The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Secret Sceptre Affair”
Napoleon and Illya, clad in adorable matching jumpsuits, parachute into an unidentified Middle Eastern country, where they’re met by Zia (Ziva Rodann), a brusque young woman in a military uniform. When a pair of armed men zoom up on motorcycles and spray them with gunfire, Zia orders Illya and Napoleon into her jeep and whisks them away to safety.
Zia brings them to the desert headquarters of Colonel Morgan (Gene Raymond), Napoleon’s former commanding officer during the Korean War. Colonel Morgan has requested U.N.C.L.E.’s help in a local political matter: The country’s elected leader, Premier Karim (Jack Donner), is turning into a corrupt tyrant, so Morgan wants to remove him from power before he installs himself as a dictator and destroys the country’s fledgling democracy.
Napoleon gives Morgan the bad news: U.N.C.L.E. has found no evidence to substantiate Morgan’s fears about Karim, so they’ve refused to intervene. Out of loyalty to his old friend, however, Napoleon has decided to help out on his own volition. Illya, for his part, is just along for the ride. When Morgan presses Illya on his motivation for joining the mission, Illya wearily responds, “It is inevitable. A man must die a little every day.” Okay, thanks for playing, Illya! That was not at all relevant to the discussion! In these first-season episodes, when the U.N.C.L.E. writers were still struggling to get a handle on Illya, his patented Slavic Inscrutability™ occasionally drifts into abject nonsensicality.
Colonel Morgan explains his plan: They’re going to break into the national armory and swipe a golden scepter (or “sceptre”, if you want to use the fancy UK spelling of the episode’s title). As the scepter holds deep religious meaning to the people of the country, the loss of it will force Karim to resign in disgrace.
To summarize what we’ve learned thus far: Colonel Morgan wants Illya and Napoleon to steal a deeply-important religious artifact from the lawfully-elected leader of an emerging democratic nation. U.N.C.L.E., an organization with a long and storied history of plotting to overthrow world leaders through underhanded and illegal means, has examined this situation from all angles and concluded, “Yeah, no, this sounds super-sketchy even by our standards, so we’re going to pass, thanks.” I’m going to go ahead and drop a spoiler bomb right here, because this episode becomes vastly more entertaining when you know this plot twist in advance: Kindly Colonel Morgan is a corrupt and despicable ne’er-do-well who is shamelessly manipulating his old buddy Napoleon into doing shady deeds for his personal financial gain. Napoleon will remain oblivious about his trusted friend’s true intentions until well into the fourth act and, indeed, will hotly defend Colonel Morgan’s honor at several points throughout the episode. For someone whose life regularly depends upon figuring out who is or isn’t trustworthy, Napoleon is a terrible judge of character.
Napoleon, Illya, and Colonel Morgan break into the poorly-guarded armory and steal the scepter. When an alarm sounds, Colonel Morgan orders Illya to stay behind and give them cover while he and Napoleon escape. Napoleon tries to go back for his partner, but Morgan insists on leaving without Illya. No, it doesn’t occur to Napoleon at this point that Colonel Morgan is a duplicitous jerk.
So Illya is left in the clutches of Karim’s guards. They slap him around a little, but since this episode is still in the first season, before the crazed and near-histrionic onset of Illya-mania, nothing too sadistic and/or tawdry happens to him. He gets to keep his clothes on, even.
Colonel Morgan orders Napoleon and Zia to smuggle the scepter out of the country and deliver it safely to an address in Marseilles. To distract Karim’s guards, he attempts to flee by helicopter, which explodes in midair, presumably killing him.
With Karim’s guards hot on their trail, Napoleon browbeats Zia into wearing a fancy dress and switching to a new hairstyle. His argument is that she’ll be less conspicuous out of her uniform, but honestly, we all know Napoleon can’t resist springing elaborate ambush makeovers on sensibly-attired women.
Before leaving the country, Napoleon insists rescuing Illya, good man. He and Zia sneak into Karim’s palace through a convenient secret passageway. They’re blocked by a gate, with the controls located inside a box within easy reach. Sensing a trap, Napoleon is reluctant to stick his hand inside the box. “It’s too easy,” he mutters.
Then he sticks his hand inside the box and is promptly attacked by the deadly viper lurking inside.
Luckily, the viper bites his watch, so Napoleon doesn’t die an agonizing death right there. He opens the gate and waltzes into Karim’s quarters, then forces him at gunpoint to have Illya brought to him. “You have something that belongs to me,” he growls sexily, then goes on to add, “If he’s dead, so are you.” Well! Hello! Illya would no doubt take serious umbrage at Napoleon describing him as “something that belongs to me”, but all the same, there’s something rather fabulous and wonderful about this overt display of sentimentality. It’s the very best thing about this middle-of-the-road episode.
Well, also—spoiler alert!—Napoleon and Illya will soon get chucked into a bear pit, Game of Thrones-style, which is pretty fabulous and wonderful as well, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.
The guards bring Illya to Karim’s quarters. Napoleon hides behind the curtains, then pops out to surprise his partner—“hey, look, I’m rescuing you!”—which is all kinds of adorable.
A mechanic loyal to Colonel Morgan provides Illya, Napoleon, and Zia with a car to help them flee the country. Turns out he’s secretly in cahoots with Karim’s evil mother, Madam Karim (Lili Darvas), who, unbeknownst to her son, really is trying to turn the country into a dictatorship. The mechanic marks the roof of their getaway vehicle with a gigantic “X” to make it visible from the air; Napoleon and Illya, the highly-trained super-spies, utterly fail to notice this. They also fail to notice the helicopter trailing them as they hightail it for the border.
They’re soon stopped and apprehended by Madam Karim’s chief henchman, Captain Ahmed (Paul Lukather). They refuse to tell him where they’ve hidden the scepter, so Ahmed forces them into a pit and threatens to feed them to a bear unless they spill the beans.
A bear pit! Excellent. Lord only knows where Madam Karim was able to scrounge up a bear in the middle of the northern African desert, but I like her style.
Maximum bloody carnage ensues: Napoleon drags Ahmed down into the pit and tosses him in the path of the bear, Illya swipes Ahmed’s weapon and shoots all his henchmen, and the bear climbs out of the pit and eats Madam Karim.
Upon escaping from the bear pit, they retrieve the scepter, whereupon Napoleon discovers a fortune in valuable gems hidden inside it. The truth finally dawns on him: Colonel Morgan didn’t want the scepter to drive Karim out of power—he just wanted to get rich.
After arriving in Marseilles, Napoleon brings the scepter to the address Colonel Morgan had given him, which turns out to be a lavish mansion. Colonel Morgan himself is there to greet him, alive and well, having faked his death in the helicopter explosion. He holds Napoleon at gunpoint and declares his intention to murder him, now that he has the scepter. Napoleon chews his old friend out for being such a reprehensible scumbag, then Illya pops up from the balcony and kills Colonel Morgan.
And it all ends with Napoleon gearing up to return the scepter to Karim, along with what he describes as a “rather sticky apology.” Be sure to mention that you fed his mother to a bear, Napoleon; I’m sure that will go over well.