The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Gurnius Affair”
I’ve put it off as long as I reasonably could, but I knew someday I’d have to address the grim wreckage of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s dank and dismal fourth season. Today is that day.
Conventional wisdom would have it that U.N.C.L.E.’s third season, in which the sparkling whimsy that was the hallmark of earlier episodes often veered closer to goofy slapstick, represents the show’s nadir. The ratings took a dive, so the show’s fourth and final season was retooled to lose all the light-hearted charm. A new producer was brought in, and most of the staff writers were replaced by newcomers. The show tried to become darker and more serious, with catastrophic results. Season Three, while deeply flawed, still bursts at the seams with the gonzo energy that made the early seasons so delightful. By comparison, Season Four seems listless and sloppy. “The Gurnius Affair” is probably one of the season’s stronger offerings—at the least, it features a rip-roaring story idea at its core—and even still, it’s a big old mess.
Somewhere in Europe, a former top Nazi scientist named Von Etske (Will Kuluva) breaks out of a high-security prison, thanks to a fiendish device that allows him to control minds. He’s aided in his escape by a mysterious accomplice, whose face is kept carefully concealed from viewers. Pretty much all we’re able to see is that he has a long scar across his cheek.
Oh, and also that he looks exactly like Illya, but we’re not supposed to notice that yet.
Waverly assigns Illya and Napoleon the task of hunting down and recapturing Von Etske. Per Waverly, the likely mastermind behind the escape is one Colonel Nexor, the brutal and sadistic aide to former Axis dictator Marshall Gurnius (George Macready). No photos exist of the mysterious Nexor, who is rumored to have died many years ago.
Napoleon and Illya begin their investigation by talking to Terry Cook (Judy Carne), a young photojournalist who witnessed Von Etske’s escape. When they visit Terry in her darkroom, she freaks out and attacks Illya. Upon learning they’re from U.N.C.L.E., she apologizes, claiming she mistook Illya for the scar-faced man, who is most likely Colonel Nexor. “You could be his twin!” she exclaims.
As Napoleon and Illya have no idea what Nexor looks like (hint, guys: "You could be his twin!"), Napoleon reluctantly agrees to take Terry along with him on the search for Von Etske. Meanwhile, Illya meets up with some random dude in a laboratory, who tells him a whole bunch of nonsense about how Von Etske’s mind-control device is powered by Orametchrome B, a rare metal found only near a THRUSH laboratory in the (fictional) South American nation of San Rico.
Yep. THRUSH has teamed up with a bunch of old Nazis. And the world trembles, just a little.
A manhunt for Von Etske gets underway. When an ambulance carrying Von Etske and Nexor is stopped at a security checkpoint, Nexor slaughters everyone in his path. The show is still taking great pains to keep Nexor’s face hidden from viewers, which is an exercise in futility. For crying out loud, Man From U.N.C.L.E., if you want to surprise viewers later on with the shocking discovery that Nexor looks exactly like Illya and, indeed, is played by David McCallum in a tour de force dual role, maybe you shouldn’t have Terry say stuff to Illya like, “You could be his twin!”
Napoleon, with Terry in tow, investigates the carnage at the checkpoint. He arranges to meet Illya at a nearby airstrip, theorizing that Von Etske and Nexor will try to leave the country from there.
At the airstrip, Von Etske and Nexor wait for the arrival of a helicopter. When Napoleon and Terry show up, Von Etske uses his mind control device to put them to sleep, while Nexor flees into the surrounding woods. When the escape helicopter finally arrives, Von Etske flies off to safety. Illya arrives on the scene and heads into the woods in pursuit of Nexor. Nexor and Illya grapple with each other, until Illya finally manages to shoot and kill Nexor. Illya is stunned to discover that—wait for it—Nexor looks exactly like him!
Well! I sure didn’t see that coming.
Back at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Illya masquerades as Nexor, complete with a fake scar, and undergoes a mock interrogation from Waverly. To explain his youthful appearance, Illya claims he’s the son of the original WWII-era Colonel Nexor: "His image lives on in the son. Marshall Gurnius saw to that. I was made to resemble my father, to perpetuate the myth."
Okay, this just got super confusing, so let’s break this down:
1. Waverly and Illya have decided that the strangely youthful scar-faced Colonel Nexor, the one who looks just like Illya, is the son of the original Colonel Nexor.
2. They’ve also decided, even though this episode has made a huge point of establishing that no photos exist of Nexor, that Nexor Junior looks exactly like Nexor Senior.
3. They’ve also decided that Nexor Junior has been physically altered (plastic surgery?) to look exactly like Nexor Senior, even though, again, they do not know what his father looks like.
4. They’ve also decided, despite the lack of any evidence to support this, that Marshall Gurnius is the man who made Nexor Junior look like Nexor Senior.
I have a severe case of motion sickness from all these dizzying leaps in logic.
Convinced that Illya could pass as Nexor, Waverly briefs him on the plan: Gurnius has been spotted in San Rico. Napoleon is already in the area, searching for Von Etske. If Napoleon fails, Illya must impersonate Nexor to get close to Gurnius and find Von Etske.
