1 9 7 4 (USA)
14 x 50 minute episodes
After a change of studio to CBS, the Planet of the Apes film franchise moved to television in 1974. Producer Arthur P Jacobs decided the features had run their course, but he wanted to produce a TV series. He asked Rod Serling (creator of The Twilight Zone and co-writer of the first Apes movie) to devise an outline in 1973.
Serling created the storyline of two 20th century astronauts Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Pete Burke (James Naughton) leaving Earth in 1988 and passing through a time warp and landing back on Earth in the year 3085 AD.
There they find an upside-down world where apes rule supreme and humans are stupid unpaid servants, labourers and farmers.
Following the plots of the movies, the orang-utans are the ruling class (the role of Doctor Zaius is reprised from the movies), the chimpanzees are the intellectuals and the gorillas are the thuggish military class.
An inquisitive young chimp called Galen (once more played by Roddy McDowall who starred in four of the five Planet of the Apes movies) befriends Virdon and Burke and helps them avoid the gorillas, led by General Urko (Mark Lenard), who hunt the astronauts for fear that they will destabilise the ape society.
The series maintained the splendid look of the movies and introduced a few of the more metaphorical elements of Pierre Boulle’s original novel, but the timelines don’t mesh with the films and the humans can talk in this version of Planet of the Apes. They also seem to have access to shampoo and grooming products judging by their appearance!
During filming in the summer of 1974, temperatures at the Twentieth Century Fox ranch in Malibu, California (the same location used to film the M*A*S*H series), topped 100 degrees; actors and stuntmen garbed in heavy gorilla soldier uniforms – their heads completely enclosed in hair, rubber and glue – routinely collapsed from the heat.
Bill Derwin, an Assistant Director, called Planet Of The Apes “physically the toughest TV series ever made”.
The series debuted on Friday 13 September 1974. Lavishly budgeted and strategically placed in what seemed to be a good time slot, the series became the subject of media ridicule as it died a humiliating death.
Network executives struggled to understand how their prized show had ended so disastrously. It never cracked the top 35, could not attract sizeable audiences over the age of 14 and finished the 1974-75 season at an average of 67th place out of 84 shows, becoming the lowest-rated CBS show of the year, aside from Khigh Dhiegh’s dismal detective show Khan!, which replaced Planet of the Apes and ended up doing worse, at 80th place.
Story-wise, kids looking for fantasy instead got mundane scenarios about the astronauts curing malaria, teaching a human to fly a hang-glider, being subjected to brainwashing or participating in a horse race.
Outdoor locales boiled down to either the Fox Ranch, the Pacific Ocean or the old ruined city sets. No matter how far the trio travelled, the same mountains kept popping up behind them.
Virdon’s goal was to find an advanced civilization with a computer that could interpret his flight disc, and then build them a spaceship. Had the astronauts decided on Houston or Florida as a specific walking destination, to locate old spaceships stored at NASA centres, it would have given them a geographical goal rather than aimless wandering.
The plight of the two astronauts was never resolved as CBS cancelled the show after 14 of the planned 20 episodes due to poor ratings in the US.
In 1980, 20th Century-Fox syndicated 10 of the 14 episodes by combining them into a total of five TV movies and gave them such outlandish titles as Life, Liberty and Pursuit on the Planet of the Apes.
Some of these ersatz movies contained new footage of Roddy McDowall as an ancient Galen, sitting in a cottage with a 1970s Commodore PET computer flickering behind him. Galen provided brief commentary but his eccentrically coy dialogue was dull, except to reveal that, “Virdon and Burke did find their computer and they disappeared back into space.” Galen turned down their offer to fly back with them.
A thirty episode cartoon series Return to the Planet of the Apes was made in 1975.
Colonel Alan Virdon
Captain Pete Burke
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