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.

Into the Labyrinth 2.7 – Succession

The final episode of Into the Labyrinth‘s second storyline had a couple of frights that left our son with a couple of worried expressions. Belor transforms two of the kids into birds and zaps Phil into a stone statue. It all works out just fine, thanks to a power of love ending, unfortunately, and, once again, a memory wipe. I’m glad the kid enjoys it, anyway.

There’s a third series of Into the Labyrinth, but we’ll return this to the shelf for a little while to keep it fresh and have a look at it around the last week of August. Stay tuned!

Into the Labyrinth 2.5 – Shadrach / 2.6 – Siege

Mostly, Into the Labyrinth charms our son a whole lot more than it does me, but “Shadrach” is completely wonderful. Robert Holmes wrote it – that’s right, so sit up straight – and it introduces Belor’s best idea yet. She magically alters the features of the first fellow she comes across so he will look like Rothgo and the kids, once they turn up, will waste valuable time trying to convince a complete stranger that he’s an immortal time-jumping wizard.

Then she plans to drug the unfortunate bystander so they’ll waste even more time waking him up. The bystander in question is a detective called T.J. Shadrach, and he’s been hot on the trail of two villains from India who have plans to steal the Koh-i-Noor Diamond from the Tower of London. So Ron Moody and Pamela Salem get to have a pair of hilarious exchanges while she dons a pair of disguises herself to get him to drink her knockout micky.

Shadrach used to be a miner, and his lack of formal education causes him to make a few slips of grammar and word choice, plus, like Parker in Thunderbirds, he alternately adds and drops haitches. Once he’s finally roused, the kids comment on how he dresses like Sherlock Holmes and poor Shadrach becomes infuriated because that blasted Holmes stole his dress sense and style and, in the end, all his thunder and glory. Even when he does get to meet Her Majesty after wrapping up the case, it’s not really her, it’s Belor again. Poor guy. He never gets to learn what actually happened. I’m not sure what the third series of this show will be like, but I bet it won’t be a tenth as entertaining as a seven-part T.J. Shadrach series would have been.

Episode six is more of the same. This one’s a Crusades story written by John Lucarotti and featuring Ewen Solon, back again in a new guest star part. I don’t know much about the Crusades myself, but I could give my son a really brief explanation of what was going on with all these French knights in Malta holding out against the massive forces outside their fort’s walls. Episode five won our son’s affections with a played-for-laughs fight scene, while episode six has a… erm… not so great swordfight. Pamela Salem’s male stunt double showed his face to the camera two or three times more than he should have. The kid didn’t notice, but I had a chuckle or two.

Into the Labyrinth 2.3 – Alamo / 2.4 – Cave of Diamonds

Well, that was utterly bugnuts. And here I was all set to grumble about them casting very British character actors like Cyril Shaps to play Indian mystics, but then Ron Moody gets to battle various demons and magical beasts that jump out of paintings. It is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in a while. The episode ends with a brief, climactic struggle over a pit engulfing sulfuric smoke. I think everybody inhaled too much of it this week, because “Cave of Diamonds” is just crazy. The kid had a blast with it, even applauding some of the heroes’ wins. And he really liked Rothgo turning his enemies into statues of monkeys and pigs.

Episode three wasn’t quite as successful for him, and it was awfully painful for the grownups. It’s not just that “Alamo,” written by John Lucarotti, finds a place for every possible word of teevee cowboy slang – vittles, chow, yonder – in some of the most tortuous dialogue ever written, but Ron Moody gets to play a “Red Indian” in redface and we get all the hows and heap bigs and the like that I seem to remember dying out in our own entertainment by 1981. Jack Watson’s in this one as Davy Crockett, and he’s not bad. There’s even an actual scorpion and a couple of real snakes in these two episodes, instead of putting a rubber party favor on the screen like they did with that bat last time.

Into the Labyrinth 2.1 – The Calling / 2.2 – Treason

The blog was feeling a little ITC-heavy, but while adults can certainly see the difference between those filmed series and HTV’s cramped videotape show from the early eighties, our son is every bit as thrilled and excited by Into the Labyrinth as anything else we watch. This time out, the immortal wizard Rothgo recalls his three young friends for more trips in time because the witch Balor has created a counter to his powerful magical Macguffin. Episode one ends with the Nidus conveniently split into five segments so they can pick up one apiece in episodes two through six.

As we discussed previously, the first series of Into the Labyrinth was shown in the United States on Nickelodeon’s The Third Eye anthology. Series two and three were never purchased by the US. Did it air in Canada, I wonder? Well, kids missed out, because this is full of fights and fisticuffs and magical powers and villains turning into bats. While the grownups cringed at what must surely be the fakest fake bat in the long and storied history of fake bats, our favorite eight year-old critic had no problem at all with it.

Episode one is twenty-five minutes of hit-the-ground-running mayhem set in Asgard. Episode two was a bit long-winded for him – in 1606, Rothgo is incarnated as Guy Fawkes, and his long, long, long secret discussion with the king did not make a lick of sense to him and went on forever – but it had some special effects and surprises eventually. Actually, the nicest surprise was the first installment opening with some location work around some stone circle or other. Unfortunately everything else is in that redressed cave set, but for a couple of minutes, it looked pleasingly different.

