July 11, 2015


(NBC, September 6-November 18, 1975)

DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, 20TH Century Fox

            Scientists have always said man was descended from the apes. What they never figured on was that they would one day rule us.

The novel that began it all.

            In 1963, French author Pierre Boulle released a novel entitled La Plan├Ęte des Singes after being inspired by the humanlike expressions of gorillas at a zoo he visited. In the story, French journalist Ulysse Merou journeyed to another planet where animal-like humans were hunted and enslaved by an advanced society of apes. Humans had once ruled that world until they grew complacent and allowed the apes to overthrow them and assume control. The novel was a commentary on the failings of human nature and the overreliance on technology; stressing the point that human intelligence needed to be actively maintained. The novel became a hit and was translated into English. In the United Kingdom, it was retitled as Monkey Planet, while in the United States it was called Planet of the Apes.

Planet of the Apes concept art.

            Boulle’s literary agent, Alain Bernheim, introduced the novel to American film producer Arthur P. Jacobs. Jacobs had just begun a new company, APJAC Productions, and was looking for new properties to adapt. Jacobs took interest in the novel and acquired the rights immediately. He would spend the next three years trying to convince filmmakers and studios to take on the project, as the estimated $10 million price tag to make it scared them off.

Even if you've never seen the film, you've likely seen this scene in one of many parodies.

            Jacobs hired Rod Serling to write the script. Serling introduced Cold War themes to the story and created the twist ending of the planet actually being a future Earth after humans destroyed themselves with nuclear warfare. Securing Charlton Heston to star in the film landed them Franklin J. Schaffner to direct. After a screen test with Heston, 20th Century Fox was convinced the film could succeed and took on the picture. However, Fox insisted on changes to bring the budget down to $5.8 million. Michael Wilson, who had adapted Boulle’s novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai, was hired to rewrite Serling’s script, making the ape society more primitive to save on special effects. Serling’s ending, however, was maintained. 

            The film featured Heston as 20th Century American astronaut George Taylor who wound up on a planet where primitive humans were dominated by intelligent apes; in particular by the sinister orangutan science minister, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). Of course, not all apes were against humanity as they had sympathizers in chimpanzees Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). The special ape make-up effects were produced by John Chambers. The film was released on February 8, 1968 and became a critical and commercial success. Two months after its release, a sequel called Beneath the Planet of the Apes entered production, which focused on another astronaut, Brent (played by James Franciscus and whose full name wasn’t revealed until the movie novelization), following Taylor to the planet. The sequel was released in May of 1970.

Beneath's movie poster.

            Despite being poorly reviewed, Beneath earned almost as much as the original; leading Fox to request additional sequels. Three more movies followed: Escape From, Conquest of, and Battle for, each made on a significantly decreasing budget. The series took the characters of Zira and Cornelius into the past where they had a child, Caesar (also McDowell), who would rise up to lead the ape rebellion against oppressive humans and try to build an integrated society of peace. 

The main characters of Apes: Galen, Burke and Virdon.

            When television broadcasts of the films earned high ratings, Jacobs planned to produce an hour long live-action series based on the franchise in 1971, but shelved the project when Fox requested another film after Conquest. However, Jacobs died in 1973, leaving Fox executive Stan Hough to take over production of the series entitled Planet of the Apes. The series focused on astronauts Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Peter Burke (James Naughton) being shunted to the future roughly 900 years before the events of the first movie. There, they befriended chimpanzee Galen (McDowell) and proceeded to aid both humans and apes while avoiding the authorities led by General Urko (Mark Lenard). The series was picked up by CBS in 1974, but because they decided to gear it towards children and due to its repetitive nature, the show earned poor ratings and was cancelled after 14 episodes.

Lights! Camera! Ape-tion!

           NBC decided to try and create their own adaptation of the franchise, but as a cartoon on Saturday mornings. Contracting DePatie-Freleng Enterprises to produce the series, they hired Johnny Quest co-creator Doug Wildey to oversee its development. Wildey served as associate producer, storyboard director and supervising director while drawing inspiration from only the first two films to craft the world of the show. That world, without the limitations of live-action production, became considerably more advanced akin to what the original book had described. However, Wildey did have to contend with NBC’s “Emulative Clause,” which stated that the series had to be devoid of imitable behavior that a kid watching could duplicate and possibly hurt themselves doing. This restricted the types of weaponry featured on the show, which Wildey loaded with Howitzers after the network decided they couldn’t imagine a six-year-old operating one.

Bill, Judy and Jeff meeting the future.

         Return to the Planet of the Apes centered on astronauts Bill Hudson (Tom Williams in early episodes, Richard Blackburn towards the end), Jeff Allen (Austin Stoker, who played Mr. MacDonald in Battle), and Judy Franklin (Claudette Nevins) as they ended up shunted forward in time from 1976 to 3979 and stranded in the ape-ruled future. Returning characters from the franchise included General Urko (Henry Corden) as a sinister gorilla who wanted to send all humans off-planet; orangutan scientific leader Dr. Zaius (Blackburn); the primitive human female, Nova (Nevins); chimpanzee human sympathizers Zira (Philippa Harris) and Cornelius (Corden); and Brent from the second movie, given the first name “Ronald.” 

