Lost Treasures

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  • Monday, March 11, 2013
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  • Sean Ellis
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  • As you may know, in addition to my contemporary thrillers, I also write a series of adventure novels set in what I loosely term “the Age of Adventure”—the late  1930’s…the fabled era in which Indiana Jones had so much fun.  In point of fact, I always wanted to write Indiana Jones novels, and when that didn’t work out quite as planned, I developed something in a similar vein—science-fiction infused adventure stories in the tradition of the pulp magazines of that time period, like Doc Savage, or The Shadow.  (Incidentally, thriller fans owe a huge debt to the pulp magazines.  Both Clive Cussler and James Rollins cite these magazines as an influence and inspiration for their own work…just imagine where we would be without their contributions?)

    I love working in period fiction, but sometimes it can be a little hard to switch gears…to get into the right mindset to write stories from the Age of Adventure.   As a general rule, when I’m working on one of my Dodge Dalton novels, I try to surround myself with things that remind me of the period.  I always start with an Indiana Jones movie marathon, and usually I’ll throw in a screening of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but I always keep my eye out for other stories which evoke that time period. 
    A few people out there (of a certain age) may fondly recall that, in 1982 following the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, there were not one but two attempted knock-off television series.  The better known of these was Tales of the Gold Monkey, starring Stephen Collins as Jake Cutter, a roguish cargo pilot and sidelined member of the famous volunteer air force, the Flying Tigers (curiously, the story took place in 1938, at least two years before the Tigers were created).  TotGM was set in a fictional South Pacific island chain, and featured an eclectic cast of characters that included a Japanese princess (played by the lovely Marta DuBois); a womanizing German spy masquerading as a Dutch minister; a female American secret agent (and Cutter’s primary love interest) working as a singer at the Monkey Bar (the hub of activity for the series); the bar’s dapper owner “Bon Chance” Louis, played by Roddy McDowell; and of course the real star of the show, Jack—Jake’s one-eyed Jack Russell Terrier, who always barks once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’…or is it the other way around?
    Tales of the Gold Monkey was created by Donald Bellisario, who had already established himself as a writer and producer for Magnum PI, and would go on to have much greater success with Quantum Leap, JAG and NCIS.  Even though Gold Monkey only lasted one season, it had a loyal following and I was always hopeful that someday it would be released on DVD.  In fact, in 2010, it was, and now it too is required viewing when I get to revisit the Age of Adventure.
    But that’s not the interesting part.
    There was a second Indiana Jones “rip-off” that also debuted on network television in 1982.  It was called Bring ‘Em Back Alive, and was based (loosely) on the exploits of real life live-game trapper Frank Buck—The title of the series was taken from Buck’s memoir about his adventures trapping exotic animals for zoos and circuses.  Bring ‘Em Back Alive starred Bruce Boxleitner as Buck, and reunited him with fellow Tron alumnus Cindy Morgan.  The show had an interesting premise, and was far more action-oriented (in other words, more fun) than TotGM, but there’s a reason it’s the ‘forgotten’ Indiana Jones knock-off.  Like my favorite pizza, the show was extra-cheesy, and because it was cancelled after only 17 episodes, there didn’t seem to be much reason to hope for a DVD release.
    A couple years ago, when I was trying to get back into the mood to write my second Dodge Dalton novel, I went on a little adventure of my own, searching the Internet for any new Tales of the Gold Monkey (or at least, any news of a DVD release).  To my pleasant surprise, I found a fan run website—http://goldmonkey.com/—that had what I was after…and so much more.
    It turns out that there are a lot of old shows that didn’t last very long, but are nonetheless fondly remembered ten, twenty, even thirty years later (yes, it’s been thirty years since Raiders of the Lost Ark).  And although these shows haven’t been, and probably never will be, be “officially” released on DVD, some foresighted fans managed to record the shows on their trusty VHS machines, have transferred them to DVD, and now make them available to interested fans like myself.  There  are in fact more than forty different television showsthat have been made available, some going back as far as 1970!
    There are some real treasures for the nostalgic adventure and sci-fi aficionados, and a couple of rare items that were never broadcast in the United States—notably the mystical treasure hunt series Veritas: The Quest (2003) which was interrupted by the start of the war in Iraq and never returned.  Now, with any treasured memory, some of these shows aren’t quite as good as I remembered them—I was a lot easier to impress thirty years ago—but it’s still kind of fun to take a second look.  Suffice it to say, a marathon of Bring 'Em Back Alive is now also part of the Dodge Dalton creative ramp-up.
    However…that also is not the interesting part.
    You may be wondering how it was possible to make unauthorized DVDs from home recordings of shows back in the 1970’s and early ‘80’s, before VHS technology was affordable and available to consumers.  The answer, as near as I can figure, is that some of these shows have been rebroadcast since their cancellation.  Back before the reality-TV apocalypse, cable channels would supplement their schedule by playing old movies and defunct television shows.  Most of the shows you can get from the Gold Monkey store, at least from what I can tell, were recorded from rebroadcasts after about 1985, on cable channels that either don’t exist any more or have changed names (e.g. The Family Channel, which started as the Christian Broadcast Network and is now ABC Family).  In some cases, the recordings are from overseas, such as the aforementioned Veritas, which aired on a foreign version of the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy).
    How does that matter?  Well, it turns out that the folks who made these recordings weren’t always very good about editing out the commercials. Sometimes, it’s hit or miss, and sometimes they just let the recordings run.  And even though it would be the simplest thing in the world to edit them out in the digitalization process, the commercials are still there.  So annoying, right?
    Wrong.  These commercials are the real treasure.  Watching them is like having a time-travel portal opened up to yesteryear; I can’t go through, but I can glimpse the world as it was twenty years ago.  There are ads for products that have since disappeared and news teasers about stories that probably everyone has forgotten.  While watching the very short lived, visionary pre-steampunk series QED (starring a young Sam Waterston) I saw an ad for Freedom Rock—“Hey man, is that Freedom Rock? Turn it up!”—and thought I’d fallen down the rabbit hole.  In fact, I simply must share:

    Maybe I’m more nostalgic than I realized, but for me, discovering those old commercials hidden in the recordings of TV series I’d almost forgotten was an amazing experience, and one that I felt like sharing. More than just a reminiscence, the advertisements show how much the world can change in just a few short years, and remind us that nothing is very permanent after all.
    I’ve almost completely given up watching television, so I’ve really no idea what commercials are like these days.  I know a lot of people have similarly modified their viewing habits, watching shows online, buying them from the iTunes store, or DVR recording them so they can skip past the commercials.  Maybe that’s the next natural evolution of mass media, and if so, it probably means that this form of advertising  will become a thing of the past.  Which is ironic in a way, since now I really don’t want to skip past the commercials anymore; I might miss something important and never to be repeated.

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