The multiple faces of M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994)
Thanks to Hulu, I’ve been revisiting a couple of old sci-fi TV series, and I’ve just finished a watch-through of the short-lived 1994 series M.A.N.T.I.S. starring Carl Lumbly. This concept actually went through a few different incarnations thanks to network micromanaging — technically only two, but the second had two distinct phases. To break them down:
The original pilot movie
The pilot of M.A.N.T.I.S. was created and written by Sam Raimi (then best known for the Evil Dead films and Darkman, later known for Hercules, Xena, and the Spider-Man films) and Sam Hamm (screenwriter of the first Tim Burton Batman film) and directed by Eric Laneuville. It was an ambitious attempt to do an African-American-centered superhero tale dealing with racial tensions, gang violence, and the like, and featured an entirely African-American main cast headlined by Lumbly (whom I would later get to know as the voice of J’onn J’onnz in Justice League Unlimited and as Marcus in Alias), along with Gina Torres (later to appear in Alias and costar in Firefly) and Bobby Hosea as the initial focus characters, a medical examiner and reporter who investigate the mystery of the superhero called M.A.N.T.I.S. and end up becoming his allies, though without unearthing his identity. The secret (which isn’t revealed until the end of the first hour) is that he’s actually the paraplegic Dr. Miles Hawkins, who’s invented the Mechanically Augmented Neuro-Transmitter Interception System, a harness that allows him to walk while he wears it, but not without a long-term cost to his body. Hawkins was paralyzed by police gunfire in a riot paralleling the 1992 Los Angeles riots (the pilot is set in the fictional “Ocean City,” though it looks exactly like LA right down to the familiar skyline), and it awakened his formerly dormant social conscience, though he still hides behind his old right-wing rich-guy politics to preserve his cover while he operates as a champion of the common people. It’s interesting that Hawkins is initially set up to look like a bad guy of sorts, and it’s an interesting touch to see even the audience being misled by the superhero’s secret identity. It’s certainly a nice alternative to the usual origin-story approach. All in all, it’s a fairly good action movie; a lot of its characterizations and story beats are broad to the point of caricature, and it’s far from the most nuanced exploration of 1990s racial politics you’ll find, but it’s entertaining, and its African-American focus was a daring and intriguing angle for a superhero show.
IMDb’s trivia page claims that Miles Hawkins was named for Stephen Hawking, but given the character’s fondness for jazz, I prefer to believe my father’s interpretation that he was named in honor of jazz musicians Miles Davis and Coleman Hawkins. Although it’s worth noting that just a year before this, Milestone Comics introduced the superhero Static, whose real name was Virgil Hawkins (in honor of the first African-American to go to law school, I gather). And one of the founders of Milestone, artist Denys Cowan, designed the M.A.N.T.I.S. costume for this movie.
The music for the pilot was by Sam Raimi’s frequent collaborator Joseph Lo Duca, and though it sounds good, it’s a classic example of Lo Duca’s tendency for, shall we say, extreme imitativeness. His main title theme’s first few bars are note-for-note the same as the first few bars of Alan Silvestri’s Predator theme with only the rhythm and ostinato changed, and the music under the climactic chase sequence is an even more exact pastiche of Bernard Herrmann’s North by Northwest theme.
Unfortunately, the pilot was probably too daring and controversial for the FOX network of the day (which did eventually bring a successful black-superhero series to the screen with that other guy named Hawkins in the animated Static Shock), so this version of the character didn’t last beyond the original movie. Instead we got:
The first half-season
For the weekly series, Bryce Zabel (who would later create Dark Skies and eventually pitch a failed Star Trek reboot along with J. Michael Straczynski) was brought in to reinvent the premise from the ground up. Only Lumbly, his character of Miles Hawkins, and his basic backstory were retained, but everything else was changed, right down to the origin. The series had a more ethnically mixed cast and almost completely avoided the racial politics of the pilot. Now Miles was the head of Hawkins Technologies along with his best friend John Stonebrake (Roger Rees), and they invented the “exoskeleton” (it was called a “harness” in the pilot) together to let Miles walk again. Or rather, Miles invented the exoskeleton and John invented the control helmet for a different purpose (to control a flying car, the Chrysalid, that became the Mantis’s Batmobile), and the exoskeleton didn’t work until they had a chocolate-and-peanut-butter epiphany and put the two together. The metallic helmet was redesigned from the pilot and made more all-concealing, and now he couldn’t walk unless he was wearing the helmet (which was not the case in the pilot). Whereas the pilot version of the character wore a suit, tie, and trenchcoat over the harness, the series version wore the bare exoskeleton over a molded black bodysuit.
