January 28, 2015

In case you missed it…

To accompany today’s article on The Great Martian War, I’ve put together this:

History Documentary Pitch Generator

A sample:

wotwii02In 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, and sunk, among the mistiest occurrences of recorded history. Or so it seemed. Now, 3D printing and a new-age religion challenge long-held assumptions, and may just rewrite the story of the Titanic forever.

http://trenchcoatsoft.com/cgi-bin/history.cgi?id=q24.5gcp111

Deep Ice: The war scare was over (“The Great Martian War 1913-1917″)

The Great Martian WarI’ll Explain Later…

It is June 26, 1913. Civil War veterans begin arriving in Gettysburg, PA for the Great Reunion marking the fiftieth anniversary of the battle. A few days ago, Tiny Broadwick made history as the first woman to parachute from a plane. Chauncey Olcott’s recording of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” tops the charts. In theaters are Charles Gyblyn’s The Battle of Gettysburg and Mack Sennett’s Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, which you’ve probably seen without realizing it because it’s the movie that invented the old-timey movie trope of a villain tying a woman to the railroad tracks. Buffalo, New York is recovering from a grain elevator explosion earlier in the week that killed seventeen men and injured fifty. Avalon, California is incorporated. The Washington Senators host the Philadelphia Athletics in a double-header.

Oh, and Earth is invaded by an advanced and hostile alien race from the planet Mars.

History Channel LogoSo, I’ll grant it’s entirely possible that I just imagined this, but I think that possibly when I was a younger man, The History Channel did not… suck. I mean, they had their share of crap shows and all, but mostly they were a respected institution. One of my professors in college got interviewed by them a fair number of times on the subject of Joan of Arc. By the time I was in grad school, they were well on their way to transitioning into being mostly about Hitler, lost treasures, historical reports of supernatural entities, and Hitler’s Leveraging of Supernatural Entities to Hide Treasures. And more and more recently, they’ve come under fire for using their once-trustworthy documentary filmmaking chops to put out works of fiction that pretend to be real documentaries about mermaids and suchlike. At least they still show stuff about the pyramids sometimes. I like the Egyptology stuff.

In 2013, the History Channel produced one of these faux-documentaries about World War I, sorta. They recast the Great War, getting rid of all that messy and inconvenient history with an adaptation of, you guessed it, The War of the Worlds. We’ve covered three “newscast”-style adaptations so far, so I thought we’d try out a “documentary”-style one. There is one more documentary-style adaptation, 2012’s War of the Worlds: The True Story, but that’s largely a reworking of an earlier traditional movie, and I’m not going to cover it because I’ve already watched the movie it’s reworked from, which was enough of a slog that I never want to do that again. So I guess this, provisionally at least, marks the end of our little trek through adaptations of HG Wells’s novel that are presented with the framing device of a real historical event being reported. Unless I can somehow find an angle to squeeze out an article about Henry Legg’s Twitter adaptation. Which I probably can’t.

So let’s do this thing. It’s a little strange to even call this an adaptation of War of the Worlds, really. I mean, is “Earth gets invaded by aliens, ostensibly from Mars” enough to make it count? There’s loads of movies where Earth gets invaded by aliens, even specifically Martians, but not all of them are considered “War of the Worlds”. The key factors seem to be that the Martians arrive in a meteor, sweep over the world without meaningful opposition, then are all struck dead by what amounts to divine intervention, because they have no natural immunity to the common cold (At least, it’s usually remembered as the common cold; the book says “putrefactive and disease bacteria”, and even this Wells qualifies as unproven hypothesis. Viruses had only just been discovered when Wells published). The war as presented in The Great Martian War 1913-1917 unfolds very differently from other adaptations. Sure, the broad strokes of the story are mostly there, but so much is changed. Most importantly, the war isn’t a complete curbstomp: humanity can and does fight back. It is still only through a bit of a deus ex machina that mankind is able to win in the end, but it’s not so much “Killed after all man’s defenses had failed,” as “This war would have gone on for years and probably ended in a slow defeat had this one big push right at the end not worked so perfectly.”

But it’s got tripods, so there’s that. We’ve talked about one adaptation using the height of 1930s radio technology, and one using 1960s radio technology and a cast of non-actors and a budget of “what we can find around the studio”, and one really cheap production that was kind of profoundly unconvincing. But if there’s one thing The History Channel is good at, it’s at convincingly pretending to document fake history, so at the least, this is going to be a lot more proficient on a technical level than what we’ve seen before.

Since this isn’t a traditional narrative,  I’m going to be a lot more light-handed on the play-by-play. While The Great Martian War doesn’t have a “story” per se, it does have an “angle”. That’s a clever choice, I think, and adds to the authentic feel. This isn’t “Ken Burns’s War of the Worlds”, a twelve-hour epic providing a semester’s worth of lecture on the history of the war. Just like a real History Channel documentary, this is very much “Hey, there’s been a recent discovery that makes this old topic timely again, so here’s seventy minutes of background to get you up to speed and then we’re going to deliver a bit of actually new information at the end,” just as you’d see in a real documentary: “We got permission to X-ray a mummy. Here’s seventy minutes about the Third Dynasty and then we’ll show you what we found.” The angle for them is a recent breakthrough in translating alien text. “2013 is the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great Martian War – a conflict unequaled in devastation and often mired in controversy. But the lost legacy of a forgotten hero, unearthed only last year might just ignite the biggest controversy of all.”Regardless of what you think of the History Channel’s sensationalist style (Hey, maybe they could make their motto “We put the History in Histrionic!”), this is just pitch-perfect. It’s practically Mad Libs: <current year> marks <length of time> since <historical event>, among the <superlative> <category of events> in human history. But now, new <research | discovery | witnesses | technology> might just have unearthed the most <unexpected | startling | terrifying> secrets of all, and changed the way we look at <event | all of human history | our place in the universe | Hitler> forever.”

Our narrative frame for this little adventure through faux-history is Gus Lafonde, a Canadian Anishinaabe soldier, who’d left detailed notebooks of his observations during the war, recently rediscovered by his great-granddaughter. The Great Martian War: Gus LafondeI think it’s a bit of a pleasant sign of the times we live in that they made the effort to do a little bit to correct the extent to which the indigenous peoples of the Americas are represented in things like 20th century history, especially in a context that implies that his work had been largely overlooked precisely because no one was expecting a major breakthrough to come from a First Nations enlisted soldier. That his discoveries are specifically linked to the translation of the alien language may be an homage to the Navajo Code Talkers, though it that’s true, it’s maybe just a bit uncomfortable that they’ve conflated the country, tribe, and which war it was. But still, props and all.

The “Martian War” will follow the broad outline of the Western Front of the European Theater of World War I, transposed one year backward in time (Presumably to keep everything at the right time of year while preempting the historical war). Lots of elements of the historical war are there — the US’s early isolationism and late entry, the von Schlieffen plan, the Battle of the Marne, chemical warfare, the introduction of tanks. Others are recast: Paul von Hindenburg is crucial in the defense of Paris; Douglas Haig is remembered as an inspirational leader and his troop losses as fully justified; the Lusitania is reimagined as an American liner, and the events precipitating America’s entry into the war draws more from Perl Harbor than the Zimmerman Telegram. Other things still are missing: there’s no references to an Eastern Front. Russia is completely absent. The Ottoman Empire is completely absent. There’s no campaign in Africa, and naval warfare is minimal.

In order for you to slot Martians into the story of World War I, of course, you need to clear out some space first. This is a little tricky; one of the reasons “Why did World War I happen?” is so hard to answer is that World War I was caused less by one specific thing happening, and more by the fact that the general trend of European History was for them all to go to war with each other every few decades, and it was just tough cookies that there’d been a technological revolution since the last one that made warfare possible on an industrial scale. Blackadder Goes Forth. Image from bbc.co.ukThe most accurate summation of why World War I happened I’ve ever heard comes from Edmund Blackadder: it was too much effort not to have a war.

Now, obviously, you can recast the story any way you like, but if you want to be able to draw from real history, both because it lets you show interesting parallels, and also because if you’re not sure what should happen next, you can just look up what happened next in real life, the simplest way to do it is to remove one of the historical players in the war and stick the Martians there instead. So that is what they did. Most adaptations move the invasion so that it occurs on the adaptor’s home turf: Orson Welles had the Martians invade New Jersey and work their way up to New York. Jeff Kaye put them in Buffalo. The 1953 Hollywood film put the aliens in California. Breaking News put them in Mojave. The Great Martian War needs to write the Central Powers out of the war to make room for the Martians, so it breaks with tradition: an American production with a very British focus places the one and only Martian landing site in the Bohemian Forest. Most adaptations have the Martians land all over the world; the only one off the top of my head that doesn’t is the WKBW version, where the invasion is centered on the east coast of North America (Interestingly, though, the novel doesn’t say one way or the other. The narrator speculates that the invaders might move outward from England — which they obviously made their first priority as it was the most important country in the world, the rest being full of foreigners — but he never becomes personally aware of invasions outside of England). Here, there’s just one mass landing, which generates a shockwave felt across Europe.

This being pseudohistory, I think parallels to the Tunguska Event are intentional, and it’s almost a little surprising that no one brings it up. The other obvious parallel is something which does get brought up, but never by name. Like I said, in 1913, World War I was already more-or-less inevitable. When an earth-shattering explosion occurred in the heart of the German Empire, everyone’s first assumption was that Kaiser Wilhelm had just test-fired some kind of new super-weapon. Everyone except the Germans, of course, who assume someone else just test-fired some kind of new super-weapon at them. “His Majesty the Emperor, in the name of God, the Fatherland, and the German people, begs the assistance of his brother nations. Germany is under attack by assailants not of this earth.” Six days after German troops enter the impact zone, however, the Kaiser sends word begging the other world powers to come to their aid against, “assailants not of this earth”. It takes less than a week for Germany to collapse, and the world is at war by the end of July.

The tripods, hallmark of any War of the Worlds adaptation, are called “Herons” in The Great Martian War, and they pay homage not only to the novel, but to the many adaptations done over the years. The Great Martian War: Heron TripodThe “heat ray” is described as a “slow-firing energy cannon”, and, like their 1953 counterparts, the Herons are protected by an “energy shield”. There’s a rare hint at how this world’s 2013 has diverged from our own: the shields are described as “The first introduction we had to the many uses of dark energy particles.” The Herons are a bit similar in design to Warwick Goble’s original illustrations for the serial run of The War of the Worlds (Which Wells himself personally disowned and criticized in a passage he added when the book was published in novel form). The “black smoke” is a function of the Herons too, a “toxic cloud” that surrounds the machines. The effectiveness of it is greatly scaled down here, though, making it much more similar to the chemical weapons that were introduced in the real-world Great War. Gas masks prove effective against it, though interviewee Jock Donnelly describes the sense of dreadful isolation that comes with that sort of fighting.

The Great Martian War: Jock Macleod as Jock DonnelyThis is another thing that The Great Martian War does well. The interview footage is really convincing. In fact, if you told me some of it was actual interviews with real World War I veterans — the bits where they’re just speaking about the horrors of war or conditions in the trenches without anything specific about aliens — I’d believe you. I’d be pissed that they’d misrepresented the real testimony of real people’s real suffering for this show, but I’d believe you. (It’s not. I checked. The interview footage is all done with actors). What sells it is the audiovisual texture. Remember, this is purporting to be a documentary made a century after the fact: hardly anyone who was alive in 1913 would be available for interview in 2013, and certainly no one who was old enough to have served in combat (The last known World War I veteran died in 2012), so this is all archive footage dated from the ’60s to the ’90s. The sound is flat. The video is grainy — and it’s grainy in different ways. Interviews dated to the early ’80s have film grain, and those from the ’90s have VHS artifacts. Some of it is in 4:3. Other parts are widescreen but have that slightly-wrong look of having been cropped and enlarged. The colors are either oversaturated or faded depending on the vintage. The only interview footage that looks really inauthentic is of an interview with author Nerys Vaughn in the 1960s, and even there, it looks quite a lot like the “reenacted” interviews they sometimes attach to this sort of documentary.

There are actually four kinds of Martian war machines in Wells’s original novel (Or three, if you don’t count the flying machine mentioned only in the original serial version). Hardly any adaptations ever follow up on this; it’s only the large tripod machines that get covered. The Great Martian War: Iron SpiderThe Great Martian War, though, wants a “whole” war story, so it takes the rare step of changing it up a bit. Like the original, there are four distinct types of Martian war machine, though they’re entirely distinct from those in the novel. The second type of machine introduced is the “Iron Spider”, a smaller form of tripod that acts as the Martian infantry. It’s a clever way to divvy things up: between the original and its many famous adaptations, there’s a whole assortment of traits associated with the Martian war machines that are kind of a clusterfrak when put together, so here, they divide up the popular tripod traits between the two different kinds of machine. The Spiders are smaller and far more agile than the Herons, whose size honestly makes them look kind of awkwardly matched against human infantry. The primary purpose of the Herons, it seems, is not to kill humans in large numbers directly, but rather to destroy cover and force soldiers out into the open, where the agile Spiders, roughly the size of a modern tank and twice as tall, could dispatch them with “ribbons of death”, highly articulated tentacles that are extremely accurate to the tentacle appendages Wells described on the fighting machines, prefiguring modern inventions like electroactive polymers and muscle-wire.

By August, the situation on the continent looks desperate — the Martians are expected to take Paris within weeks, when Paul von Hindenburg and the German Army turn up, revealing that they’d been hiding in the woods for a few months. In real history, Count von Hindenburg was a major German war hero on the Eastern Front, who went on to the German presidency, and is remembered as probably the last guy who could have stopped Hitler from rising to power except that he didn’t, and kinda sounds like the German version of Ulysses S. Grant. The fictionalized Hindenburg implemented the von Schlieffen Plan, which, near as I can figure, is basically “Slip into France the back way through Belgium,” bringing along the German army and every other surviving German he could round up. In the real world, it was a devastating strategy for defeating France, whose only flaw was that it didn’t actually work: Belgium took a certain objection to the German Army rolling through, which made everything harder, and on top of that, Russia didn’t take nearly as long to get its act together as they’d anticipated, so they had to divert troops to the other side of Germany to fight the other half of the war.

