Thursday, April 28, 2016

My Favorite Planet of the Apes universe

The first of the original Planet of the Apes movie I saw was the last in that cycle, when I watched Battle for the Planet of the Apes in the theater. I was young enough to overlook or simply not recognize its faults and I still remember how much I enjoyed the setting and the action. I liked Roddy McDowell as Caesar and really enjoyed Lew Ayers' cameo as the super-cool Keeper of the Armory. I saw the rest of the films on TV at various times over the next few years ago. I have since been a fan of the original movie cycle and I'm really looking forward to watching the original POTA film on the big screen this July when it plays as part of TCM's classic movie revival series.

I never did see either the Tim Burton remake or either of the films in the current reboot, so I can't pass judgement on them. But I do enjoy other POTA universes. In fact, there's one particular Apes universe that (if I might be permitted a blasphemy) I like a little better than the original film cycle.

This was the Saturday morning cartoon Return to the Planet of the Apes, that aired on NBC in 1975. It only ran 13 episodes, but intelligent writing and a real concern for internal continuity made it a rich and entertaining show.

Return has several important points in its favor. First, the design work overseen by Doug Wildey is excellent and imaginative, doing wonders to make up for the limited animation. In fact, the show was designed to take advantage of the animation technique--many individual shots were still frames that looked like well-designed comic book panels. Details such as the design of Ape City and General Urko's military equipment all added to the visual appeal and the overall verisimilitude of the show.

Wildey was also involved in plotting out the show's overall story arc. Here's a quote from him:

"When I first mapped out the show, I took the astronauts and kept them as separate as I could from the other humans for the first three or four episodes. And then I got them involved with other humans up to a point. So the original idea was that they were astronauts arriving on the planet of the apes, they're fugitives, and mainly they keep hiding to figure out what the [heck] they're going to do. I put the stories together from one to 13 in the sense that at the end of 13, the humans are almost as powerful as the apes. At the beginning, though, they're like mice running around hoping not to get trapped. That's the simplified philosophy behind it. My idea was that they would be animals at the beginning and slowly evolve into a crude civilized bunch of people from the standpoint that they might be more organised."

It's this story arc and the writing in the individual episodes that really make this a great series. Three astronauts (Bill, Jeff and Judy) are trapped in a time vortex and land on Earth in the future. As is typical in pretty much an version of POTA, they don't initially realize that they are on Earth. At first, they are simply trying to survive, with Bill getting captured by the apes, befriending Cornelius and Zira and managing an escape. They team up with Nova and the other primitive humans. Judy is captured by the Underdwellers--psychic mutants based on those from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but slightly less murderously fanatical. 

The series is grabbing elements from several sources. The ape civilization is keyed off the technologically advanced one from the original novel--though they have no idea about air travel (a plot point in later episodes). Various ape characters (Cornelius, Zira, Zaius, General Urko) are taken from the first two movies. Brent--the main human character from Beneath--shows up re-imagined as an astronaut from 150 years in the future of the original astronauts, but who arrived in the ape-dominated world years before them. I've already mentioned the Underdwellers as based on the mutants from Beneath.  

All these elements were mixed into something that is still POTA, but new in its own way. Then it is anchored onto an overarching story arc that runs through the entire series. Plot elements are never forgotten and pop up in the story at logical moments--a laser drill recovered from the wrecked space ship; a particular mutant monster that makes a return visit in a later episode; a restored World War II airplane that Judy knows how to fly (which includes an episode dealing with the need to acquire more fuel for it).

I particularly like Doctor Zaius in this version of POTA. Actually, we always kind of like him, don't we? In the original films, he can be cruel, self-righteous and dishonest, but Maurice Evans' performance always reminds us that he's desperately trying to keep his own civilization from destruction. In the cartoon, his negative traits are downplayed. He still sees humans as a threat and is terrified at the thought of intelligent humans, but he's portrayed as much more honestly straightforward. 

The voice work has sometimes been criticized as too unemotional. I think this is valid. In fact, Cornelius and Zira occasionally sound like they've been popping quaaludes. But Henry Corden really goes to town as the power-mad General Urko, voicing him in an appropriately over-the-top manner as Urko descends farther into paranoia over the course of the series.

The last episode in a cliffhanger of sorts, with Bill and Cornelius acquiring proof that humans once ruled the Earth and hatching a plan to approach the Ape City rulers with this. Sadly, the show was cancelled, so a second season dealing with this never materialized. All the same, the various other elements of the story arc are wrapped up well enough to give keep a viewer satisfied.

I actually had an idea for a plot element that I think would have added a lot of emotion to the series. Throughout the 13 episodes, various characters are in danger, but there are never any actual fatalities. This was because it was a children's show. Explosives and artillery are occasionally used, but I don't think a single round of small arms fire is capped off at any time. 

I appreciate standards in entertainment aimed at children. I think that as a culture, we sometimes don't
pay enough attention to this. But I simply disagree with some of the decisions made regarding violence on Saturday mornings during the 1970s. Violence is an essential part of storytelling and a level of violence in a children's story (including deadly violence) is appropriate. A discussion of where the line should be drawn would be a fascinating one to have, though in the end this is a decision that parents should make for their own children.

But I think Return to the Planet of the Apes. as good as it was, would have been even more effective if it had allowed a few deaths. For instance, there's an episode in which the astronauts lead the primitive humans on a dangerous journey to find a safe haven where the apes can't get to them. Losing a few of the humans to the various threats along the way would have been an effective way of  adding tension and opened discussions as to whether what they were doing was worth the cost. 

Also, lets say the astronauts got hold of a few rifles. Would they have been justified in using them in self-defense? What would this have done to their friendship (and very helpful alliance) with Cornelius and Zira--who are portrayed as peaceful and compassionate throughout the series? Would the two chimpanzees have been torn between continuing to protect the humans from genocide with loyalty to their own people? But none of that could be dealt with unless Bill or Jeff puts a bullet in a gorilla soldier. 

It is a show marketed towards children, so the discussion about how much violence should be in it is worthwhile. Though I think a few fatalities would have helped the show, someone else might legitimately think it was perfect just the way it was.

Anyway, the series is available on Hulu, so if you are in the U.S., you can watch it there and decide for yourself. It's also on YouTube, as least at the moment I'm writing this--though I'm unsure of the copyright situation, so I don't know if the video I'm embedding below will remain active.


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