For some damn fool reason, I thought this would be a good idea.
My affection for the high-energy, unapologetic goofiness of The A-Team is no secret. And while I’ve arrived very late to the nonstop cocktail party that is The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I’ve quickly lost my heart to the show. So, I thought to myself, what could be more relevant to my interests than a very special Man From U.N.C.L.E.-themed A-Team episode? How could this possibly go wrong?
Okay, sure, even on paper, it’s not a perfect match. Mashing up The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (swanky, frothy, sexy) with The A-Team (gonzo, gleeful, idiotic) is like ordering a Kir Royale with a Pabst Blue Ribbon chaser, or ending a jazz recital with a string of fart jokes. Even so, with the right script, this could’ve worked. This could’ve been fun. Hell, it could’ve been cute.
Some historical context here: “The Say U.N.C.L.E. Affair” took place in the weird no-man’s-land of The A-Team’s fifth and final season, when flagging ratings had resulted in a drastic retooling of the show. No longer soldiers of fortune on the run from the law, the A-Team—Hannibal, Face, Murdock, and B.A., plus new kid Frankie (Eddie Velez)—are now carrying out dangerous missions for the U.S. government under the command of General Hunt Stockwell, played by the incomparable Robert Vaughn, best known as the sleek, smarmy secret agent Napoleon Solo on U.N.C.L.E. Adding Vaughn to the cast was a smart move (proven fact: Robert Vaughn automatically makes everything approximately 80% more delightful), but it wasn’t enough to save a show that was running on fumes. That final season… well, it’s not good. The jokes are tired, the plots are flat, the cast members look exhausted and defeated, and all the good-hearted, bubble-headed joie de vivre that characterized the early seasons of the show has evaporated into the ether. “The Say U.N.C.L.E. Affair”, which reunited Vaughn with his former costar David McCallum, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s slinky, iconic Russian spy Ilya Kuryakin, aired on Halloween in 1986. Before the end of the year, the show would be cancelled.
Somewhere in Siberia, Hannibal, Face, B.A., Murdock, and Frankie infiltrate a heavily-guarded Soviet base and swipe a stealth bomber. Back in day, the A-Team used to devote themselves to helping out the downtrodden and disenfranchised—they’d help inner-city kids defend their community center from greedy developers, for example, or they’d protect small business owners from brutal extortionists. Now they’re stealing expensive crap from the Soviets for the U.S. government. Oh, how times have changed.
Dig how the Soviets have customized their stealth bomber with jazzy red stripes and stars. Stealth bombers generally aren’t covered with red paint and flashy detailing, for reasons of, y’know, stealth, but let’s allow The A-Team a little artistic license on this point.
Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, General Stockwell is contacted by mild-mannered Oxford professor-slash-Soviet agent Ivan Trigorin (McCallum, still the coolest guy on television), his former partner at the CIA. Stockwell and Trigorin meet up at the La Brea Tar Pits, where they warmly embrace, reminisce about the good old days, and pull guns on each other. Trigorin knocks Stockwell out with a wristwatch that shoots poisonous gas (U.N.C.L.E. would be proud, guys) and kidnaps him.
Gotta say, after that scene, my hopes were very, very high for this episode. It’s zippy and fun, the nostalgia factor is off the charts, and McCallum and Vaughn, the old pros, still have that crazy, weird chemistry that made their U.N.C.L.E. pairing such a delight. Sadly, it’s all downhill from here.
Their mission in Siberia successful, the A-Team returns to Los Angeles, where they catch wind of Stockwell’s kidnapping. Before they can decide upon a course of action, their hotel room is invaded by a small horde of Soviet diplomats, who demand the return of their stealth bomber. Half-hearted fisticuffs ensue. Check out Mr. T, who is so over this damn show that he can’t even be bothered to get up off the couch to lend his teammates a hand.
In a staggering violation of the Vienna Convention, Hannibal casually tortures one of the Soviet diplomats for a while (hey, Hannibal—it’s 1986, and U.S.-Soviet relations are strained as it is. Maybe try to avoid sparking a global nuclear incident? Thanks). He learns that Trigorin, who is currently working for the Chinese, not the Soviets, has absconded with Stockwell in an attempt to locate the stealth bomber.
Man. Everyone just seems lifeless and glum. I think George Peppard fell asleep midway through this scene.
The A-Team breaks into the Chinese embassy to access top-secret records about Trigorin, whereupon they learn that Trigorin is operating out of a psychiatric hospital. So Murdock summons up another of his endless psychoses (this week, he believes he’s Frank Sinatra) and gets himself admitted as a mental patient to see if he can find Stockwell. Dwight Schultz is trying to earn his paycheck, bless his heart. He’s fighting an uphill battle with this dud of an episode, but he’s in there swinging, doing his best Sinatra shtick and singing his heart out. George Peppard, meanwhile, is still napping.
Face and Frankie head to UCLA to listen to a lecture given by Trigorin, who, I remind you, is an Oxford professor as well as a CIA/Soviet/Chinese spy. We’re treated to the tail end of Trigorin’s speech, which… well, here’s the transcript:
“I’d like to leave you now with one final thought: Over the years, my research into the human mind has taught me many things, the most important being the fact that few, if any, ever reach our full intellectual potential. Why is this? The major reason, in my understanding, involves a word which most people want to avoid. That word is fear. I urge you to become bold and courageous explorers of new thoughts and ideas. Let no fear stand in your way! By transcending our fears, we discover the richest rewards imaginable: the true creative potential of our own minds. I promise you a grand and glorious adventure. Thank you.”
Oof. That was breathtakingly inane. Holy hell, A-Team writers, you really think your viewers are idiots, don’t you?
After the lecture, Trigorin beats the ever-loving crap out of Frankie, which is oddly cathartic and satisfying.
Murdock discovers that heavily-armed men have taken over a secret level of the mental hospital. Suspecting Trigorin is holding Stockwell there, the A-Team manufactures a fake earthquake (Frankie rigs up a small explosion, B.A. tosses a few crumbling chunks of plaster into the air conditioning vents) and spurs an evacuation.
Anyway, yeah, up on the secret level, Trigorin has indeed been interrogating Stockwell as to the whereabouts of the stealth bomber. As the interrogation mostly consists of spinning Stockwell’s chair in a circle while trying to convince him he’s plummeting to earth with a malfunctioning parachute (I only wish I were joking), it’s all pretty ineffective. And lame. Mostly, it’s lame.
Hannibal offers Trigorin a trade: In exchange for sparing Stockwell’s life, he’ll lead Trigorin to the bomber, which he’s stashed on a studio backlot. At the studio, a big, long, messy fight between the A-Team and Trigorin ensues. Here’s a nice touch—all of Trigorin’s henchmen are wearing that natty turtleneck-under-a-suit coat combination that McCallum made famous on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. There are plenty of clever little U.N.C.L.E. callbacks (the title cards at the start of each act, the swirling breaks between scenes, the casual reference to “Channel D”) embedded into the episode; it’s not enough to compensate for the sad, soggy, tepid script, but the effort is appreciated nonetheless.
Trigorin steals a van and tries to run over Stockwell, but crashes and (apparently) dies in a fiery inferno. There’s a lot of denouement (the stealth bomber gets destroyed in the fracas, except it doesn’t, because the real bomber is actually in Bakersfield; Murdock, still believing he’s Sinatra, takes the stage at a swanky gig), but, much like most of the cast members, I’m over this episode, so I’m going to wrap it up with a fast look at the way Stockwell dials the phone:
Robert Vaughn, ladies and gentlemen. Even in this absolute crapfest of an episode, Vaughn is bringing it.