Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Back to the Planet of the Apes: ep 7 "The Surgeon"

 "The Surgeon"
Airdate: October 25, 1974
Written by Barry Orringer
Directed by Arnold Laven
Synopsis: When Virdon is shot, his friends make a desperate game and contact Galen's old girlfriend, Kira, who is now a talented surgeon. So that she can operate, Galen and Burke must steal a forbidden book on human anatomy from the very home of Dr. Zaius.

Trey: Apparently, our fugitive heroes are relatively close to Ape City again, as they get to the hospital on its outskirts fairly quickly. It's odd that they never get far from their given the dangers it poses. Perhaps (though it's never mentioned) they want to stay close to the ruins of the biggest cities as they stand the best chance of finding more old tech there? Not much for them in the ruins of Bakersfield, I guess.

Jason: They've got the map right there on the wall, but distance measurements must be one of those black boxes impenetrable to ape minds. Objects are closer than they appear.  Another instance where the assumption must have been "no one will care about continuity - they are lucky to be getting apes at all."

Trey: This episode was originally intended to reunite McDowell with Kim Hunter who had played his character's wife, Zira, in the feature films. Hunter was not up for the makeup ordeal, apparently, so the role of Kira went to Jacqueline Scott.

Jason: Scott's performance was a highlight of the episode. To my surprise, the whole ensemble seemed to step up their games for this episode. Maybe the script was better than average?

Trey: I think so. We've also got David McNaughton as Dr. Stole. He's the brother to James McNaughton, the actor playing Burke.

Jason: Dr. "Stole Your Girlfriend," I think you mean! (Sorry, I can't leave the obvious stuff alone in these ape reports!) Anyway, another refreshingly, um, human performance this episode. 

Trey: Well, Stole seems pretty cool with this strange doctor Kira brings in. He's got questions sure, but he doesn't get in a contest of egos with him. That--or jealousy--would have been an easy angle for them to go in.

Jason: Stole knows what he's bringing to the game and his supremely secure ego isn't threatened by the likes of Galen! A frequently irritating trait, it's one I don't mind so much in my surgeon!

Trey: Well, I wouldn't advise having this ape as your surgeon for reasons the episode makes clear! This is yet another episode with the astronauts bringing knowledge the apes don't have.

Jason: It's now officially the most handy plot device in the series.

Trey: In this case, though, it's more reasonable as it's about human physiology. Burke gets some of the facts he asserts about blood groupings wrong, though, but hey, he's going off stuff he learned in college, probably.

Jason: Burke is suspiciously well-versed in (fictional) blood typing for a wise-cracking astronaut, but that's exactly the kind of broad-spectrum, renaissance-person training a candidate for interplanetary exploration should have.  

Trey: I like that the B plot regarding Arna, the shunned girl, ties backs into the theme of ignorance, but also directly to blood types. A little contrived perhaps, but it works.

Jason: The genuine performances sell it. The seemingly arbitrary nature of human (and ape) ignorance is certainly convenient for the screenwriters, but Arna's redemption was as close to moving as anyone can reasonably expect from POTA series.

Trey: It's become a pattern than Urko and sometimes Zaius just show up pretty much to remind us that their menace is out there!

Jason: And I'm glad they do! An episode without Urko's maniacal devotion to Ape Cultural Security and his hateful dialogue would be a shame. There's also that Urko is still having trouble pronouncing "as-tro-nauts!" I love that. 

Trey: I like that Kira and Stole, when given irrefutable evidence that some of their beliefs are wrong, accept it pretty quickly as primates of science.

Jason: As any Urko worth his jackboots can tell you, that's why you have to round up the brainy apes first if you want to keep that oppressive fascist regime operating smoothly. 

Trey: The theme of ignorance is carried through nicely with the trick played on Urko to afford our heroes an escape.

Jason: Indeed, yes! I know I keep carrying on about that map on Urko's wall, but I couldn't help notice the resemblance between the portentous skulls and X's on that map and the symbols on the door to the hospital's precisely named "Room of Death!"

Despite the protestations of my inner 12 year old, who would complain about the lack of ape action in the episode, I found this to be one of my favorites. Good performances, some interesting world building (appreciated even as it increasingly seems unlikely to skew towards a coherent vision), a foolproof hospital drama, and some very mature handling of ape romance, this one has a lot going for it. What's your verdict, Trey?

