The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Affair, Episodes 13-18 (Spoilers)
“The King of Knaves Affair”: Investigating a mysterious effort to buy uranium and the abduction of the racketeer making the offer, Solo and Kuryakin travel to Rome, where UNCLE HQ is situated behind the local branch of the Del Floria’s tailor franchise. (Clever to have identical UNCLE HQs all over the world, so the same standing sets can be used everywhere.) The local agents include Gemma (Arlene Martel, best known as Spock’s betrothed in Star Trek‘s “Amok Time”), who poses as Illya’s wife when they go undercover, and a receptionist who doubles as a dancer at the nightclub they investigate (played by belly dancer Tania Lemani, who uses a lot of the same dance moves she’ll use a few years later in ST’s “Wolf in the Fold”). The club’s proprietor is Fasik, a deposed Middle Eastern monarch played by the decidedly non-Middle Eastern Paul Stevens (a frequent Mission: Impossible guest, often playing characters impersonated by Martin Landau, whom he resembled). It turns out he’s building an army and recruiting allies as part of a genuinely clever multipronged plan to undermine the credibility, finances, and military strength of the populists who deposed him in order to pave the way for his reconquest. The innocent-of-the-week is Miss Pepper (Diana Millay), whom Solo suspects is a rival agent but who turns out to be a notary seeking the abducted racketeer’s signature on some document so some person back home won’t be rendered destitute — the explanation is very convoluted and not that important, mostly playing out in the background while Illya fights off an assassin on Solo’s balcony. It’s a fairly interesting episode overall — the villain’s plan really is most ingenious and alarmingly credible — but the show’s insistence on shoehorning an innocent civilian into every adventure is already starting to wear thin after just a baker’s dozen of episodes. It’s the sort of thing I feel would work better if they only did it when there was a good reason for it, rather than having to concoct all these contrived excuses to drag civilians into things every single time.
The episode makes effective use of the MGM backlot, including a castle courtyard set that we haven’t seen before on the show, though I expect we’ll see it again sometime. Jerry Goldsmith gets the music credit again, and this time I’m certain it’s a mostly or wholly original score. Some of the motifs are familiar, but from the thematic unity of the overall score and the way the music fits the action and editing, I’d say it’s not stock music, but Goldsmith developing his established motifs further. It’s a solid, effective score with a classic Goldsmithian flavor to the rhythms.
“The Terbuf Affair”: In a subtle bit of continuity, Napoleon and Illya are still in Rome on vacation, implicitly in the wake of their last mission. Napoleon is approached by old flame Clara (Madlyn Rhue, best known as Khan’s love Marla in ST: “Space Seed”), who seeks his help getting a “Gypsy” named Emil (Jacques Aubuchon) out of the Balkan country of Terbuf with proof of the corruption of its leader Col. Morisco (episode writer Alan Caillou). Clara is married now, but Solo still has a thing for her, and Illya determines he needs to go along to keep Solo anchored. But Clara confides in her husband Stefan, who turns out to be loyal to Morisco and tells him of the plan. Morisco doesn’t return his loyalty, having him imprisoned and ordering the smarmy Major Vicek (Albert Paulsen, whom I liked in his several Mission: Impossible appearances) to impersonate her husband, with the real Stefan held hostage to force her cooperation. Illya uses his familiarity with Roma culture to infiltrate the suspicious local “Gypsies” and convince them they can trust Solo with Emil. It’s an elaborate tale of plots, counterplots, false identities, arrests, abductions, rescues, and a couple of de-pantsings.
All in all, an entertaining story of intrigue, making further good use of MGM’s really impressive backlot (although I recognized one of the outdoor locations from the Kurt Russell episode, and it used the same interior prison set we just saw in “King of Knaves”). It makes up for last week’s contrived insertion of “the innocent” by having the innocent be the one who instigates the story in the first place. There are lots of familiar faces in the cast, including two more future Trek guests, Michael Forest and Rex Holman. The portrayal of the Roma is actually relatively positive for ’60s TV despite the use of the “Gypsy” label. And there’s a solid score (mostly new, I think) by Goldsmith and Walter Scharf.
