December 17, 2014

But if our paths never cross, well you know I’m sorry, but… (Captain Power: A Summoning of Thunder, Part 2)

Previously…. Fifteen years ago, Stuart Gordon Power died. We’re about to find out how, as Captain Power has gone to his dad’s grave to mourn and have flashbacks at us. Lord Dread and his ridiculous sidekick Lakki are on their way to the grave in the hope of capturing him, traveling in the toyline-centerpiece Phantom Striker.
Captain Power Episode 15 - The Phantom Striker
Via Lord Dread, we phase back into the misty world of 2132 (Or 2139. Whatever). I think it’s fair to judge the framing of this story as indicative of the kind of underdeveloped storytelling mechanics of television in the 1980s in general, children’s television in specific, and Captain Power in particular. Narrative convention suggests that this should be Dread’s flashback, the story told from his perspective. But of course that doesn’t gel with what we see, that the narrative remains conventional, flipping back and forth between Volcania and the Power Base. This isn’t uncommon for flashback episodes in any era really, and certainly not before television grew up.

Captain Power Episode 16 Bruce Gray in VolcaniaIn 2132, Stuart has just arrived at Volcania, and is escorted by a pair of Mechs to his meeting with Taggart, which is for some reason taking place in some kind of wiring closet. Taggart muses that, “It’s been a long time.”

Time is something Captain Power has very little sense of. Taggart’s statement, and indeed his whole attitude, seem to indicate that his transformation by Overmind and the subsequent war have been going on for a long time. But other things, like the continued existence of the US government at this point, seem to hint otherwise. I suppose we should assume that it’s been a whole generation since this war started, since Pilot is an indication that there’s been enough time for Dread to raise an entire generation of Dread Youth. But on the other hand, doesn’t it seem odd that, as close as we can tell, nothing of note happens in the course of the war over the next fifteen years? Or, for that matter, that there could be a multi-year conflict without the government collapsing when “The bad guys seize total control of the combined armed forces of the entire world,” happens literally on day one? Moreover, Taggart and Stuart Power look to be about the same age.  But we’re going to see a pretty inescapable implication that Taggart was over 40 when he activated Overmind, and Stuart’s only 40 now. And for that matter, what about Jessica Morgan? She was in the dream sequence montage last episode, so clearly they haven’t forgotten about her. But we saw in “A Fire in the Dark” that she was blinded by Soaron but before Taggart became a cyborg. The events of this episode make it clear that the window between these things is at most a day, and Taggart already had a pretty full schedule. And where do the Power Suits fit in to all this? In the comic, their explicit purpose is to enhance the wearer’s natural strengths — that’s a recurring motif for the character of Stuart Power in the comic: his success derives from his skill at finding each person’s specific talents and leveraging them accordingly. That’s not something they bring up in the show, but both comic and show do contain the idea that the Power Suits are impervious to digitization. And yet, if digitization is a brand new phenomenon in this war, only introduced with the birth of Soaron (This is explicitly the case in the comic. The show is more vague, but I think it is still the implication), how could Stuart have possibly prepared for that? Previously, we’d been able to dismiss a lot of the discrepancies through the idea that Dread’s war is only the latest part of a long-running series of conflicts, but as the details of the timeline fill in, that part helps less and less.

Captain Power Episode 16 - Mentor's IntroductionAt the Power Base, Hawk comes back from getting lunch or whatever, and just as he discovers his boss’s discarded ID badges, Mentor pops into existence, explaining that, “Doctor Power has given me his likeness. His stated purpose was to assure that his son would never be without him.” For such a smart guy, Doctor Power seems like kind of an idiot if he thought that this would do more good than harm to a teenager’s psyche. Mentor promises to tell Matt all about what’s happened to Stuart and Jon, but he’s been programmed to run the “Phoenix Program” first, and shows Hawk his rack… Of spandex jumpsuits.

We return to Volcania for the equivalent scene to the one in the comic of Soaron threatening the imprisoned Young Captain Power. The tone and content is completely different here. Jon Power is clinical and detached, probing Soaron for information about his nature. Soaron is creepily philosophical. Jon asks him whether he can actually think for himself:
Captain Power Episode 16: Soaron

Yes. I think. First there was darkness, but now I think all the time. I fight and I think. I fly and I think. And I listen to the voices. And I find something in my program I do not understand. There is something in the dark.

The “something in the dark,” here refers to Soaron’s hidden failsafe program, implanted by Overmind in case it ever needed to kill Taggart. But more than that, Soaron’s rhetoric here, while not directly recycled, echoes motifs Straczynski would use later in Babylon 5. Heck, Soaron comes within an inch of saying there’s a hole in his mind.

This scene, more than anything else, is the reason that for years, I’d felt that Soaron would one day tire of Team Overmind. I’m not the only one; while there’s conflicting information about whose loyalties would change over the proposed future of the series, Larry DiTillio did suggest in a Starlog interview that Soaron might switch sides. Of course, some of what he says in that interview contradicts other things I’ve heard, but presumably, it’s all down to “The show got canned while we were still planning out the exact details so there’s a couple of things we hadn’t finalized yet.”

The middle of this episode is largely intercut between Hawk’s quest to rescue the Power Family and a dialog between Stuart and Taggart. Captain Power Episode 16: Taggart's Music BoxTaggart evokes their prior friendship, evidenced by Chekov’s wind-up music box (They should have done a bit with that. Flashback within a flashback or something. Because a music box seems like a random gift for one dude to give another dude, unless you frame it as being related to Taggart’s obsession with the beauty of mechanical perfection. So show them giving it to him, and have him ooh and aah over the beauty of its intricate design), a birthday present Stuart had given him once. He wants Stuart to come work for Evil Inc. Stuart politely declines, what with the wanton murder and digitization and all. I note here that Stuart blames Taggart for the deaths of “thousands”, because Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale.

They argue back and forth a bit until Jon arrives, whereupon we cut back to Hawk, who’s decided to try out a Power Suit despite the fifty percent chance of death. He orders Mentor to hand the Power Base over to the Pentagon and order an air-strike on Volcania in the event that he kicks it. Everything about that sentence is weird. There’s still a Pentagon. Air strikes on Volcania are an option, but for some reason they’ve never taken it. Captain Power Episode 16: Peter MacNeil as Hawk The power-on sequence is somewhat different from usual, and involves a lot more screaming on Hawk’s part. Unlike the comic, we don’t bother with the ad-break cliffhanger: though Matt falls limp to the ground, he gets right back up and declares the process to have worked. Mentor breaks character to declare, “And so it begins.”

Now, Hawk crumpled on the ground, possibly dead would have been a fine place for the commercial break, as evidenced by the comic. Mentor’s proclamation would have been a little less good, but still okay. So of course, they choose to let the action go another few seconds so we can see Hawk take to the skies for the first time, entreating his absent friend to “Hang on,” for the nine minutes it will take him to fly from Colorado Springs to Detroit (Remember, the warp zones aren’t on-line yet). Hawk’s flight to Volcania is nine minutes of intense action as he tests out the amazing powers of his newly activated flying suit, defeating everything Lord dread’s forces can throw at him. It’s nine minutes of intense action, nine minutes of awesome adventure, nine minutes of amazing spectacle, and, above all, nine minutes that will not be shown in this episode, for reasons the least important of which is that there’s only eight and a half minutes left until the credits.

So instead, we return from commercial in Volcania, where, now that Dylan Neal is there to have a gun waved at him, Taggart has cut to the chase: him and Overmind want to have a three-way with Stuart. Stuart’s bread isn’t buttered on that side, but he’s willing to deal when Jon’s freedom is offered up in exchange. Reports of Hawk — identified by Taggart’s minions only as an airborne attacker with an “unknown configuration” — come in, and Taggart dispatches Soaron to deal with him, as Volcania isn’t yet “fully operational.”

The battle between Soaron and Hawk here is the best we’ve seen so far. It’s fast-paced and dynamic, with Hawk portrayed as realistically uncertain about his suit’s capabilities. Captain Power Episode 16: Aerial BattleHe alternates between slow, well-aimed shots and faster, less controlled salvos. Soaron and Hawk frequently appear on-screen at the same time, usually with one in the foreground and the other in the background. Hawk and Soaron are the correct size relative to one another. There actually are backgrounds: the ground itself, an occasional mountain (Which is presumably lost because they’re supposed to be in Michigan), or Volcania’s industrial complex. And though the compositing of the explosion effects is a little off in places (Hawk takes one to the chest, resulting in a fireball that appears an inch away from him), there’s only one instance of the early-season mainstay “Missed laser beams explode when they strike the empty air far behind the target.” They actually fly around each other, exchanging which one of them is in front and which in back in a single shot. Not once does Hawk pull his favorite trick of crashing to the ground apparently disabled, only to turn out to be just fine. Soaron’s animations are a lot more complex than we’ve seen before too. It seems like they’ve improved their rendering quality with this episode and given Soaron a wider range of motion, most obviously when he cartwheels out of controlCaptain Power Episode 16: Aerial Battle briefly.

While that’s happening, Stuart agrees to join his mind with Overmind in exchange for Jon’s release. Stupidly, though, Taggart insists that he first pony up the location of the Power Base so that he can blow it up. I mean, the whole concept here is that Taggart is dead certain that once Overmind achieves mental intimacy with Stuart, he’ll become a loyal Servant of the Machine, so surely it would make more sense to just get on with that and then have his newly loyal ally tell him about the Power Base. To compound the stupidity, Stuart’s refusal is weirdly tactless. He could simply say, “There are innocent people there, let me warn them to evacuate first,” but instead he gets all evasive and says, in the world’s most suspicious tone, that revealing the location of the Power Base is going to “take some time”.

Taggart reacts to this obvious “I’m Up To Something” signposting a bit hyperbolically: he declares that Stuart will be digitized (In another “The show can’t make up its mind how horrific digitization is” moment, he describes it as the “gift of immortality”), while Jon will be killed as an example to others. This, of course, trips Papa Bear’s berserk button, as he pulls some doodad off the wall and throws it at Taggart’s shootin’ hand. They fight until Taggart whacks a power cable, which, due to shoddy manufacturing and poor OSHA compliance, initiates an irreversible overload that will destroy the entire section of the building in however many seconds we’ve got left till the end of the scene. Captain Power Episode 16: Bruce Gray vs David HemblemStuart orders his son, who’s retrieved Taggart’s gun, to make a break for it, while Stuart Power himself, the guy who taught Young Captain Power an abiding respect for all life, and made him swear an oath never to take a human life no matter what, declares his intention that this war shall end here and now, one way or another, and attempts to throttle Taggart to death with his bare hands, or at least hold him there until they’re both consumed in the impending explosion. They don’t even mince words about this: Taggart more or less concedes that they really should just both get the hell out of there, but Stuart isn’t having any of it.

Captain Power Episode 16: Dylan Neal outruns the fireball
Young Captain Power shoots his way out to, I think, the balcony where we first saw Blastarr back in “The Ferryman“, and calls Hawk. Hawk and Soaron are about equally matched, and it doesn’t seem like either one of them is going to get the upper hand in short order, but they both reassess their priorities when the explosion rocks Volcania, poorly compositing in a giant fireball that knocks Dylan Neal off the catwalk. Captain Power Episode 16:Hawk and Soaron truceWithout a word to each other (Soaron cries out, “Master!”, but not to Hawk), they put aside their differences for the moment and actually move into formation with each other briefly as they dive to Volcania. It’s probably the most realistic Soaron has ever looked, sharing the screen with Hawk for just a second. It looks even more like he’s actually there than when he picked up Jon last week. In accordance with the laws of dramatic necessity, Jon struggles to maintain his grip as he precariously dangles from a gantry until his fingers finally slip and he falls… Into the waiting arms of Hawk. Sort of. If anything, Hawk looks less convincingly like he’s actually carrying Jon than Soaron did. As they retreat, the future captain relates his father’s fate in a tone of abject horror and grief.

We end our flashback in Dread’s throne room, where he’s just been Darth Vadered. I guess Hawk called off the air strike. Pity, it probably would have finished him off. In a glazed voice, he mutters, “I hurt.” Overmind “comforts” him with the knowledge that he is now part machine himself, and therefore closer to immortality and perfection. Captain Power Episode 16: Lord Dread RevealThe throne turns to show Lord Dread in his usual form, and though he reacts with horror to his own borgification, he takes inspiration from Soaron’s claim that his new appearance will “Inspire dread” in his enemies, declares Lyman Taggart dead, and accepts the title of “Lord Dread”.

In the present day, Dread switches his dashboard monitor to what, based on the angle, must be a camera on Stuart’s gravestone, to catch the tail end of Cap’s lamentations over his father’s grave. As Captain Power says his goodbyes, Lakki notes that they’re only two minutes away and could catch Cap if they switch on the Afterburners. Dread orders Soaron away so that he can proceed alone, then looks down at that music box, now lightly seasoned and seared. He turns it over to reveal the inscription:

Captain Power Episode 16 - Music Box
To Lyman Taggart

On the occasion of his 40th Birthday.
You’re not getting older, you’re getting– Well, older.

All our best, Stuart and Jon Power.

I notice that there’s no Mrs. Power mentioned here, which is kind of interesting if we take for granted the proposed season 2 storyline that would reveal that Jon’s mother and Taggart were lovers. But probably, it’s just down to this show being a damned sausage-fest. We cut to Stuart’s gravestone a few minutes later, to reveal that the music box now rests next to it, just below a single flower.
Captain Power Episode 16: Stuart Power's grave
So wow. I mean, just wow. Freed from the constraints of squeezing a story into twenty-two minutes, we finally get to see an example of how a Captain Power story would work either as an hour-long show, or a proper TV serial and… It’s good. I mean, purely on its own merits as a stand-alone episode, a genuine, unqualified “good”. Not perfect, no, but, it’s head and shoulders above probably half of the first-season TNG stories. We have the time to sell the character of Stuart Gordon Power in a way that justifies just about everything he does. Even a lot of the plot holes can be justified in light of what we know about Stuart: the same myopia and hubris that led him to build Overmind led him to charge unarmed into Volcania without telling anyone. The same single-minded passion to end all war that gave us Overmind eventually causes him to forsake his own principles and try to assassinate Taggart. And yet, we see him try to reach out to Taggart, in spite of everything he’s done, and try to find what humanity lingers in his old friend.

Captain Power Episode 16: Bruce Gray arguingPlus, Bruce Gray is just a pleasure to watch. He’s great at conveying a whole bunch of conflicting emotions in a very short span. And his little gesticulations and the hand motions he uses to punctuate his dialogue are a really passionate contrast to how staid the other actors are for the most part. Even Mentor gets in on the action, opening his arms in an expansive gesture as he introduces himself to Hawk. I was just about to say that I think Mentor is too over-the-top in this story, but it’s just occurred to me to wonder if perhaps this is some kind of secret hint that there might be more to the resident head-inna-tube than we’ve been lead to believe. Could Mentor be hiding the fact that he’s much more an artificial lifeform than a simple interactive user interface?

David Hemblen, freed for most of the episode from the constraints of his prosthetics and Darth Vader suit, is also in rare form as Lyman Taggart. In the kind of confrontation that makes the center of this episode, you’re pretty much used to the hero appealing to the villain’s humanity and their shared past. But that’s largely inverted this time; it’s Taggart who keeps coming back to their past partnership, to their shared goal of bringing about a new, peaceful, utopian age. And he gets to run the gamut here — there are shades of his Lord Dread personality in every scene, most especially at the birth of Soaron, but there are differences too. He’s far less controlled with his emotions, and far less deferential to Overmind. He’s passionate about his pursuit of a mechanical utopia, without the same level of visible regret over the destruction he’s wrought in pursuit of it.

And here I was, lining up my Sabrina jokes, but Dylan Neal is actually really good as a younger version of Captain Power. We see in a few places that he’s able to do the same kind of nigh-pathological stoicism as Tim Dunnigan’s Cap, but primarily he plays younger, happier, more free-spirited and really more emotionally balanced character. Where he’s awkward or unlikeable, it still feels apropriate for a younger character who’s grown up under extraordinary circumstances. If you can look past the fact that Dylan Neal and Tim Dunnigan don’t look a lick alike (David James Elliot was absolute crap back in “The Mirror in Darkness”, but at least he and Tim Dunnigan have the same basic body type), it’s really easy to imagine Dylan Neal’s Jon Power as a younger version of the character played by Tim Dunnigan, particularly with the understanding that some great emotional trauma separates them.

And I never thought I’d see the day when Soaron got to be genuinely creepy. Most of the time in the show, he’s simply a thug. If he seems like “the smart one,” it’s mostly by comparison to Blastarr. The comic adds the idea that he’s arrogant, which maybe comes across a little in his demeanor on the show, but is never really explicit. But here, we see a Soaron who’s more than just a very powerful footsoldier. He actually has a personality here. After his little “Something in the dark” speech to Jon, he seems to realize he’s said too much and orders Young Captain Power to forget everything he’s heard. He’s guilty about it. I think if they’d given him some lines during the Hawk fight about finally getting a proper challenge, they’d have finally sold the original concept of Soaron as something like a robot version of the Red Baron.

If I’m going to complain about this one at all, I have to say that it works very well as a stand-alone episode in a hypothetical “The Metal Wars” series that doesn’t exist, but not nearly so well as episodes 15 and 16 of the Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future which does. There’s some weird little inconsistencies in the timeline I’ve already mentioned, like the incident with Jessica Morgan. Or the way that Stuart knows what a Biodread is (The scene in the comic feels very much like they went back with the benefit of hindsight and shored up some of the dialog on this point). There are some awkward lapses into exposition, such as the exchange between Hawk and Stuart over the Jump-Gates, or Mentor’s monologue about the nature of the Power Suits. And the ease with which Matt waves off Stuart’s guilt over the fact that he’s almost as much to blame as Taggart for the war rubs me wrong. But even more than that, this show, about Stuart Gordon Power and Matthew Masterson’s comb-over and Young Johnny Power and Lyman Taggart with his Gordon Gecko hair, has characters who are rich and dynamic and compelling in a way that the actual main characters of Captain Power only rarely are. The regular cast (Hawk and Dread excepted, though even they are playing substantially different versions of their regular roles) isn’t in this two-parter for more than a minute, but I don’t really miss them at all. I want more of these guysMore of Bruce Gray being allowed to emote and use his hands. More of David Hemblen being able to move freely, and to passionately defend his utopian vision. More of Dylan Neal getting excited by things. Heck, more of confused newborn Soaron.

I feel like this episode would have been billed as the “Secret Origin” of Captain Power, but of course, it isn’t. Jon Power isn’t a captain at the end of this. Like I said when I started, the only characters for whom this is a straight-up origin are Soaron and Mentor. It’s an origin of sorts for Hawk and Dread, of course, but for Jon? Not quite. It would be easy to sell his father’s death as the single defining event that turned Dylan Neal’s Young Jon into Tim Dunnigan’s Captain Power, but, notably, they don’t do that. We see some hints of Cap’s adult personality when he confronts Soaron, yes, but after the death of his father, we don’t see Jon evolve as a character, because his story stops dead when he flies away with Hawk, openly weeping in grief. What’s left of the story goes to Taggart, for whom there is very much a transformative event as you see him give a part of himself to the machine to cope with his mutilation.

No, this isn’t Captain Power’s origin story, but it implies Captain Power’s origin story. I’d really like to see that now. Something set a year or so on from these events, showing Dylan Neal’s Corporal Power having become a reckless hotshot in the wake of his father’s death. The climax would be something where he realizes that he’s more valuable to the resistance as a symbol than as an “ace”, and decides to put on the gold armor and sublimate his personal feelings. There’s even a proposed plot outline in the bible that would work for this, about Captain Power and company encountering a famous lone-wolf hero from before the war who’s secretly working for Dread now. So do that plot with flashback cast: young Johnny idolizes the legendary ace, is betrayed by him, and finally realizes that the symbol is more important than the man. That could even be how you explain what he’s doing in charge, and how Captain Power outranks Major Masterson — have Hawk make the conscious decision to step back from small-P power because the people will rally behind Jon in a way they won’t for him. Though really, if you’re not going to include the character of Stuart Power, there’s kind of diminishing returns on a whole-episode flashback.

Really, I just want more of this one. And I know there isn’t going to be any more. And that makes me sad.

December 10, 2014

So long ago, certain place, certain time (Captain Power: A Summoning of Thunder, Part 1)

It is February 7 through 15, 1988. Tiffany holds the number one position on the Billboard Charts for both weeks with that song that isn’t “I Think We’re Alone Now”. Springsteen, Pet Shop Boys and The Artist make their way into the top ten. Manuel Noriega has been indicted on drug charges. Anthony Kennedy is appointed to the US Supreme Court. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals strikes down the ban on gay people serving in the Army, though the decision is quickly overturned. The Soviet Frigate Bezzavetnyy rams the USS Yorktown in a complicated display of international policy: the US and USSR held differing opinions about the details of the right of innocent passage under maritime law, and resolved this via the time-tested method of “The US sends some ships through some water that the Soviets don’t want them to while shouting ‘If you don’t like it, do something about it!'” Though the Yorktown was not badly damaged, in keeping with tradition, the Bezzavetnyy won the right to mate with the Yorktown’s girlfriend. The incident eventually led to the “Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities”, wherein the superpowers basically promised not to go to war over each other’s boats wandering “accidentally” into each other’s territory, and to give each other fair warning before firing lasers in each other’s general direction. International politics is weird.

The Winter Olympics begin in Calgary, and that takes up a good chunk of this week’s TV time. The Wonderful World of Disney shows something called “Rock and Roll Mom”, whose commercials I dimly remember. In theaters, She’s Having a Baby and Action Jackson are released.

Star Trek the Next Generation airs “Too Short A Season”, wherein an elderly admiral takes a youth-drug so that he’ll be fit and young to face down the dictator of a primitive planet he’d sold arms to early in his career. It’s not bad to start with, but it gets really good when it suddenly occurs to you that Admiral Jameson’s backstory is basically the plot to the TOS episode “A Private Little War”, and Jameson is clearly an expy for James T. Kirk: the whole thing is really an indictment of TOS’s shortcomings. Then next week, it’s business as usual with “When the Bough Breaks”, in which aliens abduct Wesley Crusher and the crew spends the episode trying to get him back for some reason. I mean, it’s pretty good as Wesley-centric episodes go, and has a wonderfully weird bit with an eight year old complaining about having to do his calculus homework. Weak but not offensively bad.

