Wednesday 15 August 2018

Your Move, Darwin #7: Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)

I suppose that having given Planet of the Apes a relationship with Scooby-Doo already, it only perhaps followed that the final go at bringing the Planet of the Apes to the screen, at least for its original run, might be the full cheap'n'cheerful Saturday morning cartoon treatment. Ruby and Spears had their go with the TV series, but if they were the kings of Saturday morning cartoons, surely the crown princes were Isadore “Friz” Freleng and David H Depatie. While Ruby and Spears had got their start on Tom and Jerry, Freleng was one of the main people behind characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Yosemite Sam (who apparently was based on Freleng himself). Warners shut down their cartoon division in the 60s and Freleng set up with producer DePatie, to set up DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, and they're best known now for producing the Pink Panther cartoons, originally a spin-off from the animated title sequences of the Peter Sellers-starring movies of the same name, which I remember from my childhood clearly, and which looking back is probably one of the weirdest concepts for a popular kids’ cartoon series – or a movie spin-off – ever made. And so, in 1975, Fox TV, fresh from the cancellation of the TV show, hired Depatie-Freleng Enterprises to create Return to the Planet of the Apes.

They're both pink, I guess.
I admit, before I began my original piece on Planet of the Apes, I didn't even know Return to the Planet of the Apes had existed. It was airing on American TV when I was born, and while it had British broadcasts, these had long since stopped by the time I was old enough to care about TV. And I very nearly didn't bother watching it.

As I hit the middle point of this series, the hiatus, it's probably useful to talk about my expectations. I had fond memories of the first three movies, and somewhat less positive recollections of Conquest and Battle, and while I had liked the TV series as a kid, I suspected that it wouldn't have aged well. But I was going to forge through, because I liked the recent movies a lot. In short, I expected the shape of this project to be three fun movies at the start with two really good ones, three fun movies at the end with two really good ones, and a big chunk of material of steadily declining quality in the middle that I was going to have to work hard to watch.

And of course it didn't quite work out that way. Conquest turned out to be much stranger and much more interesting, even in its profound flaws, than I had imagined. Battle had its pleasures. The TV series is, I admit, my least favourite version of Planet of the Apes so far, but I suspect that this is because an entire TV series is always going to be a mixed bag. It's definitely got its good bits, and even entire good episodes, and next time I do an Ape marathon, “The Cure” and maybe “The Trap” or “The Interrogation” are getting in the playlist.

But a mid-70s TV cartoon series? That’s the absolute pits, rights? American TV animation of the 70s and 80s was quite bad, generally, with, admittedly, a few little shining gems of creativity that became fewer and fewer as the period progressed until you hit the Toy Advert Event Horizon.

And I'm talking about stuff like He-Man. I have always found the nostalgia for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983-1985) in particular utterly baffling: it's everything that is most terrible about American animation for kids. It has no redeeming features. It is the classic exemplar of that profound lack of respect for children and their parents alike, the contempt and laziness at the root of the idea that kids will watch any old shit, and you can get away with it with the mums and dads if you shoehorn in a moral at the end, and they'd buy your toys too. I mean, look, I don't think it's worth fighting over a thirty-five year old children's cartoon, but if I did, He-Man would be the hill I'd end up dying on.
Seriously, screw this guy.
So, presented with an abortive Planet of the Apes TV cartoon, I was of course expecting terrible dialogue, terrible voice acting, terrible animation, terrible, moralistic writing, and terrible, simplistic, repetitive plotting. I was expecting a void of imagination. I mean, what's left to do with the original Planet of the Apes? We've found the Statue of Liberty, blown the planet up, escaped, conquered it, had a battle for it, and managed half a season of picaresque family adventure. What even do you do?

Well, it turns out that you rip it all up and start from scratch. Because on most of those grounds, I was of course profoundly wrong. It turns out that Return to the Planet of the Apes is really tremendous fun.

