Perfectly acceptable first-run syndicated tripe, as Xena meets Baywatch in the Disney/M-G-M Studios Florida jungles.
By Paul Mavis
Recently, Mill Creek Entertainment released a whole lotta Sheena, Queen of the Jungle material, in a DVD set that includes the 1984 big-screen adaptation (with Tanya-ya-ya-ya-ya! Roberts), along with the entire syndicated TV series from 2000-2002. Feeling a definite summertime TV/movie-watching mood coming on (action, good-looking women, no messages), I descended 300 feet via elevator into the bowels of the earth, where I house my vast, subterranean DVD stores. I then took the electric tram to the southwest wing (substation 27, vault 12), where I managed to secure the discs for Sheena’s first season.
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Based loosely on the iconic comic book character from Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, and starring former Baywatch babes Gena Lee Nolin and John Allen Nelson, Sheena didn’t last long (only 35 episodes). Now I’d guess it’s probably only remembered by the small audiences that originally caught it helter-skelter in first-run syndication. However, as these low-budget television romps go, Sheena’s an agreeable time-filler, with brief-but-solid action, some good performances (handsome, wisecracking Nelson and cynical sidekick Kevin Quigley come off best), and plenty of teasing shots of stacked Nolin in various stages of undress—all to distract you from the routine, sometimes silly jungle adventure plots.
Little Shirley Hamilton was six years old when her American archaeologist parents, working in the darkest jungles of Africa, died in an earthquake cave-in. Adopted by shaman priestess Kali (Margo Moorer), newly-monikered Sheena (Gena Lee Nolin) soon learns the strange ways of African jungle life: vine-swinging, super-human strength, mixed martial arts fighting and knife-throwing, the ability to run as fast as a panther, and maintaining the softest, silkiest blonde hair―without frizz―in that terrible jungle humidity. Sheena learns something else, too, from kindly, wise Kali, a skill only Kali retains from her now-lost tribe: the ability to mind-meld with animals and then assume their shape (yep).
Enter American hustler Matt Cutter (John Allen Nelson), of Cutter Unlimited safari tours, with his bar-owning/mechanic sidekick, Mendelsohn (Kevin Quigley). Willing to ferry anyone anywhere for anything as long as a hefty fee is involved, Cutter is rescued one day by Sheena when he’s double-crossed by an unscrupulous client, with Cutter observing Sheena’s shape-shifting ability in the process. Now linked by this secret, the wary Sheena uses adventurer Cutter for her various adventures and rescue missions, many of them involving the nation’s corrupt, shady President N’Gama (Jim R. Coleman), while she works out just how much she can trust the handsome rogue who can’t seem to keep his eyes off her prominently displayed breasts.
To be honest, I sort-of remember promos for Sheena when it premiered in 2000…but I don’t think I ever sat down and watched an episode back then. My impression of it at the time was that it probably continued on in the tradition of syndicated hits like Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules―series I didn’t watch, either, so…why watch Sheena (that shape-shifting jazz was probably the kicker)?
I certainly loved all those old Tarzan and Bomba the Jungle Boy movies growing up, though. There was a 1950s syndicated TV version of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle with Irish McCalla, but it was long off the dials in my smaller TV market by the early 70s. I’ll even confess to having paid money to see Tanya Roberts’ Sheena: Queen of the Jungle in the theaters back in 1984 (when no less than Pauline Kael—yes, Pauline Kael—gave it kind of a good review). So, other than the prospect of seeing Nolin prancing around in a skimpy outfit (a prospect that one shouldn’t sneeze at), I probably couldn’t muster up any enthusiasm back in 2000 for tracking Sheena down in cable’s own jungle of myriad channels, with its hundreds of come-and-go, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them programs.
As it plays now, almost 20 years later, the word that best seems to sum up Sheena is….amiable (pretty much the way you can take other action/eye candy shows that Sheena’s producers, Douglas Schwartz and Steven L. Sears worked on…like Xena and Baywatch and Riptide). You have to go way out of your way to screw up the “jungle adventure” subgenre. If the exotic settings are there, along with dangerous animals, local natives for color (relax), outside threats to the Edenistic paradise, attractive leads sexually fired up by the heated jungle setting, and some outsized action, you pretty much are assured of delivering, at the minimum, uncomplicated, time-passing entertainment for those so inclined. And Sheena does all of that, reasonably well.
The original Sheena comic book character obviously owed its inception to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, and Burroughs’ themes and stock situations set out in his books and their subsequent movie adaptations, have carried through as conventions that Sheena takes up with only superficial updating for the 21st century. Certainly the biggest change here from the original character is Sheena’s ability to actually assume the shape and abilities of the animals she mind-melds with, as opposed to just commanding them to do her bidding (a simple shouted, “Ungowa!” did a lot for Tarzan…). So if Sheena is thrown from an airplane by a diamond smuggler, she merely needs to see an eagle and poof!, she’s an eagle, flying down to the ground.
