Wednesday, August 25, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #116: Planet of the Apes (1974): "The Trap"

There's a long-standing, honorable and familiar tradition in cult television regarding a particular story scenario:

Two committed enemies are forced to work together to extract themselves from a difficult, life-threatening spot despite their extreme differences.

You may have seen this dramatic idea played out, large scale -- human pilot against alien Drac -- in Wolfgang Peterson's epic film, Enemy Mine (1985), for instance. But a similar tale has also been a staple of sci-fi TV programs across the decades

This "My Enemy/My Ally" narrative conceit, as I sometimes term it, proved especially popular during the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps it was a coded reflection of the Global Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, a conflict that separated the world into two intractable sides, two ideologies, two superpowers.

Since many cult TV programs are geared explicitly towards the idea of imagining and presenting a better, more positive future -- pointing towards the evolution and growth of our species -- this explanation certainly makes abundant sense. Episodes of the "My Enemy/My Ally" variety often suggest that -- once thrown together into a life-threatening scenario -- enemies can find a common bond if only they leave their pre-existing, hostile, cultural beliefs behind. The notion is that understanding and trust are seeds that can grow inside people over time, and even blossom into peaceful co-existence, tolerance and hopefully, real friendship. In the era of mutually assured destruction, it was powerful for sci-fi television to suggest that -- just by being thrown together into a common danger with our mortal enemies -- we could prevent nuclear annihilation. By personally knowing our enemy, we could make a better choice...for the planet.

Gazing back across the decades, you can see several examples of this My Enemy/My Ally story template. For instance, in the year 1970, an episode of the jingoistic (but utterly brilliant...) Gerry Anderson series U.F.O. saw S.H.A.D.O. astronaut Paul Foster and an alien pilot work together to survive on the desolate lunar surface following a battle, in the installment called "Survival."
Different ideologies/different agenda, but a mutual, positive purpose outside the political confines of a larger war-between-the-planets.

Then, in 1974, a first season episode of the Krofft Saturday morning TV series Land of the Lost found a Sleestak named S'latch and human protagonist Rick Marshall (Spencer Milligan) trapped in a deep, smoky pit inside the Lost City.

Again, these two opposing individuals had to learn to trust, and to work together, to escape...before the Sleestak God made them lunch. When S'latch was wounded during an escape attempt, Rick Marshall rescued the Sleestak from the pit, and earned the creature's loyalty and friendship.

Likewise, in "The Return of Starbuck," an episode of Galactica: 1980 from May of '80, Lt. Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) and a Cylon enemy crash-landed on a barren planet after (another) pitched space battle. A lonely Starbuck re-programmed "Cy" to become an ally, and they kept each other company for a time...until Cy gave his life to save his human friend from further Cylon troops.

As late as November of 1989, Star Trek: The Next Generation took a stab at this "My Enemy/My Ally"-fashioned narrative. In "The Enemy," Engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) became trapped on an inhospitable world, Galorndon Core, with only a zealous Romulan soldier for company. The sub-plot of two enemies finding understanding on the isolated planet was artfully balanced against a story of Worf refusing to give aid to an injured, dying Romulan aboard the Enterprise. On the surface: enemies helping one another, their mutual existences threatened. On the Enterprise (and inside the "culture war" between the Federation and the Romulans...), one man/Klingon just couldn't let go of the hate-filled past.

Another highly-intriguing variation of the "My Enemy/My Ally" theme involves the controversial issue of race relations in America. By and large, this sub-text was the thematic territory for most episodes of the short-lived, 1974 Planet of the Apes series that aired on Friday nights (on CBS) in the fall of 1974.

The series premise involved two human astronauts, Burke (James Naughton) and Virdon (Ron Harper) trapped on a future Earth where humans were a downtrodden, oppressed under-class. Apes, by contrast -- led by Councillor Zaius (Booth Colman) and General Urko (Mark Lenard) -- represented the brutal upper-class.

