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Planet of the Apes: The Complete TV Series

Fox Home Video

Starring Roddy McDowall, Ron Harper, James Naughton,
Mark Lenard, and Booth Coleman

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

"Basically, we became 'The Fugitive.' Every week we were caught and we escaped. That's basically what each show was about.... We're constantly whacking some guy over the head with a stick or drop-kicking a guy in a monkey suit. We had apes falling out of trees all over the place.... I still get fan mail from all over the world."

— A surprisingly well-preserved James Naughton,
recalling (for the excellent
Behind the Planet of the
Apes documentary) his days as a co-star of the 1974
"Planet of the Apes" TV series.

*          *          *

Yea, I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.

Festoon me with garlands and flay the servants — for I have, in a space of days, watched all 14 episodes of the 1974 "Planet of the Apes" TV series, collected in a four-DVD edition.

I have now seen every conceivable expression that the late Roddy McDowall could create within the confines of his ape makeup. I have watched a dozen talented has-beens play chimp and orangutan prefects and gorilla sergeants. I have watched, dear Lord, 644 minutes of Glen-Larsen-TV-series-caliber cinematography.

I have seen astronauts exhibit skills and profess knowledge they had no business knowing. I have seen them maintain perfectly smooth faces and perfectly coiffed hair-don'ts without benefit of razors or blow-dryers.

A bit of history.

According to the 1998 Behind the Planet of the Apes documentary (included as part of Fox's Planet of the Apes: The Evolution box-set), producer Arthur P. Jacobs had considered bringing his cash cow to TV as early as 1971 — but he was making too much money at the movies. After Battle for the Planet of the Apes was a modest hit and a TV broadcast of the original Apes scored for CBS, everyone was poised to move to the small screen.

When Jacobs suddenly died at age 51, the project went to 20th Century Fox, where writers Anthony Wilson and Art Wallace developed the series. The eventual production team included executive story consultant Howard Dimsdale and story consultants Ken Spears and Joe Ruby — plus a roster of veteran (and to put it politely, "workmanlike") directors-for-hire.

And what did they come up with?

The concept they settled on was a pretty good one, actually: Two new astronauts — family man Alan Virdon (played by Ron Harper) and smart-ass younger guy Pete Burke (James Naughton) crash-land on a future Earth where apes rule and humans are slaves. To bring back Roddy McDowall (who had emerged as the heart and soul of the Apes series), Wilson et. al. created the character of Galen — a decidedly Cornelius-like, arched-eyebrow sissy who got all the best lines. Galen was forced to flee with the astronaut fugitives when he saved them from the treacherous gorilla General Urko (Mark Lenard) and Machiavellian orangutan Councilor Zaius (Booth Coleman).

Chronologically, the story was (sort of) set between Battle for the Planet of the Apes and the depressing apocalypse of the first two films — allowing the series to adopt a jaunty-adventurish tone and feature speaking humans, who presumably evolve into mute morons over the next few hundred years.

Not a bad set of ideas. Which is why it is all the more painful to write that "Planet of the Apes" was for the most part an aggressively mediocre series (with sporadic flashes of goony fun and inspired acting) that got well and thoroughly creamed by the one-two punch of "Sanford and Son" and "Chico and the Man." The show premiered in September 1974; it was canceled that December — with one episode, "The Liberator," never even getting a first-run U.S. broadcast.

What went wrong?

Well, the central problem is that the show has a real "watered-down" vibe.

The series doesn't dive into the "Apes" universe in any sort of detail; our heroes simply scratch the surface, moving from village to village along the northern-California coast. Even worse, the show dilutes the movies' delicious mix of social commentary, brutal violence, stagy histrionics and light sadomasochism. Even the cornerstone racial commentary is blunted: Where the movies adopted a pessimistic view of humanity — eventually cloaking their apes in revolutionary fervor — "Apes" TV is all about how Virden and Burke are smarter than (and morally superior to) those stupid, backwards monkeys. Every week, our astronaut heroes upstage ape society with 20th-century technological know-how, spreading revolutionary fervor and hope among the simple humans populating the countryside — with Galen oohing and ahhing in approval all the while. It's a near-total inversion of previous "Apes" themes.

So is the show just totally worthless?

Oh, absolutely not. For one thing — and this is the main reason I wanted to review these discs — Roddy McDowall is eminently watchable as Galen. Hard-core Apes fans will probably want this edition just so they can have every conceivable permutation of McDowall's chimp performances. As I've written before, one of the chief joys of any Apes installment is watching him find new ways to emote within the constricting makeup; on the TV show, this pleasure is compounded — because Galen frequently adopts new mannerisms and voices while traveling in disguise. And he's just exceptionally droll and funny throughout.

