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Review: Return to the Planet of the Apes December 8, 2020

Posted by sjroby in Uncategorized.
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Suppose I told you that, long before Game of Thrones and Westworld, long before Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, there was a serialized science fiction TV series that told a story with some standalone moments but that was focused on its ongoing arc elements. And it was based on the Planet of the Apes movies. And it wasn’t the live action TV series, it was the Saturday morning cartoon, revolutionizing science fiction storytelling on TV. And it was called Return to the Planet of the Apes.

Well, obviously you’d tell me I was nuts, and to be fair, the above is an exaggeration. The show was probably looking back at the old 1930s serials like Flash Gordon more than it was looking forward to anything. The episode titles, like “Flames of Doom,” “Lagoon of Peril,” “Attack From the Clouds,” etc, certainly have that old-timey flair rather than modern day lens flare. And yet.

I only saw a little of this back in the day, because reception for the channel that aired it was really bad where I lived. But at least I had the three novelizations, which retold at least part of the story. They’ve recently been reprinted as Planet of the Apes Omnibus 4 by Titan Books.

Return to the Planet of the Apes is a sidestep from the main continuity of the movies. The first clue is that it’s set a couple of decades after the Earth is destroyed at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, on a noticeably not destroyed Earth. It also replays a lot of the beats from the beginnings of the first two movies, though with new characters. Finally, its ape civilization is much more technologically advanced than that in the earlier movies. Ape City is like a 20th century American city, with TV, newspapers, country music radio, trucks, and howitzers, though for all we know it may be the only city of its kind.

Over the course of its thirteen episodes, the show tells a tale, interrupted by cancellation, of the time-travelling American astronauts trying to save the mute and uncivilized humans (referred to as humanoids) of the 40th century to a place where they’ll be safe from being rounded up for slave labour or experimentation. Developments in one episode, like the discovery of a 1940s airplane, play out over a few episodes. It’s not like the live action series, which as I recall is about its main characters wandering into a new area, helping the humans, getting chased and maybe temporarily captured by Urko’s ape army, then moving on to the next place for pretty much the same experience. The animated series makes progress in building a human settlement, in the Ape City political rivalry between ape leaders, and in discovering and making connections with other groups of beings (the Underdwellers and the mountain apes).

That’s not to say this is a wrongfully forgotten lost classic. Even for 1970s animation, it sometimes looks remarkably cheap, though the design and art can be surprisingly good. There’s also a small voice acting cast and it sounds like they double up on roles, sometimes using fake-sounding voices. And some of the voice acting is stiff and lifeless. The dialogue is rarely impressive. But if you’re a fan of the Planet of the Apes franchise and haven’t seen this, it’s worth a look.

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