1-25 The Never-Never Affair

Rewatching the Man from UNCLE

blog review uncle

I'm rewatching every episode of the Man from UNCLE series from start to finish. This review may contain spoilers.

In most TV shows, there are "budget" episodes. The ones that take place in a relatively confined area, and have a pretty simple story, and a limited cast. In Star Trek, they were the ones that took place entirely on the Enterprise so no fancy alien planet sets would be required. In Dr. Who, they were the ones that took place in corridors of great sci fi complexes or underground hideouts. In UNCLE, I think, they're the episodes set in and around UNCLE headquarters. And this is one of those episodes.

And it's great.

Agent 23, by the name of Mandy Stevenson, is a bored UNCLE agent on the Portugues translation team. She got into the spy business to find danger and adventure, but all she does all day is office work. So she starts bugging Napoleon Solo for a chance to accompany him on a real mission. Mandy Stevenson is played by Barbara Feldon, and this episode belongs entirely to her. I wonder how much an influence this role had on Barbara's later role as Agent 99 in the Get Smart TV series, because in a way she's playing the straight man to UNCLE's unintended comedy of errors.

Barbara Feldon

The plot is all about bluffs. It's bluff upon bluff, and sometimes a double-bluff upon double-bluff. Nobody in this episode knows what's really going on, and it makes for a captivating plot. Instead of trying to determine whether someone is bluffing, the audience knows who's bluffing, we just don't know whether anyone else does, or even whether they themselves know.

It all starts when Mr. Waverly assigns one agent to deliver some microfilm (on a microdot) to a drop-off point, and later asks a secretary to summon a courier to arrange for someone to fetch some pipe tobacco.

Napoleon Solo, knowing that Stevenson has been wanting to go on a real mission, gives her a "top secret" assignment. Deliver a mysterious tobacco humador to the local tobacconist. She's not to open it herself, but the tobacconist will of course know what to do. It's a simple assignment, and Solo lets Stevenson believe that it's a dangerous mission, thinking no harm could come of a simple, well-meant lie.

Naturally there's a mix-up, and Stevenson ends up with the humador and the microdot.

What's really going on?

Of course the local THRUSH street gang is out that day, with Cesar Romero in the lead as the evil but debonair Victor Gervais. THRUSH naturally assumes that the UNCLE agent casually carrying a humador is their mark, and of course they're right. Luckily, Solo and Kuryakin realise the mistake and hurry to protect Stevenson. The problem is, for added flavour Solo had instructed Stevenson to take a route so complex that he can't remember it, so they're as desperate to find her as THRUSH is.

A cat-and-mouse chase ensues, with near misses, close encounters, and narrow escapes. In the end, of course, Stevenson must get captured by THRUSH, and she must be rescued by Solo, which sounds predictable but plays out completely differently that you'd expect. Stevenson and Gervais play an accidental round of Russian roulette, Solo pulls of the coolest bluff of the season, and then Stevenson tops his bluff with a brilliant reveal all her own.

This is a light-hearted episode, and I admittedly usually dislike the "fun" episodes of serious shows. Had any other actor played Mandy Stevenson, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed the episode, but Barbara Feldon handles the material so perfectly that she manages to sell the story pretty much on her own. This one is so cleverly written and so masterfully played, I think it's probably one of my favourites of the season so far.

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

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