March 25, 2015

Deep Ice: And One Day, Take the War to Them (George Pal’s War of the Worlds: The Series)

I’ll Explain Later…

George PalIt is some time in 1975, give or take. I can’t be more specific than that. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wins best picture. Jaws has started the era of the blockbuster, basically creating a Hollywood culture based around huge “event” films and shunting smaller, less ambitious or more artistic films off to the ghetto of independent filmmaking. George Lucas founds Industrial Light and Magic to create the effects for Star Wars. Also, The Rocky Horror Picture Show opens, making it cool to sing along to Tim Curry in drag. Sensing the disturbance in the force, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are summoned to PBS to star in their first show together, Sneak Previews. Moe Howard and Larry Fine die. Drew Barrymore, Sara Gilbert, Johnny Galecki, Zach Braff, Milla Jovovitch, Tobey MacGuire, Angelina Jolie, and Fergie are born. The music world gives us “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Rhinestone Cowboy”, “Philadelphia Freedom”, “Love Will Keep Us Together” and “Sister Golden Hair”. The original version of “Lady Marmalade”, though released last year, hits #1 in March.

From the world of television, Jeopardy! ends its original run (It’ll be revived in ’84), Wheel of Fortune begins its. The Jeffersons premiers. Gene Roddenberry is contracted by Paramount to make a Star Trek feature film titled The God-Thing. It falls through, prompting Roddenberry to pursue the idea of bring Trek back as a TV series instead. A few scattered elements of The God-Thing are incorporated into Star Trek the Motion Picture, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,  and that episode of Futurama where Bender meets God.

The 1970s are the closest thing the Star Trek franchise has to an equivalent of Doctor Who‘s “wilderness years”: a period full of false starts, noncanonical spin-offs, and one big movie that fans are quick to disown these days as being all style and no substance. It is widely and correctly believed that had Star Trek: Phase II made it to air, it would have, even if successful, killed the franchise stone dead. An evolutionary dead-end that would have locked Star Trek into one particular mode that wouldn’t have a way forward.

And while I do not in any way, shape or form dispute this as the obvious truth, there is, all the same, a part of me that longs for a ‘Trek that is informed by the 1970s the same way that the original series is informed by the 1960s, and The Next Generation is informed by the long ’80s.Star Trek: The God-Thing Because Science Fiction in the ’70s had a fantastic weirdness about it born out of an intense, almost overwhelming sense of not giving a crap about things like whether the science or indeed the plot made a lick of sense. You could have the moon go wander the far-reaches of the galaxy. You could selectively reinterpret Mormon cosmology as a galaxy-spanning space opera. You could have Earth invaded by evil fetish costumes. You could have Space Amish. You could even do Jason of Star Command. It’s all good. As we all know now, when Star Trek finally did return at the very end of the ’70s, it chose to take the High Road, trying to be serious and a bit artsy — even pretentious — without being “goofy”. And as much as Star Trek The Slow-Motion Picture is derided for its psychedelic plot and sloth-in-treacle pacing, “Serious and a bit artsy, even pretentious, without being goofy,” ended up being the dominant model of how Star Trek was going to work from that moment on. But it didn’t have to be. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future showed us, I think, a model for how Star Trek could have worked if it had chosen to go lighthearted and unpretentious: still a bit artsy, but kinda goofy.

Speaking of Gene Roddenberry, though, dig this: in the ’60s, Gene Roddenberry’s office at Paramount was across the hall from George Pal’s. By the mid 1970s, George Pal’s star was waning. Though he worked on numerous projects (A sequel to The Time Machine; a sequel to When Worlds Collide; a sequel to The Wizard of Oz; and adaptations of Logan’s Run (Pal’s option would run out before he could get it off the ground and Saul David would later make the film instead) and HG Wells’s When The Sleeper Wakes (Didn’t get greenlit because Woody Allen was already working on a spoof, Sleeper)), the only one that made it to theaters was Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, which flopped. I think it was the age of the blockbuster that did it in for him. The same techniques that had won him numerous awards in the fifties and sixties just could not scale up to compete with the likes of Jaws and Star Wars.

So it’s probably fitting at this point in his career that George Pal would try his hand at television. It didn’t pan out. I don’t know how these things get decided, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Pal was kinda toxic in Hollywood for a while after Doc Savage. There’s not a huge amount of information available in the public sphere, but some time in 1975, George Pal put together a pitch for a Star Trek-like TV series based (loosely) on one of his great successes from twenty years earlier: he proposed making The War of the Worlds into a TV series.

George Pal’s pitch reel for the new series was released on DVD some years ago by a company called Retroflix. I haven’t been able to find any information about them or any indication of their legitimacy: they don’t seem to be any of the currently-extant companies by that name and I got my copy second-hand, but it’s viewable on Youtube in its entirety (links below). The pitch is divided into three parts. First, there’s an outline of the series, presented as voice-over accompanied by concept sketches. The second part is a little featurette in Pal’s studio talking about the design process and creative team. The last section is a short live-action demo reel. My DVD copy also included half an hour of rough-cut visual effects material from War of the Worlds and Pal’s other big 1950s Sci-Fi hit, When Worlds Collide without any accompanying explanation (Which is cool because some of the shots are scenes that take place at night in the film, hiding details visible in the bright studio lighting. Also, the heat ray effect is replaced by film scratches that look like lightning bolts. Not sure if they’d actually intended to use a lightning-effect at some point, or if that’s just a placeholder).

The pitch begins with a montage of clips from the film, but a story that’s been heavily modified. The narrator sets the stage as “late in the 20th century”, when mankind has achieved world peace, zero population growth, a “stabilized” ecology and ocean farming. This peace is shattered by an invasion “from the infinite depths of space”. We’re told that the invasion lasts for “decades” before, as is tradition, the aliens all keel over due to common Earth viruses. There’s a few things in the backstory that don’t quite add up, of course. The clips, which admittedly should be counted only as demonstrative, clearly show 1950s military being routed and 1950s cities being razed. The fact that microorganisms take decades and not days to kill the aliens is not a problem in and of itself; The Great Martian War does something similar, after all. And frankly, the basic conceit of harmless bacteria wiping out the aliens is tricky to hang onto once you’ve specified a proper space-faring civilization rather than just a civilization that’s more advanced, but still mostly planet-bound, able only to invade their nearest neighbor by launching ballistic space ships out of giant space-cannons: protection from alien disease should be something they already knew to look out for. In the original book, it’s not a big deal because the Martians only have experience of the two habitable worlds and theirs doesn’t have microorganisms. So I think ultimately, it’s a small thing to modify the ending so that a disease kills the aliens not because they hadn’t thought of it, but because after years of fighting somebody screwed up taking off his hazmat suit. Further, one thing that isn’t retconned is that the war is a total rout for the home team. It’s hard to imagine a global war lasting for decades when one side has absolutely no defense. The 1953 movie is frequently cited for its religious themes. Among the religious allusions in the film is the estimate that, unchecked, the aliens could conquer the entire world in six days, the same length of time as one of the biblical creation stories. The Great Martian War has to dial the aliens’ invulnerability way down to stretch the war out over multiple years. This is a point where it just doesn’t work to have it both ways: either the aliens are utterly invincible and can conquer the world quickly, or the aliens can be held in check but not defeated, to slow the war down.

George Pal's Proposed War of the Worlds TV Series - Hyperspace Carrier PegasusThe narrator does not say it outright, but I think we have to presume that recovered alien technology is adapted for Earth use, because Earth’s response is to launch a fleet of six “Hyperspace Carriers” in the general direction of the alien retreat. The proposed show centers around the crew of one of these ships, the Pegasus, commanded by Colonel James Anderson. The conceptual sketch of Pegasus isn’t entirely original. It’s quite clearly an upside-down version of an AMT model kit from the late 1960s, originally marketed under the name “Leif Erickson Galactic Cruiser”.

Leif Ericson Galaxy Cruiser designed by Matt Jeffries.The Leif Erickson is an interesting ship in its own right. The model kit originally shipped with an accompanying two-page short story about the ship’s adventures, and some Beat Poetry set to Theramin music on a paper record, which is a bit of media so obscure that I’m only like 80% sure I know what it is (Probably the thing more often called a Cardboard Record). It’s never, so far as I know, appeared in any films or TV shows, but allegedly, it does show up in the background in some storyboards for Filmation’s Star Trek animated series. That’s not theft, and neither is its use by George Pal, because the Leif Erickson, the Filmation Storyboards, and indeed the War of the Worlds concept art were all designed by the same guy: Matt Jeffries.

Yes, that Matt Jeffries, designer of the original USS Enterprise and basically everything else in the original Star Trek (Except the shuttlecraft. Jeffries did design one, coincidentally also named for Leif Erickson, but his design was deemed too good for this fallen, sinful world expensive and a simpler one was used instead). And that may well account for the biggest part of the visual texture of the demo. Namely, while it does feel very Star Trek, even more than that, it feels retro. The Pegasus/Leif Erickson has an old-fashioned feel to it, even for 1975. And the images we see of the inside of the ship are much the same. George Pal's Proposed War of the Worlds TV Series - Hyperspace Carrier PegasusThe bridge of the Pegasus has some obvious similarities to the Enterprise, but also reminds me a bit of Raumpatrouille Orion, or even Lost in Space. The costumes even bear a resemblance to Star Trek — not the series proper, but the early versions from the pilot.

We’re given a broad outline of a series-long story arc, which frankly shocks the heck out of me from 1970s TV. The Pegasus is described as a “fortress in battle,” “a place to grow up in,” and “a place to find love.” The Pegasus is cut off from contact with Earth near the planet “Mega”, and as another Earth ship had gone missing there fifteen years earlier (presumably they’d have worked out the timeline in a way that didn’t imply that Earth was completely defenseless and engaged in a decades-long war while at the same time sending interplanetary star ships out into deep space), George Pal's Proposed War of the Worlds TV Series - Earth GovernmentEarth decides to recall the rest of the fleet to just hang out near home in case the aliens come back.George Pal's Proposed War of the Worlds TV Series - Classic Alien

The first plot arc would see the Pegasus sending landing parties to Mega, where they’d discover that the earlier ship had been destroyed and its crew abducted. On Mega, they’d also meet the movie aliens again, who would now be revealed as merely a servant race to an even greater power. Following rules that would later be set in stone by Power Rangers, Stargate SG-1 and Dragonball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh!, as the Pegasus followed the trail through space, they’d encounter the various thralls of the unseen overlords in strictly ascending order by menace. The movie-aliens would be followed up by a race of cave men with force-lancesGeorge Pal's Proposed War of the Worlds TV Series - Primate Alien, then by mind-controlled human captives.

George Pal's Proposed War of the Worlds TV Series - Robotized Humans

The culmination of the arc would take the Pegasus to the homeworld of the overlords themselves, the planet Endor. Yes, really. Keep in mind here that Return of the Jedi is still almost a decade away. I haven’t been able to find any particular references explaining how “Endor” came to be a planet name. The most likely connection I can think of is that “Endor” is the elvish name for Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, though that’s some prime-ass nerdery right there. The name itself is biblical: it’s the name of a Canaanite town which is known to have produced at least one witch, which is probably also where Agnes Moorehead’s character on Bewitched got her name. Pal’s Endor is no forest moonAdmiral Ackbar, though. It’s a bit more Mordor: a polluted wasteland, weak suns dimmed by smoggy skies. The pitch stops short of explaining the nature of the unseen overlords, but does show sketches of a space battle between the Pegasus and movie-style war machines.

George Pal's Proposed War of the Worlds TV Series - Space Battle Continue reading

March 18, 2015

And So Do I (Captain Power: Retribution, Part 2)


Captain Power Episode 22A lackadaisical blogger decided to write a series of reviews about the failed 1980s post-apocalyptic children’s series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. With an emphasis on sight-gags and the ill-conceived idea of having Sherlock Holmes as a sidekick, he covered four episodes of the series before going on a two-and-a-half-year hiatus after the birth of his son. Cribbing some stylistic elements from Phil Sandifer’s Tardis Eruditorium, he resumed the blog in 2014, eventually ramping up to a weekly posting schedule, albeit one with frequent side-trips. In the mean time, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future turned 25, an occasion marked by the release of all 22 episodes on DVD, and followed shortly by the announcement of a planned reboot under the title Phoenix Rising.

And now, the conclusion…

It is March 27, 1988. Macho Man Randy Savage pins Ted Dibiase at Wrestlemania IV. Brian Boytano wins the men’s figure skating championship at Budapest. The Grateful Dead play Hampton Coliseum in Virginia. Jesse Jackson becomes the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primaries, defeating Michael Dukakis in the Michigan caucuses. Dick Gephardt drops out of the race to see who’s going to lose to George Bush. Next week, Beetlejuice will open in theaters. In the past week, McDonalds opened a restaurant in Yugoslavia, its first in a communist country. Rick Astley immediately caves on his promise and Gives (the top spot on the Billboard Charts) Up to the man in Michael Jackson’s mirror.

Supercarrier and Murder, She Wrote are new. NBC shows a new Lincoln biopic with Sam Waterston, ABC shows Tootsie. CBS shows a biopic starring Rick Schroeder as Calvin Graham, a husky 12-year-old who lied about his age to join the Navy in World War 2. Star Trek the Next Generation takes the week off, leaving Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future unopposed for what turned out to be its denouement.

Jessica Steen as Cpl. Jennifer "Pilot" ChaseLet’s get this out of the way right up-front, because it’s easier to talk about the first half of the episode without it hanging silently over out heads.  At the climax of this episode, Jennifer “Pilot” Chase dies, sacrificing herself to destroy the Power Base before Lord Dread can capture it. There. With the pretense of suspense out of the way, we can talk openly about how this episode unfolds and walks itself to its inevitable conclusion.

There is almost a kind of Greek Tragedy element to the final episode of Captain Power. When we left off last week, remember, Lord Dread had discovered the wormhole network our heroes use to reach the Power Base and Soaron has scanned the frequency key they use to access it. Which is to say, from the first minute of this episode, the end is already inevitable. Even if Captain Power and his friends knew how precarious their position was right now, it’s not clear they’d be able to do anything about it.

On the one hand, this can make for a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion: we already know going in that nothing Captain Power does in this episode is going to affect the outcome. And that’s been one of the biggest problems all season, that our heroes seem almost completely lacking in agency. We’re not going to end with the good guys storming the castle and a fateful one-on-one battle between Jonathan Power and Lord Dread.

But, of course, we did all that two weeks ago, and frankly, I was underwhelmed. There’s a shift in emphasis here, then. We’ve already had the big fateful confrontation. Captain Power invaded the very belly of the beast, took on Lord Dread in single combat, foiled his plans and left Volcania crippled. But that’s not going to be what the finale’s about: the finale is going to be about Lord Dread’s terrible vengeance.

David Hemblen as Lord DreadAnd this is ultimately a good thing. The big problem I had with “New Order”, dramatically speaking, is that it was too much of a curbstomp. Enough, in fact, that it starts to become unconscionable that Captain Power has let the war drag on this long: if his gang of five freedom fighters can waltz right into Dread’s throne-room and seize control of Volcania’s systems — even if it’s only for a few minutes — why didn’t they round up Cypher and Sands and Gundar and the rest five years ago and level the place?

This episode has an answer of sorts: namely, Dread’s been playing softball. While Lord Dread’s shown a repeated willingness to kill, it seems like — admittedly, they haven’t been entirely consistent about this — he overwhelmingly prefers to convert or digitize. And therefore he’s been holding back. He essentially said as much last week: he’d opted to focus on creating the “new order” rather than on wiping out the old one. The justification, then, that it’s only with the “ticking time bomb” of Icarus and Prometheus that Captain Power would finally go on the offensive is because even with Volcania in ruins, Dread is capable of launching a counterattack more devastating than anything we’ve seen.

Heroes, particularly superheroes, are of their nature supposed to be primarily reactive: Batman can’t just show up at the Joker’s hideout and beat him to death for “being a villain”, he has to wait until the Clown Prince has actually embarked on some kind of crime. Even in your classic Joseph Campbell Monomyth (Which Captain Power tacitly accepts at least insofar as it is rather shamelessly knocking off Star Wars), where the hero is on a quest to unseat the tyrannical power that rules over the land, the story arc itself is still largely reactive: the hero starts out by refusing the call to adventure until the Saruman scourges the Shire, The Kurgan kills Ramirez, Storm Troopers toast Uncle Owen or Lyman Taggart kills Captain Power’s daddy.

Villains act, heroes react, says the law of dramatic necessity. Thus, Captain Power can react to the Prometheus countdown by attacking Volcania, but he can’t just waltz in there on a Thursday and shoot Overmind with a bazooka.

All the same, these last four episodes seem like something of a reversal, don’t they? The lack of any sort of meaningful tension in “New Order” makes the whole “Ticking time bomb” ring false. That story essentially opens with Captain Power learning the vital piece of intelligence he needs to mount a major successful offensive against Dread, then mounting a major successful offensive against Dread. Meanwhile, the very title of this two-parter tells us that now it is Dread who is going to be doing the “reacting”: all season, we’ve been watching him try (and fail) to enact his masterplan. But now, he’s given up on that and is just going to get his revenge.

This is especially important because one of the biggest problems I’ve had with this series is how little seems to be at stake. We’re told that the whole world cowers under Dread’s oppressive rule and all, and Cap told us at the end of “The Land Shall Burn” that this was their first substantial victory against Dread. But does that ring true at all? In “Wardogs”, they destroyed Dread’s base and evaded his trap. In “Final Stand”, they rescued the townspeople before they could be digitized. In “Pariah”, they rescued the kid and cured the Pariah Virus. In “A Fire in the Dark”, they persuaded Jessica Morgan not to help Dread. In “The Mirror in Darkness” they unmasked Jason. In “The Ferryman”, they almost completely foil Charon. In “And Study War No More” they shut down the Styx toxin manufacturing in Haven. In “The Intruder”, they rescue Jim. In “Flame Street”, they escape with critical intelligence. In “Gemini and Counting” they steal a supply of flu vaccine. retribution204In “And Madness Shall Reign”, they completely foil Styx. In “Judgment”, they get key intelligence back to the Power Base and in “Freedom One” they capture Christine and foil the plot to capture the resistance leaders. Practically every episode ends with the heroes scoring at least a minor victory against Dread, and the only time Dread manages even a qualified victory is creating Blastarr in “The Ferryman” (Even then, it’s less a “victory” and more “One step shy of an utter rout”). I know, I know, kids’ show and all that baggage, but by this point in the series, Lord Dread seems to be ranking up there with Cobra Commander and Skeletor. I know we’re still half a decade away from David Xanatos, but look at, say, Megatron. He managed to pull off the whole, “Sure, Optimus Prime managed to foil my plan, but we still made forward progress before he did by stealing all this Energon,” thing. Lord Dread is far more in the vein of Dr. Claw, uselessly shouting, “I’ll get you, Captain Power, NEXT TIME!!!” at the end of every episode. We’ve never really seen the good guys lose anything — even the people who get digitized tend to be villainous. We really should have had Eyepatch-Cypher back in “Freedom One”.

Jessica Steen and Tim Dunigan That streak’s going to end here, though. After Dread gives a motivational speech to the Hitler Youth, we hop over the the Power Base. Captain Power visits Pilot in her room, where the music does its level best to fool us into thinking there is any chemistry at all between the two of them, as Cap gives an utterly emotionless speech about how much he appreciates and values her while they stand over her little shelf of unlicensed Captain Power collectibles, such as the Isaiah plaque from Haven and her Dread Youth hat from “Gemini and Counting”. Jessica Steen does her usual admirable job of using her eyes to do the acting since Straczynski can’t be bothered to give her any lines, but Dunigan feels especially low-key immediately after Lord Dread’s big emotional speech to the troops. Jessica Steen and Tim Dunigan do a commentary track for this episode on the DVD, and he doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with his performance here (He thinks the scene really works), so I’m going to assume that his flatness here is deliberate and pretend it’s confirmation of what I’ve been saying for months now, that Captain Power is meant to be profoundly emotionally crippled. Pilot starts to confess the Big Secret She’s Been Wanting To Tell Him For Some Time when Scout calls them to interrupt with a mission.

