Wednesday, November 15, 2006

CULT TV BLOGGING: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Flames of Doom"

Some of my less-than-positive comments about the re-imagination process in modern Hollywood (particularly as it applies to the new Battlestar Galactica...) have made the rounds on other blogs and I guess I may be getting a reputation as an anti re-imagination guy. That's okay with me, I suppose, but it's not always true.

Exhibit A in my defense just may be the 1975 animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes, a re-imagination of the first order. It's a program developed for television by David De Patrie-Fritz Freleng, which assimilates and re-invents characters, plotlines, devices and technology from all previous incarnations of the once-popular franchise, including the Pierre Boulle novel, the 1968 film and sequels (Beneath, in particular...), and even the 1974 live-action TV series. The result is nothing less than an invigorating shot in the arm for the franchise. I hadn't watched these half-hour episodes for something like thirty-one years, but re-discovering them today on DVD, I was shocked and pleased at just how attentive and committed to details (and an overall story arc) this animated series remains.

Because frankly the buzz from the old genre press wasn't good. Going back to Fantastic Television a reference book from 1977, the author writes in a summary review of the NBC series that it "was a not very exciting animated version of the short-lived CBS live-action series," and that the artwork and plots were "simplistic." (page 177). Frankly, I don't see how anyone with a pulse, anyone with an intellect, anyone who actually watched the animated series, could honestly make such an assessment.

The premiere episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes, "Flames of Doom," (by Larry Spiegel), finds a NASA space capsule called the "Venture" traveling on a routine deep space mission on August 6, 1976. Aboard are three diverse astronauts: Bill Hudson (a white man), Jeff Allen (an African-American) and Judy Franklin (a woman). Bill narrates the captain's log and confirms Dr. Stanton's theory of "time thrust;" that man can utilize faster-than-light speeds to propel himself into the future. Admirers of the 1968 film will recognize this comment as a reflection of Chuck Heston's opening narration, and Dr. Hasslein's theory named there. It's been simplified for children in this cartoon, but the idea is the same.

No sooner has Hudson informed us about this theory than the ship's chronometer goes wild and the Venture plunges into some kind of time warp. The "Earth Clock" goes crazy, and the Venture arrives battered in the year 3979, where it crashes on a strange planet in a dead lake.

Meanwhile, on the planet below - a planet ruled by intelligent apes - General Urko, a gorilla power-monger, addresses the Supreme Council of Ape City and demands genocide for all humans. Arguing the opposite case is the kindly chimpanzee Cornelius, who pleads for a "different course." He and his wife, a behavioral scientist named Zira, wish to study humans as the key to "simian origins." Arbitrating this dispute of national importance is the ruler of the apes, an orangutan named Dr. Zaius. I must note, the level of attention to detail in this scene is remarkable, for as Zaius issues his decision on the matter at hand, a stone relief on the wall behind him reveals the long history of ape-human relations. There are images of apes hunting humans, and domesticating them. Nice.

Humans may be hunted as legitimate sport, Zaius concludes, or brought into the city to perform "menial tasks." They may even serve as domestic pets, but Zaius will not demand their total destruction. However, on an ominous note, he warns that Article 18 of the "Book of Simian Prophecy" demands that man must be destroyed at any cost if he develops the power of speech. In other words, this is a temporary victory for Cornelius's cause, and for the primitive, mute, stone-age humans who populate caves outside the technologically advanced ape-city.

Watching this portion of the episode, a few things become plain. First and foremost, the franchise has returned to the ape society as depicted in Boulle's novel. In other words, the apes dwell in a twentieth century city with television, radio, automobiles and the like. Their city is not a rock-outcropping like in the popular movie, but rather a contemporary metropolis with buildings that resemble those from human history (in a wonderful nod to the adage "monkey see, monkey do.") The ape culture of the original film was almost medieval, despite the presence of guns and such things as brain surgery. Not so here.

For instance, the imposing ape council building resembles nothing so much as our own Capitol Building, where Congress deliberates.. Since this is a re-imagination and updating of Planet of the Apes for the mid-1970s, not only is there the burgeoning notion of diversity (this was the era of the equal rights amendment, we must not forget...) on hand in the make-up of the astronauts, but the focus on the Council and its proceedings reveals a more bureaucratic bent to the apes. Instead of ape culture being essentially of one mind (as in the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil triumvirate of the Schaffner film showcases), here Ape society is bedeviled by partisan politics, with chimpanzees representing the pacifist left, gorillas the militant right, and orangutans the sensible center. This is especially important considering the context of Return to the Planet of the Apes: immediately post-Watergate (and the congressional hearings would have been seen by Americans on TV), and soon after the Vietnam conflict. Again, this is an example of updating and changing a franchise, but not throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Continuing with the story, Bill, Jeff (voiced by the amazing Austin Stoker of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Assault on Precinct 13), and Judy abandon their sinking spaceship and flee into the Forbidden Zone. Recalling the portions of the original film shot in Death Valley, the series here offers a brilliant and artistic montage as the three astronauts search for water and food under the glaring sun of what they believe is an alien world.

