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"In the worlds before Monkey, Primal Chaos reigned. Heaven sought order. But the Phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown. The four worlds formed again and yet again, as endless aeons wheeled and passed. Time and the pure essences of heaven, the moisture of the Earth, the powers of the sun and the moon worked upon a certain rock, old as creation. And it became magically fertile. That first egg was named "Thought". Tathagata Buddha, the Father Buddha, said, "With our thoughts we make the world". Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it then came a stone monkey. The nature of Monkey was irrepressible...."

"Born from an egg on a mountain top. The funkiest monkey there ever was!" For many of you that theme tune will hold a special place in your heart. If like me you grew up watching the television of the early nineteen eighties, programmes like Monkey will bring a nostalgic tear to your eye. I used to be crazy about the exploits of the immortal Monkey and his friends Sandy and Pigsy. As for the “boy” priest Tripitaka, well I’m sure “he” had many an impressionable youth confused. For me, the program ranks alongside such childhood classics as Mr Benn, Knight Rider, Ulysses 31 and the A-Team (to name but a few). The blend of martial arts action, hilariously bad (and at times incredibly suggestive) dialogue, and funky disco/rock fusion music made Monkey a firm playground favourite. Now, years on, Fremantle are bringing the whole series to DVD, including a number of “lost” episodes never before seen on British television. The question is, after all these years is the spirit of Monkey still irrepressible?

Monkey is "relieved" to find himself at the end of the universe...
The first volume in the series includes three dubbed episodes as originally broadcast on the BBC. It also includes one “unseen” episode, in the original Japanese with English subtitles. This first volume deals with the origins of Monkey, and how he meets up with Tripitaka, Sandy and Pigsy. Here’s a brief synopsis of each episode. I take no credit for these synopses, as they’re taken from the DVD itself…

Monkey Goes Wild About Heaven
Mischievous King Monkey is summoned to heaven, where he steals the heavenly peaches, and eats them to gain immortality. He fights two of the Emperor's officials, and all three of them are expelled to Earth. Monkey gets imprisoned under a mountain of rocks, while the other two are transformed into a pig monster (Pigsy) and a water monster (Sandy). Buddha says that a holy man must be sent to fetch the Holy Scriptures from India to save the world.

Monkey Turns Nursemaid
Buddha sends a messenger, the Boddhisattva kuan-yin the Compassionate, to find a holy man to make the journey from China to India to fetch the large vehicle scriptures. She chooses the boy priest Hsüan Tsang, and bestows upon him the name Tripitaka. Joined by the irrepressible Monkey - with his magic wishing staff and magic powers - and a talking horse, this could be a journey to remember...

The Great Journey Begins
Tripitaka and the ever-impatient Monkey begin their perilous journey. Arriving at a village terrorised by a greedy and lustful monster, Monkey thus faces the wrath of Pigsy and his deadly muckrake. To cross the Mighty River of Flowing Sands, they must first pass the cannibalistic water monster Sandy. A sandstorm, an army of tiger ghosts - will Tripitaka end up as cat food, or will Monkey save the day?

Bonus Episode - You Win Some, You Lose Some
A powerful man called Shotenki and his demon master, Kokufki, lure all the men from surrounding villages to their casino in Ikkakudo, where they spend all their time gambling. Tripitaka offers to help the desperate wives and children of one village, and send Pigsy and Sandy to the men back to their senses. When their attempt fails, Sandy asks Monkey for assistance in finishing off Shotenki for good.

Monkey is one of the shows that you hear people discussing down the pub on a regular basis. Much of it’s appeal no doubt comes from the incredibly over the top dubbing, where the actor’s are dubbed with little regard for lip sync, nor it would seem for the original meaning of the dialogue! Monkey is choc full of double entendres, with some pretty adult humour in places and many of the jokes centre around Monkey’s Wishing Staff, and it’s ability to grow and shrink at will... At other times it’s the “boy” priest Tripitaka who causes much of the humour, with “his” girlish looks, girlish voice and, hell, it’s so obvious "he's" a girl it’s untrue! This no doubt passed right over my head as an innocent child, but it does explain all those confused emotions.

