The 60s were a blossoming time for espionage on television. It seemed as though spy shows were everywhere what with the likes of “The Avengers,” “I, Spy,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Danger Man (Secret Agent),” and “Get Smart” flooding the airwaves. However, one of the very first to gain immense popularity was a little show called “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” which followed the adventures of two agents, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), who work for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. As members of this agency, it is their job to thwart all kinds of villains around the globe, particularly those of the evil organization known as THRUSH, a group who is constantly trying to take over the world in one way or another.
It’s been more than 50 years since the show started, and it only ran for four seasons (105 episodes), and yet, it’s had some pretty strong staying power. Its storylines were probably no more sillier than the other shows of the genre, presenting tales of THRUSH trying to gain power through means such as creating its own country, brainwashing, or, my personal favorite, attempting to recruit a former Nazi scientist who tries to revive Hitler from suspended animation. Aside from their normal run-ins with THRUSH, U.N.C.L.E. had to deal with several other evil plots as well, including saboteurs trying to take over a rocket, a pirate trying to create a modern-day Noah’s ark in preparation for World War III, and a group that is trying to start that very conflict.
Some of these are indeed a little goofy, but I think that’s one of the things that made it such an endearing show. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, at least as far as this first season goes. In fact, anyone watching it now is more than likely going to get a good laugh or two just from how dated a lot of it is. A lot of the equipment that U.N.C.L.E. uses probably seemed really cool and hip for its time in 1964, but now it merely adds to its silly charm. In fact, there are those that regard the show as more of a spoof of the spy genre, as opposed to a serious take, and while this doesn’t appear to be the popular opinion, it’s not that hard to see why some would think of it as such.
On top of its old-school charm, there’s the simple fact that it’s a pretty entertaining program. Each week would present a new adventure, and while some were more engaging than others, there would always be a decent amount of suspense regarding how Napoleon and Illya would get out of the situation. Most of the time, it seemed as though the solution was to beat up/shoot the bad guys, but there were times when actual wits had to be used to outthink the opponent, particularly when it came to going up against THRUSH, who could be pretty devious at times. However, when it came right to it, people watching this type of show wanted to be entertained, and that’s exactly what they got week after week.
What they also got were some fine performances, particularly from the suave and charming Robert Vaughn, who fills the role of a spy perfectly. His character’s methods may not always be the most sound, but Vaughn played it off very well and effectively. McCallum also does a fine job as the soft-spoken Illya, earning two Emmy nominations in the process. It took a few episodes before his character finally gets involved, but once the showrunners realized the potential there, it created a pairing that has gone down in history as one of television’s best. Aside from these two, the show was somewhat well-known for the amazing guest stars that they were able to obtain, including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Culp, Anne Francis, Ricardo Montalban, James Doohan, Kurt Russell, and Slim Pickens. Of course, some of them weren’t particularly famous as of yet, but it wouldn’t be long before they were (i.e. the original series of “Star Trek” was only two years away).
All-in-all, it can easily be said that “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” helped make the spy genre a mainstay on television for the next several years. With James Bond igniting the genre on the big screen starting in 1962, it seemed only logical to bring that kind of fun and excitement to the small screen, bringing with it the suave secret agents, the gadgets, and sinister villains who will stop at nothing to carry out their plans. It may have been a little silly in its execution at times, but, if anything, that merely helped to cement its place in television history among the many other shows that tried to be just like it.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete First Season” is presented in its original television ratio of 4:3 and in glorious black and white, featuring an image that has been beautifully restored. As mentioned earlier, the show is 50 years old now, but the work done here makes it look new again. The Dolby Digital audio has also been cleaned up nicely, presenting all dialogue, in addition to the scores of Gerald Fried, Jerry Goldsmith, et al., in excellent quality. Overall, the show has been given outstanding treatment, breathing new life into it so that a whole new generation can get hooked on the show (or so that older fans can re-experience it in its like-new condition).
None. Surely there were archival interviews with Robert Vaughn and David McCallum that could have been included, or if not, they could have sat them down and interviewed them about its impact and how they feel about it after so long. Sadly, this seems like a really big missed opportunity.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a silly, yet entertaining, entry in the spy television genre that helped make it one of the most popular kinds of shows of the decade. Led by the charismatic Robert Vaughn and the Emmy-nominated David McCallum, the show found great success in its basic “stop the bad guys” formula, using a deft blend of engaging plots and exciting action to thrill viewers week after week. Is it any wonder that it’s still talked about 50 years later?
Available on DVD starting tomorrow.
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