Planet of the Apes: When TV Went Bananas

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Planet of the Apes has graced both small screens and large, though its TV adaptations are mostly forgotten.

Everybody knows the story of Planet of the Apes, even if they haven’t seen it: Astronauts crash-land on a planet where a civilization of intelligent apes rule oppressively over seemingly primitive humans — and eventually it’s revealed that the “alien” planet is actually post-apocalyptic Earth. While the original film remains best known, the Apes franchise (which now includes a pair of modern-day prequels the latest of which just topped the weekend box-office) has spawned multiple sequels, a Tim Burton remake in the 90s, comics, spin-off novels… it’s unquestionably one of Western science fiction’s most enduring properties.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that someone decided to give those damn dirty apes a shot on the small screen — after all, the franchise is grounded in a “world” more than tied to specific recurring characters. As a matter of fact, no less than three series tied to the Planet of rhe Apes mythos have graced television over the years…

Supposedly, the producers of the original Planet of The Apes had considered turning the premise into a TV spin-off almost immediately but opted to go the route of theatrical sequels (not as common in that era) given its unexpected mega-success.

Instead, the start of a series wouldn’t begin until after the release of the much-maligned fourth sequel — Battle for the Planet of the Apes — and the death of producer Arthur P. Jacobs in 1973. The series would eventually be produced by new rights-holders 20th Century Fox and picked up for broadcast by CBS (who reportedly passed on Gene Roddenberry’s now-famous Genesis II pilot in its favor of Apes) in 1974 for 14 episodes. Sadly, the (expensive) series drew mediocre ratings opposite popular sitcoms airing on rival NBC, and was canceled after concluding its initial run.

The series is slightly coy about whether or not it’s meant to be in exact continuity with the films, though it maintains a more-or-less identical aesthetic in terms of sets, costumes, makeup and music. In this version of the story, a pair of male astronauts (from “ANSA”) crash on the ape planet and discover that it’s actually Earth fairly early. Scheming orangutan Counselor (not “Doctor”) Zaius implies that this is not the first time that such has happened, and commands the brutal gorilla General Urko to hunt them down.

So yeah, it’s yet another 70s “chase” series ala The Incredible Hulk, with our two heroes moving about the countryside with the aid of a friendly chimpanzee named Galen played, yes, by Roddy McDowell from the original films. Most episodes are about what you’d expect: The good guys arrive in situations of conflict, get involved and move on with the occasional involvement or “I’ll get you next time, Gadget!” from Urko.

The most “famous” (or at least well-known) episode is likely its next-to-last, “The Liberator,” in which Galen and the astronauts get caught up in the orbit of a mad, self-styled human revolutionary leader who’s stockpiling ancient human gas-weapons to use against the Apes. There has been controversy over whether or not the episode actually managed to air in all markets because of sensitivity at the time to stories of poison gas weapons being used in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Notably, the existing episodes were later re-cut into movie-length “telefilms” for syndication, which (on ABC-owned stations) included newly-shot “bumpers” hosted by McDowell as a now-elderly Galen looking back on his exploits with the human astronauts. Interestingly, these segments (rarely seen since their original airing) provide closure to the question of the astronaut’s ultimate fate, as Galen explains that they eventually managed to escape the planet.

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This animated series from DePatie-Freleng Enterprises was, for a time, one of the more obscure parts of the Apes arcana, having aired for only 13 episodes in a Saturday morning timeslot in 1975 before slipping into minimal-syndication limbo. A pity, because in hindsight it’s one of the more unusual pieces of the canon.

This time, it’s three astronauts (a white guy, a black guy and a woman) who find themselves on the run from angry apes. But while characters from both the movies (Cornelius, Zira, Zaius, Nova and even Brent) and General Urko from the TV series appear, this doesn’t appear to the same Planet we’ve seen before: These apes have a modern civilization, with sprawling cities, ornate architecture and thoroughly modern technology including cars and planes — thusly, it’s actually a bit more in line with the world as depicted in the ” title=”” target=”_blank”>Pierre Boulle novel that the original film was (loosely) based on. In addition, the freedom of animation allows the world to include more fantastical elements such as giant dinosaur-like flying monsters and a King Kong-sized ape “god” — a battle between the two occurs at the climax of the final episode.

In addition, the animation itself — though limited in terms of actual movement and character models — makes striking use of light and shadow along with richly detailed background models. The series’ design was supervised in part by comics and cartoon legend Doug Wildey, the co-creator of the visually-similar Jonny Quest.

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Also produced in 1974, Saru no Gundan (“Army of The Apes”) was a Japanese television production from Tsuburaya that loosely reworked (to an even greater degree than the movies) the plot of the original Pierre Boulle novel into a youth-targeted adventure series whose 26 episodes make it the longest-running television project related (however tangentially) to Planet of the Apes. The inspiration for the series was the spectacularly strong performance of the Apes films at the Japanese box-office, where the franchise was so popular that an extended cut of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes received theatrical distribution.

In the series, a female scientist and a pair of young children are inadvertently frozen in cryogenic pods during a volcanic eruption and awaken in a future of talking, upright-walking apes. To date, this is the only live-action depiction that mirrors Boulle’s modern, technological ape society — though in this case it is also a military dictatorship with a secret police and political conspiracies. In this respect, it’s actually more similar to Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants than any of the Apes features.

For many years, Saru no Gundan was largely unknown outside of Japan, save for Sandy Frank having re-edited the series into a 90 minute “movie” for U.S. television in 1987 titled Time of the Apes. But when that version was featured in the third season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, (after having been part of the show during its original public-access “Season Zero”) its awareness skyrocketed — it’s now considered one of the classic episodes of the series.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.