Man From U.N.C.L.E.: Complete Series on DVD
For a lot of years, from the 1980's until around 2007, the TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968) had a frustrating history on home video. The program, which kicked off a wave of breezily-paced spy series (I Spy etc.), was available on a limited basis on VHS tape in the 1980's, and -- restricted to a narrow sliver of mostly poorly chosen episodes -- on laserdiscs in the 1990's. It was originally supposed to appear on DVD in 2005, but then a dispute broke out between the owners of the series, Warner Home Video, and a production company claiming that it had the DVD rights to the series. By that time, series star Robert Vaughn had even done some work for the alleged rights holder, in terms of interviews, and the whole mess ended up in court, where it was sorted out in 2007. And now we have this set -- originally available only through Time Warner -- 41 DVDs containing the complete run of the series, appended with a pair of contemporary feature film adaptations of the show, plus a ton of bonus features. It's enough to keep even those with lots of time on their hands busy for months.
The film-to-video transfers are generally first-rate, although surprisingly, the oldest programs -- the black-and-white first season episodes -- are far more consistent and satisfying than the three seasons (well, two-and-a-half seasons) of color episodes that follow. It's difficult to say for certain, without having been at the transfer sessions, but the clarity of the full-screen (1.33-to-1) transfers seems to show up some of less satisfying elements of the color photography on the later episodes (except where color scheme was an essential component of a shot or scene). In one second season episode, the second unit footage of Swiss and Italian locales looks superb here, whereas the actual scene photography seems flat and dullish by comparison. In fairness, one must concede that color television shooting was relatively new in the years 1965-66, and even beyond -- it was also horrendously expensive by the standards of the time, which often resulted in corners (or attention to detail) being cut in some instances, even on hit series. And it should also be said, in regard to the photographers involved, that no one in 1965 could ever have conceived of the notion that anyone would be examining their work on this series on this level, in digital video, in 2009; at the time, they probably figured that if the stuff was rerun for as few as a half-dozen times, that would be pushing their useful shelf life. That said, within the limitations of what was done originally with the shooting, these episodes look as good as they ever did, and likely ever will. And the sound, for a change on a collection of this size, is good and loud, enough so that this reviewer had to cut the volume on his monitor, a concession that he seldom is forced to make. Each episode gets seven chapters, corresponding to the commercial breaks and other pauses in the original configuration of the shows. And each disc opens quickly to an easy-to-use dual-layer menu, offering individual episode and bonus-feature access.
And that brings us to the supplements and bonuses. If you are -- or were -- an U.N.C.L.E. fanatic (as this reviewer was in 1964), the interviews with Robert Vaughn and David McCallum will prove delightful as well as informative and engaging; they look as though they're having fun doing this, as do directors Joseph Sargent and Richard Donner, and the other crew members interviewed (and it turns out that a surprisingly large part of the crew turned up as extras and in bit roles throughout the run of the series). And some of the documentaries on the guest stars and different aspects of the making of the series are informative as well. But when we get to the guy who runs the Man From U.N.C.L.E. museum exhibit, it starts to get a little scary -- that exhibit and presentation may be a little too intense and obsessive for the more casual fans of the series (which, in all honesty, lost much of its appeal and a lot that made it special in its third season, from which it never recovered). On the other hand, the wonderfully detailed Jon Burlingame-hosted featurette on the music from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is as valuable documentary as you could have on any aspect of the series' production. The key bonus features for most viewers, however, will probably be the original full-length unaired pilot episode Solo (in color), and the feature-length release One Spy Too Many, plus the Tom & Jerry cartoon parody "The Mouse From H.U.N.G.E.R..
As to the packaging, this is one of the pleasant surprises about the set. It's elaborate -- the 41 discs are housed in four slipcased units that fit into a 1960's-style spy attache case (with a secret compartment for the two bonus DVDs); and it's all easy to use, amazingly enough. Some of the discs don't come off of their spindles very easily, and one would want to be careful removing each the first time; but this is an amazingly simple-to-use set, given its size and contents, and not remotely the chore to open that many other recent "deluxe" DVD set are. The other pleasant surprise in the weight -- this is amazingly easy to carry, as the makers have not weighed it down with any massive photo books or other paraphernalia; the episode information is contained in small but mostly readable pamphlets (though whoever thought of using black lettering on a dark red background for the Season Two booklet should probably be taken off of projects like this), which fit into the back of the appropriate slipcase for its season.
As to whether it's worth the asking price . . . one has to make these judgments for oneself, based on circumstances. But there are over 100 episodes in this set (three to a platter), and all of the first season and most of the second season material is first-rate; the third season is less so, thanks to an over-emphasis on humor; but the abbreviated fourth season snapped the show back to its more serious origins. So for sake of argument, that's well over 100 episodes to choose from, and even if half of the second season isn't quite up to standard, that's still close to 100 shows that are -- or something less than $2 an episode, depending upon where one gets this and how much one pays for it (as this reviewer did, incidentally). And that's not a bad bargain, especially considering the bonus features offered with it -- just seeing the unaired pilot film Solo was a revelation for this reviewer, especially as one gets to compare it here with the aired version of the first episode. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi
Robert Vaughn, David McCallum, Leo G. Carroll
Black and White, Color
1.33:1 (Pre-1954 Standard)
Number of Discs:
- UPC: 883929035380
- Item Number: WBD042020
Dolby Digital Mono
Warner Home Video