The most powerful and well-connected of these intelligent apes knew the truth that apes had once been pets (and circus attractions...) in ancient human culture, and zealously guarded that secret from their own kind, and from the human slaves. They did not want to acknowledge that humans were once the masters.

With a curious chimpanzee, Galen (Roddy McDowall) as their guide, Burke and Virdon sought a way to escape from the dangerous Planet of the Apes, but were perpetually considered a mortal threat to the existing class structure. The astronauts' advanced-technology, intelligence and sense of history about man's civilization all represented the possibility of revolution, and that was something the Ape council simply could not permit.

Writing about the TV series in his book, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture (Wesleyan University Press, 1998, page 157), author Eric Greene noted that the TV version of the popular franchise showed "the victory of "reverse racism" over equality, as the formerly oppressed apes lord it over the degraded humans, who are now apes' servants and, in some cases, slaves. (In this aspect, the Apes show may have anticipated the white cry of reverse racism that would later gain currency...)"

In "The Trap," (original airdate: September 27, 1974) written by Edward J. Lakso and directed by Arnold Laven, our three heroic fugitives make for a village called Numai that has "a reputation for harboring fugitives."

Nearby stands the ruins of San Francisco, and Virdon believes that there may be some operational computers there...some computers that could help them get back to their own time.

Unfortunately, General Urko and his Lieutenant, Zako (Norman Alden) are hot in pursuit. An earthquake rattles the ruined city, and Burke and Urko tumble down a deep hole into the Earth...into a subterranean subway system from years past...from a time when humans ruled the planet.

While Zako and Virdon negotiate above to rescue their trapped comrades, Urko and Burke attempt to forge an uneasy alliance below. Urko, a pro-apes, anti-human bigot repeatedly trades in insulting stereotypes. "I always assume a human is lying. It makes things easier," he notes. "I don't work with humans," he likewise insists. Finally, he refuses to help Pete build a steel support cross (a metaphor for a well-known religious symbol, perhaps, of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness), because to do so is "human labor" and, well, he doesn't do human labor.

Up above, Zako similarly informs Virdon, "No bargains with humans. You are worth nothing."

As human viewers living in modern America, the audience instantly recognizes Urko's protests for what they are: prejudice.

Urko boasts a pre-existing belief that humans are inferior, but his belief is not based on facts or science. It's just...a strongly-held (and absolutely wrong) personal belief. Burke actually shows Urko "the facts:" a line of posters for organ replacement technology, disposable clothing and mass transit. He even shows the gorilla a human-manufactured solar battery that has operated for centuries. All these artifacts reveal that human beings are intelligent, resourceful creatures, but Urko refuses to believe his lying eyes.

So the crux of "The Trap" involves a very interesting notion; that Urko's (and by extension Ape Culture's)... bigotry results from a deeply-felt sense of historical insecurity. The apes already know that their culture was built on man's civilization a long time ago and still feel inferior. Rather than face this truth, they deny it. They try to erase it.

When Urko discovers a poster in the subway for the San Francisco Zoo (depicting a primitive gorilla in a cage, eating a banana...) he goes ballistic because his irrational belief about humans has been challenged; his strongly-held racism has gone up against that inconvenience known as "reality." Facts will not sway him.

In gazing specifically at racism (and in making human beings -- all of us -- the victims of entrenched racism), "The Trap" exposes the vast gulf in understanding and sense of extreme anger that often precludes the development of trust between people of different backgrounds, whether ideological or based on skin color.

To both sides in the on-going "racism" debate, the long span of existing history becomes only an opportunity to relive old hurts. Thus, no progress is forged. It's just tit-for-tat. Urko can't let go of a past in which humans, he believes, threatened ape power and superiority. And Burke, at least tacitly, views the ape's world as "upside down." He wants to go back in time and prevent the ape planet from existing in the first place. So long as these attitudes remain locked, there can be little progress between opposed personalities/viewpoints.

