The Man From UNCLE Season 2 Affair: ONE SPY TOO MANY and overview (spoilers)
One Spy Too Many, as I mentioned in the previous post, is the theatrical version of the 2-part “Alexander the Greater Affair,” released five months after the episodes aired on television, and with more sex and violence added for the big screen. The violence comes first, with a new opening sequence under the movie titles, in which Alexander’s chief henchman Parviz (David Sheiner) breaks into an army base and battles its guards with gas grenades and a machine gun. The film periodically goes into jerky slow motion at several action beats (no high-speed cameras involved, just slowing down the regular film to a few frames per second), I guess to prolong them while credits are shown over them. It’s pretty awkward. Also, Sheiner sports an obvious bald cap (is there any other kind?) that he doesn’t have in the TV material; no doubt this scene was filmed some time later and Sheiner wasn’t willing to shave his head again. The most awkward thing about it, though, is that after this sequence of his breaking into the military installation, we cut to the opening scenes of the TV episode, in which he’s still waiting outside the gates of the installation and breaks in again. I guess the idea was to suggest that he broke through two levels of security, but the guards at the “inner” gate don’t act as though his van is out of place where it is, so it just doesn’t fit.
The added sex appeal comes largely courtesy of Batgirl herself, the delightful Yvonne Craig, who previously had a disappointing guest role in season 1. Here, she’s one of the various UNCLE communications women that Solo always seems to flirt with, and she’s constantly reminding him of impending dates that he can’t remember making with her; indeed, he can’t even remember her name. It’s pretty blatantly tacked onto/interpolated into the story, with Craig having a scene inserted every time the agents call HQ on their pen-radios, or else showing up and saying “Here’s that thing you talked about arranging in the previous scene” before flirting some more with Solo. She finally gets out of the office for a final scene at the closing reception (though the shape of the wine glass props changes from the episode footage to the movie footage). Its only purpose is to provide some semblance of a romance for Solo in a storyline where he’s uncharacteristically lacking in one. And to add a bit of skin: Craig does a repeat of the sunbathing-in-the-communications-room scene that I recall seeing in the pilot, but since this is the big screen, she’s got her bikini top unfastened. We don’t get to see much more than would’ve been allowed on TV, though. There is another added scene, though, of Rip Torn’s Alexander in bed with Donna Michelle as the neighbor’s wife he’s committing adultery with, in which Ms. Michelle shows her bare back and, briefly, a side view of a nipple. Ms. Michelle later has a brief added scene where Solo finds her in a jacuzzi, but only her shoulders are visible there.
A couple of things are deleted as well, notably the scenes with Alexander’s parents enslaved at the quarry (leaving the reasons for the quarry sequence unexplained in the movie) and the part-2 recap with the UNCLE accountant and Waverly. Despite these changes, though, the movie is very blatantly a recut television episode, complete with the act breaks left pretty much intact. And the original was already rather incoherent, cluttered with random digressions and side threads to pad it out to two hours, and the addition of one more subplot just makes things worse — although getting to watch Yvonne Craig makes anything better. It’s a shame they chose this 2-part episode to release as a feature, since the season’s other 2-parter, “The Bridge of Lions Affair,” was far superior. Although I suppose this one has more of the big action that would’ve been considered appropriate for a cinematic release.
Oh, by the way, in my original review of “Alexander the Greater,” I commented on the incomplete depiction of Alexander’s violation of the Ten Commandments. I said, “did he actually worship another god before Yahweh or make for himself a graven image which he thereupon bowed down to or served? This is left unclear.” However, this time around, I realized that one conversation between Alexander and his estranged wife takes place while he’s performing some kind of ritual in front of a statue of some bizarre creature with a placard on its head bearing the number 2. The episode couldn’t overtly call attention to it, no doubt for censorship reasons, but this must represent his violation of the second commandment, and might cover the first as well. Although he doesn’t seem to be sincerely worshipping the graven image, given that he finishes the ritual by using its flame to roast marshmallows.
So how to assess The Man from U.N.C.L.E. season 2? My initial understanding was that this season would be more comical than the first, but overall it seems to be about the same — maybe a little more tongue-in-cheek on average, but not yet actively campy. Still, I found its quality to be lower, with a lot of weak episodes, a significant amount of what seemed like careless acting and directing, continuity and production errors, and the like. It often seemed to me like the actors and directors — and, often, the writers — weren’t trying very hard. The addition of color doesn’t help much, since black-and-white gives things a certain class.
This was the first season where Illya Kuryakin was as central a protagonist as Napoleon Solo, although the show didn’t do a very good job of establishing them as a double act. Often they were pursuing separate parts of a mission, and often Solo was very unhelpful toward Illya, making out with women while Illya was getting beaten up and generally mistreated. In fact, it often seemed as though the two of them didn’t like each other very much. I guess the idea was to play up a sort of comic rivalry, but it was hard for me as a viewer to like them (especially Solo) when there were so few reasons shown for them to like each other. There were so many other partnerships in ’60s TV that worked far better: Kirk and Spock, Batman and Robin, Jim West and Artemus Gordon, Alexander Scott and Kelly Robinson, John Steed and Emma Peel, Maxwell Smart and 99. And note that most of those are spy shows. In this season, Solo and Kuryakin didn’t even feel like partners much of the time. They were more like two independent leads pursuing their own storylines that occasionally overlapped. And unlike most of those other pairings, they didn’t come off as people who would enjoy each other’s company or spend any time together between missions. Like so much else about the show this season, the partnership just didn’t mesh.
