Go ape! For 14 hours.
All right kids. It's a lesson in Hollywood thinking time. The time is 1974, you are a movie studio that has a film franchise about intelligent apes, and you have made five films. Each one has made less money than the last. What do you do? Hello, television! In the complete box set of a television show that practically no one asked for, here comes Fox and the complete TV series, Planet Of The Apes.
Facts of the Case
• "Escape From Tomorrow," air date 09/13/74
• "The Gladiators," air date 09/20/74
• "The Trap," air date 09/27/74
• "The Good Seeds," air date 10/04/74
• "The Legacy," air date 10/11/74
• "Tomorrow's Tide," air date 10/18/74
• "The Surgeon," air date 10/25/74
• "The Deception," air date 11/01/74
• "The Horse Race," air date 11/08/74
• "The Interrogation," air date 11/15/74
• "The Tyrant," air date 11/22/74
• "The Cure," air date 11/29/74
• "The Liberator," air date…never aired
• "Up Above The World So High," air date 12/06/74
It almost does not seem fair to pick on the television version of Planet of the Apes. After all, TV was a simpler medium then and it had yet to discover what it could really do in regard to telling a story. Not fair at all, but it's what I do. It's also not fair to say that I sat there watching all 14 hours of this and spent a great deal of the time wishing the series had been produced in the past 10 years or so. I felt this way because the fuel was lurking there in 1974 to produce compelling television; couple this raw material with the changes in the narrative structure of television that were created with the advent of Steven Bochco and Hill Street Blues, and the potential would have been there for something great. Instead, we are treated to the same old "Fugitive" style plot where our heroes come to some town as wanted men with General Urko hot on their heels and they stay long enough to teach the people they meet something they did not know before. Then they leave. End of story. There is no growth for the protagonists or for the apes chasing them. There is no continuation of a greater story. It's the beautiful part about going back and watching the repeats of my favorite show on television at the current moment, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sitting down and watching everything back to back, I can see how seeds were planted in seasons 1 and 2 and how they only start to bear fruit a year or two later. The show begins to exhibit a wonderful and complex tapestry that is the best of what modern television can produce. With this series based on Planet of the Apes, there is no such growth. Case in point for me is the episode "The Legacy." Here, Burke and Vidron discover the vault with its wealth of human knowledge and the information that there are other such vaults littered across the US. In today's television, this would be a launching pad for the rest of the series. Back in 1974, at episode's end the humans have none of the information and the concept is dropped. Another example is the magnetic disc that contains the complete log of the spaceship's journey. Much is made of its existence by Virdon. In the pilot episode, he believes it contains the information to get the two men home, if only they can find a way to access the information. By the second episode, this Holy Grail is reduced to a plot device to get our heroes in the arena of combat. By the time "The Legacy" rolls around, the disc is talked about in passing and pretty much dropped. Like I mentioned earlier, it is tough to criticize something that is the product of its time and probably did not know better, but the main feeling I came away with was that I was glad I was done watching it when I wish that I could have felt regret when it was over because I had just witnessed something creative and that took chances. It's the beauty of science fiction and science fiction on TV especially. It gives its creators a chance to play on a long, continuing canvas that can take such taboo modern issues as racism or sexuality, dress them up, and give them a spin that makes people think, all the while escaping the wrath of the network censors. It worked for Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek, and it could have worked for Planet of the Apes.
This is not to say that all of the episodes were terrible. The aforementioned "The Legacy" in fact stands as a decent hour of TV. A couple of other highlights include "The Deception" and "The Interrogation." The sum total, however, ends up being fairly slim pickings. Yet, who is to stay that if the ratings had been better the show might not have developed into something more? Unfortunately, we will never know. As it stands, this is all we got and it's just plain mediocre.
The production end of the series is fairly sparse as well. The make-up, which was so crucial and functional in the films, here looks to be little more than high-end Halloween masks. The costumes are functional at best, while cinematography for the series just looks drab and tired. I probably should not have expected anything else, but there you are.
Acting, like the physical production of the series, is strictly by-the-numbers. The "star" of the series, Roddy McDowall, is simply playing a watered down version of his two characters from the movies and is relegated, for the most part, to the background. The two human leads show little excitement or chemistry and do little to generate interest, while the recurring bad guys are simple, one dimensional creatures who enter and exit as plot devices require.
This being television from the early '70s, I was not expecting much in the way of audio or video. Let me just say I did not end up being disappointed. The video is standard 1.33:1 full frame and considering its age I'm surprised things did not look worse. Colors look generally authentic but not much can make up for the blandness of the palette used during production. Detail tends to be fairly sharp when the numerous instances of softness don't rear their ugly head. The main problem lies in the condition of the source material. Specks, nicks, and scratches are a pretty constant reminder of the age of this series and after a while I almost learned to not notice them.
The sound fairs a little better. It's strictly mono, and for what it's worth, the overall sound is fairly clean. There is the expected limited fidelity but background hiss and distortions are held to a minimum.
Being released to cash in on the success of Fox's other ape feature of the day, Tim Burton's mess of a remake of Planet of the Apes, this box set is pretty much bare bones. I'm not really complaining, but if the time was spent to release the entire series, some kind of background documentary might have been nice. As it stands, the only things included with the set are a pair of trailers; one for the DVD release of the five original films, and the second for the Burton remake. I don't know if you can call it a special feature or not, but the main attraction of the series is the actual keep case it comes in. Looking like a really thick paperback, the case is actually an Alpha storage unit that could easily hold up to six discs. It certainly looks sweet on my disc shelf, and is almost enough reason for me to hang onto the set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I pretty much covered all my complaints about the set and the series in the section above so I don't have much else to say.
If you are one of the 17 fans of the series out there, then picking this up is a no brainer; otherwise, I would have to say pass it by. That in and of itself is a difficult statement for me to make since I am such a large proponent of TV series being presented season by season on DVD. Every person that passes on this sends a signal to the bean counters that TV on DVD is a bad business move. Spend your cash elsewhere. Pick up The Simpson or any one of the The X-Files box sets or start saving your pennies for the upcoming goodness that is sure to be the Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season One box set.
One last thing for this section. John Chambers, the man who received an honorary Oscar for his make-up work on the original Planet of the Apes film and the man who worked on the ears of Spock for the original "Star Trek" series, recently died. I will be the first to admit that growing up I was a sci-fi and movie geek. From all the movie and monster magazines I read at the time, John Chambers was a name that I very much knew. Never as well known as someone like Dick Smith, Chambers was still a man with a tremendous reputation and an impressive resume. Certainly with all the acclaim Rick Baker's make-up effects justly received for the new Apes movie, the man who first blazed that creative trail should to be noted and given a moment of respect. I just wanted to mention his passing.
Guilty of never trying to be more than was expected of it at the time. The entire series based on Planet of the Apes is sentenced to be played late night on Sci-Fi when all the infomercials are done and the insomniacs of our country are looking for a cure-all to help them sleep. The judgment of this court is passed and we are done.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer for Planet of the Apes (2001)
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