Yeah, I can see some of you younger folks out there, giving me that Kevin Hart blinking side-eye GIF. You’ll just have to bear with me as we dive headlong into a nice inviting pool of nostalgia.
I know. Again.
The success of 1968’s Planet of the Apes film spawned four (Count ’em! Four!) sequels over the ensuing five years. However, as budgets dwindled with each successive installment and returns on investment followed suit, the fifth film, 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, was viewed by many as the franchise finally running out of steam. That said, each of the five films made money, so the idea of continuing to do something with the property was still very much a real thing.
As the story goes, original Apes film producer Arthur P. Jacobs pitched a TV series version of Planet of the Apes sometime in 1971. However, the films were doing well enough that such thoughts were put on hold. After Jacobs died in 1973, his production company and all the rights to the Apes property were sold to 20th Century Fox. After buying the broadcast rights for the first three films, CBS enjoyed healthy ratings when it aired them as “movies of the week” later in 1973. This motivated the network to partner with Fox to develop the property for television.
Planet of the Apes, the TV series, premiered on Friday, September 13, 1974 – 45 years ago today – and introduced audiences to astronauts Alan Virdon and Peter Burke, survivors of a time warp which has flung their spacecraft to the year 3085, more than 1,000 years into the future and returned them to an Earth where human civilization has fallen and the world’s now dominated by intelligent apes. Humans of this area are primitive and have been reduced to a slave class, broken and docile. The series’ first episode, “Escape from Tomorrow,” does a pretty decent job of setting up the show’s central premise, with the astronauts befriended by a sympathetic chimpanzee, Galen, as they find themselves on the run from gorilla security chief Urko and Zaius, the orangutan leader of the apes’ “High Council.” Urko and Zaius want the astronauts captured and (preferably) killed before they’re able to rally the local humans toward some kind of revolution.
Though hardcore fans will tell you the television series slots well enough into the timeline established by the five Planet of the Apes films, in reality it’s a re-interpretation of the first movie’s basic premise retooled for weekly TV. With Virdon, Burke, and Galen making their initial escape from Urko and Zaius and going “on the run” in the show’s first episode, the series format is set. The astronauts and their chimpanzee companion are always searching, be it a place of temporary refuge, a permanent safe haven, or perhaps even a way back to their own time.
Ron Harper, previously known for his starring role in the 1960s World War II series Garrison’s Gorillas, plays Virdon, the commander of the ill-fated spacecraft. Separated by centuries from his wife and son, Virdon is driven to find some way to reverse the accident which has brought them here. Somewhere on Earth, he’s certain there must be some remnant of human civilization that continues to thrive and who might even be able to help return them home.
On the other hand, Peter Burke as portrayed by James Naughton has cynically accepted their fate. He sticks with Virdon out of loyalty and friendship, but he knows the likelihood of them ever getting home is incredibly slim. Instead, he’s focused on surviving day to day and evading capture by the apes until they can find some sanctuary that will allow them to live out the rest of their lives in relative peace.
After portraying the chimpanzee Cornelius in the original film and Escape from the Planet of the Apes as well as that character’s son, Caesar, in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Roddy McDowall dons the makeup once again to bring life to yet another chimpanzee, Galen. Having thrown in his lot with Virdon and Burke, Galen is also a fugitive; as much a threat in the eyes of Urko and Zaius as the astronauts themselves.
Already familiar to genre audiences for his portrayal of a Romulan commander as well as Spock’s father, Sarek, in episodes of the original Star Trek series, Mark Lenard brings his commanding presence (and voice!) to the role of Urko, the gorilla soldier obsessed with capturing and killing the renegade astronauts and Galen at all costs.
Planet of the Apes was one of the more expensive series on television at that time, dominated by the demands and costs of filming on location and of course the expense of apes makeup and costumes for multiple actors. Unfortunately, the show quickly fell into a formula, with Virdon, Burke, and Galen finding themselves in some variation of the same basic Fugitive-like setup week after week. If one of our heroes wasn’t captured and required rescue, then they were injured and needed urgent medical attention. This predicament was often paired with the astronauts using their advanced knowledge and skills to solve some problem burdening that week’s settlement of local humans.