The Great Martian War: Louse Machine

Ironically, the failure of the von Schlieffen Plan in real life had pretty much the same effect as the success of it in The Great Martian War: it caused what had been a juggernaut advance by the invading army to stall out into years of stalemated trench warfare. And it was in the trenches that the third class of Martian war machine came into play: at night, as fighting slowed down, the ground-based “lice” would scour the battlefield, sweeping it clean of the day’s debris of war. The documentary makes a big deal out of the psychological impact of this: dead soldiers could not be recovered for burial, and rumors spread of the Martians invaders making some hideous use of the dead and wounded — keep in mind, in the original novel, the Martians were vampiric (Based on some comically incorrect Victorian ideas about how digestion worked, Wells assumed that a more advanced race would evolve beyond the need to eat and would just inject the blood of lesser creatures, and this would somehow be more efficient), and herded humans for food.

It’s kind of strange, in fact, how much they make of this, since it turns out to be a red herring: about twenty minutes later, they reveal that the missing dead weren’t taken by the Martians at all, but rather simply crushed into the mud: the lice were actually just sweeping the field for spent shell casings and other bits of metal debris, which they recycled to build their war machines.

A kind of parody of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 occurs in December 1913: fighting draws to a halt on Christmas night as the Martians launch a series of “Christmas Stars” into the sky. But this “truce” has a twist reminiscent of the Racnoss Christmas Star from Doctor Who: what the Martians have launched are their fourth kind of war machine, kraken-like submarines that attack the shipping lanes.

In the real world, the 1915 sinking of the RMS Lusitania came close to bringing the US into the war. That’s mirrored here in the sinking of the Aquitania. There’s a bit of a slip though: the historical RMS Aquitania was a sister-ship of the Lusitania, launched in May 1914. The Great Martian War: RMS AquitaniaThe historical Aquitania would serve in both World Wars as a troop transport and hospital ship, and operate in peacetime as a cruise ship until 1950 (It was the longest-serving passenger liner of the 20th century, surpassed only in 2004 by the QE2). But the ship is identified by narration as American (Even though the illustration they show is clearly based on the real ship and bears the historically correct Liverpool marking).

As in real history, half the American public gets all riled up and wants to join the war, but the other half still reckons that this is Europe’s war and none of our damned business, and President Wilson kept the US out of the war. And here, Theodore Roosevelt, the historical equivalent of Harrison Ford in Air Force One, reenters history. In real life, Roosevelt did push for the US to enter the war, and in 1917, he tried to raise up a volunteer army to go fight in Europe. Wilson shut him down and sent the real army instead. Roosevelt acts earlier in the Martian war, and Wilson concedes to public opinion, allowing Roosevelt’s volunteers to ship out in 1914.

Meanwhile, Gus Lafonde, our “angle” on this, had been counting coup. I don’t know how I feel about this. On the one hand, it has a hint of TV’s usual “Magic Indian” trope: the humble indigenous American who is able to do what the white folks can’t because of his people’s rich heritage, specifically something the white folks in the audience have probably heard of already. On the other hand, by making his contribution tie specifically to his specific cultural background, it does make his presence a part of the narrative and not just “We wanted extra credit for diversity so we spun the Wheel-of-Minorities and it came up ‘Canadian First Nations’.” Sneaking into Martian encampments under cover of night, he steals alien artifacts and makes notes on their writing which, a century later, would lead to its decipherment.

The Great Martian War: Martian

Things start to turn around for the allies when, having discovered the size of the Martian force, they undertake a daring plan to capture a Heron through undermining. The captured Heron reveals the true intent of the lice, as it’s made from locally-sourced materials. We also get to see the physical nature of the aliens. There’s a clear similarity between the alien bodies and the alien war machines. That’s a common theme in adaptations, and is suggested by the book in a limited sort of way (Wells notes that the aliens don’t use pivot joints, and this seems reflective of the fact that their own bodies, being akin to cephalopods, don’t have them). Odd when you think of it, since humans have never built vehicles designed based on the way we look outside of Japanese cartoons. These aliens look like a kind of anencephalic insect. Correspondingly, the Herons, Spiders and Lice alike all have these sort of pillbug-shaped bodies, differing mostly in size and the design of the legs.

wotwii13

The other thing to come out of the capture is where The Great Martian War makes its real contribution of something genuinely new to the “mythology”. Because once the Heron is down, its attendant Spiders surrender. Investigation turns up that the Spiders are unmanned, controlled instead by a “living organic metal” they term “victicite”. The victicite turns out to be not only the key to Martian technology, but seems like it’s actively trying to be helpful, causing allied war techology to advance. Though, just like the first tanks of the real World War I, the technology is unreliable at first and its impact is limited. Though the energy-weapons are effective, they’re prone to exploding, and the “landships” aren’t fast or maneuverable enough to evade Heron counterattacks — they can dispatch a single Heron, but . Their first real successful use comes when three ace pilots using experimental energy weapons defeat a Heron that’s wandered across the Channel to London. The pilot survives, but catches glanders from police horses and promptly dies.

Unlike the other interpretations we’ve seen, then, though it’s still a disease that will ultimately bring down the Martians, it won’t be an act of nature, but flat-out biological warfare. Glanders really was used as a bioweapon in World War I along the Eastern Front to infect horses. However, it would take most of a year for the virus to be weaponized, and the Martians are expected to conquer all of Europe before that can happen.

The Great Martian WarFortunately for Europe, the Martians inexplicably attack a group of American destroyers.  Or do they? The interviewed historian points out that there’s no hard evidence of Martian presence in the Gulf of Mexico, and notes that Allied U-Boats had the range to have done it themselves, coyly hinting that it may have been a false flag by the Allies to trick the Americans into the war. Woodrow Wilson resigns in disgrace, and for some reason — they talk around it, but it kinda sounds like a coup — this makes Teddy Roosevelt president and the US enters the war proper.

Victicite-based weapons and American reinforcements slow down the Martians enough for the final push, called “Operation Trojan Horse”. To the troops on the line, it sounds very much like it’s going to follow the general outline of the Hundred Days’ Offensive, and desertion starts to become a problem as they expect to be sent on a suicidal final charge against an unstoppable foe. “Many amongst us are tired. To those, I say hold firm. Ultimate victory is within our grasp. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.” Sir Douglas Haig, who in our world became the poster-child for the kind of disengaged aristocratic general who happily sends huge numbers of his own men to their deaths because he thinks of war as a sort of jolly academic exercise rather than a real thing that affects real people, delivers a stirring speech that restores order. The push turns out to be a feint: when the Martians easily rout the charge, they press their advantage, the Herons charging into vast pens of glanders-infected horses up and down the 50-mile line. Within a day or so, all are dead.

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January 21, 2015

Heading out to Eden, yea, brother (Captain Power: The Eden Road)

Captain Power Episode 18: The Eden RoadIt is February 22, 1988. This week will see Katarina Witt get an Olympic gold medal for figure skating in Calgary, Archbishop Desmond Tutu get arrested in South Africa, Senator Bob Packwood get hauled feet-first before Congress by Capitol police to answer a quorum call (And you thought partisan politics were effed up in 2014!). The Supreme Court will side with Larry Flynt in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. Falwell and Flynt would apparently later become personal friends despite their differences, presumably finding common ground in the fact that they were both kinda jerks. Yesterday, Jimmy Swaggart gave his infamous “I have sinned,” speech, confessing in vague terms to an unspecified sin that pretty much everyone by now knew was some form of really liking prostitutes.

Exposé has the number one spot on the Billboard charts with “Seasons Change”, while George Michael’s “Father Figure” is on the rise, and will overtake it by the week’s end. The other newcomer in the top ten is Rick Astley, making is preparations for the invention of YouTube.
At this point in my life, I don’t think I’d ever seen The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, an early ’60s teen comedy based on an earlier Bobby Van movie, about a hapless and slightly doofy teenager who dreams of a more glamorous life than working at his dad’s grocery store and settling down with the girl next door, as he pursues social and romantic advancement with town’s preeminent beauties such as Tuesday Weld’s Thalia Menninger, while evading the affections of the homelier girl-next-door Zelda Gilroy. Also, Bob Denver plays… Pretty much Shaggy from Scooby-Doo (In fact, the creators of Scooby-Doo Where Are You? eventually admitted that all four of the human characters were based on Dobie regulars, Fred is Dobie, Velma is Zelda, Daphne is Thalia and Shaggy is Maynard). I bring it up because February 21, 1988, they showed a reunion movie that I remember fairly well, not least of all for its amazingly WTF title, Bring Me the Head of Dobie Gillis. The reunion finds Dobie, decades later, working at his dad’s grocery store and married to the girl next door. One of the “Many Loves” returns to town, decides she does want Dobie after all, and offers an exorbitant sum of money to stimulate the town’s flagging economy if they murder him after he spurns her affections. Of course he spurns her affections; he’s finally at peace with the fact that the simple life of taking over your father’s working-class job and marrying the homely girl as a reward for her loyalty and persistence even though you’ve never shown any actual attraction or interest is the far superior life to fame, fortune, and women who are attractive in the way Hollywood tells us is superior. Because moral messages come and go with the years in TV Land, but the one moral imperative that can never be broken is, “Don’t get ideas above your station.” The plot is lifted from a 1956 Swiss play about justice and dehumanization that’s considered one of the most important 20th century German-language literary works. Which is very strange to contemplate, in kind of the same way that it’s hard to contemplate that Zombie Strippers (A hard-R skin-flick about exotic dancers who are also undead), is an adaptation of Ionesco’s The Rhinoceroses(An absurdist play about the rise of fascism as represented by people turning into even-toed ungulates).
TV this week is still dominated by the Olympics. Everything’s new this week, but it’s all shows I’ve mentioned before. A TV movie on Sunday, and CBS is showing The Wizard of Oz on Wednesday. Star Trek the Next Generation airs “Home Soil”. Here’s Vaka Rangi on that, because I was just saying a little while ago that I should link to that more. The important bit is that it’s the episode that gave us the line, “Ugly bags of mostly water.”

This week on Captain Power and The Soldiers of the Future, it’s another oddball episode, “The Eden Road”. Like “The Intruder“, this is an episode that’s heavily haunted by the ghost of the second season that never was, and is a lot weaker than it would have been if we were looking back on it as foreshadowing the big moves of season, let’s say, three.

The “Eden” of the title refers to “Eden 2″, which had been referenced way back (or shortly back, depending on your perspective) in “Wardogs“. And here, it’s helpful to glance back at some of the production materials.

Eden 2 is a concept that came up very early in the creative process for Captain Power. Captain Power Design Sketch - Eden 2Described as a quasi-mythical “Shangri La”, it was meant to be a hidden refuge where humanity could not simply survive the war outside, but flourish in the face of it. Envisioned as a large, underground biosphere, the series bible proposes that in the show’s second season, following the loss of the Power Base, Cap and company would actually relocate there, persuading the Edenites to join his cause and make a stand against Lord Dread. We now know that this idea was heavily modified by the time they went into production, of course, with the commissioned scripts for season 2 instead moving Captain Power to a secret identical Power Base apparently unaffiliated with Eden 2. Though obviously, there are still shades of the idea: the second Power Base was, like one of the proposals for Eden 2, to be hidden in the arctic, for example. It could well be that relocation to Eden 2 was still in the cards: “The Observer”, proposed as the second season finale, sounds like it might have been meant as the story of Eden 2 deciding to ally itself with Captain Power.

Unfortunately, we never got our second season, much less a third, and Eden 2 vanishes from the story after this episode. This isn’t just a missed opportunity; it actually casts the entire thing in a completely different light. Imagine for a second that I hadn’t just spent a paragraph telling you what the bible says that Eden 2 is all about, and tell me what your first reaction is to this capsule summary: There’s a highly secret human enclave with a portentous name, rumored to be a paradise where people can live in peace and safety. They’re mysterious and vague about their location, intentions, and capabilities. They want to meet Captain Power, and insist on having the meeting in an extremely dangerous place.

Hell yeah it sounds like a trap. I mean, it doesn’t just sound like a trap. It sounds like the plot of “And Study War No More“. Even if they hadn’t already done that one a few weeks ago, the whole thing stinks so bad of “trap” that I think even comparatively unsophisticated viewers are going to waste most of the episode waiting for the other shoe to drop. But what makes this episode all the more disappointing is that, if you do waste most of the episode waiting for the other shoe to drop, sure, you’ll be disappointed when it doesn’t, but you won’t actually miss much. The sum total of what happens in this episode boils down to this spoiler: Yes, Virginia Captain Power, there is an Eden 2, and no, they are not going to make themselves relevant in the near future.

