Archive for July 8, 2013

The Man from UNCLE Affair: Alternate pilot and Season 1 overview (spoilers)

Solo — “The Vulcan Affair”: This is the original color version of the pilot, included on the bonus disc. The show was originally going to be called Solo or even Ian Fleming’s Solo, but this was changed after a bit of a legal kerfuffle over a similarly named character in Goldfinger. The credits, accompanied by the same Jerry Goldsmith theme we know from the regular series, begin with the familiar world-map shot underneath the SOLO title, but is then followed by zooming insets of various world locations, with the guest-cast credits shown over the exotic vistas.

The biggest difference in the pilot becomes evident right after the credits, when instead of Mr. Waverly, we meet Will Kuluva as UNCLE director Allison. There’s more material with the THRUSH agents who broke into HQ in the teaser, as we see how ruthlessly THRUSH disposes of its own men once they’ve served their purpose. (This helps illustrate Solo’s memorable line later in the episode: “They kill people the way people kill flies: a careless flick of the wrist, a reflex action.”) In the next scene between Allison and Solo, we get some useful exposition about the workings of the characteristic triangular badges worn in UNCLE HQ, exposition which was late in coming in the series proper. Illya’s first scene is longer, and he has a second one which was removed entirely from the aired version — but I don’t miss it much, since it undermines the plausibility of the premise. Solo recruits housewife Elaine to get to THRUSH agent Vulcan because of their past relationship, but the extra Solo-Illya scene reveals that their sole evidence for that relationship’s existence was a single high-school photo where Vulcan had his arm around her, which is quite a leap. Still, the scene demonstrates effective chemistry between Vaughn and McCallum and gives more of a clue than the aired episode did as to why the producers decided to upgrade McCallum to co-star status.

The rest of the episode has a few more extra scenes, notably some more character-building for the visiting African dignitaries who are targets of the THRUSH plot. Other additions are more extraneous and entirely expendable. But the end title sequence also plays longer, letting us hear a few more bars of the closing theme than in the series version. The color doesn’t add too much to the episode, and in one scene it detracts, for it makes it easier to see that Solo has a bloody cut on his forehead in one scene and then no trace of injury there once he’s cleaned up in the next.

It wasn’t a bad choice to put this at the end of the season set, since it’s interesting to watch the pilot again now that I’ve seen the whole season. For one thing, I recognize the majority of the music cues now and it’s interesting to see what scenes they were written to accompany. (For instance, the cue that regularly accompanied the establishing shot of Manhattan and the pull-in to Del Floria’s in various episodes was not the same cue accompanying same in the pilot, but was instead used for the opening of the scene on the airplane taking Solo and Elaine to Washington.) It’s also interesting to compare the writing in the pilot to that of the first season. The pilot is more serious — not particularly dark or deep, but less broad and quirky than the season became. Also, this is the only episode written by Sam Rolfe, so his sharp and clever dialogue style was unfortunately not heard again.

It turns out that the sequences with Luciana Paluzzi as THRUSH agent Angela in episode 21, “The Four-Steps Affair,” were actually shot (in color) for a third version of the pilot, an expanded overseas feature-film version called To Trap a Spy. Angela’s scenes would’ve evidently come at the start of the film and sometime before its climactic visit to Vulcan’s chemical plant. Now I understand why Agent Dancer’s name in that episode sounded overdubbed — as originally filmed, he was the same Agent Lancer who was mentioned in the pilot as having warned UNCLE of the assassination plot before being murdered. “Four-Steps” just took that material and wrote a different “assassination plot against foreign dignitary” story to accompany it.

When I did my first-season overview of Mission: Impossible, it was after having seen a fair amount of the later seasons, so I could speak of that season in the context of the whole. In this case I don’t have that option; the only things I’ve ever seen before were the ’80s reunion movie, which I haven’t seen in ages, and “The Project Strigas Affair,” which is part of this season. So I’ll just have to assess the season on its own terms, informed by what little I know of what followed.

Reportedly this season was the most serious and dramatic one; as with Lost in Space, the show took a campier, more comical turn later on in order to compete with Batman. But the fact is, TMFU took a light and playful tone from the beginning, with a number of broad, often comic adventures that didn’t take the spy game very seriously. Robert Vaughn consistently played Napoleon Solo in an impish, bantering manner, with a slightly arch, smug attitude as if he’s in on the joke and just playing along. It actually fits the character and the genre rather well, since the audience is expected to be in on the joke too and not take the fantasy violence and death too seriously. But it did have one annoying side effect that bothered me more and more once I started noticing it — namely, Vaughn handled his prop weapons as though they were props rather than weapons. He’d casually wave cocked pistols around and point them at his friends, and his technique for shooting at bad guys seemed similarly haphazard. In “The Gazebo in the Maze Affair,” at one point he was holding a sword and firmly grasped its exposed blade in his hand in such a way that he would’ve lost his fingers if it had been real. His cavalier treatment of prop weapons spoiled the illusion, and even in the context of a show that didn’t take itself too seriously, that feels like sloppy technique.

