Despite a shrinking budget, the Planet of the Apes movies were still making money. By 1973 and after five films, it was clear that the theatrical part of the franchise was exhausted. But 20th Century Fox saw that there was still money to be made due to the high ratings the movies received on broadcast television. With producer Arthur P. Jacob’s death in 1973, the franchise was turned over to Stan Hough, who envisioned a transition to television. By the fall of 1974, Planet of the Apes would become a weekly series.
The premise of this new TV series was essentially the same as we saw in the first two theatrical films. An Earth spaceship enters a time warp and crashes on Earth in the far future. The year is 3085, putting it several centuries after the Lawgiver’s speech from Battle for the Planet of the Apes and some 900 years before Taylor arrives. The spaceship is the same exact model as used by Taylor and Brent in the first two movies, giving a sense of continuity. Three ANSA astronauts are on board with one having died in the crash. Ron Harper (Land of the Lost) stars as Colonel Alan Virdon and James Naughton (The Paper Chase) is Major Peter Burke. Both are rescued by a human and they soon discover that apes can speak on this planet. They quickly learn that they are on Earth in the future and begin their journey to find a way back. They befriend a chimpanzee named Galen (the ever-present Roddy McDowell) with the ape forces in pursuit. Our gorilla leader is General Urko (Mark Lenard, Star Trek) and we even have a Councillor Zauis (Booth Colman), setting the stage for the standard episode as the humans and Galen would always be one step ahead of their pursuers. The biggest difference being that in this version, humans could talk but lacked the superior standing of the apes.
The series only lasted 14 episodes due to low ratings but was actually quite enjoyable. In 1981, episodes were re-edited into five 90-minute movies with Roddy McDowell returning as an aged Galen to introduce the films, broadcast as part of a week-long celebration. The titles of the five films were Back to the Planet of the Apes, Forgotten City on the Planet of the Apes, Treachery and Greed on the Planet of the Apes, Life, Liberty and Pursuit on the Planet of the Apes and Farewell to the Planet of the Apes. Much like Fox had done before with the 1974 Go Ape campaign in bringing the first five films back to the theaters, viewers were encouraged to Go Ape once again.
With Apes merchandise flooding the market in everything from action figures to puzzles to comic books, it’s no surprise that another attempt at a television series was made just one year later. In the fall of 1975, NBC brought the animated Return to the Planet of the Apes to Saturday morning television. The show only ran for 13 episodes but was an interesting interpretation, showing a more advanced ape culture including cars and planes. It involved a group of human astronauts crash landing on the future Earth and pursued by the apes. Familiar names abound including Cornelius, Zira, Urko and Zauis. While the animation was limited, the stories were actually quite good and offered up a different take on what was now a very familiar story.
By 1976, five movies and two television series later, the Apes franchise was exhausted. It would live on in repeats and home video, never losing its’ popularity despite the lack of new material. While the first five films thrived on VHS, both TV series never saw VHS releases. Now, thanks to DVD and Blu-ray, the entire original Apes saga is available for future generations.
Before we move on to the next chapter, I highly recommend tracking down the Power Records sets as well as the original comic books and magazines from Marvel that were published until 1977. Malibu Comics also revived the comic series in the 90s as well as the recent series from Boom! Comics that are set in the original Apes universe.
Also take the time to watch the superior documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes produced by AMC in 1998. It features Roddy McDowell as your host and includes quite a bit of behind the scenes footage along with cast interviews and an overview of the entire original Apes story.
Next time, we take the next step into some dark territory with Tim Burton’s 2001 vision of Planet of the Apes.