Into the Labyrinth 1.7 – Minotaur

I’ve got to hand it to this show. Whatever its limitations, it really succeeded in capturing our son’s imagination. Before we got started with the final part of the first serial, he had lots of questions about the time bomb that was used in part six. He remembered it much more clearly than I did; my focus had been on how the production team had redressed their cave set, and on the guest star John Abineri, growling with that sad-eyed expression of his. But our son had spent the last several days fascinated by how a character had used a small candle on the minute hand of a clock to start a fuse. I was trying to hurriedly finish my breakfast to start the story and could hardly eat for all the questions about clocks and gunpowder and when I thought the first time bomb was made.

The final part of the story was written by Anthony Read, and as the title suggests, it’s set in the original labyrinth of Knossos. A few years earlier, Read had written a pair of Doctor Who serials, “Underworld” and “The Horns of Nimon,” that also got to reflect his interest in classical myths. This minotaur was an amusing surprise. Instead of the usual half-man, half-bull, it’s an altar of a huge, blue, bull’s head that houses the Nidus between its eyes and is protected by a force field. I don’t think that the Greek myths will capture his imagination in the same way as that clock bomb – he’s more of a STEM kid than a humanities kid – but overall this story kept him thinking and guessing and ready for the next serial, later this summer.

Into the Labyrinth 1.5 – Conflict / 1.6 – Revolution

Into the Labyrinth was shown in North America along with four other programs on Nickelodeon as part of an anthology series called The Third Eye. We’ve watched one of the others already – the remarkable Children of the Stones – but sadly, it looks like we won’t get a chance to watch the other three serials. Under the Mountain was an eight-part serial made by TVNZ. It was released on DVD, but it’s out of print and I haven’t found a copy yet. If I do run into one in the next couple of years, we’ll certainly blog about it.

Unfortunately, the master tapes of The Haunting of Cassie Palmer and The Witches and the Grinnygog were destroyed after the network that produced them, TVS, was sold in the late eighties. You can watch a very ropey bootleg of Palmer on YouTube, and that’s possibly as good as we’re going to get it. One alternative is that maybe in some warehouse somewhere, Nickelodeon kept their own masters of The Third Eye. If so, I hope that someone at Nick would drop a line to the good people at Kaleidoscope. They would probably love to help repatriate and restore these two shows.

As for Labyrinth, with each new time zone, and each new reason to run around in a cave, our son starts each episode a little confused and honestly bored, but he comes around with enthusiasm and laughter as the action starts, and he does love the magic and the explosions.

Episode five is set in England in the 1640s and episode six in rural France during the reign of terror. I had wondered whether we’d start bumping into any recognizable character actors in this show, and suddenly we found two: Ewen Solon as a roundhead colonel and John Abineri as one of Robespierre’s thugs. Ron Moody and Pamela Salem get to dress up in new costumes in each new time period; the poor kids are stuck in their monk robes every week.

Into the Labyrinth 1.3 – Robin / 1.4 – Masrur

I’ve often said that lots of children’s entertainment really requires the eyes of a child to appreciate. Show a grownup Far Out Space Nuts for the first time without a kid adding to the laugh track and they may question your sanity. I’m incredibly glad I waited for Into the Labyrinth and didn’t swap for this years ago. This needs a child’s eye or nostalgia to understand. Mind you, it’s pretty tedious and repetitive even with the kid, but he is having a blast, and he doesn’t mind the really woeful visual effects, in much the same way I dismiss the woeful visuals of Space Nuts and the like.

There was one part in episode four where the children, summoned to the astral plane for another one of Rothgo and Belor’s magic duels in front of a blue screen, where he got a genuine laugh, but he confused me for a second. In her present-day incarnation, Pamela Salem has got a real 1980 Kate Bush look going on. I’ll have to get a picture of her next time. Anyway, I talked about the video/film divide of the 1980s a few months ago, and how music videos were one place you could see the change, as the videotape that was expected of most British media in the 1970s started losing favor. And so suddenly you’ve got Pamela Salem dressed all in black and using all the hairspray, waving her hands and looking melodramatic on a blue screen set, with flat photos of caves keyed into the picture behind her, and suddenly the children in their monk robes dance around her, and it looks exactly like one of Kate Bush’s dire videos from Lionheart or The Dreaming, before EMI started spending money on her promotional clips and hiring Donald Sutherland.

So I snorted because it looked ridiculous, but the kid burst a lung laughing because it was genuinely hilarious to him. Now, fair’s fair, he did snort in part three when Belor conjures a magical beast for about two seconds and it’s a small wood carving of a Chinese dragon like you’d find in a tatty gift shop, but otherwise, he’s completely caught up in this and enjoying it enormously. It’s TV made for eight year-olds and it succeeds amazingly well.

Anyway, episode three was written by Anthony Read and it’s a Robin Hood story that actually uses two other sets. Episode four, sadly, was back to the cave sets because it’s an Ali Baba and the One Thief adventure. The budget required that the other thirty-nine lost hope and went home.