Captain Power, meanwhile, does something that's simultaneously important and unwise: a two-part whole-episode flashback. We pretty much sideline the entire cast for two weeks to provide an origin story. Of sorts. As origin stories go, this is kind of an oddball. Pilot, Tank, and Scout are entirely absent, and though Not-Yet-Cap is present, played here by -- Wait, really? Hold that thought.
Dylan Neal as Young Captain Power It's Dylan Neal (Not my son's namesake.) as Young Johnny Power. You may know him from such roles as Dr. Ivo on The CW's Arrow, or Jack Griffith on The Hallmark Channel's Cedar Cove. Only not that second one because I can not imagine there is much of an overlap between my readership and Big Hallmark Channel fans. He also played Doug Witter on Dawson's Creek, The Young Handsome One in Babylon 5: Legend of the Rangers, and appeared alongside fellow Guy-Who-Isn't-Tim-Dunnigan-But-Played-Captain-Power David James Elliot in JAG. He was also in a show called Hyperion Bay, because apparently he likes doing shows named after waterfront towns in New England. But somewhat more relevant to us here in the nexus, he was Aaron Jacobs, the dude Sabrina left at the altar for having the wrong-shaped magic soul rock. Oh, and he's in Fifty Shades of Grey. Yeah.
Anyway, while Not-Yet-Cap is present, we don't actually get to see him become "Captain Power". Yes, we see a formative incident that we're supposed to understand as being the catalyst for making Cap into the man we know today, but it's an incomplete story. Hothead Young-Not-Yet-Cap is reckless and gets his dad killed, and presumably this is why he's such a square and why Dread pushes his berserk button. It lacks closure though. It's also an origin story for Dread's costume, I guess. Continuing our Star Wars parallels, it's akin to the "reveal" of Darth Vader at the end of Revenge of the Sith: going through the motions as though this was to be a shocking reveal because it is in a sidereal sense, even though the audience already knows what's coming because the story has been told out of order. But I don't think it works as well here because although we've seen a pre-Dread Taggart, we've seen approximately ten seconds of a pre-evil Taggart: there's no real character transformation, just a costume change.

It's also a not-quite origin story for Hawk, played here by Peter McNeil with a different haircut; his role in the narrative is fairly minor. We don't talk about his family or how he fell in with the Power family, but we do get to see him Power On for the first time. Really, the only character for whom this is a straightforward and unambiguous origin story is Mentor, who actually does originate in the course of this story.

Captain Power Episode 15, Cap's Bedroom We open on a weird little montage, mixing clips of the series so far with clips from later in this very episode. There’s ominous close-ups of Dread and Soaron, some digitization, even Jessica Morgan getting shot in the face (more on that later). Which is weird, since this montage is supposed to be Captain Power having a bad dream. The montage ends on Dylan Neal outrunning a very cheaply composited fireball, which gives way to modern-Cap waking in his bunk, sweaty, with an expression of abject… well, dull surprise, really. Seriously, Captain Power is so damned stoic most of the time that I’ve decided I really kinda like pretending that he’s secretly a violent psychopath who’s keeping it covered up so he can lull his victims into a false sense of security. Also, he sleeps in his uniform, and apparently has plastic sheets.

The broad outline of the story is much the same as the Continuity Comics version, but the emphasis is very different. We don’t learn anything new about the backdrop of the endless metal wars that was emphasized in the comic version, nor do we get any but the sketchiest of details about Papa Power’s resistance. All the emphasis here is on that last day, when Taggart became Dread, Hawk became a Power Ranger and Stuart Gordon Power became an ex-parrot.

There are still some directly parallel scenes, though. We start off in one of them: Captain Power and Hawk have a terse exchange the gist of which is that Hawk should hold down the fort while Cap goes off to mourn. Pilot is there too, but unlike in the comic version, she already knows where Cap’s going, and has apparently been around long enough to recognize what it’s all about. There’s none of that business with her being shocked to discover who Cap’s dad is, or any need for Hawk to expo-dump on her. That would track pretty well with the notion of the comic framing story being a prequel, set a year or two earlier than the series, but of course, there’s the complication that Blastarr already exists in the comic. As per usual, it’s probably best to just treat this as an alternate continuity.

Captain Power Episode 15, Stuart Power's GraveCap takes the Power Jet XT-7 to his father’s grave-site, which isn’t a proper cemetery here as it was in the comic, but just the base of a tree near a small pond in an otherwise barren landscape. Doctor Power’s grave marker gives his birth and death years as 2092 and 2132, which is a lot better than the comic’s “maybe 2024″. If Young-Captain Power was meant to be about the same age as Dylan Neal when he played him, that would put Stuart in his early twenties when Cap was born. Reasonable. I mean, early twenties is a popular time in one’s life to have kids. People who get “Dr.” in front of their names tend to hold off a bit on that, but still, entirely plausible.

The grave Video Toasters into the Power Base, still under construction, circa 2132, where Dr. Power tells Nameless Nerdy Sidekick he can double his salary if it makes him happier about the fact that he and all the other folks involved in building the Power Base have to be blindfolded when they’re brought in to maintain the secrecy of their location. Which, in case you’ve forgotten, is Stargate Command NORAD. I mean, the total secrecy here makes perfect sense as a laudable goal, but there’s something just a little off about the fact that their secret base is being built inside basically the best known place to build a secret base on the planet. I mean, Cheyenne Mountain is such an obvious place to go when you want to find a secluded place where you can be protected from the effects of an all-out global war that Robert Heinlein was extremely pissed when he found out that NORAD was building itself in his back yard (Seriously. He pulled out a map, worked out where he’d be safest in the event of nuclear war, and moved there. Then the government did basically the same thing and stuck a nuclear bunker there.).

The fact that people are still thinking in terms of “salaries” is telling about the state of the war at this point: civilization hasn’t collapsed yet. But you’re going to have to keep telling yourself that, because honestly, we’re not going to see much that backs that up. Dr. Power does acknowledge that money isn’t going to be relevant soon, which kinda seems pessimistic as he also seems like he’s pretty much on-track to turn the tide of this war.

Captain Power Episode 15 - Peter MacNeil as HawkWe join Peter McNeil with a different haircut and young Dylan Neal in another part of the unfinished base. Hawk explains how clever bio-mechs are strategically, able process information fast enough to block any predictable movement. Again, this makes perfect sense, unless you have actually been watching this show and know that they’ll typically fall for a straight right, a left hook, or that trick from old Bugs Bunny cartoons where you bend the barrel of their guns around to point back at them. We get a live-action version of Young Captain Power’s training battle against the mechs. It’s not as flamboyant as the serial art version — he doesn’t get a sword for one thing. Dylan Neal’s Young Johnny Power comes off as a lot less of an arrogant jackass than the cartoon version. That’s kind of a shame, though, to my mind, since having him be more flawed and teenager-y gave some extra depth to the character.

Hawk cautions young John about overconfidence, which seems kind premature from what we actually see. I mean, there are bits and pieces where, yeah, I’m kind of reminded of Chris Pine’s Young Jim Kirk in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, but Young Jon seems primarily to be eager to help and self-sacrificing rather than cocky or self-aggrandizing. Captain Power Episode 15 - Dylan Neal as Jon PowerReally, if they wanted to sell “Young Brash Hotshot Jon Power”, they should have made him more rebellious and eager to take big risks and chances. Instead, he’s just an enthusiastic young man who follows orders and is willing to place himself in harm’s way, but only to help others.

Neal’s Jon is a lot more expressive than Tim Dunnigan’s though: seeing him really light up when his father congratulates him after the training session is an angle we’d never see from the older Cap. And man, is Bruce Gray on the stick here. Finally free to use his hands, he claps them in approval of his son’s performance against the mechs, claps the boy on the shoulders, then punctuates his words with a finger point as he orders Jon on a supply run.
Captain Power Episode 15 - Bruce Gray as Stuart Power
But even better, his demeanor changes with context. He’s warm, friendly, and proud with Jon, but in other scenes, he’s much more stoic and businesslike — I’d even suggest that he’s playing Stuart Power as a kind of prototype for the adult Captain Power: Stuart, like his son will be, is stoic, and, like his son, is haunted by a tragedy from his past. But in just a few scenes, Stuart comes off far more balanced than Cap, able to relax and express emotion openly around those he cares about. He and Hawk retire to the Jumpship to discuss the impending activation of the Jump Gates. Waving a pen around for illustrative purposes (I am really glad the show is backing me up on my earlier guess about Bruce Gray liking to use his hands when he acts), he explains the jump gates to Hawk in a bit of expospeak that I’d accuse of wasting valuable screen time except that Bruce Gray is so damned good at it. They continue their trend of treating the invention of instantaneous wormhole travel (Hawk calls it “short range teleportation”, which, okay, but this thing’s range is at least coast-to-coast, so what would “long range teleportation” be in this context? Mars?)

The conversation drifts onto how this whole war is basically Stuart’s fault, as he laments, with a mixture of sadness and contempt, about how they’d intended to end all wars with Overmind until Taggart had fused himself with it and become an evil overlord. This abbreviated version, along with a few oblique references back in “The Abyss” are most of the explanation we’re going to get about Taggart’s transformation. I’m underwhelmed by Hawk’s response, though you’ve got to imagine that he’s heard it all before, since, y’know, it could not possibly be the first time he’s heard this story. I don’t know how I feel about the fact that Hawk’s response is entirely supportive, largely disclaiming Stuart’s guilt in light of the fact that he’d meant well. I mean, Hawk lost two kids on account of this war, so I think a little bitterness would be called for. It’s not unlike last week’s “Judgment” in that sense, far too quick to let the “good guys” off the hook for their sins. Kudos to the comic adaptation here — when Hawk learns of Stuart’s work on Biodreads there, he actually gets angry about it and accuses Stuart of insanity.

Back at Volcania (which looks like it’s still under construction, a nice touch), Overmind gives birth to Soaron. It’s not as dramatic as in the comic, and the strengths of serial art really shined there, with the next-page juxtaposition of young Cap in triumph after his training scene with Soaron’s sudden almost orgasmic coming to life.
Captain Power Episode 15 - The Creation of Soaron
After a commercial break, we see Soaron’s effectiveness as he easily overwhelms resistance fighters. It’s nice to see them try, though; aside from the Wardogs, we’ve never really seen any other bands of resistors do much. We can see that things aren’t as bad yet as they’ll eventually become: the resistance is far more organized, there are regular supply chains, even a reference to the President — you may or may not recall back in “The Abyss”, Cap found the idea of those troops waiting on orders from the President ludicrous. So in this flashback, we’re seeing the way things were before everything collapsed.

Captain Power Episode 15 - Stuart Power and Soaron A transmission from the fighters as they’re defeated tips off Stuart, who recognizes Soaron as a Bio-Dread — unlike in the comic, he doesn’t say how he knows this — and explains its nature with horror that’s slightly underplayed until he remembers that Jon is still out in the field. Back at Volcania, Overmind warns Taggart that Stuart’s technical background would cover how to fight Bio-Dreads. In the comic, Overmind goes on to check out resistance logistics and determine the supply depots where Power’s been getting what he needs for the Power Base. In the televised version, it’s Taggart’s idea. I read that as a hint to how the relationship dynamic between Taggart and Overmind has evolved over time. At this point in the relationship, Taggart still has some power.
Captain Power Episode 15 - Close up

Young Captain Power’s delayed getting his supplies, because dad’s access was erroneously revoked by a message on “Blue Seven,” which, as it turns out the Romulans Overmind has cracked, which means that Soaron shows up just about a second later. When it becomes clear that the resistance doesn’t stand a chance, Young Cap orders everyone else to safety, remaining to buy time. He’s no match for Soaron, not even managing to hurt him enough to make him angry as in the comic. All the same, Soaron prepares to kill him, but is called off by Taggart, who orders Jon brought in alive.

And then something amazing happens. Soaron picks Dylan Neal up and flies away with him. I was just talking about this in last week’s episode: this is the only time in fifteen episodes that we’ve seen Soaron touch something.
Captain Power Episode 15 - Soaron Captures Power
Back at the Power Base, Stuart activates “Project Phoenix”, mostly to set it up for later. It causes a clothes rack to extend out of the wall with the spandex-form Power Suits on it. He makes his own captain’s log about them, the most interesting element of which is that he gives a stardate of 39-7.13. Captain Power Episode 15 - Bruce Gray and the Power Suits If, as we have been in every other instance, we assume that this should be read “July 13, 2139″, that would place this episode seven years after Stuart’s death-date. Of course, maybe the dates don’t work that way. But then, everything else we know about dating from the other episodes is up in the air. It’s just such a weird mistake to make — it’s not like there are other things in the show with a ’39 date.

He’s interrupted by a priority incoming transmission: Taggart calls up, announces that he’s got Jon, and invites Stuart to Volcania. Bruce Gray, in a few short gestures, conveys pain, fear, and above all fatigue, before, while breathing heavily, he orders his computer to activate the “Mentor Program” the next time Hawk comes in. Captain Power Episode 15 - Bruce Gray He scrunches up his shoulders, sighs heavily, then closes up the Power Suits, takes off his ID badge, and walks out. With everyone being so stoic all the time in this show, it’s just amazing to see a character convey such a range of emotions, most of it nonverbal, and have all of it come off sincere and natural. I freaking love the fact that there’s no discussion, no agonizing over the decision: Taggart has his son, so — knowing full well that he is going to his death — Stuart sets everything up for Hawk to take over and just goes. It makes me kind of regret that Bruce Gray isn’t the lead in the other twenty episodes of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.

Taggart apologizes to the captured Jon for all the inconvenience, promising that he’ll “understand” when he’s older. And something kind of remarkable happens with Dylan Neal at this, because for the first time, it actually feels like you are watching a younger version of the same character Tim Dunnigan has been playing. He promises that if his father is harmed, he’ll spend the rest of his life making Taggart wish he’d killed the younger Power instead. It’s a promise and a threat, and it’s made without any real emotion other than grim determination: gone are all the emotions he’d expressed so clearly in his early scenes — pride after the training montage, fear at the supply depot, indignation at his capture — replaced by the same grim, cold stoicism we’ve come to associate with his older self.

At this point, we leave the flashback to find ourselves in Volcania, where Lakki basically shames Dread into doing something about the fact that Cap is out in a known location unprotected and in mourning. Captain Power Episode 15 - The Phantom Striker When Overmind chimes in that, “You have the moment,” Dread grabs Lakki and hops in the Phantom Striker.

Though presented as coequal in the toy line to the PowerJet XT-7, this is going to be just about the only time we see the Phantom Striker in action, and we’re not even going to get a decent dogfight out of it. Soaron’s Dread’s wingman on this mission, and Dread orders him to “Capture if possible, obliterate if necessary,” a far cry from his order, “I want him dead!” in the comic.  As Soaron cackles menacingly, we’re informed that this episode is “To Be Continued…”

And because I am over three thousand words, this article will be too….

Captain Power Episode 15 End Card

December 3, 2014

He has a magic gun. Where’d he purchase that? (Captain Power: Continuity Comics #2)

Previously on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future

Don’t ask me to explain it, but it is January, 1989. In Japan, Hirohito dies, ending the Shōwa era, and ushering in the Hisei era with the enthronement of His Imperial Majesty the Emperor Akihito, and causing news-watching Americans to be surprised that Hirohito had been (a) still alive and (b) still emperor, because we’re crap at remembering things like that. Besides, it’s the 1980s, so for most Americans, Japan is barely a real place, just a sort of quasi-mythical wonderland which emits high-energy rays of video games, cars that are incredibly good value for money, VCRs, violent quasi-pornographic cartoons, cyberpunk aesthetics, and Godzilla, and would almost certainly be ruling the world in a few years due to their incredible work ethic and business acumen. I mean, unless they had some kind of massive stock market crash in a couple of years, but what are the odds of that?

Stateside, Ronald Reagan hands over the reigns of government to his Vice President, George Herbert Walker Bush, who won a landslide victory over Democratic hopeful Mike Dukakis due to Bush’s unbeatable one-two punch of accusing Dukakis of being a pussy for his death penalty opposition and swearing that under no circumstances would he ever raise taxes, and as long as he sticks to that and doesn’t get us into any wars, he’s sure to cruise easily through two terms.

There’s also a major plane crash in the UK, a major earthquake in the Tajik SSR, a major school shooting in California, a major loss for the art world when Salvadore Dali dies, and a major meal for Ted Bundy, who is executed on the 24th. And I turn ten.

On TV, The Arsenio Hall Show, The Pat Sajack Show and Shining Times Station all premier. Ryan’s Hope, Snorks and Simon and Simon end their runs. On the other side of the pond, Doctor Who‘s quadranscentennial season ends with the final part of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy”. ITV premiers Agatha Christie’s Poirot, which will run until 2013, and Press Gang, a children’s show created by future Doctor Who-ruiner Steven Moffat. It sounds like the sort of thing I’d like, but since it’s highly recommended by people who think Steven Moffat is the finest showmaker in television history, I have to assume I will actually sink into a deep depressive spiral if I ever watch it. Also, it’s hella expensive to import it on DVD.

But we’re not here for TV this time. Five months after issue one of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, Continuity Comics published the second and final issue of Captain Power. It was strange enough when issue 1 came out months after the series had ended. But I don’t know the full timeline for the cancellation of the series — they had a batch of scripts written for the second season, so I don’t know when exactly Hasbro pulled the plug. But I have to assume that by the following January, everyone knew it was over. I couldn’t turn up any specific reason for why this comic came out when it did, beyond the fact that Continuity was kind of infamous for their releases being late. Maybe this was a last-ditch attempt to keep interest in the property alive in some form, or maybe they were just halfway through drawing it when the plug got pulled so they decided to finish it off in their spare time rather than write off what they’d already put in. Cover of Continuity Comics Captain Power Number 2In any case, by January, 1989, I’m pretty sure Captain Power was fading fast in the public consciousness. We’re getting close to the extreme tail end of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future as a “thing that is happening”; soon enough we’ll have moved into Cap’s version of the Wilderness Years. If the Internet had been a thing in 1989, rather than the specter of a thing-to-come, maybe it would have been different. But it’s 1989 and Captain Power never managed to hit critical mass.

Kudos to the cover artist for trying for a nicely dynamic action shot rather than another group shot, but it’s pretty janky. I mean, Soaron’s reaching out like he’s about to sweep Captain Power up in his arms and give him a hug, while raking the ground behind him with laser fire. Cap’s looking intensely at something off-panel to the right — I think he’s supposed to be looking at Soaron, but he’s just, well, not. Heck, they managed to get the sight-lines mostly right in the televised show, so how could they be so far off here? Cap’s shooting Soaron in the knee, despite the fact that he’s not even close to aiming that way. Cap’s calves are drawn the same size despite the fact that the bend in one leg means it should be several feet forward of the other, and it looks like his ankle is broken. They’re basically anatomically reasonable at least, but the perspective doesn’t make any sense. Is this secretly a tribute to Dali? Also, Captain Power is doing his “Dongs” face (If you missed my last review, I’ve noticed that the art-style for this book is heavily oriented around pictures of people with their mouths open, lips pursed, in a position that kinda looks like they’re about to eat a hot dog.) again.

And that scene, for what it’s worth? Does not occur in this comic. We open with a quick recap of the previous issue’s dong-mouth highlights which makes explicit that the Metal Wars Overmind had been created to stop weren’t, as I’ve been claiming, caused by human leaders being stupid and venial and starting pointless wars now that the press wouldn’t have juicy pictures of dead nineteen year olds to discourage the public, but rather were the result of a simple malfunction in the mechs which caused them to refuse the order to stand down. Huh. That’s… Really really lame.

The story proper picks up mid-flashback, on the battlefield of 2132 (Which is kind of confusing as the recap explicitly gives the setting as 2147. Not an error, just an awkward narrative decision to start out in a flashback without explicitly signifying it.). Captain Power Number 2, Page 1There’s some nice artwork here, showing a soldier comfort his mortally wounded colleague, and possibly a reference to the style of the show in that we don’t actually see who the soldiers are shooting at, aside from a tiny little mech in the background. As with Overunit Drucker last time, I’m a little put off by what seems to be power armor on the soldiers — There’s one panel where I thought one of the soldiers might have been Scout. If that sort of powered armor isn’t unique to Captain Power and his team, it’s not really clear what’s so great about them. I mean, sure, they’re still an elite fighting force, but it’s just not as satisfying if everyone’s got power armor, even if Cap and Company are the only ones who can summon theirs from spandex.

The next two pages are mostly taken up by a spread showing… Soaron’s back. Not their finest hour; it’s basically a full two pages of gray broken by some geometric lines to indicate the contours of his wings. The exploding chaos below him is basically indistinguishable and it just feels cheap. A small mitigation, the bottom third of the pages show Hawk and Stuart Power at their command center. It’s not explicit that this is the future Power Base, but I think we can guess that it’s still under construction from the fact that the command console appears to be plugged into a random power stripCaptain Power Number 2, Page 2. Hawk and Stu watch in horror as one of the soldiers from the previous page reports the death of his companions at the hands of Soaron, who digitizes the soldier — whose name was “Benson” on one page, but “Peters” on the next — on the following page. The narrative frame pulls back a bit, so around the individual story panels you can see 2147-Hawk telling the story to Pilot over coffee.
In an unusual cross-promotion, Hawk and Pilot are played by Dr. Strange and Veronica from Archie.
I mostly just complained last time instead of admitting that I really like the way Hawk’s drawn in this book. Sure, he looks nothing at all like Peter MacNeil, but he’s got a very classic “Old Soldier” look to him, and there’s something nicely cartoonish about the way that his hair sweeps up at the sides to give him a slightly aquiline aspect. The background is also a nice touch; they probably could have gotten away with a splash of color or something, but instead, you can see bits of stairs, a door and the Power-On podium.

All the praise I’ve given to the art, though, does not extend to Pilot. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a less distinct look than Pilot. Generic blonde woman in a brown shirt. With that same dongs-face expression as everyone else. More and more, I get the feeling that the character brief for Pilot never really got beyond, “She’s the girl,” in the minds of most of the writers. We’ve seen it again and again in the series that, outside of the pair of times she’s put front-and-center, the writers barely seem to remember she’s there at all.

Stuart explains digitization to Hawk — this is apparently a new development with Soaron. The series bible was very adamant that only the Warlord-class Biodreads had digitizers, which holds true (with a caveat we’ll get to as the series winds down) on-air, so we should probably accept this as the origin of digitization. It’s not explicit in the show, however, even though that does seem the obvious implication. I have a hard time with this, just on the basis of how Dread’s plan from pretty much day one was to fuse human minds with immortal machines, which seems kind of weird in the same way that, say, Power Rangers Time Force was apparently called “Time Force” even before they invented time travel.

