Sunday, March 09, 2014

Nostalgia Theater: Pray for M.A.N.T.I.S.

Back in the mid-'90s, the Fox network had a bona fide cult sensation on its hands with the growing buzz around Friday night sci-fi skein The X-Files. Given that, they spent several seasons, to mixed results, trying to find similar genre fare to pair it with. One such example was M.A.N.T.I.S., which aired in 1994 during the Files' second season, and represented the net's attempt to bring TV's first African-American superhero to the small screen, just minus the requisite budget and sense of ambition.

Created by future Spider-Man director Sam Raimi and past Batman writer Sam Hamm, the titular M.A.N.T.I.S. (an entirely unwieldy acronym standing for "Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System") was actually brilliant, wheelchair-bound scientist Miles Hawkins (Carl Lumbly, later of Alias fame), who created the titular gadget to allow him to walk as well as kick a a little bad guy ass. Oh, and when he put on the helmet he kind of looked like a mantis. Convenient. Here's the show's intro:

While the series-proper debuted in fall of '94, the concept actually premiered in January of that year as a made-for-TV movie that drew heavily on black culture for its cast, setting, and general ambiance. I remember watching that movie and being singularly underwhelmed by it, but I guess ratings were strong enough to justify a series commitment. However, by the time the weekly rolled around, most of the color had been drained from the thing (with Hawkins' two black assistants replaced by the Sheriff of Rottingham, etc.), and the movie was entirely ignored (Raimi and Hamm had long since departed by then).

Although network honchos and new showrunner Bryce Zabel (Lois & Clark, Dark Skies) denied it at the time, I don't doubt that an effort (however subtle) was made to tone down the "blackness" of the show lest it potentially alienate a wider audience. The bigger problem though was that the pilot was just lousy. Lumbly was fine, but he was surrounded by lousy effects, a lousy storyline, and lousy supporting characters. That being said, it's not exactly like the eventual series was some quantum leap forward either. Check out this Fox promo leading up to the late-August premiere (which uses the Danny Elfman-inspired music from the pilot):

Upon its premiere, M.A.N.T.I.S. was greeted with mostly apathy by critics and auds. After eleven low-rated episodes, the show was revamped yet again to take a hard turn into the fantastical and supernatural. That still didn't take, and it was quietly cancelled in March of '95, a total of 22 eps produced. Interestingly, M.A.N.T.I.S. is probably most notable for how it went out. With ratings spelling doom well in advance, the producers chose to wrap with our hero perishing heroically in battle with (wait for it) an invisible dinosaur. Let me say again: An invisible dinosaur. Invisible. Dinosaur.

Unfortunately, in what amounts to the final-final insult, the last two eps went unaired until several years later, depriving audiences of even seeing (or not seeing, I guess) the great invisible dino extinction. The series finally hit DVD a few years ago (it's also up for streaming on Amazon), but I'm not sure it's worth a recommendation. You can see the budget swirling down the drain with every successive installment, and by the time poor Miles blows himself up (along with girlfriend Leora, played by Galyn Görg), you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Okay, that's not true. You'll probably laugh.

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