The episode from this point on is in large part an inversion of “New Order”, now that I think about it. The story sends our heroes once again to meet chain-smoking, bullet-shooting, mushroom-haired Locke, who sells them up-to-the-minute information on Dread’s troop movements, and throws in the highly time-sensitive tidbit that our old friend Cypher (who will not be appearing in this episode, more’s the pity. Also, Cap identifies him as the head of “The Angel City Resistance”, which I assume is meant to be Los Angeles, even though he was part of the “East Coast Resistance” last time), has been captured and they’ve got exactly one hour to rescue him while he’s being relocated to a secure facility.

Just like “The Sky Shall Swallow Them”, then, we’ve got Locke delivering intelligence to our heroes that leads to a ticking clock with Captain Power and his allies needing to act quickly before Lord Dread’s plan comes to fruition. I find myself really pleasantly surprised by just how cleverly this parallel is set up. It goes a long way to redeeming a lot of my issues with the “New Order” two-parter. Of course, we know from the outset how things are going to turn out this time. Any questioning of Locke’s veracity is short-circuited when a brief fight scene erupts with some mechs, who our heroes easily dispatch before saying their goodbyes to the data thief.

Captain Power Episode 22Literally the frame after Captain Power is off-screen, the camera pans over and an Overunit and some troopers appear behind Locke — there is absolutely no way Cap and Company could have missed them, but the fact that the rouse is this transparent almost becomes part of the charm. Or maybe I’m just waxing nostalgic because I’m on the last episode. The Overunit thanks Locke for selling out Cap and Company, and Locke decks him while expressing his own self-loathing. There’s no talk of payment as Locke departs unchallenged. That’s an especially nice touch. Given J. Michael Straczynski’s ham-and-anvil approach to morality at this stage in his career, I’d have expected Locke to be offered thirty pieces of silver. As the scene stands, though it’s not said outright, we can, if we want, assume that Locke was paid with his liberty. We’ve had more than enough examples by now to believe that the threat of digitization would break a better man than Locke.

Lord Dread orders Blastarr and a unit of troopers to sneak back through the wormhole when Captain Power arrives to rescue Cypher — they’ll secure the unguarded Power Base and gain all of Cap’s secrets: Mentor, the spare power suits, files on the resistance, Tank’s enormous collection of bodybuilder porn, the Stargate, everything. What Dread hasn’t anticipated, however, is that Cap has decided that the information from Locke is sufficiently important that they ought to take it straight back to base first, and, since they’ll be taking the jumpship into battle and will need their best pilot at the controls… Has decided to send Pilot back to the base anyway and let Hawk, the guy who’s more accustomed to flying solo, pilot the ship.

I gather that Jessica Steen had come to the decision to leave the show fairly early on. I don’t begrudge her this. Her character is really poorly served by the vast majority of episodes. Every time she’s on-screen, she’s wonderful, but it happens so rarely. And besides, the character of Pilot is a very sort of “tech” character. In her minor appearances, she’s usually fixing equipment or using her proton spanner to unlock something. While she mentions in her commentary that the technobabbling she learned for Captain Power helped her land a role as a space shuttle pilot in Michael Bay’s Armageddon, a look at the rest of her filmography suggests that playing an emotionally stunted young woman who is the one regular character to least often get a fight scene is almost uncannily avoiding her strengths as an actor. I have no idea who they’d have cast as her replacement if the series had been renewed, but given the general outline of the replacement character, “Ranger”, a passionate, cynical, “dark action girl”, you know who I’d strongly consider? Jessica Steen.

Peter MacNeill in Captain Power

This scene technically goes about two paragraphs down, but I am impatient to share the Peter MacNeill Facial Expression Goodness.

But if they did indeed have full warning of the need to write Pilot out, it’s strange how awkwardly set up this is. Namely, we have Pilot going off alone on a hoverbike, and this is going to lead to a one-on-one fight with a BioDread. Meanwhile, Hawk’s going to be flying the jumpship, and when it’s inevitably damaged, he’s going to be the one fixing it while everyone else goes off for a fight scene. This is exactly backwards from how these characters have been used so far this season. And after Hawk’s close call and its surprising lack of payoff in “The Land Shall Burn”, I wonder if there was some stage in development here where the roles were reversed, and the intention was to send Hawk back to the Power Base for a final, deadly confrontation.

Captain Power Episode 22Whatever the case, Cap promises to continue that talk they were having later, again, utterly failing to convey any emotion. Pilot sets off for home on her bike while the others head for “Sector 9″. As they emerge, Hawk, having missed the memo that Star Wars references were three weeks ago, shouts, “It’s a trapAdmiral Ackbar!” as they’re attacked by this ugly quad-copter looking airship thing. When Cap realizes that the enemy ship has entered the gate, he finally shows a little emotion as he shouts for Hawk to get them back into the gate. Just like in “The Ferryman”, it’s messing with Cap’s stuff that really gets him riled up.

At the Power Base, Mentor declares the disk they got from Locke to contain nothing of note, giving Pilot a two-second warning of the trap they’re in, because Blastarr and his troops are inside the Power Base by now. She’s able to contact Captain Power, who tells her to “Hang procedure!” because you can’t say “Fuck” on broadcast TV, and blow the place up immediately. She sets the self-destruct, but first makes a backup of Mentor and grabs the spare Power Suits. Later, they will say this is because she was a rebellious sort who didn’t like to follow orders. I think it would have been better if they’d acknowledged that it was because she was a by-the-book, non-rebellious sort who always followed standard evacuation procedures, since, y’know, it would have actually reflected the character she’s been playing for 22 episodes.

Tim Dunigan does his best at ACTING!, first with his desperate pleas for Pilot to get out of the Power Base, then shouting at Hawk to get the Jumpship back in the air while he goes off to shoot some more troopers because we’re running out of time to get in any more fight scenes. Cap does mention the possibility of running back to base in the Power Jet, but it can’t be launched due to the damage the Jumpship has taken. It’s a bit annoying not to see the centerpiece of the toy line in the finale, but honestly, there’s just no room in the story for it anyway.

Captain Power Episode 22Just in case you missed the memo that they’re evil, scenes of Pilot packing up Mentor and turning on the self-destruct mechanism are intercut with the Troopers shooting up the other rooms in the Power Base. Careful checking of the past season worth of episodes should remind you, though, that the only other rooms we’ve ever seen are bedrooms. So we’re treated to clips of Biomechs shooting at beds. And, of course, symbolically blowing up Pilot’s swag table. Because Evil!

Lord Dread orders Blastarr to find the control room and stop the self-destruct, then channels a Batman Villain from the old Adam West series, because he reckons that Power’s final defeat is completely assured at this point even though Blastarr hasn’t actually found the control room yet, the only strategic information they’ve acquired is what color bedsheets Captain Power likes, and right now his Ground Guardian looks very strongly to be reenacting the role of Commander Torg from Star Trek IIIAnd this means that he thinks that he doesn’t actually need to watch the rest of the episode, and it’s a perfectly good time to take a nap — the suspended animation they’d mentioned last time that he’d be going into as part of his “upgrade” to a fully robotic form.Captain Power Episode 22 And that is how David Hemblen leaves the series, a few minutes ahead of the climax, in the middle of a fight scene, escorted out of the room by some troopers for his nap.

Cap and Tank finish off their own set of troopers just as Hawk finishes his makeshift repairs. Meanwhile, Blastarr shoots his way into the control room. If the Star Trek III parallels so far weren’t obvious enough, his incidental music even kind of sounds like the Klingon theme. He shoots the place up.Bruce Gray in Captain Power As Mentor’s tube is destroyed, I swear to God, it kinda looks like he flips Blastarr off. He blows up the Christmas Tree, because symbolism. He even blows up the spiral staircase. It collapses onto a chair, which apparently is how you disable the self-destruct mechanism, because we cut to Pilot in the hangar bay hearing the cancellation announcement. I think if I were constructing a secret base from which to run a resistance against a world-conquering psychopath, I would not design my self-destruct mechanism such that it would automatically shut off if someone shot at the controls. Just saying.

She launches the hoverbike on auto-pilot, then runs off to have a pitched fight with Blastarr and the troopers in the hallway. She singlehandedly kills the sixteen troopers, but takes a direct hit to the back and two to the chest from Blastarr. Which is actually pretty good given how many times he shoots at her, because Blastarr can’t aim for crap. Her power suit fails, but she manages to drag herself back to the control room, where Cap contacts her from the Jumpship.

This next scene is hard to watch without getting a little choked up. Even more so when you know that J. Michael Straczynski drew on his own real-life experiences in writing it. In a message board post on GEnie back in 1993, he revealed that he’d drawn inspiration from an incident in his own life when he’d tried — and failed — to talk a friend out of committing suicide over the phone.

Jessica Steen in Captain PowerRemember, this is 1988. This sort of thing does not happen. I mean, maybe if an actor died then when they came back from a break in filming they’d do an episode where everyone was in mourning, like with Mr. Hooper or Coach. Or if an actor got in a big fight with the producers they’d just be absent and never spoken of again. If the producers were really mad, maybe you’d end on the characters getting a telegram announcing that Colonel Blake’s plane had been shot down. But you didn’t actually kill a regular character on-screen. Even in the sort of show that killed people, if your name was in the titles, you were contractually immune from monsters of the week. It is March. We’ve still got a month before a sentient oil-slick effortlessly bitch-slaps Tasha Yar to death on Star Trek the Next Generation (Seriously, fuck that scene). This scene traumatized me a little, as a nine-year-old. It stuck with me for years. Even though he’s continued to be willing to kill off main characters, Straczynski has never really topped it in my opinion.

;There are only five minutes left in this show, including the credits, but they are determined to squeeze some emotion out of Tim Dunigan. There’s desperation and choked-back tears in his voice as begs for Pilot to hold on. Blood is running from the corner of her mouth and her voice falters as she warns them off. With the auto-destruct disabled, she’s left with no choice but to trigger an overload of the power source, which, shockingly, is a thing they alluded to way back in “The Ferryman”. Cap fumbles his words as he tries to protest that there’s another way.

There are things you can’t say in kids’ shows. Sometimes, this can be hilarious, such as one of my favorite lines from Power Rangers: “He who lives by the sword meets his doom by the sword.” As a small child, I’d gotten this idea that “oblivion” was some kind of pocket dimension where Megatron would send captured Autobots. But other times, this can be unintentionally chilling. For example, in The Sarah Jane Adventures “Day of the Clown”, they’re squeamish about having Oddbob outright kill the children he’s abducted over hundreds of years, but don’t want the logistical problem of his defeat leaving London full of temporally-displaced children freed from his pocket dimension, so they assert that the kidnapped children simply cease to exist over time. Sweet dreams!

As a child, this part confused me a little. It wasn’t like a few minutes were going to make any difference at this point, and if Cap had another way to destroy the base, why didn’t Pilot just wait for him? That’s because as a child, I didn’t understand what she says next.

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future has not been one to hold strictly to kids’ show tradition, of course. They’ve identified people as dead before. But having Pilot outright say that she’s mortally wounded with any specificity was apparently a bridge too far. She says, “It’s too late. I’m all broken up inside.”

Cap is now visibly fighting back tearsTim Dunnigan as he begs her not to do it. Pilot confesses her love for Jon as Blastarr shoots his way in. “Goodbye. Think of me sometimes. Goodbye.”

Blastarr advances on her, orders her to surrender. “Go to hell,” she says. Her hand touches a control which glows brightly. A mountain that doesn’t look much like Cheyenne Mountain explodes. We cut in close on Captain Power’s face as he screams a Big No.

Captain Power: The Death of Pilot

I want to point out: there should be no doubt whatever that Pilot died here. It’s hard to explain just how clear this is. Because obviously, we don’t actually see her die: we just see the explosion from a distance. Blastarr is right there, and he has his arm up — it’s technically possible that he’s about to digitize her.

And yet, you can not watch that scene and walk away believing that’s what happened. Pilot was not digitized. She died in that explosion. Whether Blastarr himself survived is uncertain. If, three seasons later, there was a shocking reveal that she’s saved to disk in Blastarr’s blown-off digitizer buried under a mountain, I wouldn’t believe it. I’d probably go post on Compuserve or something about how the show had been RUINED FOREVER by cheaping out like that.

In a sense, Pilot’s death is also where Captain Power exits the narrative — the Captain Power we’ve been watching since way back in September. The cool, commanding stoic really vanishes from the story. A broken, weeping man buries his face in his hands.

Hawk, though shaken, implicitly takes command here, ordering Scout to rendezvous with the skybike before hugging his grieving friend. Peter MacNeill and Tim DuniganThe final scene of the series places the four grieving survivors in a smoke-filled forest (It seems pointless to bring it up at this late date, but just about every single “outside” scene in this series is filled with smoke). Hawk discovers the rescued power suits and Mentor backup. His voice cracks as he announces it. Peter MacNeill’s delivery reminds me a lot of the scene in Star Trek II where Scotty announces the death of his nephew (I feel like I always understood the kid was his nephew, but sources tell me that the line where they explain this was actually cut from the theatrical release). Captain Power is being stoic again, but this time the character of it is different: it’s transparently forced. He stares vacantly at nothing as he reiterates that he’d told her to drop everything and book it. Tank promises to make the “Metal Monsters” pay. Cap orders the bike and its contents loaded onto the jumpship and walks away in order to fade into a montage of Cap-n-Pilot moments, which is mostly just clips from last week’s episode since, as I’ve been saying, Jessica Steen was criminally underused. I assume if they’d gotten the rights, they’d have played “Dust in the Wind” for this, that being the universal way of signifying that a character is well and truly dead.

Because there was no second season of Captain Power, we’re forced to confront this episode as a series finale, and it’s weaker on that count than it ought to be. We don’t have time for there to be any aftermath to Jennifer’s death or the destruction of the Power Base. Lord Dread drops out before the climax. Soaron is completely absent.

But, of course, if it’s still March, 1988, we don’t know that Captain Power is over yet, and viewed as a season finale, it fares much better. Indeed, let’s not forget that in this time and this place, the idea of the Season Finale Cliffhanger wasn’t the dominant mode of adventure show writing yet. Season Finale Cliffhangers were largely unknown in US TV until Dallas’s “Who Shot JR?” campaign in 1980, and wouldn’t become the default until Star Trek the Next Generation ended its 1989-1990 season with “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1″. The big “event” episodes for adventure series of the ’80s tended to be two-part season openers that would often be initially aired as a single feature-length block. This ending is not exactly a cliffhanger, but we do have a radical change to the status quo left hanging: Captain Power has lost Jennifer and the Power Base. Lord Dread is undergoing a metamorphosis and may have lost Blastarr. We’ve got avenues left to explore with Eden 2, two power suits in need of an owner, and the fate of Locke the Data Thief left up in the air.

There are weaknesses, of course. Scout is barely present and Tank is just there to say whichever words the writers think sound hilarious in a thick Danish accent. They completely forget about Cypher. Was the information about his capture a lie? It seems like they assume it was, but it’s just as likely that he was bait for the trap. Why couldn’t they try to contact him first to check if he was okay? To what extent am I just complaining because I wanted Lorne Cossette to show up again?

It seems even more obvious than usual to compare this episode to Star Trek the Next Generation. At the end of April, the episode “Skin of Evil” will kill off Tasha Yar. The situation behind the scenes isn’t all that different: Denise Crosby had originally been cast as Deanna Troi. For reasons no one has ever been able to adequately explain, Crosby and Sirtis’s roles were switched, leaving Crosby in a part that didn’t really play to her talents and that the writers didn’t really know what to do with. She quickly came to the conclusion that this part wasn’t going to go anywhere and bowed out.

So, in act 2 of the twenty-third episode of the first season, Tasha Yar tries to force her way past a gestalt entity created from the collective evil of an ancient alien culture, and it zaps her dead like it ain’t no thang. She dies like a Redshirt, struck dead effortlessly for no better reason than to demonstrate to the audience how the monster of the week works. It is cheap and sensationalist, its only redeeming value being in how utterly wrong it is — an affront to the laws of narrative logic that work to protect the lives of people with first names.

The war to be “Star Trek for the Eighties”, the war for the soul of science fiction on television was an utter rout. Star Trek the Next Generation defeated Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future so handily I doubt they even realized it was there at all. But on this one, small point, I think Star Trek needs to concede one very palpable touch. When it came time to kill off an under-utilized, miscast character who was wasting a perfectly good actress’s talents because writers had their heads way up their butts when it came to the concept of “Strong female warrior character”, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future actually knew what the hell they were doing.

Tasha Yar died because there was nowhere for her character to go, and her death shouted that at the audience. When Jennifer Chase died, it wasn’t merely the death of a character who was never going to go anywhere. It’s the collapse of a future that could have been. A romance with the nominal hero that would never happen. A quest for redemption that would never end. Her death doesn’t just leave a hole to be filled by giving Worf a different color uniform: it completely rewrites the dynamic of the team. From the moment Pilot dies, Captain Power is no longer in control of his world. He only gives one more order in the series, and he’s barely paying attention when he does.

This was part of the plan going forward: Cap’s plot arc through season two was to make him increasingly unfit for command as he failed to cope with Jennifer’s death, leaving Hawk as the de facto leader, and you actually see that happening in the few minutes of screen-time left after the Power Base explodes, with Hawk immediately taking charge, while Cap walks around in a glaze.

This is not the strongest of series finales. It’s not the strongest of season finales. But it’s a far stronger and more coherent finale than we’d been led to expect out of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. It turns the show’s former weaknesses into strengths. The oddly subdued stakes of “New Order” — indeed, the overall lack of anything in this show ever costing our heroes anything — creates a sense of invulnerability about our heroes which proves disastrously false here. The unfortunate tendency for our heroes’ actions to have little bearing on the outcomes of individual episodes is here transformed into a very classic style of tragedy. It’s very Caves of Androzani (A Doctor Who serial whose plot is basically “Ten minutes in, the Doctor falls into a hole full of poison, and spends the entire rest of the story trying and failing to not die from it.”). Their favorite trick of “It turns out our hero isn’t hurt all that badly after all,” is turned on its head when Pilot indicates that she’s been mortally wounded.

This series has been strange and uneven. Almost every episode has a strong idea at its core, but it’s hamstrung by poor follow-through. Pacing is all over the place, plot developments are sidelined for action sequences, and the writers are rarely willing to place the characters in real peril, whether moral or mortal. The practical effects are lovely but the digital effects are… overly ambitious. The model work, though rare, is absolutely beautiful, but also very dated, having a visual texture that aims for Star Wars but feels a lot more like Space: 1999. Few of the actors are actually bad, but few of them are great, and only David Hemblen and Peter MacNeill are written to leverage the acting skills they actually possess, with Maurice Dean Wint reduced to one-liners and Sven Ole Thorsen, weighed down by a suit that wouldn’t even accommodate sitting, only gets as many lines as he does because the director really got a kick out of the way he says “Party”.

And there’s digitization. No one in the show, hero or villain, seems to be quite sure how horrific it’s meant to be. Dread himself offers it as the blessing of “immortality” to Stuart, and uses his preference for it over killing as moral justification… Then turns around and uses it as a form of torture, and punishes his own people with it. Meanwhile, for our heroes, it’s a straight-up rape analogy the first time we see it, but then they’re perfectly happy to allow or even manipulate their human enemies into being digitized as punishment.

But there’s something mad and beautiful about this show. There’s a basic bizarreness to the way that there are quite clearly three completely distinct iterations of the design process that all bleed through into the finished product of the franchise. There’s the Marvel Annual, which can’t seem to tell if it’s derived from the toy line or the show. There are strange ghosts of a much more Flash Gordon version of the concept. There’s the training videos, where they bring together the worlds of the merch and the show, and which by all rights ought to be utterly disposable and non-crapgiving. But then you see the World Trade Center in the background, or the absolute epic awesomeness of the “Tower of the Seer”. You’ve got the sheer, unmitigated balls of history’s most shameless rip-off of the Death Star Trench Run. And the creepy sexual undertones of Dread’s relationship with Overmind. Or the growing parallels between the Dread/Overmind dynamic contrasted with the Cap/Mentor one. There are tantalizing hints of a bigger world out there, with Eden 2, the Wardogs, the East Coast Resistance, but then the odd contradiction of Captain Power’s team being seeming ignorant about events outside North America.