So that’s a bit of an anticlimax. It’s not altogether a worthless episode, mind you; there are some nice bits. But they’re largely incidental to the plot. I’ve been trying to make sense of the chronology a bit. No matter how you slice it, it just doesn’t quite work. Based on the in-episode dates, “The Ferryman” should be the third episode, occurring between Pariah and “A Fire in the Dark”. That would mean that for almost all the episodes which aired first, Blastarr exists, but Dread doesn’t think to involve him. This dating also places “And Study War No More” after “And Madness Shall Reign”. Okay. Not a flat-out contradiction, since they’re essentially finding out about Haven’s involvement in the Styx plot after the fact. But it’s very clear in “And Study War No More” that this is Blastarr’s first meeting with Captain Power, which just doesn’t hold water if he’s already appeared in both “The Intruder” and “Flame Street”. Besides, I would think that the “new human form” Dread is trying to design in “A Fire in the Dark” is meant to be a reference to Blastarr, which doesn’t make a lick of sense if it takes place a week afterward. Furthermore, Lord Dread’s characterization is all over the place in this ordering. Originally meant to be a major part of his character, Dread’s obsession with finding the location of the Power Base comes up in “The Intruder”, “Flame Street”, “A Summoning of Thunder”, and “Retribution”. As aired, it feels like a building obsession starting around the middle of the season. In calendar order, it’s more spread out, perhaps closer to the original intention of it being Dread’s long-time goal, but giving the impression that he more or less thinks of it every couple of months then promptly forgets to pursue it for a bit. If you wanted to suggest Dread is schizophrenic, the calendar order helps you out in other ways. The episodes where Dread comes off as vaguely sympathetic or regretful are kind of distributed at random through the season with “Flame Street” as the last of them, rather than clustering around the middle. Dread’s next major plan after deliberately letting Cap escape from his father’s grave is to… Send out a copycat in an ersatz Power Suit (“Final Stand” and “The Abyss” take place in the middle, but neither involve Dread actually making active plans, just reacting to others). Admittedly, it does make sense that Cap cites his dad’s oath against taking human life when he fights Jason if he’s only just recently been thinking about him. Though there’s a lovely bit of irony in having Cap make that citation two episodes after we watched his dad try to murder someone with his bare hands. On balance, the aired order just makes more sense for Dread as a character. We see him in the middle of the season suffer a crisis of conscience (Aside from Blastarr’s presence, “Flame Street” would actually make more sense as the first of these episodes, were it set before “A Fire in the Dark”. Rattled by his experience in the cyberweb, he seeks out an artist to reassure himself that his “utopia” will be more beautiful than the blighted wasteland he’s created), which he eventually resolves by doubling down at the end of the season. We’ll see Dread become increasingly ruthless and increasingly obsessed with Cap’s defeat starting this episode, which makes a lot of sense if you interpret him leaving the music box at Stuart’s grave as him finally leaving behind the last piece of humanity he’d been holding on to.

I think it may not be wise to read too much into those stardates after all. Increasingly, I think they reflect a tentative ordering, and when they realized that Blastarr wouldn’t be ready for the first block of episodes, it was still early enough in the process that substantial story elements could be retooled to generate the ordering we eventually saw on the air, though, for reasons that completely elude me, too late to change the date stamps. No, this episode was clearly trading on the notion of being a Big Old Part of the Series Mythology, and hoping that (And bringing their A-game on the visual effects) would make up for the fact that there’s not much in the way of plot.

Doctor Who alum Lorne Cossette returns as Colonel Cypher, led blindfolded into the Power Base — this is the first intentional guest they’ve had since A Fire in the Dark, so it’s our first chance to see their security measures. Which mostly consist of the blindfold and being kind of snippy. He seems to have recovered fully since “And Madness Shall Reign“, but Captain Power’s team all seem kind of bitter and dismissive toward him. The last time we saw him, Cap treated the old soldier with respect and concern, even though he was, at the moment, literally stark-raving. Here, they mostly seem annoyed that he’s insisted on meeting with them in person. He’ll appear again in next week’s “Freedom One”, and I’m curious how their relationship will be presented then. This pair of episodes is backwards chronologically: by its stardate, “Freedom One” should be set about two weeks after “And Madness Shall Reign”, so this is really Captain Power’s last encounter with Cypher.

Captain Power’s team seems somewhere between bemused and annoyed when Cypher explains that he’s here because of Eden 2. They’ve heard of it, yes, but had dismissed it as a myth. When Cypher claims to be part of an “underground railroad” smuggling refugees to Eden 2, they’re highly skeptical. According to Cypher, he’s been entrusted with one of the links in a highly secret chain leading to Eden 2. Eden 2 is so advanced they’ve already got Tor, you see, so the titular “Eden Road” consists of a bunch of pit-stops, with only one person at each location who knows only the location of the next node, so that no one outside of Eden knows the whole route.

Lorne Cossette in Captain Power

Dread, apparently by dumb luck, took out a node adjacent to Cypher’s, as revealed by a recording of a fight scene from earlier in the season on a floppy disk Cypher provides. For no clear reason, the Edenites want Captain Power to take delivery personally of a data crystal giving the replacement route. This sounds so much like a trap that even Captain Power and his gang are suspiciousCaptain Power: Peter MacNeill as Hawk, but they decide it’s at least worth investigating when Cypher presents an autographed Wardog patchCaptain Power - Wardogs Patch as proof of his claims.

Cypher’s Eden 2 contact has requested to meet Captain Power in the really really unfortunately named “Darktown”. “Darktown” had been subject to “proton bombardments” back in the last war, and rendered uninhabitable. Pretty much, Straczynski clearly wrote this setting as a nuclear fallout zone, filing the serial numbers off because, as we learned from the comic book (and is emphatically reinforced in the series bible), 2147 is a strictly nuclear-free zone. Darktown is polluted with a permanent “acid mist” that is not only deadly to organic life, but also causes biomechs to malfunction and eventually break down. Even the Power Suits only offer limited protection.

Captain Power - Darktown Flyby

Our first view of Darkdown is a flyby from the Jumpship. It’s a really nice model shot of a ruined city, undermined somewhat by the presence of “acid pits” that are pretty much strobing yellow blotches added clumsily in post. For absolutely no discernible reason, Lord Dread has stationed a heavy Biomech presence here, despite the fact that his troops keep going rogue due to the acid mist, because, obviously, he’s got to guard the place so that people don’t… sneak around there and die from the acid mist. Captain Power and Pilot both wear extra face-shields to protect the bits of their faces not covered by their smaller helmets, and begin to sneak their way to the rendevous site. Captain Power: The Eden RoadIn order to disable a force-field (which Dread has put up to stop any of the people who can’t survive here from sneaking further into Darktown to find the uninhabitable ruins with nothing of value inside them), Scout is called on to pull his usual trick of impersonating a clicker.

Due to the acid mist, though, his octocamo glitches and fails while he’s working. This wouldn’t be a problem, since the only mech nearby is steadfastly looking in the opposite direction. But the third or fourth time this happens, Cap realizes that this would be a great chance to get in one of their contractually obligated fight scenes, and starts shouting. The team is able to take out the nearby mechs without too much trouble, and make their way further into the city, hoping that the damage they’ve done will be attributed to a rogue mech.

Of course, they’ll have no such luck, because that would make for a boring episode. And this episode is already kind of thin on plot to begin with. Captain Power: The Eden RoadBack at Volcania, Lord Dread and his Bling Nazis are compiling maps showing Captain Power sightings. One look at the map convinces Dread that it’s impossible for Cap to have traveled those distances in such a short time, and therefore he must have an army of helpers who travel the country in Captain Power Halloween costumes to set up false trails to confuse the enemy matter teleportation technology.

Up until the previous two-parter, the most they’d ever said about the jumpgates was that they existed, and now, two stories in a row have gone out of their way to talk about the fact that Cap has a personal wormhole network. Now, I know why they’re building this up at this point, because I’ve already watched the entire season. But this must have been very strange for the original audience back in 1988 to suddenly have these little plot-diversions to talk about matter teleportation, especially in light of it being 1988, when “foreshadowing something for later in the season” was not a very common action-adventure trope. A very long time ago, I took issue with how random this whole “Oh, and also they have a wormhole network,” thing feels, in that it’s not really a technology that seems to have anything at all to do with any of the other technology in the show. It’s clearly not there to justify Captain Power’s ability to travel over large distances, since geography makes so little sense in this show that it doesn’t really matter. Besides, Hawk could fly from Colorado Springs to Detroit in nine minutes without the jump gates. That is about 33 times faster than traveling by commercial jet (And 126 times faster than driving up I-80 to I-94, if you’re keeping score).

Which, of course, is a whole separate issue, because in every damned episode, wherever Cap and Company are going, Blastarr or Soaron is only about an hour away. If it’s impossible for Captain Power to cover that much ground, surely the same could be said for the BioDreads, and yet there they are, week after week. For example, Blastarr is only about ten minutes’ walk from Darktown right now.

Which is handy, because a report comes in of some fighting in Darktown, and of course, every single thing that happens anywhere on the planet is immediately reported directly to Lord Dread. Though the reporting Bling Nazi theorizes it’s probably just a mech going rogue, Dread has the advantage of having read the script, and quickly concludes that it must be Power. He immediately dispatches Blastarr to lead counterattack.

He’ll come to reconsider this a few scenes on, though; even Blastarr is not immune to the “acid mist” and begins to have trouble speaking and thinking clearly.Captain Power: Blastarr Dread claims that Soaron had no such trouble, and attributes Blastarr’s weakness to Cap’s interference with the birthing process. The scene is a little uncomfortable. My ancient memories of this show don’t include Dread ever being particularly critical of Blastarr; I always thought that once Blastarr had come along, it was Soaron who got treated like the unwanted child — that was a big part of my perception that Soaron might eventually mutiny. But here… Frankly, it kinda seems like Dread is negging Blastarr. Deliberately playing on the sibling rivalry. If that’s what’s afoot, it works, because Blastarr demands to be allowed to finish the mission in spite of his difficulties.

Meanwhile, Cap and Company have arrived at the rendevous spot, a small shack whose interior is mysteriously well-lit and free of acid. A fair-featured boyishly handsome man (Of course it is. Ever notice how the representatives from otherworldly utopian civilizations is pretty much always an aryan poster boy? Always white, always male, always blonde.) in sparkly future-wear greets them and entreats them to take off their masks and Power Suits, as he’s rendered the environment safe using his fancy Eden 2 powers. They remove their masks, but, unlike all those other episodes where they’re always powering down the second they don’t have a BioDread in line-of-sight, they opt to stay armored, just in case. And if this didn’t already feel like a big old trap, the emissary also shows off his shiny acid-heat-cold-and-blaster-proof coat, which he suggests Cap and his friends will get as part of their welcome gift basket when they come to Eden 2 in person. Hawk notes that it’s the first technological development anyone but Dread has made in years. Captain Power: Brent Stait as JohnJohn is played by Brent Stait, a regular fixture in Toronto and Vancouver productions. He’s appeared in The X-FilesStargate SG-1, Smallville and Supernatural, but his biggest role was as Rev Bem in Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda. The emissary, John, assures everyone that he’s on the level, and he assures Hawk that Vi is happy and safe, and he assures Captain Power that they’re trying to help, and he doesn’t even pull the traditional Highly Advanced Culture That Meets Our Heroes stunt SG-1 is so proud of where they’re all like “We totes like you guys, but we’re all advanced and Prime Directivey and won’t involve ourselves in your war or give you weapons or advanced technology, and kind of think you’re a bunch of savages for not being able to resolve this diplomatically.”

In other words, they act exactly like the traditional Seemingly Highly Advanced Culture that Secretly Plans to Enslave And/Or Cook Our Heroes and Eat Them that SG-1 is so proud of (See also, The Aschen, The Visitors, The Quar’to, the Taelons, and those guys from The Twilight Zone with the cookbook). However, the other shoe, as previously mentioned, never drops. Captain Power: BlastarrInstead, the increasingly erratic Blastarr shows up and starts shooting up the place. The emissary decides to leg it, but not before passing Cap a fist-sized chunk of pink quartz that’s allegedly a “data crystal” containing the new Eden Road node location and a Mysterious Package that totally isn’t a trap.

Captain Power and the others go outside and fight Blastarr, only not really, because Blastarr completely loses it and starts just shooting at random, taking out his own forces. So much chaos ensues that the shot which finally disables Blastarr isn’t from our heroes; it’s one of the pink pew-pews from a BioMech gunCaptain Power: Blastarr.

Blastarr’s scenes aren’t much different than everything else we’ve seen of him, but, like Soaron last week, it does seem like the quality of his animation has improved. When he collapses at the end of the fight, it’s new footage, not a recycle of the same sixty frames of him falling to his knees they used in “Justice”, “Flame Street” and “The Intruder”. There’s more small motions to him, changes in the way he turns his arms or the articulation of his torso. It’s a pity we’re getting so close to the end of the season, because it really does seem like they’re starting to get a handle on doing the CGI elements properly.Captain Power: Blastarr Animation

Back at the Power Base, Cap opens his package the box from Eden 2, triggering a thermonuclear explosion which wipes out our heroes, a tragic end to the series on par with the last episode of Blake’s 7, and finds an orange. Everyone gasps at the first piece of fresh fruit anyone’s seen in years. Captain Power: OrangesHe passes around segments, and Hawk declares that he can tell from its taste that this is no hydroponic orange, but one that grew in soil. Given that oranges grow on trees, so even non-hydroponic ones don’t actually come into contact with dirt, I am not sure how he deduced this. Everyone enjoys a light moment appreciating this proof that Eden 2 is real and on-the-level, and surely in the days and weeks to come, it will….

Never be mentioned again. Grr. Every time something actually interesting comes up in this show, it’s never mentioned again. Meanwhile, this whole matter teleportation angle actually is building up to something, yet it’s a weird, offhand element of the world background that feels tacked-on. It’s just disappointing. Another episode for the “skip if you’re in a hurry” bin.

And that’s too bad. Visually, this episode is fine. Everyone gets something to do, a few meaningful lines. The action sequences are fantastic. But the plot is effectively absent, and what narrative beats are actually there are all wrong. The whole story uses the plot beats from an “Seemingly idylic enclave is secretly evil” story. The desperate and dispossessed flock to Eden and are never seen again. Through an unlikely coincidence Dread disrupts their underground railroad and now they’ll only reveal the new route to Captain Power in person in the most dangerous place on Earth while Dread’s forces surround them, and they back up their claims by giving Hawk the one secret token that might trick him into letting his guard down? I’ve seen this episode so many times. Heck, I’ve seen this episode of Captain Power. Not only is the setup similar in key ways to “And Study War No More“, I think there’s also elements of similarity to “The Room” (Not that one), one of the cut episodes from earlier in the season that would have seen Cap infiltrate a purported underground railroad taking refugees to safety and uncover the dark secrets therein.