Trey: I agree with both adult you and your inner 12 year-old. Not much action, but good classc TV drama.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Back to the Planet of the Apes: ep 6 "Tomorrow's Tide"

 "Tomorrow's Tide"
Airdate: October 18, 1974
Written by Robert W. Lenski
Directed by Don MacDougall
Synopsis: Virdon and Burke rescue a man lashed to a raft from the ocean. When the man, Gahto, refuses to give them information but continues to insist he is dead, the astronauts investigate a nearby fishing village, where they are captured by soldiers. Hurton, the chimpanzee administrator, presses Virdon and Burke into service after they pass a test by swimming under flames. Galen tries to rescue while also trying to keep Gahto from drowning himself. Things get worse when Hurton's superior, Bandor, comes on an inspection tour, and only quick thinking and some novel fishing techniques can keep our heroes from being fishermen permanently.

Trey: We're out of the desert and down by the seaside. I'd like to think these human fisherfolk are the descendants of laid-back California surfers.

Jason: I'm grateful for the change of scenery! Those fisherfolk are certainly laid back and obedient, listlessly poking around with their wickedly barbed spears. Was there ever a time when those spears were employed against their ape overlords? These dudes are too laid back!

Trey: This is Lenski's second episode (his first was "The Good Seeds") and this has some of the same elements: the astronauts bringing some lost knowledge to the inhabitants of the future, an ape that warms to our protagonists a bit when they prove useful, and word-building regarding the culture and belief of this age. 

Jason: The "astronauts bringing knowledge" theme suggests that perhaps Lenski had thumbed through Chariots of the Gods as part of his no-doubt extensive research for this gig.

The holes in ape knowledge are slightly comical. Net technology was employed to great effect on Charlton Heston in the first film, but the imaginative leap to also use them for fish is beyond ape reckoning.  

Trey: Well, according to the timeline, the events of that film are several hundred years in the future, so maybe Burke and Virdon inadvertently led to Taylor's capture?

Jason: The irony!

Trey: Another big part of this episode: astronaut beefcake. They must have been trying to up their female viewership.

Jason: The beefcake is strong! The fact that it was unaccompanied by cheesecake is a little puzzling. The POTA films were not shy in this regard. The humans of the TV series, astronauts aside, have been a decidedly unsexy rabble! 

Trey: Yeah, and that's seems off-brand for 70s TV.

Jason: It serves to underscore the dystopian nature of this future!

Trey: Two interesting guest stars this episode: Roscoe Lee Browne who was the voice of Box in Logan's Run as Hurton, and perennial unctuous baddie, Jay Robinson as Bandor.

Jason: Roscoe Lee Browne and Jay Robinson both turn in fine performances. Too bad this is their only appearances in the series. And too bad the script criminally underuses their talents.

Trey: We should talk about the shark. The stock footage shark. 

Jason: Don't forget that handy dorsal fin prop! While no sharks were literally jumped in this episode, events and circumstances depicted do seem to veer wildly into the absurd.

Trey: I've been resisting the urge to make a "shark jump" joke, I'm glad you were less demure. Anyway, I'm not quite clear whether the apes believe in the "shark god" or simply the humans.

Jason: The apes use the inherent religiosity of human beings to enforce ape supremacy and cynically employ the tenets of this faith against each other! But do they believe? I can only speculate, but there seems to be at least a level of social courtesy regarding gods and spiritual practices, like sophisticated ancient Romans or Greeks. Galen doesn't seem inclined to challenge whatever beliefs are practiced in the regions the fugitives visit.

Trey: Overall, this one is interesting because of the way it expands the ape universe into new territory, but I think it's probably not as accomplished as "The Good Seeds" in the writing department (and that was already an episode with some silliness), and perhaps is let down more by the constraints of television.

Jason: "It's a madhouse! A MADHOUSE!" I thought as this episode unfolded. Packed with speculative scenarios, glistening Astronaut torsos, and underwater thrills, it could have been a standout episode (and maybe it will rank high in the final assessment, depending on how dire subsequent episodes turn out to be). As it stands, it will definitely rank as one of the most peculiar. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Back to the Planet of the Apes: ep5 "The Legacy"

 "The Legacy"
Airdate: October 11, 1974
Written by Robert Hamner
Directed by Bernard McEveety
Synopsis: In the ruins of Oakland, Burke and Virdon discover a holographic message from scientists from their own time, which might help them return to the past. First, though, they must escape Urko and a cunning trap set by Zaius, baited with a young scavenger and his mother.

Trey: This one was interesting mostly due to the fact a writer finally thinks to give us a hook to drive the plot of future episodes: there are apparently caches of ancient tech scattered about. Maybe these can help the astronauts return home? 

