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Archive for April, 2013

Brown-bagging it

I noticed the other day that a new sandwich shop called “Which Wich” has opened across the street from the local post office, so I decided to try it out. Their gimmick is that below the wall menu is a bunch of hoppers with different paper bags in them, one for each category of sandwich (e.g. turkey, ham, specialty, etc.), and printed on each bag is an order form where you can use the provided markers to check off the type of bread, toppings, etc. you want, whereupon you hand it to the cashier, who rings up your order and then hands it to the preparer to follow like a deli order slip, sliding it along until the completed sandwich reaches the end of the prep area and is inserted into the aforementioned bag. It seemed like kind of a neat idea at first, and maybe it would make things more efficient when things are busy; but I was the only customer ordering and it seemed to me that it just added more complications to the process. Even with my clearly marked instructions on the bag/form, I still had to watch the guy preparing the sandwich and remind him I’d asked for cucumber.

At least the guy had his salesmanship down, asking how my day was going and then saying it would get better once I got the sandwich. But it didn’t live up to the hype; the sandwich was okay but fairly ordinary, a lot like Potbelly or maybe Penn Station. The ordering gimmick is the main thing that distinguishes it. And I don’t know if that gimmick would really appeal to the university students who are likely to be the store’s main clientele, and who have enough bubbles to fill out on forms as it is. “Now you can have the fun of pretending to take a test while you order lunch!” Yeah, that’s a good idea…

Still,the menu did list some varieties of sandwich I haven’t seen elsewhere and might want to try, like chicken pesto or black-bean patties — and they offer spinach as well as lettuce, which is good. So if I should again happen to find myself at the post office around mealtime, I may decide to give it another try. At least it’s good to have another option.

Actually there’s a lot of new construction around the university these days, new apartment buildings going up all over the place to accommodate the student market, and there are a number of storefronts included on the ground floors. I’ve noticed a few new signs already going up closer to home, including a Mexican restaurant, a frozen yogurt place, and a Waffle House — which is cool, since I’ve long lamented the lack of a breakfast-type eatery in the area. And there’s still plenty of room for other businesses. I wonder what other dining options might materialize in the neighborhood soon.

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Gills and the Man: Universal’s CREATURE trilogy

I’ve recently finished a watch-through of the trilogy of films featuring the last of Universal Studios’ classic monsters, the Gill-Man: Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (’55), and The Creature Walks Among Us (’56), courtesy of Netflix and a 2004 “Special Edition” 2-CD set that, oddly enough, is under the title of just the first film but contains both sequels as “bonus features” on disc 2. These are films that I haven’t seen in decades, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the third film, so I was able to come into them pretty fresh.

The original film, directed by Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man, It Came From Outer Space), is based on a reputed South American legend of a half-fish, half-man that carried away native women, which producer William Alland heard from a guest at a party held by Orson Welles, IIRC. The movie Creature is based pretty closely on the legend. The first film portrays him as a missing link between sea life and land life, unchanged since the Devonian period some 400 million years ago — conveniently overlooking all the stages of life between fish and hominid, like amphibians, synapsids, mammals, and primates. It also claims that the whole Amazon rainforest is unchanged since the Devonian, which reflects a 1950s view of science — not only unaware of continental drift and the many climate changes the Earth has gone through in the interim, but unaware of findings that have only recently come to light (and are still not universally accepted), that the Amazon is not so much an untouched wilderness but one of the most expansive human-cultivated areas on Earth, essentially a vast orchard developed and managed by the native South Americans for many centuries before European contact, due to the unfeasibility of standard agriculture in that environment. (See Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus for more.)

Of course, one shouldn’t expect scientific accuracy from a Universal monster movie in the tradition of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. But what’s interesting about the Creature films is how non-supernatural the Gill-Man is, and how he’s approached throughout as a subject for scientific investigation, more a large, exotic animal to be captured and studied than a force of evil. True, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Invisible Man were creations of science, but it was a fanciful pseudoscience of an imaginary past, and both characters were more human than the Gill-Man.

And to me, that’s kind of the weakness of CftBL. The Gill-Man here is not a very impressive monster. He’s certainly well-designed, a great-looking creature, and very well-performed by Ricou Browning in the underwater scenes (Ben Chapman played him on land). And one has to admire the cutting-edge cinematography, with the filmmakers inventing the first portable underwater 3D camera and doing things that had never been done onscreen before. But since the Creature is more animal than monster, he doesn’t really have a lot of motivation or personality to make him interesting. In the documentary on the DVD, there were people talking about a “love story” between the Creature and female lead Julie Adams, but the Creature was too much of a blank slate for that to come across to me. I guess the idea was that he “fell in love” with her while watching her graceful swim in the beautiful but voyeuristic underwater sequence which is the highlight of the film and which both sequels copied. But it felt like the movie was just going through the motions — like the Creature’s only motivation for carrying Adams off is that that’s what ’50s movie monsters were obligated to do to beautiful women, whether it made any sense or not. (Also because the film was basically a knockoff of King Kong.)

And few monsters’ love/abduction interests have ever been as beautiful as Julie Adams. Really, I’d say that Adams is the highlight of the film, a stunning beauty who spends a lot of time in what for the era was a very daring, high-cut one-piece bathing suit. She’s a charming presence and more interesting than most of the rest of the human cast. (Although she was doubled by Ginger Stanley in the underwater footage, which was shot second-unit in Florida while the aboveground stuff was shot in Hollywood.) There is a fairly dull scientist-hero played by Richard Carlson, who was in a lot of sci-fi movies of the day, and a comparably dull heavy played by Richard Denning; Carlson is the compassionate scientist who just wants to study and understand the Creature in its natural habitat, even after it kills a bunch of people and kidnaps his girl, while Denning is the macho hunter who’d rather have him stuffed and mounted. (Genre stalwart Whit Bissell is also on hand as a scientific colleague, but is underutilized.) But Carlson comes off as more ineffectual than really heroic, and the film comes to a rather weak climax — though the ending is deliberately inconclusive, since a sequel was already planned.

I suppose you could say there’s a subtle theme of environmental abuse, with the explorers using heavyhanded tactics like drugging the lagoon in order to capture the creature; there’s even a shot where Adams tosses a cigarette butt in the water and we tilt down to see Gill-Man looking up with an attitude that reminds me of the iconic crying Indian in ’70s anti-pollution ads. So maybe the Creature’s motivation was supposed to be self-defense and retaliation against these heavy-handed invaders. But I’m not sure if that was intended or just a modern reading imposed on the film, since such harsh tactics were pretty typical of how scientists treated animals at the time.

This theme becomes clearer in the second film, Revenge of the Creature, also directed by Arnold. The film has an almost entirely new cast, aside from Browning returning as the underwater creature (Tom Hennessy takes over on land) and Nestor Paiva as the boat captain from the first film (whose main role is to recap that film’s plot for the audience). Yet despite this, it’s a pretty direct followup to the original, as a second expedition comes back to the Black Lagoon a year later and succeeds in capturing the Gill-Man (actually called that by name in this film, and I think only in this film), bringing him back to the “Oceanarium” in Florida for study and display. The Oceanarium is actually the Marineland aquarium, where much of the film was shot. Here, even more than in the first, the Creature is treated like an animal being studied by science rather than a conventional monster. Usually the monster is out there unseen, able to strike at any time, but here the Creature spends much of the film in captivity, being studied by the new leads, a scientist played rather blandly by John Agar and an ichthyology grad student played by Lori Nelson, who doesn’t hold a candle to Julie Adams. Their “study” involves chaining the Creature by the leg and shocking him with a bull prod (which somehow fails to shock them too even though they’re underwater with it) to teach him the meaning of “Stop.” So here it’s easier to understand why the Gill-Man gets enraged and fights back (echoes of Frankenstein’s Monster being tortured by Fritz in the 1931 Frankenstein), though his persistent stalking of Nelson once he’s escaped is just monster-movie formula again. Basically this was meant as the second half of the King Kong homage, but the fact that the surrogate Fay Wray is an entirely different character this time around makes it even harder to justify. You’d think, given that Nelson’s character was one of his jailers and torturers, that he’d sooner kill her than abduct her.

