The Spying Game: Innovative TV Series "I Spy" Is Released in Three Boxed Sets
Fans of the original I Spy can now relive that series on DVD rather than waste their money at theaters on a tepid remake.
Image Entertainment had previously released 21 volumes of I Spy on disc, with all 82 episodes of the series. The company has now reissued those volumes in three seven-disc boxed sets, each available for under $60.
When it made its debut in 1965, I Spy was a bold, ambitious move for television on many levels. Most shows at the time, even ones set in exotic locations, were shot in soundstages; I Spy would, instead, film a full third of each episode overseas, so viewers could see its heroes actually running through the streets of Hong Kong, Rome and so on. Although inspired by the espionage craze of the 1960s, I Spy would avoid wacky gadgets and concentrate on intelligent, compelling stories. And, most important of all, I Spy would reflect the racial realities of its time, and one of its two leads would be a strong, intelligent black hero.
Until I Spy came along, blacks were largely relegated to sitcom roles or bit parts on television. Bill Cosby, as Alexander "Scotty" Scott, was not a sidekick; he and Kelly Robinson (played by Robert Culp) were equals. They traveled the world performing cloak-and-dagger missions on behalf of the U.S. government, with Kelly posing as a tennis star and Scotty posing as his trainer.
There were some laughs, mostly from the droll banter between Kelly and Scotty, but the stories were taken seriously and generally made sense - something that could not always be said of the more popular but campier The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In its first two seasons, I Spy was a hit, and it attracted a wide variety of guest stars. In the third season, NBC moved it from Wednesday to Monday nights, where the series floundered opposite The Carol Burnett Show.
Most of the discs in the three I Spy boxed sets do not have any bonus materials, but with about 28 episodes in each set, it's hard to complain. The third box includes a few episodes - among them the series premiere - with insightful commentary by Robert Culp, who not only starred in the series but also wrote and directed some key episodes.
Those looking for more recent capers should check out I Spy Returns, a 1994 TV movie that has recently been released on video and DVD by Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment. The movie has Scotty and Kelly reuniting when their children - now government agents themselves - are in danger. Although not up to the high standards of I Spy in its prime, it's still a lot of fun.
That's more than can be said of the big screen I Spy, which joins The Avengers and The Wild Wild West on a growing list of superb 1960s spy shows that have been remade for the big screen without any of the charm and finesse of the originals.
-- Tim Clodfelter, Winston-Salem Journal
International Men of Mystery: Another Shot for "I Spy"
TV cops and detectives were once considered the quintessential form of entertainment. The list of names is endless - and if the studios and independent production companies have their way, the series that made America and subsequently even the world watch every week back in the 60's, 70's and 80's will be just that again - quintessential, at least to those who prefer them over what is running now. When Fox began their issues of TV series many in the industry were sceptical of the idea, only to be proved wrong.
A great share of the profits in this business stems from TV productions now, where investment is low and the attraction surprisingly great. Universal already has indicated releases of Magnum, P.I., The Rockford Files and many more to come, interestingly leaving out the two "flagships" of syndication, Columbo and Kojak. But, even these are now available - in Japan. (A review of the Columbo series follows tomorrow). The dimension goes as far and wide as The Twilight Zone and My Favorite Martian to The Time/Life net orders of The Muppet Show or The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Many other studios and labels are following the trend now, which is just beginning. Realistically, the TV shows from back then may not be as quintessential to advertisers, but they have become a sizeable source of extra money from people who are buying them on the home video format some 42% of U.S. households claim as their favorite choice: DVD. Since the introduction in 1997 with a few titles by Warner Bros the landscape has significantly changed.
Five years ago not even the greatest enthusiasts of the digital format had foreseen this successful market penetration so fast. In the beginning, the industry was struggling to promote the little coaster properly, now every release is very well launched with several press releases well ahead of the initial street date with details of extras and more everywhere on the internet. And the TV shows are a rapidly growing part of that franchise. Whereas one can surely debate the quality of the many shows that are offered now, there are certainly a number of very interesting titles that are considered classics today.
One of those is I Spy, at the time of original broadcast one of the record-breaking shows on TV. One of the major incentives was the use ofr exotic locales where the actual production moved for exterior shots - although much of the footage was provided by the NBC News teams based there. But, in 1965 the show was hot, as it showed viewers images from far away destinations that were feeding the temptation to travel. That and the relaxed and not too serious approach of the two stars Bill Cosby and Robert Culp made the series look like a nice picture postcard from a friend from a faraway place you always wanted to go.
