Atomic Roundtable: Timelines Gone Ape!

Okay, the election is behind us and the holiday season is not yet here. We have been given a breather, a moment in which to pause and reflect.

So let’s talk about Planet of the Apes continuity. All of it.

The fact that this is what we have chosen to reflect on…. look, this is who we ARE, okay? You should have known that when you clicked on the link. This is probably the deepest dive into nerd theory we’ve ever taken here and for this crew, that’s saying something. You can all blame Hatcher, he started it.


Greg: The trigger was, I was telling somebody about this new anthology from Titan Books that I loved so much, Tales From The Forbidden Zone, and he said, “But which Apes are they using? There’s so many different versions of Planet of the Apes that it’s impossible to keep them straight!”

Well, first of all, I grew up on DC comics with its multiple Earths, not to mention the Legion of Super-Heroes and Hawkman. Next to those, Planet of the Apes is nothing; you can come whining to me after you’ve tried to figure out which iteration of Hawkman served in the JSA and the JLA and if it was actually the same guy or not. I was opening my mouth to say something like that when suddenly it hit me, how you reconcile ALL the different versions out there. The original movies, the TV show, the cartoon, the comics, the 2001 movie and the new ones with Andy Serkis– all of it. Everything.

Jim: Which inevitably raises the question of why you’d want to. But the Roy Thomas urge to “make it all fit” is a strong genetic pull….

Greg: Well, my defense is that I’m not trying to make a STORY out of it. This is more the “No-Prize” impulse, the same sort of fan wrangle that powers the Wold Newton guys and the Baker Street Irregulars. Though I admit that being an enthusiastic participant in that stuff while decrying Roy Thomas doing an annual to explain why the Sub-Mariner changed his swim trunks, or sneering at Geoff Johns explaining Barry Allen’s bow tie, is the rankest sort of hypocrisy and I am guilty of it. Let’s just say this is how my brain works. Sometimes I can’t help myself. I have to let my inner fanboy pedant fly free.

Anyway. So let’s list the different versions. There are the original five movies…

…the television show…

…the Marvel comics that ran at the same time as the show but with a completely different storyline and cast…

…the cartoon….

…the 2001 Tim Burton movie…

…and finally the new trilogy of movies with Andy Serkis.

All of these different continuities are separate, and most of them had additional individual ancillary products, toys, original novels, whatever.

But basically those are the versions. That’s what you are trying to reconcile.

Greg: I’ll grant you, at first glance it seems impossible. And God knows people have fallen on this sword before. I think the Marvel magazine took a swing at a timeline once, but that was just the first five movies and the TV show. I’m not sure they even included their own comics. And there is a newer book from Rich Handley but I don’t think he dared to take on the new trilogy in it, just the old-school stuff.

Though I could be wrong about that.

John: It’s definitely just the original continuity. Rich’s book came out in 2009, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the first of the new movie trilogy, came out in 2011. Rich is good (I heartily recommended Watching Time, his comprehensive Watchmen chronology here a couple of years back), but he’s not that good. Unless he’s got access to time-travel technology that he’s not letting the rest of us in on. Which, considering how good he is at reconciling differing fictional timelines, is entirely possible.

Jim: I think the hang-up is the competing agendas of the people paying the bills for each version. The original films wanted to wrap things up, and tried like hell to close the loop, at least for the first three, before they resigned themselves to it. The TV show wanted to adhere to Fred Allen’s observation that “imitation is the sincerest form of television,” so they did what TV producers always do, they hammered the show into resembling a previous successful show; it became “The Fugitive with fur.” The cartoon wanted to sell toys, the Marvel version wanted the never-changing status quo that comics always seek. Burton did what he always does: he made a movie for the sake of showing off his sketchbook of cool visual designs; things like plot and character and logic are always secondary or tertiary concerns to him. The current crop are caught up in the twin bugbears of photorealistic CGI and the need to make the fantastic look and sound perfectly logical and reasonable. My inclination is toward Rod Serling’s urge to use the fantastic as an allegory through which to make sly humanistic socio-political commentary. So yeah, reconciling these divergent approaches ought to be interesting.

Greg: Well, sure. There are prosaic real-world explanations for all of it, mostly budget things. The original movies were done with the ape civilizations as low-tech agrarian cultures because the studio decided it would be easier to shoot the first movie like a western, horses and wagons, on the Fox ranch. The cartoon version of Ape City was higher tech, conversely, because it’s easier to animate a jeep than a horse– Saturday morning TV animation was so limited at the time it was barely a step up from a slide show.

