The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Affair, Episodes 1-6 (Spoilers)
I’ve recently begun renting season one of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from Netflix, and I wanted to post some thoughts about it. This won’t be as detailed as my Mission: Impossible reviews; I think I got a little too in-depth with those, and I’m not sure I have the time to go to such length. But I wanted to post my thoughts about it anyway.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. premiered in 1964, and was developed by Sam Rolfe from concepts by Norman Felton and an uncredited Ian Fleming, so it has some James Bond-like elements. It was originally meant to focus on a single lead character, as the title suggests; indeed, Robert Vaughn’s character is actually named Napoleon Solo. But David McCallum made such a strong impression in his brief appearance as Illya Kuryakin in the pilot that they made him a regular — though we didn’t actually see him partnered with Solo until episode 3.
U.N.C.L.E. is the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement — something the show’s producers made a point of specifying in the introductory sequence and the closing gag credit where they thank the organization for its help in the production. The original plan was for it to be a United Nations organ, but the real UN objected to having its name used in a fictional context, so the “Network” name was coined and repeatedly stressed to appease the UN. In the episodes I’ve seen so far, Solo usually gives the acronym as “the U-N-C…L-E,” to further drive home the distinction. (Which makes me wonder if the title of the show is meant to be pronounced “The Man from You-en-see-ell-ee” rather than “The Man from Uncle.” I doubt it ever has been, though.)
Anyway, despite the careful separation from the UN, UNCLE is very much an international organization, with even hostile nations like the US and the USSR cooperating against enemies that threaten the whole world — primarily the Fleming-created organization THRUSH, itself an international organization of aspiring world conquerors, ruthless assassins, evil scientists, and other assorted villains. Their acronym was never explained in the show, though the tie-in novels claimed it stood for “Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.” In addition to Vaughn and McCallum, the show starred Leo G. Carroll in a charmingly stodgy performance as UNCLE’s New York branch chief, Alexander Waverly. (UNCLE HQ is hidden behind a secret wall in Del Floria’s Tailor Shop in Manhattan.)
Moving on to the episodes, all of which are called “The [Something] Affair”:
“The Vulcan Affair”: This is a black-and-white, cut-down version of the original color pilot, which also had a theatrical release with some expanded footage. The color pilot will be on the last disc of the season 1 set. Anyway, the episode is written by Sam Rolfe and is very strong. I quickly became fond of the clever dialogue and character writing, and it establishes the season’s wry but relatively serious attitude. Vaughn establishes Solo’s persona clearly right away — unflappably professional, cool under pressure, and with a Bond-like eye for the ladies (and vice-versa), but with more of a sense of whimsy and occasionally almost childlike playfulness, as if the whole thing is a game to him. The word “impish” comes to mind.
In the pilot, Solo tries to foil an assassination plot masterminded by THRUSH agent Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver), and recruits Vulcan’s old flame Elaine (Pat Crowley) to get close to him. Housewife Elaine is drawn to the excitement of the spy life and the glamorous identity she assumes, and torn by her reawakened feelings for Vulcan, while Solo has to cope with the consequences of drawing this innocent into his spy games. The pilot establishes the pattern of the series, with most every episode involving an “innocent” getting caught up in the story. The way Solo (and Kuryakin in later episodes) interacts with civilians is surprising after all the off-book secrecy of Mission: Impossible; the U.N.C.L.E. (as they themselves call it, or “Uncle” as everyone else calls it) is a well-known organization, and Solo & Kuryakin openly introduce themselves to civilians as its agents, rather than using cover identities and deception. It’s a little confusing; is (the) U.N.C.L.E. a spy agency or more of an international police force? The show seems to want to play it both ways.
The music is by Jerry Goldsmith, and thus is excellent. I really like Goldsmith’s theme for the series, which has a syncopated Latin rhythm that reminds me of West Side Story while also having elements of orchestration and melody that remind me of John Williams’s themes for Irwin Allen shows. But it has some very Goldsmithian touches too, like a driving and rhythmically complex ostinato that makes a very welcome earworm.
