Monday 25 September 2023

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966-67), part two

Of all the girl spies of 1960s television I think April Dancer may well be the one with the coolest name ever (which is not surprising since it was Ian Fleming who came up with the name at the time when he was involved in the initial planning for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). April Dancer was of course The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., which was a spin-off from the highly successful series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Unfortunately by the time it went into production the decision (a very bad decision) had been made to turn The Man from U.N.C.L.E. into pretty much a pure parody camp-fest and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. got the same treatment. So April Dancer never really had much of a chance.

I watched a handful of episodes of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. a few years back (and I’d seen quite a few episodes years ago) and I wrote about the series here but was inclined to be a bit dismissive. Having just watched the episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that introduced the character I thought I should at least briefly revisit The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

One of the odder thing about this series (and this applies to a considerable extent to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. also) is that many of the stories are set in tiny feudal European statelets ruled by princes and grand dukes that seem straight out of The Prisoner of Zenda or the adventure stories of Dornford Yates. It’s a world that had ceased to exist long before the 1960s but it does give the series an intriguingly old-fashioned flavour.

Stefanie Powers took over the title rôle for the series. One thing that soon becomes evident is that April Dancer is not really a kickass action heroine. That may have been a major factor in the failure of the series. Personally I like the fact that April is a fairly realistic female spy - she relies on her wits and her feminine wiles rather than her martial arts skills (of which she has very few).

The series had some very good moments and some very bad moments. It might be best to dispose of some of those bad moments first.

The Paradise Lost Affair is an outstanding example of the series at its absolute worst. For most of the episode the spy thriller plot is totally forgotten in favour of a mixture of slapstick and bedroom farce in the South Seas. But if you’re going to aim for out-and-out comedy you need actual gags. Having people in silly costumes running about and shouting isn’t enough. And the actual gags just aren’t there. And since there’s virtually no spy thriller story here the unfortunate result is that there’s just no entertainment value whatsoever.

The Faustus Affair
and The Drublegratz Affair both illustrate the pernicious influence of Batman and the network’s incredibly ill-advised decision to try to make the series more like Batman. The episodes with the strongest Batman influence are the worst episodes by far. Fortunately not every episode was afflicted by the Batman curse.

There are other episodes that are basically good but with a few weaknesses, such as The Garden of Evil Affair. An ancient evil cult has devised a means of restoring to life the founder of their cult, but they need a direct descendant of the founder and they believe that such a descendant, a young woman, is to be found in Berlin. The cult has been working with THRUSH but now they’re planning a double-cross - they want all the power for themselves.

This story suffers a little from the unfortunate tendency of the series often to try too hard to be zany and campy, especially in the middle with the rather pointless sub-plot about filming a western in Berlin and the rather silly slapstick chase sequence. Aside from this the story isn’t too bad, the THRUSH agents are a pack of delightful villains, the sets are good and there’s plenty of action.

Luckily there are those good moments, and when this series was good it was very good. And the good episodes do outnumber the bad ones by a very hefty margin.

The Atlantis Affair was written by Richard Matheson, one of the great television writers, so it’s no surprise that it’s a very strong episode. It has lots of fun ingredients. There’s a crazy professor searching for the entrance to the lost continent of Atlantis, there are crystals that could destroy the world, there’s an eccentric Frenchman who has recreated the aristocratic lifestyle of the 17th century on a Caribbean island, and there are the usual THRUSH goons. There’s some nice location shooting and some decent sets. It works because it goes for a subtly surreal feel rather than high camp, and the action scenes are played for thrills rather than slapstick. It works because it feels inspired rather than contrived. It’s far-fetched but it never descends into mere silliness.

This is also a story that gives April Dancer a decent fight scene. She might not have the usual martial arts skills but it turns out she’s a pretty good fencer, which is handy when you’re up against a 17th century villain.

If only the entire series had been as good as The Atlantis Affair then NBC might have had a hit on their hands rather than a flop.