On a related note, there are also a few campy "parlor games" to be played with this series — most notably trying to find the myriad in-jokes that seem to refer to Galen's/McDowall's, ahem, "alternate lifestyle." I've listed a few of the ones I found in the episode guide below. The show is a spotty feast of double entendres. It's also fun to (a) spot the human mouths plainly visible under the ape mouths, which happens more often in this series than I'd care to admit, and (b) point out the MacGuyver-like skills of our human heroes, who are the most holistically educated astronauts in history. (See the episode guide below for details.) Special "props" also to Lalo Schifrin's bombastic main theme, plus the discordant incidental music by Schifrin, Earle Hagen and Richard LaSalle.

How's the DVD edition?

Bare-bones, unsurprisingly. Picture quality varies wildly — from near-mint to fleck-tastic.

The episode-by-episode breakdown.

(All "online plot abstracts" were lifted from the extremely helpful episode guide found at theforbidden-zone.com.)

*          *          *


Episode 1: "Escape from Tomorrow"

Vital stats: Originally aired 13 Sep 1974

Online plot abstract: "Hurled eons into the future by a time warp, two astronauts become fugitives from a race of intelligent apes that have come to control Earth."

Plays like: A bloodless, made-for-TV remake of the 1968 original — which is probably how it was meant to play, actually.

Strengths: The story gets rolling quickly — the crash-landing and "Dear God, this is Earth" revelation and ape capture and tribunal farce and escape are vacuum-packed into in 48 minutes, with plenty of lurid action thrown in for good measure. And this is kind of a mixed compliment, but the series' central dichotomy is right there from the outset: Nearly every actor in an ape mask is expressive and passionate and extremely watchable (particularly McDowall and Mark Lenard, whose brutal literalism manages to be both scary and pathetic) — while the humans are almost all terrible actors and/or look like they wandered in from either a Renaissance Faire or, in the case of our two leads, a particularly rustic episode of "Knot's Landing."

Weaknesses: Well, for one thing, the TV series makes itself utterly apocryphal in relation to the movie series during the first episode. One Mary "Mez" Downes has already addressed this issue online — and addressed it rather well — here. As Downes notes, "In the pilot episode, Virdon and Burke are shown a book that has in it a futuristic picture of New York City, circa 2503. But according to the movie timeline, mankind fell to the apes in the latter part of the 20th century, making such a [picture] impossible." I agree with her ultimate conclusion that "the TV series occurs in a different universe," and that, for lack of a better word, sucks.

Second, and most crucially, the pilot episode's overall vibe is that of a "Cliff's Notes" version of the 1968 original — with Galen's becoming a militant hippie human-rights pacifist fugitive the only departure. Oh, and the moronic human who finds our heroes (Royal Deno) sports a fright wig that makes the ape masks look like Dian Fossey field studies in comparison.

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Ability to adjust to terrifying, ape-addled surroundings without once shouting "It's a madhouse!" "You bastards!" or "Damn you all to helllll!!!"

2. "The Gladiators"

Vital stats: Originally aired 20 Sept 1974; directed by Don Weis

Online plot abstract: "The astronauts are captured in a village of humans ruled by an ape. Believing that men are violent-natured, the simian encourages them to participate in grisly sports similar to those of Ancient Rome."

Plays like: Spartacus with "Star Trek" fight scenes, only far, far sillier.

Strengths: Groovy, cheesy fight scenes in abundance. And hey — there's the "Beastmaster" himself, Marc Singer, as the pacifist son of a champion gladiator (John Hoyt, who bears an uncanny resemblance to "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and wears an absolutely hilarious wrestling-singlet getup in the arena).

Weaknesses: A problem with the early episodes of this series manifests itself here: You really can't tell Virdon and Burke apart, other than that one's blonde and one's brunette.

Double entendre(s): A marvelous scene where Galen, in disguise, visits the old bachelor chimp (William Smith) who runs the gladiator arena. "To ... companionship," they toast, after which the older man tells Galen, "You must stay the night, of course."

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Burke proves an expert at melee combat — particularly at Captain Kirk-style backward-roll-flips of opponents (in one fight, he performs this move twice in 15 seconds).

3. "The Trap"

Vital stats: Originally aired 27 Sep 1974

Online plot abstract: "Burke and his arch enemy, the gorilla soldier Urko, must work together to survive when an earthquake traps them in the ancient ruins of a subway station."

