Work/text: Investigating "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," by Cynthia W. Walker

Francesca Coppa

Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Audience analysis; Fan culture; Television

Coppa, Francesca. 2015. Work/Text: Investigating "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," by Cynthia W. Walker [book review]. In "Performance and Performativity in Fandom," edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 18.

Cynthia W. Walker. 2015. Work/text: Investigating "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." New York: Hampton Press, 2013. Hardcover, $89.50 (367p) ISBN 978-1612891200; paperback, $37.95 (379p) ISBN 978-1612891217.

[1] Before there was Star Trek (1966–69), there was The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964–68). The two shows vie for the title of first media fandom, and for that reason alone, Cynthia Walker's Work/Text: Investigating The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2013) might be of interest to media fans and acafans both. Walker's book traces the development of the whole U.N.C.L.E. universe from creator Norman Felton's almost offhand pitch to advertisers in 1962 to the Guy Ritchie–directed reboot scheduled for 2015. That path, described in detail (possibly too much detail for those only casually interested in the show), is characterized by a series of course-changing collisions and artistic interventions among writers, producers, networks, advertisers, fans, audiences, journalists, and other interest groups. Walker demonstrates that U.N.C.L.E. was an early and influential transmedia franchise, a story told not only via television but in movies and tie-in novels and comic books and on lunchboxes and through a startling variety of intertexts and fan texts. She also argues that understanding and theorizing the complexities of U.N.C.L.E. can serve to illustrate the immensely complex creative realities of television, which, despite today's current push toward auteurship, has always been one of the messiest and most collaborative modes of storytelling.

[2] In service of these arguments, Walker situates U.N.C.L.E. within two theoretical models: Marshall McLuhan's notion of hot and cool media, and Roland Barthes's concepts of work and text. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has always been described as cool, and Walker argues that the show was cool not only in the mid-1960s sense of hip, but also in the McLuhanite sense of being understated and low information, requiring its audience to fill in the missing pieces and thus inviting particularly high levels of participation and collaboration. Throughout the book, Walker presents U.N.C.L.E. as an intensely permeable work highly open to creative interventions, and she uses the dialogic model of work/text to organize her thinking on this; that is, that active writing (work) and active interpretive reading (text) happen simultaneously and continuously to create meaning(s). So Walker portrays U.N.C.L.E. as both a work and a text or as a work/text in which a changing roster of constituencies drives the show's formal expression, and a changing number of readers make meaning from the changes. The book also features diagrams illustrating U.N.C.L.E.'s crucial writers and readers at every stage (the diagrams show how writers and readers frequently and productively swapped roles), showing how the show's meaning and themes evolved through each creative iteration, each new revision.

[3] So, for example, Walker argues that The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'s very concept can be understood as a text that Norman Felton produced by reading the work of various timely influences, which included 1960s television, James Bond spy stories, and a question posed to him by BBC executive Joanna Spicer: "Why must the leads in your American series always be big, tall, and muscular? And why do the heroes always have to be American and the villains from other countries?" (82). Here, at the very birth of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. concept, Walker depicts Felton not as a brilliant televisual auteur but as a particularly sensitive and talented reader who actively interpreted particular strands of his contemporary culture to produce the first text of U.N.C.L.E.—the concept of a spy who was not tall, muscular, or identified exclusively with America. Or, as Walker puts it:

[4] Felton both passively and actively "reads" the proto-text that results from the "work" of several sources: the questions of the BBC comptroller; the current situation in the television industry; Fleming's book, Thrilling Cities; the entire spy story genre; and, of course, Felton's own experiences, both professionally and personally. As a result of the interaction between Felton and these diverse sources, a concept (form) of "a different kind of action hero" (concept) occurs. (83)

[5] I can't think of a book that works so hard to radically decenter the idea of individual televisual authorship, and Walker continues in this vein throughout, illustrating a highly detailed series of work/text and shaper/interpreter relationships and interactions. Felton pitches to advertisers, advertisers give notes to Felton, Felton pitches to Ian Fleming, Fleming rewrites for Felton and the network, producer Sam Rolfe rewrites Fleming, and so on. This process only gets more complicated once actors and other production personnel (directors, set designers, line producers) get involved in actually filming the episodes; moving from written script to dramatic action involves a new group of creatives. So, for instance, the casting of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum gave those actors obvious creative authority over U.N.C.L.E. agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, and audiences responded by reading the characters intertextually with their actors, significantly changing their meanings. Similarly, the changing roster of show producers and episode writers—particularly in the series' third and fourth seasons, which were thought to have become too comic and too grim, respectively—resulted in changes to the U.N.C.L.E. work which changed the way the text was received by its audience. Lastly, U.N.C.L.E.'s work/text was complicated by its transmedia storytelling, particularly the series of contemporary Ace tie-in paperbacks, which were written by a group of freelance western, adventure, and science fiction writers, each of whom brought their own generic twists to the material.

