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

I suppose this episode won’t magically improve the longer I put off recapping it, so let’s rip this bandage off quickly, shall we?

We open somewhere high up in the Himalayas, where Illya bids farewell to his native guide, then dresses up as a Yeti in head-to-toe fur and a rubber mask so he can sneak across the border into the fictional country of Ghupat. We’re barely a minute into the episode, and already things are irreparably stupid. We are deep in the foul and stinky waters of season three.

It quickly gets stupider: Illya is ambushed by Calamity Rogers (Anne Jeffreys), a former movie star dressed in full cowgirl regalia. Mistaking him for a genuine Abominable Snowman, she whips out a rifle and shoots him in the arm. “Yahoo! I got that ornery critter!” she proclaims to her loyal manservant.

Still with me? You can bail out now; I won’t get offended. It won’t get any better.

Back at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Mr. Waverly explains the episode’s plot to Napoleon: The aged and ailing High Lama of Ghupat (Philip Ahn) is approaching the end of his life, so he’s requested the help of U.N.C.L.E. to ensure a smooth succession. Waverly mentions the High Lama is a close personal friend. “I met him in India during my tiger-hunting days. Oh, yes, I used to hunt the big cat,” he smugly tells Napoleon, who barely makes an effort to look interested.

Waverly’s tales of misbegotten youth are interrupted by the sudden arrival of a pigeon, who comes bearing a message from the High Lama informing them that Illya failed to arrive in Ghupat. Waverly orders Napoleon to find Illya and to observe the selection of a new High Lama.

The High Lama survives a murder attempt from his sinister right-hand man, Prime Minister Tashi (David Sheiner sporting a Fu Manchu ‘stache and some egregious prosthetics to eliminate his eyelid crease), then promptly dies of natural causes anyway, because that’s how this episode rolls.

Posing as a travel journalist, Napoleon arrives in Ghupat. At the border, guards sternly tell him the country is closed to foreigners, but Napoleon shows them a letter of introduction from Waverly, and they let him pass. Which sort of begs the question: Why did Illya need to sneak across the border to get into the country?  There’s a much bigger question here, i.e. why did Illya need to dress up as a Yeti to sneak across the border into the country, but I know in my heart that no answer will soothe my troubled soul on that count. Anyway, Napoleon is taken to see Prime Minister Tashi, who informs him of the High Lama’s death.

Alarmed by Napoleon’s presence, Tashi consults with a young woman named Amra Palli (Pilar Seurat), who has Mystical Asian Powers™, mind-reading included, which she uses to magically ferret out Napoleon’s true identity. Tashi orders Amra to stick close to Napoleon: “You shall be Mr. Solo’s constant companion. You will feed him. You will watch him. You will learn all his thoughts!”

You will feed him. Sure enough, Amra pops up in Napoleon’s quarters with a tray of food and offers to take care of his needs. He immediately starts perving on her: “Everything I wish appears to be right before my eyes in this room.” When his standard pickup line has no effect on her, Amra explains that she doesn’t experience emotions: “Happiness is a contrived and temporary state of mortal mind,” she tells him in a monotone, dead-eyed and unblinking. You must be fun at parties, Amra.

Wholly unable to believe Amra feels no attraction toward him, Napoleon kisses her. Underwhelmed by the experience, she assesses her first kiss thusly: “The anatomical juxtaposition of two oris muscles in a state of contraction.” No lie, Amra is one of the weirdest characters ever to appear on this show.

Having been unconscious for two days (from a hand injury?), Illya awakens to find himself in the care of Calamity Rogers, who feeds him yak liver oil (“Good for what ails ya!” she chirps happily) and nurses him to health. Calamity gives Illya her ridiculous backstory: Her husband, a man named Chang Li, was Ghupat’s Minister of External Affairs, until he was murdered by an Abominable Snowman.

I’m trying to find the campy joy in this episode, really I am, but this is just stupid.

Illya introduces himself to her. She’s unfamiliar with U.N.C.L.E., so he describes it as “an international sheriff’s posse.” “I got a hunch we’re looking for the same bad guys,” she tells Illya. Wait, what? I’ve rewatched this scene far too many times trying to make sense of that line, and I’m lost. Illya mentions “bad guys” only in the context of his general job description, i.e. he hunts bad guys, and he doesn’t give her any information about his present assignment (which, in any case, is simply to observe the succession and make sure the next High Lama is chosen fairly—yes, Prime Minister Tashi is a villain, but Illya doesn’t know that). Just a few minutes ago, Calamity was insisting a Yeti murdered her husband, and Illya says nothing to dissuade her of that idea, so why is she suddenly convinced they’re both “looking for the same bad guys”?

I’ve now officially spend too much of my life puzzling over this slipshod mess of an episode.

Meanwhile, Amra uses her Mystical Asian Powers™ to read more of Napoleon’s thoughts: “You had a dream last night. You are worried about the Abominable Snowman. A man with golden hair.” Hey, that’s kind of interesting! Tell us more about Napoleon’s dream of Illya, Amra. Amra offers to use her powers to find Illya: “Do you have a lock of his hair?” “No, I have never been a member of Illya’s fan club,” Napoleon replies with a straight face. Okay, I’ll give this episode credit for containing one decently funny and extremely meta joke about David McCallum’s wild popularity.

A sacred ritual reveals the High Lama has been reincarnated as orphan boy named Jami. Tashi sends his goons to kidnap Jami, then orders Amra to take the kid out into the jungle and feed him to the tigers. Holy hell, we’re just at the end of Act I? We have three more acts of this misery to slog through?

