Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Season One

It had been over 40 years since I had seen an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. when a friend posted on Facebook a link to the TV show's theme music. The music came with a mix of stills and video from the show and rekindled my desire to see the old show. I had tried several years back and had not found any episodes on video, cable, or the Internet. This time I found the entire first season available in DVD from a neighboring public library. I placed a hold.

Once the big case with 29 episodes on 11 discs arrived, I was almost reluctant to look. Would the show be as cool as I remember? Would it be embarrassingly bad? How would I deal with that? Just laugh? I hoped to be pleasantly surprised.

Being the kind of person who starts at the beginning, I started with disc one, watched the pilot, and found myself in crisis mode right away. The plot was really weak, and Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo seemed to be smirking all the time. The sets seemed almost bare. David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin was hardly present. How could the executives at NBC have chosen to buy the series based on this pitiful effort? Either the 1960s were a more optimistic time or NBC must have thought we'd watch just about anything. Well, we would, if I remember correctly.

Thinking it had to get better, I watched the next three episodes, shown on NBC in the fall of 1964. I am happy to report that there was improvement. Napoleon Solo became more likable, and Illya Kuryakin became a bigger part of the story. The plots (while fairly simple) were at least easier to accept. As I watched, I started to think that the show resembled the first season of Star Trek (which debuted two years later). Both shows had rather plain, bare sets, except when the action moved outdoors. As in Star Trek, outdoor sequences were shot in California. In one scene, I almost expected to see Klingons come over the hill. And in every episode, Solo, like Captain Kirk, met a beautiful young woman who helped him foil Thrush and other international criminals. (Unlike Kirk, Solo refrained from any romantic attachment, but Kuryakin seemed interested in episode three.)

Like spy shows of any era (and Star Trek for that matter), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. displayed cutting-edge technology. In the intro to episodes two through four, Solo entered headquarters and flipped a switch that set lots of lights flashing on a mainframe computer. In one scene, the chief put a data card into a little window of a console and a slide show with audio then told the agents about a plot to use a gas that induced panic to overthrow an Eastern Bloc nation. The beautiful young secretaries in U.N.C.L.E. headquarters set up slide projectors in other scenes. While in the field, Solo had a communicator that he extracted from a cigarette case. He also had a small Polaroid-like camera that took pictures in the dark, revealing the image of the spy looking into Solo's large but bare motel room. Of course, the villains always had some newly developed secret weapon that Solo and Kuryakin had to disable or destroy.

I am not going to watch 25 further episodes, but I am general entertained by my trip into the past. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is fun to watch even now.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Season One. Warner Brothers DVD/Turner Entertainment, 2008. 11 DVDs.


Jen Moore said...

Through the magic of VHS, I was introduced to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a couple of years ago by a friend (we were twenty-six at the time) and I absolutely love it. You're right, the first couple of episodes are pretty weak, but most of the first and second season are spectacular fun - I like it much better than James Bond movies, as it doesn't take itself so seriously.

ricklibrarian said...

Thanks, Jen. When I have a little more time, I will have to get it again and watch further.