When you wake up tired on a Thursday morning, a good, bracing episode of Tales of the Gold Monkey is ideal medicine.
This week’s episode, which gives us a little more insight into Jake and Corky’s background, as well as a rather more serious storyline overall, is the perfect point to bring up a couple of criticisms of the series. So far, I’ve been reveling in the innocent fun of it all, and the way the show steers well clear of showing contempt for its unpretentious origins whilst gently acknowledging their lack of sophistication (ritual invocation of the Sixties Batman TV show as an exemplar of the opposite).
But it must be acknowledged that whilst Gold Monkey does everything it can to immerse itself in the (deliberately) cliched feel of 1938, it is still a thing of its time, 1982, and is flawed to the extent of that era’s underlying presumptions.
‘Once a Tiger…’ starts with two pilots, Randall McGraw and Kramer (guests Lance LeGault and W.K. Stratton respectively) flying an aircraft across the South Pacific during an electrical storm. One engine fails. Kramer broadcasts a mayday signal before baling out, McGraw lands the plane in jungle.
I’d noticed last week, for the first time, that Jake’s flying cap has a prominent hole in its peak, suggesting something ripped out. Our flyers have the same caps, but with badges there, and on their jackets, indicating that they’re Flying Tigers. Jake was a Flying Tiger…
The problem with this is, and I’ve alluded to this before, is that the Flying Tigers, or American Volunteer Group, didn’t fly in China until December 1941. Jake’s backstory is an anachronism, and given Donald Bellisario’s military background, obviously a deliberate one.
Because of the kind of show it is, being pure entertainment without feeling the need to be any more, I’ve accepted this. It provides Jake with a perfect background to his being where, and who, he is, as well as being a source of stories when, as with Gandy Dancer, figures from his past can drop in.
But I know I ought to be objecting to this deliberate distortion of history which, in a more realistic story, I would be excoriating. An episode like ‘Once a Tiger…’, which couldn’t exist in any shape without the Tigers to call on, only emphasizes this confusion.
Anyway, the shape of this story is that, several days later, whilst Jake and Corky queue for a visit from the Island Dentist (extractions on the beach with the use of a cycle-powered generator), Kramer’s badly-sunburned, weak and strained body is brought to Bora Gora. Jake immediately identifies him as a Flying Tiger, albeit a recent recruit, and once Kramer recovers, and identifies McGraw as his co-pilot, both are determined to help a fellow Tiger – even such a son of a… blue-faced booby as McGraw.
In her capacity as the in-house spy, Sarah has already tried her most seductive routine to get Jake to fly her out there. Jake’s enjoying the attention until he realises he’s being played (‘why do I always fall for this?’) but Sarah is miffed to find that whilst she can’t vamp Jake into doing what she wants, the prospect of rescuing a Tiger, not to mention the cargo of experimental gunsights bound for the AVG, which will make their job less dangerous, has Jake signing up instantly.
I’ll be coming to my second point in a moment, but to stay with the chronology, we next get some of Jake’s background, from one of Stephen Collins’ sparely-placed monologues. Why did Jake leave the Tigers? Why is he knocking around the Maravellas? It turns out Jake was badly wounded (at the end, we learn that he was saving McGraw’s ass, not that the son of a blue-faced booby will ever acknowledhe it) and nearly lost his leg.
Even so, General Chennault confirmed it would take a year for Jake to recover combat fitness, and sent him back to America to recuperate, only for Jake to get stuck in the French Maravellas…
Kramer, determined to go on the rescue mission despite his weakness, takes one look at Sarah and decides he knows why, though we know from the Pilot that Jake and Corky were plying their trade with the Goose before our favourite red-headed spy headed this way (lust for adventure, obviously: no true Saturday morning cinema hero would ever go back and convalesce when he could have rip-snorting adventures instead).
Which brings us back to the fair Sarah. She’s an American spy of some reasonable seniority having regard to her age. She’s treated with respect by her superiors and those American forces with whom she liaises. But this is American TV, in 1982, only a dozen years from the beginning of ‘Women’s Lib’ and despite setting her up as a strong, independent woman, the show can’t treat her with respect, because she’s a woman.
Sarah is undercut at every turn, in little things. Her seductress performance, convincing though it is, stands out against the usual relationship between her and Jake so that we already know she’s out to get something by the most cliched route (woman = sex). On the island, it is Sarah, not any of the men, whose foot goes through the weakened floor of the plane, Sarah, not Jake or Corky, who nearly screams when the natives appear, and Sarah who reacts most hysterically when the gang are pinned down by cross-fire.
It’s a terrible shame, because Caitlin O’Heaney is more than equal to playing the role Sarah’s supposed to be, and of suggesting that the ‘just a woman (rolls eyes)’ aspect is a performance that reinforces her cover, just as the traditional Bruce Wayne portrayal maintains an implausibility distance to Batman.
Yet there’s still some good things to Sarah’s portrayal here. The weakened Kramer has been installed in Jake’s bedroom, so he’s going off to sleep in the Goose. Sarah is disappointed for him, and comes very close to offering him the comfort of her bed for the night. There’s a clear distinction between the ploy and her genuine attraction to/feelings for Jake, but he is gentleman enough to allow her to think things through, and her clearly reluctant withdrawal strongly roots the story in its 1938 setting, whilst maintaining the traditional ‘will they/won’t they’ dichotomy (actually, I was more along the lines of ‘you mean they haven’t yet?’ even back in 1982).
Fortunately for all, McGraw has managed to land the plane on an island in international waters, so the Goose can’t officially be shot down, but even so, everyone’s got to sneak in under cover of dark because the Imperial Japanese Navy is searching for those gunsights, and the Army is on the island and not too far behind Jake’s gang.
Which leads to another somewhat dodgy territory the show occupies. The plane has been found by the primitive natives, who have stripped it of ‘gifts from the god’, the god in question being the wounded McGraw. Jake references the ‘cargo cult’ tradition without any patronising creeping in, but the series as a whole does trade in the condescending atmosphere of primitive, simple-hearted natives, who don’t understand the marvels of us so-advanced Caucasians.
The tribe has the gunsights and McGraw. He’s still a miserable, dry, lacomic, cutting son of a blue-faced booby who’s pretty shitty towards Corky (Sarah admirably takes against him instantly because she’s protective of her friends), and Lance LeGault gets a lot out of a short and calmly under-performed role. But the natives have failed to strip the plane of its smoke-markers, and these magic-like things frighten the crowd, letting everyone escape.
Kramer? We’ve already discovered that he’s working for the Japanese, broadcasting the Mayday at the top of the show on their frequency, not the International Distress frequency. With poetic justice in operation, his failed attempt to stop the gang fleeing is ended by the Japanese troops shooting him and his falling into a lagoon occupied by something underwater that looks like two exceedingly long lianas. Exit traitor, and good riddance.
All that remains is a brief coda where Corky ends up with his tooth extracted and McGraw promising to give Jake credit to General Chennault for ‘helping’ him get the gunsights through.
So. I can see these things in Tales of the Gold Monkey, yet although I know I ought to be slating them it remains that the level the show is pitching for, and the fact that it is still such boisterous fun thirty-five years later without having to rely on twitching my nostalgia-glands still has me happily-disposed towards it. I can’t get angry towards it as some would say I should. I can certainly get exasperated towards the silly attitude towards Sarah, and I would be much more scathing towards anything showing these attitudes in 2017. But Tales of the Gold Monkey is over and done and unchangeable, and they’ll never make anything like this again, and I have always been able to separate good from bad in my mind, and where the balance lies.
See you next Thursday, Monkey maniacs!