You know what time it is? Surprise, it’s time for another installment of Off the Beaten Path! So I decided to take us all on a journey back into the past for a look further into the future, into the world of Planet of the Apes: The Series. A world where two astronauts and a sympathetic chimp wander the countryside as fugitive do-gooders while pursued by ape authorities.
So, does Planet of the Apes: The Series hold up compared to the original movies? Honestly, not really. It’s not something I put down to the premise – think a Planet of the Apes version of The Fugitive – which by all means should work. If anything, it’s that the show doesn’t live up to that premise.
While not every episode is a loss – about half of them are more or less skippable – the best episodes only attain the level of say Conquest of the Planet of the Apes aka interesting but with definite flaws holding them back.
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Can the Status Quo be a bad thing?
So what are some of these flaws? First and foremost, Planet of the Apes: The Series is hamstrung by, well, being a TV show of the ’70s instead of being another movie sequel.
Now I bet you’re saying “Joe, how can you say a TV show is bad for being a TV show. How is that fair?”, which, to be honest, is valid. So let me put it this way instead. Planet of the Apes: The Series is hamstrung by the realities of 70’s TV, both in regards to adherence to the status quo and the budget.
Based on what few shows from that time I know about in conjunction with what I’ve heard on Cancelled Too Soon, most tv outside of soap operas and miniseries before the ’90s were by necessity bound to the status quo. Which, to me, makes sense since there were only a few channels and no way to rewatch shows outside of potential syndication. Therefore, every episode should be like the other and adhere to the status quo so potential audiences wouldn’t be left in the dark if they missed an episode or two.
In the case of Planet of the Apes: The Series, this means our main trio of Virdon, Burke, and Galen, despite all trials and tribulations will always save the day and escape capture to fight another day.
Which is in itself not a bad thing, at least on its own. Shows like The Fugitive followed that formula to great success. If there’s a single issue that stands on its own in regards to adhering to the status quo, it’s that we never see any progress towards long term goals and progress.
We’ll never see Virdon and Burke make it back to the past because then there’s no more show. We’ll never see any sizable character development from any of the main cast beyond a single episode. All we get is an endless parade of purgatorial battles with no end in sight for the war.
Which, again, is understandable for the time.
The Limitations of a 70’s Budget
Where this status quo adherence goes wrong though for Planet of the Apes: The Series is with the budget. Historically, TV shows have operated on a shoestring budget compared to movies, which for a medium that makes money solely through advertisement dollars, sadly makes sense.
As a nebulous prequel/spin-off of the movies though, this puts Planet of the Apes: The Series into a bit of a bind. Sure, it had a budget of $250,000 per episode totaling $3.5 million, which is comparable to the $3.4 million budget for Beneath the Planet of the Apes. But that also means that that $3.5 million had to last for, without ads, roughly 630 minutes of screentime aka 10.5 hours. So that means one thing; the show has to be as cheaply produced as possible while adhering to family-friendly network standards (which I haven’t even gotten to). And man does it show.
Everything is shot in either a few reused sets (like the city) or the Malibu State Creek Park. This results in all the locations, which in-universe are supposed to be settlements all over the west coast, looking super samey.
Plus, that’s not even touching the amount of reused footage from the movies, especially of Central City.
Episode plots are engineered to involve as little movement between locations as possible, leading to the show’s incredibly slow pace.
Episode plots are also engineered to provoke as little on-screen action as possible, meaning most plots are solved through wits and cleverness instead of anything remotely kinetic, let alone epic.
Don’t get me wrong, none of those are expressly bad. Like, I can understand the realities of filmmaking decisions behind the scenes and how they affect the onscreen product. That said, you throw all those qualities I just talked about into a blender, and you get a sanitized show often locked into a few static locations that all look the same with plots more meandering than cerebral that don’t contain much exciting action.
Looping back to my comments on the status quo, this means we get many episodes, especially in the front half of the season, that have glacial pacing and little to no on-screen momentum with the promise of no forward narrative momentum and little chance for growth. After watching the season, it’s no wonder people call Planet of the Apes: The Series slow and monotonous. One reason why I prefer the back half of the season is because the episodes tended to avoid at least a few of these pitfalls. Conversely, this is why I say that, unless you are a die-hard fan of the original movie series, you can skip a good half of the episodes without missing a beat.
The Tragedy of Wasted Potential
The saddest part about this, to me at least, is that the back-half shows that Planet of the Apes: The Series had potential if it were renewed.
Sure there would need to be some major changes. For instance, explore more locations filmed outside of Malibu State Creek Park, like the desert locations from the movies. Dive deeper into the world-building, especially in regards to the past human society and current ape society. Allow for more kinetic pacing and allow for more spectacular climaxes; you can have a climax be both cerebral and spectacular on the cheap, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. If they wanted to be risky for the time, introduce more serialized elements. Or, hell, cut the runtime in half and make it a half-hour drama.
In the end, though, none of that will come to pass, and we’re stuck with these 14 episodes.
Who knows, maybe someone today will look back on Planet of the Apes: The Series, see the potential and revive the show. They could keep the parts that work and fix what doesn’t, especially with today’s standards of quality television.
Does the show compare favorably to the pentalogy?
But enough about ragging on the status quo-bound failings of Planet of the Apes: The Series, what about what it does right? To that, I’d say the show maintains the spirit and feel of the original pentalogy.
