The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Cap and Gown Affair”
Oh. It’s this episode. Yippee.
I’ve already named my all-time least favorite episode—that’d be “The Jingle Bell Affair”, and I still feel pretty confident about that decision—but this one gives it some competition for the title. There are episodes that are more nonsensical, there are episodes that are duller, there are episodes that are sloppier, there are episodes that are more offensive, but this one… well, it’s a little bit of all of the above. Let’s wade in.
Under heavy security, Mr. Waverly is chauffeured across New York while Illya and Napoleon, in separate cars, relay information to each other about his progress. The car carrying Waverly drives over a manhole, which explodes, engulfing the car in a ball of fire. Illya and Napoleon crouch beside Waverly’s body, which is sprawled across the pavement, lifeless.
Eh, Waverly’s fine—the body was only a mannequin, used in an attempt to lure THRUSH, which has been hell-bent on assassinating Waverly, out into the open. Napoleon urges Waverly to cancel all public appearances until THRUSH backs off, but Waverly refuses—he’s due to receive an honorary degree from his alma mater, Blair University. Waverly places Illya and Napoleon in charge of the security precautions at the school. He gives Napoleon a clear warning: “Blair is a co-educational institution, so try to curb your predatory instincts, will you?”
Predatory. Ha ha! See, the joke is that Mr. Waverly is afraid horny old Napoleon will molest the naive young college students! Which… really doesn’t seem like Napoleon. Napoleon is kind of a hail-fellow-well-met all-purpose letch, sure, but predatory is entirely the wrong word to describe his low-key, genial approach to flirting with everyone he meets.
Illya, garbed in a sheepskin jacket paired with a faint hint of stubble, poses unconvincingly as a student and hangs around campus, trying to uncover any signs of an assassination plot against Waverly. He meets up with a young student, Minerva Dwight (Carole Shelyne), who is organizing an anti-U.N.C.L.E. rally to protest Waverly’s honorary degree. When Minerva grills him as to his political leanings, Illya claims he represents “…the moderately conservative left, slightly to the right of Rasputin.” There’s probably a joke in here somewhere about David McCallum’s unsettling political/social beliefs (maybe don't click that link. Just cue that lyric from Evita in which someone is described as “slightly to the right of Attila the Hun”, and you'll have a decent grasp on the situation), but that whole messy subject makes me far too bummed out to dwell upon it at any length, so let’s just mosey right along.
Minerva informs Illya that the anti-U.N.C.L.E. protest was arranged by Gregory Haymish, their “on-campus agitator.” Illya joins the protest and meets Gregory, who is played by the late soft-core auteur Zalman King, the man who brought the world Wild Orchid and “The Red Shoe Diaries” and wrote the script for 9½ Weeks. The school’s dean, Timothy Dwight (Henry Jones), who also happens to be Minerva’s father, orders all the protestors to disperse. Under Gregory’s direction, the protestors refuse to leave, whereupon they’re hauled off by the police.
Napoleon shows up at the university to meet with Dean Dwight. He encounters a young student, Patricia Darling (Melanie Alexander), who is waiting to meet with the dean to discuss her flailing academics (she’s flunking biology because she won’t dissect a frog, and she’s flunking French history because she gets all the kings confused). “How many courses are you flunking?” she asks Napoleon, who is dressed in one of his usual expensive suits and looks every inch like a dashing and sophisticated secret agent in his mid-thirties.
Dean Dwight meets with the head of the board of regents, Jonathan Trumbull (Larry D. Mann), who chews him out for having the protestors arrested. Trumbull is unhappy to see Napoleon, probably because Trumbull is actually a THRUSH agent, working in cahoots with Gregory to use the student protests as a cover to assassinate Waverly. Trumbull consults with his superior, Agent 24 (Tom Palmer), to see about killing Napoleon immediately, but Agent 24 counsels patience: U.N.C.L.E. agents always operate in pairs (like Sith Lords!), so it’s better to wait until Illya pops up, before eliminating both in one fell swoop.
Illya and all the other arrested protestors are stuck in a holding cell. Illya contacts Napoleon: “Are we allowed to put bail on our expense accounts?”
At Napoleon’s request, the dean drops the charges. The protesters all refuse to leave the jail (Minerva: “We can’t knuckle under to the establishment now!”), so police officers bodily drag them out of the holding cell. Illya bellows, “Cossacks!” as he’s being hauled off, because every once in a great while the show remembers he’s supposed to be Russian.
Gregory does more rabble-rousing at a coffeehouse, goading the students to disrupt Waverly’s speech at the graduation ceremony. Napoleon pops up to covertly discuss strategy with Illya. At one point, he very casually addresses his partner as “baby” (in the spirit of the student activists, he seems to be adopting some kind of groovy quasi-hippie shtick), which is hands-down the most fascinating thing that happens in this episode.