Best of all, this episode is the strongest showing Illya’s had since episode 3, I’d say. Usually, even in episodes where Illya’s on the mission with Solo instead of sidelined back at HQ or whatever, he’s nonetheless been very much a second banana, with most of the focus being on Solo and his interaction with either the innocent or the villain. Here, though, he’s equal in prominence and importance to Solo, and we get a good feel for their friendship, the way their contrasts make them a good pairing. It’s not so different from the relationship Kirk and Spock would have in a little show that came along a few years later. It’s nice to see, and I hope it’s a harbinger of things to come.
“The Deadly Decoy Affair”: They’re playing with the opening again. There’s new music, and after the usual sequence of the shadowy figure shooting at Solo and cracking the pane of bulletproof glass in front of him — whereupon we usually get a freeze-frame for the episode title and then cut right to the main titles — instead Solo strolls out from behind the glass and gives the audience a little verbal teaser for the upcoming episode. Weird. I half-expected him to segue into talking about the sponsor’s product. Anyway, this is followed by a slightly modified arrangement of the main title theme, with the main melody a bit more clearly articulated than before. IMDb says Morton Stevens did the new arrangment.
The story is a comedy of errors as Solo and Kuryakin try to escort captured THRUSH lieutenant Stryker (Ralph Taeger) to Washington past a gauntlet of THRUSH agents trying to retake him, while Waverly leads a decoy intended to draw their fire, which proves unsuccessful — or does it? The way the innocent-of-the-week, Fran (Joanna Moore), gets dragged into the chase is the biggest contrivance yet, although I guess it’s forgivable since they were going for comedy. Illya gets left behind on a train and it becomes a three-person show as Solo and Stryker flirt with Fran and the three of them try to shake the relentless pursuers, and there’s a plot twist that became obvious to me about half an hour before it was revealed.
Kind of mediocre overall, with an underwhelming guest cast (and not just because it’s short on faces I find familiar). Its best feature is an all-new Walter Scharf score, the first one he’s done for this show that I’ve been impressed by, reminding me of some of his Mission: Impossible work.
“The Fiddlesticks Affair”: No talking to the audience this time, but we still get the Stevens arrangement of the main theme. The episode is another one that could be considered a proto-Mission: Impossible story: a casino heist to destroy THRUSH’s Western-hemisphere treasury, with Napoleon and Illya recruiting allies to form a team. They even have Lalo Schifrin doing the music, and his scoring during the heist portions is very reminiscent of some of his future M:I work. However, their recruits aren’t of the caliber that the IMF used. Their main specialist is a safecracker named Rudolph (Dan O’Herlihy) who gets pressured into helping and who’s more than willing to betray them to score points with THRUSH. The other is Susan (Marlyn Mason, herself a future M:I guest team member), a perky Midwestern girl trying to make a break from her wholesome life and do something scandalous, making her ripe for recruiting by Solo. (Though it’s rather startling that they’d draw a civilian into such danger rather than using a professional agent. What they need is some kind of, I dunno… girl from UNCLE, maybe. They should look into hiring one.)
Despite the sketchiness of the situation, it’s a fun, solid episode due mainly to a strong and clever script by future Columbo and Deep Space Nine scribe Peter Allan Fields. The character interplay and badinage between Napoleon and Illya is a lot of fun; this time out, we get the sense that the normally stoic Russian somewhat resents that Napoleon hogs the womanizing part of the mission all to himself. I didn’t care for some of the ridiculously implausible spy gadgets they used, though. For instance, a “treated” 100-dollar bill which, when placed in the casino vault, can somehow detect the turning of the combination lock and transmit the numbers to Solo’s receiver. Or a magnetic coating which, when rubbed onto ordinary dice, allows a special watch to control their rolls. Even with microcomputers and nanotechnology, that would be hard to pull off. In 1965, even with the sci-fi tech many spy shows used at the time, it’s just preposterous.
There’s a scary moment in the scene where Illya’s coercively recruiting Rudolph: David McCallum shoves O’Herlihy back onto the hotel-room bed, and it looks like O’Herlihy just misses hitting his head fairly hard on the corner of the bedside table. A centimeter more to his left and he could’ve really been hurt. He reaches back and puts his hand on the back of his head and goes “Sh…”, but then he recovers and they both just carry on with the take. A real trouper, O’Herlihy. And it makes the scene a lot more convincing.
