[identity profile] rallamajoop.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] muncle211
UNCLE canon is an interesting beast. Google the show today, and you're likely to find yourself reading something about the HQ's secret entrance through Mask Club or Illya's love of jazz – both of which came direct from the official production notes, but neither of which ever made it into the series in any form. UNCLE is packed with these sort of idiosyncrasies, but one of my favourite examples of just how odd the blurry outer edges of UNCLE canon can get is the UNCLE gun.

Few could argue that the UNCLE Special was (and is) absolutely one of the defining icons of the show.

It had appeared prominently in photoshoots and been mentioned by name in the papers well before the show ever made it to air. Napoleon's pre-production bio included a couple of sentences wholly dedicated to the very special UNCLE gun he carried. It scored a multi-page photo-feature in the TV Guide only four months into the series – before even Illya Kuryakin had achieved the same – and another in the May 1965 issue of Gun World magazine. The penultimate issue of The Man From UNCLE Magazine, which existed almost entirely as a venue for short stories set in the universe the show, featured an article by gun expert which expanded even further on the workings of the gun (though which may arguably be no more canonical than any other story from that publication).

I've found both the UNCLE Magazine and Gun World articles online, and are both well worth a read if you're interested in the inner workings of the UNCLE gun. That TV Guide article is available too, though I've only been able to find it at a very low resolution. Click the thumbs below for full pages.

Gun World – The Cat With The Gat From UNCLE

UNCLE Magazine – The UNCLE Special

TV Guide – What a Weapon for a One-Man Army

With a bevy of attachments that could convert it for long-range sniping or automatic fire, able to shoot either regular bullets or tranquiliser darts, the UNCLE gun was designed from the outset with merchandising in mind, and toy replicas were predicted to sell in the millions (how many actually sold is hard to discover, but it must have been well into the hundreds of thousands at least, if not much higher). The introductory 'Welcome to UNCLE' sequence which played in the first half season showed Illya Kuryakin partially assembling an UNCLE Special. In The Brain Killer Affair, Roosevelt Grier plays an UNCLE agent by the name of Jason, who spoke not a single word of dialogue and whose role in the plot was limited to being ambushed from behind like a chump, but who's nonetheless fondly remembered by fans purely for a scene in which he assembles the UNCLE gun with the full set of his attachments (mail from the toy manufacturers urged the producers to show off the fully-assembled gun on screen even more often than they did).

So much has already been written about the behind-the-scenes development of the UNCLE Special and the role it played in the mythos of the show that there's little point in rehashing the lot of it here, but I would recommend C. W. Walker's very informative article on The Fans from UNCLE site to any UNCLE fan. The chapter on props from Jon Heitland's UNCLE book, The Behind-the-Scenes Story of a Television Classic is another great source. Both will tell you that the UNCLE gun so popular was the UNCLE gun that it even received its own fanmail (around 500 pieces a week by February 1965, according to that TV Guide article).

So it would probably surprise most fans to note that virtually nowhere is any explicit reference to the special nature of the UNCLE gun ever made on screen.

Nowhere are we told that the guns carried by Section II agents were developed by UNCLE's own tech divisions. Nowhere are any of its special capabilities described for us in dialogue. The name, the "UNCLE Special" is never once spoken aloud.

I state this 'fact' with the minor caveat that if anyone can point out an example I've missed, then by all means, please correct me. But given that neither a rigourous text-based search through the complete subtitle files for all four seasons or the response when I first threw the question open to other fans turned up anything, I very much doubt there's much left to find.

The closest we ever get seems to be an incident in the Return movie where Napoleon wants to know, “What happened to the special U.N.C.L.E. guns we used to carry?” – and that coming only some 20 years after the original series left the air. In fact, rarely are any of the gun's special properties brought to our attention, even implicitly. A casual fan without enough firearms knowledge to tell a 'real' Walther P-38 from UNCLE's customised version could conceivably watch the whole series without noting the guns as having any particular significance at all.

Probably the best-communicated feature of the UNCLE Special is its ability to fire tranquiliser darts in addition to regular bullets. This was first demonstrated in The Quadripartite Affair, where we see Napoleon loading a special bullet into his gun seconds before using it to quietly knock out a Thrush guard. In The Secret Sceptre Affair Napoleon specifies that UNCLE has given them permission to help Col. Morgan "providing that we use nothing more than sleep-inducing darts in our guns." Napoleon uses another tranquilizer dart to drop a Thrush man in Discotheque, this time so quietly and so suddenly that a civilian woman in the same room has no idea why he collapses. Sleep-darts are also clearly used by UNCLE agents on a few other occasions, though in many, it's not necessarily obvious whether the guns were loaded with darts or bullets. But all this, at best, tells us that UNCLE uses specialised tranquilizer bullets. Nowhere is it specified that the gun firing them has been modified for the job, or even that the same gun is necessarily used for both kinds of ammunition. (Notably, on a number of occasions when silent, instantaneous sleep-darts would have been inarguably useful, Napoleon and Illya appear to have forgotten they have such a tool in their arsenals at all.) And though no real gun may have existed which could be fitted with all the Special's attachments, plenty take at least one or two. Why should UNCLE's version be so far out of the ordinary?

