1965: Man from U.N.C.L.E. / Boy From S.T.E.R.L.I.N.G.

My mom was a living contradiction. She would think nothing of leaving me in the car for a lengthy subzero wait while she visited her church friends, but strictly managed bedtimes and television viewing at home, which made my introduction to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. nothing short of a miracle. That first viewing happened in the winter of 1965 and came about only because it was an “underwear night”, one of those rare instances when my dad and I would stay up late and watch TV together while lounging in T-shirts and pajamas.

I was eleven and languishing in the twilight zone that is prepubescence – starting to realize that an action hero didn’t necessarily need a cape, and those icky girls were starting to look interesting, but to be honest I was mostly just concerned with staying up past 9:00 PM, but when the sedate academic environment of Mr. Novak was abruptly replaced by trumpets blasting out the opening bars of one of the most totally bitchin’ themes ever I was riveted to the TV set.

Bond films were a year or two in my future, so it took me an episode or two to figure out the whole secret agent thing. Even at age eleven I was fueled with a strong sense of transpersonal commitment and the idea of a benign secret world-wide organization composed of people from all races and nationalities fighting evil was an idea I wished I’d come up with myself. I was struck by the casual but deadly teamwork between veteran enforcement agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriyakin, and when you factored in the witty banter, cool equipment, and slinky ladies (which were starting to be extremely interesting at that point in my life) I was sold …but unlike previous television favorites I didn’t want to just sit and watch images on a screen.

I desperately wanted to be an actual U.N.C.L.E. agent.

I figured they had to have some sort of feeder organization, kind of like Boy Scouts, but without the knot-tying and flag-folding. Unfortunately there was no U.N.C.L.E.  number in the phone book and to make matters worse, my parents and school teacher told me no such organization existed (the question alone was enough to trigger one of my mom’s legendary rants about the United Nations). As my dad had briefly worked in intelligence during his naval career I finally concluded that the denial had been implanted in his brain during those years afloat as some sort of protective measure because at the end of each episode ran a credit line:

We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law Enforcement without whose assistance this program would not be possible.

However, I was undeterred by the lack of information or contact. If I couldn’t join the organization I would:

  • Train myself as an agent
  • Acquire and become proficient on the equipment
  • Organize a subunit of U.N.C.L.E. there in Sterling

Taking on the persona of uber spy Napoleon Solo was the logical yet the most unattainable first step. For starters no matter how many tubes of SCORE clear hair gel I worked into my unruly ginger mop there was no way it would be mistaken for his carefully tonsured brunette locks. My single attempt at wearing my dark-colored woolen go-to-church suit to school ended with a disaster involving a faulty milk carton, but to be honest the suit situation wasn’t a deal-breaker for me –I was rapidly outgrowing the suit and when the wool material itched so bad that I had to wear long underwear year-round I ended up looking less and less like a secret agent and more like Ken® dressed in three outfits at the same time. I decided to stick to the everyday plaid flannel shirt, denim trousers and Tuffy® work boots, reasoning that I was working in very deep cover for the time being.

As for training in spy craft there wasn’t much I could do with a foot of snow on the ground and not access to any sort of gym, so I resigned myself to the fact that training would have to wait.

Equipping myself was bit more difficult. In those dark pre-mobile phone days the best I could do for secure communication was a Marx Monkey Division® walkie-talkie set handed down to me from my cousin Gary. Unfortunately it was a sound-powered device just one step up from a pair of tin-cans connected by string and while the olive-drab military design of the handsets fit the mission, the twenty-five feet of copper wire connecting them would be counter-productive to any sort of covert function.

As for the requisite attaché case: while neither Napoleon nor Illya had anything nearly as cool as James Bond, the 1965 Sears Christmas catalog featured a four page color insert of 007 related toy that included a detailed diagram of the aforementioned attaché case that I referred to during my planning. I momentarily considered asking for the 007 set for Christmas but I was sure such a request would trigger a Mom-rant worse than her United Nations tirade so I settled on using a generic book bag until I accumulated enough summer baby-sitting money to buy a for-real attaché case when school started in the fall.

