A Subjectively Obscure SciFi Primer: M.A.N.T.I.S.

MANTISLike an eclipse in the dark night sky, the Obscure Sci-Fi Primer makes its periodic reappearance. And speaking of things that emerge in the night, our subject this month is a vigilante-by-night superhero series M.A.N.T.I.S. A 1994 series, it debuted on Fox and, surprise of all surprises, lasted only one season. That might not sound like a recipe for success, especially given that better known superheroes had been failing to find an audience on TV for years at the time, and M.A.N.T.I.S. followed an original character that no one had any preexisting reason to care about. But this show had some interesting creative forces behind it–namely Sam Hamm (writer for Batman 1989 and Batman Returns) and Sam Raimi (known at the time for Evil Dead, but who would go on to spark the modern Superhero Movie craze with Spider-Man 2002). While it’s largely remembered today for being one of the first film or TV productions to focus on a black superhero, this aspect was… well, a big part of why the show struggled to find an audience, unfortunately. This didn’t factor into the plot or character as much as the creators wanted it to, which leads one to ask: did the show that made it to air deserve to find an audience? Let’s find out.

M.A.N.T.I.S. is about wealthy technology CEO and scientist Dr. Miles Hawkins (Carl Lumbly), who has become rather bitter and angry after becoming paralyzed from a gunshot to the spine. Once he’s lost hope in the system, he starts putting his intellect and money towards an exoskeleton that will allow him to walk again–and, coincidentally, increase his strength many times over. Hawkins winds up putting his suit to good use during its first test run, sparking the idea of a masked vigilante in town. He just kinda runs with it at first, but gradually becomes almost addicted to crimefighting and being able to walk again in the suit. He’s assisted by his Alfred-equivalent John Stonebrake (Roger Rees) and secret-keeping delivery boy Taylor Savage (Chris Gartin), along with frenemy on the police force Leora Maxwell (Galyn Görg). Can someone explain this whole “Courier as superhero’s buddy” thing to me? Couriers are practically nonexistent as a profession in real life, and yet they keep showing up in these shows…

Dr. Hawkins, AKA The MANTIS.

Dr. Hawkins, AKA The MANTIS.

The Good

  • Most of the acting is pretty competent. They’re definitely not the problem here.
  • While much of the show’s attempts at social commentary were scrubbed clean, it still managed to seep through in more general ways. The “Virtual Reality Soldier” deployed in episode 5 is definitely approached with the same kind of concerns as modern day drone warfare, for example, and a similar idea crops up in episode 10 where faceless, heavily armed cops are being considered for use in the streets. M.A.N.T.I.S. was definitely a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to privacy rights and holding the government accountable for its use of technology–at least compared to other TV shows of its era.
  • The basic premise is still an interesting one. I think the show would have some trouble today, being accused of being a ripoff of Marvel properties like Iron Man or Ant Man (who his mask coincidentally resembles), but there’s always something to be said for the lone hero who doesn’t have any fellow superheroes to fall back on or masked supervillains menacing the streets every day. The first half of the season is quite grounded, actually, and this is definitely the more interesting part. A reboot that restores the intended social commentary is definitely something that could find an audience today, as long as they didn’t try to get too gritty.
  • The show gets some bonus points for trying to champion a black superhero, especially one that is turning his disability into a superpower. A progressive show for the 90’s, perhaps, but not one that emphasizes this aspect of itself; it’s not made to be a big deal that Dr. Hawkins is black, and his handicap is handled similarly to Daredevil‘s, in the sense that it’s the catalyst for his powers and motivation for fighting crime, but doesn’t dictate who he is or really limit him beyond the obvious. They definitely should have made more of this, as right now it surfaces too infrequently.
  • Familiar faces include Don S. Davis in episode 2, better known as General Hammond from Stargate SG-1, and more excitingly, Andrew Robinson, who played Garak in Deep Space 9. Robinson’s character is the antagonist who shows up for a trio of episodes before the show’s format started to change, and he makes for a great match against the M.A.N.T.I.S. As you might notice, this show did overlap with the early days of DS9, so any extra time spent here is time not spent there… and I’d much rather have Robinson’s talents put to work in that show.

