August 17, 2014

Gonna Lay Down My Burden, Down by the Riverside (Captain Power: And Study War No More)

It is the eighth and/or ninth of November, 1987. Tiffany hits number one on the Billboard charts with I Think We’re Alone Now, which is three places higher than Tommy James and the Shondells managed to get it back in 1967. Eleven people die in an IRA bombing in Enniskillen. President Reagan defends beleaguered Attorney General Ed Meese,  declaring him “of sound mind,” because history loves irony. Sondheim’s Into the Woods has its first weekend at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway, rapidly burning through the world’s allotment of how much of an anthropomorphic wolf’s dangly bits you can show on-stage.

There is balls-all on network TV this week that I haven’t adequately covered already. Wesley CrusherStar Trek The Next Generation does “Justice”, which is that episode where Wesley Crusher is sentenced to death for tripping and falling on some flowers, and inexplicably, the Enterprise crew spends all episode trying to save him rather than just muttering something about the Prime Directive then breaking out the Romulan Ale to celebrate. The episode is basically five minutes of things happening padded out with forty minutes of rambling discussion about ethical jurisprudence. Then Picard tells off the local god and they all go home. The only way you can call this a good episode with a straight face is in comparison to TOS’s “The Apple”, which is basically the exact same story, only with a fuckton more patriarchal western imperialism (And they shoot god rather than shaming it). Also at one point, Riker says that the natives of this planet (Who aren’t called the “Eloi”, but are definitely called something similar enough that it’s clear they mean for you to compare them with the childlike good ayrian future-people from The Time Machine) will, “Make love at the drop of a hat.” It’s my personal headcanon that the random yellow-shirted guy working at a console in the background just stopped whatever he was working on to look up where to get a hat at this time of day.

In the other Science Fiction Event of the Season, “And Study War No More”.

Blastarr shoots at rocks We open on Blastarr, shooting rocks, presumably because they outwitted him. To make sure we’re all on the same page about Blastarr’s personality, Dread calls him up to ask why he’s stopped moving, and Blastarr explains that something got in his way, and he declared it hostile because, “You can never be too sure.” I know that they want us to see Blastarr as just brutal and needlessly violent, but at the moment, it feels more like they’re hinting that perhaps the air got cut off to his brain a bit too long due to the birthing difficulties. Still, there’s definitely tonal elements that suggest that we’re supposed to find him properly scary in a way that Soaron isn’t.

Cap and company are flying off into an ambush in sector 12, having intercepted some radio transmissions about Dread seeking a power source there. We pull in tight for a moment on Cap’s face in order to be very clear that he is showing absolutely no emotion. We cut away and then back, so everyone can get ready for the VFX shot when Cap orders them to power on. After landing, Cap orders Scout to “hit the holo-cam,” hiding the jumpship behind a fake rock. Normal dramatic necessity would call for this to be setting something up for later in the episode, but this is Captain Power, so it’s probably just because they wanted to exposition-drop the fact that their ship has a chameleon circuit. Dread’s troopers spring the incredibly obvious trap, leading to our first interactive fight scene of the episode. Cap decides that their “only chance” is to hide in this cave right in the center of the battlefield, despite the fact that I see no indication their retreat back to the ship is covered. He orders Tank to cover their escape, unfortunately giving Sven-Ole Thorsson a chance to get off a few more one-liners. (“Nice of you to drop in,” to a mech as it falls off a boulder.) bazooka trooper Eventually, he meets his match in the form of a Mech armed with a laser bazooka, and falls down dead.

Only this is Captain Power of course, so he’s actually perfectly fine and just waiting for the mechs to surround him and start arguing over who’s going to get the five cent deposit for turning Tank’s suit in for recycling. This shouldn’t be a surprise, even given the fact that every tense moment this season where someone seems to have been incapacitated in battle goes this way, because Tank’s suit doesn’t dissipate. “There’s nothing like a nap to make a guy feel rested,” he explains when Cap returns to help. Maybe Tank’s going for a Steve Reeves Hercules kind of thing. I’d kind of like a Tank talking action figure now, something with a pull-cord that would recite Tank’s famous one-liners in a really bored tone.

After dismissing the possibility of going back the way they came for… Reasons, they all decide to “be careful” by turning off their power suits. They’re soon met by a camera that asks them to identify themselves, then tells Cap that it knows who he is, then says it’s going to let him in to “Haven” anyway. Hawk is uncomfortable and likens their situation to the Spider and the Fly, though Scout advises him to keep an open mind. Are they all working off of the same script?

Toward the end of his life, Graeme Campbell, who plays Obi Wan, became best known for playing Thenardier in Canadian productions of Les Miserables. When watching this episode, imagine him breaking into “Master of the House”

The cave soon turns into a zen garden, where they meet Obi Wan Kenobi, who welcomes them to Haven and intimates that it’s some kind of peace commune. Scout and Chelsea He introduces them to his sidekick, Chelsea, and we do a quick intercut between her and Scout to say, roughly, “We are the only two people of color in named roles in this show, so we’re pretty much required to fall in love.” When Scout responds to her offer of a tour with, “I’d be happy to see whatever you’d like to show me,” the music does a very Star Trek (TOS) silly-moment thing which I think is really cute.

Obi Wan takes them to another Red Dwarf set (I seriously don’t know what the deal is here, but everything in the pre-fall clean-tech style in this show looks like it’s from the third season Red Dwarf sets) and explains that Haven is a self-sufficient compound built on an old geothermal plant. He assures them that “Not even Lord Dread’s forces can penetrate a mile of solid rock,” having, I assume, forgotten that Captain Power and pals just walked there. Pilot plays with the buttons, which seems kind of rude, but helps move the plot along since she instantly sorts out that Haven is producing a lot more power than it needs. Everyone is suspicious now, though it seems to me way out of proportion to what’s actually happened. I’m almost getting a “Christian End-Times Fiction” vibe from it: “These guys like peace? Must be the antichrist then.” This episode feels like a lot has been cut in the first act.

Scout and Chelsea have a tender moment where she asks him to stay, and he begs off because of his job, and a very soap opera-y piece of music that reminds me a lot of the incidental music from The Tribe plays. For no clear reason, she immediately starts stumbling her way toward giving the whole thing away, rambling about “difficult decisions” and “Wanting to be safe.” Luckily, Obi Wan interrupts her just in time to keep the plot from wrapping up too soon. Luckily, Scout is as dumb as a bag of rocks and doesn’t pick up on it.

For people who don’t immediately respond to “Wait, someone being nice to our heroes?” with “Must be a trap then,” Obi Wan finally does something actually duplicitous and orders Chelsea to persuade Scout and the others to stay “just a while longer,” because — they are fairly explicit on this point without being specific — they are planning something evil that they feel is necessary to protect Haven.

Tank and Pilot happen across a plaque with Isaiah 2:4 (“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,” [NIV] Though the exact translation they use in the show isn’t any of the common ones, because they wanted to title-drop.) written on it. Tank explains that it’s from, “Something called The Good Book,” and Pilot, who, like any non-Christian in a story where the peacenik is the antichrist, has never heard of the bible, but does find the sentiment inspiring. It’s a bit odd that Tank is familiar with the bible and is even the one to note that Pilot wouldn’t have heard of it due to her Dead Youth upbringing, given that he’s some sort of genetically engineered super-soldier who was raised in an undersea colony or something.

Tank finds a locked door, which is of course proof-positive that something is up, since no one would lock a door unless they were secretly evil. Pilot whips out her sonic dildo (In case you’re late to the party, Pilot has this cylindrical metal tool she carries which uses in several episodes to bypass electronic locks. It looks really phallic). They open the door and find… A guy on the toilet who is angry they didn’t just knock.

Nah, just kidding. They find a storeroom full of big drums with a triangle logo on them that Pilot recognizes from last week as the symbol of the Styx phase of Project New Order. I would think that the big obvious Dread Logo would be a more straightforward tip myself. They are shot in the face before they can do anything about it.

Chelsea gets within a word or two of spilling the beans to Scout again when Obi Wan shows up and ushers everyone into the control room. He keeps up the pretense of being about to show them the way out for thirty more seconds before Tank and Pilot are led in by mechs, and Lord Dread holograms in to gloat at them, since Cap’s curiosity is apparently “legendary” and “predictable to twelve decimal places.” So Cap is curious. Cool. I’ve been waiting for him to have a personality trait other than “Prone to fits of violence”.