So taken on its own, this episode just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Honestly, even taken as the first half of a two-parter, it’s deeply weird, unless the second half is “The leadership of Eden 2 turns out to be evil reptiloids.”  Maybe if they’d sold it better, it could have worked: after Haven and The Room, the audience is primed to expect a trap, so you could play off, “No, really, this time, it’s legit,” as a twist. But they don’t quite manage it. For it to really work, you’d want Captain Power and his gang leave the rendezvous under the assumption that they’d been set up, only to have the orange lead to the revelation that Eden 2 is on the level. You’d have to make this explicit. Have Cap (Or better, Scout) reflect that it’s just like Haven. Maybe one of them reflects on there being a “snake” in this “Eden” (Either Tank, who we’d previously established as having some knowledge of scripture, or Pilot, to give her some character growth by implying that the experience at Haven had prompted her to learn about it). They take the box back to the base and have Tank open it in full armor in a protected vault or something, assuming it’s a bomb. Have Hawk fret over what this means for Vi. Tank opens the box and they find an orange, have the light moment, then say outright that this means the emissary was telling the truth and Eden 2 is real.

As it stands, while this episode should be tantalizing in how it seems to imply something about the future of this world, it ends up just feeling like they got to the end of the episode without remembering to have the end of their plot actually happen.

Oh, and also, Captain Power throws a BioMech into an acid pit.

Captain Power: The Eden Road; Captain Power throws a mech into an acid pit

That is all.


Or is it…

Shout-out time: I just discovered The Super-Saturday Short-Lived Showcase, which is also working its way through Captain Power. Due to my Generation X work-ethic, they’ve basically caught up with me by now, and they appear to number their readers in positive numbers, unlike me, so they hardly need me schilling for them, but on the off chance you happen to read my work and think, “I’d really like to hear someone else also say clever things about Captain Power”, please, check them out.

January 19, 2015

A Tale of Two Robots

By Dylan

Once upon a time, there was a poor old man who had a lot of apples. One day, he said, “I should make a robot out of applesauce!” So he made a really, really tall robot out of applesauce. And the robot could talk.

Now, the man who made the robot out of applesauce was the same person who had once made a robot out of chicken nuggets. And the robots said “We should build a house,” so they built a house. But there was a beanstalk next to the house, so the robot made out of chicken nuggets climbed up the beanstalk and met a bad giant made out pizza. But the pizza giant fell down because it was too heavy!

So the robot made out of applesauce punched the beanstalk down. And then he needed to go to his home, so he flew off. And then he punched down another beanstalk (there were a lot of beanstalks).

There was another robot made out of chicken nuggets. And the robot made out of applesauce said to the other robot made out of chicken nuggets, “You’re my sister!” And the (first) Chicken Nugget Robot said, “You’re my sister too.” (There was another applesauce robot too, but I think he was their cousin)

So the man said, “We should all go to the applesauce robot’s home.” And the applesauce robot said, “Yes, we should all go to my home,” so they flew off (For applesauce robots can float in the air, but can’t walk).

 

January 14, 2015

Deep Ice: One outside Buffalo, one in Chicago (Jeff Kaye’s War of the Worlds)

I’ll Explain Later…

It is October 31, 1968. I’ll get back to that in a few minutes. Since we’ve slipped back twenty years, we are, of course, talking once again about War of the Worlds. I’ll get back to Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future soon enough, but it’s a new year and I was traveling over the holidays, so I need something easier, and besides, I’m almost out of Captain Power and need to play for time so that I’ll have something else to write about when it’s done.

WWKB-AM 1520 is an ESPN Sports Radio broadcaster out of Buffalo, New York. But prior to 2013, it had been a progressive talk-radio station, before that an oldies station, before that, business talk radio, after sports, after country music, after “hot talk”. But long before that, before ABC was bought by Capital Cities and got out of the radio business, they were WKBW-AM, companion station to Buffalo’s ABC 7. The radio station, originally a religious station (WKBW, later appropriated as “The King of Buffalo”, originally stood for “Well Known Bible Witness”), predated the TV station, but with the arrival of TV and the waning of the golden age of radio, it transitioned into the more modern “top 40″ format in the late ’50s, until FM radio pretty much put an end to AM top 40 stations in the late ’70s. During those years, WKBW was one of the power players in east coast pop radio — their high-power transmitter gave them a tremendous range, reportedly getting better reception in Boston than Boston’s own local top 40, was regularly received in Stockholm, and in 1967, a WKBW-exclusive Monkees performance was recorded off-air in Morocco, because mumble mumble ionosphere mumble mumble.

But the reason we care (well, the reason I care) is because in the ’60s, “KB Radio” was well-known for its Halloween specials. In 1968, program director Jefferson Kaye noticed that they were coming up on the thirtieth anniversary of the infamous Mercury Radio Theater production, and thought it would make a good subject for this year’s special. It had been done before, in 1944 in Santiago and 1949 in Quito. These were adaptations of the Howard Koch radioplay, adjusting the names, locations and current events to fit the locality. And that’s how Jeff Kaye’s version started out. But he had a problem: it was 1968, and KB Radio wasn’t in the business of making original drama. WKBW was a prominent station and its stable of talent at the time was certainly top-notch, but they were disk jockeys and news reporters, and that kind of acting just wasn’t their thing. Not to be deterred, Kaye decided to try something different. Something that sounds really risky to me, but it was a gamble that paid off.

They got rid of the script. Instead, Jeff Kaye and director/engineer Danny Kriegler produced an outline of the various events that would make up their Martian invasion, based on the events recounted in the 1938 version, and simply told their radio personalities to deliver it as though it were news. Which sounds on the surface ridiculous: take a bunch of people who aren’t trained as actors and have them do improv? And yet, somehow, miraculously, it works.

Dan Neaverth opens the show with a lengthy disclaimer, for all the good it will do, giving some background on the 1938 broadcast, and explaining how it was made, “With the techniques that were in use at that time,” and that they had therefore decided to approach it, “Not how we can copy it, but how it would be covered by a modern newsroom in this day and age.” He goes on to speak to the quasi-mythical “panic” that the 1938 broadcast generated, and how in those days, radio announcers held a “strange charisma”, that what, “A radio announcer said was true was. The same could be said for newspaper, the only other mass media at the time.” If you read my article on the 1938 War of the Worlds, you’ll know I have my misgivings about that interpretation of events, the way it casts the people of 1938 as credulous dupes like something out of that movie The Invention of Lying. But what Neaverth says next plays more to what I think is the truth of the 1938 panic: “WKBW radio has been promoting the show over the last three weeks, every hour 24 hours a day, you all know what is about to occur. This was not true when the original was broadcast. So place yourself in that position: sit back and pretend that you do not know what is going to happen. And perhaps at the end of this broadcast, you will begin to understand what took place thirty years ago tonight. This is Dan Neaverth speaking.”“So place yourself in that position: sit back and pretend that you do not know what is going to happen. And perhaps at the end of this broadcast, you will begin to understand what took place thirty years ago tonight.” Some lies aren’t meant to deceive; sometimes, it’s an invitation. Thirty years earlier, Orson Welles had invited the nation to come live in a world where the unstoppable invaders at the doorstep were from Mars. In 1968, WKBW invited listeners to try it again.

Joe Downey takes over for the eleven o’clock news. By which I mean, he actually delivers the real eleven o’clock news. So…

It is October 31, 1968. Yesterday, Soyuz 3 returned to Earth, its mission a partial failure after it proved unable to dock with Soyuz 2. Today, President Johnson has announced an end to bombing in North Vietnam“President Johnson has taken a big step on the road toward peace in Vietnam. Tonight, he ordered a total bombing halt in north Vietnam. Johnson also announced that the Paris talks will be expanded to include the Saigon government and the political arm of the Vietcong. Mister Johnson made it clear that productive talks can continue only if Hanoi respects the DMZ and commits to stop shelling South Vietnamese cities.” (The war scare was over), though the peace which seems forthcoming at the time falls through, possibly due to the intervention of presidential hopeful Dick Nixon, who didn’t want Johnson getting the credit for ending the Vietnam war. Davey Jones marries for the first time, to Dixie Linda Haines. The marriage will last until 1975. On TV tonight are new episodes of The Flying Nun, That Girl, Daniel Boone and Ironside. Tomorrow, dutifully marching toward the cancellation NBC has already predestined for it, Star Trek will air “Day of the Dove”, one of the more spectacular and iconic episodes of the third season, and the one that kinda invented the Klingons, since their appearance here is really the first time they act anything close to the characterization of their culture that would be carried forward into the post-TOS era. Here is what Josh Marsfelder has to say, in the hopes that after you’ve read it, you will come back and read this instead of going on with something more interesting in your life. In local news, Governor Nelson “Rocky” Rockefeller ceremonially broke ground on the construction of a six-hundred million dollar State University Of New York at Buffalo campus. (More men were back at work). A raid at a cab company in Lackawanna led to numerous gambling arrests, and then there’s Mars.

Downey reports, with no discernible change in tone from all the real news of the day, observations at the Mount Palomar Observatory of a series of explosions on Mars. “The observatory’s director, Dr. Benjamin Spencer, says that although they appear to have as much energy as hydrogen bomb blast, they are undoubtedly of natural origin. Dr. Spencer describe the explosions as looking like
(quote) Tremendous jets of blue flames shooting out into space (end quote).” The news report is bookended by incredibly condescending commercials for the Peace Corps, suggesting listeners come, “Build something. Like Latin America, Asia and Africa.” After the weather and another Peace Corps ad, Downey hands off to Sandy Beach.

Nowadays, Sandy Beach is a midday right-leaning talk host on Buffalo’s WBEN-AM 930. Back in the ’60s, he was WKBW’s nighttime DJ. The default mode of top-40 disk jockeying has evolved a lot since War of the Worlds, but I think a late ’60s nighttime DJ is pretty close to the platonic form of disk jockey. DJing was a lot more performative back in the 60s. A year or so ago, one of my local stations fired a long-time morning DJ, replacing him with a syndicated show that was fine, but never took off. But the frontman for the new show, early on, talked about the switch a little, and explained that the previous host was a very talented example of an older, more stylized kind of morning DJing, and that they thought that this market was looking for a more modern approach, That approach involved a lot of trying very hard to be “real”, while relating amusing anecdotes from their own lives and stories from social media, taking a lot of listener calls, and being really really judgmental (Seriously. Drive-time DJs are, as a class, possibly the most judgmental human beings imaginable. Though I’ll grant you, I might get a little judgy too if my job was to listen to callers’ stories. Protip: If you feel compelled to call a local radio station to set up an elaborate prank call to determine if your husband is cheating on you, it’s already time to call the lawyer). But here, back in the 60s, it’s much more about sounding really hip, really groovy, really with-it, and really stoned. It was the era of Doctor Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap and Wonderful WINO and even DJs who were not fictional, such as Wolfman Jack and Skinny Bobby Harper.

Sandy Beach starts off his show on “Kaybee Baybee” by speculating that the “blue flames” from Mars might be an impressive marketing stunt by the natural gas industry before playing “Eleanor” by The Turtles, this week’s #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 (Also in the top ten are “Midnight Confessions”, “Girl Watcher”, and “Harper Valley PTA”, and it kinda seems incomprehensible that all those songs happened at the same time. So too for Jimi Hendrix’s definitive cover of “All Along the Watchtower”, which is spending its last week on the chart at its peak position of #20). Sandy jokes about fortifying his house against trick-or-treaters, then plays a commercial for a local music store, which is selling 8-track players for $49.95, which is a lot of money back now, even if they do throw in the speakers for free.  I bring it up because the One Stop Tape Center of 1130 Main Street is one of the sponsors of War of the Worlds, as they explicitly tell us during the commercial, not that it is going to make a lick of difference. Sandy Beach has an announcement from NASA when he returns from commercial, cautioning space-watch facilities to expect unusual observations and communications difficulty, which he uses as the jumping-off point for a riff about Jeff Kaye’s inter-office memos.

That’s probably the first thing beyond the style that this new adaptation brings to the story over the 1938 broadcast. Keep in mind, that there was no such thing as a space program in 1938. There wasn’t even an Air Force (The Air Force would not become a separate branch from the Army until 1947, coincidentally, right around the time of the Roswell UFO incident…) There was no cold war to speak of. There was no such thing as a nuclear weapon. There wasn’t even such a thing as World War II. Here in 1968, it’s pretty much the height of the space age. I mean, it’s 1968. We’re less than a year from man walking on the moon. The Apollo Command Module has already done its first test flight. By 1938, the closest we’d come to space travel was when Balloonist Jeanette Piccard and her husband, Balloon-designer Jean Piccard (Yeah. His namesake) piloted the airship The Century of Progress to the stratosphere. In 1968, pretty much everyone on Earth who wasn’t too busy with the basic scrabble for mere existence was looking to the heavens, and for the first time in human history, the possibility of travel to one of those big round things in the sky was something scientifically plausible and eminent rather than speculative fiction.

Cream’s “White Room” (Number 15) is interrupted halfway through for a KB News special bulletin “KB Commuter Call: We have a condition red. All available firefighting equipment is rushing to Grand Island where an explosion has set off a series of fires. Traffic on the Grand Island bridges has been halted. All onlookers and motorists are asked to stay clear of the area.”. Sandy doesn’t react immediately to the bulletin, instead taking the piss out of fellow WKBW DJ Stan Roberts. A commercial clearly identifies this as a dramatization of War of the Worlds while advertising a sale on “monster shoes”, a then-popular wide-toed, clunky-heeled style at AM&A’s. After singing along to the KB Radio jingle, Sandy relays a request from the news department for listeners not to call in for information about the Mars explosions. I gather that the performance was prerecorded, so this was the folks at the studio anticipating rather than reacting. Sandy also makes a dig at newsman Henry Brock. I’m starting to get the feeling that most of Sandy Beach’s shtick is based around insulting his coworkers.

