Previously…. Fifteen years ago, Stuart Gordon Power died. We’re about to find out how, as Captain Power has gone to his dad’s grave to mourn and have flashbacks at us. Lord Dread and his ridiculous sidekick Lakki are on their way to the grave in the hope of capturing him, traveling in the toyline-centerpiece Phantom Striker.
Via Lord Dread, we phase back into the misty world of 2132 (Or 2139. Whatever). I think it’s fair to judge the framing of this story as indicative of the kind of underdeveloped storytelling mechanics of television in the 1980s in general, children’s television in specific, and Captain Power in particular. Narrative convention suggests that this should be Dread’s flashback, the story told from his perspective. But of course that doesn’t gel with what we see, that the narrative remains conventional, flipping back and forth between Volcania and the Power Base. This isn’t uncommon for flashback episodes in any era really, and certainly not before television grew up.
In 2132, Stuart has just arrived at Volcania, and is escorted by a pair of Mechs to his meeting with Taggart, which is for some reason taking place in some kind of wiring closet. Taggart muses that, “It’s been a long time.”
Time is something Captain Power has very little sense of. Taggart’s statement, and indeed his whole attitude, seem to indicate that his transformation by Overmind and the subsequent war have been going on for a long time. But other things, like the continued existence of the US government at this point, seem to hint otherwise. I suppose we should assume that it’s been a whole generation since this war started, since Pilot is an indication that there’s been enough time for Dread to raise an entire generation of Dread Youth. But on the other hand, doesn’t it seem odd that, as close as we can tell, nothing of note happens in the course of the war over the next fifteen years? Or, for that matter, that there could be a multi-year conflict without the government collapsing when “The bad guys seize total control of the combined armed forces of the entire world,” happens literally on day one? Moreover, Taggart and Stuart Power look to be about the same age. But we’re going to see a pretty inescapable implication that Taggart was over 40 when he activated Overmind, and Stuart’s only 40 now. And for that matter, what about Jessica Morgan? She was in the dream sequence montage last episode, so clearly they haven’t forgotten about her. But we saw in “A Fire in the Dark” that she was blinded by Soaron but before Taggart became a cyborg. The events of this episode make it clear that the window between these things is at most a day, and Taggart already had a pretty full schedule. And where do the Power Suits fit in to all this? In the comic, their explicit purpose is to enhance the wearer’s natural strengths — that’s a recurring motif for the character of Stuart Power in the comic: his success derives from his skill at finding each person’s specific talents and leveraging them accordingly. That’s not something they bring up in the show, but both comic and show do contain the idea that the Power Suits are impervious to digitization. And yet, if digitization is a brand new phenomenon in this war, only introduced with the birth of Soaron (This is explicitly the case in the comic. The show is more vague, but I think it is still the implication), how could Stuart have possibly prepared for that? Previously, we’d been able to dismiss a lot of the discrepancies through the idea that Dread’s war is only the latest part of a long-running series of conflicts, but as the details of the timeline fill in, that part helps less and less.
At the Power Base, Hawk comes back from getting lunch or whatever, and just as he discovers his boss’s discarded ID badges, Mentor pops into existence, explaining that, “Doctor Power has given me his likeness. His stated purpose was to assure that his son would never be without him.” For such a smart guy, Doctor Power seems like kind of an idiot if he thought that this would do more good than harm to a teenager’s psyche. Mentor promises to tell Matt all about what’s happened to Stuart and Jon, but he’s been programmed to run the “Phoenix Program” first, and shows Hawk his rack… Of spandex jumpsuits.
We return to Volcania for the equivalent scene to the one in the comic of Soaron threatening the imprisoned Young Captain Power. The tone and content is completely different here. Jon Power is clinical and detached, probing Soaron for information about his nature. Soaron is creepily philosophical. Jon asks him whether he can actually think for himself:
Yes. I think. First there was darkness, but now I think all the time. I fight and I think. I fly and I think. And I listen to the voices. And I find something in my program I do not understand. There is something in the dark.
