The Man from UNCLE: The Birds and the Bees Affair

This is a pause in my series of posts about the American dream and The X-Files, not an ending, and is at least partly inspired by the way I have got rather side-tracked from the American dream as such, onto the particularly contrary ways the CIA attempted to defend the American dream, particularly Project MK-Ultra. The idea was that they couldn't believe that Americans could ever possibly want to defect to enemy states, such as Korea, and when they did, thought they must have been brain-washed by the enemy. So of course the only thing they could do was launch into a secret, decade-long programme of torture to find out why people would possibly want to leave the country. The complete absence of self-awareness is striking in retrospect, but it was driven by a genuine fear at the time.

If nothing else comes out of my reading for the posts on the American dream, I have gained a renewed understanding of the background of the Cold War era TV I watch: the fear of the enemy; the fantasies about what the enemy could achieve; the threat the enemy was perceived to present; the fear of the technology. This reading will certainly illuminate much of my viewing for the future, and you will of course see that this post is partly an attempt to clear my head a bit before returning to The X-Files.

This Cold War intelligence/paranoia is exactly the background of all TV series of the sixties. I can safely suggest that The X-Files may have been inspired by Project MK-Ultra because it was made public in the seventies. It is striking, though, that so much 1960s TV also bears such a resemblance to what was actually going on in the CIA at the time, particularly around the science and intelligence. This is not actually because there were leaks of the technology: I have learned that the flow of information was the other way. During the sixties the CIA actually had to have extra switchboard operators on mornings after shows like Mission Impossible, The Man from UNCLE, I Spy, and even Get Smart (which isn't so off the wall when you read the real history of the CIA in the fifties and sixties and discover that operatives were frightened to drink in front of Sidney Gottlieb in case he felt like slipping LSD in their drink to see what would happen). This was because the agency would be inundated with calls from operatives in the field asking if they could make a gadget they had seen in one of the shows, and the agency would have a go at it if they could. So in fact CIA agents were equipped with gadgets dreamt up by fictional writers and subsequently created in reality, which is why reality and fiction look like each other. You genuinely couldn't make this up if you tried.

This Man from UNCLE episode utilises exactly the sort of fantasy bio-technology which would have tickled the entire staff of the CIA in the sixties: micro killer bees, which are invisible to the naked eye and leave no sting marks. I'm sure the CIA switchboard was jammed the morning after this was broadcast with agents going 'We've got Castro this time!' It is at this point you have to wonder whether the TV shows and the CIA were competing in ridiculousness and what they were smoking. Well, we know what we were smoking and putting in their coffee.

This episode is actually a delight. In terms of TV the benefit of a ridiculous plot is that it creates exactly the unreality that I like so much in TV. You can dramatise terrible things, such as the death of a whole office of UNCLE agents, all you like, and as long as they're obviouly not real it remains comfort TV. We know it's going to be OK and there isn't a crazed mad scientist on hand to start spiking people's drinks. It even has one of those classic 1960s 'torture' scenes where the torture consists partly of having a revolving wheel revolved round in front of you. I LOVE the bit where the noise makes Kuryakin's shades shatter.

In another strange reflection of reality, I do have to notice some character similarity between the THRUSH agent Mr Mozart (killer bee aficionado and owner of a dance studio) with Sidney Gottlieb, crazed chemist, Buddhist, and folk dancing enthusiast, who would quite happily show his staff a few steps even as he was supervising torturing people. Just one of those strange coincidences, I guess.

Apart from a twist where THRUSH keep Mr Mozart in their thrall by ensuring he always owes them huge amounts in gambling debts, and the way the bees are tracked by the vibration of their buzzing, the plot of this one is rather thin, to be frank. Perhaps I should say that this isn't a criticism at all, it tells the story it sets out to. There is some human interest in the shape of Kuryakin falling in love, but otherwise this show would be one of any number of spy series. 

If you particularly want a criticism I would probably have to say that the plot is insane, although that's obviously the point.

Having said it's insane, at least they had the gumption to pick bees as the killer weapon, which at least could be guaranteed to go in one direction all together if you hgave them some honey to aim for. One of the reasons I picked this episode was that earlier today I was reading about a real CIA experiment, called Operation Acoustic Kitty. This was when a microphone and transmitter were surgically inserted inside a real cat, with the idea that this would solve some technical problems with their existing equipment and nobody would suspect a cat wandering in to places. The surgery was a complete success and the spy cat was prepared for the first and only real-world trial of the idea. Two men chatting on a bench in a park were selected as a good target for the cat to listen in on. The cat was released from a CIA van parked at a discreet distance and pointed in the direction of the two men on the bench. Any cat owner can tell you what the cat did next, and you have to wonder whether any of them had even met a cat before. Absolutely barmy idea.

The high point of this episode is Napoleon fighting off invisible bees. If that isn't a stage school exercise, I don't know what is.

I seem to have done it again  - I've written a blog post which isn't really about the episode I'm talking about at all.