The 1980s were a strange time, and nothing was quite as strange as Manimal, the high-concept fantasy-action show that came and went in a flurry of critical ridicule and audience indifference during 1983. In an era of extraordinary trashy TV that mixed high concepts with low production values, this show seemed to sum up both the ludicrous, cocaine-fuelled ambition and creative redundancy that typified USTV of the time. Someone, somewhere, thought that this was a good idea – you have to admire that sort of cluelessness.
The person who came up with the series was Glen A. Larson, the TV veteran producer who had already dabbled in science fiction with Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (not to mention Alias Smith and Jones, Knightrider, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo and BJ and the Bear). At the time, Manimal – like the equally unsuccessful stable mate Automan – was hyped as a show taking advantage of new special effects developments, but both shows failed to secure an audience and were quickly cancelled. Admittedly, Manimal was doomed from the outset, the pilot airing in competition with the ‘who shot J.R?’ episode of Dallas – but it’s hard to imagine this succeeding in any case. Which isn’t to say it’s as bad as people have suggested – simply that, for all the hype and the nonsensical central concept, the show was too generic to ever stand out. In a sense, it represents everything wrong with American television at the time – wildly, insanely ludicrous ideas that were then crowbarred into the cookie-cutter formula than dominated network TV at the time, almost guaranteeing failure.
The feature-length pilot sets the scene, with police detective Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson) on the trail of weapons smugglers. Unbeknownst to her, so is Dr Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), a police consultant who – of course – has the power to transform into any animal, and eventually the two pair up to hunt down the villains, including unlikely guest star Ursula Andress.
The problems with Manimal become clear right away. There is no origin and no explanation for Chase’s mysterious powers, other than some vague guff about learning secret rituals while in Vietnam – the implication being that anyone could transform into an animal if they just thought about it long enough. By throwing the audience directly into the fantastical concept, the show doesn’t give them any breathing room, and that’s fine if there was a sense that the show thought the viewers would be accepting of the fantasy – or was willing to take the delirious central idea and run with it. But, like everything from The Invisible Man to The Incredible Hulk to Knightrider, you get the feeling that the producers thought that there was only so much fantasy the viewer could take, and so they tack their science-fiction concept to entirely prosaic action stories that could just as easily have slotted into The A-Team or The Fall Guy (and quite often did – these shows all had pretty interchangeable and duplicated stories).
The series proper does a bit of story revisionism, with a ridiculously long William Conrad-narrated intro sequence that suggests the powers were passed on in Africa by Chase’s father – though it’s no more clear how or what they are. Also added to the cast is Michael D. Roberts as Chase’s sidekick and comedy relief in a part that doesn’t feel too far removed from the comedy black sidekicks found in 1940s films. Now, Chase seems to be Mackenzie’s official partner, despite not actually being a police officer (and no one ever comments on the fact that he’s English either), and the pair get involved in assorted investigations – usually more by accident than assignment.
The shows are very much of their time – in Illusion, the team come up against a corrupt Bulgarian ambassador (Richard Lynch) who is smuggling goods using his diplomatic immunity and a needlessly convoluted scheme involving a Siegfried and Roy-style magic show (Last House on the Left star David Hess also turns up in this episode, making it a must-see for fans of exploitation film villains) while Night of the Scorpion has our heroes tracking down Russian sleeper agents (one of whom is Doug McClure) – both episodes typical of early Eighties Cold War anti-Commie paranoia.
Female of the Species has Chase rescuing a girl raised by wolves (stories about feral children were surprisingly popular in 1970s and 80s US TV shows, even spawning a whole series – Lucan – based around the idea), and this fourth episode is probably the series high spot. Despite piling on the clichés, it’s actually quite effective and the rehabilitation of wolf girl Sarah (Laura Alverez) briefly lifts the show into a higher level of drama.
The other episode highlight is Scrimshaw, an amusing romp with Keenan Wynn as an old sailor who knows how to interpret the etchings on a walrus tusk – etchings that lead to a secret treasure. It’s a rather silly episode – even by Manimal standards – but there is a real sense of fun to it, fitting in with the theme of a pirate adventure quite well. The show runners ought to have taken this lightweight adventure concept and run with it.
Other than these few episodes, Manimal proved to be pretty lacklustre stuff – inoffensive but immediately forgettable, and hardly the sort of show that was ever going to build a big audience. Other episodes manage to take in kung fu extortionists in Chinatown (no surprise that Chase proves to be a martial arts master – though MacCorkindale’s kung fu stances look unintentionally camp), horse racing corruption (another plot device that weirdly seemed to turn up in just about every TV drama of the time) and Mafia intimidation (from Freddy Kruger himself, Robert Englund, no less) – all generic, interchangeable plots that could have come from any show, and which allow no opportunity for the series to develop its own personality. Naturally, the sudden cancellation of the series after just eight episodes (including the pilot) doesn’t allow for any wrap-up of the story, and with no actual continuity, you could watch all these episodes in any order.
All that said, I’ll be honest – rewatching the show, I found myself enjoying Manimal rather more than I’d expected to – I remember seeing the show on TV and giving up after a couple of episodes, but approached with minimal expectations, it’s an entirely harmless time waster Obviously, it’s pretty trashy and immediately forgettable, but there’s no denying that it’s also a lot of fun if you are willing to go with it. Admittedly, the much-vaunted animal transformations by Stan Winston have not aged well – though even at the time, they must’ve seemed like a poor man’s version of An American Werewolf in London. Naturally, the same effect is used over and over again (shot against blue screen, a different background is unconvincingly added according to where the action is taking place) and there are only three actual on-screen transformations – into a black panther, a hawk (both used in pretty much every episode) and a snake (used once – I assume the producers hadn’t thought through just how useful that one would be when ordering it). He becomes plenty of other animals – a dolphin, a bear, a horse, a bull and a parrot (!), but all off-screen. The effects are not awful – but with a clumsy mix of practical effects and dissolves, they look pretty crude. And of course, the transformations lead to one of the more laughable aspects of the show – namely, what happens to Chase’s clothes? Although the pilot has a shot of him tearing out of his jacket, Incredible Hulk style, our hero always shows up post-transformation dressed in the same immaculate clothes he was wearing earlier. Perhaps the unexplained powers he has also extend to his clothing. Or maybe he just carries a spare wardrobe with him on assignment.
The character interaction is odd too, though again typical for the time. While Chase and Mackenzie spend all their time flirting with each other and seem to have some sort of unspoken relationship going on, he’s never shy about smooching with whatever female guest star is in the episode, even when Mackenzie is right there watching. Perhaps he’s trying to make her jealous? In any case, the man’s a fool – Melody Anderson (of Flash Gordon and Dead and Buried fame) is lovely, her character charming and as the series progresses, it’s notable that more and more excuses are found to squeeze her into sexy outfits. MacCorkindale, on the other hand, never quite looks comfortable – I imagine there was always the fear in the back of his mind about what this might do to his career if his move to Hollywood didn’t work out. There is a certain perverse pleasure to be had in seeing just how embarrassed he appears at times, and the way he tries to over-compensate by giving an ever more ‘vigorous’ performance. Things would get artistically worse for the actor, who went from this to Falcon Crest, though I imagine he was laughing all the way to the bank. And he obviously didn’t find the series too embarrassing in later years, reprising the role in an episode of Night Man, a late Nineties superhero series also produced by Larson.
I won’t say Manimal is a lost classic. Clearly, it’s not. But it is amusingly empty-headed fun. Very much of its time, it will probably leave younger viewers cold, but if you are in the mood for some undemanding retro television, this might well be just up your street.