Here, the animated frames turn a bright scarlet hue to represent the heat of the desert and there are close-ups of human faces caked in sweat. Close-ups of tired feet marching in the sand also appear. This montage doesn't rely on dialogue but rather clever images. There is a lengthy interlude wherein we pan across (again, animated...) desert images to carry the mood and atmosphere of the story. The animation is limited perhaps, but these limitations are marshaled as a strength on the program. Overlapping views, double exposes, intense close-ups, insert shots and first person subjective point-of-view shots all provide a texture to the desperate march through the wasteland. This march ends, appropriately, with the sighting of an Ape Mount Rushmore. Another new touch, but again one that (along with the city), reveals the ape talent for mimicry (monkey see, monkey do) and is therefore thematically valuable; a subconscious reminder that all of the simian accomplishments are built on "aping" human society.

In the desert, Jeff and Bill lose Judy when fires spontaneously erupts in front of them and an earthquake splits the ground in a series of lovely frames that reveal a high degree of fidelity to images from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (particularly Taylor's abduction by the underground mutants). The astronauts have little time to ponder the loss of their companion, however, as Bill and Jeff encounter a tribe of stone age humans, including the beautiful Nova.

Suggesting an interesting mystery, Nova wears the dog tags of another astronaut, someone named Brent (again, a reference seemingly to Beneath the Planet of the Apes). His birthdate was May 2, 2079, so Jeff and Bill are forced to ponder the notion that an astronaut who was born after them arrived on the planet of the apes before they did. Boggles the mind, no? This is a pretty advanced concept for a kid's show, and it also provides an underlying mystery for adults to enjoy. Where is Brent? What happened to him? I suspect the series will explore that further...

Before long, the apes arrive - on the hunt - in tanks, jeeps and with heavy artillery. The gorillas even lob gas grenades at the primitive humans. Here, the series uses zooms inside individual frames (not actual motion, but rather camera motion...) to suggest the frenetic pace of the hunt. Jeff and Bill are separated, and Bill is captured and taken to ape city.

That's where the first episode ends, but already, the attentive viewer can detect how this canny re-imagination assimilates the important aspects of the Planet of the Apes mythos with something akin to 20/20 hindsight. Instead of making up the saga as it goes (a deficit of the otherwise outstanding motion picture series...), Return to the Planet of the Apes accounts for - from the beginning - the mutants in the Forbidden Zone (here termed "The Underdwellers.") It also employs old characters in new ways and new situations, and even incorporates movie imagery to vet the story.

In terms of characters, Urko comes from Mark Lenard's character on the 1974 TV series. In Beneath, the same character was known as "Ursus." He is essentially the same here, as are Zira and Cornelius, but Dr. Zaius has changed the most. He is no longer a hypocritical religious zealot, but rather an equalizing force of moderation in Ape Society...almost heroic! "The free ape is he who does not fear to go to the end of his thought," he even states; an ideal that the movie's "chief defender of the faith" could never get behind. This is actually an intelligent structural change as well as a symbolic representation of the left/right divide in our culture. Why? Because with Zaius moderating pacifists and war-mongers, we can more logically believe that humans (particularly the astronauts) can continue to escape and outmaneuver a technologically advanced simian culture. The whole planet isn't out to kill them; they have allies.

From the original Planet of the Apes movie, "Flames of Doom" also incorporates other powerful visuals. We see the ape scarecrows on the border of the Forbidden Zone again (and, on a connected note, hear the same gorilla "hunt" horn on the soundtrack...). We see a small, yellow rubber raft and a U.S. flag planted in the Forbidden Zone too, as well as the discovery of a first green plant indicating life on the fringe of the desert.

Again, the approach here seems to be to this: take what worked in the apes movie, book and TV series, and then put them all together in a more coherent, cohesive story, smoothing out the bumps and making everything jibe. That's important, because long time Planet of the Apes fans will remember some of the more dramatic gaps fouling continuity in the film series. In Planet of the Apes, for instance, it is the year 3978 when Taylor arrives, but when Brent arrives on his heels in the follow-up, Beneath, it is magically 3958. Similarly, there are discrepancies between Escape and Conquest in the story of how the apes ascended to superiority in man's world. Cornelius's story involves an ape named Aldo (whom we meet in Battle), but does not take into account the true ape revolutionary, Caesar. Return to the Planet of the Apes - coming at essentially the end of the apes cycle - benefits from knowing everything that came before.

Indeed, this is the true reason for a re-imagination. Taking what worked ine one production and maintaining it; and taking what didn't work and improving it. Notice that there is not merely change for the sake of change here; that characters have not miraculously switched sexes, and whole swaths of mythology have not been removed or altered. What I'm saying is that fundamentally there is a respect in evidence here for the the productions that came before, for the apes mythos. So yes, Virginia, a re-imagination CAN work, and this dedicated animated series is one example where it did so. Splendidly.


  1. Anonymous10:48 AM

    Now do you remember that they published novels based on the animated series? I have a few of them somewhere.

    Chris Johnson

  2. Hey Chris! I knew those novels were out there, but I've never read them (or seen them, for that matter). Are they any good?