Tales of the Gold Monkey 1.21 – Mourning Becomes Matuka

That was really strange, and, sadly, not very good. Marie was surprised to learn we were watching the final episode of Gold Monkey tonight. She thought that the previous one was the final episode, and it certainly felt at the time like it was going out with a bang, but I knew there was one more on the disc.

Wikipedia says that “Mourning Becomes Matuka” was first shown two months after the previous one, in the middle of the summer repeats, so I initially thought that this might be a case like Eerie, Indiana‘s “The Broken Record”, where an episode was skipped – in most of the country anyway – in the original broadcast order and shown later on. There aren’t any continuity issues, but unusually, the episode doesn’t have a single scene in Boragora, so the Monkey Bar set isn’t used, and neither is the part of the backlot where the facade of the hotel was located. Roddy McDowall isn’t in it either. I wonder whether ABC might have asked for an additional episode after they’d already dismantled the Monkey Bar set and McDowall had taken another job*.

Whichever’s the case, last time they tried going out with a bang, but they ended with a whimper. Jake gets blackmailed into acting as Princess Koji’s bodyguard, but after she is murdered – no, there aren’t honestly any continuity issues with her death because she isn’t really dead – he insists on staying on Matuka for the five-day funeral even though his friends are desperate to leave. He can’t tell them the real reason he’s staying – Koji has a document proving that Sarah is a spy – but nor does he take a quiet minute to say “Please trust me, I’ll explain when we’re home.” What’s left is a “hero must do it alone” story that feels very long and not particularly exciting. None of us were impressed, and not even one villain getting dropped in a pond full of black and white stock footage of piranha got our son’s attention. Was Jack the dog the best part? Of course he was. He almost always was.

Tales of the Gold Monkey 1.18 – Naka Jima Kill

As I’ve said before, I’m really not all that familiar with American TV of the eighties. I went from Saturday morning shows to monster movies to Doctor Who and then to whatever British programming our PBS stations picked up and missed the likes of The A-Team and Simon & Simon and Magnum PI entirely. I’ve never seen a minute of Riptide or Scarecrow & Mrs. King or Moonlighting. Maybe two episodes of Remington Steele.

Thanks to Marie, I’ve seen more of MacGyver than any American drama of the period, except for Hill Street Blues, which I came to in repeats in college. Around the same time, I picked up a fondness for drama and cop shows from the sixties and seventies thanks to A&E, which used to screen all kinds of interesting stuff, from Banacek to City of Angels, and of course the brilliant Columbo, but the TV of the eighties is largely a foreign country.

I’m a little more familiar with movies from the period, thanks to HBO, so I’ve seen several mainstream films from the day, and, as a young teenager who liked cute girls, quite a few dumb sex comedies. I’ve actually never seen Porky’s, but I saw a whole lot of the movies that came in its wake: Fast Times, the one with Betsy Russell, Just One of the Guys, that one with Betsy Russell a few more times, Up the Creek, and I don’t remember the name, but Betsy Russell was in it, and I was thirteen or fifteen and I remember her riding that horse really well.

And what I’m getting from my teenage memories, and from watching Tales of the Gold Monkey and rewatching Flash Gordon for the blog is that the eighties were a very, very weird time for depictions of sexuality in the media. It was a time when girls were constantly told that good girls were not supposed to like sex. Sex was, unless you were married or had swapped a promise ring or whatever, for bad girls. There was an additional thing in Flash Gordon that bothered me: Ming and his daughter, while played by actors from Sweden and Italy, were “yellow peril” baddies in the old comics and serials with sexual designs on our white heroes. And Princess Koji in Monkey is played by an actress from Panama, Marta Dubois, but the character is from Japan. And Koji is constantly taking her clothes off in this show. It’s 8 pm ABC 1983 nudity, but this is something like the fifth time in eighteen episodes that she’s had her servants get her ready for a bath in front of Stephen Collins.

Meanwhile, Dale Arden in Flash accepts the hero’s remarkably chaste proposal of marriage. He suggests telling their kids about their wild adventure and that’s what makes her swoon. Sarah in Gold Monkey is no better; her face twists all out of joint whenever Koji tells her underlings to take her and whoever else away so that she can have a few words with Jake… in private. That’s because she knows Jake’s about to see some boobs. In the previous episode, a traveling salesman has brought some naughty playing cards to Boragora. Now, I don’t know what naughty playing cards actually looked like in 1938, but what the program showed us was remarkably tame, and Sarah is so outraged that she loses the ability to form coherent sentences. Good girls don’t like sex.

