of the townspeople will back the sheriff up. Sheriff: Christian Doherty. Miller: Alan Saly.

The Sun Sets on Judson Forbes
Episode 12 Taped: 1970
Marty Phillips of HUCK FINN takes a rare dramatic turn as Judson Forbes, a gunslinger who finds it hard to give up his guns, Bartender: Alan Saly.