Review for Tales Of The Gold Monkey
This is my ultimate nostalgia treat! I was ten years old, and my absolute favourite television programme in the world was Tales of the Gold Monkey. I'd watch it with a religious fervour every week on BBC1, following the adventures of Jake Cutter and his trusty one-eyed dog Jack with an unhealthy obsession. If there was one world that I wanted to live in, it was that of the South Pacific just prior to World War II, it just seemed so exciting, and for a ten-year-old boy, the fount of much fantasy and imagination. And I hadn't even seen Raiders of the Lost Ark at that point. But this was before my family had bought a VHS, and it was long before the boom in home cinema that inspired people to collect bookshelves worth of pre-recorded videotapes. Like most of my favourite shows at the time, Tales of the Gold Monkey hit big for one season, and then was unceremoniously, and in my opinion, criminally cancelled. After that, the only dose of high flying antics I got, was in the Disney animated remake in all but name, Talespin.
Not long afterward they invented the Internet, and naturally, when I wasn't posting on wesleycrusher.die.die.die, I thought about looking up some information on my favourite show from way back when. My memory had begun to waver, and it turned out that there was no such show as Tales of the Gold (en) Monkey, and that search engines back then really sucked. By the time that the IMDB had been created, and I had begun to wander the Internet with more confidence, the DVD had also been invented, and the collector instinct had been so imbued in the consumer psyche, that I figured it would only be a matter of months before I would get to see my once upon a time 'favourite TV show ever in the whole universe' again. The better part of fifteen years later, and courtesy of Fabulous Films, I now have the Complete Series Boxset of Tales of the Gold Monkey to relish. But I am the better part of fifteen years more jaded, cynical, and less prone to gushings of nostalgia…
Cashing in on the fan appreciation of all things Indiana Jones (although originally pitched to the studios some years earlier than the movie), Tales of the Gold Monkey was a weekly adventure serial starring ace pilot Jake Cutter, as he flew from island to island in his Grumman Goose seaplane in the South Pacific in 1938, back when the world teetered on the verge of war. His co-pilot was his trusty, one-eyed dog Jack, and his forgetful engineer was Corky. He was based on the island of Boragora in the French Marivellas, but the little island chain soon became a representation of the world in microcosm, especially as the Japanese had their own chunk of the Marivellas, controlled by the beautiful Princess Koji and her Samurai henchman Todo. The Magistrate of Justice on Boragora, as well as the owner of the Monkey Bar was the enigmatic Bon Chance Louie. The island's priest, the Dutch Reverend Willie Tenboom, who liked to 'bless' the native girls on a regular basis, was actually a Nazi spy, and early on, Jake flew Sarah Stickney-White to Boragora, where she became a singer at the Monkey Bar, although she was actually an American spy. Spies, intrigue, military manoeuvres, secret weapons, hidden treasure, myths and legends, it was all happening in the South Pacific in 1938.
Tales of the Gold Monkey's 22 episodes are presented here across 6 discs from Fabulous Entertainment, along with some tantalising extra features.
US television from the early eighties had the advantage of being shot on film, not video, so you can expect Tales of the Gold Monkey to look quite acceptable on DVD. It's clear and sharp throughout, and colours are generally consistent. These episodes haven't had a lot of play either when it comes to reruns and syndication, so there isn't extensive print damage. However, age does tell, and in a few episodes there are some tape artefacts that momentarily mar the image. Tales of the Gold Monkey was a fairly high budget genre series, and that work is apparent on screen when it comes to sets, locations, and especially the period costumes. There are some excellent matte paintings used here, and the stock footage while prevalent is never excessive. As always with period shows, you can spend hours looking for anachronisms. I doubt there were many jet contrails back in 1938.
I noticed some frames of minor pixellation in episode 18, 13:13 and 21:44 minutes in. I don't know if it's down to a scuffed disc or an error in replication though.
Tales of the Gold Monkey gets a DD 2.0 English audio track, which given the television of the period, I assume is mono repeated across both channels. It's perfectly fine to listen to, and the added clarity given by modern TVs to the music and effects actually makes the show sound a lot bigger. The dialogue is clear throughout, a boon given that there are no subtitles, and the theme tune still sounds heroic and exciting.
I did notice that the audio pops 19:33 minutes into episode 11, but as in the pixellation, it may be down to a scuffed disc.
