March M.A.N.T.I.S.- Episode 1: First Steps

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

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Today’s Episode: Episode 1: First Steps

P: In what feels like a prequel to the pilot (except for the whole no one except Lumbly making it to this episode thing), Dr. Miles Hawkins, genius scientist and industrialist paralyzed by gunshot wound, must help stop the spread of a deadly virus he helped develop while also mastering the so-called M.A.N.T.I.S. suit that helps him walk. To do so, he seeks the help of his employee John Stonebrake (Roger Rees) and is forced to accept the aid of bike messenger, Taylor Savage (Christopher Gartin) who figures out the doctor’s double life. We also introduced to Lt. Leora Maxwell who is clearly going to be Mantis’s contact on the police force and possible love interest for Hawkins. And by possible I mean obvious.

The virus is superficially (but clearly) connected with Solomon Box (Brion James), former collaborator of Hawkins turned, apparently, Lex Luthor-esque crime boss. He remains free at the conclusion of this episode despite Mantis stopping his plan to sell the virus to North Korea and will, I expect, continue to bedevil our heroes.

O: As predicted (and half-remembered) by me last installment, this episode ditches a lot of elements from the pilot. In looking around the internet, I found that execs found the pilot—which it should be noted was a ratings hit—too realistic and depressing.

I imagine that conversation went down something like this:

Exec 1: So…I like it…

Exec 2: Right. Me too. But I did find it all a bit…

E1: Black?

E2: Well, yes, but I hardly think we can say that, can we?

E1: How about “realistic and depressing?”

E2: Perfect!

E1: Great. Now get me some headshots of white actors! We have a show to recast!

Now admittedly, I’m being a bit flip, but it is hard not to notice how different the show “looks” this episode in comparison to the pilot. A look a scene on a staircase in the first five minutes makes it immensely clear.

 Goodness, it sure is a pale day out today.

Goodness, it sure is a pale day out today.

Whereas the pilot was populated by a multitude of black people in crowd scenes (not to mention the main cast, but we’ll get to that in a moment) this crowd scene has…one black person in it. One.

Our leads are not spared either. Gone are Gina Torres’ forensic pathologist, Bobby Hosea’s TV reporter, the two African interns/assistants, and the gangs. They are replaced by an English confidante, a white bike messenger, and a cop who is black but—it seems important to note (especially in light of the recent fracas regarding Pharrell’s album cover)—is quite a bit lighter skinned than Torres.

 And even Rees does not make this guy ok.

And even Rees does not make this guy ok.

Now, do not get me wrong here. I love Roger Rees. He always turns in enjoyable performances and the one time I ran into in a Kinko’s in New York City he was tremendously pleasant. But…the optics here are troubling to say the least.

Raimi and Hamm apparently agreed as these, while still listed as Executive Producers, rejected any further involvement with the show following the retooling. Even Lumbly would eventually voice his disappointment in the changes though he remained on a Dr. Miles Hawkins.

The differences between the pilot and this episode do not stop with casting, however. For the sake of ease, let me just bullet them below:

                -The credits sequence: Gone are the Darkman-esque explosive credits replaced by a sequence that is very reminiscent of the syndicated action shows of the era.

                -The compositions: Sounding more like the 90’s Outer Limits (again, syndicated) show than the Elfman-lite, the music is decidedly less interesting.

                -The characterization: Hawkins is less angry, wry, and sarcastic and more earnest. He also seems to have become an industrialist with his own company and a long history of collaborating with the police. Oh, and making weapons, evidently. He’s a lot more comic book Iron Man, in other words.

 Thus, 100% more of this face.

Thus, 100% more of this face.

                -The costume: Gone is the nice suit and dress coat “costume” replaced by the black exoskeleton all by itself.

                -The city: Gone is LA-inspired Ocean City, here is Port Columbia, a more anonymous in appearance and Eastern Seaboard-like city. Think New York with wider streets and more easily flowing traffic patterns. Plus, the whole thing looks a lot more studio backlot than the pilot did.

It is all a shame. Beyond bringing on Rees and establishing a new crime boss, I can’t think of a single change here that improved the show.

That said, as Pilot II (if you will), this is not a bad effort. The virus is suitably creepy and I like that Hawkins is not just atoning for his previous naïve political beliefs (although maybe that’s been ditched too) but actual past sins. The overcranking they use when the Mantis is on camera gives him an interesting near alien movement pattern that nicely recalls his alter ego’s namesake. Rees and Hawkins have decent chemistry and perhaps a tighter cast might make things feel a bit overflowing as we go.

Nonetheless, it is an inferior effort and a disappointment after the rich world promised by the pilot.

W: All weapons must go in “Tango Blue” and Mantis is just the hero for the job. Maybe.