Interestingly, "The Trap" offers a smidgen of hope about entrenched racism...and then skillfully draws back from that hope in time for a very dark ending. Zako gives his word that he will allow Burke, Virdon and Galen to go free once Urko and Burke have been rescued from the station below. Going up against Urko...the diffident Zako keeps his word. He is a man (er...Ape) of honor.

But then, after the fugitives are gone, Zako sees the point of contention between Urko and Burke: that poster of the San Francisco zoo; that relic of old hatreds. In a tirade of violence, Zako shreds it to pieces...realizing that there is a secret to be protected after all. He feels duped by the fugitives; like they used him. The implication is that he will not -- as he did here -- trust humans any time soon.

What "The Trap" intimates is that real progress can occur between racial "enemies" only when the past is no longer a daily prologue and incitement to anger. That's a tough lesson to learn...especially when people on all sides feel wronged.

But "The Trap" remains valuable because it occurs almost entirely in a location -- the post-holocaust city -- where out-of-control human hatreds finally turned on themselves and destroyed virtually everything.

That's the final destination of sustained ideological and racial hatred, isn't it? Annihilation. For everyone. (And we know, from Beneath the Planet of the Apes that's the destiny this franchise envisions for beings of the planet Earth).

And the real "trap" of the episode title is this: In a world where past grievances exist and continue to exist in the memory, someone has to be brave enough to go first and say "I forgive you."

That's a trap that our own world hasn't escaped yet. But in this dark "My Enemy/My Ally"-styled story from the Darwinian Planet of the Apes, audiences detect how deep-seated prejudice survives. And how learning -- and therefore forgiveness - is possible...but may be outright refused, even in the face of reality. And in the face of cold, rational facts.

In other words, you can show people a birth certificate, but you can't make them believe it...


  1. Great article as always (you should just have this stapled on the top of all my comments).

    I remember reading a TV Guide back in 2002 when Enterprise was in it's second season and the main criticism of that show was that the 'old' plot devices of 'My Enemy/My Ally' was weighing the show down in the past and not helping it move forward. In the case of Star Trek, I kind of agreed (it seemed Enterprise was just rinsing and repeating the TNG episode 'The Enemy' you mentioned in your article). But in general, I think TV Guide missed the point. That plot device is ALWAYS relevant. . .it's just the writers and settings that need to make it effective.

    Sure, racism, for the most part, is not as BLATANT as it once was between blacks and whites, but the 'old' plot device of 'The Defiant Ones' with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis doesn't diminish it's impact today both from a historical perspective AND an ethical perspective. So, I guess, the idea comes down to the quality of the script, not the theme. Granted, the plot device has died down in recent years or has changed shape.

    The new incarnation of BSG tried and sometimes failed with the 'My Enemy/My Ally' plot device by having Cylons marry humans or having mixed babies, etc. Once again, the plot wasn't as blatant as Planet of the Apes 'The Trap' or TNG's 'The Enemy' but, retooled, it was still, mostly, effective.

    I haven't had a chance to see the Planet of the Apes series yet but this seems like the go to episode because, at it's heart, Planet of the Apes was a morality tale and the apes were just as much humans as the audience is, if that makes sense. Plus, it would be nice to see a more positive look at humanity since the Planet of the Apes films were generally immensely depressing, negative looks at humanity.

    Thanks JKM. Sorry for the long post. You made my brain work today!

  2. Anonymous5:01 PM

    This is my favorite episode! Hello, my name is Petunia and I'm a POTA addict (*hi Petunia*)
    I own all the POTA films, including Burton's, the behind the scenes documentary, the tv series, the cartoon series, action figures from Attar to Zera, comic books, even the trash can. I will be going to see Rise of the Apes and will add that to my collection as soon as it comes to DVD.
    I attend a 12 step programs to help me with this, but I have to want to change, and quite frankly, I don't >;)
    John, come see if you can guess any of the images on my latest post!
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

  3. The Star Trek TNG episode "Darmok" comes to mind as a good example of this, with an interesting twist. It COULD have been a much simpler plot, except that the two "enemies" didn't speak the same language, AND that the language that the "alien" spoke was strange and metaphoric. Coupled with that, they fought a very unique common foe as well.

