Meet Dr. Zira, the change agent of 1968’s Planet of the Apes
Dr. Zira strides on-screen for the first time in 1968’s Planet of the Apes, leaving no room to doubt that scientific discovery is her primary concern. “Which was wearing the strange clothes?” is her first line, directed at the Chimpanzee surgeon tending to a recently-captured George Taylor. No hello. No small talk.
Dr. Zira establishes herself as a scientist well before we as viewers establish ourselves in a backwards world ruled by Apes. She’s demanding to be heard. She’s giving orders. She’s defying her male counterparts, authority figures, and colleagues. She’s justifying her actions for the sake of one goal: discovering the truth. In short, Dr. Zira is a change agent. She is an Ape (and female lead character) far ahead of her time.
It’s significant that Dr. Zira is the first Ape we see living, speaking, and working (aside from the gorillas that captured George Taylor and his crew). Her testimony tells us about the Apes’ current political climate: Dr. Zaius, an orangutan, “looks down his nose at Chimpanzees” and the scientists have recently been liberated of a “quota” restricting their access to research materials. Despite the inequalities that may persist within the Ape society, Zira insists that she is “an Ape psychologist, that’s all,” and that her research, which is to reach understanding, is what matters the most.
Zira is determined to seek the truth, no matter the implications. For example, she seeks to prove that Taylor can speak, which would uproot the Apes’ previous beliefs that all humans are primitive, thoughtless animals. Zira’s fiancée, Ape archeologist Dr. Cornelius, warns Zira that they could lose their livelihoods making these kinds of claims, which is why he gave up pursuing his own theories on Ape evolution. But Zira is unphased. She brings Taylor back to Cornelius’ office and demonstrates his ability to communicate through writing, admonishing Cornelius for refusing to see the truth out of fear. When Taylor is apprehended by the Academy of Science and sentenced to a forced lobotomy, Dr. Zira stands and openly defends him, while Cornelius timidly follows orders.
Unable to convince Dr. Zaius and the other orangutans to let Taylor go, Zira orchestrates an escape plan with her nephew, Lucius. She risks being charged with treason to help Taylor escape. Inspired by Zira, Cornelius then decides to return to the site of his archeological dig and search for concrete proof that his theories about humans were right.
And to top it all, Zira is fair. She acknowledges that there are aspects of the Ape society that are imperfect, but when Taylor attacks and ties up Dr. Zaius, Zira defends the orangutan. This speaks to Zira’s depth of character. There is the temptation to dismiss her motivations during the film as her own curiosity about the truth, but her actual belief is that only by facing the truth can both Apes and humans truly begin to understand each other and themselves. Zira stands for much more than discovery—she stands for a peaceful world.
Today’s cultural and moral lenses amplify the significance of a character like Dr. Zira. At a time in film history where female characters were often overshadowed by, or served as embellishments to their male counterparts, Zira displays a remarkable amount of personal agency and influence over other characters. In fact, going so far as dictating the majority of the plot of Planet of the Apes (1968), when its main hero, Taylor, had little agency of his own. Zira’s reception as a female lead may not have been at the forefront of producers’ minds on set, but the appearance of empowered female characters like Zira in media has enormous cultural impact even decades beyond the film’s original release. Not only has Zira remained a staple character in classic sci-fi, but she is also representative of a cultural jump in the evolution of women in film.