Planet of the Apemen

I’d be willing to bet that I was the only person in the country who watched the BBC’s risible ‘Planet of the Apemen’ drama-documentary from beginning to end the other night. Everyone else will have screamed abuse at the television and kicked the screen to bits after the first five minutes or so – the only sensible response to an appalling and insultingly low-brow approach to one of the most fascinating ideas in human history, a concept of vast existential dimension; that we (homo sapiens) once shared the planet with several different human species.

Ignore the fact that few subjects can safely exist on television these days as documentary alone. Ignore the fact that few channels seems willing to part with the resources to treat historical subjects dramatically. The compromise that is the docudrama may be the most contemptible form on TV, but this is long-established fact. What really offended was not the CBBC level of performance from the jobbing actors who got to play caveman dress-up, or the relentlessly invasive incidental music, or even the fact that Chris Stringer, an expert in his field, was given about a minute’s screen time in the documentary parts of the programme. No, what was really annoying was that it’s very title encoded the disrespect for the subject that the programme-makers clearly felt. Not that to take something seriously means to be humourless, but the interested viewer can tell, without a doubt, that the title preceded the idea, and the form preceded that.

As one of the archaeologists said, if these alternate versions of humanity had survived into the present day, if we still shared the planet with neanderthals and some variant of homo erectus, we would still think of ourselves as special, but certainly not unique. That, possibly, would teach us some humility. The concept has enthralled writers for years, but apart from William Golding’s haunting early novel ‘The Inheritors’, their approach tends to be firmly within the traditions of historical romance. I don’t have any particular problem with historical romance, but the historical setting tends to be no more than a backdrop to a story that could fit into any era with minimal tweaking, whereas it’s the idea itself that should be significant.

It’s an idea that has obsessed me for years, particularly with regards to neanderthal man. Since their first discovery in the 1850s, the reputation of the neanderthals has steadily climbed. Initially seen as savage, barely human animals, archaeologists are now in broad agreement that their social organisation was relatively sophisticated, that they must have had a rudimentary language, that they cared for the sick and buried their dead and had some form of spiritual or religious life. In Golding’s novel, based on intuition rather than research, these earlier humans were placid and peaceful, communicating through shared dreams and telepathy. It’s a commonplace critical insight that cultures define themselves by what they are not, hence why in the 19th century the neanderthal was represented as savage and brutal, in comparison to the fundamentally teleological high Victorian era, with its obsession with science, taxonomy, progress and reason. In which case, it’s significant that neanderthal man is now experiencing something of a cultural rehabilitation programme – perhaps we are mapping on to our vanished cousins some of what we instinctively feel we have lost in a secular, materialistic age.

There must be a way to write about this joint existence, this moment when there were multiple forms of human consciousness on the planet, interacting, fighting, interbreeding, without (I mean no disrespect) going down the Jean Auel route, or even by aping (no pun intended) William Golding’s sensitive reimagining of our extinguished past. If there is, I’m going to try to find it, one day.

Anyway, to acquaint yourself with the horrors done in your name, here is the link to the first episode of Planet of the Apemen. The neanderthal episode is on Thursday. I look forward to kicking my TV to pieces.


One thought on “Planet of the Apemen

  1. Brian Bowles

    Dear Richard – this going to anyone connected with BBC docs. shortly:

    I was keen to watch the production “Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth” as I believed it would offer an intelligent and enlightening examination of the interaction between the various prehistoric species which preceded homo sapiens. A fascinating subject – in the right hands. What I learned in the event was that early Homo Sapiens as a species were even smarter than I had anticipated: they spoke English! And with a London / Caribbean accent! 

    Information in classic documentary form, the bit I tuned in for, accounted for a mere 25% of the programmes whilst for the other 75% the viewer was subjected to a fictionalized, two dimensional dramatisation welded together to highlight what we currently know of Homos Erectus, Sapiens and Neaderthal Man. The premise obviously was that the ‘average’ viewer would be unable to cope with a serious analysis of the subject without recourse to a wafer thin drama to prop it up: documentaries for the hard of thinking. If I had wanted to see drama of this sort (which I don’t) I would have watched ‘Eastenders’ (which I don’t.)

    Then again, these docudramas probably were not aimed at viewers like me: i.e. people who can read and write.

    The style remined me of ‘Atlantis’ which was broadcast earlier this year – and then I realised the BBC documentary dept. was responsible for that too.

