Depending on your viewing area, it’s either October 25 or October 26, 1987. The Minnesota Twins have just won (or are just winning) their first World Series. The Dow continues to tank. President Reagan issues Executive Order 12612, which, pragmatically, said, “The Federal Government is not allowed to override the states on anything not explicitly granted to the federal government by the constitution. Except for the numerous examples of the federal government doing exactly that during the Reagan administration, see also: the war on drugs.” It is seen largely by conservatives as one of the crowning acts of Reagan’s presidential greatness, up until it was largely revoked by President Clinton, in what I am sure they will tell you was Clinton’s grand stab at establishing a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship. Lisa Lisa has been unseated in the Billboard Hot 100 by Michael Jackson’s Bad.
Star Trek The Next Generation is doing “Where No One Has Gone Before” this week, an episode which I tend to recall as being really good, one of those few where the weirdness and trippyness of the first season of TNG pays off, despite the fact that it is a Wesley-centric episode. Actually, I never got on the Wesley-hating bandwagon, since during those early days of Star Trek, one of my most influential friendships was with a young woman who had the singular misfortune of being The Girl That Character Archetype Worked For. She seriously crushed on Wesley Crusher. She seriously crushed on Adric. The crushing weight of the internet not really being a thing for a child living in 1987, I never learned that, as a fan, I was actually supposed to hate those characters. The only character in that whole class I learned to hate all on my own was Scrappy Doo.
Before the week is out, St. Elsewhere, The Charmings, A Different World, The New Adventures of Beans Baxter, and Werewolf will have their Halloween episodes. You are likely to have heard of at most two of those series, so here’s a brief primer:
- St. Elsewhere was a long-running medical drama that starred a whole bunch of people, but the one you’re liable to have heard of is future-Boy Meets World-teacher and former Knight Rider-talking car William Daniels. These days, remembered for the fact that the whole series turns out to be the fantasy of an autistic child, and because of all the crossovers they did, so does literally every other TV show ever made.
- The Charmings was, I am not making this up, a sitcom whose premise was that the evil queen from Snow White cast a magic spell that zapped herself, the magic mirror, Snow, Prince Charming, their two sons, and one dwarf into the 1980s, where they had to integrate themselves into suburbia. Yes. In 1987, someone made Once Upon A Time as a sitcom. It lasted two seasons, which is one and a half more seasons than anyone in their right mind would ever expect.
- A Different World was a spin-off of The Cosby Show, except that it severed almost all of its ties when Lisa Bonet quit after the first season.
- The New Adventures of Beans Baxter was a short-lived action-comedy about a teenage spy. I have no recollection of ever having seen this show, but I hear people reference it a lot.
- Werewolf was like the first FOX series. It was about a dude who got bit by a werewolf. I think the plot hinged on some bullshit where, due to a rare astronomical conjunction, the moon was full every night for a month.
TV, it should be noted, was weird in the 1980s. Much weirder than it was in the 1990s. I mean, okay, maybe some of this is that in the late 90s I went off to college and stopped watching so much TV. But in a very real sense, here in the late 80s, you’re going to see things like “A sitcom about an ordinary suburban family who have a permanent houseguest who is a furry, cat-eating alien whose nose looks like a dong,” or “A sitcom about an ordinary alien family who are also fairy tale characters,” or “A sitcom about an ordinary suburban family where the daughter can stop time and her dad is an alien who sounds like Burt Reynolds,” or “A sitcom about an ordinary suburban family who have a permanent houseguest who is actually a time-travelling ghost of the family’s teenage son, sent back in time by St. Peter to nudge his past self into a more virtuous lifestyle in a kind of profoundly unsexy adaptation of ’70s porno-chic classic The Devil in Miss Jones.” As the long 80s gave way to the long 90s, it’s in many senses as if popular culture recoiled in horror at the excesses of the “The bombs are gonna drop any day now” 80s and resigned itself to be sensible and mature from now on. This era of television, though my memories are grainy and lensed by the fact that I was eight, had a much more profound effect on me than what would come later.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, “Things that turn into other things” is kind of one of my Core Tropes That I Like, and fortunately for me, the 1980s in children’s TV was lousy with it. Transformers. He-Man. Captain Power, Voltron, Robotech, MASK, Challenge of the Go-Bots, A Hundred Thousand Other Kids Shows Hardly Anyone Remembers. Heck, even Filmation’s Ghostbusters (Not the Real one) had a Magical Girl Transformation Sequence. Heck, in the last season of Knight Rider, they gave the car a Magical Girl Transformation Sequence (However, this would somehow totally delete itself from my memory from 1986 until 1995).