Plays like: James Franciscus' discovery of the New York subway in Beneath the Planet of the Apes and/or Sylvester Stallone's disaster flick Daylight.

Strengths: Mark Lenard is a riot as the gorilla general who just ... won't ... accept ... the truth about Earth's past. He absolutely overwhelms Naughton in their tense, violent scenes together, particularly after he finds a poster of a gorilla in a human zoo.

Weaknesses: The way we're dropped into a wrecked human city (i.e., a studio backlot with boulders strewn about) without explanation; the silly barrage of "futuristic" subway signs that Burke shows Urko in the ancient BART tunnel — advertising such "futuristic" products as meals-in-a-pill and E-Z organ replacement.

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Ability to create rudimentary pulley system; gift for repeatedly talking gorillas out of murdering them.

4. "The Good Seeds"

Vital stats: Originally aired Oct 1974

Online plot abstract: "Galen and the astronauts seek shelter at the farm of a peasant ape whose son believes that the humans have put a curse on their one precious possession — a cow. "

Plays like: "Little House on the Ape Prairie."

Strengths: Well, I don't know if these are "strengths," persay, but there are some fascinatingly offensive moments to break the tedium — including Burke doing a "yes, massa" impression while working for an ape child and, even weirder, an ape farmer doing a whiteface "minstrel show"-style impression of a human for the benefit of some visiting gorillas, who laugh hysterically. Yeesh. (I'm not condoning these gags, mind you — I'm just saying they snap you out of the stupor you've been lulled into by the surrounding Farmer-Ted crap.)

Weaknesses: What — other than the fact that, four episodes into this series, the central conflict involves a pregnant cow, complete with creepy stock footage of a just-birthed calf? Well, try these howler bits of dialogue on for size:

Double entendre(s): Galen being hit upon by the farmer's daughter, to his great consternation.

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Advanced soil-tilling techniques; ability to deliver calves, build windmills, rail fences, working compasses

*          *          *


5. "The Legacy"

Vital stats: Originally aired 11 Oct 1974; written by Robert Hammer, directed by Bernard McEveety

Online plot abstract: "In a ruined city, the astronauts find a filmed message from scientists of their own era. If they can elude gorilla pursuers long enough to repair the ancient projector, the film will tell them why their world was destroyed."

Plays like: "Return of the Archons Lite."

Strengths: The scientist in the filmed message is wearing one of the tunics worn by the bomb-worshipping mutants in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Also, the matte painting of the ruined city — Oakland, as it turns out — is exceptionally well-done.

Weaknesses: Well, again, we're courting material totally in conflict with established Apes mythology. In fact, the series is already contradicting itself: One human tells Virdon she lived on a farm, even though we learned in the last episode that humans don't farm — and isn't this the exact same studio backlot we visited in Episode 3? If so, why does Virdon say he's so glad to see a city for the first time? This sort of sloppiness pervades the series throughout.

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Ability to create, from scratch, working battery for futuristic projection system.

6. "Tomorrow's Tide"

Vital stats: Originally aired 18 Oct 1974; written by Robert W. Lenski, directed by Don McDougall

Online plot abstract: "When the astronauts are captured in a fishing village employing human slave labor, they must prove their worth as fishermen or be sacrificed to the gods of the sea." — i.e., to sharks.

Plays like: Some yawner of a documentary about tribal fishing culture.

Strengths: The legendary Roscoe Lee Browne as the fishing-village chief. One of the series' best guest-star chimps by a long shot.

Weaknesses: The way the episode begins with a jaunty, "Baywatch"-style intro featuring our heroes jogging by the sea; the aggressively blow-dried fisherman slaves; the silly oversize fish emblem pinned to Browne's ape costume, making him look like a 40ish woman at the mall; hilariously fake shark fin and stock shark footage; far too many shirtless shots of Ron Harper, who obviously enjoys a good steak.

Double entendre(s): The astronauts and Galen angrily promising "to discuss this owner/slave" ruse they have going at a later date.

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Ability to hold breath for extended period while swimming under burning lake; hand-crafting of working nets that revolutionize apes' fishing culture.

7. "The Surgeon"

Vital stats: Originally aired 25 Oct 1974; written by Barry Oringer, directed by Arnold Laven

Online plot abstract: "After Virdon is seriously injured in an escape from gorilla soldiers, Galen enlists the reluctant aid of a chimpanzee surgeon who was once his sweetheart."

Plays like: "ER" by way of "The Flintstones."

Strengths: The following absolutely priceless bit of dialogue: "She killed him with her evil blood!"

