July 19, 2014

I am he as you are he as you are me (Captain Power: The Mirror in Darkness)

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.”Second Chance/Boys Will Be Boys 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-ManCaptain Power, Voltron, Robotech, MASKChallenge of the Go-Bots, A Hundred Thousand Other Kids Shows Hardly Anyone Remembers. Heck, even Filmation’s GhostbustersFilmation's Ghostbusters (Not the RealThe REAL Ghostbusters 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?”

Not-Captain PowerWhen 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.

Refugee Mom

By the way, is it just me, or does mom refugee look like Fred from Angel if she had a really really rough twenty years?


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 dildoSoaron vs Purple Dildo at Soaron, which, ahem, circles around and takes him from behind.

Jason and DreadMeanwhile, 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.”

Dread also reflects that, “If I did not know better, I would swear that you were Power,” in another vain attempt to persuade the audience not to see what, I can not stress this enough, my two-year-old son saw. Which is that, aside from the fact that they are both tall and male, Not-Cap looks and sounds absolutely nothing like Cap. Not-Cap asks Dread if he’s ever met the real Captain Power, which you’d kind of expect him to be curious about under the circumstances. Slightly harder to justify is why they haven’t had this conversation sooner. Not-Cap and Dread seem awfully chummy — to the point that Dread calls him by his first name (It’s “Jason”, by the way. Huh, Jason. Jonathan. Jennifer. Jessica. You know, I had a thing for J-names for a while too. I wonder if it means anything.), and Jason’s expression as he asks is kinda borderline “Catty question about your boyfriend’s ex.”  This is presumably an excuse to exposit to us about how Dread and Stuart were bros back before Dread hooked up with Overmind. This is the first reference to Cap’s father since the tangential mention back in episode 1 that Athena had worked with him. After last week, we’re starting to get a firmer picture of what Dread’s motivations are, something more comprehensible than the vague and borderline incoherent “Praise be the machine” scriptural stuff in the first few episodes.

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, TangledCap 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.

Jason and PalsAt 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.


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July 13, 2014

Sister Sister

Dear Maddy:

Congrats and good luck. It’s not easy being the older sibling, believe me I know. There’s going to be like three years where you’re totally going to want to do stuff with this awesome little sidekick, and she’s not going to be old enough to be any use at all. And then suddenly you’re going to want to start doing things where a three-year-old would be a total drag to have around, and there she’ll be insisting she gets to come with you. And because you’re bigger, you’re not going to be allowed to hit her, no matter how much she deserves it.

Even worse, over the next few years, you’re going to be doing all sorts of amazing things. Reading. Writing. Drawing pictures that actually look like things. But however impressed Mommy and Daddy are, five minutes later, your sister is going to burp, or smile, or urinate on something, and they’re going to be every bit as impressed by that, and all she did was roll over. Everyone will be all like “Awww! She’s so cute!” to her, and all like “Yeah, that’s nice whatever,” to you.

But I’ll tell you what. Some day, probably about thirty years down the road, you’re going to have the distance and perspective and have gotten your life all together, and you’ll be able to look at your sister, and it’s going to turn out that she’s pretty okay. And just maybe a little bit of that “pretty okay” is going to be because she learned a thing or two from growing up with a good big sister.


Dear Abby:

Congrats and welcome! It’s not easy being a younger sister. If you don’t believe me, ask your mother. The first three years or so, pretty much all you are ever going to want to do is have fun with your big sister, but she’s going to be all “Let’s go walk upright and leverage our sense of object permanence,” while you’re all like “I can no longer see mommy, and am therefore concerned that she doesn’t exist.” And then when you finally sort out things like hand-eye coordination and stairs, she’s still going to be all “Aww, we don’t want to take the baby along!”

Even worse, every single accomplishment you have over the next decade or so, she’ll have gotten there first. You’re going to burp, or roll over, or sing, and everyone will be all excited, sure, but then someone’s going to say, “Of course, Maddy was already doing that by the time she was two.” Anything you have trouble with, it’ll be all “Maddy had such an easier time with that,” or worse, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”

But I’ll tell you what. Some day, probably about thirty years down the road, you’re going to be a grown-up, having a fantastic life, and it isn’t going to matter one whit that you did it a couple of years behind your sister. And if you’re very lucky, maybe one day your big sister is going to find a way to tell you that she’s proud of you.

Love,

Uncle Ross

 

 

July 8, 2014

Childlike Profundity

Scene: DADDY and DYLAN are in DYLAN’S ROOM getting ready for bed.

DYLAN: I go to school. I see my friends.

DADDY: That’s right.

DYLAN: (thoughtful) Friends make you sad.

DADDY: (confused) What? No. Friends make you happy. Did something bad happen at school?

A pause. DYLAN is thinking

DYLAN: Friends make you sad when they go away.

June 30, 2014

She Blinded Me With Science (Captain Power: A Fire in the Dark)

It’s October 18, 1987. The world of finance knows it as “Black Monday”, when the Dow took a five hundred point dive that took two years to recover. The Minnesota Twins are playing the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Zac Efron, future Disney child-star is busy being born, and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam top the charts with “Lost in Emotion”, while on television…

Well okay. The actual thing that is on television that anyone cares about is… The world series. Okay. But if they’re not watching that, then the thing they care about is… Well, okay, 21 Jump Street. But in the unlikely event that neither of those is to your liking, maybe, just maybe you’ll be watching the Science Fiction Event of the Season:

560px-Star_Trek_TNG_logo.svg

This week’s episode is “The Last Outpost”, a major episode for the season, introducing the revived series’ new big star villains, whose name will soon strike terror into the hearts of nerdy children, said in one breath with “Romulans” and “Klingons”, the Ferengi. These new, radically different alien villains will show themselves to be a menace fit for this new, more advanced time by… Making occasional token references to being motivated by profit while mostly acting like they have a serious developmental handicap and being humorously unable to pronounce the word “Human”. But at least they’re dropped into a rich and complicated plot where the crews of the Enterprise and the Ferengi ship are forced to fight at the whim of a godlike being who is testing them to determine if they deserve to live or — Yeah, it’s basically “TNG does Arena, only without the moral complexity.” It is widely considered a disaster, which is really saying something during the first season of TNG.

But stick around after or possibly before the show, because there’s this other show on tonight, and with the bar set this low, it can’t be anything but an improvement.

I haven’t really talked about TNG much yet. There’s no real evidence of direct cross-pollination between Star Trek and Captain Power. It wouldn’t be entirely out of line to compare the dystopian future of the Metal Wars with the dystopian late 21st century we get little references to in TNG, but there’s no real traction to that. But as an interesting contrast here. The first season of Star Trek The Next Generation is ambitious, clean, optimistic, and… Not very good. And Star Trek the Next Generation proved wildly successful, leading to another six seasons, followed by two more series which each lasted about the same length, and four feature films, and a sort of Trek Renaissance, creating what is widely considered to be the definitive era of the Trek-verse. Meanwhile, Captain Power‘s first season was ambitious, dirty, gritty, technologically bold, and extremely well-made. And after this week, there will be exactly sixteen more stories that make up the sum total of all the Captain Power that has ever existed.

If you were to look objectively in a technical sort of way at the relative qualities of the first seasons of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and Star Trek The Next Generation, completely divorced from context, you might think– Okay, let’s be serious here. You would probably not think either one of them really merited a second season. Star Trek is at this stage kind of banal and creepily arrogant, every episode finding Strange, New Ways of denigrating twentieth-century humanity and their values. Heck, the Ferengi, as depicted in The Last Outpost, only make a lick of sense at all if you interpret them as an allegory: the Ferengi are clearly meant to be unscrupulous 80s Wall Street types viewed through the lens of a world where humanity has advanced enough to see through the Gordon Gecko veneer and percieve Capitalist Pigs as something more literally porcine. We’re lucky they didn’t just recycle the Telarites. Captain Power on the other hand is a children’s show that’s gotten above its station. There are moments of real promise, brilliance even, but the plot structure is perfunctory at best and there’s never any sense of characters in the story actually advancing the plot, rather than things just moving forward by clockwork at the appointed hours.

The crucial difference, then, is that in 1987, Star Trek The Next Generation didn’t actually have to be any good. They could have just showed that first tracking shot across the Enterprise-D for forty-five minutes twenty-two times and they’d still have gotten renewed. (Seriously. There are basically four images in my memory that have a special place in my memory. The alien chick in Moontrap taking her top off, the first time I saw my son, this picture of an astronaut in the Cupola of the ISS, and the first time we see the Enterprise-D), whereas Captain Power had to be at least as good as Murder She Wrote, Family Ties, or My Two Dads.

Captain Power beat Star Trek to air by a week, and they weren’t in direct competition for the most part, as they both aired on independent networks, and in most viewing areas, that meant they’d be on the same channel — back to back in my viewing area, though Wikipedia and IMDB both assure me that all the airdates for Captain Power were a day off of those for Star Trek, with Trek airing Sundays and Power on Mondays. I’m quite sure they both aired on Friday, but this was decades ago when I was a small child, so I’ve probably got this completely wrong.

