115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

"My Newly Discovered Dimension": John Kneubuhl's “The Night of the Surreal McCoy” (The Wild Wild West, 1967) as Critical Autobiography

Stanley Orr, University of Hawai'i, West O'ahu

I survey the science fiction teleplays of Pasifika dramatist John Kneubuhl, directing particular attention to “The Night of the Surreal McCoy” (The Wild Wild West, 1967). Kneubuhl here presents a coda for his seminal steampunk villain, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, and he dramatizes his own postcolonial modernist interventions into midcentury American television.


Samoan-American playwright John Kneubuhl (1920-1992) has been celebrated as the prime mover of modern Oceanic drama. While Christopher Balme and Astrid Carstensen dub Kneubuhl “the spiritual father of Pacific island theatre,” Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard celebrates the way in which Kneubuhl “effectively staked out the claim for an indigenous Pacific theater by incorporating local themes and languages.” After graduating from Honolulu’s Punahou School, Kneubuhl studied under Thornton Wilder at Yale. Following service in WWII, Kneubuhl was named Associate Art Director for the Honolulu Community Theatre and went on to write several innovative dramas, including The Harp in the Willows (1946) and This City Is Haunted (1947)-- the first literary work to foreground Hawai‘i pidgin. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Kneubuhl lived in Hollywood, working as a freelance writer for Gunsmoke (1955-75), The Fugitive (1963-67), Hawaii Five-O (1968-80), and many other programs. In 1968, Kneubuhl returned to Samoa, burned his TV scripts, and devoted himself to writing the stage dramas Mele Kanikau: A Pageant (1975), A Play: A Play (1990), and Think of a Garden (1992). For Jackie Pualani Johnson, these works foreground “the retelling of historical truths, a passionate belief in the majesty of Polynesian culture, and…themes of alienation, spirituality, and allegiance to family.” Despite the veneration of his stage-plays, Kneubuhl’s TV writing has been largely dismissed. While some critics bar Kneubuhl’s teleplays from the Oceanic literature canon, others deem his small-screen dramas the nadir of an otherwise brilliant literary career. One exception to this elision may be found in Sarina Pearson’s article “Hollywood Westerns and the Pacific: John Kneubuhl and The Wild Wild West.” Concentrating upon Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn), the insurgent Californio villain that Kneubuhl created for the eponymous series, Pearson argues, interpets Kneubuhl as “a Polynesian artist writing back to Hollywood, not from the experimental or independent margins about misrepresenting the South Seas, but from inside the industry strategically using the most significant genre of the century.” Pearson refers to the Western; but Kneubuhl entertained a contrapuntal relationship with many genres, including adventure, horror, mystery, and science fiction. Surveying Kneubuhl's sf teleplays, I direct particular attention to “The Night of the Surreal McCoy” (The Wild Wild West, 1967), in which Dr. Loveless develops a machine capable of projecting human beings into the the world of a given painting, which he dubs “my newly discovered dimension.” Gravitating toward Western pictures, Loveless plans to stage a deadly showdown against James West (Robert Conrad) and launch a conspiracy to assassinate world leaders by means of agents hidden in the “Trojan Horse” artworks. With recourse to speculative technology and other sf conventions, Kneubuhl here dramatizes the way in which he intervened into mainstream American television with a singular postcolonial modernist aesthetic.