The conventions of the show’s title sequences are established here as well. Like many ’60s shows, it followed the shots of the regular cast with shots introducing the featured guest stars of the episode, and each act opened with a chapter title shown onscreen, usually a quirky reference to something in the scenes to come or a quote of a line of dialogue from the act. I love that. I’m fond of titles, and I love it that not only every episode, but every act (or “chapter”) gets its own title.
“The Iowa-Scuba Affair”: The title tells the tale. Solo (truly solo, since Illya isn’t in the episode at all) investigates murder and sabotage in a farming town next to an underground Air Force base, and explores the mystery of why the saboteurs are using SCUBA gear in the middle of Iowa, and what Slim Pickens has to do with it. (Spoiler: he does not end up riding on the back of a nuclear bomb and going “Yee-haw!” Though there’s a moment or two when it seemed he might be headed in that direction.) The “innocent” is a farm girl (Katherine Crawford) who was dating an Air Force man who turned out to be a saboteur (and was killed by Solo, something the farm girl is rather blase about).
All in all, not as impressive an episode as the pilot. Although it has a great bit establishing Waverly’s dry British wit: After Solo survives an assassination attempt (poison gas in the shower head) and reports it to HQ, Waverly says: “Report further such attempts immediately.” (Thoughtful pause) “Unless they’re successful.”
The music is by Morton Stevens this time, and it’s not bad, but doesn’t stand out in my memory. The episode is most notable as the debut of May Heatherly as recurring UNCLE HQ staffer Heather McNabb, who’s basically Miss Moneypenny only in more of a researcher/tech support capacity, and who’s really, really hot (replacing a different actress/character in an identical role in the pilot). Unfortunately her run on the series will be brief.
This episode introduces the standard opening, a very stilted introduction to the premise and characters that feels like an old instructional film or documentary. The lead characters actually speak directly to the audience to introduce themselves and tell us their jobs within UNCLE. It plays very oddly to the modern eye and takes way too long.
“The Quadripartite Affair”: UNCLE vs. the Scarecrow! The bad guys this time are a scientist who’s invented a fear-inducing gas and the unspecified evil organization planning to use it for nefarious purposes. The innocent is Marion Raven (no, not Karen Allen, but Jill Ireland), plucky daughter of the first fear-gas victim, whom Illya is assigned to protect and who later insists on accompanying the duo on their mission to the villains’ mountain stronghold. This is Illya’s first big episode, and he’s established as a dour and driven Russian in contrast to Solo’s droll and playful persona. He keeps advising Marion to treat him as not even there, just part of the scenery, but she’s not inclined to play along. It seems they were already playing on the fact that David McCallum was anything but unnoticeable, having made such an impression in one brief scene that they made him a regular two episodes later. McCallum became a major sex symbol with female viewers, and my personal suspicion is that the real reason Gene Roddenberry created the Russian Mr. Chekov for Star Trek was in hopes of emulating Kuryakin’s audience appeal (since the Pravda article that Roddenberry claimed to be his inspiration apparently never existed).
The weirdest thing about this episode for me is that it features a heroic Harry Mudd against an evil Oscar Goldman. Roger C. Carmel plays a local mountain man who helps the team infiltrate the enemy base, and Richard Anderson plays the surly, bitter military man who heads the enemy force. (I was surprised to see that Anderson was balding here. All that time, Oscar was wearing a rug! Although now that I think about it, that was kind of obvious, wasn’t it?) The bad guys are working with, or for, a wealthy woman named Gervaise Ravel, played by Anne Francis, who makes a stunning brunette. She gets away at the end and will fortunately be back in episode 7.
The music here is by Walter Scharf, whose work I praised in my M:I reviews (and whose best-known work is probably the National Geographic theme). It’s nice to hear his work again, but unfortunately the music doesn’t carry the action and storytelling to the same extent here as it did on M:I, so he doesn’t get to be as impressive here (or in the next episode, which he also scores).
And I’m amused to learn that the episode’s writer, Alan Caillou, was also an actor who played The Head, Conrad Janis’s boss, in the brief but memorable sci-fi sitcom Quark from the late ’70s.