Standout episodes like “The Trap” and “The Legacy” included peeks into the world Virdon and Burke left behind and which continued to advance until its downfall during their extended absence. Despite these limitations, actors Harper, Naughton, and McDowall do their best to carry the load and make us care about the characters’ plight. Mark Lenard is appropriately menacing as Urko, owning every scene in which he appears.
Low ratings saw to it Planet of the Apes was canceled after its original network order of 14 episodes. Under normal circumstances that may well have been the last we’d hear of yet another television show sent to broadcast oblivion but by the late 1970s and early 1980s the five original films were showing up as regular entries on the schedules of independent television stations around the country. Many of these stations (such as my hometown Channel 44 and later Channel 28 in the Tampa/St. Petersburg market) would host “Ape Week” over Monday-Friday afternoon slots at various times during the year.
At some point, someone somewhere got the bright idea to repackage episodes of the TV series into “TV movies,” which then ran alongside the original films as part of “Ape Week” double features. Long before the days of home video, this was how I got my infrequent fix of Virdon, Burke, and Galen. For those stations owned by ABC, Roddy McDowall filmed intro and exit spots for each of these compilations, in character as an aged version of Galen. At the end of the fifth telefilm, Farewell to the Planet of the Apes, he even hints that Virdon and Burke eventually made their way home. These spots were only shown once and have never appeared on any home video release of the TV series, though low-quality clips can be found online.
This is the part of the blog post where I confess to having a tremendous soft spot for the series. It never came anywhere close to the quality of the original film, but then again neither did any of its theatrical sequels. For years, I wondered what ultimately happened to the astronauts and Galen, and – officially – their fates remain unknown. My awareness of the Apes franchise was boosted throughout my childhood thanks to the animated TV series which came along a year after this one, the films airing on my local UHF stations with a frustrating lack of frequency, and the plethora of Planet of the Apes merchandise. Holy crap was there a lot of Apes merch. Before Star Wars came along and reinvented the idea of toys and whatnot capitalizing on a film or TV property, Planet of the Apes was on par with Star Trek back in that day. There were apes on everything from games to toys to trading cards, Halloween costumes, kitchenware, and clothing. Both the films and the TV series were well represented. Mego, the company that made action figures for pretty much everything you could think of, was part of that little juggernaut, and their versions of the Apes characters allowed me to craft my own adventures.
(And cross them with Star Trek. And Batman. And Steve Austin. And GI. Joe. Stop looking at me like that.)
It wasn’t until years later that I even discovered the set of episode adaptations penned by author George Alec Effinger. Just as James Blish had done for the original Star Trek series in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Effinger was given the task of novelizing episodes of the Planet of the Apes series. Unfortunately, each of the four books contains an adaptation of just two episodes, which appear to have been chosen at random rather than proceeding in any kind of chronological order. Weirdest of all, the series’ first episode which sets up the entire premise is not even included, though Effinger did a pretty decent job bringing readers up to speed in the first book.
In 2016, editors Jim Beard and Rich Handley invited me to contribute a short story to the Planet of the Apes anthology they were assembling: Tales from the Forbidden Zone. From the jump, I knew I wanted to do something tying into the TV series. I wasn’t alone, as two other authors, Will Murray and Bob Greenberger, also contributed stories touching on characters and situations from the show, and I think the three of us all did a nice job evoking the feel of the series. Indeed, every author in the book was able to channel their obvious love of the franchise into their stories, making for what I consider to be a very solid, top-shelf collection of all-new Apes tales.
Would I love another chance to catch back up with Virdon, Burke, and Galen? Absolutely. I’d be on something like that in a heartbeat. Will that happen? I’ve learned to never say never in this crazy world of tie-in writing and publishing, so who knows?
In the meantime, there’s always the show itself. Happy 45th Anniversary, Planet of the Apes…the first TV series.