Overall, I find this the weakest film of the trilogy. Too much of it is just an extended infomercial for Marineland, padding that gets tiresome after a while. And the cast just isn’t as engaging this time around. Plus the ending has the same faults as the first film’s, with Agar’s hero not really accomplishing much in the climactic moment and the story just kind of fizzling out afterward.

(And yeah, here’s the obligatory mention that Clint Eastwood makes his film debut as a lab tech in the first act. Which doesn’t mean much to me personally, but yes, I am aware of it.)

Going by the DVD commentary, The Creature Walks Among Us (from first-time director John Sherwood) is apparently regarded as the weakest of the trilogy by many, and I didn’t expect to like it much, because its premise — the Creature being burned in a fire and somehow turned into a land-dwelling humanoid — seemed silly. But it turned out to be my favorite of the three. It reunites Rex Reason and Jeff Morrow, who had been in This Island Earth the previous year, as the male leads, alongside female lead Leigh Snowden, who’s not at Julie Adams levels of hotness or likeability but is comfortably in second place among this series’ leading ladies. And it has the most interesting character development of the three. Morrow is a borderline-mad scientist who wants to capture and experiment on the Creature, intending to transform it through surgery in the odd belief that this will alter its genetics too (I guess he’s a Lamarckian?), with an eye toward developing techniques to engineer humans for space colonization. (I find it intriguing that even in a movie having nothing to do with space, the characters were motivated by the idea of space travel. That says something about the ’50s.) Reason is a geneticist who believes in letting nature evolve at its own pace, humans included. (So Morrow is Dr. Moreau and Reason is the voice of reason. That’s easy to remember.) Morrow is also psychologically abusive and insanely jealous toward his wife (Snowden); she’s resolutely faithful to him, but he’s unable to see it and feels threatened both by Reason (who hits it off chastely with Snowden) and by an assistant (Gregg Palmer) who’s constantly hitting on Snowden without success. The DVD commentators call this padding, but I think it makes the characters richer, and Reason and Morrow’s debates about science and philosophy add some depth to the proceedings.

Anyway, the Creature’s original form is seen mostly through underwater footage shot but never used for the first movie — a clever bit of recycling. The DVD commentators claim there’s no footage of Browning swimming in the unmodified Gill-Man costume in this film, but they overlook one shot of the Creature hiding in the seaweed while the film’s three leads swim past. Otherwise, the only newly-made scene of the original-look creature is the brief one where he attacks the boat the explorers are in, whereupon he’s badly burned and taken captive. This burns away the outer scales and reveals a more humanoid anatomy within, and an unsuspected pair of lungs starts working (there’s some science behind this; a type of lungfish whose lungs are only seasonally in use is referenced). The land form of the Creature is played by Don Megowan.

And it’s when the Gill-Man becomes a land Creature that he begins to take on more personality. Not only is he more human in appearance, but being out of his element, he’s more helpless and dependent, and is affected when Reason shows him compassion, saving his life when he tries to dive back into the water without gills (and Browning makes his final appearance as the creature in this underwater sequence). He then becomes a spectator to Morrow and Palmer’s respective abuses of poor Snowden, and his role changes from the designated abductor of the film’s heroine to her defender, at one point saving her from attempted rape by Palmer’s character. It took three films, but the Creature has finally become sympathetic. And that further underlines how much these films treated him not as a monster, but as an animal, an entity that could be understood by science and even reconciled with through compassion. It reflects the era in which these films came out, the ’50s, when science had displaced the supernatural as the most powerful perceived force in the world, or at least in the world of cinema — when science was the source of both our greatest fears and our greatest hopes. Maybe that’s why the Gill-Man was the last of the Universal monsters. It certainly makes him one of the most unusual.

Walks Among Us is also the strongest film musically. The three fims were scored with a mix of stock music and new cues by various uncredited composers, including future Lost in Space composers Herman Stein and Hans J. Salter as well as a young, pre-fame Henry Mancini. Stein composed the Creature’s strident, rising three-note leitmotif, a shock cue which was used constantly throughout the first two films, less so in the third, while Salter did the main title cue that I think was used in all three films, or at least the first two. But it’s Mancini’s work that’s the most impressive. He does some beautiful work for the underwater scenes in the first film. I don’t think his music is used in the second, but the bulk of TCWAU’s music is original scoring by Mancini, and it’s very impressive stuff.

All in all, it’s impressive what a tight trilogy these films make. Even with all the cast changes, and even with the third film’s retcons about the Creature’s biology, there’s a remarkably cohesive narrative throughline to these films, an arc about human civilization intruding on an ancient part of nature, taking it out of its environment, mistreating it, and indelibly transforming it — until one voice of reason (or Reason) belatedly tries to treat it with respect and understanding, offering a tentative ray of hope for the future. I kind of regret that there was no followup to the third film; it might’ve been interesting to see the further development of the transformed Creature. But maybe it’s just as well that the series ended with three films, since further ones might not have fit together with their predecessors as smoothly as these three did. I think the first two films work better as chapters in this one big three-part saga than they do as standalone movies.

Still, in my ideal world, Rex Reason would’ve been the star of all three films, his character filling the Carlson and Agar roles in the previous ones (since they were all pretty much the same character) and providing continuity as the leading Gill-Man expert, and Julie Adams would’ve been the female lead in the second film as well as the first, with maybe a cameo in the third (Snowden’s role as Morrow’s wife is too important to the third film’s story for her to be replaced). Then again, the male leads do have different specialties in the three films: ichthyologist, animal psychologist, geneticist. It’s hard to say whether a single scientist could’ve played all three roles without some significant rewrites, and I’m reluctant to embrace Hollwyood’s tendency to treat all scientists as interchangeable polymaths. But Adams’s character could’ve been subbed for Nelson’s quite easily.

A note on the DVD commentaries: The first film’s commentary was done solo by film historian Tom Weaver, and was basically an ongoing monologue of historical background and film trivia. Some might find that boring, but I actually enjoyed the more scholarly approach to the analysis of the film. I wish more DVD commentaries were in that vein. In the second and third commentaries, Weaver was joined by Bob Burns, a major figure in classic genre-movie fandom and a veteran monster-suit wearer himself, while Lori Nelson joined them for the second film’s commentary. These were more in the standard conversational vein of commentaries, and I found the Revenge commentary to be the weakest of the three just as the film was, with far too much of Nelson and Burns relating anecdotes of their Hollywood experiences and far too little background and analysis of the film itself. The third commentary was somewhat better, but not as focused as the first, and I don’t think Weaver and Burns were as interested in the film as I was.

RISE OF THE FEDERATION Book 1 cover and blurb now out

Simon & Schuster has now posted the cover image and blurb for Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures.

