Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Geek Memories: Planet of the Apes!

I wasn't old enough (at least, by my parents' standards) to see any of the original Planet of the Apes movies in the theaters. Honestly, I don't even recall that I ever even saw commercials for them on TV!

So, when was I first exposed to this series of films, probably the most successful sci-fi film series until Star Wars?

It had to be thanks to CBS.

What I recall -- and I could well be misremembering -- that there were several Fridays in a row where CBS aired one Apes film each week until the entire series had been shown. I don't know why my family decided to watch the first one... I'm sure we had to have seen commercials, and that my siblings and I must've been persuasive in getting our parents to let us watch them. So, watch them we did.

I can't even explain the impact that they had on me during that first viewing. We got to see the evolution of the saga, beginning with the first movie where we were rooting for Charlton Heston's Taylor (as well as his chimp allies Cornelius and Zira) against the oppressive Ape society, headed by Dr. Zaius... and then, by the time we got to the third movie, things started turning around. After the events of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where (spoiler, in case you've never seen it before!) the Earth has been destroyed, 20th Century-Fox made the brilliant move of continuing the series by sending the two chimps, Cornelius and Zira, back to our time, and turn the concept of the first movie entirely upside-down! In Escape From the Planet of the Apes, the two apes were the heroes in a world that feared them, and that movie ended in tragedy, even while it set up a continuation of the series.

So, when it came to Week 4 of the weekly "marathon," Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, my siblings and I were prepared to cheer the apes -- The Apes! -- in their battle against humanity! Oh, we had no idea that we were watching a thinly-veiled satire (not in the Mad Magazine sense, but in the Jonathan Swift tradition) of African-American slavery, the main difference being that the slaves in this movie rose up against their enslavers. No, we just cheered as Caesar and his apes revolted and killed human after human! One has to give at least some credit to Roddy McDowall as Caesar (the only actor to be in nearly all the movies -- he was the original Cornelius, missing from one film, and now playing Cornelius' own son), playing him as a sympathetic and charismatic leader.

The series' final entry,  Battle for the Planet of the Apes, wrapped things up by finally bringing a balance between the humans and intelligent apes, although that ending didn't come easily. For a time, it looked like things were heading in the direction that the original film took us.

But none of that really mattered to me as a kid. The series was just plain cool! Oh, by this time, I had to have been watching Star Trek in syndication, but Trek didn't have talking apes! I knew it had to be makeup (incredible make-up, created by John Chambers), and not real talking apes, but knowing how it was done didn't make it any less impressive.

The whole saga really captured my imagination, and I wanted more. Fortunately, a few things happened to keep feeding that hunger. Not necessarily in order, these were:

Power Records Book and Record Sets. Apparently released all at once were book and record sets based on four of the five films (they skipped Conquest, probably a good idea). While the adaptations weren't completely accurate (and condensed as hell to fit in the pages of what was basically a single issue of a comic book), some of the voice acting was pretty good. Whoever they got to voice Cornelius (and later Caesar) did a passable Roddy voice.

Marvel's Planet of the Apes Magazine. Part of Marvel's line of black-and-white magazines, I only ever got one issue of this series, which featured stories from the entire history of the POTA, including serialized adaptations of the movies. The one issue I had featured a chapter from the POTA adaptation where Taylor escapes from the apes thanks to Galen's help (Galen was the nephew of Cornelius or Zira, I don't know if they were married at this time).

Mego Planet of the Apes Action Figures. As big a fan as I was of Megos, I never had these as a child, which in retrospect is very odd! I had super-heroes, as you know, and even had the original Star Trek figures, but I never had any of these until I was an adult toy collector.

These helped some... but what really ended up being a big factor was that those movie airings on CBS apparently did great ratings (it may have been a second showing of the series, because I've read that there was some major storm on the East Coast that kept people stuck indoors when the movies were airing, which had to have been over several nights in a row, instead of weekly), and this led to the development of the Planet of the Apes TV series.

I heard about this and could not wait. When the show finally aired, my family were faithful viewers. Unfortunately, like most genre TV shows of the era, the show only lasted one season... but for that one season, we loved it!

Roddy had returned, this time playing Galen (not the same as the Galen from POTA). We had new astronauts, and all humans could talk. The only character from the original films was Dr. Zaius, and it's likely it wasn't intended to be the Dr. Zaius (I think I've mentioned before that my theory is that Dr. Zaius was more of a title than a name, per se... think of Zaius as sort of the Apes' pope, if you will. Once chosen to be Defender of the Faith, the orangutang filling the role becomes the new Dr. Zaius, leaving his old name behind. Perhaps the first Zaius was the Lawgiver, whose name was chosen for this role out of respect?).  We had a new gorilla leader, this time played by Mark Leonard (better known for playing the Romulan leader in the Star Trek episode "Balance of Terror," as well as playing Spock's father in "Journey to Babel," although I also remembered seeing him in reruns of Here Come the Brides, but I digress). Humans were talking in this show, as I said, so it didn't necessarily fit in with the chronology of the original films... or did it?

I suppose thanks to comic books, I was familiar with the idea of alternate realities and time travel conceits, so I may well have figured that the POTA show either took place prior to the first film, or existed in a new reality that was created when Cornelius and Zira traveled back in time, creating a divergent timeline (after all, in Escape the story went that a gorilla named Aldo started the revolution by saying "No," something that never happened in the movie series).

Either way, it didn't matter. Oh, the series got repetitive quickly... it was always Urko chasing after the humans Burke and Virdon, as well as rebel chimp Galen, sometimes capturing one or more of them (while the others would help them escape), sometimes not. The future world of the Planet of the Apes didn't get explored all that much in the TV series, despite only a very small part of it being shown before (the Marvel Comics version did a lot more with realizing it was a big planet, with lots of possibilities). As I said, the show only lasted one season, and our heroes never got to return home...

...well, except that when the TV episodes were edited together into two-hour TV movies, apparently there were new segments filmed with Roddy as Galen, in which he explained that they did repair their spaceship and return home. But by the time these were on TV, I had a temporary negative attitude towards them, and didn't even watch them once (I went through a phase where I tried to jettison all the cool stuff I loved in a doomed attempt to be like the other kids my age before I realized I was trying to jettison me).

Likewise, when NBC aired a Return to the Planet of the Apes animated series, I pretty much dismissed it without watching it at all. It wasn't until years later, after buying a bootleg VHS with the entire series on it and watching it, that I realized how wonderfully way-out that animated series was (it was a mash-up of all kinds of stuff, fitting nowhere into any established continuity at all).

As I said, I left the Planet of the Apes behind me in my early teens for a long time. But then, as an adult, something rekindled my interest.

I don't know what it was... maybe it was finding paperback editions of the original novel that inspired it all, as well as the novelizations of the other movies, buying and reading them that did it. As I noted, when I started collecting toys, I had quite a few of the Megos in my collection until I sold them. But it continued regardless of the reason. When the series ran in a marathon on American Movie Classics in the 1990s, I recorded them all, and then just a few years ago, I picked up the DVD boxed set.

One of these days, it's going to be time for me to share these movies with my kids... and we will see, if like me, my children will also...


1 comment:

  1. Minor correction: Zira's nephew was Lucius, not Galen.

    I think you know about my Apes site, but in case you don't:


    All kinds of stuff there from fans all over the world.



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