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.

SERIES SATURDAY: The original Planet of the Apes franchise

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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I have no idea which of the original Planet of the Apes movies I saw first.

Given that they were released in theaters between 1968 and 1973, when I was at the tender ages of two through seven, I definitely encountered them on television. In the mid-70s through mid-80s, New York City-area television stations WNYW (Channel 5), WWOR (Channel 9) and WPIX (Channel 11), all then local and not network-affiliated, aired a wonderful weekend mix of genre and genre-adjacent movies: everything from the Apes to Japanese kaiju to wire-fu martial arts to classic Universal monsters to Abbott and Costello and the Bowery Boys. Somewhere in that mix, I encountered the original Planet of the Apes franchise. I may have seen them in release order or haphazardly. I may even have seen episodes of the live-action 1974 television series before any of the original movies, since the TV episodes were chopped and combined in 1981 into five two-hour “movie” presentations (but the TV series is a discussion for a different post).

Whatever order I saw the movies in, I fell immediately in lifelong love with the concept, the campiness, the make-up. And that love has only grown as the franchise has been re-worked and re-launched across movie and print media. (One of my greatest regrets is selling my Marvel Comics Planet of the Apes magazine collection; another is throwing away the Mego Planet of the Apes action figures I played with until they’d be worth nothing on the collector market. Hindsight is 20/20, or something like that.)

I recently re-watched the original five movies in release order, and I still love them. The ape make-up may be unrealistic compared to the motion-capture effects of the newest Apes trilogy, but it has such charm, and such consistency across the franchise (slight differences in the facial structure for chimps, orangutans, and gorillas, less diversity between individuals of a sub-set). I did always find the stratification of clothing (all chimps wear the same color, etc.) a bit less realistic. Why is it that SF (definitely in the 50-60s-70s, and even somewhat now) can imagine complex alien races but not imagine that they might have thriving clothing industries similar to our current day? I wonder if any writer has explored the idea that part of the Apes structured society was a dress code? (I’m not as up on the comics and prose canon-adjacent material released in recent years as I am on the filmed/televised canon.)

The body language of the various ape characters, especially in the first two movies, also fascinates me: the way most of the chimps are more hunch-shouldered and subservient despite being the obviously smartest ones in any room (even the teenager Lucius comes across as smarter, if not less impetuous, than the adult gorillas); the orangutan characters always seem to walk with their heads held high and shoulders wide; the gorillas all move like spacially-unaware linebackers. This changes a little bit in the fourth movie, when all of the apes are subservient and non-verbal, but it’s otherwise consistent.

As a kid, the cold war and racial strife allegories went right over my head. As an adult watching with a slightly more critical eye, they’re obvious without being too ham-fisted in the delivery. I can’t accuse them of being subtle, especially in the fourth and fifth movies, but I also don’t feel like every other line of dialogue is telegraphing the issue to the viewers.

Other things I didn’t notice back then but picked up on now: the fact that Roddy McDowell did not play Cornelius in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” the only live-action Apes entry of the 60s-70s that he missed out on; that the timing of Cornelius, Zira and Milo fishing Taylor’s original spacecraft out of the sea it crashed in, getting it working, and getting into orbit just doesn’t add up based on Cornelius, Zira and Lucius’ location in the first half of Beneath (there’s a recent novel that tells this story; I haven’t read it yet but I hope it doesn’t just hand-wave the time component); that Natalie Trundy is the Mark Lenard of the Apes franchise, playing a mutant (in Beneath), a human (in Escape), and a chimp (in Conquest and Battle). (Mark Lenard was the first, and maybe still only, actor to hit a similar trifecta in the Star Trek franchise, playing a Romulan, a Vulcan, and a Klingon) …

And the geography. Oh my god, the geography: at the start of the first film, Taylor’s crew crashes into a large lake in a canyon area. (I don’t know where they filmed it, but it sure looks like the American southwest.) At the end of the film, of course, we get the famous reveal of the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand of the ocean as Taylor finds out he’s been on Earth the whole time.  In Beneath, Brent and Nova track Taylor into the underground city, and we see mock-ups of famous NYC landmarks, including Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where the Omega Bomb resides.  In Battle, we find out that the city Caesar led the rebellion in in Conquest is … New York City? Because Kolp is ready to launch that same Omega bomb… but the city we saw in Conquest and Battle looks absolutely nothing like Manhattan or any of the boroughs. I still can’t, even with my willing suspension of disbelief, figure out how the American northeast changes so drastically between the 1991 setting of Conquest and the 3978 setting of the first film. I’m still not even sure of the distance Taylor and crew travel on foot at the start of the first movie: are we to assume the lake/river they crash in is a transformed Hudson River Valley? That feels too close considering the number of days they seem to travel before the landscape changes to greener and they enter Ape territory. Is it the Delaware? That might be a little more plausible. The Susquehanna or Ohio? I just don’t know. it does occasionally keep me up at night.

The things I did notice, even as a kid?

1) The very clear shift in who the audience was supposed to be rooting for. In the first two movies, we’re clearly meant to root for (if not identify with) misanthropic Taylor and chivalrous Brent, lone speaking humans aided, mostly in secret, by one other non-verbal human (Nova) and at most three chimps (Zira, Cornelius, and their nephew Lucius) working in secret against their own obviously oppressive government and a hidden city of mutants. The third movie isn’t subtle about flipping this dynamic on its head: now we’ve got three chimps (Zira, Cornelius and poor, doomed Milo) trying to escape the clutches of an increasingly-oppressive human government with the help of only three humans working in secret (Dixon, Stephanie and Armando). Conquest is almost a complete flip of the dynamic of the first movie, with our solo hero (Caesar) and his non-verbal female interest (Lisa) being aided by only one sympathetic human (MacDonald). Battle completes the transition by relegating even the friendliest humans to supporting cast status (at best) and centering on ape vs. ape politics and those pesky evil mutants again.

2) Those apes looked nothing like the real chimps, orangutans and gorillas in our world. Even then, I wanted some kind of explanation as to how they evolved. How did chimps become human-sized? How did orangutans and gorillas all become so slim? And how did they all become so uniform even within species? It’s what I now call the “one line of dialogue” rule – if it can be explained in one or two lines of dialogue (and this certainly could have been), then the writers need to make that happen. But obviously, in the original Apes franchise, none of the several movie (or TV series) writers cared enough to postulate some kind of human gene-manipulating interference.

And I think that’s the interesting dichotomy of the original Apes franchise: while it did try to comment on weighty topics of the day (not just the Cold War and race relations, but the treatment of women and human abuse of nature vs. stewardship of it and fears of a threat from outer space wiping us out), it also didn’t really expect to be thought about too deeply, and so some gaping plots holes sit in plain view without a patch-job in sight.

Still: plot holes and weird geography are a part of the original franchise’s charm, and I will never stop loving it. It will stay near the top of my Favorite Movie Franchises list, always.

(Since it’s not a part of a series and thus doesn’t really fit into any of the posts I’m planning, this is probably the place to mention Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake/reboot/whatever-you-call-it. I didn’t see it until just last year. I found that it had a lot of the original franchise’s charm in terms of make-up and costumes and plot-holes and that it seemed to be trying to tackle some weightier subjects like the original franchise (militarism in particular, this time). I didn’t hate it as some people did. But I did find the “twist” ending to be gratuitous and unnecessary, almost as if someone (Burton or the studio) thought that in order to make this the start of a new franchise, they had to twist the original twist. And it just didn’t work, on any level. Even as meta-commentary, it fell flat. But I am glad I finally watched it, and I had fun watching Tim Roth and Michael Clarke Duncan chew the scenery.)