Jason: Return to your home, Astronauts, but only, repeat only, do so after we've squeezed the last drop of juice from this series! 

Trey: Or maybe, you know, they could use the info to help rebuild the world? Anyway, I shouldn't say a writer finally thinks of that. There was the metal disk with the information on it that was important in the first two episodes, but spoiler...that disk never gets mentioned again.

Jason: I shall delete that disk and the plot coupons it represented from my expectations. I do wonder how much of the script survived contact with the shooting schedule.

I'll mention the director here as well, as I was immediately impressed by a marked change in aesthetic in this episode. The cameras are on the move this episode, tracking, panning, dollying, zooming all over the place, or at least that was my impression. I felt a definite change in energy. Am I crazy? 

Trey: No, I think you're right. We shouldn't over sell it. It's still pretty standard TV stuff, but more dynamic than what we've seen before.

This episode has as a guest star a young Jackie Earle Haley as Kraik. I used to the think of as "the kid from the Bad News Bears" but now I guess he's "Rorschach from Watchmen."

Jason: He's one of those character actors from the era that was immediately recognizable but seems always relegated to supporting parts. I don't think I ever learned his name until Watchmen. He's great at projecting a sinister vibe, even as a young kid, and never really escaped this type casting, so far as I know. He was great in Spielberg's Lincoln, but again, sinister. As soon as I recognized him, I was tipped off to the treachery that would soon be afoot.

Trey: Indeed! I feel like his character is the first time we've got a real "collaborator" sort of human character. I mean, we've had humans loyal to apes before, but mostly because of their upbringing and the fact they had never considered things might be different. They tend to wise up as the story progresses. But young Kraik is a wheeler dealer looking out for number one--and willing to sell out other humans to get by.

Jason: That boy is pure evil! Haley's performance is good, right down to the hollow insincerity of his "redemptive" weeping at the end! 

While he isn't as smart as he thinks in the end, Zaius proves himself the more deadly adversary to the humans than Urko. His psy-op here giving Virdon a surrogate family so he'll but his guard down and start revealing things is way more sophisticated than anything the gorilla's ever attempted.

Of course, his shallow understanding of human psychology is his undoing. While the ready-made family is working on Virdon, Virdon is working on the family.

Jason: Hopefully Zaius will get the picture and stop underestimating his opponents. Virdon is only human but made of stuff stern enough to resist the charms of a single-mom Wilma Flintstone and her villainous boy.

The scenes featuring Virdon's irrepressible urge to offer fatherly council to this almost-feral kid help solidify his stated motivation - to get home to his family. He is not a particularly colorful man, but holy moly is he resourceful and decent. 

Perhaps weirdly, Virdon's surrogate wife blithely allows the "man from the past" to tell her son what she must regard as all manner of bullshit stories, and she has no concerns about spending time incarcerated with a guy suffering from grandiose delusions.

Trey: Look, dating options are limited for single mothers of teenage delinquent kids, even in the post-apocalypse!

A continuity note here: Virdon says he's "forgotten what a city looks like" so this episode must take place prior to "The Trap" where they visit the ruins of San Francisco. The only oddity there is that they sort of seem surprised in that episode that there's a city nearby, which if they had already knew they were in the Bay Area, why would they be? 

Jason: Yes, the Bay Area. I had almost forgotten what a matte painting looked like, but this episode managed to get in a juicy one of the ruins of future-Oakland.

Trey: In any case, it's an argument perhaps that the internal chronology of the episodes isn't airing order but perhaps production order. This episode was 4th and "The Trap" 5th.

Jason: This kind of stuff is particularly jarring after a couple of decades worth of continuity-minded TV. 

Trey: Speaking of relics of TV past--and it happens a lot in plots like this in shows: why don't they make any effort to hide the computer before racing off to the cache? I realize it wasn't the most important thing, but why make it easy for the apes to find? 

Jason: Things got pretty choppy towards the end of the episode. I got the feeling they shot too much, and it was a brutal edit to make the target length. "Is it 43 minutes yet? I don't care if it makes perfect sense!"

Trey: Once again, the concepts and tropes on display here are hardly unique, but we do get a bit of actually sci-fi at last, and it's a pretty effective episode dramatically. It's only marred by the fact that I'm fairly certain the interesting plot development here will go nowhere.