But all of this is neither here nor there, because the version of A Fire in the Dark that lives in my memory isn’t this one. So let’s start again.

It’s, for the sake of argument, August 21, 1996, or thereabouts. the Star Trek that is on the air these days is Voyager, which isn’t very good. Hardly any of the shows that were on in 1987 are still on now. Married With Children is the only one that comes to mind. We are still in the early days of the Billboard Hot 100 being rules by Los Del Rio’s cover of The Macarena. It’s the summer before my senior year of High School.  A few weeks ago, my dad’s mechanic told him that his 1990 Subaru was reparable, but was never going to be reliable enough to trust with that long commute any more, so he should, and I quote, “Give it to your son and just let him drive it until it breaks, then get rid of it.” I would have that car until 2002.

In the summer of 1996, on a lark, I thought it would be fun to drive through ever county in Maryland. I didn’t quite make it, since it turns out that there’s seriously like seven hundred miles of Maryland tucked away up in the corner where it hides behind West Virginia. I’d finally complete my mission in ’99 on a road trip to St. Louis. But I hit most of them, tooling around, seeing the sights, finding out which porn stores didn’t card, then hitting the mall when the lack of functional air conditioning in the Subaru got to me (It had seized up and ejected its A/C belt one day, which was not a problem, except that it ejected it into the power steering belt, which was.).

On one of these mall-stops, I ducked into Kay-Bee Toys, as I was wont to do, on the off chance that they’d somehow found themselves with some awesome 80s toy leftover on the shelves (This never happened, but we can but hope), and I was poking about through the clearance bin, and I found something that didn’t make any sense. I found this:

fire-vhsLet’s take a moment to talk about this VHS cover. Anyone else find it interesting and kind of cool that it’s illustrated rather than being a screengrab as you’d normally see on this kind of thing. And it’s not just some random bit of promotional art; that lower third of the picture there, with the cowering woman in front of modern art either having an epiphany or being shot in the face? That is a 100% show-accurate illustration of the first scene. The likeness of David Hemblen and Patricia Collins are spot on — that Lord Dread is more show-accurate than just about anything in the comics (And while it’s stylistically similar, it’s also more show-accurate than the merchandise packaging art, which I’ve talked about before). It’s one more link in the weird Captain Power chain, another of those artifacts that makes you imagine, as I said before, that the show I remember from my youth is somehow secretly the well-intentioned-but-ill-conceived live action adaptation of some old Japanese cartoon. In fact, they have to say right out on the front of the tape that it’s a “Live-action adventure”, because of course you’d assume from this cover art that you were looking at an animated show. In fact, I almost suspect that they wanted that ambiguity — that here, late in the day, it finally occurred to the people desperately trying to turn this beast profitable that perhaps they should start marketing it to actual children and try to make it look a bit more like it was actually, y’know, for kids.

Ever since that day, I’ve always wondered about this tape’s backstory. How is it that a videocassette almost a decade out of print found itself in the clearance bin at a toy store? Needless to say, this tape came home with me. And so A Fire in the Dark has a special place in my heart, because from round about August 1996 until round about the time I started writing this series, this video tape was my primary way of experiencing Captain Power. This has its ups and downs. It’s not an episode that really showcases a lot of the show’s big, glamorous elements, and it’s not representative of the structure and pacing of the rest of the series. But it’s a good, solid episode. We actually get interaction between Power and Dread. We actually get Captain Power doing stuff in his own show. And this is very much Dread’s big Character Focus episode. It’s also a very beautifully 80s sort of vision of the future.

We open, based on the evidence here, at some point in the middle of the episode A Summoning of Thunder. Soaron has already been created, and is flying around this vaguely-defined black, boundaryless space that is presumable some trippy sort of modern art galleryfire-01, full of weird over-saturated single-color pictures of models with geometric shapes superimposed over them. It all looks very 80s-futuristic, in a very “Opening Credits to Saved By The Bell” kind of way. Soaron’s using his eye-lasers to blow up the art while a middle aged woman who’s been made up to look young frets about at the destruction in an outfit whose shoulder pads would make Rob Liefeld wet.

Soaron finally decides to taunt and then digitize our hapless victim (I assume. Soaron doesn’t actually deploy his digitizer, so maybe he just wanted to off her) , but Lord Dread intervenes. He’s still in Taggart mode at this point, fully human and unscarred (As I mentioned, the comic adaptation changes pace of Taggart’s evolution into Dread, having him be mutilated in the initial coupling with Overmind, and switch to dressing like General Zod early in his conquest. In the live-action version, Taggart isn’t physically injured until the final fight with Stuart Power, and wears the same gray retrofuture-y coverall, apparently for several years). From what we’ll see later, there’s only a fairly narrow window of time between Soaron’s creation and Taggart’s transformation, and it’ll be a bit tricky to fit this scene in. But anyway, the salient point here is that Soaron, with typical competence, kind of spazzes out when Taggart shouts at him to leave the woman alone, and Dread reacts by shooting him, which leads to a largely inexplicable escalation of violence which ends with Soaron shooting the woman in the face as Taggart does a Darth Vader-style Big “Nooooooo!” shout, whereupon we Video Toaster out of flashback mode to find the “present”-day Lord Dread, gurning in his sleep as he relives these sketchily explained events.

At this point, I’d like to note that this is a somewhat unusual opening for an episode of Captain Power; we’ve got only a very little bit of action and minimal use of the interactivity gimmick. The status quo, well-established by this point, was to open with a melee battle using a bunch of Bio-Mechs, entirely regardless of whether or not it fit in with the rest of the episode, due to the corporate mandate about the minimum amount of action and interactivity each episode needed. This is going to be a comparatively low-action episode, and it’s starting to look to me like one of the fundamental problems that eventually ends up scuttling the series is the fact that it tends to be the low-action episodes that are the good ones. That’s a real problem when you’re selling a show as part of the “Action-Adventure” genre. It’s almost as though the action elements are basically an afterthought in this show. Which is a real problem. Don’t get me wrong; I am not any kind of an action junkie, but if you’re just throwing in action sequences at the last minute to meet the technical requirements of the genre, perhaps you should reconsider whether you actually want to be a television show in the “Action-Adventure” genre at all. And if you are reconsidering that, you might also want to reconsider why you are making a show about henshin heroes called “Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future”. The same way that Michael Bay should perhaps have considered why, if what he really wanted was to make a movie about the compelling human drama as people struggle to survive and save their world in the face of an unstoppable, otherworldly destructive force, he bothered putting Transformers in it.

What I’m getting at is: If you aren’t really interested in making an action show, you probably should not be making a show called Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. You should perhaps be making some kind of speculative fiction drama about the human horror in the face of a genocidal machine war. You should, in essence, be making Battlestar Galactica instead.

And here we can start to understand why Power Rangers is still on the air twenty-two years after “Day of the Dumpster”, but Captain Power was dead and gone nine months after “Shattered”. Because the goofy, frequently camp, stock-footage-cut-n-paste extravaganza may never have been as strong dramatically, but they did, for the most part, get all the pieces to fit together. Not perfectly, of course, but, especially in its middle seasons, Power Rangers more often than not managed to take four largely disparate elements (light tween drama, martial arts action, kaiju action, and sci-fi/fantasy adventure) and staple them together into a coherent whole (Except for Megaforce, which makes a total mess of integrating the elements, on the assumption that the fight scenes are all that matter). Captain Power suffers badly from having its dramatic elements edited with a chainsaw to make room for action sequences that feel somehow both perfunctory and unnecessary.

So yeah, this episode is action-light and that’s ultimately a good thing, since it’s one of the few episodes that gets to take the time it needs to actually tell the story it wants to. Unlike “Pariah”, things happen for reasons mostly, rather than just “Okay, we’re at the 12 minute mark, everyone move on to the next part of the plot now.” It’s also, as I mentioned, Dread’s character-focus episode. Dread is a difficult character to get a handle on, and I think part of the reason is that there seem to be conflicting visions for where the character was supposed to go. From interviews with the writers, it appears that Dread’s arc, had the show continued, would have led him eventually to a heel-face-turn, and see him seeking to recapture his own lost humanity. I like this. I’m kind of a sucker for villain redemption stories, and I was even as a small child. Which makes it all the stranger that I somehow failed to pick up on this as a kid. I don’t recall it ever occurring to me that Dread might potentially be redeemable.