But none of that matters. The game of fanboy theory and continuity, as established by the Baker Street Irregulars over a century ago, is you must work with the text. You can only go with what’s been established in published work, in-story.

John: Okay, with you so far. So how do we do that?

Greg: In this case, the key is time travel. The original series of five movies set up a causation loop. I’m going to spoil a lot of these, but screw it, the franchise has been around for fifty years. I’m betting if you got this far you can cope.

So everyone thinks you start with Charlton Heston as the primary timeline.

But you really can’t. It doesn’t work. Especially when you try to reconcile the dates and times given in the original five movies. Hell, there’s fifty years’ difference in the dates given between the first and second of the Heston movies. So forget the dates, they’re from chronometers of crashed spaceships anyway. Assume they got broken in the crash. All you need is “thousands of years from now.” Apes rule the Earth and man has degenerated to a feral animal state.

How did we get there? The movies always posited nuclear war and mutation. But the apes didn’t KNOW. In fact the orangutan class of scholars have deliberately covered the history up. All iterations of Dr. Zaius, in every version of the story, have hidden the truth from the ape population at large that once humans ruled the planet. Even those orangutan scholars are just operating from half-remembered legends, and the occasional human artifact. There’s nothing certain there. The truth of the matter is that biology, even irradiated human and ape biology, doesn’t work that way. Not at a planetary level. Species don’t change that radically over a couple of thousand years, not through radiation. Mostly they’d just get cancer and die.

But bioweapons, those are different. Some kind of germ or virus. Like what James Franco invents in the first of the new movies.

It’s that compound, and the accompanying ‘simian flu,’ that gives us the world Charlton Heston lands his crashed ship on. That world is the primary timeline. And something that is overlooked among Apes fans is that it’s Charlton Heston as Taylor in the first movie that actually changes history, not Cornelius and Zira traveling back to the seventies in the third movie.

Taylor says it clearly in his log entry at the beginning of the movie; the ship is moving through a “Hasslein curve,” some sort of time-space fold. And after this it’s Taylor that instigates the series of events that eventually end up with the planet getting nuked by the Doomsday Bomb in the second movie, the reason Cornelius and Zira and Dr. Milo fled in the rebuilt NASA spacecraft to land in 1973 in the third movie. Dr. Hasslein himself shows up in that third movie to explain this further, how time is changeable, and a time traveler can create paradoxes.

These events in the first three movies are all changes to the primary timeline, the Andy Serkis one. So now the rise of the apes starts much earlier, not in the 2010s with James Franco and Caesar, but instead in the 1990s with Ricardo Montalban and Caesar in the fourth movie, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

Greg: But that still leaves the problem of biology and mutation. By the 1990s, according to Conquest, apes moved from being house pets to being, not just well-trained animals, but actually intelligent, a sort of aboriginal slave class. In twenty years. By the time of Battle For The Planet of the Apes, roughly a decade later than that, the apes were all talking and living in authority over what was left of the human population in an uneasy truce.

We also know that humans are mutating, due to radiation from nuclear detonations in whatever war– or wars, possibly more than one– that have taken place since Caesar led the slave revolt against Governor Breck in Conquest.

But again, this isn’t hard scientific data, just talk, the accepted explanation. Civilization was collapsing all over the planet, atom bombs going off, it wasn’t like anyone commissioned any university studies on this stuff. But with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the main change wrought by George Taylor’s original Hasslein fold is only that the rise of the apes came earlier. But the evolution of simians from zoo animals as established in Escape From The Planet of the Apes, to fully sapient beings in Conquest, capable of acting as cashiers and waiters and so on, in less than twenty years? That couldn’t possibly have been caused by Caesar acting as some sort of patient zero for increased intelligence.

No, this has to be a mutation brought about by our old friend the simian flu, from the Serkis timeline. It’s still around. Chances are it’s been affected by radiation, activated somehow; but we can thus infer that James Franco’s intelligence formula was only an accelerant, not the primary cause of apes exponentially increasing in intelligence over the course of fifteen years or so. Because in the Heston timeline, apes rose just as rapidly, without the Franco formula.

This also explains the distorted version of ape history Cornelius gives in Escape From the Planet of the Apes, and suggests that journeying back through the Hasslein fold — or vortex, whatever, we have to call it something– results in further time alterations with each journey though it– in either direction. This is important, we’re coming back to it later.