1 & 2. Pilot
The Legend of the Gold Monkey draws many explorers to the South Pacific, in search of a golden idol supposedly impervious to heat. It's a treasure certain Nazis would like to possess. It's a treasure that is about to lead pilot Jake Cutter into a whole heap of trouble, when he flies singer Sarah Stickney-White to the island of Boragora. You see, Sarah is actually an American spy. Actually Jake's real trouble is that he has just lost his dog Jack's eye in a poker game, and Jack is sulking.
Jake's engineer Corky has two problems, an addiction to alcohol and memory loss. Otherwise he would have remembered not to accept free drinks from a hook-handed sailor named Ahab. When he wakes up, he's on Ahab's ship, being forced to fix its engines.
4. Black Pearl
The Nazis are testing a new type of bomb in the South Pacific, and US Intelligence has an important mission for Sarah. Unfortunately a storm garbles communications, which is why Sarah drugs the man she's supposed to help. Now Jake has to go undercover as a scientist!
5. Legends Are Forever
Gandy Dancer and Jake Cutter used to fly together. Gandy would come up with a get rich quick, treasure-hunting scheme, and Jake would get into trouble. Now Gandy shows up at the Monkey bar, claiming to have turned over a new leaf. He wants to help a lost African tribe suffering from malaria. This tribe must be lost if they are in the South Pacific!
6. Escape From Death Island
Flying to a French Penal colony, ferrying a father wishing to see his son would be an unsavoury but simple enough mission, were it not for the fact the son was currently roasting in solitary for an escape attempt. When the father attempts to free his son, both he, Jake and Corky wind up prisoners as well. And the commandant is a sadist.
7. Trunk From The Past
An ancient Egyptian trunk full of mummified remains and human skulls would be enough to freak anyone out, but when one is delivered to Sarah, it's a much more personal fright. One year previously, her Egyptologist father's murdered body was found draped over the trunk. Now it looks as if the curse of Kaa has followed her to Boragora.
8. Once A Tiger…
A DC3 goes down in a storm over the Japanese Mandate, its co-pilot Kramer manages to bail out and survive long enough to get to Boragora. He's a Tiger; the US unit fighting in China against the Japanese, a squadron that Jake was a member of until sidelined by injury. That's reason enough for Jake to mount a dangerous search and rescue mission, but that cargo plane was carrying some experimental gun-sights, technology that the Japanese would love to get their hands on.
9. Honour Thy Brother
One year previously, Jake got into a dogfight over China with a couple of Japanese fighters, shooting them down and becoming an Ace. Now he's apparently seeing things, a Japanese bomber over the Marivellas where they are only supposed to have fighters. The German Navy's in town and one of the sailors has Jack's eye. Someone is trying to kill Jake, oh, and Corky just got married.
10. The Lady and the Tiger
You'd hardly expect to see a colony of Amish in the South Pacific, but they are there, and thanks to an Imperial decree, they are in the Japanese Mandate. That makes it hard for the Japanese military to shift them when they decide to build a military base there, so the local commander, who's been watching one too many cowboy movies, decides to scare them off. And guess where Jake crashes the Goose.
11. The Late Sarah White
When the news comes in from Manila that Sarah has died, of hepatitis of all things, Jake can't accept it, especially given what he knows of her day job. So he decides to fly halfway across the world to find out the truth. But the Philippines in 1938 are no place to be if you're an American.
12. The Sultan of Swat
It's a childhood dream come true for Jake when baseball star Gamble Rogers visits the island on a goodwill tour. But the dream becomes a nightmare when a native girl is found murdered in his hotel room. Now Jake must prove Gamble's innocence to save him from the guillotine, and a vengeful father. And the only witness is Jack, and he has a concussion, and is a dog.
13. Ape Boy
A storm forces the Goose down near the island of Bukotari, notoriously populated by aggressive apes. Sarah isn't fond of apes at the best of times, but they are surprised to find that this particular group of apes has as its leader a young feral boy, who thinks Sarah is his mother. Meanwhile, a British zoologist is petitioning Princess Koji for the rights to explore Bukotari, and capture the ape boy.
14. God Save The Queen
Delivering the rather punctual Lord Hedricks to a rendezvous with the Queen Victoria cruise liner isn't the most enjoyable of jobs, but it gets worse when it turns out that Hedricks is behind a plot to steal the Crown Jewels, currently aboard the ship with its guest, the Duke of Windsor. Jake and Corky get arrested as unwitting accomplices, and a bomb will explode aboard ship in just six hours.