Choice of Futures coverA new nation has arisen from the ashes of the Romulan War: the United Federation of Planets, an unprecedented union of diverse species cooperating for the good of all. Admiral Jonathan Archer—the former captain of the Earth starship Enterprise, whose efforts made this union possible—envisions a vibrant Federation promoting galactic peace and a multispecies Starfleet dedicated to exploring strange new worlds. Archer’s former crewmates, including Captain T’Pol of the U.S.S. Endeavour and Captain Malcolm Reed of the U.S.S. Pioneer, work with him to secure that bright future. Yet others within the Federation see its purpose as chiefly military, a united defense against a dangerous galaxy, while some of its neighbors view that military might with suspicion and fear. And getting the member nations, their space fleets, and even their technologies to work together as a unified whole is an ongoing challenge.

When a new threat emerges from a force so alien and hostile that negotiation seems impossible, a group of unaligned worlds asks Starfleet to come to its defense, and the Federation’s leaders seize the opportunity to build their reputation as an interstellar power. But Archer fears the conflict is building toward an unnecessary war, potentially taking the young nation down a path it was never meant to follow. Archer and his allies strive to find a better solution…but old foes are working secretly to sabotage their efforts and ensure that the great experiment called the Federation comes to a quick and bloody end.

Admittedly, the cover image is a little inaccurate. Archer’s in the Earth Starfleet dress uniform he wore as a captain in the series finale “These Are the Voyages,” rather than the Federation Starfleet admiral’s uniform he wears in the novel. But this is as close as Pocket’s art department could come with the available and approved photo references, apparently.

Anyway, I returned the final galley corrections to my editor yesterday morning, so the text of the novel is now pretty much locked, and it’s scheduled to go out to the printers on Tuesday. Hopefully we caught all the mistakes. The book will go on sale in about two months now. In the meantime, I’ll be getting back to work on Book 2.

Return to the Hub!

It’s been a long time coming, but I’m pleased to announce that Analog Science Fiction and Fact will be publishing the third installment of my “Hub” series of novelettes, following “The Hub of the Matter” from the March 2010 issue and “Home is Where the Hub Is” from the December 2010 issue. The story is titled “Make Hub, Not War”, and will examine the question of how the existence of the Hub — the only known means of faster-than-light transportation and thus the one point that all interstellar travel must pass through — affects the nature and opportunities for warfare. It will also feature the first look at Earth in the Hub era and flesh out the background of the series’ human leads. All in all, it’s my most ambitious story yet in the series.

Which is part of why it took me so long to finish, I suppose. Once I realized the story I was telling would take me to Earth, that made things more complex, since I had to figure out both the state of things on Earth and the backgrounds of David and Nashira, and figure out how to balance those things with the rest of the story. It took a while to work out the best way to proceed. Plus I’ve been kept busy the past couple of years with Only Superhuman and my Star Trek work, so “Make Hub, Not War” often had to take a back seat.

I’m relieved this story sold, to be honest, because during the gap between stories, Analog‘s editor Stanley Schmidt, who gave me my start in this business, retired, and I wasn’t sure his successor Trevor Quachri would have tastes compatible with the Hub stories. Since it’s the third in a series, I wasn’t sure what my options would’ve been if Analog hadn’t bought it. Although Trevor tells me he thinks the story stands well on its own. Anyway, I’m glad the run of the Hub stories in Analog is continuing, and I hope it won’t be for the last time. (So many Hub-related title puns left to make…)

There’s no scheduled publication date yet, but I’d expect it to be sometime around the start of 2014 or, with luck, the end of this year. I’ll announce the date once it’s settled.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Affair, Episodes 13-18 (Spoilers)

“The King of Knaves Affair”: Investigating a mysterious effort to buy uranium and the abduction of the racketeer making the offer, Solo and Kuryakin travel to Rome, where UNCLE HQ is situated behind the local branch of the Del Floria’s tailor franchise. (Clever to have identical UNCLE HQs all over the world, so the same standing sets can be used everywhere.) The local agents include Gemma (Arlene Martel, best known as Spock’s betrothed in Star Trek‘s “Amok Time”), who poses as Illya’s wife when they go undercover, and a receptionist who doubles as a dancer at the nightclub they investigate (played by belly dancer Tania Lemani, who uses a lot of the same dance moves she’ll use a few years later in ST’s “Wolf in the Fold”). The club’s proprietor is Fasik, a deposed Middle Eastern monarch played by the decidedly non-Middle Eastern Paul Stevens (a frequent Mission: Impossible guest, often playing characters impersonated by Martin Landau, whom he resembled). It turns out he’s building an army and recruiting allies as part of a genuinely clever multipronged plan to undermine the credibility, finances, and military strength of the populists who deposed him in order to pave the way for his reconquest. The innocent-of-the-week is Miss Pepper (Diana Millay), whom Solo suspects is a rival agent but who turns out to be a notary seeking the abducted racketeer’s signature on some document so some person back home won’t be rendered destitute — the explanation is very convoluted and not that important, mostly playing out in the background while Illya fights off an assassin on Solo’s balcony. It’s a fairly interesting episode overall — the villain’s plan really is most ingenious and alarmingly credible — but the show’s insistence on shoehorning an innocent civilian into every adventure is already starting to wear thin after just a baker’s dozen of episodes. It’s the sort of thing I feel would work better if they only did it when there was a good reason for it, rather than having to concoct all these contrived excuses to drag civilians into things every single time.

The episode makes effective use of the MGM backlot, including a castle courtyard set that we haven’t seen before on the show, though I expect we’ll see it again sometime. Jerry Goldsmith gets the music credit again, and this time I’m certain it’s a mostly or wholly original score. Some of the motifs are familiar, but from the thematic unity of the overall score and the way the music fits the action and editing, I’d say it’s not stock music, but Goldsmith developing his established motifs further. It’s a solid, effective score with a classic Goldsmithian flavor to the rhythms.

“The Terbuf Affair”: In a subtle bit of continuity, Napoleon and Illya are still in Rome on vacation, implicitly in the wake of their last mission. Napoleon is approached by old flame Clara (Madlyn Rhue, best known as Khan’s love Marla in ST: “Space Seed”), who seeks his help getting a “Gypsy” named Emil (Jacques Aubuchon) out of the Balkan country of Terbuf with proof of the corruption of its leader Col. Morisco (episode writer Alan Caillou). Clara is married now, but Solo still has a thing for her, and Illya determines he needs to go along to keep Solo anchored. But Clara confides in her husband Stefan, who turns out to be loyal to Morisco and tells him of the plan. Morisco doesn’t return his loyalty, having him imprisoned and ordering the smarmy Major Vicek (Albert Paulsen, whom I liked in his several Mission: Impossible appearances) to impersonate her husband, with the real Stefan held hostage to force her cooperation. Illya uses his familiarity with Roma culture to infiltrate the suspicious local “Gypsies” and convince them they can trust Solo with Emil. It’s an elaborate tale of plots, counterplots, false identities, arrests, abductions, rescues, and a couple of de-pantsings.

All in all, an entertaining story of intrigue, making further good use of MGM’s really impressive backlot (although I recognized one of the outdoor locations from the Kurt Russell episode, and it used the same interior prison set we just saw in “King of Knaves”). It makes up for last week’s contrived insertion of “the innocent” by having the innocent be the one who instigates the story in the first place. There are lots of familiar faces in the cast, including two more future Trek guests, Michael Forest and Rex Holman. The portrayal of the Roma is actually relatively positive for ’60s TV despite the use of the “Gypsy” label. And there’s a solid score (mostly new, I think) by Goldsmith and Walter Scharf.