Weaknesses: Incredibly silly ape-hospital imagery, including "Swiss Family Robinson"-ish medical equipment and actors in ape masks with surgical masks pulled over their prosthetic noses and mouths (making them look like nothing so much as Chewbacca attempting a bank heist).

Double entendre(s): Galen talking about his old girlfriend Dr. Kira: "Things didn't work out, but we're still the best of friends.... I happen to be an expert in feminine psychology."

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Working knowledge of anatomy, blood transfusions; ability to infiltrate the private library of Central City's most powerful leader undetected.

8. "The Deception"

Vital stats: Originally aired 01 Nov 1974; written by Anthony Lawrence with Ken Spears and David Ruby; directed by Don McDougall

Online plot abstract: "While hunting a band of murderous ape dragoons [i.e., ape Klansmen devoted to killing humans and burning their houses down], Burke inadvertently wins the heart of a blind female chimpanzee, who is unaware that he is human."

Plays like: "Birth of a Nation" with a politically correct moral.

Strengths: Considerable. Given the writing credits and overall quality of this episode — it's a quantum jump over every other episode save "The Tyrant" and maybe "The Liberator" — I'd wager this was the script the producers used to sell the series to the network. This is what "Apes" TV should have been.

There's a hell of a lot going on here — a broad racial allegory with the ape Klansmen, a compounding mistaken-identity tragedy with the blind ape girl Fauna (Jane Actman), a fabulously cheesy/brutal bit of hand-to-hand combat between Virdon and a gorilla, and a murder mystery. A scene where Fauna touches Galen's face thinking it's Pete's is terribly, terribly moving. Seriously. To its great credit (and against my will, given the series' overall production value), this episode actually made me start to care about Alan Virdon and Pete Burke — a spout of goodwill that lasted for the remaining six episodes.

Weaknesses: Very few. The mystery itself is pretty easy to figure out, and there is the following bit of dialogue: "I never knew there was so much ham in an ape."

Double entendre(s): "Ham in an ape"?

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): None. This episode is really a fairly credible piece of writing.

*          *          *


9. "The Horse Race"

Vital stats: Originally aired 08 Oct 1974; written by David P. Lewis and Booker Bradshaw; directed by Jack Starrett

Online plot abstract: "In exchange for a condemned human's freedom, Virdon agrees to ride a chimpanzee prefect's horse in a match race, only to learn his opponent is Urko. "

Plays like: A Kabuki version of The Black Stallion.

Strengths: Meegan King, who plays embattled young horse-racer Gregar, boasts an uncanny facial and vocal resemblance to John Amplas, star of George A. Romero's 1977 vampire cult classic Martin. Also, the climactic horse-race sequence is fairly complex and well-put-together.

Weaknesses: King does not share Amplas' acting ability. Also, somewhere around this episode, the astronauts don't even make much of an effort to hide anymore, and the human characters stop acting devolved and/or stupid, which sort of undermines the show's initial thematic point.

Double entendre(s): One of the astronauts says, "Galen's our friend," to which Gregar mysteriously replies, "I'd like him to be more." Also, Galen is asked why he so enjoys pretending he's the astronauts' "master."

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Championship-caliber horse-racing; "Horse Whisperer"-like ability to tame wild stallions.

10. "The Interrogation"

Vital stats: Originally aired 15 Nov 1974; written by Richard Collins; directed by Alf Kjellin

Online plot abstract: "Captured by simian pursuers, Burke faces two equally menacing possibilities. The gorilla Urko wants to kill him, and the orangutan ruler Zaius wants to use him in a brainwashing experiment."

Plays like: "Midnight Express: The G-Rated Stage Adaptation."

Strengths: Beverly Garland, who plays Wanda, the chimp who decides to mercilessly apply to Burke what she's learned from a human book on brainwashing. Also, the interrogation itself is actually pretty nasty, and backed by a soundtrack of discordant bells and drumbeats that makes it feel like something out of "The Prisoner."

Weaknesses: The following, absolutely retarded bit of dialogue as General Urko tries to grasp the concept of brainwashing: "How can you wash the brain if you don't take it out of the skull?!"

Double entendre(s): Galen dresses up as a woman to sneak back into Central City.

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Ability to never grow beards despite obvious lack of basic toiletries.

11. "The Tyrant"

Vital stats: Originally aired 22 Nov 1974; written by Walter Black, directed by Ralph Senensky

Online plot abstract: "The fugitives are trying to foil the plans of a tyrannical ape, who is using bribery to gain total control over a district of human farmers."

Plays like: 'The Apefather."

