What *is* 'The Planet Of The Apemen: Battle For Earth'?
Posted by Luke Whiston at 16:32 on 02 Jul 2011
Idly flicking up the channels a few nights ago, in a haze of work-inspired fatigue and chocolate-induced blindness, I reached the point where you become tired of hearing your own sighs and hit 1-0-1 to head back to the beginning - after all, you might find something to watch on the fourth attempt that isn't a dreadful Simpsons repeat or Brian Blessed pissing away his dignity in a futuristic Samurai outfit, right?
But nothing happened; no channel change occured. I checked the remote - pressing the buttons harder in case a rogue crumb had nestled 'twix the rubber and circuitry - but the picture refused to budge. And then it clicked (the situation, not the remote)... I was already there. This was BBC1. And this, ladies and gentlemen, was the abomination it had on offer:
Occupying a confusing space somewhere between Horizon and Byker Grove, Apemen seeks to educate us about the perils faced by early man, via the medium of drama, multiplied by pure, hard fact. And it's a brave attempt - quite unique outside the musky pomp of the History Channel, but it's... well it's... it's just... it's completely fucking bizarre.
The problems are two-fold really. Firstly, as sound as the science may be (scientists and professors pop up now and again to present theories on ancient society), the Homo sapiens who are meant to be pre-cursors to ourselves talk in the same way we do today. People 100 years ago didn't talk like us, so it's an utterly baffling choice to portray people from 35,000 years ago sounding like someone you'd exchange polite apologies with after bumping into them at Greenwich Observatory.
This decision may have been dictated by the second issue, however: nobody in this show can act above the level of Well'ard from Eastenders. It's not exactly a challenge - they had plenty of scruffy-yet-buff dudes running about, all they needed to do was grunt and utter a few words and nobody would have questioned it. But I guess somebody went to the trouble of writing a script, so it's only fair to use it. A show is only as good as it's weakest link though, and this particular chain is a mangled heap in a roadside ditch.
All this waffling brings me back to my original question: what is it we're actually watching? As a realistic drama it fails due to the jarringly modern speech patterns and outfits that look like they were borrowed from The Tribe (or The Odyssey - remember that?), and as a documentary it's ineffective due to you either being distracted from laughing at the shakycam fight scenes, or simply distrusting experts involved in a show where the only prominent female character wears a sexy animal skin boob tube, complete with matching skirt and Ugg boots.
The BBC are renowned for their wildlife studies and natural science documentaries, and have produced similar series before (Walking With Dinosaurs/Beasts/Cavemen), so it strikes me a little odd that such a lightweight series - 2 x 50-minute episodes - is considered BBC1-worthy material. In fact, I'd stake my reputation (lol) on Planet Of The Apemen being dashed out in a hurry to fill a gap in the schedule. There's no pride or longevity in it.
Anyway, whatevs - it's over now, we can all going back to worrying about which lucky girl Warren is going to put it up next in Hollyoaks. I guess the serious point here is there's no reason documentaries shouldn't take liberties with their creative choices to enhance some findings, or highlight a point they're trying to make - just so long as they're not patronising the audience whilst being really, really, really shit.
Planet Of The Apeman is still available on BBC iPlayer for a while, but for a more in-depth look at how we came to be, Jacob Bronowski's excellent series The Ascent Of Man is available in its entirety on YouTube.