The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Shark Affair”

Hey, I’ve got a nutty idea: After spending last week mucking about in the unsatisfyingly murky waters of season three, how about we tackle a good episode this week?

Somewhere in the Atlantic, a merchant vessel (which, just as a quick FYI, is helmed by Star Trek’s Scotty, the great James Doohan) is attacked by a heavily-armed WWII-era ship, which is captained by the gentlemanly Captain Shark (I Spy star Robert Culp). Captain Shark boards the ship and loots it, then begins to make enquiries of the passengers: “Are there any amongst you who can tune a piano?”

Back in New York, Napoleon and Illya meet with housewife Elsa Barnman (Sue Ane Langdon), whose librarian husband recently vanished after answering a classified ad about a possible job offer. Similar ads placed around the world have resulted in the same outcome: A glazier disappeared in Copenhagen, a roofer disappeared in England, a veterinarian disappeared in New Caledonia. Due to the global nature of the incidents, U.N.C.L.E. has been called in to investigate.

Elsa likes to cook, which this episode regards as a deeply suspicious and/or lampoonable character trait—later on, it’ll be suggested her husband left her on his own volition because she kept feeding him three square meals a day. Wait. What am I missing? Why is this considered weird behavior? Food is awesome! Anyway, there’s a running gag in which Elsa keeps feeding Illya multiple bowls of soup, since Napoleon is far too grand to eat her cooking.

This episode is loaded with scenes of Illya chowing down on various semi-identifiable foodstuffs, so if that happens to be your particular fetish, this is about to become your favorite recap.

Mr. Waverly summons Napoleon back to headquarters to investigate the attack on the merchant vessel, which is part of an emerging pattern of similar incidents. Left behind with Elsa, Illya eats more soup, then gets into a scuffle with a thug lurking outside her apartment. Illya has the upper hand, but the thug escapes when Elsa opens a door too fast and accidentally bashes Illya in the face. Illya places the blame for this squarely on Elsa, but dude, she’s just a nice lady who keeps feeding you soup. You’re the highly-trained super-spy, and thus the onus for not smashing your face into doors lies squarely with you.

The face-smashing is all worth it, though, because it leads to a delightful scene in which Napoleon consoles his grumpy partner by fixing a pitcher of martinis, which they swill while hiding out in Mr. Waverly’s office and complaining bitterly about their jobs. Of Elsa, Illya grouses, “Then she took me upstairs and gave me another bowl of soup!” Oh, the humanity!

At around this point, Mr. Waverly walks in and catches his two top agents lounging around his office whilst indulging in on-the-job cocktails. Illya and Napoleon scramble to fix their ties and tuck in their shirts and look presentable for their boss, while Waverly looks weary and resigned, like he’s come to expect this sort of behavior from these two magnificent knuckleheads.

Waverly yanks their attention back to the task at hand: A Soviet freighter was just raided by Captain Shark’s band of pirates. The pirates kidnapped one passenger, a famed pianist named Vasili Chekorokavich, whom Waverly figures was the piano tuner Captain Shark was seeking in the earlier attack. “They do have names, don’t they?” Waverly says of Chekorokavich with a wry chuckle and a knowing shake of his head. At his shoulder, Soviet citizen Illya Nickovitch Kuryakin makes a mental note to mention his boss’s casual xenophobia to his HR representative.

So Napoleon is investigating the pirate attacks, while Illya is investigating the disappearance of Elsa’s husband. They’re pursuing their respective investigations with their usual dedication and methodical professionalism, i.e. they’re hanging out at Napoleon’s desk and complaining that they don’t know what they’re doing. Oh, and Illya is chomping away on a sandwich or whatever.

While comparing notes, Illya and Napoleon realize their investigations are linked: Captain Shark and his pirates have been kidnapping boat passengers who are either spouses or blood relatives of the people who disappeared after answering the classified ads. Napoleon points out that instead of working on two separate cases, they’re actually working on the same case. “Instead of being at our own dead ends, we’re now at the same dead end together!” Illya exclaims in delight. Illya, you are a rare and precious jewel.

Equipped with this knowledge, they head over to Elsa’s apartment, realizing she might be Captain Shark’s next target. Elsa is already gone, having been given a free ticket on a passenger ship by the thug who was hanging around her apartment earlier. Her ship has left the harbor, so Mr. Waverly comes up with a terrible, awful, hilarious plan to get Napoleon and Illya on board: He strands them on a small raft in the middle of the ocean.

Cut to Illya and Napoleon, scruffy and miserable, adrift on the high sea, morosely waiting for Elsa’s ship to rescue them. Some epic-level whining and complaining ensues. “Sometimes I think Mr. Waverly is secretly in the pay of THRUSH,” Napoleon says mournfully. Napoleon, my love, I have had that very same thought many times before.

