I guess it's only appropriate that a week after President Obama historically took office, distributors would get around to releasing "M.A.N.T.I.S." on DVD because it, too, can claim to be an African-American first, starring actor Carl Lumbly in the title role of a scientist/superhero. The series ran for a season back on FBC over a decade ago. I received the WGA "Developed By" credit on the series and served as "Co-Executive Producer" and thought that now, for the record, a little trip down memory lane might be in order.
"M.A.N.T.I.S." was the first TV series where the powers-that-be gave me the keys to the car and said I was in charge of the writing staff. This was back in 1994 when I was coming off a successful first season of the "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" series. Sandy Grushow was in charge of FBC-TV back then, and he’s the first guy who said I was seasoned enough to be in charge of a budget of $1.4 million per episode and not blow it.
Anyway the deal was, "M.A.N.T.I.S" had started as a two-hour pilot, written by Sam Hamm ("Batman") and directed by Sam Raimi ("Spiderman"). The two Sams had a disagreement with Fox about how the series should go (they saw the series as an alternative world with an all-black cast and Fox wanted it to be a super-hero who was black in a regular American city), and walked away from their own project. Fox still wanted to do the series but somebody needed to make the changes and run the show. Both Hamm and Raimi were extremely gracious and understanding in the transition, nothing was made personal, and the series lived and (almost) prospered.
After the pilot aired in the spring of 1994, we produced 20 more episodes of the series starting that August up in Vancouver, B.C. for the 1994-1995 season. Our first episode basically became a re-premising and de-facto new pilot. Some things were kept, others fine-tuned, and others outright changed (like new supporting cast). The basic concept from Hamm and Raimi, however, never changed. The series was about an African-American scientist who became a super-hero, played by Carl Lumbly.
By the way, that's me and Carl that summer up in Canada. I always thought wearing a tie was uncomfortable but nothing in this world could compare to wearing the rubberized M.A.N.T.I.S. suit on a muggy August afternoon. It was like being in a sauna. Carl was a saint.
The premise, in case you missed it, was simple. Dr. Miles Hawkins, a brilliant scientist, had been paralyzed in a shooting incident. Confined to a wheelchair, he created a cutting edge, sophisticated exo-skeleton designed to allow him to walk again by transmitting his brain function through the suit, rather than through his body’s crippled nervous system. Once in the suit, he was more than normal, he was super, but he couldn’t stay in it long without some serious consequences. Oh, and he had a flying car. Really…
- "This is the scientific journal of Dr. Miles Hawkins, to be published in the event of my death. I know when the truth is known, people will wonder why I felt it necessary to create the M.A.N.T.I.S. The reality--I never did. The M.A.N.T.I.S. asked his own creation and I could not refuse him."
The copy above was the voice-over I’d written for the first episode. The “scientific journal” aspect allowed Hawkins a degree of introspection we felt was appropriate for his character.
Ironically, nobody in the pilot had ever decided what "M.A.N.T.I.S." stood for, despite the periods. One of my first jobs was to decide that burning issue. Frankly, I think originally my predecessors had thought of it more as Mantis, as in Preying, and wanted to fashion a super-hero in that image. Apparently, though, there had been at some point in history a not-very-widely read comicbook of the same name. That’s how the periods came about. You see, NOW, it was completely different.
So, by the time I inherited the name and the periods, it had become an issue. I remember sitting at my desk with a pen and a piece of paper and playing with words. It came spilling out, on the first try, I believe.
There. Now you know. I'm not claiming genius or anything, but it worked, and we moved on to more pressing challenges. One of them was that while shooting that first episode, it became necessary to replace our line producer. Thankfully, Tim Iacafano came aboard on no notice, stayed the duration and did a fantastic job.
As it began, the show was pretty much a power-sharing thing between James McAdams and myself (and later Coleman Luck). McAdams started as executive producer because he was Universal's go-to production guy, having successfully taken them through "The Equalizer." I got the Co-Executive Producer title, but I ran the writing side of things and Jim pretty much left me alone to get the job done. Mid-season Coleman came in (he'd worked with McAdams on "The Equalizer"). There was a fair share of hysteria on the lot trying to save a series in a tough time slot but, bottom line, Coleman and I are still buddies today, bonded over sci-fi and UFO mysteries. He's a great guy.
The rest of the team included supervising producer Mark Lisson, producer Paris Qualles, co-producer Brad Markowitz and story editor David Ransil. We were on the Universal lot, breaking stories in a wonderful old building that was marked for the wrecking ball to make room for the Jurassic Park ride in the middle of our production order.
We started out the series with the idea that it was a very real world and M.A.N.T.I.S. was the singular fantasy element. A half dozen or more episodes in, we realized that wasn’t working like it was supposed to, and we changed tactics mid-season. For the final episodes, M.A.N.T.I.S. dealt with increasingly strange sci-fi type premises.
Unfortunately, that didn’t work either and Fox killed the series. Knowing cancellation was imminent, Hawkins himself was even killed off in the final episode. That scientific journal, it was now revealed, had told the story of his transformation and adventures from beyond the grave.
Well, actually, we left just a little bit of room for survival, maybe. After all, hope springs eternal in television.
A couple of years ago, when I was running the TV Academy, I got to re-connect with Carl when we did an "Alias" panel. It was like seeing a friend who'd I'd been in battle with. Those kinds of memories only get better with the years. Something else wonderful came from the series. My phenomenal executive assistant at the time, Patricia Friedman, introduced me to her husband Brent Friedman and we went on to create NBC's "Dark Skies" series, write "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation" and collaborate on a number of other projects. We're working on one right now. Plus, Brent, Patricia, Jackie and I are all great friends, know each others kids and everything great that comes from seeing your families grow together.
I wish I could tell you what to expect in the new DVD set. When I heard about its potential release a year or more ago, I sent off an email to the company volunteering to help them round up extras like gag reels, dailies, scripts, etc. and never heard back. I wrote them again to multiple addresses and nobody bothered to write me back.
This was odd because in 2007, I worked extensively with Arts Alliance with their release of another series I was "Executive Producer" of, "The Crow: Stairway to Heaven." That went like a charm and the people couldn't have been nicer or more interested in getting what they could.
I think part of the reason is that this DVD company releasing "M.A.N.T.I.S." (Image Entertainment) has another agenda. You'll notice that the names they put on the box cover are the people associated with the two-hour abandoned pilot and not the series. I think they want to market this as a Sam Raimi extravaganza to cash in on his current success. For the record, though, besides Carl Lumbly (who was in both the pilot and series), the other lead actors were Roger Rees, Galyn Gorg, and Chris Garten.
Also, in the not-such-a-good-sign department, the Image website lists the show as being from 1997 -- a whole three years off. It lists the running time as 266 minutes, but claims that they have the entire season on four discs. At roughly 45 minutes of film per episode, we produced more like 1100 minutes. Maybe they just mean 266 per DVD.
I guess the point is, they don't appear to be big on getting the details right so far. I'm almost afrad to watch their DVD. And, no, they didn't send me a complimentary copy -- I'll have to pay them for the privilege!