Stuart also gives a very terse explanation of Soaron, claiming that he and Taggart had been developing the “Warlords” for (you guessed it) peaceful purposes, but had shelved the project due to, “A flaw in our plan… big enough to drive a truck through.” A flaw so big that it will not be elaborated upon further.

Captain Power Number 2, Page 6Overmind’s worked out one of the supply bases Power is using, and in a nice touch, you can actually see a hint of sadness in Taggart’s bandaged face before he orders Soaron to attack.

Of course, it’s the very base where young Captain Power is at that very moment picking up supplies. But his suspicious are already up due to a “funny delay” when he gave his code cards to the computer. He orders everyone to safety as he tries to buy time, narrating to himself as he fights. “They can’t change their programming fast enough to shoot low,” he claims, and basically avoids being hit by ducking. He grabs a mech to use as a nonhuman-shield, then throws himself into a, I dunno, ventillation shaft? It mystifies the mechs, who conclude that the resistance must have invented teleportation.

Captain Power Number 2, Page 14
Yeah. They don’t see him duck into a hole in the wall, and therefore conclude that the only logical possibility is teleportation. He pops out of a manhole behind them and dispatches the mechs, then turns his attention to Soaron. Though stronger than the others, young Cap concludes the Warlord is just as dumb when it moves in close to digitize the seemingly unconscious boy, allowing Young Cap to get in a shot at point-blank range. Soaron’s returned fire disarms Cap, and Soaron is so rattled to have been injured that he picks Cap up by his shirt, declares him unworthy of digitization, and prepares to punch him to death. Thinking his only chance is to anger the Biodread into making a mistake, young Captain Power says a line you’d never in a million years expect out of this franchise:

Captain Power Number 2, Page 14

Dread’s shocked expression here is because he’s just realized the Simpsons is still on. In 2147.

It doesn’t work, but Taggart is watching from Volcania and orders Soaron to bring Cap in intact.

This being an exciting place for a cliffhanger, the story gods oblige us by having Tank and Scout call in to interrupt Hawk’s storytelling. Hawk shows them a picture of Scott BakulaCaptain Power Number 2, Page 16 in the hopes that he’ll help them finish killing off the franchise. Out in the field, Tank and Scout are running down a rumor that a local gang was “spreading some oil” that they might have that Professor Malenkov guy who was the ostensible macguffin of the framing story. Remember him? Former Dread scientist who’s absconded with information vital to the resistance. It’s really not important. The gang turns out to be some proper Mad Max-type dystopia punks, of the sort we really should have seen more of in the show. The bottom third of the page depicts them, partying and speaking in gibberish, with bald Steven Segall declaring “Party Treef an’ Besto!” while Tina Turner asserts, “Rad and bad, gato. You tags make me warmest.”
Captain Power Number 2, Page 16
Disguising himself as a punk, Scout tries to barter for information about Malenkov, but even his mighty slang is no match for true post-apocalyptic punk, as they suspect him immediately, and think their suspicions confirmed when a Dread Patrol also arrives. While Tank deals with the mechs (who curiously warn him that his “criminal charges will be recorded on digi-disk”, and order him to remove his armor for digitization), Scout roughs up the leader of the punk gang. Once the fighting is over, they call home to let Hawk know that Malenkov had already been traded to a “local warlord”.

Another one of the nice touches about this comic is that they paint a seedier side of the civilian populace. The series bible and some of the released information about season 2 talks about the possibility of threats emerging from bandits, opportunists and crime gangs.Captain Power Number 2, Page 21 On screen, most of the civilians we see are just refugees, and the only threatening ones are either working for Dread or are convinced that Captain Power is. Here, we see hints of local strong-men carving out little fiefdoms for themselves. And the punk Scout roughs up even dismisses Power as “a drug for the brain dead.”

But that part of the story is done for now, so Hawk awkwardly segues us back into his flashback. A manic Stuart shows Hawk the untested Power Suits — actual suits, not just spandex, then Hawk is called away mostly as a plot contrivance, so that Stuart is alone when Dread calls. Dread has Johnny, all dong-faced with indignation, of course, and orders Stuart to come to Volcania and exchange himself for his son.
Captain Power Number 2, Page 24
He’s already gone on the next page, and Hawk’s return triggers the “Phoenix Project”, which declares Hawk, “Acting commander-in-chief.” So… Stuart was the president? Hawk notes that the computer “Sounds like Stuart,” so I guess that’s Mentor’s intro, though he doesn’t actually manifest visibly. Captain Power Number 2, Page 25Learning what’s happened, Hawk is so upset he nearly eats his own jaw, then resolves to put on the untested Power Suit despite the 50% chance of, y’know, death. The last we will see of Hawk-2132 in this issue is his limp form crumpled on the floor, possibly killed by the uncalibrated “bio-leads”. I mean, except that he’s the one telling the story so plainly he’ll turn out to be okay. There’s also a sort of strange parallel here, with Hawk’s screams about acid shooting into him as he transforms being reminiscent of Taggart’s interface with Overmind in the previous issue.

The flashback ends with Jon in Volcania. Soaron basically yells at him a bit then tosses him at Dread’s feet. Present-Hawk explains that Dread planned to “Bend Stuart to the will of the machine. With Stuart gone, the resistance would be crushed,” which for some reason prompts generic-female-character to ask, “But how?” A question so awkward that I’m not even sure it works grammatically. Wasn’t she paying attention?

We cut away to Stuart Power’s grave, where Captain Power has just finished telling his dead father about the events of the previous year. Hey, what’s he doing powered-down? He was powered up when we last saw him.

Oh, that’s right. The plot says so. Because no sooner has Cap finished than Blastarr appears. Cap’s insults are no match for the Biodread, who, pretty much without hesitation, digitizes the hero of our series.
Captain Power Number 2, Page 28
Yeah.

That is how this comic book series ends. With Captain Power being digitized. I know the show itself was a bit schizophrenic when it came to “how big a deal” digitization was, sometimes treating is as nothing more than a kid’s show-friendly way to remove characters from play without having to technically kill them, while other times drawing a straight-up analogue to rape. But this comic seems to come down on the side of “really really horrific.” There’s no guarantee that Cap would have come back from this experience unchanged.

Nor, for that matter, is it guaranteed that his return would be immediate; the fact that all the present-day action is shifted over to Scout and Tank suggests to me that Neal Adams and the folks writing the comic had a stronger understanding of Captain Power as an ensemble show than its live-action counterpart could consistently manage. It wouldn’t be unprecedented to actually remove the lead character from the story for an extended period before building up a “The Return of Captain Power” event — Optimus Prime had been killed off exactly two years earlier in issue 24 of Marvel Comic’s Transformers series (He committed suicide out of guilt at cheating to win a video game. Really.) and wouldn’t return until July of the following year.

Where would this plot have gone? I have a strong suspicion. The key hint to me is in what the mechs who accost Tank say — as I mentioned earlier, this is the only time it’s suggested that a mere clicker can wield a digitizer. But it refers to a “digi-disk”. In context, it sounds like a physical artifact of digitization. Looking back to the series bible, the original concept for digitization involved reducing a victim to a microchip, which the Biodread had to hand-carry back to Overmind at Volcania, with the possibility that, were the chip recaptured first, the digitized victim could be restored by Mentor.

The evasive Professor Malenkov is described as a Dread scientist who possesses some key piece of information that could turn the tide of the war. I think they were building up to the reveal that Malenkov is capable of building an un-digitizer. The story arc would continue to follow Tank and Scout as they tracked down the professor, segueing into a quest to find the necessary parts from which to build the un-digitizer, while Hawk and Pilot would be engaged in a protracted hunt for Blastarr to recapture Captain Power’s “digi-disk”. As I mentioned, although Hawk mentions the computer having Stuart’s voice, we never actually see the Mentor — and back in issue 1, Pilot didn’t know about Cap’s heritage. Perhaps in the comic version of events, it would only be with the contribution of Malenkov’s un-digitizer that the computer records of Stuart Power would be fully transformed into Mentor as we’ve seen him in the show.

As always with this show, we’re left lamenting what might have been at least as much as we celebrate what was. This was a much more promising start than I thought it would be: I’d started out questioning the wisdom of doing the first two issues almost entirely as flashbacks that didn’t even star the actual heroes, and retreading a televised story. Sure, they flesh some things out more — the events leading up to Taggart’s alliance with Overmind, the Metal Wars, details about Stuart’s involvement with both Taggart and the Resistance. These are all things, though, that I think should have taken a back-seat to getting on with some cool adventuring. But right at the last minute, they pitched a curve-ball. The digitization of Cap changes the status quo, and the quest to restore him that surely would have followed is exactly the sort of thing to start off a new comic series with.

Had that actually happened, and this not turned out to be the franchise’s swansong. And in conclusion: Dongs.
Captain Power Number 2 - Open Mouth Collage
This was a big moment for me; this is very likely the absolute most distant point in the official Captain Power universe for me: I’ve seen it all now. I mean, unless I can turn up a copy of the 1988 Captain Power Annual, I’m never going to get to experience a piece of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future for the first time again.

At least, not until the Phoenix rises….

November 26, 2014

Who am I? 24601! (Captain Power: Judgment)

It is the last day of January, 1988. INXS tops the Billboard charts with “Need You Tonight”, one of those songs people tend to use a second-long clip from as part of an audio montage to indicate “The Eighties”. They unseated Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel”, which last week dethroned George Harrison. Whitesnake, George Michael and Whitney Houston fall out of the top ten in favor of Expose, Roger, and Eric Carmen (with “Hungry Eyes”, the song which usually follows “Need You Tonight” in those eighties audio montages). A Washington football team whose name I will not repeat wins their second Super Bowl, defeating Denver. Their quarterback, Doug Williams, is the first African American Quarterback to play in and win the Superbowl, while tying the then-record for most touchdowns thrown, and breaking Joe Montana’s record for most passing yards. Biggles In the past two weeks, Skrillex was born, Canada’s supreme court has struck down an abortion ban, Vice President George Bush appeared on the CBS Evening News and gets in an argument with Dan Rather over the Iran-Contra Affair, The Phantom of the Opera opens on Broadway, Biggles, a movie Leah liked as a kid, premiers, and I turned nine.

Immediately after the Super Bowl, ABC premiers The Wonder Years, starring Fred Savage as a kid growing up in the 1960s, with Daniel Stern narrating as the same character reflecting on his youth from the present. In a minor coincidence, in the late ’90s, Savage would star in Working, a failed over-the-top satirical workplace comedy, while Stern would voice the title character in the failed animated TV adaptation of the over-the-top satirical workplace comedy Dilbert.

Captain Power took last week off, leaving Star Trek The Next Generation unopposed in the war for the hearts and minds of geeks, insofar as there was ever an actual fight going on. Correspondingly, TNG softballed it with “Angel One”, about which the nicest thing I can say is “at least they tried. I think.” It’s pretty much one of Roddenberry’s original example premises from the initial 1960s Star Trek pitch: a planet where the women are dominant and men are the underclass, isn’t that wacky? I guess the basic idea of “See? You wouldn’t like it much if you got treated that way, would you?” isn’t terrible, but there’s the whole undercurrent of “Women in charge? That’s not right!” that ruins it. Also, this was apparently meant to be a direct parallel to South African apartheid, but that really only comes across at the end, when the local leader decides to banish the uppity menfolk rather than executing them, having conceded that the current system is unstable, and resigned to just slow down the inevitable.

They bring their A-Game this week, though, with “11001001”, an episode that’s actually good, provided you can get past a handful of really stupid things that the plot hinges on. Such as the bit where the Binars, members of the Federation, hijack the Enterprise to save their planet, because if they’d just mentioned to the Federation that their planet was doomed and needed to borrow a Galaxy-Class Starship’s main computer for an hour, the Federation “might have said no” (See, because they think like computers, they are unable to — actually, no, I have a fucking master’s in this stuff, so I am not going to belittle my education by pretending there is any logical way to explain their actions that isn’t predicated on complete nonsense masquerading as discrete logic), or that the captain and first officer of a Galaxy-Class starship get distracted by an attractive holographic woman and fail to notice the entire ship getting evacuated. But these are intensely ordinary “People who write for TV don’t have a damned clue about how computers or formal logic work,” and “Starfleet Bridge Officers are notoriously incompetent,”  sort of problems that you expect from Star Trek, not the particular incompetence of the first season. Plus Minuet is a neat character, and the Binars are the most interesting and exciting new race to be introduced, hence us never seeing them again.

Up against what’s pretty much universally considered one of the stronger season 1 TNG episodes, Captain Power responds with “Judgment”, an episode that has enough promise that Stargate SG-1 will go on to do basically the same plot twice. I should be up-front about this. “Judgment” is an important character-development episode for Pilot, an important bit of enriching the world, it has some of the best CGI work in the series, and complex themes, it’s got a really surprising guest cast, and Jessica Steen got a Gemini nomination for her performance (Also nominated that year: Sarah Polley, who is not quite three weeks older than I am, which, as previously mentioned, was nine while all this was happening. Okay, dad, you can commence comment about what a slacker I am). And I just don’t like it very much, and I don’t really know why. It’s just kind of… Meh. I don’t know. The pacing is weak in the first act, and the resolution is too pat, and even as the least-action-packed episode we’ve had, it still feels like it’s bitten off more plot than it can chew. I don’t hate it or anything; I’m just underwhelmed by it.

Captain Power on SkybikeWe open, unusually, on Scout giving the Captain’s Log. I haven’t mentioned the Captain’s log framing device much because it hasn’t really mattered much. Just a short voice over giving the date and establishing the context for the episode, usually something like, “We intercepted a signal from Lord Dread and are going to Sector 3 to investigate”. This time, it’s a bit different, since Scout is informing us that Cap and Pilot have gone missing while bringing back an intercepted “data tape” with critical information about Project New Order. We’re actually seeing these events play out on-screen, so the main contribution of the voice-over is to establish what they’re doing out there. Also, I guess, to justify Maurice Dean Wint’s paycheck, since neither he nor Tank nor Hawk appear at all in this episode.

For no obvious reason, Captain Power is riding bitch on a hoverbike with Pilot, rather than doing what they have otherwise always done and take the Jumpship, or at the least, do the obvious thing and ride separate hoverbikes. But then the plot wouldn’t happen. They’re being chased by Soaron, and while it’s sweet of the effects artists to try, the hoverbike’s “shadow” on the landscape is so wrong that I half expect Peter Pan to show up and try to stick it back on with soap. Cap manages to take off one of Soaron’s wings and his leg with that laser bazooka from last week. But as the CGI menace spins off out of control, he gets in one good shot and blows up one of the hoverbike’s hover-things, causing a not even close to seamless crash scene that ends with Cap and Pilot being very gently thrown to the ground.

Pilot Kisses Captain PowerFor such a gentle tumble, though, Cap really failed to roll with it: though we don’t actually see the injury that’s rendered him unable to walk, Pilot’s able to assess it just by looking once she cuts a hole in his pants, and that suggests a pretty bad break, possibly a compound fracture. He orders her to take the data tape and make for the nearby oasis. She begrudgingly agrees, then kind of awkwardly gives him a kiss on the cheek. This is supposed to be heartwarming, I guess. She’s worried about her friend, and we’ve been very slowly establishing her feelings for Cap all the way back to “Shattered”. But the sudden escalation here makes me kind of uncomfortable. It’s not that it comes out of nowhere per se, but it feels forced that she’d suddenly pick this moment to make a move. The impropriety of it bugs me. I’m not saying it would be wrong for any character to react like that, but this is Pilot. Her whole characterization so far has been based on little subtle reactions and stoicism. The sudden jump here is something that feels out of character for Pilot. You can have a character like her do something like that, but you need a proper build-up and payoff. You know what there isn’t? A sense of urgency. There ought to be; Cap is injured, they’ve got crucial data, and the Bio-Dreads know their proximate location. But it doesn’t come off in the way the scene is shot. Things feel serious, but not urgent. It’s kind of ironic, even; their banter in this scene is good. Great even, very natural and conveying a sense of camaraderie that usually gets glazed over with any pair of characters that doesn’t include Hawk. But in context, it ends up working against the sense that they’re in a tense, time-critical predicament: it feels normal. In fact, it’s the most normal pretty much any pair of characters in this show has ever felt. And there’s the rub: suddenly giving her boss a peck on the cheek is not a normal thing for Pilot to do. It’s not the right context for a character like Pilot to make that leap.

Cap, for his part, reacts with pretty much just dull surprise. There's a fraction of a second where it looks like he might crack a smile, but it's so quick that I'm half-convinced Tim just flubbed the take. Back at Volcania, Dread makes his contractually-mandated appearance this episode and orders Blastarr to go retrieve the data tape and capture Cap. I guess this is the episode where we really establish the relationship dynamic between Soaron and Blastarr, who haven't really interacted before. The series bible likens Soaron to the Red Baron -- a sort of old-school "noble villain" type, who wouldn't shoot an unarmed opponent as it'd be unsporting. I guess I can see a little of that having made it through to the screen. As a child, as I've mentioned, I was inclined to imagine Soaron as a weaselly, Starscream-type character. I think what I was picking up on was really the sense that he considers himself above the rest of Team Evil. Blastarr, on the other hand, is much more brutal, straightforward, and short-tempered.
Blastarr Threatens SoaronDespite the basic jankiness of 1987 computer-generated effects, this is probably the most effective scene we've had with the CG characters in Captain Power so far, just because when it's Blastarr and Soaron, the Bio-Dreads can do something that we've never seen them do before: physically interact with something. Neither Soaron nor Blastarr normally touch anything; they don't even share the screen with another character or moving object that often. That works against both of them, but especially Blastarr. It's easier to justify with Soaron, not only since his thing is aerial combat, but also because you can very easily imagine Soaron as being the sort who would consider actually physically striking someone to be too proletariat for him. But with Blastarr's emphasis on brute, physical strength, I think we really all just want to see him pummel someone with his bare hands, and it seems wrong that he never does.

This was especially evident back in "The Intruder", when Blastarr is interrogating Jim. It's a standard clicker who forces Jim to the ground, restrains him, and holds him at gunpoint, but it's Blastarr who hovers over him and demands information. After the actual sequence of Jim being taken down, the clicker vanishes save for its foot and the barrel of its gun. Because it really shouldn't be a nameless goon in that position: it should be Blastarr. That fact shoulds so hard that the first time I watched it, my mind just kind of implicitly registered Blastarr in that position. The scene is edited to trick you into forgetting that he's not actually the one physically interacting with Jim: filmmaking convention suggests that when the camera is on Jim, we're seeing Blastarr's POV, and when it cuts back to Blastarr, symmetry tells us it should be Jim's POV. And the angle on Jim is clearly POV of the same person pointing the gun at him -- it's basically shot straight along the gun barrel. The scene is framed like Blastarr is standing directly over Jim with his foot on him, and the scene just works better if you can make yourslf forget that's not what's happening.

When Blastarr finds the injured Soaron, this comes to a head: Soaron wants the honor of the kill, and refuses to give Blastarr Cap's last known coordinates. Blastarr responds by picking Soaron up and throttling him until he gives in. Then, after he's dropped the other Bio-Dread to the ground (or at least, to be composited in as close as they could to making it look like he's lying on the ground), for good measure, he picks up Soaron's severed leg and tosses it some distance away.

While that’s going on, though (Confession: I’ve flipped the order of these scenes since it makes this article flow better), Pilot has hiked the ten miles to the nearby shantytown. She barely gets in a hello, though, before the one teenager in this town literally decides to murder her with an axe.

Axe Murder

See, it seems that back in her Dread Youth days, our beloved Pilot was involved in the destruction of the boy’s previous home, Sandtown. We’re treated to a flashback of a young Pilot — well, actually she looks exactly the same age as in the contemporary scenes. How long has she been out of the Dread Youth anyway? I know back in “Gemini and Counting”, I claimed that she’d been out for about ten years, as per the series bible. But that was plainly bullshit even when I said it (The uniform still fits, after all). This flashback suggests that it couldn’t have been more than a few years. Less if we assume Pilot’s no older than 20 (If, say, she’s 24, I could buy that the flashback was five years ago. But if she’s 19, no one ages that imperceptibly in their teens). Equally convincing: the Bling Nazi who’s in charge of the operation is the same not-Erin blonde from last week. None of this fits with the bible’s notion of Pilot having left the Dread Youth young and working her way up through the resistance in her teens. Instead, it seems like Pilot can’t have left Team Evil more than about a year ago. That scans with the comic’s implication that she wasn’t around at the previous anniversary of Daddy Power’s death. But it’s a bit hard to swallow that she’d go all the way from Dread Youth to Power Ranger in such a short time. I mean, when Cap turns down Chip’s application in “The Intruder”, he makes it out to be about how it takes time to earn trust. Pilot has evidently earned Cap’s trust very quickly. The compressed timetable also works against the implication of “Gemini and Counting” that her conversion away from the cult of the machine was a process that took time, a long “journey”. You could salvage it if we interpret Sandtown as an event after she’s already started questioning her allegiance, but this episode is going to unfold in a way that argues against that. Unlike the origin-story-by-proxy we were shown in “Gemini”, here we seem to be implying a much more TV-cliche “Complete character reversal due to a single traumatic incident” origin for Pilot. Which, hey, okay, things become tropes because they work. But now they’re making me really want to see that origin. When Erin’s story seemed to be a direct analogue for Pilot’s that was a clever way of telling us about Pilot’s backstory without resorting to flashback. If the two characters aren’t really all that parallel, it leaves a hole where there should be an origin. There are three characters in this show who joined up with Cap but we don’t know the details (Hawk worked with Cap’s dad, as we’ll be learning next week), and of them, Pilot is the most compelling (“How did Tank end up here?” is a less interesting story, to my mind, than “Where did Tank come from?” and Scout is such a blank character at this point that it’s hard to care one way or the other about him. It seems perfectly in character to imagine that he’s simply a hard-working guy who worked his way up through the resistance by doing his job well until he got promoted to Cap’s team, with no particularly eventful backstory. Not that it wouldn’t be nice for him to have one; we just haven’t established enough about the character to make me feel like there ought to be one).

To make matters more complicated, the locals claim that the sack of Sandtown was “years ago”, long enough that the boy, Randall, was a small child at the time. He basically just keeps shouting “Kill her! Kill her!” and swinging an axe at her until he’s restrained. The town is quickly swayed by the persuasiveness of his argument, which pretty much boils down to, “She’s lying! Kill her!” and it looks like a lynchin’ is about to ensue until Pilot finds a really unlikely ally.
William B Davis guest stars on Captain Power
I know, right? That’s William B. Davis, best known as the “Cigarette-Smoking Man” from The X-Files. But here, he’s kind of freaking me out in the role of Arvin, the local authority figure, who strongly opposes vigilante justice and wants the rule of law and the democratic process to prevail. Pilot agrees to stand trial in return for two of the locals going back to find Cap.

