You can never assess a new series from the Pilot. It’s had all the resources thrown at it, and months of preparation, and it’s usually an extended episode as wall, so the proof of the pudding doesn’t begin until the series proper starts, the regular shape of the episode is first established, and you get to see how cast, crew and writers cope with producing episodes on a weekly basis.
In that light, ‘Shanghaied’ got Tales of the Gold Monkey off to a bright start, with a fast-paced adventure, with plenty of twists, that allowed the three principals to showcase what they’re going to bring to the series.
Did I say three principals? Make that four, although Jack the one-eyed dog played less of a leading role this week.
The show made a bold move by laying its Saturday Morning Cinema Action Hero, Jake Cutter, low with a recurring bout of malaria right from the start, and keeping him weak throughout. This enabled the plot by first isolating Corky so that he could be shanghaied, requiring the struggling Jake to find and rescue him, and then by facilitating Sara Stickney White’s determination to join the chase by undermining Jake’s refusal to take her with him.
The plot was simple: a mysterious sea captain, with a supposedly English accent and a hook for a right hand, plies Corky with drink, his true weakness, knocks him out and shanghais him into the islands with the aid of a crew of Malay cannibals. Abel – or Sean Phillips as his real name is belatedly revealed to be – is in the slave trade but his ship, up a river on Matuka island, is paid up due to engine failure. Corky may be an aircraft mechanic – and former Chief Mechanic for Pan American as we discover, in those distant days before his alcoholism became the problem it is – but he’s the nearest and best option.
We’re reminded of Corky’s problem in an opening fever dream, a ‘memory’ of Jake fighting in China with the Flying Tigers (as I said before, a gross anachronism, Gold Monkey being set three years before they ever formed). Jake has Jack and Corky with him in the cockpit of his fighter plane, the latter constantly guzzling beer, hemmed in by so many bottles that, when they are shot down, and Jake parachutes out, cradling Jack, Corky can’t move and opts for another bottle, as the plane smashes into a hillside…
It’s both premonition and a reminder of how Jake feels responsible for his pal, and how he’s trying to control Corky’s drinking, to eventually get him off the sauce.
So Jake goes in pursuit, with the concerned and jealous Sara as his co-pilot. This is enforced by Bonne Chance Louie, owner of the Monkey Bar and local magistrate. Sincce the pilot, Ron Moody has given way to Roddie MacDowell, slimmer, slicker and a bit more natural in his overt Frenchness. We learn that Louie has been imprisoned on the notorious Devil’s Island, that he likes to seduce women of a certain age, and that he is the nearest to Authority on Bora Gora.
We also learn that Bora Gora is within the French Mandate, but Matuka is in the Japanese Mandate, and that to enter into Japanese airspace without permission is to invite being shot down as a spy. “But Jake,” Sarah reminds him, ” I am a spy.”
One thing this show doesn’t short its audience on is flight scenes. The thrill and edginess of flying a beaten up flying boat with dubious engines, improvised turn and bank indicators and being shot at by Japanese Zeros, or Zekes as Jake and Corky automatically call them, is an intrinsic part of the show, and the seat-of-the-pants era.
Meanwhile, Corky arrives at the imobilised Pandora and learns his task. Jeff Mackay is brilliant in his role as a character who is simultaneously a figure of (unfair) fun, with his dodgy memory and his anxiety, a pathetic and helpless near-drunk, the cliched sidekick who can’t match up to the hero, and yet someone with his own degree of principles, and Mackay manages the task of balancing these elements extremely well.
Getting him out from Jake’s shadow was a brilliant move. Corky is trapped, reliant on his pal’s rescue, but his immediate response on learning that the Pandora is a slaveship is utter disgust and a refusal to cooperate, though his resistance is quickly overturned when Sean threatens to have a girl slave crushed to death in front of him.
Having evaded being shot down whilst passed out, with Sara taking the controls and being assisted by God, Jake lands on Princess Koji’s island. Willie is there, in the other wooden hot tub, and the two have already drunk a toast to the ‘dead’ Jake and celebrated his ‘resurrection’. Strange behaviour by enemies, especially as Willie is convinced Jake is an American spy, but sobeit for now. Koji’s response is easily explained by her amused wish to shag Jake’s brains out: she rises naked from her tub in front of his eyes, to the shock and disgust of the jealous Sara.
But Koji can identify Ahab/Sean, and find his whereabouts, arrange for Jake’s legitimate flying permit in the Japanese mandate, and accompany him to the rescue, convincing the local Mud People to join the raid. So Jake buzzes the ship several times to create a distraction, the Mud People swarm over the sides, Corky is nearly squeezed to death but the salves rescue him, and in a slightly perfunctory ending, the moment Jake comes face to face with Sean, he shoots him (in self-defence, naturally) and kills him. So the last minute sting, that Sean was Koji’s half-brother, falls flat.
Our final moment is with Corky. He has his Mud People attractive young former slavegirl all over him, contentedly smearing mud gently across his face to cool him down and generally giving all indications of that pleasurable kind of fascination that promises a near future meeting of bodies – and all Corky has eyes for is the bullet-holes in the tail of the Goose, and how Jake’s been so irresponsible as to let her get shot at!
It’s a good start. The third test is how well the series is sustained, how strong the theme is, and can the standard be maintained? It’s as inconsequential as all get out, but the object is purely entertainment, and excitement on a child-like level, and that’s not always a bad thing, as The Undertones once reminded us.
More next week.