Possibly, the problem for child-me was that I didn’t really process what the deal was with Overmind, because once you understand Overmind, a lot of things fall into place. To put it bluntly, Lord Dread is Darth Vader and Overmind is the Emperor. It’s not a perfect match, but it’s very clear that’s what’s going on at a high level here: Overmind manipulates Taggart, even while he mistrusts him. Taggart is genuinely trying to bring about a better world, but once he’s got blood on his hands, he find himself increasingly feeling like he’s gone too far to stop. While Overmind is really the one in charge, it’s still strangely deferential to Dread at times, as if it knows that if it pushes too hard too fast, it might lose control of the beast it’s created, but even its deference is manipulative (Compare with the bits where the Emperor seems to be afraid of Vader, simultaneously letting Vader feel like he has power, while also shaming him with a note of “You are such a monster that I’m the master of the Sith, and even I am scared of you.”). Also, Dread falls into a volcano and gets rebuilt as a cyborg.  And the end credits are a shameless ripoff of the Death Star trench run. In that light, it’s increasingly obvious that this series would have eventually needed to end with Dread sacrificing himself to destroy Overmind and save John from Overmind’s Force Lightning. In the director’s cut, he’d do this while shouting “Noooooooo!”  (All this is doubly impressive when you consider that we don’t actually see that much of the Vader-Emperor relationship until Revenge of the Sith, decades later. But it’s not as though the broad strokes weren’t well-established).

So Dread. We had that weird little bit earlier in the season with him dictating scripture. We’re supposed to believe that Dread is a true believer in the supremacy of the machine, but also that he sees a genuine kind of beauty in it. It may seem a bit schizophrenic that Dread sees a world made by of and for machines as beautiful and therefore wants to replace humanity with a race incapable of appreciating beauty (This is going to play into the big themes of this episode)but if this is true, it is true largely because Dread is a bit schizophrenic. By which I mean, Dread explicitly had some kind of very complex mental break when he interfaced with Overmind, and it’s clear that holding this paradox in his mind causes Dread considerable tension.

Overmind’s motivations are harder to get a handle on. It’s going to become increasingly clear that Overmind lacks Dread’s aesthetic interest, and while Dread’s been digitizing humanity ostensibly in the hopes of transforming humanity into a machine race, Overmind just wants to wipe out humanity and build robots. Why? I have no answer to that one. According to the usual laws of science fiction, the answer is probably “Because Logic,” just like all the logic-obsessed sci-fi villain races, an answer I’ve never found satisfying, but it’d hardly be fair to take this one show to task for it.

“Jessica Morgan”, for what it’s worth, is probably named after Jessica Morgan Wolfman, the daughter of Marv Wolfman, who wrote this episode. He’s best known for his comic book work, having created the character of Bullseye, and written Crisis on Infinite Earths. Another “Jessica Morgan” appears in the Wolfman-written Transformers episode “The Return of Optimus Prime”.

Anyway, this whole diversion about Dread’s motives and character is important at this point, because we’re about to see the dichotomy between Dread and Overmind. The woman in the flashback was the famous artist Jessica Morgan, and Dread was apparently a fan.

Jessica is on Dread’s mind because he and Overmind have been working on the design for the “new human form”. Overmind hit all the technical requirements, but the fleeting images we get of the designs look kinda like a box on stiltsfire-03, and Dread is disappoint. He decides that what he really needs is to track down Jessica, apologize for getting her shot in the face, and hire her to prettify his next generation of soulless human-annihilation machines.

What follows isn’t exactly an action sequence, but I guess it’s close enough to count toward the episode’s contractual mandate, as some Dread troopers round up some refugees, with Soaron circling around in just about the worst composite shot captured on film until Birdemic. The perspective is all wrong and Soaron’s scaled incorrectly for that angle and the artifice is just painful. The troopers round up a guy who kinda looks like the lovechild of David Ogden Stiers and the guy who played Al in Home Improvement, and orders him to pony up Jessica. When he refuses, Soaron digitizes the guy.

We cut to Cap’n’company who are deeply concerned about this rash of “Dread attacks villages looking for this one person” deals. Cap summons holographic Kenny Loggins, who, because he’s programmed with the personal history of every single person in the world, is able to tell him that Jessica Morgan lived in a city that was attacked fifteen years ago, “During Dread’s first attack.”

Pilot helpfully chips in that the attack we saw earlier left Jessica blind, which has put a crimp in her art career. Possibly the whole “Its the apocalypse” thing might have also harmed her creative output.

Back at Volcania, the captured elder is un-digitized so that Lord Dread can inform him, “Every cell in your body implodes when you are digitized. Then, when you’re reformed, those same cells explode,” in case you’d forgotten the protracted rape analogy from September. And what “explode” and “implode” mean. The elder instantly breaks and agrees to tell Dread whatever he wants to know.

In a random cave somewhere, Jessica asserts that she’d like to give herself up to Dread before anyone else gets hurt, but for a small diversion, Cap and Pilot show up, and offer to put her up for the night at their place. They hop on their hover-bikes and head for the Power Base, which gives us an opportunity to explain that the hover-bikes are voice controlled. There’s a tonally awkward scene where Cap programs Jessica’s voice into his bike, so that she can control it a bit, just for kicks. For the sake of pacing, I’m glad they didn’t feel the need to add some exposition for what possible good it could be to give a flying motorcycle voice control, but it does leave you wondering. That said, this is one of the few examples of this series pulling out a structural touch that you don’t see much in TV of this era: While it seems largely pointless here, the fact that the bikes can auto-pilot themselves by voice control is something that will become important at the far end of the season. So I guess it’s a lucky job that, in spite of the fact that they were planning to pick an old blind woman up and take her back with them, they took their flying motorcycles (and didn’t even bring a spare helmet) instead of, say, the jumpship. It will also come in handy in this episode, since it’s Chekov’s gun, but I’ll discuss some issues with that later. Also, though we’ve already had computers like Overmind with his creepy bedroom Hal 9000 voice, and Mentor with his Kenny Loggins voice, and “Time to change the batteries” voice from the suits with her phone company operator voice, the hover-bike’s computer sounds like Dr. Sbaitso.

No sooner have they returned to base than Lord Dread broadcasts some threats about what he’s going to do to Jessica’s friends if she doesn’t hand herself over. Cap explains the usual platitudes about why you shouldn’t negotiate with hostage-takers, then Pilot takes her to a bedroom. I’ll note here that the sets for the Power Base have the common motif of consisting largely of things that look like small prefab alcoves set into rough-hewn rock. The Power Base is ostensibly built on the remains of NORAD, and I imagine the visible stone is meant as a visual reminder of, “We are inside a mountain,” but, well, is this an actual building technique? Wouldn’t it be a lot of work to blast out little individual alcoves for things like these prefab bunk bed modules?  Wouldn’t you actually just blast out one big empty space and then use more orthodox building techniques to fill the space with an office building?

But that’s neither here nor there, because the second Pilot’s out of earshot, Jessica fumbles her way to the door (which I will note, is one of those big round sliding airlock-type dealies, which, in context, must retract into a narrow door-high slot in the rock wall. Again, this is a ridiculous way to build a secret underground lair. Also, the doors don’t close all the way) and, undetected, makes her way to the hoverbike hangar, where she asks Cap’s bike to take her to Dread’s specified rendezvous site, and then seems to be surprised and terrified when it obliges.

(Here, we have a commercial break. Dylan is confused and thinks the show is over, because he was born more than a decade after the invention of the TiVo and has absolutely no idea what a “commercial break” is.)

Her absence is noticed so quickly that it’s a little hard to swallow that this old blind woman snuck all the way from her room to the hangar bay and stole a hover-bike without anyone stopping her (And here for the first time, we see the whole team power on in the kiosk.). But they’re at least far enough behind her that she manages, on autopilot, to beat them to the rendevous site by several minutes. Jessica meets up with a holographic Lord Dread, who– actually, I want to stop for a second and think about this. This whole sequence seems kind of weirdly constructed in context. Dread manifests before a, again, blind woman in the form of an intangible hologram. Well, semi-intangible. Jessica’s hand passes right through him, but she does note that he feels “cold.” Dread does about the world’s worst job of reassuring her by explaining that “Though my body remains in Volcania, I am with you in spirit.” Throughout this sequence, though Dread is not physically present, he sort of acts like he is; he reacts to things as though he’s in the room with them. Soaron addresses him like he’s really there, rather than telecommuting. He turns toward things, gestures toward things, reacts as if he’s seeing things from the vantage point of his avatar. This seems like a weird amount of effort to set up for, I keep stressing this, the benefit of a blind woman.

fire-05Dread also apologizes for the squalor Jessica can’t see, as he “hasn’t needed” this I-m’-guessing-it’s-a-hopsital since his takeover. He has her follow his holographic voice to what looks like the set from the third season of Red Dwarf fire-07 (Maybe that’s why Dread’s a hologram), and waxes poetic about his longing to build a new world based on mechanical perfection and whatnot. Outside, we get a proper fight scene, and for once, it doesn’t feel tacked on. The focus is primarily on Tank and Scout, and here you get a bit of tonal whiplash. Scout’s had very little screen time, and I get the feeling they’re primarily writing him as a comic relief character. And Tank is kind of a ridiculous character to begin with.  The fight itself has a bit of a comic relief element to it as well. Tank uses a mech as a human robot shield in a maneuver that relies on the fact that all the other mechs seem oddly compelled to keep shooting even when they can clearly see that they’re just shooting one of their own. And at one point, Tank uses a technique to disable a mech which he clearly learned at Acme Looniversity.