Obi Wan and Chelsea finally explain that they’ve basically been paying protection money to Dread, hence having set Cap and company up. Why they went to all the trouble when they could have just left them stuck in the cave until Blastarr showed up I’ve no idea. Fortunately, Tank finds the one flaw in Lord Dread’s cunning trap: it relies on them just standing around and waiting to be digitized while Blastarr walks the rest of the way down from the surface. Instead, Tank turns around and punches a trooper’s head off. While Dread uselessly demands that they stop, Cap and Hawk shoot the remaining troopers and Pilot closes the door. They all power on, open the door, shoot some more Mechs, then leg it.

Lord Dread waxes ominously to the empty room about how unprepared Cap and company are to face the might of Blastarr. The next bit is actually properly spooky. Talking to Blastarr, Dread refers to Cap as “The one who interfered with your birth; the one who hurt you,” and orders the Bio-Dread to “Hurt him.”

Cap makes plans to blow up Haven while Blastarr rockets down the tunnel on his tank treads. Tank stops to wryly contemplate the Isaiah plaque one last time before Cap finally meets Blastarr. Obi Wan takes another stab at betraying Cap and gets digitized for his trouble. At least Cap has the decency not to gloat over it. Actually, this is one of the rare times since “Shattered” that digitization feels properly horrific, and it’s just unfortunate that it still has that whole retributive element to it. (For the record, “Traitorous human gets his comeuppance via digitization” happens in “Final Stand”, “The Mirror in Darkness”, and “And Study War No More”. Also, arguably, “The Abyss”, depending on whether you see the general as villainous or simply tragic.) Cap isn’t able to harm Blastarr, nor can a combined assault with Hawk and Tank. I know I’ve said before that Blastarr is clearly meant to be a parallel character to Tank, but they don’t really do much with it. Though they can’t harm Blastarr, Cap manages to cause a cave-in with some borrowed grenades to immobilize him for a bit.

Pilot promises to take Chelsea and the Haven survivors to the Passages. I wish they’d tell us more about these passages — if they are, as they seem, a safe place with an unbounded capacity to handle refugees, it’s not clear to me why Cap and company don’t take everyone they meet there. Tank gives Pilot the Isaiah plaque, which is apparently a poster now, because he’s rolled it up, and as they all head off, and we leave on a shot of Blastarr, superimposed over an explosion.

Blastarr, exploding
If he regenerates into John Hurt, I’m done.

The show is really coming together now. This one isn't as solid as "The Ferryman", but it still hangs together in a way that the early episodes don't. Everyone has something to do (Even if Scout's key role is undermined by how much of it seems to have been trimmed for time). Once again, we've got a basically complete plot, and once again, most of the major weaknesses mostly stem from the half-hour format.
Most, but not all. I went back and checked, and in all the episodes we've talked about so far, the only black guest characters have been a non-speaking Wardog and the elders who introduces Jessica to Cap in "A Fire in the Dark". Now, I will in their defense say that while (I looked it up) Vancouver is a very racially diverse city (as of 2011, slightly more than half of the population belongs to visible minorities (Canadian for what USAnians would call "minorities", since Canada also has "invisible" minorities like Francophones and Catholics)), only one Vancouverite out of a hundred is black. But before we give them too much credit for this, forty percent of the city's population is of east Asian decent, but the only non-white people I've been able to spot are the folks I've mentioned and Graham Greene. Which just makes it so grating that we're given to assume on the basis of one quick intercut and two very abbreviated scenes that Chelsea and Scout have such a close bond that she's prepared to sell out Haven to protect him. Of course she is, narrative logic practically screams: he's the only black man she's ever seen. Maybe this would have grated a bit less had they given more time to their relationship -- Tonya Lee Williams is criminally underused here; she spends basically the next decade on The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, which I think gives her more career screen-time than the entire regular cast combined -- but even so, her presence just serves to highlight again how really shockingly white this show is. Worse, I find myself wondering if the decision to cast a black actress inthis role isn't just down to "The american audience isn't going to stand for having Maurice Dean Wint make googly eyes at a white woman."
Cap and company are too quick to become suspicious of the Havenites, Scout's relationship with Chelsea consists of two scenes (Which just reinforces the tokenism of it), and a lot of the steps in Dread's plan to trap our heroes that don't add up to anything at the pace of this episode. If they'd had more time to spend on it, let us see a bit of what life was like in Haven, they might have sold the idea of the Havenites being desperate enough to preserve the peace that they'd betray Cap. Contrariwise, showing us that Haven wasn't the paradise it seemed would have done more to sell Cap's suspicions.

You know what this episode kinda feels like to me? An original series Star Trek episode. The music cues I mentioned, of course, but there’s other elements. An underground, technologically advanced society whose utopia is built on a dark secret which abuses the heroes out of a desperate need calls to mind elements of “Spock’s Brain,” “The Cloud Minders”, “The Return of the Archons”, or about a half-dozen other ones. More than that, you’ve got the same sort of abbreviated mostly-offscreen “romance” between one of the minor heroes and a girl-of-the-week that you’d see whenever Scotty or McCoy got a character focus episode. And then there’s the casual and unchallenged pop-Christianity, shoehorned in despite the fact that the rest of Haven’s set and costume design is clearly meant to evoke Buddhist imagery, comparable to the casual Abrahamic-religions-are-the-right-ones dropped into TOS’s “Bread and Circuses” or “Who Mourns for Adonais?”

All the more interesting, at this stage, Captain Power seems almost to be more similar to Star Trek than Star Trek the Next Generation is. TNG rarely goes for the “Utopia based on a dark secret” angle — the only one they’ll get this season is “When the Bough Breaks”, which I’ll talk about some time down the road. (“Symbiosis” also features a Dark-Secret-Utopia, but said utopia is entirely off-screen, so it doesn’t really count. Also, it has aliens who can shoot electricity from their hands and a moral message (Just Say No to Drugs) that is exactly as hamfisted as the time they featured aliens who could shoot electricity from their hands in an episode of TOS (Don’t be genocidally racist)). They get a handful of other ones, but it’s never really their mainstay. TNG also isn’t big on the straightforward sort of action scenes that TOS did at least two times every three episodes and which Captain Power is contractually obligated to do twice per episode.

Keep in mind that, technically at least, on September 20, 1987, when Captain Power premiered, the most recent televised incarnation of Star Trek was neither TNG (which wouldn’t premier for another week) or TOS. It was Star Trek the Animated Series, which most people consider largely irrelevant and also have not seen. But TAS actually had a lot to recommend it: it was to a large extent free of many of the shackles that had weighed down its predecessor, such as the need to pad out thin plots with repeated capture-n-escape sequences. Or budgetary limits that required most aliens to be played by white men with shoe polish on their faces. Or Gene Roddenberry paying too much attention to it and thereby undermining his own good ideas on account of the fact that he had the occasional great idea but was not a great dramatist and was also a bit of a lout. Or the other actors suffering from hypoxia as WIlliam Shatner’s clever feats of performance art used up all the air in the studio.

You may have noticed that I mentioned “the need to pad out thin plots” up there. That might seem a bit strange coming as it does only a very few paragraphs after I’ve, for like the twelfth time, said that the half-hour format is a big problem for Captain Power. Here, for the first and probably last time in history, I can say that Star Trek the Animated Series is saved by the quality of Filmation’s animation. Because the one thing you don’t do in a 1970s cel-animated Filmation show is contractually require two five-minute action scenes. There are episodes of TAS that feel too thin, but none of them have the same sense of the film stock having been hit with a weed-whacker  — this episode is particularly bad about this, not just the “They gloss over stuff to save time,” that most of the episodes have, but actual specific “It feels like a key scene was deleted” moments. I note that, unusually, we don’t cut back to Volcania at all after the first scene, and Dread only appears twice in the entire episode. Half-hour drama used to be one of the common formats for TV shows. In the ’60s and ’70s, hour-long dramas often had to be padded out to fill forty-five minutes with a twenty-two minute plot. By the ’80s, the increasingly dynamic style of TV (We’re still twenty years away from the visual style of TV and film converging, but basically once Jaws invented the “blockbuster”, I think the writing was on the wall and TV knew it had to step up its game) showed up the weaknesses of that format. Thanks to Filmation, Star Trek the Animated Series was pretty much guaranteed to be in a “low-dynamic” style, where you can make a half hour plot work.