There’s no one thing you can point at and call, “The reason Captain Power failed.” Most of the parts of this show are, if not great, at least okay. There are ideas and themes that J. Michael Straczynski would pick up on later in his career to great effect. This level of reliance on computer-generated effects won’t be seen again for years — in fact, the degree to which Captain Power integrates live action with computer animation is probably still unheard of in television (Yes, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and later incarnations of Star Trek would all do that sort of thing, but not for a substantial chunk of every episode), but it’s hardly bad enough to sink the show. I think the biggest problem for the Soldiers of the Future is just down to it being 1988, and that TV doesn’t work that way yet. In the years to come, Sci-Fi/Fantasy TV would learn how to do things like series-long plot arcs (The X-Files), maintaining a lighthearted tone while tackling adult storylines (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), telling whole stories while maintaining a heavy action component (Hercules), conveying the horror of war on a human level (Battlestar Galactica), and transforming heroes fighting robots after the apocalypse (Power Rangers RPM).

Here in 1988, what we get instead is a strange Frankenstein’s monster of a show. As though Landmark Entertainment dug up some discarded corpse of a ’50s sci-fi serial and reanimated it by summoning the ghost of the more sophisticated television of the late ’90s. Maybe it walks funny, it’s got bolts in its neck and stitches on its forehead, and it’ll freak out if it sees fire. But, y’know, I don’t think it really deserves the torches and the pitchforks.

Next time, I’ll talk a little bit about the legacy of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, and about the plans they had for a second season. But before that, I’ve got one last diversion I want to go on…

To be concluded…

Tim DuniganTim Dunigan (Captain Power) would go on to star in four Davy Crockett TV-movies for The Wonderful World of Disney during the 1988-1989 TV season. His acting career would slowly peter out afterward, whittling down to one-off guest roles. His most recent acting role was as police chief Crockett in the 2011 direct-to-video Buddy-Cop-Dog movie k-911.

Peter MacNeillPeter MacNeill (Hawk) remains a regular face in Canadian drama, appearing in Rin Tin Tin: K-9 Cop, Call Me Fitz, PSI Factor, and Queer as Folk. He also appeared in The Good Witch series of Hallmark Channel TV-movies, and is currently appearing in the series, which debuted at the end of February.

Sven-Ole ThorsenSven-Ole Thorsen (Tank) continues to work as an actor and stunt man. His most notable role to date is as Tigris of Gaul in Gladiator. He is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most frequent collaborator

Maurice Dean WintMaurice Dean-Wint (Scout) was a regular such shows as TekWar, PSI Factor, and Haven, and starred as RoboCable in Robocop: Prime Directives, Quentin in Cube, and Luther in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Jessica SteenJessica Steen (Pilot) went on to appear in Armageddon. She was a regular on Homefront, Earth 2, Murder One, Killer Instinct, Flashpoint, and Bullet in the Face. She had a recurring role on NCIS and originated the role of Dr. Elizabeth Weir on Stargate SG-1. She currently appears in Heartland and Canooks.

David HemblenDavid Hemblen (Lord Dread/Lyman Taggart) has continued to work in film and television, particularly the works of Atom Egoyan, but is best known these days as the voice of Magneto in the X-Men animated series. He was offered the role in the live-action movie but had to turn it down. He also voiced Asmodeus in Redwall.

Ted DillionTedd Dillion (Overmind) voiced Commandant Lassard in the animated Police Academy series, and Hammer in Cadillacs and Dinosaurs.

Deryck HazelDeryck Hazel (Soaron) has no film credits after 1990. I found a reference in a book to a Toronto-area actor of that name who died in the early ’90s, but I can’t confirm it’s the same person.

John S DaviesJohn S. Davies (Blastarr) had a recurring role in Prison Break and was a frequent guest star on Walker Texas Ranger.

Bruce GrayBruce Gray (Mentor/Stuart Power) was an occasional guest on Dallas, Matlock and Murder, She Wrote. He played Admiral Chekote in Star Trek the Next Generation and Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and appeared as Vulcan patriarch Surak in Star Trek Enterprise. He also had recurring roles in Medium, Falling Skies, and How I Met Your Mother.

Don FrancksDon Francks (Lakki) spent much of the ’90s as a voice actor, with credits on the animated A.L.F., Police Academy, X-Men, The Legend of Zelda, Swamp Thing, and Cadilacs and Dinosaurs, as well as voicing a series of animated adaptations of the works of Richard Scarry. He also has regular live-action roles in La Femme Nikita and Hemlock Grove.

Lorne CossetteLorne Cossette (Cypher) would go on to appear in The Twilight Zone, Street Legal, Two if By Sea, The Song Spinner and Darkman 3 before his death in 2001.

Larry DiTillioLarry DiTillio (Writer) went on to write for such shows as Babylon 5 and Beast Wars: Transformers.

J. Michael Straczynski (Writer) created Babylon 5. I mean, he did other stuff too, for which he is justly famous, but it’s unlikely anything he does with the rest of his life is going to top the epic levels of geek cred he got for creating Babylon 5.J. Michael Straczynski

Gary GoddardGary Goddard (Creator) went on to create Skeleton Warriors, but most of his work has been creating dark rides and 3D short films for amusement parks, including T2 3D: Battle Across Time and a segment for The Star Trek Experience. He’s currently working on Broadway 4D, a high-budget multimedia extravaganza that will feature Christina Aguilera as Eva Peron provided it ever actually happens (there is some doubt). And, of course, Phoenix Rising.

March 14, 2015

Of course! Don’t you know anything about Science? (Marvel’s Captain Power Annual)

The Captain Power AnnualIt is 1989. Blah blah George H. W. Bush. Blah blah Taylor Swift, Anton Yelchin, Daniel Radcliffe and Lucy Hale. Blah blah Graham Chapman and Hirohito. Blah blah World Wide Web. Blah blah Salman Rushdie, blah Manuel Noriega. Blah blah Shining Times Station, blah “Blame it on the Rain” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. We’ve been here before and we all know the drill.

So you know how I made a couple of references to The Captain Power Annual, a 1989 publication that is probably the most distant point in the Captain Power Universe. Information on it is sketchy. I didn’t even know about it myself until a few months ago. In terms of obscurity, this is less-well-known than the handful of supermarket coloring books (Which no, I’m not going to suddenly show up with and talk about, because there is nothing at all to them). More than once, I’ve sort of intimated that I’d review it if I ever found a copy, which I implied to be an unlikely task so many decades later.

As it turns out, though, the trick to getting a copy of The Captain Power Annual was, technically speaking, to actually look for it. Seriously, once I decided to make an actual effort, it took me two hours to order a copy off of eBay. It would have taken less but I don’t speak Dutch.

The Captain Power Annual was made by Marvel UK, and falls into the tradition of British Comic Annuals. There’s not, so far as I know, a direct stateside equivalent of this sort of thing — the closest equivalent I can think of, at least in terms of content, would be fanzines. American comic makers sometimes do release special annual publications, but these are usually either reprint albums or just special longer editions, and the practice has been in decline since the ’80s in favor of trade paperbacks.

British Comic Book annuals are typically published around Christmas, and are hardcover books running in the neighborhood of 60-90 pages containing games, comics and short stories. In addition to the annuals associated with the classic staples of sequential art in the UK, annual publications are often associated with TV-tie-ins. Doctor Who, Star Trek, Blake’s 7, Thunderbirds and Space 1999 all had annuals associated with them in the UK — Doctor Who‘s resumed publication with the launch of the new series. Even The Tomorrow People and Sapphire and Steel got one annual each.

They were typically aimed at a younger audience, and because of the vagaries of how the TV shows were licensed, who was writing what, and when things had to be done, they often diverged wildly from the source material.  Furthermore, Great Britain already had its own tradition of comic art when American-style superhero comics became widely available, and so the art style in British sequential art is a lot more varied than what you see in US comics. For me, this gives everything a very retro feel, with the brighter colors and less stylized art that I personally associate more with newspaper comics than with comic books.

All that adds up to the fact that, despite coming out at almost exactly the same time, the Continuity Comics adaptation of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future looks basically nothing at all like the Annual.

I’ll be upfront. This isn’t great. It’s a slim sixty pages consisting of three comic strips, three prose stories, three “games” and back-of-the-toy-box-style radically non-show-consistent character profiles for Dread, Cap, Tank, Hawk, Soaron and Blastarr. It shows a cover price of £3.95, which would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $13, which is roughly half what I paid, and roughly twice what you’d pay for a modern copy of The Doctor Who Annual. It seems like kind of a lot of money to me, but it’s apparently not out of line with similar publications of the era.

The Captain Power AnnualThe front and back cover show identical pictures of Captain Power and Lord Dread locked in battle, Cap blocking Dread’s force-lance while drawing back a kind of tecnho-billyclub thing. The inside cover, again front and back, have the same illustration expanded to a tableau with the supporting characters surrounding the pair, Cap’s allies to the left, Dread’s to the right. The artwork is just a bit reminiscent of Judge Dredd. Even though the characters themselves bear little resemblance to one another, the physical designs of the two are similar enough that it should really be surprising if Cap didn’t owe a little in his comic book form to He-Who-Am-The-Law. This tableau is the only place where the art style seems anywhere close to the Continuity Comics series, though their preference in this book is for gritted teeth over the open-mouthed “dongs” look. The art inside the book is simpler and brighter. Though they do have in common the fact that Dread looks a bit like a cross between Yen Sid and Yul Brenner. There’s a frame or two in the Continuity Comics book where he looks like that too, but not many.

The Captain Power AnnualThis book is very strange in its approach to continuity. I would say that it seems like the writers (There are no credits in this book beyond the copyright, so I have no idea who to blame) hadn’t seen the show, and were working entirely from the toy boxes and possibly the series bible. But of the three prose stories, one is a straight-up adaptation of “Flame Street” and another is explicitly a sequel to “The Eden Road“.

But at the same time, the trivia puzzle on page 22 claims, as if the audience had a realistic chance of knowing this, that the Metal Wars started in 2020, while the introduction manages to get confused on the same page, giving the current date as both 2089 and the show-accurate 2147.

The introduction frames the annual as excerpts from the journal of Jennifer “Pilot” Chase, discovered hidden in the barracks by a nameless Dread Youth soldier. That’s a cool conceit, and you see similar things done these days with TV-tie-ins and mixed-media “scrapbook”-style books such as Dugald Steer’s ‘Ologies series. It would have been really cool if they’d done something more with it. The introduction ends with the disgusted soldier turning the book in to Lord Dread for destruction, hoping to get some kind of reward. Instead, he’s scheduled for digitization, as Dread considers the journal so dangerous as propaganda that no one who’s read it can be permitted to live.

The Captain Power AnnualThe content proper begins with a comic titled “Judge”, in which Captain Power and his friends rescue an Overunit who’s been placed on trial for being a Captain Power supporter. Cap and company break in with the help of an under-cover sympathizer and rescue the prisoner. Cap agonizes for one panel over whether to take the operative with them too, but ultimately decides to leave him under cover. But once they’re gone, it turns out that Dread has found out about the double-agent, and it’s kind of implied that the trial was actually just a rouse to expose him. This story feels incomplete. There’s an interesting angle here, with Captain Power being conflicted about leaving a resistance member under cover in Volcania, and the fact that Cap’s decision turns out to be the wrong one should be a great source of conflict. But we never see Cap again after the agent is exposed, so we’re left with a downer ending for no clear reason. That’s especially jarring when you consider that the Annual, like the rest of the Captain Power merchandizing, is unambiguously targeted at children rather than adults, and the Annual seems to be targeting even younger audiences than the toys and the comic.

Captain Power Annual - Lord Dread and FalcorLord Dread’s profile and picture include Falcor, the robotic bird who was originally planned to be Dread’s personal Laserbeak. It gives a greatly simplified version of his backstory: in this version, he simply became “embittered” when he was “ridiculed” for inventing BioDreads. Fair enough. If someone invents intelligent life, “ridicule” is not an appropriate response.

Our first prose story is “The Eden 2 Enigma”, which gives the rather bizarre dateline “47 23 mark 5″. Which, based on the show, would be the twenty-third month of 2147.  Lousy Smarch weather. The first part of the story is a straight-up rehash of “The Eden Road”, with Cap and company making their way into Darktown to gather intelligence on Dread’s latest secret plan, “Project Stormbringer.” There’s no mention of Pilot, which I suppose is technically appropriate as this should be a year after the series finale. It mirrors the Darktown part of “The Eden Road” up to the point where Scout impersonates a trooper, then Soaron shows up and knocks Cap into a hole, where he blacks out. Cap awakens in Eden 2, where he’s greeted by John, who for some reason looks like Barry Gibb now. He’s tempted to stay, but Vi shows up and asks after Hawk, which harshes his buzz by making him remember his responsibilities. Vi gives him a soporific flower and he passes out. We get our one attempt in this thing to render Tank’s accent, as the awakening Cap hears him say “Pawra Keppen Pawra,” which is eventually decoded as “Power on, Captain! Power on!” The others assure Cap that his experiences in Eden 2 were only a dream, as he was unconscious for only a few minutes after his fall. The coda, however, reveals that Cap still has the flower, which he chooses to destroy, lest his team lose sight of the fight against Dread in favor of searching for Eden 2. Much like “Judge”, this story is light and fluffy, but suddenly makes a wild tack at the end to go a bit heavy.


Next up is a profile on Captain Power himself (who’s described as the defender of Eden 2), and a trivia game that can’t make up his mind whether Cap’s Christian name (That is the actual term they use) is spelled “Johnathan” or “Johnathon” (I’m pretty sure I never saw this spelling in the wild until the 21st century, when suddenly it became ubiquitous. Resultingly, I have a hell of a time not wanting it to be pronounced to rhyme with “telethon”) and asserts that while the PowerJet can travel at Mach 19, Hawk’s top speed is the speed of light. The next comic is “Salvation”, which is, this seems kind of inexplicable now, a beat-for-beat retelling of “Gemini and Counting” with, for no reason I can sort out, the character of Pilot written out. “It starts with one,” the narrator tells us. Captain Power AnnualA disease breaks out in the passages — which here, look suspiciously like a generic mid-20th century small town full of people in generic early mid-20th century casual wear — and the only place where they can find vaccine in quantity is Volcania. Cap sneaks in and roughs up some Dread Youth. One of them wakes up, so he ties her up, binds her wounds, and tells her her entire life is a lie. Just like Pilot, he’s able to recite a Dread Youth oath word-for-word, and decries Dread as the “lord of lies”, which has a nicely biblical tone to it. He retrieves the medicine he needs, bandages the nameless Dread Youth some more, and is held at gunpoint by her once the fighting breaks out in earnest. He offers her the same choices Pilot offered Erin: kill him, come with him, or let him go and just pretend this never happened. The one thing this version of the story adds is a brief coda: a single frame at the end of the nameless young woman, still bandaged from her injuries, at a Dread rally, unable to cheer along with the others. The comic ends with the narrator repeating the opening line: “Someone has to be first.”

Captain Power AnnualThe juxtaposition is nice, great even, but it’s a poor substitute for the emotional core of “Gemini and Counting”, the implicit congruence between Pilot and Erin. Absent that, what we’ve got here is essentially a very stereotypical story of The Mighty White Man who saves the soul of an impressionable girl by giving her a sermon. I suppose it’s just about possible that the Dread Youth in this story is actually meant to be Pilot (Though she’s a brunette… Except for that last panel. Maybe having your soul saved bleaches your hair?), and this is really Pilot’s origin story. That rubs me very wrong. Firstly, it makes Pilot’s origin story an inferior knock-off of Pilot’s big character focus episode. But far worse, given the romance arc between Cap and Pilot, it’s really nasty to insert an element of “Oh, he beat me up, restrained me, forced me to question my entire way of life, alienated me from the only family I have ever known, and now I love him.”

The frame of this being a journal Pilot left behind when she defected from Dread to join the resistance might account for why Pilot herself barely figures into the narrative. But that explanation only goes so far. After all, at least some of these stories are set during or after the time frame of the series. Besides, Scout is equally absent.

Which means that we’re in a somewhat similar situation in the Annual that we were with the series: the writers only seem to have time for a Power Trio, but they’re technically supposed to be writing a Five Man Band. It makes me think of the old Activision Ghostbusters videogame (“Conglaturation! You have completed a great game! And prooved the justice of our culture! Now go and rest our heroes!”), where Peter, Winston, Ray and Egon were replaced by three identical white guys (The versions for systems oriented toward showing a bunch of text explain that you’re not playing the Ghostbusters, but a random franchisee in a new city facing, surprisingly, exactly the same kind of invasion by a dark hell-god).

Scout gets the worst of it. He only appears in two illustrations in the entire book. And, while I will grant the possibility that this is just a printing error, he seems pretty unambiguously white in both of them. I know, it’s an easy mistake to make, what with Scout being one of the only two people of color in the entire Captain Power universe, but you had one job, TV-tie-in!

Captain Power Annual

Next up is a simple race-style board game and a profile on Tank which doesn’t mention anything about him being genetically engineered. Then there’s an adaptation of “Flame Street”, which is divided into two parts with a break in the middle for Blastarr’s profile. Including one direct adaptation like this is a bit strange to begin with, and stranger still when you consider that “Salvation” is basically a complete rip-off, and even “The Eden 2 Enigma” is really only a slight modification of “The Eden Road”. Keep in mind, though, that this is still 1989. DVD won’t be invented for another six years. TV shows were only rarely released on home video formats, and concepts like a complete season boxset were a decade away. Captain Power was lucky in that it received a home video release at all, but even then, only ten episodes were available on VHS (Plus several “Movie” compilations, edited chimeras stitched together from eighty minutes of the final four episodes). And I haven’t turned up any evidence that such releases were ever made in PAL format for the UK market. So if you were a child in the UK in 1989 and you wanted to re-experience Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, this was pretty much it.The adaptation is completely straight; the only deviation from the televised show is that Cap is looking for information on the afforementioned “Project: Stormbringer” rather than New Order. Captain Power AnnualWhat does diverge, quite a bit, are the illustrations which accompany the story. Zoneboy and Mindsinger both sport a lot less hair and are a lot more colorful. Far and away the most bizarre and impressive change, though, is to Stuart Power. I have no idea what the Expletive Deleted prompted this. Stuart Power here is depicted looking kind of like an elderly wizard, balding with long white hair and beard wearing Cap’s armor with a full-length cape. Far from looking like the unlikely bearded lovechild of Kenny Loggins and Rachel Maddow, here, he looks like the unlikely lovechild of Marvel’s Odin and Shazam, the wizard mentor of DC’s Captain Marvel. I have absolutely no idea what they were thinking here, but it’s amazing.

I imagine young people of today don’t have the same experience I did growing up. When I was a kid, most things with broad child appeal had a prose adaptation. A lot of them had several. You could often expect a picture-book for youngest readers (Often a read-a-long book with included 45. One of my fond childhood memories is collecting all four parts of the Gremlins read-a-long adaptation that came with the kids’ meal at Hardee’s over the course of four weeks), and a proper novelization, sometimes targeted at multiple reading levels (I have a copy of Spaceballs The Book with an elaborate aside about fruit allergies to make the “Nobody gives me the raspberry!” bit comprehensible to a child who wasn’t familiar with that euphemism. Also, the crosseyed gunner is renamed “Major Idiot”). There’s probably at least two generations of Doctor Who fans for whom their primary experience of about two thirds of the serials is based not on DVDs and animated reconstructions, but on the relentlessly workmanlike prose of Terrance “Wheezing, groaning” Dicks. Novelizations still exist, of course, often as a way for a fan-writer to produce his own “Director’s Cut” of the story, but they’re more polarized, limited to picture books for the very young, and adult novels in heavily merchandized franchises like Star Trek which already have established original fiction lines. The second board game in the Annual is an even simpler kind of race game, close to Parcheesi, Sorry! or Ludo. The profile of Soaron is brief, but refers to his dislike of the “other warlords“, implying that it was drawn from a draft that still included Tritor.

The last comic of the book is “Captain Power and the Glory”. To keep the sense of time and space thoroughly inexplicable, the caption at the start of the story gives the date as 2029. Cap and company (minus Scout for no clear reason. Pilot is there in a non-speaking role) arrive for a meeting with an up-and-coming resistance cell called “The Glory”. “The Glory” turns out to be Blastarr and some troopers in disguise, as part of a plan that makes no real sense: the Glory was to give the people hope, then crush it when they use this meeting as an ambush. A really terrible ambush, because they decloak their Phantom Striker to taunt our heroes first. The battle is a Stephen Ratliff-level curbstomp, with Cap and company easily defeating Dread’s forces. There’s a real lack of any sense that the writer got these characters at all, giving Blastarr a big complex villain speech (and having him fly a Phantom Striker), and giving Tank lines like “Yo, Johnathan, what’s with the worried expression?” rather than something like “Keptin, vhy so zahd at the pahrty?” In the end, Captain Power resolves to have his team pass themselves off as The Glory in order to keep the myth alive, even though this will mean a reduction in their own relative fame.

annual11Honestly, this story doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, why they’d bother, how Dread’s plan was supposed to work, or anything really. Combined with the shoddy characterization and the bizarre date-line, I’m suspicious that they had no craps to give about this story. The art, at least during the fight scene, is okay. Bright, colorful and fairly clean. The choice of yellow land and pink sky is odd.