The line of guest stars on the show was, not surprisingly, long, with some of the names still spoken with great respect today: Screen star Martin Landau, singer Nancy Wilson, horror queen Barbara Steele, Hitchcock's leading lady Vera Miles and Star Trek & Born Free-star Diana Muldaur just to name a few. And although the episodes are in some (albeit, thankfully, rare) cases concocted in a most irritating way that cannot even pass as funny but only as dated, the series as a whole survives the ages with some intriguing charm.
The Tennis pro and the Football ace turned spies are often quoted when the success of other shows such as Mission: Impossible, Columbo, Kojak or The Rockford Files is mentioned. Hollywood would not be the same if it would not try for another go on the subject even decades later to hit new unsuspecting audiences with old (even if classic) material - only recently I Spy got a promotion (in the eyes of the distributor of the original on DVD, Image Entertainment, surely a most welcome one) through the new movie release that, however, has very little to do with the original. Image Entertainment has secured the rights to the Three F Production, and first issued the series on individual discs - only to rethink the approach and re-issue the show in three season boxed sets, and a quite neat packaging, plus the audio commentaries by actor/writer Robert Culp himself, which have been incorporated into the 3rd boxed set.
Although not comparable with the releases of other classics such as Star Trek - The Original Series which was remastered on High Definition whereas I Spy is clearly derived from an interlaced broadcast master source, the quality is still very much acceptable for the most part even for those who like to take a closer look at the quality of a product, be it in video or audio. In many sequences the fades to black or fade ins are marred by color imbalances that once these fades have been completed are gone. This is due to the original transfer of the materials, no doubt quite some years ago and not very properly handled.
Also, in many episodes the color saturation level is too high, blending, or to be more precise, in some cases almost flooding the adjoining areas. Contrast is not very well balanced for a 35mm print source, but only a new, digital restoration would make a difference here.
There has been some digital filtering done during the encoding process and the mastering for DVD itself, but it could not wipe away all the troubles, though the results on the DVD issues are, as you can se from the images, quite well presented, nonetheless. One also has to keep in mind a financial factor here: A digital overhaul would have cost a fortune that would have made a release in this (rather low cost) form impossible.
A higher price would probably have made the product to most as attractive as a snake, an idea neither the producers nor the distributors were keen on approaching. In sound many troubles remain in the upper band, leaving these frequencies (and therefore some portions of dialogue at least hard to understand or to follow. If our speakers are focused on the upper band, the result will not be as harsh as with better, more bass equipped systems. The balance of the monaural soundtrack is often, because of filtering to reduce the noise level, a bit uneven, especially when in scenes with dramatic music cues. Overall, this edition is a worthwhile expedition into the time warp. So, let's do the time warp again !
I Spy was a drama series appearing during prime time on NBC from 1965 to 1968. The global adventures of two fictional characters Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Alex (Bill Cosby) are chronicled. Kelly, a tennis player and ladies man, had a quick wit. Alex, masquerading as Kelly's trainer, was the language expert. In this Sheldon Leonard production, they travel the world on dangerous missions, exchanging barbs and fighting high-level crime. Unlike the Bond movie (Dr. No), which arguably broke new ground for spy fiction in the 60's along with The Man from U.N.C.L.E, that dealt with mysterious foes, I Spy's characters faced real-world concerns and problems rarely seen in similar shows of the period. At times, they questioned orders given them, complained about how rough the profession was and were placed in situations where other agents were dying. This was balanced with a sense of humor that lightened those grim situations inherent in this type of melodrama.
Shot on locations around the world, much of the first season was spent in Asia. The producers David Friedkin, Sheldon Leonard and Mort Fine worked with counterparts in the news and film business in those remote countries to shoot footage for the show. Certainly adding to the production expense, it was considered worth it to avoid the look of a locally staged production. The pilot episode on the DVD shows some of the dangers encountered when filming this way. It was shot in the rain fronting an incoming typhoon, eventually forcing the cast and crew inside for days before filming could continue. But, Sheldon wanted to break out from what other film makers were doing, and some difficulties were expected. Season two was shot in Spain, Greece and surrounding areas.
