Tales of the Gold Monkey: e02 – Shanghaied

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.

Deep Space Nine: s04 e24 – The Quickening

Doctor and Patient

Maybe it’s just the coincidence of approaching the end of a Deep Space Nine season so shortly after the current television season has finished, but I find myself wanting to get season 4 over. Episodes like this one are either a symbol of why I want to get to the end or else a sign of my own staleness.

‘The Quickening’ was basically a two-hander featuring Doctor Bashir and Jardzia Dax, that developed in its last ten minutes into a Bashir solo. Because of the unwritten law that everyone in the cast had to appear, we began with a completely irrelevant, stapled on half-open, so that Odo, Worf, O’Brien and Quark could have a line or two to speak that was so bloody irritating in itself, even before it became totally out of keeping with the episode as a whole that I refuse to even credit it, and a coda with a word or two from Sisko that at least followed the story. Kira fared slightly better: she was the third member of the expedition into the Gamma Quadrant, but she got despatched into hiding from the Jem’Hadar for most of the episode.

I’m only going on about this for so long because I’m getting increasingly irritated at watching stories that are at least perfectly decent being bent out of shape, in an obtrusive manner, just to cram in an otiose line or two from a cast member not required for the story.

It put me in an awkward mood to begin with, which was then exacerbated by the lead-in to the plot. Kira intercepts a distress message from a planet under attack that turns out to be 200 years old. The attack was by the Jem’Hadar, punishing a world that had defied the Dominion by seeding it with a fatal virus that affects the entire population by causing facial and body lesions that, at an unpredictable point, turn red, causing indescribable pain and inevitable death.

The planet’s civilisation has collapsed, it is a ruin, it’s entire existence focused upon death, or rather escaping the death that follows when the lesions quicken.

This is what Bashir and Dax discover when they beam down, although it hurt the episode, at least for me, that they appeared out of nowhere, as complete strangers, dressed radically differently from everyone else, and nobody noticed. The absence of an reaction didn’t sit right, and was yet another example of weak, lazy writing, ducking logic in order to get to the ‘real’ story and thereby undercutting its reality.

At first, that story seemed to hold a tinge of more Federation cultural imperialism. A woman quickened, and Bashir and Dax help her to Trevean, who appears to be revered in the way a Doctor in a plague camp might be. Only he’s not a Doctor in Bashir’s terms because all he does is give those who have quickened a swift-acting poison, and a speedy and relatively pain-free death, as opposed to the drawn-out and agonising one imposed by the virus.

Bashir is convinced he can cure the plague: after all, he’s already saved one plague-ridden planet with just one hour’s diagnosing. He and Dax set up shopped, aided by the heavily-pregnant Ekoria, a sweet and gentle guest appearance by Ellen Wheeler. Trevean (Michael Sarrazin) hangs around making vague threats about liars and what happens to people who arouse false hopes that are never followed up on.

Bashir fails. He seems to be making progress towards a cure but the plague then rapidly and violently mutates, in response to the electrical fields generated by his equipment. Trevean has to step in rapidly to administer his potion, wiping out the entire clinic except for Ekoria, who is unaffected for no better reason than that the plot requires it.

Dax, who has spent most of the episode with her hair distractingly down for no reason other than to make her look different, goes home but Bashir determinedly stays, with Ekoria as his only patient, grimly clinging onto enable her baby boy to be born. There’s a twist coming, we know there’s a twist coming, and even before it’s somewhat blatantly foreshadowed by the total absence of all that antigen from Ekoria’s body, the ending is obvious. Ekoria gives birth, but dies almost immediately. But she lives long enough to see and understand that her baby is born free of the plague: Bashir has inadvertently created not a cure but a vaccine.

And Trevean, after being a slightly low-key heavy throughout, turns saviour, begging to be shown how to administer the vaccine to every pregnant woman. No-one alive will be saved. But within a generation, the plague will be eliminated. It’s a win, but not enough of one to console Bashir, as his distracted response to Sisko’s congratulations shows us.

So. If I were rating episodes, I’d give this a C+ as it is, with prospects of it having been a solid B if not for the strictures of the time. Tighter writing, dumping everyone but Bashir, Dax and Kira, with maybe Sisko to round things off, either tone down on Trevean the threat or else make that a bit more actual, these would have made this a much stronger episode, and me a lot more convinced today.

Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Home to Witchend

Six years passed after Where’s My Girl? before the last Lone Pine Club book appeared in 1978. By all accounts it was not a happy experience for Saville, who had several different titles rejected before the mundane Home to Witchend was accepted, and whose idea of concentrating upon the Twins, and the element of light-heartedness they brought to the story was also rejected. What was demanded was a finale, that recalled old themes, that recycled old formulas. And involve absolutely everyone. It was the only book of the series to appear as an Armada paperback original.
It was Malcolm Saville’s last work of fiction, just as, thirty five years earlier, Mystery at Witchend had been his first. Though he would still publish in the years remaining before his death in 1982, this was his farewell to the last and best of those characters he had created and who had entertained so many children, and the adults they became.
Home to Witchend – which Saville originally wanted to call ‘Where it all began’ – is an elegiac book, which is only proper from an author bringing a series to an end. It’s built upon Peter’s coming of age – her eighteenth birthday is only a week away when the story begins – and David Morton is planning to make this the most brilliant day she could have. It’s all he’s thinking about, and it’s clear that Saville would prefer to have the same single-mindedness, but an Adventure is required, even though it is almost completely against the spirit of this book.
Which shall it be? Foil a criminal gang, or find a Treasure? The former is the least obtrusive, and if we are adopting that course, who else should it be but the series’ most inveterate villain, Miss Ballinger, even though her hereditary foes, the Warrenders, are barely in evidence.
Things have changed. The Ballinger, who is now in her sixties and pretty well down on her luck, has changed her name again and is making a living of sorts drawing personalised greetings cards. Val, her once and former ‘niece’, has shot up from twentyish to thirtyish and, reading between the lines of what Saville doesn’t say, is already starting to lose her looks. Both have been summonsed to work in a relatively menial role for the former ‘Slinky’ Grandon, now calling himself Thomas Seymour, and definitely the big man in charge. The name of the game is forgery: ten pound notes. Ballinger and Val will take a remote Shropshire house as cover for the actual forging by two foreigners, Josef and Jan, and will assist in distribution.
Frankly, ‘Grandon’ isn’t Grandon, not even in name. He doesn’t look, act or even talk like the Grandon we’ve seen so often already and, after the initial connection, he’s Seymour throughout. Apart form this being the last book, I see no point whatsoever in making this last mastermind into ‘Slinky’.
However, there’s a neat symmetry in Seymour’s choice of house: it’s Appledore, which has gone unmentioned since Mystery at Witchend, but which is once again a pretty nest of thieves.
The meat of the book is Peter’s birthday. We divert to Rye for the Police to warn the Hotel manager-in-training of the Gay Dolphin, one Penelope Warrender, to look out for forged notes, just as they will later to the assistant in a Shrewsbury bookshop, one Jenny Harman, who has got out of Barton Beach at last.
But this is practically all we get of Penny. She’s finished her domestic science course, she’s training to take over the Dolphin when her aunt and parents retire. Jon’s still at Sussex University, though we don’t know what he’s studying or what he plans for his future. As for their future, when Jon turns up at the station and Penny is there to meet him, he kisses her ‘as she’d never been kissed before’ but she doesn’t say anything (Penny? Just been thoroughly snogged and doesn’t say anything? Penny?)
And when they turn up for the end, they are only making up the numbers. Penny helps Jenny with the food, and Saville mentions that they have so rarely seen each other (once only, in The Secret of Grey Walls), and that’s practically it for them. Lone Pine Club members since the third book, and practically as peripheral as a brief cameo from Alan Denton from Grey Walls.
In fact, apart from the core of the Mortons, amongst whom Peter must be accounted a member even in advance of the book’s conclusion, the Lone Pine Club does not get much shrift in this book. Tom is working, Jenny – who in the last of Saville’s time-fluxes, has somehow managed to become older than Peter! – is reduced to little more than a chatterbox, anxious to see David and Peter get engaged, and I am horrified that Harriet is reduced to an end-of-book cameo even less related than that of the Warrenders. Hell’s bells, Kevin Smith gets more dialogue than her.
I’ve come out and said it now, haven’t I? The point of this book is whether David is going to use the excuse of Peter’s eighteenth birthday to ask her to marry him. It’s not a dramatic point: the drama would have been if he hadn’t, and we as readers who have been here for the long journey from that day on the Long Mynd two years before the end of the Second World War (don’t mention that!) are almost as invested in that outcome as is Jenny Redhead. It’s sweet, touching and very rewarding.
And Saville plays along with it very cleverly, with two half-scenes of David and Peter after something unmentioned has taken place, that we as adults quickly see as David asking for Mr Sterling’s permission to ask for Peter’s hand and Peter choosing the ring that David will give her at the end of all things.
But before we get there, there is the necessity of accommodating the Twins. To general astonishment, they have at long last aged, now being ‘nearly twelve’, with poor Harriet being reduced to ‘about the same age’. But they still show no signs of growing up. No sooner have they been told not to leave the Witchend Valley than they leave the Witchend Valley for yet another new addition to the Long Mynd geography, a secret valley they regard as their own, though they don’t know its name.
Here, Saville produces another rain-induced landslip, of even more substantial proportions, underground water forcing its way out in a great eruption. It’s an artificial danger: the Twins are already above it, or else it would simply kill them, but it leaves them stranded, it leads to tremendous publicity, Mary’s almost sure she saw a man who might have been caught in the flood, and Richard annoys the hell out of me with his stupid, self-centred insistence on not answering people’s questions about this man, who might be in desperate need of immediate assistance, just because he wants to keep it as an exclusive for James Wilson.
