A week ago I went to see the new Mission Impossible. While waiting for it to start, I was a bit amused to see trailers for two upcoming movies—The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the latest James Bond movie, Spectre. Surrounded by all these 1960’s spy franchises, it felt like some sort of a pop culture time warp, and I couldn’t help but wonder if, in the alternate universe of this theater, Lyndon Johnson were still President.
The spy genre is certainly thriving in the post-9-11 world. On television, we see Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Americans, and Homeland, while the comics industry features Casanova and all the various Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. books. The movies offer not only the three spy franchises from the ‘60s, but also Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film, Bridge of Spies. John le Carré continues writing complex spy novels, and even Dan Brown’s more pedestrian Robert Langdon novels tap into elements of the genre.
All of which brings me back to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. As I wrote in last week’s column, ever since I discovered this show, I’ve felt strangely connected to it, compelled to root for it. It’s a compulsion built on the concept of hope—hope that at some point the franchise will live up to the potential of its original concept. So I thought I’d try to figure out what makes it so compelling.
When Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars,” he might just as easily have nicknamed it, The Man from S.T.A.R.F.L.E.E.T. Both shows focus on a fictional organization that becomes a world unto itself, with its own goals, its own hierarchy, and its own adversaries. The two leads for U.N.C.L.E., Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, also maintain a dynamic similar to that of Kirk and Spock. Solo, like Kirk, is the playboy—smooth, reckless, resourceful, and, at times, a bit smug. Kuryakin, like Spock, is all business. Quiet and enigmatic, Kuryakin wasn’t designed as an equal lead, but he became one of the earliest examples of “the breakout character,” later symbolized by Spock, the Fonz, and the vampire, Spike.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking element of the show was the decision to avoid any sense of nationalism. Even though it debuted during the height of the Cold War—two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and weeks after the mostly-fabricated Gulf of Tonkin Incident—The Man from U.N.C.L.E. opts to depict an international organization where American, Russian, and British agents all work side-by-side. In fact, U.N.C.L.E. includes agents from every continent on the globe—all unified in fighting THRUSH, an international criminal organization. As with the optimistic future depicted in Star Trek, U.N.C.L.E. serves as a template for a future, unified Earth, working together for a common cause.
The show also has deep roots in the spy genre. Each episode features a guest star—a layperson who gets drawn into the plot and proves critical to the resolution of the story. This formula goes back at least as far as John Buchan’s novel, The 39 Steps, and it is a central element in most of the films of Alfred Hitchcock—the preeminent film director in the spy genre. Unfortunately, on U.N.C.L.E., the layperson is often played very broadly for laughs, and the convoluted mechanisms for involving these guests in the stories often becomes distracting.
Comics readers may remember Grant Morrison playing with some of the show’s tropes in the early issues of the pre-New 52 Batman, Incorporated, where Bruce Wayne recruits people from all over the globe to become agents of the Batman franchise. Morrison even adopts the U.N.C.L.E. naming formula, entitling the fourth issue, “The Kane Affair.”
Considering its roots and its influence, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. boasts an extraordinary pop culture pedigree. Partly conceived by Ian Fleming and featuring a character inspired by James Bond, the show also remains connected to Alfred Hitchcock and is an antecedent for Star Trek.
It was also a groundbreaking show in terms of cultivating fandom. Beginning in 1965, Gold Key published a 22-issue comic book series, and Ace books released 23 original paperback novels. The series also inspired a spinoff, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., which starred Stefanie Powers. Moreover, the studio also cobbled together material from various episodes, added additional scenes, and released eight Man from U.N.C.L.E. feature films.
Yet, despite its impact, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. lasted only 3 ½ seasons. The first season, shot in black in white, is easily the best, and it offers a nice reminder that black and white photography is often timeless while color dates very quickly. The second season, filmed in color, won the Golden Globe Award and appears to have a larger budget with more exotic locations. The tone feels a bit lighter than the first season, though it’s difficult to tell how much of that missing gravitas is due to the switch from black and white to color. By the third season, however, the producers evolved the show’s humor to embrace camp—not quite as overtly as Batman, but close. An attempted 4th season course correction proved too little too late and the series was abruptly cancelled.
Yet, as intriguing as the franchise is, the execution is often lagging. Tonally uneven, it feels like a show that never quite figured itself out before flaming out. Perhaps that’s another reason I find it compelling. It could and should be better than it is. More artistically successful shows demonstrate kinetic energy, but The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remains full of potential energy. It’s an underachiever—an underdog. Perhaps that’s why I root for it.
