Hm. Need to find something. Something charming. Something fun. Something post-apocalyptic. I’ve still got a lot of Hitler Meets ChristI keep wanting that title to be Hitler versus Christ. I would watch the hell out of that movie. to wash out of my soul. But what? Apocalypses are all so heavy, and I don’t think I can dive straight back into the deep end.
I should think the answer was elementary.
Sherlock Holmes? You’re still here? I thought you left with Michael Bolton and the Pope.
I was able to deduce that you would shortly be in need of a special guest star, and being that I am in the public domain…
That’s a fine point. But I’m not sure I’m going to be able to come up with something to review. It’s not easy.
As I said, I think it should be elementary.
That’s easy for you to– Wait. Elementary. Elementary school. Of course! You know what will blow your mind?
Are you offering me cocaine?
No. It’s a metaphor.
Oh. Because I wouldn’t necessarily be offended if you were.
No, really. It’s a metaphor.
You’re sure then?
Sigh. No, look. I keep my collection of film and television organized by genre.
I think cocaine would have been more efficacious. For blowing my mind.
Enough with the cocaine, Sherlock Holmes. I’m talking about my film and television collection. It’s organized by genre. And guess what one of those genres is.
Hm. Well, based on my observation of the small clues around this room, I think I can safely deduce that one of the genres in your collection is “Movies you thought were just ordinary low-budget 1970s action movies, but which turned out to be softcore pornography.”
I. Um. Well. Actually, I was thinking of “Post-apocalyptic children’s television.”
So you are positing that there are enough examples of Post-Apocalyptic Children’s Television to constitute an entire genre?
Well, it’s not cocaine, but I suppose it will do.
I’ve already talked here about some of the various post-apocalyptic children’s television series in my collection. There’s New Zealand’s teen soap opera and Future Power Ranger incubator The Tribe (which Leah and I still haven’t finished watching). And there’s the post-apocalyptic single-topic made-for-public-TV educational series Tomes and Talismans. I think a big part of the draw is that post-apocalypsism is in many ways similar to the popular traditional genre of castaway stories — which have always been popular with kids — but they have a science fiction flavor to them. It’s half Peter Pan and half Star Trek.
Of course, back when I was actually in the target age group for children’s television, it was the 1980s, and I’ve spoken before about the general sense of periapocalyptic nihilism that really drove a lot of our pop culture in the ’80s. This was a time when, even as a small child, the way you thought of the future included nuclear apocalypse — not as a possibility or a hypothetical, but rather as concrete reality. The east and west had been locked in a cold war for decades at this point, and through the early part of the eighties, President Reagan realized — correctly — that communist economies are designed to marshal resources that aren’t rapidly growing, unlike capitalist economies which require constant rapid growth to avoid a complete collapse. He bet that escalating the cold war arms race would force the Soviet Union to invest so much of their collective resources into their military that they’d eventually overbalance their economy and collapse. Looking back now, of course, it seems obvious how things would work out, but at the time, it seemed like “Both sides sink so much money into their respective doomsday programs that it becomes financially infeasible to not have an apocalyptic war,” was far and away the most likely outcomeThis is, after all, why World War I happened..
But I’m meandering off topic. By 1987, the height of 80s doomsdayism had passed, but it still held a good bit of sway. Now, we all still thought that the world was going to end shortly, but it was becoming clear that some time before it did, we were going to see massive upheavals in the television industry.If this paragraph sounds like it was liberally cribbed from the TV-tropes article, that’s because I wrote that article My parents had gotten cable TV… Um… Probably right around this time, and it opened a whole new world: instead of the four channels we’d gotten in my youth, we now got as many as sixAnd one of them was the Christian Broadcast Network, known today as ABC Family. Really. The first cable package you could get in our area was the Baltimore and DC broadcast channels plus CBN. But CBN was surprisingly awesome because at like 1 AM, they showed Laurel & Hardy movies.. Remember, this was so long ago that there was, at the time, only one Law & Order, and zero Reality-Based Game Shows. And MTV had to somehow fill its broadcast day using nothing but music videos! I realize that it’s basically impossible to comprehend this now, but try to imagine what it was like to be a TV executive back then: for as long as you could remember, “Television” was ABC, NBC, and CBS. And in most places, that was only if the winds were favorableI am writing this from a house where we never bothered to sign up for cable, finding Netflix and the Internet adequate to our needs. In favorable winds, we get one channel. Fuck you, digital switch-over.. Now, you were faced with the reality that within a few years, your average viewer was going to receive fifty, a hundred, perhaps as many as four hundred channels. How could they possibly produce that much content? I like to imagine that it went a bit like this:
INT. TV EXECUTIVE'S OFFICE. DAY. AN EXECUTIVE SITS AT A DESK, SMARTLY DRESSED. HIS NOSE IS BLEEDING
Hey, boss! You know how you were saying at the last meeting that we were all in big trouble if we didn’t find a way to produce four hundred times as much content for the same cost?
(manic)Who are you? And why am I covered in spiders?