Unfortunately for them, they arrive at the crash site at roughly the same time as Blastarr. Cap, who had been biding his time by apologizing to and then murdering a cactus, drags himself behind some rocks to cower while Blastarr easily murders the townsfolk, leaving their armored vehicle to crash harmlessly into a boulder. Blastarr intercepts their radio call for help, and sets a course for the Oasis.

Pilot’s trial mostly consists of Randall demanding people kill her, intercut with flashbacks that kinda belie — deliberately, I hope — his claims that Young Pilot had been particularly gleeful about it. His uncle Gaelan confirms that Pilot was there and involved, but shows a suspicious lack of bloodlust, even going out of his way to defend her: she wasn’t an Overunit; she was just following orders; she was a “child spouting slogans,” who didn’t have any way of knowing what she was getting into.

And this leads into Pilot's big speech, which is almost certainly what got her the Gemini nomination.
It's true I was in the Dread Youth. And I was in Sandtown. There's something you have to understand. I never had a family. The Dread Youth was my family. It was my whole world, there was nothing else. From the day that I was born, I never knew about having parents. Or friends. Or feelings and love. I knew nothing about being human. I served the machine, and I was so proud. To be "Youth Leader Chase". And I knew all my lessons, and I knew my destiny as part of the new order. But there's something else you have to understand: that night, everything I knew, it fell apart. Into the lie that it is. I wanted to shout out. I wanted to stop them. If I could've told you, that I didn't know. I didn't realize what was going to happen. That night, I did. I saw the true meaning of the slogans and the uniform that I was wearing. And I started a journey. And it later led me to Captain Power. And he has taught me what it is to be human. Things that I never knew. If I could go back and change that night, I would. But I can't. And I try every day of my life to make up for it.
It's a nice speech. She talks about what it was like to grow up as a child of the Machine, and how she never had a real family or knew what it was like to be properly human.

But.

Let’s be frank here. This speech boils down to “It wasn’t really my fault and I felt super bad afterward, and besides, that’s totally not me any more.” And on top of it, she gets all weepy and cries at them. Pilot.

I don’t like it. It’s cheap and emotionally immature, and it comes off to me like she’s trying to dodge responsibility for her actions rather than take it.

As I said before, Stargate SG-1 more or less did this plot twice. The more straight-up of these is the first season episode “Cor-Ai”. Teal’c, the former First Prime (read: Chief Henchman) of Apophis (read: The Bad Guy), who’s switched sides and joined SG-1 (read: The Good Guys) is recognized by the locals on a planet they visit as the dude who carried out the ordered execution of some of the locals. He’s put on trial and will be executed unless he can persuade the son of a man he killed not to.

Yeah, like I said, it’s close. Even up to the part where, in the end, the bad guys show up and the condemned prisoner demonstrates having turned face by risking themself fighting to defend the place, which is going to happen to Pilot in a couple of minutes.

The first season of Stargate SG-1 is generally understood to not be all that good. This is true, but “Cor-Ai” is one of its high points. And a big part of the reason that the story works so well is that, unlike Pilot, Teal’c doesn’t break down and protest that he’s changed. He confesses. And more, he refuses to defend himself. Teal’c defense falls to his teammates. Because Teal’c believes that he does deserve to be held accountable for his crimes, and that if his execution will make some kind of recompense to the people he’s hurt, it’s only fair: the fact that he’s reformed doesn’t make him any less guilty of his past crimes.

I think that’s what’s really lacking here. Pilot’s whole thing is that she’s stoic: thanks to her upbringing, expressing emotion doesn’t come naturally to her. In this, her most important character focus episode, though, she basically spends the whole episode out of character. Kissing John, then breaking down in tears at her trial, it’s like the writers are trying to cram her into the “Action Chick” stereotype that she’d thus far mercifully avoided.

Teal’c also gets a better twist to his story. The laws of dramatic necessity tell us that it is a real problem for one of our heroes to have something like this on their record. We can forgive them, but only if they throw us a little bone: we need something to offset their guilt. For Teal’c, the reveal is about why he specifically executed his accuser’s father. Dad was crippled, and Teal’c knew that the local custom was strictly “leave no man behind.” So, given that he couldn’t outright disobey a direct order from his god-king and therefore had to kill someone, he chose the person whose sacrifice would improve the community’s chances to evade recapture in the future.

Notice how Teal’c isn’t entirely let off the hook here: he still shot a dude, and he still did it deliberately and with premeditation. Jennifer gets off lighter. Uncle Gaelan triggers a flashback to Volcania shortly before the raid. Captain Power flashback interrogationThrough a stroke of incredible coincidence, Pilot just happened to overhear Gaelan, at the time a prisoner, break under interrogation and pony up the location of Sandtown. Turns out that while, okay, Pilot was there, and she was involved, it’s not like she had any actual say in what was going on.

It’s too damned easy is what it is. And really, it displaces the crowning moment of the story onto Gaelan: the moment we see him locked in a cell with some kind of evil Occulus Rift strapped to his face muttering, “Please, stop, I’ll tell you anything,” it stops being Pilot’s story and starts being the story about an old man in an impossible situation who did the only thing he reasonably could have done, and spent years consumed by guilt over it — it becomes his redemption story, not Pilot’s.

News of the approaching Bio-Dread interrupts the trial just as The Cigarette-Smoking Man is about to ask the jury for their verdict, so, after all his impassioned insistence on observing the rule of law… He gives Gaelan his gun is just like, “Well, I guess you get to decide whether or not to shoot her,” as he runs off with the others to prepare the town defenses. There’s nothing in the way Gaelan’s acted so far to suggest that he’d even consider offing Pilot, which makes it seems a little unnecessary and kind of cruel that Pilot’s immediate response is to not-very-subtly let him know what she knows. It’s played entirely wrong, and comes off like she’s trying to shame him out of killing her. Naturally, he gives her the gun and releases her to go aid in the town’s defense, while he hangs back to confess to his nephew.

The scene is played precisely wrong. I mean, in the first place, no one seems to even suspect that something is Up with the fact that they sent two dudes to the location Pilot gave them and ran into a Bio-Dread — no one jumps up and says, “Well hey, obviously she was lying about Captain Power being there and it was all a trap.” I mean, except Randall, but “She’s lying! Kill her! Kill her!” is basically the extent of his dialogue for the whole episode. And it really feels wrong for her to try to shame Gaelan like that. They should have tried to convey a sense of kinship between them, like with Erin a few episode back. How hard would it be for her to say something like, “I never wanted anyone to get hurt. But I was scared, and I was hurt, and I didn’t feel like I had any other choice. I think you know what that’s like.”  I don’t know, maybe that is what they were going for, but color me unconvinced.

The townsfolk’s puny blue lasers are no match for Blastarr’s superior pink lasers, so Pilot powers on and faces him down, even though her suit’s triple-A batteries are only at ten percent. Her intervention comes just in time to rescue one townsman from a chronic hysteresis:

Captain Power Editing Mistake

It’s nice to see Pilot in a one-on-one fight for once. Unfortunately, as is always the case for the first few minutes of a Blastarr fight, she’s utterly ineffectual. Even a random bazooka she just happens to find lying around can’t bail her out — Blastarr may be dumb, but he’s got the capacity to learn from past mistakes. Captain Power: Pilot DemorphShe takes some finger-lasers to the chest and de-morphs in a sequence that rather bizarrely involves her boobs teleporting about a foot upward.

Blastarr hovers threateningly over her, waving his digitizer and threatening her in a way that will totally not seem prescient later. But just as it looks like Pilot’s number is up, Gaelan comes running out shooting a laser-revolver. Blastarr promptly murders him, but the distraction allows Pilot to… Not do anything. Blastarr turns back to her, but apparently he too is surprised that she’s still there waiting for him, because it takes him forever to line up his shot.
Captain Power enemy Blastarr
And that gives Cap time to unexpectedly arrive unnoticed in that armored vehicle from a few scenes ago. Which he drove by telepathy or something because he’s in the gunner’s position rather than the driver’s seat.  I mean, seriously, we’re meant to believe that Cap pulled up next to them, got out of the driver’s seat, got into the gunner’s position and got off a shot without anyone noticing he was there? With a broken leg?

The truck-mounted gun knocks Blastarr to the ground, and Pilot finally does something about it, retrieving that bazooka and giving the Bio-Dread a few in the chest as he stands up. This whole “Blastarr is completely invincible the first few minutes, then suddenly becomes vulnerable for no reason,” thing is kind of weird. The most sense I can make of it is that Blastarr can basically take any blow that he’s prepared for, but it requires some kind of conscious effort on his part, so he’s incredibly vulnerable to any shot he doesn’t see coming. This is a little backed up at least, since they do make a point of showing Blastarr catch the shots he takes on his shield or arms. Though one of Pilot’s ineffectual throwing-snowflakes did explode directly in his face earlier.

Captain Power in TruckI really like the way the end of the battle plays out in spite of the fridge logic. Pilot’s allowed to remain the center of the action even after Cap arrives. He hangs back, doesn’t even power up (It’s implied that his suit is out of power), just gives her a thumbs-up after getting his shot off. It’s very Action-Movie-Sidekick of him. Pilot’s still allowed to land the “kill”-shot herself rather than Cap becoming the default center of the action.

Pilot promptly ignores her injured commander to go emote over Gaelan’s dead body as everyone pointedly doesn’t do anything about the unconscious killing machine a few feet away. Arvin shows up and apologizes for that whole trial thing, though I don’t know what he’s got to apologize for. “Sorry we put you on trial for a crime you did commit and frankly responded entirely reasonably under the circumstances.” Arvin She declares the whole thing no harm no foul, and the editor stops paying attention for a second, because they let the shot linger on William B. Davis too long after he cracks a smile so that it kinda looks like he’s now looking down at Gaelan’s dead body with a grin that drifts onto the border of “lecherous”.

Everyone evacuates the town in the time it takes to change camera angles, in order that the animators don’t have to account for anything moving when they composite in Soaron for one last appearance where he berates the recovering Blastarr a bit, then it’s an evening funeral scene in a geographically disconnected bit of sand and rocks. The townsfolk bury Gaelan while Pilot and Cap — who’s on crutches, so at least they remembered that much — watch. Afterward, Randall apologizes to Pilot for that whole attempted-axe-murder thing. Pilot’s magnanimous. After all, they, “Both have things to be sorry for.” Yeah Jennifer. He’s sorry for attempting to extract violent revenge for the murder of his family; she’s sorry for her complicity in multiple war crimes; it all balances out I guess.

I guess that really sums up what I don’t like about this episode. They’re so determined to exonerate Pilot that they end up stripping the character of any tension; Pilot’s story can’t be one of redemption if the narrative is going to go out of its way to apologize for her. It’s Gaelan who ends up having the compelling story here, not Pilot: he’s the one who makes the noble act of self-sacrifice at the end. At the end, he’s dead, having died to save Pilot, and the cherry on top is that this convinces Randall to forgive her and view himself as the one who was out of line. When this happened to Teal’c? The Randall-equivalent character doesn’t apologize. In fact, he can’t even bring himself to forgive Teal’c, not fully: instead, he claims that he made a mistake, and Teal’c clearly isn’t the same person that killed his father. He’s willing to grant legitimacy to the new man Teal’c has become through his redemption, but even still he doesn’t forgive his father’s killer. That could have worked here too. Have Randall say something like, “I was wrong. A Dread Youth Leader killed my family. You aren’t Dread Youth.” But the way this episode is written, even that would have laid too much blame on Pilot; they prefer the idea that she was there but can’t permit her to have actually had any agency in those flashback scenes.

You know what would have made this episode better? Scout. I’ve said so many times that his character is pretty blank, and this would have been a great opportunity to fill him out a little. We know from the Captain’s Log segment that Scout had been tracking Cap and Pilot. So have him arrive at Oasis looking for them. Have him defend Pilot at her trial. He seems like a people-person, far moreso than the others. He could tell stories about Pilot from his perspective, which would flesh out both their backstories. And you don’t put Pilot in the position of trying to justify, y’know, having been a Nazi.

I’m loathe to take Pilot’s big speech away from her. I mean, the Gemini folks thought it was pretty good (Though not quite as good as Sonja Smits in Street Legal), even if I think it’s kind of a betrayal of the character. So let’s keep the speech, but have her give it to Scout, privately. Yeah. You can even let her cry Scout feels like the right person for her to cry to, not a bunch of strangers. Of all the members of the team, he’s the closest to her equal. It’s hard to imagine her being willing to show that level of vulnerability to Cap, or even Hawk. And Scout — admittedly, this might just be through neglect — seems the least wrapped up in a “soldier” persona; battlefield-formality suits him less than the others (In fact, if I were writing Scout, I think I’d give him a non-military background. Make him a civilian communications expert who was drafted to Power’s team out of necessity, rather than an officer who worked his way up through the ranks).

The key thing to making this episode work for me would be to make Pilot actually accept responsibility for her past. We can still have the karmic saving throw with Gaelan, but Pilot shouldn’t be making the argument that she was young and didn’t have a family and didn’t know what she was doing. And we need her to have had actual agency in Sandtown. Yeah. Go all-in. We need to see her actually pull the trigger. Maybe we shouldn’t go as dark as having her personally gun down Randall’s family, but we can have her be the one to set fire to their house. Or at least give the order. Heck, Gaelan calls her a “Child spouting slogans,” so how about in one of those flashbacks, she actually spouts a slogan? You can’t have redemption if you can’t own up to having done wrong. We need to see that Pilot herself believes that she deserves punishment for her crimes.

Admittedly, adding Scout to the mix complicates matters for the climactic battle. But that’s not too hard to solve. Let’s do something with that data tape that was the Macguffin for setting up the episode. Make the data on it time-sensitive, so Pilot sends Scout away with it ahead of the attack, and we play this as Pilot firing her defense because she’s resigned herself to losing this trial. Boom. Problem solved.

As it turns out, pretty much every criticism of this episode I have boils down to, “SG-1 did it better,” so it shouldn’t be surprising that my “fix” for the episode is “Pretty much make it the same as the SG-1 episode.” Of course, Stargate SG-1 is literally a decade away at this point. In fact, this is weird. “Cor-Ai” aired almost exactly ten years after Captain Power aired “Judgment”. Like, five hundred and twenty weeks. (It is January 23, 1998. Savage Garden tops the charts with “Truly, Madly, Deeply”. ABC is so desperate that they’re showing Sabrina The Teenage Witch twice tonight. In the past weeks, Ted Kaczynski has plead guilty to being the Unabomber and accepts a life sentence without parole, the UN has banned human cloning, Sarah Polley turned 19, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, and President Bill Clinton was accused of sexual harassment. By Monday, the Queen Mother will have a new hip, Grease will have closed on Broadway, Posh Spice will be engaged to David Beckham, the Broncos will have won the Super Bowl, and President Clinton will have said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”) So maybe telling that kind of story properly is still in the future. A little specter of it has popped its head up here, fully ten years too early, and Captain Power couldn’t quite nail it.

But, all my complaints aside, it got it really really close.

November 19, 2014

I can’t control the beast that is my anger (Captain Power: And Madness Shall Reign)

It is January 17 and 18, 1988. Earnest Byner fumbles at the 3-yard line, losing the AFC championship for the team which would later become the Baltimore Ravens. The top song on the charts is George Harrison’s cover of “Got My Mind Set On You”, which old-me is ashamed of young-me for liking so much. Compared to last week, Elton John, Tiffany, and The Bangles have entered the top ten with “Candle in the Wind”, Not-“I Think We’re Alone Now”, and “Hazy Shade of Winter” respectively.

Earth*Star VoyagerDisney’s The New Adventures of Winnie The Pooh premieres on The Disney Channel, which is at this stage in its history, a commercial-free premium network. At the moment, my family has a weird cable package which consists of the broadcast DC and Baltimore stations, plus, for some reason, CBN, which is going to start evolving into The Family Channel (now ABC Family) later this year; it’ll be another year or two before we get the rest of basic cable, to say nothing of the pay channels (Most of which we eventually get through the happy accident of the cable company not really having their act together and turning on the premium channels for everyone on the block whenever anyone subscribed). The New Adventures is a far more mundane and traditional Winnie-The-Pooh adaptation than the Disney Channel’s previous attempt, Welcome to Pooh Corner, an early 80s series done in live-action with animatronic-faced costumes, which is sort of magnificently bizarre and creepy and totally worth watching. Sadly, only about a dozen of the possibly more than a hundred episodes were ever released in home video format, and even fewer are still findable today. In broadcast-Disney, The Wonderful World of Disney airs the first half of a failed pilot called Earth*Star Voyager, a not-very-good show about a space ship crewed for no good reason by children with a plot that is actually surprisingly similar to Star Trek Into Darkness (I’m serious; the plot boils down to “Evil Admiral wants to build a super-giant-warship, so he strikes a deal with a renegade to help build it, and sends off the flagship deliberately under an inexperienced commander planning for him to fail”). For absolutely no reason, I keep running into people who remember this show, though I personally do not. Although it was nominated for two Primetime Emmys (Sound editing and mixing), it is almost entirely forgotten, and Disney would prefer everyone forget it ever happened, the usual fate for TV shows with asterisks in their titles. TVTropes helpfully describes it as “The Mickey Mouse Club meets Star Trek.

Speaking of Star Trek, this week’s episode of Star Trek The Next Generation is “Datalore”, a story which is very important for introducing Data’s off-switch. And also his evil twin brother, I guess, but that’s really just an excuse to let Brent Spiner have some fun and ham it up for a change. It’s kind of a weak episode, made all the weaker for the fact that Wesley Crusher once again has to save the day by being the only one who can tell when Data is secretly replaced by his moustache-twirling evil twin. Seriously, it feels like a recurring theme this season is “No one but Wesley Crusher pays a damned bit of attention to how their co-workers are behaving.” But at least it’s a weak episode that lays the groundwork for much better episodes later, including the Augment arc of Enterprise.

Captain Power this week is a big episode for Hawk and Tank. That’s a pleasant change after a sequence of episodes that have leaned more heavily on Cap and Pilot, though I do note with some derision that Maurice Dean Wint still hasn’t gotten a character focus episode yet.

Toronto Subway in the dystopian future of Captain PowerWe open in a Toronto Subway, where Cap and company (Minus Pilot, of course; can’t waste Jessica Steen on non-character-focus episodes) are trying to warn “Cypher” that they’ve intercepted some Dread plans involving his resistance group and an evil experiment. While Cap and Scout forge ahead, Tank and Hawk hang back so that Tank can down the contents of a random canteen he just finds lying around. This may seem like an incredibly stupid, or at least somewhat impolite thing to do, but hey, the show’s only 22 minutes long, so we can’t really afford to dawdle on the plot. The camera does us a solid and follows the discarded canteen so that we’ll know it’s important.

Cap and Scout find the resistance cell mostly incapacitated or dead. Their investigation is spied on by one of Dread's ubiquitous spy drones, which, of course, he never has any trouble getting into any resistance bases anywhere. Back at Volcania, Dread privately taunts power, and dismisses Lakki when the little playskool toy suggests that maybe letting Cap in on the "Styx" project might be a touch counterproductive. They find Cypher and some of the still-capacitated resistance after Cap's forced to stun one of them in self-defense. Cypher explains that a "madness" came down on them all, causing pain, hallucinations and fits of violence. Cypher himself is clearly meant to be affected, speaking in broken sentences and clutching his chest and head from time to time. Though he affects this mostly by talking like a three year old.
Captain Power's ally Colonel CypherThis is the first time we've met Colonel Cypher, but it won't be the last. He'll return in "The Eden Road" and "Freedom One". He's played by Lorne Cossette, whose filmography is pretty sparse. He was in a handful of British things in the sixties, then appears to have given up acting until a little flurry in the late '80s. He passed away back in 2001, five years after his last film roles, minor parts in a Sandra Bullock romcom and Darkman III. But you may know recall him from one particular role: he played Captain Maitland in the early Doctor Who serial "The Sensorites". Captain Maitland from Doctor Who's The Sensorites

I kind of wonder if there's anything deliberate about that in this casting: the plot of "The Sensorites" revolved around two major elements which are echoed in this episode: characters driven violently insane by an outside influence, and tainted water supplies.

Dread has summoned some troopers to attack the base, prompting a reasonable if over-long fight scene in the subway. It's a nice setting for a fight scene, as has been well-established by Michael Jackson and the Wachowski Brothers. When our heroes, along with the resistance survivors make it back to the Jumpship, they're confronted by Soaron, which of course means that it's time for Hawk to jump into action. We cut back to Volcania for just long enough for Dread to shout a Big "No!!!!!!" as Power and his gang escape.

Back at base, Cap notices that Tank’s looking a little unwell, so he sends him to bed early, then asks Mentor about this whole “Styx” thing. Mentor helpfully explains what the adults, older children, and more intelligent domestic animals have already worked out: that the resistance cell’s water supply was tainted with a chemical agent that induces temporary insanity. Hawk, in what’s either a rare display of the characters being as clever as they’re supposed to be, or a common display of “we’re 10 minutes in and have to get the plot rolling,” puts two and two together, and sorts out that Tank’s likely infected. Pilot puts on her rarely-seen Power Suit, and the two of them go to visit Tank, who’s kept it together enough to power on himself, but just shouts, “Monsters! You won’t get me! I’ll kill you all!” over and over, and one-shot knocks them out, though, curiously, it doesn’t disperse their suits.

Meanwhile, Mentor, who’s leaking a little more emotion than usual, has sorted out that some random Dread base they’d previously destroyed had produced the Styx bioweapon, and that Dread’s planning to use short-range rockets to deliver it into the aquifer that apparently provides drinking water to the entire west coast. This show has absolutely no idea how geography works. We obligingly cut back to Volcania, where Lord Dread orders the immediate deployment of Styx, since his whole, “Let Captain Power sort out your evil plan with plenty of time to stop it,” strategy has, shockingly, backfired. He’s so fired up that he only pauses briefly to yell at Lakki, who kinda evokes Kiff Kroaker from Futurama with a hint of a sigh before his usual, “I live to serve.” I’ve mentioned before that Lakki is usually described as a spy for Overmind, but “spy” really has the wrong connotation. He’s more of an instrument of passive-aggression by Overmind: transparently saddling Dread with a robot Scrappy Doo just to demonstrate that he can.