Tashi browbeats and threatens his secret illegitimate son, Baku (Stewart Hsieh), into posing as Jami and assuming the title of High Lama. Calamity Rogers receives an invitation to the coronation ceremony. There’s a photo of Baku-as-Jami included with the invitation; Calamity immediately identifies him to Illya as Tashi’s son. “My husband was killed because of him!” she exclaims, which… I mean, what the hell, Man From U.N.C.L.E.? Why is she no longer convinced her husband was killed by a Yeti? Anyway, apparently her husband knew of the existence of Tashi’s secret son, so Tashi had him murdered. I don’t know. I can’t make sense of this. Maybe the murderer was wearing an Abominable Snowman costume at the time. That would be in keeping with the spirit of this episode.

Illya calls Waverly to tell him the new High Lama is a fraud. Tashi’s goons burst in and capture Illya and Calamity Rogers.

Meanwhile, Amra is off feeding young Jami to the tigers. Jami is rescued from certain death by a charging elephant. Upon witnessing this, Amra feels a surge of emotion for the first time in her life. Mortification over participating in this nonsense, I assume. She returns to the palace and throws herself into Napoleon’s arms. Distraught, she tells him she’s lost her Mystical Asian Powers™. While she’s in the middle of yammering on to Napoleon about Tashi’s plan to kill Jami, Tashi captures them.

So Illya, Napoleon, Calamity Rogers, and Amra end up bound beneath a gigantic clanging gong, the noise of which, Tashi claims, will quickly drive them all insane unless they agree to testify to the validity of the new ersatz High Lama.

Tashi soon gets bored with that, so then he walls them up in a dungeon chamber, whereupon they’ll all soon suffocate from lack of oxygen unless they agree to testify to the validity of the new ersatz High Lama. 

Pick a torture, Tashi, and stick with it. This episode is tedious and convoluted enough as is. Anyway, as soon as Tashi leaves, they promptly break out of the dungeon, thanks to Napoleon’s explosive tie pin.

The coronation begins. Before Tashi can crown his son as the new High Lama, Jami and Mr. Waverly arrive, riding on the back of the elephant that saved Jami from the tigers. Oh, why not?

Baku cheerfully surrenders his crown to Jami, Tashi is detained, and all ends well. Mr. Waverly romances Calamity Rogers, and Illya steals Amra’s affections away from Napoleon.

We will never speak of this episode again.


Illesdan said…
Oh, you found a good one there, didn't you? You sure Amra wasn't an escapee from 'The Very Important Zombie Affair'?

These episodes always fall apart when we don't have Napoleon and Illya together. And the weird thing is is that there's no good reason to split them up and send them off in different directions since they're supposed to be each others partner. Frankly, I'd rather go back and explore Napoleon's dream of Illya, that sounds more fun....
Lily said…
I feel like the writers were crying for help in this one. The Yeti costume and why it was needed is something I'll probably still be puzzling over when I'm 90 (really Illya? Why? Why?) I'm game for almost any s3 because I have a weirdly high tolerance for ridiculousness, but this episode almost made the ranks of Star Trek's hippie episode (the only episode of TOS that I can never rewatch).

That dream of Illya would be nice to know about...
vintagehoarder said…
I thought Amra might have been a Vulcan with an ear-bob (since we seem to be talking about TOS in these comments!)

The sad thing about this episode was that it could have been so much better. It has the germ of a good plot - U.N.C.L.E. being sent to see the peaceful transfer of power in a small country, and getting caught up in villainous shenanigans. If a decent script editor had sat down and removed all the nonsense, and filled in all the plot holes, it might have worked. As it was, I wound up fanwanking it that Illya happened to have a yeti costume on hand for some obscure reason, and Napoleon bet him he wouldn't dare doing a mission while wearing it!
montereysnow said…
Watching this episode is like watching your cat get hit by a truck. You want to look away but you are just too horrified to do so.

This episode was an opportunity missed on so many levels.
It reunited Leo G. Carroll with Anne Jeffreys, his co star from the 1950's comedy, Topper.

Audiences at the time would have recognized this. When Uncle came on I was
already a Leo G. Carroll fan from watching afternoon Topper reruns.

It is a shame it could not have been a better episode. Sometimes it seems whoever was in charge just did not give a damn.
I bet Napoleon does carry a lock of Illya's hair. Then he could take it out and stroke it at will.
I don't understand why, when they're under the gong, they don't just stand up and stop the log that's striking it. Kudos to the two women for having no interest in Napoleon and Illya’s 'the girls can't take much more excuse.'
Good things about this episode; Illya drinking yak liver oil, his shooting competition, and his clothes. Also, it's not the Matterhorn Affair, which raises it a small notch. But god,it's awful. I agree it could have been better with a little effort.
Morgan Richter said…
Oh, this episode. I have so little good to say about it, though it might be worth noting that the screenwriter, Krishna Shah, was born in India, and thus it's maybe a little easier to stomach the various, er, cultural insensitivities going on. Maybe. I don't know. "Not as blatantly racist as The Indian Affairs Affair or The Hong Kong Shilling Affair" is an awfully low bar to clear, but I guess this episode clears it.

montereysnow -- I didn't know that about Leo G. Carroll and Anne Jeffries! That's kind of a fun reunion (I loved the old Topper films, but never saw the series).

I will never, ever understand the point of having Illya wear that Yeti costume. Never.

Aconitum -- recapping the Matterhorn Affair looms ahead in my near future as I try to burn off the rest of season three. I'm not looking forward to rewatching that one.

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