Well I had this great idea. (Does that thing where you wave your arm in the air like you’re fondling a flying dachshund that is supposed to indicate that you’re reading the headline off of an imaginary newspaper. A flying newspaper.) Interactive Television. We do five takes of one show, change things around a little, and we air them all at the same time on a whole bunch of different channels. Every time we break for commercial, you throw up a title card saying, like, “If you want the hero to bang the cute blonde, switch to channel 62, and if you want him to screw the redhead instead, go to channel 50.” We only got to shoot a couple of minutes extra, and we can mix the pieces up and take up as many channels as we want. It’ll be the next big thing! It’s as sound a bet as Apple Computers, Defense Contracting and white rappers!
Lackey, I like it! Of course, I just snorted about five hundred dollars worth of coke, and that’s in 80s money. Call my secretary and have her bring my DeLorean around.
Only five hundred? It’s already lunchtime. You usually blow through twice that much by eleven!
Good point. Cancel the DeLorean, have them send up a chafing dish full of Charlie. But wait. Maybe it’s just because I’m not quite fully stoned, but don’t you think that the viewing public is going to have a hard time accepting interactive television?
I got it all figured out, boss. We’ll get way out in front of it and get them all adjusted to the idea. You know how the kids these days love their video games on their Nintendo Atari Systems?
Oh yeah. I got me that sweet R.O.B. game. Man, those are going to last forever. They’re gonna put out a third game for it any day now… Hey, if I had my robot butler play against R.O.B., which one do you think would win?
I don’t know boss. If you had your robot butler play the video game, who’d go fetch you your cocaine while you watched?
Good point. But what’s this got to do with interactive TV?
Well, you know how the kids these days love their video games? Well, what if we introduced interactive TV by pitching it as a video game you played with your television. We do it like a kid’s show, right? And we get the kids to buy toys.
Kids shows were made for selling toys! We slap on a thirty second PSA at the end and we can call our half-hour-long toy commercial an “educational program”.
I know, right? But here’s the clever part: the boys down in R&D say that you can flash a light in a TV show, and pick it up with cheap receiver, like a remote control in reverse. So we put one of these receivers in the toys, and then, get this: we flash the light in the show, and if the kid has the toy, the toy lights up, plays music, whatever. Bam! It’s like a magic trick. So we get the kids thinking that they’re actually interacting with the TV show.
So how does that get us to showing the same show on twelve channels at once?
That’s the clever part: the show’s for kids, right? But we put it on in Prime Time. Not one of the big-money slots. Like, Saturday at seven or something. And we throw in some stuff to make mom and dad happy too. Nothing to edgy, no smut or anything. But something a little heavy. Goes right over the kids’ heads, because they’re just there for the fighting robots and shooting things with their toy guns and stuff. But the parents, they get into it because it’s got some heavy stuff. In between the fighting robots. Like, we set it in the future, and there’s been a big war and most of humanity has been wiped out. Yeah, that’s it. A post-apocalyptic kids’ show.
(jaw drops) So the kids are watching it for the robots and the toys, but mom and dad are watching it for the drama… (beat) And mom and dad see the kid playing with the toys, and they see the toys all lighting up and going crazy…
And after a couple of seasons, it starts to seem kind of normal that you’d be interacting with a TV show. So when we roll out the twelve-channels-at-once thing, it’s not something weird and scary, it’s just–
The same thing we did before turned up to eleven. It’s brilliant. It can’t possibly fail. I mean, unless this idea is totally ridiculous and the only reason I think otherwise is that I’ve snorted enough coke today to kill two and a half men! What do you call it?
I got this title, it’s brilliant. It really conveys that it’s a lighthearted and fun kid’s show, and also a dark and edgy drama for adults. I call it…
So that’s the set-up. I think it sounds reasonable.
I liked the bit with the cocaine.
Quiet, you. So, that happened, and in September of 1987, this show came to the air-waves. A few weeks later, another show would premiere. In my area, the two ran back-to-back in order to provide a little synergy. That second show’s first episode, coincidentally enough, included a scene set in a post-apocalyptic near-future that bore a bit of similarity to the dystopia of our amazing interactive wonder. The second show was Star Trek: The Next Generation. As you might imagine, it is rather better remembered than the subject of tonight’s recap.
But what is this mysterious show, this bold experiment in interactive post-apocalyptic children’s television? The show was written by a man whose name you are far more likely to recognize than the show’s: J Michael Stracyzinski. Like his later and infinitely more famous Babylon 5, this show was a pioneer in computer-generated graphics. And like Babylon 5, if you look at the graphics now, they scream less “Cutting-edge supercomputer technology!” and more “Why do the bad guys look like they were rendered on a PlayStation 1?”
Next year will be the show’s 25th anniversary, and its corporate masters have finally deigned to release a DVD set in honor of it. I highly urge everyone to buy it when it comes out, even if you don’t have fond nostalgic memories of the show, because you should encourage studios to do things like this, instead of pretending that their embarrassing failed past series didn’t exist. In the mean time, though, I hope that some screen-caps from my ancient and grainy but lovingly-restored off-air copies will give you the nudge you need to partake. So, what would be a fitting name for a show set in a dystopian future, following the small band of heroes who use super-science to transform themselves into super-powered armored forms to defend the few remaining survivors from an evil tyrant whose grand plan is to annihilate the human race and replace them with a machine race?
