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

Illya is in the hospital, where he’s grouchily recuperating from a concussion sustained in the course of a mission involving a bikini model named Margo. Napoleon stops by to provide his partner with sympathy and moral support, and also to casually imply that he’s shagging Margo. Then he triumphantly sails out of the hospital room, leaving Illya sputtering with rage. The last time a bikini model showed romantic interest in Illya, she had to forcibly drag him into a bedroom to get him to notice her, so it’s probably fair to assume Illya’s fury here is due more to Napoleon’s blatant display of one-upmanship than to losing own his shot at Margo. If there’s a single element that defines the Illya-Napoleon dynamic, apart from their deep and heartfelt friendship, it’s the joy they take in delivering a perfectly-executed cockblock.

While Illya recovers, two thugs dressed as doctors break into his room and attack him. Illya tries to fight them off, but they drug him into submission. “Get him ready, but carefully. He still has ten hours to live,” one thug says to the other. Hmm. That’s interesting! I bet this episode takes place in real time, because I’m pretty sure it’s ten hours long.

Sorry. No. My mistake. I just double-checked. It’s a standard fifty-minute episode; it only seems ten hours long, thanks to some difficulties with pacing. This is a fourth-season episode, which means you can hardly expect the story to move briskly along at a steady clip.

Illya wakes to find himself in an abandoned carnival funhouse, shackled to a chair inside a gas chamber. A scary-looking man in military garb, with a long scar along his face and a leopard chained at his side, observes Illya through the glass of the chamber. This is Viktor Karmak (Kolchak: The Night Stalker’s Darren McGavin), a longtime adversary who has resurfaced to wreak terrible vengeance against Illya and Napoleon for past wrongs. No, we haven’t met him before. No disrespect to McGavin, who does a fine job with a one-note role, but seeing how we’re deep in the show’s final season, this would’ve been a stellar opportunity to bring back one of our heroes’ most noteworthy foes. We could’ve had a repeat appearance from Cesar Romero’s suave, genteel Victor Gervaise, or Vincent Price’s dapper Victor Marton*, or Anne Francis’s cruelly conniving Gervaise Ravel**. Think about how wonderful and amazing that would have been.

*It’s just now dawning on me that a lot of THRUSH villains are named Victor. Or, indeed, Viktor.
**It’s also just now dawning on me that a lot of THRUSH villains are named Gervaise.

Back at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Mr. Waverly breaks the news to Napoleon that Illya has been kidnapped by Karmak. Napoleon insists that’s impossible, as he and Illya personally saw Karmak die. Waverly tries to pin him down on the details (“You say you witnessed Karmak’s death?”), whereupon Napoleon immediately starts backpedaling: Well, no, not really, they didn’t exactly witness it, so to speak. See, he and Illya came across some bones that had been picked clean by scavenger ants, and naturally they assumed this meant Karmak was dead… Waverly shakes his head sadly at this latest example of half-assed spy work from his two top agents, then gets to the point: Karmak just delivered a myna bird to headquarters, which squawks out an ominous message: “Solo! Twelve o’clock at twelve, or Illya dies.”

Hmm. So Illya has been kidnapped by a presumed-dead THRUSH foe, who is using him as bait to lure Napoleon into a deadly trap, and who sends a bird to Napoleon at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters to explain the particulars of the trap. Anyone else feeling a strange sense of déjà vu?

Yep. You got it. This is the plot of season one’s “The Gazebo in the Maze Affair.” Okay, sure, maybe it’s not an exact duplicate: In “The Gazebo in the Maze Affair”, the presumed-dead THRUSH foe traps Illya in a torture chamber and menaces him with a vicious wolf, whereas in this episode, the presumed-dead THRUSH foe traps Illya in a gas chamber and menaces him with a vicious jaguar. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fabulous story idea—I’m a big sucker for any episode where Napoleon risks everything to save Illya—and I fully support the show recycling it as often as possible.  Only… I wish they’d done a better job with it this time around.

Per the myna bird’s cryptic message, Napoleon has less than an hour to find Illya. Napoleon and Waverly conclude that Illya is probably being held somewhere not far from headquarters. “Must be somewhere in Manhattan,” Waverly muses. Napoleon scours a map of Manhattan for clues as to Illya’s location.

Oh, Napoleon, honey, you’re never going to find Illya that way. Because that’s not Manhattan. You’re staring at a map of… Denver.

Man From U.N.C.L.E. prop department, I can only assume the show had broken your spirit by this point, because this map business is clearly the work of someone with no more cares to give.

Mr. Waverly puts his foot down and forbids Napoleon from playing into Karmak’s hands by trying to rescue Illya. “I couldn’t allow that. I can’t afford to lose two agents,” Waverly says, immediately leaping to the assumption that Napoleon would fail miserably and die in the process.

Napoleon ignores Mr. Waverly’s orders, as well he should. Inspired by the myna bird’s reference to “twelve”, he heads to the 12 O’Clock Club, a long-abandoned nightclub in a condemned ten-block stretch of Manhattan***. There’s no sign of Illya. Instead, the only inhabitant of the club is a young artist/wealthy heiress named Shelia Van Tillson, who is played by Marlyn Mason, who was so darned adorable back when she was romping around a fancy casino with Illya and Napoleon in “The Fiddlesticks Affair.” Sadly, this script lets her down: Shelia is cute, but kinda irritating.

