"No man is free who works for a living . . . but I am available." (-- Illya Kuryakin, "The Bow-Wow Affair")

These reviews/commentaries on the show's 105 episodes originally appeared in slightly different form on the Yahoo! Groups website Channel_D, from 2008 to 2010. If you're new to MfU fandom, these may give you some idea of the flavor of the series, which is still famous and beloved more than 50 (!) years after its premiere in 1964. Enjoy!

News: Decades Channel is running a "Weekend Binge" of MfU episodes on July 2, 2017. Check the schedule here.

(Except where otherwise noted, images are used with permission of the exhaustive site Lisa's Video Frame Capture Library. Thanks to Lisa for all her work!)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"The Vulcan Affair" (ep. 1/1) and "Solo"

The first episode of the series, and the pilot, aired on Tuesday, September 22, 1964 . . . and the TV world would never be the same.

I’ve read somewhere that Bruce Geller complimented Sam Rolfe on this, saying it was the best pilot he'd ever seen. (Rolfe returned the compliment regarding BG's "Mission: Impossible" pilot -- which is indeed one of the greats.) And "Vulcan" does an admirable job of setting up the series and its format, showing us what the lead character is like, providing action and suspense galore. It shows us U.N.C.L.E. HQ in a very natural style: The invading Thrushes burst into the reception room from the tailor shop, and suddenly there we are -- no fanfare. Which makes it all even more startling.

The pilot also strongly emphasizes the element that made MfU different from Bond and almost all the subsequent spy shows and movies: The Innocent Who Is Drawn Into The Adventure.

Someone mentioned that RV's slicked-back hairstyle makes Solo look cold and calculating. Well, in a way, "cold and calculating" fits the character; he is determined to get the job done at almost any cost. "Of course I don't blame myself. It had to be done."  (Remember, though, that this sort of hairstyle was much more prevalent in the 50s and early '60s than it was later. I think it was probably JFK who made the "dry look" popular.)

Solo's watch is a chronograph (note the two subdials as well as the second hand), and the dial says "17 jewels," but there is no maker's name on the dial. Who made automatic/handwind chronographs in those days? Bulova, Omega, Longines?

Right from the beginning, we see agents/staffers of other nationalities -- the receptionist is Chinese (? East Asian, anyway), and the guard who traps one of the invaders is black. No big point is made of this; it just is.

Of course the famous weapon, the U.N.C.L.E. Special, is nowhere around. Illya totes a Colt .45, and Solo a Luger; the Thrush shoots at Solo with a Walther P-38. We could speculate that the Mark I (Mauser model) was introduced soon after this; reports from the field convinced Waverly that it was not working; the Mark II, based on the big Walther, soon replaced it. And the reason not all Enforcement agents are shown with Specials in subsequent episodes is that either (a) the agents were allowed to keep their preferred firearms for a time, as long as they met the Command's standard, (b) the new guns were slowly displacing the old ones, or (c) both.

It's a shame that Don Medford didn't direct any more episodes. This one -- possibly because of its film-noirish black-and-white photography -- is superbly atmospheric.

My only problem with "Vulcan" as a piece of film, though, is that I miss Angela! I didn't see "Vulcan" in its original TV run, and so "To Trap a Spy," the color movie version, was new to me in 1966. I still
think it's the definitive version of this story; the interlude with Angela, the seduction (implied), and Solo's getaway in the dark, all round this story out.

The "Solo" pilot contains all sorts of new details -- the explanation of the badges, the scenes with the dead invading Thrushes and the explanation of Thrush's ruthlessness, the view of Solo's apartment,
etc. I watched the apartment scene again yesterday, and finally realized what it is Solo is eating while perusing the yearbook: raw oysters!

Two Illya points. I notice that Illya appears to pour the milk or cream into his cup first, then adds coffee (or dark tea?) from the carafe. Is this supposed to be a clue to his Russian background?

Also, it's striking to see their tailoring reversed. Solo, usually the suit-and-tie guy, relaxed in open shirt and sweater; Illya, usually the sport shirt or turtleneck type, in a dark suit. For years I thought his was a 3-piece suit, with matching vest. Not so; it's a plaid vest, not a sweater.

Verdict: A wonderful kickoff for the series, Bondian and yet original. Had it done nothing else, it would be memorable for the famous "Solo behind the bulletproof glass" sequence.

Great Line:
Solo:  "Thrush kills people like people kill flies.  A careless gesture.  A flick of the wrist."


Unknown said...

Ah, that spider glass sequence! Still the definitive U.N.C.L.E. image to me, though I prefer the redone one, still black-and-whithe but showing Vaughn with the Napoleon hairstyle.

You know, it's funny that you say some folks commented that the slicked-back style Solo sports in this episode made him appear "cold and calculating". Not to me at all. That slicked-back hair reminded me so much of my older brother (who also had very black hair then) in his high school prom pic, that I think it makes Solo look like a kid! I guess the same images can strike very different chords in people.

Though I admit the original SOLO version of this episode adds in some things that are missing from VULCAN as it ultimately appeared as the premiere episode of the series (as well as missing some from the TO TRAP A SPY movie version), I still prefer VULCAN to SOLO or the movie because I so much prefer Waverly as the head of U.N.C.L.E.

On the whole I found this story very nicely put together with good use of the innocent and easy intro to U.N.C.L.E. overriding elements. And the filming of the black-and-white version is just magnificent, very film-noir. The chase through the plant is really electrifying filmed, and very heat-of-the-moment exciting.

I really consider this a great start to the series and just so well done both from a general spy story perspective and from a film visual perspective with its use of the camera techniques that became hallmark to the series.

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