Once again, it seems as if I am out of step. ‘The Dove Affair’, written by Robert Towne, who would go on to pen the screenplay for the great Jack Nickholson film, Chinatown, is regarded as one of the best of U.N.C.L.E.’s first season, whereas I thought that it substituted atmosphere and convolution for a coherent approach to what was actually a strong story base.
The episode – which again completely excluded David McCallum – was set in an unnamed Balkan country, whose beloved Premier had recently died. We were told this by the number two guest star, Miss Shirley Taub, a not unattractive early-fortyish teacher conducting a party of High School Seniors where the late Premier was lying in state. Miss Taub was played by June Lockhart, who had just finished five years on Lassie and who was shortly to co-star in Lost in Space, as mother to Marta Kristen of last week’s episode, where she would wander aroud in skin-tight bacofoil.
Suddenly, a wall is blown in, Napoleon Solo enters, wielding a gun with an impressively long silencer fitted, who rips an unconvincingly tinfoil medal, shaped as a dove, off the late Premier’s corpse and exits via his self-created door, to go on the run.
Good start, if a little uncharacteristically violent for our man from U.N.C.L.E. Solo has been sent by Mr Waverley to recover the Dove and bring it back to America. He’s supposed to be aided by Mr Satine, the near-invisible head of the country’s civilian intelligence, whose face is unknown. After dropping the Dove off in a drop-box, Solo meets a mysterious trench-coated, fedora-ed guy who claims to be an agent of Satine. He is, however, Ricardo Montalban, who’s going to have sleek and sinister fun, almost bordering on camp, and we’ve seen him in the credits as the principal guest star, Mr Satine.
He’s there to help Solo escape, which is why, when the Police arrive, he tries to kill him by dropping him into the river.
That’s where the basic problem lies. The story is good, indeed strong. THRUSH is attempting to take over this country. President Yanos was strong enough to resist them, hence they murdered him. New Premier Ernst is not strong enough, especially not with the Military supporting THRUSH. They’d like a nice, neat murder trial, with an U.N.C.L.E. Agent as the murderer.
On behalf of civil Intelligence, and his country, Satine is determined that shall not happen. He will get the U.N.C.L.E. Agent out of the country. Or kill him first. But he’s got to recover the Dove. Why? This is not explained until the two-thirds mark. Usually, that’s good writing, to set up a classic reveal, but since all we’ve had up to now is the sparring between Solo and Satine and the latter seeming to switch allegiances with every passing breath, over a cheap-looking Peace Medal, the revelation fell flat, because by then I was struggling to understand just what the heck was going on.
And why is the Dove so important? Engraved, microscopically, on its wings and the names, addresses and shoe-sizes of every THRUSH Agent in this poor anonymous country, not to mention their battle orders, done by the late Premier. Solo, who’s determined to get the Dove back to his boss, come what may, puts the entirely reasonable point that with this information, U.N.C.L.E. can help, but Satine is not prepared to take the chance, that U.N.C.L.E. will have its own, diverging ends, that will lead to his country’s extinction in order to win another, greater battle.
Still, Solo’s got the Dove. He and Satine are locked together over it, as much as if they were handcuffed. Miss Taub’s school party is leaving the country by train, at night – the entire episode takes place at night, complete in its early scenes with mist – and Solo uses them to get on board the train, despite having no papers, no ticket, no passport and no real challenge from officials in a plainly authoritarian country.
By a cheap, but well foreshadowed contrivance, Miss Taub learns that Solo is a spy, but he’s one of us and besides she likes him, and for once in her life she wants to do something out of the ordinary (all of which adds up to her wanting to fling her knickers away in gay abandon for him, though she’ll never admit that, not even to herself). So she uses her students to distract Satine long enough for Solo to retrieve the Dove from its ingenious in-plain-sight hiding place – pinned over the image of the medal on a wall-poster – except that one of the girl students has grabbed it and is wearing it round her neck until Satine snatches it.
So then we get a somewhat ridiculous ending in which Solo gets away across the border by stealing the engine and driving it through the border barriers, into a receiving country that waves him in with welcoming smiles, despite there being no reason to think that they know him from Adam or, perhaps more appropriately since he’s invading their country forcefully, Barracus. Satine’s fallen from the footplate, fighting the only other man in the country who knows he is Satine, and taken the Dove with him, but pops up in a Border Guard’s uniform, unruffled and with the Dove.
But Solo’s got a polaroid of, ta-da! the Dove, from which U.N.CL.E. will be able to extract all the information anyway (from a polaroid? Seriously?). And thus it ends.
I’d put this one down as a good story poorly handled. Montalban was excellent as Satine but, in the end, was made to be more devious than was comfortable in terms of understanding what he was doing nearly all the time.
Interestingly, I happened to note from imdb that this episode was first broadcast in the UK on May 4 1968, meaning that we didn’t see this over here until four years after its broadcast in America. Only four years later, yet the worlds of 1964 and 1968 were like two different existences. That, in a way, is the most puzzling aspect of all.