Meanwhile, Cap makes his way into the set from Red Dwarf, and upon seeing Dread’s hologram, he reflexively shoots him, tragically murdering the gaffer standing behind the holographic Dread. I might complain that it seems kind of shallow and unheroic to have Cap react like that, just trying to gun down the villain in cold blood the second he sees him, but I rather like the idea that Dread kind of pushes Cap’s berzerk button.

I’m sorry, though; we have to stop here for a second and contemplate this. You and I know that Lord Dread is a hologram, but as far as Cap knows, he just turned a corner and potentially could have ended this whole genocidal war by shooting Lyman Taggart in the face, so he tried.

This is morally complex, of course. a big question: is Cap justified in simply shooting the villain dead in this case? Possibly. Probably even. But there’s one more thing we so rarely talk about: we are watching a kids’ show. We are watching the selfsame genre where America’s top-secret highly-trained special-missions force neither kills nor captures a single enemy soldier. Where Interpol’s top special investigator invariably allows his arch-nemesis to escape in his rocket-powered throne while stroking his cat. Perhaps a gritty ’90s anti-hero is allowed to shoot the unarmed villain in the head. But a guy wearing gold armor over blue spandex in a kids’ show in 1987 is most emphatically not.

I said before that Dread’s motivations seem schizophrenic. When you get down to it, this whole show is kind of schizophrenic. We are, keep in mind, more or less halfway between He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Babylon 5, and I suppose you could look at Captain Power as a bit of an angsty “What kind of TV show do I want to make when I grow up?” for J. Michael Straczynski. And while JMS himself may have eventually come up with an answer to that question, it came too late for Cap and his pals. It can’t have worked in this show’s favor that half the screen time is spent sending our hero on a blood-vendetta against the obvious Nazi analogies who sci-fi-raped his childhood crush and Hawk gurning as he mourns his dead children, and the other half is spent with Maurice Dean Wint doing stupid impressions and Tank evading killer robots by the strategic use of the phrase “Rabbit season.” This is just not a show that knows what it wants to be. It’s in this respect that I’m most optimistic about Phoenix Rising, which will almost certainly lack some of the frankly insane ambition of its predecessor, but seems even at this stage to have a much firmer idea of the tone and style it’s shooting for.

fire-06After being disappointed that he hasn’t just shot his arch nemesis in the face, Cap and Dread have a pleasant conversation where Dread just explains his motives and plans: he considers Jessica’s injury to have “wasted a resource,” and he plans to “correct” this by giving her a Geordi Laforge-style visor. Well, more a sort of barrette. With Cylon eyes. He means to restore her sight with technology, and he assumes she’ll be so grateful that she’ll agree to offer up her services as an artist in order to help him design his replacement for humanity.

Cap thinks that this is the thing which demonstrates that Dread is insane, but agrees to let Dread have his fun and why not. Jessica recovers from her surgery and waxes poetic about how the colors had all been “locked up in her mind” for the past decade and a half. People wax poetic a lot in this show, and I’m forced to remind myself that television in the 80s did not work even remotely the same ways as it does today. Remember: TV did not evolve from film, but rather, both evolved separately from a common ancestor on the stage, but while film went one way, preserving much of the, irm, “theatricality”, TV drew first from vaudeville and then from radio, and therefore developed a very different sort of visual and storytelling language. TV and film would to a large extent converge stylistically in the 21st century, but that’s still a decade and change off here. No real point in that diversion, just my hobby horse.

Jessica wants to have a look out the window, and Dread inexplicably thinks this would be a good idea, so he beckons her over to show her the wasteland outside. Jessica is predictably unimpressed. She’s been blind for fifteen years, the last thing she ever saw was her art gallery being burned down, but she never managed to really imagine the scope of the destruction that’s come with the apocalypse. I don’t know about this. Keep in mind that part of the backstory to this series is that even prior to Dread’s rise to power, the world was being torn to pieces by automated war for years. We saw the scope of the destruction in the comic book. It rings a bit false that, even being blind for fifteen years, Jessica wouldn’t have expected the world to be quite so crappy. On the other hand, of course, it’s not stretching the imagination too much to suppose that in her long darkness, Jessica would have defensively been selective in how much she remembered about the state of the world. But I think it would have been better to make this explicit in the dialogue. Rather than just lamenting, “I never knew,” Jessica could have said something like, “I kept telling myself it couldn’t be–” something that hints that she’s not learning how bad things are, but accepting. Heck, you’re halfway to a parable if you try to paint Jessica as using her blindness as a shield to protect herself from the harshness of reality (Though you have to be really careful here, since “Let’s turn a person’s handicap into a metaphor to teach the kids at home important moral lessons,” is so distasteful that The Facts of Life only did it four or five times.)

fire-08Soaron shows up to report to Lord Dread on how the fight outside is going, rather than, y’know, calling him on the radio the way he does every other time he reports to Lord Dread. How meta is that? The CGI robot walks into the hospital in order to give a report in person to his hologram boss. Think about what this scene would be like for the actors. “Okay, Tim, now Soaron’s going to come in and point his laser hand at you, and you’re going to be aiming at him, sort of Mexican stand-off style. Now, Patricia, remember, you can’t see Soaron or Dread. I mean, none of us can see Soaron, but you can’t for real. David, you look like you’re here but you’re really not, so don’t bump into anything. Deryck, you’ve just come in to talk to your boss, who isn’t really here, but you find your arch nemesis. Also you aren’t here either, because we record all your lines in post.”

Dread orders Soaron not to shoot for fear of “A waste of material,” and points out that Power can’t shoot either for… Some reason. I mean, the idea is that neither of them can shoot for fear of hitting Jessica, but as she’s standing behind Cap at this point, the only way this actually stops him firing is on the assumption that Soaron won’t obey Dread’s orders not to return fire. Okay, given that the way Jessica lost her sight in the first place is that Dread pulled a gun on Soaron and made his trigger finger itchy. Dread dismisses Soaron on the assumption that Jessica will stay with him of her own volition, as her new cylon eyes will only work in range of his transmitter. John assures her that he’ll abide by her decision, and Jessica takes Cap by the arm and they leave Dread to shout maniacally about the neverending darkness she’s resigned herself to. Jessica tells Cap, roughly, that it turns out that being able to see really sucks in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and waxes poetic again (Seriously, there is a lot of waxing poetic in this show) that her memories of the pre-apocalyptic world are way better than seeing this crap-pile. Which now that I think about it, is actually kind of an ugly moral. Yes, kids, you too can hide from reality just so long as you have a handicap you can use to permanently shield yourself from perceiving harsh truths. But this show has not been great at kids’ show morality, and I don’t expect it to start now. Not to be outdone in the poetic waxing, when Tank shows up and asks where Dread is, Cap wryly reflects, “Alone.”

Back in Volcania, Dread pointedly doesn’t answer Overmind when he asks again about the new designs, instead watching a self-portrait of Jessica from that first scene immolate itself in Dread’s office-incinerator (previously seen in “Final Stand”. Because Lord Dread does not outsource anything and literally sets fire to every knick-knack he wants destroyed personally in his office.)

That’s A Fire in the Dark. Like I said, for a decade, this was what I still had of Captain Power, so it was a bit of a letdown when I rewatched the series in its entirety prior to the start of this project, and discovered that most of it was a lot less coherent. But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Every episode so far has had a lot going for it. They just don’t tend to hang together as a whole. But this one, I think, does. We see both Pariah and Fire dispensing with the structure we saw in a lot of the other episodes where the plot is arbitrarily partitioned into a largely irrelevant and incoherent actiony bit and a bit that would actually make a good story if they’d spent more than eight minutes on it, and unlike Pariah, the main plot is actually fairly interesting.

If I have one big complaint about this story, though, it’s this: Consider what the plot of this episode would be if Captain Power and his pals weren’t in it at all.  Here’s the really remarkable thing: nothing changes. Jessica is already planning to give herself up to Dread when Cap arrives in the story. They delay her from doing so for basically the length of time it takes to fly back to the Power Base. After Dread gives her back her sight, she makes the decision on her own to abandon him, and he willingly lets her go. Captain Power and his Soldiers of the Future do not actually contribute to the plot of this episode at all beyond giving Jessica a ride home at the end. It’s just like Raiders of the Lost Ark: in the event that you notice that nothing the hero does has any impact on the outcome, it’s impossible to un-notice it. I may have said that a lot of what happens in the other episodes turns out to be irrelevant, but in Shattered, Cap rescues Athena, in The Abyss, they help the general’s men escape capture, in Final Stand, they rescue a bunch of hostages, and in Pariah, they cure Dread’s new bio-weapon. And yet, to my mind, the episodes I’ve really properly liked so far have been A Fire in the Dark and Wardogs, and in both of those episodes, Cap and Company accomplish basically nothing — the base Cap attacks in Wardogs is a decoy, the Wardogs themselves are never in any danger, and when they leave, they’re still following the same lead for Eden-1 as when they showed up (The plot to Wardogs, in case you’ve forgotten, is basically, “A Canadian military unit is delayed on their way to a rumored refuge when they have to rescue the actual heroes of the show, who have walked into an obvious trap. Also Hawk gets laid.”) Yes, things happen for reasons in A Fire in the Dark, but they’re their own reasons, nothing to do with the guy who’s name is on the title card.