In the past, I’ve sort of offhandedly dismissed the notion of Captain Power and Star Trek the Next Generation being in some kind of competition with each other: they weren’t in direct competition for a time slot, they weren’t really targeting the same audience, and frankly, for it to be a “competition”, there’d have to have been a serious possibility of Trek losing, which there wasn’t.

But in another sense, I’m starting to realize that there was a competition between the two. Not a straightforward “One shall stand and one shall fall,” sense, but rather, in the juxtaposition between Star Trek the Next Generation and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, we’ve got two competing notions of what Science Fiction TV is going to become. Neither one is fully-baked yet. In a certain sense, in the late ’80s, the question of “What is Science Fiction TV going to become?” could be phrased as, “What will be the next Star Trek?” Through the ’70s and ’80s, there’d been successful and influential Science Fiction movies, and even TV miniseries, but live-action prime time series TV was a wasteland. There’d been plenty of action/adventure with fantastical elements in their premise, including a fad for low-budget superhero shows in the ’70s, but the closest thing (in the US market) to a “next Star Trek” — a big Science Fiction Cultural Phenomenon — had been Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but neither one had anything like Trek‘s cultural impact. We know now that this was all going to change in a few years: Quantum Leap, seaQuest DSV, Babylon 5, two more Star Trek spin-offs, Sliders, eventually Stargate SG-1, and a whole host of other series that, while never as well-known, eked out respectable lifespans, unlike their cancelled-after-6-episodes ’80s counterparts, and for that to happen, in 1987, something was going to have to set the standard for what Science Fiction on TV was going to be from now on.

It’s strange, in retrospect, the two specific things that most distinguish Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future from Star Trek the Next Generation: TNG, particularly in its first season, is just about as utopian as Star Trek ever gets. Trek is often thought of as being an especially utopian vision of the future, but closer examination suggests that while Trek does celebrate the abstract ideal of utopia as something to be sought, whenever they try to uncritically depict the Federation as an actual utopia (As opposed to a society undertaking the project of bettering itself), it all goes off the rails, and you get TNG’s first season: preachy, condescending, and not a whole lot of fun to watch. Captain Power is, of course, dystopian. That’s why I’m covering it, after all, on this blog, that if it had enough content to make a single coherent theme, would be about apocalypse fiction. On the surface of it, you might think that Power‘s dystopianism is more in keeping with the Grimdark that’s so popular in the ’90s. But when I went and actually looked it up, the ’90s weren’t really all that stuffed with dystopian fiction; on raw numbers, it tracks close to the ’80s, but even a lot of what technically counts as dystopian in the ’90s has its dystopiae sort of pushed off to the side — The Matrix, for instance, is obviously set in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war, but the use of actual postapocalyptic imagery is very confined: most of the movie takes place in a world that that resembles the 1990s.

But then there’s the other thing that distinguishes these shows. It’s hard to put this in words because it’s just so incongruous. But Star Trek the Next Generation‘s utopianism is, for want of a better word, a pessimistic utopia. There is a certain sense that builds across the season that “We live in the best of all possible worlds and must therefore defend it against outsides who would make us impure.” Indeed, insofar as there’s an arc to the first season (and there’s not, really), it’s building to the reveal that there’s something dark and evil hiding in Star Fleet’s perfection — but it’s that the admiralty’s been infected with alien parasites: something unclean from the outside has tainted them. The thing about TNG that really differentiates it from its predecessor, for me at least, is that TNG has basically no sense of humor, especially in the first season. TNG could be compelling, it could be intriguing, it could be awe-inspiring. But in 1987, at least, it could never quite manage to be fun (I think they eventually came to realize that this was a problem, as most of the changes that came in with the second season seem like they were aimed at making the show more fun. Even still, it’s very much “the serious one” compared to its spin-offs. And one of those is about a trans-galactic war).

This is where the paradox of Captain Power comes in. And, indeed, the paradox of the 80s at large: Captain Power is set a decade and change into the most apocalyptic of a series of apocalyptic wars, after most of humanity has been wiped out. And yet, it’s fun. In a way that Star Trek the Next Generation kind of isn’t.emphatically isn’t. Even though “And Study War No More” isn’t quite there yet, I think it starts to make the case that, yes, Captain Power can do the same kind of things in 1987 that Star Trek did in 1967, and do it in the context of a show that was mature, but ultimately for kids.

If there’s a competition between TNG and Power, it’s this: the battle for the soul of Science Fiction in the ’90s. Right now, Star Trek the Next Generation is showing us a universe of wonders and strange and fabulous things, but cautioning us not to get too excited: space is SRS BSNS. Meanwhile, a plucky little show being filmed in Vancouver is showing us a grimy, fallen world. And saying “Yeah, but let’s have some fun. Get out your jet planes and start shooting at the TV!”

August 5, 2014

Don’t Even Fix a Price (Captain Power: The Ferryman)

It is the first and second of November, 1987. “Bad” still holds the top place on the chart until week’s end. Pretty much jack-all is going on in the world. Well, rather, quite a lot is going on in the world, but nothing that would interest the sort of person who was watching a minor children’s action show in 1987; South Korea just got a new constitution; a British train broke the Diesel Train world speed record; the TurboGrafx-16 came out on Friday, but since it and everything for it cost about six times as much as its competitors, this had very little impact on the lives of any but the ultra-rich. Pretty much all the same stuff is on as was last week. Murder She Wrote, MacGyver, My Two Dads, Family Ties, ALF. CBS airs a two-part “true-crime” drama about the murder of a Pennsylvania high school teacher, though they leave off the best part, since in 1992, it’ll turn out that the author of the book the film was based on bribed police and the prosecution to influence the outcome of the case.

Star Trek the Next Generation airs “Lonely Among Us”, about which the less said, the better. Another episode that’s all about being weird and otherworldly, but just comes off as pretentious and not very good. It says something that what keeps tipping people off to the fact that their crewmates have been possessed by an alien intelligence is that their friends are suddenly curious about learning new things. Also that they manage to exposition-drop the fact that no one eats real meat in the future in a way calibrated specifically to come off as “Our audience is a bunch of backward savages who rape livestock.” Oh, and it’s the first time a redshirt dies in the TNG era.

Which I suppose means that for this week at least, the best Science Fiction Series Episode to Air on a Sunday or Monday Depending on your Viewing Area award has to go to the plucky little kids’ show. This week, it’s “The Ferryman”, an episode which is kind of straightforwardly likeable in a way that Captain Power just has not been so far.

What I mean is that so far, we’ve had two episodes that were thematically centered around the long, exhausting, dehumanizing hardships of war, and we’ve had two episodes about the pain of losing someone you care about, and we’ve had two episodes about facing off against your own twisted reflection. And now, we’re getting an episode that is basically just a nice, straightforward adventure. The plot is simple enough that it doesn’t feel rushed in half an hour; it has a nice solid three-act structure; the regular cast all get something to do; the visual effects are used about the best they ever are; there are tense beats in all the right places. And — I can not believe my life has come to a place where I have to qualify my analysis of a children’s show with this sentence — no one gets sci-fi raped in the entire episode. It’s just an enjoyable watch, the first one so far that you can watch all the way through without worrying that you are a terrible person for liking this.

And on top of all that, this episode is where the myth arc of the series finally gets around to starting to happen. This show has, to a great extent, just been spinning its wheels for a month and a half so far. Of the episodes we’ve talked about, this is the only one you’d actually need to watch if you were in a hurry and just wanted to get the gist of the overall story (I like all of them, with the possible exception of “Pariah”, but you don’t really need to watch them; some of them are very good for understanding the characters, but there’s literally nothing that happens in any of those episodes that is important for understanding the series-arc. If you really need a shorter viewing experience, drop the episodes in this order: “Pariah”, “The Mirror in Darkness”, “Shattered”, “The Abyss”, “A Fire in the Dark”, “Final Stand”, “Wardogs”). Here, a third of the way into the series, we get a whole bunch of things all at once:

  • Formal introduction of the “Dread Youth”
  • The culmination of the “Charon” phase of the thus-far only hinted “Project New Order”
  • Introduction of two major characters
  • First acknowledgement of Overmind’s hidden agenda
  • First explanation of Mentor’s nature
  • First appearance of the Power Jet XT-7

In half an hour. That’s a lot of stuff to squeeze in, and yet this episode doesn’t turn into a clusterfuck of plot-advancement, which is even stranger when you compare it to how spartan the other episodes were. It’s not perfect, of course, but its sins are minor and, unlike, say, “Shattered”, you don’t have to try very hard to forgive them on the basis of how likeable the show is.