Right after the really good two and a half minutes of “Hey Jude“, this week’s Billboard #1, before the interminable 800 minutes of “Na na-na na-na-na na”s, KB Total News breaks in again to attribute the earlier fires on Grand Island to a meteor impact. “KB Total News Bulletin: It’s been reported that a large meteor has smashed into the ground along the East River Road on Grand Island setting off a series of fires. Several lives have been lost. KB Total News director Don Lancer on the way to the scene. Repeating: A large meteor is reported to have smashed into the ground on Grand Island, killing several people and touching off a series of fires. This has been a KB Total News Bulletin. Full details at KB Total News straight down the line on the half-hour” They’re going to spend a lot of time on the fire. I imagine that part was easier for them to perform, since, y’know, WKBW’s news reporters had probably covered those before. Unlike in 1938, this version of the story puts the initial meteor strike in a populated area. I think this is the only adaptation that makes that decision, and, again, qualifying it with the fact that they keep broadcasting disclaimers, I think that’s one of the things that sells this version. They manage to escalate the tension before introducing the fantastical elements. If you were actually seriously trying to hoax people, this is how you’d do it: you’re already tense and already invested. You’re not in the mental mode to go, “Oh, this is just a dramatic presentation” because you’ve already started accepting what you’re hearing as true before you had to make the big commitment to believe in an alien invasion.

Another commercial for “Monster Shoes” is told in the form of a Halloween narrative, about a witch cursing some shoes, only to have her plot foiled when the misshapen shoes proved popular with the teens. Sandy Beach asks listeners to neither drive out to Grand Island nor call the WKBW newsroom. Before he can play another record, newsman Henry Brock repeats pretty much the same news we just heard, and while Sandy gets a chance to let Buffy St. Marie sing a few bars of “I’m gonna be a country girl again,” (which didn’t chart until 1971, and even then, only broke the top 40 in the UK) before Don Lancer, who is stuck in traffic, calls in from the field.

Jeff Kaye opens up the WKBW news room, and Sandy Beach gives one last recap of the story before tossing to the newsroom. Even the formidable KB Total News Theme Song doesn’t buy Jeff enough time to get everyone set up in the newsroom, and he’s left having to tell Joe Downey on-the-air that his microphone is hot. Downey reminds us of the what and where, adding the new information that telephones to Grand Island are down and other communications are poor. Henry Brock is trying to get a report from the Sheriff’s office — Downey actually interrupts himself to ask Henry if he’s gotten through yet. He hasn’t, and Downey is left pretty much just stalling until he does. The deputy they finally get hold of confirms multiple deaths and fires, but can’t confirm a body count. He mentions a military presence on the scene, confirms three power outages, but can’t speak to looting. In a weird technicality, Joe Downey wasn’t able to hear the report from the Sheriff’s office, and has to ask Brock for a recap.

Before he gets very far, though, Jim Fagan calls in from the field. He’d been interviewing a Dr. Moore from Niagra University about the Martian explosions, and conscripted him to come have a look at the meteor. That would make Moore and Fagan this production’s equivalents of Carl Phillips and Professor Pierson, though the roles are considerably different here. Moore is a lot closer to Oglvy from the original book, and the reporter’s role is spread out across the whole KB News team.

Doctor Moore is a bit of an odd character. In his very first line, he seems oddly fixated on Fagan’s choice of words, and wants to make sure to clarify that the explosions on Mars could not possibly be hydrogen bombs (Fagan had called it a “Hydrogen bomb-intensity explosion”). He denies that the impact on Grand Island could be an “extraterrestrial body”, theorizing instead that it is a meteor. Fagan: Doctor Moore, can you tell us if that was an extraterrestrial body that landed on the island?

Moore: I would think not, sir, at the moment. As I say, I have not as yet seen what has happened on the island. We’re going to be getting there in a few minutes, but certainly, it’s possible. But I would doubt it. That would be just my candid opinion before I have seen it.
That’s kind of weird and awkward, firstly because if comes off like Moore thinks meteors are terrestrial in origin, and secondly because his denial is kind of limp — no “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one,” rather a kind of cautious reluctance to commit. He’s also a bit cautious about pronouncing it a meteor, though he does consider it likely, as, “There are many meteors that have landed on various parts of the Earth in the past many years.”

Moore is far and away the worst part of this so far, offering really only one useful comment (he proposes that it might actually be multiple meteors given the scope of the damage). But before you judge too harshly, consider the context. In the scope of this presentation, I think you can redeem the Moore character by interpreting him as a professor who is crap at giving interviews.  It would have sold it, in my opinion, if Fagan had expressed some chagrin at Moore’s fumbling, though that probably would have seemed unprofessional.

Hank and Jim exchange traffic information from their respective locations on the East River Road and the Robert Moses Expressway south of Niagra Falls. Unconfirmed reports claim Governor Rockefeller has mobilized the national guard. Irv Weinstein, news director at WKBW’s  TV counterpart and coiner of the phrase “It’s eleven o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”, wants to coordinate the TV news team and commandeers Henry Brock’s newscast for a moment, by which time Don Lancer has finally made it to the crash site.

Lancer interviews a lineman, who reports power outages on streets that suggest that the impact site is right around here, though Jim Fagan, having approached from the other direction, sees leveled houses from two and a half miles away on Whitehaven Road. Fagan is close enough to see the crater, while Don Lancer manages to get a look inside it. Here, about thirty-six minutes into the broadcast, is where things finally take the turn we’ve been waiting for: It’s not a meteor. “It’s not– It’s not a meteor, Henry. I’m standing on the edge of the crater, and I can look right down into it. There’s clouds of white-hot steam rising from the face of what looks like some kind of metallic cylindrical object. It’s a very large object that’s lying in the bottom of this crater. Thus far, there’s been no one around that I’ve been able to talk to to find out what it might be. It’s hot. Intense heat around this crater at the present moment, and I just don’t — I can’t describe it all that well.” There’s a sort of two-tone high-pitched whine coming from the crater too, and boy do I wish there weren’t, because it’s awful to listen to and makes the dialogue hard to make out. Don’s signal crackles and drops out suddenly just as he’s being yelled at by the authorities to move back.

As they struggle to get hold of Don or Jim, you can hear some desperation from the newsroom, and Jeff Kaye, in the background, orders them to play a commercial to cover the lack of information. It’s the eight-track player again, along with another disclaimer no one is listening to. Jim Fagan, at the opposite side of the crater, reports having seen Don Lancer lose his footing and fall into the crater, though he doesn’t seem badly hurt. Since this is 1968 and not 1938, Henry Brock posits the obvious hypothesis that the thing in the crater is space debris — again history rears its head, because, as I mentioned, a Soyuz capsule literally just returned to Earth. The fact that it bears no markings, appears to be intact, and is making that terrible sound weighs against that idea, but no one’s sure.

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January 7, 2015

Deep Ice: 2X2L Calling CQ. New York? Isn’t there anyone on the air? (Rod Pyle’s War of the Worlds: Breaking News)

I’ll Explain Later…

I don’t even know how to begin. I don’t even know where to begin. I’m not even sure this exists. Seriously. Google tells me nothing (You get hits, but they lead mostly to stubs, someone’s video production class project, or archives of a forum post from someone preemptively clarifying that they weren’t talking about that one. The one they were thinking of is Without Warning). IMDB tells me nothing. There’s no copyright date. There’s not even a title card. If it weren’t for the Netflix listing on it, I’d probably have concluded that I’d imagined the whole thing*.

It doesn’t really feel like a movie. I guess if I had to nail down what it feels like, I’d say at the most a DVD Bonus Feature. No, not even that. You know what this feels like? You know how sometimes in movies, there will be a TV on in the background showing something related to the main narrative to help sell the idea that these events are really happening and having an effect on the world? Like when Steve Bacic briefly played The Beast in X2: X-Men United, or when Larry King plays Larry King in pretty much any movie. It feels like that. Like they filmed this to be on in the background of some other movie, but for no clear reason — maybe they needed lots of spare footage for the editors or something — decided to film a whole movie’s worth of footage. Director Rod Pyle is also credited with an episode of UFO Files about The War of the Worlds dating from around the same time, and a History Channel documentary the following year, so I suppose it’s possible that this was, like, some kind of outgrowth of that? I mean, this movie does not feel quite intentional. Can you make a movie by accident?

The thing we’re talking about today is the 2005 film adaptation of The War of the Worlds. No, not that one. No, not that one either. No, not even that one. Starting to get the feeling that something was Up in 2005? This one is actually, when you get down to it, more an adaptation of the 1938 radio play: it’s presented as a newscast from a presumably small California station, but unlike Invasion from Mars, they maintain the artifice for the entire running length.

War of the Worlds Breaking News AnchorsFrankly, we’re already in trouble here. I more often hang out back in 1987 where this isn’t so much of a big deal, but we’re in 2005. The film is entirely in 4×3, which is period-accurate; few news programs shifted to 16×9 before 2006, and it was still the most common format for local news until at least 2009, but as early as the late ’90s, local news had started shooting for a kind of ersatz “big-budget” look. When my local UPN affiliate started up in the mid-90s, one of their gimmicks was that the newscasters did the 10 o’clock news in formalwear. Your typical 2005 local newscast may not have been filmed in High Definition, but you’d typically expect professional-grade lighting and camerawork, and an actual set, usually consisting of a big wood desk and a matte painting skyline. You’d also expect intertitles and transitions, and since we’re after September, 2001, you’d expect the ubiquitous news crawl. Instead we get this. A pair of yoyos in front a greenscreen whose only purpose is to show a generic blue pattern with an occasional globe. I mean, for all the good it does, they could have filmed it in front of a sheet. I mean, the did film it in front of a sheet. But they could have used a blue one instead of filming in front of a green sheet and turning it blue in post. It isn’t shot like news, but it also isn’t shot like a film. I don’t know. What it doesn’t at all feel is modern. Not even modern-cheap. Not even retro-cheap. This feels like it was made by a local, unaffiliated station in the 1980s. And not even as news, really. I don’t know. I don’t have words. The closest thing I can think of is the little five-minute news and financial digests the local PBS station would put on between British imports to make the next program start on the half-hour twenty-five years ago, but even that had a distinctly different texture to it. And, y’know, those highly identifiable Video Toaster effects. Without Warning managed to get the texture right ten years earlier (The only thing I really recall finding distinctly wrong in Without Warning was the “We lost the feed from the field correspondent and cut to static” bits, because as it turns out, faking realistic static-snow was bizarrely difficult using 1990s video technology).

But I won’t trash it too much. I mean, I’ve watched enough terrible movies to identify the most basic levels of filmmaking competence. It’s not like it was shot on a VHS Handicam or anything. The audio quality is good (except when there’s an in-story reason for it not to be), and while the visual texture and style fails to look like the thing it’s supposed to be, it does look like something. Things are in focus. The actors don’t mumble. No one gets attacked by an animated GIF of a bird. I’m saying that Rod Pyle is better at making movies than James Nguyen or Scott Shaw, at least insofar as he seems to have a basic grasp of how the general concept of what you should end up with when you are done making a movie and which end of the camera is which. I mean, he’s no Tommy Wiseau, but still.

It’s not good, is what I’m getting at. It’s watchable, but only just. I mean, it’s not physically painful to watch. We’ll be getting most of our story from these two Channel 3 news anchors, Dave Douglas and Cheryl Storm (Credit where it’s due. That is a fantastic local news anchor name). Insofar as this narrative has a protagonist, Gideon Emery’s Dave is it. And that’s a real shame for multiple reasons, the first of which is that he’s terrible. That’s odd, since I looked him up on IMDb, and out of all the cast, he’s the one with an actual resume, having appeared in the modern Teen Wolf series, and having a long history as a video game voice actor, playing such iconic characters as John Connor and Trevor Belmont. But calling him wooden would be an insult to marionettes. I get what he’s going for, the old-fashioned hardcore-staid network newscaster who has to maintain utter unflappability. But he just can’t carry it off: rather than stoic, he seems unengaged. If you look back at Orson Welles’s radio play, the reporters there are all stoic and go out of their way not to convey emotion, but they still manage to convey intensity. The way they speed up or slow down, little catches in their voices, all work together to convey that this is SRS BSNS. Dave doesn’t have the gravitas for what he’s attempting. Instead of stoic, he comes off like he doesn’t appreciate the seriousness of what he’s reporting. And not even a “This is too big for me to process,” lack-of-seriousness; it’s more like he just doesn’t care. It’s the kind of disingenuous, “Thanks, Bob. And now, over to Mike for the weather,” kind of tone you’d expect if he were reporting on some fluff local-interest story that wasn’t even especially cute or heartbreaking. It’s almost parody, like a bored newsman trying and failing to show enthusiasm for the one hundred and thirtieth “Beloved family pet rescued from dangerous situation” story — parody, because in my experience, even very seasoned newscasters can usually manage to whip up some realistic “Aww, cute kitty,” or at least a sense of novelty at getting to report on something pleasant for once.

Caroline Do’s Cheryl is much the same. While I call Dave the lead character, she gets almost as much screen time and dialogue. I think. I’m not going to watch this whole movie again with a stopwatch to compare their relative number of lines. But as the story goes on, I think the direction shows a mild preference for him over her, and she gets her One Big Emotional Line and exits the story a few minutes before him. I actually think she’s a little better on the acting front too, as she’s clearly playing a slightly different archetype, a female newscaster who’s still staid and stoic and serious, but is allowed to show a bit more emotion. In a sense, I think one of the roles of the specifically female newscaster in this setting is to help make the audience care about the news in a way the traditional male newscaster doesn’t (I mean, Walter Cronkite could make you care about paint drying, but he was, to be blunt, really fucking good at his job). It’s a kind of ugly and sexist trope, but it’s had the net effect of putting a lot more female professionals in television news roles so I’ll let people who are better qualified than I am complain about it.