Look. I admit that I struggled with the TV series. It took me eight sittings to get to the end of the ten and a half hours of episodes, and there was more than one occasion where I picked up the box set, and dithered, and readers of this blog will see that I kept putting it down and watching something easier instead, like Calvaire, or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It's easy to write about something good, it's easier to write about something terrible, and it's really easy to write about something weird, but man is it hard to write about something that's a bit, you know, average. These are not all of the reasons why it took me three and a half months to write a fairly equivocal response to the TV series, but they were certainly part of it.

On the other hand, I binged the whole of Return to the Planet of the Apes, all 318 minutes of it, in two sittings, either side of my holiday. The whole series was just a big goofy grin, all the way through.
Ape news. Ape. News. What was my life before this show?
Before I rhapsodise excessively over how great Return to the Planet of the Apes is, let's not get too carried away. The animation is mostly dreadful, the dialogue is bad and the voice acting is, to put it charitably, of variable quality. It is very much TV animation for kids and very much of its era. You won't find a great deal of complexity, plotwise. But as a whole Return to the Planet of the Apes is nonetheless delightful, and surprising, and surpassingly weird. It has that fervid imaginative energy I associate with 70s Marvel Comics, where a succession of wacky ideas just cascade out of the typewriters of its creators and sit there on the screen.I think a lot of that must be down to director Doug Wildey, who would also work on Thundarr the Barbarian, Godzilla and the great Incredible Hulk cartoon that made such an impression on my childhood, and whose ability to dish out ideas was second to none.

Return isn't afraid to muck about with the premise of the Planet of the Apes series. For the first time, we get a pure reboot, that doesn't easily slot into the show’s mythology. Characters return, but in different ways, in a world that is very different.

So we meet Dr. Zaius, and Cornelius and Zira, but we also get Urko. And Brent. And Nova. And the mutants. Already we can see they're mixing it up a bit: Urko is a character from a different strand of the story to the others, and this isn't the end of it. Brent turns out to be from the 22nd century. Zaius is sympathetic, and a genuinely close friend of Cornelius and Zira. The mutants are very different. And Urko... Urko wears orange.
Gorilla or satsuma amirite
In the first episode, “Flames of Doom” (they all have ridiculously dramatic titles) our three new astronauts, Jeff Allen (voiced by Austin Stoker, our sole cast connection with the rest of the franchise), Bill Hudson (credited on IMDB as both Tom Williams and Richard Blackburn – Blackburn, who I was delighted to discover was the same Richard Blackburn who directed batshit backwoods vampire movie Lemora has said it was he) and Judy Franklin (Claudette Nevins) arrive on the Planet of the Apes the same way that all the other astronauts do (you'd think they'd have learned by now). Meanwhile, and there's no messing about here, it's straight to the apes, we discover the Apes are in session. General Urko (Henry Corden) wants to go out and kill the “humanoids” (ie the dumb Planet of the Apes humans), because there are rumours that some of them can talk, and as Dr Zaius (Richard Blackburn again) confirms, if that happens, then they can wipe the humanoids out with a clear conscience. Zira and Cornelius (Philippa Harris and Edwin Mills) aren't happy about this.

The astronauts wander through the desert. And then the ground opens up and swallow Judy, and closes around her. Bill and Jeff, dazed, press on and come into contact with the humanoids, among them Nova (Nevins again) who can say a few words and is wearing the dog tags of Ronald Brent, an astronaut they haven't heard of. Then the ape mechanised infantry – trucks, jeeps and armoured cars – rock up. Bill is captured; Jeff and Nova escape. Where is Judy? What's going to happen to Bill? Will the astronauts be reunited?  

To be continued!
What do you call a gorilla with an artillery piece etc.
OK, that was a surprise. I honestly wasn't expecting so many unresolved plot strands. I wasn't expecting Gorilla Mechanised Infantry. I wasn't expecting a serial.

