Expect “The X-Files” knockoffs to keep rolling in throughout 1998 and beyond.
Fox (“The Visitor” and “Millennium”) and NBC (“The Pretender,” “Sleepwalkers” and “Profiler”) constructed evening lineups made up entirely of dramatic series based on weird and otherworldly phenomena. Now ABC, the Disney-owned network, weighs in this week with “Prey,” though with its time slot - Thursday night at 8 - both predator and prey in this new dramatic series from Warner Bros. may wind up as sacrificial lambs.
From now until the end of the current season in May, NBC’s Thursday night juggernaut - beginning with “Friends” and ending with “ER” - will be particularly formidable as the world tunes in for the buildup of the “Seinfeld” finale. (The time slot already proved unfortunate for “Nothing Sacred,” which is seeking stronger ratings in its new time at 8 on Saturday nights.)
But if ABC is patient - an uncharacteristic quality for networks - “Prey” could develop into a solid hit. The show has beauty and brains in the person of a bio-anthropoloist babe who knows just when to cry. And it has a dark and mysterious threat in the form of a hominid bad guy who wants to be a good guy. Can she trust him? Can we? There’s even the distinct prospect of sex between members of the opposing species.
The series premise is laid out tantalizingly enough in the premiere episode. Never mind the scientific improbability. “Prey” is no docudrama, we hope.
Dr. Sloan Parker, the science babe played with a convincingly no-nonsense edge by Debra Messing, is the protege of Dr. Ann Coulter, who is murdered in her lab early in Thursday’s show. When Parker finds the body, a lab monkey is hovering over it with a sign around its neck, reading, “All of you will die.” Those are the exact words mass murderer Randall Lynch whispered in Dr. Coulter’s ear when he charged the witness stand at his trial on other homicide charges.
Lynch would be the prime suspect except he was behind bars at the time.
Parker is devastated by the horrible death of her mentor and friend. And she’s haunted by the last-words clue. Coulter told Parker there was an anomaly with the blood work she’d conducted on Lynch to help convict him. Meanwhile, the files have been turned over to an FBI agent who turns out not to be an FBI agent. So Parker starts over from scratch, literally. She visits Lynch in prison, face-to-face, so she can scratch a speck of skin from his arm to conduct her own DNA analysis.
Parker discovers that Lynch is not human. Even more startling, she tests DNA samples of a half-dozen violent criminals and finds that they, too, are members of some heretofore undetected extra-human species. Moreover, the mystery man Parker saw hanging around Coulter, posing as FBI agent Tom Daniels, turns out to be of that same new species.
How did this species evolve? According to Coulter’s theory, outlined in a lecture she gives shortly before her murder, the last time there was a change in temperature on Earth of as much as 6 degrees, homo sapiens began to develop alongside Neanderthals before wiping them out. Now with global warming, another species of man has evolved over hundreds of years, undetected before advanced DNA analysis was possible.
And why does this new species seem intent on murderously eliminating homo sapiens one by one? It’s the oldest reason in the world: No two species can occupy the same evolutionary niche. A battle for the survival of the fittest is on. And the “bad guys” have struck the first blows.
“Prey” would be too comic-book predictable if that were all there was to it. Enough to sustain a two-hour movie, perhaps, but never a series. However, from the first episode, as well as from production notes, we can see that a relationship with complications will develop between Parker and a man of the other species, Daniels. Played with a dazed look of confusion and conflict by Adam Storke, Daniels has doubts about his mission. (He’s been sent to kill Parker.) He’s had enough contact with humans that he suspects they have more fun than he does. They have emotions. Tears and laughter. And he wants some of that.
Wanna bet that lovely Parker shows him what it’s all about?
Meanwhile, helping her on her scientific quest to prove the existence of the new species and its threat to humans is Coulter’s successor, Dr. Walter Attwood (Larry Drake, formerly of “L.A. Law”) and Parker’s wannabe boyfriend, Dr. Ed Tate (Vincent Ventresca of “Boston Common.”) Helping solve various grisly crimes along the way is police Detective Ray Peterson (Frankie Faison).
But Messing and Storke are the dual fulcrum of the series. They establish an appropriately distant and awkward chemistry in the first episode.
This series is out there, in the now well-established “X-Files” mold. It’s plot may sound preposterous, but “Prey” may be worth checking out, “Friends” or no “Friends.”
MEMO: “Prey” premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC (KXLY-TV, Channel 4 from Spokane).