Return to the Planet of the Apes: The Planet of The Apes Saturday Morning Cartoon

After the original Planet of the Apes film series ended and the TV show tanked, there was only one place left to go...animation!

The release of Battle for the Planet of the Apes in 1973 made it patently clear the five-installment film series had not only run out of ideas, it had also run out of money. It was a chintzy, dull little movie with a trite happy ending made in a desperate effort to woo back the family audiences who had fled the savagery of the previous year’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. With Battle, it was obvious the series was now over once and for all. 

The suits at 20th Century Fox, however, had other ideas. There was still too much money to be made off POTA merchandise. So the next year they coaxed Roddy MacDowell back into chimp makeup and cobbled together a weekly TV series about, yes, two astronauts who find themselves on a strange planet ruled by apes and…um, you can guess where it goes from there. The series was somehow even less exciting than the last movie, amplified further when everyone began noticing the same storyline was repeated every single goddamn week: the astronauts escape from the apes, are chased by the apes, and are recaptured by the apes. Tune in next week to find out what happens! But the series was accompanied by a flood of merchandise, from model kits to masks to trash cans, and a helluva lot more people bought the merchandise than watched the show, and that’s what mattered.

The series lasted a single season before being cancelled, but Fox still wasn’t satisfied. Given the action figures and lunchboxes and games and ColorForms were mostly snatched up by youngsters, Fox returned in 1975 with (what else?) A Saturday morning cartoon. It was a potential godsend. People loved the apes, but were tired of seeing them tromp around unused Western sets, brandishing outdated rifles and having fistfights in barns. That was all the budget allowed for live action, but with a cartoon the sky was the limit. If someone could draw it you could put it in the show. Spaceships, big explosions, crowd scenes, monsters, whatever you like. Make it flashy and zing-pow, and the kids’ll eat it up. Speaking of which, why not a breakfast cereal tie in? 

As an apes-obsessed kid, I still found I had little patience for the cartoon, possibly because my patience had already been scraped raw by the lifeless live-action series. Looking back at the animated series as an adult now, I’m amazed at how smart and dark it is, and wonder what the hell my nine-year-old self’s problem was.

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But let’s back up here a second, because the show’s pedigree is worth taking into account. In the early ‘60s when Warner Brothers decided to close down its cartoon division, the legendary Friz Freleng, who’d directed so many classic Looney Tunes shorts, teamed up with David H. DePatie to form an independent cartoon production company, DePatie/Freleng Enterprises (DFE), to continue churning out animated shorts, shows, commercials, whatever anyone would pay them to do. Along with dozens of mostly forgotten Saturday morning cartoons like Here Comes the Grump, they also designed the animated opening sequence for Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther, and won awards for the trippy Pink Panther cartoon that followed.

DFE worked with people from Warner, from Hanna-Barbera, from Disney, from all over the place. Coincidentally several of their shows were co-created by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, who had created Scooby-Doo for Hanna-Barbera and who left DFE in 1974 to be story consultants on the live-action Planet of the Apes series (they soon wisely returned to cartoons, where no one notices if you use the same damn storyline every week).

A year later DFE was conscripted by 20th Century Fox to take their own swipe at the Apes mythology in Return to the Planet of the Apes, a new Saturday morning entry for NBC. Doug Wildey, a storyboard artist who also worked on a number of sci-fi fantasy and superhero cartoons like Thundarr the Barbarian, The Incredible Hulk, Jonny Quest, Spider Man and his Amazing Friends, and Godzilla, was brought in to direct. It would be his first and last directing job.

Even before the first frame was written or sketched, Wildey ran into a big problem. The Apes films (and to a lesser degree the live-action series) were extremely violent. Humans and apes alike were shot and tortured and strangled and dragged behind horses, electrocuted, hanged and speared. It was simply part of the fun. But at the time cartoon violence was a big no-no. Given the news footage coming out of Vietnam along with the riots and bombings around the US, cartoons were consciously set aside as  a protected refuge, a place where impressionable kids could be sheltered from all the horrible things people did to one another on a daily basis.

