Captain Power: Teased

SH: Hm. If that simple-minded fellow can manage it, surely I can deduce the trick of it. Let’s see. Ahem. Power on

Oh hey Sherlock Holmes, whatcha — ZOMG!

Robot Sherlock

SH: What? Oh. Yes. The effect wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Well what possessed you to try transforming on your own?

SH: Research, my good fellow. I was undertaking an experiment.

How’s that?

SH: In our last adventure, you intimated that you had information about a sixth member of Captain Power’s Future Force.

And… So… You thought you’d turn yourself into a robot?

SH: I was performing an experiment to determine the parameters for this sort of transformation. But I observed a certain discrepancy. You spoke of an “Original pitch” for this series?

Oh?

SH: In reference to the sixth member of Captain Power’s batallion, you described an “original trailer.”

Oh. That. Yeah. I first heard of this, as it were, from a page at captainpower.com. That page didn’t really have any description, just a strange and contextless collection of screencaps. Now, I had guessed that this was some kind of unaired pilot episode, as shows often do to sell themselves, like the 30 minute episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a different Willow, or the weird episode of Star Trek where Spock laughs and shouts a lot and the captain is played by Jesus. Or the several weird american episodes of Red Dwarf with Jadzia Dax as the Cat and one of My Two Dads as Lister.

SH: Or my own illustrious creator’s early script treatment of my own adventures, in which my chronicler and good friend Dr. John Watson was not a medical doctor recently retired from Her Majesty’s Army, but instead a time-traveling cat with supernatural powers.

Right… You’re weird.

Anyway, having seen the DVD extras, I now know that this wasn’t a full pilot, but just a short demo reel. Back when Gary Goddard was pimping the show, Mattel funded them to shoot a short featurette they could take around to trade shows in order to drum up pre-orders for the toys. The show was in a fairly early stage of development at the time, so we get to see some idea that never really panned out or that went in a different direction for the final product.

The trailer is readily available on YouTube, but there’s a nicely cleaned-up version on the DVD, so let’s take a new look at an old future, as you’ve never seen it before. Again…

SH: Well. That’s different.

And it doesn’t stop there. A narrator is proud to tell us all about “The most exciting television event of 1987.”

SH: Boundless optimism on his part.

Flash! Ah-Aaaaaah!

Well, he could hardly be expected to say “The second most exciting television event of 1987, seriously, we were hoping to do better, but I just heard that they’re planning to bring Star Trek back.” The narrator goes on to compound his sin by promising to use interactive technology and a mix of live-action and “The latest in computer technology” to “usher in a new age of television entertainment.”

He invites us to “Journey into the Future” as we pan up across the gleaming golden codpieceNope, not compensating for ANYTHING here... to get our first look at our hero, Captain Jonathan Power, and — Hey, wait; who’s this yo-yo? Yes, the original cast is not in this promo, not having been cast yet. This Power gets across the general sense of “Boyishly Handsome” that Tim Dunnigan would present in the series, though this Power has a bit more of a Flash Gordon thing going on, looking kinda like a high school football player. Who took one two many to the head.

As the narrator waxes about Good and Evil, we transition using a strange, low-quality visual effects shot of approaching Earth from Space, which looks suspiciously like the opening sequence of the 1990 season of War of the Worlds. We return from space to see our representative of evil: Lord Dread, who rules with– Oh god he looks like the crypt keeper!



This version of Lord Dread is older, more skeletal, and somewhat more reminiscent of Captain Picard as Locutus of Borg. His entire right arm is cybernetic, and unsubtly so, looking a bit like it’s made out of black Robotix parts. Also, somehow he manages to look kind of chunky. His chest armor sits high on his shoulders, concealing his nek and, combined with is fully cybernetic arm’s fully cybernetic shoulder, t manages to make him look rather less like simply a man in armor, and more like a man who’s had a sizeable part of his torso replaced.

A brief montage punctuates the narrator as he warns us that this is a world of “Power, wonder, and mystery,” full of “Powerful heroes” and “The Most Powerful Fighting Force in the World,” a world where narrators really like to use the word “Power”.

Our narrator helpfully informs us that this is the year 2099, and —

SH: Aha!

Aha?

SH: Clearly, you see, but you do not observe; surely this bit of narration sheds some light on a point of mystery for you?

I’ll point out, and Gary Goddard mentions this in one of the DVD extras, that among the fairly small contingent of people who remember Captain Power but who were not fans (I dare say, even among some who were), there’s a widespread belief that Lord Dread’s appearance was liberally cribbed from Star Trek’s Borg. While the visual similarities are substantial — in the case of Locutus, even bordering on uncanny — there is a bit of a deal-breaker for any accusation of theft in that direction. Namely, while Captain Power and Star Trek: The Next Generation were contemporaries, Power ended its run in March, 1988, while the Borg were teased in episodes of Trek airing in May, 1988, but neither appeared in person nor were named until the episode “Q Who”, which aired fully a year later in May 1989. Moreover, during those teasers in the first season, the TNG writers were imagining the Borg as a computer-rendered insectoid race. Ironically, it may well have been watching a few episodes of Captain Power that convinced them that computer animation was not going to cut it for their New Star Villains — and provided an alternative solution.