Hawk’s profile is followed by a story which focuses on his character, “Enemy Mine“. Which does not even slightly live up to the promise of its title. It’s not a terrible story, though. During a mission in Sector 12 related to Project: Stormbringer (They can’t get the date right to within a century from one story to the next, but they manage a plot arc around Project: Stormbringer?), Hawk takes a serious hit from Soaron and his suit is damaged, forcing him to make his way back to the rest of the team on foot through enemy territory as his suit’s power supply rapidly dwindles. It’s straightforward and action-packed, with a complex dilemma for Hawk, as he struggles with the decision whether to break radio silence, jeopardizing the rest of the mission. The climax comes when Hawk, his power reserves almost depleted, finally uses his radio when he sees Lord Dread sneaking up on the rendezvous site. He’s met with laughter from Cap, who reveals that “Dread” is actually Scout in disguise. The mission had been scrubbed since Cap’s own suit developed a malfunction, and the others (Scout and Tank; Pilot is not mentioned) met too much resistance and nobly ran away, leaving Hawk to the realization that it was only “his own pride and dignity” that had stopped him calling for help sooner (The others didn’t dare contact him since they had no way of knowing if the sound of his radio would give him away).  Like several of the other stories, it ends on a much more complex moral note than you’d really expect.

Captain Power Annual - BlastarrThis book is weird. In fact, this book is so weird that it’s like a tiny little microcosm of the whole series. Much like the show as a whole, there’s this weird tension between the very child-oriented simplicity of the stories, the bright, colorful artwork, and the strangely maudlin endings. The confusion about the date, I’ve already mentioned. It’s rare for there to be any characterization to speak of, but when there is, it’s all over the place.  I didn’t bring it up in context, but there’s also a sense I get that the writers didn’t know how the Power Suits work: they’re handled properly in “Judge”, “The Eden 2 Enigma”, and “Captain Power and the Glory”, but in “Salvation”, Cap is already in his armor when he “Powers on”, and it seems like the implication is that rather than summoning the armor out of hammerspace, the incantation just energizes some kind of super-mode. In “Enemy Mine”, Hawk’s suit fails repeatedly, but rather than dispersing, it becomes rigid, immobilizing him. This seems like a massive design flaw. For the most part, it feels like this was based purely on the bible and the toy line without any reference from the show itself, but then we’ve got the show-accurate dates (and the clearly show-derived but obviously wrong “47-23″ date), wholesale adaptations and direct sequels.

The art is strange. No one looks even close to right, though none get so badly handled as the Last Airbendering of Scout. Pilot and Scout appear only rarely — Scout is never a proper character, just making cameos in “The Eden 2 Enigma”, and “Enemy Mine” (He appears in the illustrations to “Flame Street” but isn’t mentioned). Pilot has a line of dialogue in “Flame Street” and “Captain Power and the Glory” is mentioned in “Enemy Mine” and has a wordless cameo in the opening illustration and “Judge”. I don’t know which one got more shafted here. Scout is spared the indignity of having his big story rewritten to omit him, but on the other hand, he gets turned white for his two appearances, and — I just went back to check this because I found it so unbelievable — he’s not even in the opening tableau.

The utter erasure of the black character and the female character are big-time serious problems with this book. But they’re also symbolic of the problem Captain Power had with its race and gender dynamics in all of its incarnations. For that matter, it’s symbolic of the race and gender dynamics of comic books in general from this time period (and two steps forward and/or backward since then), and I’m a more than a little ashamed to realize that had I been reading this back in 1989, I totally would not have even noticed that this was a problem (I’d like to think I’d have noticed Scout being white, but I bet I’d have thought it was a straightforward printing error, like the time Optimus Prime inexplicably turned albino for one panel).

Captain Power AnnualBut there is one thread of this paradoxical publication that does manage to properly fascinate me. As I said, the art style feels very retro, very Silver Age. Bright colors, simple artwork. More than that, I’m very specifically reminded of the old 1960s-era Doctor Who comics, back when he was called “Dr. Who” and traveled with John and Gillian, and had a Magic Box and saved Santa. Add to that the odd design choices like how Dread’s human forces all dress like communists at a winery (Except for the high-ranking ones, who have Judge Dread epaulets and samurai helmets. And it seems to be implied that the biomech troopers are actually humans in suits), or the way that the passages and Volcania both look like generic midwestern towns of the fifties, and the early 21st century dates occasionally used, and it adds up to that same feeling I mentioned in reference to the training video cover. This feels like the Annual for the hypothetical 1950s Captain Power that everything Captain Power except the TV show itself screams out for.

Captain Power AnnualDoes the Captain Power Annual do it for me? Is it a worthy expansion to the world of this weird little post-apocalyptic ’80s children’s show that I so love from my youth?

The short answer is no. This adds very little to the experience of Captain Power. I sought it out because I’m an obsessive completest who can afford to blow twenty-five bucks every couple of years in pursuit of his lost youth. But I didn’t need this.

But how would Me-Age-Ten have felt about this? I don’t know. I haven’t been that kid in a quarter of a century. I can sort of abstractly say that this is the sort of kid-friendly yet still just slightly dark thing that I think young-me would have thought was a lot of fun. And of course, the me of 1989 would have had his disappointment in a third of the stories being recycled material modulated by the fact that in 1989, I didn’t have the option of watching “Flame Street” or “Gemini and Counting”. That me would very likely just be happy to have, even if it isn’t very good, just a little bit more Captain Power to enjoy.

So ultimately, I guess Me-Age-Ten and Me-Age-36 aren’t so different after all.


The Captain Power Annual is occasionally available from for a fair bit cheaper than what I paid.

March 11, 2015

You Know the Rules (Captain Power: Retribution, Part 1)

Captain Power Episode 21: Tim Dunigan and Jessica SteenTwo more to go…

It is March 20, 1988. In Eritrea, the Battle of Afabet is won by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Yesterday, two British corporals were abducted and shot dead by the IRA. Mike Tyson beats Tony Tubbs by knockout for the heavyweight boxing title. Tubbs retains both ears. M. Butterfly opens on Broadway, or if you’re a masochist, you can go see Police Academy 5 at the movies. Slow news day. Slow week at the movies. Slow week on TV. The Wonderful World of Disney is in repeats. Last week’s Supercarrier pilot is repeated. Tomorrow’s MacGyver is a repeat. The ABC Sunday movie is Octopussy while NBC airs a new TV adaptation of Inherit the Wind with Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas as Drummond and Brady. It’s the third movie adaptation of a 1955 play based kind of loosely on the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, with everyone’s names really obviously changed (Such as HL Mencken becoming “EK Hornbeck”) to avoid getting sued. The play would be adapted again in 1999 with Jack Lemmon as Drummond and George C. Scott as Brady (Scott had previously played Drummond on Broadway). I remember watching the 1988 movie, but not really understanding it. Mostly I remember being confused as my dad tried to explain that these two people I’d never heard of (Robards and Douglas) were playing two people I’d never heard of (Drummond and Brady) who were really supposed to be two other people I’d never heard of (Darrow and Bryan).

This week’s Star Trek the Next Generation is “A Matter of Honor”, where Riker does a slightly goofy “officer exchange” with a Klingon ship, then has to scheme to honorably seize control of the ship to keep it from blowing up the Enterprise when they suspect it of infecting them with ship-eating bacteria. Vaka Rangi will not give you a tremendous insight into what this episode is about, but it will give you a great little bit of nostalgia about the 3D Viewmaster, so you should totally read that (Though he finds it noteworthy in this context to discover that the Enterprise-D model is blue and not gray. Maybe it’s just because I’m red-green deficient, but that was the very first thing I noticed about the Enterprise-D in the show and never thought anyone would think the ship was supposed to be gray (Minor expanded-universe evidence in my favor: the novel Dark Mirror makes a point of saying that the mirror universe Enterprise is gray, and this makes it look subtly more threatening than the proper Enterprise)).

For a week when nothing happened, I have stretched out the lead-in for this article a bit because I’m reluctant to dive in here. I mean, this is it, right? The end? This one and the next one and then I’m completely tapped out of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Unless I can track down a copy of that 1989 Annual.Captain Power Episode 21: Tank, Scout, Hawk

After the previous two-parter was such a disappointment, I’m more than a little anxious going into this. When we open, Captain Power and the gang are dancing. That’s not a euphemism or a metaphor either: they’re actually having a little party to celebrate their victory in the previous episode. According to the Captain’s Log, about a month has passed since the previous episode, so this must have been one hell of a party. Captain Power Episode 21: Captain Power and PilotThe others intimidate Cap into dancing with Pilot, and he is polite enough to take his gunbelt off first, which looks oddly suggestiveCaptain Power Episode 21: Captain Power and Pilot.

Back at Volcania, Dread is still fuming over his recent defeat, and orders Soaron and Blastarr (Who are, of course, perfectly fine despite having been blown to bits last week) to engage in a scorched earth policy against Cap’s allies and resources. It’s a weird little scene. Dread himself oozes menace like never before: “I once thought [Cap] could be saved, but no longer. There is no place in our perfect world for him or for any of his kind. We must find him, and we must hurt him. Badly. Poison his resources, cripple his supply lines, destroy his outposts, strip him of everything he holds dear. Alive or dead, whatever it takes, we must push him from the face of this planet.” But as he pontificates, we keep cutting back and forth to Soaron and Blastarr, who are, like, idling. Blastarr taps his fingers together. Soaron futzes with his digitizer. It’s weirdly casual, and aside from the mood whiplash, it’s also visually pleasing. It’s a rare moment where it would have been perfectly reasonable, given the seriousness of the scene, to have them just stand stock still, but instead, they fidget. I think it really shows a level of comfort with the CGI that’s been growing across the season.

Captain Power Episode 21: Soaron and Blastarr

Unfortunately, what happens next is that we get a long montage of Dread Troopers shooting at things that are off-screen which is so obviously recycled footage from earlier episodes that they even include the digitization of General Briggs from “The Abyss“. Great. Cheap stock footage montages. Just what I wanted from my season finale. At the Power Base, Captain Power does another Captain’s Log telling us basically what we’ve just seen, but speculating that Dread is angry and thus liable to make a mistake. Then he nods off in his chair, and Pilot comes in and kind of stalkerishly watches him sleep. Captain Power Episode 21: Pilot watches Cap SleepYay!

The next fight scene is new footage, thankfully. At least, for the most part (There’s some old footage of Tank). They make one more stab at witty banter, with Hawk telling Cap not to take the attacks personally, then going on a murder rampage with a bazooka because a clicker scratched his helmet. Scout actually does something useful with his camouflage for once, impersonating a mech so he can sneak up behind the other troopers and stick grenades to their backs, then commandeer a tank, which he uses to disable Blastarr. Remarkably, they don’t recycle the usual “Blastarr drops to his knees” sequence: he’s actually thrown off his feet.

Captain Power Episode 21: Blastarr

Tank and Scout declare Blastarr suitably dealt with for the moment, so Cap and company bugger off. But at this point, remarkably, the episode actually starts to get good. Dread orders Blastarr back to his feet, actually seeming to will the damaged BioDread to rise. They cut back and forth between Blastarr’s twitching fist and Dread’s own, which shakes as he orders, “By my will and by my blood. You. Will. Move. Do not stop. Keep moving. I command you to keep moving.” Captain Power Episode 21: BlastarrBlastarr protests, “There is great pain,” and, “System disruption,” but rises to his feet just in time to justify those weird bits in the last several episodes where they made a big deal out of calling attention to the uncanny ability of Captain Power to travel the country allegedly faster than should be possible. Because when Blastarr manages, unsteadily, to rise, he looks up in time to see the Jumpship vanish into the transit gate. Lord Dread realizes that he can exploit this to locate the Power Base and finish Captain Power once and for all.

At the Power Base, since it’s 47-12.24, the gang surprises Cap by making a Christmas tree out of broken mech parts. Captain Power Episode 21: Christmas TreeSensing that they are running out of time for this character to make an impression on us, they finally give Scout a major speech. He attempts to tug at the heartstrings by telling the story of his own childhood attempt to make a Christmas tree, of his mother’s reaction, and of her capture by Dread’s forces a few days later. It reminds me of nothing so much as the speech Phoebe Cates gives about her father in Gremlins, but still, major props for at least trying. The camera keeps cutting around to reaction shots from the others, but they all just do the usual stoic thing. Scout concludes that he’d since decided that Christmas Trees were cursed, and that terrible fates awaited anyone who tried to celebrate. Which totally isn’t foreshadowing, right?Captain Power Episode 21: Maurice Dean Wint

Lord Dread more or less flat-out accuses Lakki of spying on him when Lakki interrupts his work to remind him of the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. Then Dread flat-out murders the little weasel, ordering him to go fetch a tool for him which is just on the far side of an unmarked live wire. The show momentarily develops the sense of humor I’ve been wishing it had, because as troopers carry Lakki away, he revives long enough to mutter, “Wait, I’m not quite dead yet.” Captain Power Episode 21: LakkiDread gives Soaron a scanner, and orders him to go chase Power the next time he goes through a transit gate, then goes to chat with Overmind, who’s been prepping for Dread to enter suspended animation so he can have the rest of his meat body surgically removed.

But before he goes through with that, Dread wants to finish up things with Power, so he asks for “The Mind-Link”. “For the first time since I took control of all the world’s Biomechs and began the Metal Wars, I require direct access to all of our troopers everywhere on this planet.” Though last week, Captain Power was apparently utterly uninvolved in operations outside North America, so this strikes me as overkill. He asks Overmind to, swear to God, “Let me feel the power. Touch me with the might of the machine.” I’ve used up all the jokes I can think of about the weirdly sexual overtones of Dread’s relationship with Overmind, but at this point, it’s so blatant that I think just saying it out loud is funny enough. Once he’s been adequately touched by the might of the machine, he orders all troopers everywhere to drop what they’re doing and keep a lookout for Captain Power. This is accompanied by another stock footage montage of troopers wandering around factories, quarries, and Haven.

This would be a lot more impressive except that in every other episode, it was pretty clear that Dread was already receiving instant notifications every time Cap showed up anywhere, so again, this seems a little excessive. But hey, it’s not this episode’s fault. When Cap finally does turn up, Soaron flies off to intercept, cloaking to avoid detection.Captain Power Episode 21: Soaron

Wait, what? When did Soaron get a cloaking device? Isn’t that the sort of thing you ought to mention before introducing it? Well anyway, cloaked, he’s able to shoot the Jumpship undetected. It escapes serious damage, deliberately I assume, but is forced to retreat through the transit gate. The pursuing Soaron bounces off, but his scanner picks up the access code for the system. Lord Dread declares that Power is already defeated, and just doesn’t know it yet…

This episode is fantastic. Yes, there’s some really bad use of stock footage, and yes, too much screen-time is wasted with montages, and yes, Scout’s big speech doesn’t really work, and yes, the build-up about the transit gates was transparent and forced. But there’s a degree of actually trying here that you just don’t see elsewhere in this series. Dread is actually menacing here, much moreso than he ever has been, and David Hemblen somehow manages to do things like say, “Touch me with the power of the machine,” with a straight face and actually sell it. Not to mention the fact that we’re only halfway through this two-parter, and yet we’ve already had a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, but which is all the same a proper first part of a two-part story.

I wish they’d all been like this.

Captain Power Episode 21


March 4, 2015

Deep Ice: A Million to One, But Still, They Come (George Pal’s War of the Worlds)

War of the Worlds (1953) PosterI’ll Explain Later…

It is August 26, 1953. America is still reeling from the USSR’s recent demonstration of their shiny new H-Bomb, “Joe 4″, and even worse, last week’s publication of Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which made the controversial claim that women, some of them possibly the readers’ own mothers, may have, at some point, had sex, and, unthinkably, some of them might even have enjoyed it. The US and the UK are just finishing up overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran to keep the Shah in power, an act which they reckoned could not possibly backfire and foment decades of animosity between Iran and the west.

Les Paul and Mary Ford top the Billboard charts with “Vaya con Dios”. TV is in repeats for the summer, but next week, NBC will announce an experimental color episode of Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Super Circus is on the cover of the TV Guide.

Tomorrow, Roman Holiday will premiere in theaters, but today, the third of this year’s movies about Martians premiers (The other two are cult-classic Invaders From Mars and Abbot and Costello Go To Mars (Though technically, that one does not involve Martians; they actually go to Venus; the movie’s named for a scene where they mistake New Orleans at Mardi Gras for the red planet)): George Pal’s feature film adaptation of War of the Worlds.

There’d been talk about adapting The War of the Worlds as a feature film at least as far back as the 1920s. Cecil B. DeMille had been approached about it in 1925. and Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s. Ray Harryhausen shot some test footage of a novel-accurate Martian emerging from a cylinder-ship in the 1940s. But it wasn’t until the early 1950s that producer George Pal (already a big name in Science Fiction from Oscar-winners Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide) and director Byron Haskin adapted the story for the big-screen.

This is the big one. The definitive big old alien invasion movie. War of the Worlds (1953) War MachinesThere will be famous monster movies with aliens, or movies about alien wars in space, but with the possible exception of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there isn’t going to be another full-on aliens-invade-Earth-in-force (I know technically The Thing and Superman II are both movies about aliens that invade Earth, but I think characterizing them as “alien invasions” in the same way as War of the Worlds, Independence Day, Battle: Los Angeles, Edge of Tomorrow, etc., are is a stretch.) film that really rises above the status of cult classic until the ’80s. Depending on how mainstream you need a movie to be to count, maybe not until 1996’s Independence Day.

Pretty much everything about this movie is iconic. And until the inexplicable decision of literally (not literally) every filmmaker on Earth to do their own adaptation in 2005, this movie’s imagery and iconography became the unquestioned, unchallenged dominant version of the story in the public consciousness.

But is it good? The short answer is “yes”. The long answer is… a qualified “yes”. It is possibly the first genuinely visually breathtaking science fiction movies to be filmed in color — it won an Oscar for its special effects. War of the Worlds (1953) Gene Barry and Ann RobinsonThey slot in a fairly convincing love story with human characters who are more fleshed out than in the other direct adaptations we’ve looked at. The pacing is pretty solid. Ann Robinson’s Sylvia van Buren is one of the strongest female characters that had ever appeared in a science fiction film at the time (That is not to say that she is actually a Strong Female Character; about half of her role is about screaming at things. But by fifties standards….).

When we get to the plot, though… Well, it’s… okay. I guess. You know how The Big Bang Theory ruined Raiders of the Lost Ark by making us notice that Indy doesn’t actually do a damned thing that affects the outcome of the movie? Nothing any of the characters do in War of the Worlds ends up having any bearing on the outcome of the story. This shouldn’t be a surprise at this point, after all, it’s the whole point of the original novel. But still, it’s not really the kind of story that works well as a movie — this is and always has been a big problem for adapting “traditional” science fiction for mainstream audiences. Traditional science fiction isn’t written like a proper story; it’s more like an RPG sourcebook. The author’s real goal is to communicate the details of this fictional world he’s come up with, and the narrative, such as it is, is just a framework for organizing the exposition. But, of course, humans like narratives. At a fundamental level, the thing the human brain does is to organize a chaotic collection of input stimuli into coherent narratives. Back when we talked about The Great Martian War, I pointed out that it wasn’t enough for them to just recount the “history” of the war: they needed an angle. That’s one thing The History Channel has come to understand about making documentaries: that people for the most part don’t want to watch an encyclopedic recitation of facts, but rather they want a story, even if the story is only there to organize that same set of facts. Turning a big pile of facts into a narrative is what makes history different from taxonomy.

