Not the equal of its host series, but still light and silly and fun spy-jinks...at least for this first half-season. Warner Bros.' essential on-line library of M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) discs, the Archive Collection, has released The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Series - Part One, a split-season 4-disc, 15-episode set of the failed 1966 spin-off of NBC's iconic TV spy series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Starring the luscious Stephanie Powers, with (too much) assistance from game Noel Harrison (and of course U.N.C.L.E. chief Alexander Waverly, played by Leo G. Carroll), The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.'s April Dancer isn't exactly a threat to Emma Peel or Honey West fans, but she does have a certain way about her, so lovers of sixties' espionage fare and the original U.N.C.L.E. series will deem this necessary viewing. No extras, unfortunately.
New York City, 1966. Behind the anonymous concrete and steel façade of their high-rise office building, the agents for U.N.C.L.E. toil unceasingly against their arch nemesis: THRUSH. Headed up by chief Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), the multi-national, apolitical spy agency U.N.C.L.E. ("United Network Command for Law and Enforcement") constantly battles the nefarious THRUSH, a shadowy world-wide criminal organization that gives aid and comfort to a bizarre amalgamation of steely-eyed opportunists, cold, deadly assassins, mundane bureaucrats, and half-crazed megalomaniacs―all of whom would stop at nothing to subvert world peace in order claim dominion over the civilized world. Two U.N.C.L.E. agents that get more than their fair share of assignments are April Dancer (Stephanie Powers), and her British sidekick, Mark Slate (Noel Harrison). Dancer, fluent in several languages, sports the latest fashions from Carnaby Street, while lanky, bemused Slate offers frequent backup for the often-times kidnapped Dancer. Together, they fight the agents of THRUSH, who use everything from "slow motion" poisons to the crystals of long-lost Atlantis, to gain world domination.
I'm not sure if I've ever read or heard anything really positive about The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., either from critics or fans of the original host series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (the more committed fans blame Man's cancellation in part on Girl's failure―which is a bit of a stretch). But I found myself enjoying it for what it was: a disposable, spoofy spy action comedy that was entertaining enough to keep me coming back. Now, back in 2007 (can it be that long ago?), I wrote an extensive (and well-received) review of the mammoth Time-Life gift set of the entire The Man From U.N.C.L.E. series (click here to read that review), so I'm a confirmed fan of the franchise (that's "fan," not "expert," so please―no enraged emails from rabid U.N.C.L.E. fanatics). Certainly, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. doesn't come close to that series' best moments (the sublime black and white first season, and the fun second color season)...but importantly, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. is really no worse than some of the more blatant excesses of Man's botched third season. And more often than not, it's quite fun, even if the stories and the production aren't exactly top-notch.
For fans of 1960s espionage television, picking out where The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. goes wrong isn't too terribly difficult, since more of it seems "wrong" than "right"...if you want to dig your heels in and hate it by comparison with other female spy projects. There's no doubt that the tiara for the genre's best female representative still resides snugly on Diana Rigg's head; her Emma Peel creation in the British cult classic The Avengers will forever be the benchmark for smart, sexy, independent, ass-kicking female spies. If you want to dig a little deeper, the year before The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. premiered, ABC tried to cash in on global "Bondmania" with its failed (but often brilliant) female spy adventure, Honey West, with the equally knee-weakening Anne Francis in the title role (you can click here for my review of that criminally-neglected series). So although the genre of television spies is overwhelmingly tilted towards male representatives (that's a whole other review), NBC's The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. spin-off doesn't automatically score pop-culture cred just because its protagonist is a woman.