Binging on 50-year-old, formulaic, series television isn’t for the faint of heart, but for those who are interested in sampling the show, here are a half-dozen particularly notable episodes.
“The Project Strigas Affair.” Season 1. Episode 9. If ever an episode were destined to become a trivia question, it’s this one. The story itself is more imaginative than most. It’s like a classic Mission Impossible story, with Solo and Kuryakin devising an elaborate con in order to discredit a warmongering diplomat. The episode is full of twists and turns and would be a highlight anyway, but it’s most notable because the layperson drawn into service is an engineer played by William Shatner and the chief aide to the warmongering diplomat is played by Leonard Nimoy. Shatner and Nimoy only appear onscreen together briefly, but their presence—two years before Star Trek, adds a surreal element to an already top-notch episode.
“The Dove Affair.” Season 1. Episode 12. The first half of this episode is as good as any in the series. It opens in Europe with Solo deployed on a covert mission that has become compromised. It’s full of suspenseful, nighttime street scenes with Solo unsure of what to do or whom to trust. Written by the legendary screenwriter of Chinatown, Robert Towne, there is genuine suspense as Solo attempts to deal with a legendary and mysterious secret agent, played by Ricardo Montalban, whose loyalties are unclear. The second half of the episode, which attempts to integrate a layperson schoolteacher and a group of traveling students, is very strained, but the first half is excellent.
“The Deadly Decoy Affair.” Season 1. Episode 15. This is my favorite episode, even if some plot twists are predictable. U.N.C.L.E. has captured a high-ranking THRUSH agent and must transport him to Washington, but THRUSH is determined to rescue him at any cost. Waverly decides on using some misdirection, so he calls in Solo and Kuryakin and explains his plan. U.N.C.L.E. has trained a look-alike to stand in for the criminal and Waverly plans to escort this decoy personally, under heavy guard. Meanwhile, he orders Solo and Kuryakin to take the real criminal on their own without any fanfare. What follows is the equivalent of a road movie with some inventive twists and a layperson subplot that is so absurd it actually works more effectively than had the writers designed something more plausible.
“The Never-Never Affair.” Season 1. Episode 25. Perhaps the most polished and sophisticated episode of the series, this one stands out as one of the few examples of character development—something that only rarely occurs in serial television from that era. In the episode, we learn that Solo has been engaged in a flirtatious affair with a low-ranking U.N.C.L.E. agent who works in another office as a Portuguese translator. By today’s standards, it’s an improper workplace relationship. What makes it interesting is that even though there was little-to-no recognition of sexual harassment in 1965, the storyline ultimately condemns Solo for the manipulative nature of the relationship, and he winds up making several mistakes in judgment that almost cost the agency and all involved dearly. All of this is treated rather light-heartedly, but the humor again comes from seeing the nearly invulnerable Solo as the bumbler. And the translator is played by Barbara Feldon, a few months before she would begin her run as Agent 99 in the U.N.C.L.E. spoof, Get Smart. Easily one of the best episodes.
“The Foxes and Hounds Affair.” Season 2. Episode 4. This 2nd season episode is significantly lighter in tone. It features Vincent Price as a prominent THRUSH operative attempting to steal a machine that allows the user to read minds. What redeems the episode is that much like “The Never-Never Affair,” it takes some of the gloss off Napoleon Solo. For reasons that elude me, Waverly decides it’s to the agency’s advantage to pull Solo off vacation and insert him into the mission without telling him what is going on. As an increasingly frustrated Solo stumbles through an assignment he only thought he understood, Price begins feuding with a rival THRUSH agent. It’s all a bit silly, but charming.
“The Pieces of Fate Affair.” Season 3. Episode 23. I’ll be honest, there are probably 30 other episodes better than this one, but I wanted to mention at least one from the infamous 3rd season, and this one is the second episode written by Harlan Ellison. The story focuses on a writer who has written a controversial spy novel and is being sought by THRUSH. By this point in the series, most traces of subtlety and nuance are gone, and the acting of the low-level THRUSH members is glaringly broad. They seem neither dangerous nor plausible—more like henchmen you might find working for Burgess Meredith’s Penguin on Batman. But the episode contains a few moments of witty dialogue, and Solo and Kuryakin both communicate Ellison’s sarcasm well. But to be clear, this episode is not in the same class as the others mentioned above.