Appellate Judge Mac McEntire's monkey is [CENSORED].
Somewhere deep in the South Pacific…
The whole 1930s South Seas adventure thing is pretty much a no-fail genre. The tropical setting provides seemingly endless opportunities for exploration and adventure, as you never know what surprises are in store on the next island over, whether it be buried treasure, man-eating wildlife, or exploding volcanoes. Plus, there's no shortage of conflict and intrigue. The war is on the horizon, and everyone knows it, with various nations and factions vying for a strategic foothold in the Pacific. The setting is also a haven for criminals and other unscrupulous types, along with adventurers and fortune-seekers. It's a lawless land, not dissimilar to a classic Western, but with more of an international flavor.
That brings us to 1982. Raiders of the Lost Ark had just been an enormous blockbuster, so other Hollywood types attempted takeoffs of the same formula, with varying degrees of success. One of the more notable pseudo-Indys of the era was Tales of the Gold Monkey, created by legendary writer-producer Don Bellassario (Quantum Leap). A great show with a silly name, it offers high-flying old-timey adventure serial fun from beginning to end. Also, there's a dog with an eye patch.
Facts of the Case
It's 1938. Jake Cutter (Stephen Collins, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) is a pilot, transporting passengers and cargo around his de facto home in Boragora, part of the island chain of the Marivellas. Jake's a rouge of a man, always in debt and staying one step ahead of both the local crooks and numerous ex-girlfriends. When he was a child, Jake dreamed of being a chivalrous knight, and, as an adult, he can't resist getting involved when he sees others in danger, even if that someone is a beautiful woman. Some of the folks in Jake's life include:
• Sarah Stickney White (Caitlin O'Heaney, Wolfen), an American singer stuck on the islands after her beau dies and leaves her stranded there. Jake soon learns, though, that this story is a front—she's really an undercover American spy.
• Corky (Jeff Mackay, Baa Baa Black Sheep), Jake's mechanic, who, despite his perpetual drunkenness, is able to keep Jake's plane up and running.
• Bon Chance Louie (Roddy MacDowell, Planet of the Apes), who runs the Monkey Bar, where Jake both hangs out and resides. The suave Frenchman knows everyone and provides work for both Jake and Sarah.
• Princess Koji (Marta DuBois, Fear), who is somehow leader of the neighboring samurai clan. Equal parts seductive and dangerous, she is sometimes and ally and sometimes an enemy.
• Rev. Willie Tenboom (John Calvin, California Dreaming), a holy man here to bring religion to savage natives. Except that, too, is a front. What the others don't know is that he's really a Nazi spy.
• Jack the dog (Leo the dog) is Jake's best friend. Why does the little guy wear an eye patch? Because his glass eye, which contains a rare and expensive sapphire, was lost by Jake in a poker game. Jake promises Jack he'll find the eye and return it, somehow, someday.
This episode list can also be used to navigate through tropical storms:
• "Black Pearl"
• "Legends are Forever"
• "Escape from Death Island"
• "Trunk from the Past"
• "Once a Tiger"
• "Honor thy Brother"
• "The Lady and the Tiger"
• "The Late Sarah White"
• "The Sultan of Swat"
• "Ape Boy"
• "God Save the Queen"
• "High Stakes Lady"
• "Force of Habit"
• "Cooked Goose"
• "Last Chance Louie"
• "Naka Jima Kill"
• "Boragora or Bust"
• "A Distant Sound of Thunder"
• "Mourning Becomes Matsuka"
What we have here is lighthearted adventure at its most lighthearted. Sure, the stakes are high and lives are on the line, but the show is more about providing a good time rather than a pure adrenaline rush. Big action scenes are punctuated by humor, as are any big emotional scenes. Although he's lived and is living a tough life, Jake keeps an upbeat attitude throughout. This is mostly because he has the one thing he wants, a plane. It's all about flying with him. Stuff like battling Nazis and pirates is just part of the job, apparently. When we first meet Jake, it's just after he's lost Jack's eye in a poker game. While he banters with the dog (no really), he spots a lady in trouble and jumps in to help. He takes more lumps than he receives, and ends up back in Louie's bar, nursing his wounds. This paints a picture of him as just another guy, doing what he can to be a good person and trying to get by. The character is relatable, despite the far-out period and setting.
Let's talk about Stephen Collins. It's unfortunate that the guy's headstone will likely read "The dad from 7th Heaven." Outside of that sappy WB soap, Collins has had an interesting career. He's done comedy, action, drama, and he's even commanded the Enterprise. In Tales of the Gold Monkey, Collins stands out as the scoundrel hero. Yes, the performance is reminiscent of a certain famous Fedora-wearer, but Collins makes it his own. Despite his mischievous tendencies, Jake is an honest, decent guy who just happens to punch bad guys a lot.
Sarah's character is a little harder to pin down. At first, she reminded me a lot of Diane Chambers from Cheers, intelligent and high-minded but naïve when it comes with how to deal with the rough n' tumble salt-of-the-earth types around her. She reacts indignantly when Jake makes a lowbrow comment, and she's totally clueless when it comes to all the fights and chases. Then we're reminded that she's a spy, reporting everything she sees and hears back to the states. So is her innocence and naiveté all an act? I think the truth is somewhere in between. One humorous has her hoping to get a photograph of a secret air base. Jake asks what if it's camouflage, and she just shrugs and says she'll shoot the camouflage. He then has to explain to her how camouflage works. She could be feigning ignorance during this scene, but I think that this is just who she is—smart but in over her head. In most episodes, however, it's not about her being a spy, it's about her being the heart of the group. While the other characters talk about the plot, she's the one who talks about the emotional part of the tale, and how it relates to the people involved.