Given all this, there are basically two ways you “solve” the basic problem with War of the Worlds as a narrative. First, you can just straight-up change the ending. That’s what The Great Martian War does, making the infection that brings down the Martians not simply a matter of them being immediately doomed upon landing, but the result of biological warfare by the Allies. That’s also what the Asylum’s 2005 version does, with its implication that the alien defeat may have been due to the actions of the protagonist, who injects one of them with rabies vaccine (We will deal with the fact that rabies vaccine is dead-virus and therefore does not work that way when we come to it). The other approach is to treat the story like a disaster movie: the protagonists can’t stop the earthquake or volcano or Hippocane (In the past three centuries, only about five hundred people have died from shark attacks. Hippopotamuses kill about three thousand people every year. Sharknado 3: Hippocanes, Sharknado 4: TropicAligator Storm, Sharknado 5: Polar Bear Vortex, and Sharknado 6: Mongoosesoon coming this fall on SyFy. And next year, Sharknado 7: Owlvalanche), their story is about survival under desperate circumstances, perhaps with an element of escape or rescue. That’s pretty much how Orson Wells and Howard Koch structured the second half of their 1938 adaptation, and it’s pretty much how the Spielberg 2005 version did it. Roland Emmerich combines both in Independence Day to make a film that, for its flaws, is eminently watchable.

The problem with the 1953 War of the Worlds is that it kind of half-asses the second approach. It has its moments; the farmhouse scene, and the final scenes in Los Angeles, but they don’t really add up to a cohesive narrative. The film is mostly “Look at us try and fail to fight the Martians,” interspersed with scenes of Sylvia and Clayton that are very nice and all but don’t add up to a whole story.

We open with a little montage of newsreel footage showing clips from World War I and World War II as a narrator, who apparently thinks this is a teaser trailer, speaks about how advanced science and technology of their respective days went into fighting the two great wars, and how now, “Fraught with the terrible weapons of super-science comes The War of the Worlds!” An animated introduction takes us on a little trip through the solar system. The narrator does a fairly close adaptation of the first four paragraphs of the novel, explaining the plight of the Martians as their world cooled and became unable to support life. He does a quick reconnoiter of the solar system, giving comically inaccurate assessments of each planet to explain why it wasn’t suitable for Martian colonization: Pluto’s atmosphere is frozen (Pluto has no atmosphere and isn’t a planet anyway), Uranus and Neptune have identical methane-ammonia atmospheres, Saturn’s surface is buried under miles of ice (Saturn has no surface), Jupiter, though the closest planet to Mars, has a rocky surface of lava-and-ice volcanoes with burning hydrogen fires (Jupiter has no surface, no volcanoes, and is further from Mars than Earth), Mercury is hot and has no air (So at least they got that right), War of the Worlds (1953)and Venus, though mentioned in the script, isn’t in the filmed version of the montage at all, so presumably the Martians just forgot it.

We transition to live action with a practical FX shot of a meteor falling to Earth, alarming some park rangers and townspeople outside a movie theater as it disappears between the two matte paintings of mountains at the far end of the set. You’re going to have to try to remember how impressive this all looked in 1953, because I don’t think there’s a single shot in this movie (excepting the stock footage) that isn’t on a soundstage, and it’s really blatant about it. The impact starts some fires, and the first responders are impressed by the “meteor”‘s size (if you know what I mean), so they send Comedy Relief Deputy Ranger Fiddler to go round up a couple of scientists they happen to know are camping nearby. Since it’s the fifties, “Science” is its own field, and one scientist is pretty much as good as another. Fiddler proceeds to eat their dinner, steal their cigarettes, and conscript them to go have a look at the meteor. This is where we meet the hero of our story, Dr. Clayton Forrester (No, not that one), played by Gene Barry. I suspect that Gene Barry had a lot of influence into the characterization of Dr. Clayton Forrester. He’s a bit unusual as Movie Scientists go, presented as a bit of a celebrity — it’s mentioned that he’d been on the cover of Time – and the fact that he owns his own plane seems suggestive that he’s got money. And, at least in his first few scenes, he’s hella suave. Post War of the Worlds, Barry was primarily known for playing wealthy ladies’ men with some connection to law enforcement. First as the titular Old West US Marshall in Bat Masterson, then later as an independently wealthy homicide detective in Burke’s Law. The other thing I personally remember him from is playing the killer, a wealthy philandering psychologist, in Prescription: Murder, the pilot movie for Columbo. Much later, in the ’80s, he’d originate the role of Georges in the Broadway adaptation of La Cage aux Foilles (Admittedly, he did not play a Ladies’ Man in that one). His last film role before his death in 2009 would reunite him with War of the Worlds co-star Ann Robinson for a cameo in the 2005 Spielberg version of War of the Worlds. Forrester, along with a couple of his colleagues, is an astrophysicist from the fictional Pacific Tech, out in the woods to do some fishing… And also some amateur prospecting. Is that really a thing? I have no idea.

At the crash site, the locals, who seem like a colorful and quirky bunch (I’m kinda sorry we won’t be seeing more of them), speculate on the possibility of turning the large, half-buried cylindrical metal object into a tourist attraction.

It’s here that Clayton meets his costar and obvious love interest Sylvia Van Buren — she’d been one of the locals outside the movie theater two scenes ago. They do the whole Meet Cute thing, with Sylvia, who knows of Forrester, but doesn’t recognize him in his glasses and camping gear, launching unprompted into a paean about the famous scientist who’s on his way to look at the meteor. He’s smooth, breezily dismissing her hero-worship before revealing his identity: “You didn’t wear glasses in Time,” she explains. “They’re for long distance,” he explains, “To look at something close, I take them off.” Then he takes off his glasses so dramatically that The Who try to summon themselves into existence a decade early to sing the first bar of “Won’t get fooled again”.

Since Clayton’s Geiger counter indicates that the meteor is radioactive, and it’s still too hot to approach, they all decide to go off and have a square dance instead. We cut to later that night. While the characters whose names I can remember are off doing that, the three yokels they left behind see a section of the meteor unscrew, and now we get our first look at the “Cobra-head” of the alien war machine. The locals mention that Mars is in opposition and guess that it’s the origin of what they now know to be an alien spacecraft. Their immediate reaction is to assume it’s friendly and put together a white flag to let it know they’re peaceful. For their trouble, post-production waves a sparkler in front of the camera and vaporizes them.

War of the Worlds - Heat Ray

I’m going to need to find a word other than “iconic” to describe these things, but the cobra-head is just so damn… Iconic. It looks a bit like a gooseneck lamp. In fact, swimming around in my childhood memories is a very young version of myself poking at a small gooseneck table lamp and pretending it’s a Martian war machine. It’s got a scalloped lens on the front that pulses red and orange, and it makes this great THRUM-THRUM-THRUM sound that quickens right before it fires. The firing sound itself is on the one hand a typical sort of shrill CH-CH-CHOO, but in context almost sounds like it’s spitting.

The firing of the heat ray causes a power outage at the square dance and also knocks out the phones, hearing aids, and stops everyone’s watches. Forrester realizes that a powerful magnetic field is to blame, and a borrowed pocket compass shows the source of the disturbance to be the meteor. Forrester and the town sheriff narrowly avoid joining the three ash-piles they find at the scene, and the army is called in. An unnamed reporter interviews a scientist who’s less cool than Forrester, who spends several minutes making wild guesses about the physical nature of the aliens (who no one’s actually seen) and how their spacecraft work as we see a montage of people listening intently to radios, presumably an homage to the 1938 version.

A plane flies over the pit to drop a flare, prompting the cobra-head to emerge once again and spray first the air then the army with sparks. The reporter is cut off when his microphone’s cable is cut. At Forrester’s advice, the surviving soldiers call in some stock footage of troop movements and set up camp. Sylvia, wearing a red cross armband, has been conscripted to bring coffee and donuts while Clayton introduces General Mann (Les Tremayne) to the locals. The general brings news that cylinders have been falling all over the world: Santiago, Long Island, London, Naples, Fresno. General Mann explains that the landings are following a pattern, but no one has worked out what the pattern is. I am not sure how you can assert the existence of a pattern without identifying it, but there you are. This cylinder is the first one they’ve been able to surround before the Martians emerged, despite the fact that this is also the first cylinder to land.

One of the particular elements that this version adds is the significance of the number three to the aliens: the cylinders land in groups of three, and each contains three machines. We’ll later see that the aliens have three-fingered hands and their single eye has three segments. Some people interpret the aliens as having three hands and three legs as well, but we don’t get to see them closely enough to be sure.

The Martians finally emerge from the impact crater after a bit more military stock footage, giving us our first look at the entirety of the war machine. It is, of course, a thing of beauty, and it’s a real shame that the original props were all melted down for recycling (There’s a very good reproduction often mistaken for the original which once belonged to Forrest Ackerman, but that was a new model made a decade later from the original blueprints for the movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars). War of the Worlds - War MachineGeorge Pal had seen Warwick Goble illustrations (Which, as I’ve mentioned, Wells himself loathed) which depicted the fighting machines as essentially flying saucers on stilts. Taking inspiration from that, the body resembles a manta ray, the cobra-head extending up from the back. There’s a large green lens on the front, similar to the orange lens of the cobra-head. The wingtips are also green. In this first scene, little columns of sparks can be seen extending downward from three points on the underside. Though often thought of as a flying craft, Forrester explains that they don’t technically fly, but are, as in the novel, tripods, albeit ones which use force-fields as invisible legs. The sparking effect to indicate the legs was difficult to film and a fire hazard in the studio, so it’s not visible in later scenes. The other thing that’s really impressive is how smooth their motion is. I don’t even know War of the Worlds - Ann Robinson as Sylvia Van Burenhow you go about building something like this in 1953: the neck articulation is electromechanical puppetry, not stop-motion. Of course, the gooseneck-design makes it look more articulated than it actually is, but we see the cobra heads turn smoothly left and right, and bend upward and down.

As the army prepares to attack, Sylvia’s uncle, Pastor Collins decides that someone ought to try, um, preaching at the Martians, since, “If they’re more advanced than us, they should be nearer the Creator.” He more or less tells Sylvia she should go out with Clayton, then wanders out into No Man’s Land reciting the 23rd psalm. Ann Robinson has these great big expressive eyes, and whenever she’s terrified by something she goes silent, stares at it wide-eyed, and sort of shivers, which is exactly the same thing my niece does when she gets really excited. The army opens fire as soon as the lead Martian ship’s heat ray dispatches him.

Unfortunately for the army, the war machines are encased in an “electromagnetic covering”, a bell-jar shaped force field that flashes briefly visible under fire.War of the Worlds - War Machine It’s a simple optical effect; they filmed a couple of those glass domes you put over mantle clocks and superimposed it over the ships, but it looks cool today to see these transparent, solid objects sort of flash in and out of existence in time with the flashes of munitions. The army is quickly routed. The black smoke of the original novel is replaced by a “skeleton beam”, green blobs that issue from the manta-wingtips along with a sound that Star Trek would later use for photon torpedoes. Forrester describes it as cutting across magnetic lines of force — any object it strikes flashes red, then green (human targets’ skeletons flash visible X-ray style), then simply ceases to exist.War of the Worlds

Sylvia and Clayton attempt to escape the carnage in a light aircraft, but while trying to steer clear of both the war machines and the stock footage of air force jets, Forrester crashes and they’re forced to spend the night cowering in a ditch as the Martians pass. The next morning, they flirt a bit while finding an abandoned farmhouse and making breakfast, between bouts of Sylvia remembering to freak out about her uncle’s death. Obviously, it’s a bit of a cliché to have a woman reduced to hysterics in the face of horrific events, but I do like the way she keeps alternating between getting herself composed and losing it whenever something reminds her of Uncle Matthew. It gives a real sense of her fits of hysteria being less “women, amirite?” and more a matter of her actually trying as hard as she can to keep cool, and little things pushing her over the edge. It’s probably just coincidental, but it comes off as a surprisingly true-to-life (at least, by fifties standards) portrait of PTSD.

The awkwardness of Clayton and Sylvia flirting with each other between crying fits is broken up when a Martian cylinder ship crashes into the farmhouse. Tellingly, Sylvia manages to keep herself together when Clayton is knocked unconscious. This scene is clearly inspired by a similar scene with the narrator and a curate in the novel, and accordingly, there’s a close encounter with a Martian. They first decide to investigate the house by sending in this cute little guy. War of the Worlds - Camera EyeDon’t you just want to hug him? Kind of reminds me of Twiki from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It’s got this sort of iris-like semicircular metal shutters that close over the optics when it withdraws, and as it closes, it kind of looks like it’s frowning and going to sleepWar of the Worlds - Camera Eye. It’s almost shockingly twee. They hide. It leaves. Then it comes back and spooks Sylvia by sneaking up behind her and tapping her on the shoulder, so Clayton murders it with an axe.

Inexplicably, instead of just skeleton-beaming the house out of existence, one of the Martians decides to get out and reconnoiter in person. It sneaks up behind Sylvia and spooks her by tapping her on the shoulderWar of the Worlds - Ann Robinson, so Clayton throws an axe at it. I mean, okay, I’ll give them that these are clearly meant to be visual money-shots, the one time we get a good look at an alien. But really, in all important major respects, they just did the exact same scene twice.

War of the Worlds (1953) Martian

Now, the alien. I just don’t know. The actual design of the Martian overall isn’t as iconic as the war machine, but it’s still a pretty famous look. Later, the scientists will declare the aliens to be anemic, and that actually comes across in the way that, even given how different they look from humans, they still manage to look recognizably sickly. It’s a particularly nice touch that the alien’s three-segmented eye is so similar to the camera lens. And the hand is fantastic, with its three long fingers ending in suction cups. Unfortunately, they decided to have the thing move, and boy howdy does this muppet move like it’s a muppet (I tried to get an animated GIF of this, but it’s only on-screen for twenty frames and doesn’t loop well). It’s awkward and doesn’t look real at all, and you almost expect it to let out a Curly Howard-style “voop voop voop voop voop” as it runs. Clayton retrieves the camera head as a trophy and Sylvia has one last freak-out when she finds that the alien somehow managed to get blood on her scarf before they leg it.

The work of setting up the romance between Clayton and Sylvia taken care of, the narrator takes over for a while to assure us that the World War II stock footage they’ve cut together with some close-ups of the war machines really is the rout of mankind in the face of an indestructable unearthly foe, paying special attention to the war in India, China, Finland, Turkey and Bolivia. I have no idea how they chose which countries would get named specifically, I assume it involved darts and a mercator projection. Washington is singled out as the only strategically important world capital to have escaped destruction.

In Washington, General Mann gives a briefing on alien battle tactics as they make the decision to break out the nukes on the alien nest near Los Angeles. On the other side of the country, Clayton and Sylvia finish walking back to Pacific Tech from the middle of nowhere, leading to a short Science!TM montage as Clayton’s colleagues, a group of old white men and one old white woman, study the alien blood and camera eye. War of the Worlds - Martian CameraThey pronounce the aliens physically “quite primitive”, reflect on how “everything about them comes in threes”, and plug the camera into an opaque projector so they can see the world how the aliens do. Which turns out to be a bit fisheyed and slightly green-tinged. They wave it in Sylvia’s face for no clear reason other than to freak her out. Everyone packs off to watch the atomic bomb fall on the Martians.

It’ll be delivered — they make a special point of telling us — by the Northrop YB-49 “Flying Wing”, courtesy of more stock footage. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a War of the Worlds adaptation make a special point of giving us overly detailed information about military minutia, and I guess they come by it honestly given Wells’s style. The inclusion of the Flying Wing here is presumably an homage to Thunderchild in the novel, a steamship that manages to take down a tripod and buy time for a shipload of evacuees to escape before its destruction. It’s probably unintentional that they share a bit of the same irony: torpedo rams, like flying wings, were far more important in public consciousness than they ever were as practical military craft.

Northrup Flying Wing YB-49

The Flying Wing doesn’t fare as well as its inspiration, however; a few seconds after the bomb goes off, the war machines emerge from the smoke utterly unscathed. “Guns, tanks, bombs! They’re like toys against them!” General Mann laments. He orders Clayton and company back to the lab, convinced that their only hope now is for Science!TM to find a solution. They pack up the lab and leave in a convoy, but rioting mobs desperate to flee the city pull Clayton from the truck and cold-cock him.

The Giant Claw - War of the Worlds comparisonWe’re treated to a montage of Martians destroying nothing I recognize (other than that building that also gets destroyed in The Giant Claw. (It turns out that it’s Los Angeles City Hall. The footage is also recycled for the 1984 V miniseries)), and as night falls, Clayton gets so desperate that he starts thinking about the safety of his colleagues and Sylvia rather than just complaining about the destruction of his scientific instruments. Recalling an anecdote she’d told him back at the farmhouse, Clayton does a quick tour of every church in the city, hoping to find where Sylvia’d holed up. He finds her just as a war machine approaches for a final onslaught.

Then, just as we ultimately knew it must, the war machine drops out of the sky and crashes slowly to the ground. A door opens and an alien arm reaches out, then falls limp. War of the Worlds 1953Clayton pronounces the alien dead, then observes, “We were all praying for a miracle.” Church bells ring out as Clayton, Sylvia, and the assembled masses look heavenward and we cut to a montage of fallen war machines near damaged monuments — a bent and twisted Eiffel Tower, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and a shattered Taj Mahal as the narrator does the usual bit about the littlest thing God in his wisdom put upon the Earth, which gives way to a chorus of voices singing a few bars of “Now thank we all our God”.

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February 27, 2015
February 25, 2015

The World Is Burning Down (Captain Power: New Order, Part 2: The Land Shall Burn)

Captain Power Episode 20Previously on Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, Cap and company enacted a desperate reenactment of the Death Star Trench Run sequence from Star Wars in order to stop Lord Dread’s Icarus satellite from digitizing the eastern seaboard. With the crashing Icarus on a collision course for Volcania, Power and his team race to the very stronghold of their enemy to stop Lord Dread from touching off a deadly plasma storm.

It is March 13, 1988. Last Friday, the pound note ceased to be legal tender in the UK, enraging Adam Ant (Which is, at least, safer than enraging Adam Adamant, who will straight-up murder you for it). Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Cybil Shepherd and Accused Rapist Bill Cosby win the 14th People’s Choice Awards. Gallaudet University elects its first deaf president, which you’d think would have happened a lot sooner, but people kinda suck. In the coming week, Eugene Marino will become the first African American Catholic archbishop. He will resign two years later amid allegations of sexual misconduct (Thankfully, not the kind you usually associate with Catholic priests; an apparently consensual relationship with an adult).

We have finally entered the glorious two-week reign of Rick Astley, and it is a crying shame that the words to “Never Gonna Give You Up” don’t work well for this post’s title. Little else changes on the Billboard top ten, except that Debbie Gibson is back at number 8 with “Out of the Blue”. 14 Going On 30 concludes. This week’s MacGyver is “The Spoilers”, which I won’t ruin for you. Star Trek The Next Generation is back with “Coming of Age”. It’s a thematically important story which I remember hardly anything about other than the plot having a good chunk of vagueness in it, since the A-plot is “The Enterprise is being investigated on suspicion of there being ‘something wrong’, and we never get told what or why or anything really.”  This is because it’s actually foreshadowing for the season pre-finale, and the thing they’re looking for is going to turn out to be those neck-gill bug things. But it’s 1988, and “We’ll drop some hints back in March then not mention anything about it until May,” is not the standard mode of TV storytelling, so I never really felt like it gelled. Anyway, obligatory linklove to Vaka Rangi.

Much like this article, part two of “New Order” begins after a recap that goes on way too long. When we left Volcania last week, Icarus was expected to smack into the side of it in about twenty minutes. Now, that might sound to you like a really clever set-up for an episode that takes place in real time, with the crashing Icarus acting as a ticking clock throughout the episode. That’s because you live in the impossibly far-off world of 2015; we’re still a dozen years away from 24. Heck, we’re still three years away from the real-time episode of Seinfeld. As far as I know, the only real-time TV episode to have aired at this point in history was an episode of M*A*S*H back in ’79, and the real-time there is more than made up for by the fact that the series as a whole ran in approximately 1/3 time. No, we rejoin the story like 15 minutes after the end of part one, with Lord Dread desperately rousing Soaron to come defend Volcania.

