One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Tales of the Gold Monkey. I don’t say this out of nostalgia because, quite frankly, I could barely remember even watching it. I say this thanks to the miracle of … ahem … a “fan copy” I … ahem … “obtained” and quite recently viewed.
The series stars Stephen Collins (“Seventh Heaven”) as Jake Cutter, a world-class pilot who runs an air freight business in the South Pacific at the dawn of World War II.
But this isn’t an old-timey “Wings,” this is quite possibly the best darn action-adventure show you could ever hope to see on the small screen, especially in 1982 when it originally ran. Most people call this show a poor man’s “Indiana Jones,” but it’s more than that. Sure, it owes its very existence to Indy because it never would have been greenlighted if it weren’t for Indy’s success.
The central angle of the show is that Bora Gora, the South Pacific island were Jake is based, is situated in French territory just below Japanese territory. With WWII brewing, the island becomes a hub of political intrigue. Jake is an ex-U.S. Army pilot. His girl Sarah Stickney White (Caitlyn O’Heaney of “Three O’Clock High) is a U.S. spy. Their host Louie (Roddy McDowell of “Planet of the APes”) is the French magistrate. Also creeping around is the Rev. Willie Tenboom (John Calvin), a German spy masquerading as a Dutch missionary, the seductive Princess Koji (Marta DoBois), who watches over the Japanese and criminal interests in the area and Todo (John Fujioka), Koji’s ever-angry bodyguard.
Now with all that spy stuff going on you’d think that would be enough for a great series, but for “Tales of the Gold Monkey,” that’s just a start.
- Egyptian cults
- Feral children
- Deadly volcanoes
- Tiger-fighting Amish
- Nazi submarines
- Ninjas and samurais
- Cargo cults
- Plucky reporters
- British royalties
- Prison riots
- Deranged monkeys
- End-time preachers
- Radioactive monstrosities
- Flying nuns
- Out-of-Africa Watusis
- Killer baseball players
- Movie stars
- White slavers
- … and, of course, a talking one-eyed dog who understands English, French and Japanese.
And they all show up in just 22 episodes.
Clearly influenced by pulp magazines and movie serials, “Tales of the Gold Monkey” was a total blast from start to finish, but don’t think it’s because of its crazy themes. It’s held together with a great cast, each of whom can spark a laugh, punch a Nazi or plow through exposition with the best of them, and remarkably involving scripts that take you all over Asia.
Even the minor players in the series, such as John Calvin’s Rev. Willie, are multilayered. Sure, Willie could have been a typical mustache-twirlling villain, but he’s far more layered than that. Instead we learn that he’s basically hiding out on Bora Gora, hoping to avoid any real responsibilities of war. Rather than playing it as a straight-laced spy, Willie actually cares about those he spies on and shirks his duties to the fatherland in a very unseemly way.
Likewise, setting the show on an island chain was a stroke of genius. The sheer nature of geography lets each island house a whole new threat to the cast. On one island, you can have a tribe of natives who worship Santa Claus, the Nazis or anything else. Another island can feature a deadly swamp, hidden caves or a Black Lagoon. Since the island was a transit point to points east and west, it also meant the show had a lot of traffic … and a lot of guest stars, including Kim Catrall of “Sex and the City” fame.
What did I like most of all? That the series doesn’t age. Because it’s set in the past, everything looks old. References don’t sour. “Advanced” concepts don’t make you roll your eyes. Even its frequent use of stock footage isn’t a hinderance, since their looks gel with the series’ shooting style.
It all meshes perfectly, and that’s why “Tales of the Gold Monkey” still works more than 25 years after the fact.
What’s the only problem?
It’s not available in reruns.
It’s not on DVD.
It’s not on Blu-Ray.
All we have are inferior fan copies of the show.
It’s time that changed. We want a restored “Gold Monkey” in stores (or even available as a download).
And we want it NOW.
Images courtesy of GOLDMONKEY.COM. You’ll never find a better fan site than that.