Monday, March 7, 2011

Planet of the Apes: The TV Series (1974)

For the remaining episodes, please visit Planet of the Apes: The TV Series (1974) Part II

Planet of the Apes aired a total of thirteen episodes in 1974 from 13 September to December 6th. A fourteenth episode, "The Liberator," was never aired but is included as episode thirteen on the DVD.

Rod Serling wrote up the first treatment of the series along with a pilot and follow-up episode, though he receives no official credit. Hi pilot is evidently radically different from the one produced, and I don't know if he had anything else to do with the series. The stories themselves take place in 3085, nine hundred years before the first movie, and are set in California rather than New York. Some ape characters seem to reappear, such as General Urko and Dr. Zaius, or maybe just their names are recycled. Perhaps in the original movie they are a thousand years old. Roddy McDowall also reappears but as a different, though similar, chimpanzee. Here is no longer Cornelius, but named Galen.

In the pilot Zais and Urko mention another set of astronauts they encountered ten years before, so it would appear that Taylor and his original crew landed a decade prior to the series opening. However, since the film is set nine centuries later, perhaps the apes are mentioning another set of human spacemen who are similar to Taylor and his crew. (Do recall that to apes all humans look alike.) Through the opening credits it is undoubtedly clear when these astronauts are from and when and where they eventually find themselves, so that the producers appear to be highly conscious of where in the Apes legend this series is set.

In actuality, the series is a reboot of the franchise, playing with its own set of rules. We learn early on (episode two, "The Gladiators") from an ape map that the story unfolds in California, rather than New York. The series was filmed in Malibu Creek Park, a year or two before the park opened up to the public. In most cases the scenery is very well utilized for the series and helps to make it a pleasure to watch.

Aside from the notion of rebooting ideas and recycling characters, there are some clear inconsistencies between movie franchise and television series. The series aired a year after the final film was released, so the entirety of the saga's history was established and there is no incongruity resulting in developing the series prior to ending the films. For one thing, humans here can speak, so while humans of the 1960s through the 1980s haven't evolved much (as seen from the different sets of astronauts--the ones from the series are from 1980), the humans of the TV series have learned good English, are generally cleaner, wear better (and more) clothing, and are distinctly weaker actors while managing to be less attractive. What sacrifices we humans must make in learning to communicate. The decision to allow humans to speak is a smart one as it allows for more diverse human characters, greater human interaction, and saves us from having to watch, week after week, our heroic astronauts trying to mime their way into human trust. Moreover, since the TV series plays out before the first film, it falls part-way between the fifth movie and the first (you'll recall that aside from the first sequel, the others were set historically before the first film). Humans have not yet lost the ability to speak, yet being enslaved we can assume that is part of their natural progression. In the series human speech is simplified, even primitive (though arguably that can be said of the overall quality of most television scripts).

Moving along... Dogs seem to have been resurrected for TV. In the films we learn that dogs and cats became extinct some time ago. Television has managed to bring them back to life (and remember, this is pre-CGI). Moreover, humans from the future are now known as "ass-tro-nots," and have left behind nifty little grenades that are awesome at opening doors. I prefer knobs and handles myself, but I am a bit of a neat freak and couldn't stand the mess these little bombs tend to make. In the movies the humans described themselves as explorers, or travellers, never as astronauts.

As for this human, I shall explore these amusing episodes individually.

A brief note on the characters. Roddy McDowall appears in costume once again, this time as Galen, an open-minded chimpanzee who is faced with too much evidence against everything he has been taught about humans that his faith in "truth" begins to wane. Ron Harper is "ass-tro-not" Alan Virdon, the veteran and more reasonable of the pair. Harper appears to have been doomed to star in shows of titanic proportions (Titanic in that, like the famed ship, they were unable to survive their maiden voyage). James Naughton is co-"ass-tro-naut" Pete Burke, who is younger, handsomer, and more of a risk taker. He appears to have had a somewhat better career as a character actor. Both are awkward at the beginning, but they become less painful to watch as the show progresses and soon begin to fit better into their roles. Of course this might just be my perception as I slowly become accustomed to these fellas, since, as is often the case, the episodes likely did not air in the order in which they were filmed.