Why is it that my favorite episodes so far are also the ones that, on paper, are the most pointless? Actually, I have a theory on that. One thing I’ve been trying to convey in my reviews of this show is just how uneven and incompletely-thought-out this show is. It’s not just me being flippant when I say this show didn’t know what it wanted to be when it grew up. Over and over, we see this show having lots of ambition and lots of really good elements, but there’s a distinct lack of one cohesive vision of what this show should be like. When you get to modern shows, to things like Lost, or The West Wing, or Doctor Who, or Battlestar Galactica, when they are at their best (Which is emphatically not “for the whole of their run”), there is a real sense of there being one unifying creative vision that’s holding the reigns and guiding where the show is going. And this is greatly prefigured by Babylon 5, which was also very much at its best when JMS had both hands on the reins. Even by the time of B5, television wasn’t quite ready for this sort of thing yet, so it does suffer in places from a similar (but much reduced) sense of unevenness and incongruity. Put simply, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was already hamstrung by the market forces that caused it to be, well, titled “Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future”, and if it was ever going to beat that, what it needed was a strong hand with a clear vision to guide it. This show needed an Aaron Sorkin, or a Russel T. Davies. Or, at the least, a J. Michael Straczynski, 1994. It needed a showrunner. The closest thing it had was a J. Michael Straczynski, 1987, and though in retrospect, we can see that he’s on his way, in 1987, he’s not there yet. So ultimately, when Captain Power succeeds, it’s not on the strength of its creative vision. It succeeds on its parts. In 1987, J. Michael Straczynski(Don’t think I’m getting down on JMS here. I’m not a fan of Babylon 5 myself, but I’ve got plenty of respect for his skills as a writer and producer. In honesty, I’m not sure anyone in 1987 could have made this show work, because TV didn’t work the right way in 1987 to make a show like the show this show needed to be. But it’s very striking here that we know that in another few years, JMS is going to be one of the instrumental folks in creating the mode of television that this show needed to be.), executive story consultant, and Gary Goddard, creator, can’t make this series work.

But just a handful of times, freed from the need to actually carry the season-long arc forward or have anything of importance actually happen, Marv Wolfman or Larry DiTillio, or, heck, J. Michael Straczynski can make an episode work. When we look at television of the 21st century, we often measure the good shows by the extent to which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That way of looking at television just isn’t going to work for us in the land of 1987-being-relived-in-1996. Keep that in mind as we move forward. Captain Power failed in 1987, and I think ultimately, it failed because it never figures out quite how to work as a series. But there’s still joy to be taken here. Don’t look at the forest. Look at the trees. The whole, this time, may be less than the sum of the parts, but just look at those parts. Because they’re really quite lovely.

June 21, 2014

For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come (Captain Power: Pariah)

The more astute among you may have noticed that it’s been about a year since my last Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future post. More than two years since my last episode review. Those of you who pay very close attention may suspect that it might have something to do with the fact that my review of episode 4 was published on December 10, 2011, and my son was born on December 12, 2011. I’ve been otherwise disposed.

Of course, now my son is old enough to want to watch Captain Power, only not the vaguely sci-fi-rapey episodes. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking. But he likes pointing the Power Jet at the screen and “Shooting the bad guys”, even if I never did manage to get the jet to work with the DVDs (I suspect the sensor in the jet is shot, since it won’t register shooting itself in room-mode if you point it at a mirror either.)

But even more than the fact that watching TV with a toddler is distracting, I just really couldn’t find an angle on this one. Over the past four episodes, we’ve had the misfortune of magic sci-fi-rape, some really awkward gender role stuff, tortured Vietnam metaphors, and, well, Kasko. Then we get to Pariah, the original pilot for the series, the one meant to sell the Captain Power experience and it’s… Fine. Okay. I mean, it’s a good, serviceable workman-like business-as-usual episode. But it really lacks… Well, anything noteworthy, really. It adds very little to the ongoing story of Lord Dread’s convoluted multi-stage plan, no one does anything really aggressively sexist, at least not enough that you could distinguish it from any other show of its period.

So this kind of episode is hard to find an angle on. I mean, if I walk you though the salient points of the plot, I am done by the end of this paragraph: Hawk spends the better part of twenty minutes talking to a slang-talking teenage orphan while slowly falling asleep, occasionally punctuated by a short exchange of gunfire with robots.

Yeah. It’s another Hawk character-focus episode. The rest of the regular cast is largely absent — they do get a fight with Soaron, which I suppose is interesting because it’s the only time that we don’t do the obligatory Sauron vs Hawk fight, but really, nothing they do advances the plot. Actually, nothing much advances the plot; everyone just sort of mills about until they reach the appointed time, then moves on to the next part of the story. The major hurdle of the episode is “Will the team make it to Hawk in time?” and the answer is “Yes, as it turns out, they will,” in a way that feels very much like if you made a heist movie where the only real conflict was “Will the getaway driver find a good parking spot?”

Which I guess speaks to what I’ve said before about this show feeling atimes awfully perfunctory. Things often don’t feel like they happen for any satisfying diagetic reason so much as “because we are now seventeen minutes in, so it’s time for a fight scene.” And indeed, the final fight scene here feels like Hawk basically just says “Okay, I’m kinda bored with this now,” stands up, powers on, and walks out to have a fight. There’s more to it than that, sure, but the only reason that this time, it leads to a big fight and all the other times it didn’t is because we’re at the eighteen minute mark.

I mean, sure, there’s a big reveal about the kid and Lord Dread’s evil plans, but it’s telegraphed so obviously that you yourself have probably figured it out already even though I’ve basically only said one sentence about it.

Because, of course, the plot of this episode isn’t the point of this episode. The point of this episode is for Hawk to react to this kid, whose name I’m told is Mitch, and be all heartfelt and suchlike because Mitch reminds Hawk of his own (presumed deceased) son.

Which is all well and good, but this is still a 22-minute show which also has to serve as a toy commercial. When you peel back the outer layers, there’s just nothing to it. There are certainly ways to get 22 minutes of compelling drama out of a parent’s grief at the loss of a child, but “Let’s get Peter MacNeill to gurn at the camera for a bit and tell this very 80s kid of the future that he reminds him of his dead son,” isn’t it. Peter McNeill GurningEven if Peter MacNeill is fantastic at pained gurning.

Moustachio'd Nazi of the WeekSo anyway, the long and short of the episode is that Cap’n’company are investigating a series of towns being struck by a disease that renders everyone comatose for convenient digitization. Hawk gets separated from the others, meets a skittish orphan boy on the run from another of Dread’s Bling-wearing Nazis, and they hole up for a bit. Hawk slowly earns the boy’s trust as he succumbs to the disease, because, and you really should have worked it out by now, the kid is an immune carrier. This shocking reveal for some reason necessitates a final fight scene, which Hawk abandons halfway through by passing out, but fortunately Mitch Mitch throws himself on Hawk, leaving only Hawk's area visible.throws himself on Hawk’s prone body, protecting him from Soaron (Who has orders not to harm Dread’s Typhoid Mary) for nearly five seconds while the rest of the cast shows up. The disease is cured off-screen when we come back from commercial and they all live happily ever after.

Like I said, all those years ago now, there’s a reason that half-hour drama is not a format you see a lot of. I don’t mean to give the impression that this episode was bad — it’s fine, really. But there’s just not much to it.

Of course, in production order, Pariah would have come before Wardogs — Pariah is set about a month in real time after Shattered, and Wardogs more properly fits two months later, after A Fire in the Dark. So if we’d watched these in the order the creative team intended, this would have been the first time we’d mentioned Hawk’s family. Maybe it would have been more impactful that way (In Original 1987 TV Audience Time, Wardogs is even later, having originally aired five weeks after Pariah). And I guess that’s it: how good an episode this is hangs in its entirety on the reveal that Hawk has lost a child. If, like me, you watched Wardogs first, you already know that, so this one’s just spinning the wheels.

Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe the fact that the moral center of this episode is Hawk grieving over his dead son just makes this an episode that Now-A-Daddy-Me didn’t want to think too long and hard about… Hm.

It’s actually gotten kind of hard for me to enjoy my eschatons since I became a parent. I’ve never been able to find a way to move on from the question, “What does one do with a toddler during the end of days?” I mean, I’ve found some answers. Just not ones that I want to think about. Maybe next week will be better.

June 10, 2014

The Giant, the Wolf, and the Pigs

By Daddy

Preface

[DADDY has just told DYLAN the story of the three little pigs]

DYLAN: I have a book with that story!

DADDY: Yes, that story is in a lot of books, and there’s lots of ways to tell it.

