"Young Terry Bowen arrives in India from America to join his father: great white hunter Hugh Bowen. But Bowen has been lost on a tiger hunt, and is presumed dead...although his body was not found. Convinced his father is alive, Terry escapes the authorities who would ship him back to America. Teaming up with two other fugitives, Raji, an orphaned Indian boy and Maya, his elephant, Terry Bowen searches for his missing father through the strange cities and dangerous jungles of India."
Quite entertaining vintage TV family fare. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Maya: The Complete Series, a 5-disc, 18-episode collection of the NBC adventure show's one-and-done 1967-1968 season. Based on the same-named Clint Walker big-screen outing from the year before, and starring the young leads from that movie, Jay North and Sajid Khan (and also I would presume, the same elephant), Maya's spectacular all-Indian location shooting and its relatively straightforward (and surprisingly violent) action/adventure framework puts this miles above similar kiddie-oriented "boy and his fill in the blank animal" TV shows of the time (like say, Ivan Tors' fun-but-juvenile television series). No extras for these okay fullscreen color transfers.
That opening narration above, heard at the beginning of each episode, pretty much describes the show's set-up. Arriving by boat to Bombay, American teenager Terry Bowen (Jay North) is told by the American consul that his father, the great white hunter Hugh Bowen, was almost certainly killed during a dangerous tiger hunt. Terry refuses to believe this, and escapes the consulate (he was to be shipped back home), hopping a train where he meets fellow fugitive Raji (Sajid Khan). Raji is smuggling his beloved elephant, Maya, back to the jungle, rather than let her work on a pipeline project (Raji no longer has the paper that proves he's Maya's legal owner). Raji agrees to help Terry find his father, creating a disguise for Terry by smearing mud all over him, to cover his white skin. Traveling to his father's employer, the Maharajah (Jai Raj), the Maharajah proves sympathetic to the boy's plight, and offers him one of Terry's father's guns as protection. On the run, the two "Indian" boys and elephant Maya experience many action-packed adventures as Terry tirelessly tracks down is father.
Premiering on NBC in the fall of 1967, Maya's brief half-season run was before my time, nor do I remember it playing in syndication during the 1970s, at least in my television market (it's possible it did play somewhere else, although it would have been unusual for an hour long series--one that wasn't a ratings' success--to make it to syndication with only 18 episodes). Based on the big-screen movie of the same name, starring North and Khan, and headlined by Clint Walker (A.W.O.L. here because Walker was "off" television gigs by this point in his career, after all the Cheyenne sturm und drang), Maya's pedigree was surprisingly hefty. Executive produced by King Brothers Productions (Frank, Herman, and Maury King were collectively responsible for exciting and thoughtful B outings like Dillinger, Gun Crazy, The Brave One, Gorgo, and Captain Sinbad) and line produced by Herbert Coleman, the series' creation is credited to genius television and movie scripter Stirling Silliphant, responsible for, among many other notable projects, two of the best television dramas ever--The Naked City and Route 66--as well as the Oscar-winning screenplay, In the Heat of the Night, released in the same year as Maya's debut. Talented directors like Marvin Chomsky, Hollingsworth Morse, and John Berry helmed the well-crafted episodes (Silliphant delivers three here), with the added bonus of the attractive production being shot entirely on location in India, to frequently spectacular effect (along with a host of talented Indian performers filling out the supporting roles). Not bad at all for a little "boys and their elephant" kiddie TV show.