But I digress. You know what one of the universal tropes in this broad category of 80s kid-friendly action-adventure was? Evil twins. Everyone had an evil twin back then. Usually the one with the goatee. Knight Rider only had three human characters in it for most of its run, and they somehow managed to have four evil twins. Evil twin episodes (In all their various manifestations, such as “evil long-lost sibling”, “evil clone”, “Shapeshifter”, and “Body-snatcher”) are popular for a bunch of reasons: you can skimp on your guest cast budget. The split-screen match shots of the twins confronting each other is a striking visual effect even when done on the cheap. And it tends to be a lot of fun for a series actor to spend an episode twirling a moustache and playing against type (For all the infinity of other sins in the original Star Trek‘s final episode, I can’t imagine Bill Shatner having anything other than an absolute ball as he gluts himself on delicious, delicious scenery playing Janice Lester screaming that she’s Captain Kirk.). Well, here we are, a few days from Halloween, watching a show about people who wear elaborate and mass marketable Halloween-ish costumes, so what better time to do their own Evil Twin episode. This is the week that Captain Power meets his match in “The Mirror in Darkness”.
Well, sort of, anyway. Let me put it to you this way: my son, who is two and a half years old, likes to watch Captain Power with me. He likes me to get out the Power Jet, after he’s promised that he’ll be careful with it, and he likes to shoot it at the screen, and he does not care at all that it has never once responded to the flashing lights on the screen. And if he isn’t sure what he’s looking at, he’ll ask me for permission before he shoots something, like during Cap’s confrontation with Dread in “A Fire in the Dark” — he wasn’t sure if he was “supposed” to shoot at Lord Dread in that scene (Which shows, I think, considerably more restraint and a better understanding of the moral dimension of children’s television from my son than from the writers, since Cap just starts shooting the instant he sees Dread.). But because he’s a very small child, he has trouble processing a lot of what goes on. He always has a hard time associating the armored heroes with their unarmored counterparts. So in a scene where boyishly handsome Tim Dunigan is clad in his gray polyester combination pajamas and military uniform rather than in his blue spandex and gold armor, Dylan will squint at the screen and ask, “Where Captain Power is, Daddy?”
When we watched “The Mirror in Darkness” , when Evil-Cap shows up, Dylan looked at the screen for a few seconds, and then he said “That Captain Power? That Captain Power? That Captain Power?” and then, finally, “That’s a Captain Power.” He could tell right off the bat that something just was not right here. So that’s what we’re up against.
Given the provenance of our writers, folks like Stracyznski and Wolfman and the rest, it really shouldn’t be too big of a surprise when our cold open is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect out of one of those really aggressively dishonest Silver Age Superman covers, where they’d show Superman gleefully robbing a bank or murdering a kitten or deciding he’s sick and tired of catching Lois Lane ever time she gets herself thrown off of a skyscraper, and lets her fall to her death. Sure enough, despite their promises that this wasn’t a trick or a cop-out or a dream sequence, a few pages in, we’d see the scene play out, and it would turn out that Superman was actually orchestrating a clever sting to entrap the real bank robbers, the kitten was actually a shape-shifting alien warlord, and Pink Kryptonite had temporarily turned Lois into rubber.