After approximately five seconds of them setting up the idea of a “meteor” strike in Mojave the previous weekend, they toss to our third character, Tiffany Heinsbocker in the field. Bree Pavey as Tiffany Heinsbocker in War of the Worlds Breaking NewsBree Pavey is far and away the best actor in this thing, and it’s weird that she’s apparently never done anything else (There’s an actress of the same name in IMDb, but she doesn’t look to be the same person) except for a web-based Feng Shui series for a content portal site that looks like its database crashed some time ago. She gets top billing in the credits, so maybe she is meant to be the lead, but her scenes, while the best thing in here, make up a comparatively small part of the narrative, such as it is. She reports on the gathering excitement surrounding the meteor crash, which is demonstrated by… The camera passing over a mountain, and a clip of some boy scouts running a lemonade stand. And at this point, you pretty much know what the deal is going to be with this movie. They’re going to combine “Tell, don’t show” with “Also none of these people are ever going to get a clear understanding of what’s going on”. We’re in for fifty-one minutes of being shown mostly nothing while mediocre actors deliberately avoid telling us what the hell is going on. This is practically an anti-movie. Tiffany interviews a bored child who would rather be watching TV. You and me both, kid.

Bree Pavey as Tiffany Heinsbocker in War of the Worlds Breaking NewsBut you know what? She sells it. I’m willing to believe, at least this far, that I’m watching a field reporter for a small TV station, who knows this story is big, but doesn’t have the access to actually report anything meaningful, and the chagrin in her voice when, for want of anything better to do, she ends up pestering a boy scout, seems legit.  She does assure us that the crash site is an impressive sight to behold “even from here”, though her cameraman dutifully shows us nothing that could even remotely be described as “interesting”.

We get a few homages to other adaptations of the story here too: the bored boy scout’s name is “Grover”, an allusion to Grover’s Field, the landing site in Orson Welles’s 1938 version. Scientists studying the meteor are identified as being from the fictional “Pacific Tech”, and are led by “Clayton Fielding”, references to Doctor Clayton Forrester, the hero of the 1953 George Pal film. She interviews Fielding, who is no help at all: he tells us the same thing that Tiffany has already told us twice (and, for that matter, that Clayton Forrester told us in 1953 and Richard Pearson told us in 1938): the meteor is hollow. He goes on to tell us, again twice that meteors normally are solid metal or stone. Tiffany does throw out the ET question, which I think is a good move: I imagine there was a strong temptation to have everyone play coy about that, the same way that no one in a zombie movie has ever heard of zombies, and frankly, I’d find it interminable if someone didn’t come right out with, “Hey, is this aliens?” They’re not going to do anything with it, but at least it’s there. Fielding misses the obvious response, of course, since this movie never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. He merely laughs the idea off rather than saying that the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one (they say).

Tiffany tosses back to Dave, and then I guess we cut to commercial.

War of the Worlds Breaking News TV Ident

After the commercial, Dave tosses back to Tiffany, who’s now standing beside a police truck and wearing Chekov’s radiation badge, though I ought to ask someone with working color-vision what it looks like, because I am utterly underwhelmed by how the green/red distinction comes out on-screen. Bree Pavey as Tiffany Heinsbocker in War of the Worlds Breaking NewsShe manages to score an interview with a General Guerro, who, in accordance with how this thing is going, pretty much just repeats what Tiffany has already told us: the National Guard has sent some folks up into the pit, they may need to push the reporters and onlookers back soon, and there’s been “some signs of activity” near the meteor. He says this is “just routine,” a phrase which, for some reason, really enchants my son. He seems a little flustered and a little incredulous, at first like he doesn’t believe the words that are coming out of his mouth. When Tiffany presses him to elaborate on the alleged “activity”, he suddenly gets evasive, but it’s the kind of evasiveness I’d associate less with “He knows something and isn’t telling,” and more with “He’s lost the next page in the script.” All the same, if they actually did something with this, it could really salvage the movie, playing up the idea of the people in power having something to hide. But that’s a very hard angle to sell without dropping the kayfaybe and stepping outside the “Breaking News” artifice, and to this movie’s credit, they are 110% committed to this narrative frame. That’s sixty percent more than Orson Welles was, keep in mind.

The general is called away with some news that visibly troubles him, and the police relocate Tiffany, forcing her to toss back to Dave and Cheryl, who share a good-natured forced chuckle over the idea of it being aliens. In a not-very-convincing attempt to make it seem more like a regular newscast and not The Plot Development Channel, Dave drops a news item about the President dismissing the latest Kyoto accord as “hogwash” and commissioning oil drilling in Yosemite. Gideon Emery as Dave DouglasCheryl tries to impersonate a human being by suggesting that will, “Teach those bears a lesson,” and Dave is clearly kind of scandalized by the statement. His lips say, “Yes, I guess it will, Cheryl,” but his head nod says, “What the fuck are you thinking? It’s a national treasure!”

After another ident break, we’re treated to breaking news of a disaster near Malibu. Well, sorta. We slip into “Don’t show, don’t tell” mode for a bit as instead of actually telling us about the disaster, Cheryl gives us a stilted, poorly-phrased recap of “recent events”, which consists of some new information: several large meteors fell to Earth “last week” in an annual meteor shower (She presents the fact that it’s a regular annual meteor shower as though this too is new information to the audience), one off the coast near Malibu, one in Mojave, “two in Europe and Africa”, with two unconfirmed in Russia and a third unconfirmed in the Sierra Nevadas. Which seems like the Martians have a disproportionate interest in the greater Los Angeles area. Fair enough, I guess, since Angel Grove got invaded by aliens pretty much once a week from 1992 to 1998. Cheryl follows this new information up with stuff we’ve been told multiple times: the meteors are hollow, radioactive, and magnetic. “Beyond that, we know nothing.” Nothing at all, beyond the three minute recap we were just subjected to.

The invisible earpieceGideon Emery as Dave Douglas Dave is wearing informs him about a plane crash, though there’s, “No reason to suspect terrorism.” Wayne Brian as Harvey LevelleWe finally get to the “disaster in Malibu” when Dave hands off to the fourth member of their news-almost-reporting team, Harvey Levelle (Wayne Brian). Harvey going for a deliberately hateable sort of guy, over-dressed, over-made-up, oozing a strong “Used Car Salesman” vibe, with his hair so shellacked that he’s halfway to looking like Max Headroom. He shows us the seen of carnage and devastation in Malibu. Or rather, doesn’t, since he just shows us a perfectly ordinary stretch of Pacific coast. Harvey explains, smugly (Why smug? I have no fucking clue), that “something” rose up out of the water and walked off down Pacific Coast Highway.

What? We’re not going to see it. We’re not going to get a description (Not much of one, anyway). Of course not. Don’t show, don’t tell. Harvey uses an OpenGL cube transition to show us a clip of an interview with a local, who explains that, mere minutes ago, a wall of water rose up over this bone-dry stretch of coastline as something “Like a crane. A big mechanical crane. Like a monster,” rose out of the water. Harvey challenges him on the matter of it being a mechanical crane with the most urgency and passion anyone has, in the history of the world, ever asked someone if something was a mechanical crane. Maybe he’s supposed to be challenging someone he thinks is unhinged, but it doesn’t quite come off. The interviewee storms off in a panic, and present-Harvey explains that paramedics took him off for “observation”.

Now, of course, a lot can change in nine years. But even in 2005, it kinda beggars the imagination to suppose that a giant crane-monster capable of generating a tsunami could come ashore in Malibu without anyone snapping a grainy cellphone picture of it. The lack of one does kind of justify Harvey being kind of smug and incredulous. Assuming that’s what he’s going for and not just “I’m a giant dickbag”. He tosses over to their traffic reporter, Lisa Elfman, who reports from her traffic helicopter as she watches some stock footage of an aircraft carrier pulling up to the coast. I will note that your typical news helicopter has a range of about 300 nautical miles and a top speed around 100 knots. I know very little about aircraft carriers, but I am fairly sure that one of the advantages of having a giant honking boat that can launch airplanes is that you do not have to get all that close to the thing you want to blow up, so it kinda strikes me as unlikely that a traffic copter would just happen upon them.

When Harvey finally kicks it back to Dave and Cheryl, needing time to recharge the batteries in his smarm, Dave tries to crack wise about the possibility of someone catching “California’s Nessie” on film. Cheryl just sort of sits there with a look of dull surprise, presumably because hearing Dave make light of the situation made her realize how flat her grizzly bear joke fell.

She receives a telepathic message that the airplane crash from the last scene was actually two plane crashes, which seems like kind of a big mistake to make. Dave responds by declaring it to be Friday night, and kicking it over to some stock footage of parked airplanes and a faceless voice explaining how all the flights out of LAX are grounded, and travelers should call to reschedule. Gideon Emery as Dave DouglasDave makes one last noble stab at passing for human by trying to lighten the mood by declaring it a zoo at the airport, then seamlessly transitions to telling us that Homeland Security has raised the threat level to “Tell Your Wife You Love Her NOW red.

Tiffany calls Dave on his invisible earphone, and he kicks over to her, still wearing same red outfit and radiation badge from her last appearance, which rules out the possibility of there being large time gaps when they go to commercial. She’s relocated to firemen training on a condemned motel that’s been partially demolished, which will be playing the role of the extreme devastation at an apartment complex. Bree PaveyShe has to shout at her cameraman not to film the dead bodies that aren’t there, because it’s tasteless and against this film’s stylistic conceit of never ever showing us anything interesting.

Back at the studio, Dave confirms that the two crashed planes belonged to Universal Airlines and Western Pacific. I can’t say I’m surprised that the planes that crashed when they were being flown by, respectively,  an airline that hasn’t existed since 1972 and a railroad. He’s interrupted by a press release from an FAA director, who tells us all the things we’ve just heard about a dozen times, but throws in the fact that an EMP was detected near both crash sites. Dave asks Cheryl if there’s any more news, and she reminds us for about the fifth time that there are still no survivors.

We toss back to Tiffany, who’s in Mojave again. She looks momentarily alarmed when we cut to her, presumably because she’s trying to work out how she managed to teleport the thirty miles from Palmdale to Mojave in the past two minutes. She reconciles the paradox by assuming she’d never left, and just continues as though she’s simply reporting in after having been moved back from the meteor impact crater again. She dutifully blames the airplane sounds which keep rendering her audio inaudible on B-1 and B-2 bombers flying to the impact site. Bree Pavey and F-14sIn a rare attempt to actually show us something, Tiffany has her cameraman do the world’s least convincing transition, sweeping the camera upward as they do a quick dissolve to some stock footage of three F-14s, that Tiffany thinks are all one plane. While teleporting back to Mojave, she also had time to interview an official, who, off the record, gave her the news tidbit that there was “some kind of activity” in the pit. This is about the fourth time they’ve acted as if declaring that “something happened” without further elaboration is actually news.

While Tiffany is relocated again, Harvey treats us to some stock footage of Marines on training exercises, pretending that it’s relevant. We rejoin Tiffany about five feet to the left, having put her hair up. She’s finally willing to commit to Shit Going Down now, as she’s gotten confirmation that “something” (Now that we’re taking things seriously, no one’s going to come right out and call them aliens until near the end) in the pit attacked the military, prompting the bombing, and now more soldiers are being trooped in, some, Tiffany confesses (as some soldiers just kind of run across the desert behind her), just kind of running across the desert.
Scott Forbes as Press Secretary Adams
We get a press conference from a White House Press Secretary who’s really poorly composited in front of a literal blank blue curtain with the White House seal floating above him. They seriously couldn’t just film him in front of an actual blue curtain and had to greenscreen him there? And I mean, this is seriously bad compositing, we’re talking early 1970s Doctor Who-bad. The only thing he tells us that we didn’t already know is that a meteor landed on the east coast near Grover’s Mills. Cheryl comments that the evacuations are “surely a surprise,” a weird little turn of phrase.

Harvey breaks his smug the next time they throw to him, when the camera shakes very gently from an imaginary explosion, but recovers quickly and still manages to sound incredulous about reports of “giant robots” leaving “death and destruction” even as we continue to hear the sounds of fighter craft and shelling. Dave kind of smirks at this report and cautions the viewers that Harvey was indulging in “speculation”. Dave, Cheryl and Harvey all seem to vacillate from scene to scene and even line to line on just how seriously they’re taking this. I mean, at this stage, it’s not like there’s any actual doubt that the military is engaged in multiple attacks on something in California. Sure, maybe you don’t believe it’s giant alien robots, but I think a reaction of “Ha ha ha, how fanciful!” is more than a little out-of-line. I mean, at this point, what would be a reasonable explanation? If anything, “It’s terrorists. Who can call down meteor strikes,” seems even more pants-crapping than “It’s aliens.”

The lone exception to this is Tiffany, the only one who seems to consistently take things progressively more and more seriously as events unfold. She tries to get some information out of General Guerro, but he brushes her off, and her frustration looks genuine. That said, as before, she seems to be obsessing a bit with the military-porn details. She begs one question out of the general, and it’s to ask what kind of munitions the bombers were carrying. I mean, yeah, it would indeed be big news if came down to nukes, but you know what question has neither been asked nor answered yet? What the fuck is the thing in the pit?

Suddenly, the army is pulling back and Tiffany reports that she’s been ordered to evacuate just before an explosion throws her to the ground and they lose the feed. Though to spare the audience from experiencing any actual suspense, they get it right back before Tiffany can even finish buttoning up her shirt. Which she’d unbuttoned for some reason. She must have fallen on some ketchup packets or something because her temple and eyebrow are dotted with it.

