Monday, July 25, 2011

Planet of the Apes (TV series; 1974)

Blastr recently included the Planet of the Apes TV show on their list of 5 Awful Movie-Inspired Sci-Fi TV Shows. I read that list before I’d dug very far into watching the show for myself, but even then I knew that I disagreed with them. For the record (and if you don’t feel like clicking links), here’s what writer Krystal Clark said about it:
How many different ways can you show us a world dominated by apes? By the time this show hit the air there had already been five Planet of the Apes movies. Not two or three, but five that harped on the same premise! This show, along with the animated series that was released the following year, really beat a dead horse. (Or should we say ape?) They beat it, skinned it and burned it alive before they finally let it go. (Oh wait a minute, we forgot Rise of the Planet of the Apes is heading to a theater near you! Sigh.)
You’ll notice that Clark never actually says what’s wrong with the show. In fact, she’d never have to have even seen it to write that paragraph. (I’m not saying that she hasn’t seen it, just that you can’t tell it from reading her “criticism”.) Her first sentence is a rhetorical question that assumes an incorrect answer. It assumes that not only is there a limit to the number of stories you can tell in the Planet of the Apes universe, but that that limit is decidedly less than six. That’s ridiculous.

The five movies all have their individual flaws, but none of those flaws have anything to do with repeating earlier films. In fact, one of the biggest strengths of the series is that each installment presents a snapshot of a different period of the planet’s history. That allows for different tones and themes from film to film.

In response to my Battle post, Mitchell Craig commented that “the series should have stopped after Conquest, but this last film just spins its wheels.” I don’t disagree. As I wrote in reply, there’s no demanding need for the story that Battle tells. It’s possible to watch only the first four films and get a satisfying, complete story about the history of this world. But on the other hand, I enjoyed Battle. Even if it’s ultimately unnecessary, I’m glad they made it, because I love the PotA world and love watching stories set in it, so long as they’re good stories. For all it’s flaws and inconsistencies (and there are lots), Battle has a good story at its heart.

That’s where I’m at with the TV show too, although it’s a much better creation than Battle. In fact, I enjoyed it more than any of the individual films. It’s exactly what I wanted from a Planet of the Apes series: humans being chased by talking apes every episode with some social commentary drizzled on top. It’s an entertaining adventure show immersed in the best parts of the PotA world, but without the self-importance of the first two films.

The premise is simple, two more astronauts (three actually, but the third dies in the crash) go through a time warp and arrive in the ape-dominated future. Alan Virdon (Ron Harper, who also played Uncle Jack in the third season of Land of the Lost) and Pete Burke (James Naughton, who’s currently on Gossip Girl) are discovered by the ape council. The apes' leaders know that humans once dominated the planet, but they're keeping that information secret from the general population. Afraid that the astronauts’ presence will subvert ape domination by proving that humans can be intelligent and valuable, the council decides to kill the two men before anyone finds out about them. Fortunately, Virdon and Burke are helped to escape by a sympathetic chimpanzee named Galen (the pleasantly ubiquitous Roddy McDowell).

Like most adventure shows from the ’70s and ‘80s, Planet of the Apes has an overarching plot that drives the series without dominating it. Other examples are David Banner’s searching for a cure while being pursued by Jack McGee in The Incredible Hulk or the A-Team’s constantly being hounded by the military for a crime they didn’t commit. In the first episode of Planet of the Apes, Virdon retrieves the flight recorder from his spaceship before the apes blow the vessel up, hoping that one day he'll find a functioning computer with which to analyze the data and reverse-engineer a way home. It’s a long shot, but he’s got a family back in his time and the hope of returning to them keeps him going. Burke – a ladies’ man with no family – isn’t any happier about being stuck in the future, but is fatalistic about their chances of returning home. Galen, now a fugitive from his own people, just wants to be supportive of his new friends.

Virdon’s quest keeps the trio moving from place to place, but there are only one or two episodes that even mention the recorder disc. Most of them simply feature the three characters’ encountering a new village and having to deal with whatever situation’s going on there. Usually, the ape council’s gorilla squad – led by General Urko (Mark Lenard, who’s even better in this than he is in Star Trek as Spock’s dad, and that’s saying something) – shows up in hot pursuit of the trio, increasing the stakes and the tension.

I’m so fond of the show that I’d be inclined to ignore its inconsistencies with the films. I would be, that is, if there weren’t explanations that make it easy to reconcile the show with the movies. I can’t take credit for all of these – Timeline of the Planet of the Apes was very helpful – but most of it’s easy to figure out.

The only glaring contradictions are all established in the first episode and I mentioned a couple of them in the post on Battle. There are dogs present when – according to Conquest – dogs are supposed to be extinct. Also, Virdon and Burke find a book that has a photo of a thriving New York City from a couple of centuries after it was supposedly destroyed.

There’s another apparent problem, and a glaring one, but a closer look at the series reveals that it’s explained right there in the show. That’s all the talking humans. Humans are treated by apes the way African slaves were treated in the United States during the nineteenth century, with no rights and barely any acknowledgment that they’re even sentient, but they’re not the speechless brutes we see in the first PotA film and Beneath. However, the title sequence to the show reveals that it takes place almost a century before the first movie, plenty of time for humanity to degenerate into Nova and her pals.

