M.A.N.T.I.S. was a short lived television series from 1994-1995 for one season. It was a super hero show featuring an African American superhero which was/is fairly rare on American television. It follows the story of Dr. Miles Hawkins (Carl Lumbly) a famous scientist paralyzed after a shooting. He is a somewhat bitter character; although part of it is  faked to deflect attention from himself so his dual personality as M.A.N.T.I.S.  is not discovered.

M.A.N.T.I.S. stands for Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System. In the pilot movie, the M.A. N.T. I.S. seems to focus mainly on the helmet as the center of control and the rest of the suit gives him mobility. It is covered in a long trench coat. Once the series proper begins, the M.A.N.T.I.S costume in a black bodysuit with the M.A.N.T.I.S  system of the outside. This is one of many, many drastic changes from the pilot to the series. Dr. Hawkins also develops and uses a variety of technologies, including a hovercraft, throughout the series.

The pilot starts with Yuri Barnes (Bobby Hosea) a reporter and pathologist Dr. Amy Ellis (Gina Torres) who discover a possible conspiracy by the police force and local politicians. It seems that certain criminals are being paralyzed-like a bug paralyzes its victims-and it may be part of a large plot for urban control drugs. There is also a possible connection to a conspiracy to break a gang war truce to sway a local election. The events take place in Ocean City-an obvious stand in for L.A.- and the plot deals with issues of urban violence, political corruption, corrupt cops, racism etc. It’s meant to be edgy and political-at times, it can get a little preachy.

Still, its good because the characters are complex. Gina Torres, of Firefly fame is great as Dr. Ellis. She’s smart, capable, intriguing and pushes much of the drama forward. She gives weight to the show. In this pilot version, Dr. Hawkins is close to becoming an embittered recluse. He  alienates most of those around him; even Dr. Ellis doesn’t much care for him. He has two brilliant African research assistants who fluctuate between admiring him and being annoyed with him. He is also an outspoken conservative who has ruffled feathers in the African American political community. This pilot was uncompromising in developing an African American superhero within the context of the African American community. The main and supporting characters show the African American community with a complexity of ideas, agendas, issues, and approaches to life and this is what really makes M.A.N.T.I.S stand out. It is not just a Black superhero just for the sake of having one-but tries to make a larger point.

And then it was re-booted before the first official episode.

What we get is a show that looks and feels like ‘show by committee’.

First, the main African American cast is gone. Only Dr. Hawkins remains. Dr. Ellis, Reporter Barnes, the research assistants, even the friends and family members are gone. It’s not set in a predominantly African American community anymore. Even the African art collection on Dr. Hawkins’ wall is gone. If ever a show was white-washed, here it is.

Second, the origin story is rebooted. The costume is different; the source of Dr. Hawkins’ accidents slightly changed; and even his personality is altered. The abrasive Dr. Hawkins is now just kind of self-pitying. The whole gang war-police corruption-political angle is replaced with…nothing, really. Something about an evil corporation. (Although the corporate baddie is played by Brion James of Blade Runner fame)

Third, the new characters are largely fillers from central casting. There’s a girl cop love interest; some other scientist because, well, I guess you need one; a evil corporate baddie; and a some guy who’s a bike messenger and falls into the whole M.A.N.T.I.S. group.

The show is not a total loss. For all the changes, Carl Lumbly manages to do a good job as M.A.N.T.I.S/Hawkins and I found myself liking M.A.N.T.I.S. the superhero even when the show’s writing disappointed. It seems to me the network was too scared to have a show with black characters assuming it wouldn’t appeal to a mainstream audience-and thus created a lackluster show that had little appeal to anyone.

The episodes nearer the end get pretty silly (apparently another committee re-re-booted it adding paranormal elements) and it all ends with a meandering plot concerning an invisible dinosaur.

Oh well.

Anyway, it is worth it to watch the original pilot. It looks a bit dated, but it’s interesting.  And then one or two episodes as a cautionary tale about the dangers of re-boot committees.

So, Smart Girls readers, anyone else remember M.A.N.T.I.S.?