Peter MacNeill in Captain PowerCap rushes off to collect the others, and rouses Hawk and Pilot. Having determined that Tank’s been reduced to a psychotic killing machine, our leader decides that the best strategic move is for him to take Pilot and Scout off in the Jumpship to prevent the launch of the Styx missiles and leave the concussed old man to take care of the drugged-out heavily-armored giant. The camerawork here is very disappointing: we stay on Cap and Pilot rather than cutting to a close-up of Hawk, which is a shame because we’re treated to another one of those famous Peter MacNeill Reaction shots as his lips say, “Sure,” but his face says, “You have got to be fucking kidding me.”

So we get something approaching a real A/B plot structure here, with our heroes heading out in the Jumpship while Hawk pursues Tank through the base. Cap does a strafing run against Dread’s launch facility (played by the same weird Egyptian-inspired tomb entranceway we’ve seen three or four times by now) in the Power Jet (Which I’m confused by now, since I was fairly sure it was only ever shown once or twice, but it seems to have become a staple now), but then abandons it to approach on-foot with Scout while Pilot… Basically just keeps the Jumpship warm I guess. For some reason, Scout has a bazooka now.

Blastarr-Vision visual effect from Captain PowerA young, blonde, female Dread Youth who isn’t Erin from last week but probably should have been oversees the launch sequence from within the base. Scout and Cap try a reprise of the strategy from “Wardogs” by having Scout do his Lord Dread impression, but the camera moves to Not-Erin’s left to shockingly reveal Blastarr, whose video-toaster-vision reveals that he isn’t fooled by Scout’s holograms. Scout crumples to his first shot, but luckily for our heroes, Blastarr’s aim is utterly shit, as he only gets within the neighborhood of hitting anyone one more time, and Cap just shrugs that one off. Not-Erin decides to leg it while Cap and Blastarr exchange useless shots for a bit until Scout wakes up. Since apparently, Scout isn’t allowed to upstage Cap, he doesn’t actually do anything effective to Blastarr, but his ineffective firepower does prompt the Bio-Dread to turn, so his shield is pointed the wrong way when Cap retrieves the bazooka and lets him have it. There’s a nice little sequence of Blastarr howling in pain, then we’re treated to the same loop of Blastarr falling to his knees we’ve seen in every other Blastarr fight, though this time, Cap head-shots him while he’s down. As per usual, once Blastarr stops moving, everyone forgets about him rather than continuing to shoot until he’s reduced to rubble.

In accordance with the laws of dramatic necessity, our heroes reach the control computer just as the countdown reaches 1, and play a video clip of a rocket exploding in the air. Which is weird since I had assumed the countdown was time to launch. But hey, no time to celebrate yet: we’ve got that pesky B-plot to resolve. (Okay, technically, the B-Plot has already been resolved because they’d been cutting back and forth between them during the last two paragraphs, but it’s awkward to write it that way in prose, so I demuxed them for the purposes of my recap).

Hawk v Tank fight from Captain PowerThe long-awaited Hawk-vs-Tank fight scene is fairly straightforward. Hawk finds Tank. Tank picks Hawk up and pitches him at a computer bank. Hawk demorphs and cowers. We fall back on the old Captain Power standard plot resolution here, since just as it looks like Tank is going to beat the now-defenseless Hawk to death, it turns out that Tank’s not quite completely gone mad, and with some stock, “You’ve got to fight it!”-type encouragement from Hawk, shakes off the effects of the Styx drug long enough to power down and let Hawk take him to bed.

Later, we’re told that Mentor has synthesized a “serum” that will treat Tank… By rendering him unconscious until the poison wears off naturally. I choose to believe that “serum” is a euphemism for “A gallon of scotch.” Everyone has a hearty laugh at the thought of Hawk nearly being murdered by a good friend. Curiously missing is the usual scene where we cut back to Volcania to hear Lord Dread complain about his latest failure.

This episode isn’t great, but I don’t really know why. The structure should be solid, with a traditional Action-Adventure A/B plot structure, and our heroes actually accomplishing stuff — they manage to foil the Styx phase of Project New Order and they save Colonel Cypher — who, let me remind you, is a recurring character. We do get an at least minor variation on the typical Scout scene: rather than what we’ve seen every other time, with Scout using his disguises to cause a single moment of confusion before dropping the charade, his disguise is actually completely unconvincing this time.

But as a whole, this episode just feels weak. The plot with Tank is dealt with too quickly, and having Hawk simply talk him down is both cliche and unsatisfying. This could have been an opportunity to talk about Tank’s genetic enhancements and his own concerns about the violence in his nature as per “Final Stand”, but instead he spends half the episode just muttering, “Monsters! I keel you all!” There’s no rhyme or reason to why he’s able to shake it off at the critical moment — this would have been a great place to get into Tank’s character a little. You know that bit in The Avengers where Mark Ruffalo says, “I’m always angry”? You could play with the idea that Tank is always fighting to control his genetically engineered violent inclinations, and that’s why — even though he loses control temporarily — he’s ultimately able to overcome the Styx drug when the resistance fighters couldn’t.

Blastarr Falling visual effect from Captain PowerBut, y’know, we needed an extra few minutes of Cap and Blastarr shooting at each other instead. They pull out all the stops for the action in this one. There haven’t been any episodes until now that used this many of their fight scene resources all together: the Power Jet, Soaron, Blastarr, the Jumpship, and all five heroes in powered-on mode. But the price they pay is that the non-action sequences are greatly abbreviated. And honestly, fight scenes with Blastarr just aren’t that interesting for the most part. With Soaron, you at least have something dynamic going on with a dogfight. It may look cheap and the visual effects don’t quite work, and sometimes Soaron doubles in size, and there’s that tendency to have laser beams hit empty space and explode, but still, there’s stuff moving. Blastarr fight scenes are mostly like boss battles in a cover-based shooter. Blastarr just kind of stands there, shooting, and the heroes occasionally pop up from behind something hoping to get a lucky shot in. Then Blastarr drops to his knees and blacks out.

Scout plays an unusually large role in this episode: with Tank and Hawk shunted off to the B-plot, he’s the one who has Cap’s back in the big climactic fight, where it would normally be Hawk. But he still doesn’t do much. His dialogue is sparse, and he mostly just gets knocked down. Scout and Pilot have almost always been under-utilized, and Scout doesn’t even get a character focus episode this season.

This episode also falls short as the culmination of Styx. Pretty much since “The Ferryman”, we’ve been building up Styx as the next major checkpoint on the season-long plot arc. Styx figured into the plots of “And Study War No More” and “Flame Street”, but there’s no sense of this week’s plot being connected to anything that came before. The Styx information cap got from the Cyber Web has never come up since. Cap’s opening monologue explains that they’d intercepted a transmission leading them to go check on Cypher — they could just as easily have said something like, “We found a reference to Colonel Cypher’s resistance cell in the information we retrieved from Tech City,” and tied the ongoing plot together. Likewise, we actually saw barrels with the Styx logo in Haven. Instead of some random Dread Base we’ve never seen before, Mentor should really have just identified Haven as the source of the poison (Of course, to complicate matters worse, “And Study War No More” has a stardate of 47-9, while this one is 47-8, which means that diagetically, they haven’t been to Haven yet, and they discover their involvement in Styx only after Styx has been foiled, yet no one mentions the obvious irony in the pacifistic Haven manufacturing a chemical that induces violence.). Instead, after weeks of hinting at it, Styx proper just appears out of nowhere and is fairly easily foiled.

The nature of Styx is a bit weaksauce too. I mean, the cure is a good long nap. Actually, now that I think of it, “An outside influence causes people to become murderously violent. The cure is to induce a good long nap,” is the plot of an old Tomorrow People serial (“The Blue and the Green”. Cuckoo alien children need to induce strong violent emotions in their host species as part of their maturation cycle. They’re not crazy about the damage this is going to cause, but it’s the only way their species can induce menarche. Our heroes resolve the situation by inducing the entire human race to take a nap, so that the aliens’ balls can drop with the harm to humanity limited to some bad dreams and also car and plane crashes I assume.). It’s passable — the real threat isn’t the poison per se, but the the contamination of the water table, which would leave the west coast resistance without potable water. But that’s a fairly subtle and complex masterplan to lay out in the space of a couple of minutes between fight scenes. Both the flu strain from “Gemini and Counting” and the sleeping sickness from “Pariah” are much more straightforward illness-based threats, and I think it probably would have made the season overall stronger if they’d all been tied together: swap the flu from last week for a new form of the Pariah virus, and make the culmination of Styx be contaminating the water table with a waterborne variant. First we establish what the virus does, we show that it’s still communicable and it taxes the heroes’ resources to combat it even on the limited scale of the outbreak in the passages, then we confront them with the threat of it proliferating too fast for them to distribute a cure. You have a great “Oh crap” moment of escalation when you see that it took a dangerous gambit with Pilot putting herself on the line to stop the first outbreak, then discover that Dread’s plan will lead to an outbreak many times larger.

Instead, Styx as portrayed in this episode basically comes out of nowhere and disappears back into nowhere. It just doesn’t hang together. For those who are keeping score, Project New Order seems to pretty much be Dread’s masterplan of four totally unrelated schemes to wipe out humanity. He’s been working on these for years, and so far, our heroes have discovered and foiled two of the four stages in the span of about half an hour each. We didn’t even get a new Bio-Dread out of this one.

Oh well. Next week’s another character-driven episode, so maybe things will look up…

November 12, 2014

The Voice of the Resistance: I Like French Films, Pretentious, Boring French Films… (Light Years / Les hommes-machines contre Gandahar)

Light YearsBonjour. Nous ne visitons pas ici dans l’ordre strictment chronologique. Ni d’un ordre strictment programmatique. Je n’ai pas étudié en francais depuis les années nonante. Et je n’ai jamais parlé francais tres bien à l’époque, à moins que on parle de les choses dans l’ecole. Mon lexique n’a pas grande, et j’ai oublié beaucoup des lois de la conjugaison. C’est la vie.

Allons-y all the same. Between the article title and the near-gibberish of that last paragraph, you may have guessed that I want to talk about something French this week. You may recall that among the movies that were released to the US Box Office over Captain Power‘s Christmas break, there was this one animated film that ticked one of my dormant childhood neurons. That movie was Light Years. Light Years was a Weinstein-brothers produced English-language translation of the French film Gandahar: Les Anées Lumière. Our old pal Isaac Asimov, taking some time off from creating Probe, did the translation.

Les hommes-machines contre GandaharGandahar was itself an adaptation of the novel Les hommes-machines contre Gandahar by Jean-Pierre Andrevon. He’s apparently a fairly prolific French science fiction author, but his fame seems to be pretty regional since I can barely find anything at all about him in English. I’m fairly sure Gandahar was a series, since it looks like he also produced Les portes de Gandahar (The Doors of Gandahar),  Gandahar et l’oiseau-monde (Gandahar and the Bird World), Cap sur Gandahar (The Conquest of Gandahar), Les Rebelles de Gandahar (The Rebels of Gandahar) and L’Exilé de Gandahar (Exile of Gandahar) but I can’t even be sure some of those aren’t just alternate titles of the same book.

I’ve talked before about the underlying tradition of “realism” in American cinema. There’s a preference for showing worlds that are like our world, at least insofar as the worlds behave like a world. There may be outlandish plots from mad scientists, or ancient artifacts with magical powers, or a basic ignorance of Hanlon’s Razor, or even superheroes, but people still get up in the morning, things still fall when dropped, causality only goes in one direction (Even if there’s time travel, time travel can be “unwound” to produce a linear sort of meta-time where causality flows in only one direction; the same sidereal moment might occur several times, but one of those times is explicitly “first” and one “last”), and cats don’t spontaneously turn into delicious chocolate pudding. American cinema has been at least a little uncomfortable with breaking from this at least as far back as The Wizard of Oz, where they tacked on an “All Just a Dream” ending because, I swear I am not making this up, they imagined that modern 1930s audiences were far too sophisticated and intelligent to accept a movie set in a fantastical world with living scarecrows and melting witches (Yes. In the book, Oz is absolutely, unquestionably 100% real. And the shoes were silver. Read a book.). It’s not a rock-solid taboo or anything, but being properly psychedelic normally locks you in to the arthouse circuit, and even then, well, to give you an idea, when William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was adapted to film by David Cronenberg, one of the big complaints about it was that they changed it so that it made way too much sense.

But cinematic tropes and traditions are themselves products of a particular time and place, and not all times and places are the same. Popular US culture has always been haunted by the specter of puritanism, but on top of that, the US has that whole “melting pot” thing going on. And I think those work together to disincline major American media-makers from wandering off into surrealism. Once you start digging below the world of surface meanings, below the common shared part of reality that we can all agree on — the whole “sun goes up in the morning” and “things fall when dropped” business — reality starts to become a lot more subjective, and a lot more a function of time, place and culture. Which works well enough when you’re somewhere like England, and 90% of your population has a shared cultural heritage that stretches back to when the Saxons displaced the Britons, but on this side of the pond, the only shared culture we have that, honestly speaking, stretches back before the civil war settled the question of whether or not we cared to actually be one shared culture is… One we tried our best to exterminate. DisneylandSo we tend to stick close to the surface, to the bits of reality we can all agree on, filing off the rough edges and desperately trying not to think about the fact that we’re anything other than one big happy family that’s totally not made up of a bunch of people who spent most of history trying to kill each other. Some would call this “catering to the lowest denominator”, but if you want to feel better about yourself, you could say, “trying to be as inclusive and inviting as possible” (With an awful lot of failing to be as inclusive and inviting as possible mixed in there. Often, ironically, because we’re trying so damned hard to not notice the differences between groups of people with radically different life experiences). Our culture makes itself deliberately banal because a mixture of puritanism, idealism and capitalism that desperately wants to be all things to all people all at once.

At the risk of playing down the fact that many other cultures manage to handle pluralism perfectly well, this just isn’t as much of an issue for, say, the British, or the French, or the Germans, or… Pretty much anyone else. And accordingly, you see a much greater willingness to look “under the surface” in their popular cultures. Some of the most influential early films were made by the German Expressionist school, with its sharp lines and weird geometries, where buildings might lean on each other, or objects in the foreground might cast impossibly long painted shadows at weird angles. Back in the ’90s, I saw a staging of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (or What You Will) done in an homage to German expressionism and it was almost a kind of religious experience. I didn’t understand it at the time, this sense of being in a space clearly made by humans, clearly made for humans, but also clearly a broken world where human shapes didn’t belong.

Meanwhile, in France, surrealists were… Well, really, they were trying invent LSD a few decades early. The Treachery of Images Surrealism is a school of art that rejects the idea that human thought is really based on logic and reason and other kinds of Aristotelian bullshit. People like to use the phrase “dream logic” when talking about surrealism, but I hope that’s less misleading in French, because I think that while it’s technically true, it leads you astray. Surrealism is actually an awful lot like phenomenology, in that they’re both interested in the question of what’s actually going on when you experience something. Namely, the nature of the separation between the thing you perceive and act of perception — as René Magritte would put it in one surrealist painting, ceci n’est pas une pipe.

I find surrealism very hard to talk about, particularly in film. I just don’t have the lexicon for it. For me, there’s a line between good surrealism and just plain incomprehensible nonsense, but it’s still something you can at times kind of luck into. This is one of the reasons I can take joy in watching really bad movies and TV shows: sufficiently advanced incompetence can be indistinguishable from surrealism. When you have something like, say, The Roller Blade Seven or Phase IV, or Zardoz, it can be hard to tell if the thing you’re watching is brilliant, insane, both, or neither. And this is just a personal thing, but where I draw the line is: if you can work out what the hell just happened without consulting the cliff notes, you’ve got a contender for good surrealism. I’m not talking necessarily about the why of what happened; just the what. I may not have a chance in hell of sorting out why or how Avenant and the Beast switch bodies when a statue of Artemis shoots them at the end of La Belle et la Bête, but I can tell you that’s what happened. I have no fucking idea what happens at the end of Phase IV, so that one goes off the rails. (I actually do know, because I read the book. But I submit that there is no honest way that from the film alone you could work out what that acid trip of an ending was).

The plot of Light Years is only a little bit surreal. It’s got some time travel in it, but it barely matters at all. I’ve seen capsule summaries that describe the central conceit as a time paradox, but it’s just not: causality only goes in one direction, and the only reason time travel matters at all is that we meet the same character at two points in its life. The whole time travel aspect is undercut by the fact that the characters to whom it’s most relevant have the gift of prophesy. Which means that they can foresee events the future events that have come back in time. Carry the two, divide both sides by X, and what you get is that they have the power to see… the present. No, the thing about Light Years that’s just nuts is the animation.

Again, I’m at a loss for vocabulary, but in the ’80s, there were basically two dominant styles of US animation. At the one end, you had cartoons in a style which is so stereotypical that people usually just call it “cartoony”. The style of your Tex Averys and your Chuck Joneses. Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, that sort of thing. Caricatures of real objects, with their proportions distorted — hypercephalic anthropomorphic animals with big eyes pulling giant mallets out of hyperspace. At the other end of the spectrum, you had folks like Don Bluth, a sort of stylized realism. Use of motion capture. Classic Disney feature-length stuff. I’d also put most of the Filmation stuff in here too — it’s clearly going for the same basic approach to how things are proportioned and juxtaposed even if they’re not putting in the same effort. It kinda pains me to lump Filmation in with Don Bluth, but I just don’t think exploring the distinction is going to be very helpful for this ramble. As we got into the nineties, you’d see a greater diversity of styles, elements of Anime creeping in, as well as the sort of very frenetic, high-chaos and often ultra-grotesque stuff that characterizes things like Duckman or Ren and Stimpy. But back in the days of my youth, you basically had two choices: the sort of cute-uncanny style that’s most associated with Warner Bros., or the sort of simplified quasi-realistic style that’s associated with Disney.

That’s not to say there weren’t outliers. There was Ralph Bakshi, for instance, who seemed to be in kind of the same vein as Don Bluth half the time, and then suddenly he’d whip out something completely apeshit like animating a sequence by tracing over live-action or Nekron 99. What makes Bakshi’s films so unsettling to me is that he’s one of the few animated film makers who actually blends the quasi-realistic style with “cartoony” elements. What I mean is, you might have something fantastical — the dragon, say, in Sleeping Beauty, or heck, Optimus Prime, but they’re still drawn as if they were real things that could be in, if not the real world, at least a real world. You can imagine what Optimus Prime would look like if he were real — a big, roughly human-shaped robot. But what would Bugs Bunny look like in the real world? A rabbit? A man in a rabbit suit? Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam suggest that the answer is, even if he were somehow transposed into the real world, Bugs Bunny himself would still be a cartoon. That’s why we call it “cartoony”: that he is a cartoon is intrinsic to Bugs’s essentia in a way that being animated isn’t essential to He-Man (as Garry Goddard demonstrated a month or so before Captain Power premiered), Princess Aurora, or Frodo Baggins. When a character of the first kind and a character of the second kind meet, it’s nearly always some kind of subversion or gimmick — it’s something that’s deliberately wrong. Which is why it’s so weird to have a character like Necron 99 in Wizards, where the humans are shaped like humans, and the faeries are shaped like humans with wings, but then there’s this sort of sock-monkey-looking robot assassin with disproportionately long legs.

Well, I say unusual. And then places that aren’t the US go and do it all the time. Take a look at something like Yellow Submarine, or Heavy Metal. Or Fantastic Planet. Fantastic Planet. We’ve almost caught up with ourselves now, because Fantastic Planet is the brainchild of René Laloux, who also directed Gandahar.

And the animation in Gandahar is, as I’ve been working at saying, real freaking weird. The people are detailed and realistic and look like people… Except that some of them have three breasts or wings growing out of their heads or superfluous arms or suchlike. What’s so uncanny about it is that, for all my talk of surrealism and expressionism and cartoonism, if I were to actually assign an art style for the character design, I’d kinda have to begrudgingly go with “realism”. There is a Vienna School of Fantastical Realism which on paper sounds like a good fit for the art style of Gandahar, but the examples I’ve looked at don’t really look the same. It’s kind of like… I don’t know. Imagine if Ralph Bakshi had done Yellow Submarine. I’ve mentioned Yellow Submarine twice now, because even though the two don’t look anything alike, they both approach, in different ways, the same kind of uncanny juxtaposition.

But where Yellow Submarine‘s animation is sort of minimal, Gandahar‘s is lush. Everything moves kind of weirdly slow. Like there are too many frames of animation, the way you sometimes get in flash games. Or Prince of Persia. The original Prince of Persia, the 1989 one, where everything feels just a little floaty because it’s rotoscoped and it’s using every frame it’s got to cram in little details of motion. Most traditional animation is shot “on twos”, two frames of film for every frame of animation. Maybe this is shot on ones. Or maybe it’s still shot on twos but the tweening (Drawing interpolated frames to transition between keyframes, which show the beginning and end of a single discrete motion. Usually done with computers today, but traditionally done by an assistant animator, who is called an “inbetweener”, but never a “tweener” because I’m pretty sure that’s a euphemism for vagina.) was done on the assumption that it was going to be shot on ones. Whatever the North Korean animation house did, the result is that every motion feels just slightly slow and floaty, almost like it’s underwater.

Isaac Asimov's translation for the American version, Light Years, begins with a quote from Isaac Asimov, which seems to me like cheating.
We speak of Time and Mind, which do not easily yield to categories. We separate past and future and find that Time is an amalgam of both. We separate good and evil and find that Mind is an amalgam of both. To understand, we must grasp the whole. -- Isaac Asimov
In fact, as far as I can tell, he wrote that specifically for the introduction of this movie. It's not an epigraph: it's a blurb. I mean, what the hell? As we hold on the quote, it slowly changes, line by line, from blue to white. There is no narration. So... Is the color change telling us when to say the words? Are we watching some kind of weird karaoke-movie hybrid?

The movie proper begins with a starfield, voiced-over by our hero, Sylvin Lanvère, or rather “Sylvain”, le chevalier premier de Gandahar, who gives us a five minute head-start on the catchphrase of the movie by telling us that his journey began with the riddle, “In a thousand years, Gandahar was destroyed. A thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved, and what can’t be avoided will be,” a riddle so cunning that you have probably already worked it out. I’ve flipped through the novel in the original French, but if the pronouncement appears there, my French isn’t good enough to recognize it. Especially since in the original, it’s ten-thousand years rather than a thousand.