A ship comes across them and hauls them aboard. Only it’s not Elsa’s ship—it’s Captain Shark’s (“I see we’ve caught the wrong bus,” Napoleon mutters). While Captain Shark raids Elsa’s ship to capture Elsa, Napoleon and Illya are left alone in his office with her kidnapped husband, Harry (Dennis the Menace’s Herbert Anderson). Napoleon and Illya explain that they’re U.N.C.L.E. agents here to rescue him; Harry explains that he’s perfectly happy where he is, far from his wife, thanks very much. Per Harry, Captain Shark has imagined his ship as a modern Noah’s Ark. In the event of a world-destroying nuclear attack, which Captain Shark believes is imminent and inevitable, the specially-chosen passengers—builders, artists, scientists—will be shielded from the deadly blasts by the ship’s lead-lined walls. After the radiation settles, they’ll be able to build their own idyllic society on an island somewhere.

Belatedly, Napoleon notices that Captain Shark left the intercom in his office open, which means the entire ship has overheard our gloriously incompetent heroes yammering on to Harry about how they’re spies. “That’s the kind of thing that’s good for a forty-minute lecture from Mr. Waverly,” Napoleon says glumly. Why stop at a lecture? This seems like a fireable offense to me. Worth a sound spanking, at the very least.

Elsa’s ship is successfully raided, and Elsa is reunited with Harry, who is dismayed to discover that his new life in Captain Shark’s post-apocalyptic paradise will include his wife. Harry, it must be said, is a world-class schmuck. Napoleon gets mouthy with Captain Shark, of course, so Shark orders him punished for insubordination.

Captain Shark flogs Napoleon. As with most of this show’s (many, many) torture scenes, it gets weirder and more overtly sexual than strictly necessary.

Post-flogging, Napoleon bonds with Captain Shark, who, despite all the torture and the kidnappings and the all-consuming nuclear paranoia, is actually kind of a chill dude. A decorated warship commander during the second World War, he witnessed the atomic tests at Enewatak Atoll, which sparked his fierce conviction that the world is on the brink of nuclear annihilation. A genial host, he invites Illya and Napoleon to a big swanky party he’s throwing that night to celebrate Elsa’s arrival on the ship.

He even supplies them with fancy tuxedos. Aw, I like you, Captain Shark. You’re a deeply unhinged madman, but you’ve got style.

So Illya and Napoleon cobble together a hasty plan to blow up the ship. Napoleon, with the inexplicable aid of Elsa, sneaks into the munitions room and helps himself to explosives and blasting wire and detonators. Meanwhile, Illya gloomily hangs out at the fancy party with Elsa’s awful husband and stuffs his face.

Like, a lot. This is the fourth episode of the series, and only the second in which Illya plays a significant role, and it’s as if the writers were madly scrambling to come up with a list of key character traits for him:

1. Slavic inscrutability.
2. Improbable hotness.
3. …I don’t know, he likes food, maybe?

After building a bomb and rigging it to explode in the engine room, Napoleon heads back to the party and announces that everyone should maybe start heading in the general direction of the lifeboats. Pandemonium erupts. As Illya supervises the evacuation of the passengers, Napoleon tries to save Captain Shark, who gives an impassioned speech about how humanity has doomed itself with the invention of atomic weapons. He insists on going down with his ship. Napoleon’s cool with that.

Back at the Barnman’s apartment, Elsa and Harry squabble about her cooking while Elsa tries to feed Illya a gigantic turkey.

A superb early episode, filled with all the snappy banter and magnificent displays of jaw-dropping ineptitude that would soon become a hallmark of the Napoleon-Illya pairing. Glorious.


Hamlette said…
Well, I know someone who hates soup. I'm sure she's firmly in Illya's camp on the issue of being force-fed soup. (And she's going to snort when she reads this comment.)

I, on the other hand, am now reeeeeally hungry for soup, so thanks for that.
Morgan Richter said…
What kind of person hates soup??? Soup is awesome, no matter how much Illya complains about it.
Hamlette said…
People who don't like their foods mixed together, that's who.
Anonymous said…
Mafalda always hate her soup.
Morgan Richter said…
Very true. But Mafalda and I will have to disagree on that, Anonymous. I'm a big soup fan.
Illesdan said…
This is one of my personal favorite episodes on many levels. Robert Culp was amazing as Shark, and he was just unhinged enough that you couldn't really predict what he would do next.

Since this was back before anyone knew what to do with Kuryakin, it's fun to see him fresh and a little bit immature here. Solo complements this well by being even more immature.

If I'm going to complain about anything, it's going to be the story pacing. Everything is set to a fair clip and once we get done with the Napoleon torture scene, it just lazily chews scenery until the inevitable conclusion. The ship and Stockholm-Syndromed crew should have been the most interesting thing in this episode, but they just kind of get glossed over and ultimately wasted. I feel like this either had too much material for one episode, or not enough to make it past the 40 minute mark. Too bad; because the story is quite amazing otherwise.

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