A familiar term nowadays amongst TV watchers is the ‘Firefly effect’ – in other words, getting really into a new show only for it to be cancelled with breathtaking rapidity. When grumbling about this, though, it’s important to remember that it is not a recent phenomenon; it’s been happening since the invention of the TV and/or radio. A show will gain a loyal fanbase who are just itching to see what happens next, and then, out of the blue – nothing happens next, because the show is gone.
This is always a pity, but the mere fact that it has a loyal fanbase will keep it alive, if not active, thereby attaining the rarified status of ‘cult’. My question, therefore, is this – does the Firefly effect still apply when the show in question has been off the air for years, and I never saw it during its initial run?
Ah, well. I’m gonna review it anyway.
Tales of the Gold Monkey is set in the year 1938, in the fictional Marivellas island chain, just adjacent to the territory of Japan. The main protagonist of the series is one Jake Cutter (Stephen Collins), an ex-Flying Tiger and soldier of fortune. Since he left the military, he’s been hanging around the South Pacific in his old Grumman’s Goose seaplane, hauling cargo and passengers and generally making a living however he can. His home base is the island of Boragora, home to a few islanders, a small population of expats and not much else except the Monkey Bar, owned by Bon Chance Louie (Roddy McDowall), who is, among other things, the local magistrate. Along with his one-eyed dog Jack, his mechanic Corky (Jeff MacKay) and his not-quite-a-love-interest-but-more-than-a-friend Sarah Stickney-White (Caitlin O’Heaney), he plies his trade amongst the islands, running across more than his fair share of adventure on the way.
The first thing – well, one of the first things – one must take into account when reckoning up TotGM is that it’s not a recent show. It ran from ’82 to ’83, and they had different ways of doing things back then. As such, if you are expecting a frenetic, action-every-minute sort of series, you will be disappointed. It has action, and it’s good, but it’s much slower-paced than a current show would be. There’s a lot of sitting around and talking. True, they’re generally sitting around while doing something interesting like flying a plane, and the talking features plenty of pithy dialogue and snappy quotes, but if you’re looking for the sort of series where the hero is constantly on his feet swinging punches, then Gold Monkey ain’t your baby. Look elsewhere.
Furthermore, this is pre-CGI, and while it had what was considered a pretty hefty budget at the time, it was still peanuts compared to what even a cheap movie would get. As such, there are a few flubs in the special effects, not to mention egregious uses of stock footage for sequences that just couldn’t be accomplished on-set. Expect some clunky bluescreen, repeated use of establishing shots, etc., etc.
If it is possible to categorize prospective TV watchers, I would say that Gold Monkey is one for ‘dabblers’ as opposed to ‘long-haulers’. By which I mean that, due to it being made in the pre-cable era of syndication and re-runs, with no DVD sets to fill you in if you missed an episode, each one is very much self-contained; there are none of the sustained storylines that keep modern audiences breathlessly glued to their screens. This is not, however, a bad thing, given its length; there are only twenty-one installments in the series, after all, and if you like it, why rush it? You can pace yourself better this way; there’s none of the ‘oh holy CRAP how are they going to resolve that’ cliffhangers that set one lunging towards the next episode and gobbling up the whole season in a few nights. (Not that I have anything against those, but still, variety.) Instead, you can watch an episode or two and feel satiated, then come back in a few days when you feel like some more. Personally, I found that this gradual approach allowed me to acclimate myself to the characters and their world on my own schedule, with the result that, by the final episode, they felt like old friends.
So far as the individual plots go, they’re basically your typical adventure movie stuff. Jake has encounters with all kinds of bad guys, more than one ‘lost civilization’ (of a sort, anyway) shows up, the Goose breaks down/nearly crashes on a semi-regular basis, there are fistfights, gunfights, snappy patter, running gags, and that awesome theme music swells stirringly whenever they can get away with it. It’s not exactly sophisticated, but since when has that mattered in this sort of show?
It does, however, have more to it than you’d think. Over the course of its short career, Gold Monkey indulges in all of the above, true, but it also samples a fair amount of other story-types that you might not expect. There’s military intrigue (this is on the cusp of WW2, you know), espionage, murder mysteries, a prison escape, a ticking-bomb plot, romance, natural disaster – all sorts of stuff. More than that, there is actually a surprising amount of character-related drama as the series draws to a close, the likes of which I will detail when I talk about the characters, and hey, looks like it’s time to do exactly that.
Let’s start with the hero. Jake Cutter is not exactly what one would call deep, but he’s not shallow, either. He has all the typical adventure-hero attributes – he’s handsome, he’s a manly-man, he’s a good shot and knows how to throw a punch – but there’s more to him than that. He’s devoted to his friends, he’s got a fierce sense of right and wrong and a good sense of humor, and we find out a few of the things that led him to the place he is now – in brief, the man has been to a lot of places and seen a lot of things. The guy may be a bit rough around the edges, but he’s a nice fella who you feel you could depend upon were you to meet him in real life.
The same could be said about Corky, his trusty mechanic, who is the sort of character who would never be created today. Why? Well, he’s a recovering drunk, you see, as well as the comedy relief. This particular combination used to be pretty common, but it’s way too un-PC today; if a modern-day version of the character were to show up, he’d probably be all gritty and realistic and the writers would bend themselves over backwards to make sure just how clear they were making it that they were trying to be socially relevant and that this was not at all a diminution of the horrors of alcoholism and please please please nobody sue us – and amongst all that well-intentioned panic, the character himself would be lost.
