Wednesday, September 22, 2004

40 Years of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

It was forty years ago tonight that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. followed the adventures of two agents of the international crime fighting organisation U.N.C.L.E. (the United Network Command for Law Enforcement). The American half of the two agents was Napoleon Solo, who was a bit of a romantic, quite a bit of an idealist, and more than a bit of a womaniser. Despite his skill with weapons and various martial arts, Solo's most devastating asset was probably his charm. The Russian half of the two agetns was Illya Kuryakin. Kuryakin was the intellectual of the duo, with working knowledge of chemistry, physics, mechanics, and a number of languages. He was a master of disguise and an expert gymnast. Like Solo, Kuryakin was skilled with both weapons and in the martial arts. Unlike Solo, however, Kuryakin was a bit of an introvert. The two reported to Mr. Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E.'s Section One. The men from U.N.C.L.E. fought a number of power mad megalomaniacs, although their most frequent opponents came from the criminal syndicate known as THRUSH.

The origns of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. rest with producer Norman Felton, then executive producer of Dr. Kildare. Felton approached Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond himself, with the prospect of creating a similar action series. Fleming wrote a rough outline about a spy called Napoleon Solo. Fleming did not get any further than that, as his obligations to Eon Productions (who owned the film rights to 007) forced him to withdraw from the project. Felton then brought Sam Rolfe onboard. Rolfe was the co-creator of Have Gun Will Travel and had written for such series as Playhouse 90 and The Twilight Zone. Earlier Rolfe had failed to sell a spy series called St. George and the Dragon. Rolfe took Fleming's rough outline (using little more than the names of characters) and material from St. George and the Dragon to create The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as we know it. Rolfe would also produce the series' first season.

Initially, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. suffered from low ratings. In fact, as of December 1964 it was not a part of NBC's preliminary schedule for the fall of 1965! Fortunately, generally good reviews, a publicity campaign on the part of the show's producers, a change in time slots, and the word of mouth of its loyal viewers saved the series. The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a series which was failing in the Nielsens in the fall of 1964, was a bona fide phenomenon by the spring of 1965. It became one of television's top rated programmes. It also produced an enormous amount of merchandise, perhaps surpassed only by Batman in the amount of products associated with any one show. The series was also successful enough to produce a spinoff, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. featuring Stephanie Powers as April Dancer.

Unfortunately, it would not last. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. did fantastically well during its second season, but faltered in its third season. The reasons the series fell in the ratings are a matter of debate. Some theorise that The Gril From U.N.C.L.E. may have hurt the original show; that is, there was simply too much U.N.C.L.E. on the air. A more commonly held theory is that the poor quality of many of the episodes of the third season may have seriously injured the series. In its first two seasons, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a serious adventure series, albeit one with fantastic adventures and one played with tongue deftly in cheek. With its third season, however, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. shifted to episodes played purely for laughs. It is difficult to say why The Man From U.N.C.L.E. took this path, although it could well have been due to the success of Batman, the campy series which was a phenomenon in its own right. It is perhaps significant that just as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. went "camp" it began losing viewers in droves. Of course, a third possiblity is that the U.N.C.L.E. fad had simply run its course. Regardless, by the end of the 1966-1967, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. had been cancelled and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was ailing. The fourth season saw the series return to its more serious roots. Unfortuntely, viewers did not return to the show. In January 1964, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. left network television. Fortunately, for U.N.C.L.E. fans, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. proved succesful in syndication and would later air on both the Christian Broadcast Network and TBS in the Eighties.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. proved to have a lasting impact on television, despite running only three and a half years. Between the success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the Bond movies, American television would be overtaken by a spy craze that lasted until 1967. It must also be pointed out that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was one of the earliest series that was highly stylised. In this way, it would influence other shows in the Sixties and even later. Part of the series' "style" was in the transitions between scenes, in which a whip pan was used to simulate someone rapidly moving through a bunch of pictures. These transitions were imitated on other series, most notably Batman (in which a spinning transition was used). The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was also one of the first series to identify its settings with superimposed caption. For instance, there might be a shot of the United States Capital and the caption would read "Somewhere in Washington D. C." This device has been used on many series since, one of the most recent being The X-Files (which not only identified the place, but the time of day as well).

Today The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is not seen nearly as often as it once was, which I feel is a real shame. While its third season was dreadful, the rest of the series places it alongside other television classics. Only a few other American series before or since have been written with the wit and sheer sense of fun as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was. I have to say that I would be more than happy if TVLand or some other cable channel would start rerunning it again.

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