Saville uses this last escapade to tie into the forgery plot (the man is Jan, the non-English-speaking assistant forger, who is excitable, highly-strung and runs away), but the more direct method of connecting the Club to the criminals comes when the Twins recognise the Ballinger at her sketching stall.
Despite wanting to do nothing but build up to Peter’s big day, David finds it necessary to clear things up one last time, if only to keep his younger siblings from an even more intrusive bit of stupidity. Managing to make Peter stay behind for once, promising to phone by twelve noon, David goes out in the car to try to find the gang’s whereabouts. Eventually, he finds Appledore, but is caught snooping round its seemingly-deserted yard by Valerie. Preparing to bluff it out, he goes inside, only for the equally excitable forger Josef (he’s not British, you see) come in raving and give the game away. David is going to be the last kidnappee, though I wince that Saville has him trip up (twice!) and knock himself out rather than be thumped.
He doesn’t phone Peter by twelve, which frightens her intensely.
I’ve not mentioned this before but, with this being the last book, Saville has reintroduced the gypsies, Reuben, Miranda and Fenella, after a very long absence. Sadly, reflecting the growing mood of the times, they are finding their old roaming life hard to sustain, but Charles Sterling, knowing, liking and trusting them, has allowed them to install their caravan at Seven Gates, where Reuben works on the farm, and Miranda and Fenella visit the local fairs.
And the shy Fenella is herself beginning to grow up, and to indicate to the Lone Piners how much she cares about them, and it is she who comes to the rescue, asking among her contacts when requested by Dickie, and coming up at the crucial moment with Appledore. So Peter demands the Police are notified but heads off on Sally one last time, to the rescue.
Like David before her, she finds the place seemingly deserted, but there is one additional detail for her: two cars at the back, burned out. One of them is David’s.
You and I know that that won’t happen, but Peter experiences the worst fear of her life before she confirms David isn’t in the car. He’s imprisoned in the workshop, where he’s attempting to beat the door down, and she releases him, like he has done for her often enough. And inside is Ballinger, abandoned by her confederates, imprisoned by her near-blindness without the glasses they have stolen. There’s a curious dignity to her at the last, unaware of who she is speaking to, telling Peter that there is a prisoner who needs releasing all unaware that he is already free. Miss Ballinger accepts her fate.
It’s a shame that this calm acceptance is marred when Saville later relates the curious detail that the Ballinger had a gun in her handbag but she didn’t attempt to use it. As a committed Christian, Saville could not have allowed even her to contemplate suicide, but it’s a dangling detail, the gun in the first act that didn’t go off in the third, a thread that goes nowhere.
So, the gang are wrapped up, offstage, by the Police as usual. Seymour/Grandon has taken Val with him, but their fate is a car accident on the outskirts of Manchester: Seymour is ‘gravely injured’ and Valerie is helping the Police with their enquiries, that age-old cliché. Now the stage can be occupied only by those people who count. The party is held at Seven Gates, half in and half out of HQ2. Everybody is there, everybody who is family in this extended circle of friends, and everybody who has played a part on the side of the Angels, save for Arlette Duchelle and the Channings, in any of these adventures, comes up to wish Peter well on her great day, and the expected is announced: that David Morton has asked Petronella Sterling to be his wife and she has agreed, and whilst Jon and Penny stay resolutely in the background, Tom pipes up to announce that Jenny has also become engaged to him.
And David is to move his training to Shropshire to be with Peter, and will become a country Solicitor in due course, and when they marry, Witchend will be theirs just as Ingles will stay with the Ingles, and whilst not the least amazing thing about the Lone Pine Club series has been that Malcolm Saville has included the sometimes childish but always genuine affection and love between boys and girls without frightening off his audience, this is really the end of the Lone Pine Club. Happiness is, as always, the enemy that will have its way, and to which we own defeat with joy.
But what of the Twins, and the criminally overlooked Harriet? There’s a final gesture of defiance from the Twins. Kevin will sign his name in blood, to become a new member, and Nicholas Whiteflower, and young Fenella. There will be a Lone Pine Club still, a New Lone Pine, but it won’t be our club and we will never read its adventures (and if the Twins are in charge, I really do fear for them).
When Home to Witchend appeared, I was twenty-two, too old for such books, but the completist in me has always held sway so I read it then, and I’ve read it again, along with all of the series. Oddly enough, it was only from Where’s My Girl?s editorial material that I learned that Saville agreed to write, and began to meticulously plan another story. But nothing came of it, and whether it would indeed have been about the New Lone Pine Club, or still have involved some or all of the loving pairs, I’ve no idea. Save that it would have been another opportunity for Harriet Sparrow, I’m glad nothing came of it.
A lot of Saville fans will think that I’ve been very harsh about Home to Witchend, far harsher than any of its predecessors. And I have. To be very honest, this isn’t a very good book, largely due to the lack of freedom Saville had in writing it, but also due to his age and to his lack of understanding of the then-modern era. The book is full of contrivances, and repetitions of old tropes. The intrusion of the Adventure is tired and forced: I can imagine that a younger author, less troubled by pressures, could have written this in another way, something that genuinely forced itself upon David Morton as he rushed around, wishing only to focus on the woman he loves and her happiness, and that threatens to spoil the event, but that would have required an energy that Saville no longer had.
I still do want to talk about the series as a whole, but I’ll make that the subject of a separate essay. Let’s end this by picturing in our mind the lifelong friendships of those neighbours in an imaginary valley in the flank of a real mountain, David and Petronella Morton, Tom and Jenny Ingles. By now, they’re long since old enough that their own children will have outgrown an even newer Lone Pine Club. But, knowing these people as we do, not their friendship with one another. True to each other, whatever happens,

