Series Saturday: Planet of the Apes TV Show

This is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

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The Planet of the Apes television series aired from September to December, 1974, cancelled mid-season with 14 episodes filmed but only 13 aired (although there seems to be some debate on which episode failed to make it to air). As much of a Planet of the Apes fan as my father was, I’m almost positive we watched these episodes when they originally aired, but being all of 10 years old at the time, my memories are vague; I have much clearer memories of seeing these episodes in the 80s, after they’d been re-cut into five (increasingly horribly named) movies for syndication. I even remember the framing device with Roddy McDowell as an older Galen, which apparently only were used when the movies aired on ABC affiliates on weekday afternoons. (These framing bits are sadly not on the DVD release. Perhaps for the best, as it leaves Virdon and Burke’s ultimate fate as described in the framing bits non-canonical. Not that anyone is likely to revisit this in live-action form…)

I of course followed up my recent re-watch of the original movie franchise with a re-watch of the TV series (and I’m intending to re-watch the Filmation animated series soon-ish). In some ways it was exactly as I remembered it: mostly fun, a bit over-acted, a bit formulaic, and with very little obvious connection to the movies.

The set-up, much like the first two movies in the franchise, is that astronauts Virdon (Ron Harper) and Burke (James Naughton) crash-land on what they think is an Earth-like planet (losing their only other shipmate in the process) where Apes are the ruling class and Humans are basically well-treated slaves with an occasional veneer of autonomy. They figure out pretty quickly that they have actually landed on Earth in the future (something the viewing audience already knew, so why keep the characters in the dark?) Hunted by council president Zaius (Booth Colman) and General Urko (Mark Lenard), they go on the run with sympathetic and inquisitive chimp Galen (Roddy McDowell).  Along the way they teach humans to want freedom, convince some apes (usually chimpanzees like Galen) that the current system is unjust, and have really awkward fight scenes with lots of gorillas.

Characterization is mostly one-dimensional, although the four leads (I include Mark Lenard as he appeared in almost all the episodes filmed) do their best with what they’re given. I’d like to think that if they’d run a full season or longer, the characterizations would have gotten a little deeper – but this was still the early 70s, when each character in an ensemble cast filled a particular function. Virdon is the home-spun leader; Burke is the ladies’ man (although he only gets one one-off unrequited romance, with a blind ape, compared to Virdon’s two with humans); Galen is the inquisitive, naïve one. Booth Colman’s Zaius, similar to Maurice Evans in the first two movies, knows more about the past than he’s willing to admit to anyone (the show of course never addresses whether Colman’s Zaius is an ancestor of Evans’), while Lenard’s Urko falls somewhere between the implied military clearheadedness of James Gregory’s Ursus (in Beneath) and the simpleminded buffoonery of Claude Akins’ Aldo (in Battle) – it really depended on the scriptwriter that week. While there are many actors who return in bit-parts over the run, only John Hoyt (the Star Trek OS doctor before Bones) recurs as the same ape, Prefect Barlow, in two episodes. It is interesting to note that Bobby Porter, who played Caesar’s son in Battle, plays two different ape pre-teens on the TV show. (It’s a shame they didn’t let him play a human in at least one episode.)

Other major differences from the movies: The setting is clearly the northern California coast (with visits to “San Francisco” and “Oakland” ruins, and several very clear, if crude, wall-maps) as opposed to what turned out to be New York / New Jersey in the movies, a shift undoubtedly made because the show was filmed on backlots and in the hills outside Los Angeles. The time is a few centuries before the events of the first two movies but well after the events of Battle for the Planet of the Apes: humans are not completely mute uncivilized pack-animals as seen in the first two movies, but they don’t have near the autonomy implied by the end of Battle. And the majority of the episodes are formulaic in a way the movies never quite were.

That formula was basically: The Trio get comfortable hiding with a human family/community (occasionally a sympathetic ape family as in “The Good Seeds”), something happens to alert a gorilla patrol or local garrison to their presence, there’s a fight or two, and the Trio moves on (usually just ahead of Urko) rather than endanger their new friends. Two episodes (“The Trap” and “The Legacy”) take place in the ruins of human cities that clearly show we’re in the future of Earth, and each involve Urko somehow learning-but-not-learning that Humans used to rule over Apes. “The Legacy” also implies that there are other still-functioning but hidden computers out there that could enable Virdon and Burke to return home. (It’s never clearly stated, but I think one must presume that their mission launched after Taylor’s and Brent’s missions, but before Cornelius, Zira, and Milo arrive in the past; otherwise why would Virdon and Burke be so surprised at the Ape-Human reversal?) But other than those two episodes, the settings for each episode are rural areas usually “a day or more hard ride” from Central City, where Zaius and Urko are headquartered.

More than half of the episodes stick to the formula and eschew both deeper world-building and heavy-handed political commentary. But there are a few episodes that must have felt topical/controversial at the time and still do (although rather heavy-handed in execution). In the final filmed episode, “Up Above The World So High,” a human figures out how to make a working glider and a female chimp decides to use it for terrorist attacks against Zaius’ council regime. In “The Cure,” the Council considers the genocide of a human compound to prevent the spread of a unknown fatal disease while “The Liberator” features a human enclave ready to use gas-bombs to wipe out the apes. “The Interrogation” focuses on the Apes re-learning old human torture techniques, and “The Deception” has the Trio facing off against KKK-like masked ape “dragoons” bent on keeping the “animal” humans down.

There are a lot of recognizable faces (or at least, recognizable names attached to ape make-up) among the guest stars: a pre-Bad New Bears Jackie Earle Haley, a pre-Beastmaster Marc Singer, a very-pre-Hill Street Blues Michael Conrad. The aforementioned John Hoyt is among then-veteran character actors like Royal Dano, Roscoe Lee Browne, Martin E. Brooks and John Ireland and femme fatales Beverly Garland and Sondra Locke.

An additional six scripts were written but never filmed. Interestingly, the original pilot and second episode were written by Rod Serling but rejected and never filmed. Some of these scripts are available online (including the Serlings) but I’ve yet to read them.

The show’s failure is largely blamed on its time-slot competition (popular comedies Sanford & Son and Chico & The Man), but I have to wonder if the show would have been more successful had it been green-lit and aired during the height of the original movie franchise’s popularity as opposed to after that popularity had begun to wane. Then again, had they been filmed concurrently, I doubt Roddy McDowell would have done the show. And I can’t imagine caring as much without his endearing, if sometimes infuriating, Galen at the center of things.