The Lethal Eagle Affair is very nearly as good. It’s outlandish but it does have an actual spy thriller plot. Gita Volander is a senior THRUSH agent who has forcibly retired but now she’s come up with a scheme to put herself back into THRUSH’s good books. She has found a scientist who has devised a machine that can transport living things instantaneously by dematerialising them at one point and rematerialising them somewhere else. April and Mark Slate have infiltrated her operation. The Viennese setting provides some nice period charm. There are some effective moments - April tied to the top of a car and being attacked by an eagle is certainly an opening scene that is guaranteed to get the audience’s attention. It’s fast-paced, fairly exciting, it has some witty moments and the action finale is amusingly over-the-top.

In The Romany Lie Affair April has to infiltrate a circus and arouses the enmity of a gypsy girl which gives April one of her better fight scenes. The episode overall shows that given a good script Stefanie Powers was a decent actress. This is one of the best episodes of the entire series.

The Little John Doe Affair gets April mixed up with a mobster and a wonderfully creepy assassin. The easy assassination scene is superbly done. This is the series at its best - slightly strange and surreal but without degenerating into camp or silliness. A great episode.

The Furnace Flats Affair takes April and Mark to the Wild West. April has to compete in a bizarre race against two other girls, each of whom has to cross Death Valley with a horse, a canteen of water and a bottle of whiskey. One of the other competitors is a murderous psychopath. It’s a very amusing romp with Ruth Roman chewing the scenery to great effect.

The Low Blue C Affair has a bit of a Ruritanian flavour to it. A gangster is trying to murder his way to the throne of a tiny principality which happens to have one major asset - an extremely profitable casino. The only way to stop him is to persuade his cousin, a female major in a religious charity that bears an extraordinary resemblance to the Salvation Army, to exercise her right to the throne. Of course the gangster will try to kill her to close off this threat. Broderick Crawford has a lot of fun as the strangely likeable gangster. It’s quite a good episode, with the campiness kept under strict control.

The Petit Prix Affair is rather confusing to say the least. April and Mark are in a small French village where a go-kart race is about to take place, but the race is being used as a cover for a plan to snatch a million dollars from an armoured car. The plan is to be carried out by students at a school for commandos and the money is to be returned afterwards. The mastermind of the plan, Professor Plato Pamplempousse, also intends to explode a bomb, but the bomb in question dates from the Franco-Prussian War so it’s almost a hundred years old. The Professor also hopes to run away with Desiree, a former Resistance heroine who like the rest of the school seems to be still living in the past.

Mostly it’s an excuse for outrageous and wildly exaggerated phoney French accents, and for generally indulging in mocking every stereotype of the French. Even including, rather daringly, making fun of the Resistance. It’s an episode that tries very hard to be zany, and succeeds at least moderately well. And it’s all quite good-natured.

The Phi Beta Killer Affair actually deals with a poker game. The richest poker game in history, with the stakes in the billions. The real problem is that the players’ bodyguards, all trained at the same bodyguard school, have been programmed for assassination. Mark and April have to infiltrate the bodyguard school and then infiltrate the poker game. The opening scene is an amusing version of the assassination of Julius Caesar but with gangsters. The episode features a couple of over-the-top villains. It’s all comic book stuff but enjoyable.

The Double-O-Nothing Affair uses a device that was used a lot in the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - a well-meaning innocent bystander who gets caught in the middle of some nefarious THRUSH plot. In this case it’s a nerdy accountant who comes into possession of a tape that holds the secret to the location of THRUSH’s New York headquarters. In this one the camp and spoof elements are kept within bounds. Not a bad episode.

The U.N.C.L.E. Samurai Affair takes Mark and April to Honolulu, their mission being to track down a Japanese war criminal. His sister is heading up some mysterious THRUSH operation in Hawaii. Mark poses as a surfer, the fact that he appears not to be able to surf being apparently not considered to be a potential problem. This is one of the episodes that strikes the right balance, being just outrageous enough to be amusing without veering too far into parody. Signe Hasso was Swedish so naturally she was an obvious choice to play a Japanese super-criminal. Quite entertaining.

In The High and the Deadly Affair THRUSH scientist Dr Merek has developed a deadly new chemical for which he has sinister plans. His first step is likely to be the assassination of the scientist who has developed the antidote. This may take place on a flight from London to Ankara so April goes undercover as a Mesopotamian Airlines stewardess, while Mark poses as a blustering big game hunter. The plot revolves around the problem with the two U.N.C.L.E. agents not only do not know which passenger is the evil mad scientist, they also don’t know which passenger is his intended victim. And it’s all rather fun. A very good episode.