As I mentioned before, the main thematic backbone of the pentalogy relies on two themes.
First and foremost, the movies examine the relationship between racial constructs and societal power, using apes and humans as proxies. Secondly, the movies examine the rather Cold War influenced theme about mankind’s capacity for self-destruction. Primarily this is shown by the apes taking over the planet due to humanity succumbing to its worst impulses, but also through the ways the orangutan leadership tries to avert humanity’s fate.
Safe to say, the tv series carries this torch and runs with it.
Every episode of the show touches upon race in some way, often in an even more direct way than the pentalogy.
For one, humans – who can speak by the way, unlike the humans in the first two movies – are explicitly treated as slaves for their ape masters. This most often plays out with humans acting as servants and hard laborers but touches upon other antiquated roles like Roman-style gladiators. Humans who have escaped their masters are hunted down, either to be returned to their masters or to be executed for the transgression of seeking freedom. Those who live free are treated as second-class citizens at the very best, subject to strict social standards and prejudice designed to keep them down. You could say the ape’s whole society was based upon keeping humanity down. Plus, it didn’t hurt that the world of the apes is essentially a combo of the Roman Empire mixed with the Antebellum South given an iron-age faded luster.
Hell, Urko, and Zaius’ main motivation to capture our main trio is based in self-preserving racism. Namely, the two fear the astronauts will spread the idea of human-ape equality to other humans, threatening the ape-centric society with revolution.
Is this always portrayed well? To be honest, no.
On the one hand, you’ll often see some family-friendly sanitization of the attitudes apes with anti-human prejudice. This is especially the case where more than once an ape no longer becomes prejudiced when confronted once with the reality of their beliefs, essentially saying solving racism can be that easy. There’s also the not-insignificant number of episode plots (aka 4) based around Burke and Virdon acting out the “mighty whitey” tropes, using their 20th-century knowledge to save the day and improve the lives of those around them. Sure, the writers are playing with the trope by having the people facing the racial animus being the mighty whiteys, but it still brings up more awkward questions, what with the trope’s own unsavory racial connotation and history.
That and the Planet of the Apes-flavored minstrel show, which is straight fucked up.
So, yeah, while Planet of the Apes: The Series has its heart in the right place when it comes to addressing race, it isn’t immune to stumbling.
The other main theme – the themes of man’s capacity for self-destruction – pops up in much the same way as the pentalogy. Namely as world-building cues about the collapse of human society through self-destruction, leading to the ascendancy of the apes. Granted, it’s not nearly as present as in Planet of the Apes – there’s no Statue of Liberty moment or nuclear bomb worshiping cult in the show – but it pops up enough that it can’t be ignored.
On the production side, it becomes clear the budget went towards recreating the aesthetics of the movies. The costumes and the make-up effects – provided by pentalogy veteran Daniel C. Striepeke – for the apes all look just like the movies. The domiciles used by the apes look just like the ones in Planet of the Apes and in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. While I may have ragged on the production using only Malibu State Creek Park for exterior shots and locations for the villages, it was the same park used in the first movies. Thus, the villages also look like they could be found in the first two movies.
Plus, to cap all that off, the fact the producers were able to get Roddy McDowell – the only actor in every movie, either as the chimp Cornelius or his son Caesar – to play another chimp is a slam dunk in maintaining that movie feel. On a related note, the actors they got for the other main cast apes – Mark Lenard as Urko and Booth Colman as Zaius – provide solid performances that stand up to the ape performances of the movies.
It’s only when we focus on the humans that the original feel slips. Like, while Ron Harper and James Naughton give fine enough (for the time) performances as Virdon and Burke, they aren’t as interesting as the apes. Another way to put it; they ain’t Charlton Heston. If anything, that’s another mark against the show. In particular, the number of less interesting people compared to more interesting and entertaining apes is skewed heavily in favor of the humans. Which, you know, means fewer apes aka the reason we’re watching in the first place.
So that’s Planet of the Apes: The Series for you all laid out in its flawed glory.
If I had to sum up my feelings on the show as a whole, it’s that it’s a mixed bag. While it is certainly slower and far more repetitive than the movies, there are some solid episodes around the same level of quality as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
While I think a die-hard fan of the movies will have trouble with the pacing and lack of spectacle, there’s enough here to chew on that they would be relatively well satisfied. If you’re not a diehard fan though, man you going to be in for a rough time.
My Recommendation: Recommend With Caveats
My Episode Recommendations
- Escape From Tomorrow: Recommend With Caveats
- The Gladiators: Recommend With Caveats
- The Trap: Recommend With Caveats
- The Good Seeds: Don’t Recommend
- The Legacy: Recommend
- Tomorrow’s Tide: Recommend With Caveats
- The Surgeon: Recommend With Caveats
- The Deception: Recommend
- The Horse Race: Recommend
- The Interrogation: Recommend
- The Tyrant: Recommend With Caveats
- The Cure: Recommend
- The Liberator: Recommend
- Up Above the World So High: Recommend With Caveats
In Case You’re Interested in Watching Planet of the Apes: The Series
If you’d like to watch Planet of the Apes: The Series, you won’t on any of the big streaming services or on YouTube in full (you can find an isolated episode, but not the whole season). That said, you can find it here on the Internet Archive. If you don’t mind physical releases, you can also pick it up on Amazon.