November 10, 2014

The Men from "Star Trek"

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) holds up remarkably well half a century later (at least the first two seasons; the third reportedly sagged badly).

With Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo (created by Ian Fleming) and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin (now Dr. "Ducky" Mallard on NCIS) in the leads, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was the forerunner of I Spy  (1965-1968) and Mission Impossible (1966-1973).

Though while Mission Impossible presaged a future of high-tech gizmo thrillers, Solo and Kuryakin are the cool, suave, deadly (and deadly funny) analog operatives that live on in characters like John Reese and Sameen Shaw (Person of Interest).

It certainly didn't hurt that back in an era when there were only three networks, shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. could cast from the cream of the up-and-coming Hollywood crop.

For example, a 1964 episode called "The Project Strigas Affair." It guest stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, along with Werner Klemperer (basically inhabiting the Colonel Wilhelm Klink character he would start playing the next year on Hogan's Heroes).

This was two years before Star Trek.

Shatner is utterly charming as a scientist who quits the rat race to start a small business with his wife (exterminating rats). They're recruited by U.N.C.L.E. to run a sting on a corrupt diplomat (Klemperer). It's a very Mission Impossible type plot.

What makes it all the more amusing is that a fairly subdued Shatner ends up playing the straight man to everybody else, and does rather well at that. It's not fair to say, "Hey, the man can act!" because Shatner delivered some fine performances on Star Trek.

The more accurate observation might be: "Hey, there was a time when Shatner wasn't Kirk!" Instead, it's Nimoy who hams it up as his (actually Klemperer's) nemesis in the "Evil Spock" role (playing dumb until he gets his revenge in the end).

Frankly, it's easy to see a lot of Spock in Nimoy's "Paris" on Mission Impossible as well. But because Nimoy defined the character in more subtle terms (makeup and backstory aside), he can say "I am not Spock," while Shatner will always be Kirk at his most bombastic.

Here's a collection of clips from that episode:

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