Disguised traderWe open on a Dread troop transport driving through a ruined city. They’re descended upon by a one-eyed balding trader who kinda looks like the lovechild of Clint Howard and Steve Buscemi. He “skulls” that they be looking for an organic, name of Power, calls ‘imself Captain, Yeppo, making me really glad that by the time of Babylon 5, JMS had given up on slang and instead decided to make everyone in the future be really, really square (And unlike Star Trek, it’s not just “It’s the future, so everyone acts square to the point of being borderline Aspie because that’s what it means to be more advanced,” but rather “Human society in this period is extremely straightlaced because they’re unhealthily repressed as part of their long march toward Naziism.” Unfortunately, by Babylon 5, JMS had not given up on utterly unsubtle Nazi analogies).

After a protracted but content-light exchange wherein the trader “scans” the lead mech’s rank as “Second Phallus (Okay. He’s clearly saying “Second Phalanx”, but that’s a stupid name for an individual trooper’s rank)” and they agree not to kill him on the spot in exchange for leading them to Cap, there’s a reveal that would be shocking if we hadn’t been listening to Cap’s log entry at the beginning. The trader is Scout. Of course he is. And his cunning trap is… That the rest of the team is nearby and starts shooting when he drops his disguise. Again, not entirely clear why they bothered with the subterfuge. What follows is a fairly tight action scene which, aside from the gratuitous use of slow motion, is actually pretty good. The fight mostly centers around Tank, as Scout is occupied with the laborious project of getting head from the Second Phallus, and everyone else buggers off immediately. Tank tries to channel some of the Governator’s battlefield charisma as he encourages Scout with tonally inappropriate complaints about how long he’s taking. His sarcastic tone isn’t really clear enough to carry it off; he comes off more Lou Ferrigno than Sylvester Stalone, more Andre the Giant than Arnold Schwarzenegger.  And all this would be fine if Sven Ole Thorson were playing him that way — I think there are some parallels to be seen between Captain Power and Blake’s 7 (JMS referenced Blake’s 7 in an interview about Babylon 5. I’m guessing he drew some influence from it, particularly in the way he portrays sci-fi totalitarian regimes), and the character of Tank would work really well as a character in the vein of Oleg Gan. But once again, the show chooses not to play to its own strengths, and seems like it really wants us to see him as one of those Big Serious 80s Action Stars with Wry Battlefield Sarcasm. I have never actually seen Sven Ole Thorson in a major role — most of his work is playing “Other big guy who is fighting alongside or against Arnold Schwarzenegger”, but you can just tell from the way he carries himself that he’d be great as the, “gentle bruiser with a nonspecific foreign accent who is seems stupider than he is and underreacts to everything,” and it’s disappointing not to get that here, a bit like watching Reb Brown play a villain: yes, he can technically do it, but really, we all just want to see him use a taxidermied giant bat as a hang-glider.

Eventually, Scout succeeds in removing the trooper’s head — I am not clear on why this took so long, since we’ve previously established that you can just punch your average Clicker in the face and it’s head will fall off. They bugger off back to the Jumpship, where Pilot exposits a bit about their shiny new afterburner as a lead-up to Soaron appearing. Activating the afterburnerI’m starting to reconsider some of the things I said about Hawk earlier in the season — I don’t think we’ve seen him take center stage, or even fly for that matter, since “Pariah”, and indeed, this battle is between Soaron and the Jumpship, much like last week. Unfortunately, it’s 1987, and no one is doing good sci-fi aerial battles yet, and pretty much won’t until Babylon 5 (And even those were prototypical; they don’t really get it down until the post-series movies). Star Trek the Next Generation is going to use the old-school “Two ships pull up next to each other and shoot at each other broadsides” method pretty much up until its series finale seven years from now (Another thing that’s hard to convey to someone in 2014. In the last episode of TNG, an alternate-future version of the Enterprise flies up at a right angle to the ship it’s attacking, and that one little shot blew everyone’s mind and just screamed “Truly we are in the future because at last, space ships can fly UP!”).

This air battle is better than anything in the original Star Trek, and it’s better than anything in the original Battlestar Galactica. But it’s still not all that good. It’s dark, everything’s shot against a nondescript blue-gray sky backdrop without any angles that let you see the ground or a horizon, the scale is all over the place, with Soaron sometimes appearing to be roughly the same size as the Jumpship, and when the camera angle changes, the combatants have changed relative position in impossible ways. The Soaron-Hawk battles had that awful aspect of “We can never have both of them on-screen at the same time because of the compositing,” but they still felt a lot more coherent and dynamic than this. Pilot’s shiny new afterburners let Cap and Company effect an escape, even though they “Weren’t meant to outrun a Bio-Dread.”  Which just raises more questions — what was the point of the afterburners if they couldn’t outrun what appears to be literally the only flying thing they are ever going to need to run away from?

GraduationMeanwhile, back at Volcania… Lord Dread gives his keynote speech at Hitler Dread Youth Graduation, talking all about the perfection of the machine and his plans to stick human minds in robot bodies. He’s played offstage so that a nameless Overunit (ie. “Bling Nazi”) can report that Cap and company have just gotten head from a second phallus(I am going to milk that joke for all it is worth). There is grave concern that the memory unit in the stolen head contains information about “Project New Order,” which Dread has alluded to several times so far but never said anything specific. Enraged, Dread demands a full report on what’s inside the stormtrooper’s head and also his remote destruct code. I’m a bit perplexed by this: If they have the ability to remote-explode the head, why does he want to wait for a full report? Is this one of those things where OnStar bills you double if you remote-detonate more than five stormtroopers a month? I can’t see any logic in “Maybe we’ll blow it up if it’s got information on Project New Order in it, but if there’s nothing sensitive in there, we’ll just let Cap have the thing to do what he wants with it.” Actually, since it’s an explodey kind of self-destruct, I’d just be like “Hey, let’s blow it up while they’re still in the air with it and maybe they’ll crash their ship.”

We cut back to the Power Base -- I like the way this episode is structured, short scenes that alternate back and forth between the heroes and the villains -- where they are plugging the head into the TARDIS console in order that they can extract what it knows about "Project New Order". Mentor offers to let them plug it into his brain, an idea which can't possibly end well, and they are able to retrieve a Ceefax page of Lord Dread's plans, which conveys no real information beyond the fact that Project New Order is organized into phases called "Charon", "Styx", "Icarus" and "Prometheus".
Let us unpack this. First, given that ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD MACHINE, isn't it kind of frivilous to name the phases of Project New Order after stuff from mythology? Wouldn't calling them phases "1", "2", "3" and "4" be more logical? And if, as he surely is, Mentor is right, isn't it also really stupid to give them meaningful code names that allude to the nature of the plan. Moreover, how the hell do you get from "There's four of them, and they're from mythology," to "Must be the four classical elements then"? Not the four seasons? Or the four cardinal directions? Or the four tops? And honestly, there's not much sense to it: Okay, "Icarus" is air, obviously. But the rest? I guess the idea is that Charon is Earth because he's associated with funerals and thereby burial? But Charon is a ferryman, so... But Styx is clearly water, because it's a river -- it's also the only one of these that isn't a person, which is odd. And Prometheus is fire, of course, though personally, I tend to associate Prometheus with Earth, for admittedly circuitous reasons (Victor Frankenstein is the Modern Prometheus, and the thing he did was essentially to make a golem, which is a kind of Earth elemental). I don't know. Besides, the association between the phases and their actual content is flimsy at best -- Icarus involves something airborne, Prometheus involves explosions. Styx is a plague. I guess because it's waterborne? I bet the whole thing made a lot more sense when they were planning to do that Land/Sea/Air thing with Tritor and Stingray.
For no discernable reason, Mentor concludes that, since the phases are named after stuff from Greek Mythology, they surely refer to the four classical elements.

