Sunday, July 13, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: The Short Shelf Life of Planet of the Apes: The Series

L-R: Roddy McDowall, James Naughton, Ron Harper
With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes currently storming multiplexes, I continue my run of Apes-related posts here at the Corner with a look back at the franchise's brief expansion onto the small screen. When Planet of the Apes movie producer Arthur P. Jacobs passed away suddenly in June of '73 (ironically enough, less than two weeks after the theatrical premiere of the final flick, Battle for the Planet of the Apes), Fox swooped in and purchased his interest in the very-successful property. After airings of the first three flicks on CBS garnered boffo ratings (remember when TV airings of theatricals used to get ratings?), the Eye and Fox hurriedly set about transitioning Apes from feature series to TV series, which premiered on September 13, 1974. Here's the intro and closing:

Planet of the Apes Opening and Closing Theme 1974 by TeeVeesGreatest

That wonderfully eerie theme music, very much in the vein of the movies' scores, is by Mission: Impossible's Lalo Schifrin, by the way. As you can see from the opening credits, the biggest selling point (beyond the mere fact of Planet of the Apes coming to TV, natch) was that the star of the films had come along with it. When Roddy McDowall, who'd just wrapped his second of two stints playing (the first) Caesar, expressed interest in appearing on the still-developing skein, his third chimp character was born: Galen. The premise had astronauts Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Pete Burke (James Naughton) crash land on Earth in the distant future of 3085, finding a world where apes are in charge and humans are enslaved servants.

Notice, I say slaves, as opposed to animals, presumably because the needs of weekly storytelling required guest stars who could provide exposition as needed. Taking a liking to the astronauts, Galen frees them from captivity, making him a fugitive along with them as they search the Planet of the Apes for a way back to their own time, all the while evading the ape authorities led by Dr. Zaius (played by Booth Colman) and Security Chief Urko (Mark Lenard, a.k.a. Mr. Spock's dad). Think The Fugitive, add a dash of Starsky & Hutch, toss in a little Every Which Way But Loose, and basically there's the show. Here's a clip from episode five, "The Legacy," which sums up the '70s-ness of the thing (FYI, the kid in there is none other than Rorschach himself, Jackie Earle Haley):

Although a pilot script was written by Rod Serling, it was ultimately (read: unfortunately) rejected in favor of the resultant effort, developed by Herbert Hirschman and Stan Hough (which did, to be fair, owe quite a bit to Serling's effort even as it went far afield from it). Sadly, for a variety of reasons relating to tough competition (it aired against NBC's powerful one-two punch of Sanford & Son and Chico and the Man) and fairly by-the-numbers stories, Apes on TV just never caught on with auds the way it needed to, and despite the high hopes from Fox and CBS (and even plans for Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry to try and right the ship at the eleventh hour), TV Apes pretty much died on the vine, and was gone after fourteen episodes.

Of course, even that wouldn't be the end of Planet of the Apes on television (as I discussed at length here). Fox ended up revisiting the live action show again in 1981, not with new episodes, but by repackaging ten extant eps into syndicated TV movies with titles like Treachery and Greed on the Planet of the Apes, and Life, Liberty and Pursuit on the Planet of the Apes (not making that second one up). For airings of these movies on ABC-owned stations (and the logistics of whether this was on Fox's dime or ABC's aren't exactly clear to me), Roddy McDowall actually filmed new wraparound segments as an aged Galen recounting his adventures to us. You can watch all the wraparounds below, the last of which has him reveal that the astronauts did indeed eventually return to their own time in some never-to-be-seen adventure:

Now, I didn't discover the TV series until much later, like the mid-'90s, when a fellow fan duped some episodes onto VHS for me (VHwhat?). And despite its many flaws (foremost among them the rote repetitiveness of storylines, which usually had one of the three fugitives in some kind of jeopardy, and the other two racing the clock to save/rescue them), it was still an entirely new Apes experience for me, and that was enough. Although I caught a few eps when they aired on Sci-Fi Channel in the interim, it was only much later, when the 2001 "re-imagining" prompted Fox to finally issue the series on DVD, that I was able to watch it in its entirety. And while a little definitely goes a long way, Planet of the Apes' brief television excursion still remains an important part of the brand's forty-plus year history.

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