Adam West – The ‘Best Batman’?

In that long lost country that was 1966, a ten year old boy eagerly encouraged his Mum and Dad to stay at his Granny’s long enough for him to watch the first episode of the Batman TV show. I was ten years old and I was thrilled by American comics despite my parents’ distaste for them, and on Saturday nights I got my way and I hung on every brightly coloured black-and-white image.

I remember things: the ‘Hot-Line’, “To the Batpoles, Dick!”, and that moment near the end when Batman did the ‘Batusi’, which went over my head in so many different directions. My Dad’s vocal shock that Nelson Riddle, who’d worked with Frank Sinatra, was involved as musical arranger on something like this. And then it was “Tune-in next week. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!”

That next week wasn’t next Saturday though, it was Sunday night, and I couldn’t wait.

These are the things I remember,  and I find it telling that after fifty years, that’s what I remember. Wasn’t the villain The Penguin? I can only be 50% sure.

Because, let’s face it, the Batman TV Show of the Sixties was shite, and it was written and acted to be shite, because the people who were responsible for it thought that the original material was shite and that the audience that in any way took this shite seriously was laughable and deserving only of these superior souls’ contempt, which came out in every frame of the show.

Absolutely none of which was detectable by a ten year old boy who was thrilled just to see Batman on TV, Batman, and who was even more thrilled one Saturday morning to go off to the Burnage Odeon to see the Batman film, and see everything in colour (though he was very confused to see Lee Meriweather playing Catwoman, instead of Julie Newmar: mind you, looking back, and even allowing for the fact I was then eleven, I am startled that I noticed).

Understandably, I was the only one in our family enthused to watch Batman. Saturday was one thing: I was far more indulged at Granny’s, and anyway the adults were more into talking than watching the box, but twenty-four hours later, at our home, my Dad said what we watched and more often that not the ITV Sunday night film, which started at the same time, was his choice. I was forever doomed to watch Batman and Robin get into a dastardly trap and never find out how they got out of the cliffhanger.

Years later, however many I can’t recall, I went to the cinema to see a revival of the film. The scales fell from my eyes in such profusion that I could barely see the scree over them. I thought the “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” bit was the nadir, but when we got to Robin’s puzzled, “You mean they won’t be coming back, Batman?” I admit I groaned aloud in pain and wanted to cover my head.

Granada only ever showed the first series. Later, I heard that Batgirl had been introduced into the third series, which surprised me because I’d just assumed they hadn’t been making any more. I was curious, but I accepted that, except in the unlikely event of going to America – and the idea of leaving England was just so outlandish, I never imagined it – I’d never see it.

Once again, let us leap in time. It is the mid-Nineties, I am a responsible houseowner, all sorts of things have happened including Channel 4 and Breakfast TV, and the former are showing Batman, stripped five days a week, at 9.30am. And, what do you know, it’s that third series, with Yvonne Craig as Batgirl. And one of the other things to have happened in the meantime is owning a colour television. And a video-recorder.

It becomes a thing to record Batman, same bat-time, each bat-weekday morning, and watch it when I came home. By now, it’s dropped the cliffhanger bit, the villains get one episode each, and the continuity bit consists of the next villain showing up for the last thirty seconds of the previous episode.

And Miss Craig is a fine figure of a young lady, and I already knew the producers wouldn’t actually let her punch anyone out, especially once Batman and Robin are onscreen, so it comes as no surprise that all she does is ballet-pirouette, and give the occasional ladylike kick, which is not only bloody ridiculous and a complete waste, but which contributes heavily to my immediate impression that series three of Batman makes series one look like ‘War and Peace’.

This is, of course, an initial impression. By the end of series three, the show is making the beginning of series three look like ‘War and Peace’, and Eartha Kitt is no adequate successor to either Julie Newmar or Lee Meriweather.

No, the Sixties Batman TV show was not worth the watching, and my Dad’s refusal to subject himself to it when he had a choice was both understandable and the thing I would have done in his shoes.

You may think that this is a rather mean-spirited way to mark the passing, aged 88, of Adam West, who was both Millionaire Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader, and it may be, but I hold none of this against him, nor do I begrudge the love he had from millions all his life. He did the job asked of him, and there are plenty who could have done a worse job.

And you could say he wasn’t as bad as George Clooney, who really should have known better.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Operation ARES’

The first thing to be said is that, despite the presence of his name on the title page, this is not a Gene Wolfe book. It is a generic, ordinary, unexceptional Science Fiction book. It appears to be a book by someone who wants to write a Science Fiction book rather than a book that he wants to write. Gene Wolfe himself disowns Operation ARES.
Which is a mildly harsh but realistic appraisal. Wolfe’s debut novel, which appeared in 1970, is set in a future America in which societal structure is disintegrating in the face of a long term economic collapse brought about by a popular and short-sighted uprising against science. The Constitution has been suspended, the Army and Police (in name at least) disbanded, the Welfare programme massively expanded, and Science itself is confined to Mars, which is hated and feared and which is trying to get things to start improving on Earth.
The book concerns John Castle, who starts as a teacher and, in a manner that will become familiar as Wolfe grows into his greatness, ascends into a position of great influence based on his generally superior intelligence and tactical awareness. John, who is surprisingly only 22, is already a rebel against the way things are when the book starts. His personal adversary, a man we only know as either the Captain, initially, of the General, in the later stages, is convinced that Castle is a member of, indeed possibly the leader of ARES, the American Reunification Enactment Society (also the name of the Greek God of War, which is not a coincidence: this is an early example of a Wolfean construct/symbol, but definitely early because Wolfe spells it out for us: after this book, it is the reader’s job to make such connections, no matter how esoteric or specialised they may be).
The irony is that, in the latter half of the book, Castle does indeed become leader of ARES, an irony compounded by the fact that ARES does not, in fact, exist.
But though Operation ARES is set sufficiently far in the future that the USA has colonised Mars and withdrawn support for it for twenty years, it is indelibly enmeshed in the politics of its time. What blossoms is an unacknowledged Civil War, in which the Presidency Pro Tem, the ‘official’ government, is supported by the Communist Russians, and the Constitutionalists by the Communist China, all Maoist slogans, running dog capitalist imperialists and mutual suspicion between the two antipathetic Communist states, whose ultimate aim is control over the United States.
Indeed, the abrupt and entirely unsatisfactory ending to the book comes when the two opposing US ‘parties’ decide to collaborate in an effort to buy the time to rebuild America again, by playing off one Communist state against the other.
Yes, this is an unsatisfactory book on so many levels, though I admit that,on this time of re-reading, it gain an astonishing contemporary significance for me, at least in its first half, with its near prescient portrayal of a county whose economy and ability to maintain itself, let alone progress, has been destroyed by a comprehensively stupid decision taken to seize control of the country from its elected rulers, to divert money to the massed poor, by taking it away from Mars, science, manufacture, etc., etc., etc.
As a result, all systems, including power, are failing, the infrastructure is cracking up, wild animals roam at night making things incredibly dangerous, food is being rationed, clothing is shabby/pitiful, graft is rife, and an ineffectual government keeps pretending all is well, and the country is better and stronger for it by a combination of banal slogans and outright lying.
For someone who voted to Remain in the Referendum, the parallels with the Theresa May Party’s Government are too glaring to ignore.
One more glaring difference between Operation ARES and Gene Wolfe’s other books is the complete absence of an unreliable narrator. The closest we come to this staple Wolfean device is in the middle stages of the book where Wolfe simply leaves out sections of a more comprehensive, but unimportant progression. There is no seeming suggestion that the untold sequences have any fundamental bearing on the overall story, or that by these omissions Wolfe is doing anything more than avoiding clogging up the book.
In later books, it is vital for the reader themselves to determine what they’re not being told, as it will inevitably be of significance.
A banal, undistinguished story, told conventionally within the conventions, an inability to escape out of the present political setting despite being a good half-century into the future, if you’re being realistic, reliable narration: the only element of this novel that is consistent with the Gene Wolfe we love is John Castle, the tactically competent man, who knows how to analyse a situation and project a solution upon it.
Having said all that, it should be made plain that the book as published is not as Wolfe wanted it or wrote it. After his publishers set a strict 60,000 word limit, Wolfe’s original submission was 103,000 words and the book completed some four years or so before publication. Furthermore, after Wolfe had edited down the first quarter of the book, the task was taken out of his hands and the word-length over the remainder of the novel achieved by cutting out whole paragraphs until the limit was achieved. Much of the criticism the work rightly receives is undoubtedly a reflection of this process.
No wonder Wolfe wants nothing to do with it.
His next novel would appear in 1972. The contrast between this and The Fifth Head of Cerberus could not be greater, as the title alone demonstrates. It is the true beginning of the career that the wily Wolfe has enjoyed ever since.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: s01 e01 – Pilot

