Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes
By Andrew E.C. Gaska
Jim Steranko, Matt Busch, Patricio Carbajal,
Colo, Dave Dorman, Erik Gist, Lucas Graciano, Scott Hampton,
David Hueso, Joe Jusko, Ken Kelly, Timothy Lantz, Leo Leibelman,
Miki, Christopher Moeller, Andrew Probert, Brian Rood, Sanjulian,
Chris Scalf, Tom Scioli, David Seidman, Dirk Shearer, Barron Storey,
Mark Texeira, Daniel Dussault and Chandra Free.
Archaia Entertainment, LLC, 2011
272 pgs; Hardcover
Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.
– The Sacred Scrolls
Though author Pierre Boulle considered his 1963 novel La planète des singes to be one of his lesser works, this wry, sci-fi parable garnered critical acclaim upon publication and lead to one of the most beloved franchises in motion picture history: The Planet of the Apes.
With its subtle social commentary, 1968’s The Planet of the Apes (penned by Michael Wilson and sci-fi god Rod Serling) was a box-office and critical success, leading to four more features, two reboots, two television series and a countless number of comic books and graphic novels. In its original incarnation, the Apes films garnered a devout following as each movie built upon the cannon which had come before, each film more inventive and thematically complex than the prior (well, at least up until the final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes). A lot of the credit for this can go to screenwriter Paul Dehn who served up thoughtful science fiction in films two through four, and didn’t pull any punches or talk down to his potential audience. Unwell at the time of the ill-advised fifth film, Dehn was replaced by John and Joyce Corrington (The Omega Man), two writers who later admitted to never having seen any of the prior Apes film before writing that film. In many circles, the loss of Dehn’s unique perspective was a major factor in the shuttering of the original franchise.
The fan base for Apes is devout and not one to suffer fools lightly. Tim Burton’s 2001 reinvention—which abandoned all the hallmarks of the series in favor of an uninspired action story—was largely rejected by fans. 20th Century Fox’ 2011 reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was more warmly received, but it largely jettisoned both subtlety and the brilliant origin story laid out in the earlier Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.
It is entirely coincidental that Drew Gaska’s illustrated novel Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes landed on store shelves just as Rise was hitting motion picture screens, but its arrival could not have been any better timed for those fans hungry for more of the original Apes philosophy. Officially licensed by FOX, Conspiracy is not a movie tie-in adaptation. Rather, it is a return to the Ape City as envisioned by Wilson, Serling, Dehn and producer Arthur P. Jacobs, and manages, rather brilliantly, to be both a loving tribute to the original vision and a careful expansion of the cannon that fans have come to know (and protect) so well.
Taking place during the events of the original 1968 film, Conspiracy wisely explores a number of minor characters from that picture to tell a story that, prior hereto, has gone untold. And in the process, Gaska manages to weave together a coherent continuity between the original films, filling in holes and solving huge inconsistencies.
Our story follows what happened to astronaut John Landon after his and George Taylor’s spacecraft crashes into a planet where Apes rules and man is subjugated. Separated from Charlton Heston’s Taylor, we follow Landon and see the events which lead to his demise in the form of a pre-frontal lobotomy. Though the Taylor character is jettisoned early in the novel, Gaska does give us enough time with the crew of Liberty 1 to set up the personal dynamics as Landon, Taylor and astronaut Thomas Dodge begin their long trek across the desert. Heston’s Taylor is as smug and overbearing as he appears in the film (Gaska perfectly captures Heston’s vocal cadence and hubris). It seems our hero Landon is not a fan, Taylor’s cynicism and brashness annoying and abrasive. It doesn’t help that Taylor shows no desire to return to earth, nor any sadness about the loss of fellow astronaut Maryann Stewart who perished long before Liberty 1 was lost in the alien sea. Conversely, Landon has many regrets about the loss of Stewart, a woman with whom he’d had a long professional history (as part of the prior Juno/Mars mission) and a torrid extra-marital affair.
