Pierre Boule had an idea in 1963 that may keep going forever. His novel La Planète des Singes has inspired two successful movie franchises, not counting the one-off Tim Burton reboot from 2001. With Matt Reeves' third Apes film opening this weekend, it seemed time to give some recognition to two of the more obscure manifestations of the Planet phenomenon. After the original movie series wrapped with 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox decided to start over in a different medium. Coming so soon after the last movie, the Planet of the Apes TV series must have looked like second-class stuff, despite the presence of Roddy McDowall, the Cornelius and Caesar of the movies. Objectively speaking, as a matter of production values the show was second-class, to be generous, and McDowall may only have confused fans by playing neither Cornelius nor Caesar but an entirely new character, the privileged dissident chimpanzee Galen. In fact, the cast of characters is entirely new except for the elite orangutan Zaius (Booth Colman), and in the most noteworthy change from the 1968 original, the planet's humans are intelligent and articulate, more serfs than cattle. This was a sensible and pragmatic change, since it gave the show's protagonists characters they could talk to who did not require ape makeup. Galen befriends two human astronauts, Burke (James Naughton) and Virdon (Ron Harper) who've made the usual crash-landing into their own world's future, only on the west coast rather than the east-coast setting of Charlton Heston's adventure. These three fugitives make their way up and down the coast, pursued by soldiers answering to the gorilla General Urko (Mark "Sarek" Lenard), and confronting different aspects of ape civilization along the way. The two astronauts are the show's great weakness. They're utterly whitebread bland, infinitely skilled in outdoor crafts and initially distinguishable from one another only by hair color, though one eventually shows a more cautious personality than the other. The show's real virtue, which only became apparent too late to save it from an early cancellation after 14 episodes, was its more in-depth exploration of the planet's society than was possible in any of the movies. It drove home that the Planet of an Apes was an oppressive regime even for most apes apart from privileged landowners and gorilla soldiers. At the same time, it rejected a simplistic apes bad-humans good dichotomy not just by having Galen along as a hero but by portraying a wide range of human responses to ape oppression, from servile collaboration to genocidal terrorism. Often the guest star characters were more interesting than our weekly protagonists, as was very often the case in that era before story arcs and metaplots. While McDowall and the writers sometimes played off Galen's increasingly misplaced sense of privilege, that wasn't enough to distinguish the TV character from the actor's generic gentle-ape performance, and the impression was inescapable that he wasn't really thrilled to be wearing the makeup again. The show might well have fared better without him, so long as McDowall's presence reminded audiences of what the show was not.
The next step down the evolutionary ladder, presumably, was Saturday morning animation. The 1970s were a dark age for TV cartoons, doubly constrained by cheapness and anti-violence censorship. At first glance, DePatie-Freling's Return to the Planet of the Apes was just another Seventies failure, surviving for only thirteen episodes. In fact, the show was almost a miracle. It's animation probably was as limited as any of its contemporaries, but it was still often impressive to look at thanks to production design by Doug Wildey of Jonny Quest fame. Where Return really excelled was in its writing. It has probably the tightest continuity of any Seventies cartoon series, being for all intents and purposes a serial. Rather than a follow-up to the TV show, it's another reboot, though it retained the Urko character as well as Zaius while bringing back the beloved Cornelilus and Zira, the former this time voiced by someone other than Roddy McDowall. The indigenous humans are primitive once more and mostly speechless except for the rebooted Nova from the first two movies. Thanks to cherry-picking from previous Planet mythology, Nova has been taught to speak by Brent, the astronaut from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, who in this Taylor-less reality has been living his life among the primitives. He's joined on the future world -- once again on the east coast -- by three new astronauts: Bill (white male), Jeff (black male) and Judy (white female). In a daring move for a Saturday morning cartoon in 1975, the first episode teases Judy's death. In a perhaps more daring move, the show expects us to remember this when it reveals, two episodes later, that Judy was rescued, and is now worshipped as the goddess Usa, by a race of telepathic human underground dwellers analagous to Beneath's bomb-worshippers. Once she rejoins her fellow astronauts Judy becomes a hugely important character (and, for what it's worth, a progressive exemplar) since she's the only one who knows how to fly the airplane that the apes have reassembled for human-hunting. The show does a fair job portraying the three astronauts as equals, but where it really excels is in its truly expansive survey of the ape planet.
Budgetary limitations aren't necessarily limits on imagination. Return is arguably the most imaginative version of the Planet myth to date, at once bringing us closest of all adaptations to Pierre Boule's own vision of a thoroughly modern ape civilization (TV, movies, more advanced weapons) while taking us away from the typical Ape City milieu to a Shangri-la like mountain colony of enlightened simians guarded by a giant, magically self-thawing yeti-like gorilla. Better still, it picks up plot threads only hinted at in the live-action series and runs with them like a pick-six. Mark Lenard's Urko was mostly a peevish, somewhat corrupt fellow with occasional outbursts of brutality and an increasing impatience with Zaius's supervision. On Return, voiced apoplectically by Henry Corden in a virtual rehearsal for the Fred Flintsone gig he landed soon afterward, Urko is an increasingly unstable menace to both the wild humans and the ape political order. He is often shown verbally duelling with Zaius in the courtroom-like setting of the ape legislature, while Zaius grows increasingly certain that Urko needs to be put down. Their conflict, with the more moderate Zaius abetted by Cornelius and Zira, and more indirectly by the astronauts, forms the backbone of the series, climaxing when Urko stages a series of false-flag attacks on Ape City, getting suspended from command after his conspiracy is exposed, and convincing his replacement to defy the civilian government by attacking the human settlement. By the standards of Seventies Saturday mornings, this is epic stuff, and while the show apparently was stopped short of any planned conclusion, it ends on possibly the most optimistic note of any version of the Apes myth. I don't remember whether I watched Return during its original run, when I was just a kid, so seeing it a few months ago on the El Rey network was a real revelation. For all its weaknesses, all handicaps of its time, it probably is the best American TV cartoon of the 1970s. It may just be hard to do "Planet of the Apes" badly. Something about the concept still resonates with us and inspires genuine creativity, even when the results are as radially different from earlier movies as the Reeves trilogy or the Seventies cartoon. We'll probably have more versions of the myth to talk about generations from now -- unless life actually imitates art beforehand.