The third member of the team, inexplicably, was a somewhat annoying bike messenger named Taylor Savidge (or Savage, according to IMDb — the former is from onscreen text in an episode, though, so I’m going with that), played by Christopher Russell Gartin. In this version, he stumbled upon Miles’s first impromptu attempt to use the exoskeleton’s superstrength to help someone, then somehow fast-talked his way into their operation, encouraged them to embrace the superhero potential of their creation, and coined the name “Mantis” based on the mask’s insectile appearance, even though it didn’t look very mantis-like to me. (Which made it paradoxical when the original acronym from the pilot showed up on a screen later in the series.) I guess Taylor was added to provide youth appeal or something, though it felt rather forced. The final regular was police lieutenant Leora Maxwell, played by RoboCop 2‘s Galyn Görg (her surname is pronounced “George,” though the Internet offers no insight on how her first name is pronounced — I’ve been wondering that for ages now), who was a romantic interest for Miles even while hunting down his vigilante secret identity.
The series was clearly produced on a tighter budget than the pilot — shot in Vancouver rather than LA, using cheaper CGI effects and electronic music (originally by Christopher Franke, later by Randy Miller) rather than the pilot’s orchestral score. In the first half-season, Miles (who was here called “the Mantis” instead of just “Mantis” as in the pilot — and I’m going with lower-case here because that’s how Savidge used it and because it’s easier to type) and his team took on corruption and high-tech crime. Well, at least theoretically; it was often stated that the city where the series now took place, Port Columbia, was a hotbed of police corruption, but we rarely actually saw it until the last few episodes of the first half, when they introduced the corrupt police chief played by the stalwart Blu Mankuma — who at the time was apparently required by Canadian law to appear in every television series produced in Vancouver. (Port Columbia looked exactly like Vancouver, except that whenever the Mantis went up in his flying car the Chrysalid, the background plates were stock footage of the LA skyline from the pilot.)
My fuzzy recollection of seeing this show in its original run was that the first half-season wasn’t as good as the pilot, and was disappointing for its abandonment of the racial complexities (such as they were) of the original, but had its own merits that made it worth watching. Unfortunately, on reviewing the series, I find that the first half-season was actually pretty lame overall. What made me remember it fondly, it seems, was a brief arc in episodes 6-8 (listed as episodes 8-10 on Hulu because they count the pilot movie as 1-2) where things finally, belatedly started to get interesting — Miles began to show signs of getting hooked on the power of the Mantis, even starting to develop hints of a dual personality, while Stonebrake became angst-ridden over whether he should be helping his best friend risk his life and sanity in this pursuit. Unfortunately, this was never heard from again after those three episodes, and the rest of what we got was relentlessly mediocre. The Mantis was a pretty poor superhero overall. He wasn’t very good at saving lives; in episode 2, he tried to stop a paramilitary raid on an arms warehouse and failed to prevent the guards from being killed, ultimately only saving Savidge’s life. He wasn’t very good at keeping his identity secret either; in the same climactic scene the Mantis taunted the main villain with the same line the villain had used to taunt Miles Hawkins earlier in the episode. And he was known to flee a scene where an innocent was still in danger the moment he heard police sirens coming.
This was the status quo for 11 episodes, but then low ratings led a shift in the series focus. Typically, the network’s meddling to try to “fix” a failing show ended up making it even worse.
The second half-season
In the second half, the writing staff was apparently taken over by Coleman Luck, who’d come onboard as a creative consultant earlier in the series. The focus shifted to more wild, way-out sci-fi and supernatural menaces like extradimensional Men in Black, mutant jellyfish-women, clones, and ghosts. Also, Leora discovered Miles’s secret identity and eventually came around to be on the team.
Now, back in 1994, I lost interest in the show and stopped watching a few weeks after the mid-season revamp. I found the whole thing painfully stupid and was frustrated by the abandonment of the promising character drama I’d seen before in favor of ludicrous fantasy and shallow action plotlines. When I started this rewatch, my initial plan was just to watch the first 11 episodes and stop there. But after seeing how lame the first half-season was, I decided I might as well take the plunge and watch the rest of the series to see if it was really that much worse. And yeah, the second half is still quite dumb, even dumber than the first half. But in a way, it’s more entertainingly dumb. The first half aspired to be somewhat serious and gritty in concept, with the Mantis as a dark, driven vigilante/crusader in a city so corrupt that only he could clean it up — basically “What if Iron Man were Batman?” — but it just went about it so ineptly and fell so far short of its aspirations. But the second half wasn’t trying to be anything more than it was, a cheesy, lowbrow sci-fi action show. Indeed, it wholeheartedly embraced the ludicrous, and had the same kind of unapologetic, random insanity you’d see in Silver Age DC Comics. It was by no means good, but at least it made me laugh at the cheesy stupidity of it all, rather than boring me as much of the first half-season did. I guess I’m more tolerant of such cheese now, after a few seasons watching Batman: The Brave and the Bold, than I was back in ’94.
But while the second half may have been more comic-booky (in an old-fashioned way) than the first half, it was less effective as a superhero series. The problem is that too few episodes involved the Mantis actually protecting the public. The majority of the stories involved the Mantis and his team protecting themselves from people coming after them for various reasons, or protecting relatives of theirs, or even trying to clean up problems they themselves caused. It was too insular. Superhero stories should be about the heroes protecting other people, not just themselves. And the Mantis was still not very good at saving lives. Whenever he dealt with a serial killer, he usually only managed to save the last victim. In “Fast Forward” he consistently failed to stop a superfast villain from causing citywide blackouts — and the episode glossed over how many people must’ve died in hospitals and traffic accidents and riots and such. Also, it got rather formulaic, with a stretch where the supervillains were discovering the Mantis’s secret identity almost weekly.