Best of all, this episode is the strongest showing Illya’s had since episode 3, I’d say. Usually, even in episodes where Illya’s on the mission with Solo instead of sidelined back at HQ or whatever, he’s nonetheless been very much a second banana, with most of the focus being on Solo and his interaction with either the innocent or the villain. Here, though, he’s equal in prominence and importance to Solo, and we get a good feel for their friendship, the way their contrasts make them a good pairing. It’s not so different from the relationship Kirk and Spock would have in a little show that came along a few years later. It’s nice to see, and I hope it’s a harbinger of things to come.

“The Deadly Decoy Affair”: They’re playing with the opening again. There’s new music, and after the usual sequence of the shadowy figure shooting at Solo and cracking the pane of bulletproof glass in front of him — whereupon we usually get a freeze-frame for the episode title and then cut right to the main titles — instead Solo strolls out from behind the glass and gives the audience a little verbal teaser for the upcoming episode. Weird. I half-expected him to segue into talking about the sponsor’s product. Anyway, this is followed by a slightly modified arrangement of the main title theme, with the main melody a bit more clearly articulated than before. IMDb says Morton Stevens did the new arrangment.

The story is a comedy of errors as Solo and Kuryakin try to escort captured THRUSH lieutenant Stryker (Ralph Taeger) to Washington past a gauntlet of THRUSH agents trying to retake him, while Waverly leads a decoy intended to draw their fire, which proves unsuccessful — or does it? The way the innocent-of-the-week, Fran (Joanna Moore), gets dragged into the chase is the biggest contrivance yet, although I guess it’s forgivable since they were going for comedy. Illya gets left behind on a train and it becomes a three-person show as Solo and Stryker flirt with Fran and the three of them try to shake the relentless pursuers, and there’s a plot twist that became obvious to me about half an hour before it was revealed.

Kind of mediocre overall, with an underwhelming guest cast (and not just because it’s short on faces I find familiar). Its best feature is an all-new Walter Scharf score, the first one he’s done for this show that I’ve been impressed by, reminding me of some of his Mission: Impossible work.

“The Fiddlesticks Affair”: No talking to the audience this time, but we still get the Stevens arrangement of the main theme. The episode is another one that could be considered a proto-Mission: Impossible story: a casino heist to destroy THRUSH’s Western-hemisphere treasury, with Napoleon and Illya recruiting allies to form a team. They even have Lalo Schifrin doing the music, and his scoring during the heist portions is very reminiscent of some of his future M:I work. However, their recruits aren’t of the caliber that the IMF used. Their main specialist is a safecracker named Rudolph (Dan O’Herlihy) who gets pressured into helping and who’s more than willing to betray them to score points with THRUSH. The other is Susan (Marlyn Mason, herself a future M:I guest team member), a perky Midwestern girl trying to make a break from her wholesome life and do something scandalous, making her ripe for recruiting by Solo. (Though it’s rather startling that they’d draw a civilian into such danger rather than using a professional agent. What they need is some kind of, I dunno… girl from UNCLE, maybe. They should look into hiring one.)

Despite the sketchiness of the situation, it’s a fun, solid episode due mainly to a strong and clever script by future Columbo and Deep Space Nine scribe Peter Allan Fields. The character interplay and badinage between Napoleon and Illya is a lot of fun; this time out, we get the sense that the normally stoic Russian somewhat resents that Napoleon hogs the womanizing part of the mission all to himself. I didn’t care for some of the ridiculously implausible spy gadgets they used, though. For instance, a “treated” 100-dollar bill which, when placed in the casino vault, can somehow detect the turning of the combination lock and transmit the numbers to Solo’s receiver. Or a magnetic coating which, when rubbed onto ordinary dice, allows a special watch to control their rolls. Even with microcomputers and nanotechnology, that would be hard to pull off. In 1965, even with the sci-fi tech many spy shows used at the time, it’s just preposterous.

There’s a scary moment in the scene where Illya’s coercively recruiting Rudolph: David McCallum shoves O’Herlihy back onto the hotel-room bed, and it looks like O’Herlihy just misses hitting his head fairly hard on the corner of the bedside table. A centimeter more to his left and he could’ve really been hurt. He reaches back and puts his hand on the back of his head and goes “Sh…”, but then he recovers and they both just carry on with the take. A real trouper, O’Herlihy. And it makes the scene a lot more convincing.

“The Yellow Scarf Affair”: Oh, dear. It’s Napoleon Solo and the Temple of Doom, as Solo (without Illya) takes on the so-called Thuggee cult in India, replete with Western stereotypes about Hinduism, a lot of talk about how indigenous Indian culture is a relic of the past and how enlightened modernity equals Westernization, and plenty of non-Indian actors in brownface. It embraces the traditional media image of the Thuggees as a cult of assassins who preyed on travelers as a sacrifice to the “death” goddess Kali — in this case, a revived and modernized version in which they arrange plane and train crashes and the like and steal the victims’ valuables, including a top-secret lie-detector that an UNCLE agent had been bringing back home. Now, what I recall from Indian History class is that such cults of murderous fanatics were largely invented, or at least had their prevalence greatly overstated, by the British Raj in order to paint indigenous peoples as violent savages who needed British rule and Westernization to “civilize” them for their own protection. Even if they were real, they were an extreme fringe group whose practices were falsely held up as symbolic of Indian religion as a whole, and this episode is a classic example of that, implying that the Thuggee cult is synonymous with traditional Indian culture in order to paint that culture as primitive and well-forgotten.

The episode has other problems. For instance, the McGuffin’s case is said to have a nitroglycerin self-destruct capsule–quite implausible because the slightest jolt could set it off. What’s more, it gets jolted plenty in the climactic fight and nothing happens. Not to mention that Solo’s stunt double in said fight looks nothing like Robert Vaughn and there’s hardly any attempt made to conceal his face even by the standards of lower-resolution ’60s TV sets and broadcasts. Plus, while Morton Stevens’s music is generally good, he bizarrely uses a faux-Middle Eastern musical style to establish the Indian setting, presumably on the principle that American audiences would consider all things “Oriental” to be interchangeably exotic.

There are a few decent things about the episode, mainly Kamala Devi as the “innocent,” a flight attendant who helps Solo. Not only is she the only actual Indian performer playing an Indian character, but she’s quite lovely and delicately appealing, though she doesn’t show a lot of range as an actress. (And it’s quite silly seeing Murray Matheson standing next to her as her uncle — it just throws his cheesy brownface makeup into sharp relief.) There’s also an entertaining turn by Linden Chiles as the world’s most affable THRUSH agent, alternately competing and cooperating with Solo to retrieve the McGuffin from the cultists (a formula the show has used before). But my favorite part is probably Madge Blake’s brief appearance at the beginning, passing the McGuffin to the ill-fated agent. Aunt Harriet is a secret agent! The aunt from UNCLE! How awesome is that?

“The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair”: Time for a bottle show, set mostly on the standing sets of UNCLE HQ and Del Floria’s tailor shop. UNCLE is preparing for a secret summit of world leaders, and a THRUSH mole within HQ, Riley (Peter Haskell), is planning to blow them all up — following a plan masterminded by Dr. Egret (Lee Meriwether), who’s narcissistic enough to demand that Riley join her in narrating the entire plan for the audience’s benefit, a deeply awkward scene. But a third party, an eccentric older man named Hemingway (Richard Haydn), is launching his own campaign against HQ, a series of seemingly harmless but high-tech pranks that expose some serious gaps in their security system — and it’s not hard to guess that that’s his whole intention. One of his pranks is to trick a random innocent, Kay (Zohra Lampert, whose voice I found very annoying), into the changing booth at Del Floria’s and through the secret HQ entrance therein. Kay is initially terrified, since for some reason UNCLE, the spy agency whose agents constantly go around telling people who they are and discussing secret missions at crowded parties, and whose HQ location is already well-known to their enemies, are suddenly so hyper-secretive that they refuse even to tell Kay who they are and where she is. But Kay turns out to be the second innocent in the past three weeks (and at least the fifth this season) to be tired of her ordinary life and thrilled by the chance to get involved in excitement and intrigue. It’s getting a bit repetitive, guys!