Corky is the prototypical sidekick, always there to give Jake a hand, not to mention various comic relief duties. The gag is that Corky is always forgetful thanks to his constant drunkenness, so Jake has to remind Corky of what Corky is trying to remind Jake of. Jeff McKay has occasional moments to shine, though, notably in "Cooked Goose" when his character breaks down emotionally, burdened with guilt over his mistakes. In a similar supporting role, McDowell is usually on the show to provide the occasional bit of exposition, or lend a sympathetic ear to the other characters. As Louie, McDowell brings his usual stable of quirks to the role, though, so he's always fun to watch. Note that in the two-hour pilot, Louie was played by Ron Moody (Unidentified Flying Oddball). While he's good, he doesn't make as much of an impression as McDowell.
Princess Koji walks an interesting line throughout the series. She wields a lot of power, with a small army at her command, and yet no one's ever really sure whose side she's on. In some cases, she's a full-blown villain, plotting against our heroes. At other times, she's an ally to the main characters, backing them with all her resources. It seems that she's only out for herself, and whose side she's on has to do only with how it benefits her. There is some sexual tension between her and Jake, which nicely contrasts the tension between him and Sarah. Rev. Willie, the other recurring villain, never gets an episode with him in the spotlight. It's a huge moment when he's revealed as a Nazi spy, but it's never followed up on in a big way. Usually, he gets only one or two scenes per episode if he's lucky.
Then there's Jack. For people who vaguely remember this series, it's usually as "that show with the one-eyed dog." If there was ever another prime time show with an eye patch-wearing dog, I'm not aware of it. It's really more like Jack is a human character who happens to be played by a dog. The rest of the cast treat him like a person, not a pet. This, of course, makes it funny to hear lines about Jack holding a grudge, or helping fix the engine, or acting as co-pilot. Jack is surprisingly verbose, and fluent in English. Whenever asked a question, he barks twice for "yes" and once for "no" (or is that the other way around?) This adds to the illusion that he's just one of the guys more than he is a mere pet. You'd think the eye patch on a dog would like weird, but in those few times that we see him without it, that's what looks weird. It's the magic of television, I guess.
How's the action? Hit or miss. Collins knows how to throw and receive punches like a pro—something I don't think we ever saw on 7th Heaven—and the fights and chases are generally exciting. The flying scenes are dependent on a combination of the show's vintage Grumman Goose airplane and stock footage. All things considered, the producers did a good job with what they had. Whenever Jake flies into Japanese territory, he usually gets attacked by Japanese Zero fighter planes, and he has to out-fly them. This is done by attempts at matching aerial photography of the real plane with stock footage of the Zeros. At other times, the Goose has to fly through a storm, and there's supposed to be suspense on whether the clunky old plane can survive. These aren't really the heart-stopping thrills the creators were hoping for, more due to the budget and effects limitations of the time. But that's OK, because these scenes still serve the story. This is an adventure show about a pilot, so action in the air is a necessity, even if it's not a highlight.
Similarly, production values are all over the map. The sets and outdoor locations, including some filming in Hawaii years before Lost made it cool, are huge and elaborate, looking like a summer blockbuster. On the other hand, the stock footage, again, often sticks out more than it should, and the gorilla costumes seen in the pilot are below par, even for cheesy gorilla costumes. Some might argue that these elements add to the classic Saturday matinee feel, while other viewers will just point at the screen and laugh. For me, these characters and their world provide so much rollicking fun that I didn't mind the flaws that much.
All 22 episodes are here on a five-disc set. The picture quality is good in lighter scenes, especially the many outdoors shots. Darker scenes tend to be grayed out and hazy, and the stock footage shots are expectedly in poor condition. The sound is adequate, not booming, but you'll have no problem making out the dialogue or the score. The pop culture gods and goddesses from Shout! Factory have seen fit to offer some excellent bonus features. Four episodes get audio commentaries from writer-producer Tom Greene (The Law), who shares dozens if not hundreds of great behind-the-scenes anecdotes. His love and excitement for the show is still strong after all these years, and he's great to listen to. A behind-the-scenes documentary unites Greene with Collins, O'Heaney and others. Again, everyone is still enthusiastic about the series to this day. From there, you can click through galleries of promotional photos, Sarah's costumes, and series props. You can also read cast biographies, character biographies, and a trivia-based "Fact File."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As you've guessed by now, the Japanese are often portrayed as villains in this show, and a lot of viewers will not like this, alleging cultural insensitivity, or worse. This is a lighthearted fantasy show, so it didn't bother me that much, but others might walk away offended.
This is a good case of how a consistent tone can make all the difference in a series. Tales of the Gold Monkey doesn't hit the same heights of the Indiana Jones classics, and it suffers from numerous budget woes, but it's funny and enjoyable for what it is. The secret to its success is in its tone. This show knows exactly what its tone is, when to be serious, when to have the action, and when to be silly without being too silly. It's light and breezy adventure throughout, and that's all it ever has to be.
Gold or not, that monkey is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Episode Commentaries
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