They couldn't keep this up, surely. But no, nothing is abandoned. As new stuff comes in – wild, nutty, fun stuff – this too becomes part of a continuing storyline. Bill meets Cornelius and Zira, they help him escape, Urko gets wind of something going on, pursuit ensues, but episode two ends on a cliffhanger too.

It's a couple of episodes until (in “The Unearthly Prophecy”) we find out what happened to Judy: she's been taken by the psychic Underdwellers (the mutants) and placed into a weird trance. They have this ancient statue of her with USA on the pedestal, and they think she's called “Usa” (as in, “Oosah”) and they're worshipping her as a god, and Bill and Jeff try to get her back and they don't, not for another four episodes, and in the process of finding her it's only now they find out they're on Earth via the New York subway.
I mean, it's an understandable mistake.
Why withhold that until the third episode? No one watching now would fail to know that. But it makes narrative sense. It fits the logic of the story. I think that this is why I enjoyed this so much. Return to the Planet of the Apes is a torrent of ridiculous plot developments. But they're all treated with respect.

In the end, Judy doesn't get rescued, so much as let go, and the Underdwellers become sympathetic allies to our heroes. Meanwhile, Cornelius and Zira are the only apes in Ape City who even know who Bill, Jeff and Judy reallt are.

The Apes on this version of the planet have TV and radio, internal combustion engines, popular music and printing. We meet monsters: a giant spider lurking in the sewers of Ape City (“Tunnel of Fear”). Sea monsters inhabit the lake (“Lagoon of Peril”). And then there’s the ape-eating pterodactyl thing that appears in a couple of episodes. Silly gags abound: art thieves steal the Collected Works of William Apespeare and the Ape-a Lisa; an ape farmer in a hat drives a truck, listening on the radio to an ape parody of bluegrass classic “Goin’ Ape Over You” (“If I thought that you enjoyed/I'd stop trying to avoid/I’m goin’ humanoid over you”).
He's tapping his foot and everything.
The apes don't have powered flight just yet, but that's a plot point in itself, when Urko masterminds the restoration of a 20th century fighter bomber (“Screaming Wings”) and attempts a power grab with it. Judy steals it, and then the astronauts and the humanoids have an aeroplane, except they have to get fuel for the thing, and then they meet Brent and he's from the 22nd century, and he's been here 20 years (“Trail to the Unknown”). Urko loses his job and has another go at taking over. Cornelius and Bill take a hot air balloon up a mountain and meet an enlightened civilisation of apes, separate from the Ape City ones, and they keep hold of a dangerous book that could shake the world – a kids’ book about a trip to the zoo. Ape City gets attacked by that big mutant reptilian dragon pterodactyl thing (“Attack from the Clouds”), and Judy fights it off with the plane and in “Battle of the Titans” it comes back and loses a fight with the Mountain Apes’ giant gorilla God Kygor, who's thawed out for the occasion.