“The Shark Affair”: UNCLE vs. Captain Nemo! Investigating a series of odd pirate raids, abductions, and disappearances — of supplies as odd as shoelaces and building supplies and professions as odd as thatchers, glaziers, and piano tuners — leads Napoleon and Illya to a ship commanded by Captain Shark, a modern-day Nemo played brilliantly by Robert Culp (just a year before starring in his own spy show, I Spy). And I’m not kidding — aside from having a ship rather than a submarine, this character is a virtually exact pastiche of Captain Nemo, a good man grown disillusioned with the warfare of the world and using advanced technology, cunning, and surprisingly debonair piracy to build his own utopian community aboard his vessel, with Solo and Kuryakin somewhat filling the roles of Aronnax and Ned Land. Shark is convinced that nuclear holocaust is only months away and is building an ark of survivors with the range of skills and knowledge necessary to rebuild. He’s an admirable character in a lot of ways and Culp makes him deeply sympathetic, but Solo still has to stop him, arguing that good men need to participate in solving the world’s problems rather than retreating from them.
The downside of the episode is the innocent, a caricatured Brooklyn housewife played for laughs by Sue Ane Langdon. There’s kind of a cute running gag where she keeps accidentally hitting Illya in the face with doors, but the comic broadness of her character and her interactions with her husband (one of the disappeared, with whom she’s reunited aboardship) get a little annoying and clash unfortunately with Culp’s marvelous dramatic performance.
“The Deadly Games Affair”: UNCLE vs. THRUSH vs. Nazis! Solo & Ilya are pitted against a THRUSH agent in the chase for valuable secrets left by a Nazi scientist who’s not as dead as was believed. The THRUSH agent, Angelique (Janine Gray, who’s a somewhat Julie Newmar-esque type only not quite as attractive), is a past — and current — romantic interest for Solo. Illya doesn’t understand how his partner can be so amorous with someone who’d kill him without a qualm, but it’s just part of the way Solo sees his business as a game, with Angelique seeing it much the same way. They’re kind of like Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog in the Chuck Jones cartoons — trying to defeat and/or kill each other is their job, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be friendly off the clock (though Ralph and Sam were never this friendly). In their efforts to track down or flush out the Nazi (Alexander Scourby) with the help of the innocent, a student he recruited by mail to sell his valuable stamp collection for funding, they go from cooperating to battling; Angelique naturally betrays Solo the moment their truce is no longer useful to her, but ultimately needs him to rescue her from the real menace. I don’t think I’ll spoil the big secret the Nazi scientist is keeping (though IMDb and Wikipedia both spoil it, and you can probably guess it), but let’s just say it’s something that horrifies Angelique as much as it does Solo. And it’s the most science-fictional, implausible premise to show up in the series so far. I’m afraid I found it to be a bit too much to really buy into.
On the plus side, Goldsmith is scoring again, and is still doing great work, here and in the next episode, which is…
“The Green Opal Affair”: UNCLE vs. Archie Bunker! Okay, that gag is wearing thin. Solo goes undercover to infiltrate the organization of eccentric rich guy and THRUSH supporter Walter Brach (Carroll O’Connor) in order to uncover and dismantle his brainwashing operation, but it turns out to be a trap to capture and brainwash Solo. The innocent is another housewife, Chris (Joan O’Brien), whom Brach is going to brainwash so she’ll push her genius husband to be more ambitious and rise to a high position that THRUSH can exploit. Why they don’t just brainwash hubby instead is unclear and seems to be just a plot contrivance so Chris can learn a lesson about ambition not being all it’s cracked up to be.
The most impressive thing about this episode is Robert Vaughn’s acting. Solo goes undercover as a foppish, effeminate personal secretary in order to infiltrate Brach’s organization, and Vaughn does a fantastic job of Clark Kenting, totally transforming his body language and appearance and coming off as a completely different, if somewhat broad and theatrical, character. It’s really impressive work, and I hope there are more undercover-Solo episodes to come so I can see more of what Vaughn is capable of as a character actor. (By the way, Illya is hardly in this one, appearing just in the early expository scenes. I wonder if this was an early episode that got delayed and reshot/rewritten to add Illya to a scene or two.)
Otherwise, the episode is mainly notable for giving Heather McNabb her biggest role yet. It gives the impression they were setting her up as a major recurring character, so it’s odd that this is her second-last appearance.