Culp wrote several of the episodes that won awards and those are located on the last two discs of the third set, listed as the Robert Culp Collection. Cosby quickly matured as an actor in, this, his first role. They played off one another beautifully and went on to create, by the end of its run, one of the most memorable spy drama series ever shown on TV. Although never rated in the top 20, it did have high audience appreciation ratings and won many awards including: Golden Globes nominations for Best TV Show 1966/67 and Best Male TV Stars - 1967; Emmy Awards: Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor(both) in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series 1966-68, Outstanding Dramatic Series 1966-68; Eddie Awards nominations: Best Edited TV Program 1966-67.
Episode intros have a substantial amount of scratches. However, this clears up for the most part when the episodes begin. The set has good color overall with the images being sharp and bright.
Clear and clean sounding. Quite nice for monaural.
Basic with selection for episode and chapters within episodes.
I Spy: Box Set #1-3, Complete 82 episodes(3 seasons).
Actor/Actress: Culp, Robert , Cosby, Bill
Closed Captioned: N
Audio Format: Mono
Screen Format: Full Frame
Region Code: 0
Original Languages: English
English Dubbed: No
Other Languages: None
Each disc is titled with one of the four episodes on the disc.
SET 1: 7-Disc Box Set, $59.95, Runtime: 1428m, 28 episodes
Volumes 1-7: A Cup Of Kindness, Dragon's Teeth, Tigers Of Heaven, Turkish Delight, Crusade To Limbo, Sparrowhawk, So Coldly Sweet.
SET 2: 7-Disc Box Set, $59.95, Runtime: 1428m, 27 episodes
Volumes 8-14: Bridge Of Spies, Sophia, Vendetta, Blackout, Little Boy Lost, The Medarra Block, Philotimo.
SET 3: 7-Disc Box Set, $59.95, Runtime: 1326m, 27 episodes
Volumes 15-21: The Lotus Eater, Tag, You're It, This Guy Smith, Pinwheel, Bet Me A Dollar, The Robert Culp Collection #1: So Long Patrick Henry, The Robert Culp Collection #2: The War Lord. Audio Commentary by actor/writer Robert Culp on Collections #1 & 2.
The episodes as they appear on the DVD are not in exact chronological order as shown on TV. The numbering before the episode title reflects season-episode. Although I can't find any concrete information, it's suggested that they appear on the disc in the order they were shown on TV, rather than the order they were filmed, with the exception of the Culp Collection items that reside on the last two discs.
I grew up with this stuff, so I'm familiar with the other shows running during the same time such as "Get Smart" and "James Bond". It was a big time for spy thrillers and the "Bond" series led the way. "I Spy" followed and was different in that it was a partnership that didn't deal with mysterious foes such as "S.P.E.C.T.R.E." but rather real ones at the time like the Russian and the Chinese governments. It was also similar to the idea behind "Get Smart" in portraying government agents and their encounters, but without all the comedy. So, if you are a fan of spy thrillers of that period and would enjoy unique episodes filmed on location in foreign countries, then I would suggest you pick up the three box set. It contains every episode made and would be a nice addition to your silver-age collection.
-- Buzz Burgess, DVD Talk
I Spy-Volume 1: A Cup Of Kindness
Dolby digital mono
204 minutes, color, 1965
Picture B, Sound B, Content B+
Intro-I Spy was a groundbreaking television series that starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. They played government spies whose cover was a tennis pro and his trainer. What was groundbreaking about the show were the exotic locales where the series was film (on this disc Hong Kong), and also the pairing of a black and white performer as a team. Sheldon Leonard, the producer and sometimes director of the show was the force behind it all, and he garnered many awards for the show.
The show blended light hearted humor and the deadly serious business of spying during the Cold War. The partners of Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott is a true classic buddy team, and Cosby was given a real co-starring role in this series, with many episodes concentrating on his character which was a real first. Add to that they made him the academic one of the pair and more racial stereotypes were broken. Sheldon and Cosby are both to receive credit for boosting the image of the African American with this prime time show, which was unheard of in 1965.
Content-This DVD, (and others in the series) contains four one hour episodes. The titles of the episodes reflect the humor in the stories.
An Affair in T'Sien Cha
Carry Me Back To Old Tsing Tao
Danny Was A Million Laughs
A Cup Of Kindness
Guest stars during the episodes include Vera Miles as a Peace Corps teacher, Philip Ahn as retired merchant, Martin Landau, as a loud mouth gangster, while Jeanette Nolan and Roger C. Carmel portray government contacts for the spy team.