There’s something a little strange about Mentor that hasn’t really come up before. I’m almost reluctant to bring it up, but maybe there’s something important here. In order to fit in his tube, Mentor has to keep his arms crossed at all times. But Bruce Gray is apparently the kind of actor who likes to use his hands when he talks. So he’s always standing there with his arms crossed, doing these tiny little hand flips as he speaks, staying in tight so as not to go past the edge of the tube. It’s kind of — I don’t know. It reads very strongly effeminate to me and I’m not sure why. Someone with a proper sociology background can probably explain something about our society socializing men to take up as much space as possible and women to take up as little or something. The effect is magnified when you couple it with the lines of his clothes and their huge shoulder pads, which, probably by accident, are very strongly reminiscent of an ’80s fashion trend where women’s business attire briefly became a kind of hyperbolic caricature of men’s, with businesswomen wearing neckties and shirts that were basically ill-fitting Oxfords darted out to accommodate the differences in relative proportion. With shoulder pads. Everything with shoulder pads. And plus you’ve got his perm, and his soft, neutral voice. What I’m getting at here is, and I hope you’ll bear with me through some offensive stereotyping, Mentor looks like a middle-aged lesbian with an androgen problem.

MentorI bring this up because I recently had it pointed out to me that there’s a kind of weird tradition among AI and robot characters in fiction, in that an awful lot of them are coded as effeminate, regardless of the nominal gender. The voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, quite famously, was deliberately imagined as a “jilted gay lover”. C-3PO is often heralded as the “first gay robot”. To a lesser extent, KITT from Knight Rider comes off not per se gay, but certainly “soft” — a combination of effete and submissive that contrasts with David Hasslehoff’s much more straightforward “Big strong manly man” masculinity. We’ve already spoken a bit about Overmind, and the creepy abusive-boyfriend relationship he seems to have with Dread. Some have proposed that symbolically emasculating robot characters might be seen as a way to deal with the writer’s fear of being, in essence, bested by a robot — after all, the traditional image of manliness is intrinsically tied to strength, speed, and the capacity to do work. Robots are stronger, faster, harder-working — robot is, after all, derived from a Czech word for “worker”.

We return to Volcania, where Dread has stolen off for some intimacy with Overmind. Overmind’s all a-flutter about Charon, wherein they’re going to beam a bunch of power to Volcania so it can — ahem — birth a new army of Bio-Dreads. This is just about the creepiest Overmind has been so far, talking about how there are “many voices” inside it eager to be born. Dread himself waxes a bit poetic, and Overmind chastises him for being emotional. Dread does the “flustered not-at-all-convincing-’No I was just making an observation’” thing that purportedly emotionless characters always do in TV shows. The Bling Nazi calls him up, prompting Dread to scream in outrage about how he’s NEVER EVER supposed to be interrupted when he’s making out with his large computer ball, prompting me to wonder why he even has a video phone installed in their bedroom. The Nazi explains that they’ve got the report on the beheaded trooper, and Dread decides that Cap can’t be allowed to know the details of the Charon project, so he orders “all available power” to be used sending the trooper’s destruct code.

Remember when we read the comic adaptation? One of the things I thought was very well done there was parallel scene construction -- juxtaposing images of heroes and villains in arrangements that call attention to how the one mirrors the other. This episode is a lot like that. We alternate between scenes in Volcania and at the Power Base, and very particularly, I think, we're called to see a parallel between Mentor and Overmind.
Flashing back to the original pitch, this whole "Parallel characters" thing seems very baked-in at the premise-level of the show. Remember, the original pitch seemed like it was setting up three "elemental" heroes, Hawk, Tank, and Stingray, paired with three Bio-Dreads, Soaron, Blastarr, and Tritor. Cap and Dread, as we discussed last week, are very much parallel characters. There was also meant to be a shape-shifting Bio-Dread called "Silvera", who I think would likely have been meant to parallel Pilot (not just because they they'd both be women; Silvera, like Pilot, would fall in love with Cap, and like Pilot, would eventually turn against Dread), though as a shapeshifter, one might also assume a parallel to Scout. This is, of course, a pretty straight-up kids' show trope, every hero paired off with his equal and opposite villain. In that sense, it's one of the few things Captain Power has done explicitly right vis a vis being the thing they were marketed as. But on another level, it adds an element of structure to the show which has been lacking in the episodes that don't focus on these parallels. When this show juxtaposes characters which are similar-but-different, compares the good and evil, as in Final Stand and The Mirror in Darkness, or even between the noble and the broken as in Wardogs and The Abyss, the show gets a whole lot better.
At this point in the series, we know very little about either of them, and until now, it never really occurred to me, but I think we're very much meant to see them as parallel characters. Look at their names: "Overmind", "Mentor", both convey a sense of headship, but while the former connotes the relationship of master to servant, the latter suggests that of a teacher to a student. Overmind, though nominally the result of a collaboration between Stuart Power and Lyman Taggart, is most directly Taggart's creation, made when he, ahem, joined himself to the overmind. Mentor, on the other hand, is all Power -- an encapsulation of its creator's intelligence for the purpose of serving, rather than dominating man. Overmind's relationship with Taggart is straightforwardly abusive and disturbingly sexualized -- like I said, the tone of Overmind's original fusion with Taggart reads very much as "Taggart broke the first rule of tampering in God's domain and put his dick in it." There's none of that with Mentor, who is very explicitly likened not to a sexual partner but to a father. More than that, even, Overmind's Big-Sargon-Ball is situated in Dread's inner sanctum right next to the "Birthing matrix" where they make Bio-Dreads. Overmind has an adjacent kiosk where it gives birth to evil robots. Mentor appears from a column in the center of the TARDIS console in the Power Base, directly next to the power-on kiosk. Thus, the creation of Bio-Dreads is a twisted form of the creation of the Power Suits, and Mentor is father to the Future Force in the same way that Overmind is father (or perhaps mother) to the Bio-Dreads. (Which makes me wonder about the fact that I've basically called Overmind a HAL-style "jilted gay lover" and Mentor a "middle-aged lesbian")

Obviously, we return to the Power Base, where Mentor is downloading the details of the Charon phase, when a sudden loud whine accompanies Dread’s destruct code. I don’t like the science fiction trope of “You can broadcast a signal that will be picked up everywhere all at once and can’t be turned off even by switching off the receiver, but I like the pacing of this scene even less. If you had to pick one scene out of this episode that was the worst-served by the 22-minute running time, it’s this one. It’s just “Downloading” – <WHINE> — “Dread is sending the destruct code and we can’t block it and it’s going to explode,” all about in the space of one breath. Cap switches into ACTING! mode for a second and screams that Mentor is still attached, throwing himself at the exploding robot-head, only for Hawk and the others to pull him back in a scene I think might be intentionally reminiscent of the bit where McCoy and Scotty have to hold Kirk back in the engine room at the end of Star Trek II, only much, much faster. Predictably, the head explodes, Mentor vanishes, and the lights go out as we head into commercialsign…

We return mere moments later, with the Power Base lit only by little fires that have erupted from improperly grounded computer consoles. Cap desperately screams for Scout to get Mentor back, while Hawk explains that without Mentor, the base’s systems will shut down (I’m again reminded of Blake’s 7, this time “Breakdown”, where they’re forced to fly the ship without its computer system, a suicidal gambit since, every system on the ship was designed to be under constant computer control, and was therefore in danger of falling out of balance and tearing itself apart). Cap’s voice catches a little as he demands that HawkHawk's Reaction and the others find a way to get Mentor back — he sounds like a frightened child.

This must have been weird to watch back in 1987. At this point in the series, the audience doesn’t know Mentor’s backstory. And here’s Tim Dunigan conveying just about the most emotion we’ve ever seen out of him. I mean, so far, Tim has played Cap almost exclusively with a kind of extreme stoicism — in most episodes, his role is kind of peripheral, and the stoic thing works for him as a slightly aloof leader figure. He might at times express sympathy or wistfulness, but it’s always detached and a bit distant. But even in “Shattered”, he doesn’t unload a whole lot of emotion, more nostalgia than affection. Really, last week when he switches into “Homicidal Rage” mode is the only time we’ve seen strong emotion out of him, and even then, it’s got a clinical, detached quality to it, the “serial killer” vibe I mentioned. But here, we have an actual real-for-real emotion. But, if you’re in 1987 and learning things in order, you’ve got to be wondering why Captain Power is more visibly broken up over Mentor than about Athena or about being tortured by General McNasty. Cap doesn’t say it, but in context, his tone tells us that “Just get [Mentor] back,” is prefixed by an implied, “I don’t care if we lose the Power Base.”

