There was a time when you couldn’t move on US TV for TV shows from the house of Glen A Larson. The Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica, Knight Rider, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Magnum PI: all his. He did have a few failures, though: Automan, The Highwayman and Nightman were all his and they didn’t do too well.
His biggest failure was Manimal, which lasted all of eight episodes before being hacked to death. In the majority of Larson’s TV shows, there was an element of fantasy and Manimal probably had the biggest element of fantasy: the wealthy Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale, now on Holby City) is actually a shape-shifter who can turn himself into any animal of his choice, and uses this ability to help fight crime.
Usually very slowly. Cue the weird old title sequence.
Our Jonathan could turn himself into an animal due to some nifty tricks his dad taught him in Tibet (explained in one of the shortest voiceover intros in modern TV history – it was about 7 seconds or something). Obviously, not a lot of people knew our Jonathan was a shape-shifter of he’d be in the circus: his comedy African-American friend Ty Earl (Michael D Roberts) and police detective Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson, whom you might remember as Dale Arden in Flash Gordon) were the only two, thanks to events explained in the pilot. In each episode, Jonathan and Ty would assist Brooke with a case she was working on, with Jonathan transforming himself into various different animals as and when it became useful to do so.
The problem with Manimal – apart from the scripts – was the cost and the technology. Being made in 1983, An American Werewolf in London style make-up effects was how you did transformations from man to beast, not CGI morphing à la Terminator 2. The difficulty was that make-up is very expensive, and the transformation takes a long time. So Jonathan only ever changed into a panther, an eagle and on very rare occasions a snake – any other animal transformations happened off camera – he always did it against the same backdrop (to save cash on re-shoots) and it always took a long time.
Here’s the panther transform.
And while all that was happening, the action ground to a halt. Yawn. The snake transform was quite icky too.
Being up against Dallas in the schedules didn’t help, either, so the show died pretty quickly. Nevertheless, it proved popular round the rest of the world, and Larson held it in his heart enough that when he was making Nightman – other contender for most fantastical Larson show, what with its anti-gravity suit wearing, telepathic saxophonist hero – he had a Manimal crossover episode featuring MacCorkindale. This time, CGI handled the transformations. Imagine what the show would have been like in 1983 with that.
Incidentally, this is supposed to be set in modern-day London, I think. No, I’m not sure either.
Just in case you’re intrigued by Manimal or have fond memories of it, here’s the 90-minute pilot episode. Enjoy!