GandaharMuch like what I was able to make out from the book, the movie opens with a languid sequence whose main purpose is to convey that Gandahar (“Le royaume, ancré sur la face australe de Tridan, vaste planète à l’axe vertical et à la translation lente,” which is to say “A kingdom where it’s basically always autumn”) is a kind of slow-paced easy-going place where folks just kind of hang around having a good time, making boats out of huge leaves, shepherding large tardigrade-faced snail-like creatures, and nursing little insect pets that grow on trees. Not even making that up. A nude woman sits down in front of a plant, it grows her a little kind of puppy-dog sort of bug critter, and she takes it to her breast and nurses it, prompting me to wonder exactly how I got my parents to let me watch this back in 1988, because, seriously, about 75% of the minor and background characters in this movie are women, and only one of them wears a shirt.

AmbisextraThe book namechecks some other nearby planets and kingdoms to say that they didn’t think much of Gandahar’s decadence, but the Gandaharians, like Honey Badger, don’t care. You can tell that they’re a peaceful, unscientific culture because they are a matriarchy, and Andrevon’s a golden-age style Sci Fi writer, and you show me a golden age sci-fi writer who isn’t a raging gender essentialist. Under the peaceful reign of their beloved and wing-headed queen — I am not making this name up — “Myrne Ambisextra”, art and toplessness flourishes, while science and fighting are all but unknown. But as shepherds pet their deer-armadillo things and topless women stack beets, their peaceful world is shattered by an as-yet-unseen attacker (whose identity will shock you unless you see the title of the book in the opening credits) whose pew-pew sound effects turn peaceful Gandaharians to stone. Kinda like getting bonked by the green apples when the Blue Meanies invaded Pepperland. Yeah, another Yellow Submarine reference. Weird, isn’t it?

Gandahar’s capital is the City of Jasper, which is a big castle shaped like a naked lady because of course it is. Queen Ambisextra and her chief scientific adviser, Omega Santa, discuss the recent murders of their creepy one-eyed “mirror birds”. Omega SantaOmega Santa bemoans their continuing failure to explore scientific options for strategic defense in favor of telepathic-one-eyed-bird-based surveillance, because he is a man, and men are like that, all into science and war and stuff instead of art and nature and all that girly stuff (The matriarchy will don some Warrior Woman outfits later, but still, this movie is playing its gender essentialism painfully straight, with the only two speaking men in Gandahar being the Only Scientist and the Head Knight). Ambisextra’s high council of bald topless women asserts their preference for biological rather than technological solutions, and, over her objections, orders the queen’s son (I don’t think he’s ever directly identified as her son in the dialogue of the movie. It’s explicit in the book, and it’s certainly indicated on-screen from the tone of her objections that he’s personally dear to her.), Sylvain, to investigate the unknown enemy.

He sets out on a flying manta ray in the general direction of the last attack, leading to a montage whose main point seems to be, “Look how weird this place is!” for so long that Sylvain gets bored and falls asleep at the wheel, waking up just in time to shoot a kind of pterodactyl-looking thing in the mouth with a pellet gun that makes it grow thorns. Because surrealism!

Slow FallThe crash of his injured manta ray, and his subsequent slow-motion ejection and languid somersault through the air are witnessed by a four-armed dude on a nearby rock, and a bunch of greenish-brown dudes with the wrong number of limbs and/or faces emerge from the ground, recognize Sylvain as Gandaharian, and take him to their leader, a five minute walk, because plot is pretty much secondary in this movie to giving us a chance to see how weird everything is, like the other mutants with their superfluous mouths or heads at the ends of their arms or unusually large ears, which are all clearly meant to convey that these are a race of horrific mutations, banished from polite Gandaharian society. Which would have a lot more impact if Queen Ambisextra didn’t have a big freaking pair of wings growing out of her head.

Sylvain takes this all in stride too, so I don’t know. I think this movie ramped up the weird too fast. Their leader, Quatto, is awfully polite, all things considered, even after Sylvain accuses him of being “The Enemy”. He identifies his people as “The Deformed”. In the book, I think they call themselves the “Dur de Durs”, which, based on my best reading of a french-to-french dictionary, seems to be a euphemism for “free and independent spirit”, so maybe “outsiders” would be a better translation?

Chief of the DeformedWe get some weird cuts to Sylvain having a snack, and some mutants milking stalactites while Quatto explains that the Deformed “were/will be” the hideous results of Gandaharian scientific experimentation in the distant past. And Sylvain just rolls with it and apologizes to Quatto, Quatto’s six-breasted girlfriend, and the shirtless, mouthless woman who’s making bedroom eyes at him, and now they’re friends. Quatto assigns Shayol, one of the particularly hideously Deformed to accompany Sylvain, mostly so that they can keep the action going while Sylvain gets some more exposition, such as the fact that the first generation of Deformed could see the future, which is why they always double-conjugate their verbs (As close as I can tell, they don’t do this in the book. I mean, I don’t see any dialogue where there are superfluous verbs. They do speak almost exclusively in capital letters though.), and where they got that handy catchphrase.

Sylvain snacks

Sylvain eventually comes to the village of petrified topless women. I don’t mean to keep harping on it, but there really is quite a lot boobs in this movie. If this were live action, even if it were French, it’d be kind of excessive. Like something out of Ed Wood’s later stuff. I’m trying not to pass judgment, just noting that it’s weird.

It’s here that we finally see the enemy: the “metal men”. Sylvain’s thorn-pellet gun has no effect on them as they very slowly advance, and he very slowly evades, eventually being turned to stone himself. Shayol bravely ran/will run away, leaving Sylvain to be… Stuck in a big egg with a topless woman named Airelle, which Google translates as “Huckleberry”, and therefore so will I.

GodzillaAnd then Godzilla attacks the Metal Men’s convoy and steals the egg Sylvain and Huckleberry are in. I’ll let that sink in for a second.

Sylvain cracks the egg with a pellet from his gun, which grows a big thorn tree that, fortunately, cracks the shell open before impaling them. Godzilla (a “Sorn”, according to Huckleberry) assumes them to be its children and makes them a little nest, then very slowly and with exceptionally detailed animation, licks themLick. And then there is an awkward cut and Sylvain has his shirt off. Because in the French version, they totally did it. There’s a few lines of dialogue indicating that Huckleberry and Sylvain have fallen hopelessly in love, which I’d object to, but it’s kind of late in the day for me to start objecting to things in this movie being weird, nonsensical and unrealistic.

The next morning or whatever, they survey the remains of the Metal Men that were destroyed in the Godzilla attack. Sylvain is surprised to find their bodies completely hollow, save for a little red mcnugget. They follow some Metal Men, learning that they gather up the petrified Gandaharians, stuff them in eggs, then push them through a black gate, which then disgorges more metal men. They sneak aboard a boat and follow the Metal Men to this sort of big pink thing that looks like a cross between a jellyfish, a testicle, and a butt [No, there will be no picture here. I am not putting a picture of a giant pink testicle-butt-creature on my website and getting thrown on porn-filter blacklists. Again.], which the Metal Men worship as a god. It sucks our heroes — or, I guess, our hero and his girlfriend — up into these sort of polyp-vagina things. Sylvain loses his shirt again.

Eventually, they’re dropped into a gooey pink place, where they get to telepathically converse with Metamorphis, played by Christopher Plumber, who you might remember as the bad guy from Star Trek VI. He denies being the god of the Metal Men, but concedes that the Metal Men have a different opinion on that subject. He seems either confused or irascible on the matter: he reckons that he’d find the Metal Men’s defeat “physically unpleasant”, but doesn’t actually want Gandahar destroyed. Metamorphis tongueThen he grows this pink flying tongue-thing to give Sylvain and Huckleberry a ride home. There’s another hard cut, which I assume means that they did it again.

The tongue dies on the outskirts of Jasper, but Sylvain hangs on to a bit of it.  Omega Santa determines that both the tongue and the delicious pink center of the metal men are the same organism, but, in case you are very dense and hadn’t worked it out, the cells from the metal men are “immeasurably older”.

The battle for Gandahar begins in earnest with Jasper launching some vagina-polyp things at the Metal Men. A different sort of vagina-polyp than the last one. These have teeth. So vagina-dentada-polyps. I’m going to guess René Laloux had some weird Freudian issues. These are moderately successful, but can’t handle the numbers. They also launch some bugs that lay thorn plants. The Siege of JasperThese fare less well, as the Metal Men simply petrify them and drive over them. Dumping their reservoir on the Metal Men causes them to very slowly flail around and fall down, but eventually they manage to swim to shore.

Meanwhile, Omega Santa has found some archival footage that reveals that Metamorphis was another product of ancient Gandaharian science experiments, a giant, indestructible brain with super-powers, which they pitched into the ocean. Sylvain is only about 90% convinced Metamorphis is evil, so he takes another flying manta ray to see him again, this time armed with a bio-weapon which may or may not kill it. He accuses Metamorphis, who now reveals that the Metal Men are time-travelers.

Metamorphis doesn’t want to rule the future-world the Metal Men come from, and wants Sylvain to kill him, but he “isn’t vulnerable yet,” because it “takes time to get ready to die”, and wants Sylvain to come back in a thousand years. The explanation, such as it is, is that Metamorphis has worked out — not clear how — that at some point in the future, he’s going to go senile and mastermind this whole invasion. He wants Sylvain to put him down, but just at the moment, he’s indestructible. He’s reckoned that in a thousand years, his regenerative abilities will have broken down (hence the senility), so he’s going to put Sylvain in suspended animation until then. Sylvain works most of this out later, but it’s pretty hard to follow.

This is probably the most ridiculous stunt involving the manipulation of time Christopher Plumber has ever been party to, and he was once in a movie where he delivered the line, “Imperial starship, halt the flow of time!” (Star Crash, 1978).

Things have gotten so serious that the Council of Women have put shirts on. Huckleberry tries to persuade them to give Sylvain more time, though I have no idea for what. The Deformed decide to join in the fight by somehow summoning lightning bolts, which make the metal men very slowly fall down. Jasper unleashes its army of giant crabs, which have some success, but are somehow even slower than the metal men and eventually yield to their ceaseless advance. In their final act of defiance, the crabs smash the pillars that hold the head onto the giant naked lady statue-castle so that a flock of birds can carry it away to safety.

A thousand years later, Sylvain wakes up and finds the Deformed, who’ve recently arrived from the past, but were discarded as unsuitable by the Metal Men, unlike the captured Gandaharians, who Metamorphis has been, I guess, pulping, as it needs replacement cells now that its Wolverine-like healing factor has burned out. Using stolen Metal Man gauntlets, the Deformed help Sylvain make his way to Metamorphis. They use their special powers to… Something. There’s a hard cut like something was removed, I don’t know what. By the way, using their special powers makes their eyes glow blue. Even the ones where their nipples should be.

Metamorphis has forgotten about his plan for assisted suicide, and repeatedly attempts to seize Sylvain in brain-tentacles, which keep exploding into brain-splooge. The Deformed do… Something. Outrun the fireball And it incapacitates Metamorphis’s brain-tentacles while Sylvain shoots it up with the brainacide Evil Santa had given him, leading to an “outrun the fireball exploding brain-splooge” sequence that I nearly described as “tense” before I realized I was watching it in 1.25x speed, and it’s really just as slow-moving as everything else. Metamorphis mumbles philosophically in its death-throes, so you can’t tell exactly how it feels about dying; at times, it seems relieved, at other times scared, and at others vengeful. Sylvain, the Deformed, and the Gandaharian survivors make it through the door of time just before it ceases to exist. The remaining metal men very slowly sink into the ground.

Sylvain returns to Jasper, where he has just enough time to whine about what’s the point of all this if his civilization is in ruins, when a bunch of birds show up, carrying the head of the castle with his people inside.

Jasper Returns

And then we fade to black and roll the credits. The ending of the book, from the return through the door of time to the end, is three pages, so this is only a bit more abrupt, perhaps, but it feels very anticlimactic. After setting up the romance between Huckleberry and Sylvain, we don’t even get to see their reunion. There’s a vague implication that the Deformed are going to be reintegrated into Gandaharian society, but nothing comes of it. The younger Metamorphis is still floating in the ocean somewhere, doomed to eventually go senile and try to take over the world, but no one brings that up (Is that the paradox? Was it the destruction of Gandahar that allowed Metamorphis to build the Metal Men, create an empire, and eventually go senile? Would have been nice to mention that or something). And having already seen the birds fly off with the castle-head, there’s really nothing shocking in the reveal when it comes back.

It feels like the movie just runs out of weird at the end, so Laloux loses interest. Because that’s what this movie comes down to. Even in the original French, Gandahar takes tremendous liberties with the plot of Les hommes-machines contre Gandahar. The plot is simplistic, even with the Time Travel angle — you could have young-Metamorphis and old-Metamorphis be clones or brothers or something and just leave the whole time travel angle out and it wouldn’t really impact the plot. The Deformed having once had prophetic powers isn’t developed and all it contributes to the plot is a catchphrase that only ever serves as a bit of foreshadowing. The idea of the non-scientific Gandaharians having these dark secrets in their past about unethical scientific experimentation could be fascinating, but nothing comes of it other than Omega Santa wryly observing that they’ve brought this whole mess on themselves. There’s no pay-off, no sense of Gandahar having to make up for the sins of their past or confronting their deep dark secrets. Or, you know, anyone reacting to the revelation that their society used to be into science and all, but gave it up after creating a race of freaky mutants and a giant floating brain. Airelle serves basically no purpose in the plot — she’s not a peril monkey for Sylvain to rescue, as you might expect from this genre, but neither does she contribute anything substantive. Just a topless woman for Sylvain to snuggle with while we take in the weird scenery. The explanation we’re given for Metamorphis’s plot is less than satisfying since it’s never more than conjecture Sylvain comes up with on the scantest of evidence. And why couldn’t he have woken up about a week earlier in the future and sorted out this whole mess before the siege of Jasper? And what about Scarecrow’s brain?

No, this movie isn’t about being about something. This movie is a sensory experience. You’re probably better off watching it in the original French with the subtitles turned off, unless you speak French. I hear the soundtrack to the French version is fantastic (The soundtrack to the English version is merely “okay”). The plot isn’t full of holes as such, just thin and unfinished. Cursory. The actual plot of Light Years feels about as obligatory as the fight scenes in Captain Power. It’s there because movies got to have plots. Even in France. The point of this movie is, rather, for us to look at all the weird stuff. Weird stuff, and also boobies.

In a big way, Yellow Submarine, which I keep coming back to, is the same (modulo boobies) — the plot is mostly just an excuse to hang a bunch of weird visuals on while Beatles songs play. But Light Years goes a lot farther in that direction. Things actually happen in Yellow Submarine. The characters do things which advance the plot. They get captured and have to be rescued. They have trouble controlling the submarine. They wake up strange beasts and have to evade them. They make new friends. And when they finally get to Pepperland, there’s a proper battle, with strategizing and everything.

Light Years doesn’t do that. Sylvain, for the most part, is not an active agent in his own story. He’s not even a reactive agent. He basically goes for a long walk and things happen around him, but, for the most part, not to him. Most of his plot consists of him meeting people, accusing them of being behind the attacks, then passively accepting it when they claim innocence. He’s captured by the Metal Men once, and rescued by a random act of Godzilla rather than his own actions. He discovers the physical nature of the Metal Men and learns about Metamorphis, but this doesn’t seem to actually affect how events play out in Jasper. He’s asleep for the siege of Jasper. The only time he actually takes any action that forwards the plot is when he offs Metamorphis at the end. Admittedly, he has more of a hand in the final outcome of the story than Indy does in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but not by much.

And yet, Gandahar is really just a pleasure to watch. Everything’s just so weird. It really is kind of like watching an hour-long Salvador Dali painting. From basically our first glimpse of Gandahar, continuously through the movie, it’s just a rapid succession of weird and uncanny images — Godzilla is quite possibly the least weird thing we find living in Gandahar. You’ve got suckling puppy-bugs, and tardigrade snail cattle, and giant crabs with faces that look kinda like Tintin, and attack-ladyparts-polyps, and those are the normal things that live in Gandahar, to say nothing of the Deformed or Metamorphis. This isn’t a movie you want to watch for its story, it’s a movie you watch for the experience of watching.

And also, y’know, the boobies. Seriously, lots of boobies in this movie. No idea what to make of that.

Boobies!

November 9, 2014

November 9, 2014: The Day I Officially Lost The Battle

Scene: DYLAN is in the kitchen, searching his Halloween Candy Bag. DADDY is in the family room.

DYLAN: I’m going to have a lollipop.

DADDY: Don’t open another lollipop. You already have two open lollipops.

DYLAN does not answer, but holds up an unwrapped lollipop

DADDY: Did you already unwrap the lollipop?

DYLAN: Yeah.

DADDY: Fine. But no more candy until after dinner.

DYLAN: Okay. No more candy.

DYLAN joins DADDY in the family room.

DYLAN: I knew you were going to come up and stop me so I unwrapped the lollipop.

DADDY: What?

DYLAN: (smug) You were going to come to the kitchen and say no so I took the wrapper off right away.

DADDY: Dylan! That was naughty.

DYLAN: Why?

DADDY: I do not even know how to answer that!

November 5, 2014

I’m starting with the man in the mirror (Captain Power: Gemini and Counting)

Happy New Year! It’s the tenth and/or eleventh of January, 1988. Since we went on hiatus back in November, George Michael has owned the top of the charts with “Faith”, except for the week of December 5, when Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” held the top spot, nudging George Michael down two spots. Michael Jackson, INXS, George Harrison, Whitesnake, Taylor Dane, and Jody Watley also chart. Whitney Houston has finally unseated George Michael as of this past Friday with “So Emotional”. A bunch of notable movies opened in December, including the Robin Williams hit Good Morning Vietnam, the iconic ’80s flick Wall Street, and The Hanoi Hilton, the biggest film role for he who must not be named, but since the first of the year, the only things on the new release list I’ve even heard of are Eighteen Again and Light Years(nee Gandahar, after the novel on which it was based, Les hommes-machines contre Gandahar) , a French animated film with an English translation by Isaac Asimov, which I found utterly incomprehensible as a child, but whose weird tagline (“In thousand years, Gandahar was destroyed; a thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved.”) stuck with me all the same. Margaret Thatcher is now the longest-serving British Prime Minister since Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury and William Gladstone took turns serving about thirteen years apiece of the 34 years from 1868 to 1902 (Yes, I know it doesn’t add up. Benjamin Disraeli and Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery took turns in there too, the history of British Politics being an elaborate trap set up to cost valuable points on the AP European History Test). But not all long-serving leaders are as bad as Thatcher: for example, Robert Mugabe just became president of Zimbabwe. The Soviet Union has announced that they’ll be participating in the upcoming Seoul Olympics — a big deal since the US and the USSR took turns boycotting the last two out of spite. In the upcoming week, SCOTUS will rule that school boards can censor school newspapers, Sportscaster and Bookie Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder will make some racist comments about black athletes, and because it’s 1988 and not 2012, he’ll get fired for this but will not become a poster boy for how the “liberal media” has “gone mad” over “political correctness”. Sony concedes the First Great Home Video Format War and starts making VHS recorders. Employees and employers are stunned when health insurance rates go up 10-70%, but I’m sure that will be the wake-up call we need to get health care costs under control. The Justice Department announces that it’s going to start going after pornographers with racketeering charges, which surely will make it much harder for people to access images of people having sex over the next decade. It is very snowy.

Not much worth commenting on in the rest of the TV universe, though the second half of Flight of the Navigator was the Sunday movie on ABC. Star Trek the Next Generation is back with “The Big Goodbye”, which I think is one of the season’s highlights. It’s a Holodeck Malfunction episode, with Picard, Data, Crusher, and Lieutenant Bucky getting stuck in a pastiche film noir. Guess which one gets shot! The science is rather worse in this one than in the later Holodeck Malfunction episodes, but on the other hand, in 1988, there had never been a Holodeck Malfunction episode before, so this was all very fresh and exciting, rather than being very hackneyed and cliche. It is also, as part of its B-plot, the first instance of the Diplomatic Meeting Where Protocol Requires You To Perfectly Recite Some Long Speech in An Alien Language Your Tongue Isn’t Designed For On Threat of Death if You Mispronounce Anything, which would later turn up in Futurama and Star Trek Enterprise, but here it’s still very fresh and new, and there is really nothing too bad about this episode other than the fact that they shoehorn in another “Wesley Crusher Saves the Day” bit. At the time, it was criticized for being too similar to TOS’s “A Piece of the Action”, on account of it containing people in fedoras and the critics having stopped paying attention after they saw the people in fedoras, because other than that, the two have balls-all to do with each other.

Elsewhere, “Gemini and Counting”. Twelve episodes in, and we’re finally going to get a character focus episode for Pilot. It’s another episode where the plot is kind of secondary to what the episode is really doing, which is one big character scene in the middle. In fact, the plot is almost depressingly simple: there’s a flu bug going around in the passages, they don’t have the ingredients to cook up the vaccine, so Pilot breaks into a Dread Youth-staffed pharmaceutical lab and steals some. If this were MacGyver, the episode would feature a series of problem-solving scenes where Mac uses his ingenuity to get past locked doors and evade guards. If it were Doctor Who, there’d be a series of the Doctor getting captured then escaping at least six times. But this show is half an hour long, so we don’t have time for that: Pilot breaks in, finds what she needs, and leaves. There’s no twist or complication that ever seriously jeopardizes her mission, or any serious danger that she’s going to be caught or killed. Yet.

The PassagesWhich is not to say that this episode is conflict or tension-free: it’s just that all that is, essentially, an aside to the overall plot of the episode. We open in the passages, the heretofore unseen, nebulously defined place where Cap occasionally sends refugees who don’t meet some arbitrary definition of already having a suitable hovel in which to cower. The establishing shot is nice, but sadly, we don’t have time to really get any sense of what life is like down there, or where “there” is, except that I’m pretty sure it’s a redress of the Tech City set from last episode. The PassagesIt’s got that same kind of underground-strip-mall thing going on. Cap and company are warned that there’s a serious chance of an epidemic if they can’t get the supplies they need to manufacture large amounts of flu vaccine, and presumably George Bush and John Kerry start posturing about which of them is manly enough to forgo vaccination (Yes that was a thing. Not even making it up. There was a big thing in aught four where rather than compelling drug companies to take a loss on stepping up vaccine manufacture, the political propaganda machines of the US tried to turn skipping vaccinations into a machismo thing, implying that a healthy man who got vaccinated was just being a pussy. It was like a weird reversal of those WWII-era propaganda ads telling women that smoking was unwomanly and asking them to save our country’s strategic cigarette reserve for “those for whom God intended them: our fighting men overseas”. Yes. Really. God wants soldiers, not women, to smoke.).  Fortunately, Pilot remembers from her Dread Youth days that there’s a pharmaceutical factory, which I assume is in sector 3 (Sector 3: where everything in the fucking world is) staffed entirely by The Littlest Nazis as part of the Dread Youth’s Summer Internship Program, and she’s fairly sure they could shoot their way in and steal what they need because a bunch of kids playing Nazis would be like lambs to the slaughter before Captain Power’s fighting force sneak in unnoticed and steal what they need, and Pilot, with her inside knowledge, volunteers to go under cover.