"Escape from Tomorrow." First aired 13 September 1974. Directed by Don Weis and written by Art Wallace. Co-starring Royal Dano.

Directorial duties for the pilot went to veteran Don Weis, who had been directing for television since the early 1950s, including a number of episodes for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the excellent The Twilight Zone entry with Lee Marvin, "Steel." There isn't much innovation here, and honestly it appears the actors are on stage as most scenes, including those taking place outdoors, are primarily shot from a single straight-facing camera at a distance of several feet, with all the players upstage in front of the camera. This does not do justice to the actors, as they are forced to act to the equipment rather than to each other, or risk having their backs to the lens. Scriptwise we fare better at the hands of veteran Art Wallace, the man behind the once popular fantasy soap Dark Shadows.

As with the movie entries, some contemporary astronauts (they took off from earth on 19 August 1980) crash-land on monkey planet and must survive in this ape-ruling society. They soon receive the help of charming and progressive chimpanzee Galen.

An enjoyable opener despite some embarrassing flaws. The pilots are on their way to Alpha Centauri, yet ride in a tiny ship strapped to their leather seats rather than in some form of hibernation. At one point the senior pilot muses over how he'll never see his wife and child again... yet if you take up a trip to Alpha Centauri, do you actually think you'll be able to return in time for your kid's next birthday? Is science so advanced in the distant future of 1980 that such a voyage can be undertaken over a long weekend? Moreover, it's about time someone builds a ship with proper landing gear.

Something I have learned from this episode is that monkeys are better actors than humans, but this should be as expected since their talents for mimicry have long been documented. McDowall is, as usual, great, while the human leads are flat in their stereotypical roles. They fail to be convincing even when sucking in their guts (we witness this practice in later episodes as well). The two other speaking human roles are played so awkwardly that it is a shame the species has by that time not yet become extinct. 7/10

"The Gladiators." First aired 20 September 1974. Directed by Don McDougall. Written by Art Wallace. Co-starring William Smith, John Hoyt and Marc Singer. The ape map first appears in this episode.

In this entry our heroes find themselves in a settlement where the prefect has created a peaceful community by giving the humans what they instinctively desire: bloodshed. This is done through the form of gladiators, though on a diminished scale. The warriors here fight less like Russell Crowe and more like William Shatner, and hero Pete, stuck in the ring, uses the same judo flip moves repeatedly, and why not since his opponent keeps setting himself up for the simple trick?

The acting is definitely an improvement over episode one. John Hoyt is great as Prefect Barlow and his scenes with Roddy McDowall are the most enjoyable in the episode. William Smith looks impressive as gladiator Tolar, and Marc Singer (best known as The Beastmaster and journalist Mike Donovan from the miniseries V) is surprisingly watchable as innocent passifist son of Tolar. Directed by über veteran TV director Don McDougall, and the second and final script by Wallace.

"The Trap." First aired 27 September 1974. Directed by Arnold Laven & written by Edward J. Lasko (his first of two). Co-starring a decimated San Francisco.

Chased into a crumbling, earthquake-ridden San Francisco Bay area suburb, Burke and General Urko fall through the street and get trapped in a well-preserved subway station. In order to keep up with the most clichéd of ideas, the two must learn to set their differences aside and work together in order to survive. Meanwhile, above ground, Virdon, Galen and some of Urko's troops must learn learn to settle differences aside in order to help save Burke and Urko.

While they settle their differences aside, we learn a good deal about the distant future of 1980 through some appropriately planted posters on the subway wall. First, there's the meal in a pill, so food is no longer necessary; you can simply take three pills throughout the course of the day. Sounds appetizing. We also learn that solar energy is so advanced that the underground lights are still working! They work so well, in fact, that the subway looks as bright as, well, a television studio set. Meanwhile humans still had zoos and caged apes, and continued offering them bananas. (I suppose the meal in a pill had not yet been upgraded for ape use.) The most exciting thing we learn, however, is that paper is so advanced that after more than a thousand years these posters barely have a crinkle in them. And the city looks so well preserved, barely a bit of rust on the steel bars and stairs.