(By the way, the episode “Progenitor” is noteworthy for pitting Carl Lumbly’s Miles against a villain played by Vincent Schiavelli — a reunion of Lectroids from Buckaroo Banzai, on opposite sides once again. Although I didn’t notice any nods or in-jokes relating to that film.)
So yeah, most of the second half was entertainingly stupid, kind of. But then I got to the series finale. This episode never even aired on FOX, since the show was cancelled before it ran. It eventually aired in 1997, presumably on what was then called the Sci-Fi Channel. (The same may be true of the preceding episode, but there’s conflicting info online about its premiere airdate.) And really, this is one case where FOX did the viewing public a favor by cancelling a series with episodes unaired. Even hours after watching the finale, I’m boggled at how horribly wrong it was. And that’s despite it being written by future Farscape showrunner David Kemper (who also wrote the only episode of the second half-season that borders on being good, “Fast Forward”). I’m going to put a spoiler warning here before discussing it, in case anyone is brave enough to actually suffer through the ordeal of watching it. Though I would advise against any such ill-conceived effort.
In the final episode, “Ghost of the Ice,” the Mantis and his friends are lost in the woods and battle… oh, lord… an invisible, bulletproof dinosaur that hatched from a cocoon in a glacier. (The invisible dinosaur is called “Harvey” by the mountain man they meet out there — a reference that would later show up in Kemper’s Farscape, although it debuted in a script by a different writer.) Why is it invisible? Because they didn’t have enough money to create a visible dinosaur special effect, so the best they could do was a vaguely dinosaur-shaped distortion. Why did a reptile hatch from a cocoon? I don’t have a fershlugginer clue — it was a totally random insertion that added nothing to the episode. And that’s not the worst of it. The worst part — and this is the last spoiler warning — is how the episode ends.
The episode ends with Miles and Leora trapped by the invisible dinosaur in their car. Miles triggers a fuel cell to try to electrocute the dinosaur… killing himself and Leora in the resultant explosion.
Ohh, that hurt to write. My eyes are literally tearing up a bit at how tragically wrong this was, and that’s despite not even really caring that much about the characters. I mean, sure, the Mantis was never a particularly effective superhero over the course of this series. But here he went out like a total punk. He didn’t die saving the city or the world. He arguably saved Stonebrake and Savidge, but he didn’t even save the woman he loved — and was indeed directly responsible for her death by making the bad decision to trap her in the car with him in the first place. And he apparently didn’t even kill the dinosaur, since its outline was still moving and roaring in the smoke from the explosion. I mean, come on, saving the love interest — particularly saving the princess from the dragon — is the archetypal superhero accomplishment, and the Mantis’s final act was to fail profoundly at that most elementary heroic feat. That’s not just killing the hero off, that’s deliberately poisoning his legacy.
It boggles the mind that the makers of this show chose such an ignominious, even insulting end for their hero. I have to wonder what happened. I suspect that Kemper didn’t conceive the story as a finale; it’s just so minor, a side story way off in the woods with only the core cast and one guest star. Maybe it was meant to be just another episode, but when the show was cancelled the staff rewrote it to tack on a definitive ending, and were stuck with having this as their hero’s final adventure. But then, why choose that ending? Why kill off Miles and Leora, and have it be such a humiliating defeat? Did they hate the character or the show that much? Were they deliberately trying to burn it down and salt the earth so it could never be revived? Did someone at the network hate the show and require them to end it this way?
Whatever the reason, it’s a shame. Carl Lumbly was effective in the lead, even with the lousy material, and he deserved a better conclusion than this. Hell, it would be better if the show had never been re-aired on cable or released on home video and this episode had never seen the light of day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m against censorship, but some stories are so bad that they don’t deserve to be published in the first place. It’s staggering that a finale this horribly wrong was ever approved for production at all. They must’ve totally stopped caring by that point, or else been actively bitter and hostile toward their own show. So the result is a hollow, pointless ending that’s sad and frustrating to watch.
So, to sum up: I do recommend the pilot movie. It’s kind of unsubtle (hardly surprising for Sam Raimi), but interesting and daring, and it’s definitely worth watching for Lumbly and a young, very hot Gina Torres (as well as a supporting appearance by a young, very hot Marcia Cross). But I can’t really recommend the weekly series. It has a few good points, but not enough. Episodes 6-8 have their moments of intelligent characterization, but they require some familiarity with at least the first 2-3 fairly lame episodes. Much of the second half-season can be enjoyed in a mocking, Mystery Science Theater 3000 sort of way, and “Fast Forward” is almost good (though the science is as ridiculous as usual for that phase of the show). But the finale should be avoided if you know what’s good for you.