My monkey is [CENSORED].
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.
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:
If you’ve read this far, by now you’re probably screaming at me, “So why’s it called Gold Monkey?!?” In the two-hour intro episode, Jack and Sarah meet for the first time, just as all the characters become involved in the search for a legendary lost treasure, a gold statue of a monkey. (See? Gold monkey! It all makes perfect sense now.) Beyond its monetary value, the statue is said to made of a special heat-resistant gold alloy, and a sinister Nazi agent (John Hillerman, Magnum, P.I.) plans to use it as a weapon.
Corky is kidnapped by a pirate-like sailor involved in a plot to abduct the tribal native “mudpeople” and turn them into slaves. Suffering from a bout of malaria, Jake has no choice but to ask Princess Koji for help.
• “Black Pearl”
Jake and Sarah get involved with an American scientist, who has knowledge of a Nazi superweapon under construction. When a vital piece of the weapon goes missing, Jake and company investigate.
• “Legends are Forever”
An old buddy of Jake’s shows up, with an offer to lead a mission of mercy to a tribe of diminutive natives suffering from malaria. After a series of dangerous mishaps, Jake learns of his pal’s ulterior motive.
• “Escape from Death Island”
While accompanying a passenger to a penal colony on a nearby island so the man can visit his son, a misunderstanding lands Jake and Corky in the prison, under the foot of a sadistic warden. Now, they have to find a way to escape.
• “Trunk from the Past”
An ancient trunk arrives from Egypt, having formerly belonged to Sarah’s father. She’s frightened of it, and for good reason—everywhere the trunk goes, supernatural disaster seems to follow, including her father’s unexplained death. Sarah’s past comes to haunt her in more than one way, as she is reunited with her ex-fiancee as she and Jake investigate the mystery.
• “Once a Tiger”
An old rival of Jake’s from his days as a military pilot is shot down over a hospitable island. The guy’s plane carried a revolutionary new gunsight which could turn the tables in the upcoming war, so now the race is on to find the wreckage before anyone else does.
• “Honor thy Brother”
Jack believes a Japanese bomber is lurking in the skies over the islands but no one will listen to him, Corky find himself in an arranged marriage, and a tough-guy German soldier shows up in possession of Jack’s missing eye. These three plotlines converge during a flight into dangerous territory.
• “The Lady and the Tiger”
Jake crash-lands and is nursed back to health by an Amish woman (!) and is then challenged to an old-fashioned shootout by a Japanese soldier who believes he’s an American cowboy (!). Yee-haw?
• “The Late Sarah White”
Jake learns Sarah has died of hepatitis. While the others mourn, Jake remembers Sarah’s secret spy work, so he doesn’t believe she’s really dead. He sneaks into enemy territory on a dangerous mission to discover what really happened. He’s not prepared for what he finds.
• “The Sultan of Swat”
Jake is delighted to meet his childhood hero, a former pro baseball player currently on a worldwide good will tour. Jake’s faith in his idol is tested, however, when the man turns up missing after being accused of murder.
• “Ape Boy”
Jake and Sarah encounter a child raised by apes, and are threatened by the kid’s protective adopted ape parents and an unscrupulous zoologist.
• “God Save the Queen”
Jake flies some passengers to a fancy cruise ship, which gets taken over by a criminal who rigs the ship with a bomb. He enlists Jake and friends in searching for some rare jewels on board, while they look for a way to turn the tables on him.
• “High Stakes Lady”
Jake passenger of the week is a wealthy woman who’s entered a high-stakes poker game. Turns out she’s a spy, and the Japanese capture the pair in search of a roll of film on her possession.
• “Force of Habit”
Jake is reunited with an old girlfriend, and is shocked to learn she’s about to take her vows and become a nun. She then reveals her less than holy side when she steals Jake’s plane as it has a cholera vaccine on board.
• “Cooked Goose”
A couple’s tropical island honeymoon is interrupted by Princess Koji’s mercenaries, who abduct the woman and leave the man for dead. Jack sets off in search of rescuing the wife. Corky, meanwhile, is distraught after the plane catches fire after he falls asleep while on duty.
• “Last Chance Louie”
A man from Louie’s past is murdered, and Louie is to blame. Louie refuses to talk. Jake knows his friend is innocent, though, and sets off to find the real killer.
• “Naka Jima Kill”
Sarah is reunited with an old friend (special guest star Kim Catrall, Sex and the City), who is a reporter investigating the assassination attempt of a Japanese official. The killer is a master of disguise, and could be anywhere—or anyone.
• “Boragora or Bust”
A prospector discovers platinum on Louie’s island, and the tiny tropical paradise turns into a sleazy boom town overnight. When a shifty businessman shows up and says he owns the claim, suddenly the future of the entire island is at stake.
• “A Distant Sound of Thunder”
Sarah takes a small statue away from an island during an eclipse. Soon afterward, a number of natural disasters occur, and the superstitious natives believe Sarah is to blame.
• “Mourning Becomes Matsuka”
An assassination attempt is made on Princess Koji, injuring her faithful bodyguard Todo (John Fujioka, Mortal Kombat), the princess hires Jake to be her new bodyguard and uncover the assassin’s identity.
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.”
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.