And this brings me to the flaw of the episode: Burke knows about the meal pills, explaining the concept to Urko, yet the poster is advertising it as a new invention. Therefore, civilization was wiped out shortly after Burke and Virdon flew off in their ship. What is surprising is that Burke doesn't connect the dots. (Which is because the writers hadn't connected them either.)

An overall average episode, made watchable due to the neat city design and the incidental humour. 6/10

"The Good Seeds." First aired 27 September 1974. Directed by Don Weiss (his second of two) and scripted by Robert Lenski. Co-starring a windmill and some other gadgets. And a cow.

Our heroic trio stumble upon an ape farm. No, not a farm where apes are bred, but a small, dusty farm run by apes. An ape family, to be precise. With Pa Ape, Ma Ape, Eldest Son Ape, Daughter Ape, and finally, you guessed it, Youngest Son Ape. Galen is injured so our rough-on-the-outside soft-on-the-inside monkeys take them in while the chimpanzee heals. Of course, being human, Virdon and Burke must labour on the grounds. As they work they teach our apes proper farming, from irrigation to building proper fences. Yet there is some tension with Eldest Son Ape to keep this wholesome, educational episode on the brink of excitement. See, the custom is that the eldest boy can only start his own farm when the heifer gives birth to a bull, and boy oh boy does this eldest want his own farm. Humans are bad luck to cows (I wonder if this episode was ever aired in India) and the boy is considering giving these humans up to patrolling apes, afraid the calf will be female.

Toss in a cute little love sequence with Daughter Ape and Galen and this one really gets tossed over the top. Well, the love sequence is really just incidental, which is unfortunate. had the episode not spent such as lengthy time on the preamble, perhaps more minutes could have been devoted to this. Love and Galen, unfortunately, take a back seat this week.

One of the better series episodes, it was written by Robert Lenski, the man behind the adaptation of Stuart Woods's Chiefs, one of the best TV miniseries ever produced. 7/10

"The Legacy." First aired 11 October 1974. Directed by Bernard McEveety, written by Robert Hamner. Guest-starring as Virdon's surrogate family are a very young Jackie Earle Haley and an attractive Zine Bethune.

What a loony bit of fun. Though an incredible mess, so far this was among the more entertaining episodes. Our renegade trio stumble upon crumbling Oakland ruins, semi-populated by fearful and hungry humans. They discover a neat holographic machine that holds the secret of man's scientific knowledge, and while Galen frets and Burke tries to build a battery, Virdon is held captive with a lovely lady and a little brat.

When our trio first makes it to the top of a their current hill, they spot in the distance the remains of a city. Awed, Burke says "I'd forgotten what a city looked like," which is odd since they spent the majority of an episode two weeks ago in one. In fact, when they reach the ruined streets, the city is strangely similar to that same one they had left so long ago (I say "so long ago" since Burke has already forgotten about it). Of course, it is possible there was some attempt at continuity but the episodes were aired out of their intended sequence. Just speculating here.

But let us move on. We learned in "The Trap" that the earth faced Armageddon shortly after Burke and Virdon flew off toward Alpha Centauri, yet they discover a machine that was built by humans far more advanced than they; so advanced, in fact, that it looks like an over-sized piece of 1970s trash. The machine emits a hologram of an elderly, wise-looking man who says that in case of some international disaster humans have hidden the wealth of their scientific knowledge in different parts of the world, and that the one in this city is hidden underneath garble garble garble. Timely little machine has a sense of humour, giving out at the worst instant, implying that the wealth of human science is worth very little since something so advanced can break down at such a pivotal moment. So our space explorers decide to build a battery, because all pilot "ass-tro-nots" from 1980 are precursors of MacGyver.

We learn some interesting things in this episode about our future humans. For one thing, their hair and skins are so well taken care of that somewhere in the ruins of Oakland there must be a popular salon and spa. We also learn that the need for a family is integral to our social construct. However silly this episode is, and perhaps because it is so silly, it was utterly enjoyable. It is capped off with a deep deep line worthy of Captain Kirk, when they finally find the (massive) super computer storing man's scientific knowledge: "Could man ever have known so much and done so little with it?" 7/10

"Tomorrow's Tide." First aired 18 October 1974. Directed by Don McDougall & written by Robert W. Lenski (who also penned "The Good Seeds"). Co-starring Roscoe Lee Brown and a few sharks, both real and plastic.