We go back to Volcania for Dread to wax poetic some more about Overmind’s pregnancy glow, mostly, I think, just to do a character shuffle back on the hero side, though we do get a weird Okudagram Okudagramout of it. Back at the Power Base, Hawk and Cap have gone for a walk-n-talk about how they’re about to try to restart Mentor. Cap seems to be back to stoic detachment, but when Hawk explains that if Mentor’s “internal damage system” can’t cope, he’ll “fry every circuit he’s got,” we go to a tight shot of Dunigan and he visibly swallows hard and looks off into the distance. I’m really surprised to see them do such a good subtle display. Kids shows of the ’80s aren’t known for subtly. Hawk tries to comfort Cap, and this is where we finally get the reveal about Mentor’s nature: “I know how you feel; I feel the same way. But Mentor’s not your father.”

“No,” Cap answers, and now Tim Dunigan’s usual detached deadpan really catches, I think, a sense of traumatic dissociation, “But he has the face of my father, his voice, his essence.” He struggled wordlessly for a second before adding, “I don’t think I could watch my father die all over again.” They return to the Power Chamber and order Mentor switched on. There’s a few tense seconds, but it always goes the same way with this show. The big reveal is that Mentor isn’t as badly off as it had seemed, and he reappears. Cap and Hawk exchange a look, and then — and if you’re feeling generous, you can interpret this as pretty clever and meaningful — John closes his eyes for a second, and then he’s back to being detached, deadpan, all-business Captain Power. He asks Mentor about Charon.

As we already know, the basic plan for Charon is to build new Bio-Dreads. Mentor explains that the new model is going to be a “ground unit”, able to go places that Soaron can’t. Because, y’know, Soaron can only go places with a runway or something. I don’t know. Seems like the next Bio-Dread model will basically have the same mobility as Soaron, except slightly clunkier, having tank treads for feet, and being unable to fly. But since geography in this show is strictly “Whatevs,” who can tell.

Volcania is powered, it seems, by “magma plants”. In Detroit. But these won’t provide enough power to create this new master race, so he’s having the output of a bunch of power plants across the country beamed to him via “tight beam transmission”. There follows a nice ’80s action-show-style Hero Planning Exchange where the come up with a plan to park right in the middle of all these “tight beams” and scramble the transmission, that has a nice A-Team feel to it. Everyone shuffles over to the kiosk and powers on, though I can’t for the life of me sort out why, since they’re unmorphed in the Jumpship immediately after we return from a little hop over to Volcania that lasts just long enough for Dread to order Soaron to run interference.

In position, the Jumpship crew battens down and does a little switch-flipping montage, then everyone gets to bounce around a bit while purple CGI beams converge on the ship. When the approach of Soaron is detected, I of course expect that Hawk’s going to leap into action, but instead, what happens next is amazing.

See, this is, by my calculations, the seventh episode to air. By convention, I think, American TV shows are filmed in blocks of six. From the DVD featurettes, I know that the new CGI model debuting in this episode wasn’t ready yet when the first block was filmed, and I think one of the reasons the series has been kind of spinning its wheels up to this point because of that. Scheduling was so tight getting that first block of episodes out that Gary Goddard had to miss the premier of the feature film he had coming out that summer, Masters of the Universe. Though technically, missing the Masters of the Universe film makes him luckier than those of us who saw it (Seriously. I’m not saying that Filmation’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was anywhere near as good as our collective childhood memories say it was, but I can’t even imagine who they thought the audience for this film was, given how almost deliberately alienating it is to fans of the cartoon and how utterly uninteresting it would be to anyone else. Except maybe Jack Kirby fans, since it apparently bears a closer resemblance to the New Gods with the serial numbers filed off than to anything in the rest of the MOTU canon).

But now we’re into the second filming block, and that means that we can roll out all the product placement exciting new show features, and here comes one now. We are seven episodes in. It is the centerpiece of the toy line. And it pretty much appears in this episode and one other one. Behold: The Power Jet XT-7

Power Jet

It’s apparently been attached to the top of the Jumpship all this time, though you could be forgiven for not noticing that, as we’ve rarely gotten a good look at the top of the Jumpship, and it kinda blends in. In fact, the Jumpship looks sort of wrong without it there, kind of sawn-off at the top. It’s a nice touch, by the way, that the Power Jet has visible scorch marks on it, indicating that it’s been in firefights before. I mean, I don’t know against what, since as far as I can tell, Dread’s entire army consists of Soaron, a room full of Bling Nazis, and robots in trucks, but it’s there.

Air battleUnfortunately, all the stuff I said about aerial battles before is still true. It’s just not composed well. It’s mostly just one combatant on the screen all by himself against a neutral background, flying in a straight line and shooting off-screen.  When they do both appear at once, the compositing looks awful and the scaling is wrong. I mean look at this: Soaron is, as close as I can tell, somewhere in the range of eight to ten feet tall. If we assume that my toy is proportional (which is plainly silly), the Power Jet is almost exactly three times as long as its matching action figure. Tim Dunigan is six foot five, so that would make the Power Jet about 19 and a quarter feet long.  Now, a Grumman F-14 Tomcat is 62 feet long; at 19 feet, the Power Jet would be smaller than a Cessna; we would in fact be talking about one of the smallest aircraft ever made. But let’s give it to him. The Power Jet is twenty feet long. Soaron is ten feet long. The Jumpship looks to be roughly twice the length of the Power Jet, so forty feet. We’re basically talking about a 1:2:4 ratio. Except in this shot where they’re all about the same size. In some of the shots, the Power Jet wobbles like it’s on strings. And the cockpit shots are terrible; Cap looks like he’s sitting at a deskCockpit. On the Satellite of Love. The KTMA-season one. There are some nice bits. One good really tight pass between Soaron and the Power Jet. Eventually, Soaron goes spinning off and explodes, and the power plants conveniently explode off-screen, and Lord Dread’s plan is all undone, but it comes at a cost: the Jumpship’s engines have burnt out. Hawk warns off Cap and plots a crash trajectory to smash them into the side of Volcania if Pilot can’t rewire Chekhov’s afterburners for primary flight in time.

In Dread and Overmind’s lovenest, the shower curtain over the end of Overmind’s birth canalOvermind's birth canal pulses ominously, as a tired, post-partum Overmind reveals that only one of the promised Bio-Dread army has managed to be born, though they delay the reveal, only showing us a silhouette at this point. In the skies above, Pilot, again using the weird Sonic Dildo thing from the first episode, manages to fix the afterburners in the nick of time for them to make a lucky escape. Everyone enjoys a hearty laugh as, entirely unopposed, they fly away from literally right outside Lord Dread’s window. You thought I was kidding, but Soaron is absolutely the only thing Lord Dread has in the way of aerial defense. Cap gets close enough to actually see Dread’s shiny new Bio-Dread, Blastarrwho’s stepped out onto the balcony in order, I assume, to do the Lion King thing with himself, leading to our first good look at the new Bio-Dread, Blastarr, and–

I’m sorry. I need to stop for a moment. Okay. You can see that he’s a technological improvement in computer 3D graphics over Soaron, that he’s got a higher polygon count and better shaders and he’s got a lot of little tiny detailing and more points of articulation. But he just looks so goofy. With his pert little nose, and painted-on frown, and the fact that his feet have tank treads so that they don’t have to figure out how to make his legs move when he walks. And Blastarr is meant to be the “scary” Bio-Dread — even as a kid, I think Soaron’s menace was never really a thing; he seemed to fit pretty well into the archetype of the screamy-incompetent henchman who likes to berate his enemies as “pitiful” or “weaklings” and make boasts he can’t back up, and who would normally be voiced by Chris Latta; Blastarr was the all-business strong-quiet-type one. He’s the one who does The Thing at the end of this series. But looking at him now, he reminds me of nothing so much as a nightmarish version of the robot toy capsule vending machine in the front of the Jefferson Ward store in Annapolis from when I was a little kid. Given that I can not find anything useful by googling Jefferson Ward or toy capsule vending machines that look like robots from the 1980s (Though here’s a picture of a cigarette vending machine that looks like a robot from the 1950s), that maybe the most deliciously anachronistic sentence I’ve ever written.