Pilot in Dread Youth uniformI’ll point out that, according to the series bible, Pilot was ten when Cap liberated her from the clutches of the Dread Youth, and she’s presumably in her early twenties now, so we’re talking about some decade-old knowledge. Even Cap questions her on this, but Pilot just kind of waves it off. She also insists that she has to go in unarmed, as she couldn’t possibly hide her spandex leotard under a Dread Youth uniform, even though the thing covers so much skin that even a Victorian would probably suggest they’re a bit repressed. Fortunately, her old Dread Youth uniform still fit, and we get some great physical acting from Jessica Steen as she emotes half a dozen flavors of discomfort, shame and anger while she adjusts it.

There’s an obligatory action scene as the rest of the team dispatches a patrol outside to stop them noticing the Jumpship, because we’ve forgotten that it has a chameleon circuit, then sneaks inside. She dispatches the first guard she meets, apparently using the Vulcan neck pinch, but is forced to shoot the second one in the leg. Laurie Holden I’m not sure, and can’t find any credits to back it up, but I think this second soldier, Erin, is the same one the camera stops on for an otherwise inexplicable close-up during the Dread Youth Graduation scene back in “The Ferryman”. Of course, since that was graduation, she really shouldn’t be Dread Youth any more but an “Overunit”.

That’s Laurie Holden from The Walking Dead by the way.  Her performance here is nothing special, but she does a really good job of playing the character she’s clearly written to be: a younger version of Pilot. She’s unsure, but masks it with indignance and bravado, accusing Captain Power’s gang of being barbarians. Jennifer restrains and gags her, but promises to return. Inside a hastily redressed set recycled from every other time they’ve needed a “clean-style future” set, Pilot cold-cocks a technician, and swaps her Dread Youth uniform for a technician’s, because this somehow will be more discrete. She politely declines to take his key card as well, instead relying on her sonic dildoPilot with her lockpick tool to unlock the door to the lab. There’s a few nice touches here, though. Namely, a Lord Dread propaganda poster that looks suspiciously like the Nick Gaetano Ayn Rand covers. Dread PosterThose date from about five years after Power, so it’s probably just coincidence with a splash of “they’re both intentionally trying to conjure up a 1930s deco sort of feel,” I mean, and yes of course I am being deliberate when I make this comparison, it’s also kinda reminiscent of this poster for The Triumph of the Will.

Pilot grabs what she needs and sneaks out. This feels like maybe a bit of a cheat, since she grabs a little satchel of bottlesDread medicine which is roughly the same size as the little satchel of bottlesPower medicine that hadn’t been enough back in the first scene. But maybe this is concentrated or something. It’s a minor complaint. She also snags a first aid kit so she can clean up Erin’s leg. They have a little heart-to-heart where they take turns reciting the Dread Youth oath:

Pilot and ErinThe world is imperfect
We will make it perfect.
Mechanized, immortal, human minds
In undying metaloid bodies
We are the body electric,
Dread’s eyes
We are his fist.
With our blood and our trust,
He shall mold the new tomorrow

She explains a bit about being human and having feelings and all that jazz, though there’s not much meat to it; her argument basically boils down to, “Hey, did you know that the side you are on is actually evil? Why not try good for a change?” It’s not clear to me whether this argument is working for her, and anyway, someone finally notices that missing patrol from earlier. Dread is, as always, personally notified, and dispatches Soaron, because, again, Lord Dread does not believe in middle management.

Power JetAs Pilot makes her escape, Cap has to fire up the Power Jet, which surprises the heck out of me because I coulda sworn that the Power Jet only appears in “The Ferryman” and “A Summoning of Thunder”. After how Hawk-heavy the first quarter of the season was, it seems like he’s really vanished into the background for this part. I think he only has one line in the whole episode, and it’s to tell Pilot, “You took a big risk.”

Pilot shoots her way past some mechs, but Erin briefly channels the powers of a slasher movie villain and manages to be just behind her despite having a severe limp and possibly still having been tied up. She insists unconvincingly that she’s still loyal to Dread, but since she’s reluctant to actually shoot, they basically just stare at each other until Tank shows up on a hoverbike. Tank’s apparently read the script, because even though Pilot cautions him not to shoot, it’s not like he raises his weapon, or really even acknowledges Erin’s presence at all. Pilot invites her to come with, but politely offers the alternate suggestions of shooting her to become a hero among the Dread Youth, or just going home and pretending none of this ever happened. Erin chooses option C and allows Pilot and Tank to withdraw unmolested. Later, Pilot speculates that she’s “cracked her armor” and hints that she may have planted a seed that might lead to Erin someday making a heel-face turn. Presumably these seeds of disloyalty lead to her being caught and digitized by her comrades, because we never see Erin again.

The stardate on this episode places it just about a week after “Flame Street” — based on the best guess I can make about how stardates work, “Final Stand” and “The Mirror in Darkness” both took place in July, while “Flame Street”, “Gemini and Counting”, and next week’s “And Madness Shall Reign” are in August, as is “Freedom One”, though that one, like “A Summoning of Thunder”, which should have fallen immediately after “The Intruder”, were aired out of order.

Which makes this one kind of an oddball. It feels very much like the episodes from earlier in the season. The plot of course is very similar to “Final Stand”, down to the contrivance of the hero not being able to wear their power suit, and it’s got the same kind of structural problems that plagued all the episodes up through “The Ferryman”: everything feels forced and obligatory. Obligatory mech battle at the five-minute mark, obligatory Soaron aerial battle at the fifteen. No real obstacles for the heroes to overcome, and in fact, the actual plot is entirely secondary and superfluous to what this episode is about. Dread himself is barely in the episode either, and frankly I think it would have been better to leave him out altogether. His appearance seems quite literally down to, “His contract says he has to be in every episode,” and really adds nothing. The best thing I can say about it is that our heroes actually accomplish something in the main plot of the episode, unlike so many of the early-season episodes where the presence of the Power team is more or less irrelevant. Also, Blastarr and Lakki are conspicuous by their absence — this is the first time we’ve had a Blastarr-free episode since he was introduced. There’s also absolutely nothing to do with Project New Order in this one, after it’s dominated the narrative for weeks. And we’re only a couple of weeks away from Pilot’s other character focus episode, “Judgment”. It seems strange to put two so close together — of course, that one’s another “out of order” one, with a stardate in November.

Regardless of what order you put them in, though, this is our third “evil counterpart” episode, after pairing Tank with Kasko in “Final Stand” and Cap with Jason in “The Mirror in Darkness”. Now that I think of it, I really wish “The Abyss” had done something to parallel Hawk as the “good” soldier against General McCrazy as the “bad” soldier, because we’d have some really nice symmetry going then. And it does work a lot better here than it did in the other two: Kasko’s too much of a cartoon and Tank’s too much of a cypher; Cap seems to go bizarrely mental and Jason’s too thin of a character. But with Erin set up so straightforwardly as being “Basically just like Pilot was in the past,” we’re basically getting a backstory-flashback for Pilot without actually having to sideline Jessica Steen in favor of a child actor for a whole episode (Which is, of course, what they’re going to do with Cap in a couple of weeks). The best part of this is that by translating what was a backstory about Cap and Young-Jennifer into story between Pilot and Erin, we completely bracket the (very slowly) building arc about Pilot carrying a torch for Cap: whatever Pilot is meant to be doing to “crack” Erin’s “armor,” it’s not based around happy pantsfeels. All the same, this episode doesn’t really have the solid footing around its emotional center that the better episodes have had. It’s hard to swallow that Dread Youth indoctrination is so flimsy that “One of those rebel scum I’ve been taught to hate and view as mindless barbarians bandaged my leg after she shot me,” is enough to give Erin an existential crisis. It’s good, great even, that Erin ends this episode still asserting her loyalty to Dread — that Pilot only accomplished as much as to plant the first seeds of doubt rather than prompting her to full-on reject her Dread Youth upbringing — but I still feel that their interaction never gets around to actually conveying this alleged armor-breaking. And for that matter, Pilot’s sense of Erin as being like a younger version of herself is kind of weaksauce too. It seems to amount to no more than, “She’s a blonde girl who is loyal to Dread because that’s all she knows,” which, yeah, is entirely valid, but how is Erin any different from anyone else in the Dread Youth? She wordlessly dispatches another soldier just seconds before meeting Erin and never gives him a second though. Why does Erin merit this chance at redemption and not Nameless Dread Soldier #456? There’s no answer other than “Because the plot says so,” and it seems kind of venial and capricious for it. Pilot puts her life on the line to help Erin rather than cold-cocking her and being done with it her basically because she’s a pretty blonde girl. Pilot’s calling her, “my young twin,” but all I keep thinking is, “You let one of them go, but that’s nothing new. Every now and then, a little victim’s spared because she smiled, because he’s got freckles, because they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while, on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction, you happen to be kind.” I don’t mean to accuse Pilot of being like Blon Fel Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, but Pilot doesn’t have so much as a second thought about knocking out anyone else she happens upon and just leaving them tied up in closets, so the fact that the one she stops to have a heart-to-heart with just happens to look a bit like her is… suspect.

Nothing I’ve read about season 2 suggests that there were any plans to bring Erin back in the future, which is a shame. Much like “The Intruder”, “Gemini and Counting” feels like a story that would have been better as the first chapter in an ongoing narrative than as a stand-alone piece never to be revisited. Grooming Erin to be Pilot’s replacement would be too obvious, but I think she’d be a great foil to have the characters encounter repeatedly over time — we could see her react differently to each member of the team, building up to a fateful meeting with the Captain himself. And having a sympathetic enemy character would do a lot to make the conflict of the show more interesting, and give us some more variety to how the villain side of the story is told. What might have been.

Next week’s episode will bring us back to the “Project New Order” story arc, but I’m thinking that before we do that, there’s one more little diversion I want to go on. See you then.

October 30, 2014

Deep Ice: Darker Days are Drawing Near (Howard Koch’s War of the Worlds)

I’ll Explain Later…

Happy Halloween (eve). It is October 30, 1938. In the past month, Germany has annexed the Sudetenland. The ballet Billy the Kid opened in Chicago. The Yankees win their third consecutive World Series. The Munich Agreement was signed, assuring, as British Prime Minister Neville Chaimberlain announced, “Peace for our time.” Pygmalion opens in movie theaters, based on the George Bernard Shaw stageplay. The film’s screenplay will later be the basis of the musical My Fair Lady.  Christopher Lloyd has just been born. Buddy Ebsen has to give up his role in The Wizard of Oz a week into filming when he narrowly survives a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum powder in his Tin Man makeup. It is otherwise a quiet month for movies; most of the year’s big releases were back in August, though Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes opens in two days. In the past week, Chester Carlson has demonstrated the first xerographic copier — the Xerox machine to you and me. DuPont has officially dubbed their new synthetic polymer “nylon”. Jews with Polish citizenship have been evicted from Germany. The US has outlawed child factory labor and created the first official nationwide minimum wage.

Billboard Magazine exists, but it won’t start producing actual charts until 1940, so the most specific I can tell you is that the most popular songs at the moment are probably “Begin the Beguine” by Artie Shaw and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” by the Andrews Sisters. Or maybe the Sammy Kaye version of “Rosalie”, which I think debuted this week. Presumably, swing is really popular since everybody who’s anybody is denouncing it, including, and I swear I am not making this up, an article dated November 2, titled “Swing Viewed as ‘Musical Hitlerism'; Professor Sees Fans Ripe for Dictator.” Yes. In 1938, literally a week before Kristallnacht, stodgy old people were already comparing things they didn’t like to Hitler. The Nazis go ahead and ban swing by the end of the month anyway, just in case.

In the coming week or so, Seabiscuit will outrun War Admiral at Pimlico, Crystal Bird Faucet will become the representative for the 18th district of Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, the first African American Woman to serve as a state legislator. Perl Buck will win the Nobel Prize in literature. LSD will be synthesized for the first time. Freak weather conditions will cause TVs in New York to briefly receive BBC broadcasts. This is novel enough that someone is going to film it, making it the only known surviving footage of pre-war BBC television. Also Kristallnacht is going to happen, because, y’know, Nazis.

Phantom BBC broadcasts aside, television does not really exist per se in any form we’d recognize it, but its specter is already haunting us: last week, the BBC televised its first hockey match, and in New York, John Warde became the second person — the second person in 1938 and also the second person in the history of ever — to have his suicide televised, though lighting conditions, poor reception, and the fact that it was 1938 and Television hadn’t finished being invented yet keep more than a handful of people from seeing it. CRTs are being produced in the tens of thousands despite the fact that there won’t be any proper commercial TV for another year or two in the US. In the US right now, radio is still where it’s at, and will be for a few more years yet. This month marks the premier of The Wonder Show, featuring Lucille Ball. Jack Benny does a send-up of one of those big August movies, Algiers on his show (Algiers, by the way, is the reason that the 1942 film Casablanca didn’t use its maiden name, Everybody Comes to Rick’s). Madeline Carroll guest stars on the Bergen and McCarthy segment of The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Doctor Christian‘s October episodes are “Baby on Doorstep” and “Boy loves Girl”, adapted, in accordance with the gimmick of the show, from listener submissions. Jungle Jim has been facing off against “Karnak the Killer” since the beginning of August in a serial that ends next week.

But look, the fact that you’ve stuck with me this long suggests that you’ve got at least a little background in geek-relevant media, so you probably already know what the deal is with radio and October 30, 1938. A young auteur named Orson Welles was still early in his career. Citizen Kane is still three years away. The Third Man is a decade away. The frozen pea commercial and Caesar’s Palace promotional video are thirty years away. Transformers The Movie is almost half a century away. Right now, he’s seventeen episodes in on a series of radio plays CBS commissioned him to direct, performed by Welles and the members of the Mercury Theater. In December, it would be picked up for sponsorship by Campbell’s Soup and would run as The Campbell Playhouse until Welles tired of having to deal with network censorship and decided not to renew his contract in 1940. But here, in October 1938, The Mercury Theater On The Air does the one and only thing you are liable to remember it for if you aren’t an Old Time Radio fan.

No one would have believed, said a different guy named “Wells”, that in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. But apparently people forty years on were more credulous, because when The Mercury Theater on the Air performed the radioplay “Invaders from Mars”, so the story goes, it brought on mass hysteria. Panic in the streets. A man in Washington falls dead from a heart attack as he imagines black smoke and heat rays drawing near. Radio stations across the country besieged by angry mobs demanding answers. Future Tonight Show host Jack Paar shouted down by callers as he attempts to reassure listeners. The FCC threatened to require all broadcasts be pre-approved from now on. Dogs and cats living together.

Or not. Practically everyone who actually researches these things nowadays has conceded that, yes, some people panicked, but no, it wasn’t rioting in the streets or anything. It may be impossible to believe in this day and age of modern journalistic integrity, but it’s just possible that the news media of 1938 may have embellished the extent of the panic. I know, unpossible, right? To actually get as far as a panic over The Mercury Theater on the Air‘s “War of the Worlds”, you’d have to be paying close enough attention to know you should panic, but not enough that you pick up on things like the fact that about five minutes into a broadcast that started at 8 PM, they announce the arrival of the first Martian cylinder at a quarter past nine. Or that Orson Welles’s character walks from Princeton to Times Square in the last third of the broadcast.

Well yeah, you might well say, but isn’t that how panic works? You hear a little bit and your critical reasoning turns off and you run off half-cocked? Besides, it was the thirties and people were really naive back then and assumed that anything you heard on the radio must be true!

Which makes a good narrative, but does it track with your experience of life? Yes, of course things were different in the 1930s, but you know and I know exactly what happens when you see something huge and unexpected and horrible and unprecedented appear on the news one morning. You don’t take to the streets in panic. You do literally nothing else for hours other than watch with rapt attention, silently demanding the world start making sense again. And as to the claim that people in the past would have assumed anything the heard on the radio was true, it was 1938. It’s not like fiction hadn’t been invented yet. I mean, the most popular show of this era starred a ventriloquist’s dummy. I don’t think anyone listening at home thought Charlie McCarthy was actually able to speak all on his own (I have no idea what particular appeal a ventriloquist act would have on the radio over any other kind of entertainment, but there you have it). And before you qualify it by saying that War of the Worlds was framed as a news broadcast — this wasn’t the first time that had happened either. In fact, Orson Welles himself had starred alongside future Bat-Villain Burgess Meredith in The Fall of the City the previous year. Like War of the Worlds, it was framed as a news broadcast, and like War of the Worlds, it told of a civilization quickly being taken over by a mysterious invading force, the major difference being that The Fall of the City is an experimental piece, its dialogue in blank verse, and kind of surreal (The approaching conqueror turns out to be a manifestation of the people’s desire to be subjugated). The actual documented evidence suggests that the reaction of the public consisted mostly of high call-volumes at radio stations and newspapers. That suggests concern, sure, but not panic. Calling the news media and asking them what’s going on is a very rational response to hearing something bizarre and alarming — if it’d happened today, I imagine the reports would be that “#Martians” was trending on Twitter.

Besides, The Mercury Theater on the Air was a minor little cultural-interest program on CBS. At eight O’clock on a Sunday, most everyone was listening to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy over on the NBC Red Network. Though astute listeners probably find it suspicious that the point in War of the Worlds where the Martians first appear occurs at almost exactly the moment that The Chase and Sandborn Hour took its first commercial break.

On the other hand, there are antecedents. In 1926, Father Ronald Knox did a satirical report of the outbreak of a communist revolution in England as part of his weekly BBC Radio show. The panic was slower-burning though; a big part of what spooked the public was that snowy weather prevented newspaper deliveries the next day, prompting fears that The Times had fallen in battle. The following year, Australian listeners were spooked when Station 5CL opened a season of Thursday night “stunts” one July night with a radio play in the style of a news report about an invasion by an unspecified foreign power. In a kind of beautifully 1920s Austrialian sort of way, the news reports kind of backhandedly impugned the manliness of anyone who fell for it. 5CL continued its stunts that winter (Austrialia, remember? Winter’s in the middle of the year), including, ironically enough, a purported live report of an expedition to Mars, actually launching a small rocket from their station to help sell the illusion to nearby listeners who happened to be looking skyward.

But look, even if there wasn’t actual rioting in the street, some people did get scared, and it behooves us to look into that a bit. The first thing to remember is that radio doesn’t work by the same rules as television. Although the narrative style of TV grew very directly out of radio, at a very fundamental level, they work in almost completely opposite ways. In fact, while I was researching this article, I found an excerpt from a 1940s book on writing for radio which outright says that the techniques of radio writing are utterly inapplicable to TV. But what do I mean when I say that TV and Radio work in opposite ways? The most obvious thing is the lack of visuals, of course. Vision is incredibly central to the human experience. A huge amount of our brains are devoted to processing images. Even people who can’t see are constantly surrounded by a world that demands they interpret — or “view”  — it in visual terms. It infiltrates our language (You see it all the time): to miss a key detail is to overlook it. A general sense of a situation is an overview, and to get one, you take a look at the big picture. To be caught unaware is to be blindsided, which you can avoid if you look out. When you part company with someone, you promise to see you later. You investigate something by looking into it, and when you finally figure out what it’s all about, you might well exclaim, “Oh! I see!” And then you can process that information and use it to draw a conclusion. Heck, I started this paragraph by inviting you to look, and I’m going to end it with another visual allusion. See?

This seems counterintuitive to our purpose, though, doesn’t it? I mean: seeing is believing, right? So why should a radio play be so convincing? The most cliche answer is that, robbed of what is for most of us the chiefest amongst the senses, our desperate brain starts inventing some extra reality all on its own to make up the difference. Which is true, I suppose, but it doesn’t, irm, paint the whole picture. There’s another element of how radio differs from TV that I think is key here, and it’s not one we talk about a lot.

I’ve got one of those surround-sound setup dealies at home. Five small speakers, strategically arranged around the room. This is bizarrely cumbersome: if you don’t have everything adjusted just right, the sound is weird and tinny and sounds like it’s coming from the wrong place. In principle, of course, when you’ve got it all set up properly, you can do neat things with all that 5.1 digital nonsense. But ultimately, this is a very small part of the TV-watching experience, because no matter how you spacialize it, what you really want is for almost all of the sound to seem like it’s coming from the forty-inch rectangle at the front of the room.

Television, especially in the old days before we all got comfortable and complacent about it, is often touted for its ability to bring anything in the world right there into your living room. But that’s not quite true, is it? What television does is not to bring the world into the room, but to shrink it down and put it right outside your room. What we experience on TV is the world as viewed through a window. In the 1930s, a very small window. High definition and big screens and curved screens and 3-D glasses all purport to make the images we see as though they are “really there”, but other than when I’ve stuck my smartphone into a Google Cardboard rig, all those advances haven’t changed the fact that I never have to do more than turn my head about 45 degrees to escape the illusion.

Of all the senses, vision is uniquely spacial: to see something places it in the world in a way none of the other senses do. Vision is the one sense that directly links us to other things out away in the world. Touch and taste require that the thing we wish to sense comes to us, or we go to it. Smell can give us a notion of proximity, but only sometimes, it quickly dulls as it gets bored with each stimulus, and it often lies — the acrid chemical smell of a burnt-out bluetooth transmitter issues more strongly from the second floor vent registers than from the transmitter itself. And sound is very strange: it’s spacial, but only in one dimension. While our binocular vision generates a model of a three dimensional space by stitching together a pair of two-dimensional images, our ears pick up frequency and volume from two directions, and the most you can get out of that is roughly how far to the left or right something is. You can’t tell by sound alone whether something is in front of you, behind you, above, or below without moving your head (Your eyes cheat a little bit, because they also vibrate slightly, allowing them to pick up more information from tiny little perspective shifts. Weirdly, a recent study suggested that the extent to which your brain relies on that extra information is inversely proportional to testosterone levels. Since things like 3D glasses can’t yet accurately model this effect, one strange result is that 3D graphics are more convincing to men than to women, and that difference applies to cis and trans people alike). And even then, sound isn’t directional the way vision is. I can look away from something I don’t want to see. I can’t listen away from something.

