March M.A.N.T.I.S. is taking you one by one through every episode of the ’94-’95 superhero FOX series M.A.N.T.I.S. throughout the month of March (natch). Using the POW (Plot, Opinion, What’s Next?) format, I am watching each installment and sharing with all of my feelings and observations regarding each episode.
So strap on your exoskeleton, settle into your hovercraft, and load up on paralysis darts. But most importantly? Enjoy
Today’s Episode: Episode 5: Soldiers of Misfortune
P: The last U.S. Senator to actually read bills himself, Senator Campbell (Don MacKay) is at home with his wife Annette (Paula Shay) when the sound of broken glass fills their home. A bald, well-built, emotionless man bursts into their living room with what immediately seems to be less than savory goals. For a moment I was confused. I mean, when did I have a guest spot on M.A.N.T.I.S.? Surely I’d remember.
Turns out, I would because the guy, billed V.R. Soldier, is actor Deron McBee. But it was like looking in a mirror.
Anyway, my doppelganger locks in on the Senator and sssslllllloooowwwlllyyy advances on him, giving the elected official plenty of time to demonstrate the folly of a gun in your home for protection (But I kid the Second Amendment!) as he shoots the machine twice…squarely in the shoulder. Like with precision. The same spot. Which means the Senator is either a crackshot with some kind of skewed vision or a really poor understanding of how best to kill someone with a firearm.
Long story longer, the VRS dispatches the Senator via tossing and we learn is being controlled by some guy, Michael Rompath (Paul Guilfoyle) in a rig often shot from unflattery long angle in one of Port Columbia’s many spacious, relatively clean, always still getting power warehouses. (It later turns out to be underground meaning Port Columbia has an ENORMOUS, wildly inefficient tunnel system running beneath it). As the episode progresses, we discover Rompath is an inventor who’s younger brother died while in the Armed Services. He created the VRS to limit the need for human soldiers in war going forward, making two episodes in a row with prescient drone themes, but the project was not approved after the prototype as people, including Dr. Miles Hawkins, the now deceased Senator, and a General Farley (Doug Abrahams) publicly opposing it.
Predictably, Rompath is hunting his former adversaries down, killing off the General and kidnapping Hawkins. Hawkins is smart and cold as ice though so he escapes, wrecks Rompath’s rig, and gets the burgeoning madman killed, as while out of the M.A.N.T.I.S. suit. (He works his core hard, don’t you know?)
Hawkins eventually has to don his kit for the third act though as the VRS goes on autopilot and has to get put down for good. The Mantis wins and VRS blows up, in grand M.A.N.T.I.S. tradition, and the explosion takes Rompath too, another M.A.N.T.I.S. tradition.
The episode also spotlights Port Columbia’s not particularly effective but totally resistant to panicking police force as they first suspect that VRS and the Mantis are one in the same and then, realizing they are not, establish themselves a Mantis taskforce. It is, of course, headed up by the suddenly very friendly Lieutenant Maxwell.
O: Now this is exactly the kind of show M.A.N.T.I.S. can be and still be satisfying. If it is not going to be like the pilot, this is its “best version” (which I’d count “Days of Rage” as part of the same mold as well). It is still struggling to integrate the police presence into the show and bike messenger continues to be a head scratcher, but overall it is good. It makes strong use of our sometimes prickly protagonist, keeps the weak special effects to a minimum, making them endearing instead of just awful, and the Mantis himself (itself) moves as well in this episode as in any other episode this season.
To start negative and go to the positive though, the police remain a weird vestigial tail on this show. Clearly, the show wants the police to play a part, what with Maxwell being an obvious lover interest (and we’ll get to her in a second) and the Port Columbia Phantom task force thingee.
(By the way, they say “Phantom” like fifteen times this episode and now all I want is a Billy Zane/Carl Lumbly team-up.)
However, now of it feels…connected. It’s all very “Meanwhile, in a different plot.” I do not know if it is because the police are never as on top of the case as Hawkins and Co. are or if it is because they have actually not interacted with the Mantis at all but whatever the reason, they feel wholly separate.
I guess our one connection could be Maxwell, and, with her new head of taskforce role, she may well become that fulcrum. As it stands now though, the show still cannot figure out who she is. This week, she is SUPER flirty with Hawkins, offering up herself, essentially, as payment for him consulting with the cops. There is no trace of their taciturn interactions from previous episodes and no effort to clue uas in to how or why things may have thawed. Gorg might be a talented actor but the show is saddling her with such a cypher of a character, and not in an interesting “you’re going to want to unravel me” wahy, that it is impossible to tell. The fact that they put her in that most quintessential of mid-90’s fashions for ladies, the shirt that makes no effort to hide the woman’s hard nipples, does not help things.
The bike messenger continues to show up to say, “hey, did you see the news?” and little else. So, yeah. He did totally get shoved into a wall this episode though so point awarded for that.
To be clear though, this is an episode I really liked. Again we get the theme of Hawkins’ “sins” coming back to bite him in the form of the rejected Rompath. I did wonder if Hawkins was pre- or post-injury during his testimony. My guess is pre as it is reinforces the theme of him as a man without compass before his paralysis and gives a reason why he simply argues against Rompath rather than trying to reach out, find the why, and work with him in some way.
On that note, it was also pretty great to see the arrogant, dismissive pre-injury Hawkins come out a bit as he straight trash talks a Mantis darted Rompath, telling him the VRS is hardly all that impressive. It was a nice subtle shift Lumbly does, showing us that the injury may have changed Hawkins but the man he was still lingers under the skin.
The image of the VRS is suitably creepy and the rig that Rompath uses is actually a nice more “realistic” depiction than the usual “helmet with wires” setup that was the typical presentation of virtual reality in the 90’s. This feels possible, the other feels unlikely ever, and completely unachievable in the current time the plot is set. The VRS might be oddly slow and jumpy at times, especially for a machine that apparently “runs” at 70 miles an hour, but it makes a good baddie and, effectively, our first true super villain.
I was, initially, kind of groaning about the "is the Soldier the Phantom?" side story, but I came around as I kind of like that the Mantis is a real true urban myth super hero (as opposed to say, Batman, who hangs out with Superman on the moon and everyone's seen). Plus, the sketches are weirdly similar.
Overall, the best part of the episode is its structure. Exorcising the police portions, the thing moves. The cold open effectively sets the stage without over-telling, the VRS is shown to be an effective threat, and the second act feels climax-y enough to make anyone not watching the clock think it’s the real end.
To close on one final complaint though (sorry), for the fourth time in five episodes, the bad buy of the episode is dead in an not entirely unavoidable way. The pharmaceutical CEO in “Days of Rage” was electrocuted, the Koreans in “First Steps” got blown up in their helicopter, the false Interpol agent last episode also dies by blowing up, and now Rompath, too…BOOM! I don’t necessarily want the baddies to be ongoing recurrent threats but the dying here is awfully casual.
W: “Gloves Off” predicts UFC and the Mantis makes like the New York State government, trying to ruin all the fun.