Minerva drops by to make a weird play for Illya’s affections: “You know, I’m a biology major. I’m taking a course in Eugenics!” she happily tells him. This is Illya’s wholly inadequate response: “Well, that’s nice.” Holy hell, eugenics? Eugenics? What kind of backward-ass university is this? Anyway, Minerva babbles on about how she wants to start a master race of beautiful blond babies with Illya, which doesn’t disturb and horrify him nearly as much as it should. What the ever-loving hell, Man From U.N.C.L.E. ? Setting aside that no legitimate university would be teaching a course on Eugenics in 1967, unless that course was titled something like Introduction to Crazy Racist Shit the Nazis Used to Espouse, I can’t imagine there’d be much Venn diagram circle overlap between white supremacists and socialist-leaning, college-educated counterculture enthusiasts. What was the pitch meeting for this episode like? “Hey, I think we should give Illya a quirky, unconventional romantic interest, so why not pair him up with a horribly racist hippie?”
”Why, in three or four generations, it could be a race of supermen!” Minerva exclaims of her hypothetical spawn with Illya. And with that terrifying sentence, Minerva vaults herself into the top position on the list of Terrible U.N.C.L.E. Heroines.
Working on orders from his THRUSH superiors, Gregory lures Illya and Napoleon into an ambush. Upon finding themselves surrounded by a group of armed thugs, Napoleon and Illya burst into the women’s dormitory, which is teeming with young students in skimpy pajamas. The students are pretty nonchalant about their presence, which causes Napoleon to muse, “When I was in college, they used to scream.” Hey, U.N.C.L.E., why are you making Napoleon act so creepy around young women? I hate this episode so very much. Anyway, the scantily-clad women get into a vigorous pillow fight with the THRUSH goons, whereupon police arrive and haul Gregory and his accomplices off in handcuffs.
With Gregory in jail, Trumbull and Agent 24 come up with a backup plan to kill Mr. Waverly: Agent 24 dons a rubber mask and disguises himself as Dean Dwight. When the real Dean catches a glimpse of his doppelganger, he begins to fear the stress of all the protests on campus is causing him to lose his mind. Trumbull solicitously suggests he undergo treatment from a professor in the school’s psychology department, Dr. Neary (Martin Kosleck). Trumbull blackmails Dr. Neary into keeping the real Dean Dwight locked in his office until after the graduation ceremony by threatening to expose Neary’s illicit affair with a “blonde graduate student”. This whole episode is infused with a hoary vintage-issues-of-Playboy view of college-aged women (“coeds” in the parlance of this episode, naturally) as flighty, baby-doll pajama-clad objects of lust for horny adult men. I kept expecting Napoleon to breeze through campus in a red velvet bathrobe and ascot, a nubile babe on each arm.
Minerva soon realizes her father has been replaced by an imposter, so the fake dean kidnaps her. Acting on Minerva’s suspicions, Illya and Napoleon head to Dr. Neary’s office, where they find the real Dean Dwight. Before they can expose THRUSH’s plot, they’re captured by Agent 24 and Trumbull.
Napoleon, Illya, Dean Dwight, Minerva, and Dr. Neary end up strapped to school desks in a classroom, forced to answer a barrage of trivia questions broadcast via computer. If they answer any question incorrectly, the room will flood with poison gas. Question one: In what year did Napoleon Bonaparte die? “You should know that,” Illya tells Napoleon. “I was named after him. I wasn’t at his funeral,” Napoleon snarls in reply.
Meanwhile, the graduation ceremony gets underway. Mr. Waverly delivers an interminable speech about death (“The future is in your hands! After all, we old ones will not be around much longer!”), while Agent 24, still disguised as the dean, prepares to shoot him.
Working together, the captives in the classroom manage to answer several hundred questions correctly before flubbing an answer. The room floods with gas. Luckily, Patricia Darling spots their predicament on closed-circuit television and rallies all the student protesters to burst in and save them.
Freed from their bonds, Illya and Napoleon rush outside just as the fake dean aims his gun at Waverly. Napoleon snatches someone’s graduation cap and hurls it at the fake dean, causing the shot to go wide. THRUSH’s plot is thwarted. Oh, and the fake dean is shot and killed thanks to creepy Minerva, or something like that. My brain bailed out on this episode a while back.
And then Napoleon and Illya celebrate by canoodling with undergraduates. Illya manages to evade Minerva’s clutches by claiming his genetics are marred with a long line of hereditary insanity, whereupon she turns her romantic attentions to Napoleon, who is perfectly happy to cuddle with a white supremacist. Illya ends up stuck with sweetly dim Patricia Darling, who is undeterred by his claims of insanity.
A perfectly vile episode. This was the season three finale; when the show returned after the summer hiatus, it had been extensive retooled to drain all of the goofy charm from it. If you’re searching for somewhere to place the blame for the decision to rework this once-delightful show into a lackluster spy drama, look no further than episodes like this.