In this sequence, a bunch of future-rednecks slang incomprehensibly at each other about how The Great Captain Power is going to come take them all away to a place of safe refuge. You know, I respect that they’re trying to do with having all the refugee characters speak a weird, incomprehensible pidgin, but seriously, they lay it on too thick. Dread’s conquest is, canonically, about decade and a half in so far, so okay, we should have a lot of teenagers and young adults who were deprived of schooling and mass media, and you’d expect some dialect shifting. But we’re only talking about fifteen years. That’s the length of time, roughly, between today and the day I met my wife. So okay. There’s some new words. Twitter. App. Facebook. iPhone. And we’ve stopped saying things like “Don’t touch that dial”. But this is going full-out zero-to-creole here. Max Headroom wasn’t this bad about having everyone use weird future-slang. If we were doing an obligatory Lord of the Flies episode about a tribe of children who’d been living rough ever since the fall of civilization, sure. But in this scene, the speaking roles among our refugees consist of one teenager, his mother, and and old man. Only one of those people is young enough to have had his language skills disrupted by the end of days.
And clearly, it’s not “Oh also it is the future, so part of the language shift is down to that,” because Cap and company don’t talk like that. In fact, Cap has a hard time understanding them. Now, they could have made this work. After all, it’s only refugees living rough in the ruins of civilization that talk like this; not Jessica Morgan, or the soldiers from “The Abyss”, or any of Dread’s human minions, and even the Wardogs use only a modest amount of future-slang. There had been, though it hardly ever becomes relevant, years of war preceding Dread’s rise to power, and it’s not unreasonable (I daresay, easier in 2014 than in 1987) to imagine a kind of balkanization of society, with the trappings of modern civilization — education, hygiene, art, regularized grammar, polyester clothes with big shoulder pads — preserved among the wealthier echelons, while an ever-growing underclass was so disenfranchised and separated from the benefits of modernity that even their language started to go its own way. To wit, if we take the notion that Dread’s rule was preceded by decades of endless “sanitized” machine-run war and run with it, then yes, there should be a large refugee class for whom the war hasn’t been going on for fifteen years, but for decades, with Dread’s being only the latest and most horrific campaign.
But of course we never actually see any of that. The whole business about Dread and Cap’s dad having created Overmind in order to put an end to years of world-destroying war just rings incredibly false based on what we actually see on-screen. Remember, Jessica Morgan didn’t expect the world to be in ruins. Or Cap’s flashbacks about Athena back in the first episode — do you see anything in those to hint at the fact that this is the middle of global apocalyptic war? That whole “Taggart and Stuart used to be pals and they built Overmind to put an end to years of apocalyptic war, but it all went horribly wrong,” thing feel very much like an afterthought (Not least of all because the timeline is really hard to make work. Like, just what the hell has everyone been doing for the past fifteen years?).
Obviously-Not-Cap arrives, reassures the refugees, then fires off a flare, which summons Soaron to come digitize them. Soaron crows (tee hee) about how Dread will be pleased, making sure to refer to Not-Cap as “Power” in a forlorn attempt to keep up the charade that anyone in the world might believe this is really Captain Power at this point. The teenage boy refugee, who had been skeptical about this whole “Captain Power” thing, and had therefore wandered off earlier, evades capture in order that he can later mistake the real Cap for the imposter in order to get our heroes involved in the plot. Also spared was Conveniently Blind Grandpa, who had been slow enough that he was still on the other side of Kirk’s Rock when Shit Went Down. He will have one more line of dialogue in this episode. Incidentally, is it kind of odd that we have two consecutive stories with blind characters in them, which both have “Dark” in the title? I think it’s kinda odd.
Anyway, when we return from commercialsign, Cap and Company are in the Jumpship, investigating some “old fashioned” radio chatter they can’t decipher and which has no relevance to anything else in this episode. I’m hoping it’s actually just foreshadowing for a future episode, because if it’s meant to relate to the imposter plot, I don’t see it. They’re also troubled by a spate of abandoned settlements in “Sector 9.” This has got to be the least geographically grounded show I’ve ever seen. I have no idea where Sector 9 is meant to be. In the poorly-matted process shots, it looks maybe like the Mojave. The refugees have kind of an Appalachian back-country accent, except for the teenage boy, who I am going to call “Billy-bob” because I can’t be bothered, who sounds kind of Irish. Actually, not quite Irish. Like a recent Irish immigrant in a film set in turn of the century New York. And Evil Cap flies to Volcania and back in what seems like about half an hour. And there’s the ruin of a modern industrial city in walking distance. I dunno. Time is warped and space is bendable, I guess. Did I mention that Captain Power has a private wormhole network?