Edo: As the only one here who kind of likes the Burton film, this just stopped me from being the guy in the back of the room constantly raising his hand and saying, ‘But what about….?’

Greg: So after Battle, we are left with the question of whether the loop started by George Taylor is inevitable. The idea is that maybe humans and apes have learned to live in peace. That we need not be destined to end with the detonation of the Doomsday Bomb in another two thousand years or so.

Except it’s established in Battle that Kolp and his demented underground civilization already have the Doomsday Bomb.

It wasn’t in the final cut of the movie, but scenes with it were filmed, and David Gerrold put those scenes in his novelization. He makes it very clear that this will eventually become the underground enclave of sadistic scarred telepaths worshiping the bomb we saw in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

So it’s there, established. We have to live with it. So far we are still immutably on track to the detonation.

John: Because it’s not a Planet of the Apes story unless mankind destroys itself somehow. I swear, this franchise makes the Mad Max movies look positively upbeat.

Greg: Now, after Battle, we have a long stretch of time where we have humans and apes co-existing in a post-apocalyptic landscape. This is where you put stuff like the comics, specifically the Marvel magazines and the Boom Studios books.

And it’s also where you put the short-lived live-action TV series.

It’s this TV series that concerns us, because this is the next time we see time travel through a Hasslein fold. Another spaceship crashes and surviving astronauts Alan Virdon and Pete Burke have to make their way across this freaky new Earth where apes rule and humans are slaves (but NOT feral.)

This tells us that the events of the first three movies, in particular Taylor’s crash and the detonation of the Doomsday Bomb, are still a long way off.

John: That seems like a logical extrapolation, at least as far as the ape and human societies are concerned. But didn’t the TV series establish–or at least imply–that Virdon and Burke’s adventures occurred sometime after the adventures of Taylor and Brent in Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes?

Greg: Several things were established on the TV show. The first is that there have been other time-traveling astronauts that have crashed in this time period. It’s why Urko and Zaius are so adamant about capturing Virdon and Burke. So already we have some temporal oddities here.

And also– this is key– it’s established that human scientists have left caches of technology and instructions on how to use it in vaults and bomb shelters scattered all over North America. And at least two survived to the time of the apes where Virdon and Burke landed and befriended the chimpanzee Galen. We saw them actually find one of them.

So Virdon and Burke are the only time-traveling astronauts with a real shot at getting home to their own time. No setting off with a hot girl on horseback to find their destinies for them, no sir, they are headed BACK to the 1980s. Virdon especially is obsessed with this (though one suspects that if Burke had found a willing woman as lovely as Taylor’s Nova and the ape military gave up chasing him, Burke would have been perfectly okay with settling down where he was.)

And they did make it back. This was established.

Or at least the possibility was. See, after the show was canceled, the studio cut together several of the episodes to make movies for syndication.

Those movies were presented as the reminiscences of an aged Galen, looking back fondly on his adventures with the human astronauts, that concluded in this way: “They found their computer in another city and disappeared into space as suddenly as they’d arrived.”

This is important because it solves a major problem. Several of them, in fact.

See, the thing that made fans crazy about trying to fit together the various paradoxes scattered throughout the original Apes saga is that they don’t fit. Period.

(Real-world interlude: This is because no one ever thought the thing was going to go on as long as it did. Charlton Heston only agreed to do the second movie if they killed the entire franchise. It seems weird to modern audiences where we have someone like Hugh Jackman who’s been Wolverine in a dozen different movies, but actors used to be terrified of getting locked into a series. So the whole Planet of the Apes phenomenon was fueled primarily by Arthur Jacobs and a bewildered studio trying to wring a few more bucks out of it, and the approach to the scripting was always a sort of well-NOW-what attitude, just trying to extricate themselves from whatever mess they’d made with the ending they’d used in the last movie.)

So finding out that Virdon and Burke return to their own time is a great gift for us trying to sort all this history out. Because clearly, they changed history. Again.

John: …Again? But that trick never works!

Greg: How do we know this? Because of technology. When the Doomsday Bomb was detonated in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, ape culture was primitive. Horses and wagons. No industrial tech at all, not even steam-engine stuff. If the world ended then, that’s as far as they got.

But we have seen that the apes did get further along.