15. High Stakes Lady
A blonde in a red dress can kill at the best of times, but when it turns out that Sabrina plays a mean hand of poker as well, Jake is speared through the heart. When she asks him to accompany her to a high stakes poker game in Tagataya, he leaps at the chance. But it turns out that these stakes are higher than mere money. Their lives are on the line.
16. Force of Habit
A cargo of rare 180 proof rum isn't much of a reason to fly through a storm for, especially as the Goose has sprung a leak, the electronics are frazzled, the radio's fried, and the gauges aren't working. No wonder Jake is stressed. That's no reason to plant a kiss on a nun when they make it back to Boragora. In his defence, in another life Sister Theresa was an old flame. The nuns are there escorting a precious vaccine to China. Then someone sets a bomb in the bar as a diversion to steal the vaccine and the China Clipper… and then someone tries to steal the Goose!
17. The Cooked Goose
It was supposed to be a dream honeymoon for Clipper pilot Alan and his new bride Phyllis when Jake flew them to a small, romantic desert island for a week, but that was before pirates struck, kidnapping the bride and leaving Alan for dead. The only clue is a dagger pointing to Princess Koji as the culprit. Now there's a half million dollar ransom note, and before Jake can investigate, Corky gets drunk, and the Goose blows up.
18. Last Chance Louie
There are always visitors coming and going to and from the islands, but not all of the visitors inspire the Magistrate to pick up a gun and try to kill them. But that's exactly what happens when Louie comes face to face with his past embodied in Marcel LeBeau. Despite Jake's best attempts to stave off disaster, it isn't long before Marcel is found, shot in the back. Now he has to prove Louie's innocence before he meets his destiny and the guillotine.
19. Naka Jima Kill
Tokyo 1938, and the Japanese Defence Minister is almost assassinated. Ace reporter Whitney Bunting is on the scene to cover the incident, although she was meant to be there to interview the minister. Now apparently the minister is in the Japanese Mandate, with Princess Koji. Whitney and Sarah are friends from way back, and she's used that to wangle a flight to Matuka to get that interview. The trouble is that the assassin is just as persistent.
20. Boragora or Bust
Jake is lamenting just how dull life is on Boragora, when suddenly old prospector Dowser strikes it rich, discovering a nugget of platinum in his mine. Soon the rush is on, and Boragora is anything but dull, with an army of miners, entrepreneurs, and hangers-on all congregating on the island. And with it come the claim jumpers, and a slimy businessman named Hastings steals Dowser's mine from under him.
21. A Distant Shout of Thunder
An eclipse brings astronomers to the island, but that offends one of the natives, Lucien, who uses their arrival to preach the evils of the colonial French masters, and the heathen Western ways. When Sarah picks up a holy idol, he pounces on that as a desecration and act of sacrilege, promising holy vengeance and hellfire. Then the plagues begin, the ground starts to shake, and the mountain awakens from its slumber. Only a sacrifice will sate the old gods.
22. Mourning Becomes Matuka
Jake, Corky, Sarah and Willy are on Matuka for the birthday celebrations of Princess Koji. The trouble is that someone is trying to kill her, and as head of a major criminal empire, that could be anyone. When Todo takes a couple of arrows to the chest protecting her, she needs a new bodyguard. That would be Jake, whether he wants the job or not.
Tales of the Gold Monkey comes in an Amaray style brick case; all six discs worth, with a cardboard slipcover to give it added packaging value. You have two discs either side of two hinged central panels, and the other two discs are on the inner faces of the Amaray pack. Actually, the plastic of the hinged panels isn't the best, as it seems to guarantee that the discs they hold will be scratched. In fact, this is the second set of Gold Monkey in my possession, after the first had an unplayable (damaged) disc.
You'll also find a 24-page booklet in the set, with a series outline, detailed episode synopses, and some promotional stills.
The discs are presented with animated menus, with a play all option, an episode select menu, and a scene select menu. The scene select also offers you a page or two of episode synopsis.
Getting to the episode commentaries is a chore. There's no extras menu on five of the discs, and neither are the commentaries listed with the episodes. Instead you have to go to scene select, click through the episodes until you find one with the commentary listed, and then play it from there. For instance, with the commentary on episode 16, that involves pressing close to twenty-two buttons on the remote. Better to just play the episode and change the audio. Note that while the TV episodes may be as clean as a whistle for the delicate ears of 1980s TV audiences, the commentaries do contain some mild profanity.