How then to explain the presence of an orangutan councilman named Zaius? That’s also easy. Like Galen – a name that Staz Johnson reminded me also appears in the first movie – it must be a common ape name. Like John or Michael. If the extreme time difference wasn’t enough to differentiate the characters, the TV show also makes it clear that it takes place on the West Coast, complete with maps and specific mention of San Francisco. The Planet of the Apes move (and – I assert – the rest of the film series) clearly takes place on the East Coast.

Which reminds me of the answer to something I wondered about at the end of Conquest: how widespread Caesar’s rebellion was. If all you’re watching is the movies, you have no clue what’s going on in the rest of the world outside of the New York area. According to Timeline, the various comic book series fill in those gaps (even explaining that the worldwide nuclear war was in response to the ape rebellion instead of human vs. human), but the TV show also helps explain things. It shows a culture very similar to those we saw in the films, but very removed from the movies’ events. There are no references made to Caesar or any other elements from that series and perhaps the apes in the TV show aren’t even aware of them.

Back to the contradictions that need explaining: the dogs aren’t that hard to explain either. Obviously the world-wide plague that supposedly wiped out all canine (and feline) life wasn’t as universal as everyone thought. It’s not a radical thought that some animals may have survived. And as for 22nd century New York, Timeline suggests that perhaps what's depicted in the book we see is an artist’s interpretation of a future New York rather than an historical depiction of the real place.

All said and done, there ain’t a thing wrong with this show. The three leads are extremely likable and pleasant to watch. Virdon’s the level-headed, capable, and inspirational leader. Thanks to his growing up on a farm (and still living on one as an adult in Texas) he knows a lot about agriculture and handling animals, subjects that come in very handy in his ape-planet travels. Burke starts the series off as something of a complaining hothead, but he mellows out after a couple of episodes into someone who’s still interesting and vibrant, but not negative. He’s totally the guy you want watching your back and he and Virdon make a great team. It also helps that there’s a ton of chemistry between the actors.

That’s something that can also be said of them and Roddy McDowell. There’s a reason that McDowell’s the king of Planet of the Apes. Even though he’s instantly recognizable in his chimp make-up thanks to his distinctive voice and some recurring mannerisms, he played three entirely different characters in the Planet of the Apes world and played them as entirely different characters. Caesar is not interchangeable with Cornelius, who is also not interchangeable with Galen. Cornelius and Galen are close (even to their both working for orangutan council members named Zaius), but Galen’s much more adventurous and loyal to his human friends than Cornelius. And in spite of his fugitive status, Galen’s got a greater sense of humor too. He’s absolutely charming.

Unfortunately, there were only fourteen episodes of the show. Wikipedia blames its being scheduled against Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man for its low ratings and quick cancellation and that sounds reasonable to me. Those were crazy popular shows.

It did return later though in the form of a series of five TV movies in 1981. Each film was actually two episodes from the original show, but presented with a framing sequence in which Galen told the stories to an unseen human, another time-traveling astronaut who had arrived in Galen’s era. In these scenes, Galen explains that Virdon and Burke eventually did find a working computer and were able to get home. That opens up a whole other can of worms about why they didn’t warn the people of their time, but we can close it up again without too much trouble. After all, if humanity didn’t learn its lesson after Cornelius’ story in Escape (I mean seriously, the pet plague he described occurs and the government does nothing to stop people from bringing apes into their homes as replacement pets?!), why would people in the ‘80s change anything based on Virdon and Burke’s stories? I love the idea that Virdon and Burke eventually made it back, so I’m accepting it, but obviously no one believed their tale.


Mitchell Craig said...

At the time Planet of the Apes premiered on CBS back in 1974, the network had shown the films in pretty much the same way ABC ran the James Bond movies (promoting them as major events), so it's not too surprising the TV version of PotA got the go-ahead. But why did it tank?

Allow me to offer a few suggestions:

(1) CBS programming chief Fred Silverman was more taken with the novelty value of a weekly Planet of the Apes adventure than actually producing a good show. Ironically, he rejected Gene Rodenberry's Genesis II pilot, much as CBS passed on Star Trek for Lost in Space a decade prior.
(2) Given the budgeting of sci-fi shows back then, the production values are good. Unfortunately, the imaginations of the writers failed the series. And in science fiction, imagination is the Alpha and Omega.
(3) Here's the big one: PotA was scheduled opposite NBC's ratings juggernauts, Sanford and Son and (if memory serves) Chico and the Man . I think The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family were on ABC then; anyhow, back in those pre-Star Wars days, science fiction on the tube was not a major draw.


Kal said...

This one I thought was just as long as it needed to be. Without an overarching mission that was followed in some way in each episode, they started to repeat themselves awful quick. I like that I don't have to watch five bad seasons only one okay half season.

Mike D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael May said...

I agree. They probably could have gotten a few seasons out of it that way.

Ooh! I finally stopped by the post office today and your comic was waiting for me! Looking forward to reading it!

Mike D. said...


Mike D. said...

Great show...should have been a Saturdaygig compete with land of the lost and so on...probably would have lasted longer too.

Carlin said...

Great article. I just recently made my way through the five movies for the first time and have been trying to decide whether to move forward on the series or not. I got the first disc from Netflix, but contemplated not diving in and just sending it back. But you've convinced me to give it a shot.

Michael May said...

Thanks, CT! I'd love to hear what you think of it. Here, if not on Nerd Lunch.


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