Captain Power Episode 20: Soaron RegeneratesSoaron, you may recall, got blowed up right good last episode, and has to grow his leg and wing back before he can set off. There’s some really good detail shots of Soaron writhing on the ground, flexing his injured leg, and standing up. Too bad it’s completely undermined by just how godawful the actual regeneration effect is. I mean seriously, if Soaron were a suit actor, this would look like it was done on a greenscreen by pulling a green blanket over his leg. Soaron assures Dread that he can save Volcania. Soaron flies back to Detroit, interposes himself between Icarus and Volcania, and starts shooting. I note here, just to remind you, that Captain Power had previously refused to involve the rest of the resistance on the grounds that only his team, with their access to the jump gate network, could possibly move quickly enough to strike both Icarus control and also Volcania in the time allowed. Soaron has just covered the same distance faster, despite the fact that he started out down a leg and a wing.

Captain Power Episode 20: SoaronIcarus proves too big a target for Soaron to destroy, so he resorts to just shouting at it until it hits him, smashing him to pieces and leaving Dread and Overmind uncertain if he’ll even be able to regenerate at all. I’m of two minds on this scene. Soaron is completely out of the narrative for the rest of the episode, which I’m fine with, since the plot is already getting to be kind of a clusterfrak. Soaron’s last stand here is, I think, a well-made scene. The whole idea that, despite knowing that it’s hopeless, Soaron’s pride wouldn’t allow him to back down, and he actually thinks that just hovering there shouting “I AM SOARON!” at a giant burning space station might actually work is kind of cute. But I can’t help also feel that it’s really more of a Blastarr thing to do than a Soaron thing to do. It’s just so “Hulk Smash”.

Captain Power Episode 20: Volcania

At any rate, a few seconds later, Icarus smashes into the side of Volcania in an explosion so big that some of it appears to have actually happened, with model shots and everything rather than just compositing in the same fireball they use in the opening credits. Captain Power and his team take that as their cue to teleport in, which is a bit odd if you accept the statement back in “A Summoning of Thunder” about the network only having five exit nodes, but whatever. While they land the jumpship in what’s probably the best model shot of the jumpship all season, Dread recovers in his throne room and assesses the damage.

Captain Power Episode 20: Jumpship

Overmind reports extensive damage, but says that Prometheus can still go off as scheduled. Then Overmind says its best line of the series, because it echo’s Taggart’s words from the end of “A Summoning of Thunder, Part 2” he woke up as Dread: “I hurt.”  Dread orders Blastarr to take care of Captain Power, using the same kind of florid, “He is here, Blastarr, the one who has injured The Machine, the one who defies me again and again”-type nonsense that he’s supposed to have elevated himself above what with the whole Perfection of the Machine thing.

Everyone Powers On in the Jumpship. Hawk’s suit reminds him that he’s only got a fifteen percent charge on his batteries after last episode’s Soaron fight. Given that Scout, Cap and Tank fought their way through the Icarus base last time, it’s strange that they don’t need a recharge too. I know that Hawk’s condition is supposed to be related to his crash during the Soaron fight, but looking back over the series, there’s a huge number of times that the power suits have quite clearly only had enough charge for about five minutes of fighting. Captain Power notices Hawk’s reaction to the announcement, though I assume he can’t hear it himself, because Hawk proceeds to lie to him about it, claiming to be more than half-charged. After cloaking the Jumpship, Cap and company start fighting their way toward the throne room, which is for some reason the only place Scout can access the Prometheus controls.

Captain Power Episode 20 New OrderThey fight their way through a room and a half before Hawk’s batteries go flat after getting shot in the back by a Bling Nazi, and Cap instantly caves on his whole, “We push on no matter what and we’re totally leaving anyone behind who can’t keep up” by ordering Tank to carry him back to the Jumpship. You know, after going to the trouble of having him lie to his commander, you’d think Hawk’s impending suit failure would be more of a big deal, maybe have it fail at a time that really screws them, or putting him in a position where he needs to fly to escape. As it is, though, it’s just an excuse to get Peter MacNeill and Sven Ole-Thorssen out of the story, which, in turn, is because there’s not really enough plot to carry all five of them, and the sets are going to get a lot smaller, so the action choreography is better with just the three of them.

Captain Power Episode 20: Blastarr

Blastarr shows up and chases them into archive footage of Captain Power Episode 20: New Orderthat hallway with the sex toys on the ceiling from way back in “Wardogs“. When it widens out a bit, they toss their belts at him, which explode. This sets Blastarr on fire, but does not otherwise harm him. Their only reprieve comes when he has to stop for like 30 seconds to fold out his roller skates, buying Pilot enough time to unlock the next door with her sonic dildoCaptain Power Episode 20: Sonic Probe (It turns out that the thingy is officially called a “Proton Spanner”. In her commentary tracks, Jessica Steen seems oddly proud of it). Having tired of Blastarr’s crap, they bait him onto an exposed power cable, which electrocutes the BioDread. And then he explodes. Upstairs, Overmind reports that Blastarr, like Soaron, has uncertain chances of recovery.

Captain Power Episode 20: Blastarr

When Captain Power arrives at the throne room, he finds Dread’s throne occupied by a hologram: the real Lord Dread is exploiting Television Combat Strategy by standing directly in Cap’s line of sight, but outside the frame of the camera, thus rendering him invisible. Dread stuns Scout and Pilot, but Cap is able to disarm him by shooting him in the hand. Captain Power Episode 20: LakkiJust as Power is about to totally respect his father’s wishes about never taking human life, Lakki inexplicably does something useful and shoots Cap’s gun.

Disarmed, hero and villain are forced to resort to fighting with their totally-not-lightsabersneworder213. The fight is so distracting that Dread doesn’t notice Scout wake up and switch Volcania over to manual. This enrages Dread so much that he whacks Captain Power in the crotch with his stick hard enough to de-morph him, and then runs away. Scout manages to blow up the Prometheus power station, which explodes in a model shot that’s way more detailed than I’d ever have expected from this show.

Captain Power Episode 20

Before our heroes can do anything else with their complete unfettered access to Volcania’s main systems, Overmind starts trying to override their control. Rather than shooting the stupid Sargon ball that’s just sitting there exposed on the other side of the room, Captain Power and his friends decide to leg it. Their escape is presumably really boring, because we just cut to the Jumpship taking off and leaving unopposed, and they don’t even bother carving the phoenix emblem in the side of the place. Captain Power Episode 20: Hawk and ScoutInside, Scout bandages Hawk’s arm, because I guess Tank was happy enough to just let him sit there bleeding the past twenty minutes.

We end on Cap doing his Captain’s Log thing, declaring this to be their first major success in the war against Dread. Which is kind of disappointing, really. You may be starting to get the impression that I’m running out of patience with Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. We peaked, I think, right around the middle of the series. But now, just when it’s absolutely critical for the show to really nail it, they revert back to my complaints of the early part of the series: this two-parter is pretty much a forty minute action sequence. And it’s not even particularly good action. At least in “Freedom One”, the over-long action sequence was dynamic and well-composed. In these past two episodes, it’s just kind of a mess. Soaron and Blastarr alternate from scene to scene between being nigh invulnerable and being literally blown to bits. Hawk lies to Cap about how badly off he is, is injured in battle, and nothing comes of it. Hawk being injured is the closest thing this plot has to an actual complication in it, and it amounts to nothing.

Look at the basic outline of this episode: with the last two steps of Project New Order conveniently scheduled for two hours after we find out about them, Captain Power comes up with an audacious and nigh-suicidal plan to stop them… And they do it. Easily. We’re told that this is dangerous, that it’s borderline insanity to assault Volcania directly. But if anything, they have less trouble waltzing into Lord Dread’s throne room and reprogramming Prometheus than they did with the Icarus trench run. At no point does this episode have the tension even of, say, “Wardogs”. Cap and company basically dominate from the first scene onward. And if, as Cap’s log says, this is their first major victory against Dread, what the hell have they been doing for fifteen years? Everything is just far too easy. And two episodes in a row end with “As the countdown reaches zero, Scout reprograms a computer to make a model explode.” This isn’t good storytelling.

Credit where it’s due and all: the model work in these episodes is fantastic. The Prometheus plasma station, the Icarus satellite, the Death Star Trench (itself. The compositing of the Jumpship and Skybikes is wretched), and Volcania itself are all detailed and lovely. But nothing else in the episode justifies the time and expense that went into them. I’ve kept saying all season that the half-hour format is a problem for a show this action-heavy, and that two-parters ought to give them some breathing room. And here they go proving me wrong: “New Order” as a two-parter is even more terse and action-heavy than the single-parters. It’s barely a two-parter at all, really; each half has a distinct beginning, middle and end that stands on its own. Taken as two separate episodes, though, “The Sky Shall Swallow Them” and “The Land Shall Burn” suffer from (a) not being especially good action-heavy episodes, and (b) being essentially the same exact story twice in a row.

Captain Power Episode 20: Soaron

This show had better up its game next time. It’s running out of chances.

February 18, 2015

Light the Sky and Hold on Tight (Captain Power: New Order, Part 1: The Sky Shall Swallow Them)

Captain Power Episode 19It is the sixth of March, 1988. In Gibraltar, Operation Flavius concludes when the British SAS shoot three IRA members to prevent a bombing. The outcome is highly controversial, as witness accounts suggest that the suspects were shot after surrendering, though the SAS maintained that it looked like one of them might have been reaching for a remote detonator or wearing a hoodie or something. In the coming week, George H.W. Bush will shore up his standing for the bid to be Reagan’s successor by rousting Bob Dole on Super Tuesday while the Democrats will utterly fail in their bid to get their own candidate picked out early so they could get on with the business of losing the general election.

George Michael hangs on to the top of the charts for one more week, but Rick Astley’s about to roll up over him. David Lee Roth, Richard Marx, Michael Jackson and Cher break into the top ten. The Wonderful World of Disney airs the first part of 14 Going On 30, which is pretty much exactly what you think it is: Big crossed with 13 Going On 30, and I only bring it up because Daphne Ashbrook is in it, and because a lot of people think that its ending (She turns herself 14 so she can keep dating the hero after he returns to his original age. Which is really freaking creepy when you think about it) is actually a deleted scene from Big. Supercarrier and In the Heat of the Night premier. Probe premiers tomorrow, right after that MacGyver with the woman who kills the dog.

Star Trek the Next Generation is still on a break as Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future rolls into its final four episodes with the first part of “New Order”. And unfortunately, this one is kind of a Curate’s Egg (Once upon a time, a curate was invited to have breakfast at the Bishop’s house. The Bishop looks at the curate’s plate and observes that he’s been served a rotten egg. The curate, wanting to be gracious to his host says, “Oh, no, parts of it are quite good.”). This episode — this pair of episodes, really, are just about the most action-heavy in the series. And it’s not even good action. The plot progression is kind of sloppy, the sense of time and space is more warped than usual, and there’s an awful lot of stock footage. There are some nice moments, but on the whole, there’s a real feeling of them suddenly realizing that there were only four episodes left and still two phases of Project Macguffin to deal with. They also appear to have realized that they’re running out of show and still haven’t given Maurice Dean Wint much of anything to do all season, so he’s got a slightly larger role here — they actually seem to have deliberately pushed Peter MacNeill to the sidelines for a lot of the story to make room.

Captain Power Episode 19 - Maurice Dean Wint as ScoutWe start out with Captain Power and Scout at a clandestine rendezvous with Locke, a “data theif” played by Paul Humphries, the son of an accomplished Canadian TV producer, in one of a handful of roles he played before deciding to go into music instead, presumably because he realized that both James Spader and Michael Shanks are both better James Spaders than he isPaul Humphries in Captain Power. He’s got exclusive data on the Icarus phase of Project New Order that he’s looking to sell. He gives Scout a preview of the content on his 3.25″ floppy using a Virtual Boy, and Scout confirms that it’s genuine. Somehow. Before they can set a price, however, they hear the approaching sounds of Soaron. Soaron’s dialogue suggests that he’s just sort of randomly happened into the area looking for humans to digitize.

Given the importance of the data they’re buying and the need for secrecy, the obvious thing to do is to lay low and hope he goes away. So of course Cap and Scout immediately Power On and start shooting. Lord Dread, as always, feels the need to micromanage, and dispatches Blastarr to help. While Cap tangles with Soaron, Blastarr corners Locke, who tries to shoot him. I mean actually shoot him. Paul Humphries in Captain PowerWith a gun. That shoots bullets. I’m having a hard time conveying the weirdness of that. I think this is the only time in the series we see a regular gun. Fortunately, for the safety of their time slot and the rendering farm that would have to work out how to make the CGI model interact with a squib,  Locke misses by a mile. Blastarr gloats and returns fire, and… Also misses by a mile.

Captain Power disables Soaron by blowing up a building, or something. It’s hard to tell; it’s the usual way of filming Soaron fight scenes, cutting back and forth between contextless shots of Cap and Soaron each off-screen. The camera stays close-in, which gives us a good look at Soaron’s detailing, but makes it basically impossible to derive any sense of what the hell is going on. There’s very little dialogue to clarify, beyond something to the effect of “Ha! Gotcha!” right before Cap blows something up, which I think is meant to indicate that he’d used a feint to lure Soaron into an enclosed area to shoot him. Captain Power catches up with Blastarr just as he’s about to dispatch Locke (Or rather, while Blastarr has been standing around for about ten seconds with Locke cornered and his gun-fingers aimed, patiently waiting for Cap to show up and shoot him) and disables him momentarily, triggering that same old short loop of the Ground Guardian falling to his knees that they’ve used in about two thirds of his appearances. Blastarr’s resilience varies wildly from scene to scene and episode to episode. Like I said before, you could probably explain this as him needing conscious effort to avoid injury, resulting in his being particularly weak against sucker-punches.

Locke, despite protesting about his payment, agrees to retreat with Scout and Cap on a hoverbike… And then just drops out of the story. We’ll be seeing him again, but not for a while. We cut immediately back to the Power Base, where Mentor and Captain Power explain what they’ve learned. Icarus and Prometheus are to follow in rapid succession. Captain Power Episode 19Icarus refers to a gigantic space-based digitizer, capable of vacuuming up the entire human population of the planet, starting, because now is as good a time as any to start caring about geography, with the east coast of the US two hours from now.

Hawk questions the fact that Dread has somehow launched a giant satellite without them noticing. And here’s where things start to get awkward: presumably, Dread launched it from one of his many other facilities around the world which Captain Power and company know nothing about and haven’t been paying attention to.

LOLWHUT? No, just no. If Lord Dread has facilities all over the planet, why has this never come up? Why were Styx and Charon both done entirely in the US, where the one guy who stands a chance of stopping him lives? For that matter why doesn’t Captain Power pay attention to the rest of the planet? This sounds like a recipe for someone’s last words being, “Gee, Probably should have checked to see if he had a huge backup army in Brazil.” What the hell? There isn’t much of anything in this show that makes sense unless you start from the assumption that either Power and Dread are both operating globally or that the rest of the world has been somehow placed “out of bounds” by some kind of catastrophe.

To prevent us from thinking too long about that, though, Mentor adds that the Prometheus program is scheduled to go into effect immediately after Icarus: this one is the use of “plasma stations” to ignite a firestorm that will sterilize the eastern seaboard to clean up anyone who evades the digitizer. Captain Power sends the others off to warn Freedom Two and the East Coast Resistance (I have all their albums) while he thinks of a plan. It’s rare to see Cap personally and explicitly take on the task of strategy. I don’t particularly like it, given my personal take on the character, but I can’t say that it goes against the Word of God on his tactical abilities.

While he strategizes, we jump back to Volcania just long enough for Dread and Lakki to passive-aggressive at each other, mostly Dread insisting that it’s too late for Captain Power to do anything about Icarus and Lakki reminding him that Captain Power is two for two on disrupting phases of Project New Order so far.

Back at the Power Base, Cap has devised a bold plan to save the world. And when I say “bold”, I don’t mean “A plan which is daring in its difficulty and stakes with the odds against them;” I mean “I can’t believe they had the gall to be this overt about ripping off Star Wars.” Because his plan is to reenact the Death Star Trench Run in the jumpship.  And not subtly at all. The Icarus control station is located at the end of a long trench, and he orders Pilot to fly down the trench in the jumpship and blow it open with a “proton missile”. Everyone is so relieved that they can finally be open about the fact that they can finally be open and honest about ripping off Star Wars that they barely bat an eyelash when Captain Power adds that the second part of his plan is for them to go attack Volcania directly to disable Prometheus. Maurice Dean Wint in Captain PowerThis new spirit of liberation gives Tank the courage to directly reference Star Trek: “What are ve vaiting for? Let’s go boldly where nomen has gahn before.” Scout adds, “Beam me up, Scotty.” (Side note: It’s 2147. That show is two hundred years old. And besides, the only time anyone actually says “Beam me up, Scotty,” is in Star Trek IV).  If you read my essay on “And Study War No More“, you might remember that I proposed the somewhat tongue-in-cheek thesis that even as Star Trek the Next Generation was spooling up, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was in its very modest way trying to stake out its own claim as a legitimate successor to the cultural role that the original Trek had held. But I didn’t really expect them to come right out and say it. It seems like a bit of a dangerous proposition to reference a much more popular competing science fiction franchise in the middle of your own floundering science fiction franchise.

There’s some cutting back and forth to Volcania mostly to break up the time skips, with the strange effect that it appears Captain Power spent an hour and a half of their two hours coming up with his plan, and the next fifteen minutes letting Pilot practice on a simulator. With fifteen minutes to go, they board the jumpship and set out. They’ll be going in unassisted, since, according to Cap, the rest of the resistance couldn’t possibly make it to both targets in time. Because teleportation. So presumably, Cypher, Sands, Blaise and Evangier are just, like, sitting around with their thumbs up their butts while the world gets ready to literally burn around them, because Cap and Company are the only people allowed to actually accomplish anything in this show. En route, they’re attacked by “BioDread forces”, and they speculate it may be Soaron. Given that Soaron is the only thing we’ve ever seen fly other than Dread himself that one time, it’s a safe bet.

Hawk is dispatched to keep Soaron out of the way, and it’s kind of disappointing; the battle appears to be composed entirely of stock footage from earlier in the season. The only thing really noteworthy is that you can see Soaron’s tail swishing behind him at one point. The battle proceeds in the usual way, Hawk firing his nerf darts and Soaron’s laser beams exploding against the empty sky behind Hawk until he eventually gets in a good shot that knocks Hawk out of the air. Soaron’s in “Red Baron” mode for this one, coming close to complimenting Hawk for his prowess, but declaring the day his as he slowly lines up his kill-shot. As per usual, the shocking reveal is that Hawk is less badly hurt than it seemed, and he stands up and hits Soaron point-blank with a nerf dart to the chest, which blows off one leg and wing. They’re really getting brutal with this.

Captain Power Episode 19

The trench run is literally the exact same footage as the trench run from the end credits. I mean, okay, it’s not like I expected them to film a separate sequence for it, but it’s just so blatant. The jumpship and hoverbikes are matted in kind of crudely, and the interactivity effects have been replaced with a glowing ball that chases them part of the way. They occasionally show a reverse-angle on the jumpship, which is nice, but the background of the trench looks like it’s probably just the same end credits loop played backwards. Thanks to a little peck on the cheek Tim Dunigan and Jessica Steen in Captain Power Captain Power gives her, “for luck” (and also because we’ve got a romance subplot to shoehorn in here), Captain Power Episode 19despite getting consistently blown up about ten seconds into the run on the simulator, Pilot manages to survive the, I don’t know, it feels like about six hours (Seriously, the sequence is really tedious) to launch a photon  torpedo shoot a blue strobe beam fire the proton missile at the unshielded thermal exhaust port door, blowing it up.

Lord Dread’s countdown informs us that only seconds remain as Cap, Scout and Tank shoot their way through the installation. It’s a perfectly good fight scene, but it doesn’t really add anything we haven’t seen a dozen times by now. In fact, the whole thing is basically identical to the fight at the Styx base back in “And Madness Shall Reign“. The timing is sloppy. The countdown hits zero just as… Scout sticks a floppy disk in a computer. And then he types something. And then he announces that the Icarus satellite is turning. Was the countdown just a suggestion? At any rate, Scout’s interference causes an explosion on the satellite and it falls out of orbit. Here, we get a slightly weird twist — one moment that actually managed to impress me. We cut immediately back to Volcania where Overmind announces that the Icarus platform isn’t just going to fall to Earth at random: it’s on course to crash straight into Volcania.