Episode 16. Force of Habit
Here Tom Greene talks about his first experience as a fulltime writer producer on Tales of the Gold Monkey, and the fortunate miracle of coincidences that helped him put together this episode over a weekend, and helped him get the position. Despite the occasional gap, it's a nice, observational commentary with quite a few interesting anecdotes.
Episode 18. Last Chance Louie
Tom Greene returns to talk about the most satisfying episode that he has worked on. He mentions that it could have been a two hour story, and hints at some tantalising deleted scenes. He also mentions why this episode is also special for star Stephen Collins.
Episode 19. Naka Jima Kill
Tom Greene talks about the 'naughty' episode, and how the cast and crew were especially prone to misbehaving on this one. If you've seen the Magnum episode, The Jororo Kill, then Tom Greene will also clear up why these two stories seem so similar.
Episode 20. Boragora or Bust
For writer producer Tom Greene, this was the episode of Tales of the Gold Monkey that was really in the groove. He talks about how the episode was inspired by a chance discovery on the Universal backlot, and a careless question to a stunt co-ordinator. There is also some interesting material on the constant battles fought with the network with regards to budget and propriety.
Episode 21. A Distant Shout of Thunder
Tom Greene recounts how coincidence and good fortune made for a spectacular penultimate episode, all because the set designer used the set blueprints from a movie called The Devil at 4 O'clock. You also learn of a whole lot of weirdness that happened during the making of this episode.
The rest of the extras are on disc 6.
There is a single paragraph of Series Synopsis, and 4 pages of Series Concept to read. There are 8 character biographies, presented as a series of scrolling texts to read, and in total it takes 12 minutes to scroll them by. Also in scrolly form are text biographies for Stephen Collins (Jake Cutter) and Caitlin O'Heaney (Sarah Stickney-White). This material looks as if it is taken from the 1982 series bible, and there is a lot of background to the characters that we never actually saw on screen. Also the actor biographies cease at Gold Monkey, and there is nothing beyond 1982.
You'll also find a Fact File in the form of a 4-minute text scroll, and a Stills Gallery with image slideshows to enjoy with Colour Images, B&W Images, Caitlin's Original Costume Gallery and an Artefacts Gallery.
The big extra feature here is the Making of Tales of the Gold Monkey featurette that lasts 36 minutes, and has input from Stephen Collins, Caitlin O'Heaney, Tom Greene and director Harvey Laidman. They fill in the background to the series and offer a lot of information and anecdotes about the making of. At the time of recording, the Monkey Bar set still stood at the Universal Studios backlot. You may still be able to make a pilgrimage. Most interesting is to learn just why ABC cancelled the most popular action adventure show in 1982, a show so popular that it had the other networks partying when its cancellation was announced. NBC had projected that it would run for 7 years, not just one.
Tales of the Gold Monkey isn't the most fabulous television series in the whole universe, and quite frankly, I'd be naïve in expecting it to be so. But it is good, damned good, 'sitting through 22 episodes of action adventure serial on the edge of my seat with a goofy grin on my face' good. In fact I'd categorise it as brilliant, utterly fulfilling, fun entertainment, the sort of television and cinema they just don't make anymore, because the execs have gotten too cynical, jaded and feel that the narrative world should reflect the complexity and darkness of the real world.
There's something about buckling a swash, escaping by the skin of your teeth, dispatching bad guys with abandon, and without worrying about whether you're offending an ethnic minority or failing to tick the politically correct boxes. Besides, Tales of the Gold Monkey wasn't exactly backward in its treatment of foreign folks, and it's one of the rare shows, even now, that had a physically disabled actor as a cast regular, in a role where the wheelchair was incidental.
It does suffer a little from the usual Season 1 jitters that afflict any show that is trying to find its voice. The pilot in particular suffers from pacing issues and an uncertainty in tone. That may be down to an insistence by the network that this was Raiders of the Lost Ark for TV, rather than the somewhat more romantic, character driven piece that Don Belisario pitched. In tone and style, it really does play like a pre-war Magnum, which is no bad thing, but you'll find that it's when it tries to ape (no pun intended) the Raiders format that it comes across the weakest. Also in the early episodes, the characters don't really settle down as quickly as they could, with Corky in particular playing the comedy sidekick a little thickly, Princess Koji's lethal woman a little too monotone.