No. Wait. That’s not quite right. My bad. Can’t even fathom how I made that mistake. This show, with its entirely serious and not at all ludicrous name, is…
Bah. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future? Why, that’s so ludicrous they may as well have titled it Captain Power in the 22nd Century
Earth, 2147. The legacy of the Metal Wars, where man fought machines–and machines won. Bio-Dreads–monstrous creations that hunt down human survivors…and digitize them. Volcania, center of the Bio-Dread Empire; stronghold and fortress of Lord Dread, feared ruler of this new order. But from the fires of the Metal Wars arose a new breed of warrior, born and trained to bring down Lord Dread and his Bio-Dread Empire. They were “Soldiers Of The Future”–mankind’s last hope.
Together they form the most powerful fighting force in Earth’s history. Their creed: to protect all life. Their promise: to end Lord Dread’s rule. Their name: Captain Power And The Soldiers Of The Future!
Now, with 22 episodes at about 22 minutes each, and packed with action, we never get a really explicit drop of the complete backstory, and there’s a lot of it. Fortunately, this show was so heavily merchandise-driven that you can basically string together a minor Russian novel from the copy on the back of the toy boxes.
We’d best get it out of the way now. Comparisons between Captain Power and Power Rangers are pretty much impossible to avoid. They’re both series about five-man teams, they’re both targeted at children, and, of course, they both have the word “Power” in their titles. Also, something about people magically summoning spandex-based armor.
Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers would premiere about five years later, a production of Haim Saban. It was the first and far and away the most successful of a group of series he launched which were American adaptations of Japanese Tokusatsu“Special effects”. Specifically practical effects done in real-time. Especially “Man in a rubber suit”-style effects, as distinguished to CGI or Stop-Motion effects series, which coupled special effects footage of costumed heroes from Japanese television with original US-produced linking footage.
The similarities are there, but they’re mostly superficial: five transforming heroes; evil force with designs on world conquest. It would surprise me if the original makers of Power Rangers didn’t have at least a passing familiarity with Captain Power, (If nothing else, it would have come up when they tried to sell what sounded a lot like a reboot of a failed series to network executives) but there’s no sign that it had any overt influence. At first.
As alluded to by the title gag up there, season 17 of Power Rangers, Power Rangers RPM went into production with the Sword of Damocles hanging over it’s head (Sha-na-na-na ain’t no lie!): the show was all but cancelled. So, deciding that they literally had nothing left to lose, the showmakers threw the saving throw of all saving throws, and decided to set the “final” season after the apocalypse. Taking monster and robot footage from a fairly silly and lighthearted season of the corresponding Japanese series, RPM wove a story in which a genocidal computer virus, Venjix, had wiped out most of humanity, and had plotted out an endgame involving turning the remaining humans into robots. The Power Rangers were empowered by technology developed by one of the scientists involved in Venjix’s creation, and we have some of the darkest storylines and imagery in the history of the franchise. Enough interest was sparked that Saban bought the franchise back from its owners (a subsidiary of Disney) and continued the franchise. Again, I haven’t been able to find any evidence of this, but I find it hard to imagine that twenty-year-old memories of Captain Power didn’t have at least a little influence on the development of Power Rangers RPM.
Now, on the other hand, the Japanese franchise that Power Rangers was based on, Super Sentai, dates back to the late ’70s. Again, I’d be very surprised if Super Sentai didn’t influence the conception of Captain Power. Like I mentioned, Power Rangers was only the first of several adaptations Saban did in the 1990s. Another, called VR Troopers used footage from a different Tokusatsu franchise, known collectively as Metal Heroes. That franchise bore a familial resemblance to Super Sentai, but focused on in one case, a married couplelone heroes rather than a team, had more traditional vehicles (and used them more sparingly) rather than giant robots, and had a generally more cybernetic and chrome-armor look to its heroes. Visually, there’s a much more marked resemblance in style between Captain Power and, say, Dimensional Warrior Spielban, than to anything in Power Rangers.
Come to think of it, one of the strangest things about Captain Power is that it’s not an adaptation of an earlier work. In places, it feels very much like an ill-conceived live-action adaptation of a Sentai anime series not unlike the piles of violent, adult-targeted anime imported into the US in the ’80s and marketed to children by clueless importers who couldn’t get their minds around the idea that “animated” doesn’t mean “for kids” (See also: Macross; Golion). The visual effects often overreach, as if they were contractually required to have a robot bird monster and a flying suit, even though it was the 1980s and would have taxed a feature film budget to do well. And then there’s the artwork. There’s a very consistent visual style to the artwork used on the toys and related media — which looks nothing at all like the show. Look at this picture of the Captain’s action figure. We’re still a decade before “adult collector” toys became a thing, so I don’t expect great parity to the show, but what we actually have here is a toy that is very reflective of the art on the box, but not at all of the show (Look at Cap’s goggles). The “Power On” charging station, rather than being a rather simple six-sided structure, is an extremely elaborate single-user affair. The Power Jet and Phantom Striker barely appear in the series. These all look like toys based on an animated or comic series — pretty good toys in fact — but there’s just no parity with the show. When you watch Captain Power, one of the feelings you get is the strange and incongruous feeling you get watching something like the Bill Bixby The Incredible Hulk, or the 1990 The Flash TV series. Like what you’re seeing is a very affectionate and well-meaning remake of something that was never meant for the medium of television.