There was even a clause in the NBC contract which stated that a cartoon could not portray any violent act that could possibly be emulated by a six-year-old. So right off the bat, the apes in the show could not use guns, knives, clubs, battle axes,  grenades, or any hand-held weapon. The gorillas could carry guns but weren’t allowed to fire them, perhaps giving the tykes in the audience the impression those rifles were just fashion accessories. So that was a sticky wicket—what the fuck were the apes supposed to do, DANCE the humans into submission? Ask them nicely to get into the cage?

Wildey, being a clever type (and apparently also a smartass), went to NBC’s lawyers and asked if maybe the apes could use Howitzers. After some long debate, the lawyers had to admit they couldn’t really imagine a situation in which a six-year-old could use a Howitzer. It was a decision that would change the nature of the PoTA universe dramatically and make the cartoon stand out from all the previous entries. Even after being given the all-clear on the Howitzer question, I still don’t know how the hell Wildey got away with some of the things he did.

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Okay, try to imagine the Saturday morning landscape in 1975. You’re still in your pajamas, parked in front of the TV within the impregnable walls of your sofa fort. You have a bottomless bowl of Super Sugar Crisp with a side of Pop Tarts, and now it’s time to make a decision. Return to the Planet of the Apes was facing stiff competition from the likes of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Grape Ape, Hong Kong Phooey, and The Flintstones Teens. flip through the dial and it was clean-cut, All-American, lightweight and warm-hearted fare, full of friendly cartoon characters being nice to each other. Then you hit NBC.

The Return to the Planet of the Apes title sequence opens with a pan over the images of four apes crucified upside down in a barren landscape as Dean Elliott’s spare, avant-garde, and percussion-heavy score sets a less than jovial tone. Watching it recently for the first time in nearly 40 years, I do have to wonder how I could’ve not been gaga over this when I was nine.

The highly stylized artwork rests somewhere between Jonny Quest (which Wildey worked on) and Ralph Bakshi’s fantasy films. Stark, detailed backgrounds in mostly muted and heavily shadowed grays, blacks and browns, with smears of dirty green and purple and the occasional splash of startling color (the gorilla general’s bulbous helmet, always a metallic black in the films and TV show, is an intense orange for some reason here). In order to save time and money, the camera does a lot of panning over still images to give the illusion of action or intensify character reactions.

Stylistically it’s not that much different from several other adventure series of the time, but much darker and moodier, punctuated by more Bergmanesque extended silences than you’d expect to find in a Saturday morning cartoon. The atmosphere is deadly serious, with nary a joke or smile to break up the overwhelming sense of tense dread that seems to overwhelm the story (the one brief exception being the inclusion of a country song, “I’m Goin’ Humanoid Over You,” which is heard playing on a radio in the background).

Then there’s the story itself. Unlike most any other animated show of the day, Return to the Planet of the Apes quickly reveals itself to be an ongoing serial, with each episode ending with some kind of cliffhanger to set up the following week’s installment. Miss one and you might be lost (“Wait a second…who are these guys in the white robes now?”).

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What begins with your standard PoTA premise, three astronauts (Jeff, Bill, and Judy) crashlanding on a planet ruled by intelligent apes, soon becomes something very different not only when compared with other Apes films, but when compareed with anything else you’d find on Saturday morning.

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For the first three or four episodes the series appears to be a simple amalgam of the previous franchise offerings. Cornelius, Zira, Dr. Zaius, and Nova are here, as is general Urko from the TV series. Other names, plot elements and scenes are clear and obvious nods to the films (especially Beneath the Planet of the Apes, though all the others are tapped too), and it quickly dawned on my wife that what I was watching was a show not aimed at the wee folk, but at hardcore Apes fans.

The point was driven home not only by the grim atmosphere, but the surprisingly sophisticated dialogue. What six-year-old is going to make any sense at all of lines like, “A truly free ape is one who is willing to follow a thought through to the end”?

(Well, okay, maybe one of those really precocious, spoiled six-year-olds, but they wouldn’t be watching Saturday morning cartoons anyway so it’s a moot point.)

