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 20: Spider in the Tower
P: C. Flayton Ruell… I’m just going to say that again…a character named C. Flayton Ruell (Mark Sheppard) is the head of Tranquility Corporation, Port Columbia’s newest job creator. Seemingly to celebrate his arrival in this new city Ruell throws a bash for the movers and shakers of Port Columbia. And Maxwell. (Look, I’m sorry, but she’s a police lieutenant. There’s no reason for her to have had an invite to this exclusive event.)
However, Ruell is a ruse. A false face to hide. An arrogant man in a hideous offensive tie. A homunculus in the employ of…
Look, maybe you should sit down for this.
Ruell is working in service of…sigh…the figures the M.A.N.T.I.S. universe calls the “Men in Black.” Yep. The worst villains from the worst episode of the show are back.
Wait, wait, wait. Don’t go. We’ll make it through this together.
So the Men’s goals seem to be roughly the same, seizing the highest of high society and slowly using them to take over the planet. To this end, they are seizing partygoers via a portal behind a spider in one of Tranquility endless, cavernous hallways. There’s a massive spider motif here, the building arranged like a web, the spider in the wall, the new way the Men are controlling their abductees (via a clear plastic spider inserted into the temple), although it is unclear why, exactly, the Men have gone here. Ruell might be a spider nut, maybe, but that’s the closest I can get to a reason.
As the party goes, guests are picked off one by one, first the mayor, the former police chief now commissioner (who’s still credited as the chief and we’ll get back to him later) and then nearly Hawkins who brushes off Ruell and escapes, mind intact.
Here’s the other change in the Men. Apparently, the whole rule the world thing has taken a backseat to breaking Hawkins. They’re ostensibly still about taking over Earth, but mostly they want to punish Hawkins until he prostrates himself before them.
Fortunately, Ruell’s creepy come-ons did not escape Hawkins attentions and the doc turned superhero immediately sets about investigating the CEO finding that, apparently, Ruell has no history. As if that doesn’t make him seem suspicious, Ruell really drives the point home by shipping Hawkins a spider in a box.
Besides taunting our hero, Ruell is setting about a master plan that will destroy Hawkins morally, taking away all he loves in the name of making him a monster. Which, somehow, will lead to him joining the Men. He presents it to the Men with pain/pleasure language that would make Pinhead proud and sounds just great. If the Men were the types to be impressed, I’m sure they would be.
The plan involves shooting Stonebrake, putting him in a coma, siccing the temple spider enhanced IAD on Maxwell and eventually turning her too. Bike messenger and Hawkins suddenly seem the only ones who are both conscious and not under the throes of the Men.
Hawkins remains in the dark on the return of the Men in Black, however, until he rejiggers his headgear to, I believe, visit his comatose friend Stonebrake in what seems to be Purgatory. Things get oddly metaphysical as Stonebrake reveals there is a battle between light and dark coming and Hawkins is a soldier of light and has been since his own near death experience. No word on how all the killing he’s done as the Mantis figures into his position on the light. He also does the useful thing and makes it clear that the Men in Black are back. While wearing sweet all white outfit.
Armed with the knowledge, Hawkins teases the traps Ruell is setting for him but escapes again and again. People under the control of the Men burst in flames upon their failure. The Men question Ruell’s ideas. Ruelle more emphatically states them without adjusting his approach at all.
The Mantis finally takes the fight to Tranquility Tower. There he survives a Man who looks like Maxwell yielding a machine gun before chasing Ruell into what appears to be Mustafar (you know, that Star Wars lava planet that made Anakin into Vader, essentially).
But it gets even better because Ruell decides to cosplay as a vampire for the fight! A-maze-ing!
The two clash, the Men’s stoogie wields fireballs beats up the Mantis pretty good until Hawkins taps into that aforementioned light (via a very subtle beam from the sky) and sends Ruell off a cliff into the lava flows.
O: The good news is that this is WAY better than our last encounter with the Men in Black back in “Through the Dark Circle.” So, so, so, so much better. Miles and miles.
Keeping the Men mostly in the background and letting the far more charismatic Sheppard chew the scenery is a far more interesting dramatic choice and the story benefits. I know this because in revisiting my notes, I realized I felt like I liked it a lot more than I actually seemed to.
This is another episode that has a great hook of a plot: a shady entrepreneur with mystical backers engaging in a game of chess with our hero, seeking to destroy everything the hero loves in the name of eventually destroying the hero’s very soul. So compelling!
In practice though, Sheppard’s Ruell never seems all that smart or all that ahead of Hawkins. He speechifies well enough but his actual realization of his plot is weak sauce. That, in turn, makes him feel weak and insubstantial, and thus, when the final physical confrontation rolls around, he feels weak and insubstantial.
I should probably also at least nod in the direction of the metaphysical elements here. So, Dr. Hawkins has always been portrayed as a man of science with a faith in God. It’s never been a big deal, but it has been nodded at in the past via mentions of prayer, God as the creator, the soul, and that sort of thing. He’s probably a pretty mainstream non-evangelical Christian. He doesn’t church a lot but he believes largely without incident.
That said, this whole light v. dark thing is a so much more explicit deep dive into religious themes that arrives without preamble and I’m willing to bet will go largely uncommented on for the rest of this series’ final episodes. I’m not opposed to a “it turns out this was a battle between good and evil all along” swerve but it has to be earned and mean something. This fulfills neither of those criteria.
Finally, in nitpicky territory. How is the police chief still employed given he was exposed as a tool of Solomon Box? And given that we met a new chief last episode? Did he get promoted for being a corrupt chief? Are these episodes out of order? These are probably questions I don’t really need to be spending so much time on.
Overall, this was an improvement over the past few episodes, but the moment you pulled at it at all, it unraveled very quickly. Still way better than that last Men in Black episode though. So very much better.
W: A druid related to Stonebrake comes into the future bringing with him “Ancestral Evil.”