Despite what the announcer says, the Metal Wars actually refer to a period when machine fought Machine, and nobody won. We’re still in “this is the backstory to the backstory at this point: Captain Power begins in medias res, fifteen years into a war that itself starts after the apocalypse. The particular apocalypse in question here came about because mankind had perfected robotic soldiers called
Battle Droids Neo-Vipers Cogs Cylons Quantrons Robot Santas Foot Clan T-750s “Bio-Mechs”. With a ready supply of soldiers who you can throw into combat without body armor and still avoid a constant parade of body bags showing up on the six o’clock news, with the deleterious effect that tends to have on a nation’s willingness to squander half of its GDP in two pointless never-ending wars that we only got into because our leadership lied to us about them having Weapons of Mass Destruction-Related-Program-Activities — Okay. That sentence kind of got away from me there. Anyway, the point is that once the nation-states of the world had Bio-Mechs, there was no serious incentive to not just be at war all the time. No one ever ended up actually dying, so you never had any trouble finding an ample supply of people willing to die for their country. The wars brought about devastation to infrastructure and bankrupted the nations of the world, and, this show being informed by 80s sensibilities, we could take for granted that international politics got quickly stuck in a cycle of “Build up massive robot armies because otherwise your enemies will attack you,” followed by “Attack with your massive robot army in order to recoup some of your investment in robot armies.”
So by 2132, things were looking pretty dire, which is why scientist and likely porn star Dr. Stuart Gordon Power and his weasely creep sidekick Dr. Lyman TaggartFormer owner of Garfield’s pal Odie came up with the idea of building a supercomputer that could remotely seize control of all the world’s Bio-Mechs and order them to stop fighting. Which could not possibly go horrifically wrong. I mean, sure, every nation on Earth might kinda resent having some independent cabal of
freedom-hating terrorists scientists remotely switch all their armies off, but they’d get over it, right? And if they didn’t, well, the scientists would have control over every robot soldier in the world, so tough cookies.
This does seem like a plan with certain logical shortcomings.
No shit, S– You know what, I’m not going to go there. To top it all off, they decided to give their supercomputer a name that could in no way serve as tragic irony by being far more apropos in the unlikely event that the computer turned evil and took over the world: OverMind.
I say. That seems roughly equivalent to naming your child Wolfgang Lupin von Turnsintoawolfduringfullmoons in a fictional universe including lycanthropy.
Yes. But don’t forget, it was made by a guy named “Power” in a superhero universe.
The weasely Doctor Taggart becomes impatient with the difficulties inherent in creating an AI supercomputer capable of seizing control of all the world’s robot soldiers, and decides to take a dangerous shortcut by
including protomatter in the genesis matrix having sex with OverMind.
I say! I thought you intimated that this was a programme appropriate for children!
Okay, he does not literally have sex with OverMind. But he physically “enters” it, if you know what I meanWhat I means is that Overmind has a door in the back and he opens it up and walks inside., and intermingles his own delicious, meaty human brain with OverMind’s glowing orby computer brain, causing OverMind to become fully operational, if you know what I meanWhat I mean is that it starts working properly and performing the task for which it’s designed.
The only problem, and I admit this is kind of a nitpick, is that OverMind and Taggart both go stark-raving mad, and decide that the best thing for humanity would be for OverMind and Taggart to take over the Bio-Mechs and use them as an army to round up all the humans, convert them into easy-to-swallow digital form, and commit global genocide in order to start a new world order based around cold and calculating machine logic and peopled by a new race of sentient machines called by the entirely logical and not-at-all cartoonishly evil name “Bio-Dreads”. This is clearly a shocking twist that you could only have seen coming if you had been awake during the opening credits.
So, Taggart and OverMind make short work of the world and quickly rip and mp3-encode most of humanity. The remaining world governments decide that, rather than lynching Dr. Power for his role in bringing about the downfall of humanity, they should let him set up shop in one of the middle levels of NORAD, somewhere below the Temporal Sciences Commission and above Stargate Command, to work on a strategy for defeating Taggart. Having sort of blown his creative wad on OverMind, Dr. Power’s solution, faced with literally millions of Bio-Mech soldiers, commanded by some indeterminate number of sentient Bio-Dread troops, supplemented by Taggart’s army of loyal humansWhy are humans following him when his plan involves “kill every last human being” as step 3? Well, some of them are True Believers, looking for a place of honor among the new robotic order. Others are self-serving pragmatists who consider a Dread victory inevitable and prefer to live out their last years in comparative comfort as Quislings. And the rest are just sadists who consider it more important to take joy in watching the world burn than to lift a finger saving it. Yes. Dread recruited the Tea Party., along with his terrible CGI warlord Soaron is this:
He’s going to get a five year head-start on Zordon and make a whopping FIVETechnically seven. They refer to two additional suits which they have not yet given to anyone. These were to be used in the second season had the show not been cancelled. Mighty Morphing PowerNamed for Dr. Power, not because they were full of power or anything. That’d be dumb. Suits. Putting on a sort of TRON-inspired body stocking and allowing yourself to be energized by the Power Platform would summon super-powered armor, and confer protection from digitization. This part we actually get to see in a flashback episode of the series. Sure, it’s a bit unlikely that any amount of Power you encrust five people with would make up for the comical difference in numbers, but that’s just because you’re allowing logic and reason to cloud your judgment. Instead, watch these frames from the transformation sequence.
There. Can you honestly tell me that wasn’t worth the fall of humanity?
