Nostalgia corner: Prey (1998)


Whenever science fiction deals with “the next step in human evolution”, it always sounds so cool and liberal. The more evolved species gets special powers but because it’s in a minority, those racist humans always try to oppress them. Let’s not be species-ist! All X-Men are created equal! Power to the Tomorrow People!

But what if the liberals were wrong and genetic advancement isn’t a cool metaphor for racism at all? What if that next step in evolution was actually as bad as the humans feared? What if the new species in fact thought of humans as inferior and wanted to wipe them out? What if Homo sapiens suddenly was no longer at the top of the food chain and was instead the prey of a superior species?

Cue the aptly titled 1998 ABC series Prey. It starred Debra Messing (Grace from Will and Grace) as an anthropologist studying genetic variation in humans. She discovers that a number of violent criminals and indeed serial killers share a number of genetic markers that render them as genetically different from humans as humans are from chimpanzees: they’re more intelligent, more aggressive and have certain psychic powers, but have little or no empathy for human beings, regarding us the same way we do animals. Importantly, the new species can interbreed with us – the women even have four uteruses and have already evolved to have children from the age of nine without complications – but the offspring are always of the superior species, resulting in the species getting the classification Homo dominant.

Messing comes together with other scientists and law enforcement officials (including Frankie Faison from The Wire and Larry Drake from LA Law) to learn more about the new species, its origins, how many there are, and to find out if peaceful co-existence is possible. Along the way, they come across a friendly Homo dominant (Adam Storke) who wants to be human and feel normal human emotions.

How do you think that works out?

Here’s the entire series for you to watch on YouTube – well, the entire series except, helpfully, the final episode – but we’ll talk more about Prey after the jump.

Was it any good?
In a lot of ways, Prey was the hokier, more emotional US equivalent of Channel 4’s Ultraviolet, giving us a small, government-funded group of humans trying not only to fight a war against a superior species but also to decide whether what they’re doing is ethical and if the baddies really are all bad. Similarly, most of the episodes revolve around learning either about Homo dominant’s origins or about one of its schemes to either wipe out humans or to convert the humans into Homo dominant.

The superior species is eventually shown to have emerged in Mexico in a secluded community, partly as an evolutionary response to global warming (yes, the US knew about global warming 15 years ago!). Around 200,000 of the new species already exist and with their great fertility and humanity’s apparent genetic recessiveness, our eventual minority-status and perhaps even extinction is apparently assured. But that doesn’t stop the dominants from using their superior intelligence to find a way of wiping us out well ahead of that deadline by, for example, genetically engineering human children into dominants or extracting pathogens from the bodies of victims of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic for a little bit of biological warfare.

The series also gives the dominants their own culture and even religion. The dominants exhibit similar characteristics to serial killers: as well as largely being sociopaths, with a genetic hatred of humanity, they collect trophies of their human killings, much as hunters collect stag antlers, and these are a sign of social status. The village from which the species emerged is considered a holy site by the dominants, too.

Nevertheless, Prey didn’t portray the dominants as monolithic. Storke’s character is sympathetic and many of the episodes involve a potential romantic connection between Messing and him. Although he has the same instincts as the others, he’s able to suppress them and he’s shown not to be alone among the dominants in this. However, Prey also highlights that there’s still a species boundary that makes that romantic connection potentially only one-way – that is, until the final episode when a way to genetically change dominants into humans is discovered.

Just like Ultraviolet, the show ended with a cliffhanger; however, unlike the British show, the good guys definitely weren’t winning at this point, with the heroes either in peril or dead, Storke captured by his own kind and locked in a cage.

Nevertheless, after one season of not great ratings, ABC cancelled it. And that was almost that for Prey. However, in an odd little coda, there was a slight resolution in the Sci-Fi Channel series The Invisible Man/I-MAN (2000-2002). This starred Vincent Ventresca (aka Fun Bobby in Friends), who had also starred in Prey as one of the plucky scientists trying to stop the dominants. At one point, while escaping a top secret facility, Ventresca comes across a locked door. He opens it, revealing a prisoner – a now slightly bearded Storke, who realising he’s free, legs it as soon as possible, leaving Ventresca to try to work out exactly how he knew him…

But that really was the last anyone heard of Prey. Clearly, the Dominants won. Oh well. I for one welcome our new genetically superior overlords.