In Return to the Planet of the Apes, we see many familiar faces–the apes Cornelius, Zira, Zaius, as well as humans Brent, Nova, and the mutant Underdwellers — but the world around them has changed.

Radios, jeeps, TV, even laser technology. Not half-baked improvisations based on salvaged human equipment, this is clearly all of ape design and origin, a fully-realized simian civilization equal to the human cities of the 20th century.

What happened?

Obviously a third timeline has been created, a new set of changes layered over the ones made by Taylor and his friends. It had to have been the result of Virdon and Burke’s efforts to change the future they had accidentally been thrown into.

Consider it. They are military men, NASA astronauts, men of science. They have a duty to report what they’ve seen. And they have seen the future and it’s terrifying. War, mutation, all manner of post-apocalyptic nastiness. And also the rise of apes to become the dominant intelligence on Earth. Both men asked repeatedly throughout the course of the series, how did this happen? Virdon and Burke only have fragments, but they had access to the records left behind by the cadre of scientists in the various underground bunkers. Some of them, anyway. Those records are only of human civilization, they wouldn’t help with anything that happened after the apes rose to power… but certainly, the scientists would be aware of key flashpoints that led to the final war, as well as the horrific consequences of a nuclear arms race. Virdon and Burke would be aware of all this as well and returning to the late seventies, early eighties, whenever, for them it becomes foreknowledge. Obviously, then, they would be driven men, desperate to head off the coming disaster.

There’s a story to be told there, probably. Did they make any headway inside the military? Or were they dismissed as crackpots, marginalized into being some sort of fight-the-future peacenik movement? I don’t know. But the important part is we can extrapolate a couple of things. Because of their interference in the timeline we can be sure of several developments — the series of events that launched George Taylor and his companions into the original Hasslein fold was altered to the point where that timeline doesn’t happen, or at least it plays out differently, because the Doomsday Bomb is never detonated. Chances are the bomb was never built at all.

Greg: And the other thing we can extrapolate is that the United States government became obsessed with two things– space/time physics and genetic manipulation. (This is why I tend to believe Virdon and Burke worked within the system, successfully persuading their NASA superiors that their experiences were genuine and that future could be headed off.) Because now we have missions specifically tasked with exploring time travel– that would be Judy Franklin, Jeff Allen, and Bill Hudson from the animated series — and also genetic manipulation of simian intelligence as seen with the voyage of the Oberon and astronaut Leo Davidson in the 2001 version of Planet of the Apes.

We’ll set Leo’s adventures to the side for the moment, because most of them don’t take place on Earth at all. He and the Oberon accidentally created their own causal-loop paradox in a different star system, and for the most part it is its own separate thing.

(I’ll get back to it, I promise.) But we have a different problem now. If Virdon and Burke were successful in changing the future, then how did the apes still gain intelligence and rise to power? How did man sink to a feral state?

We’ve already explained why the cause has to be biological. The simian flu, never eradicated in any timeline and gone unrecognized in most of them. And here’s the kicker– I think it must have been brought back to the late 20th century by Virdon and Burke. They were the patients zero for this plague. Probably, in the future world they were returning from, the germ had gone dormant as the planet stabilized. But they were still exposed to it, they had to have been, now they’ve brought it back. As the two astronauts are debriefed and interviewed and flown all over the world to confer with the big brains of the time, the disease and its accompanying potential for mutation spreads. This is what happens while Bill Hudson and his crew are off-planet, and Leo Davidson is out in interstellar space with the Oberon. This time the fall of man is in slow-motion; chances are that Virdon and Burke managed to stave off the nuclear holocaust. But biology is relentless. The process isn’t as accelerated as it was with James Franco’s Caesar in Rise or with Ricardo Montalban’s Caesar in Conquest — in this third timeline there may not even BE a Caesar– but it still happens. Another causal loop has been created, this time by Virdon and Burke’s trips through the Hasslein fold both forward and back.

So man still falls into a feral state, as we see in Return

…and as Leo Davidson discovers when he makes it home, intelligent apes rule the Earth.

So there you have it. All the timelines. Sorted. Complex, but still easier than Hawkman.

John: Most things are.

Jim: Where does the original Pierre Boulle novel fit into this?

Greg: Ha! There’s one in every crowd.