The “something in the dark,” here refers to Soaron’s hidden failsafe program, implanted by Overmind in case it ever needed to kill Taggart. But more than that, Soaron’s rhetoric here, while not directly recycled, echoes motifs Straczynski would use later in Babylon 5. Heck, Soaron comes within an inch of saying there’s a hole in his mind.
This scene, more than anything else, is the reason that for years, I’d felt that Soaron would one day tire of Team Overmind. I’m not the only one; while there’s conflicting information about whose loyalties would change over the proposed future of the series, Larry DiTillio did suggest in a Starlog interview that Soaron might switch sides. Of course, some of what he says in that interview contradicts other things I’ve heard, but presumably, it’s all down to “The show got canned while we were still planning out the exact details so there’s a couple of things we hadn’t finalized yet.”
The middle of this episode is largely intercut between Hawk’s quest to rescue the Power Family and a dialog between Stuart and Taggart. Taggart evokes their prior friendship, evidenced by Chekov’s wind-up music box (They should have done a bit with that. Flashback within a flashback or something. Because a music box seems like a random gift for one dude to give another dude, unless you frame it as being related to Taggart’s obsession with the beauty of mechanical perfection. So show them giving it to him, and have him ooh and aah over the beauty of its intricate design), a birthday present Stuart had given him once. He wants Stuart to come work for Evil Inc. Stuart politely declines, what with the wanton murder and digitization and all. I note here that Stuart blames Taggart for the deaths of “thousands”, because Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale.
They argue back and forth a bit until Jon arrives, whereupon we cut back to Hawk, who’s decided to try out a Power Suit despite the fifty percent chance of death. He orders Mentor to hand the Power Base over to the Pentagon and order an air-strike on Volcania in the event that he kicks it. Everything about that sentence is weird. There’s still a Pentagon. Air strikes on Volcania are an option, but for some reason they’ve never taken it. The power-on sequence is somewhat different from usual, and involves a lot more screaming on Hawk’s part. Unlike the comic, we don’t bother with the ad-break cliffhanger: though Matt falls limp to the ground, he gets right back up and declares the process to have worked. Mentor breaks character to declare, “And so it begins.”
Now, Hawk crumpled on the ground, possibly dead would have been a fine place for the commercial break, as evidenced by the comic. Mentor’s proclamation would have been a little less good, but still okay. So of course, they choose to let the action go another few seconds so we can see Hawk take to the skies for the first time, entreating his absent friend to “Hang on,” for the nine minutes it will take him to fly from Colorado Springs to Detroit (Remember, the warp zones aren’t on-line yet). Hawk’s flight to Volcania is nine minutes of intense action as he tests out the amazing powers of his newly activated flying suit, defeating everything Lord dread’s forces can throw at him. It’s nine minutes of intense action, nine minutes of awesome adventure, nine minutes of amazing spectacle, and, above all, nine minutes that will not be shown in this episode, for reasons the least important of which is that there’s only eight and a half minutes left until the credits.
So instead, we return from commercial in Volcania, where, now that Dylan Neal is there to have a gun waved at him, Taggart has cut to the chase: him and Overmind want to have a three-way with Stuart. Stuart’s bread isn’t buttered on that side, but he’s willing to deal when Jon’s freedom is offered up in exchange. Reports of Hawk — identified by Taggart’s minions only as an airborne attacker with an “unknown configuration” — come in, and Taggart dispatches Soaron to deal with him, as Volcania isn’t yet “fully operational.”