DYLAN: Tell it with a giant! And a wolf! And Jack!

DADDY: Hm. That’s a tricky one. Okay, let’s see what we can come up with


Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Jack. One day, while he was on his way to find a beanstalk, he met his friends, the three little pigs. “What are you little pigs doing?” he asked

The first little pig, who was a tremendous boar, said, “(Oink!) We’re going to build some houses.”

And so Jack said, “That sounds like a lot of work.”

The first little pig said, “Maybe for my brothers, but I’ve got this fine bale of straw, and I’m going to build my house out of it, and it won’t take any time at all.”

Jack thought about this for a moment, and he said, “A house of straw sounds like it would be very pretty and very cozy, but aren’t you worried that it might fall down if you were attacked by a giant, or perhaps by a big bad wolf?”

But the first little pig just laughed and laughed, and he said, “I don’t think that sounds very likely.”

So Jack wished the first little pig well, and he went over to the second little pig.  Now, the second little pig was an even greater boar. And Jack asked him, “Are you building a house as well? That sounds like a lot of work.”

And the second little pig said, “(Oink) Maybe for my brother, but I’ve got this fine bundle of sticks, and I’m going to build my house out of it. Any maybe it will take a little longer than if I were building it out of straw, but it’ll be such a very much grander house for it.”

Jack asked, “Well a house of sticks does sound very grand, but aren’t you worried that it might fall down if you were attacked by a giant, or perhaps by a big bad wolf?”

But the second little pig just laughed and laughed, and he said, “I don’t think that sounds very likely.”

So Jack wished the second little pig well, and he went over to the third little pig. The third little pig was the greatest boar of all, and he was struggling with a big cart full of bricks. “Oh my,” Jack said, “I suppose you’re going to build your house out of bricks. That sounds like a lot of work.”

The third little pig said, “(Oink) Yes it is. But I want a house that will be strong enough that I won’t have to worry even if it were picked up and dropped by a giant.”

Jack thought about that. “Do you think that sounds very likely?” he asked.

“You never know,” said the third little pig.

Jack wished the third little pig well, and set out on his way to find fun adventures. And some time later, Jack came by the house of the first little pig. And it was a lovely house, all warm and dry and a very pretty shade of straw. Jack knocked on the door and said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”

A voice from inside the house said, “(Oink) Are you a wolf?”

Jack answered, “No, I’m Jack.”

“(Oink) Oh, okay then,” said the first little pig, and he invited Jack in for tea and biscuits for lunch.

But while they were eating lunch, there was another knock on the door, and a loud voice from outside said, “Fee Fi Fo Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman! Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll have his bones to grind my bread!”

The first little pig looked out between some of the straw in the door and said, “It’s a giant!”

“Oh dear,” said Jack, rather sheepishly. “You see, there was this beanstalk, and this goose…”

But before Jack could tell his story, the giant said, “I’m looking for the little boy named Jack! You’d better let me in!”

And the first little pig said, “Go away! We don’t want any!”

“Oh yeah?” said the giant. “Well, look what I’ve got in my pocket!” and he reached in his pocket and he took out a wolf. A big wolf. And since the wolf lived in the giant’s pocket, we can reasonably assume he was also a bad wolf. “Okay wolf,” said the giant, “Do your thing.”

Now the wolf was in the mood for bacon, so he said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”

But the pig, who was perfectly happy to serve lunch, did not much want to be lunch, so he said, “Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin!”

So the wolf said, “Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll BLOW your house in!”

And he huffed.

And he puffed.

And he BLEW.

And down came the house of straw! And poor Jack, all covered in straw, had to run all the way to the second little pig’s house as fast as his legs could carry him. When he got to the house of sticks, he knocked on the door and said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in!”

A voice from inside the house said, “(Oink) Are you a wolf?”

Jack answered, “No, I’m Jack.”

“(Oink) Oh, okay then,” said the second little pig, and he invited Jack in for lunch. He offered him a bowl of honey, which had been a house-warming present from a bear who was friends with the second little pig’s cousin.

“You seem to be all covered in straw,” the second little pig said.

And Jack picked up the straw and put it in his pockets, and he said, “Yes. About that. I may have some bad news about your brother’s house. See, there was this giant, and this wolf…”

But before Jack could tell his story, there was another knock on the door, and a loud voice from outside said, “Fee Fi Fo Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman! Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll have his bones to grind my bread!”

The second little pig looked out between some of the sticks in the door and said, “It’s a giant! With a suspiciously wolf-shaped bulge in his pocket!”

“Oh dear,” said Jack. “You see there was this harp and these beans…”

And the giant said, “I’m looking for the little boy named Jack! You’d better let me in!”

The second little pig said, “Go away! We don’t want any!”

“Oh yeah?” said the giant. “Well, look what I’ve got in my pocket!” and he reached in his pocket and he took out the big bad wolf. “Okay wolf,” said the giant, “Do your thing.”

Now, the wolf was dreaming about pork chops, so he said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”

But the pig, who was a strict vegetarian, said, “Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin!”

So the wolf said, “Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll BLOW your house in!”

And he huffed.

And he puffed.

And he BLEW.

And down came the house of sticks! And poor Jack, with his bowl of honey still in his hand, had to run all the way to the third little pig’s house as fast as his legs could carry him. When he got to the house of brick, he knocked on the door and said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in!”

A voice from inside the house said, “(Oink) Are you a wolf?”

And Jack said, “No.”

Then, in a slightly suspicious tone, the voice said, “(Oink) How about a giant?”

And Jack said, “No, I’m Jack.”

“Do you think you could call back tomorrow?” asked the voice. “For you see I’ve only just finished building this house of bricks, and I far too tired to make lunch. Maybe you could go visit my brothers instead?”

“About your brothers,” Jack said, “There was this giant. And this wolf.”

“I see,” said the third little pig, and he opened the door. “I suspected as much. You’d better come in.”

So Jack came in. But before Jack could tell his story, there was another knock on the door, and a loud voice from outside said, “Fee Fi Fo Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman! Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll have his bones to grind my bread!”

The third little pig looked out through the peep-hole in the door and said, “It’s a giant! With a bulge in his pocket shaped suspiciously like a very fat wolf!”

“Oh dear,” said Jack. “You see, there was this castle, and this golden egg…”

“I suppose you’re looking for the little boy named Jack,” the third little pig said to the giant. “Well I suppose you can have him if you like.”

By this point, though, the wolf was dreaming of glazed hams, and he hopped down out of the giant’s pocket without even waiting to be asked, and he said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.”

But the third little pig, who had spent all day working on his house, was in no mood to provide a meal as well, so he said, “Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin!”

So the wolf said, “Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll BLOW your house in!”

And he huffed.

And he puffed.

And he BLEW.

And he blew some more.

And he blew some more after that.

And then he had to go lie down for a little while because all that blowing was too much for a wolf suffering from high cholesterol due to a diet rich in pork products.

Now the giant was very angry, so he reached down and he picked up the house of bricks and he shook it. Fortunately for Jack and the third little pig, the house of bricks was very strong and stayed in one piece no matter how hard the giant shook it.

“What are we going to do now?” asked the third little pig. “I put in all this work on my fine little house and now a giant is waving it all around in the air!”

“I know!” said Jack. “I’ve got some straw in my pockets. We could use it to set the house on fire and burn the giant.”

The third little pig was not impressed. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea. For one thing, having my house burned up is not much better than having a giant wave it around. For another thing, we would get all burned up too.”

“That is a fine point,” said Jack.

“Oh!” said the third little pig, “But I have an idea. I have a spinning wheel!”

“I don’t think a spinning wheel is much use against a giant,” Jack said.

“This is a magic spinning wheel,” explained the pig. “It was a house-warming gift from a little man I know whose name I can’t remember. He said it could spin straw into gold.”

“But I’ve already got plenty of gold,” Jack said. “See, there was this goose…”

“Shh!” said the pig. “I think if it can spin straw into gold, it can’t be too much harder to spin straw into yarn.”

So they tried it, and before long, they had turned all of Jack’s straw into yarn. So when the giant wasn’t looking, he slipped down the giant’s sleeve and all the way to the ground. And when he got there, he used the yarn to tie the giant’s legs together. Then he climbed quietly back up to the house of the third little pig. “What should we do now?” Jack asked.

“I don’t know,” said the pig. “I came up with the first part of the plan. Now it’s your turn.”

Jack thought and thought, and then he remembered the bowl of honey. So when the giant wasn’t looking, he slipped up the giant’s sleeve and climbed up to the very top of the giant’s head. And he poured the honey all over the giant’s hair, then he climbed quietly back down to the house of the third little pig.

Now, as you know, flies like honey. I mean, they like other things as well, but for the purposes of our story, it’s mostly important that they like honey. And before long, there were flies flying all over the giant’s head, and it made him so itchy that he got very angry. He shouted, “Fee Fi Fo Fum!” and “Shoo Fly!” but the flies kept coming. Finally, the giant got so angry that he put down the house of bricks and picked up a big rock and tried to hit the flies.