So yeah, you can tell I’m not enthralled by this one. It has some decent ideas, but the execution has a lot of flaws — particularly in the climax, where the bomb’s trigger device, which is supposed to be innocuous and understood to be a detonator only by Riley himself, is shown sizzling and smoking for a good 20 seconds or more, long enough that anyone could figure it out. Plus it criminally underuses Lee Meriwether, who’s only in one scene plus a voiceover later.

The music is credited to Goldsmith and Stevens, and is mostly built around familiar motifs, but at least some of it seems newly arranged and tailored to the scenes.

Announcing ENTERPRISE: RISE OF THE FEDERATION… Book 2!

The contracts are signed, the outline approved, and the writing underway, so I’ve been cleared to announce that my next Star Trek novel, following this July’s Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures, will be a sequel entitled Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation: Tower of Babel. That’s right — the buzz for Book 1 has apparently been so strong that I’ve already been asked for Book 2 (indeed, I got the invitation about a week before I even turned in the manuscript for ACoF!). It’s always been my hope that ACoF would be the first of a series, but for the past few months I’ve had to tiptoe around confirming that it now will be.

Tower of Babel will move the story of the Federation’s early years forward into 2164, and the title offers a hint about its subject matter. I can’t tease much about it yet, since there’s a lot about Book 1 that hasn’t even been publicized yet. But it will continue to develop the main story and character threads of Book 1 and will add some new ones, both following up on Enterprise and laying the groundwork for the world of The Original Series, and featuring more exploration of new worlds (at least, new to the characters, and not well-explored in canon or literature to date) than I managed to fit into Book 1.  I don’t yet know what its publication date will be, but considering that the manuscript due date is about seven and a half months after the previous one, I daresay it’ll probably be sometime in early 2014.

As for A Choice of Futures, I was hoping the cover would be available sometime around now, but apparently there’s been some delay in the process, so nothing yet, alas.

There is such a thing as a (semi-)free lunch

I went for a walk today to enjoy the 70-degree weather, and I decided to take a path that would a) include a long, moderate uphill climb so I could get some decent exercise and b) bring me to an area near the university where various sandwich shops and the like were located, in case I decided to buy lunch at one of them. But I wasn’t really in the mood for the available options, though I was leaning toward one.

But then I noticed that there was some kind of food cart on the corner, and decided to investigate. It was someone giving out free samples of Sabra brand hummus. Never one to pass up free food (if it’s a kind I like, and I do like hummus), I took a couple of samples and decided my lunch selection had been made for me. I already had some pitas and vegetables in the fridge, so now I’m having hummus pitas with tomato, cucumber, and onion, and they’re reasonably good. The hummus has a little too much bite for me, but it works better blended with the other flavors, and it’s got a good texture. I think I’ll stick with the hummus mix I usually buy, but a little variety now and then isn’t bad. Especially when it’s free.

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Gene Roddenberry’s GENESIS II & PLANET EARTH

I finally decided to buy the print-on-demand DVDs of Genesis II and Planet Earth, two of the failed SF pilot movies that Star Trek‘s Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced in the early ’70s. I used to have them on videotape, but I apparently lost the tape somewhere along the line, so this was the only way I’d get to see them again, and I found a place where I could get them pretty cheaply.

Genesis II (1973) was Roddenberry’s attempt to do another series built around the “thousand worlds” premise of ST, a team of heroes travelling to a different exotic society or environment each week. In this case, it was a post-apocalyptic future where the survivors of global nuclear war had fragmented into multiple diverse, bizarre societies — but, with typical Roddenberry optimism, the fall of civilization had cleansed the planet and let it (eventually) become a pristine paradise again. The hero was Dylan Hunt (played here by Alex Cord), a 20th-century scientist trapped in a suspended-animation experiment in 1979, and revived in 2133 by a society called Pax, nominally dedicated to rebuilding and restoring the best of civilization. But the woman who nurses him back to health, Lyra-a (Mariette Hartley), belongs to a civilization of superhuman mutants called Tyranians, and she claims Pax are aspiring conquerors and helps Dylan escape from them — whereupon he soon finds that Tyrania isn’t the paradise she claimed. (Really, a name like Tyrania is kind of a giveaway.) The cast also included Percy Rodriguez (Commodore Stone from ST: “Court-martial”) as the Pax leader, Primus Isaac Kimbridge, and genre stalwart Ted Cassidy as Isiah — the most unfortunate part of the film, supposedly a “white Comanche” who speaks in stereotyped TV-Indian broken English.

The premise made use of a vehicle called the subshuttle, essentially an underground bullet train system started in Dylan’s time (when fear of war had made aboveground transport seem too vulnerable) and expanded in the decades before the war. The system has survived and been maintained by Pax, serving as the means for Pax’s operatives to travel the world. (And it couldn’t possibly have worked as depicted. With so little clearance between the shuttle and the tube walls, with no evident vents, and with the tubes clearly not in vacuum, air resistance would’ve kept it from going as fast as it was shown to travel.)

It’s an interesting film and the concept had potential, but Cord is not the most appealing lead actor, and there are aspects of Pax that might’ve been offputting in a weekly series — they lived in underground bunkers in Carlsbad Caverns, and they embraced a rather ascetic “unisex” philosophy that disdained lust and sexuality as the cause of civilization’s downfall, as explicated by the uptight supporting character Harper-Smythe, played by Lynne Marta (though it was suggested that the young were starting to reject that view). All in all, it could be better, and it’s understandable why CBS rejected the series (instead opting for the similar Planet of the Apes TV series which lasted for only half a season), and why, when Roddenberry then pitched it to ABC, they asked him to retool it for the second attempt (Roddenberry had a knack for getting second pilots made, it seems).

This was 1974’s Planet Earth, this time starring John Saxon as Dylan Hunt and Janet Margolin as Harper-Smythe, with Ted Cassidy returning as Isiah (the only holdover from the original cast) and Christopher Cary added as Hunt’s fourth team member, the “esper” doctor Baylok. (Which is pronounced the same as Balok from ST’s “The Corbomite Maneuver” — a character that Cassidy provided the voice for, kind of. That always weirded me out a little.) This time out, Pax has relocated to a beautiful, advanced aboveground city (about where Albuquerque once was, judging from a shot in the opening titles), and the “unisex” beliefs are nowhere to be found — female extras in Pax City are wearing revealing William Ware Theiss outfits, and Harper-Smythe now appears to have a thing for Dylan.  Isiah’s portrayed a little better, speaking more coherent English and no longer in what I guess you’d call “redface” makeup, but Baylok still calls him “the savage” at one point.

