August 14, The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, otherwise known as U.N.C.L.E. is about to be introduced to a whole new generation of spy fans with a brand new movie. And so, to catch up an entire generation (make that two) on the U.N.C.L.E. story, Warner Home Video is releasing the first season of the series on DVD as The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Season One. Newly remastered and complete with 29 episodes. (And, yes, there was a time when American television series aired 29 new episodes in a season!)
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was the wildly popular and quintessential ’60s televison drama-turned-spoof of the spy genre. Airing on NBC from 1964-1968, the series starred Robert Vaughn as the suave, unflappable Napoleon Solo and David McCallum (NCIS’s Ducky) as the enigmatic, logical Russian U.N.C.L.E. agent Ilya Kuryakin. (Full disclosure: The Man from U.N.C.L.E was my first true primetime television obsession, begun at the tender age of 10, and Ilya was my first TV crush. Yes, even then, I went for the brilliant, introspective, brooding odd bodkin over the well-coiffed and immaculately dressed hero!)
At a time in our history when Russians and Americans were in the midst of a cold war ever-threatening to turn hot, the show’s creators had the bold idea: pair the Russian and American spies to work for a greater good. To wit, wipe out the worldwide criminal threat imposed by THRUSH, an organization of criminals and other assorted madmen that wanted nothing less than to take over the world (if not the solar system).
Arguably, U.N.C.L.E.‘s first season was its best. The stories had a tension that was absent from later seasons, once the zip-bam-boom of spoofy Batman sent otherwise series’ careening for the broad laughs (another victim was CBS’s Lost in Space). The first season introduces us to the series protagonist, the serious (except when it came to wine and women) Solo.
McCallum’s role was really much, much smaller than its eventual c0-equal status with Vaughn’s character. (He appears only briefly in several episodes.) As introverted as Napoleon is social and as monastic as Napoleon is sexual alleycat, Kuryakin melted hearts as a lone (lonely?) wolf, both onscreen and in the land of female television viewers. Together, they thrashed THRUSH and succeeded on James Bond’s lengthy coattails.
Each episode has a set formula. A new case, or as the episode titles put it, “affair,” assigned by their chief, the British Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carrol), who kept tabs on world affairs and his two best agents by wireless communicators (a pencil-sized, voice-activated phone that might well have inspired the inventor of the cellphone many years later. And yes, I’m–half–kidding.)
Every affair would have its villain, usually a THRUSHie (and played by a variety of some of the most famous names in Hollywood at the time). There would be the “innocent,” usually a girl: the daughter of a kidnapped scientist, an unknowing mule or other sort of dupe…or someone with exceptionally bad timing. He or she would get entangled in the case or otherwise caught in the crossfire, and ultimately be the key to catching the baddies.
Personally, I loved the serious episodes (it’s interesting how young our literary and film tastes develop, as this is still the case for all my TV interests) of season one, and by the third season, I had lost interest in the series as it became sillier and more outrageous (think the later Roger Moore Bond movies). By the time the show got to season four (and back to basics) it had lost too much of its soul, and was cancelled mid-season.
The new DVD set is meticulously presented. The episodes are uncut (anyone who tries watching the series on cable these days knows exactly to what I refer!) and look fantastic. The sound is excellent, a blessing because the series sountrack is fabulous with its themes and counter-themes.
Noteworthy, too, are the guest stars the series was able to attract, including William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalbon, a young Kurt Russell, Slim Pickens, Patricia Crowly, Fritz Weaver, Carrol O’Connor, Martin Balsam, Sharon Tate. The list goes on!
For me, the most memorable episodes of season one include two that guest-starred McCallum’s wife at the time, Jill Ireland (“The Quadrapartite Affair” and “The Giuco Piano Affair”), originally planned as a two-parter, but aired separately during the season. Ireland plays the scientist daughter of an important nuclear scientist who has been kidnapped by THRUSH, and the pre-pubescent shipper in me definitely wanted the two to get together (especially since Napoleon almost always “got the girl.”)
The upcoming movie, which stars Henry Cavill (The Tudors, Superman) as Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer as Ilya opens August 14, is a prequel to the series, focusing on the first case shared by the two agents, each with a healthy disdain for the other at the start. This is very smart, and in keeping with the Star Trek reboot, which also told the origin story of the Enterprise, Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the gang. (And interestingly, in many ways, Kirk and Spock paralleled Solo and Kuryakin.)
I only hope that the new U.N.C.L.E movie is as good as the J.J. Abrams Trek movie, and similarly reboots this ’60s classic. If not, we have four season of U.N.C.L.E to fall back on, and, hopefully, we’ll get remastered versions of those as well. (And maybe a few commentaries from Vaughn and McCallum, please?)
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Complete Season One DVD set is available August 4, 2015.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00WJ6HW18,B00MWD1ZMK,B001MVWMD4]