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 9: Fire in the Heart
P: Tiger Robinson (Patrick Malone) is a street (or rather, gym) ball player who’s a bit too short and made to pay for it Dr. Kool (Biski Gugushe). Kool who doesn’t hesitate to drop some hot negging on Tiger in the form of saying something like, “They may call you Tiger, but in here, I’m King of the Jungle.” That right there is some cutting wordplay.
Our King of the Jungle gets sent to the showers (again, this is a street ball game, indoors, with a coach/ref, I guess. I don’t know about you but when I’m playing above the rim at my local court in the Bronx, there’s no one to tell me to hit the showers when my verbal smackdowns hit too hard) and moments later is surrounded by fire. But how?
After the opening credits, the insufferable “Light Brigade” quoter from “Days of Rage” returns revealing a more in-depth continuity then you might’ve expected this show to have and hips bike messenger to the spontaneous fire, which ended up consuming the community center although did so without hurting anyone. Bike messenger, continuing to be useful against all appearances, brings the information to Hawkins & Co. involving Hawkins, as Hawkins for once, in the situation.
In short order, to no one’s surprise, it is revealed that Tiger is the Drew Barrymore of this episode. The mechanics are revealed later and involve chemicals, the government, and genetics, but, basically, Dad got exposed to something bad and now Tiger can burn stuff with his mind.
Unfortunately, he discovered the ability at four years old and caused a fire that killed his sister and badly injured mom. This enables real estate mogul and apparent former arsonist Justin Battle (Erik King) to get his clutches on this young pyrokinetic. By paying for Tiger’s mom’s ongoing care and assuring the teen(?) that the more buildings he burns, the closer the neighborhood grows to revitalization, Battle is using him as a tool to acquire as much land as possible. Of course, Battle’s real plans have nothing to do with nice low-income housing and everything to do with gentrification. Apparently, Port Columbia’s waterfront is actually Brooklyn. (Suck it Hipsters! Suck on that sickest of burns!!! Spike Lee FOREVER!)
Hawkins tries to mentor Tiger in a very hands-off way, showing off his wealth and, in a moment reminiscent of Morpheus’s “It’s a hovercraft” brag, showing him Hawkins Industry racecar hologram. The hologram may do more than show off race cars, but we never see it so I’m just going to assume here. However, it is clear that Tiger is resistant and, increasingly, seems to leave things super-hot when he gets mad.
Eventually, Hawkins & Co. puts it all together and the Mantis suits up and tries to stop Tiger from burning down a giant dry cleaning warehouse. Instead, things blow up good and the Mantis is nearly cooked inside his exoskeleton. Hawkins trying, as himself, to talk Tiger out of things goes poorly as well, although Tiger doesn’t try to cook him this time.
Things come to a head when Battle demands that Tiger torch the new home of the community center because it stands in the way of his development deal. Tiger is finally hip to things and makes accusation that Battle, delightfully, confirms with a nice dose of scenery chewing. Initially it looks like our male Firestarter will play ball but when the Mantis’ well timed intervention saving Tiger’s mom, he instead turns on Battle, showing him exactly how well he can wield the flame.
The Mantis, ignoring how kill happy his show is, talks Tiger down. Battle and Tiger end up arrested and Mantis once again escapes the clutches of the law. The show ends with Tiger reaching out to his almost mentor via letter and Hawkins draining a pretty impressive thirty-footer from the confines of his chair.
O: There is a whole lot in this episode to like. A whole lot.
I rarely comment on the direction or look of M.A.N.T.I.S. because, to be frank, it is all pretty workman-like. This time out though, the show does some wonderful work with the images, especially the flames. There are a few moments where it is clear the effects aren’t practical when the actors are around, but mostly, it looks great. It is a very comic book-y sense of pop and flair from a series that, despite being about a super hero, rarely has indulged in that look since the pilot.
Part of that is, no doubt, giving the show its second super villain. Not Tiger so much, who has the power but none of the charisma, but Justin Battle. I was initially annoyed that the show did not just use Solomon Box again, given his hinted at role as #1 top villain in Port Columbia. However, Battle is so delightfully, unapologetically oozing with amoral ambition and manipulation. I’m all for tragic villains, but it is also nice to have a charismatic baddie who largely delights in his wicked behavior.
Also to the show’s benefit is some head nodding at the racial politics that so drove the pilot “movie.” It finally does not shy away from the face that Hawkins is a rich black man in a city where, largely, the only successful black men (like Battle here and Pike in the pilot) are exploiting the socio-economically and racially oppressed in the city. First, it highlights that Battle does not care about his “roots” and is more than happy to rip apart the neighborhoods he grew up in to make himself a few more dollars all while gladly playing the part of local son made good coming back to help those left behind.
A cousin to that reality is what Tiger accuses Hawkins of, being a black man who get rich and now, out of guilt not empathy, feels the need to involve himself in the lives of people less fortunate then him. The interesting thing is that it is, in some ways, unfair and yet, at the same time, pretty accurate. Especially considering Hawkins’ roots as a conservative who’s shooting made him decide to be more concerned about those with less. He’s doing it more out of anger than pity, but the idea of him as a sort of poverty tourist who just drops money on a problem and goes away is accurate. Granted, some of this is the nature of episodic TV during an era where serialism was more or less rejected, but still, it is a criticism that has some sting.
Lastly on the topic of politics, whether it be on purpose or not, the largely absent police force in this episode—they only show up to tell one victim they probably cannot help him—is a sort of meta-commentary on the nature of rich v. poor justice. The police are all over the episodes with rich or splashy victims but a dry cleaner in the poorest part of town? Nowhere to be seen.
Finally, while I'm not sure it is neither bad nor good, I do get a kick out of the song firestarter being named Tiger and thus being a rather obvious and yet still covert reference to William Blake's "The Tyger" which begins, "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright."
W: “Thou Shalt Not Kill” but it looks like the Mantis just might’ve. Has he been framed or is he out of control? You may have to wait for part 2, "Revelation" but we'll cover both at once so, no worries.