ST’s former associate producer Bob Justman was brought in as producer this time, and Roddenberry cowrote the script with future Rockford Files staff writer/producer Juanita Bartlett. The story is a very ’70s conceit: to find a missing doctor, Hunt and Harper-Smythe must infiltrate a society where women (primarily Marg, played by Diana Muldaur) keep men as slaves and pets — which Dylan actually describes as “women’s lib gone mad.” There are definitely ways in which it plays out as the kind of sex-preoccupied male fantasy you’d expect from Roddenberry, or from ’70s TV in general: Dylan uses his virility to seduce Marg and convince her that men aren’t so bad. But it seems to me that Bartlett’s hand adds some wit to the proceedings, so that Dylan’s seduction plays out more comically and tastefully than it otherwise might have, more about getting Marg drunk and philosophizing about mutual respect than getting her laid.

The movie also features villains called the Kreeg, a brutish, warlike band of mutants with electronically deepened voices and knobbly head ridges that appear to be a prototype for the revised Klingon makeup that would be introduced five years later in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  (I can’t find a makeup credit for Planet Earth, though, so I don’t know if it was designed by the same person, Fred Phillips.)

All in all, despite the iffy gender politics of the premise, Planet Earth is an improvement on the first pilot. Saxon is a much more charismatic and sympathetic lead than Cord, as much of an improvement as William Shatner was over Jeffrey Hunter as the Enterprise captain. Margolin is also a more appealing Harper-Smythe than Marta. There’s more charm and wit to the writing. The aboveground setting and the new Pax-team uniforms are an improvement (despite the uniforms’ unappealing color scheme), and Pax’s society seems more worth fighting for. Isiah is less offensive, and Baylok could potentially be an interesting character, but was quite underutilized here. The downside is that there’s less ethnic diversity in the lead cast; the first pilot featured a team member named Singh (seemingly the only South Asian surname Roddenberry knew) in a fairly prominent role, but here, Dylan’s team is all-white, and the one major black character, Kimbridge (here retitled “Pater” and recast as Rai Tasco), is sidelined. This is something of a reversal from the Trek pilots; in “The Cage,” the main cast was all-white, but the network pushed for more diversity in the second pilot (since recent analyses had revealed the buying power of minority viewers), and that’s how we got characters like Sulu and Uhura. Here, things unfortunately went in the reverse direction.

Planet Earth didn’t succeed as a pilot any more than its predecessor did. In his entire career, the only non-Trek series that Roddenberry ever got on the air was his first, the non-SF series The Lieutenant in 1963, and that only ran for one season. However, in 1975, ABC attempted to rework the post-apocalyptic premise one more time without Roddenberry’s involvement, keeping Saxon as the lead and retaining the name Pax, and using the Trek-inspired title Strange New World, but changing the rest of the premise and the character names. (The leads were astronauts on a sleeper ship who returned to an Earth devastated by asteroid bombardment.) So it doesn’t count as part of the same series and I haven’t bothered to track it down.

Of course, the concept of a hero named Dylan Hunt who slept through the fall of his civilization and fought to rebuild peace and stability in the post-apocalyptic world was resurrected after Roddenberry’s death as the premise of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, transposed to far-future outer space and starring Kevin Sorbo as Hunt. A couple of other elements from the original films made their way into Andromeda: Harper-Smythe inspired the Harper character in name if nothing else, and I daresay the genetically superior Tyranians inspired the genetically superior Tyr Anasazi and his Nietzschean race. But otherwise it was a very different show, more the creation of Robert Hewitt Wolfe than Roddenberry, and blending the fragments of the Dylan Hunt universe with concepts from other failed Roddenberry pitches (such as the idea of an intelligent starship as a lead character, from an unused premise called Starship). Not to mention that the show went badly astray once Wolfe was fired after a season and a half. I really don’t want to get into that here; it would be reopening old wounds.

One reason I decided to buy these movies was to test a hypothesis. I’ve long entertained the conceit that maybe the G2/PE universe was an alternate timeline of the Trek universe, maybe one where the Eugenics Wars were more extensive and escalated to a nuclear conflict. That was never more than an idle musing before; but in recent years, since Pocket published its Mirror Universe and Myriad Universes anthologies, I’ve taken to cataloguing alternate Trek timelines more systematically in my personal chronology notes, and I got to wondering about whether I could actually add these movies to my list.

At first I was concerned it might not work, because the state of things in 1979 in G2 already seemed rather different from what we know of the Trek world in that time (not too different from ours, but with a more active space program). But then I thought, what if the divergence was earlier? What if, say, Gary Seven hadn’t intervened in “Assignment: Earth” and after? In that case, Earth would’ve begun an orbital nuclear arms buildup starting in 1968, which would fit neatly with the mid-’70s war fears that led to the creation of the subshuttles in G2. Also, according to the novel continuity, without Gary Seven’s intervention, the eugenics program that produced Khan and the Augments would’ve been more extensive, and the Eugenics Wars would’ve been bigger, potentially escalating to the level of global cataclysm. And the “mutant” Tyranians and Kreeg, claimed in the films to be the products of radiation, make far more sense if they’re descendants of the Augments. The timing works too. The undated cataclysm had to be after 1992, the date given for the construction of a subshuttle station seen in PE. However, the most advanced technology Pax has dates from Dylan’s century according to dialogue, suggesting that the end came no later than roughly the turn of the millennium. Which is no doubt where I originally got the idea that it was a bigger, alternative version of the Eugenics Wars. So I think it works rather neatly. The Dylan Hunt timeline could well be the future that Gary Seven was sent to Earth to prevent. (Which would mean that in the Trek universe, without the war fears driving things underground, Dylan’s hibernation experiment would’ve most likely happened elsewhere and he would never have been trapped in stasis by a cave-in. Indeed, his research could’ve led to the cryogenic technology of the Botany Bay.)

The other question I had was whether the two films could fit in the same timeline as each other, given the changes between them. The recastings are easily waved away, just like any TV or film recastings (e.g. Saavik or Cochrane in Trek). The change in Isiah’s makeup and hair can be just as easily ignored, or rationalized by saying he was in disguise in G2. The character changes can be rationalized; Isiah could’ve learned better English, Harper-Smythe could’ve softened in her unisex views after Dylan deflated some of her cherished myths about his era, and Kimbridge’s change in title could’ve been the result of either a promotion or a retirement from the Primus council. The hardest thing to rationalize is the Pax city suddenly materializing between movies; but maybe Pax had had the city all along, yet had retreated to the Carlsbad bunker due to the threat of Tyranian attack, a threat which was resolved by PE. Alternatively, maybe Pax made an alliance with the city and relocated there between movies — which might better explain the different, non-unisex clothing style. (If the city’s about where Albuquerque was, that would make it a bit under 300 miles NNW of Carlsbad Caverns, explaining why we didn’t see it in G2. The climax of G2 suggests that Tyrania is considerably closer to Carlsbad, though, not far over the horizon. Since they had nuclear weapons, they might’ve been somewhere around Alamogordo or White Sands, perhaps. Lyra-a mentions Phoenix as they ride toward Tyrania, but it can’t possibly be that far away.)

One other minor discrepancy: in G2, Majel Barrett plays Primus Dominic and Titos Vandis plays Primus Yuloff; whereas in PE, Barrett has a tiny role as a character credited as Yuloff. But Barrett’s PE character was never addressed by name onscreen, so the credit could simply be an error. Or maybe Dominic married Yuloff in the interim.

The timing’s also a bit tricky. In PE, Dylan says he was born on February 3, 1944 and is 189 years old, adding up to 2133, the same year as G2. But it’s easier to reconcile the movies if you assume some time passes between them to allow for the changes. But there’s an easy handwave: Dylan was drunk when he calculated his age. He could easily have been off by a year or two.