That’s a clever part of Captain Power’s strategy which they deliberately withheld from us earlier, but I’m not really sure they earn it. I’m reasonably sure that what they meant to indicate is that Cap’s plan was not merely to destroy Icarus, but to engineer its descent specifically to turn it into a kinetic orbital bombardment against Volcania. But because they withheld this information for dramatic effect, it’s vague enough that you could easily think this is just a deus ex machina, a happy accident that Icarus’s reentry would take it to Volcania. The only hint at all that this is intentional is one line from Scout as he orders Icarus to turn, and you could easily miss it over the noise of the rest of the scene. What we really needed here is to stretch out the middle of act two, show Cap struggling to come up with a plan, and outright saying that there isn’t enough time to hit both targets. They could still withhold the exact plan, but we should have seen Cap’s “Eureka” moment when something gives him the inspiration for the plan. You know what this would be a good time for? A flashback. Bring back Dylan Neal and let Bruce Gray out of his Zordon Tube. Maybe show them playing some kind of sci-fi version of curling, where Daddy Power bests his son by caroming a shot off of one of Young Johnny’s stones so he could give a little speech about turning your adversary’s strengths back against him. But no, we needed that screen-time to squeeze in some more stock footage fight scenes.

Captain Power Episode 19

February 11, 2015

Deep Ice: Guns, Tanks, Bombs, They’re Like Toys Against Them! (Joe Pearson’s War of the Worlds: Goliath)

War of the Worlds: GoliathI’ll Explain Later…

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging:

In a certain sense, it’s because the documentary is so strong that it leaves me just a bit unsatisfied. Because, frankly, I can look up how World War I went.  “A Brief History of World War I Only With Martians Instead of Germans,” is merely clever; I find myself much more fascinated by the question, “How does the rest of the twentieth century go if we get Alien Tech in 1918?”

Unfortunately, that’s not a question that particularly interests The Great Martian War. Fortunately, I’ve got a bunch of adaptations left to go…

It is June 28, 1914. Yesterday, boxer Jack Johnson won by decision after 20 rounds with Frank Moran in Paris, retaining the World Heavyweight title. He’d eventually lose it to Jess Willard by knockout in Havana the following year. Manchester, NH is rebuilding after a fire downtown. The 23-part serial The Million Dollar Mystery starring Florence La Badie has recently opened in theaters, as has Cecil B. DeMille’s The Only Son, and an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first Tarzan novel, Tarzan of the Apes has just been published, as has Baum’s Tik-Tok of Oz. Speaker of the House Champ Clark vows to vote in favor of women’s suffrage when it’s put to vote in Missouri. The referendum will fail in November, amid fears that female voters will push for prohibition, based on the fact that this is pretty much exactly what happens. Missouri’s legislature will grant women the vote late in 1919, which won’t make a lick of difference because the 20th amendment will give it to them anyway before the next election. A time-traveler from the future (I assume, since the idea of both advertorials and anti-vaxxers being native to the 1910s makes me sad) posts an advertorial in the New York Tribune claiming that vaccination is more dangerous than smallpox and tetanus. Teddy Roosevelt refuses to follow his doctor’s advice and give up politics for four months’ bed-rest to treat his malaria, though he’ll relent the next day and agree to take a day off. The Aquitania, Ruritania and Lusitania are all departing New York in the next month on round-the-world trips starting at $474.83.

In Sarajevo, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is assassinated by Yugoslav Nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Through a series of confusing, ill-conceived and boring mutual defense pacts, this leads to Germany invading France.

The United States, of course, remains neutral, since they’re far more concerned with preparing for the immanent return of invaders from Mars.

Some time in the first quarter of 2012, I managed to get the script that automagically makes newly released movie trailers appear in my mythtv working, and it dutifully informed me that there was an animated film coming out that I probably wouldn’t be interested in — some kind of dieselpunk alternate-universe war film that looked like it was pretty much World War I with mecha. I like me some giant robots, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not a huge fan or war films per se. Or dieselpunk. I’d probably have skipped this one, but then it showed the title. War of the Worlds: Goliath.

So I guess I’m in. Goliath is a 2012 animated film produced and directed by Joe Pearson (It’s kinda weird how the name ‘Pearson’ keeps coming up in reference to War of the Worlds…), set during World War I in a world where the events of the HG Wells novel took place in 1899. There’s an obvious parallel to The Great Martian War, but here, World War I itself happens the historical way (at first), with the alien invasion as backstory. War of the Worlds: Goliath, therefore is very much the thing I said I’d have preferred to see. Sorta.

Goliath is also, oddly enough, a bit of a reunion for the cast of Highlander the Series: the voice cast includes Jim Byrnes (Joe Dawson), Elizabeth Gracen (Amanda), Peter Wingfield (Methos) and Adrian Paul (Duncan MacLeod) remember that name. For that matter, screenwriter David Abramowitz was the supervising producer for Highlander the Series and its spin-off Highlander: The Raven. Joe Pearson, whose work has been entirely in animation, isn’t connected to the Highlander TV series directly, but he did work with Abramowitz on the 2007 anime Highlander:The Search for Vengeance.

We’re treated to a sepia-colored montage of life in 1899 intercut with Martian spaceships approaching the Earth as Luka Kuncevic gives us an arrangement of Jeff Wayne’sForever Autumn” (Best known for its cover by Justin Hayward for Wayne’s musical adaptation of War of the Worlds, which we’ll talk about eventually) with so much autotuning it sounds like a cyberman is singing it. I mean, it’s clearly intentional; for some reason Kuncevic thought that sounding like a mid-70s robot would make a 1969 Lego jingle sound more apropos to the turn of the century. A longer version plays over the end credits, and at least the electric guitar part is nice.

Post-credits, we open in Leeds, in 1899, where young Eric Wells (Because it’s contractually required for 2 out of 3 War of the Worlds adaptations to name a character after HG Wells) gets his parents killed by panicking in the face of a Martian tripod rather than running for cover. I know that’s putting it bluntly, but this movie is not really big on subtlety. And besides, I have seen exactly this setup about a hundred million times. War of the Worlds: GoliathFuture-hero is confronted by a powerful enemy as a child, panics, dads rushes back to save him and is killed. This haunts the kid his entire life and will be the specter of self-doubt he must overcome in order to unlock his full potential and avenge his parents when the villains return. It’s the backstory for Wonder-Red in The Wonderful 101. It’s the backstory for Simba in The Lion King. It’s the backstory for Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. It’s the backstory for Samus Aran in Metroid. Hell, it’s the backstory for the Goddamned Batman. It is even the backstory for Captain Power. I’m not saying it’s a bad trope per se, but the depths of it are pretty well plumbed out by now, especially if you’re not going to give us any real payoff for it. Also, the deaths are needlessly gruesome, showing their flesh burn away and their skeletons and viscera twist as they are reduced to ash. That’s going to be a recurring motif; most battles have at least one money shot of someone getting vaporized but good.

War of the Worlds: Goliath 1899 TripodThe 1899 tripod looks to have taken some inspiration from Henrique Alves Corrêa’s illustrationsWar of the Worlds - Correra illustration for the 1906 French edition of the novel. The general shape is somewhat similar to a water tower, with a barrel-shaped body and wide-brimmed roof on long, stilt-like legs. There’s two large windows in the front, positioned like eyes. A cylindrical extension projects forward just below the main body, which you’d think was the heat ray, but the heat-ray is a separate unit, slung lower, in a position that kind of makes it look like the tripod’s naughty bits. Actually, the curve of the roof strongly resembles a Brodie Helmet, and when combined with the large window-eyes and the cylindrical extension, the combined effect is to make the tripod’s main body look uncannily like the head of a World War I soldier, kitted out for the trenches in helmet and gas mask. My assumption is that this is intentional given the premise, but there’s some things later on that make that seem weird. The tripod, as would be expected, conveniently drops dead before it can fire its green heat ray a third time and kill our nominal protagonist before the story even gets started.

The animation in Goliath is interesting. Like I said back in Gandahar, I’m no expert on animation. Goliath was animated in Malaysia, which has a pretty robust animation industry, but not one I have any other experience with. The thing it looks the most like is the 1990s DCAU stuff — the animated Batman and Superman in particular. Everyone’s got these ridiculous comic-book proportions with gigantic chests, Lenoesque chins and small waists. But there’s also elements that remind me a lot of Aeon Flux: anything gory, like the deaths of Eric’s parents, but there’s also something about the character of Jennifer Carter that reminds me a lot of Peter Chung’s work. The film is 3D computer animated, and the cel shading here is first rate; I’d at first assumed it was a hybrid animation style, using CGI for the mecha and traditional animation for people.The animation is absolutely fantastic. I won’t call it “beautiful”, though, because an awful lot of it is very deliberately ugly.

War of the Worlds: Goliath

There’s also a whole lot of detail in the backgrounds, such as the New York City of 1914, where our story resumes. One obvious downside to setting a story in New York City in 1914 is that it doesn’t actually look that much like New York City: you’re missing all that fantastic Gothic Revival and Art Deco stuff. Pretty much the only things you’ll see in Goliath‘s New York that really shouts “New York” are the Flatiron building and something I’m not going to mention yet for dramatic effect. Instead of the familiar skyscrapers of modern New York, the city is instead decorated with numerous statues memorializing the Martian invasion, which all tend to depict humanity as having a greater hand in the defeat than it did, soldiers with heavy arms standing astride felled tripods or skewering squid-like Martians. New York is an exceedingly smoky place. For that matter, just about everything in this movie belches huge amounts of diesel exhaust, which is presumably historically accurate, but is strangely at odds with the technological motif.

War of the Worlds: Goliath - Roosevelt, Tesla, KushnirovEric Wells, now grown into a barrel-chested adult, rides a suspension train that runs down Fifth Avenue to the headquarters of ARES, Earth’s unrealistically ethnically diverse “Allied Resistance Earth Squadron”. ARES is run by Secretary of War Teddy Roosevelt, Russian General Sergei Kushnirov (Who is not a real person, but is played by Rob Middleton, who hasn’t been in anything since the ’80s, but does have one credit I recognized: he played the monster that lived in Dorian’s basement in the first episode of the last season of Blake’s 7), and Nikola Tesla. It’s made up of the best and brightest of the world’s various armies, putting aside things like racism, sexism, or the fact that the world is full of countries which all hate each other. The men and women of ARES put all that nationalism aside to work together in the name of their common humanity. Except for the Germans, who are kind of assholes. Well, mostly. Ace pilot Manfred von Richtofen seems like a mensch, even if he did make a point of showing off by buzzing the train earlier.

Roosevelt has some troubling news for ARES: Mars is once again in opposition, and Tesla believes he’s detected evidence that the Martians are launching a renewed attack. To make matters worse, half of ARES’ soldiers have been recalled to Europe in anticipation of a war between the great powers over there.

Yes. World War I is still gearing up to happen over in Europe. Now, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve defended works of science fiction for pulling the whole “Aliens invade in the ’70s and yet the ’90s are superficially identical to the ones the viewer lived through,” thing. There’s a lot of people who take issue with the idea that, post-alien-invasion, humanity would get back to their lives rather than instantly evolving into spangly space-clothes wearing Science Fiction Characters, and I don’t think that it necessarily follows that the absolute knowledge of the existence of hostile extraterrestrials would have a huge impact on the day-to-day lives of most people, for the same reason that the discovery that the Earth goes ’round the sun didn’t. During the invasion, yeah, sure, things are very different. But once the Martians are finished dying, the cows still got to be milked and the lawn’s still got to be mowed, and there’s no per se reason — provided that the invasion is done-in-one and there isn’t continuing contact with the aliens — that it wouldn’t be handled exactly the same way as every other kind of large-scale disaster, like an earthquake or a hurricane, that comes out of nowhere, shakes things up, then leaves.

But this still feels wrong. Not that Europe wouldn’t still be itching to get its war on — Europe had been itching to get its war on pretty much continuously for centuries, and it seems hopelessly optimistic to me to assume that Kaiser Wilhelm and Franz Joseph and George V and Raymond Poincaré would all set aside the fact that their countries all hated each other just because there were Martians now. No, that bit I’m okay with — it even sort of works to have this sense that ARES was assembled immediately after the war out of a sudden feeling of a common brotherhood of man and the need for mutual defense, but after a few years, the old rivalries and hatreds resurfaced. Rather, it seems awfully forced that, after the destruction of much of the world’s military and a tenth of its population (Literal decimation!), everyone would be ready in fifteen years. We’ve already seen this is a different world than the real 1914; Eric here is the commander of an ARES tripod, built by Tesla based on his studies of alien tech. Humanity has heat rays and giant mecha. And you’re telling me that Europe had time to put their shattered cities back together and raise a new generation of soldiers to replace the ones lost in the Martian war and build new battle fleets using an entirely new kind of technology (Because seriously, if heat ray-equipped giant mechs are a thing that exists, are you seriously going to start a war without some of your own?), and this didn’t push everyone’s schedule back a few years?

War of the Worlds: Goliath TripodGeneral Kushnirov believes that the key to being prepared for the Martians’ return lies in their new “Achilles-Class” Tripod. Because when you’re building what is, essentially, a tank complicated by the fact that instead of rolling on treads, it has to accomplish the much more difficult feat of walking on legs without falling, you naturally assume it’s a good idea to name it after a guy who is famous for being killed by injuring his ankle. It’s one of the laws of military naming symbolism, like how you have to call your high-altitude craft “Icarus” or your indestructible spaceship “Titanic 2″, or your physics-defying ship “The SS. Fuck you, Newton”.

Having been established as the main character, command of the first Achilles-class Tripod off the line, dubbed “Goliath”, naturally goes to Eric, on account of his performance in simulations and also because his team meets Haim Saban’s requirements for diversity among a five-man special forces team. The British Wells is accompanied by an American Lieutenant, Jennifer Carter, because the US has female combat troops in 1914 but this complete social upheaval didn’t deter World War I from happening (Remember, in the real world, women in the US don’t have the vote yet); Sergeant Abraham Douglas from Canada, because Canada has desegregated their armed forces by 1914 but this complete social upheaval didn’t deter World War I from happening; Lieutenant Raja Iskandar from British Malaya (Present-day Malaysia, where, as noted, the film was made); and Corporal Patrick O’Brien from Ireland. Wells, of course, is an enlightened Englishman who has no problem serving with a woman, an Irishman, a black guy and a southeast Asian (I mean, I guess it helps that the white British guy is the one who’s in charge), and neither does anyone else. Except the Germans, who are kind of jerks.

War of the Worlds: Goliath Crew

Everyone heads down to the local pub before the next day’s war games, where O’Brien tells Roosevelt that he isn’t on speaking terms with his IRA brother and is loyal to the British Crown, then promptly sneaks out to meet his IRA brother to explain that the impending invasion will delay their plans to steal a bunch of heat rays to send back to Ireland for use in terrorism against the British. His brother threatens to kill him if he backs out of the plan, and makes a big point of how he is perfectly willing to screw over humanity in the face of unstoppable Martian invasion if he can sate his desire to kill the English. The brother, by the way, is voiced by Mark Sheppard. I guess after The X-Files, Sliders, Star Trek, Firefly24, The Middleman, Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, Warehouse 13, Supernatural and Doctor Who, he reckoned he needed one more sci-fi-cult-franchise to get the free sub.

Back at the bar, the Germans try to start shit. Richtofen unsuccessfully tries to calm things down, and we are almost treated to Teddy Roosevelt getting into a fist fight with the Red Baron. War of the Worlds: GoliathBut things settle down when Kushnirov shows up to deliver the news of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, and the resulting orders for the European ARES members to pack up and go home. Eric gives just about the most cliched speech in the world, which inexplicably convinces all of ARES to commit treason en masse and stay in New York, Richtofen even asserting, “Deutchland can kiss my ass.”

That night, Eric stays up late tinkering with Goliath, in order that he can have a tender scene with Jennifer, the child of wealth and privilege who ran off and joined the army to get away from her controlling father, so that she can tell him that his parents’ death isn’t his fault and because the movie is shipping these two, even though it can not spare the time away from mech battles to actually sell it. The next morning, a Martian scouting party attacks the war games. War of the Worlds: Goliath - Martian 1914 TripodThe new tripods are larger and sleeker in design, with more powerful heat rays that can cripple the large Achilles-class or destroy the smaller ARES tripods with a single shot. ARES is victorious against the small force, but the victory comes at a substantial cost.

ARES tripods are markedly smaller than their Martian counterparts, and boxier. They look pretty much like tanks with legs, a la Metal Gear. They’re armed with both red-beamed heat rays and more conventional weapons which, as in the novel, can fell a Martian tripod, but only with concentrated fire, a good deal of luck, and a distraction to keep the tripod from incinerating it first. Portable backpack-sized heat rays also exist. General Kushnirov commands a large “leviathan” airship, armed with its own giant wave motion canon dealie which they don’t whip out until the last scene.

After the battle, O’Brien visits his brother, to reiterate that the IRA does not consider an alien invasion a good reason to change their plans. Sean O’Brien declares his brother dead to him, then drops out of the story altogether because this part is boring. The next battle we see is implied to be the next day, but it makes far more sense for it to be some time later. Richtofen defends the leviathan from Martian flying machines while humming Ride of the Valkyries and pulling off maneuvers which, unless Wings 2: Aces High lied to me, aren’t actually possible in a World War I triplane (In their defense, on my second watching, there’s a bit earlier in the movie which suggests that Richtofen’s plane has been retrofitted with something akin to an afterburner).

War of the Worlds: Goliath - Red Baron

Goliath is disabled in battle and Eric’s team evacuates. They randomly meet a somewhat deranged militiaman who keeps his wife’s dismembered finger in a pouch around his neck. He leads them to an alien-occupied power plant, then conveniently sacrifices himself as a distraction. They mention in passing that human power plants are based on salvaged alien tech, which is odd since we have not seen a damned thing that doesn’t run on fossil fuels. War of the Worlds: GoliathThey rescue some captured humans from the Martian larder, though not before we get to see one of the prisoners get deep-throated to death by an alien bendy-straw. There’s an interesting level of effort here to keep the aliens themselves close to the book: physically, they’re sort of squid-like, enormous, leathery heads with exposed brains, a beak-like mouth, no body to speak of, living off the blood of their victims.

The power plant has been converted to a factory where the Martians are building a kind of dreadnought, a large flying wing that I assume is an homage to the pointless inclusion of Northrup YB-49 stock footage as a bit of spectacle in George Pal’s 1953 film adaptation. War of the Worlds: Goliath - Martian WingEveryone is shocked by it, and it’s clearly meant to be the first time they’ve seen this terrifying weapon. Which is odd, since they were mentioned in passing a few scenes earlier when talking about enemy troop movements. They blow up the plant and the flying wing therein, but it turns out that this is all part of an elaborate Martian feint, to draw the bulk of ARES out west while the Martian armada converges on Manhattan. Which technically makes the whole scene with them risking life and limb to destroy the Martian Wing pointless, but at least Eric gets laid for his trouble, as Jennifer jumps him later that night while he’s repairing Goliath.

And then, weirdly, the main characters kinda drop out of the story. Not entirely — they’ll turn up for a line or two — but once the action switches to the battle in Manhattan, they’re really no longer our main characters. War of the Worlds: Goliath - Teddy RooseveltRoosevelt’s defense of ARES HQ becomes the focus of the story now, and the whole rest of the film is just balls-to-the-wall action. Teddy Roosevelt brandishing a machine gun, shooting down Martian fighters; two ARES airships pulling out their giant heat-rays to attack a one of those Martian Wings (which knocks the Statue of Liberty off her pedestal, in accordance with the regulations mandating the destruction of the Statue of Liberty by any aliens and/or kaiju who attack New York City in a movie); a zepplin chase through the streets of Manhattan. The leviathan is damaged, and a lieutenant we’ve never seen before starts to fall toward the conflagration below. Kushnirov catches him and struggles to pull him back up, but as the general is the only person who could get to the controls to right the craft, the younger officer deliberately pulls free and falls to his death, but not before revealing to the audience that he’s Kushnirov’s son and only remaining family after the last war. Kushnirov wins the battle by crashing the leviathan into the Martian ship.

War of the Worlds: Goliath Climax

With the battle, but not the war, won, we close on Secretary Roosevelt giving a speech to the survivors in the ruins of ARES HQ, promising vengeance for their fallen comrades and to eventually take the fight to Mars.