The gun was simultaneously easier/more difficult to get. The single element in the universe more certain that death or taxes was a Christmas gift request to my Grandma Esther. Once she understood that the IDEAL Man from UNCLE Napoleon Solo Gun set was what I wanted I knew that nothing would stop that from happening, but it wouldn’t be happening until December. As a stop-gap measure I created a model using a fountain pen with extra cartridge, a 2 inch binder clip, Bic® pen and a #3 bulldog clip which worked great until Tacky Powell’s white shirt ended up blotched with blue ink during a recess training session.

The organization consisted mostly of compiling lists of names and organizing them into sections in rosters made up of official stationery made by pasting UNCLE logos carefully cut from Gold Key comic adaptations. Of all the aspects of my self-made covert training this lasted the longest with the organization going through several name changes until my freshman year of high school when the rosters morphed into “reliability ” lists of classmates I compiled as I was getting bullied . The list-making was discontinued only upon discovery by my parents and my explanation was met with something very similar to the “have you no shame” comment that helped take down the red-baiting Tail-gunner Senator Joe McCarthy thirteen years earlier.

For years I assumed that longest-lasting benefit from my tenure as a junior U.N.C.L.E. agent was my eventual work as an intelligence officer with both the Army and the Navy Reserve when I took great delight in pinning my triangular U.N.C.L.E. badge inside my jacket during classified exercises. I wasn’t aware that the most beneficial aspect of my interest was the least tangible and one that I didn’t appreciate until I was much, much older.

 My dad spent his entire life running, dragging us from one out-of-the-way spot to another, never staying anywhere for longer than a year or two, even after he retired from the navy. It was a murky situation made even murkier as more and more snippets of “what really happed” came to light after my parents passed away and I’ll probably never know anything other than that Sterling was the end of the road and the running.

The seven of us were crammed into a tiny three bedroom house in the middle of an ocean of burned-out snags from a catastrophic fire seventeen years earlier, ten miles from town with no local radio stations, and spotty radio and a single TV channel from Anchorage, 65 miles to the northeast. Even more distressing was the fact that no plausible explanation was ever given as to why were there. After traveling the entire length of the west coast of the United States, Sterling was end of the road, and an unfriendly end to boot as my classmates there were all “territory babies” and understandably reluctant to accept a chattering mob of Californians into their midst.

 Every night I struggled to find sleep as I worried about what I had done to deserve the exile, but at nine o-clock on Tuesday nights everything changed. Never mind that the back streets of Los Angeles were standing in for New York, London, or Paris. After fifty minutes of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriyakin using the coolest guns to fight evil THRUSH Agents, restful sleep was no longer a problem. While drifting off to sleep with the strains of the most totally bitching closing theme echoing in my mind, I was no longer stuck in the middle of a burned out wilderness – I was traveling the world.

Fireball XL5 Re-boot: Ray Pistol

ray pistolRedesigning a cherished entertainment property is never an easy thing. You have to exercise your own creative abilities and instincts while taking into consideration input from editors, art directors and fans – and quite often people who want no changes at all. It’s a situation that proves the adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth” but there are times when lightening strikes in the same place twice. The recent Thunderbirds Are Go CGI series did a great job of subtly updating the look of International Rescue while extending props of the Derek Meddings, Mike Trim and the original design crew – and I always thought Rick Sternbach did a good job of extrapolating technology changes in the Star Trek Universe with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

As the project is purely personal my task has been little easier with my Fireball XL5 reboot – I’m the only cook stirring the spoon. Granted to some extent I have a responsibility to fandom in general and I would never do anything to besmirch the memory of Sir Gerry but for the most part I get my way.