This is like the one unqualified good scene in the whole thing. Tiffany is shaken. She’s confused. She’s scared. She doesn’t know what the explosion was. And as she buttons her jacket, she looks at her badge.
Bree Pavey
And she says nothing. Because there aren’t any words. They’re never going to say it, never acknowledge it. But she just said she didn’t know what that explosion was, and then she looked down and saw that she’d been exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation. Her voice catches as she relates that the fleeing soldiers are shouting that “It’s coming”. And then she freaking legs it.

Unfortunately, this development takes Tiffany out of the narrative for a few minutes, so we’re stuck with the yo-yos back in the studio. Bari Willerford as Will KnightThe last of our yo-yos to be introduced is Will Knight, channel 3’s military consultant. He’s not great, but I think he works a good bit better than the others. He comes off as someone who doesn’t really have any practical newscasting experience, but is rather just a retired soldier who happened into this job because he knew someone. He has a fairly commanding presence, but not one that’s honed to the screen. He reports on military movements in Russia in a scene that goes on far too long before new satellite photos come in revealing really fake-looking fifty-mile-wide clouds over the meteor impact sites which Will identifies as nuclear explosions. Again, there’s a bit of obsession with the minutiae of military operations, with Dave’s first thought being to ask Will for an estimate of the size of the nuclear warheads (ten to twenty megatons, “as big as they come”), rather than, y’know, “Holy shit, Russia just nuked itself!” They blame the EMP of the detonations for knocking out satellites in the area, to excuse them not having to report any more news from Russia.

They get a videophone call from their UK field correspondant (Because channel 3 has one of those), who reports on an attack she doesn’t have any real information about in Woking, the site of the first Martian attack in the original novel. Just like every other piece of this thing, they’re interested in talking about the military response, about the fires, about the evacutions, but the reports all seem singularly uninterested in actually getting any information about what’s going on. Yes, I understand the idea that no one’s getting close enough to report back on the nature of the attackers, but the newscasters don’t even bother to ask most of the time, and even seem dismissive of any attempt to bring the subject around to the, y’know, big mechanical death machines stalking the countryside.

When we finally get back to Tiffany, she’s managed to regain most of her composure and wiped most of the ketchup off her forehead. She doesn’t really know anything new, but it feels really legit: in the heat of the moment, she does panic and lose her composure, but she recovers quickly. Harvey, on the other hand, is back to smarmy. He talks over some forest fire stock footage, again, more concerned with stuff like the damage the fire is causing than the whole “Aliens are invading” angle, before he’s forced to relocate because of encroaching smoke.

I think I get the gist of what they’re going for here; they’re harkening back to the endless newsgasm after the 9/11 attacks, where newscasters didn’t know anything but felt compelled to keep newsing at us as hard as they could anyway. But at least then, they were trying to get us some news about what had happened and why. Also, it didn’t actually take that long for us to get the basic gist of what had happened. This is… It’s like if the news channels on 9/11 were unable to determine that airplanes had been involved. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’m talking out my ass here, and the news coverage really was this random, minutiae-obsessed and big-picture-blind, and it just seems different now because of the decade of time in the middle. But one thing I’m dead sure of is that the initial coverage actually had something to show us. Over and over again. A continuous loop of disaster-porn that lasted for days, and talking heads threatening disproportionate retaliation and calling for undesirables to be rounded up.

The press secretary cuts in again to tell us… Nothing new. They cut over to Tiffany, who contradicts the press secretary on one point: she reports that the military is pulling back, not standing their ground as he’d claimed. Like Harvey, she’s been cautioned about smoke as well, and is preparing to head for the hills. Dave takes over when Tiffany starts having trouble with her link-up, and then there’s an odd visual glitch.
wotw-bn-16
We’ll be seeing it again later. They get Tiffany back, and she explains that their truck has died, leaving them stranded until the military can give them a lift. Though she’s regained most of her compsure, she’s started having trouble with her words, flubbing lines with increasing frequency. It’s a surprisingly realistic depiction of a reporter struggling to keep it together under stress. She comes closer to cracking when she sees soldiers in the distance donning biowarfare suits as thick black smoke rolls across the battlefield, and her expression is good enough that I almost forget to be annoyed that her cameraman doesn’t just turn the camera to the left and show us this.

When they lose Tiffany’s signal, Will gets a chance to report on some troop movements, but Tiffany’s intrepid cameraman has somehow found a payphone out in the desert in 2005, allowing her to return via low-resolution videophone, her face now partially hidden by a really flat-looking post-production smoke effect. Bree PaveyAs the gunfire dies down, Tiffany starts to panic again while she struggles to put on a gas mask, then finally falls, choking, out of frame. Her intrepid cameraman manages to hold the camera stock-still as he too presumably succumbs to the black smoke and dies, moving, like a weeping angel, only during a brief moment when the camera feed is replaced by static, to rest at an angle on the ground for a brief shot of Tiffany’s limp body. It’s really all downhill from here, folks, because we’ve got another twelve minutes or so, but they’ve killed off the most interesting and dynamic character in this thing*.

After a moment of confusion, Dave asks Will if he’s still there. This will be hilarious in a few minutes, and Will seems pissed off by the question. Caroline DoCheryl interrupts their speculation on the nature of the black smoke with an awkward “Hold it guys!” followed by about a second of silence while the camera gets its act together and cuts to her, still frozen in a hands-out “wait a second” gesture. She’s telepathically intuited that they have audio of a 911 call, wherein a boy named Connor utterly fails to realistically portray a child panicking over his dead parents in a smoke-filled house. He announces that something is at the door, then screams, “It burns! It burns! Mommy!” The scene would be chilling if it had felt anything like genuine. I know from the credits that it actually is a child actor (the same one who played the bored boy scout), but if I didn’t know that, I’d swear it was an adult adopting a fake child voice. I’ve heard panicked 911 calls from children whose parents are in danger. The fact that I just thought about one is probably going to ruin my night’s sleep. This is not convincing.

A shellshocked Cheryl explains that hundreds of similar calls have been recorded. One last time, we throw to Harvey via videophone, who smarms insincere concern for Tiffany. Harvey’s relocated to somewhere “far from the battle zone” but still “inside the battle perimeter,” and is the first person to identify the source of the attacks with something as specific as “Strange invaders”, and a minute later, finally, as “aliens”. He too is overcome by the smoke, using his last few minutes to wax eloquent about the “brave, brave troops,” and, “The finest America has to offer.” We get another one of those strange visual glitches.

The cat being out of the bag, everyone can start calling them aliens. Dave tries to calm the audience, while Will has somehow gotten in touch with “sources inside the military” to learn that the alien war machines can generate EMPs, the source of the various transmission glitches and lost connections. A soldier who’s fled the front lines calls the station and finally Dave asks someone about the nature of the invaders. According to Private Washington, they’re, “Huge. Horrible. They must be at least 200 feet tall.” He insists that the military can’t hold the line or repel the invaders, outraging Will, who is confident otherwise. A presumed alien advance kills Private Washington, still on the line, and Cheryl finally loses it and simply runs off-stage.

Dave, now pretty shellshocked himself, looks to Will for hope. Will angrily insists that the command must still have things in hand. A piss-poor George Bush impersonator (the same actor who’d previously played the press secretary) delivers a message of hope and no information from his undisclosed location, but his message is cut off with another video glitch. Dave’s chyron (The title graphic displayed in the lower third of the screen, named for the maker of a popular 1970s digital character generator) now reads, “Breaking news: Earth invaded by aliens”Gideon Emery, and there’s some trouble even with the studio signal now, as Dave’s color balance is all wrong.

He tries to regain his composure, but loses it again when the building shakes and his greenscreen gives out. Will, who we finally now see is literally sitting next to Dave and has been the whole time, identifies the explosion as a nuclear detonation. He gets his PA to summon a traffic map, showing… Traffic. Another building-shake prompts Will to announce, “They’re here, Dave.”

Dave once again uselessly asks, “Are you still here?” to Will, and then, “Is there anything we should do?”

Will is now loading a handgun, and explains, “No. Just try to go with dignity. It’s them. Just breathe, Dave. Nothing anyone can do now.” As smoke starts to fill the studio, Will puts the gun to his temple and we cut back to Dave as a very muted gunshot sound effect plays. Dave shouts, “Oh God! It burns! It burns!” as the studio gives way to the movie’s money-shot:

Alien War Machine

Our one and only look at the aliens, before the screen changes to what we should probably now realize is a Martian channel ident cardAlien Title Card (Which it now occurs to me looks kinda like a pie. Specifically, thisA Pie. pie.), then to a test pattern, and finally an old fashioned CRT-winking-off effect.

This movie is weird. It’s wrong in so many ways. It’s probably on-paper the worst adaptation of The War of the Worlds I’ve ever seen (though I reserve the right to revise that judgment very shortly).  And yet it has a certain charm and earnestness to it. Bree Pavey’s Tiffany Heinsbocker is an absolute delight. Will Knight’s final breakdown is painfully cliche, but he carries it off well. And even Dave, who is generally terrible, right at the end, gets a fairly good scene where he has to keep ordering himself to keep it together.

Most of the cast are just terribly misjudged in their performance. They never seen serious at the right time, or try to lighten the mood at the right time, or react with the proper amount of either gravitas or horror in response to things. And the whole character of Harvey is utterly misguided. I think maybe they were going for a kind of self-aggrandizing hotshot who’s trying to get himself noticed for bigger things, but after maybe one scene of him, he’s utterly inappropriate. The absolute worst is his reaction to Tiffany’s death, which just seems so plastic and rehearsed that I’d be rooting for him to die, except that his death ends up kinda upstaging Tiffany’s.

This might be the first time that I’ve found myself complaining about an independent film for being too unambitious. We get one CGI FX shot at the very end, and a few seconds of military stock footage a few more seconds of forest fire stock footage, and one photoshop smoke effect, and the rest of the time, it’s just people telling us, in not very much detail, about destruction that we either can’t see, or which contradicts what we can see.

The real problem here is with the narrative itself. Like, you notice what’s missing from this? The bit at the end where the Martians all keel over from common Earth-bacteria. Which is close to being the whole thematic punch line of the story, but here it’s just absent. The bulk of the narrative is spent with our news reporters reporting over and over again that they don’t actually know anything. Even leaving aside the idea that they’d be reluctant to declare the invaders to be extraterrestrial (which is defensible, but even so, in the real world, the news would have been dominated by speculation, with talking heads shouting why is obviously was or was not aliens. And Fox News “Just asking questions” whether or not Obama might secretly be an alien himself), they story here is that the US Military is engaged in maneuvers against multiple enemy targets on American soil, and yet the reporters are coy even about that. It’s all about them not having much information, and there being “unconfirmed reports” of “activity”. They put off actually saying “We are under attack by a hostile force” for just as long as they put off saying “It’s invaders from Mars,” and they try to keep playing as “The reporters don’t realize that these events are related and add up to something important,” well past the point where any reasonable person could be that dense. Further, all we ever see of the “destruction”, until that final money-shot, is one not-very-burnt-down apartment complex. We’re only a few minutes into the story when, allegedly, a two hundred foot tall crane-like machine rises up out of the pacific ocean and walks down a major highway. That is a dumb thing to write into your story at the 15 minute mark, and then proceed to not have anyone see it, snap a picture, or even confirm the report. There’s a news helicopter in the area, but it goes off to watch stock-footage of a carrier group instead.

And the carrier group reminds me of another of this movie’s strange foibles: the way that the reporters keep acting as though the exact details of military operations are the real story. The copter covering the carriers instead of going to look for the war machine. Tiffany asking about the munitions being sent into the pit rather than the thing inside it. Tiffany’s speculation with her cameraman over the types of bombers. Will Knight’s detailed analysis of Russian troop movements, and speculation on the exact yield of the bombs used in Siberia. The fact that channel 3 has a chief military reporter at all. You see this sort of thing a lot with folks like Tom Clancy or Michael Bay (Though Bay’s military fetishism isn’t as detail-oriented), but, y’know, Rod Pyle is no Tom Clancy. Or Michael Bay even.

But you know what? Why should he have to be? This isn’t a big studio release. I don’t even know what this is. I did a little research on Rod Pyle. Amazon informs me that he’s written an assortment of nonfiction books about NASA, primarily focused on the Apollo missions and on the exploration of Mars. He’s written for The Huffington Post and Conscious Life News about NASA and Mars, He wrote and directed some episodes of The History Channel’s Modern Marvels, including one about Apollo 11. He’s also a ghostwriter, specializing in helping subject-matter experts render their expertise into nonfiction books.

I think what we’re looking at here is nothing stranger than a space-enthusiast who’s skilled as a non-fiction writer and documentary filmmaker turning his hand to one particular story that he has a particular fondness for, and trying to make something fun that’s a little outside his comfort zone. Maybe he made it just for his portfolio, something to show clients. Maybe it was a class project. I don’t know. The only really weird thing is that it somehow ended up on a DVD that Netflix was willing to send me.

Do I recommend this? I’m not sure who I’d recommend it to. It’s not “bad movie good”, in that there isn’t really any incompetence to laugh at, except maybe Harvey. I can’t really say, “If you’re into that sort of thing,” because then I’d have to try to come up with an explanation of what “that sort of thing” is. It’s not really experimental enough for someone who’s into experimental filmmaking. Okay, you know whose cup of tea this might be? If you’re the kind of person who likes educational short films. That’s sort of what this feels like, now that I think about it. Like maybe something you’d show a High School Journalism class: show a clip, and have them identify stuff like the chyron and the intertitles and discuss technique and voice and greenscreening and whatever.

Maybe that’s why I ultimately ended up enjoying this; I actually kind of dig that sort of thing. I like narratives in things that don’t primarily exist to be narratives. The corporate ethics training video with its storyline about intrigues among the employees slowly escalating until someone accidentally commits a federal crime. The anti-drug PSA about a teenager transported to fantasy world to fight video game-style monsters representing drug dealers. The teen high school soap opera to introduce the Spanish words for objects found around the classroom. And of all the things I’ve experienced, that’s what Breaking News feels the most like. Like the actual narrative of this short film is actually beside the point of it.