But, ladyboy priests aside, I loved the show for its blend of martial arts and comedy, with the often clumsy and incompetent Monkey and friends managing to find danger in even the most harmless of settings. Of course you always knew that, in spite of Tripitaka’s protestations, Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy would eventually kick butt! In fact, some of the fight choreography was pretty good, certainly better than a lot of television shows I could mention. Conversely, the special effects in the show made early Star Trek look cutting edge, with the monster makeup, cloud flying and transformations all looking particularly ropey. But this all adds to the retro, old school charm of the series.

Aside from the “original” episodes as seen on the BBC, I actually enjoyed the first of the unseen episodes. With its extended opening sequence, showcasing possibly the worst monkey makeup in the history of television, and it’s hilariously fake looking cloud flying sequences, this episode is a riot. It also made a welcome change to hear the cast speak in their own voices, although I actually think the dubbed voices are far superior when it comes to comedy value!

Our heroes, looking as bemused as ever...
This is one of the more difficult parts of any review, and Monkey is no exception. On one hand the 4:3 video is very poor, with numerous scratches and washed out colours. On the other hand, it does faithfully reproduce the source material. How can I penalise the transfer for its poor quality when it’s only doing the best it can with what’s available? It’s a tricky one this. That said, the video is very bad in places, especially in the first episode, and I’m afraid I’ve had to take this into consideration when scoring. Even so, it all adds to the nostalgic feel of the proceedings and the picture is watchable, so it’s not all bad.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is functional if nothing more. I wasn’t expecting great things from a twenty-year old television show, but the soundtrack does its job well enough. For the most part everything is clear, and when things do become a little hard to understand it’s the fault of the outrageous dubbing more than the audio track! Monkey also features one of the most incredibly infectious theme tunes ever, as well as some great incidental music. It’s all very “seventies”, but I love it! Obviously this is not a track that will even remotely test your system, but it does what it needs to do, and this is reflected in the scoring.

These are a little sparse, but this is to be understood. What we do get are stills galleries, character and cast biographies, episode synopses, some web links and trailers. The stills galleries are divided into four sections, representing the four episodes on the disc. However, Each section contains only a small number of images.

The character biographies are quite interesting, and include such details as alternative names for each character, skills, features, weapons, traits and favourite phrases. The cast biographies are very detailed, although their static nature makes them a bit boring to look at. Many of you will no doubt be surprised to learn that the “boy” priest Tripitaka was played by a girl called Masako Natsume. Sadly, Masako passed away in 1985, at the age of twenty-seven.

Some short episode synopses are also included, which do a good job of condensing the often-confusing plot into a couple of paragraphs (see above). Next we have a very comprehensive list of web links. These cover pretty much everything a Monkey fan could ever want, with links to the unofficial UK Monkey website, as well as links to fan sites for most of the cast.

Finally, the disc contains three trailers. Two of these are for forthcoming DVD releases from Fremantle – The Water Margin and Blake’s 7. These are nothing more than teaser trailers, and not particularly good ones at that. The final trailer is billed as a “Monkey Magic Music Promo”. It’s basically a collage of scenes from various Monkey episodes shown while the fantastic theme tune plays. This is worth listening to if you haven’t heard the full tune before. After hearing it, you will almost certainly be heading to your favourite P2P music-sharing program to seek it out.

A dodgy Monkey puppet does a spot of cloud flying!
So, is Monkey still irrepressible? Well the answer is both yes and no. I thoroughly enjoyed all three episodes of the show as originally seen on the BBC, and the inclusion of the subtitled episode was a welcome bonus. However, although I still found the series entertaining after all of these years, I have to ask myself if it is largely due to the fact that I have such fond childhood memories of the show?

In trying to remain objective I had to ask myself if others would enjoy Monkey in the same way I did. Unfortunately the answer to this is probably no, as was evident from my girlfriend’s reaction to the show. Still, if you remember the program from way back in the day you could do a lot worse than pick this up. Even after all this time the quirky sense of humour, the action and the cheesy special effects can still entertain. However, if you’ve never seen Monkey before you’d be well advised to try before you buy.