Marooned and dealing not only with the loss of Stewart but also the realization that his entire family back on Earth is long since dead, Landon feels his hatred of Taylor blossom as the trio traverses the Forbidden Zone. Taylor clearly sees himself as the Alpha male, the one man who will tame and conquer this brave new world with or without his fellow astronaut’s cooperation, a fact he makes abundantly clear when he takes charge of the only weapon between them. Or perhaps it is simply Landon being paranoid. Or is it something more…something within the Forbidden Zone which makes him consider the voices in his head telling him to “Kill your enemy.” Surely, Landon is losing his grip on reality as he begins hallucinating, reliving scenes from his past life, especially those involving Maryann.
When a gorilla security force hunts a group of humans in a now iconic cornfield scene, Landon is separated from his fellow astronauts and, after some initial “intake” procedures, is secretly given to a chimpanzee, Dr. Galen, who—unlike his colleague Dr. Zira—has questionable scientific methods, largely informed by a desire to rise politically within the scientific branch of Ape society. Finding himself unable to speak and, ultimately, without control of his own mind, Landon must find a way to communicate and escape or suffer a terrible fate…a fate we know is inevitable.
Gaska is clearly a fan of the original film franchise, but make no mistake…Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes is not a piece of fan fiction; rather, it is an lovingly and artfully constructed work of fiction. Gaska’s prose is fluid and easy and his dialog is smart and realistic, the latter a particularly tricky situation given that the potential audience knows the voices of many of the characters before they even crack open the book.
Wisely, Gaska did not venture into a mere retelling of the first Apes film and those who are looking for major appearances by Taylor, Zira and Cornelius may be disappointed as they appear in little more than “cameos.” Instead he focuses on relatively minor characters and creates outstanding backstories for each of them, stories that have a direct bearing on events that transpire in the sequel films.
Landon, of course, is the first of these minor characters and, at first glance, he is a tough character to love. His dislike of Taylor and his mourning of Stewart play a huge part in his early personality, resulting in numerous internal dialogs that are alternately angry and, at times, whiny. He feels almost off balance and the reader is left to wonder how this seemingly unstable man was ever chosen to be an ANSA astronaut. But there is a method to Gaska (and Landon’s) madness at work here as it slowly dawns on the reader that Landon seems unstable because his mind is truly not his own. For deep in the Forbidden Zone are a group of mutants who are all too aware of the presence of the Liberty 1 crew and the potential threat they represent. By the time Landon start hallucinating, the reader realizes the mutants are in control here and they will do with Landon as they see fit.
The influence of the Mutants is a device Gaska also masterfully uses to solve a major problem of any novel that takes on a story within the time frame of the original movie…if Landon talks, doesn’t that invalidate the shock the Apes express when Heston’s character shouts “Take your stinking paws off me you damn, dirty ape”? By having the mutants controlling Landon, preventing him from speaking lest he rile up an army of Apes, Gaska creates a plausible reason for Landon’s silence while remaining faithful to the film.
One of the most difficult tricks in fiction is having a lead character mourn someone who has died “off screen” as Landon does. The reader won’t know this person who is being mourned; they won’t feel the loss because they never “knew” them. Gaska again utilizes the mutant’s control of Landon’s mind to solve this potential problem, creating one of the most legitimate uses of literary “flashbacks” I have seen to date. This way, we meet Stewart and understand what the loss of her means to our hero and, in the process, Gaska creates an engaging “B” story in which he can explore a piece of Apes lore that never went beyond a mere mention in the films…the Juno/Mars mission. And it’s a rich backstory he weaves here with intrigue and deception of its own.