War of the Worlds: Goliath is… Weird.  War of the Worlds: Goliath

is also bizarrely gruesome. They love these scenes of soldiers being shredded by heat rays. Even the Martians get a little of it: Raja dispatches one with his knife and is left covered in glowing green blood (Remember this). And when the leviathan crashes into the Wing at the end, its prowl smashes through the windshield and impales the pilot through the eye.
I can not fault this movie visually. But that is just about the only thing I can’t fault. The plot is… Not so much a “plot” as a concept. The characters have some promise, but they don’t spend any time with them. I appreciate the attempt to have the characters be more than just ticking off boxes in an ethnic diversity matrix, but it doesn’t amount to anything: O’Brien’s Fenian sympathies boil down to two scenes of Adrian Paul and Mark Sheppard arguing which aren’t connected to anything else in the movie at all. Jennifer’s issues with her father are mentioned exactly twice. The extent of the characterization for Abraham Douglas (whose name sounds like it was generated by the algorithm they used to name black sitcom characters in the ’70s) is for him to mention that he’s got two daughters he’s worried about. We see the tail end of Raja performing the Salat, and there’s a scene that should go somewhere there when O’Brien and Raja talk about their shared status — they’re both from cultures that are unwillingly under British rule. But it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no real direction to the plot, it’s just a bunch of seemingly random incidents that all take place under the blanket of this war.

War of the Worlds: Goliath - Statue of LibertyI came into this from the question, “What sort of world would we get a few decades after the Martians invade.”  The answer they give us is… incomplete. It is a different world — they’ve got tripedal tanks and suspension railways and the Statue of Liberty has a sword. But it’s just a motif, really. A little visual flavor. Europe’s still about to explode into a profoundly stupid war for profoundly stupid reasons. All the same people are in all the same places doing all the same things (Except for Roosevelt, who apparently did not seek a second term in this universe). There’s potential for something in the fact that Eric Wells commands an racially integrated coed unit, but no one ever says anything about it or takes more than a cursory glance at the implications of that.

You know what it feels like? An abridgment. This feels like when a long-running anime series gets condensed down to a two-hour OVA. In fact, it feels more than anything I can think of like the Family Home Entertainment VHS abridgments of Robotech, that would grind six episodes of the cartoon down to a 45-minute video. There’s so much promise here, but it’s like we’re only seeing the highlights reel. Characters basically enter, give us one scene to establish themselves, then leave. There should be more. Like hours more to cover the scope of what we’re seeing. We should see that whole relationship between Patrick and Sean O’Brien (And there should be a recurring threat from Sean’s partner who wants to kill Patrick outright for his betrayal). We should see a relationship between Jennifer and Eric, something more than just “It’s hinted he likes her in scene 4 and then she out of nowhere decides to bone him inside Goliath’s cockpit in scene 8″. Those prisoners they rescue from the power plant — they should go somewhere. Probably, they should end up having to stay on the leviathan for some length of time. There should be skirmishes and minor battles with the Martians. We should see Tesla studying bits of salvaged Martian technology. There should be some kind of buildup and backstory with Kushnirov and his son, rather than plot-bombing us with his son’s identity a second before you kill him. And the decision to make the climax of the movie center around the battle between the leviathan and the Martian Wing, rather than, y’know, Goliath is utterly incomprehensible; it’s a fine scene, but it shouldn’t be the climax — it should happen about five minutes before the climax, with their sacrifice buying the actual main characters their chance to deal the finishing blow to the attacking army. This movie feels incomplete: it’s insubstantial, and yet you can almost feel like there’s something substantial this has been carved out of.

Actually, Robotech. Hm. You know? This movie feels an awful lot like Robotech. Joe Pearson was a personal friend of Carl Macek, who converted two largely unrelated and one totally unrelated anime into the original three-season Robotech saga. They’d worked together in the ’80s (Not on Robotech, though Pearson does get a “special thanks” credit in 2013’s Robotech: Love Live Alive, which I briefly mentioned in relation to the Captain Power Training Videos). There are definitely parallels. An international force defending Earth using new technology developed from studying salvaged alien tech? The big ship with the big honkin’ gun being commanded by a Russian? I’m sure you’ll find parallels to lots of Mecha anime and it just happens that Robotech is the one I’m most familiar with. Goliath is very straightforwardly “Let’s do a standard ’80s style Giant Mecha anime only set during World War I as a sequel to War of the Worlds.” I would not mind watching a Goliath TV series. But as a movie, there’s very little here to bring me back. Not unlike The Great Martian War, it’s what they didn’t show me that interests me more than what they did.

February 4, 2015

I Heard You on the Wireless Back in ’52 (Captain Power: Freedom One)

Captain Power Episode 18: Gwynyth Walsh as Christine Larabee/Freedom OneFor Captain Power, the apocalypse is nearly upon us.

It is February 28, 1988. The Calgary Olympics ends with its closing ceremony. Thirty Armenians or more die in the Sumgait pogrom in Azerbaijan. Documents surface implicating now-Austrian President and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim in the deportation of Yugoslav Partisans to concentration camps in World War II. Though his involvement was never established as anything but minimal, he kinda became the poster-child for Germans (and Austrians of German descent) who “don’t remember” anything about what they were doing from round about 1933 to round about 1945 and really just wish you wouldn’t bring it up. Blues singer Edith North Johnson dies in St. Louis. Republican Presidential hopeful Pat Robertson publicly forgives Jimmy Swaggart for last week’s vaguely confessed-to sins involving prostitutes and speculates that the whole thing might be a conspiracy to derail Robertson’s presidential bid. Pat Robertson would not go on to be president, but would go on, in 2005, to blame Hurricane Katrina on gay sex, in 2010, to blame the Haiti earthquake on the Haitians having made a deal with Satan in order to escape slavery, and in 2015, to suggest that good Christian parents should beat their children into submission if they reject their parents’ religion.

George Michael tops the charts with “Father Figure”, and the Pet Shop Boys, Patrick Swayze, Rick Astley, and Eric Carmen all leapfrog over Exposé as well. Two days ago, General Hospital showed the first interracial wedding in on American daytime TV. Also that day, the original, non-musical version of Hairspray opened in theaters. Star Trek the Next Generation will take this week and the next off. Tomorrow, Day By Day will premier, a short-running show about some parents who quit their high-power ’80s jobs to open a home day care in order to spend more time with their young daughter, having decided that the whole high-power-80s-jobs thing had screwed up their teenage son. I mention it because Julia Louis-Dreyfuss was in it and the teenage son character had the same name as I do. He was played by Christopher Daniel Barnes, who would later play Greg Brady in the late-90s Brady Bunch parodies/reboots, which is extra funny because one of Day By Day’s later episodes was an extended dream sequence set in a Brady Bunch-pastiche guest-starring much of the original cast. Edward Mulhare will guest star on MacGyver in an episode I strongly suspect was actually recycled from an unused Knight Rider script (Specifically, one which would have seen Mulhare in a double-role as both series-regular Devon Miles, and his laid-back roguish-scamp twin brother). Courtney Gibbs will be crowned Miss America. The Joshua Tree wins Album of the Year at the Grammies while “Somewhere Out There” takes Song of the Year.

We are rapidly pulling up to the end of time. This episode, “Freedom One” is the last “regular” episode of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future to air. Four episodes remain, two two-parters, which themselves follow on one from the other directly enough that they easily could have been presented as a four-parter. Of course, it’s more complicated than that if you sort by the date codes in Captain Power’s log entries; in that case, this episode would have fallen back at the end of August, between “And Madness Shall Reign” and “And Study War No More”, with “Judgment” instead being the last episode before the arc-heavy wind-up. There are, as I’ve already said, problems with this ordering, but since the most affected episodes, “Freedom One”, “Judgment”, “The Eden Road” and “A Summoning of Thunder” have little to do with the Project New Order season arc, you probably could put them in any order, the main anchoring point being that “A Summoning of Thunder” explicitly takes place on the anniversary of Stuart Power’s death (Sorta. The stardate for the framing story and the one for the flashback aren’t actually consistent)  This show’s arc is very sparse. There’s a handful of references to Project New Order sprinkled in random episodes, but mostly, you’re talking about “The Mirror in Darkness“, “The Ferryman“, “And Study War No More“, and “And Madness Shall Reign“, while the finale will bring together some plot threads from “A Summoning of Thunder” and “The Eden Road” as well. Most of this season’s episodes have been what you’d call “filler” in a more modern arc-based series. But here we are, five weeks left, and we’re on the last one. After this one, things get real.

Have I done a good enough job un-selling you on this one? Sorry about that. It’s another episode that’s, y’know, fine. It’s kind of an “intrigue”-sort of episode. Star Trek Deep Space Nine was good at that sort of thing. Babylon 5 was good at that sort of thing (This episode, for what it’s worth, was written by Christy Marx, not JMS). Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future is not good at this sort of thing. They’re not terrible at it or anything, but it’s certainly not playing to its strengths.

We open on a montage of fight scenes (With a clip of Sandtown thrown in there as an establishing shot for some reason). We only get to see the Dread troopers, not the resistance cells fighting them, presumably because this is all spare footage from other episodes. A voiceover provides a summary of events. “This is Freedom One speaking, the voice of the East Coast (Pretty sure Sandtown was in the southwest…) Resistance Movement.  Valiant fighters in Quadrant Nine (So I guess there are “quadrants” now in addition to “sectors”) destroyed one column of Dread troops today. No casualties. Intensified sweeps by Soaron in Sector One (So Sector One is on the East Coast. God I hate this show’s sense of geography). All resistance fighters are warned to remain under cover. Just received word of a stunning blow against a secret Dread project by Captain Power and his unit (wink wink nudge nudge). They are an inspiration to us all.” This is a radio broadcast by the eponymous “Freedom One”. She’s not entirely unbelievable; she has something of a late-night-female-DJ sort of thing going on — she actually reminds me a lot of Delilah. But that kinda seems like a strange choice for the “voice of the resistance”. It’s a smooth, dulcet tone she uses, the sort that you might find soothing, to help you get through a breakup or your dog dying. But I wouldn’t think it’s the kind of tone that would be comforting to people in a war zone. That sort of, “Hey, it’s okay; life is still beautiful. Here, you should just relax and listen to some Patrick Swayze,” thing isn’t particularly compatible with the whole “Most of the human race is dead or digitized” thing. I think you’d want something more energizing than relaxing. More Art Bell, maybe.

“Freedom One,” or rather Christine Larabee, is played by Gwynyth Walsh, a regular in the Syndicated Speculative Fiction Filmed in Western Canada arena. According to her filmography, she seems to play medical doctors a lot. That kind of makes sense, given the voice: it’s exactly the sort of soothing thing you’d want to convey things like Gwynyth Walsh as B'Etor of the house of Duras“You can trust me,” and “Don’t panic,” when delivering bad news (Or, as in her recurring roles on Da Vinci’s Inquest and NYPD Blue, a sense of trustworthiness when explaining medical evidence). That said, the role you’re most likely to know her from is B’Etor, one of the Duras sisters, the recurring villains in Star Trek the Next Generation who were largely responsible for the Enterprise-D’s destruction in Star Trek: Generations.

At the Power Base, Captain Power and Hawk are worried, because Freedom One has missed a transmission. That’s kind of a clunky transition, since she was literally still finishing her voice-over after the scene started — less than a second passes between her sign-off and Hawk fretting that her broadcast hasn’t started yet. If that wasn’t awkward enough, she starts broadcasting again just as Cap says that he hopes nothing’s happened to her.

She explains that she’d had to relocate after a close call, and gives personal thanks to our old friend Cypher, who’d saved her at great personal cost. Our heroes share a moment of… I’ll be nice and call it stoicism rather than dull surprise, Cap even putting a hand on Pilot’s shoulder. She’s the only one who chooses to actually look sad at the news of Cypher’s apparent demise rather just squaring their jaws. I’d kind of have preferred it if they’d made it Scout who emoted and had Pilot remain stoic, especially if this episode really is meant to go before “Judgment”.
“Sacrifice is a word we all know too well. There is no one within the sound of my voice who has not lost someone. A wife, husband, children, friend, lover. But there is one thing we must never lose: Hope. Without hope, we’ll give up when we’re tired and hungry and it seems as if chaos and madness must overwhelm us. Hope is the flame that burns in our hearts. It’s warmth when the soul is cold. It’s light when the darkness surrounds us.”

Dread troops raid another resistance base, a cave stocked with worn and old equipment, manned by resistance fighters in clean, unworn and professionally tailored uniforms. Captain Power Episode 18 - Elzar Comforts the dying GundarThough the bad guys are driven off, at least one soldier is morally wounded, and asks them to leave the radio on so that he can enjoy Freedom One’s voice as he dies. I guess this is supposed to sell us on the idea that her cliché platitudes about hope really are a big part of what’s holding the resistance together. I guess it was nice of her to stop talking for a minute during the battle so we wouldn’t miss any of her speech.

At the end of her broadcast, she gives a special message, “I summon the thunder.” Captain Power recognizes this (and, though everyone in the room clearly already knew this, he will explain it to them a second later) as a code-phrase indicating that she’s about to transmit encrypted co-ordinates for a face-to-face meeting, apparently in Duxbury, Massachusetts.

Captain Power Episode 18 - MapIn Duxbury (By which I mean, “in the exact same ruined-urban-landscape set as they use in 2/3 of the episodes”), a woman in a helmet and pink jumpsuit is nearly gunned down by a monocle-wearing bling-NaziCaptain Power Episode 18, but Captain Power and his gang arrive on hoverbikes and save the day by shooting the bad guys in the crotch. Captain Power Episode 18The angles on the fight scene are awkward, never even coming close to lining up when they cut from heroes to villains. A clicker dutifully waits while Pilot lands her hoverbike before trying to shoot her in the back, which gives Hawk time to dispatch it. “Got to watch your backdoor, kid,” he admonishes her. Pilot’s response is an awkward salute. Her motions are sort of overblown and panto in a way that reminds me of the stylized body language in Super Sentai. I’m guessing it’s stunt actors in these scenes, since their faces aren’t visible and they don’t move like Peter MacNeill and Jessica Steen. She also says “Uh…. Thanks?” in a tone that suggests to me that she was fully aware how dirty it sounded for Hawk to tell her to “watch her backdoor”.

Peter MacNeill as Hawk in Captain Power episode 18We also get the minor treat of watching Hawk’s wings retract, a VFX shot which has never been depicted before. Way too late for it to be apropos, Hawk thinks of a clever one-liner about the mech he killed — whose foot got caught in a rope as he fell off the building — and notes, “Funny how they’re always hanging around.” It’s been so long since they showed it hanging off the roof that I actually couldn’t work out what he was talking about until my third viewing.

After cleaning up the rest of the troops, Cap and Freedom One meet in person. In person, she’s a lot more glib and snarky. She proposes a meeting of the five most important resistance leaders, which everyone thinks is a terrible idea, but she’s sorted out that Captain Power must have teleportation powers, because ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION IT IS GOING TO BE REALLY IMPORTANT THAT CAPTAIN POWER HAS TELEPORTATION POWERS SOON, which she reckons will let them get everyone together too fast for Dread to do anything about it.

She isn’t really clear on what the point of this meeting is, beyond the fact that they’ve agreed to name Cap as the Overall Leader Of The Resistance. Which is nice and all, but as a purely practical matter, no one ever makes the case for why they can’t all just coordinate remotely via the same kind of “tight beam transmission” that they used to set up the meeting — there’s no explanation of what the advantage is in a face-to-face meeting. Sure, meeting people in person is nice and all, but under the circumstances?

In any case, Captain Power agrees to a meeting in “sector 23″, and to go pick up the resistance leaders, “Sands”, “Gundar”, “Blaise”, “Evangier” and Cypher — who I guess isn’t dead, even though it seems like they were implying the heck out of that a scene ago.

Christine tells Cap her real name, and asks for his. Finally, after all these episodes, someone is properly surprised that “Power” is his real name, having assumed it was a “silly codename”, like her own handle. I don’t think anyone doing the boots-on-the ground making of this show was ever really sold on the name.

Dread Base - Captain Power Episode 18

The meeting is at an abandoned Dread base, which Captain Power, because he is no Admiral Ackbar, thinks is clever rather than a trap. When she asks him to guard her backpack transmitter, he stoics his way through a little speech about how people are more important than machines. She calls him an “innocent” for his sentimentality, and for some reason, that actually gets a smile out of him. I am going to deliberately misinterpret that evidence that he is in fact secretly a serial killer who’s been keeping it under control by channeling his psychopathic impulses into the war, as previously hinted way back in “The Mirror in Darkness“.

Because it’s obviously a trap, after a bit of flirting with Cap, she goes off to another room and summons a Lord Dread hologram. After the commercial break, she outs herself to us as a deep-cover Overunit, who’s spent “months” building up her street-cred in order to set up this trap. She’s pissed that her boss has called her in the middle of all this, but he puts her in her place, and explains that the dead guy from a couple of scenes ago was, in fact, Gundar. This is a problem, because Gundar’s second, ElzarElzar, turns out to have met Christine in her pre-Freedom-One days. Fortunately, Gundar had personally requested Pilot to be his pickup, so Dread can kill two birds with one stone since death is “the fate of all traitors and rebels,” which totally isn’t foreshadowing.

Raymond O'Neill as Elzar in Captain PowerTank picks up Cypher, who seems totally fine and in good spirits, so what the hell was all that stuff about Cypher having sacrificed to rescue her anyway? Pilot picks up Elzar without even questioning the fact that some guy she’s never met is claiming he’s Gundar’s replacement without anything to back that up aside from a freshly pressed uniform without any trace of wear on it. How have these guys stayed alive this long?

I guess we’re not going to bother with Sands, Blaise and Evangier. Pilot and Elzar arrive at their designated trap to face off with Blastarr. Blastarr, as has been the case lately, looks really good, at least while they’re fighting (When he switches his feet over to roller skates to drive off later, he looks like an animated GIF). Pilot takes a shot to the chest for Elzar and then a wall falls on them. Blastarr declares them dead and leaves, because Blastarr is really stupid. Blastarr - Captain Power Episode 18
Elzar and Pilot have dug themselves out of the rubble and are completely unharmed when the camera angle changes, and Pilot wasn’t even conscious at the time.
The plot realizes it’s running out of time, so Captain Power becomes inexplicably suspicious of Christine when she announces that Pilot’s been delayed, and follows her when she leaves the transmitter she’d been using to talk to Lord Dread to go outside and use a completely different transmitter to let Lord Dread know that it’s time to attack. She gives up on her cover immediately and pulls a gun on Cap, but at exactly that moment, Elzar shows up carrying Pilot, who shoots Christine in the hand.

Captain Power decides to stay behind to delay the incoming troops while the others escape out the, irm, back door (Because for some reason this base has a back door that Dread will not think to watch). Hawk warns Cap that they “won’t have time to get back to you,” and Cap, who must have missed a page in the script, responds, “So I’ll have the element of surprise.” Captain Power orders Christine taken to the passages, in order to be, I am not making this up, tortured for information (Well, what he says is to have their “psych people” try to get something out of her, but the venom in his voice hints at what he has in mind. Remember, she’s a true believer; she hasn’t been brainwashed or tortured into compliance like, say, Athena). Okay, at least he doesn’t set her up to be digitized.

There’s a nice chase scene of Cap playing hide-and-seek through the base pursued by mechs and a gloating Blastarr. At one point, Captain Power dispatches a group of troops by shooting blindly over his shoulder without having given any indication he knew they were behind him. We see too much of Blastarr’s feet, though, which is hard on the illusion since they never quite look like they’re really on the ground. It’s also a bit too much of a curbstomp for me to really believe this ambush ever had a chance of working — if Cap can dominate so easily, how did they expect to beat the entire power team plus the five most experienced soldiers in the resistance?

Blastarr and a Dalek. Captain Power Meets Doctor Who

Captain Power finally escapes Blastarr’s pursuit by… Climbing up a ladder. On the roof of a building that looks nothing like the exterior of the Dread Base we’d seen earlier, Cap holds off the remaining mechs until Hawk shows up on a hover bike to rescue him. As they fly away, Cap catches a transmission from the new voice of the resistance. Elzar, having escaped with Christine’s backpack (which I didn’t mention before because there’s nothing much to say about it, but they did kind of play up the fact that the backpack transmitter was kind of macguffiny, presumably because of its power, range and portability), is now calling himself “Freedom Two”. He’s a lot more what you’d expect from the role too, going not for soothing, but rallying:

“The Voice of the Resistance will stay on the air, I make that pledge and I intend to keep it. This is the new voice of the resistance, Freedom Two. And if anything happens to me, there’s gonna be a Freedom Three. And four. And five. We didn’t start this war, but we’re going to finish it.”

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