…which is why Steve Zodiac’s redesigned pistol bear a slight resemblance to Napoleon Solo’s UNCLE special. Actually, I’ve always like the look of a pistol with an attached stock and I have more than one example of the concept hanging on my wall. I don’t know if it is just a case of looking totally butch or my fascination with clunky technology but adding stocks to a Mauser C95 or a Colt Nay .36 have made both pistols just look cool though I’m not totally convinced it adds any utility ( firing a black powder pistol that close to my face is an experience I’m not in a rush to repeat)

The original pistol design was so bland that I have no doubt it was a last minute “clear-out-the-bits-box” special but when I decided the baby-rattle flash-suppressor had to go I added hemispherical details to keep a little design continuity. I also beefed up the size and mass of the weapon to avoid an Austin Powers moment determining if “size mattered”

pistol clip 2

 

Fireball Junior Re-work

2020-05-01 Fireball Junior Rework

While wading my way though my XL5 reboot it has come to me that with all the attention Fireball Junior gets during the series would need it a separate drawing, especially when the nose area in the main ship rendering didn’t work out as well as wanted. If you’ll check the drawing on my XL5 reboot page you’ll see that I went for NASA-style inset windows much like those on the Space:1999 Eagles but at length I’ve concluded that they would give a claustrophobic feel to  the control cabin,

…so I compromised between the old and the new, using a bug-like look similar to that on the Navy’s A-6 Intruder

Fireball XL5 Re-boot: Robert(a)

2019-12-01 Roberta the Robot

It seems only fitting that given the state of our current social/political world a little bit of gender-bending is in order for the synthetic member of the Fireball XL5 crew. As it is there’s plenty of room for change as Robert’s appearance was pretty bland to begin with and once you substitute Sylvia for Sir Gerry in the dialog department the aesthetic opportunities are almost limitless.

The biggest challenge would be to establish a feminine appearance without taking the Benny Hill route and resorting to chrome-plate T&A. Effective feminization required some basic research into the way evolution has hard-wired men to respond to feminine curves (hint: child-bearing and survival) and how that principle would apply to into cybernetic lifeforms (Hey Bay-bee! Will ya look at the power-cells on that one!) Just make sure that while studying the subject you DO NOT blindly Google “sexy robots” as the results will be most definitely NSFW.

However, if you were to type the name Hajime Sorayama to the search parameters you’ll find examples of sleek feminine form combined with gleaming chrome and streamlined automotive styling that made this Japanese artist the king of the sexy-robot field in the 1980s. He, along with the equally talented British artist Phillip Castle were powerful influences on airbrush artists and other illustrators of that decade but to be totally honest my inspiration was an artist whose work was popular even earlier than that.

His name was Russ Manning and he was a phenomenal illustrator who was tragically cut down in his fifties by Mean OId Mister Cancer. In the Sixties Manning bounced back and forth between advertising work and penciling Tarzan, Korak: Son of Tarzan and Brothers of the Spear for first Dell then Gold Key Comics but my personal favorite was Magnus: Robot Fighter , a kind of Tarzan-of-the-future who relied on martial arts (and the most totally bitching white go-go boots ever) to combat hordes of robotic enablers intent on weakening of humanity into a form of comfortable servitude.

Manning was a master of figure drawing and could draw a better figure with five lines than I could with fifty but was equally adept with mechanical figures prompting me to shamelessly hork the grace and form of his cybernetic aesthetic in every robot or android I’ve drawn … to include Robert(a)

One other important change: Robert was constructed out of Plexiglas but I’ve gone with an opaque exterior. It came to me that being able to see all Roberta’s inner, circuits, wires and structural components would be much like looking at my Beautiful Saxon Princess’s face and seeing all of the blood vessels, bones and sinus membranes under her skin…and while the ensuing suppressed gag reflex had me quickly changing my design I’ve had to work hard at keeping that yucky image out of my mind

…just like you will now be doing for the rest of this day!

A Different Perspective on Fireball XL5…

2019-10-04 VenusZuniRevision

Granted today isn’t a Saturday and even though some of what follows has previously seen print, what I’m writing today isn’t really a Saturday morning re-run. It’s no secret that I am a big Gerry Anderson fan and of all his productions Fireball XL5 is my favorite …but as I check my stats each day it appears that the adventures of Steve Zodiac and company are highly favored by a sizeable number of my readers as well.