This isn’t quite the end of the episode — we’ll return for another closeup of Blastarr in a second, but first, there’s the matter of Overmind’s afterbirth. The H.R. Geiger-inspired birthing chamber steams and wobbles and opens up again to disgorge this little techno-placenta:


This lovechild of Johnny FiveJohnny 5 and Dylan’s Playskool Magic Touch Screen Palm LeanerMagic Touch Screen Palm Leaner is Lakki, because at this stage in the show, the writers decided that what they really needed was a comic relief non-human sidekick. Lord Dread is not amused, but Overmind insists that Robo-Scrappy will surely prove useful to them. Once Dread’s left the room, Overmind throws us a bone and does what the audience was hoping for by shooting Lakki in the faceLakki. Well, I mean, it’s exactly the same visual effect as shooting him in the face, but presumably it’s some kind of reprogramming beam, because Lakki responds by acknowledging the super-seekrit orders he’s just been given and trying to look menacing, which is a neat trick when you look like something that even TSA agents at Logan would immediately dismiss as harmless. This is, of course, all setup for the reveal they never get around to, that Overmind doesn’t trust Dread and has created Lakki to spy on him. Why does Overmind have to add this secret program by shooting him in the face rather than either telling him out loud or baking it into him in utero (as he clearly did with Soaron)? That would certainly be a major plot hole except that, come on, there is no reason to complain about Lakki getting shot in the face.

Lakki is singularly worthless at this role. I mean, Lakki is pretty useless at any role, but in terms of “Covertly spy on Lord Dread so that Overmind will know ahead of time if he’s having second thoughts about this whole ‘genocide’ thing without him cottoning on,” Lakki is kind if hilariously unsubtle. Some folks, myself included in the past, have interpreted this as intentional on Overmind’s part: Overmind is very much written as something like Dread’s abusive boyfriend, and it does work well as a power-play to put Dread in a situation where he knows that Overmind doesn’t trust him and he knows Overmind is spying on him, but Overmind has just enough plausible denyability that if Dread were to confront him, it could get all indignant about being falsely accused. But watching it now, I find myself preferring the possibility that Overmind is just so completely detached from the way actual human beings think and act that it just never occurs to it that Lakki is slightly less subtle than Jar Jar Binks or that this could even be a problem. Maybe next he’ll say that the trees are the right height here.

This episode is good. Probably better than I’ve made it sound. In terms of major structural problems, the only thing I can really fault it for is the pacing, and as I keep saying, there’s a reason that half-hour drama isn’t really a thing any more. The scene where Mentor overloads is so rushed that it almost trips over itself, the exposition drop about Mentor looking like Cap’s father is kind of offhand for such a bombshell (and we never elaborate on what’s meany by Mentor containing Stuart Power’s “essence”), and once again the big tense moments for the heroes are resolved by “They try turning it on and it works,” not once but twice. But these are small sins, comparatively speaking, and speak more to an intrinsic problem with the format rather than the episode itself. On the other hand, even though Pilot, Scout, and Tank get a bit shafted on dialogue front (Actually, the only folks who get significant numbers of lines in this episode are Lord Dread and Overmind, but Hawk and Cap at least get a whole conversation), there’s multiple scenes of the team working together to solve problems in the same sort of montage you would get out of all the great ’80s team action-adventure shows from the tradition of Airwolf and The A-Team. This is really the first time in seven episodes that you can really see this show evolving into a proper Five Man Band-type action-adventure. Sure, we’ve had moments where I could just about see it working as a sort of oddly cyberpunk wanderer-in-the-dystopia show a la Mad Max, but here we really start seeing the show try to be the kind of show I think it actually wants to be. We’re finally starting to get a vision of where this show wants to go. If they’d led with this one — and I’ve given the technical reasons up front why that wasn’t possible — I think they’d have had a much more serious chance of making it.

I was less than kind to Tim Dunigan last time. I mean, I tried to be moderate in my complaints, but the fact of it is that in 1987, he was only a mediocre actor, and the direction his career took since then meant that he never got the opportunity to become a good actor. And he totally could have done. I’d compare him in a lot of ways to Walter Koenig. Back in 1968, Walter Koenig was, I think, a pretty mediocre actor who was trading on being boyishly handsome and charming, shoved by Gene Rodenberry into a ludicrous wig to capitalize on the popularity of Davy Jones, and forced to affect a ridiculous accent. But by the time he turns up as Bester in Babylon 5, he’s grown up to be a proper actor, and when he guests as an older version of Chekhov in James Cawley’s pet Star Trek, he’s flat-out amazing. Or Jonathan Frakes. He was doing the whole “Boyishly handsome but not a great actor” thing over in TNG for a few years before he grew a beard and his writers ran out of old Star Trek Phase II scripts where his equivalent character was pretty much “Kirk Jr. as played by Mike Brady”.

Because there are places in this episode where you can really see that Dunigan has the potential to be a better actor. For most of the episode, he’s in standard Captain Power mode: detatched, aloof, an somewhat muted interpretation of the wisecracking ’80s action hero — not much on the one-liners, but still good for the occasional smirk or wry observation. But from the moment that the skinned stormtrooper head starts exploding to the moment Mentor announces himself back on-line, it’s like he’s a whole different character. Because of the pacing and the context, the original audience doesn’t have a whole lot to go on in interpreting this sudden change, but “Mentor looks like his dead father,” is certainly enough to justify him getting all broken up, at least if we were dealing with a character who was less of a cipher than Captain Power is at the moment. We’ve only got a few minutes for this bit of the story, so you have to pick and choose, I guess.

But the oddest thing, really, is that the second Mentor is back on-line, Cap closes his eyes and switches off. He’s back to stoic action man for the rest of the episode. I mean, okay, Mentor’s a computer, and once the danger had passed, it probably even seemed a little silly to have gotten worked up like that. But there’s not even a “Oh good; our base didn’t explode,” or a “Good job, team.” It’s just business as usual. What are we to make of this?

We might, taking a cue from Gary Goddard, suppose that it’s just a weakness in the direction. I looked up this episode’s director. Otta Hanus is apparently most often connected with children’s shows, nothing I particularly recall as being either especially good nor especially bad. Kid’s shows are of course more often known for big emotion rather than the kind of subtlety displayed here, though. So let’s assume this is intentional, if for no other reason than that it makes for interesting analysis.

You know what it reminds me of a little bit? Spock. When Spock is written well — and really when any Vulcan in the Star Trek universe is written well, but Spock is the Vulcan who gets written well the most often — he’s got these little moments where, under duress, he lets just a bit of subtle emotion out. And almost immediately, you can see that he’s ashamed of himself, and he immediately buttons it up and tries to find a cover for it. And because he lacks both the cultural vocabulary and also the cultural permission to talk about his feelings, they can only ever come up through subtle, non-verbal cues.

The other thing it reminds me of is closer to home: The scenes of Cap fretting over Mentor are basically adjacent to the scene where Dread expresses pride over the forthcoming Bio-Dread army, Overmind chastises him for it, and Dread immediately buttons it up and tries to find a cover for it. This whole thing about parallel scene construction may have legs to it.

But, of course, Lord Dread is a genocidal psychopath and Spock isn’t human. When Star Trek (2009) came out, several reviewers I read, especially those who had family members with a spectrum disorder, suggested that Zachary Quinto was playing Spock as an Aspie. Fair enough; Spock has a half-Vulcan brain and a fully-Vulcan upbringing and a mostly-Vulcan psychology, so yes, it makes sense that if you evaluated his psychological makeup in entirely human terms, he wouldn’t evaluate as neurotypical.

