Ape Week: Planet of the Apes: The Five Telefilms from the 1974 Series (1981)

B&S Movies’ readers are already up to speed on everything ape, with the franchise’s production minutiae readily available—if you want it.

But here are the basics that led to the post-Star Wars POTA movies: As result of the first four films’ box office returns—it was the Star Wars of its day—Arthur P. Jacobs, the producer of the films through his APJAC Productions for distributor 20th Century Fox, decided to capitalize on the theatrical success with an hour-long live action series. It was to start (and take place after the events in) after Conquest, which was believed to be the fourth and final film. Then Fox decided that, instead of a series, they wanted another movie, which became 1973’s Battle.

Apes DVD

Sadly, Jacobs died in June 1973 before his vision of the TV series could be realized. CBS-TV then purchased the broadcast rights to the first three films: each ran as a “Movie of the Week” during the month of September 1973 to, not surprising, high ratings. And result of Jacobs’s death, Fox was in full control of the decisions regarding the franchise.

So while the ape movies were breaking TV ratings records, Gene Roddenberry developed his Star Trek follow-up, Genesis II (1973), through Warner Bros. for CBS-TV—and the movie-series pilot garnered high ratings. Plans were made to go to series, with Roddenberry scripting a 20-episode season arc.

But the ratings for the Apes reruns rivaled Genesis II, which resulted in CBS turning their focus away from other contenders (what those series were, is unknown) for a new weekly science-fiction series—including Roddenberry’s. And with that, the network ran with Apes TV series idea and added it to the schedule for their 1974 autumn programming. Fox ordered 14 episodes.

The series started from scratch, with actors Ron Harper and James Naughton as Alan Virdon and Peter Burke, two astronauts who pass through a time warp while approaching Alpha Centauri on August 19, 1980, which results in a crash on June 14, 3085. They’re rescued by a human (for the sake of adding “drama” to the series, unlike the films, the humans can speak) who takes them to a bomb shelter and opens a book containing historical text and pictures of Earth circa 2500; the space explorers are convinced they are on a future Earth. A later check of their ship’s chronometer confirms their fears: they’re on Earth 1000 years in the future.

They’re soon befriended by a friendly chimpanzee, Galen, portrayed by Roddy McDowall—the only actor to return to the franchise. Booth Coleman (the 1956 post-apoc flick World Without End; pick a ‘60s or ‘70s TV series) took over the role of the orangutan Zaius from his friend, and former Dr. Zaius, Maurice Evans. In another Star Trek connection: Mark Lenard (Spock’s father Sarek in Star Trek: TOS, TAS, TNG) starred as gorilla General Urko.

The series, which ran during the highly-coveted ratings sweet spot from 8 to 9 p.m on Fridays in September 1974, was a ratings disaster. The failure was attributed to the high production costs against the low ratings, ratings that resulted from repetitive stories (boring stories) that relied too much on human philosophical dilemmas and not enough ape action—which is what everyone came for in the first place: the apes. After 14 episodes, which ran from September 13, 1974 to December 20, 1974, the series was cancelled. (Sounds like Battlestar Galactica‘s dilemma to catch some “Star Wars” success.)

In 1981, in the wake of the Star Wars-inspired sci-fi boom on theatre screens and television (check out B&S Movies’ “Ten Star Wars Rip Offs” and “Attack of the Clones” tribute weeks as proof), Fox reedited ten of the fourteen episodes—two episodes stitched together—into five international TV movies (that also played as theatrical features in some overseas markets). To achieve continuity and flow, new prologue and epilog segments were filmed starring McDowall as an aged Galen telling the “past” tale of the Earth astronauts. Those five films were:

  • Back to the Planet of the Apes
  • Forgotten City of the Planet of the Apes
  • Treachery and Greed on the Planet of the Apes
  • Life, Liberty and Pursuit on the Planet of the Apes
  • Farewell to the Planet of the Apes

(In addition to the Planet of the Apes series, CBS-TV also recut episodes of The Amazing Spider-Man (Spider-Man Strikes Back and The Dragon’s Challenge) and their two ‘70s pilots for Captain America (Captain America and Death Too Soon) into overseas theatrical features (which became box-office hits) and telefilms. Other TV series recut into theatrical/telefilms in the wake of Star Wars’ success included Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s syndicated UFO and Space: 1999, the 1973 Keir Dullea Canadian series The Starlost, and Universal’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century for NBC-TV and Battlestar Galactica for ABC-TV (BSG’s “Commander Cain” story-arc was cut into a successful foreign theatrical: Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack; trailer); even story-arcs of The Six Million Dollar Man (The Secret of Bigfoot) received theatrical cuts. Even the early ‘70s pilot-movies for Earth II, The Questor Tapes, and Genesis II found new life via new edits and new titles. You can learn more about those telefilms with the Medium article, “In Space No One Can Hear the Pasta Over-Boiling: The ’80s Italian Spacesploitation Invasion.”)

However, before Fox edited those ape movies, the studio teamed with NBC-TV and created Return to the Planet of the Apes, a 1975 Saturday morning animated series (as was Star Trek) produced by the team behind the popular Jonny Quest. The series went back to the beginning, once again, as three American astronauts—including Jeff Allen (voiced by Austin Stoker, who played MacDonald in Battle; John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13)—time jump into Earth’s future. The storylines closely mirrored Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet source novel and the Vietnam War and Cold War themes of first two ape movies. In addition, the series featured characters that originated in both of the Fox films and the CBS live action series. NBC broadcast 13 episodes between September 6 and November 29, 1975. As with the live action CBS-TV series, the kids stayed away in droves, as the show’s message was too complex and heavy-handed for children. NBC cancelled the series.

In addition to Marvel Comics’ longer-running Adventures of the Planet of the Apes series published from August 1974 to February 1977, Power Records issued a 1974 comic book-audio series, Planet of the Apes (which can be enjoyed on You Tube).

And that was the end of the Apes franchise—until Tim Burton’s 2001 reboot.

Numerous episodes of CBS’s live action and NBC’s animated series are uploaded on You Tube. You can sample the first episode of the hour-long live action series (Part 1 and Part 2) and the half hour animated series. The fan-made clip, seen above, is based on deleted, lost footage shot for the opening of the third Apes theatrical film, Escape. Based on the original shooting script, the segment featured the apenauts inside the space ship, seeing the Earth destroyed, and encountering the time continuum. The scene was ultimately scrapped and the film began with the ship already crash landed on Earth.

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About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.