I just wish I knew what the point actually was. Which is what I thought was going to be the coda to this post, but then something finally turned up in my research. See, from a narrative perspective, Breaking News drives me up a wall, because, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, they killed off Tiffany before the final act…

Continue reading

December 31, 2014
December 24, 2014

A Pair of Hopalong Boots and a Pistol that Shoots… (Captain Power: The Training Videos)

Author’s note: Due to severe VHS interlacing artifacts, a lot of the scenes I wanted to use to illustrate this article were incomprehensible from single frames, so I’ve used a greater than usual number of GIF animations. As a result, this page may have unusually long load times.

Merry Christmas! There’s an episode of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future that’s set on Christmas, but to be perfectly frank, it’s like one lighthearted minute and then the whole thing turns into an unrelenting bummer, since we’re into the part of the season that gets kind of heavy. So let’s talk about something else Christmas-related instead. Specifically, Christmas, 1987.

It is Christmas Day, 1987. George Michael still tops the charts with “Faith”. Erma Bombeck, Stephen King, Tom Wolfe and Danielle Steele all have NYT Bestsellers out, as do Bill Cosby, Donald Trump and Mikhail Gorbachev. Time Magazine has named Gorby their Man of the Year. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, one of Charles Manson’s followers, is recaptured several days after she escaped from Alderson Federal Prison. Nothing much is happening on TV as far as I know; Teri Garr and Connie Chung are Letterman’s guests tonight. The Atlanta Hawks beat the Philadelphia 76ers. I don’t know, really. Christmas, when you’re a child, has a kind of out-of-time quality to it and it seems weird to try to ground one particular Christmas in its broad historical context. So let’s try again.

It is Christmas and I am eight. This is the second of the three to five years that my grandmother came to stay with us for Christmas (My grandfather had died the year before). I found this kind of upsetting the first year for reasons I couldn’t fully process at the time, that there was this intruder inserted into our Christmas. But I was just old enough to control myself and get over it. The JC Penney Christmas Catalog might give you a certain insight into what this year was like for a kid. Or for anyone really, I mean, look at those shoulder pads.

Christmas Catalogs aren’t really a thing any more, as my sister and I were lamenting this past Thanksgiving. Sears discontinued their “Christmas Wishbook” in 1993, having decided that people buying stuff from the comfort of their own homes and having it delivered to them was pretty much dead, and that traditional brick-and-mortar department stores in enclosed shopping malls was the wave of the future. This bold insight eventually led Sears, Roebuck and Company to evolve from the king of mail-order, through which you could buy everything from a suit of clothes to a washing machine to a house to put your suit of clothes and washing machine in, to be a company who, in 2013, managed to screw up an order I made on their website so badly that I ordered two things, and received three, none of which were the things I had ordered. That is a 150% failure rate. (The Sears Wishbook was reinstated in 2007 as a shadow of its former self). But that’s neither here nor there, because I’m actually referencing the JC Penney book, as it’s the one I remember for this year.

I think my sister had one of those dresses from the cover. I know she got the play kitchen from page 378 — it’s in my parent’s family room right now for when they’re on babysitting duty (though they had to cut the cord on the phone, since my niece, having been born in the twenty-first century, could not cope with the concept of a phone that was leashed to something. Speaking of which, the gray one at the top of page 506 is the first cordless phone our family had) — along with the shopping cart on 380. And the Laurel and Hardy ventriloquist dummies on page 374? Literally the first presents we saw when we walked into the living room that morning. And there’s lots of other stuff there I remember from other years — Teddy Ruxpin (page 359) was the previous year’s big present (My sister got the more advanced “Julie”, page 357, this year). The Cobra Night Raven (page 441) is one of the few GI Joe toys I had. It’s in the basement now. I’d been into Transformers and MASK (pages 443-445) in previous years, but they’d fallen below my threshold by ’87 — I was always too much of a dabbler to acquire a really big collection of any single toy line the way my friends did, which I kind of regret a bit in retrospect. (I wanted one of everything instead of all of one thing. Well, okay, I wanted all of everything, but one-of-everything was the compromise I hammered out with my parents.) I had the chemistry set from the middle of page 478. And I know for a fact that my grandparents (the other set) got us the Easy-Bake Oven from page 381 in 1986. Oh, and I don’t know when we got the Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker at the top of the page, but my sister was so nostalgic for it that she bought one on eBay at considerable expense as an adult. (If it seems like I remember my sister’s Christmas better than my own, in 1987, she was three, and as it turns out, three is the perfect age for getting awesome Christmas presents. Says the father of a child who just turned three and is into Transformers and Power Rangers.)

Incidentally, you know what isn’t included in this catalog? A certain science-fiction franchise that had a revival this year. Yes, Star Trek The Next Generation missed out on the Christmas rush: Galoob held the license at the time, and their toy line didn’t launch until 1988. Josh Marsfelder has a nice article on them, which I’ll link to because really I should find more excuses to link to Vaka Rangi, as it is fantastic. I think I probably got my first Star Trek the Next Generation toys the following summer at a convention, where I got to meet Michael Dorn, and possibly Marina Sirtis, but those may have been two separate cons (Also some people who were in much less famous sci-fantasy shows of the time whose lines my dad made us stand in because he felt sorry for them and it was only like an extra two minutes anyway). Most of the draw of conventions for me was that you could get weird and obscure merchandise, so they kind of lost their attraction to me once eBay was invented.

But come on, you know the reason we're all here. Page 432. For that spectacular Christmas of 1987, I got a pair of clip-on sunglasses, a stopwatch, something large in a gray box that's too blurry in the home movies to identify (I think maybe it was a toy electric guitar), a dustbuster (I distinctly remember wanting this and it making perfect sense at the time) and... About a hundred and forty-three dollars worth of page 432 of the JC Penney Christmas Catalog -- basically everything but the gun.
I was the only kid on my block with the amazing PowerJet XT-7. In fact, I was the only kid I knew with one, other than my friend Steve from New Jersey. Which is probably a pretty telling slice of why the franchise didn't end up going anywhere. Returning to Christmas 1987 now means being haunted by the understanding that this is pretty much the exact day that Captain Power died: there were lots of difficulties facing the production, with parental outrage at the violence, terrible syndication timeslots, and stiff competition from that other show, but the nail in the coffin for Captain Power was that the toys didn't sell well during the Christmas rush.
I probably would have gotten the Interlocker Throne too had it been available (It is possible I didn't get the Phantom Striker until my birthday. Heck, it's possible my memory is cheating and I didn't actually get that one after all, since we haven't been able to locate any trace of it. But I have a pretty solid memory of having a hard time getting the wings to stay on, so probably.)

Included in this haul was the first two “training videos”, animated shorts set in the Captain Power universe, with voice acting and live-action bumpers from the cast, providing fifteen minutes of toy interaction. Three of these videos were made (I got the third one some time later, possibly for my birthday, but in my mind it seems like it was much later than that) by Artmic, a Japanese Anime studio that’s probably best known for Bubblegum Crisis, though they also, in 1985, produced the Genesis Climber MOSPEDA OVA, which, in 2013 was adapted into the movie Robotech: Love Live Alive.
Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future Training Videos

As with all things Captain Power, the cover art is strange and fantastic. Stylistically consistent with the art on the rest of the toyline packaging, it’s clearly derived from earlier concepts than made it to the live-action version. But also, there’s something kind of retro about the style. As incredibly ’80s as Captain Power’s high concept is, having a dude named “Captain Power”, who parades around in shiny gold armor fighting an evil overlord with a physical defect who lives in a volcano very much harkens back to old Republic serials. Hell, Hawk’s flying suit, especially with its janky special effects, is very Radar Men From the Moon. In fact, Captain Power is kind of all over the place temporally, mixing ’80s dystopia with ’50s robophobia, ’40s serial adventure, a bit of ’70s punk and glam, with the ghosts of ’90s CGI and even maybe a bit of contemporary phobias about losing our humanity to the internet hive mind. Some of this is second-order effects: Power clearly drew some of its visual stylings from Star Wars, which itself was a product of the ’70s with stylistic elements deliberately derived from the Sci-Fi adventure serials of George Lucas’s youth. But it’s mad and fun and it’s one of the things I love most about the show.

What we see here is something that’s a little bit Flash Gordon, and it’s lovely enough that, as before, I find myself meandering off in my mind to contemplate some Captain Power that wasn’t. A set of ’50s trading cards a la Mars Attacks that came bundled with bubble gum or boxes of cereal or candy cigarettes. More than ever, Captain Power feels like it’s an adaptation rather than an original property. It’s just that the thing it’s adapting doesn’t exist, which makes me all the more curious about it, this missing counterfactual Captain Power my dad might have enjoyed as a boy. What would it be like?  Would Overmind be a giant wall-panel covered in glowing vacuum tubes? What would they call “digitization”? What would Pilot’s name be (“Jennifer” was a pretty rare name until the late ’50s, and wasn’t a hugely common one until the ’70s)? Would they still “Power On”, or just put their armored suits on the old-fashioned way? Dread, of course, would be a cackling villain with none of the subtlety of televised character, but what of Soaron? Would he be closer to his original “Robot Red Baron” concept, or be reduced to a Bleep-Bloop kind of robot? Would the Nazi analogies be more explicit a few decades closer to the war, or would decorum demand they tone it down a bit? I have no doubt it would have been a largely incoherent mess, but if you’ve been reading this long, you probably already know that I kinda like me a beautiful incoherent mess.

Artmic went bankrupt back in 1997, and I imagine that this complicates the rights situation (which was probably already complex, with Mattel, Landmark and Artmic all holding a stake), which is probably why the training videos aren’t included on the 2011 DVD release, which means that your only choice to see them is shady internet bootlegs, or buying the VHS secondhand (at the moment, prices on Amazon start at 49 cents). Or apparently you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

It’s doubly a shame these have never been remastered for DVD, since the live-action bits give us some of the cleanest, most straightforwardly-shot footage of the Power Base and the Power Suits. Video 1, Future Force Training begins with a panning shot across the various consoles of the TARDIS-console in the nerve center of the Power Base. The closest we get to a title sequence is a close-up on one of the monitors, where the user “MATTEL” logs in to “run” the training program. It’s a little strange, too, that it seems to be shot differently. In the show, the camera normally shoots the Power Base control center from the left side of the room, so that the kiosk and command console are both to the right. The camera in the training videos is shooting from the right, centered on the console with the kiosk on the left. I don’t know if that’s related, but it’s also the angle they used in the comics when Hawk powers on.

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future Training VideosTim Dunnigan appears and, with even more than the usual amount of emotionless detachment, explains that you’ve been selected to join the Soldiers of the Future as a PowerJet pilot, and that you’re about to go through some training. You’ll be at the controls of a “real” PowerJet XT-7, facing off against simulated targets, computer-generated by Mentor. But before we get to that, of course, he invites us to Power On.

Right away, we know that there’s going to be some issues if we want to treat these videos as canon. I mean, the whole framing of a new recruit on his (Or her. One thing I’ll say for this series of videos is that, although they must have been dead certain which set of naughty bits 99% of their audience was sporting, the player is exclusively referred to in gender-neutral terms) first day being given one of the two spare power suits — which can’t be reassigned once activated — is right out, of course. And there will be other things that don’t line up right later too. We shouldn’t be surprised. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was tied more closely to its toy line than most of the merchandise-driven kids shows of the era, but it’s a low bar to clear. Masters of the Universe had three separate, wildly incompatible versions of its backstory: one from the toy packaging, one from the animated He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series, and one from the “Miniternia” small-format comic books that came with the first toy releases. Only about half of the Transformers toys bore more than a passing resemblance to their animated counterparts — I don’t think I ever saw a first-edition Bumblebee or Cliffjumper that were the right respective colors, and Ironhide didn’t even have a head(A recent collector’s edition re-release had a show-accurate clip-on head sold separately).

But there’s another way to interpret it. Sure, maybe Tim’s wooden performance and the various points of divergence from show-canon are just a matter of no one bringing their A-game to making a fifteen-minute video to be bundled with a toy. Or maybe it’s diagetic. In-story, this is a training mission. Cap is clear, direct, and dispassionate to the point of being boring, but he’s also kind of jingoistic. He’s very, “Now get out there and serve your country, soldier,” and “With these weapons, we will one day bring Lord Dread’s tyranny to an end.” I think that the right way to interpret this video is as an in-universe training video. This isn’t Tim Dunnigan reading a script where he’s playing Captain Power training a new recruit, this is Captain Power reading a script for distribution to the recruits. In fact, maybe we shouldn’t watch it as a training video, but as a recruitment video. Something they show in the Passages to inspire people to sign up. Of course they’d dangle the carrot of getting to wear a Power Suit or fly a Power Jet. The later videos don’t support this reading tremendously well, but I think you could still make the argument, particularly in light of the fact that, after the power-on sequence, we transition to animation.

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future Power On Powering on, by the way, will activate the Power On pedestal toy if it’s facing the TV and switched on at the time.
Not visible in the picture on page 432 is the fact that it’s got a handle on the back, so you can pick it up and fly it around too if you wish. Unlike the jets and the gun, it doesn’t shoot, but it will respond if shot. The Captain Power action figure (unlike the others) has a hole in its back that allows you to impale it on the center post of the charging station, making its strobing light visible through Cap’s translucent chest symbol. The sequence has two phases: first, it acts as a target, allowing other toys to “recharge” by scoring points off of it. Then, it switches its strobe pattern and sound, becoming an attacker (The manual calls this the “force field” phase, I think), registering hits on anyone nearby. Or maybe it was the other way around. I can’t remember, and I haven’t found mine in mom’s attic yet, and it’d be a moot point if I did since the PowerJet’s got so much cigarette tar caked on the sensor that I’m not sure it could tell the difference anyway.

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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