I’m getting ahead of myself, but we can stop a moment and reflect that radio has at least the potential to be quite scary just because you can’t close your ears if you get too scared. The actual point I was trying to get to is this: Television shrinks the world down and puts it in a box for you. It lets you see amazing things from all over the world, but it maintains a strict subject/object separation: no matter how fantastic the world is on the screen, it has to stay in that box(And how effective is it when you have something like Ringu, or Poltergeist or the “It’s a Good Life” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, where things can cross the TV boundary to get you? Or for that matter, the Doctor talking to Sally Sparrow via DVD). Radio is almost the exact diametric opposite. Radio comes out of the box. The box is the least interesting thing about radio (Still pretty cool though, if you’ve ever poked around inside an old tube radio). What you see on TV is by definition not in the room with you. What you hear on the radio is. The sounds come out into your space, invade it. Heck, those sounds do not even exist as sound until they leave the radio. Inside they radio, they’re just a pattern of electromagnetism, a vibrating membrane. They’re only turned into sound when the speaker beats on the air outside. Sound surrounds you.

Since this is the first time we’ve talked about adaptations of War of the Worlds, maybe a quick precis is in order. Most everyone knows the general outline of the story, but considerably fewer have actually read it, not least of all because HG Wells’s writing style is pretty dry and impersonal. He’s one of those golden-age Science Fiction writers for whom big ideas are more important than storytelling, and I think that makes his works better in adaptation than in the original (Though there is a touching chapter at the end detailing the protagonist’s search for and ultimate reunion with his wife that for some reason hardly ever makes it into adaptations).

Most people are familiar with 1953 George Pal film, or the 2005 Spielberg film. They, like most adaptations, keep most of the major plot beats, but contort them a lot to give the story stronger characters and pacing. There are basically seven major scenes in the story: the first Martian ship lands and is initially mistaken for a meteorite; the Martians emerge, erect a war machine, and slaughter the first responders; the military responds and is routed by “heat ray” weapons; a suicide attack by Earth’s most formidable weapons of war destroys one war machine; the martians release poisonous black smoke, pretty much terminating the military response; the protagonist holes up in a farmhouse, where he gets a good look at the Martian modus operandi, usually by watching another survivor get eaten during a panic attack; the protagonist meets an artilleryman with delusions about setting himself up as leader of a new society; the Martians all die suddenly from disease. Different adaptations give different emphasis to these parts or introduce a twist — the George Pal movie has the war machine survive unscathed in their equivalent of the Thunderchild scene; Spielberg has the Martian warcraft buried underground ahead of time rather than arriving from Mars with their operators — but they’re usually all there. The basic beats are even pretty much all there in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day; Randy Quaid basically plays the role of the Thunderchild, Area 51 takes the place of the farmhouse, and the invaders are ultimately brought down, after all of man’s devices had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom had put upon the Earth: Jeff Goldblum (I mean, yes, they used a computer virus, and that’s interesting (if nonsensical) in that it is such an obvious “clever twist” on the end of War of the Worlds that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t a deliberate homage, but my answer is funnier).

War of the Worlds begins with an opening narration that frames the story in the most awkward of tenses, the present-as-past-in-future-perfect: “In the thirty-ninth year (Of course, technically, 1938 is the Thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century, as 1900 is part of the nineteenth century. But clearly even in 1938 everyone knew that was pointlessly pedantic) of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up. On this particular evening, October 30, the Crosley service estimated that thirty-two million people were listening in on radios.” We catch the tail-end of a weather report before the announcer hands over to a musical program, which in turn is interrupted by an announcement that an eruption of blue flame on Mars has been sighted by an observatory.

After a bit more back and forth between the announcer and the soothing sounds of Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra, we get to meet the man who will eventually become the protagonist of the story, Professor Richard Pierson, an astronomer at Princeton. Howard Koch’s radioplay stays fairly close to the major beats of the original novel, even more than the many later adaptations, but here we get one of the earliest and most influential changes. Wells, of course, rarely bothered with proper names for his characters. The protagonist of the book is described as an essayist, but doesn’t have a name. He seems most closely analogous to Carl Phillips, the reporter who interviews Pierson. In the ’30s, the Intrepid Reporter Hero would have already been a familiar trope. Instead, this version of the story will follow Pierson in its second half. There’s an analogous character to him in the original, the “famous astronomer” Ogilvy, but he’s killed off-screen at the beginning of the invasion. I can’t help but wonder if Professor Pierson is named for Pearson’s, the magazine that originally published War of the Worlds in serial form back in 1897.

Pierson exposits a bit, echoing Ogilvy’s sentiment that the chances of anything coming from Mars are “A thousand to one.” (Admittedly, a thousand times more likely than Ogilvy’s estimate), until they’re interrupted by a telegram, asking Pierson to investigate a suspected meteorite impact in nearby Grover’s Mills. Though Pierson doesn’t plan to investigate until the next morning, Intrepid reporter Carl Philips is summoned to the scene, and presumably gives him a lift. We’ve now pulled out fully an hour ahead of real time in our story; our announcer tells us that the meteor struck at 8:50, and refers to events as late as 9:20. About thirty seconds have passed for the listening audience when Carl and Pierson arrive in Grover’s Mill ten minutes later. Carl kills time by interviewing a yokel. I can’t stress this enough: the first fifteen minutes of this radioplay are really dry. Deliberately dry. This is really the key to selling the whole thing, because that dry, matter-of-fact style is really what sells us on this being a legitimate news report, and whether or not it actually “fools” you, it’s still what makes it effective when the world stops making sense in a few more minutes when Chase and Sanborn goes to commercial.

There is one bit I really like here, though: while describing the crowd around the fallen cylinder, Carl Phillips reports, “One man wants to touch the thing. He’s having an argument with a policeman. The policeman wins.” It’s just a beautiful bit of understatement that very efficiently evokes the idea of what happens and also gives us a real sense of Carl Phillips as a reporter. Frank Readick performs the lines with this really hard-core “detached disinterest” tone that shouts, “We all knew exactly how this was going to end.” Gates McFadden was a bit more fun with it in a 1994 production, conveying a building excitement that she suddenly suppresses on, “The policeman wins,” in a way that you know means, “The policeman just punched that guy in the face, but this is the ’30s, so reporters don’t talk about police brutality.”

The detached disinterest continues even when the Martians actually show up a minute or so later. Listening to it now, with my upbringing on '80s media, it produces a feeling of whiplash and disbelief: the words and the delivery are at odd angles to each other. I don't really have the literacy in 1930s newscasting to say what it would have been like for the original audience. Readick prepared for the part by listening to Herbert Morrison's reports of the Hindenberg disaster (The "Oh the humanity!" bit), but I can't hear the influence personally. I actually think Gates McFadden comes closer to emulating Morrison's "I am suppressing my shock and alarm as best I can because I am a professional," though she cites not Morrison, but Lauren Bacall as the major influence for her performance. The only real hint that Carl Phillips cares about what's going on in Readick's performance comes at how he speeds up and slows down slightly, rushing over bits like the physical description of the Martians, which seems to disgust him, and slowing down as he tries to delay reporting his own inevitable death.
PHILLIPS: Now the whole field's caught fire. The woods, the barns, the gas tanks of automobiles. It's spreading everywhere. It's coming this way. About twenty yards to my right.
Where McFadden finally breaks down at the end in a panic, it's not fear but only sadness I pick up from Readick as he says his last words.

And then we go back to the studio, where an announcer who doesn’t seem to have been listening guesses that there might be a technical problem with their field unit, reads an announcement that the explosions on Mars are probably just volcanoes, then cuts over to a piano interlude. Dwight Schultz does this part in the 1994 production, and I really like that he adds a little “um” at the beginning, like he doesn’t quite believe what’s going on.

We’re treated to some announcements about military preparations, then we get an interview with Professor Pierson, who gives a weirdly technobabble-heavy speech about the heat ray. It’s probably the most Star Trek thing in this play, and I’m doubly impressed that when Leonard Nemoy played the role in ’94, he sounds nothing like Spock even as he’s reading lines that could easily have been written for him. One nice touch: his voice is heavily filtered for this bit to indicate that he’s talking to them via telephone from the farmhouse where he’s holed up.

The announcer receives confirmation of Carl Phillips’s death immediately after the interview, and finally lets the dispassionate newscaster facade drop. From here on, we’ll be listening to panicked people try to keep doing their jobs anyway. A captain in the state militia reports as the military mounts a counter-attack, only to be routed when the first tripod war machine emerges from the spacecraft. News starts coming faster as more tripods emerge across the country and refugees flee in terror. The big “action scene” of the radioplay happens when the station airs a “live” feed from the 22nd field artillery. The artillery is able to damage one tripod, but all they get for their efforts is a face-full of black smoke. Setting aside the framing device of the news broadcast for a while, we start cutting directly between military broadcasts: a bomber out of Bayonne reports in as his plane, along with seven others, is shot down by heat rays, then to air traffic control, who confirms the bomber’s demise but reveals that his suicide run had destroyed a single tripod. An operator in Newark cuts in to announce the city’s evacuation in the face of encroaching black smoke. The operators at stations 2X2L and 8X3R try to exchange information, but 8X3R falls ominously silent.

We return to the radio announcer one last time. Resigned to his fate, he reports on attempts to evacuate New York City. It's a tired, broken man who gives his final report: "They're running towards the East River. Thousands of them. Dropping in like rats. Now the smoke's spreading faster. It's reached Times Square. People trying to run away from it, but it's no use. They're falling like flies. Now the smoke's crossing Sixth Avenue... Fifth Avenue... one hundred yards away... It's fifty feet," and then we actually hear his body slump over as he too is overcome.
2X2L calling CQ... 2X2L calling CQ... New York? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone...
Which would be chilling enough on its own, but we return one last time to 2X2L.

One of the things my dad told me when I was younger and trying to understand the alleged panic was that back then — this was about a decade before my dad was born, but it’s about the right vintage for his siblings — radio was kind of hit-or-miss. I mentioned before how British TV got picked up in New York. Sometimes, when the weather did the right things or your tuner did the wrong things, or the vacuum tubes weren’t all screwed in tight, you’d sometimes pick up stray signals on your radio. It wouldn’t have been unbelievable in 1938 for a listener to imagine that, in the confusion of war, military or government broadcasts had drifted into the commercial frequencies.

I don’t know that such a thing would explain why, after they paused for station identification (and repeating that this was an original dramatization), the mode of the narrative shifts completely. The last act of The War of the Worlds is a traditional narrative, told in the first person and styled as the diary of Professor Pierson as he makes his way from a farmhouse in Grover’s Mill to Times Square. This first segment is a strange transition as the professor rambles philosophically: “My wife, my colleagues, my students, my books, my observatory, my–. my world… where are they? Did they ever exist? Am I Richard Pierson? What day is it? Do days exist without calendars? Does time pass when there are no human hands left to wind the clocks?” The farmhouse scene is greatly simplified here; there’s no equivalent character to the curate (A clergyman the protagonist holes up with and eventually kills or incapacitates when his bout of hysterics threaten to reveal their location), nor much detail about what the Martians have set themselves to doing now that humanity has fallen. There is no red weed in this version, and the most we learn of what use the Martians make of conquered humans is Pierson’s ominous warning that, “I have seen the Martians… Feed.”

He makes his way to Newark, where he's accosted by my favorite character, the artilleryman. The artilleryman really prefigures the doomsday prepper in a lot of ways. He's presumably a survivor of the 22nd Artillery, and he initially orders Pierson out of "his country", but the two stop and exchange information for a bit. The artilleryman's got a grandiose plan for the survival of the human race. He means to go to ground, excavating an underground empire where humanity can be preserved until they've built up their forces enough to wage a covert insurrection against the Martians.
STRANGER: I've got it all figured out. We'll live underground. I've been thinking about the sewers. Under New York are miles and miles of 'em. The main ones are big enough for anybody. Then there's cellars, vaults, underground storerooms, railway tunnels, subways. You begin to see, eh? And we'll get a bunch of strong men together. No weak ones; that rubbish, out.
Very romantic and all, but something sinister quickly peaks its head out underneath.

That’s the core of the character. He holds most of humanity in contempt, and what he sees in the destruction of civilization at the hands of the Martians is an opportunity — a chance to get rid of the great throng of mankind — the folks Ayn Rand would call “takers” or “parasites”. A modern internet libertarian might call them “sheeple”, and the artilleryman even likens them to cattle, suggesting that before long, the Martians will start herding the human survivors as livestock. Only “strong men” would survive in the new world order — and, of course, it goes without saying that he would be one one of those “strong men”.

We’re early in the history of this particular kind of dystopian fantasy, but this archetype is going to become so universal in this genre. The grizzled survivalist who despises the weakness of humanity and sees the zombie horde as purging the world of the unworthy: all those crass consumerist sheep he’s always despised are now zombies, so it’s FINALLY okay to do what he always secretly wanted to do and kill them. Or the protagonist in most Christian End Times stories, who maybe, yeah, acknowledges that the whole “seven years of plagues, four horsemen of the apocalypse, and a charismatic UN Secretary General with glowing eyes,” thing might well suck, but isn’t it just glorious that those sinners are finally going to get the hellfire and damnation they deserve? Or the local strong-man who’s given himself a title like “Governor” or “General” and set himself up as the fief of the local fortified town. Or scientist who wants to withhold the cure for the encroaching pandemic, because, really, the world could do with a few million fewer mouths to feed as long as we make sure the worthy all get inoculated.

My first metric for whether or not I’m going to enjoy a piece of dystopian literature is how it treats this archetype. A lot of times, they’re the hero. The one who Saw it Coming and is Strong Enough to Do What Must Be Done. Who aren’t blinded by silly notions like equality or helping other people.  I don’t usually like those versions of the story. Or if I do, I tend to like it subversively.

Welles passes the test, though. The artilleryman eventually muses on the possibility of his insurrectionists seizing control of a war machine.
STRANGER: Gee, imagine having one of them lovely things with its heat ray wide and free! We'd turn it on Martians! We'd turn it on men! We'd bring everybody down to their knees! You, and me, and a few more of us, we'd own the world!

And Pierson walks away. He’s not willing to live in the artilleryman’s world. Welles’s Pierson delivers his goodbye with understated contempt. Nemoy does it with tired disappointment.

Strangely, Welles handles this a lot better than Wells: in the original book, the artilleryman elaborates on his plans at greater length and is more forthright about it, “No singers or mashers,” he says, and “Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It’s a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race.” And the nameless protagonist is swayed, “dominated”, he says, by the “tone of assurance and courage he assumed.” Okay. That’s fair. I don’t object to the artilleryman archetype being persuasive. But what troubles me is how they part. The narrator spends a day working with the artilleryman, and comes to see, “the gulf between his dreams and his powers,” quickly growing to despise the would-be dictator for his laziness, even feeling like a “traitor” for playing cards and smoking a cigar when the artilleryman insists on a break from work. He quits the artilleryman’s company not because he disagrees with the idea of his plan, but because the artilleryman has revealed himself to be one of those “useless and cumbersome” sorts who “ought to die”.

My distaste for that rendering of the scene is compounded by the fact that the society the artilleryman proposes isn’t too far afield from the “Air Dictatorship” Wells proposes as a future world government in The Shape of Things to Come. His “Air Dictatorship” is a benevolent one — you can tell because when they decide to execute you, you can opt to take a painless poison pill rather than being shot — that isn’t per se the perfect system of governance, but which he sees as a necessary transitional phase to a proper utopia before the dictators are bloodlessly deposed and sent off to live in honorable retirement. (By a weird and wacky coincidence, Wells predicts his Air Dictatorship to rule from around 1980 to 2059, which is a reasonable estimate of the years in which I am liable to be alive.)

So yeah. Wells didn’t object to the artilleryman’s plan. He objected to the useless parasite fancying himself one of the chosen elite. It’s ironic in a way that Wells seems to have stumbled onto a  fundamental truth that undermines the Artilleryman’s Fantasy (as I like to call it) without noticing it: the very fact that one views the world in those terms, where the great bulk of mankind are parasites fit only for slaughter or slavery at the hands of the benevolent Randian Super-Men is in and of itself strong evidence against being fit for that hypothetical elite class.

But Richard Pierson passes the test even if H.G. Wells didn’t, and quickly moves on to New York City, where the story ends as we all knew it would, when he finds dormant tripods in Central Park, their pilots dead on the ground, being pecked apart by birds. “Later,” he explains, framing the narration as his final diary entry, made the following April, “When their bodies were examined in the laboratories, it was found that they were killed by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared. Slain, after all man’s defenses had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom put upon this Earth.” He strays back into the philosophical, musing on the question of whether humanity will now spread out into the universe, or be vanquished by some future invasion.

So were people fooled? Does this sound like a narrative that would fool people? I’m going to say, unhelpfully, both “no” and “yes”. The War of the Worlds panic is something of an urban legend. I don’t just mean that the stories of people panicking are false or exaggerated; The Mercury Theater on the Air‘s “War of the Worlds” has aspects of an urban legend inside itself. Almost any urban legend falls apart on a factual level when you examine it. Someone would notice if thousands of children each year were kidnapped for ritual sacrifice. She couldn’t possibly have written a poem about the car crash if she died in it. The UN can pass non-binding resolutions that do not have any real force of law, and can only do that much if none of the big powerful countries object; they can not exercise sovereignty over and against the will of the US government. As a publicly traded corporation, how Proctor and Gamble uses its profits are a matter of public record; if they were tithing to the church of Satan, it would be in their shareholders’ statement. And Ernie is permanently five years old; he is not in a sexual relationship with Bert.

It’s less than true and more than false to say that people believe these things. It’s closer to true to say that they choose to accept them as though they were true. One idea I’ve found myself returning to a lot is this: not all lies are intended to deceive. Some are intended as an invitation. That is how urban legends work. That is how political muckraking works. That is how professional wrestling works. That is how War of the Worlds worked. No one is “fooled” into believing that the UN is coming for your guns or the president of the United States was able to conceal the fact that he wasn’t eligible, or that Wrestlemania isn’t scripted, or that the Church of Satan is using your pharmaceutical money to fund child sacrifice. No, people are being invited to go live in a world where that’s true. But there has to be something in it for them. Usually, it’s the monsters. I mean, if I live in a world full of child-murdering satanists, then the fact that I am not a child-murdering satanist puts me ahead of the game — in fact, I’m downright heroic because I am bold enough to stand up and decry satanic child-murder. If I lived in a world free of such monsters, I might start worrying that the fact that I live more comfortably than 90% of the human race, thanks in no small part to my lifestyle being subsidized by sweatshop labor overseas makes me a bad person.

That’s awfully venial, but there’s less venial reasons to want there to be monsters. If Satanic Child-Murderers or Kitten-Burners or Sasquatch or Slenderman are real, and they’re out there, I can be vigilant about them. And if they’re not out there, but I choose to act as though they are anyway, then I can still be vigilant about them but there’s no actual risk to me. And being able to worry about Satanic Child-Murderers, Kitten Burners, Proctor and Gamble, and the President’s Birth Certificate — mysterious otherworldly forces I can’t do anything about and am never going to encounter anyway — means I don’t have time to worry about global warming and income inequality and the collapse of the power grid because SERIOUSLY BGE, this is getting to be a twice-a-month thing now — things I’m not sure I can do anything about but I am liable to encounter anyway.

So what was “in it” for the audience that they might choose to “be fooled” by War of the Worlds? Well, first and most simply, it’s Halloween. In a 1940 interview, Orson Welles called it, “The same kind of excitement we extract from a practical joke in which someone puts a sheet over their head and says “boo!” I don’t think that anybody believes that individual is a ghost, but we do scream and yell and rush down the hall. And that’s just about what happened.” People were looking to be scared; that’s the fun of it, it’s how Halloween works. But I think there’s something more than that — some specific reason that this play was so effective.

The past is haunted by the future. A constant litany of little specters of the future trying to happen until they finally do happen and thereby cease to be the future. Halloween’s a better time than most for these little specters to pop up, and that’s what happened here. What ghost haunted that 1938 broadcast? Orson Welles hinted at it right at the beginning:

It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up.

The war scare was over. It was October 30, 1938, and people were feeling optimistic, because a month ago, it sure did look like Europe was going to get itself into another world war, but now, the scare was over.

Ten days later, Kristallnacht happens, because Nazis.

The past is haunted by the future. We are less than one year from the formal beginning of World War II. We’re not out of the Great Depression yet. At this time and in this place, being scared of invaders from Mars is better than being scared by invaders from Nazi Germany. A faceless horde that sweeps in and there’s nothing we can do about it, where we are only be saved by divine intervention is preferable to this wretched indeterminate state where we actually could take action: intervene for the Nazis, intervene against the Nazis; keep the hell out of it. And we can all agree which side we’re on against the Martians: in 1938, you had a surprisingly even split among Americans over which side we should throw our lot in with should it come to war (Not even really, but sitting here in 2014, it is pretty shocking and pretty scandalous that the percentage of Americans who reckoned that if it came to blows, we should side with that short fellow with the Charlie Chaplain moustache was nonzero).

That Orson Welles quote above? The one about ghosts and Halloween? That’s from a little historical curiosity: an interview in San Antonio when a local radio host lucked into finding out that Orson Welles and H.G. Wells were in town at the same time. Wells, though disparaging the younger man for his superfluous second ‘E’, was magnanimous enough to plug the then-upcoming Citizen Kane, and they had this little exchange:

WELLS: You aren’t serious in America yet. You haven’t the war right under your chins, and the consequence is that you can still play with ideas of terror and conflict.

HOST: Do you think that’s good or bad?

WELLS: It’s the natural thing to do until you’re right up against it.

WELLES:  Until it ceases to be a game.

WELLS: When it ceases to be a game.

In 1938, we could still play with ideas of terror and conflict. We could make it a game. Let’s all pretend the Sunday night cultural program on the Columbia Service is real. Because in 1938, we really did know — perhaps not on a conscious level, but on some level — that there really were monsters out there poised to invade. It was easier to live with if they’d been actual Martians.

So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian; it’s Halloween.

(For further reading, check out the links below the fold…)

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October 27, 2014

Programming Note

So here’s the deal. I actually have a Captain Power post all queued up and ready to go. For reals.

But as it turns out, Halloween is happening this week. So I was thinking that instead of doing that post today, I’d like to do a special Halloween post instead. And since I’m doing a special Halloween post, I’m going to do it on Halloween October 30. For reasons.

And because this is pretty much the fastest I am capable of writing, I am going to move Article Day to Wednesday for a bit after that to give me a chance to build the buffer back up.  So check this space on November 5 for my analysis of “Gemini and Counting”, and stay tuned this Thursday for a special Halloween Treat.

See you then…