For all its supposed capabilities, the UNCLE Special isn't even consistently the first weapon of choice when available. One of those rare scenes where we see the UNCLE Special fully assembled comes in the car chase shoot-out at the quarry in Alexander the Greater Affair – but Illya and Napoleon use their assembled Specials only in the last moments of that battle. Illya spends the rest firing a standard carbine (conveniently pilfered from a quarry guard on their way in) out of the car window while Napoleon drives, giving up on it only when he runs out of bullets. Intervening scenes, where we see Illya frantically assembling his and Napoleon's Specials in the back seat of the car in between sniping at the enemy, do provide a significant clue as to why the carbine was such an attractive option. (Use of the assembled Specials does, notably, bring the shoot out abruptly to an end.)

Perhaps the most ever said aloud about the UNCLE gun is a couple of lines from Napoleon in Brain Killer, refreshing a doctor on how to use a pistol: "This is the safety. Full back, it won't fire. One notch forward, semi-automatic. One squeeze, one shot." If you're paying very close attention, you might catch him adding "Forget about full automatic. Keep it on semi. And don't get fancy. Use both hands to aim, all right?" in between the doctor's vocal protests about being expected to carry a gun in a hospital at all. This, for the record, seems to be the closest we get to an explicit reference to the special capabilities of the UNCLE gun – and given that automatic pistols have existed since the early 20th Century, doesn't much stand out to a casual viewer. A really dedicated canon purist, cleaving to the very letter of 'canon is only what actually happened on screen' could make a solid argument that virtually everything we 'know' about the UNCLE gun isn't really canon at all.

It all rather begs the question: why not? If the UNCLE gun was interesting enough to write all those articles about, why was the show itself so silent on the matter?

It's certainly not that the writers didn't think UNCLE's custom tech was worth introducing to the viewer, given how often attention is drawn to other gadgets used in the series. A deleted scene from the pilot (retained in the film version) introduces UNCLE's cigarette box communicators in some detail. Napoleon also takes the time to explain to an impatient enemy that the signal has to bounce off a satellite (The Tigers are Coming Affair), and to a nosy innocent that they're made quite cheaply in Japan (Shark), while an extended monologue in Waverly Ring goes into even more detail about their workings. Napoleon's escape from a Thrush cell in The Love Affair hinges on creative and well-narrated use of one of the small explosive charges we see the agents using to open locks in numerous previous (and later) episodes. The homing pins from Odd Man are similarly introduced to us as specialised UNCLE tech, produced by a dedicated research division. UNCLE's exploding buttons are introduced by Mr. Waverly with another monologue about their capabilities (Bridge of Lions), and Illya wastes a whole extra exploding money clip purely for the sake of letting us all know exactly what he'd just used (same episode).

Even the red night-vision scope on the Thrush rifles gets a couple of lines of introduction from Napoleon when we first see it in use in Iowa-Scuba ("We can't see them but they can see us. They're using black-light emissions and special finders to pick us up") and its use was flagged with inverted colours and a special sound effect. The Master's Touch Affair outfits Lisa Rogers with an entire handbag full of deadly gadgets disguised as cosmetics, and takes us through each one. For other UNCLE tech, these sorts of introductions seem to be standard practice. (The UNCLE car, notably, gets no such introduction, but given that the finished vehicle apparently hardly ever ran more than ten feet without falling apart, there were probably good, practical reasons why it never got much attention. Like the gun, it was nonetheless merchandised for all it was worth.)

Why, then, does the UNCLE gun never get the same? It's entirely possible, of course, that a scene introducing the UNCLE Special was written for one of the early episodes, only to be cut from the final edit for time, but in the absence of any real evidence one way or the other, we can only speculate.

Probably the simplest explanation is that by the time the gun was getting its own fanmail and its own feature articles, fans didn't need to be introduced to it. Anyone who cared enough about the show to want to know more about the gun was bound to have read about it, or seen the toys for sale. UNCLE was rapidly becoming such a phenomenon that what happened on screen was only one small fraction of the total noise being generated around the subject. The fact that apparently no-one even noticed the most famous prop from UNCLE never really came up on screen (much like all those famous lines that were never actually in the movie) demonstrates pretty definitively how little it mattered in the end.

All the same, it's puzzling just how little credit the show gives UNCLE for putting all that work into developing the UNCLE Special – especially considering the toy manufacturers were actively pushing for the show to draw more attention to their star seller. Even if giving the audience the full infomercial on all its capabilities at once might have been a bit much, it's no hard thing to come up with organic ways it might have been worked into a script. We could've seen Napoleon quipping, "What, did you get it stuck in automatic?" when a fellow agent runs out of bullets and complains about difficulty of replacing a non-standard caliber out in the field. We could've seen see Illya bitching that even after so many years in development, UNCLE still couldn't give them a gun they can fully assemble in under 60 seconds. We could've heard THRUSH flunkies boasting that UNCLE agents couldn't hit the flat side of a barn without their fancy custom guns. We could've seen Napoleon or Illya forced to leave their gun in the hands of an innocent who needs everything explained from scratch, or meet a gun-enthusiast who gets really excited by UNCLE's custom hardware. For which matter, I'm not sure we ever even see the assembled gun used for sniping from a distance at all. Given that the gun appears somewhere in almost every episode, the total number of missed opportunities must be staggering.

Whether anyone behind the scenes ever noticed that the UNCLE gun had become a functionally extra-canonical feature, we'll never know. But if ever you need a really good example of just how disconnected what people think they remember about a show can be from what actually happened on screen, the UNCLE Special is the weapon for you.
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