This episode might have been okay, but geez, did they ever drop the ball. Kim Cattrall guest stars as Sarah’s old college roommate from Vassar, and she brings out the absolute worst in Sarah. The character is always shown as stuck up and grouchy, but now she’s jealous and whiny. When Cattrall’s character explains that she had regularly dated a professor at Vassar, at the same time that Koji has Jake stay behind for a striptease, that divide – everybody is having sex and having more fun than me! – shows up again. Good girls don’t like sex. What the hell, 1980s?

That’s not even the most dated thing about the episode. The ostensibly female newsreel camera operator traveling with Cattrall’s journalist character is actually a male assassin, a master of disguise who fools everybody, especially Corky, who is sweet on her and is relieved they didn’t kiss, which is, sadly, not an unexpected reaction from either a character in 1938 or a production in 1983. There is absolutely no reason whatever why this character shouldn’t have been a woman, except to get a quick cheap laugh at the comic sidekick who nearly kissed a guy. The following year, one of those dumb sex comedies from the period, Bachelor Party, also went with a cheap laugh at the comic sidekick who nearly kissed a guy. What an obnoxious decade.

Tales of the Gold Monkey 1.16 – Cooked Goose

There are a couple of things in “Cooked Goose” that I found very interesting, neither of which is the main plot. There are no lost tribes or secret Nazi bases in this one; it’s a kidnapping story with a twist visible from space. The less said about it, the better.

But something elevates this episode into one of the best, and that’s Stephen Collins and Jeff Mackay having a knock-down screaming match about Mackay’s character’s drinking. Admittedly I’m not an expert in 1980s American TV because I avoided as much of it as possible at the time. However, other than Captain Furillo in Hill Street Blues, whose sobriety after years of drinking was such an important plot point that they once ended an episode with him in such despair that he went into a package store, knowing that would be a heartbreaking enough of a cliffhanger to kick the audience in the stomach, I can’t think of a show from the period that’s so unflinching about alcoholism as this. It’s also done incredibly well and incredibly fairly. It’s never played for laughs, and the show never preaches.

Admittedly the other characters are not the support system that Corky needs. They work under the idea that, unless Corky is working, one beer is okay, and maybe two on special occasions. What he needs are people to tell him none whatsoever, but I don’t think anybody has the heart or the sense to make him stop. I like that; these are flawed heroes. Just like they did not have any idea how to handle the situation in “Ape Boy”, I like that this series doesn’t present heroes with all the answers.

So what happens this time is that, the night before they need to fly out to Princess Koji’s island to look into a kidnapping that points to her, Corky’s working on stitching some vital engine part together. There’s an explosion, and Corky’s found unconscious and drunk and the plane’s on fire. He doesn’t remember anything – and since the twist of the kidnapping is visible from space, we know he didn’t pass out with work to be done – and the next morning, Jake is absolutely furious. There’s one rule: no drinking when he’s working. Corky is evasive and incredibly upset with himself. He can’t believe he would fall so far, but he can’t remember anything about the night either. And I really like how Jake is shown to be so believably human as to leap to the obvious conclusion and chew out his friend, letting his temper run wild. It’s a tough, tough scene to watch, but the actors played it beautifully.

It takes days for the friends to make up, and it made for a good opportunity to talk with our son about how to handle disagreements with his own friends. You can’t take actions or words back, and sometimes they hurt. I also added that you shouldn’t drink as much as Corky; the main point is that you shouldn’t throw your friends under the bus like this. It’s a Hollywood family show in the eighties, so of course things work out in the end. The outcome isn’t really in doubt, but the acting’s so good, I did wonder just for a second.

The other thing I found interesting deals with Koji, but this post is running long so I’ll try to come back to it next time she shows up. Until then.

Tales of the Gold Monkey 1.14 – High Stakes Lady

That was really entertaining! “High Stakes Lady” doesn’t have the weird, larger-than-life high fantasy that I seem to enjoy most in this world – the idols, volcanoes, lost civilizations – but it does have a really solid plot about a gambler who wraps Jake around her finger. She’s obviously up to no good, and anybody who’d insult Princess Koji to her face with that high-strung bodyguard of hers ready to snap is clearly living dangerously, but I was stumped as to what was going on and how Charles Napier, playing a gambler from Texas who’s not what he seems either, fits in. We know that one of the gamblers at Princess Koji’s casino had somebody killed earlier, but who are these people? Criminals? Spies? Nobody’s telling, and when they do, they’re lying.

