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Planet of the Apes: When TV Went Bananas

Bob Chipman | 14 Jul 2014 12:00
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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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