The battle between Soaron and Hawk here is the best we’ve seen so far. It’s fast-paced and dynamic, with Hawk portrayed as realistically uncertain about his suit’s capabilities. He alternates between slow, well-aimed shots and faster, less controlled salvos. Soaron and Hawk frequently appear on-screen at the same time, usually with one in the foreground and the other in the background. Hawk and Soaron are the correct size relative to one another. There actually are backgrounds: the ground itself, an occasional mountain (Which is presumably lost because they’re supposed to be in Michigan), or Volcania’s industrial complex. And though the compositing of the explosion effects is a little off in places (Hawk takes one to the chest, resulting in a fireball that appears an inch away from him), there’s only one instance of the early-season mainstay “Missed laser beams explode when they strike the empty air far behind the target.” They actually fly around each other, exchanging which one of them is in front and which in back in a single shot. Not once does Hawk pull his favorite trick of crashing to the ground apparently disabled, only to turn out to be just fine. Soaron’s animations are a lot more complex than we’ve seen before too. It seems like they’ve improved their rendering quality with this episode and given Soaron a wider range of motion, most obviously when he cartwheels out of control briefly.
While that’s happening, Stuart agrees to join his mind with Overmind in exchange for Jon’s release. Stupidly, though, Taggart insists that he first pony up the location of the Power Base so that he can blow it up. I mean, the whole concept here is that Taggart is dead certain that once Overmind achieves mental intimacy with Stuart, he’ll become a loyal Servant of the Machine, so surely it would make more sense to just get on with that and then have his newly loyal ally tell him about the Power Base. To compound the stupidity, Stuart’s refusal is weirdly tactless. He could simply say, “There are innocent people there, let me warn them to evacuate first,” but instead he gets all evasive and says, in the world’s most suspicious tone, that revealing the location of the Power Base is going to “take some time”.
Taggart reacts to this obvious “I’m Up To Something” signposting a bit hyperbolically: he declares that Stuart will be digitized (In another “The show can’t make up its mind how horrific digitization is” moment, he describes it as the “gift of immortality”), while Jon will be killed as an example to others. This, of course, trips Papa Bear’s berserk button, as he pulls some doodad off the wall and throws it at Taggart’s shootin’ hand. They fight until Taggart whacks a power cable, which, due to shoddy manufacturing and poor OSHA compliance, initiates an irreversible overload that will destroy the entire section of the building in however many seconds we’ve got left till the end of the scene. Stuart orders his son, who’s retrieved Taggart’s gun, to make a break for it, while Stuart Power himself, the guy who taught Young Captain Power an abiding respect for all life, and made him swear an oath never to take a human life no matter what, declares his intention that this war shall end here and now, one way or another, and attempts to throttle Taggart to death with his bare hands, or at least hold him there until they’re both consumed in the impending explosion. They don’t even mince words about this: Taggart more or less concedes that they really should just both get the hell out of there, but Stuart isn’t having any of it.
Young Captain Power shoots his way out to, I think, the balcony where we first saw Blastarr back in “The Ferryman“, and calls Hawk. Hawk and Soaron are about equally matched, and it doesn’t seem like either one of them is going to get the upper hand in short order, but they both reassess their priorities when the explosion rocks Volcania, poorly compositing in a giant fireball that knocks Dylan Neal off the catwalk. Without a word to each other (Soaron cries out, “Master!”, but not to Hawk), they put aside their differences for the moment and actually move into formation with each other briefly as they dive to Volcania. It’s probably the most realistic Soaron has ever looked, sharing the screen with Hawk for just a second. It looks even more like he’s actually there than when he picked up Jon last week. In accordance with the laws of dramatic necessity, Jon struggles to maintain his grip as he precariously dangles from a gantry until his fingers finally slip and he falls… Into the waiting arms of Hawk. Sort of. If anything, Hawk looks less convincingly like he’s actually carrying Jon than Soaron did. As they retreat, the future captain relates his father’s fate in a tone of abject horror and grief.
We end our flashback in Dread’s throne room, where he’s just been Darth Vadered. I guess Hawk called off the air strike. Pity, it probably would have finished him off. In a glazed voice, he mutters, “I hurt.” Overmind “comforts” him with the knowledge that he is now part machine himself, and therefore closer to immortality and perfection. The throne turns to show Lord Dread in his usual form, and though he reacts with horror to his own borgification, he takes inspiration from Soaron’s claim that his new appearance will “Inspire dread” in his enemies, declares Lyman Taggart dead, and accepts the title of “Lord Dread”.
