The popularity of the James Bond films lead to one of the best espionage action shows on television in the form of the The Man from U.N.C.L.E. which had a tone that ran from taught thriller to almost campy fun at times, but midway through season one we got a delightful blend of serious spy action, with a nice dash of fun, as secret agent Napoleon Solo found himself teamed up with a young Kurt Russell.
The episode has a rather grim beginning as we open on a small Scottish island where all of the inhabitants seem to have died rather suddenly. American Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Soviet Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) arrive via helicopter, one that is helpfully named branded U.N.C.L.E. on the side, which makes one wonder what kind of secret international agency these guys are running if they label their vehicles so obviously. The two agents step out of their helicopter wearing 60s versions of hazmat suits and start to investigate the scene, a scenario that looks chilling familiar if you’ve seen The Andromeda Strain which hit theaters seven years later, and when the pair begin to investigate the village they soon discover that not one soul is left alive.
This is pretty bleak stuff for your average 60s television show and it gets even darker, after finding a mysterious crate with a note attached to it that reads, “To Highest Authority Open only under controlled conditions” Solo and Kuryakin load it into the helicopter and then proceed to use incendiary grenades to destroy the village. They don’t even know the cause of the mass deaths but whether it’s because of the threat of a possible contagion spreading, or possibly they don’t want word of such an atrocity getting out, they take extreme measures to get rid of all evidence of it ever happening.
Much of the series had Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin facing off against U.N.C.L.E.’s opposing organization THRUSH but as WWII was not so long ago when this show aired we occasionally got leftover Nazis and Japanese villains to fill the roster of threats to the free world. In this episode the chief villain is General Yokura (Leonard Strong) and his villainous femme fatale Tomo (Tura Satana), and as we are introduced to them we learn that General Yokura is very angry that agents of U.N.C.L.E. had beaten him to the site and retrieved what could be an important clue before he could get his own men there. He quickly gives orders for Solo and Kuryakin’s helicopter to be shot down, but he didn’t take into account U.N.C.L.E. equipping their helicopters with air to ground rockets that easily dispatch the bad guys. Our heroes escape but Kuryakin took a round in the arm and so he’s basically out of commission for the bulk of the episode.
Back in London offices of U.N.C.L.E. the contents of the crate is revealed to be a Pinnipedia Otaridae, meaning “finny footed” and “having ears” or in layman’s terms a common eared seal. An autopsy reveals that the seal’s last meal was a feast of blue-gilled sardines, a very uncommon variety only found off the coast of Norway. The doctor informs them, “That the though it is an unmistakenly young seal he unquestionably died of old age.” Solo noting that all the residents of the island appeared to have been very old when they died he deduces that some foreign chemical must have been ingested by the sardines who in turn were eaten by this seal, along with some of his brethren, and they washed ashore on this lone Scottish island where the villagers fell victim to it as well. Director Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) benches the wounded Kuryakin and sends Solo to the town of Bergen in Norway to find the origins of the “Age Plague” and if it is a weapon of an enemy power he is to put a stop to it.
While at the London airport Solo saves a boy by the name of Christopher Larson (Kurt Russell) from being run over by a luggage cart, and for some reason this causes the young man to decide that Solo would be a perfect husband for his widowed mom. The kid notices Solo’s luggage name tag and states, “That’s kind of funny name, but I guess I could get used to it.” He then proceeds to inform Solo that his mom is a very pretty widow and a good cook, and that he is off to visit his grandparents in Bergen, Norway, “Oh, uh, you aren’t married, are you?” he quickly asks. After Solo walks off to take care of some business Chris goes to the ticket counter and has his ticket for New York City exchanged for one to Bergen. Now Robert Vaughn is very suave and cool character but this kid goes straight into stalker mode just because of one act of kindness, you got to wonder what his home life was like that he is so eager to have a new dad.
The business Solo had to take care of was checking in with headquarters and from Kuryakin he learns that their agent in Norway is dead but before he died he managed to smuggle something to them, a strange oversized ring and a cryptic message “Marry the Maiden” but unfortunately for our heroes the agents of General Yokura were listening in the phone call and now plan to intercept Solo and retrieve the ring. An agent tries to deliver the ring to Solo, who is patiently waiting for his plane, but the man is intercepted by an assassin. Christopher witnesses the agent being stabbed, who was at least able to kill his assassin, and Chris is even more shocked when the dying man gives Chris the ring to deliver to Solo.