Unfortunately, Dr. Power’s son, John, is a brash dumbass who gets himself captured trying to singlehandedly assassinate Taggart, and Stuart has to nobly sacrifice himself to save the dumbass. Someone, no idea who, promotes young John to the rank of Captain. In… Some… Armed… Service… for… Some… Country… I don’t know. John becomes the leader of a team which is called the “Future Force”, I guess because “Present Force” didn’t have the right sort of ring to it. I have no idea what kind of Captain John is supposed to be. He apparently out-ranks a Major, a Lieutenant, a Sergeant and a Corporal, but which would probably imply he’s a naval captain. But that would make him the only one with a naval rank, except maybe Tank, but Tank who ever heard of the navy having a tank? In fact, I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t actually hold any sort of rank at all, and just insists on people calling him “Captain” because it makes him feel all virile when people call him “Captain Power”.
The show’s set about fifteen years after these events. Stuart’s dead, John’s grown into a well-groomed adult with a healthy complexion and none of the sort of physical flaws you’d expect from living a rough and often-undernourished post-apocalyptic lifestyle. He’s played by the excellently-haired actor Tim Dunigan, who you do not remember as the original The one who was played by Tim Dunigan, not the one who was played by Dirk BenedictFace in the pilot for The A-Team. By 2002, Dunigan had decided that the volatile world of acting was no longer for him, and decided to go into a profession where you would always make money no matter what: mortgage brokering. Taggart fell into a volcano or something and had to be rebuilt as a cyborg, and now calls himself “Lord Dread”, and I suspect that his character design drew a lot from Darth Vader and the character of Travis from Blake’s Seven. He lives in a high-tech base inside a volcano. In Detroit. Which sounds unrealistic unless you’ve actually been to Detroit.
John is still living in NORAD, has claimed one of the Amazing Power Suits (In fact, close as I can tell, his suit is actually called “The Power Suit”. It seems that each of the suits has a name, which, by an amazing coincidence is also the callsign/nickname of its operator.), and asserted his dominance over his dad’s old enforcer, Major Matthew Masterson, played by Peter MacNeill, who goes by “Hawk” because no one could say “Major Matthew Masterson” in a combat situation without getting tongue tied. Hawk is the master of the amazing “Hawk” suit, which lets him fly, thereby being responsible for most of the show’s chroma-key visual effects stuff. The other three suits have been handed out to some other folks John met along the way:
There’s Lieutenant Michael “Tank” Ellis, played by professional Guy-You-Get-When-You-Need-a-Viking-Type-Guy-in-a-Schwarzenegger-Movie Sven-Ole Thorsen, who grew up in a placeDon’t know what sort of place. He just throws it out there without context because JMS really wanted to get the name out there. A voice in my head tells me that it was an undersea colony, but in context, it could be a city, a refugee camp, a space station, a building, a boat, a school. For that matter all he actually says is “While I was growing up in…”, so technically it might not be a place, but, say, a street gang. called “Babylon 5”. I’ve heard that name before somewhere, but I can’t place it. He operates the “Tank” suit, which is all decked out with a camouflage print instead of the chrome everyone else gets, because Tank is like 7 feet tall, so naturally you’d want him to be the stealthy one. His suit also has a ginormous gun.
Corporal Robert “Scout” Baker is the team’s token minority, whose suit has special chameleon abilities allowing him to impersonate Bio-Mechs. As I recall, though, he’s got far and away the fewest scenes, because even after the eschaton, a brother can’t catch a break. He’s a smallish unassuming kind of guy, played by Maurice Dean Wint, who would apparently hit puberty some time in the 90s, because he would grow up to become The Guy Who They Should Hire For Any Movie They Want To Remake Where Richard Roundtree Was In The Original, best known for playing Quentin the psycho cop in Cube, RoboCable in Robocop: Prime Directives and Luther in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
The last member of the team is former-Hitler-Youth member
Girly McObviousLoveInterest Corporal Jennifer “Pilot” Chase, who, being a girl, gets the lightest armor, and, unlike everyone else, doesn’t even get a helmet, just a pair of sunglasses. I don’t even remember her using her power suit all that much; she’s supposed to be their tactician, but the biggest part of her job is flying their shuttle around. In terms of their practical day-to-day roles, Hawk is the one doing most of the work, but for story arc, Pilot is pretty much second only to the Captain in terms of importance. And she’s the character I remember best after all of these years, because of how the series ends. Which I will get t when I get to it. If I were a few years older back in 1987, I’m sure I’d have had a massive crush on her. But those of you follow this blog will recall that those hormones were not to kick in until the 1990 film Moontrap. Jessica Steen, who played Pilot, would go on to be the original Doctor WeirThe one who was played by Jessica Steen, not the one who was played by Torri Higgson in Stargate SG-1, and, because I do enjoy my irony, also played The Other Becky on the Canadian series Flashpoint, subbing for the original Pink Power Ranger Amy Jo Johnson during her maternity leave. She is also the only Power Ranger Soldier of the Future other than Dunigan whose Wikipedia page mentioned Captain Power in the main body of the article.
Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future
Episode 1: Shattered
By Larry Oitillio
We open on Cap, overlooking the quarry where every episode of Blake’s Seven was filmed. He immediately decides to give me the finger for my causal dismissal of Scout’s importance on the team, by immediately announcing that it’s “Up to you now, Scout,” and buggering off. Our hero!