Cutter’s gang

You just don’t get this kind of thing any more.

Back in the days when television was decidedly the movies’ low-rent younger brother, every big film would inevitably gather a shoal of television hangers-on within the next twelve months, series that inevitably and with markedly little shame set out to capture, if not the precise film itself, then the audience that lapped it up.

If you hadn’t seen the film, it didn’t matter: I was too young for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid but I lapped up it’s TV knock-off, Alias Smith and Jones (Monday night, BBC2, 8.00pm). I had seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, so I was well aware of what Tales of the Gold Monkeywas trying to do, but I didn’t mind, because it was great, goofy fun, and thirty years later, the double-length pilot film is still exactly that.

I’ve already described the central cast and set-up, but let’s go over things again as set out for us. The film actually starts relatively obliquely, in an island jungle, at a hidden pool beneath a high waterfall. A big monkey eats a fruit. It’s obviously a man in a monkey costume, but its a well-made costume, definitely not cheap, and decently convincing. Enter two unimportant characters, hacking their way through the jungle. They are German officers, as demonstrated by the slightly hackneyed but not overdone accents and the use of terms such as Herr Leutnant. Being of the Master Race, they are contemptuous of mere monkeys and shoot it, bringing down the wrath of an entire tribe of monkeys, who descend and kill them.

We cut to Jake Cutter, playing poker. Stephen Collins looks the part immediately: flying cap, leather jacket, jodhpurs and boots, smoking a cigar, five o’clock shadow on his shiny, sweat-slick face. Among the other players is an unnamed German officer in black naval uniform, complete with monocle, Hitler moustache and, as we will later see, Hitler-haircut. He, played by John Hillerman, better known for Magnum, P.I., will turn out to be a Gestapo agent, as if we couldn’t tell from just one look at him.

Yes, this is already a compendium of cliches, Saturday morning adventure, but completely self-aware and assembled with honest delight.

But creator Belisario (who would go on to things like Quantum Leap and N.C.I.S.) is ready to throw a spanner into the cliche works, by introducing Jake’s partner, Jack, a Jack Russell terrier. Jake consults Jack on his hand and on the next raising of the stakes, by which he means to gamble, not for the first time, with Jack’s artificial eye: an opal with a sapphire centre.

The system is simple: one bark for ‘yes’, two for ‘no’. Jack barks once, Jake fits an eye-patch over Jack’s socket and reveals his hand: three Queens.

He loses. And Jack holds it against him for the rest of the episode, as everyone including the dog squabbles over whether it’s one bark for ‘yes’, two for ‘no’ or vice versa.

The whole idea sounds stupid and there’s grounds for wondering how long the notion can be kept up without becoming intensely irritating, but for the moment it’s simply gloriously silly, with Stephen Collins, to his credit, playing his heart out acting against the dog, who is a superb actor in his own right.

Next we introduce Sara Stickney White, a singer touring the Maravellas (the island chain in the South Pacific where all this is happening). Sara’s having problems with the wanderings hands of Sam, her manager, leading the chivalrous Jake to intervene. Jake, in one of a carefully regulated occasional voiceovers, is a bit of a Knight Errant. On the other hand, in a cheerful undermining of the hero, he’s not the best of scrappers, though he’s gaining the upper hand when Sara chooses to end the fight by smashing a bottle of champagne over, unexpectedly, her rescuer’s head.

