In the pursuit of new story ideas writers often turn to mythology in search of a premise. Through the ages there have been rumours and legends of people capable of transforming from common forms into bizarre ones. Most of these have been the staple of horrific tales, like the vampire or the werewolf, creatures at the mercy of natural forces who roam abroad at night seeking fresh blood to satisfy their hunger.
For prime time television to take up this idea in the early 1980s, when there was not yet the common acceptance amongst the viewing public to allowing more extreme programming to hit the airwaves on a Friday evening, something more subtle was necessary. Balancing a suave and respectable gentleman against some captivating transformations from man to animal, where the sole purpose was the fight for justice, seemed to be the way forward.
Jonathan Chase is a lecturer in animal behavioural sciences at New York University. He's a young, fresh-faced, wealthy and cultured man who has inherited more than just a fortune from his family tree. His knowledge makes him a respected expert, enough to provide valued consultancy regarding the use of animals in criminal activities. However, his most unusual inheritance makes him something more of a threat to the criminal community.
Jonathan Chase is Manimal, a human capable of adopting any animal form at a whim or when exposed to extreme psychological upheaval. The transformations cause significant physical stress, demanding a great deal from the whole body, but Chase remains conscious and aware throughout the process. Only two people are aware of this incredible power: Tyrone Earl, a man who served alongside Chase in the Vietnam War, and Brooke MacKenzie, a police detective who stumbles across Chase mid-change.
Chase uses his supreme intelligence, logic and material resources to fight crime, utilising his animal form to track, fight and scare when the need arises. His good looks seem to combine with a certain animal magnetism to make him a very likeable individual, and Brooke would have become something of a reluctant love interest if the series had continued.
The Shape of Things to Come
The gimmick of the show was the transformations that Jonathan Chase was capable of at the drop of a hat. He would breathe heavily, his skin contorting, then his body would begin to change form. The audience was treated to skin growing coarse hair or feathers, his face elongating into a snout or beak, and the appearance of fangs or talons - whatever was applicable to the form involved. The principle of the ability was that Chase could become any animal, but the most common forms were a cat, a panther or a hawk, and herein lay the problem for the show and for the audience: expense and repetition.
The transformation sequences were excellent for their time, though presented in a patchy style that meant that complete make-up work was never actually necessary. The problem was that the process was lengthy and expensive, so that the number of changes, and their type, was limited. The result was that the same sequences were seen again and again, even though the series was relatively short. After the first few transformations the mystique was lost because the variety was never there. There were occasional variations, but they weren't enough, and they simply added to the expense.
Ultimately the people backing the series realised that the cost to produce the show, and keep it filled with fresh special effects to maintain viewer interest, was simply too great.
The Main Cast
Simon MacCorkindale as Jonathan Chase
Melody Anderson as Brooke Mackenzie
Michael D Roberts as Tyrone C Earl
Reni Santoni as Lt Nick Rivera
William Conrad as the Narrator
The show ran for a total of eight televised episodes.
'Manimal' - 90-minute Pilot (30 September, 1983)
'Illusion' - (14 October, 1983)
'Night of the Scorpion' - (21 October, 1983)
'Female of the Species' - (28 October, 1983)
'High Stakes' - (4 November, 1983)
'Scrimshaw' - (3 December, 1983)
'Breath of the Dragon' (10 December, 1983)
'Night of the Beast' (17 December, 1983)
The character of Jonathan also appeared in a series two episode of the series Nightman - aired on 9 November, 1998. The episode featured Jonathan and his daughter, Teresa, at risk from attack by a time-travelling Jack the Ripper. Only in discovering the powers she had inherited from her father was Teresa, with Nightman, able to defeat the Ripper.
Whereas the only hopes for the resurrection of this kind of series are frequently through re-runs, video releases and fan sites, the fact that - some 15 years on - Manimal managed a guest appearance in another show seems to indicate that even a short-run, cancelled series is not necessarily forgotten by the television cognoscenti. There is always hope for the future.