Obviously, the biggest difference fans of the genre will notice with The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. is that April Dancer isn't much of an agent. Critically, we're not given any backstory on her entrance into U.N.C.L.E., nor her training, nor the amount of time she's been with the company. In The Montori Device Affair, which aired as the fifth episode, it's vaguely suggested that April is somehow a novice, appearing late and flustered for a meeting, and dressed in a virginal Peter Pan-collared outfit with her hair pulled back like a good little school marm. However, prior to that and after, she's a low-talking pro dressed to the nines. So we have to suss out where she stands in the U.N.C.L.E. organization on our own, and after watching the fifteen episodes here...we have to wonder what it is, exactly, that she does for them. The main problem is: she just isn't very physically involved here. In The Dog-Gone Affair, she holds the dog while Mark fights the baddie. In The Prisoner of Zalamar Affair, Mark drives the bulldozer as a weapon, while April tags along for the ride. And in The Mata Hari Affair, April literally cowers in front of a menacing Edward Mulhare, until Mark rescues her. According to contemporary reports of the day, this concept of having April sidestep the action aspects of espionage was intentional (why the networks did this I can only guess―perhaps because they were still afraid of a too physical, too assertive female lead?). However, it doesn't play well, particularly in comparison to dynamic head-crunchers Emma Peel and Honey West. It's almost as if April has become the "innocent victim" that was the staple of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. plots: more acted upon than acting.
Distressingly, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.'s April Dancer is a bit of a stiff when it comes to the sex department, too. One of the best aspects of The Avengers episodes was the teasing "is she or isn't she interested" element of Emma Peel's relationship with Patrick Mcnee's John Steed. Sexual tension, albeit tastefully (and intriguingly) vague, was exploited from the start. In The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., however, April and Mark are much more disinterested buddies, or worse, brother and sister, in their asexual chemistry together (again, a qualified assessment since I only have the first 15 episodes here). Not only does that flatten out Powers' character, it's fatal to Noel Harrison's Slate, who's presented as a British-hip, slightly geeky Michael Caine type (a "quirky" sidekick in the spirit of Man's Illya Kuryakin), but who gets to do almost nothing with that sketchy portrait. Even worse, at least in these first 15 episodes, Powers―a gorgeous, sexy actress―comes over as almost standoffish when sex rears its ugly head. A good example is in The Mother Muffin Affair; when guest cross-over star Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo asks April to take off her sweater, Powers looks like she wants to throw up. For a secret agent designed to use her sex as a weapon, April Dancer is awfully prim and proper when the chips are down.
I can't say I was too pleased, either, with The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.'s seemingly deliberate efforts to distance itself from its original host series. Nowhere (so far at least) is there a secret U.N.C.L.E. entrance for April and Mark (as in Man's celebrated Del Floria's Tailor Shop), while the offices of U.N.C.L.E. seemed to be reduced to a couple of two-wall corner mock-ups, with poor Leo G. Carroll always stuck with a communicator in his face. I never get tired of seeing the M-G-M backlot in the U.N.C.L.E. franchise (there's a great motorcycle chase in The Mother Muffin Affair, and a long-range shoot-out all over the lot in The Garden of Evil Affair), but those looking for the usual M-G-M sheen and gloss of the Man series will find The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. just a little bit more chintzy, a little more reduced in scope and gloss (even the gadgets are scarce, with April relying on her pocket transistor radio/communicator/sleeping dart gun a little too much).
With that kind of complaining, one might assume this review is going south on The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., but on the contrary, those drawbacks (and they are fundamental) don't negate the fun that can still be had here if the viewer is willing to go along with the spirit of the piece. How much of that willingness is predicated on nostalgia for such '60s exercises is of course, open for debate, but regardless, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. is consistently amusing...even if for all the wrong reasons. Anyone looking for the odd, surreal storylines of a typical Avengers episode will probably be disappointed here, although one or two come close. If the typical The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. storyline isn't exactly top-notch television espionage, it's at least entertaining, with little touches that strike you as either desperate or amusing, depending on your tolerance. A good example is the first episode, The Dog-Gone Affair, where the antidote for a "slow motion" poison is couriered by fleas on a weiner dog. I found that inexplicably silly...and funny. In The Prisoner of Zalamar Affair, a desert sheik (on the set of Elvis Presley's Harum Scarum, perhaps???) watches what else? The Sheik, with Valentino. And best of all, when he's done with his popcorn, he does what any annoying jerk in the movie theater does: he blows up the bag and pops it (the fact that he dies on poisoned popcorn just sealed the deal for me). There's no end to frequently funny recycled Perils of Pauline situations here, their hoary old clichés agreeably punched up, including Powers hung upside down over a pit of piranhas, or Mark on a rope bridge, suspended over a lava flow. And as I wrote, you might even find one or two storylines worthy of The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.'s more illustrious British counterpart; screenwriting legend Richard Matheson's The Atlantis Affair is a marvelously weird little entry, where a Caribbean enclave is ruled by Honore Le Gallows (the deliciously sniffy Claude Woolman), who insists on keeping the modern world at bay as he celebrates life in the 17th century. Matheson throws in everything from duels to glowing crystals from the lost city of Atlantis for one of the best entries here.