Sara, who talks with a British accent despite being, we learn, an American spy, is an independent and resourceful young woman (as well as being a redhead). Her cover is that of a slightly ditzy woman, and it’s not entirely a cover. This is not that encouraging and is definitely of its time: you can’t have a fully independent woman in a boy’s Sarturday matinee story, but Sara is a lot further along the line than she could have been in those days, so chalk this up as positive on balance.

Sam is also an agent, and is shortly after killed by the Monocled man, but by then he’s already abandoned Sara in a huff and Jake is giving her a lift to Bora Gora, where Sam will arrive next. This bit of the story is a touch weak in logic: it’s perfectly in keeping with the cover story but implausible for the pair’s real status as spies working together.

Nevertheless, this is the lead to our full introduction to ‘Cutter’s Goose’, Jake’s charter plane, a beaten-up and patched-up Grumman Goose flying boat. Enter the world of hair-raising flight, though the failure of the port engine en route and the near crash is down to sabotage, not the Goose’s unreliable framework.

The cast of heroes is completed by the bumbling, eager but forgetful Corky, Jake’s mechanic and other best friend, a hopeful but befuddled guy with serious memory problems. The word has rapidly spread that Jake has lost Jack’s eye again, and public opinion sides with the dog, who knows how to best exploit it. Even Jake’s landlord and closest thing to an employer, Bonne Chance Louie, owner of the Monkey Bar – more indelible cliches – takes up with the dog. Louie was played with carefully measured Frenchness by Ron Moody in this pilot, but the role was taken over by Roddy MacDowell for the rest of the series.

We’re nearly there now, only the recurring villains to introduce, though in fact they’ve already appeared onscreen by this point. These are the Reverend Willie Tennbaum, a Wehrmacht officer posing as a Clergymen seeking to convert the native unspoilt islanders and regularly conferring ‘blessings’ on the beauteous Tiki. We’re in cliche-land again, and this is frankly rather embarrassingly patronising, though Tiki appears to be even more eager to be ‘blessed’ than the somewhat fatuous Willie.

But Willie is in partnership with the local Dragon Lady, Princess Koji, played by decidedly caucasian actress Marta DuBois, with her fanatically loyal bushido-master servant Todo (John Fujioka). These are obviously set up to be the recurring villains, and as such were credited weekly as cast, though they were strangely underused.

Willie is excitedly tracking down the legend of an island on which there is a 100 feet tall Gold statue of a Gold Monkey (and there you were, wondering what that scene all the way back at the beginning was about). It’s not the gold his Fuhrer is after, rather that it’s actually an alloy of gold and some other element(s) that is incredibly heat resistant, making it vital for Der Fuhrer’s rocket programme…

To cut a long story short, the island in question is Baku, where, in order to avoid crashing, Jake and Sara dumped most of their cargo. Louie wants his Pom Peron 27 champagne, Willie his bibles, Sara to foil the villains, the villains the gold monkey and Jake to find out why everybody’s lying. So everyone converges on Baku, the dormant volcano,just as it decides not to be dormant any longer.

The episode cheerfully throws its brains out of the window and goes for pure, unadulterated danger and excitement, with guns, snakes, deadly Germans, giant monkey guards, tied-up damsels in distress who get soaked, and a last-minute escape with a three foot tall monkey statuette that, when cleaned up and looking glowingly aureate, turns out to be made of brass (the series was originally going to be called Tales of the Brass Monkey, this latter phrase having a somewhat different meaning over there, but was changed for legal reasons).

So a satisfyingly drama-holing ending and a set-up for an ongoing series. And a final scene for the viewer only, revealing that, on the now-live volcanic island of Baku, the monkeys continue to guard something from which the vegetation and debris of ages has been stripped, and which looks uncommonly like a 100 foot tall gold statue of… a monkey.

This was and, with due allowance for its age, still is a good fun 90 minutes, without any pretention save to be a fun way of spending 90 minutes, at which, as far as I am concerned, it succeeds. But we have all seen multiple instances of a self-contained, extended pilot, with a budget to be impressive, proving to be less sustainable on a reduced budget and a weekly filming schedule.

That’s the true test, and that, for the next twenty weeks, is what I’ll be exploring. Thursdays is Tales of the Gold Monkey day.

Under a Solitary Tree: Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club – Where’s My Girl?