He hit the flies.

But because the flies were on his head, he also hit his head.

And because he had been very angry, he had hit very hard.

And the giant got very dizzy. And he tried to take a step to steady himself.

But, of course, the giant’s legs were tied together.

So the giant lost his balance, and he fell. On the wolf. And he landed with a crash so loud that it was heard all across the land. And that was the end of the giant. And also the end of the wolf.

And Jack  and the third little pig lived happily ever after.

May 28, 2014

The Clown, the Giant, and the Science Center

By Dylan. Ending by Daddy.

Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Jack, and he lived in a castle. One day, Jack decided to go to the beach and play. He built a sand castle. Then, he met a clown. The clown was walking on the beach. They played in the sand. They dug in the sand with a shovel and built a sand castle.

Then, a giant came. A bad giant. The giant took their shovel. So Jack and the clown got another shovel. Then the bad giant took the other shovel too. So Jack and the clown had to go to the grocery store and buy another shovel. But the bad giant took ALL the shovels, so Jack and the clown couldn’t dig in the sand any more.

So Jack and the clown met another giant, a nice giant, and they went to the Science Center. At the Science Center, they played with in the water and they played with the legos on the board that moved. But the bad giant came back. He took all the toys. But he couldn’t take the boat because it was too big. So Jack and the clown and the good giant played on the boat. They turned the wheel, and they caught a fish and they wrote their names on the chalkboard.

But then the bad giant came back and pushed them down the steps and said, “Fee Fi Fo Fum!”

By now, Jack and the clown and the good giant said that enough was enough. So they went to the bad giant’s house and rang the doorbell. The bad giant’s mommy opened the door. Jack told the giant’s mommy how the bad giant had taken all the shovels, and all the toys, and how he had pushed them down the steps. So the giant’s mommy called the bad giant and he came to the door. The bad giant said, “Fee Fi Fo Fum!” but his mommy said, “We’ll have none of that. Say you’re sorry for what you did.”

And the bad giant said, “I’m sorry that I took your shovels. And I’m sorry that I took the toys away. If someone took away my shovels and my toys, it would make me sad. And I’m sorry I pushed you down the stairs, because it hurt you. I promise not to do those things ever again.”

Because the bad giant had made such a good apology, Jack decided to forgive him, and he gave him a hug. And so the bad giant stopped being a bad giant and became another good giant. And he gave back the shovel and all the toys, and they all went back to the beach and played with the sand and with legos.

And they all lived happily ever after.

March 8, 2014

Jack and the Giant

By Dylan (With conjunctions by Daddy)

Once upon a time there was a little boy named Jack. One day Jack looked outside and saw a beanstalk. So Jack climbed the beanstalk. At the top of the beanstalk, Jack found a castle. Inside the castle, Jack met a nice giant. Jack and the Giant decided to go on an adventure.

Jack and the Giant went to the forest in the winter. It was SO cold and snowy. Then Jack and the Giant tripped on a red rock and fell down in the snow. They were very cold. So they decided to get up and got inside a bus. They took the bus to a castle. Inside the castle, they found a beanstalk.

Jack and the Giant climbed the beanstalk. At the top of the beanstalk, they found a car. Jack drove the car, but the Giant had to take the bus because he was too big to fit in the car. They drove to another castle. Inside the castle, they found another car and a book.

The book told the story about Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty danced on the wall. Humpty Dumpty fell down. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again, so Kermit the Frog put him together again instead.

 

February 22, 2014

Elmo and the Witch

Dedicated to a boy who always reminds me that though he might be too little to do all the things he wants to, he’s getting bigger all the time.

An Adaptation of the Danish Fairy Tale “Esben and the Witch”

Okay. Technically it’s an adaptation of the Wikipedia article about the Danish Fairy Tale “Esben and the Witch”. With most of the wanton murder edited out.

Author’s note: It has come to my attention that there is apparently a popular children’s fiction character with the same name as the protagonist of this story. Not the same guy. While my Elmo is indeed small and cute, he is considerably less furry, and is able to use pronouns (admittedly, not well). The name of the protagonist was chosen when it was discovered that Dylan was too tired to lean how to pronounce “Esben”, having won a poll of the original audience with 100% of the vote.

Once upon a time, there were twelve brothers. And eleven of the brothers were big and strong, but the youngest brother, Elmo, was very small.

One day, the eleven older brothers went to their daddy and told him that they wanted to go out into the world to seek their fortune. And so their daddy gave them some money and gave each of them a white horse and told them to go out into the world and find their fortune.

But when Elmo asked his daddy if he could go out into the world and seek his fortune too, his daddy said, “You’re too little! You’ll never amount to anything!” and he wouldn’t give him a horse or any money.

But Elmo wanted to go with his brothers, so he took a stick, and he carved it until it was as white as the horses, and he rode it like a horse and followed his brothers out into the world.

Before long, the brothers came to the great woods. And while they were riding through the woods, they got very lost. But then they came upon a witch (Author’s Note: Depending on how tired Dylan is on any given evening, it may be that they came across not a witch, but a “fitz”. I have it on good authority that fitzes are very much like witches, but lack any of the unfortunate cultural connotations. For the sake of clarity, I’ve elected to use the more familiar term, in order to avoid needing to indulge in a lengthy parenthetical aside to explain this.). And the witch told the eleven older brothers that not only could they stay at her house for the night, but that she had herself twelve children, and the brothers could marry them. Except for the witch’s youngest daughter, who was small and not going to amount to anything, and who the witch wanted to keep to take care of her.

Then Elmo asked if he could come too, and the witch said, “You’re too little! You’ll never amount to anything!” and she would not let Elmo stay at her house. So when the brothers all went inside, Elmo had to stay outside and sleep on the ground.

But since Elmo was outside of the witch’s house, he could hear the witch talking, and that is how Elmo found out that this witch was not nice. In fact, the witch planned to use her bad magic to hurt the brothers when they were asleep.

Elmo went to the window of the room where his brothers were getting ready for bed, and he whispered in to them that the witch was a bad witch, and he told them to switch their hats with the hats of the witch’s children. So when the witch came into the brothers’ room during the night to use her bad magic to hurt them, because they were wearing the wrong hats, she used her magic on her own kids instead, and, let’s say, turned them into mice.

So the brothers escaped and got on their horses, and Elmo got on his stick, and they ran away so fast that they dropped all their money.

Before too long, the brothers came to the other side of the forest and found the castle. And they went to the king and asked for a job in the castle. And the king thought that the brothers looked big and strong, and how they didn’t have anything money or anything of value they could live off of, and he saw how pretty their white horses were, and he told them they could work taking care of all the horses in the king’s stables.

But when Elmo asked the king for a job, the king said, “You’re too little! You’ll never amount to anything!” and he wouldn’t give Elmo a job. So Elmo had to sleep on the streets and beg people for food.

Now, the king’s favorite knight was Sir Red. But Sir Red was not nice. Everybody knew Sir Red was not nice except for the king.  The king thought Sir Red was a good knight. Sir Red saw that the king liked the brothers, and Sir Red got jealous. So Sir Red decided to make up a story about the brothers so that the king wouldn’t like them any more.

Sir Red went to the king, and he said, “King, I heard that the brothers have a bird with gold and silver feathers. And they told you they were poor and didn’t have any money just to make a fool of you.”

So the king called for the brothers, and he said, “I heard you have a bird with gold and silver feathers. You better give it to me, or I’m going to throw you out of the castle!”

And the brothers were very sad, because they didn’t have a bird with gold and silver feathers. They didn’t have a bird of any sort. But Elmo came to his brothers and said, “Don’t worry, brothers. I can help you. All I need is a bag of peas.”

So the brothers gave Elmo a bag of peas. And Elmo took his stick, and he said a magic word that he’d heard from the witch, and it made the stick fly, and Elmo rode it back to the witch’s house. Because as luck would have it, when they had been running away from the witch, Elmo had just happened to see that the witch had a bird with gold and silver feathers that lived in her back yard. So Elmo waited until the witch went out to do her laundry, and he snuck up to the bird, and he said, “Bird, you’re coming with me.” And he gave the peas to the bird. And the bird liked the peas, so the bird came with Elmo.

Elmo got back on his stick and flew back to the castle. And Elmo gave the bird to the brothers. And the brothers gave the bird to the king. And now the king liked the brothers more than ever.

That made Sir Red even more jealous. So he decided to make up another story about the brothers so that the king wouldn’t like them any more.

Sir Red went to the king, and he said, “King, I heard that the brothers have a pig with gold and silver whiskers. And they told you they were poor and didn’t have any money just to make a fool of you.”

So the king called for the brothers, and he said, “I heard you have a pig with gold and silver whiskers. You better give it to me, or I’m going to throw you out of the castle!”

And the brothers were very sad, because they didn’t have a pig with gold and silver whiskers. They didn’t have a pig of any sort. But Elmo came to his brothers and said, “Don’t worry, brothers. I can help you. All I need is a bag of carrots.”