Right away, we’re treated to some Bio-Mechs, Cyberman-stomping out of what I think is the Necropolis at the Valley of the Kings or something. That garish strobing on their chests is part of the show’s interactive element: when something flashes red like that, you can point your Power Jet XT-7 at it, and shoot to accumulate points.
We cut to Scout, who immediately backstabs a Bio-Mech, and then uses his suit’s array of compression artifacts to transform into the mech’s doppleganger so that he can slip undetected into the… Um… Generic Steam-and-Clanking Factory. We cut back to Cap, Hawk, and Tank, who boldly… Watch from a safe distance. Our heroes!
Tank and Scout are the only Soldiers of the Future who wear full helmets. Tank’s is a bit like a knight’s helmet, solid with eyeslits, while Scout wears something between a full-face racecar driver’s helmet and a 50s-Sci-Fi-Style astronaut helmet. Hawk’s helmet is basically a fighter jet pilot’s helmet, which at least makes sense. Cap, on the other hand, wears something between a helicopter pilot’s helmet and Erik Estrada’s helmet from CHiPS.
Scout promptly attaches one of those generic stick-to-anything timed explosive dealies to a wall, and then decides that now that the bomb is planted, he will probably not require stealth or anything to escape, and reverts back to his suit’s default Cyborg F1-Driver appearance (see sidebar). Unfortunately, Lord Dread had the foresight to lock the factory doors overnight, so Scout won’t be able to get out until the shift change in the morning.
The shift change? For the robot workers?
They have a fantastic union. Cap promises to extract Scout once he’s planted the last bomb, so he sneaks off through what looks for all the world like a spare set from Red Dwarf. Unfortunately, he sets off one of Lord Dread’s Spy Gear Motion Detectors and the jig is up. If only he had some kind of ability to somehow disguise his appearance so that he’d be mistaken for a Bio-Mech…
An army of mechs descend on him, firing purple strobe effects, which would cause your Power Jet XT-7 to lose a hit point if it saw them. Outside, Cap and his buddies, without much enthusiasm, announce that they’ve got to blow up the doors to the factory so that Scout can escape before the bomb went off. Given just how easy it is for Scout to escape, and for them to blow the doors, it’s not really clear to me why they chose this “Use stealth and cunning for the first minute, and then just do whatever” strategy instead of the simpler strategy of “Just shoot it with guns.” The plan comes off, however, and Cap calls Pilot in to pick them up with their shuttle.
The shuttle, by the way, should not be confused with the Power Jet XT-7: the shuttle appears in just about every episode, and does not have a corresponding toy. The Power Jet, on the other hand, only appears once, briefly, and is the centerpiece of the toy line.
Meanwhile, in Volcania, we meet our antagonist, Lord Dread, who, just to show off, spins around 270 degrees in his Big Scary Chair in his dimly lit command room. Because he’s insane with love for the cold efficiency of machine minds. The velvety dulcet tones of OverMind tell him that “Energy Substation Zeta has been violated.” Eew. Cap’s latest act of terrorism has set back Dread’s master plan, dubbed “
The Final Solution Project New OrderSeriously. They lay on the Nazi analogues pretty thick in this show” by about three months. Dread vows to look to Cap’s past for a way to defeat him.
The Power Base is a weird set, combining elements of Stargate Command, Power Rangers HQ, The Blackwood Project Base from season 2 of War of the Worlds, and the TARDIS. Cap receives a message from his old friend Athena Samuels which could not possibly be a trap. He summons a hologram of Kenny Loggins, who appears Zordon-style in the glass tube at the center of their TARDIS console. This is Mentor, a hologram
from his own time, that only Sam can see and hear of Cap’s dead father, because that would in no way be a creepy way to interface with their computer database, nor would it stunt Cap’s emotional development. Mentor triangulates the origin of the signal, and so Cap and Pilot fly off into their time tunnel. Oh, yeah. They have this network of wormholes they can use to travel around the planet instantaneously.
One might deduce that such a technology would be an unlikely development in a post-apocalyptic scenario, as the resources required in its invention would be of more direct use in, say, fighting the genocidal madman currently eliminating the world’s population. However, I think we can deduce that were such technology available before these aforementioned wars, the impact to human life would be so great that the resulting civilization would be entirely unrecognizable to us, and highly unlikely to stumble into the trap of the Metal Wars.
Yeah. And besides, a secret organization based out of Cheyenne Mountain who travel around using wormholes? What kind of stupid premise is that for a show? Cap banters on at length about how Athena had been his father’s assistant before the war, and hints at how badly his younger self had wanted to bone her, while Pilot looks on in that “I find your story tedious, but mostly because I really want you to aim your Power Jet XT-7 at my Red Strobe Effect, but will not work up the nerve to tell you this until the finale.” He does not point out that this would imply a massive age disparity between the two of them. So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.
When they land, Cap goes off to find Athena, and orders Pilot to stay behind and guard the shuttle. Which she does a bang-up job at, because the instant he’s out of sight, she gets intrigued by a still-working traffic light, and wanders off to be promptly gassed by what appears to be a Sontaran.