Jason: They were definitely on the right track with this one, for my tastes. The result was far from perfect, but dammit, it was fun. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Back to the Planet of the Apes: ep 4 "The Good Seeds"

 "The Good Seeds"
Airdate: October 4, 1974
Written by Robert W. Lenski
Directed by Don Wies
Synopsis: When Galen hurts his leg and can't travel, Virdon and Burke seek refuge on a farm so he can recover. The tenant farmer and his family are mistrustful of humans but agrees to let them stay so long as the humans' work. Most of the family warms to our heroes as their knowledge proves useful around the farm, Anto, the eldest son, resents the strangers, fearing they will hex his cow that is about to give birth, and ruin his change to start a farm of his own. When Virdon helps deliver not one but two bull calves, Anto is won over and names the calves after the astronauts.

Trey: This episode should be subtitled "or how astronauts from a technologically advanced society know way more about farming that mutli-generation ape farmers." 

Jason: It's my 2nd favorite episode of Little House on the Planet of the Apes, just behind the one with  guest star Johnny Cash! 

Trey: Don't give our readers false hope.

Jason: But yeah, it seems like Virdon has forgotten more about farming than these apes will ever know.

Trey: We're given a preview of this theme in the obligatory "heroes on the run" bit in the beginning: We're told apes don't know anything about the compass and can only tell direction at night by the stars. They can make firearms and snazzy uniforms, but not a compass.

Jason: Priorities! If you're going to run an ape-centric fascist society you're gonna need guns and jackboots. Advanced farming strategies can wait. 

Galen's first reaction when shown Virdon's hand-crafted compass is to ask "Is it witchcraft?"-- statement heavy with implications, none of which will be explored here. Give me ape witches, please!  

Trey: I think this may also be the first references to ape superstition/religion in the series! There is certainly much more talk of spirits here than in previous episodes.

Jason: Yes, and it's nice to be thrown a little world-building here and there in this otherwise standard pastoral tale. No details, but it makes my ears perk up when such hints are dropped about the setting. Speaking of which, we also get another glimpse of that wall map of North America, including additional X's and skulls, presumably to indicate areas still too irradiated for habitation, but we are given no clues. Give me Journey Into the Forbidden Zone on the Planet of the Apes! Okay, I'll stop making unreasonable demands now. 

Trey: Well, don't stop on my account! Anyway, the tenant farmer family is a mix of Old West and Medieval. Polar and his wife are like Western homesteaders. Remus could be the kid from Shane or similar. Anto on the other hand, acts like the superstitious villager from a time travel story.

Jason: The whole production skews toward the Western. I expect most of the actors and stuntmen portraying gorilla thugs on horseback were wearing cowboy hats and menacing Hoss and the boys at the Ponderosa not too long before. 

Trey: The scenic Fox Movie Ranch adds to that effect. So, the tenant farmers status adds another aspect to ape society we haven't before. IMDB says the script originally called for them to be gorillas. That would have been interesting, because we don't really get any "good" gorillas (or orangutans) in the series. On the other hand, having them be chimpanzees and disparage poor farmers breaks up the species caste system.

Jason: Low-status chimps..Or perhaps part of some back-to-nature movement?

Trey: Surely not chimp hippies! Though there is precedent with the anti-war protestors in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

Amusing that these poor farmers even have a strong idea of what is "human work" vs. "ape work."

Jason: The social commentary in this episode, as progressive as mid-70s TV productions got, of course, is definitely in the forefront. Uncomfortably so at times! One not-so-hilarious remark from Burke in particular sticks out like a sore thumb.  

Trey: I know the one you mean! But I like that the writers are thinking of the implications of ape vegetarianism and their society. The fact that they believe humans are dangerous to cows or could never keep them because they would just eat them is funny.

Jason: I enjoyed this as well. One of the few reminders that this program is ostensibly science fiction instead of a fantastic parable. It's nice to see something speculative once in a while.

Trey: The best part of the episode for me, though, is Anto's human impression. I feel like that ape should give up farming and move to the big city and become a comic on the simian equivalent of Vaudeville.

Jason: Oh yeah? I say ape humor has advanced about as much as their farming techniques. Keep trying, apes!

Trey: This episode was lower on the action/adventure aspect but took more time with the characters and worldbuilding (in a way) than previous episodes. The story, I suppose, is as formulaic as what came before, just in different ways, but the script perhaps made better use of that formula.

Jason: Formulaic, to be sure, but I agree that this episode worked better than it had the right to. It was my favorite so far. Sci-Fi action it was not, but it gave us some fun insights into ape culture as it ticked off the boxes. What's next, I wonder?

Trey: Well, from "good seeds" to a bad seed--or at least a kid in need of a good father figure. He's played by Jackie Earle Haley!

Jason: Onward!