I certainly wasn't anticipating much when Maya was sent to me. Having reviewed several similar-sounding vehicles from producer Ivan Tors (animals-and-kids titles like Flipper and Gentle Ben), I just assumed that Maya would fit into the same kind of small fry TV groove: safe, mild action and juvenile, easy-to-grasp morality tales...with lots of shots of animals to fill in the 51-minute run time. However, when the series' first episode, Blood of the Tiger, written by Silliphant (according to guild rules then, if you penned the opening pilot of a series, you received creator credit...along with a nice check each week, even if you didn't write another word for the show), opens with North arriving in Bombay's harbor, the unfamiliar, seriously impressive Indian locations instantly gave Maya a heft I wasn't expecting at all (according to all reports, the series was shot in its entirety there). Indeed, Maya's look--shot on 35mm, and framed and cut like a big-screen actioner--had the feel of one of those classic British ITC outings, like Secret Agent or The Saint, crossed with a bloody Boys Own spirit of adventure and a Jonny Quest Saturday morning cartoon sense of sweep. For a kiddie show, Maya is surprisingly violent: little girls get eaten by tigers, poachers slaughter elephants for their tusks, rebels shoot kids while rebelling, and elephants stomp tigers to death--in close-up. Something is always happening in Maya, from throwaway linking scenes, such as the boys having to cross a stream (it's raging, of course, and they have to use a rope hold), to big, complicated set-pieces (the numerous foot chases through the teeming villages, with multiple camera set-ups, or the many shoot-outs). And while Maya the elephant is a genuinely sweet character, she's no Gentle Ben. Mostly, the boys work out their own problems (Maya is frequently left somewhere to fend for herself while the boys are on an adventure), but when they need her to knock down a prison wall, or grind a fang-dripping tiger into the dirt, she does it with alacrity--something you'd never see in an Ivan Tors production.
Some of Maya's minor elements don't work, like Terry's all-important rifle appearing and disappearing in certain episodes without explanation (and where does he keep getting ammunition?), or the repeated ritual of North somehow getting his skin "tanned" each week...before someone recognizes the obvious. Eventually, the producers just abandon this pretense (but not the makeup) and have Terry acknowledge up front that he's "from America." Now, those newer, touchier, unhappy viewers forever looking for a P.C. axe to grind, will no doubt find this innocent plot mechanism "offensive" (what don't they pretend to be outraged at?). However, the series doesn't make a big deal about it, or the other cultural differences that sometimes pop up in the background. Indeed, one of Maya's big strengths is that the boys are equals here; this isn't a Hollywood "big white hunter" jungle picture where native Raji toadies for White "sahib" Terry. They both help each other: Terry is the son of a famous game hunter, so he knows survival craft, while Raji is a local (obviously), and therefore wise to the customs and behaviors of the people they encounter (in fact, it's more likely in any given episode that Raji is the one in authority, offering helpful advice to newcomer Terry, who's grateful for Raji's friendship). As for any cultural differences, they're infrequently commented on, and when they are, it's as matter-of-fact as everything else in Maya (when Terry sees Hindu Raji praying, he pauses and thoughtfully states reincarnation seems like a nice idea--not because he's spiritually curious...but because he's thinking about his dead father). There's a nice chemistry between North and Khan that further grounds these adventures. North, of Dennis the Menace fame, of course, is the more technically skilled of the two performers, but Khan's a charismatic natural, with the two together generating a believable pair of young wanderers who depend on, and care for, each other. If Maya didn't have that emotional core...it would have been just another comic book. Too bad it ended so abruptly.
It's a pity that NBC put the promising Maya up against such formidable competition on Saturday nights in 1967. Occupying Flipper's and the marginal sitcom Please Don't Eat the Daisies's former 8:00-9:00pm time slot, Maya's direct competition was deadly. ABC may not have had the station clearances CBS or NBC did, but it notched a demographics hit with its Chuck Barris game show one-two punch of The Dating Game (at 7:30pm) and The Newlywed Game (at 8:00pm), with viewers sticking around at 8:30pm for The Lawrence Welk Show, which scored a remarkable 17th in the Nielsen's for the year. Things were even worse over on CBS, where the invigorated The Jackie Gleason Show at 8:00pm became the 9th most-watched show in the country, with lead-out sitcom, My Three Sons, scoring a solid 24th in the rankings. Ratings for Maya were dire enough that the full season order of 24 episodes was cut to 18, with the series' last episode airing in February (one would assume that location shooting in India added to the cost of the show--they could have pulled a Tors, and shot it at Africa, U.S.A. for peanuts--which no doubt factored into NBC's decision to cancel it early).
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.