The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Project Strigas Affair”
Last week, while trying to make an informed decision as to whether it was worth seeing Guy Ritchie’s big-screen reboot of the 1964-1968 NBC spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in a theater (conclusion: it’s a rental), I came across Sarah Kurchak’s terrific AV Club essay about the iconoclastic character of Illya Kuryakin, the suave Russian spy played in the original series by Scottish actor David McCallum (otherwise known as Ducky on NCIS, for anyone too young to have watched The Man From U.N.C.L.E., yet old enough to be a fan of NCIS). I’d never seen the series, but the AV Club piece intrigued me enough to dive in. Smart move: The show is marvelous. It’s overflowing with the elements I treasure most in fluff television: insane plots, snappy banter, swanky soirees, daring escapes, ill-advised hookups, and bizarre attempts at foreign accents. Along with McCallum’s Illya, it stars Robert Vaughn as the excellently-named Napoleon Solo—secret agent, all-purpose ladies’ man, and world-class smug bastard. Napoleon and Illya are partners in U.N.C.L.E. (the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, obviously), a multinational spy agency headquartered out of a humble dry-cleaning shop in midtown
Make no mistake: Napoleon and Illya are terrible spies. Napoleon is fond of walking into a room and announcing to everyone within earshot that he’s a spy; Illya once spent an entire episode unaware his partner had been replaced by a lookalike enemy agent. But they’re both charming and wildly entertaining human beings, and really, isn’t that what matters?
“The Project Strigas Affair” takes place very early on in the show’s run—it’s the ninth episode of the first season. It’s notable for guest-starring both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, two years before the pair made television history as Kirk and Spock on the original Star Trek. The episode is a delightful romp: The plot’s a tangled mess, and not much happens in the way of action, but it’s filled with attractive people in sparkly outfits swilling champagne at fancy parties, which is more than enough to carry the day.
At U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, regional head Mr. Waverly (Leo G. Carroll, whose name I cannot see without bursting into “Science Fiction Double Feature” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sing it with me: “I know Leo G. Carroll was over a barrel when Tarantula took to the hills…”) briefs Napoleon and Illya on their new assignment: Laslo Kurasov, a Khrushchev-esque warmongering ambassador from one of the Balkan states, is threatening to disrupt disarmament talks between the East and West. For the sake of world peace, U.N.C.L.E. wants to remove Kurasov from the world stage without turning him into a martyr. Waverly gives Napoleon and Illya free reign to concoct their own diabolical scheme to embarrass and discredit Kurasov. Instead of, I don’t know, planting homemade donkey porn in Kurasov’s briefcase and alerting the media, the boys put their attractive heads together and devise a hopelessly convoluted and unnecessarily risky scheme that hinges upon placing civilians in mortal peril. Business as usual for these two, in other words.
Phase one of their scheme: An U.N.C.L.E. agent staggers into Kurasov’s embassy with a big fake knife sticking out of his back, bellows something mysterious about “Strigas YL893!”, and collapses in a bloody heap. Kurasov (played by Werner Klemperer, Hogan’s Heroes’ Colonel Klink) and his beleaguered aide Vladeck (Nimoy, taking a game yet doomed stab at a Russian accent) attempt to unravel the meaning behind the agent’s cryptic last words. Per faulty intelligence planted by U.N.C.L.E., they find that “YL893” is the identifying code for one Michael Donfield (Shatner), a promising young chemical engineer from MIT who gave up a stable job to run a struggling pest control company.
Phase two: Napoleon and Illya approach Donfield and his wife Anne (Peggy Anne Garner) and browbeat them into participating in their scheme: Donfield will pose as the loose-principled, hard-partying brains behind a top-secret (and utterly fake) government weapons project known by the code name Strigas. Kurasov, who is angling for a promotion over a hated rival, schemes to secure his political fortune by bribing Donfield and bringing the secret of Strigas to his country.
Phase three: Illya dons an improbable mustache and wig and poses as a member of the secret police. He worms his way into Kurasov’s confidence, then spends all of his time counseling Kurasov against looking further into Strigas. See what I mean about “hopelessly convoluted”?
Phase four: It’s a big fancy party!
Champagne for everyone! Kurasov and Vladeck
immediately identify Napoleon, who shows up with Michael Donfield, by both name
and occupation. It’s not clear how they know this, but it seems well within the
realm of possibility that at some point in the past Napoleon has sauntered up to
them and introduced himself thusly: “Hi, I’m Napoleon Solo, and I’m a secret
agent with U.N.C.L.E.” Because that’s how Napoleon rolls.
