"No man is free who works for a living . . . but I am available." (-- Illya Kuryakin, "The Bow-Wow Affair")

These reviews/commentaries on the show's 105 episodes originally appeared in slightly different form on the Yahoo! Groups website Channel_D, from 2008 to 2010. If you're new to MfU fandom, these may give you some idea of the flavor of the series, which is still famous and beloved more than 50 (!) years after its premiere in 1964. Enjoy!

News: Decades Channel is running a "Weekend Binge" of MfU episodes on July 2, 2017. Check the schedule here.

(Except where otherwise noted, images are used with permission of the exhaustive site Lisa's Video Frame Capture Library. Thanks to Lisa for all her work!)

Monday, February 8, 2010

"The Minus-X Affair" (ep. 2/29)

This one, as Bill Koenig notes on his site, should have been the last episode this year; it would have ended Season Two on a strong note.  Peter Allan Fields's "Minus-X" is a favorite of mine, for the plausible SF plot, Barry Shear's sharp direction, the "Goldfinger" flavor, and an Innocent who is drawn in because of her unknowing link to Thrush.

We open with a weird scene, as Waverly, Solo, and Illya observe Louis, one of their fellow agents, in the grip of what we'll later learn is Plus-X.  Louis knows them; Solo identifies himself and Illya by their first names.  There are more than five senses, really: the sense of your own position in space, where your limbs are in relation to your body and each other, et al.  The amplification of so much input, as well as that of smell, hearing, etc., would be likely to drive you mad.  Imagine being able to hear your own muscles working!  (For an example of how the super-magnification of just one sense, smell, could smash civilization, see Spider Robinson's SF novel Telempath.)

Wheels within wheels here.  We presume, after we learn (surprise!) that Prof. Stemmler is a Thrush, that the attempt on her lab foiled by our heroes was a ruse.  After Louis escaped, Rollo would know the Command would check out Stemmler, and had her prepared with the story of the "break-in."  His men then pretended to steal her equipment to conceal her Thrush status.  Later he uses Leslie to get Stemmler out from under the eye of U.N.C.L.E.

Theo Marcuse's spats-wearing, cane-twirling Arthur Rollo is much like his dandified killer, Valetti, from "Re-Collectors."  However, he gives Rollo an evil jollity that Valetti did not have.  I imagine him collecting Sevres porcelain and eighteenth-century paintings (and perhaps underage girls).  Watch his sheer enjoyment and anticipation as he briefs his men.  His dynamic with Eve Arden's Stemmler sings, too.  Probably they've clashed many times during this project; yet they are on a first-name basis themselves.  They are, as Rollo points out, part of the culture that is Thrush.

Barry Shear's direction here is superb.  As Louis races out of the frame, we cut to a lab mouse emerging into a maze.  Later, as party girl Leslie drops a glass, a hard cut shows us Stemmler sweeping up broken glass in her lab.

I love Illya's "Well played. Point to you" nod to the Thrush trumpet player after the latter shoots him with the dart, and Stemmler's unhesitating stride to the door when Rollo delivers his ultimatum.

"Apples, and cookies, and cinnamon toast . . ."  Robert Vaughn must have had loads of fun as Solo pretends to be a slobbering five-year-old.  When Solo shoots trumpet player Whittaker, though, it's with three Luger slugs, not with a sleep dart.  However charming Solo may be, he's still a pro.

Illya snipes at Solo and grumbles at him when the older agent asks about his headache.  Yet their teamwork when they assault Rollo's plant, especially in the scene where Illya volunteers to "take out the garbage" and Solo salutes him British Army style, is classic.

If the story falls down at all, it's in the last ten minutes.  We never see Rollo and his team steal the data they came for -- and if the team members have memorized the circuits, plans, and whatnot, why transmit the data cards?  (As a backup, in case one or more of the team were killed?)  What was that power room where Solo and Illya face Rollo and his men?  The team seems rather easily knocked out for temporary supermen, too.  However, the rare unhappy ending, as Rollo shoots Stemmler before dying himself, saves the scene.

I love Sharon Farrell's brittle Leslie, she of the bitterness and febrile gaiety.  Her lines at the tag, though, don't convince me that her mother's death has really gotten through to her.  A line about, "She must have loved me; she died for me," would have done it.  (Solo, thankfully, does not come on to her, not she to him -- a flashback to Season One's flavor.)  If Leslie was depressed, an emotional after-effect of Plus-X, will the surviving team members defect from Thrush in remorse?  And what is the after-effect of a dose of Minus-X?  Do you giggle too easily at reruns of "The Partridge Family"?

Verdict: A suspenseful "Goldfinger" for the small screen, though it could have used another quarter hour of screen time: to explore the effects of Plus- and Minus-X, to show us Rollo and his men actually stealing their data, and most important, to fill out the bitter dynamic between Dr. Stemmler and her wayward daughter.

Memorable lines:
Lillian Stemmler (on Rollo's ultimatum): "The girl is my daughter, Mr. Solo.  A stranger, perhaps, but nevertheless my daughter. . . .  You may shoot me if you like.  That will stop me."

Stemmler: "By the time you reach your adversaries [at the plutonium plant], Mister Rollo, they will be dumber than a box of rocks."

Leslie (gaily, bitterly): "And these Neanderthal friends of yours with their muscles and their guns?  They a part of your salon of Nobel prizewinners, Mother?"

Rollo (to Stemmler): "We don't like each other much, huh?  But we are Thrush.  Above all, my dear . . . we are Thrush."


ARH said...

This is one of the best episodes of Season 2 in my opinion. Well done all round. I agree with you that they should have just stopped the Season here and burnt the very weak "The Indian Affairs Affair" at the stake.

Wastrel said...

The running joke about Napoleon ruining his suits and U.N.C.L.E. having to pay for them is well played. Even Waverly adds a dry humorous comment. It helps to tie the episode together from beginning to end.