Not very many people have read this one, so let me recap it quickly. This is the novel that became the first movie, Planet of the Apes. Our human hero is Ulysse Mérou, a writer who accompanies a brilliant professor and his assistant on an interstellar voyage to Betelgeuse. Once there, they crash on an Earth-like planet and discover that apes are intelligent and humans are feral. From there, events mostly play out as we saw in the first Charlton Heston movie… Ulysse meets and falls in love with a silent human girl he names Nova, he befriends the chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira, it is revealed that humans once ruled the planet, and Ulysse, Nova and their newborn son flee into space before Zaius and the council have them killed to prevent a human revolution. Ulysse steers them to Earth where it is revealed that apes have supplanted humans there as well.

Do we need a fourth timeline to explain this? No. Because Boulle wrote it as a framed story, the adventures of Ulysse and his friends are described in a manuscript discovered floating in a bottle in space by an interstellar vessel using technology far beyond anything we could even extrapolate, a faster-than-light ship using solar sails.

And the kicker is, it is revealed in the ending to the novel– the voyagers operating this starship are chimpanzees, who dismiss the entire tale of intelligent humans as too far-fetched to even be worth considering. “It just shows there are poets everywhere, in every corner of the cosmos, and practical jokers, too!”

So all you have to explain is the existence of the manuscript. There’s any number of ways to do that. Chances are it really WAS written by an ape, some sort of avant-garde type who heard a distorted tale of what happened with Bill Hudson and his posse, putting it together out of legend the same way Edgar Rice Burroughs claimed to have based Tarzan on a story told to him by a drunken African explorer. But what it does do, for our nerdy no-prize purposes, is establish firmly and finally that the Doomsday Bomb never went off, because apes not only survived but thrived to the point where they achieved star travel… and man sank to a level so primitive that the apes never believed he had sapience at all. Boulle’s narrative clearly is set thousands and thousands of years in the future — Ulysse’s manuscript says he left for space in the year 2500, which is the far, far past for the chimps that find it; an era as mythological for them as the Arabian Nights is for us.

And there it is. The fall of man and the rise of the apes, as it happens across three separate timelines, despite the best efforts of humankind to head it off. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

John: (Slow clap) Bravo, sir. A brilliant bit of fanboy extrapolation that plugs a lot of plot holes. We’re going to have to expand on this theory later to find a place for the comic book crossovers like Ape Nation (POTA mashed up with Alien Nation), Star Trek/Planet of the Apes: The Primate Directive, Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern, and Kong on the Planet of the Apes.

Edo: Well then, don’t forget Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes.

John: Now… How come Taylor’s ship went off into space to repopulate the human race with three men and only one woman?


      1. Edo Bosnar

        Hey! Just to be clear: it’s John that was all insistent on bringing up the crossovers – I just figured as long as he’s doing that he can’t leave any out. (Although I have to say, if the movie studios ever come together and decide to do a crossover starring Serkis, Skarsgard, Robbie and Jackson, I’d watch the hell out of that. But I guess that’s neither here nor there…)

  1. “But the apes didn’t KNOW. In fact the orangutan class of scholars have deliberately covered the history up. All iterations of Dr. Zaius, in every version of the story, have hidden the truth from the ape population at large that once humans ruled the planet.”
    Except in Escape, where Cornelius and Zira know all about it. I’m not sure that’s explicable.
    Excellent job, though I’ll admit I don’t know if enough Ape details to really evaluate it.

      1. I think Zira and Cornelius know about it from four sources:

        1. Zira and Cornelius are scientists (animal psychologist and archeologist, respectively), so they know more than the lay-ape would.
        2. They know what the Lawgiver’s scrolls teach about humans, and initially have a close relationship with Dr. Zaius, who may have let some of his own knowledge slip along the way.
        3. They had however long it took to make the journey to the ’70s with Dr. Milo, who no doubt knew a little about a lot of things.
        4. There may well have been a “lunatic fringe” of conspiracy-theorist apes, and it turned out that some of their ideas were true.

        1. Jim’s first two were my two. I’d add that they also explain why it is a distorted version of the history, where Aldo is a hero and not a murderer as we saw in BATTLE. The version Cornelius gives sounds like oral history, a legend handed down over generations. Which suggests he got it from Zaius. My feeling is that it’s part of the deal he cut with Cornelius and Zira to avoid them going on trial for heresy; threats alone wouldn’t have done it, not with Zira. So Zaius told them what he knew as part of his efforts to persuade them to stay quiet– in other words, not JUST threats, but also trying to get them on his side, make them realize that keeping it quiet was the right thing to do.

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