In this rather weak installment, our heroes come across a man floating at the beach strapped to a piece of wood, and soon get enmeshed in a tale of fishermen and odd, primitive customs. Virdon and Burke spend much of the episode topless, pulling back their shoulders and sucking in their guts. The highlight of the episode is when the two men must battle with a shark, which must be so petrified of the men and their bulky manhoods that it freezes mid-swim, looking suspiciously and suddenly half its size and very much like a plastic toy someone nabbed from a kid's swimming pool. Roscoe Lee Brown, who I like quite a bit, does little, even with that distinctive voice, as an ape named Hurton. 5/10

"The Surgeon." First aired 25 October 1974. Directed by Arnold Laven & written by Barry Oringer. Co-starring Jacqueline Scott (who also appeared in "The Good Seeds").

Writer Barry Oringer has written a good deal of television throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and also developed two television series, including Hotel (which is akin to Love Boat on land). With his experience you would hope for a good Apes episode, and indeed he delivers, feeding us with the strongest entry in the show's first half.

When Virdon is shot Galen must appeal to successful chimpanzee surgeon Kira for help. To complicate the scenario, surgeon Kira happens to be a former lover. Not only must Galen dredge up suppressed emotions, but matters are complicated with the hospital's head (and Kira's current emotional interest) tossed into the mix, as well as Burke getting interested in a female human hospital worker, a young woman shunned and treated terribly by the other humans, including her own father.

When Virdon is shot, Galen says he can seek help from Kira who works just outside central city which is only a couple of miles away... wait a second, haven't they been running away from the city and toward the coast these last couple of months?

While the plot is waves above the standard Apes episode, what makes "The Surgeon" a fully realized play is Galen's central involvement. For the first time since the pilot episode Galen plays a pivotal role in the plot, and it is his charm and emotional investment in the story that draws the viewer in. McDowall is always a pleasure to watch, and his charm is fully evident even through (and perhaps enhanced by) the heavy chimpanzee make-up. His appeals to Kira, the hiding of the book on human anatomy, the impersonation of a famous doctor... all of these elements are wonderfully presented. Jacqueline Scott does fine work as Kira in her second guest appearance in Apes (she played Zantes in "The Good Seeds"--see above).

Furthermore, the show has some great humour, with Galen and Burke stealing Zaius's book on human anatomy and using the ape's bust to impersonate him. It is even possible that Virdon's bit part in the episode helps to heighten it, since of the three lead actors he is the least interesting to watch. Furthermore, the only bad guy (at least during the first half) is a human rather than an ape (until, of course, Urko's appearance). In all respects a fine piece of work. 8/10


Gabytta said...

VERY VERY entertaining column...I recently got the Blu-ray collection and now I am watching the TV series also, I am a long fan of the planet of the apes and your reviews are very accurate and funny.

Casual Debris said...

Thank you Gabytta for the comment (albeit months late; I somehow missed this one). I admit I've enjoyed everything ape, from Pierre Boulle's original novel, the movies, tv series and even that awful cartoon, all the way to the recent reboots. I barely recall writing this article as its been a few years & am noticing those glaring typos & awkward sentences! Glad you made it through.

Jeff Lehman said...

It was a great series though some plot holes are there. In the first episode '
'Escape from tomorrow', when Burdon says something about seeing his son, he never mentioned that he is expecting to see his family soon but he did have hope of returning from Alpha Centuari. Now that he was in 3085,he couldn't hope much as he was in a different time stream. About the spaceship, due to budget constraints they might have shown a small one. Now that big of a problem. I did find the Gladiators episode dull because of the week acting by the other humans I exactly thought like you when Burke says he has forgotten how a city looks like in The Legacy episode, that was surprising but not sure if this episode was broadcasted in the same order during the first run in '74 or not. :)

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