And all this hangs together! It shouldn't! It's completely for kids, it's got basic, declarative dialogue, it's got terrible animation (but often lovely background painting). But it sticks to its own rules. Events have consequences, and things are not left unaddressed. Urko’s power grab founders, and he gets disciplined for it in the next episode, and embarks on an increasingly desperate series of plans to start a war and take over (it comes to a head in “Invasion of the Underdwellers”) . Bill, Jeff and Judy lead the humanoids to a valley where they set up a pueblo settlement. When Bill and Cornelius deposit the book with the mountain apes, I didn't expect them to decide in “Battle of the Titans” that it was time for ape society to learn the truth and go back for it, and I didn't expect them to get chased by the insane pterodactyl thing Judy had defeated a few episodes earlier. I mean I completely didn't expect the mountain apes to thaw out King Kong to fight it either, but holy cow was it fun to watch.
This is a picture of a gorilla in a sou'wester, and if you don't recognise how awesome that is, you're dead to me.
The TV series, with its procedural amnesia, couldn't do this, but Saturday morning cartoons in the 70s at least could, and it turns out occasionally did. A late example, which I do remember watching as a kid, was Filmation's The New Adventures of Flash Gordon (1979-80) which also admitted hanging threads along with its thrilling cliffhangers; later European/Japanese coproductions like Ulysses 31 (1981), Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds (1982), Around the World with Willy Fog (1983) and The Mysterious Cities of Gold (1982) tended to make this their stock in trade; all had much better animation than their American cousins. But I can't help feeling that despite its silliness and crazy plot developments, the Planet of the Apes we see in Return is richer and more interwoven than the one in the TV series, and the storylines considerably more fun.
There is nothing about this image that isn't brilliant.
Although its characters are lightly sketched – it is a Saturday morning cartoon show after all – the characters in Return to the Planet of the Apes are often sympathetic in a way that they're not in other versions of the story. The mutants turn out to be goodies. Even Dr Zaius comes across as a fundamentally nice chap. In the episode following the one where Judy makes off with the plane, Zaius turns up at Zira and Cornelius’s house and says something to the effect of, “I'm not saying you were involved in stealing that plane, but good work anyway, guys, mum's the word,” and in later episodes his blocking of Urko’s plans becomes more emphatic, more definite, and you even start to wonder if he'll turn out to be a good guy after all.

And when Bill and Cornelius get the book back and plan to unveil it and tell ape society the truth, you know that this has consequences and you know that when they do it, the game is going to change again, that it's going to be huge, and they're completely going to honour it – except that this is the last episode they made and you'll never find out.

Consider: someone actually consciously wrote the line “That's no earthquake! That's a howitzer!”
It's frustrating, and that's a plus point, in a weird way, because I genuinely wanted to find out what happened next.

I think a lot of the genius of Return to the Planet of the Apes is accidental, the product of no one overseeing the property. No one really cared beyond this picture I have in my head of someone at Fox ringing up Friz Freleng and saying “Oh hey Friz, can you get your studio to make me a Planet of the Apes cartoon show? You can? Cool, thanks, off you go,” and letting DFE get on with it (which, truly, seems to be how much of the franchise progressed in its first incarnation anyway). The show is called Return to the Planet of the Apes, and I think it's simply called that because they had to call it “(Noun) (preposition) the Planet of the Apes” – that's an obligation by now – and this was as good a title as any. It doesn't turn out to be the return you expect, but it is nonetheless a return because no one is watching this who doesn't know the premise of Planet of the Apes, but it's also a return to first principles, a do-over, and allows for the ape technology that existed in Boulle’s novel and the earliest drafts of the movie to be present, without budgetary constraints.
The best images are totally in the title sequence.
This is children's television, but as I keep saying, good children's media is the best media. And no, Return to the Planet of the Apes doesn't have the depth of the movies, and can't. It's a cartoon for children. But its moral centre nonetheless concentrates on trust, on co-operation. The final point of that last episode is that maybe this book can teach human(oid)s and apes to live together in peace. It’s a hopeful note, a positive one. Also, while most of the ways in which I think Return is better than the TV show are at best arguable, having a sympathetic black male lead as well as a white one, and a female lead who is competent (she's called out as the best pilot and when the guys can't rescue her, she effectively rescues herself) is genuinely great. Return has the best representation of any of the original iterations of Planet of the Apes.

I wonder if I'm so positive about this wonky, creaky old TV animation because it confounded my expectations, expectations that were so very, very low; certainly, it's still not exactly what you'd call great TV. But it's better TV than it has any business being. Sadly, though, it’s still just a Saturday morning cartoon that didn’t even make a full season before they pulled the plug. The comic books would carry on for another couple of years, but it looks like this is finally it for the Planet of the Apes.

And even when it was decided that it wasn’t it for the Planet of the Apes… it still looked like it was, as we’ll see.

Ape Rankings
1. Planet of the Apes (1968)
2. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
3. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
4. Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975)
5. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
6. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) 
7. Planet of the Apes: the TV Series (1974)