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.



Comments

I don't hate this episode as much as you do, but if it's in any way responsible for the dirge that is season 4, then I'm with you all the way. But I do love stubbly Illya and his weird attempts to fit in as a student agitator. Minerva is just creepy. The whole running joke about female college students as ditzy idiots is hard to take. And as for David McCallum’s unsettling political/social beliefs... Well. I'm still trying to come to terms with that. I just can't. It's so disappointing. I'm taking solace in the fact that during Muncle Robert Vaughn was a beautiful left wing liberal studying so hard for his doctorate that he always had his nose in a book. David McCallum is too beautiful and seems too lovely to be so right wing. But perhaps his upbringing and social strata didn't give him much choice.
Morgan Richter said…
McCallum's views are a crushing disappointment. He wrote a detective novel that was published at the start of the year, and... if you haven't read it, and if you still want to hold on to any fondness for him, I advise you to avoid it at all costs. I wish I had. There's a third-act plot twist that is jaw-droppingly misogynistic in a totally unforgivable way, even making excuses for his age and upbringing. So, so disturbing. I take comfort in Robert Vaughn's lifelong outspoken far-left liberalism (even though Vaughn is, in his own way, quite entertainingly bonkers. I highly recommend his memoir, if you haven't yet).
Ah, I've read enough of the novel to convince me that McCallum isn't a writer and make me feel quite depressed at the politics of publishing. I'll just have to pretend he's a pretty face and lie about what goes on in his mind. But I haven't encountered Robert Vaughn's memoir. I should look out for it. He seems to me to be a world treasure. He is amazing. There is a definite air of bonkers in his Muncle performances.
villanelle said…
Great review of one of my most hated episodes. God, I can't STAND this one. It's...offensively stupid. It even features, once again, that stirring third-season anthem of The Man From UNCLE Keeping a Finger on the Pulse of Youth Culture, "London Bridge is Falling Down." And why are the women in the dorm running around in their skimpy PJs, anyway!? It's like two in the afternoon! The sun is shining!

(I don't know how I missed Napoleon calling Illya "baby" the first time I watched this. I had to go back and rewatch that scene, and WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THAT VOICE ROBERT VAUGHN IS DOING THERE, oh my god, I adore that man.)

I knew David McCallum's politics were pretty awful, but ugh, that interview is even worse than I thought. But yes, yay for Robert Vaughn being a good progressive! (I'm honestly way more of a Napoleon/RV fangirl, anyway. I really need to read his memoir!)
Morgan Richter said…
Aconitum, it bugs me beyond belief that his terrible novel has a 4.25 star average on Amazon. If you feel like banging your head against the wall in frustration, this should be a link to an Amazon review that spells out the horrid and offensive third-act plot twist. Maddening! Absolutely love McCallum as an actor--he's played two of my all-time favorite characters in Illya and Steel from "Sapphire & Steel"--but he's not getting invited to any of my dinner parties any time soon. Vaughn, on the other hand, has a standing invitation.

Villanelle, I didn't realize how much I hated this episode until I rewatched it to review it. First time around, I mentally categorized it as just another dumb season three installment, but after looking at it again... "Offensively stupid" is about right (and the outright contempt it shows toward campus protestors is weird, especially when you consider that, according to UNCLE lore, only the loyalty of college-aged viewers kept it from being canceled early on and, indeed, transformed it into a cultural phenomenon).

I recommend Vaughn's memoir to everyone. It's a doozy, because Vaughn is a brilliant madman with sort of hilariously sociopathic tendencies (just as a random example, he calmly notes that he had an actress dismissed from the UNCLE pilot because it was in her contract that she wanted to be filmed from her right side, whereas Vaughn wanted to be filmed from *his* right side, which he figured would cause trouble in their scenes together), but highly entertaining.
Illesdan said…
'A perfectly vile episode.' Aw, don't hold back, Morgan; tell us how you REALLY feel! Just from your run-down though, it does sound pretty despicable. As do most of these 3rd-4th season episodes sound. I'll join in the awful next year; when I have time to be thoroughly disgusted.

Uhm, did McCallum seriously read too much (bad) fan fiction and go with the falling in love with the rapist trope? Really? Was there even editors involved in this nonsense, or is this a vanity press deal? Oh, wow. I was going to pick this up, but now I think I'll wait for the library to get it and be disappointed later.
Illesdan said…
Okay, update: I read the first 5 chapters of McCallum's book on Kindle for free, and, saints preserve us, this thing is not good. I was forced to re-read a line several times just to make sure I wasn't mistaking what I was reading. The dialogue in the first chapter is inadequate and has no organic flow to it.

I wish Kindle had stopped me at chapter 4, but nope; I got to see this little gem from chapter 5: 'Immediately the Caterpillar 475 twin engines--'

Wait. Stop. Just. Stop.

*Takes deep breath*

Of all the companies that manufacture outboard boat engines (Evinrude, Yamaha, Murcury, off the top of my head) you picked Caterpillar?! Caterpillar's specialization is in diesel engines and equipment made for industrial use; not recreation. I even went so far as to try to Google what a Caterpillar outboard motor looked like, and came up with air.

And this got published.

God, I need to get back into writing again if shit like this is flying now.
Oh, poor guy. I almost feel sorry for him. Almost. But I want a publisher too and I hate that rubbish gets published because the name will sell it. Can't he just stick to being pretty and adorable on-screen?
Illesdan said…
I've seen and read some interviews with McCallum promoting his book, and I was really pulling for this to be good, considering he had been working on this off and on for several years. I think the problem lies in that people around McCallum handled him with kid gloves (Jill Ireland noted when he first started acting, he did not take criticism of his work well), and probably also wanted desperately to finish this book before the inevitable happened.

I wish McCallum well. But like you, Aconitum, I really hate it when something gets published just because of the name on the cover. Just a pure disservice to those who do try and put out good work.
I have my own theory (coming from a position of being autistic and having an autistic family), after a certain amount of observation and so on, that he's on the spectrum. That, at least in my mind, helps me excuse things like adhering to a political view that I'd imagine his parents had, and being set in certain ways.
Morgan Richter said…
I went into that book maybe not expecting to love it, but expecting to enjoy it on its own terms. I was so very disappointed. Whenever I think about that book, I find myself getting mad at his publisher and editor, both of whom knew better that to publish it as it was. McCallum is an actor and musician; he's not a writer. It was the job of the publisher to make sure the finished product upheld certain basic standards. The nonstop dropping of brand names, the convoluted sentences, and, so help me, the whole rape-as-seduction sequence (by the way, at the end of the book, our tough-as-nails English police detective heroine ends up running off with the mobster who kidnapped and brutally raped her and living in bliss on a tropical island with him with a lot of stolen money, because that made complete sense for her character)... none of that should have made it into the final published work. Absolutely maddening.
Even with the Harry Potter books (which I love) I feel in some places the editors just left stuff that should have been fixed. Repeated words, clunky construction. If it'll sell as it is, then it's done. I was told by a Harper Collins editor that one of my books was reminiscent of C S Lewis, but they couldn't publish it because it didn't hit certain marketing checkpoints. I mean, C S Lewis is one of the most popular children's authors of all time. What?
Morgan Richter said…
Publishers and editors are strange beasts, Aconitum--I've long ago given up on trying to figure them out (I mean, "marketing checkpoints", for crying out loud). Still, I really wish McCallum had an editor who could firmly tell him which parts of his book were in dire need of fixing. It shouldn't have seen the light of day in the state it was in.

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