At the party, Donfield makes a boozy spectacle of himself by pawing Kurasov’s wife and drunkenly quoting 17th century theologian Henry Aldrich. All this is enough to convince Kurasov that Donfield might be up for committing a spot of high treason by selling deadly government secrets to a hostile nation.
It should be noted that Shatner is very, very good at making a boozy spectacle of himself.
Kurasov takes the bait and sets up a meeting with Donfield. Prior to the meeting, one of Kurasov’s accomplices tries to eliminate Napoleon by, ah, squirting poisoned milk from a baby’s bottle in his face. She gets it all wrong, however, and ends up knocking out Donfield instead. Excellent. As long as the enemy forces are always slightly more incompetent than U.N.C.L.E., the world will remain safe.
With Donfield out of commission, Napoleon is forced to step in and negotiate a plan for selling the Strigas information himself. He meets with Kurasov’s representative, who happens to be a beautiful woman. Whew! For a moment there, I was worried Napoleon would have no opportunity to flirt and/or sleep with a beautiful enemy agent in this episode. Canoodling with the enemy is one of his signature moves, second only to yammering on about his top-secret identity.
This time, though, he does not sleep with the beautiful enemy agent. Instead, they banter about hotdogs in a disappointingly innuendo-free manner, then discuss nerve gas and grand treason over ice cream sodas.
The beautiful enemy agent sends Napoleon off to meet with another enemy agent, a man named Linkwood (played by veteran character actor Woodrow Parfrey). As Linkwood is not a beautiful woman, Napoleon lets Donfield field this meeting instead.
Finally—finally!—a deal is struck: Donfield will hand over the Strigas plans to Kurasov in exchange for a cool million. Everything’s going well, and then Vladeck scuttles U.N.C.L.E.’s (preposterous) plan all to hell by running a background check on Illya, who has wormed his way into the top-secret exchange under false pretenses. “Who are you two working for?” Kurasov demands of Illya and Donfield. “The CIA? The French Dezune Bureau? The British Fourth Sector?” Why he fails to guess U.N.C.L.E. despite knowing that Donfield is a known associate of famed U.N.C.L.E. super spy Napoleon Solo is left as an exercise for the viewer.
Illya decides this line of questioning is going nowhere interesting, so he pops a fake cyanide capsule and pretends to die. This is an excellent method for ending a conversation, even if it does leave poor innocent civilian Donfield stranded in a tight spot.
Luckily for Donfield, Kurasov doesn’t interrogate him, or torture him, or torture his wife, or kill him. Instead, he mutters something ineffectual yet ominous about Donfield making sure he gets rid of Illya’s body, then wanders off.
His plan blown to smithereens, Napoleon picks up someone’s abandoned champagne glass and starts swilling. There’s something very relatable and endearing about a man who, even in his darkest hour, refuses to let perfectly good bubbly go to waste.
Illya and Napoleon salvage their ruined plan by kidnapping Linkwood and bullying him into going along with their new plan, which involves spinning a web of sketchy lies to Kurasov about how the presumed-dead Illya was actually working to procure Strigas for Kurasov’s despised rival. There are thousand-page Russian historical novels with plots less needlessly convoluted than this. Next time, guys, save yourselves the bother and just go straight for the incriminating donkey porn. It’s vulgar and lacking in finesse, sure, but it’ll give you fewer headaches.
Sidebar: I know the whole field of slash fiction reportedly originated with Star Trek, which, again, didn’t even debut until a full two years after this, but I feel confident in assuming, without investigating the matter, that there is no shortage of slash out there involving these two boundlessly charismatic knuckleheads:
Spurred into action once again, Kurasov rekindles the deal with Donfield, exchanging a million bucks for what he believes are the top-secret plans for Strigas. Which, naturally, turn out to be worthless. More damning still, Napoleon and Illya deposit the money in a Swiss bank account in Kurasov’s name, thus leading the Premier of Kurasov’s country to assume Kurasov has been embezzling funds from the embassy. Kurasov is unceremoniously removed from power, and everyone’s happy. Especially Vladeck, who gets promoted to Kurasov’s former position.
Illya and Napoleon show up at the airport to gloat as Kurasov is escorted back to his homeland under heavy guard—“ha ha, you’re going to be tortured and killed by your own government for crimes you didn’t commit!”—because where’s the joy in being a spy if you can’t let your enemy know exactly how profoundly you’ve defeated him?
Dizzying, delightful stuff. Can’t wait to work my way through the rest of the series.