The voice talent on hand is serviceably straightfaced but unremarkable with two exceptions. Austin Stoker, who provides the voice of Jeff, the black astronaut, played MacDonald in the last two Apes films, making him the only PoTA alumnus to have any connection with the cartoon. And the great Henry Corden plays the warmongering, human-hating General Urko. If the name doesn’t ring an immediate bell, Corden was the voice of Fred Flintstone. Corden’s voice is unmistakable. He’s Fred Flintstone wherever he goes, whatever he does, so when Urko rants about killing all the humanoids, what comes out is Fred Flintstone raving about genocide. As entertaining as that is, it can be a little distracting. Oh, and for those paying close attention, that’s Ted Knight from The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the opening credits shouting “Return! To the Planet of the Apes!”

Anyway, back to the show. By episode three other elements creep in as the Apes universe begins to evolve. We are told, for one thing, the year is 3979, twenty-five years after the world got blowed up real good at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. While in the films and TV series the apes depended on horses for transportation, here they have trucks, motorcycles, airplanes, and pickups. They have electricity, televisions, and nightly newscasts. They also have tanks and, yes, Howitzers, so apparently in those years following the end of the world, ape civilization reached the mid-20th century in technological terms.

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While a group of psychic humans who can create very believable illusions is indeed living in the ruins of the New York Public Library (the revelation they’ve landed back on Earth doesn’t seem to bother the astronauts much), they aren’t a bunch of bomb-worshipping mutants, though they do have their issues. It’s with their introduction the show becomes more than a pastiche of references. Yes, the gorillas chase the astronauts and Zaius argues history, science, and philosophy with Cornelius and Zira, but there’s much more going on. There are suddenly multiple conspiracies afoot, as well as a few ancient prophecies that need fulfilling, a threatened war, political power struggles, an ongoing debate about evolution and public secrets, and a touch of mass hysteria.

i suspect it was around the halfway point in the series that an NBC executive tuned in to watch the show for the first time, and nearly choked on his Sugar Pops. Not only did he have no idea what was happening in the story, there was NOTHING happening in the story. No big chases, no explosions, no Howitzers, even! Instead it was all exposition, a lot of yakkity yak as characters discussed  what would be happening in the episodes to come. Worse still, what’s with these monkeys using terms like “specific gravity” and “aerodynamics”?  What is this shit? Kids tune in Saturday morning, they don’t want continuing talky soap operas! With all that sugar in their bloodstreams, they want a little zing-pow! 

With several storylines stilll dangling, Return to the Planet of the Apes suddenly took another abrupt turn with a standalone episode, a pure adventure yarn about a balloon (though it did involve a mountaintop community of simian Tibetan Buddhists), utterly unconnected to anything that came before. While the episode that followed hearkened back to a few small and nearly forgotten plot points from earlier episodes, it too was essentially a stand alone Jonny Quest-style adventure about re-routing a lava flow before it reaches a nuclear reactor.

After three stand-alones, I suspect the satisfied NBC exec turned his attention to Grape Ape and forgot all about it, because once again Wildey picked up where he’d left off, re-establishing a continuing serial format tracing several plots and subplots. Judy is rescued from the Underdwellers, the astronauts continue trying to move a human colony to a new safe home, a genocidal war is looming, the power struggle between Urko and Zaius heats up, Cornelius and Zira debate loyalty issues and science. Easy references can once again be made to earlier episodes without fear, the dialogue becomes startlingly sophisticated again, and tiny details from early in the season take on great significance. Plus there are lots of chases and explosions and shit.

With several old threads revisited and tied up but several more left dangling (and a cliffhanger ending to boot), NBC pulled the plug on Return to the Planet of the Apes after thirteen episodes. I guess it’s easy to see why. Although there is no overarching social commentary at play here (apart from a clear anti-military stance), and with the exception of those three stand-alones, the show played less like a Saturday morning cartoon than a complex and intelligent adult-themed five-hour Planet of the Apes miniseries, just one that happened to be animated. It hearkened back to what the whole damn series was in the beginning, as dark and grim as the first four films, before the franchise became a mere vehicle for selling toys.

It’s just a shame it didn’t come along a little sooner. Cartoon or no, it really did salvage the franchise reputation. Or would have had anyone been paying attention.