And as much as I dislike using the cliché, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. does have sizeable "camp" appeal (yeech), probably the only plus-factor of the U.N.C.L.E. franchise moving towards the-then briefly popular Batman craze. A sight like Boris Karloff in drag (The Mother Muffin Affair) is probably worth the price of the set alone, while watching the lithe, sexy Powers dance as Mata Hari in what else, The Mata Hari Affair, ain't no small bonus, either, fellas. In The Montori Device Affair, one of my favorites comedic actors, Edward Andrews, complete with inky black hair and silver sideburn wings, is an Italian fashion photographer, while John Carradine dons his familiar coke bottle-bottom glasses again, pasting his hair down the middle like Shemp Howard. The Lethal Eagle Affair (another bright, smart outing worthy of The Avengers), has British icon Margaret Leighton hamming it up delightfully as a former THRUSH agent desperately trying to return to the fold. Director Richard C. Sarafian (Vanishing Point) has a lot of fun directing smoothie Lloyd Bochner as a romancing, crooning gypsy in The Romany Lie Affair, right after comedy legend Mitchell Leisen directs Bochner in a broad, hilarious performance in The Danish Blue Affair (Dom De Luise is a scream, too). Watch Bochner barely conceal his delight in delivering this line after April blows the door off his cave dungeon: "Now I have to get a new door for my key!" (it looks like lots of stuff were later ripped off from this episode, including Diamonds Are Forever's "alimentary, my dear..." punchline, and that bit in Austin Powers with the too-small hallway and the electric cart). Even something as broad as The Faustus Affair is finally fun, if you just let it happen and get into the spirit of the silliness (I love Raymond Massey's office-from-Hell, and the atmosphere rooms were pretty cool).
As for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.'s raison d'etre, you can't really blame NBC for trying to come up with a way of minting more of the runaway success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. back in 1965. In its sophomore session, Man went from a series that was this close to being cancelled in 1964, to a nationwide phenomenon that rode "Bondmania" into the Nielsen Top 15. I'm sure executives at NBC had every right to believe the worldwide spy craze would continue with American TV audiences, so why not try and mint another U.N.C.L.E. hit? Unfortunately, by the time The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. made it through production for the 1966-1967 season, a combination of a disastrous time slot and devastating blow to its host series, doomed the fledging spy show to "one-season wonder" status. Dropping The Man From U.N.C.L.E. back down an hour and a half (never good to air an hour-long series starting on the bottom half-hour) to 8:30pm on Fridays, it faced the stiff one-two punch of Hogan's Heroes and The CBS Friday Night Movie (17th and 18th respectively in the ratings). With an emphasis on more Batman silliness (a white-hot fad that had already faded by 1966), Man dropped out of the Nielsen Top Thirty altogether that year―an ominous sign for the fortunes of its connected spin-off). Added to that, a general feeling of franchise saturation with the various U.N.C.L.E. movies (stitched together from the TV episodes) already out in theaters, and it's no wonder that audiences in the fall of 1966 weren't all that hyped to catch April Dancer's adventures. Premiering on September 13, 1966, in its regular Tuesday night 7:30pm time slot, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. didn't have much cause for worry from the final season of the once-mighty ABC war drama, Combat!...but it did get slaughtered by the rising adventure series Daktari, over on CBS, which finished at an amazing 7th overall for the 1966-1967 season. The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. didn't stand a chance against that juggernaut, and it was quietly cancelled by the spring (with its host series managing to limp along for an additional half-season the following year before it, too, disappeared).
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.