Another minor character that receives great treatment in Conspiracy is Milo, the chimpanzee scientist played Sal Mineo in the third film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes. For those unfamiliar with the films, the planet of the apes was destroyed at the end of the second film when Heston’s character detonates The Holy Bomb, leaving screenwriter Dehn is a quandary when studio execs called for another film. How, exactly, does one do another Apes film when the entire planet was destroyed? Quite simply…that tried and true sci-fi staple…time travel. But Dehn put his spin on it with a clever role reversal. This time, Apes would return to Earth when humans still ruled supreme: 1973. As it turns out, the young and inventive Dr. Milo found and salvaged Liberty 1 and he, along with Zira and Cornelius, escaped the destruction, entered a time warp and ended up back on earth.
Unfortunately, in the film, Dr. Milo is killed before the end of the first reel. Again, Gaska finds fertile creative ground to plow in Conspiracy and Milo becomes a full-blooded and uniquely charming character in his own right. Gaska gives us the story of the resurrection of Liberty 1 and again gives us answers the filmmakers never could.
In that third film there is also a character named Dr. Otto Hasslein, played with brilliant malevolence by Eric Braeden. As revealed in Escape, Hasslein is adamant that the Planet of the Apes should never be allowed to come to be; yet he unwittingly becomes, in essence, the father of the Apes’ evolution into masters. Although the Hasslein character never rises above that of a “cameo” in Conspiracy, his presence is felt throughout the novel and, thereby, Gaska creates a palpable underlying tension that rings utterly true to the franchise.
Gaska also focuses on other minor and not so minor characters in the franchise. The gorilla military leader General Ursus (James Gregory in Beneath the Planet of the Apes) and the orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans in the first two films) appear prominently in the novel, Gaska capturing their voices exceptionally well. Dr. Galen, a minor character in the films, is front and center and chillingly (if not blindingly) evil, and Marcus—another member of the military and virtually unnamed in the films—becomes a rich, central character as well.
Gaska has clearly done his homework and doesn’t just rely on his own memories and impressions of the Apes films. He digs deep, sometimes referencing characters or events in the television series, comics and even promotional material from the original films. And he ties it all together with great skill, filling in all the missing pieces of the puzzle. It is, in fact, interesting to this reviewer that no one in the long, storied history of the franchise has ever attempted to tell the story that Gaska delivers so well.
There are a few minor flaws in the novel that I would be remiss not to mention. While the flashback to the Juno/Mars mission are well done and mostly interesting, Gaska tends to focus a bit too much on the relationship between Landon and Stewart rather than the possible “conspiracy” aboard the vessel. There’s only so much “pining” a reader can take and this does, at times, result in a drag on the pacing. The resolution of the conspiracy theory is a bit predictable, as well. I was looking for something more directly related to the main story. That having been said, however, the final scene of the Juno mission provides one of the most Dehn/Serling moments in the entire novel…a very, very nice touch.
Another flaw is one over which Gaska has little control, a problem that plagues the film franchise as well…and that is the fact that the Apes and their society are always far more interesting than their human counterparts. Such is the case here. As well as Gaska has drawn Landon, I found myself anxious to get to the next Apes experience. But, again, I don’t know that any writer could overcome this fact.
On the production side, the novel could have benefited from one more pass by the copyeditor. Though not overwhelming, there are some typos, a paragraph break mid-sentence and a few misused words (“prostate” substituted for “prostrate”; “NASA” substituted for “ANSA”). The volume is, however, beautifully bound and printed on high-quality, glossy pages with over 30 full-color illustrations and 20 black and white illustrations by some of the hottest graphic artists around. For Apes collectors, this will make a stunning addition to their collection and could easily be priced higher than the $24.95 list price. For non-Apes fans, it’s a beautiful addition to their libraries.
In the end, Gaska reveals himself as a skilled storyteller and a masterful juggler. With his attention to detail and extensive knowledge of the franchise, he not only puts forth a highly entertaining work of science fiction, but also weaves a discordant and often contradictory history into a highly logical summation. Most importantly, however, Gaska stays true to the vision and tone first birthed by writers Boulle, Serling and Dehn by delving deep into the political, religious and sociological aspect of Apes society and holding the Ape mirror up to humankind. A welcome addition to the Apes franchise.