…and as it can be a little difficult at times to pick out all the XL5 blog posts I’m putting together a dedicated portfolio for the topic with a link on my blog’s task bar to make it easier to access. The portfolio will include most of the polished conceptual work I’ve come up with along with selected text – including this rework of a Fireball XL5 review I did for Amazon.com several years ago:

 Fireball XL5 is one of Sir Gerry Anderson’s earlier “sophomore” shows produced before he hit it big with Thunderbirds and the prime-time live action shows like Space: 1999. It is not nearly as well-polished; indeed most commentaries refer to it has possessing a “naïve charm” but out of all his work it is hands-down my very favorite.

 Why?

 Great music: If the opening credits aren’t the best ever in the history of broadcast TV then they should at least be in the top ten. Classical brass orchestra music underlies Steve and Venus boarding the ship, then as the engine fires up the music breaks into a dirty bad saxophone measure as it accompanies Fireball as it is hurtling down the launch track and leaping into the sky.

  All ages appeal: I can share these shows with my grandkids without them getting either terrified or bored. There are lots of explosions and action, but any suspense in an episode is usually brought on by some sort of count-down rather than having some psycho armed with an ax chasing people through an old house.

Great eye candy: For the conditions under which it was filmed, Fireball XL5 is visually stunning. Even though I liked the stories the budding artist inside of me was fascinated with the design aspect. Despite the slim budget the quality of their work made it very evident that the model makers and special effects crew would be going on to bigger and better things – most big-budget work like the Bond movies

Positive message: As I mentioned before, Fireball XL5 doesn’t leave kids scared at the end of the episode. These shows were pre-Star Trek and pre- Lost in Space and at that time most other science fiction on the tube consisted of the rare ‘50s sci-fi movie shown at odd hours – and to be honest I didn’t care for most of those shows. The plots usually revolved around the monster (there was always a monster) killing and/or eating the secondary characters one by one until the hero saved the remaining crew members by killing the monster.

None of that victim crap with Steve Zodiac. First off, Fireball XL5 (the ship itself) looked, flew and fought like a freaking F104 Starfighter rather than wallowing around helplessly like most other cinematic spacecraft at the time. Colonel Zodiac wasn’t above packing heat himself and dropped more than one alien foolish enough to try and see who would blink first – though I found it odd that his sidearm was extremely versatile, being able to fire any kind of ray or projectile the script required in a particular scene.

The only problem I had with the show as the stilted manner in which the marionettes moved. Personally my innate obsessive-compulsive behavior prevented me from a simple suspension of disbelief so I concocted a back-story about a galaxy-wide epidemic that left victims with arthritic joints – which caused the aforementioned stilted and stiff movements – but to each his own.

Out of the entire series Invasion: Earth is my favorite episode – for a very special reason. I belong to a very select group of people called The Fireball XL5 Club. It doesn’t sound like it would be that exclusive, but this particular Fireball XL5 Club is made up of people who were watching the show when the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 hit. It was this specific episode that was playing – but for years I didn’t know how it ended; as the tremors hit our TV tipped over, pulling the plug out and cutting the episode off with about ten minutes to go. I spent the next twenty years wondering how Steve and the gang handled the vaguely Oriental-sounding invaders but then I found a fourth-generation bootleg VHS that carried me over until A&E released the DVD set.

I love the show and I while I wouldn’t have changed a thing “back in the day” it’s been fun to tweak details and exercise creative muscles. From the first time I saw Jim Ringo’s armored bat-suit worn by Michael Keaton in the 1989 Batman movie I’ve been a fan of tweaking details. For example in today’s post I’ve re-imagined Zoonie not as a goofy sidekick but rather the vital crew member Zuni, ready to lend the muscle where needed, but retaining the original character’s good nature, just as my “Chris Rock” post yesterday put Lieutenant Ninety in a much different light.

Fireball XL5 Re-boot: LT Ninety

He gave us orcs, ents and halflings but I’ve always thought the phrase ‘the story grew in the telling” to be one of the most magnificent creations John Ronald Reuel Tolkien gave to the world. For me it neatly describes the convoluted trails the process of creation can follow…and my reimagined Lieutenant Ninety is an excellent example of that concept.

