Planet of the Nuns



By Tom Soter

The planet of the nuns really did exist. Except it wasn’t a planet. It wasn’t even a city or a town. It was a building on 114th Street in Manhattan where I spent 14 years of my life, from nursery to 12th grade, which to some 12-year-olds may have seemed as close to a life sentence as you can get.

The convent of the rising nun: the real planet.The convent of the rising nun: the real planet.

It may not have been “a world filled with endless corridors of horror,” as my classmate Christian Doherty put it in his colorful opening monologue for the first episode of PLANET OF THE NUNS, but in some ways it was pretty scary. I mean, this was a place run by little old ladies clothed in black robes, singing songs about death and resurrection to a painted figure of a man on a cross. To a pair of 12-year-olds, which is what Christian and I were when we taped our first episode of PLANET OF THE NUNS in 1968, this was spooky stuff, which might make you think you were, as Christian said in that monologue, facing the “true meaning of life…and death.”

But one shouldn’t get too heady when talking about an ACD show. It was all really a big goof, a combination of PLANET OF THE APES (right down to the crackling Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack music, which we shamelessly appropriated) and THE TWILIGHT ZONE, with some real-life parodies tossed in for good measure. There really was a Sister Hedwig (whose real name actually was Hedwig Zorb, and whom I played in almost all of the 24 episodes of the series, and in the 20 or so episodes of the spin-off series THE SISTER; see There really was a Ruth (the headmistress), a Louise, an Edith Margaret (who actually did say, “Stop this foolishness,” but not while brandishing a gun), a Joseph Barlotta (who was the superintendent, however, not a gunsel), and a Father Egan – though if any of them carried pistols (with silencers, no less), I would have been very surprised. (To my knowledge, there was no character called No. 1, however – that mysterious figure was lifted from the James Bond movies, by way of THE PRISONER.)

PLANET OF THE NUNS was just a series of gags when it started – catchphrases like “It’s your funeral” and “Zero for the day” recycled from reality into a warped wonderland of horror. But as the series progressed, especially in its second and third years, it became a weird kind of soap opera, which had terrific titles (“See How They Die,” “Voice of Horror: Who Mourns for Lonely Nuns?”) and was strangely gripping (at least to me, hearing it nearly 40 years later) in its breathless pace and oddball personalities: the Invisible Nun, going to her invisibility refueling station; now-obscure 1969 Mayoral candidate Mario Procaccino appearing as a slimy politician (who gets his head chopped off); and even President “Dick” Nixon, who was revealed as a former lover of Ruth’s. Characters came and went, usually violently, the students rebelled constantly, and life – and death – went on. But even when someone was thrown into the “pit of horror” (located, we are told, behind the altar in the chapel), they weren’t gone. “Or is she really dead?” as Christian would say in his best Rod Serling manner. There was this resurrection thing we had learned about at school, you see…

In the end, the planet of the nuns was, of course, just a place of the imagination. Although Mother Ruth could indeed be scary, she and the rest of the nuns were never mean and were actually, generally, pretty nice. But a “pretty nice” PLANET OF THE NUNS – that wouldn’t have been as much fun, now would it?

Listen to:

The Planet of the Nuns
Episode 1 (remake; original lost). Taped: 1969
Scientists discover a tenth planet and send a spaceship to investigate. It crash lands on a nightmare world ruled by strange beings. Tom: Tom Soter. Chris: Christian Doherty. Tommy Spoloski: Patrick Johnson.

Meet Sister Hedwig
Episode 3 Taped: 1969
Introducing Sister Hedwig (Hedwig Zorb), a new teacher at the school, who threatens to give Tom and Chris a “zero for the day.” Ruth: Ruth Chas.

The Planet Recaptured
Episode 16 Taped: 1970
The students try to unravel the mystery of the nuns’ home planet. Hedwig: Hedwig Zorb. Nixon: Christian Doherty. Edith Margaret: Edith Margaret.

Where Are They Going?
Episode 17 Taped: September 11, 1970
The rebellious students capture the nun leader No. 1, but the shadowy figure seems strangely unconcerned. Chris: Christian Doherty. Tom: Tom Soter

Chronicles of a Nun
Episode 18 Taped: September 11, 1970
Ruth travels into the future – with horrible consequences. Ruth: Ruth Chas. Hedwig: Hedwig Zorb.

Voice of Horror: Who Mourns for Lonely Nuns?
Episode 23 Taped: April 9, 1971
The Invisible Nun gives testimony and the mysterious Voice of Horror’s identity is revealed. Meanwhile, the students plan another rebellion, this time with a chance of success. Hedwig: Hedwig Zorb. Ruth: Ruth Chas.