REVIEW: EMCE TOYS PLANET OF THE APES RETRO-MEGO-STYLE DR. ZAIUS
Back in the 1970's, the action figure world was pretty much ruled by a company called Mego. They had a wide range of licenses, including the characters from both DC and Marvel Comics, an impressive feat in and of itself, the legendary science-fiction series Star Trek, and quite a few others -- including the popular concept known as -- PLANET OF THE APES!
Based rather loosely, at least in content if not basic concept, on a novel written by Pierre Boulle, the cinematic Planet of the Apes used amazing prosthetic make-up effects to make the actors in the movie look decidedly simian, without entirely losing their humanity in the process (my biggest gripe with the 2001 Tim Burton reboot was that the characters looked too ape-like). The initial movie followed the adventures of a stranded astronaut named Taylor, played to great effect by Charlton Heston, as he believes himself marooned on a strange world where the human race is a non-intelligent animal species, and the dominant intelligent life on the planet is -- apes, divided into three categories: chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas.
Taylor finds out at the tail end of the movie that he's really back on Earth -- two thousand years in the future. The initial movie, released in the decidedly tumultuous year of 1968, made no shortage of socio-political commentary about the issues of the time, in its own quirky way, and while there were no doubt those that relished this aspect of the concept, most fans today tend to simply see a grand and strange adventure. The movie was followed by four sequels of generally diminishing quality, a TV series that, while not great, deserved better than it got with a truncated thirteen episode run, and a rather peculiar animated series whose main claim to fame was the design work of Doug Wildey, best known for the superb animated adventures of Jonny Quest.
Mego produced two distinct series of action figures. The first focused on the movies, and featured figures of Cornelius, Zira, Dr. Zaius, a very generic Soldier Ape, and an Astronaut that was dressed in a blue flight suit and didn't look a thing like Charlton Heston. The second series focused on the TV series, and featured Galen, who was easy enough since he was played by Roddy McDowell, the same actor who had played Cornelius, and even dressed similarly to him; the two human astronauts Pete Burke and Alan Virdon, their gorilla adversary General Urko, and the odd addition of gorilla General Ursus, who was never in the TV series but rather in the second movie. Still, it was a nice figure, and had a better headsculpt than Urko.
Recently, a company called EmCe Toys has started to bring back some of the Megos, with the blessing and participation of Mego founder Marty Abrams. These figures are designed along the same lines as Mego's original figures (although one might tend to believe they're of a generally higher quality, not that there was anything wrong with Mego at the time), basing the headsculpts on the originals, and duplicating the cloth costumes as closely as possible. They really are amazing figures, and a very cool flashback for those of us old enough to remember having Megos in our younger years.
One of the licenses they have brought back is -- PLANET OF THE APES. And one of the figures that is part of the line is -- DR. ZAIUS. So -- precisely who is Dr. Zaius?
Dr. Zaius is an orangutan, and was a prominent part of the first two movies, which took place in the far distant future, two thousand years hence. In Ape culture, orangutans are the administrators, the philosophers, the government, as much as anything. They are not the military -- that's the gorillas. They are not the practical scientists, which are mostly the chimpanzees. They are the thinkers, the lawmakers, and faith-keepers of the world.
Dr. Zaius, although on friendly terms with Cornelius and Zira, had little patience for Zira's assertion that the captured human, Taylor, was far above average intelligence. And Dr. Zaius was even less pleased when, after healing from an injury to his throat, Taylor decided to speak, something no human in memory had done.
Granted, yelling, "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" isn't exactly the best way to make a first impression... But it was a tense moment.
Zaius, although we might believe him to be a generally wise individual, tended to be rather set in his ways, and tended to have one central belief -- that some things are better off left undiscovered.
Zaius got the rug pulled out from under him rather unexpectedly in the climactic scene of the original movie, when he and a squad of gorilla soldiers track Cornelius and Zira, accompanied by Taylor, to Cornelius' unauthorized archaeological dig in the so-called Forbidden Zone. There, Cornelius has found remnants of a civilization predating the one they know, and apparently more advanced. Taylor, thinking he is still on another planet, is nevertheless able to identify many of the objects. Zaius scoffs at the explanations, until Cornelius shows him the human doll. Why would an ape make a human doll? Again, Zaius scoffs, saying his own granddaughter plays with human dolls. We humans do the same. Most of us have had stuffed animal toys.
But at one point, the doll falls to the floor -- and it speaks. Very clearly saying, "Ma-ma". This is a whole different matter. Would an ape make a human doll -- that speaks?
Following a battle in which Dr. Zaius is taken hostage by Taylor, the astronaut is given the provisions he needs to set off on his own, with his mute girlfriend, a local girl he has named Nova. Here, Taylor questions Dr. Zaius. Why does Zaius hate Taylor so much? Why does he seem afraid of him?