In the present day, Dread switches his dashboard monitor to what, based on the angle, must be a camera on Stuart’s gravestone, to catch the tail end of Cap’s lamentations over his father’s grave. As Captain Power says his goodbyes, Lakki notes that they’re only two minutes away and could catch Cap if they switch on the Afterburners. Dread orders Soaron away so that he can proceed alone, then looks down at that music box, now lightly seasoned and seared. He turns it over to reveal the inscription:
To Lyman Taggart
On the occasion of his 40th Birthday.
You’re not getting older, you’re getting– Well, older.
All our best, Stuart and Jon Power.
I notice that there’s no Mrs. Power mentioned here, which is kind of interesting if we take for granted the proposed season 2 storyline that would reveal that Jon’s mother and Taggart were lovers. But probably, it’s just down to this show being a damned sausage-fest. We cut to Stuart’s gravestone a few minutes later, to reveal that the music box now rests next to it, just below a single flower.
So wow. I mean, just wow. Freed from the constraints of squeezing a story into twenty-two minutes, we finally get to see an example of how a Captain Power story would work either as an hour-long show, or a proper TV serial and… It’s good. I mean, purely on its own merits as a stand-alone episode, a genuine, unqualified “good”. Not perfect, no, but, it’s head and shoulders above probably half of the first-season TNG stories. We have the time to sell the character of Stuart Gordon Power in a way that justifies just about everything he does. Even a lot of the plot holes can be justified in light of what we know about Stuart: the same myopia and hubris that led him to build Overmind led him to charge unarmed into Volcania without telling anyone. The same single-minded passion to end all war that gave us Overmind eventually causes him to forsake his own principles and try to assassinate Taggart. And yet, we see him try to reach out to Taggart, in spite of everything he’s done, and try to find what humanity lingers in his old friend.
Plus, Bruce Gray is just a pleasure to watch. He’s great at conveying a whole bunch of conflicting emotions in a very short span. And his little gesticulations and the hand motions he uses to punctuate his dialogue are a really passionate contrast to how staid the other actors are for the most part. Even Mentor gets in on the action, opening his arms in an expansive gesture as he introduces himself to Hawk. I was just about to say that I think Mentor is too over-the-top in this story, but it’s just occurred to me to wonder if perhaps this is some kind of secret hint that there might be more to the resident head-inna-tube than we’ve been lead to believe. Could Mentor be hiding the fact that he’s much more an artificial lifeform than a simple interactive user interface?
David Hemblen, freed for most of the episode from the constraints of his prosthetics and Darth Vader suit, is also in rare form as Lyman Taggart. In the kind of confrontation that makes the center of this episode, you’re pretty much used to the hero appealing to the villain’s humanity and their shared past. But that’s largely inverted this time; it’s Taggart who keeps coming back to their past partnership, to their shared goal of bringing about a new, peaceful, utopian age. And he gets to run the gamut here — there are shades of his Lord Dread personality in every scene, most especially at the birth of Soaron, but there are differences too. He’s far less controlled with his emotions, and far less deferential to Overmind. He’s passionate about his pursuit of a mechanical utopia, without the same level of visible regret over the destruction he’s wrought in pursuit of it.
And here I was, lining up my Sabrina jokes, but Dylan Neal is actually really good as a younger version of Captain Power. We see in a few places that he’s able to do the same kind of nigh-pathological stoicism as Tim Dunnigan’s Cap, but primarily he plays younger, happier, more free-spirited and really more emotionally balanced character. Where he’s awkward or unlikeable, it still feels apropriate for a younger character who’s grown up under extraordinary circumstances. If you can look past the fact that Dylan Neal and Tim Dunnigan don’t look a lick alike (David James Elliot was absolute crap back in “The Mirror in Darkness”, but at least he and Tim Dunnigan have the same basic body type), it’s really easy to imagine Dylan Neal’s Jon Power as a younger version of the character played by Tim Dunnigan, particularly with the understanding that some great emotional trauma separates them.
