It's a strange quirk of Apes mythology that only three of the seven Planet of the Apes films have actually taken place on the titular world of that far-flung nightmarish future. Planet of the Apes, its first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Tim Burton’s dreary 2001 remake remain the only films to explicitly show the evolution turned upside-down scenario that Pierre Boulle dreamed up in 1963. The planet has always seemed like a goldmine for fresh stories though, so it's little surprise to see Archaia, BLAM! Ventures and author Andrew Gaska take advantage of the current ascendancy of the Apes with a story that takes us right back to the planet of the apes. Indeed, right back to the Planet of the Apes itself.
Taking place during the 1968 classic, Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes follows John Landon, one of the other three astronauts to land on the future Earth along with Charlton Heston's Taylor. In the film, he comes to a sticky off-screen end and Gaska follows his progress towards that deadly fate as he, Taylor and their compatriot Dodge crash land on the planet and try in vain to work out where they are. So far, so familiar, right? Indeed the first thing you notice about Conspiracy, the first ever official continuation novel of the Apes series, is just how unoriginal it is. Gaska recounts the opening act of the film almost verbatim with only subplots and flashbacks to break the repetition.
Thankfully, the author’s eye for character is as good as his eye for detail, and the early chapters open the leads out in ways Michael Wilson and Rod Serling's script never did. Landon, the serious professional, is focused only on the mission and he detests nihilistic hero Taylor, who’s only trying to prove his own cynical beliefs about mankind. They squabble and bicker, the tensions exacerbated by a mutual attraction to Maryann Stewart, the sole female crewmember who died in the crash. She forms a vital part of Conspiracy’s story, Gaska flashing back in time to a previous mission on which she and Landon served - the Juno flight to Jupiter. These sequences are actually among the weakest in the book, proving a frustrating diversion from the action on the planet of the apes itself, but they do up the dramatic stakes. Landon becomes a more tragic figure and Conspiracy a rich, rewarding and ultimately quite downbeat read.
Along with the human characters, these early sequences also set up Conspiracy's ape leads. Just as with their human counterparts, the apes from the film take a backseat, so although they appear don't go expecting much from Cornelius or Zira. In their stead, peripheral and sequel characters shine: General Ursus, the military gorilla from Beneath, Doctor Milo, the ill-fated ape who accompanied Cornelius and Zira to Earth in Escape, and Galen, Zira’s assistant who is mentioned very briefly in the first film – a testament to Gaska’s attention to detail. Ursus is eager to stamp out the human menace once and for all, Milo dreams of the power of flight, and Galen hopes to step out of Zira's shadow and impress the ape elders. Not all the ties to the original series work (the appearance of the subterranean mutant humans from Beneath seems contrived), but generally Gaska’s story plays beautifully. Conspiracy not only respects continuity, but enriches it.
Tying Gaska’s story together is a series of illustrations that makes the book a unique entity - not quite a novel, not quite a graphic novel. Graphic prose, if you like. It's an interesting idea that perhaps shouldn't work, but does - beautifully. The paintings, all created by different artists, including Matt Busch, Joe Jusko and Jim Steranko, add tone and texture to the novel, enveloping the reader further in Gaska’s story. The author scarcely needs them, so good is he at setting the scene, but they don't overpower his words or pander to the audience. They simply complement events, drawing the reader into the atmosphere and acting as beautiful pieces of art in their own right. A trilogy of paintings of the Forbidden Zone by David Hueso is particularly impressive, while a late shock scene is emphasised with a glorious two-page spread by Erik Gist. Archaia and BLAM! have struck upon a great format here and there are plenty of other sci-fi franchises that could benefit from their own version of Conspiracy.
Naturally, the story isn’t without its flaws. As the Star Wars Expanded Universe has shown, no mythology is invincible - stretch it too far and eventually it'll snap. Conspiracy bears this point out. Occasionally, Gaska relies too heavily on contemporary human sayings to illustrate the apes' emotions (would the word 'bitch' still exist as an insult this far into the future?) and there are some moments where the apes act a little too human that just don’t read right. An ape family sitting down for dinner is one thing, but an ape affair pushes the world too close to the familiar to retain the mythology's magic. The scenes between Galen's wife Liet and the ape Mungwortt are certainly well written and pivotal for the plot, but they do have a touch of the Midichlorian about them.
The novel ends as it has to, of course, and Gaska makes the most out of his character's pre-determined fate with some subtle foreboding and a chapter that's as gruesome as anything in a horror novel - if not more so because we’ve been given so much to like about Landon. It leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth, but that’s no bad thing – in fact it’s exactly what an Apes story should do. Gaska has not just replicated place and character, but also tone and themes, with intolerance, prejudice and hatred all coursing through the book. They help make Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes not just a great continuation novel, or even just a great science fiction novel, but a great novel in its own right. A sequel is reportedly already in the works, so it’s well worth catching up before there are as many Apes novels as there are Apes films.
Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes is out now from Archaia Entertainment