Cap goes to a bookstore, and for no clear reason decides this would be a good time to They can Power On either by standing on the empowerment pedestal (which presumably also recharges the suit), or in the field by touching either the insignia on their uniform, or the crest on the Tron-Suits they wear under their clothes. We won’t actually see them do the Full Transformation Sequence from the empowerment pedestal until the third episode. Personally, I suspect that these episodes weren’t aired in anything more than a very general sort of order. Remember, this is the ’80s, and season-long plot arcs were still in their infancy at this point, so the exact order in which episodes aired was pretty much subject to the whims of the broadcaster.Power On, having said before that they should save their Power. Approximately three seconds later, his suit helpfully chimes in that it’s at 33% power. So there are only five power suits in existence, and they can only hold a charge for about a minute at a time. And this is the best Cap’s dad could come up with to prevent the wholesale annihilation of humanity?
A chessboard gives Cap a flashback, revealing that Athena was apparently Jean Louisa Kelly circa 1986. As it fades, present-day Athena Not like that, pervsreveals herself. She’s aged gracefully if this is really at least 15 years later. Aside from evolving into Pat Benetar, she seems not to have changed at all. Because it’s a trap.
Athena shoots Cap in the gut. Fortunately, with the power of his armored power suit, he… is thrown across the room and knocked out cold. The suit dutifully reports that it’s down to 15% power. Athena apologizes, says “It’s the best way,” and runs away.
Back at Volcania, OverMind and Dread exposition for us that Athena has been implanted with a subcutaneous transponder, and was ordered to capture Captain Power alive, so shooting him is viewed as an act of defiance.
Those of you who have remained fully conscious so far can probably work out what’s going on here. Dread had captured Athena at some point in the past, sent her out to lure the good Captain into a trap.
And I’d assume she complied because “captured” in this show usually means “Zapped by a video toaster effect that turns you into an MP3 for OverMind to stuff in his RAID array,” and it’s allegedly unpleasant, so she was probably not keen to go through it again.
Quite. So unkeen, in fact, that she thought he’d be better off dead than captured. I shouldn’t wish to spoil the big reveal, but the rest is, of course, elementary.
Especially as the scene of Athena getting digitized is in the opening credits.
Dread dispatches his Bio-Dread Warlord Soaron to finish the job. Soaron is one of the show’s Big Visual Effects Extravaganzas, bleeding-edge computer generated graphics so sophisticated that each frame in which he appears took literally centuries to render on the most powerful room-sized computers of the seven richest princes of Europe.
So try not to laugh too hard.
Soaron is self-aware, nigh-invulnerable (he can regenerate from even very severe damage), highly individualized (he is the only Bio-Dread of his kind. Except in the training videos where there are dozens of him), and by the end of the series, he’ll be looking like he’s on his way to being Starscream to Dread’s Megatron.
I do not think there is enough cocaine in the world to convince me that stack of polygons is a real physical entity inhabiting the same world as the characters.
Captain Power awakens from his fatal shooting. One of the major storytelling weaknesses of this show is that the main mode they have for resolving a tense situation is “It turns out he wasn’t hurt nearly so badly as it seemed in the last shot.” It’ll happen a lot in this series. He confronts Athena, who has another go at shooting him, but Cap makes his saving throw this time, and disarms her with a blue strobing ninja throwing star. Athena has another trick up her sleeve, though, and lobs a grenade at him, which knocks Cap out again, and this time manages to power down his suit.
Remember how I said back in the very last paragraph that they like to resolve tension by just having it turn out the characters weren’t hurt as badly as it seemed? Well, we cut back to Pilot, who just… Wakes up. Yeah. The Sontaran just left her unconscious where she fell. She takes off in the shuttle, reports the double-cross. Cap, now at Athena’s mercy, has to sit through her monologging as she prepares to kill him. She did, indeed, not care for being digitized. “And then you’re inside. Inside the machine. You can feel it touching you, Johnny. It’s wires and metal, but it touches you.” Eew. So that’s why she wants to kill Cap: to spare him from being digitized. Soaron chooses this moment to show up, though, and shoots Athena. She continues to assert that it’s better to die than to go through the thinly veiled rape analogy of digitization. So Cap snogs her, insists that it’s Words which could not possibly come back to haunt him laterbetter to be alive than dead no matter what Dread makes you think, and they cuddle, waiting for digitization. Just as Soaron prepares to fire, though, Pilot and Hawk show up and chase him off. They get in a few good hits on Soaron, but once he’s in the air, a lot of their shots fall short and explode harmlessly when they hit the matte painting of the sky behind him. The remaining teammates show up on hover bikes and join in the assault, driving Soaron off.
They take Athena back to base, and then remove her tracking implant. Because they have a jamming device, but you’d think they’d mention that up front. Pilot storms off because she can smell a tender moment brewing, and Cap tells Athena that he’ll send her to “The Passages”, which we never get much explanation of, but it seems to be an underground refugee camp.
And that’s the first episode of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. The end credits play over a rather shameless rip-off of the trench run scene from Star Wars, which makes up a good 2/3 of the interactivity segments in this episode. For an introduction to the show, it’s kind of short on exposition — I’m not complaining. I’ve said before that an overabundance of exposition is what often makes science fiction weak from a storytelling perspective. But as an introduction to the show, there’s really not a lot going on. It’s a very personal story, mostly about the Captain himself. The other characters get little screen time and no character development of note. Even the opening scene, where we get to see Scout do a lot of the work, we don’t really learn anything about him. We’re given a name drop on “Project New Order” without explanation, and a few tantalizing details: there had been a west coast resistance but now there isn’t, but there’s no real sense of what this world is like on the whole. There is a bit of really great subtle stuff going on with Pilot. She only has a handful of lines, but her reactions to the thought of Cap kindling a romance with Athena speak volumes. Decades later, I’d have a very similar experience watching the interplay between Kat and Doggie in Power Rangers SPD There’s two reaction shots at in “Shadow Part 2”, one where Kat looks up at Shadow Ranger as he carries her in his arms from the alien ship where she’d been imprisoned, and another at the end where Doggie refers to Kat as his “friend”, and you can see her smile collapse, which together seem to shout unequivocally that she wants the doggie to slip her a bone., but there, nothing ever came of it, not even a verbal acknowledgement.