Dr. Zaius says that he has always known about man, about the nature of man, and has Cornelius quote to him from their Sacred Scrolls, which warn to "Beware the beast man..." Zaius lets slip one bit of information. "The Forbidden Zone used to be a paradise. Your breed made a desert of it -- ages ago." It still isn't enough for Taylor, who still sees himself on an upside down world, still wanting a complete explanation. Zaius, almost kindly, warns, "Don't look for it, Taylor -- you may not like what you find."
Not long after, Taylor comes across the melted ruins of the Statue of Liberty. He's been back on Earth... all this time...
The implication is that, somewhere in the past two thousand years, man set of a nuclear armageddon. Somehow, this led to the downfall of man as an intelligent species, and to the rise of simians as their replacement. Regardless of how this might have happened, Taylor is faced with the inescapable conclusion. Human civilization is gone, and mankind basically did it to themselves.
And somehow or other, Dr. Zaius knew it. His fear, it would seem, is that if man were to somehow regain his intelligence, he might not only unseat the simian culture, but do even worse damage the second time around. Zaius' fears, to a degree, would prove justified.
In the second movie, "Beneath the Planet of the Apes", the Ape civilization is in the hands of the gorillas. An ambitious general named Ursus has taken control, and means to make war on the mysterious denizens of the Forbidden Zone, which have cost him nearly a dozen of his best scouts. Something's up in the Zone, and Ursus means to deal with it. Zaius accompanies the general -- and the entire gorilla army -- likely hoping to be a voice of some measure of reason.
Ultimately, they encounter a hidden civilization, in the ruins of New York City. Humans, mutated by radiation, have gained the power to cast powerful illusions, telepathically, but it's not enough to stop the Ape army. The humans are also in possession of a bomb, which Taylor, captured by the mutated humans, identifies as the Alpha-Omega bomb. It's intended to destroy the entire world. Which, in the last five seconds of the movie, is precisely what it does.
Zaius' role here is not quite as deep as the previous movie. He goes ballistic when confronted with a series of busts of the previous rulers of the underground civilization, smashing every last one of them. His beliefs have become an unyielding dogma, and when confronted by a gravely wounded Taylor, who tries to warn him about the bomb, Zaius refuses to aid him, for no other reason than he is human, and in Zaius' mind, "capable of nothing but destruction!" Well -- for all the good it did him, he had a point there in the last few seconds of the planet's existence.
Zaius, not surprisingly, didn't appear in any of the sequel movies. Cornelius and Zira somehow managed to dredge up Taylor's spacecraft, which had sank to the bottom of a lake in the Forbidden Zone, and managed to escape the Earth's destruction, only to wind up in Earth's past and -- it starts to get complicated after that...
There was another Dr. Zaius, who was a fairly major player in the television series. However, we have to believe that this was not the same simian. The TV series took place in the year 3085, roughly 1100 years in the future from the flight of the astronauts. The movies in which the original Dr. Zaius appeared took place in the late 3900's, almost nine hundred years beyond that point. I have no idea what the life expectancy of an intellectually advanced orangutan is, but I doubt it's THAT good.
For all we know, "Zaius" is the simian equivalent of "Smith". Or perhaps the two doctors are related generationally somehow. The TV Zaius was much like the movie Zaius, but was capable of being somewhat more reasonable. He knew the secret of human civilization, and was determined that it would not return to bring ruin to ape civilization. At the same time, he was just as capable of riding herd on the frequently impetuous and generally violent gorilla General Urko. Zaius wasn't one of the good guys, but he wasn't as bad as some.
However, the Dr. Zaius that Mego crafted, and which EmCe Toys has remade, is clearly based on the movie version of the character. For one thing, it's a superb likeness as far as the headsculpt is concerned. I think it's abundantly fair to say that the Planet of the Apes headsculpts were some of the most intricately detailed of any that Mego produced in any of their action figure lines. The hair was sculpted with greater texture, and the faces were given far greater detail than usual.
And the Dr. Zaius figure is a superb match for Zaius as portrayed by veteran actor Maurice Evans, who endured the simian make-up for the role in two movies. It wasn't without complications, though. Evans had so much trouble speaking through the facial appliances that he had to later redo his entire dialogue in the studio, once freed of the prosthetics.
Had Mego wanted to create a Dr. Zaius figure for the television series-based line, I think they would have had to create an entirely different headsculpt. Actor Booth Colman, who played Zaius on TV, didn't really resemble Maurice Evans all that much, even as a simian. The characters were similar, and there were understandably similarities in wardrobe, but they didn't really look much alike. This might explain why Zaius was left out of the TV series line, and an oddball like General Ursus was tossed in.