In San Rico, Napoleon gets ready to take a soothing bath in his hotel room. Terry pops up at his door, still determined to help him track down Von Etske. While Napoleon tries to brush her off, he’s attacked by a Nazi assassin. A rousing fight ensues, in which Terry fends off the assassin by smashing her camera over his head.
Meanwhile, a THRUSH agent known only as Mr. Brown (Joseph Ruskin) pays Marshall Gurnius a visit at his San Rico base. THRUSH, it seems, has been funding Von Etske’s mind-control research to the tune of four billion dollars; Mr. Brown wants to make sure THRUSH sees a return on the investment.
Posing as Nexor, Illya arrives in San Rico, where he’s picked up by one of Gurnius's henchmen and driven to the base. In the car, the henchman tries to assist Illya as he changes from civilian clothes into his uniform; Illya snaps at him not to touch him. The henchman apologizes: "Sorry, sir. I forgot about your…”, then trails off. “My what?” Illya-as-Nexor snarls. The henchman shrugs and falls silent.
We will never learn what that was all about.
Napoleon and Terry secretly trail Illya via a homing device hidden in his uniform cap. After they lose the signal in a remote area, a THRUSH spy posing as a native South American helpfully gives them directions to Gurnius’s base. Napoleon and Terry dutifully follow his instructions and are promptly captured by Nazis.
Inside the base, Illya meets with Gurnius, who instantly identifies him as Nexor. "Almost an exact replica of your father," he says in admiration. Mr. Brown, however, is highly suspicious of Illya, for some damn reason. Even though he’s never met Nexor, and even though Gurnius has already positively (if mistakenly) identified Illya as Nexor, Mr. Brown demands to see proof that Illya really is Nexor. Finally, Von Etske confirms that, yes, Illya is Nexor.
Gurnius takes Illya-as-Nexor on a tour of the base, where he spills the beans about his diabolical scheme: They’re going to aim a souped-up version of Von Etske’s mind-control device at Washington while the President of the United States is meeting with a joint session of Congress. This, Gurnius reasons, will allow Von Etske to gain control over all of America’s top political minds at once.
The brilliant Sarah Kurchak has brought my attention to Illya-as-Nexor’s uncanny resemblance to a Thunderbirds marionette. If you're unfamiliar with Thunderbirds, be wary of clicking that link; once seen, it can never be unseen.
Nazi henchmen bring Napoleon and Terry before Gurnius. Posing as longtime foes, Illya and Napoleon trade punches and hiss threats at each other, which, in the middle of this dismal mess of an episode, manages to be pretty entertaining. Gurnius suggests killing Napoleon immediately. Thinking fast, Illya comes up with a way to save his partner: He offers to, uh, brutally torture him to death instead.
I haven’t mentioned this before, but each U.N.C.L.E. episode is divided into four acts, with a title card appearing at the start of each act. After Illya hauls off Napoleon, gearing up to torture his partner/best friend to death, the greatest title card in the history of the series pops up:
So Illya straps Napoleon to a table and tortures him with agonizing electric volts while the Nazis hover around and watch politely, wishing he’d hurry it up so they can get on with their scheme to brainwash the entire United States government into doing their bidding.
Everyone finally leaves the room long enough for Illya to knock Napoleon out with a fake cyanide capsule. He then rescues Terry, who recoils in horror from him, convinced he’s Nexor. "I am not Colonel Nexor. My name is Illya Kuryakin," he tells her. "Who?" Terry asks, because the writers have forgotten that she’s already met Illya.
Remember when this happened, writers? Yeah, she met Illya three acts ago. Saw his U.N.C.L.E. identification badge, chatted with him for a while, even commented upon his striking resemblance to Nexor.
Illya gives Terry a hypodermic needle filled with a drug to revive Napoleon, then rejoins Gurnius and Von Etske in their quest to enslave America. When he tries to sabotage the mind-control device, he’s captured by Gurnius.
Napoleon and Terry burst into the control room in time to save Illya. While Terry takes a fire axe to all the scientific equipment, Napoleon and Illya beat up everyone in sight, then beat a hasty retreat as the base explodes into a fireball behind them.
Back in New York, Illya and Napoleon have a chat about the spectacularly effed-up nature of their just-concluded assignment. Illya apologizes for almost torturing his partner to death to preserve his cover; Napoleon reassures him that sometimes they’re forced to do terrible things in the course of a mission. They trade acerbic barbs that almost, but don’t quite, conceal their deep affection for each other, then head off to a bar to get liquored up.
Nope. I’m lying. None of that preceding paragraph happens. I’m just flat-out writing fanfiction here. Instead, they present Terry with a new camera, and nobody says a blasted thing about how weird and traumatic this whole experience must have been. Illya impersonated a Nazi and almost murdered Napoleon, yawn. Just another day at the office.
NBC canceled The Man From U.N.C.L.E. four episodes later, yanking it from the schedule in the middle of the season. It’s not terribly difficult to see why.