Warning: The following paragraphs of this review contain a discussion of rape symbolism in Captain Power. Those who do not wish to read these paragraphs can continue reading from the paragraph accompanying the poster for The Graduate
But the main thing that I think really rubs weird about this episode as a premiere is that it’s long on just abject horror. We’ve got visuals of “SanfranIt’s the future. Things have Sci-Fi names. San Francisco is just “Sanfran”. New York is “Nu’ork”” reduced to a smouldering wasteland. We’ve got this weirdly sexualized relationship between Dread and OverMind — Which I thought was just me making a joke when I started it, but it turns out to actually have some basis in the show. I half expect OverMind to channel Jacob Kell from Highlander Endgame and gurn “Don’t you want to be inside me?” to people. The Nazi parallels haven’t really been explored yet, but my god, the language they use when talking about digitization might as well have a flashing overlay reading “RAPE SYMBOLISM!” On top of that, we’ve got a character who is out-and-out suicidal, and is driven as far as to literally attempt to murder the man she loves in order to spare him from symbolic rape. Y’know, for kids!
I’ll say this for the rape symbolismWell there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say: Science Fiction has a long and occasionally noble tradition of using fantastic scenarios in fantastic settings as analogies for social issues that are difficult to address directly. By creating an analogous situation of a fantastical nature, they make it “safer” for the audience to think about, and hopefully reconsider their attitudes and preconceptions toward the underlying issue. The treatment of digitization, and by analogy rape, is compassionate, and we’re meant to empathize with Athena’s horror and pain at the violation she’s suffered, and very forthrightly rejects any attempt to blame her for what she’s been through, even when it drives her to try to kill John.
That said, whenever you do that kind of Sci-Fi analogy, you run the risk of letting the outlandishness of your scenario completely obscure your point. The Star Trek The Next Generation episode “The Outcast” was meant to convey an important message about sexual orientation and LGBT rights, but the decision to cast only soft-featured female actors as the allegedly genderless race hid the whole thing behind a layer of “Riker meets the only straight girl on the planet of the angry militant lesbians.” That’s what you’re up against, and particularly when the social issue you want to address has the weight of society vested in denying the problem and blaming the victim, you’re waltzing into the chance of making a very real problem seem unreal. And, however compassionate their handling of Athena’s trauma is, let’s not overlook the fact that the handling of this scene basically comes down to “Traumatized woman is driven to behave unacceptably, and is talked down by a beefy white man, who just assures her that it’s not so bad as she thinks and everything is going to be okay because he says so.” Ick. Protip, folks: it is not a good idea to write a scene where a man tells a rape victim that things aren’t as bad as she thinks and everything will be okay. And we know as backstory that men do get digitized as well as women, and we’ll even get to see that in later episodes, but let’s also remember this: leaving aside the super powers and battle armor, the primary function of the Power Suits is that they prevent digitization. So we’ve got Cap essentially mansplaining to a traumatized woman that this horrible violation she’s been through isn’t so bad — when he’s one of the five people in all the world who can’t go through digitization. So six out of ten for effort, but minus several million for having your head up your ass. And, while we’re on the subject, minus several more million for rape analogies in a kids’ show!
Speaking of Athena, though — Cap’s still in his teens when his father dies, and that’s some amount of time after Dread starts his war. The flashback seems to indicate pretty clearly this relationship started when the world was at peace — which indicates that it might be as far back as before Cap’s dad started the OverMind project in the first place. Now, the age difference might be mitigated somewhat by the years Athena spent on OverMind’s hard drive, but her torture speech indicates that she’d been in love with Johnny before she was digitized. They hadn’t seen each other since shortly after the war broke out. This means Athena might be as much as fifteen years older than Cap. Certainly, she was an adult before the war, and even if by the time they last saw each other, Young Johnny was in his late teens, that means that she’d known him since he was a child. There may not technically be anything abominable about the two of them snogging, since they’re both consenting adults at the time, but this seems to be roughly as creepy as “Hooking up with your parents’ college buddies.”
So your final impression?
Oh, I like it well enough. I mean, it’s horrific to be sure, but this is a post-apocalyptic setting. The basic squickiness of Cap’s relationship with Athena is really something you only pick up on if you think about it too long — I’d go as far as to suspect that when this episode was written, they hadn’t fleshed out the timeline completely, and didn’t realize just how big an age gap they were talking about. We get a lot of good character development for Cap, and those little touches from Pilot are fantastic. I’m not sure this is the episode I’d want to introduce someone to the show, though. For that, I’d probably stick to one of the more action-oriented episodes. But we’ll get to those in due time. You willing to stick around while I get into this series, Sherlock?
The game is, as they say, afoot.