It would all be for nothing, too, because to the show’s credit, it actually does a pretty fair job of showing the tenuousness of Corky’s position. Sure, there are a few jokes about his fondness for beer and such, but it’s made pretty clear that A: he’s aware of his dependence on booze, and struggles against it, and B: the only thing stopping him from plunging back into full-on alcoholism again is his friendship with Jake and the others. There’s one episode where it appears that he’s had a relapse and screwed things up, and the guilt and shame he projects are intense and palpable. Jeff MacKay really did a top-notch job in the role – he manages to balance out all the above by giving the character an endearingly childlike nature, along with a genuine competence at his job and a touching concern for his friends, especially Jake, who, it’s made pretty clear, basically saved his life by getting him off the hard stuff. Sure, Corky’s funny, but he’s poignant, too, and that makes for an interesting combination.
Moving along, we have Sarah. Sarah is a pretty good character, and Caitlin O’Heaney does a good job portraying her, but the show doesn’t really do as much with her as it might. Here’s her deal (uh – slight spoilers for the first episode): officially, she’s a singer who’s been ‘stranded’ on Boragora and is making a living in the Monkey Bar singing torch songs. In reality, she’s an agent of Uncle Sam keeping an eye on the local situation, something that only Jake knows about. This is a good set-up for future episodes, and to be fair we do get a few good stories out of it – Sarah has a secret mission of some sort, she’s been warned to look out for such-and-such, etc. – but far too often, she just plays the role of the off-again-on-again girlfriend who will never permanently hook up with the hero because that would ruin the romantic tension. She’s a strong and likable character, but her primary function in one-too-many episodes is to get a ‘well, really!’ look on her face and storm off. It’s a shame, but at least it’s a case of a strong character being used somewhat weakly rather than a weak one being pushed in our faces as strong.
Neither one of these is the case with Bon Chance Louie, played with great charisma by the inimitable Roddy McDowall (replacing Ron Moody, who plays him in the pilot). The man was a scene-stealer par excellence, and he does a great job here. Louie is a terrific supporting character, the sort who is far more interesting when he is in a supporting role, and you only get hints about who he is – if he were in the lead, we’d know all about him, and that wouldn’t be as intriguing. Dripping with Gallic charm and sophistication, comfortable in every situation from breaking up a bar fight to recommending exactly what wine should go with a meal, always impeccably dressed – the guy is awesomely smooth, and on the rare occasion when he does step a bit more into the spotlight, it’s pretty clear that he’s lived an amazing life. I dig Louie. He’s cool.
There is one more hero, but I’ll get to him later. Let’s move on to the villains. Unlike some series, Gold Monkey does not have signature bad guys who are always behind everything – there’s no ‘Next time, Gadget!’-style evil masterminds here – but it does have a couple of recurring ones, and unsurprisingly, they’re both related to the upcoming rise of the Axis.
That being said, it actually treats them with a degree of delicacy not always seen in this sort of show. The primary villain is Princess Koji (Marta Dubois), a Dragon Lady type who lives on the nearby island of Matuka, so naturally there are lots of encounters with the Japanese. However, there is no indication that the Japanese are somehow automatically the enemy; it’s more that they are the enemy because they’re touchy about their borders and, you know, it’ll be WW2 soon, so we know something the good guys don’t. When they’re not being over-zealous about blowing the Goose out of the sky, they’re depicted with a good deal of respect – if nothing else, Jake clearly admires their devotion to honor. Sure, Koji herself has a distinct hint of the Yellow Peril about her, and would probably not have passed muster if created more recently, but she too is an honorable (if somewhat sadistic) foe, playing by the rules and displaying common courtesy in her dealings with Jake (although this is at least partially due to the fact that she’s got the hots for him). Mind you, it is made very clear that if they cross the boundaries of respect or inconvenience, they’re toast – she doesn’t keep all those piranhas and cobras and things around for nothing, after all – but meanwhile, she will be polite about any minor infractions that might occur.
Then you have the second recurring villain, who can really only be termed a ‘villain’ due to his allegiances – the Reverend Willie Tenboom (John Calvin). You see, he’s a spy for the Nazis, but not, it is important to note, a Nazi spy.
Why is this such an important distinction? Simple – Tenboom is not a Nazi himself. Indeed, it’s made quite clear that he thinks very little of what was then merely ‘the current administration’, but he’s loyal to his country and will do its bidding. In the meantime, he’s perfectly happy pretending to be a Dutch missionary and spending most of his spare time “blessing” (quote marks very much implied) the local island girls. He’s not only not a sinister character, he’s practically lovable, and considers the heroes to be good friends of his, but there is still that hint of moral ambiguity to him that makes one wonder ‘ooh – is he going to be the bad guy this time around?’ Nonetheless, the fact that he has that ambiguity, and that he serves an evil cause while not being evil himself, makes him a very enjoyably complex character, and one of my favorites.
Finally, we have that last heroic character I mentioned earlier, and the only reason he does come last is because he is not, in point of fact, human. I speak, of course, of Jack, otherwise known as ‘the real star of the show’. You’d think the inclusion of a Jack Russell terrier in an eye-patch would be a one-note joke used for background humor, but noooo – Jack is every bit as much of a fleshed-out character as the human cast. He’s not your usual ‘loyal dog’ type, either; he’s a grouchy little grump who holds a grudge like nobody’s business (I won’t go into the details of why here, because it’s too good of a running gag to spoil; suffice it to say that it’s funny). He doesn’t hesitate to express his opinion, either, although, of course, he has to do so in barks – one for no, two for yes (or was that the other way ‘round?). He may be ‘only’ a dog, but he’s treated as a person by virtually everybody, and you can fully understand why. Jack is awesome, end of story.
To wrap up, if you have any affection for old-style TV and thrilling heroics, then I definitely recommend Tales of the Gold Monkey. It’s available on DVD, and if you’re at all curious, you could do worse than to give it a watch.
Now, all together – theme song time! Dahn-da-dahn da dahn-da-da; dahn-da-dahn da dahn-da-daa…