Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Children of a Lesser Bond: "Solo"

If you've never heard of a TV series titled Solo well, there's a very good reason for that.... It doesn't exist. Or rather, it doesn't exist under that title. You're probably more familiar with the name the TV series ended up being produced under...

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

So why am I calling this post Children of a Lesser Bond: "Solo"? Because that was the name initially given to the series and the name the original pilot was filmed under and the pilot for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is such a fascinating piece of spy TV I felt it deserved an entire post devoted to it.

Out of all of the Children of Bond that cropped up The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had the rare boast of actually having James Bond creator Ian Fleming as a consultant for the series. Except that Fleming never really did contribute much to the original idea beyond a few character names -- including suggesting "Solo" for the name of the protagonist.

What set "Solo" aside was several things. The pilot was movie length for one -- something that was rare for those times. The pilot also had noticeably better production values than the average TV series -- including being filmed in color when most American TV was still in black and white. The reason for all of this was series creator and producer Norman Felton convinced NBC TV executives to spend a bit more time and money on the pilot by arguing that even if it didn't get picked up as a TV series at least NBC's owner MGM could sell the pilot as a movie in overseas markets. In point of fact, despite the fact that NBC *did* pick up the series the pilot *still* was distributed overseas as a movie -- retitled To Trap a Spy.

The movie "Solo" was never fully seen on American TV during the original run of the series. When it came time to launch The Man from U.N.C.L.E. NBC executives chopped and cut the movie horribly, switched it to black and white, and made a few minor changes... but we'll get to those later; for now -- let's take a look at the plot!

The Plot: Napoleon Solo works for the secret (sort-of) organization known as U.N.C.L.E. -- the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (for the record, a lot of people erroneously give the acronym as the more logical United Network Command for Law Enforcement but there is an 'and' in there). U.N.C.L.E., a kind of 'espionage United Nations', exists to combat threats to world peace and stability -- most notably from the evil organization known as THRUSH (note: the explanation of what THRUSH stood for was never given during the TV series. Later novelization writers assigned it Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity). U.N.C.L.E. comes to believe that multi-millionaire industrialist Andrew Vulcan is secretly an agent of THRUSH and more to the point that Vulcan intends to cause the death of the Prime Minister of an African nation that has recently gained it's independence.

In order to uncover Vulcan's plans U.N.C.L.E. sends Solo to recruit Vulcan's former college sweetheart, Elaine (actress Patricia Crowley) -- now a suburban housewife and mother. The woman reluctantly agrees but soon finds herself swept up in a glamorous world as she presents herself to Vulcan as a wealthy widow. Even more, she finds that her feelings for Vulcan are perhaps not so dead as she once thought.

THRUSH is still in the game though and Solo and Elaine find themselves targets as they discover that Vulcan and THRUSH's plans are far more elaborate and deeper than they thought. Can they save the African nation from descending into anarchy and becoming easy pickings for THRUSH? And more to the point, can Elaine and Solo save themselves?

So What's the Result?

The pilot was strong enough for NBC to order the series and it's easy to see why. While some of the action is still clunky and doesn't make much sense Vaughn is suave, charming, and roguish in the lead role and there is just a hint of vulnerability here which, sadly, was mostly erased for the series proper. Patricia Crowley does a nice turn as the "innocent" thrust into a wholly strange world -- coming across as mostly believable although there is a moment close to the end where she turns into a horrible, weepy, stereotype of the "weak female". The villain is debonair as well and the audience actually feels a bit for him as he seems to genuinely be attracted to Elaine as "the one who got away." And the plot itself holds together, is action packed and contains a nice twist (oh, and there is a kind of reverse Speed death trap that proves that movie isn't quite as original as some might think). On the downside there is the aforementioned sometimes clunky action sequences and the sets range from good to merely serviceable -- showing that the pilot still had some budget constraints.

The original pilot is available as a DVD extra on the Man from U.N.C.L.E. complete box set and I highly recommend checking it out either through Netflix or your local library or some other legal outlet since it really was a nice, solid introduction to the series and comes across much better than what was aired on TV for the pilot.

Next up, we start tearing into the first season of the show proper...

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