As I’ve written elsewhere FIREBALL XL5 is the Gerry Anderson program that I will always love the best. I’ve designed new vehicles and uniforms that echo the classic design and I’ve even compiled a list of suggested actors for a rebooted live-action series, but as I was reviewing that list it occurred to me that I’d come up with a group of people similar in composition to Ivory Soap (99 and 44/100 Caucasian). That prompted me to make some changes, not as a measure of political correctness but to stay close to Sir Gerry’s vision which was much more diverse than usual for the times.

…so out went Rob Schneider and in came Chris Rock.

I also wanted a dress uniform for the World Space Patrol and was favoring the long-tailed mess blues that the United States Army used up until recently, but it was a photo of Levar Burton as LT Geordie LaForge wearing that contrived piece of craptacular tailoring that passed for a Starfleet formal dress uniform that snapped the last creative Lego in place for me – add an outsized fedora and a couple of chains and –voila – you have a zoot suit.

It’s a concept that might not be all that far off as what goes around usually comes around. I swore in 1973 that I’d be wearing bell-bottom pants for the rest of my life, and I’ve seen halter-tops cycle in and out of women’s fashion a couple of times. Who’s to say that a “reet pleat” won’t be the height of military fashion in 2119?

2019-10-03a LT Ninety 2019-10-3b LT90 Color

Bladeship Model

bladeship

I designed the bladeship to be Starfleet’s primary Special Operations support vessel – a concept that kicked off a short but brisk discussion that recently spread across WordPress and Facebook.  Essentially an SR-71, an AC-130 and a submarine rolled into one ship, the bladeship was central to an (unfortunately) unpublished special operations supplement I wrote for FASA’s Star Trek role-playing game back in the day. The fact that at the time I was also serving as the battalion S2 (intelligence) for the 1st battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (ABN) UTARNG was most definitely a factor in the whole project

The aforementioned discussion got me thinking about all the work that went into the project and how it could be of enough interest to support a couple of posts. Unfortunately, I started the original bladeship project thirty-four years and seven houses ago, and as I learned in the army “three moves equal one fire” …so I’ve essentially been burned out twice since 1985.

I still have  some “stuff” left, including this Styrene and Bondo ® model built in scale to the original AMT USS Enterprise model. As I think about this I’m pretty sure I’ve already written a post or two  about the bladeship but A) it’s been awhile and B) the pertinent files have proved to be elusive.

Jadex: Newest Member of the Herculoids

JadexHerculoids

Relax!

No need to dig out the old Hanna-Barbera VHS tapes – there is no “Jadex” among the Herculoids, at least anywhere outside of the Deitrick household. My Star Pupil and I spent last Saturday morning doing what Saturdays were made for: watching cartoons. We spent a lot of time with the old H/B action shows like “Herculoids”, “Jonny Quest” and “Space Ghost” and once I was able to muzzle the internal critic complaining about the absence of all three Laws of Thermodynamics we had a good time

We were at most seven minutes into our session when it became evident the team needed an extra member bearing a strong resemblance to my Star Pupil.

XL5 Rework…with color added

xl5colorrework

I ran the black-and-white version of this drawing in 2016 but never got around to adding color. I’ve yet to decide if it was artistic vision that prompted a white fuselage or if I was just to lazy to work up all the reflections and shadows in a metallic look. I’m also not totally sold on the inset Gemini-style windows in Fireball Jr. Even as a ten year old I had a hard time buying off on a big bubble canopy but this configuration seems awfully cramped.

UFO: 1908 Moonbase Commander

The only thing better than the stuff Sir Gerry Anderson and his crew thought up is tweaking the details. I love retro-designing vehicles and costumes and when I was dusting some of my “trophies” in the sitting room I got the idea for a uniform for the Moonbase ladies had SHADO been organized in 1908 instead of 1980.

2018-12-03 UFO Moonbase 1908