In the fall of 1974, the Planet of the Apes film franchise moved to CBS network television for fourteen hour long episodes. Considering that a new film in the series, War on the Planet of the Apes (2017) is coming in a few short months, I thought it might be nice to revisit the series now.
Planet of the Apes - the series - featured the continuing adventures of human astronauts Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Pete Burke (Jim Naughton), in the far-flung year of 3085 (starting March 21, 3085, if we're to believe the spaceship chronometer...) on a world run by intelligent, talking simians.
In "Escape from Tomorrow," the introductory episode written by Art Wallace and directed by Don Weis, we begin with an old man (in a bad wig) being pursued by a child chimpanzee and his pet dog in a rural setting.
My first thought watching this sequence was that it was an apparent canon violation since Conquest of the Planet of the Apes had established that a space plague had arrived on Earth in the late 20th century and killed off all the cats and dogs. It was the death of "beloved pets," in fact, that led humans to enslave apes...which would then lead to the uprising of the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans.
This fact seems like something that the producers of the series should have taken care to remember, since it is a lynch pin of apes continuity. On the other hand, this sequence occurs a thousand years after the plague, so I suppose it is possible that "life has found a way," (to quote the Jurassic Park films), and dogs have re-entered the chain of life on Earth.
He rescues two astronauts (Virdon and Burke), but the third (Jones) is dead. When the shaken, disoriented astronauts awaken, the old man explains to the humans that apes rule this planet and that humans (who still have the power of speech here) are inferior underlings.
Alan immediately wants to find a way to return home to his family (a wife and son). He recounts how the ship experienced radioactive turbulence near Alpha Centauri and he ordered Jones to activate the homing beacon. Burke is more defeatist. "This is home now, and you know it," he says. His words, however, carry a double meaning even he is not aware of.
Worse, the astronauts face off with Urko (Mark Lenard), the chief security officer in Ape City who wants them dead. Now. Chief Counselor Zaius (Booth Colman) is willing to keep the astronauts alive, if only to learn of their technology and find a way to keep them from influencing the primitive humans of his world. Zaius is worried that the astronauts' love of freedom and independence will transfer to the indigenous humans and foster an uprising.
For instance, during a confidential tete-a-tete, Zaius asks Galen "did you ever have a recurring nightmare?" He then launches into a discussion of the fact that other human astronauts have arrived on the planet before (and again, it can't be the characters [like Taylor or Brent] we saw in the original films, because those events occurred in 3978...almost a thousand years after the events of the TV series).
"Another ship, Zaius," states Urko, "it's hard to believe."
One can imagine that had the series lasted, viewers would have heard much more about these other astronauts and their (apparently-not-very-pleasant...) adventures on the planet of the apes. If that had been the case, the series would have been all the stronger for it.
Fortunately for the humans, Virdon has recovered a small magnetic computer disk from the ship which -- if they can find a computer in this post apocalyptic topsy-turvy world -- might help them find a way back to their time.
Future episodes involve the triumvirate traveling from one human province to another, in search of technology that can help them return to the Earth of the past.
In the episode "The Legacy," the humans find working computers and a hologram of a 'future' human in a nearly destroyed 20th century city, but still aren't able to glean the information they require for a trip home.
"Humans know their place," one chimpanzee prefect notes, "that musn't change. They'd begin to think they're as good as we are..."
His experience with Alan and Burke makes him realize that human beings have feelings and dreams and hopes too. He asks Zaius's human serf what it is "like to be human" and then confronts Zaius after he learns that human beings have a history of technical and scientific achievement. "Why Zaius?" He asks. "Why should truth be against the law?"
Namely, Zaius and Urko engage in a secret cover-up to destroy the spaceship and keep knowledge of the astronauts a secret from the general populace. In other words, the ape ruling class is working against its people (both human and simian).
The apes live in a rigidly conservative or traditional society here, one where the status quo must remain intact at all costs, and the aristocracy lives in mortal dread of losing control, of seeing their imposed "natural" order change. "Heresy" and "treason" are common accusations for those who reject ape dogma. The idea of a cover-up and an authoritarian government (it's legal if the president says its legal...) surely reflect the era of Nixon's imperial presidency. All of that was coming to a head in 1974 America as this series aired.
And yet, I remember this series with tremendous fondness and affection because it possesses a great deal of value in terms of depicting a society separated by class and race. By putting white humans in the inferior position, the series makes quite a few trenchant points.
Ultimately, that's the purpose of good science fiction, to comment on society, and here the set-up is nearly Swiftian. On top of these elements, the series features good actors and a modestly well-drawn future world, thanks in part to the costumes left over from the feature films and the occasional use of stock footage (for Ape City exteriors, for instance).
These factors are present in most episodes (especially "The Trap," one that finds a gorilla and a human -- Urko and Burke -- trapped in an underground subway system together...), but also just a tiny resonance in quite a few programs. If this series had lasted more than half-a-season, perhaps we would have seen the underlying social commentary rise to the surface more frequently.