There are some shows that stay burned in your mind forever from childhood for various reasons. For me, the news of a Planet of the Apes television series was just another amazing cog in the wheel of the Ape franchise which is loved to this day.
However it was the main titles of this one that has stayed with me because it terrified me as a youngster. Those primitive blast of horns and the close up of the snarling gorilla on horseback is now an iconic one, an image that has also made its way into the recent remake of Planet of the Apes. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – but reuse it. There was something in that gorilla mask that spoke volumes that if they were real I would be hunted down like a dog and even today when I look into the face of a gorilla in the zoo, I can see an intelligence there that could turn vicious at any moment or reach out and cradle a human baby in a heartbeat.
I wonder did the original author of the Apes book, Pierre Boulle, once stand and look at a gorilla and think the same thing? If ever a franchise ever deserved a television series then it was Planet of the Apes. It has ventured into movie, animation and television with each trying to expand the universe of the Apes. however the television series chose to take old ground similar to the hunting of astronaut Charlton Heston and his crew in the very first movie itself. Originally broadcast from 13th September 1974 to 20th December 1974, here it is the turn of Alan Virdon, played by Ron Harper, and Peter Burke, played by James Naughton, to endure the wrath of the apes. They crashland on what they discover to be a future Earth, but a young chimp witnesses their arrival and his father tells counsellor Zaius about them.
Zaius recalls the same thing happened ten years earlier (reference to the first movie) and sends gorilla General Urko, played by Mark Lenard, to find and bring them in for questioning. Lenard is best known as Sarek, the father of Star Trek’s Spock, a role he played in the original series, the movies and the Next Generation. However, not trusting the gorilla general, Zaius sends along Galen, played by the late great Roddy McDowall, who is synonymous with the entire franchise, having played both Cornelius and Caesar in the movies, a role he continued with for many years to come ( see our Tribute to Roddy McDowall article later this week). In reality, to fans everywhere no version of the Apes franchise could ever be complete without McDowall putting in an appearance. I have no doubt he would have proudly appeared in the new remakes had he been alive and am sure he’s smiling down on them from above.
He is in fine form as always in the television series,making this new character 0f Galen, although identical in appearance to both Caesar and Cornelius, a completely new entity. He is curious about the humans and where they came from. They are curiosities to him and he sees beyond what his culture has taught him about the humans. But when he is sentenced to death as a heretic for daring to question the history he has been taught after he finds an old human history book which proves he has been lied to all his life, Galen becomes a fugitive with the two astronauts who rescue him.
Now they are forced to flee, seeking a way home across what used to be the United States encountering new people and places which educate both Galen and the two humans about what happened to their world. In many ways, Galen is the missing link between apes and humans living in peace together. This is touched upon in the series with Galen acting as the voice of reason in the face of prejudice when he could. And he learns much from Peter and Alan as they travel, seeking a way home for the astronauts and there was little doubt the highly curious Galen would have went with them back to their own time given half a chance. But even that train of thought would be changed for the viewer as you’ll see later on.
Over the fourteen episodes, thirteen of which were broadcast, they find a ruined San Francisco where Urko and Burke are forced to work together when trapped by an earthquake, teach the apes that blood transfusions are possible when Virdon needs one after being shot. they even have to teach some farmers how to make butter and deliver a calf so they can make their farm prosper. Cliches they may be, but an effort was made to tie it into Ape lore. Meanwhile, other episodes had them discover tapes from their own time which tell what happened to the world they knew. While many fall into standard virus or lesson for the week, at least they made an effort to show the world after the nuclear devastation was more than seen in the movies. Small pockets of humanity are trying to regain the old ways through farming but it was the episode ‘the Liberator’ that was never aired, that showed how the show may have progressed into a much grittier hardened war show if allowed to continue.
Such a move would have added much to the main characters with Galen especially being torn between his ape heritage and the injustice against the human race as it fought back against the rule of the apes. The Liberator saw Virdon, Galena and Burke stumble across a village where five humans are given over for slavery every so often. However any unwilling humans are sacrificed in a cave to a poisonous gas. It turns out that the leader is secretly building a stash of gas canisters and a distillery to create even more gas bombs, most likely left over from the Earth before the holocaust, in an attempt to destroy ape rule and return Earth to humanity. He claims the moral rite to do this given the atrocities the apes have inflicted upon a helpless mankind.
Due to the political climate with both the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War protests among other things, it was decided to withhold this episode from broadcast until times were less sensitive. That time never came due to the show’s cancellation. This was unheard of at the time, but the episode was released as part of the DVD boxset. Now, instead of a Fugitive-style series with Urko as the relentless policeman, how amazing would the show have been if it had followed the Liberator’s story thread? The Twilight Zone’s Rod Sterling was commissioned to write the opening episodes but ultimately they were never used, the honour going to Art Wallace instead. With Sterling’s imagination the show could have gone a different way. But the Liberator thread alone would have changed the entire series and brought a brand new dynamic with new apes joining the fight to save their planet and find a peaceful resolution and placing Virdon and Burke on the side of the apes to stop genocide but would it have been that simple? What an intriguing series that would have been.
Maybe now would be a great time to revive this show under a brand new story thread. And with the leaps in technology things would look amazing. Despite the cancellation, someone somewhere cared about this show and in a move that I don’t think has ever been repeated, Roddy McDowall was hired to film bookends to the episodes as an aged Galen who revealed that both Virdon and Burke had found the computer they sought in another city and disappeared into space as suddenly as they came; the implication being a time warp of some sort. But we had a resolution, an unremarkable one but a resolution at least. And of course to mark the end of this show they called upon the one man that was the face of the apes, Roddy McDowall. That speaks volumes to me; not only did someone care enough to give the audience closure, but they turned to the one man that could cite fans’ angry reaction to the show’s cancellation. And that is testament enough for me as to how fondly this show, and its parent franchise, is thought of. The complete series is available to buy on DVD and spin-off novels can be found on eBay.