    What a fantastic episode. I'm not even a huge TNG fan, but I love that one.

    Also I really liked Enemy Mine.

    I'm just rambling now... I'll go.

  4. Hi everyone,

    Will: Thank you, my friend, for those kind words. Mentally, I am stapling your compliment to this post. :)

    But yes, you have a great point here. There are only so many original stories out there, frankly.

    So it's how those stories are made relevant, how they are used, that proves fascinating and valuable.

    And I agree with you, sometimes Star Trek (later editions...) gets that equation right, and sometimes it doesn't. But I don't dismiss out of hand when I see a familiar story...I want to see how it's handled; what the twists are. I think you're right about the new BSG not quite coming together on the front of My Enemy/My Ally. Not that the writers didn't try.

    Trick or Trick Pete: I'm an Ape-o-holic, myself. And I checked out your post (and left a few guesses...) -- great fun!

    Nick: I'm soooo glad you mentioned "Darmok." To me that episode (along with "Q-Who," "Yesterday's Enterprise" and "Inner Light") represent The Next Gen at its creative apex.

    The story of "Darmok" is thrilling, and gets to the core of "getting to know" your enemy, especially when there are barriers to communication.

    Thank you for bringing up that great show...some day I'm going to do it as a cult tv flashback in its own right, but I'm not shelling out the money for TNG seasons until I'm rich...or the prices come down :)

    Thank you all for adding so much to the conversation!


  5. Gosh, this was great John. One of your typically thoughtful analysis on behavior going above and beyond a straight episode analysis. These must always be challenging to you. Once again, you nail some wonderful insights.

    A couple of things- I completely forgot about the Planet Of The Apes TV series, but I remember enjoying it. Nice to see you bring back the memories with The Trap.

    Further, the visual location images etc.. remind me of Star Trek's Miri. They just look similar.

    And you're right about this template. Series creators do enjoy employing it. Some elements of this idea come into play with Stargate SG-1's The First Ones which reminded me of Enemy Mine if I recall correctly.

    Assault On Precinct 13 offers a complex, full-length on the concept too I suppose.

    That Galactica 1980 episode. So funny. That's a classic in sci-fi humor.

    And on that last love could also say as an example [I'm devil's advocating here], you could show or tell people alot of things, but it doesn't necessarily make it true.

    I prefer to believe in much of what you articulated here particularly in your third paragraph from the bottom. I prefer your ideals and I think what you offered us here was beautiful. But you're right these "memories" and much more are extremely hard barriers for many to breakthrough.

    I suppose this is why we love the promise of cinema so much and lose ourselves in the promise of such possibilities. We create these realities for the screen. We could do a much better job of making these ideas real.

  6. Hi Sci-Fi Fanatic,

    Thank you for your comment, my friend. I'm glad you liked reading about "The Trap" and the My Enemy/My Ally tradition. I need to watch the Stargate SG-1s you mentioned in this regard; I'm not familiar with them, but I'd love to see another example of how this story convention was handled, especially in the 1990s.

    You know, when I wrote that last sentence, I realized, just like you wrote, that...showing someone something doesn't necessarily make it true.

    So I probably should have come up with a better capper... :)

    All my best,
    John Kenneth Muir

  7. You know it's always fun conversing with you.

    I was thinking of some examples, some horrible, but some less innocuous might be the forging of a check.

    But again, great piece!

  8. Thanks, Sci-Fi Fanatic!

    You're right about that one! You shouldn't always believe your eyes, but I do hope that in the case of supporting evidence (like a birth announcement on microfilm from the 1960s, for example,) people would get the idea, in regards to one very important birth certificate! :)

    Thank you again for your comments!


  9. Oh I agree with you completely on that example even if I'm not a huge fan.

    All the best my friend.

  10. What a fantastic article, John! This is one of my favorite episodes, and I often think of "Enemy Mine" and "Darmok" when I watch it.


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