Thursday, February 5, 2009


Planet of the Apes (1974)


As a kid I was a huge Planet of the Apes fan – loved the film series (the 1968 original is top dog or simian), had some of the toys, and even watched the terrible 1975 cartoon adaptation. And I watched the 1974 live action TV series, starring Roddy McDowell, Ron Harper, and James Naughton, aka the Dr. Pepper guy’s brother (look it up kids). There were 14 episodes produced before the series was canned for low ratings (curse you Sanford and Son!), but only 13 of those episodes were ever shown on broadcast television. The DVD box set includes the never aired 14th show.

Now this series was never a great one. Like The Fugitive, The Incredible Hulk and Battlestar Galactica, to name a few, it was about a person/persons running from an oppressive force (a U.S. Marshal, the law and a nosy reporter, killer robots) while questing for something (the one armed man who murdered his wife/exoneration, a cure for his Hulkamania, a new front porch) and stopping along the way to help folks who need it. So this Apes series had stranded human astronauts Virdon and Burke partnered with their outcast chimp friend Galen running from General Urko and his gorilla army while searching for a way to get back home, all the while helping villagers and others they meet along the way. This show could have been titled The Incredible Battlestar Fugitives from the Planet of the Galactica Apes. But that’s a lot to put on a lunch box.

So I watched this never before seen episode, and, you know what, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. It opens with a pair of gorilla soldiers riding into a human village. The villagers, per an arrangement with the apes, hand over several humans to work as slaves in the gorillas mines. One man, Clim, flees, and quickly runs into our trio of fugitive-heroes. Clim promises them a warm welcome back at the village, but Virdon and Burke are immediately taken prisoner.

The thing that makes this more than just a run of the mill Fugitive rip off is that Brun the village chief is also the village high priest. In order to impress upon the villagers how important meeting their quota is, those that try to run, like Clim, are brought to the temple where a masked Brun makes a lot of noise about duty and the gods wrath and the person dies. No sword thrust, no hanging, they simply die, clearly by the hand of the gods, so the villagers think.

The villagers plan to hand over Virdon and Burke to the apes, so their pleas to fight back against their simian oppressors are met with deaf ears. They come to learn village leader Brun made a deal with the apes that instead of constantly fighting them, as they have in years past, causing huge numbers of casualties on both the ape and human sides, they would willingly hand over a set number of men and women for mine duty, from which they never return. To make matters worse, since the apes don’t care where the village gets its human quota from, the villagers have taken to hunting and kidnapping other humans from neighboring towns to make their quota, and keep their lives rosy.

The villagers are heavily into praying – when Brun’s son Miro gets a nasty gash on his arm from a struggling human prisoner, they do nothing to stop the bleeding or tend to the wound, they have become so programmed to NOT fight for their lives, against the apes or even simple injuries. Virdon convinces them that he can tend to Miro’s wound with far better results than merely praying to their gods. His tourniquet treatment works and Miro starts to think about what they’ve been doing all these years. The clincher for Miro’s turnaround is when his beloved Talia is chosen to meet their next quota after their latest hunt comes up one short.

We later learn that the temple is built over a pool of toxic gas and the mask Brun wears conceals an ancient gas mask which prevents him from being overcome by the deadly fumes. He thinks the gas mask and the deadly gas were sent by the gods so the villagers can finally fight back. Brun, ever the busy beaver, has been bottling the gas into crude gas bombs, with the intention of attacking the apes and wipe them out in his own holy war. Virdon and Burke point out that he could end up killing not only the apes, but his village and many other humans. Galen chimes in that the genocide of his entire race doesn’t sit too well with him either. But Brun is on a holy crusade now and won’t be deterred. This being 1970s action adventure TV, Galen clobbers Brun and they destroy the temple and its gas bombs; unfortunately Brun runs back into the temple just as the whole thing goes poof.

Of course in the end, the villagers learn the error of their ways and new leader Miro pledges to ask the neighboring villages – who they used to hunt and kidnap - for help against the apes. Good luck with that one, Miro!

This would have been a run of the mill story if they hadn’t added the religious angle. The new Battlestar Galactica has made religion and contemplating god(s) a major running theme in their show, but to see something like that in a mid-1970s sci-fi action show is perhaps unprecedented. So props to writer Howard Dimsdale and the producers for going out on a limb.

Ben Andrews played Miro, and he looked like a slightly roided out Luke Skywalker, albeit with a better Super Cuts trim. John Ireland played priest/leader Brun with all his usual gravitas. But the girl playing Miro’s love interest, Jennifer Ashley, was hilariously bad, with the flattest line readings I’ve heard in some time. Also she never seemed to look Miro in the eyes, her gaze was always just left of center. Put her next to a 2x4 and I’d bet she’d act more wooden. A quick IMDb check shows this was her second acting gig, and she went on to star in the classic Italian Jaws rip off, Tintorera: Tiger Shark. But the highlight is she was also named Miss Restaurant, Miss Truck Show and Miss Textile.

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