So I think the two movies can be treated as a single continuity if you squint a little — which is true of a lot of continuity in any TV or movie universe. Sure, if I’m defining them as an alternate Trek-universe timeline to begin with, I could just as easily say they were two slightly variant timelines; but with only two movies, I’d rather treat them as a connected series if possible.

Of course, this all has to remain strictly informal speculation. The copyright on these movies is owned by Warner Bros., not CBS, so I wouldn’t be allowed to incorporate these characters and ideas into a licensed Trek novel. But that’s why it’s fun to think about. It lets me get back to speculating about something Trek-related purely for recreation, rather than for work.

It’s worth noting, however, that Roddenberry himself may have worked some ideas from G2/PE into his ST:TNG pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint.” The chronology precluded them from fitting in the same universe even then, but a lot of concepts in TNG were recycled from earlier, failed Roddenberry projects: Riker and Troi were reworked from Decker and Ilia in TMP and the failed Phase II sequel series, while Data was a blend of Phase II‘s Vulcan character Xon and the android lead of the 1974 pilot film The Questor Tapes. The depiction of “the post-atomic horror” in “Farpoint” bears some similarities to the G2/PE universe, so I wonder if maybe Roddenberry had the idea that Trek history could’ve happened similarly but with different timing, that the Federation could be descended from a group equivalent to Pax which had rebuilt the Earth after a less extensive WWIII. It definitely reflects the same idea that things would have to get much worse for humanity before we finally came to our senses and built a better world. Of course, later Trek installments, primarily First Contact, depicted Earth history in a very different way. But it’s interesting to speculate about what Roddenberry may have intended.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Affair, Episodes 7-12 (Spoilers)

More U.N.C.L.E reviews…

“The Giuoco Piano Affair”: A sequel to “The Quadripartite Affair,” as UNCLE finally tracks down evil mastermind Gervaise Ravel (Anne Francis) and her rich husband/backer Bufferton (John Van Dreelen) and tries to draw them out for capture. The title references a chess gambit that, according to Solo, involves using a lesser piece as bait to draw the queen into a vulnerable position. This involves bringing back Marion Raven (Jill Ireland) for a return appearance. Ireland was David McCallum’s wife at the time, and there was an idea that Marion could be Illya’s recurring love interest, though this would be the character’s final appearance (though not the actress’s). The plan is to use her as bait for Gervaise to kidnap so they can use her as bait to capture Solo when he tries to rescue her, and then track her to Gervaise’s lair using an implanted transmitter. Except the execution doesn’t make sense, because Solo is right there with her in the Andean town where she’s paraded as kidnap bait. He’s already on hand for Gervaise’s goon to try to assassinate before the abduction and Bufferton to make contact with after — so why would Gervaise feel she had to abduct Marion to lure Solo into her reach if Solo was already in her reach? It just doesn’t make sense.

Also, even though this episode is by the same writer who created Marion, Alan Caillou, she doesn’t seem to be as assertive and adventurous a woman as she was before, instead being portrayed as more traditionally timid. Plus the way she’s recruited is weird — Illya comes to her while she’s throwing a party (whose guests are the show’s production staff, including the episode’s director Richard Donner — yes, that Richard Donner — as a drunk), and they have a loud conversation about the secret mission he’s trying to recruit her for right in front of all these party guests he’s never met. As before, UNCLE has an oddly cavalier approach to operational secrecy.

Walter Scharf does the music, and again, it’s sadly less memorable than his Mission: Impossible work. It’s largely source music for the party and the South American village, plus some cues that sound recycled from Scharf’s earlier episodes.

“The Double Affair”: Only eight episodes in and we already get an evil twin! Robert Vaughn gets to flex his acting muscles again by pretending to be someone pretending to be Napoleon Solo, as THRUSH replaces him with an impostor in order to gain access to the super-top-secret August Affair (and yes, UNCLE really does call its missions “The [Something] Affair”). The first act is a much better chess match than the previous episode which was named for a chess gambit; as THRUSH tries to abduct Solo by having the waiter summon him to the telephone, he quickly catches on that it’s an attempted abduction and gets the upper hand on his lovely abductor (Senta Berger, who somehow gets billed above David McCallum here), but THRUSH anticipated his anticipation and has countermoves, and so on. It’s a nice dance between players who see each others’ moves coming, but THRUSH has the advantage of having had more time to prepare. And so they manage to gas him unconscious and spirit him off to their hideout in the Austrian Alps, which looks exactly like the Griffith Park Observatory. Those fiends! On top of everything else, architectural plagiarism!

Unfortunately, the cleverness and perceptiveness drops off on both sides starting in Chapter 2. The Solo impostor, who was so carefully altered and trained to imitate Solo exactly, has one glaring and obvious flaw in his impersonation: He doesn’t flirt with every woman he encounters, and indeed doesn’t even notice them. This includes not recognizing the flight attendant Solo was on a date with before his abduction — even though the impostor was right there in the restaurant and should’ve recognized her! And even though Illya supposedly knows Solo so well that THRUSH tried to assassinate him before starting the mission, he totally fails to notice Solo’s uncharacteristic asexuality or any of the other anomalies that should’ve tipped him off.

(By the way, the attempt on Illya’s life is enacted by a pair of rocket-firing robot/toys right outside Del Floria’s Tailor Shop, the front for UNCLE HQ. If the bad guys know where HQ is, why even hide it? Again this show’s use of spy tropes is hard to reconcile with its portrayal of the UNCLE as a fairly open global-security organization.)

The rest is a bit of a mess too. There’s a sci-fi twist to the secret behind the August Affair, but it serves little story purpose. There’s a big mistake the impostor makes, a clue he accidentally leaves in a damning place, but it serves little purpose other than to give him an excuse to kill off the token black agent in Chapter 3 — again, part of Illya’s total failure to notice anything wrong. And when Solo manages to escape from Griffith East, his escape is made easier by the most poorly-designed evil-lair self-destruct mechanism since… well, actually most evil-lair self-destructs are poorly designed in one way or another, but this one you just have to see to believe.

The music is by Morton Stevens, and I found it much more striking this time, a very interesting, somewhat avant-garde sound. Stevens, I’ve discovered, was a protege of Jerry Goldsmith, and he’s best known for writing the Hawaii Five-O theme. Oh, and this episode also introduces a new, briefer prologue — instead of the instructional-film tour of UNCLE and the leads introducing themselves to the audience, we get a tauter, more stylish opening built around the scene in the pilot that gave us our first look at Napoleon Solo. It’s a much more effective beginning.

“The Project Strigas Affair”: This is the one episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that I’ve seen before (not counting the ’80s reunion movie), an episode I’ve been aware of for a long time as a piece of Star Trek trivia — the one time that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy worked together before ST. But they’re on opposite sides here. The episode has a somewhat Mission: Impossible-ish setup (though it predates M:I by a couple of years): an Eastern European warmonger, Kurasov (Werner Klemperer), is threatening to destabilize international relations, so our heroes are assigned to discredit him so he’ll be removed from power, and they employ an elaborate con game to do so.

Like M:I’s Jim Phelps, Solo and Kuryakin recruit a specialist to help them with the scam, but unlike M:I’s team members, that specialist, Michael Donfield (Shatner), is taken rather by surprise and needs to be talked into it. He’s a chemical engineer who’s given up a lucrative job to open a small exterminating business with his wife Anne (Peggy Ann Garner), which is something that S&K can spin to make it look like a cover for a secret government project. The idea is to get Colonel Klink, err, Kurasov to believe Donfield’s working on a secret weapon called Strigas (rhymes with bypass) and get him to think he’ll score a major career coup by obtaining the formula for his nameless country, thus humiliating and ruining him when it turns out to be nothing. But the plan hits rather more snags along the way than your typical M:I scheme, and there’s a fair degree of improvising. It doesn’t help that Kurasov’s aide Vladeck (Nimoy), an ambitious sort who resents Kurasov’s constant insults, does some digging of his own and disrupts plans on both sides.