Geography gets even weirder, when this one little Jumpship, not actually looking for him, just coincidentally happens upon the one Soaron in all the world, who is not actually looking for them, and they promptly get in a fight, complete with their standard array of “Laser beams narrowly miss, exploding harmlessly when they hit the empty sky behind them,” until Cap orders Tank to fire what appears to be a large purple CGI dildo at Soaron, which, ahem, circles around and takes him from behind.
Meanwhile, back at Volcania, Evil Cap is going for a romantic stroll with Lord Dread, who explains that, “Our enemy is an eccentric. He may have friends we know nothing about,” because apparently, Cap is in some way “eccentric” and that eccentricity is exemplified by having friends, but not advertising their identities to your enemies. I assume the point of this exchange is to warn Not-Cap that he might accidentally happen upon someone who knows the real Cap. Not-Cap, in an impressively wooden feat of underacting, manages to not sound creepily obsessive when he responds that, “It’s worth the risk if I may serve my lord Dread.”
That’s David James Elliot, by the way. He’s best known for playing Harm in the mid-90s Armed Forces Legal Drama JAG. My mom liked that show. It seemed okay to me. So apparently seven years can make a big difference in an actor’s craft, because he is complete shit here. I mean, the character is paper-thin, so I’m not expecting Olivier here, but this guy. He’s like the happiest Nazi or something. His protestations of his love for Lord Dread and the Way of the Machine have a creepy sexualized tone, he never even comes close to projecting any sort of menace, and… A lot of the time he positions himself like he posing for a Harlequin cover, looking off into the distance rather than meeting the eyes of whoever he’s talking to. I guess maybe if he was deliberately going for “Creeper”, you could maybe– actually, y’know what, I think maybe he just hasn’t learned how to act yet. I mean, he hasn’t even learned how to look like David James Elliot yet — he’s got a very “Skinny-First-Season-Beardless-Riker” thing going on, and his facial features don’t seem to quite fit him correctly. He’ll grow out of it.
Well, until Jason thumps his chest and says “Praise be the machine!” before marching off. I can see Jason being an interesting character here — he seems to be a True Believer. We’re going to see more hints about folks like that later, as we get into Pilot’s backstory. I’m going to guess he’s a Dread Youth alumn, raised by The Machine to be an obedient little Boy Nazi.
Of course, we’re never going to see Jason again after this episode, and he’s really only in like two more scenes, and has no more than a half-dozen lines.
Soaron is dispatched for the moment, but the Jumpship needs repairs, so they put down on the outskirts of some ruins, where Cap decides to go off on a wander for a bit. The laws of plot convenience specify that in this blighted, vaguely geographically defined wasteland, they’ve set down pretty much right next door to where Not-Cap had just been. Okay, this isn’t too much of a stretch; in the earlier scene, Hawk mentions picking up the flare Not-Cap had used to summon Soaron, though the signal was too faint to locate. This suggests that the episode so far has happened in close-to real time; Soaron was literally just leaving after digitizing Billy-Bob’s family when he encountered the Jumpship, and Jason makes it back to Volcania in less time than the aerial battle takes (Dread mentions Soaron having taken damage. Though it’s strange, in context, that Dread doesn’t seem to put two and two together and realize that the real Cap must be nearby, given that he’s literally having a conversation about the possibility of that sort of thing happening at the time.)
Naturally, Billy-bob is the first person Cap encounters. The enraged kid accuses Cap of being a “clicker” (I thank heaven for small mercies that at least this slang term gets to be consistent across episodes), in league with the “Bio-Bird” (I do not thank heaven for this one. Soaron tends to announce himself by name. Sure, maybe you’d choose not to use his christian name, but am I really supposed to believe that the slang term this backwoods yokel would come up with would be “Bio-Bird”, and not something remotely sensible like “The bird”? Or “That metal asshole”? Something where Captain Freaking Power won’t have to double check with you for confirmation about who the hell it is you’re talking about.), and is, in general, the same douchebag who attacked his family. Also, I think he calls him a “Yuppo,” though later in the episode, that’s clearly future-speak for “Yes”. Cap tries to demonstrate his non-evilness by powering down his suit, by which I mean that they spliced in the same inset of Tim Dunigan with his hand to his breast that they almost always use for the transformation scene. Seriously, just how stretched was the VFX budget when you can’t cover the cost of just doing a dissolve from the footage you obviously shot of costumed and uncostumed Tim on the set? At any rate, Cap starts to piece together that Dread’s been sending out a lookalike to round up refugees and determines himself to get to the bottom of it.