The Bad

  • The show starts off very campy and moderately cliche, which is what happens when you rip out the heart and leave only a shell. After a few episodes, it finds its feet, but the campiness never disappears entirely (largely for budget reasons), and it comes roaring back with a vengeance once the executive meddling really kicks in. The Mantis suit in particular could really use some work; the exoskeleton itself is fine, but it’s basically just black spandex underneath, which looks as dumb as everyone always said it would in real life.
  • The music choice is pretty bizarre, with most of it being this strange, pseudo-spiritual panflute music that just feels very out of place. There’s nothing mystical about the M.A.N.T.I.S. or his powers, no matter how much the music might want there to be. Bad musical choices are one of those things that signal an immediate red flag for me now; if the people making the show didn’t consider an entire aspect of design to be important, it’s probably a bad sign for the other aspects of production, too.
  • I mentioned above the meddling, and their attempts to get the show’s ratings up, which really only dragged it further in to the abyss. Within the span of 5 back-to-back episodes, the show introduces pyrokinetic powers, the suit developing a mind of its own, dimension-hopping, time travel, clones, and masked supervillains. That’s a lot of shit to throw at the wall and hope something sticks. The only show I want to see that much variation in is Doctor Who.
  • How does the show end? Uh, well… it’s not exactly a cliffhanger… I’m not sure what I can say without spoiling it, but it’s a bit of a mean-spirited ending, almost. They definitely knew the show was getting canceled, at any rate.

If you’ve read many of these articles in the past, you can probably guess the story behind the show’s failure: Fox executives got nervous, demanding changes from the original pilot movie (sometimes listed as “Episode 0”) which focused heavily on racism and had a mostly black cast. These changes removed the show’s teeth and left us with a fairly generic sci-fi action show at first. The creators were put off by the demands and wanted nothing to do with the end result. Continued meddling occurred as the show aired, forcing the introduction of more and more outlandish sci-fi plot devices which didn’t fit very well into the world that M.A.N.T.I.S. had built up. Finally, the show’s few remaining viewers gave up and it was pulled from the schedule with the final episodes left unaired. Sound familiar? Yes, this is exactly the same path that Dark Angel would follow a few years later, with the introduction of the beastmen in its second season (and on the same network, no less). If Fox executives possessed the capacity for hindsight or regret, they’d probably be kicking themselves for ruining their shot at catching the superhero trend early… but based on how they continue to treat the X-Men and Fantastic Four movies, I’m not convinced they are.

2.5/5 UFOs. A promising premise destroyed by meddling.

2.5/5 UFOs. A promising premise ruined by meddling.

A quick reminder of my rating system: a 5 represents must-see–a “hidden gem,” as it were. A 4 is good, solid television. A 3 is “cult classic” stage, where the show’s appeal is likely limited to a specific group. A 2 is flawed, but fun, or even “so bad it’s good,” depending on the series and its release timeframe. A 1, of course, is avoid at all costs. While M.A.N.T.I.S. isn’t on Netflix, it was once on Hulu and now is available on a per-episode basis at Amazon. Check it out and see what you think.

Have any suggestions? Or are there any little known shows you’re a fan of that you’d like me to cover? Leave them in the comments, or send a tweet to @RetroPhaseShift. To be notified of the next entry in the Subjectively Obscure Sci-Fi Primer, you can subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking here.

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  1. I only vaguely recall this and I definitely did not know the talent behind it. Now I am wanting to watch it just so I can find out what that ending is.

    Some follow up questions:
    1) Why *did* they bother to make their own character?
    2) Excited about Andrew Robinson — the DVD cover says that Gina Torres was also in it?
    3) When you theorize that the campiness is due to the low budget, you are saying that it is not the usual Raimi style from the time (like Darkman)?
    4) I am not clear on who the antagonists were — did he just combat street crime before it started doing every generic scifi trope?

    Thanks for watching it and writing it up. It’s pretty fascinating that they were willing to center around diversity then.

    • I don’t know if I can answer the question of why original without doing a bit more research. Honestly, I’d guess it was because they couldn’t afford the rights (although, amusingly, there was a reference to spiderman in there by name).

      Gina Torres is only in that “episode 0” pilot. She was part of the largely black cast that was cut when the show made it to series, unfortunately. Fox wasn’t comfortable with the cast being all black and wedged Stonebrake and Savage in to try to get more of that white male demographic’s money.

      And I’d say some of it might be reminiscent of Raimi’s style, sure, but there are several points where it was clearly just effects failure due to budget. The one that comes to mind is the face makeup on the MIB agents in ep 12 (?). It just looks atrocious. Hard to take them seriously as villains when they look like they just have black splotches around their eyes.

      Antagonists early on are mostly street-level, yeah. His first act is to break up bar fights. He’s dealing with some gangs and corrupt CEOs and dirty cops, mostly, before the Ninjas and Men in Black and frog people start showing up.

      What I always find baffling about shows like this is they knew exactly what they’d be getting from the premise, and yet they immediately start backing away from it as soon as it comes together. Sometimes it seems like the execs are more interested in being able to say “I was behind the first black superhero on TV” than they are in having a successful show. I’m sure it made a lovely point on someone’s resume.