Into the Labyrinth 1.1 – Rothgo / 1.2 – The Circle

Into the Labyrinth was a popular adventure series for children that ran for three series in 1981 and 1982. It was made for the HTV network and produced by Patrick Dromgoole, who had worked behind the scenes on a few other neat programs that we’ve watched for the blog: Children of the Stones, The Clifton House Mystery, and Sky. We’ve got another one of his HTV kid shows on the agenda for later in the summer, but sadly one that I really wanted to see, The Georgian House, is only partially available. Four of its seven episodes are missing.

So what’s this one about? Well, in the present day, three kids find a weakened old wizard trapped in a cave. His name is Rothgo and he explains that another wizard has separated him from his source of power, an object called the Nidus. Rothgo conjures up a labyrinth that will send the children to various points in history to try and find the Nidus, but the other wizard, who is a woman named Balor, is already at work in each time zone to, all together now, deny them the Nidus.

I first read about this series in Roger Fulton’s Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction and thought it sounded interesting, particularly as several notable writers, including Bob Baker, worked on it. He did the pilot, and Andrew Payne wrote the second part. Later I learned that these first seven episodes made their way to America and were shown in rotation with Children of the Stones and three other serials on Nickelodeon’s The Third Eye, about which more another time. Later still, I learned that even among low budget shows, Into the Labyrinth has a reputation for being made for no freaking money whatsoever. What budget there was must have gone to pay for the actors playing the wizards, Ron Moody and Pamela Salem. There’s cheap, and there’s Sid and Marty Krofft are making four shows for three networks cheap, and then there’s Into the Labyrinth, which uses precisely one large redressed set across two episodes, and doesn’t even find room for any other speaking parts in the first.

I tease, but so far, this hasn’t really thrilled me. It’s early hours, and I suspect there’s better to come, but Ron Moody is incredibly unsympathetic for the supposed good guy of the piece, those kids should have bolted for the hills and not looked back, and defeating the challenge of the druid episode was too easy. Our kid liked it a little more than I did, but he wasn’t thrilled either. The visuals had him sighing “That looks fake” early on, and he pronounced “Well, I guess this is the cliffhanger” with about the same enthusiasm as reaching the halfway point on a very long car trip. Happily, episode two fared better. He liked a magical duel between the wizards on an “astral plane,” and the surprising magical comeuppance of their druid foe had him guffawing.

I had compared this show’s format, and how we’ll watch it, to The Feathered Serpent, as it is three serials that we’ll watch with several weeks break between each one. An hour or so later, I asked what he thought and he said “I like it a lot better than The Feathered Serpent!” I don’t even begin to agree, but he’s the target audience and we’ll take his word for it. More from the past in a few days.

The Avengers 5.5 – The Bird Who Knew Too Much

I don’t have much to blog about this evening. “The Bird Who Knew Too Much” was written by Brian Clemens from a story by Alan Patillo, a regular of Gerry Anderson’s team who directed and wrote several of his Supermarionation shows. The story is full of little Hitchcock in-jokes, and features one of the all-time great goofball Avengers eccentrics in the form of Ron Moody, who teaches parrots to recite nursery rhymes on cue. Kenneth Cope also has a small role, and regular sixties TV tough guy Michael Coles plays one of the villains. Everybody enjoyed it. It’s a good, straightforward story with some fine action scenes and witty dialogue, a very fun hour of classic television.

The Avengers 4.26 – Honey For the Prince

Tonight’s little bit of confusing old technology: a steam bath cabinet, like the one that James Bond locks the fellow inside in Thunderball. The villain in Brian Clemens’ “Honey For the Prince” is played by George Pastell, who we all remember as the doomed wannabe super-baddie Eric Klieg in the Doctor Who adventure “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” This was not Pastell’s most rigorous and challenging acting assignment. He spends more than half his time onscreen being pampered and massaged by Carmen Dene.

Since this was made in those halcyon days when we hadn’t figured out that steam cabinets really aren’t as conducive to weight loss as we’d like, we briefly see Pastell’s head sticking out of the cabinet, and it was the strangest thing our son has seen in days. “Wha?! What is he in?!” he yelped. Part of me thinks he must have seen a steam cabinet somewhere before, maybe in season one of Batman?, but if he ever starts looking at 1960s TV and movies for any length of time on his own, he’ll definitely find others. Lucille Ball probably got locked in one or two.

We also caught a little bonus episode, a little three minute minisode, as it might be called these days, alerting viewers that when The Avengers would be seen next, it would be in color. Some dingbat in the dark days of fandom once claimed that “The Strange Case of the Missing Corpse” was twenty minutes long, when it’s really three minutes and ten seconds. It’s not clear when or where it was ever actually shown, though. It’s possible that it might have run alongside the last of the American ABC run in the late summer of 1966 before the show went on hiatus until January 1967.

I’ll tell you this for free: a lot of people wasted a lot of time trying to source a twenty minute version of this episode.

And speaking of hiatuses, that’s all from The Avengers for now, but stay tuned! Steed and Mrs. Peel will be back in March!