Only Billy-bob isn’t having any of that, as it’s exactly what an evil Dread agent would say, so he exploits the fact that Cap is kinda dumb by pulling the “Look behind you!” trick, then conking Cap over the head, swearing that he’ll take him somewhere where no one will ever find him. At this point, the second time through, Dylan decided he didn’t want to watch this episode any more, because, “The boy think Captain Power is bad; He gonna tangle Captain Power up!” and Dylan didn’t want to see that again.
And indeed, that is what happens. Back at the Jumpship, Hawk and Pilot have already decided that Cap’s been gone too long, but as close as I can tell, they do precisely jack about it, because they aren’t in the episode after this scene, other than a two-second shot of “Cap calls them between scenes later to say he’s okay.” (By the way, no wonder he thinks no one will ever find him; when Cap reports back, he says he’s in sector three. Which is a full six sectors from where this episode started. You know how before I said that time is warped and space is bendable? Well time is warped and space is bendable.)
Cap is “tangled” as it were, by being chained to a pipe in a ruined building. One of Billy-Bob’s compatriots, who I will call “Fedora Man”, because he wears a fedora and has no other traits, disposes of Cap’s hoverbike off-screen, and they wake him up for an impromptu Kangaroo court of sorts, where Billy-bob declares his intention to avenge himself on Cap and his forthright refusal to listen to Cap defend himself. Grandpa is wheeled in as an expert witness, who testifies that he isn’t completely sure, but Cap’s voice sure does sound exactly the same as the one he’d heard. Presumably this is not a universe where blindness enhances your other senses if he thinks Cap and Jason sound anything alike. Billy-bob, Gramps, Fedora Man, and some other hoboes bugger off a bit to vote on whether or not to off the Captain, giving Cap the time he needs to whip out this show’s favorite means of resolving drama: having it turn out that our hero is not quite so badly-off as it had previously appeared. He basically just kicks his guard in the face, then tugs on his chain until it breaks, then we cut to that same stock footage close-up of him touching his badge. Keep in mind, in the long shot, he’s still got one arm chained above his head. Yes, I know this sort of thing happened all the time in 80s action shows, like a close-up inset shot on The A-Team where you see a pair of black hands reaching in to work on whatever the team is building, even though B. A. had been captured this week, or the really weird one in Knight Rider where KITT activates some feature while trying to rescue Michael, and we see a close-up of a hand reaching out to push the Turbo Boost button — on one of the monitors (Like, they don’t just cut to a closeup of a finger pushing a button. One of KITT’s monitors lights up and the clip of the finger pushing the button appears on the monitor), but it still feels cheap. The hobo army rushes in and pounces on Cap, but, unlike every other time this crap happens in this show, Captain Power is not overpowered by a bunch of starving refugees, and manages to fend off his attackers.
When Cap fails to murder and/or digitize them despite having them at his mercy, Billy-Bob decides to trust the good Captain, and they set up an elaborate trap to capture the imposter.
Well, I say elaborate trap. More like “They call him up and invite him to come ‘rescue’ them.” Which he does. He wandered around an abandoned building for a bit saying “Where is everybody?” and “Hey, it’s Captain Power!” a few times, before Real-Cap springs his cunning trap. Which is, roughly speaking, “Show up.” Okay, to give him full credit, he waits for Jason to say something he can make a witty riposte to: he gets to reveal his presence with the phrase, “You got that right,” to Jason’s “Captain Power is here!”