    The application of 21st century values regarding sexual, societal roles was utterly without factual basis. The mixture of fictionalised drama and scientific ‘fact’ are extremely uncomfortable bedfellows. That this train wreck of a series failed so lamentably to weld the two approaches leads me to ask for a commitment to ditch the docudrama format in subsequent programming covering similar subject matter.

    I would be grateful if you could advise me of the budget for this series. Whatever it was, the frustrating thought is that the BBC documentary dept. could have done something REALLY worthwhile for the money rather than merely skimming the surface. It was an opportunity lost: a monumental waste of both budget and a fascinating subject matter.  As it was you opted for the lowest common denominator.

    I am astonished that the BBC can claim that they have not dumbed down when programmes such as this are broadcast. Classic documentary makes of the past must be spinning in their graves.

    I have never before felt the need to contact a production team directly in some 50 years of viewing. “Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth” was the catalyst, so appalled was I at the simplistic and fantastic treatment the subject matter ( ref. in large part the ‘dramatisations’.) I checked to see if I was a lone voice on this one. For the first time (again) I discovered and logged into the ‘Points of View’ Notice Board. Out of some 130 posts (in which I participated) I found only 3 which were vaguely positive. the remainder (a selection of which) appears below were highly critical.

    The BBC has to ask itself some serious questions regarding the content of and the level at which they pitch their documentaries when the reaction to them is so overwhelmingly negative.


    Brian Bowles

    PS I should have realised from the title: “Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth” that this was going to be lightweight in its approach.

    Comments from the Points of View Noticeboard

    What a waste of an interesting subject.

    No doubt because we’re all too thick to actually absorb any information not presented in soap opera form.This cardboard cutout of a documentary took this passing trend to its extremes, resulting in something more suitable very young school children. As to political correctness… I almost expected to see access ramps for special needs primevel Humans, and animal hunting “workshops”..(Of course with cousellors for the victims of post hunting guilt stress.) I switched over, so I’ll never know how Fred and Wilma got on in the end.

    I have never been so disappointed as I was with this series – the final being Planet of the Apes: Battle for Earth. This should have been classified as fiction.

    I was hoping for something even more enlightening in the TV programme, and instead it was like that dreadful programme on Atlantis, all inept mockumentary that makes the subject LESS interesting than it actually is.  

    The neandertals programme was worse than atrocious. Only the BBC could take something so inherently interesting and make it into something to wince at. 

    Both of these programmes were appalling. Neanderthals was clearly written for Homo Stupidus; thanks to the script, dialogue, hair styles and acting it was actually a good laugh but little else. 

    It was a disaster 2 part series. Money well spend, I don’t think so.

    I learnt bugger all from this. Each time an expert would say something I would start to get interested only to have it interrupted by the silly drama scenes.

    This has to be one of the worst pretend documentaries that the BBC has so far produced. A few facts made pointless because tucked away among the ludicrous scenes of bad actors running around grunting at each other.

    Recent science programming seems to be about a sort of ‘gee-wiz’ format. Flashy graphics and authority figures that say things without being given time to explain them before a cut away to someone looking impressed or open mouthed (see Egypt’s Lost Cities also for more of the same). Bad, bad, bad. 

    A few Homo Erectus have survived down the ages and are alive and well and living in Broadcasting House.
    I imagine a conversation along the following lines went on in the upper echelons of Aunty’s gravy train. “We need to pretend to have more science and informative content on BBC1 prime time.” “Yes but facts and science are real ratings killers – we need to sex it up somehow to stop everyone turning off.” “Those docudrama things about Pompeii and Atlantis did OK and they’re practically university level education material!” “Great, so – just something that involves a giant volcanic eruption (use the ones from Atlantis to save on the budget) and some nonsensical drama with a few talking heads saying something vaguely related and sciencey to trick the proles into thinking they’re learning.” “That’s that sorted… now, if we can just work out how to integrate sock puppets into Horizon that’s the problem of boring science banished from BBC1&2 forever!”

    And this from The Guardian
    …Anyway, in spite of all the experts on hand to impart their expert knowledge, it’s hard to take any of it very seriously because of the laughable “drama” – semi-naked people running about grunting and bashing each other over the head with big rocks. It’s funny, but I’m not sure it’s meant to be. Oooh, oooh, ooooh.


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