So, how's the figure? Very impressive. It's an excellent match for the original Mego figure. The headsculpt is superb, but I am not certain it's quite as detailed as the original. I realize it is based on the original, and I'll also grant that it's been a couple of decades since I've owned the original -- at least -- so my own memory may be a little hazy on the matter, but I seem to recall there being a few more wrinkles on the face. In this I may be mistaken, and in fairness, it's still a good headsculpt, and the face really does look like Maurice Evans as Zaius.
The hair is painted orange. Let us keep in mind that Dr. Zaius is an orangutan, and while I am not enough of a linguist to know the precise origin of the word, I don't think those first five letters are a coincidence. If you've seen actual orangutans in the zoo or on wildlife shows on television, they do tend to have rather orangeish fur.
Now, in the movies, Dr. Zaius had a few white streaks in his hair. Dr. Zaius was an intelligent ape and a good orator, but he wasn't exactly a spring chicken. However, allowing for the technology of the time, it's unlikely that Mego would've been able to effectively paint any white streaks through the figure's hair. And these new figures are intended to be accurate remakes of the originals.
In fact, the only figure presently in any of EmCe's licenses that has received any sort of significant overhaul from its original is The Gorn from the Star Trek line, and if there is one figure from the entire -- and I do mean entire -- history of Mego -- super-heroes, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, and everything else they ever produced -- that needed a massive overhaul, it was the Gorn. Please see my separate review elsewhere on this guy.
So Dr. Zaius' hair is painted as orange as it originally was. If you want to see lighter streaks, then check out the excellent painting on the reproduced package card, which has brought back the original artwork very effectively.
Now, we come to Dr. Zaius' wardrobe. And here's where things get a little odd. In the movies, Dr. Zaius (and other orangutans) tended to dress in a sort of gold-tan outfit. This consisted of a long coat, generally open in the front with a darker brown shirt underneath, gold-tan trousers, and sometimes darker-colored boots. This seemed to be the "uniform" for most orangutans, at least of sufficient standing, much as chimpanzees tended to wear green, and gorillas tended to wear black and brown, the military uniform.
The Dr. Zaius figure is wearing a top that is a sort of ivory white, with a brown shirt underneath (which is really just part of the one-piece top), with brown shoulder details and stripes down the sides of the arms, fur cuffs, ivory white trousers, and black boots.
So why such a considerable difference? I don't know. One would have to look back to the 1970's and find out from Mego why the figure's clothes were as different as they were from the original. Possibly they couldn't reproduce the color in a satisfactory or sufficiently consistent manner. But that's speculation. The truth is I simply don't know.
Does it bother me? No. It does not. Let's remember that EmCe Toys' objective is to reproduce the figures as they looked when Mego first made them. And this is what Dr. Zaius looked like! I have no problem with that. As I said earlier, I'm glad they redid the Gorn in the Star Trek line, but that was, to a degree, the creation of an entirely new figure, much as they've also added the previously unproduced Sulu and Chekov to the line.
All they could have really done with Dr. Zaius was redo the suit. There was nothing wrong with the head. And if they had redone the clothes, then it wouldn't've really been a retro-Mego, would it? So I have no complaints about the clothes. I do worry a little that the fabric, a rather different sort of fabric than usually used on Mego figures, might fray a little around the arm details, but at the same time, it's not as though Dr. Zaius is going to see a lot of heavy play usage. I'm sure he'll be fine.
I was very pleased to see that EmCe Toys got the boots right. The earliest Dr. Zaius figures used the same boots as Mego's World's Greatest Super-Heroes figures. And while that might have been fine for Superman and Batman, the boots didn't wok as well for Dr. Zaius. If nothing else, his trousers didn't quite meet the boot tops, leaving Zaius looking like he'd had a bad experience at the laundry. Before too long, the rather generic books were swapped out for some custom-made boots, that were somewhat higher, and certainly more detailed, with interesting details on the sides that made them look very Ape-like.
Of course, the figure is superbly articulated. Mego figures always were, and EmCe has done an excellent job of re-creating the body. Dr. Zaius is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, and knees. The ankles are articulated as well, but the boots are made of hard plastic, so that sort of lets that out. In theory, you could take his boots off, but trust me, what with the knee-length trousers -- without his boots, he looks silly to a degree that is not easily expressed.
Also please take note of the uniquely simian hands that Mego (and EmCe) crafted for use in their Planet of the Apes line.
So, what's my final word here? I'm greatly impressed. There have been other Planet of the Apes figures over the years, everything from little bendies to high-end collectibles. Some have been good, some have been -- barely worth the plastic they were stamped out of.
But Mego's efforts were excellent. I maintain that their Planet of the Apes line was one of their best-crafted lines of all. And EmCe Toys has done an amazing job bringing it back. If you're any sort of Planet of the Apes fan, then you need to look into these. And certainly Dr. Zaius is a definitive part of that collection.
The EMCE TOYS MEGO-RETRO PLANET OF THE APES figure of DR. ZAIUS most definitely has my highest recommendation!