The traumatized kid boards the plane but he takes a while to finally tell Solo what he witnessed. Upon taking possession of the strange ring Solo convinces the kid that what he witnessed was a practical joke that his friend was pulling, and that the blood he saw was just ketchup. This subterfuge doesn’t last long for when they arrive at Bergen a group of enemy agents, led by the beautiful and dangerous Tomo, try grab Solo and retrieve the ring, but our “hero” uses the kid as cover to escape through the luggage area. The rest of the episode proceeds along these lines with the villains chasing after Solo and the kid, narrowly escaping death at every turn, and even at one point they are captured and are only able to escape when Solo uses a novelty toy that Chris had as a distraction which allows them to shoot their way out, with the poor boy still in tow.
While being “interrogated” by General Yokura Solo learned that the villains are after a chemical known as J-47 which was developed by a Japanese scientist during the war in a secret laboratory here in Norway. The man who developed this accelerated ageing chemical only made one small batch before he died, having succumbed to “Romantic fantasies of guilt” he overdosed himself on the stuff. General Yokura wants that last batch of the formula and he believes Solo knows where it is. Of course Solo doesn’t have a clue where the hidden supply is but when he and Chris arrive in Stromberg he notices a statue called “Maiden of Norway” and he deduces that putting the oversized ring on the statue’s ring finger is what the clue was alluding to.
Peering through the ring, once placed on the finger of the statue, Solo sees that it points towards a cave up on a coastal cliff side. When Chris climbs up on the statue to see for himself Solo spots a tracking device on the back of the kid’s belt, obviously planted by General Yokura so he could follow them to the lost chemical, solo attaches the tracking device to the collar of a local dog and then yells “Fetch!” and tosses a stick into the water. The dog dives in after it and Solo and Chris beat it to the hills to find the last remains of J-47, with the hopes that Yokura and company will be busy following the dog. It was a great plan but unfortunately the dog was also a great tracker and it manages to follow the pair to the cave.
General Yokura, Tomo, and a couple of goons arrive at the cave and Solo, Chris and the dog are soon trapped inside. What Yokura doesn’t know is that not only did Solo find the hidden chamber where the last metal drum holding J-47 was placed but he discovered that over the years the metal drum had rusted through and in time all of the chemical had all poured out of a hole and made its way down to the ocean below. There is no more J-47 left, it’s either dried up or washed out to sea where the sardines ended up eating the stuff. . Solo tries to explain this to Yokura, who of course doesn’t believe him, and we are then treated to a nice little gun battle. Solo kills one of the men while Chis knocks another goon unconscious, and when the man comes to Solo forces him to call out to Yokura to say that Solo is dead. The happy general enters the cave only to find himself facing the very not dead Man from U.N.C.L.E.
After shooting the General Yokura our hero turns to Tomo and asks, “What about you? I thought it was the old Japanese custom for the servant to follow the master by hari-kari.” She glibly responds, “You’ve got the wrong century, Jack.” I must say that Robert Vaughn makes a pretty badass spy and is certainly no knock-off James Bond, and the first season of the show was probably more in keeping with the tone of Ian Fleming’s books rather than the later Bond movies. The Finny Foot Affair is a damn fine episode and is absolutely a great kid’s adventure story with Kurt Russell playing the part that every red blooded American boy would dream to have. Who wouldn’t want to be a Junior James Bond?
The episode has a sweet epilogue where Solo and Christopher arrive at the New York City airport and Napoleon is shocked to find out that Chris no longer finds him to be proper dad material, “I like you an awful lot, Mr. Solo, but I still got to take care of mother first. Well she needs somebody to be around a lot, you know to kiss and stuff. Well, being a spy and all you probably wouldn’t be able to spend much time at home. Well that would make my mother awful unhappy.” So Chris decides he needs to shop around a little more for a father.
Of course it has to end on a nice comic moment with Solo spoting Mrs. Larson who turns out to be a beautiful blonde, and Waverly drags Solo away before the man can chase after the pair. As televised adventure shows go The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was one of the best and it still holds up remarkably, and seeing a young Kurt Russell tussling with a gang of villains is just the cherry on the top of this rather excellent episode.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. “The Finny Foot Affair” (1964)
It’s kind of surprising the amount of people who get killed in this episode, several at the hands of the hero himself, and with a thirteen year old boy around during all this makes it even more unusual for a show of that era.