I also enjoyed a really nice touch in the pre-credits montage. Like a lot of American programs from the seventies and eighties, Tales of the Gold Monkey doesn’t begin with a short, exciting scene to hook the viewers, but a little showreel of exciting moments from the show you’re about to watch. Most of these shows are all pretty bad about giving away key plot points and explosions and smooches, but this montage ends with what looks sure to be the climax of the episode when a small yacht explodes at sea. That happens halfway through this adventure, with another twenty minutes of twists and surprises to go, and no, Napier’s character isn’t what he seems, either.

The kid mostly enjoyed it as well, apart from a lingering bit of relationship stuff early on. Jake and Sarah have settled into more of a buddies friendship, which is what you’d expect from an action show in 1982-83; it leaves the hero free to smooch pretty guest stars when the female lead isn’t around. But the pretty guest star this week starts moving in on her mark right from the get-go, under Sarah’s nose, and she naturally gets both jealous and annoyed that Jake is being such a sucker for a cute blonde. So the kid grumbled about Sarah being angry, but at the end of the show, cap in hand, Jake treats Sarah to a reconciliation lunch and an explanation, and, hopefully, an understanding that if he’s going to go smooching pretty guest stars, he can do it someplace other than Boragora.

Tales of the Gold Monkey 1.10 – The Late Sarah White

Yes, Princess Koji is so much more interesting than Sarah, who spends this episode presumed dead at the hands of one of the stupidest villains I can think of this evening. This annoys me because the story is otherwise remarkably intelligent and literate. It’s set amid the backdrop of extreme anti-American sentiment in the Philippines, while General MacArthur tries to negotiate a treaty with an important guerrilla force in the jungle. It even concocts a perfectly rational reason to bring Sarah, who is an undercover radio operator with very, very little field training or experience, into the action in the first place.

I also like how much money they spent on this. It has piles of extras, lots of speaking parts, backlots we’ve never seen before, and a lot of time on location. If the baddie wasn’t so dumb as to try to fake Sarah’s death by notifying her friends and family in the first place, I wouldn’t have a problem with it at all.

The funny running subplot this time: Jack has, according to his humans, developed an allergy to something and spends the episode making little doggie sneezes. Jake and Corky try to diagnose what’s triggered his allergies only to have him constantly bark no to everything they suggest. Jack is our son’s favorite part of every episode anyway. The doggie sneezes had him chuckling loudly in sympathy. Also, not content with knowing Japanese last week, he understands Spanish this time.

Tales of the Gold Monkey 1.9 – The Lady and the Tiger

One of Monkey‘s running “gags” is that Corky’s alcoholism has destroyed his memory. This time, he’s desperately trying to remember what Jake’s flight plan was, because Jake never files one, and so when he goes down with only a half-heard mayday call, Corky can’t figure out where he could be.

As it turns out, Jake has fallen into a remarkably silly situation. He’s crash-landed on a small island in the Japanese mandate where the emperor, inexplicably, has allowed a small colony of Amish Americans, including one played by Anne Lockhart, to live. The small military garrison on the island, whose sergeant is, inexplicably, obsessed with the Western actor Buck Jones, wants the Amish out. Rather than disobey their emperor’s edict, the sergeant has, inexplicably, just let a tiger loose on the island in the hopes it will eat everybody. It’s a better hour than you’d think with a premise like that. Lockhart and the other main guest star, Richard Morita, are both really entertaining in their roles, and Marta Dubois, who’s been credited in each episode but absent since the second one, returns for a small scene.

Also, the subtitles tell us that Jack barks in hiragana. What a great dog.

Our son was confused by the Amish characters, so I reminded him that we’d seen an episode of MacGyver where Mac crashes into a small community of Amish Americans. He didn’t remember it. After the episode, he asked where we were having lunch, despite us telling him about four times since last night that we were going to our usual Saturday spot, Zarzour’s. Sighing, I said, “Honestly, kid, your memory’s as bad as Corky’s!” And I don’t think our kid can blame the beer…

Tales of the Gold Monkey 1.2 – Shanghaied

So with the first hour-long episode of Tales, Roddy McDowall takes over the role of Bon Chance Louie. I like McDowall a lot, as I’m sure everyone does, but I do kind of wish Ron Moody had been able to continue in the part. There’s a fun scene pictured here where Louie insists that Jake fly with a co-pilot and Jack does not qualify. That’s not because he’s a dog, but because he only has one eye. And that’s the only fun thing about this hour, honestly.