They exchange a few shots, with Not-Cap conveniently firing pink chevrons while Real-Cap fires blue lines, before Not-Cap can summon a legion of mechs to assist him. He orders them to attack Cap while Jason flees. Where were they hiding? Does he always have a legion of robots hiding just off-screen when he goes on these missions? And no one ever notices? Maybe they were hiding in Sector 9.
At this point, the episode gets really, really weird. Because Cap’s reaction is an oddly detached and utterly deadpan “If you had a thousand of them, they wouldn’t keep me from you.” Jason tries to back off and leave Cap to the Mechs. Though Cap is initially forced back by concentrated pink chevron fire, we’re past the 15-minute mark, so the late-show rules apply, and Cap just sort of ups and decides to stop losing. Suddenly, their shots have no effect on him as he hops up on something, rides a convenient zip-line back down again, and effortlessly murders an entire room of Clickers single-handed. Cap then shoots Not-Cap in the hand when he tries to pick up a gun.
Then Tim Dunigan starts inexplicably doing a Arnold-Schwarzenegger-in-The-Terminator impression. Well, really more of a Robert-Patrick-in-Terminator-2 impression, but since that movie won’t be made for another four years, it’s got to be a coincidence. He slowly, silently, emotionlessly walks after his impostor as Not-Cap flees in terror, begging for his own life and making unconvincing threats of Lord Dread’s vengeance. Wordlessly, with Michael Myers efficiency, he shoots off Jason’s shoulder pads, rips off his breastplate, peels away his helmet, then beats him half to death with it. Our hero!
Cap pins Jason and draws back his fist in a pose where you’d pretty much expect him to morph into Ralph Macchio and honk Jason’s nose. Finally, just as you’re trying to sort out how you’re going to explain to your son why Captain Power just drove that young man’s nose into his temporal lobe, he relents, and, seething with anger, explains, “I made a promise to my father that I would never take a human life. That I would protect and preserve all people. You almost made me forget that promise.”
Let’s unpack that one a bit. First of all, I would love to see the context where Cap’s dad makes him promise not to kill people. I’m kinda having a hard time imagining exactly how that would come up. “Okay John, today I’m going to teach you how to punch someone’s nose into their brain. But I want you to promise me you’ll only ever use it to kill robots, never humans.” Was young John all like “Sweet. I’m a gonna go murder me some survivors”? I mean, yeah, I know that Dread’s got his whole Nazi Youth Army thing, but still. This seems like an oddly specific thing to be making your kid promise you during the apocalypse.
Also, of course, this whole “Never kill people” thing presumably does not apply to Lord Dread, since last week, Cap shot what he thought was Dread point-blank.
After the stock footage of Cap powering down (Hawk and Tank are here now, but they contribute approximately balls to the scene), Cap is reluctant to hand Jason over to the hoboes for execution, as Fedora Guy wants. Fortunately, Billy-bob finds a compromise: “Okay Yeps(His delivery suggests that “Yeps” is a referent for Cap, not an intensifier for “Okay”, reinforcing my uncertainty as to whether “Yeppo” is future-slang for “Yes” or some kind of pet name.), I skull a better way. No killing, I promise. Better. And worse.”
They send up a flare, then dress Jason as a hobo and gag him (Personally, I’d have done that first). Soaron obligingly shows up and unwittingly digitizes Not-Cap, then complains to Is-Cap about how he’s really only supposed to pester them if he’s got more than five victims lined up. Cap pulls his gun and shoots the crap out of Soaron, because this is the end of the episode, so Soaron is easily overpowered by one guy with a blue pew-pew gun rather than needing a concerted effort involving purple CGI dongs. Cap goes all Scary-Crazy again and screams at the retreating Soaron, “You tell your master no more impostors! Not one! Or I’ll shove that mountain of his right down his throat!” I think they would have sold it better if this weren’t a kids show and Cap could say “Up his ass” instead.
Back at Volcania, Dread repays Jason’s loyalty by having him fed to Overmind, and we close on the sight of Jason’s part-digitized face, locked in a gurn of anguish as he falls into the video toaster effect of Overmind’s hard drive, in order to drive home that no matter how much you love The Machine, the machine does not love you back.