1-9 The Strigas Affair

Rewatching the Man from UNCLE

blog review uncle

I'm rewatching every episode of the Man from UNCLE series from start to finish. These reviews contain spoilers.

This is a good one, showing UNCLE up to its most subversive plot yet. At the order of Mr. Waverly, Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin must deal with a Russian "diplomat" named Kurasov who's been loudly encouraging discontent on both sides. They can't forcefully remove him, so they decide to cause him to look so unreliable and foolish to his superiours back home that he'll have to leave the US with his political career in shambles.

The setup

They hatch a scheme involving a fake chemical compound called Strigas. They'll make it seem like a top-secret project, but leak some details to Kurasov until he can't resist trying to steal the information and send it to his superiours back in the USSR.

What they need is something seemingly innocent that, combined with some subtle hints, will appear like a flimsy cover story designed to conceal something more sinister. They find the perfect cover story in Michael and Anne Donfield, played by William Shatner and Peggy Ann Garner.

image from Man from UNCLE

Michael was a chemist at MIT until he left his position to become a small town pest exterminator. Why would anyone throw away a promising career like that for a failing exterminator business? Obviously because the exterimation business is just a cover for a super secret government project.

Complications

As you can imagine, the plan doesn't go exactly as expected. Ilya is posing as a Russian official who's been sent by an important general, but when Kurasov's back-stabbing (I mean loyal!) assistant Vladeck, played by Leonard Nimoy, checks up on that claim, he discovers that it's false.

So I buried the lede. Yes, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, later to go on to play Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek series, are in this episode together. Here, they play their parts well. William Shatner comes across as a man trying his best to finally do something right, and Leonard Nimoy is a conniving and self-serving political aide hoping against all hope that his superiour fails so he'll be promoted into the role.

The thing is, people are complicated in real life, and that's perfectly reflected in this story. Why did Donfield give up his MIT position for a pest extermination business? Why doesn't Vladeck stop working so hard to prevent Kurasov from failing, when he only stands to benefit from it, and clearly knows that? Why is Kurasov so insecure? And so on. It feels very much like an accurate portrayal of every component involved.

Secrets

Strigas is the name provided to the super secret project that doesn't exist. It's the bait. It works so well as a mystery, with everyone asking "what's Strigas?" over and over again. It absolutely begs to never be revealed, but sadly the episode's one misstep, at least in my opinion, is that it does take a few moments to explain what Strigas is supposed to be, and regardless of what you've imagined it could be up to that point, nothing the episode reveals can possibly live up to it. Frankly, that's surely true of the characters, too.

If I could change one thing about the episode, I'd remove the conversation that explains what Strigas is. Just dissolve to the next scene, or just cross-fade to the same conversation moments later. Whatever cheap trick it takes, do not reveal Strigas.

That's the episode's only infraction, though, and I can see how it was a difficult call to make. After all, they had to convince us, the viewers, that Kurasov had sufficient reason to risk everything, so they probably felt compelled to share the details of the bait with us. I think it would have worked better left unknown.

This was a satisfying episode, with a good cast and an intriguing story.

Lead image by Anthony DELANOIX under the terms of the Unsplash License. Modified by Seth in Inkscape.

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