I’ll give the script credit: it doesn’t back down from or make light of Corky’s alcoholism, and the villains are slavers and it’s played really seriously as well. But I think at its core, this show wants to be a light adventure series and this episode is directed and edited as heavily as lead. I think it’s early and the show’s finding its feet, but even the music works against this adventure. It’s just ponderous. The kid enjoyed a “distraction” where Jake draws fire from the slavers’ big machine gun, but I didn’t enjoy much of anything here.

We’re watching these episodes in transmission order, as they appear on Fabulous Films’ collection. Either these were shown out of production order or they just never filmed a story where Sarah meets Princess Koji and her bad guy cohorts, because she knows who they are here. I have a feeling that the dynamic between these two characters is going to annoy me, because the villain is far, far more interesting than the female lead, who isn’t written very well at all so far.

Tales of the Gold Monkey 1.1 (pilot)

When I was ten or eleven years old, in the wake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a lot of my outdoor play started revolving around forgotten idols and the relics of ancient civilizations. Most particularly, there were some woods behind my house where we had an ongoing science fiction-themed “war” storyline, as opposed to the more – ahem – “realistic war” storyline that we played out in the “Big Woods” down at the end of the neighborhood. After Raiders, when we went behind our house, we were always finding the ancient weapons of some forgotten planet for use against the newest menace, and there were tunnels and traps and giant pits and climbing along ropes and barely winning fights, just like Indiana Jones.

It was for kids like me that ABC commissioned Tales of the Gold Monkey from Donald P. Bellisario at Universal, but what seems amazing in retrospect is that I never once watched this show and was only loosely aware that it existed. It aired Wednesday nights at 8, opposite the hit Real People on NBC, and not many other people watched it either. It apparently finished the season ranked # 69 of 99 shows. Another Raiders copycat called Bring ’em Back Alive was on CBS on Tuesdays in an even worse slot, crushed by The A-Team on one channel and Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley on the other. (See ratings info here.)

Monkey, which is set in 1938, starred Stephen Collins as Jake Cutter, a pilot based out of Bora Gora in the South Seas. His pals include a resentful and really intelligent dog named Jack, an absent-minded mechanic called Corky played by Jeff MacKay, and Sarah Stickney White, a spy for Uncle Sam played by Caitlin O’Heaney. Their adventures seem to start from a bar run by Bon Chance Louie. In the pilot film, Louie is played by Ron Moody. When ABC ordered this to series, Roddy McDowell took over the part.

Interestingly, I had wondered why Ron Moody had not returned to play the wizard Rothgo in the third series of Into the Labyrinth for HTV, and the reason was simply that he was working in the United States at the time that they would have made that show. He was doing guest shots on things like this and Strike Force and Hart to Hart.

Anyway, so the first episode really underlines just how much of a Raiders copycat this is. It’s a search for a legendary gold monkey that’s said to be about the size of a house and made of some amalgamation of gold and metal that can withstand molten lava, and which Hitler wants for the German war machine. They even mention that he’s after the Ark of the Covenant, which is cute. John Hillerman, taking a break from his regular part in Bellisario’s Magnum PI, is the main Nazi villain, but there are a trio of other baddies on the fringes of the story who show up semi-regularly from here. They’re led by Marta DuBois as Princess Koji, a character who has some history with Jake, although strangely they do not share any screen time in this story and Jake has no idea by the end of the adventure that she was involved at all.

I think that ten or eleven year old me might have enjoyed this. I’m sure I would have wanted to tune in if ABC had run some ads on Saturday mornings, you know, when kids were watching their network. As an adult, yeah, it’s pretty tame. The most impressive thing about it is actually a mammoth jungle waterfall set for the actors to have their big brawl, and for some stuntmen in monkey costumes that sport hideous razor-sharp teeth to swing around, but at no point does it ever look like anything other than a mammoth set in Universal Studios. Weirdly, they obviously spent a heck of a lot of money on this, what with all the location filming in Hawaii, and then they went and had Stephen Collins react to forty year-old black and white stock footage of a plane taking off.

And as for our favorite eight year-old critic, he wasn’t blown away, but there was a lot here for him to enjoy and he said that he liked it. There are fights and airplanes and an erupting volcano, after all. But his favorite character was, unsurprisingly, the dog. I think Jack’s going to steal every episode from his human co-stars.