Where’s My Girl? was the second and last of the Lone Pine series to cost me more than a few pounds through e-Bay, and I am indebted to Girls Gone By Publishing for the timely reissue of the book for being able to afford it at all. For some reason, the nineteenth and penultimate book in the series is the rarest and most expensive to obtain, the best price I had seen before this publication being £27.00 for an Armada paperback edition.
And as a bonus I had not expected, this reissue also incudes the only Lone Pine short story written by Malcolm Saville, of which I was not aware until recently, and which, like Mystery Mine I had never read.
The story returns the Lone Piners to Dartmoor, and to the lonely house, King’s Holt, where they were based in Saucers over the Moor, now owned rather than rented by Penny’s parents. This makes Dartmoor the only one of the outer areas to be visited by the Lone Piners more than once, and of course we are reintroduced to Dan Sturt, cub reporter, and his mother, the proprietress of the Moorland Pixie (which is still an awful name and even more awful in 1972 than in 1955).
Oddly enough, although this is Warrender country if it is anybody’s, Jon and Penny are conspicuous by their absence, off to France with Penny’s parents and arranging to meet the lovely Arlette, and the party is made up by Tom and Jenny, escaping from Shropshire for the first and only time. This refusal to use the Warrenders, when it would have been so natural in the circumstances to bring them in, only feeds my belief that Saville didn’t know how to handle this pair, and could not bring himself to allow them the same free rein to celebrate being a couple.
There are no such inhibitions with David and Peter, or Tom and Jenny, though in order to get them away, Saville has to resort to a rather dodgy tactic that sets the book off on a poor footing, from which it never really recovers. Tom has an accident with the new combine harvester, thrown from it, hitting his head upon a stone and suffering temporary amnesia. And it is only temporary, and even though he can’t remember his name he recognises Jenny, who has witnessed this, before anyone else, but she goes off into the kind of frantic hysteria in which she’s more of a hindrance than anything, even down to accusing others like Peter of not caring whether Tom lives or dies, only she cares.
Frankly, it’s not Jenny’s finest hour, and though she apologises for her behaviour, it’s not until halfway through the story, by which time it comes as a bit of an afterthought. The intensity of her reaction, understandable though it is, is unbalanced, even if it is fuelled to some extent by another rift with her stepmother, whom Jenny goes so far as to say she hates.
The holiday at King’s Holt is by Mr Warrender’s invitation. He’s gone into partnership with a Colonel and Mrs ‘Call me Marjorie’ Longden to convert the place into a high class tourist attraction, offering stables and ponies: Penny’s friends are guinea pigs, if you like. If you’re already guessing that the Longdens are going to turn out to be wrong-uns, you won’t be wrong but what surprises is the nature of the criminal enterprise the Lone Piners will stumble into.
It’s presaged by an incident en route to the station in London. The Mortons are held up by a jewellery robbery, by an armed gang, who shoot a policeman (not fatally, thankfully) and a bystander, almost under the Twins’ noses, an incident that scares and subdues them, and leaves David rattled too. This is the ‘modern’ world that Saville is being asked to write for now, and it’s a shocking intrusion. Because the gang the Club helps the Police to break up is gun-running, via King’s Holt, supplying arms for the criminal element of Britain.
It doesn’t quite fit. There’s nothing especially noticeable that suggests Saville’s heart isn’t really in it, but after such a long run, the subject is intrusive, and distasteful, and it ramps up the level of danger to a point that doesn’t sit with the Lone Pine Club.
Not that it’s going to last much longer. In his own mind, Dickie Morton is acknowledging that openly. The Club is breaking up, he tells himself. The seniors want to be with each other – Jenny exemplifies this, asking Peter to confirm that when they’re both married, they’ll still be friends, still see each other – and even his Twin, Mary, is no longer on the exact same wavelength as him, now that they near the age of eleven.
And indeed, when they get to King’s Holt, staffed by its three Cypriots, the first thing they all do is break-up into three pairs for three expeditions: David and Peter to go riding, up to the old and now derelict secret station of Saucers over the Moor (boy, is the reference to flying saucers seriously anachronistic now), Tom and Jenny for the bus into Plymouth and the Twins to find their own secret camp locally.
By now, Saville has also reintroduced Dan Sturt who, in the years since Saucers, has made a big thing of his journalism. He’s a multi-platform journalist now, to adopt the modern terminology, the Dartmoor correspondent with seeming access at will to not just his local newspaper but local radio and local TV, getting stories out there just because he’s Dan Sturt. The Longdens start off by wanting him to do effectively free PR for King’s Holt, the Police clue him in as to a raid on an incoming fishing boat smuggling arms, oh, Danny boy’s hot, and he’s hot for Peter too, much to David’s annoyance, though he’s no chance with her.
The Lone Piners just want to enjoy their holiday, even if Jenny is still like a cat on hot bricks around Tom, whose memory is still a bit uncertain and who at any moment might forget who she is completely and she’s his girl. But the Longdens are not entirely convincing. Visitors come and go, seemingly to buy the Dartmoor ponies Longden carves (one such fortyish visitor evidently strips Peter with his eyes, though Saville is too polite to put it so bluntly). They’re also too desperately anxious to know where their somewhat unwelcome guests are going to be every hour of the day.
And there are incidents: David and Peter, riding back in the mist, find Marjorie Longden, supposedly throw from her horse after coming to meet them, but she’s alright and leaves them on David’s ride as soon as they’re near home, and she doesn’t know half as much about horses as she ought to. Tom and Jenny chance on Longden taking a delivery of fish to a sleazy fish shop in Plymouth, whilst the Twins see fish being delivered to King’s Holt, before finding a mysterious and rusty metal tube containing stained architectural plans.
It’s all rather weird than anything else. With the possible exception of the Twins, nobody really wants to get involved, and Dan is having to carry a lot more of the formal plot than we’d normally expect as a consequence, along with his Police contact, Bob Hunter, and then it all goes wrong behind our backs.
For the second day, the elders split up differently. David takes Tom for a long bracing walk on the moor, aiming to climb a 1,500′ Tor (1,500′? 1,500′? You should try the Lakes, mate, we laugh at 1,500’ers), whilst the girls go off to inspect the unusual (and off-putting) Wistman’s Wood, seemingly because they don’t have the strength to tackle tors. This is one of the few out-and-out sexist moments in the entire series that really annoys me: it’s condescending and unrealistic, and given how often Peter and Jenny have been up and down the Stiperstones, however unhappily, it’s complete nonsense for the actual characters.
But Saville needs to separate the boys from the girls, because their return to King’s Holt coincides with not merely another delivery of fish but a newsflash on Jenny’s transistor radio (which she carries everywhere) from the ubiquitous Dan about the gun-smuggling.
The next thing we know, the boys are back, the Twins are back but the girls haven’t returned yet, and Jenny’s transistor is in the girls’ room. It’s a lovely and subtle reveal, with Saville only then back-tracking in the next chapter to show how the two girls are drugged, and wake up imprisoned in a boarded up bedroom somewhere unknown, held prisoner, and threatened with disappearance at sea if they act up.
It’s the inevitable kidnapping, and for once it creates a serious stir. The Police are called in quickly, yet another marvelous WPC caters to the Twins, London and Shropshire are notified, with Mr Morton (wondering if his children are fit to be let out anywhere on their own, even if that’s about sixteen books too late) and Alf Ingles and Mr Sterling all driving down.
But despite the uncertainties of his memory, Tom saves the day. Whilst Peter and Jenny confront their captors with a creditable impersonation of the Twins’ act, sewing confusion, even though they still only get individual bathroom breaks (at last! Recognition of toilet functions!), Tom manages to dredge up the fish shop, and the young men come busting their way in, with the Police hard on their heels, David nursing a bruised face and a split lip but quite obviously having handed out his own measure of grief as he and Tom get their girls back.
The Cypriots, who, far from being servants will prove to be the organisers, go on the run, but are arrested later on. The Longdens are missing but, thanks to Dickie’s genuine ingenuity over the plans, are found trapped in a locked secret vault behind the workshop, along with a veritable arsenal.
So all’s well that ends well. But there is still more. Ingles and Sterling drove overnight from Shropshire and arrived in time to find that the girls had been rescued, but they were not alone. Only it’s not Mr Harman who came with them, concerned about his beloved daughter, but Mrs Harmam, the stepmother Jenny has never liked, who only in this book she has said she hated. It is her stepmother who has come to care for the stepdaughter she has always been at daggers drawn with.
And it is Mrs Harman, who loves her husband just as Jenny loves her Dad, who sees the long-overdue need to try to make a relationship with the girl she has helped to raise, who wants to talk to her, and to her Tom, to make a belated new beginning. Jenny, tentatively, but hopefully, accepts such overtures.
I’d like to like that ending as it’s intended to be liked but, like Kevin Smith’s family redemption last time round, I can’t fully believe in it. The problem is that, for thirty years, Mrs Harman hasn’t actually been a character, and barely even a caricature. She was a plot device when she was introduced, the shrewish stepmother unsympathetic to poor little lonely Jenny when her Dad was still in the Army, and down all the years she’s never recovered from that. She’s barely been onstage, always upstairs, or visiting friends, and represented as a jealous woman, jealous of her husband’s love for his daughter, and her stepdaughter’s love for her man.
So whilst the impulse is generous, if overlate, it runs up against the fact that we don’t know Mrs Harman at all, that she’s never been portrayed as anything other than her awkwardness and obstructiveness and, sadly, Saville still doesn’t seem to know how too set her up as a person from whom an awkward r’approchement can stem.
Without that, it’s nothing more than a figleaf, a token gesture. What we’re seeing, in concentrated form here, but in general throughout this and the last couple of books, is what Dickie said: the Lone Pine Club is breaking up. The older members are turning away from the adventures of their childhood in favour of the adventures of adulthood, of dealing with each other as partners, as lifelong friends. Saville wants to remove another vestige of childhood, but whilst his impulse is good, and generous, and entirely in keeping with his fundamental belief in people being good and decent towards each other, he has never done enough to stand Mrs Harman up on her own two feet.
Since the appearance of Mystery at Witchend, almost thirty years before, there had never been a gap of more than two years between Lone Pine Club books. Now, with only one to come, six years would elapse before it appeared.