[6] While Walker does situate fans on both sides of the U.N.C.L.E. work/text, she defines fans primarily as active core viewers of the show who, in making meaning of the text, rewrite the work. The book doesn't seem to be interested in transformative works per se: Walker almost glancingly gestures at a variety of fan practices, but gives no particular attention to the writing of fan fiction or the making of visual art, focusing as much or more on fan activities like conventions, scrapbooking, collecting props and scripts, and playing U.N.C.L.E. in the backyard with prop guns, badges, and communicator pens. However, Walker uses the core fan community of U.N.C.L.E. as a primary source, surveying their attitudes toward and opinions of the show and its characters and using them to demonstrate evidence of the multiple and contradictory readings of the U.N.C.L.E. text. Walker carefully illustrates all the varying shades of U.N.C.L.E. and tries to show how these different versions of the work played with fans, who seem to be the ultimate arbiters of the show's meaning: it is fans who have decided on the best and worst episodes and on what the truest vision of U.N.C.L.E. is. While Walker also looks at more standard metrics like ratings and audience share, it's clear that she shares fandom's assessment of U.N.C.L.E.'s merits. U.N.C.L.E. fans are the book's true experts, and they understand the show in ways that the casual viewer doesn't (for instance, fans and creators both hate many of the show's best-rated episodes: one in which Napoleon and Illya meet a gorilla is repeatedly cited as a loser despite its success at broadcast). Walker defers to fans' voices and their obviously well-considered opinions.

[7] The book also provides a fascinating glimpse of the cultural and social matrix within which media fandom developed in the mid-1960s. Walker points out that many of the players who were later to create the elaborate participatory culture around Star Trek were already on the scene for U.N.C.L.E., not only professionals like science fiction writer Harlan Ellison and television directors like Marc Daniels, but fans, too: for example, Buck Coulson (who wrote U.N.C.L.E. Ace novels) was married to Juanita Coulson (editor of the zine ST-Phile), and Star Trek superfan Bjo Trimble (The Star Trek Concordance [1969], the Save Star Trek campaign) was housemates with U.N.C.L.E. fan and writer David McDaniel. Media fandom emerged out of a small and creative world of active SF fans and writers.

[8] There are other commonalities too, and other ways in which U.N.C.L.E. seems to be not just the first media fandom but also an ur-fandom. Walker points out that both The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Star Trek feature wide-ranging adventures to exotic places, and that at the core "are two main characters—friends—one of whom is an extroverted, womanizing, swashbuckling adventurer while the other is a 'cooler,' quieter, more rational and technically minded 'alien'" (72). Walker further notes that while male buddy pairings have always been around, the characters of Kuryakin and Spock were both seen as so alien that they were both initially (and specifically) rejected by the networks sponsoring the shows. Similarly, in both The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Star Trek there was a gender split in reception, with female fans more interested in the characters (and in Illya) and male fans more interested in the spy universe and gadgets (and in Solo).

[9] On this note, I myself can't help but be intrigued by the fact that the sidekick figure who eventually became Illya Kuryakin was originally proposed as Mary Smith, "a talented if struggling actress who also happens to be multilingual and something of a chameleon. She is ready to hop a plane to anywhere in the world to assume any number of identities as needed" (88). Walker notes that while the character experienced a number of changes, including that of gender, her main attributes—disguises, languages, a prickly relationship with Solo—survive in Kuryakin. In a 2008 article in this journal (Coppa 2008), I made a similar assertion about Star Trek's Mr. Spock, arguing that part of fandom's fascination with him was that he was a placeholder for an excised female character: Number One, the captain's first officer in the pilot (and another character that the network objected to and rejected, with rather more success). So it's funny to read Walker's book and wonder, as I so often do, if whether behind The Man from U.N.C.L.E. there was, after all, a woman.

[10] They say that if we knew how a sausage got made, we wouldn't want to eat it. But that's not true of Walker's book: she shows us the sausage of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. getting made—all the drafts, revisions, improvisations, collaborations, notes, collisions, and accidents—and it feels like someone's finally telling us the truth (and debunking a narrative of male auteurship that is now spreading, like a contagion, to television). Walker describes how television actually gets made with honesty, understanding, and affection, and for this reason I would recommend the book to media and television studies scholars, especially those interested in production history.

Work cited

Coppa, Francesca. 2008. "Women, Star Trek, and the Early Development of Fannish Vidding." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1.