And I never thought I’d see the day when Soaron got to be genuinely creepy. Most of the time in the show, he’s simply a thug. If he seems like “the smart one,” it’s mostly by comparison to Blastarr. The comic adds the idea that he’s arrogant, which maybe comes across a little in his demeanor on the show, but is never really explicit. But here, we see a Soaron who’s more than just a very powerful footsoldier. He actually has a personality here. After his little “Something in the dark” speech to Jon, he seems to realize he’s said too much and orders Young Captain Power to forget everything he’s heard. He’s guilty about it. I think if they’d given him some lines during the Hawk fight about finally getting a proper challenge, they’d have finally sold the original concept of Soaron as something like a robot version of the Red Baron.
If I’m going to complain about this one at all, I have to say that it works very well as a stand-alone episode in a hypothetical “The Metal Wars” series that doesn’t exist, but not nearly so well as episodes 15 and 16 of the Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future which does. There’s some weird little inconsistencies in the timeline I’ve already mentioned, like the incident with Jessica Morgan. Or the way that Stuart knows what a Biodread is (The scene in the comic feels very much like they went back with the benefit of hindsight and shored up some of the dialog on this point). There are some awkward lapses into exposition, such as the exchange between Hawk and Stuart over the Jump-Gates, or Mentor’s monologue about the nature of the Power Suits. And the ease with which Matt waves off Stuart’s guilt over the fact that he’s almost as much to blame as Taggart for the war rubs me wrong. But even more than that, this show, about Stuart Gordon Power and Matthew Masterson’s comb-over and Young Johnny Power and Lyman Taggart with his Gordon Gecko hair, has characters who are rich and dynamic and compelling in a way that the actual main characters of Captain Power only rarely are. The regular cast (Hawk and Dread excepted, though even they are playing substantially different versions of their regular roles) isn’t in this two-parter for more than a minute, but I don’t really miss them at all. I want more of these guys. More of Bruce Gray being allowed to emote and use his hands. More of David Hemblen being able to move freely, and to passionately defend his utopian vision. More of Dylan Neal getting excited by things. Heck, more of confused newborn Soaron.
I feel like this episode would have been billed as the “Secret Origin” of Captain Power, but of course, it isn’t. Jon Power isn’t a captain at the end of this. Like I said when I started, the only characters for whom this is a straight-up origin are Soaron and Mentor. It’s an origin of sorts for Hawk and Dread, of course, but for Jon? Not quite. It would be easy to sell his father’s death as the single defining event that turned Dylan Neal’s Young Jon into Tim Dunnigan’s Captain Power, but, notably, they don’t do that. We see some hints of Cap’s adult personality when he confronts Soaron, yes, but after the death of his father, we don’t see Jon evolve as a character, because his story stops dead when he flies away with Hawk, openly weeping in grief. What’s left of the story goes to Taggart, for whom there is very much a transformative event as you see him give a part of himself to the machine to cope with his mutilation.
No, this isn’t Captain Power’s origin story, but it implies Captain Power’s origin story. I’d really like to see that now. Something set a year or so on from these events, showing Dylan Neal’s Corporal Power having become a reckless hotshot in the wake of his father’s death. The climax would be something where he realizes that he’s more valuable to the resistance as a symbol than as an “ace”, and decides to put on the gold armor and sublimate his personal feelings. There’s even a proposed plot outline in the bible that would work for this, about Captain Power and company encountering a famous lone-wolf hero from before the war who’s secretly working for Dread now. So do that plot with flashback cast: young Johnny idolizes the legendary ace, is betrayed by him, and finally realizes that the symbol is more important than the man. That could even be how you explain what he’s doing in charge, and how Captain Power outranks Major Masterson — have Hawk make the conscious decision to step back from small-P power because the people will rally behind Jon in a way they won’t for him. Though really, if you’re not going to include the character of Stuart Power, there’s kind of diminishing returns on a whole-episode flashback.
Really, I just want more of this one. And I know there isn’t going to be any more. And that makes me sad.