What does this say for the Captain? If it’s intentional — and I’m not convinced one way or the other — could this mean that we should read Cap as having some kind of profound (but high-functioning) neurological or psychological disorder? I never thought I’d find myself here, but after “The Mirror in Darkness”, I’m seriously entertaining the possibility that Cap might be — well, I don’t know. It’s profoundly impolite to psychoanalyze someone from an armchair. So let’s stay non-specific: it is starting to look like maybe there is something profoundly wrong with Cap. Not so wrong that he can’t compensate, but he was clearly unhinged by his confrontation with Jason last week, and this week, he has to hold on with both hands to keep it together when he faces losing his surrogate father (Not to mention: Cap has been raised since he was a teenager by a computer with the face of his dead father. That can not possibly be good for your mental health). Already in this episode, he’s taken a big risk with the lives of his entire team in order to thwart Dread. He’ll take more. I think this is a pretty unlikely thing to be asking about a kid’s show hero from 1987, but as we go forward, let’s keep this question in our minds: what’s going to happen when Johnathan Power can’t compensate any more?

July 25, 2014

The Emperor’s Jubilee

This is a bedtime story I’ve been working on for Dylan. At the moment, though, he’s only interested in stories which feature little boys named Jack and at least two good giants, with an optional bad giant and/or witch, so I haven’t run this one by him yet.

You may have heard this story. Or you think you have. You almost have. People like to cite this story a lot. But this isn’t that kind of story, and no one is going to be trying to cast themselves in the lead role of this story.

Once upon a time, there was a land which was ruled over by the Blue Emperor. The Blue Emperor was a good emperor, and well-loved by his people, but none loved him more than the little boy who lived on the edge of town. Well, if we’re being honest, there were probably lots of people who loved the Emperor just as much as the little boy who lived on the edge of town, but the boy, who didn’t get out much, didn’t know any of them.

Not long before the year of the Blue Emperor’s Jubilee, the Emperor appointed a new Vizier. Now, I know in stories like this, the Vizier is usually an evil usurper who is up to no good. But this isn’t that kind of story, and I wasn’t there, so I won’t speculate on his motives. I won’t speculate on the thought process that led to what happened next, either.

What I do know, though, is that in the days and months leading up to the Jubilee, work started spreading through the land that the Vizier had commissioned a fine new outfit for the Blue Emperor.  More than that, they said, but this new outfit’s beauty and complexity was so profound that those who lacked true discernment weren’t able to perceive its beauty.

It would not be entirely honest to say that the Little Boy Who Lived on the Edge of Town considered himself undiscerning, and so on the day of the Jubilee, he lined up with all the others to see the Emperor in his fine new Jubilee Regalia. As the Emperor’s procession neared the edge of town where the little boy lived, he heard the cheering in the streets, and he pushed his way through the gathering crowd to see the Emperor as he processed down the street.

Everyone was cheering, and the loudest cheers celebrated how fine and grand the Emperor’s new suit was. And then all at once, the crowd fell silent as the voice of one little boy cut through it. The little boy called out in surprise: The Emperor has no clothes!

Now, this is the point in the story where you’re probably expecting everyone to feel rather foolish and admit that none of them had seen the magical clothes, and realize that the Vizir was a flim-flam artist who’d preyed upon everyone’s fear of looking foolish, and the little boy would be praised for speaking truth to power.

But like I said, this isn’t that kind of story. So here’s what happened instead.

The procession halted a moment. Everyone whispered nervously. Sure enough, the Blue Emperor stood before them as naked as the day he was born. The little boy felt the weight of the crowd’s silence and he was filled with fear. And then, another person in the crowd, not far from the little boy called out, “Well of course he doesn’t. What were you expecting?”

The little boy didn’t know what to say. Surely it must have been a mistake. He had heard all about the magnificent suit of clothes that could only be seen by those with true discernment. But he saw nothing. Did he lack true discernment? Another person in the crowd spoke up. “Anyone can wear clothes, but it takes someone as truly wonderous as the Emperor to wear nothing at all.” And one by one, everyone in the crowd started to laugh. Not at the Emperor, that would be unseemly, but at the little boy who had somehow thought there was something wrong with the Emperor parading about the city in his birthday suit.

The little boy didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t understand it. Everyone had seen the same thing he had, but somehow to them it had seemed like a brilliant artistic decision, rather than an old man parading about town in the altogether. Days later, at the Solstice Festival, all his friends and relations, who knew how much the little boy had loved the Emperor, gave him Blue Emperor toys and Blue Emperor Books and Blue Emperor Commemorative Plates, but the little boy could barely stand to look at them, for now all he could see was the image of the Emperor’s private parts waving in the breeze. He went to ask the Wise Man, an old scholar famous for his histories about the Emperor.

The little boy said that he had heard that many people did not like to have the nakedness of others thrust upon them without specific consent. The Wise Man said, “Those are silly people. After all, anyone can just avert their eyes. And really, it’s better for them to get over their distaste and stop making silly complaints like that. And besides, the Emperor showing us his natural greatness and beauty is really nothing like a random stranger in a trenchcoat flashing a person on the street; only a very silly person would think that. Anyway, if you don’t like it, there have been plenty of other times that the Emperor wore those inferior clothes that you can enjoy instead.” The little boy tried to explain that every time he tried now, all he could think about was the Emperor’s Jubilee, and that now, knowing that all the famous adventurers of the Emperor’s past would culminate in the Jubilee, the experience of it was forever tainted. “I see the problem,” said the Wise Man: “You never really liked the Emperor at all. You were just a silly child who liked the Emperor’s clothes but had no true discernment.” The little boy cried all that night.

At the little boy’s birthday, again his friends and family found many fine toys and games and books and commemorative mugs emblazoned with the image of the Emperor, for they thought that surely the little boy still loved the Emperor. The little boy couldn’t explain to them why it caused him such pain now to see the Emperor; every time he tried, it was like he was speaking a different language. They could perhaps understand that the Jubilee wasn’t to his taste, but no one could imagine that it would be worse than a passing disappointment. The little boy felt silly when he tried to tell them — why should one unsual fashion choice upset him so? But there it was; something had changed for the little boy and now he knew that any time he started to care about the Emperor or look forward to the Emperor’s next appearance, he would find himself trapped in the obsessive fear that he’d find himself once again confronted by Imperial Nudity. He still loved the Blue Emperor, or he tried to, but his love caused him only pain now, never joy.

So he packed away all the plates and mugs and T-shirts and books and toys, and tried very hard not to think about the Blue Emperor. But his friends and relations would from time to time tell him news of the Emperor’s latest exploits, or ask him what he thought about some new tidbit about the Emperor. The little boy would smile and nod and try not to have an opinion. But inevitably, he’d find his mind drifting into a little trap and he’d once again start obsessing over the Jubilee. At times, he’d get himself so worked up that he needed to tell someone, and the mockery would start all over again — some would think him silly for placing such import on the Jubilee, which was, after all, just one parade. Others would swear that he was no true fan of the Emperor, just a silly boy who wanted to spoil their fun, or that he was simply a fool, and that if he really meant any of it, he’d simply stop caring about the Emperor and get on with his life.

But of course, the devil of it for the little boy was that he could not simply will himself to stop caring about the Emperor. It wasn’t that he hated the Emperor; rather that his love now caused him only pain. And so in the end, there was nothing else for the boy to do but to leave the city, and travel to somewhere far far away where he could forget all about the Emperor. Few people cared that the little boy had gone. One or two were happy to see him go, tired of listening to his lamentations. Perhaps a handful missed his insights on the Emperor’s activities, but not many, and besides, he hadn’t produced any insights worth mentioning since the Jubilee. Most barely noticed one way or the other, just one less sad, silly boy who didn’t know genius when he saw it.

We’ve come now to the point in the story where you typically have a “And they all lived happily ever after,” but this isn’t that kind of story. What happened to the boy after that? I can’t say. Perhaps he was happier alone. Perhapsh he was loneliner. No Happily Ever After this time. But what there is instead is hope. Maybe one day the scales will fall from the little boy’s eyes, and he’ll realize the true brilliance of the Emperor’s Jubilee Regalia and love the Emperor all over again. Or perhaps the Vizir will move on to some other line of work, and the next Vizir will change things up and everyone will reevaluate the past and decide the Jubilee Incident really wasn’t that good after all. Or perhaps the little boy will find something new to fill the hole the Jubilee had cut in his heart and he’ll stop caring so much about the Blue Emperor. I can’t say. Just hope.

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.

Continue reading

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.


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:


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


[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.