On the positive side, this season had less of the first season’s contrivances of getting the weekly “innocents” drawn into events by convoluted accidents, but on the downside, we did see a ruthless streak as UNCLE occasionally used innocents as decoys and bait for THRUSH without their knowledge or consent. And very much on the negative side, the season continued the pattern of embracing ugly or condescending stereotypes of practically every non-Western ethnic group, to the point that I was getting very sick of the show’s relentless racism after a while; but it actually more or less managed to avoid doing so once or twice, portraying Japanese culture almost respectfully in “The Cherry Blossom Affair,” and at least attempting to be sympathetic toward the cultures depicted in “Tigers Are Coming” and “Indian Affairs” while still ineptly and condescendingly portraying them and casting in brownface. At least most East Asian characters this season were actually played by Asian actors, but otherwise there was little improvement on the racial front. Worse yet, the season also demonstrated an uncomfortable streak of misogyny and sexual objectification toward women, particularly in scripts by Peter Allan Fields, though he seemed to grow out of it by the end of the season, and definitely had done so by later on in his career. The lowest point of all is at the end of “The Nowhere Affair,” in which erasing a woman’s entire memory and identity except for her attraction to Solo is portrayed as if it’s somehow a romantic and positive outcome rather than something absolutely horrific and exploitative. To be sure, there was plenty of sexism and ugly racial attitudes in ’60s TV, but I’ve rarely seen so much of it concentrated in a single show. And there were so many other shows, including competing spy shows, that did better. I Spy and Mission: Impossible were trendsetters in racial inclusion (and while M:I wasn’t great at depicting non-Western cultures, at least it generally avoided trying), and The Avengers and Get Smart had marvelously strong and engaging female leads.
I guess what I’m saying, basically, is that virtually every other ’60s spy show was better than this one.
The one relative high point this season was the music, though that’s a qualified success. Lalo Schifrin’s new arrangement of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme is far less interesting, losing Goldsmith’s Latin syncopation and strong orchestration in favor of a more simplistic rhythm and fewer instruments. While Schifrin scored episode 2, “The Ultimate Computer Affair,” all the other music in this season was done by either Gerald Fried or Robert Drasnin. It’s an unusual degree of musical consistency for a ‘6os adventure show, and both composers did good work, though Fried’s work only occasionally rose to the standards of his later work for Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and others. Notably, though there were a lot of stock scores, there was an unusual resurgence of original music in the final episodes of the season, which was good to hear.
There were a number of notable guest stars this season, including Vincent Price, Maurice Evans, Vera Miles, Ricardo Montalban, Martin Landau, Eve Arden, and Paul Winfield, plus quite a few really lovely guest actresses. Unusually, several actors played two different roles in the course of the season, including David Sheiner (“Alexander the Greater” and “Nowhere”), James Hong (“Alexander” and “Bridge of Lions”), Cal Bolder (ditto), Theo Marcuse (“Re-Collectors” and “Minus-X”), and Woodrow Parfrey (“Cherry Blossom” and “Moonglow”). While it wasn’t uncommon for actors in ’60s and ’70s TV to play multiple roles over the course of a series, it was unusual to do it twice in the same season, let alone for so many actors to do so. I’m not counting this as one of the season’s negatives, but it’s an odd quirk.
On to the bests and worsts:
Best innocent: Depends on how you define it. Maurice Evans in “Bridge of Lions Pt. 1 & 2” gives the standout performance of the season, but he’s kind of a borderline innocent, straddling the fence of good guy and bad guy. By the more conventional formula of a bystander caught up in events, I’d say my favorite was probably France Nuyen in “Cherry Blossom.” Though Jill Ireland in “Tigers Are Coming,” Susan Silo in “Children’s Day,” and Sharon Farrell in “Minus-X” were pretty impressive.
Worst innocent: Ann Elder, “Bridge of Lions Pt. 1 & 2,” for her atrocious Irish accent — although Nancy Kovack’s all-over-the-map attempt at an English accent in “King of Diamonds” is pretty awful too.
Best villain: When Vincent Price (“Foxes and Hounds”) is one of the villains, is there any contest? Although Vera Miles in “Bridge of Lions” comes close, giving one of the finest dramatic performances of the season.
Worst villain: Jerome Thor, “Arabian.” Strident and annoying.
Best episodes (chronological order): “Cherry Blossom,” “Bridge of Lions Pt. 1 & 2,” “Round Table,” “Minus-X”
Worst episodes: “Alexander the Greater Pt. 1 & 2,” ‘Discotheque,” ‘Re-Collectors,” “Deadly Toys,” “Children’s Day,” “Deadly Goddess,” “Nowhere” (!!!)
So out of 28 distinct stories (including two 2-parters), I count only 4 as good, 7 as bad, and the remaining 17 as mediocre. And even the good ones are a mixed bag, episodes that were flawed but had enough strong moments or overall entertainment value to be worthwhile anyway. Overall, this was just not a good season. The main things that made it bearable to sit through were the music and (for me, at least) the abundance of really lovely female guests.
At this point, I’m unsure if I intend to continue to season 3. I didn’t like season 2 much, and season 3 is reportedly far worse, so I’m not sure it would be worth it to subject myself to it. After all, it’s not like anyone is paying me to do these reviews, so what would I get out of it? Well, beyond getting my morbid curiosity satisfied. I’m almost tempted to continue for that reason alone. But at the very least, I’m going to take a break from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for a while and take a look at some of the other shows piling up on my Netflix queue. I’ll shortly be getting season 2 of The Six Million Dollar Man, which I’ll be reviewing here. (Actually I’ve already gotten the first two discs — I needed a break from TMFU — but I wanted to get through this series of reviews before I began posting those.) After that… we’ll see.