An Affair is about the team traveling to a small village outside of Hong Kong to investigate the disappearance of a train. It seems people around them are dying over the missing locomotive and Kelly must woo the local school teacher (Vera Miles) to find out what the fuss is all about.
Carry Me Back has Philip Ahn trying to persuade the team to deliver a million dollars in back taxes to the US so he can die honorably.
Danny has Martin Landau as an obnoxious small time gangster that the team is hired to protect but he doesn't make it easy on them.
A Cup Of Kindness has David Friedkin guest starring as Kelly's old spy teacher who has turned traitor. He convinces the team that he can redeem himself with the US by retrieving a device he turned over to the enemy under torture.
Picture-While the color in this series is in very shape, there are a few color shifts in the thirty five year old films. The most obvious is a fight scene in An Affair, where the colors are noticeably yellow when the stunts are staged. With the DVD still frame, it is easy to see that stunt actors substituting for the stars.
The films suffer from dirt and a few tears and skips, as little has been done to clean these up for DVD. However, the media still brings out the best picture possible on home video.
Part of the appeal of the series were the exotic locations and the series makes great use of touring in and around Hong Kong, its harbors and villages. Some of the views are breathtaking.
Sound-The use of Dolby on the soundtrack helps bring out the television sound from 1965 but is one channel mono. Those with sophisticated sound systems will find the sound lacking in fullness, as all the information comes from the center channel.
Summary-I Spy was a revolutionary series for television and I'm glad to see the series being released on DVD. The scripts were intelligent and the chemistry between Culp and Cosby made the series a tremendous hit. The addition of big guest stars were another highlight of this mid sixties spy show. Baby boomers who remember the show, television history buffs or Cosby fans will want to check out these discs as they offer a lot of content per disc. While the shows do show their age in certain segments, they are still entirely watchable and enjoyable.
I Spy-Volume 2: Dragon's Teeth
Dolby digital mono
204 minutes, color, 1965
Picture B, Sound B, Content A-
Intro-This second disc in the I Spy series has the agents in both Hong Kong and then Japan. Being one of the first television series to be shot on location, we get an eyeful of Asia in these adventures. Agents Robinson and Scott deal with a bumbling French agent, a secret organization, trading for a hostage, and coming up against a double agent.
Content-The disc, like the others in this series, contains four hour episodes of the original NBC series. The titles for this disc are Chrysanthemum, No Exchange For Damaged Goods, Dragon's Teeth, and A Time Of The Knife.
Chrysanthemum has the agents forced into helping a bumbling French agent, played by Marcel Hillaire. He means well but has a tendency to foul up operations on a regular basis, while trying to recover stolen documents. This episode is a light hearted one, as the agents reluctantly follow their orders to assist the French spy.
No Exchange-The agents help the wife of a captured American pilot, as they must exchange a specific double agent to the Communists. However, the agents run into more trouble by the independent minded wife, who wants to deal the trade herself.
Dragon's Teeth-This episode is a great secret agent plot as Robinson and Scott discover a secret organization bent on -what else-ruling the world! What complicates matters even more is the fact that Kelly knows the head of the organization. Guest stars include Mike Faulkner and Joanne Linville.
A Time Of The Knife-Veteran performers Madeline Rue and Warren Stevens bring the agents to Japan. Kelly drops by to see an old friend who apparently has died and the agents are left to console his fiancee. Soon she is put in danger by mysterious visitors who are looking for something he gave her before he died.
The stories on this disc all have the same good writing and photography the series was known for. Typical 1960's television contained some filler, but most of the charm of this series was between the co-stars, who developed a genuine friendship during the series.
Picture-All the episodes from 1965 have great resolution and color balance but also have dirt and scratches. This is especially noticeable on the white background of the beginning credits, and in sky shots. A few action scenes also have color distortions for a few seconds, as the stunt actors take over for the fight scenes. Television collectors should be happy with the picture for the most part, although no restoration has been done on the episodes.
Sound-Strictly one channel mono with Dolby enhancement makes for a television sound with flat, limited response. You can leave the sound system off on the home theater and play this one through the tv speaker. The soundtrack is of good quality, with little harshness or distortion. No pops or other flaws were present on the DVD.
Summary-I Spy fans will want to add this DVD to your collection as the disc feature the agents' adventures in two different locales and has quality guest stars in the four episodes. The quality of the film suffers from dust and other age related flaws but most of the color material has retained its sharpness and color.
--- DVD Corner