“The Yellow Scarf Affair”: Oh, dear. It’s Napoleon Solo and the Temple of Doom, as Solo (without Illya) takes on the so-called Thuggee cult in India, replete with Western stereotypes about Hinduism, a lot of talk about how indigenous Indian culture is a relic of the past and how enlightened modernity equals Westernization, and plenty of non-Indian actors in brownface. It embraces the traditional media image of the Thuggees as a cult of assassins who preyed on travelers as a sacrifice to the “death” goddess Kali — in this case, a revived and modernized version in which they arrange plane and train crashes and the like and steal the victims’ valuables, including a top-secret lie-detector that an UNCLE agent had been bringing back home. Now, what I recall from Indian History class is that such cults of murderous fanatics were largely invented, or at least had their prevalence greatly overstated, by the British Raj in order to paint indigenous peoples as violent savages who needed British rule and Westernization to “civilize” them for their own protection. Even if they were real, they were an extreme fringe group whose practices were falsely held up as symbolic of Indian religion as a whole, and this episode is a classic example of that, implying that the Thuggee cult is synonymous with traditional Indian culture in order to paint that culture as primitive and well-forgotten.
The episode has other problems. For instance, the McGuffin’s case is said to have a nitroglycerin self-destruct capsule–quite implausible because the slightest jolt could set it off. What’s more, it gets jolted plenty in the climactic fight and nothing happens. Not to mention that Solo’s stunt double in said fight looks nothing like Robert Vaughn and there’s hardly any attempt made to conceal his face even by the standards of lower-resolution ’60s TV sets and broadcasts. Plus, while Morton Stevens’s music is generally good, he bizarrely uses a faux-Middle Eastern musical style to establish the Indian setting, presumably on the principle that American audiences would consider all things “Oriental” to be interchangeably exotic.
There are a few decent things about the episode, mainly Kamala Devi as the “innocent,” a flight attendant who helps Solo. Not only is she the only actual Indian performer playing an Indian character, but she’s quite lovely and delicately appealing, though she doesn’t show a lot of range as an actress. (And it’s quite silly seeing Murray Matheson standing next to her as her uncle — it just throws his cheesy brownface makeup into sharp relief.) There’s also an entertaining turn by Linden Chiles as the world’s most affable THRUSH agent, alternately competing and cooperating with Solo to retrieve the McGuffin from the cultists (a formula the show has used before). But my favorite part is probably Madge Blake’s brief appearance at the beginning, passing the McGuffin to the ill-fated agent. Aunt Harriet is a secret agent! The aunt from UNCLE! How awesome is that?
“The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair”: Time for a bottle show, set mostly on the standing sets of UNCLE HQ and Del Floria’s tailor shop. UNCLE is preparing for a secret summit of world leaders, and a THRUSH mole within HQ, Riley (Peter Haskell), is planning to blow them all up — following a plan masterminded by Dr. Egret (Lee Meriwether), who’s narcissistic enough to demand that Riley join her in narrating the entire plan for the audience’s benefit, a deeply awkward scene. But a third party, an eccentric older man named Hemingway (Richard Haydn), is launching his own campaign against HQ, a series of seemingly harmless but high-tech pranks that expose some serious gaps in their security system — and it’s not hard to guess that that’s his whole intention. One of his pranks is to trick a random innocent, Kay (Zohra Lampert, whose voice I found very annoying), into the changing booth at Del Floria’s and through the secret HQ entrance therein. Kay is initially terrified, since for some reason UNCLE, the spy agency whose agents constantly go around telling people who they are and discussing secret missions at crowded parties, and whose HQ location is already well-known to their enemies, are suddenly so hyper-secretive that they refuse even to tell Kay who they are and where she is. But Kay turns out to be the second innocent in the past three weeks (and at least the fifth this season) to be tired of her ordinary life and thrilled by the chance to get involved in excitement and intrigue. It’s getting a bit repetitive, guys!
So yeah, you can tell I’m not enthralled by this one. It has some decent ideas, but the execution has a lot of flaws — particularly in the climax, where the bomb’s trigger device, which is supposed to be innocuous and understood to be a detonator only by Riley himself, is shown sizzling and smoking for a good 20 seconds or more, long enough that anyone could figure it out. Plus it criminally underuses Lee Meriwether, who’s only in one scene plus a voiceover later.
The music is credited to Goldsmith and Stevens, and is mostly built around familiar motifs, but at least some of it seems newly arranged and tailored to the scenes.