Strengths: This is another pretty good episode — not coincidentally because it puts a rare laser-focus on ape culture instead of the drab human mannequins populating the series. As the corrupt gorilla prefect Aboro, Percy Rodriguez is treacherous, angry, bombastic and bitter — and delicious fun to watch, particularly during a Godfather-like scenery-chew with Galen, who's disguised as one of Zaius' corrupt henchmen. Also, we touch lightly on ape-on-ape racism: "Our kind fills these positions of prefect!" shouts Galen.

Weaknesses: The human farmer and his son whose plight kicks off the episode are completely discarded 15 minutes in. Actually, that's not such a bad thing.

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Ability to sew convincing official collar for Galen; saint-like ability to put aside concerns over fugitive status long enough to save General Urko's life.

12. "The Cure"

Vital stats: Originally aired 29 Nov 1974; written by Edward J. Lasko, directed by Bernard McEveety

Online plot abstract: "When an outbreak of malaria sweeps through a village of humans, the astronauts must convince a suspicious chimpanzee doctor to accept their superior methods of fighting the disease."

Plays like: "Outbreak," only with humans in the Rhesus-monkey role.

Strengths: A scene in which our heroes have a rare fractious moment; McDowall is devastating as he scolds Virdon for revealing his true identity to a human villager he's fairly obviously been using for cheap, ships-pass-in-the-night sex.

Weaknesses: Dear Lord, the human villager Virdon's fairly obviously been using for cheap, ships-pass-in-the-night sex is played by Sondra Locke.

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Complete knowledge of symptoms of, cause of and cure for malaria, including name of tree producing malaria-battling quinine (which, conveniently, grows just up the hill in northern California).

*          *          *


13. "The Liberator"

Vital stats: No first-run airdate in the United States; written by Executive Story Consultant Howard Dimsdale, directed by Arnold Laven

Online plot abstract: "The astronauts get captured by a group of humans who turn over fellow humans to the gorillas as slaves."

Plays like: Amistad as filtered through the Ron Ely "Tarzan" TV series.

Strengths: This is one of the series' three fairly decent episodes, along with "The Deception" and "The Tyrant." As in "The Deception," this one tackles racial issues in the vein of classic "Apes," with a disadvantaged minority selling out its own kind for the sake of convenience. There's also a creepy scene where a runaway slave is bloodlessly "sacrificed" by a mask-wearing village elder — launching a genuinely compelling mystery re: the secrets of a poisonous temple.

Weaknesses: As a carmel-skinned human villager, Jennifer Ashley manages the rare feat of being the worst guest actor in the entire "Apes" series (other than maybe Royal Dano in his fright wig).

Double entendre(s): Burke mentions the pleasures of native girls who are "round in all the right places." Galen, perplexed, replies, "Round natives?" The astronauts laugh off his complete ignorance about females with a hearty, "Oh, Galen, you're such a square!"

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Construction of makeshift gas masks using ground charcoal and wet cloth.

14. "Up Above the World So High"

Vital stats: Originally aired 06 Dec 1974; written by S. Bar-David and Arthur Browne, Jr., directed by "Classic Trek" and "Six Million Dollar Man" vet John Meredyth Lucas

Online plot abstract: "Galen's flight on a hang glider highlights this story about the fugitives' attempts to help a human who is determined to learn the secret of flying."

Plays like: The Wright Brothers re-enacting the ultralight-chase sequence from Howard the Duck.

Strengths: The lovely coastal scenery; Joanna Barnes as Carsia, an ape-on-ape racist who wants to use the flying machine to bomb Central City and seize power for the chimps.

Weaknesses: All scenes depicting flight, which are shot in1970s-TV fashion. You know — that long-shot-of-a-stuntman, closeup-of-an-actor-shot-from-below-against-a-blue-sky technique? The one TV directors used for any scene where the lead characters were in a helicopter?) Also weak: a hideously unfunny denouement where Galen is seasick as our heroes sneak off in a raft. This lame moment is, I'm afraid, his last onscreen appearance in ape makeup. Pity.

Utterly preposterous expertise demonstrated by astronaut(s): Construction of aerodynamically sound hang-glider from rudimentary materials; precise grinding of crystal into perfectly smooth and fully functional magnifying glass.

*          *          *

Also on Disc Four: A Planet of the Apes "Cross Trailer" promoting all five original films, plus the theatrical trailer for Tim Burton's 2001 version — a movie I still enjoyed less than the TV series, by the way.

That is all. In fact, it's more than I personally ever wanted to know.

— Alexandra DuPont

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