So the brothers gave Elmo a bag of carrots. And Elmo took his stick, and he said the magic word, and he flew on the stick back to the witch’s house. Because as luck would have it, when Elmo had been getting the bird, he just happened to see that the witch had a pig with gold and silver whiskers that lived in a pen next to her house. So Elmo waited until the witch went out to do her shopping, and he snuck up to the pig pen, and he said, “Pig, you’re coming with me.” And he gave the carrots to the pig. And the pig liked the carrots, so the pig came with Elmo.

Elmo got back on his stick and flew back to the castle. And Elmo gave the pig to the brothers. And the brothers gave the pig to the king. And now the king liked the brothers more than ever.

Now, Sir Red was even more jealous than ever, so he decided to make up another story about the brothers so that the king wouldn’t like them any more.

Sir Red went to the king, and he said, “King, I heard that the brothers have a magic lamp that can light up the whole kingdom. And they told you they were poor and didn’t have any money just to make a fool of you.”

So the king called for the brothers, and he said, “I heard you have a magic lamp that can light up the whole kingdom. You better give it to me, or I’m going to throw you out of the castle!”

And the brothers were very sad, because they didn’t have a magic lamp that could light up the whole kingdom. They only had the regular kind of lamp, and they didn’t think the king would like that. But Elmo came to his brothers and said, “Don’t worry, brothers. I can help you. All I need is a bag of salt.”

So the brothers gave Elmo a bag of salt, and Elmo took his stick. And he said the magic word. And he flew back to the witch’s house. Because as luck would have it, when he had been waiting to get the pig and the witch had gone out to do her shopping, Elmo had seen that she had taken a magic lamp with her that could light up the whole kingdom.

Now, this time, Elmo knew that the witch would only take the lamp out at night, so he waited until it was dark, and he climbed down the witch’s chimney and hid.

That night, the witch told her youngest daughter, who hadn’t been turned into a mouse, to make her a bowl of porridge with no salt. So the little girl made the porridge. But when she wasn’t looking, Elmo took his bag of salt and poured it into the porridge. So when the witch took a bite of the porridge, she said, “Yuck! This porridge has salt in it! Make me another bowl and this time no salt!”

But the daughter said, “I need to get water from the well, and it’s dark outside.”

And the witch said, “Then take the magic lamp!”

So the daughter took the magic lamp and went out to the well. And Elmo snuck back outside and took his stick and bonked the daughter on the head, and took the lamp away.

Elmo got on his stick and flew back to the castle. And he gave the lamp to the brothers. And the brothers gave the lamp to the king. And the king liked the brothers more than ever.

By now, Sir Red was the most jealous he had ever been, so he decided to make up one more story about the brothers so that the king wouldn’t like them any more.

Sir Red went to the king, and he said, “King, I heard that the brothers have a blanket that sings when you touch it.” And just to make it harder for the brothers, he said, “And the songs the blanket sings always tell the truth. And they told you they were poor and didn’t have any money just to make a fool of you.”

So the king called for the brothers, and he said, “I heard you have a blanket that sings when you touch it and always tells the truth. You better give it to me, or I’m going to throw you out of the castle!”

And the brothers were very sad, because they didn’t have a singing blanket that told the truth. They didn’t even have a singing blanket that didn’t tell the truth. They only had the regular kind of blanket, and they didn’t think the king would like that. But Elmo came to his brothers and said, “Don’t worry, brothers. I can help you. And this time I don’t need anything.”

So Elmo got on the stick, and he said the magic word, and he flew back to the witch’s house. Because as luck would have it, when he had been hiding in the witch’s house, he had heard a blanket singing. Now, this time, Elmo had to sneak into the witch’s room. And he snuck in very carefully. And he found the blanket. But when Elmo tried to pick up the blanket, the blanket started singing. And it sang:

I’m a magic blanket
And I’m getting stolen
By a little boy
It makes me jump for joy
He’s gonna take me away
Right this very day
From the mean old witch
Because she’s such a–

And in came the witch, and she was very very angry. And she said, “Aha! I caught you! And I bet you’re the little boy who stole my bird! And my pig! And my lamp!” And of course Elmo had also bonked her daughter on the head, but the witch didn’t care about that. She said, “I’m going to eat you all up!”

So she threw Elmo in the dungeon and had her daughter fatten him up. And the daughter remembered that Elmo had bonked her on the head. So Elmo said he was very sorry for bonking her on the head. And the daughter thought that was very nice of Elmo, because lots of people had bonked her on the head over the years, but none of them had ever apologized. And Elmo told the daughter all about his adventures and how he helped his brothers. And the daughter told Elmo about how mean the witch was to her because she was so small, and how much she wanted to fly away and live in a castle. And the daughter started to like Elmo. So when the day came for the witch to eat Elmo, she didn’t tie his hands up the way she was supposed to.

The witch turned the oven all the way up, and she opened the oven and put a big pot in front of it, and she told Elmo to sit down in the pot. But Elmo said that he didn’t know how to sit down in a pot, so the witch climbed in the pot to show him. And Elmo, whose hands were not tied like the witch wanted, pushed her into the oven and closed it up. And that was the end of the witch.

So Elmo took the blanket, and he took the witch’s daughter with him, and he got on his stick, and they flew back to the castle.

By now, the king had put the brothers in jail, so Elmo had to give the blanket to the king himself. And when the king touched the blanket, it started to sing:


Elmo’s brave and clever,
He never gives up ever,
Threw a witch in a fire,
Because Sir Red is a liar,

And the king realized that Sir Red had tricked him, so he had Sir Red thrown out of the castle forever. And he let the brothers out of jail and made them all his knights. And little Elmo, who had been so brave and made something of himself even though he was so little, the king made his Chief Knight. And the witch’s daughter grew up to be a very good witch, and they all lived in the castle and were very happy for ever and ever.

January 26, 2014

Ross Cooks! Delicious Failure (Not-Quite-Coxinha)

So Friday, one of my coworkers introduced me to Brazillian Coxinhas, something kinda akin to a chicken nugget, only awesome. The things were fantastic, and the answer to “What should we have for dinner tonight, Dylan?” is almost always “Chicken nuggets!” these days, so I thought I’d have a go at reproducing them.

It didn’t work out. Any resemblance between what I made and Brazillian Coxhina is pretty much coincidental. This is in part because of my lack of skill, in part because I wanted to use the new pressure cooker, and in part because the recipes I found on the internet diverged from what the aforementioned coworker had said. But when all was said and done, what came out was actually pretty delicious.

  • 1.5 lb chicken breasts
  • 1 liter lemon-lime soda
  • 1/2 onion, cut into large pieces
  • A Few Sprigs of fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
  • A Handful of Baby Carrots
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 6 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 2 oz goat cheese, softened
  • Cumin, Ground Coriander, Chili Powder, Garlic Powder, Salt to taste
  • 4-5 potatoes
  • 2 tbsp evaporated milk
  • 2 tbsp butter or butter-like substance
  • 1 egg
  • Breadcrumbs
  • Oil for frying

In a slow cooker, cover the chicken breasts in soda and chicken broth, and add the carrots, onion and cilantro. Slow cook on low heat 3-4 hours or until the chicken is cooked. Shred the chicken with a pair of forks and mix with the cheese and spices. Coxinha doesn’t call for any extra seasoning on the chicken, but I thought that the filling reminded me so much of Buffalo Chicken Spread that I reckoned that spicing it up would be delicious. Roll the chicken mixture into little balls about the size of… Um… I dunno. Eyeballs?

Boil the potatoes in the braising liquid from the chicken. If your slow cooker was big enough, you probably could have cooked the potatoes and chicken together. Me, I flipped the knob on the slow cooker over to “Pressure Cooker” mode and pressure cooked them for 20 minutes.

Mash the potatoes. If you cooked them the way I did, they’ll basically crumble into mush if you look at them the wrong way. Add the milk and butter. I did it with the skin on, but your mileage may vary.

This next bit was problematic. You basically want to wrap the chicken balls in a thick coating of potatoes. If you know how to make some kind of quickbread-type dough out of mashed potatoes do that. I didn’t, so I just balled them up as best I could.

Fill a deep, heavy-bottomed pot with enough oil to cover the “Coxinha”. I used my dutch oven and it worked out pretty well for me. Heat it up to, I’m going to say 300 degrees, but that’s just me shooting in the dark since it’s not like I actually measured the temperature.

Whisk an egg in a shallow dish, and put the breadcrumbs in a second shallow dish. You should know where I’m going with this: dredge the potato-covered balls in the egg, then in the breadcrumbs, so that they’re coated.  I ran out of breadcrumbs halfway through and, in a bind for time, finished the batch by pulverizing some pretzels in the food processor. Surprisingly tasty.

Deep fry in batches. Just leave them in until they turn golden-brown. It only takes 2-3 minutes. Be ginger with them when you take them out, placing them on a couple of layers of paper towel to soak up the grease. Sprinkle with salt.