David McCallum’s stoicism as Illya Kuryakin makes a strong counterpoint to Solo’s fecklessness, and they make a good pair. However, in the majority of the season, Illya is very much in a secondary role, often appearing for only part of the episode and then being sidelined. But there are a few episodes where he and Solo are equally featured, and one where Illya takes the lead and Solo is mostly sidelined.

As was often the case with ’60s TV, the featured weekly guest stars were usually the highlight, allowing each episode to do something different even as the regulars remained constant and unchanging. Many of the featured “innocents” were there for comedy, while a few provided a more dramatic turn. Unfortunately, the innocents were often inserted through awkward coincidence or contrivance, and too many of them fell into the same formula, such as the ordinary Joe or Jane enticed by the glamour and adventure of the spy game. It led to a certain repetitiveness, although that was par for the course in the era, and less noticeable in weekly airings than on DVD.

I can’t be sure which episodes did or didn’t have original music, since every episode credited composers even when their scores seemed to be stock. But the composers for the season included Jerry Goldsmith, his protege Morton Stevens, Walter Scharf, and Lalo Schifrin. Goldsmith’s scoring, including the main title, stands out the most, featuring elements of his famous style from later decades but with a ’60s-TV sound and a jazzy and sometimes Latin flavor. It uses a lot of repeating motifs, but uses them well. Stevens’s work is occasionally impressive but rarely outstanding; what I noticed most about him was a tendency to use the same generic, vaguely Eastern sound for anything Asian, regardless of whether it was the Mideast, India, or Hong Kong — typical of the show’s hamfisted Orientalism. Scharf was mainly notable for the broader range of ethnic/regional source music he provided, rarely doing any non-diegetic music as interesting as his later Mission: Impossible scores, though he did notable work in “The Deadly Decoy Affair” and “The Love Affair.” Schifrin only did one episode — “The Fiddlesticks Affair,” fittingly a very M:I-style heist episode — and gave it a somewhat M:I-esque sound. Apparently the producers liked his work enough to have him redo the main title theme for season 2.

So let’s see, this show doesn’t lend itself to the kind of statistical breakdowns I did in my M:I overviews. So let’s try some bests and worsts.

Best “innocent”: Barbara Feldon as Mandy, “The Never-Never Affair”: Utterly luminous. Feldon was a remarkable performer, able to be simultaneously Amazonian and adorable, at once smolderingly sexy and girl-next-door sweet. She was utterly miscast as a frumpy translator fantasizing about becoming a glamorous spy, given how intrinsically glamorous she was, but she made the part her own and totally killed, just as she always did. Honorable mention: Kathryn Hays as Mary in “The See-Paris-And-Die Affair,” William Shatner  as Michael in “The Project Strigas Affair.”

Worst “innocent”: Kurt Russell as Chris, “Finny Foot” (I think we can treat “The… Affair” as read by this point): A plucky, dense 13-year-old who thinks Napoleon Solo is a good father figure? No thank you. As I said in the episode review, “mawkishly cute and stupid throughout.” Runner-up: Glenn Corbett as Bernie in “Hong Kong Shilling,” who was just annoying and unlikeable.

Best villain: I’d have to say it’s a tie between Robert Culp as Captain Shark in “Shark” and Cesar Romero as Gervais in “Never-Never”. Culp does what’s probably the most powerful dramatic turn in the season, playing a modern Captain Nemo and bringing great intelligence, depth, and gravitas to the role; he’s a cinch for most sympathetic villain, to the point that I’m reluctant to place him in the villain category. Romero’s Gervais was by far the most charming THRUSH agent, getting around most villain cliches by being understanding and patient with his underlings’ screwups, as well as being unfailingly polite and debonair — which only makes the undercurrent of menace all the more effective. Honorable mention to Ricardo Montalban as the part-villain, part-ally Satine in “Dove.”

Worst villain: Pretty much any white actor pretending to be Asian, such as Leonard Strong in “Finny Foot” or Murray Matheson in “Yellow Scarf.” Dr. Egret and her army of blondes in “Girls of Nazarone” were pretty dumb too.

Best episodes (chronological order): “Vulcan,” “Shark,” “Project Strigas,” “Dove,” “See-Paris-And-Die,”  “Never-Never.”

Worst episodes: “Finny Foot,” “Yellow Scarf,” “Secret Sceptre,” “Brain-Killer,” “Hong Kong Shilling,” “Girls of Nazarone.”

As you can see, I’ve picked an equal number of bests and worsts. Overall I can’t say there are more of the former. So far, to be honest, I’m finding this a mediocre series with occasional moments of excellence. It’s often rather fun, and Vaughn, McCallum, and Carroll are good, but often the appeal comes more from seeing familiar guest stars than from the stories per se. It’s not one of the greats, even in what’s generally considered its best season. Which doesn’t leave me too optimistic about what lies ahead.

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