On September 13th, 1974, audiences that tuned into CBS saw the premiere of a new TV show with a familiar premise.
The episode opened with a spaceship crashing on an Earth-like planet. One of the astronauts was killed. Two of the astronauts — Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Peter Burke (James Naughton) — survived. Virdon and Burke discovered that the planet was inhabited by humans who, despite it being the year 3085, were living in medieval villages. The humans were kept in a state of serfdom by the Apes who ruled the planet. The Apes spoke English and had formed their own society of militaristic gorillas and scientific-minded chimpanzees. Looking through an old book, Virdon and Burke discovered that they had crash landed on Earth, far in the future!
You know the drill. Planet of the Apes was based on the famous series of films, with the first pilot episode featuring Virdon and Burke discovering in less than an hour what took Charlton Heston a journey into the forbidden zone to figure out. Because the humans had “blown it up,” the Earth was now ruled by Apes!
As fugitives from ape justice, Virdon and Burke spent the next fourteen episodes being pursued by the fanatical General Urko (Mark Lenard), who was determined to capture the two astronauts before they revealed that Apes had not always been the planet’s masters. Traveling with Virdon and Burke was a sympathetic chimpanzee named Galen (Roddy McDowall). Usually just one step ahead of Urko, Virdon, Burke, and Galen traveled from village to village, seeking a way to fix their spaceship so that they could escape the Planet of the Apes.
Planet of the Apes got off to a strong start with an exciting and concise first episode but the series quickly ran out of gas. Because Virdon, Burke, and Galen had to flee to a new village at the end of every episode, the show was never able to devote much time to exploring the most intriguing thing about the original Planet of the Apes films, the culture of a world where humans were subservient to apes. Because Virdon and Burke were largely interchangeable with little in the way of backstory or personality, the show very quickly ran out of a stories to tell. It didn’t take long for Planet of the Apes to start repeating itself with multiple episodes in which Virdon or Burke got involved in local village drama before Urko showed up and forced them to flee again.
There were some good moments, though. Probably the highlight of the series was the third episode of the series, The Trap. In this episode, Virdon, Burke, Galen, and Urko all reach the ruins of San Francisco at the same time. After an earthquake buries Burke and Urko in a subway tunnel, the two of them are forced to work together to survive. Burke and Urko make an unexpectedly good team and Urko seems like he’s on the verge of a change of heart when he spots an old poster for the San Francisco zoo, one that features a caged gorilla being gawked at by humans. Urko’s angry reaction to seeing the poster is well-acted by Mark Lenard and, for a few minutes, his obsession with capturing Virdon and Burke can be understood. It wouldn’t last but, in that moment, Urko went from being just another villain to being a complex character with his own clearly defined motivations.
The show also benefited from Roddy McDowall, who, by this point, was an expert at acting while wearing chimpanzee makeup. McDowall brought heart and humor to the role of Galen, even if he was too often treated like a servant by Burke and Virdon. Whenever the two humans were scared to go out in public, they sent Galen off to gather information. Galen did a good job but he still deserved better.
Finally, Planet of the Apes had one of the coolest opening title sequences of all time! Take a look:
Though cancelled after only 14 episodes, Planet of the Apes The Television Series lives on. Episodes can currently be seen on MeTV.