Archive for April 1, 2013

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.