I don’t know what it would have felt like to watch this episode in its original era, in an America still reverbrating from the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy. That world no longer exists in 2021, its tensions and fears receded, to be replaced by the tensions and fears of our times. The story was about living under the shadow of nuclear destruction, imminent nuclear destruction, inevitable nuclear destruction – I know that feeling well, I lived most of my life under that shadow – and about one man’s response: outlandish, wierd and yet strangely noble.
Special Guest Star Robert Culp played the titular Captain Shark, a modern-day Pirate with an almost unfathomable modus operandi, stopping ships in mid-ocean, seizing certain not actually valuable supplies, taking one or more passenger and sinking the ship. What on Earth could he want with a skilled paino-tuner?
This was more like the U.N.C.L.E. I’m waiting to watch, that element of absurdity that characterises the best episodes. It’s starting to break through. Ilya and Solo are interviewing perky, loud-voiced, Brooklyn-accented Elsa Burnman, played by Sue Ann Landen, who has a delightful tip-tilted nose. Elsa is just one of many people around the world whose spuse has answered an add calling for a specialist – librarian in her husband Harry’s case, roof thatcher in another – only to go missing. Immediately I heard the profession of roof thatcher, I knew this had to be connected to the good Captain, but at first Messrs Solo and Kuryakin think they’re on two separate cases, Ilya the missing people, Solo the piracy job.
It’s Ilya who makes the connection. The people being removed by Captain Shark are all related to the missing people – wives, mothers, chidren, sweethearts – but that begs the question of what it’s all about. They know that Elsa has disappeared, having been sent a cruise ticket and money to rejoin Harry. So the two Enforcement Agents are dropped into the middle of the ocean, in the path of Elsa’s boat, complete with cover stories, to be in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, they’re ‘rescued’ by Captain Shark’s vessel instead.
Culp’s performance, a year out from his starring role alongside Bill Cosby in I-Spy, strikes a strange note. He plays Shark with immense dignity, a Ship’s Captain who is in command, who is working to a plan that involves sinking ships but not hurting people, who acts with an utter calmness and an innate courtesy. This is because, in his own eyes, he is a man on a mission, an important, imperative mission, and one that is wholly beneficial in intent.
This is because he has seen the future, the same future so many of us saw, then and for at least thirty years since, a future in which the rivalries on Earth would lead inexorably to all-out muclear War, and the planet’s destruction. Shark’s mission is to build an Ark, a completely safe and protected environment in which the building blocks of another, better civilisation will survive, to emerge when the toxins disperse and establish a new human race, tied together by its commonality, not its differences, its need for control.
Shark was completely sincere in this. His methods may have been illegal, but in his eyes they were all justified. The ends served, indeed demanded the means, but it was to be done without killing. Culp’s performance underlined the man who was set aside by his mission, and a man who, when his dream was exploded, refused to return to the outside world that he saw no place for himself within, and who, in the best tradition and cliche, was determined to go down with his ship.
In the end, it was that strangeness, and the memory of the times I felt the way Shark felt, that captivated me, yet in amongst the sad madness there was the first flowering of U.N.C.L.E,‘s lightheartedness. The occasional overblown lines, combining flippancy and cynicism, the idea of stranding Solo and Kuryakin in mid-Ocean to do an intercept, Elsa’s completely down to bedrock dottiness. Ah, it’s coming together. All they need to do is lose that mindless talk-to-the-screen introduction and we’ll be flying.