Going back to Fantastic Television a reference book from 1977 that I've always adored, 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). The comment about the art work is correct, and yet some times "simplistic" can also mean...interesting. Once you get used to it, the design of the cartoon series is actually pretty terrific, at least in a baroque kind of way.
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 astronauts: Bill Hudson (a white man), Jeff Allen (an African-American man) 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 identical.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the surface – in a city ruled by intelligent apes – General Urko, a gorilla power-monger, addresses the Supreme Council of Ape City and demands genocide against all humans.
Watching this portion of the episode, a few matters become plain. First and foremost, the franchise has returned to the ape society as depicted in Boulle’s original 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 original movie, but rather a contemporary metropolis with buildings and skyscrapers 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 medical advances as brain surgery. Not so here.
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.
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 utilizes 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 critical 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 very beginning – the mutants in the Forbidden Zone (here termed “The Underdwellers.”) It also employs familiar characters in new ways and in new situations, and even incorporates movie imagery to vet the story.
In terms of characters, Urko derives from Mark Lenard’s character on the 1974 TV series. In Beneath, a similar character was known as “Ursus.” He is essentially the same ape here, as are Zira and Cornelius, but Dr. Zaius has changed the most.
Zaius 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 do have allies. Dr. Zaius is even referred to by his enemies, the Underdwellers, as being "just...for an ape," and again, this is a sea change in the character's depiction.
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 3955. 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. Coming at essentially the end of the apes cycle, Return to the Planet of the Apes benefits from knowing everything that came before.
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 to suit a "developer"s ego, or need to be "creative."
What I’m suggesting is that fundamentally there is a respect in evidence here for the the productions that came before, for the Apes mythos. So yes, a re-imagination can work, and this dedicated animated series is one example where it did so.
None of this means, however, that Return to the Planet of the Apes doesn't sometimes lapse into childishness and silliness. The series was made, after all, to air on Saturday mornings in the 1970s. The intended demographic was young children.
This factor plays out in some funny ways throughout the series. One episode involves two giant monsters clashing (an ape and what looks like a giant turkey...), for instance. The Underdwellers are also notably more friendly to humans in this incarnation than in earlier ones, and suddenlt possess incredible powers. They can "mind-transfer" images and physical beings from one location to another, for instance. They are more than a match for Urko and his apes, so that his bullying tactics won't carry the day.
Similarly, the human astronauts depicted in Return to the Planet of the Apes are not nearly so desperate as the astronauts in the films and live action TV series. In "Invasion of the Underdwellers" by J.C. Strong, for instance, Bill and Jeff use tools from their spacecraft to avert a crisis, including a laser drill. Again, considering the intended audience, it's easy to see why such modifications have been made. You don't want to scare the living daylights out of the children with a tale of over matched humans and threatening apes.
Of course, by the same token, every kid watching in this cartoon in 1975 had probably already seen the Apes movies on the 4:30 PM movie or some equivalent, so perhaps hedging bets was an unnecessary accommodation. After you've seen the Earth get incinerated, Urko isn't going to scare you that much...
I'd love to see the 20/20 hindsight approach of Return to the Planet of the Apes mirrored in a new, live-action TV series. Send three astronauts into a high-tech ape society, and then tell stories about Ape City and the Forbidden Zone, and the gulf between. Aim it squarely at adults this time, include lots of social commentary on the subject of man's self-destructive nature and race relationships, be true to the "time loop" aspect of the original films, and you'd have a winner. At least if it were produced for a premium channel like HBO where you can get away with pushing the envelope.
I'd definitely go ape over that.