The book that could change ape history forever.

The series set itself apart from the live-action one by having ongoing subplots while each episode’s main plot was relatively self-contained. For half the series, Judy was a prisoner of the Underdwellers; a subterranean race of humans that were based on the mutants from the second movie. Urko was relieved of power by Zaius, although he still spent the remainder of the series going after the humans. An old airplane was discovered that the astronauts had to keep out of ape hands lest they learn about air combat. The astronauts also engaged on a quest to find an ancient children’s book that would prove the theory of ape archaeologists that man preceded the ape. 

The astronauts meet Brent and Nova.

Return to the Planet of the Apes debuted on NBC on September 6, 1975 with music by Dean Elliott. The series, written by Larry Spiegel, John Barrett, Jack Kaplan, Bruce Shelly and John Strong, was praised for its intelligent scripts; which were said to accurately capture the tone of the film series. The highly detailed background artwork also received critical recognition. Unfortunately, Depatie-Freleng’s cost-cutting measures left viewers underwhelmed with the series; in particular, the constant reusing of footage and the stiff animation techniques on characters. The often-wooden performance of the voice actors also worked against the series. Poor ratings led the series to be cancelled after a single season. NBC briefly considered allowing a second season of three episodes to wrap up any lingering plot points, but ultimately the idea was scrapped. 

Despite all my rage I am still just a human in a cage.

In 1976, Ballantine Books published three volumes adapting episodes of the series, written by William Rotsler and Donald J. Pfeil under the house name of William Arrow. In March of 2006, the complete animated series was released as part of Planet of the Apes: the Ultimate DVD Collection. It was then released on its own in a complete collection that October.

Jack Kirby's concept sketch.

Throughout the 1980s, Fox tried to resurrect the franchise several times without much success. Amongst the many film attempts was another animated series. Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, who had served as producers on the live-action Apes series, had just formed their Ruby-Spears Productions and were interested in a sort of revival. Comic book legend Jack Kirby worked on concept sketches for the series proposal, but it never materialized. Finally, Fox wanted a new film for July of 2001 and was willing to offer considerable creative control in exchange for the firm release date. The prospect attracted director Tim Burton, but the deadline and $100 million budget meant the script written by William Broyles, Jr. had to be extensively rewritten and all aspects of production rushed. The film, a remake of Planet of the Apes, was successful upon its release, but Burton was disinterested in working on a sequel and it failed to generate enough interest for Fox to go forward with plans for a new franchise.

In 2006, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver took inspiration from stories of apes raised as humans and came up with a new concept focusing on the story of Caesar. After a slow development period, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was released in 2011 directed by Rupert Wyatt. The film was a major success, and Fox immediately commissioned a sequel. In 2014, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes directed by Matt Reeves was released and received equal acclaim. Confident in Dawn before it was even released, Fox greenlit a third movie in the franchise titled War of the Planet of the Apes, released in 2017. 7 years later, another sequel was released, the first since Disney’s takeover of Fox, called Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.

“Flames of Doom” (9/6/75) – Three astronauts are shunted forward in time and find themselves on the run from a human-like ape civilization.

“Escape from Ape City” (9/13/75) – Urko launches an attack on the humans, almost killing Jeff in the process.

“The Unearthly Prophecy” (9/20/75) – Escaping Urko leads Bill and Jeff into the realm of the Underdwellers and the discovery that they have Judy.

“Tunnel of Fear” (9/27/75) – Bill and Jeff enlist Zira and Cornelius’ aid in finding a safe place for the humans, leading to a chase along an underground river.

“Lagoon of Peril” (10/4/75) – Bill, Jeff and Nova race to retrieve equipment from the capsule and destroy it before Urko finds it and learns about their origins.

“Screaming Wings” (10/11/75) – The astronauts hope to steal an old plane Urko found before he can mass produce it for his war on humans.

“Trail to the Unknown” (10/18/75) – The astronauts lead the humans to New Valley, where they encounter 22nd century astronaut Ron Brent.

“Attack from the Clouds” (10/25/75) – Judy and Bill try to hide the plane from Urko while a giant bird monster attacks Ape City and the human settlement.

“Mission of Mercy” (11/1/75) – Bill and Jeff set out to find more fuel for the plane while Judy tries to find a cure for Nova’s illness in Ape City.

“Invasion of the Underdwellers” (11/8/75) – Urko and his men attempt to frame the Underdwellers for thefts around Ape City.

“Battle of the Titans” (11/15/75) – A disgraced Urko launches an attack on the humans while Bill and Cornelius look for a book to save the humans from Ape persecution.

“Terror on Ice Mountain” (11/22/75) – Bill and Cornelius try to hide the book but end up in the land of the peaceful Mountain Apes.

“River of Flames” (11/29/75) – Bill and Jeff agree to save the Underdwellers from a volcanic eruption in exchange for Judy’s freedom.

Originally posted in 2015. Updated in 2024.

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