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Back to the Planet of Apes: ep 3 "The Trap"

 "The Trap"
Airdate: September 27, 1974
Written by Edward J Lasko
Directed by Arnold Laven
Synopsis: The gorillas pursue our heroes to the ruins of San Francisco. When they are buried underground in an ancient subway station during an earthquake, Burke and Urko are forced to work together. Above ground, Galen and Virdon try to figure out a way to help Burke, with the reluctant assistance of several gorilla soldiers.

Trey: This episode was written by Edward Lasko who wrote a lot of TV back in the day, including episodes of Six Million Dollar Man, Mannix, The Mod Squad, 4 episodes of Wild Wild West, and one bad episode of Star Trek, "And the Children Shall Lead." How does he do here?

Jason: Well, it ain't Shakespeare! This episode had some of the clunkiest dialogue yet in the series, perhaps due to sloppy editing and time pressures in the production schedule. 

Trey: We're only two episodes in!

Jason: Three! Anyway, I'm not familiar with much of Lasko's work, but I get the feeling the old pro blasted this one out in one sitting, turned it in, congratulated himself on another job done, cashed his check and never looked back. All that said, I must admit that fun and amusement could still be harvested for those sympathetic to the franchise or 70s TV in general. 

Trey: Our perpetually on the run protagonists hide out with the Millers, a family of humans refreshingly at least passively resistant to ape hegemony.

Jason: Urko and Galen both know the town in question has a reputation for harboring fugitives, which suggests some kind of human resistance or at least non-compliance. Unless Astronauts intrude from the past in even greater numbers than the apes would care to admit!

Trey: Some bits and pieces of old wiring from a nearby ruined city give Virdon the hope there might be some near functioning technology left there.

Jason: Wires mean hope to Virdon, but Burke remains, perhaps sensibly, totally unconvinced.

Trey: I get that Burke is supposed to be more of the pessimist/realist about the prospects of returning home but given that his buddy has a wife and family he wants to get home to, he seems kind of dismissive and flippant at times! Show some sensitivity, guy!
Jason: We all cope in our own way! At least Burke is willing to go along with Virdon's plans, because what the hell else are you going to do on the POTA? I suppose he could settle down and begin a new life in a human village, but the company seems pretty lackluster thus far. 

Trey: The ruined streets of San Francisco are obviously a city street set on a studio backlot, but they dress it up nicely post-apocalyptically.  It does seem awfully well preserved for a nuclear holocaust, though.

Jason: It looked surprisingly good, I thought, though as the episode wore on it was clear they shot a handful of streets and alleys from every conceivable angle. I felt a twinge of sympathy for the studio workers who had to clean up all the apocalyptic mess after shooting. 

Trey: The ancient subway station and train, on the other hand, needed a bit of work. It looks like the small tram for a studio tour.

Jason: I didn't think of that, but now that you mention it, yeah, last stop, tour over.

Trey: Pretty good action sequences this episode.

Jason: Urko brought some appreciable gorilla-strength to his struggles with Burke, tossing him around effortlessly, which was the first hint of a disparity that I've detected in the series. 

The epic mano a mano brawl between Urko and Burke was an especially fun flavor of cheese. Between flying kicks and Judo chops, Burke and Urko engage in a verbal struggle straight out of a Marvel comics fight scene! Burke attempting to pummel the denial out of Urko, whose mind was blown by a poster advertising a rather barbaric-looking zoo that featured a gorilla behind bars. 

Trey: That poster and all the posters in the subway station demonstrate that printing technology suffered in the future!

Jason: Again, here I empathized with the beleaguered art department temp that had to crank these out before lunch. They were indeed crappy. 

Trey: Irritable Urko is amusing. He's constantly "fed up with this shit!" He's like the lieutenant tired of the cops that don't play by the rules.

Jason: Mark Lenard's back pain may be the inspiration! Roddy McDowell's ape-gait looks more sustainable...

Trey: Zako, Urko's lieutenant, gets to shine a bit this episode. I wonder if we'll ever get a payoff on his discovery of the truth about the past?

Jason: It would be nice! Zako's climactic choice is a dramatic highlight of the episode, indicating that gorillas are more than jack-booted thugs and that perhaps Urko is just an exceptionally grumpy ass.

So, what's your verdict on this one?

Trey: Overall, this is at its base a pretty cliched basic plot: enemies have to work together. I think it comes together pretty satisfyingly, though, and I like the way Burke maneuvers Urko. This also increases the stakes for Urko. These humans are not just a threat, they're a threat to his worldview. You?

Jason: My bottom line: I'm still entertained. Onward to Episode 4!


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