The Girls Gone By reissue of Where’s My Girl? contains a rarety I had only learned of a couple of years ago, the first time I thought of the Lone Pine books in decades. In 1950, Malcolm Saville wrote the only known Lone Pine short story, The Flower-Show Hat, for a Girl Guide Annual. It was very rare, and extremely hard to find, and when finally reprinted, was limited to 500 copies available only to members of the Malcolm Saville Society. I’m extremely grateful to G G B for including it in this edition.
The story is wildly out of continuity here. It’s set in Rye, and is a solo Penny Warrender short, though inevitably, Jon appears at the end, and it takes place in time just before Lone Pine Five in Shropshire.
Penny is back from school and looking for mischief in her usual manner before Jon returns, later in the day. Her Aunt, skilfully heading her off, insists she accompany her to the Flower Show that afternoon, in best frock, gloves and nylons (!). Penny, who is here described as ‘not yet pretty’ is rebellious: it’s a schoolgirl’s frock, too short (!), and she’d rather wait for Jon anyway, but no.
There’s a stranger visitor at the Dolphin, a young woman, red-headed, looking a lot like Penny, and wearing an absurd hat which Penny immediately covets. The girl, Susan Brown, aged about twenty, claims to have her Uncle following, after he deals with a punctured tyre, but she looks pale and worried.
Penny later catches her in the private part of the Hotel, after which Miss Brown disappears. But she’s left her hat behind, so Penny sneaks it into the Flower Show, to wear. By then, we know the Police are after Susan, as an accomplice in the theft of a picture. So Penny gets one heck of a shock when she’s accosted at the Show by a stranger, who recognises her by her hat, and who runs her back to the Dolphin to talk to her in private.
Desperately afraid, Penny seeks the aid of Jon, now home, but this twist is that the man is not the crook, but a detective! Penny is able to locate the missing painting where it’s been stashed, but Susan Brown, who’s been an innocent dupe in all of this, comes back to the hotel to hand over the painting anyway.
Oh, and to collect her hat…