In The Kooky Spook Affair an assassin is gunning for April while Mark discovers he is now the 14th Earl of Maddington. His newly inherited country house seems like a good place for April to hide out. But there isn’t just one dastardly plot afoot - there are no less than three and everyone at Maddington Manor seems to have murder in mind. A fun episode.

Final Thoughts

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. had a lot of potential. Stefanie Powers and Noel Harrison were a slightly quirky pairing that worked rather well. They have very good chemistry - there’s some romantic chemistry but there’s also an affectionate playfulness between the two characters. They’re both adept at light comedy. They both have charm and they’re both likeable. Noel Harrison is particularly good - he’s a very unconventional TV spy but in an interesting way.

If only this series had appeared a year earlier and had been done completely in the style of the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. it might well have been a success. The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. went to air about six months after The Avengers made its American TV debut. It does have the occasional clever and surreal moments but it never quite achieves the consistent wit and style of The Avengers.

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. does have an odd flavour of its own, it has likeable leads and it has plenty of genuinely very good moments. Despite its faults I just can’t bring myself to dislike this series and I’m going to recommend it. In fact I’m going to highly recommend it.

Only 29 episodes were made but it did spawn a series of original spin-off novels several of which I’ve reviewed, including The Global Globules Affair, The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair and The Birds of a Feather Affair.

I’ve reviewed The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode which introduced April Dancer, The Moonglow Affair.

Friday 1 September 2023

Dick Tracy TV series (1950-51)

The VCI boxed set containing all three Republic Dick Tracy serials (and I’m a huge fan of movie serials) which I bought recently includes as a bonus an episode of the 1950-51 Dick Tracy TV series which aired on the ABC network. It's a series I had never seen.

The episode in question is Hi-Jack, episode 16 of season one.

I don’t consider myself a huge Dick Tracy fan but I love the Republic serials and the 1940s RKO Dick Tracy movies so I guess maybe I am a bit of a Dick Tracy fan after all.

The episode was a disappointment, but it is an interesting example of some of the problems of very very early TV crime drama series. American television was developing rapidly and by 1955 was starting to become reasonably sophisticated, but series from the early 50s do tend to be clunky.

There were reasons for this. The half-hour TV drama is a distinctive format of its own, quite different from one-hour dramas and feature films. There was a real art to writing a successful half-hour drama. You really had to plunge the viewer straight into the action and you had to get on with it. It was essential not to waste time on sub-plots or irrelevant scenes that failed to advance the action. You would probably only have time for one major plot twist so it had to be a good one.

It’s hardly surprising that in 1950 these rules were not yet fully understood. Hi-Jack wastes a lot of time early on with a long boring completely irrelevant dialogue scene with no connection at all to the story. Once we get into the action there’s just not quite enough plot and there are no major twists. Even at a half hour it drags a bit.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a car-stealing racket. Which is a rather mundane case for someone like Dick Tracy (at least it would be a very mundane case for the Dick Tracy of the serials and the RKO movies). The bad guys are switching the engine and chassis numbers on stolen cars and they’re also planning to double-cross each other.

The villain is unfortunately rather colourless.

Another problem with early 50s U.S. TV is that it looks stodgy. This was possibly due more than anything else to the limitations of the medium at that time. TV sets had very small screens and picture quality was not good. There was little point in trying for artistic lighting effects or imaginative framing (even if there had been time for such luxuries which there wasn’t). Sets were very basic. These early TV shows looked cheap.

Of course it’s possible that this just happens to be a dud episode.

It doesn’t help that image quality is atrocious.

What seeing this episode has done for me is to increase my admiration for the achievements of American television in the late 50s. The improvement was staggering. Series like Decoy (1957), M Squad (1957) and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958) were to demonstrate just how good half-hour episodic television could be.

Dick Tracy was possibly just made too soon. Six or seven years later it might have been possible to make a truly excellent Dick Tracy TV series.

On the plus side the series does have Ralph Byrd, the definitive screen Dick Tracy. And that’s a major plus.

So overall more of a curiosity than anything else.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of the RKO movies - Dick Tracy, Detective (1945) and Dick Tracy vs Cueball (1946).