Snarky, picky viewers today may comment that this idea doesn’t work in Sheena simply because of the then-poor-but-now-amusing melting/morphing CGI work employed here. Graphics aside, I’m not sure this updating works, though, because it seems a completely unnecessary complication to the original character―a gimmick. After all, Sheena already possesses Tarzan-like speed, agility and strength, along with a deep spiritual connection with the jungle animals, making this shape-shifting nonsense down-right redundant.
When you also factor in her assuming her alter-ego, the mythical Darak’Na (is some kind of animal transference involved here, too?), a legend among the tribesmen and the outside world, why does she also need to be a tiger or a panther? Covered in mud to disappear amid the foliage, and outfitted with Freddy Kruger claws, Sheena-as-Darak’Na is a pretty cool creation, running at hyper-speed and springing through the air, slashing her victim’s faces and bodies like a jaguar on meth, and thrashing into submission even the biggest male opponents (I feel faint…). Had the producers stuck with just Darak’Na, they might have saved some bucks on that CGIing…and kept around the more skeptical viewers.
Other than that invention, Sheena‘s format should be fairly familiar to anyone who has watched even just a few Tarzan movies, with minor tweaks added to bring the stock confrontations into the year 2000. Sheena, orphaned to the hostile, unfamiliar jungle, has learned to master it, with the help of Kali’s council and supernatural gifts. And upon mastering it, she considers the jungle her new home, and since she isn’t “civilized” by Western standards, she’s free to defend her land using the “law” of same-said jungle.
Various outside forces continually threaten her idyllic new home: diamond smugglers, the nation’s corrupt, impulsive President, animal poachers looking for impotency cures, foreign governments and assorted scientists looking for deadly viruses and miracle cures, civil and tribal warfare (with plenty of beleaguered refugees roaming around), big bad oil companies (jesus), journalists and big game hunters looking to bag Sheena’s Darak’Na, terrorists, black slavers, political assassins, and Island of Dr. Moreau/Crocodile Hunter wannabes. With the often-coerced aid of Cutter (himself a threat to Sheena’s jungle since she believes he merely wants to profit from it), she beats back each of these unwanted incursions, while dodging the usual assorted jungle pitfalls like earthquakes, deadly animals, and quicksand.
The supporting characters in Sheena are no less easily recognizable to the casual viewer. Cutter is your typical “Rick from Casablanca” adventurer, crossed with a bit of Indiana Jones, to create a cynical opportunist whose ready wisecracks are as rote as his eventual willingness to show his caring side to Sheena. Mendelsohn is your stock grizzled, muttering, goofball sidekick, while Kali is your stock wise, patient, spiritual native mentor―certainly not standard issue during the early Tarzan movies, but just as clichéd today after decades of convention.
Nobody deviates from the formula, and everyone is cued up to interact in ways you already know like the back of your hand. Case in point: Sheena’s and Cutter’s teasing thrust-and-parry sexual dynamic. Except for one brief drug-induced make-out session, it’s strictly frustrated lust for Cutter this season. That stand-offishness may have hurt the show with viewers expecting either more romance (women tuning in) or sex (the pigs). Keeping Nolin so defiantly hands-off when it comes to her sexuality may have seemed an interesting choice in terms of redefining action heroine conventions…but it eventually distances the viewer from the strident character (you can’t keep parading around the positively delectable Nolin in next to nothing while continually slapping back the hands of Nelson, who’s a stand-in for all the voyeuristic viewers out there).
As for Sheena’s stories, they’re utterly predictable, too, in design and execution―but still enjoyable in a channel-surfing “hey, this looks okay,” sort of way. If Sheena fails to keep a consistent tone, refusing to go deliberately campy when that might have helped (sometimes it’s quite violent, with people getting their necks snapped and knives stuck in their faces…and other times it’s as tame as Disney’s The World’s Greatest Athlete), at least the episodes move along in a lively fashion (how can you not go spoofy when for example, one episode mixes a Nelson Mandela-like political prisoner with high-fashion models on a photo shoot?).
Exterior shots look great, made possible at the former Disney/M-G-M Studios in Florida (looks as good as any other TV presentation I’ve seen of fake Africa), while the interior sets are ridiculously false (how about sponsor Bass Pro Shops’ completely unexplained sign so prominently displayed in Cutter’s office?). Fortunately, the action scenes are well-designed and vigorous, while everyone remembers to have at least one shot per episode of Nolin in an almost semi-nude—yet cable-safe—situation.
Gorgeous, pouty-mouthed Nolin may not be Maggie Smith, but she’s at least game, and she looks insane in an animal skin onesie, while Nelson, also a former Baywatch alumni (who shows a facility with light comedy here), is pretty ripped himself for those so inclined. Considering the positively dire state of TV’s second “golden age” (whatever, Netflix and HBOring), if you’re on the couch and looking for something to zone-out to on a lazy Saturday afternoon…you could do worse than Sheena.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.