***Yes, it’s ridiculous to think that Manhattan, the most densely-populated municipality in North America, with the highest per-square-foot property values in North America, would have a ten-block stretch of unoccupied buildings, but we’re clearly in some magical television version of Manhattan patterned after Denver, so let’s roll with it.

As Napoleon tries to bustle Shelia off to safety, Karmak arrives, leopard in tow, and holds Napoleon at gunpoint whilst divulging his evil scheme: Napoleon has until six in the morning to find Illya, at which point the gas chamber he’s trapped in will be flooded with cyanide.

Having been stripped of his communications device and all his weapons, Napoleon arms himself with a hammer and chisel from Shelia’s studio. (Napoleon, while ransacking her belongings for potential weapons, asks, “Do you have anything around here other than wine and peanut butter?” Shelia, I might’ve been too quick to judge you. You and I, we could hang.) With Shelia in tow, he heads out to find Illya.

In the gas chamber, Illya glumly enjoys a final meal of bread and water. He smashes his drinking glass and tries to use it to saw through his bonds, but Karmak’s hulking assistant Stefan (Timothy Carey) catches him in the act. Illya tries to bribe Stefan: In exchange for help escaping, he’ll make sure U.N.C.L.E. pays him a reward.

So while Napoleon and Shelia stumble along deserted, debris-strewn streets, Stefan dials Napoleon up on a pay phone and offers to tell him where he can find Illya. While Napoleon chats with Stefan, Karmak keeps casually shooting at him with a sniper rifle from the top of a nearby building.

Napoleon meets with Stefan, who tells him Illya is being held nearby in an abandoned refrigeration plant. When Stefan asks about the reward Illya promised, Napoleon snottily replies, “You’re alive. That’s a high as I’ll go.” Whoa! Dick move, Napoleon! Way to thank the dude who’s trying to save your partner’s life. Before Napoleon and Stefan can conclude their tête-à-tête, Karmak pops up and riddles Stefan with bullets.

Napoleon and Shelia head for the refrigeration plant and find it empty, save for the frozen corpse of one of the goons who’d kidnapped Illya from the hospital. Karmak arrives and reveals that he’d instructed Stefan to lead them to the wrong place. He locks them inside a walk-in refrigeration unit and waltzes off, cackling in triumph.

Napoleon rigs the electrical wiring and blasts their way out of the refrigerator. Then Napoleon and Shelia run around like ninnies for the next several hours, freaking out about rats and tripping over their feet while Karmak fires dozens of bullets in their general direction.

Stefan, badly wounded but considerably less dead than expected, stumbles to his feet and staggers to the abandoned funhouse, then tries to free Illya. As soon as he opens the door to the gas chamber, a loud alarm blares. Karmak heads off to check on Illya, leaving his leopard to watch over Napoleon and Shelia. The leopard is, frankly, adorable. Look at that face!

Then the leopard tries to eat Napoleon.

While Napoleon tussles with the leopard, Shelia heads off after Karmak, secretly trailing him to find where Illya is being kept. The leopard manages to do a pretty good job of mauling the crap out of Napoleon, right up until the point where Napoleon brutally stabs it to death with a chisel. This is one of the more traumatizing things to ever happen on this show.

Napoleon follows a trail of emeralds from Shelia’s priceless necklace to the funhouse. Upon finding Illya in the gas chamber, Napoleon flings open the door, only to have Illya shout out a desperate warning: Karmak is standing right behind him, holding Sheila at gunpoint.

Karmak orders Napoleon into the gas chamber, Shelia fights Karmak off, and a full-scale scuffle breaks out. With only a few seconds remaining before the chamber floods with cyanide, Napoleon manages to free Illya. Then Karmak stumbles into the chamber and, for some damn fool reason, shuts the door behind him just as the cyanide pellets are released. He dies instantly.

Well! That was a convenient way to wrap things up!

And then everything comes full circle, with Napoleon recovering from his mauling in the hospital, while a tuxedo-clad Illya drops by to casually imply that he’s shagging Shelia. Well played, Mr. Kuryakin. Well played.

A delightful, sure-to-please story concept ruined by a joyless script and indifferent execution. Oh, season four. How you never fail to disappoint.


Anonymous said…
aw man, i kind of miss the old red website and it's only been gone for under a week! it sort of reminded me of some kind of murder mystery cover and/or movie theatre-type thing

um, anyway... to get this comment vaguely on topic, if i'm being very charitable, the way you describe these fourth-season episodes reminds me of classic who pacing, but without the excuse of it taking place over several episodes and with very few of the good parts. you could jump right into the third doctor's episodes without batting an eye after this season--they're both in color and they both feature organizations with initials in their names! one feels several hours long, and one actually is several hours long. XD
Morgan Richter said…
Sorry for taking away the red! I'm tweaking a few things -- it'll probably change more over the next several days, in advance of rolling out new content (I've been in a holding pattern for a bit, and it's turned into Nothing But U.N.C.L.E. around here because that was all I could figure out to keep doing, but I think I'm finally starting to see the light).

Yeah, season four is still maybe brisker paced than classic Who (which I love, but which often seems more like a stage play than a traditional sci-fi series), but it's close. My suspicion with season four is, at the start of the season, the production staff brainstormed a whole bunch of great-sounding plot ideas, and then they farmed them out to a bunch of writers who'd never written for the show before, who failed to flesh out these ideas into briskly-paced, exciting episodes. The entire long middle stretch of this episode, for example, is just Napoleon and Shelia walking through abandoned streets getting shot at. It's inexcusably tedious for such a great plot idea.

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