It’s a pretty fun episode overall, with nice performances from Shatner, Nimoy (if you can get past his unconvincing accent), Klemperer, and Woodrow Parfrey as one of Kurasov’s agents. I always enjoy seeing Shatner in this early phase of his career, when he tended to give more laid-back and unaffected performances. Donfield, though reluctant at first, gets into the thrill of the spy game much like Pat Crowley’s character in the pilot — and unlike her, he has his spouse right there to wipe the grin off his face when he’s told he has to assume the role of a womanizer. The role is a good fit for Shatner. Mainly, though, I must admit that the principal charm of this episode is watching Napoleon Solo and Captain Kirk take on Colonel Klink and Mr. Spock. It’s a little hard to look past who the actors are to focus on their characters.

Again, Scharf does the music, and again it doesn’t stand out as much as I would’ve expected.

“The Finny Foot Affair”:  Ugh, let’s just get through this one quickly. Solo and Illya play Andromeda Strain, investigating a Scottish island where everyone’s died of old age due to a bioweapon that some supposedly Japanese bad guys are also trying to get hold of (it was made by one of their countrymen during WWII and then lost until now). True to ’60s form, the speaking bad guys are white actors with eye prosthetics and phony accents and the only real Asians are in nonspeaking roles. The bad guys wing Illya so he’s stuck at London HQ while Solo pursues a lead to Norway, where the infectious agent originated. Teenage Kurt Russell latches onto Solo as a potential replacement for his dead father, and tags along to Norway, being annoyingly cute and Opie-ish the whole way. Solo keeps trying to ditch him but keeps having to drag him along as the fake-Japanese henchwoman and her muscle pursue him. Illya passes along a screamingly obvious clue (a strange oversized ring with an inscription to “marry the maiden” — I caught on in seconds that it was meant to go on a statue’s finger to reveal a clue) that Solo totally failed to figure out for two acts (though in his defense, he is a confirmed bachelor). Baby Snake Plissken remains mawkishly cute and rather stupid throughout, even as the boy is forced to experience abduction and killings and other stuff that would turn a real kid into… well, into Snake Plissken, maybe. And it all turns out to be for nothing. In-story and out.

Nothing good to say here. Morton Stevens’s music wasn’t enough to impress me this time. And even famously curvaceous ’60s exotic dancer/martial artist/actress Tura Satana was mostly wasted as the henchwoman; she had a token dance scene early on that was kind of interesting, but was too mired in confused Orientalism to be really enjoyable (why is a fake-Japanese woman dancing to belly-dancer music?). Let’s just move on before my headache gets any worse.

“The Neptune Affair”: Illya is mad — not because he’s hardly in this one, but because some rogue faction in America is launching missiles containing a fungus that’s destroying wheat fields in the USSR. Solo has 3 days to stop the next launch or they’ll retaliate and nuclear holocaust begins. Heather McNabb makes her final appearance, alas, and hypnotizes Solo with a hayseed cover identity (just an act for the most part, but he can trigger himself to really believe he’s the guy for a few hours if he’s caught and interrogated). Robert Vaughn’s performance here isn’t as interesting as the fake persona he adopted in the Carroll O’Connor episode. There, he seemed like a totally different person; here, he just seems like Solo putting on a corny accent.

Solo searches for the scientist who developed the fungus, and meets his daughter, played by Lost in Space‘s Marta Kristen, as well as her fiancee Gabe (Jeremy Slate), who’s working for a Mr. Lockridge, who’s played by Henry Jones so you know he must be evil. Solo wheedles his way onto their boat when it goes out for “night fishing,” and they knock him out and interrogate him with help from — hey, it’s Sgt. Schultz! Yup, John Banner’s being his usual jovial self, but more evilly than usual. But true to form, Schultz sees nothing and hears nothing; Solo has activated his cover persona, so their interrogation is unproductive. Their fishing expedition a failure, they cut him loose.

Later, Marta Kristen catches on that he faked his cover, but manages to clue him in that the bad guys must be based on an oil derrick just offshore. She convinces him to take her with him in exchange for the use of her rowboat, since he wants to sneak aboard. But it’s no use, since they’re monitoring everything and catch them, bringing them down to their deep undersea base where Lockridge’s band of scientists plan to wait out the apocalypse they’re about to trigger, after which they’ll ascend and rule the world scientifically and emotionlessly. Solo (who annoyingly keeps up his fake persona well after they’ve figured out he’s a spy) manages to appeal to Gabe’s emotions to get his help in stopping the plan.

Hey, just imagine if UNCLE weren’t around — WWIII happens just on the schedule that Captain Shark from “The Shark Affair” thought it would, because Lockridge triggered it. Civilization is wiped out, and the only survivors are Shark’s group of well-intentioned utopians aboard their ship and Lockridge’s group of conquest-minded technocrats in their undersea base. That could make for an interesting post-apocalyptic struggle between the two factions.

An okay episode, but the past two have sort of a similarly awkward format — a tense, high-stakes setup being largely ignored as it’s just an excuse for the ensuing hijinks of the episode. I suppose plenty of Mission: Impossible episodes, Bond movies, and the like are structured similarly — the evil plot being just a McGuffin to motivate the story — but in these cases I didn’t find the hijinks as interesting as the setup.

The music this time is credited to both Goldsmith and Scharf, though a lot of it sounded like stock. Goldsmith’s work remains my favorite among the composers so far.

A weird dubbing issue here — there’s an explosive gas that’s a plot point here, and every time they say its name, it’s awkwardly dubbed over with “hydro.” I’m guessing it was originally “nitro” and they changed it at the last minute, but why?

“The Dove Affair”: This one’s too convoluted to summarize point-by-point, so I’ll just given an overview. This is the most Illya-free episode since the second; he isn’t even mentioned. It’s Solo truly solo, playing a cat-and-mouse game against Ricardo Montalban as Satine, the charming-but-deadly secret police chief of a fictional Balkan country. Solo was sent to retrieve the premier’s dove medallion containing vital information about THRUSH, but the premier was murdered just before he got there, and he must steal the dove. The cabinet secretary works for THRUSH and wants Solo arrested and accused of the crime to discredit UNCLE. Satine’s boss, the new, weaker premier, doesn’t want that, so he orders Satine to retrieve the dove (which they need for reasons of their own) and keep Solo from being taken alive — by either helping him escape or killing him. So Satine and Solo keep charmingly and deviously going from working together to battling each other, and a school tour group led by teacher June Lockhart gets caught in the middle. It’s fun to watch Vaughn and Montalban banter and play out their gentlemanly rivalry, but there are some plot contrivances like a couple of convenient hangups Satine has that give Solo an edge over him at key moments, and some conveniently accidental interventions by a couple of Lockhart’s schoolkids (the kind of TV “kids” played by actors in their 20s).

I also have to wonder why a spy chief in a Balkan country would have a Mexican accent, but then, I’ve often wondered the same thing about Khan in Star Trek. Montalban was like Sean Connery, I guess: you want him, you get the accent with him.

The music’s credited to Goldsmith, but I think by this point in the season it’s reasonable to assume it’s all stock. I definitely recognized some of it.

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