"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, March 8, 2010

"The Survival School Affair" (ep. 4/10)

This is Season Four's Illya Episode.  In Season One's "Bow-Wow," Illya operated independently, yes; but here he is truly on his own, in a hunt for a concealed murderer/double agent.

See everything the well-constructed teaser does.  It tells us where we are and what the Survival School is, and introduces us to Jules Cutter, who "takes his job a little too seriously."  Then the security guy is murdered -- by someone he recognizes! -- and we wind up with a bikini-clad trainee holding a gun on Illya.  Wow!

The Survival School itself is well drawn.  We see multiple languages on the gate signs, the same kind of computer power HQ sports, and more.  There are more than just two male trainees, and at least five female ones (who have, logically, their own barracks).  The island, Cutter tells us, is 2000 miles from New York.  This suggests that it's in the Caribbean, not the Pacific.  Also, it's 700 miles from the shipping lanes?  Hard to schedule a leave.  I'd guess nobody is asked to be permanently assigned to the School, that staffers rotate, six months on and then off to a new posting.

Yes, Cutter is a bit of a blowhard, but only a bit.   His job, like any good drill instructor, is not to coddle recruits, but to make them tough.  It's not a nice counterintelligence world out there.   (I suspect, though, that he's gone a little too long between vacations.)   Charles McGraw's performance as Cutter is top-notch:  He walks like a man with authority.

Richard Beymer ("West Side Story") makes a solid believable agent out of Harry Williams.  When, wounded in Act IV, he inches himself up the wall to switch off the machine guns, he really looks like it takes everything he's got.

Along with the mystery's requisite three major suspects (and a minor one, Harry), we get information about Illya that we've long wished for.  We hear he was in the class of '56 and that Cutter kept him an extra month to instruct the demolition class.  This sort of thing backgrounds our characters and their world, making it and them three-dimensional.

Illya's reasoning in Act I, that the double agent must suspect he isn't graduating or he'd wait until he was inside the Command to steal its secrets, is neat.  Waverly's line about "this threat to our very existence" is kind of stagey and awkward, however, like some of the "romantic" exchange between John and Melissa.

Melissa reminds me a little of Anne Francis as Honey West.  During her training stalk, though, when she simply finds a revolver on the ground, shouldn't she check to be sure it's loaded?  And I thought Section Twos weren't allowed to marry?  If so, and Melissa was planning to marry John (before he was revealed), was she going to give up any shot at Enforcement?  John implied that he sure wasn't.

After all the agents' reports about using access tunnels to get into Thrush bases, you'd think a Command installation would be the last place on earth to have such wide tunnels!

No, the revelation of John Saimes as the double agent is no thunderbolt, but it's plausible, and he's dispatched fittingly on the firing range we saw earlier, when he tried to kill Illya and Cutter.  (The old Chekhov maxim: If you show a gun on stage in Act I, it needs to go off by the end of Act III.)  Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen might have had Cutter as the prime mover behind the whole thing. While astonishing, that would have required a lot of work to make believable, and would have made Cutter much less memorable.  It's a shame that Illya himself doesn't pinpoint the agent, though.

Verdict: Tight, fast, exciting; we don't miss Solo (well, not much) as we peer behind the curtain at how U.N.C.L.E. trains its agents; and we get a murder mystery too.  A minor classic.

Memorable Lines:
Cutter: "[Hargrove] acts like a woman in love."
Illya: "And that's not in your manual of training."
Cutter: "Certainly not at this school."

Illya (to Harry): "Keep your communicator handy and let us know if you hear anyone approaching.  It, ah, just might be a double agent coming to kill you."
Harry (wryly): "It's nice to know that somebody cares."

Harry (clasping his wounded shoulder): "Cutter's Survival School gets tougher every year."
Illya (flatly): "So does surviving."

Cutter (after heaving himself up from Illya's judo throw): "You should have done it in four [seconds].  I'm sure Mr. Solo could have."
Illya: "I'm sure he could.  Though Mr. Solo has better things to do than play games."
(Cutter's reaction, and the way his men snap back to attention: priceless)


Unknown said...

Oh my, a classic? Hardly.

This has to be one of the worse episodes of MFU. The cadets are annoying, the school a bit of a "suck it up and shut up" environment that doesn't promote the agents' learning to be creative thinkers (which I think they have to be to really succeed), and Illya comes off a little slow on the uptake. This "school" comes across more Army than U.N.C.L.E.

And the whole thing that having a Thrush infilitrate the Survival School is such a tragedy is ridiculous in a season where we already saw the Section I Continental Chiefs infilitrated quite successfully for quite a period of time by Harry Beldon. And U.N.C.L.E. didn't fall apart at the seams at that, but one Thrush Survival School cadet making agent would manage to do that? Come on.

Plus there had been countless infiltrations of various HQs portrayed over the years on the series. People who were already in trusted positions, not a new agent coming in fresh from Survival School and possibly never even making the grade to Section II.

ARH said...

I have to disagree with the earlier comment. I think the review is spot on, with this being a well-ploted and well-acted episode. It was also nice to get a Solo-free show - not because Solo is bad, but it opens up the U.N.C.L.E. universe a bit and shows it is an organization rather than just two guys.

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