The dafter episodes are the treasure hunt, Indiana Jones clones, and despite the fact that Jake has an airplane that could conceivably take him anywhere in the world, we still get African tribes and Ancient Egyptians transplanted to the South Pacific. These episodes do still work though, mainly through fun performances and a tongue in cheek sense of humour. They are fun to watch, if not possible to take seriously. The worst of Tales of the Gold Monkey happens when the writers decide to remake popular films of the day, and somehow translate them to the South Pacific. There are two such episodes here, The Lady and The Tiger, which drags the Amish halfway across the world so that we could have an episode of The Witness, while Ape Boy is Greystoke by any other name, and allows for the reuse of the horrible monkey costumes from the pilot episode. Thankfully Roddy McDowell didn't don the ape suit at any point in this series. But these two episodes of Gold Monkey are the nadir of the show, and I'd be reluctant to watch them too often.
Most of the early episodes are a great deal of fun though, and inspire that goofy grin that I mentioned. It's around the halfway mark in the series that the show really finds its identity, the characters settle down and become consistent and comfortable, and the episodes shift from the spectacle and the silliness, to subtler, character based narrative. You can see this shift begin to happen in episodes like Once A Tiger… and Honour Thy Brother, which really use Jake's back-story to great effect. There's a run of episodes in the middle third of the show, which use the show's setting and period brilliantly, the pre-war tensions and the history, and dials back on the Indiana Jones allusions. The Late Sarah White, The Sultan of Swat, God Save the Queen, and High Stakes Lady all offer excitement and entertainment, as well as tell great stories.
It's the final third of the season, the run of episodes beginning with Force of Habit, where you really see Tales of The Gold Monkey at its finest, the stories are pitch perfect, the actors have all settled down and found their characters, and the writers are letting these characters drive and find the stories, rather than shoehorning other genres in. Force of Habit is a sheer delight to watch, Last Chance Louie is arguably the best hour of Gold Monkey hands down, while Naka Jima Kill manages to rework a Magnum script and still make it look fresh and exciting. If ever a show went out on a high, leaving fans begging for more, it's Tales of the Gold Monkey.
The cast is excellent; Stephen Collins somehow combines a grizzled world-weariness and a childlike innocence as the pilot Jake Cutter, inadvertently winding up in the stickiest of situations, but making it out through sheer bravado and good luck. Caitlin O'Heaney as Sarah embodies that 1940's mystique that Hollywood screen actresses once had. Jeff MacKay takes a little longer to settle down as Corky, but once the writers see past his quirks to the heart of the character, he really becomes likeable and human. Initially Ron Moody was cast as Bon Chance Louie, the owner of the Monkey Bar and Magistrate, and he does a fine job in the pilot episode, but when Roddy McDowell was recast, the character gained so much dimension and heart, that he really becomes the glue that binds the cast together. McDowell finds the warmth and humanity beneath the smooth Frenchman and rogue. It's one reason why Last Chance Louie is the best episode of the series. John Calvin rarely got to grow beyond the comic relief character of Nazi spy masquerading as priest, who would rather 'bless' the native girls than work for the Fatherland. He did shine in Force of Habit and Boragora or Bust. Also while Princess Koji's character never got much beyond the villainous dragon queen, there did develop a wonderfully antagonistic three-way chemistry between her, Jake and Sarah. Then of course there's Jack the dog. If Jake is Han Solo, then Jack is Chewbacca, but Jack shows more personality and intelligence, as well as a sense of humour, than the Wookiee ever did.
These old shows are also great for the guest casts, the sight of eighties TV regulars like Henry Darrow, Jared Martin, Guy Stockwell and Anne Lockhart, as well as future familiars like Xander Berkeley and of course Kim Cattrall. Tales of The Gold Monkey is essential television. It was made in a time when entertainment meant telling good stories, and keeping audiences glued to the set. At the time, it was the most expensive TV show in production, and that really does tell even now. What we have here after the pilot episode are really 20 movies. They may only last 45 minutes, but in terms of production values, the stories they tell, they may as well be feature films. No doubt that was one reason I was so hooked to this show as a child. And let's face it; there aren't enough barroom brawls on TV nowadays. Tales of the Gold Monkey has the decency to throw in a great fistfight on a regular basis. And I still believe now, as I did then, that the world would be a better place if there were still seaplanes flying from our ports. It's a more elegant, civilised way to travel.