You mean that it’s 2099 instead of 2147? Well, obviously, at the draft stage here, they had the show set in a different year. I guess that at some stage of development, they decided that a hundred and ten years in the future was a bit less plausible than a hundred and fifty, given the extent of the technological development compared to the audience’s native time period. It does serve to highlight a very common trope in television science fiction, one I identified years ago when I was active on TVTropes: Sci-Fi Writers have absolutely no sense of scale, and rarely think of specific years as having an actual meaning — that “One hundred years from now” and “One thousand years from now” actually describe radically different places in time. By 1987, we were just getting to the tail end of when a sci-fi writer could just toss out “In The <stentorian_tone>Twenty-First Century</stentorian_tone>” and have the audience happily come with him in the understanding that he meant “The amazing neat-o whiz-bang future where we have moon colonies and personal jetpacks and food cubes, but are still socio-politically the same more-or-less as the audience and don’t have anything weird and uncomfortable for middle-america like gay marriage or really properly equal rights for women, though maybe there’s a black president just to drive home that it’s the future.”

So presumably, they started out with an executive summary that said “In The <stentorian_tone>Twenty-First Century</stentorian_tone>,” but at some point, J. Michael or Larry whispered, “Hey Gary, you know that the twenty-first century happens in like thirteen years, right?” and there was some fumbling and nodding and they quickly added 50 to all… their… dates…

SH: I take it that your circumloqution has finally brought you around to the conclusion I reached before your admittedly fascinating digression?

You were talking about how that one episode randomly put a “99” in the stardate instead of “47”?

SH: Quite

Yeah. That actually does clear that up. Someone got sloppy with the search-and-replace. Man, the world was weird before Perl.

The narrator tells us about the Metal Wars, and their end with Dread, ruler of the world, operating out of his stronghold, Volcania. They really went all-out on the model shots of the Volcania approachIt's Castle Greyskull and it's MINE!, which I can only imagine is why this is the exact footage they use in the series whenever they want to show Volcania, the giant cybernetic volcano of Detroit.

He'll never give up, he's always there...Dread, we are told, spends his days “monitoring a wide array of radio frequencies” as part of his search for the last bastion of resistence, the “legendaryYou keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Power Base…

We cut to The Power Base, and wow, that’s some impressive matte painting. The final version feels cramped by comparison. This Power Base is somewhere closer to the Batcave end of the spectrum rather than the Stargate Command end. That said, this doesn’t seem like a very good television set. It’s very workstation-y, lots of desks all clustered together, not really a lot of space for the actors to actually act in. It’s shot either in tight close-ups or from above, and it gives me the sense that the cast is meant to be seated for scenes set here. It seems somehow reminiscent of, say, Space 1999. It’s described as the place where they keep their “Powerful” vehicles for “ground, sea and air!”

This is, I think, where we start to close in on one of the key elements that was abandoned between this stage of development and what finally came to the screen. We’ve got a heavy emphasis here on a recurring motif of “ground, sea and air”. We will see it again.

Here’s a real treat. We get to see Not-Cap go through the Power On sequence. And does that charging station look familiar? No reason it should, really, since I’ve never shown you a picture, but…

It's a Quarter to Morphin' Time!
Okay, so it’s still not a tremendous match, but look, they’ve got the same weird-ass irregular hexadecagon shape.

Yeah. Remember how I said back in my first review how a lot of the merchandise for this show looks like it was adapted from something other than the actual aired program? Well, here’s the something. Some of the other things are more nebulous, but this version of the charging booth is quite clearly what inspired the design of the “Power On” toy.

Hawk!

It’s here that we’re introduced to our heroes, the mighty Future Force, and — Oh god, it’s these guys…

Yeah. This video was made pretty early in production, before the roles had been cast. I don’t know if any of these people were under consideration for the parts — heck, I don’t even know who any of them are. It seems just as likely that there are actors who specialize in this kind of work. I don’t know.

The Narrator makes introductions: Major Matthew “Hawk” Masterson, our narrator becomes a shade uncomfortably orgasmic as he announces, “Fighter… In the sky!” He’s a good deal younger than the “real” Hawk, closer to the age of the other teammates. I suspect that this version of the character doesn’t include the rich backstory that fleshed out the final version of Hawk, and my impression is that his role was a lot smaller at this stage of development. It’s hard to be sure, because of the video quality and the way the scene is lit, but I think his armor may be gold in this, not the blue-silver he wears in the series.



Tank!

Lieutenant Michael “Tank” Ellis — hey, that guy looks familiar. Yes, it’s Sven-Ole Thorsen, the only actor to appear in this promotional video who would go on to reprise the role in the series. Did his performance here really sell him in a way the others didn’t? Did he test well with audiences? Had they already cast Thorsen, but had to get ringers for the others? My suspicion is that he was just the beefiest guy they could find, so they cast him. Also, why is he smoking? Could you do that on a kids’ show in 1987? I know that back in the Max Headroom days, it was practically required to smoke in dystopian Sci-Fi, but in a kids’ show?

Corporal Jennifer “Pilot” ChaseWith Stevie Nicks. Danger! Eighties Hair! Danger! Seriously, do not stare directly into the hair. At least at this point in develoment, she’d become Jennifer. Some of the design notes (Included as an image gallery on the DVD) refer to the character as Tiffany “Pilot” Chase. Her costume is generally the same, though it seems like it might be a bit more, ahem, generous in the breastplate.

Take a look, it's in a bookSergeant Robert “Scout” Baker gets approximately the same screen-time here that he gets in the show. We’re told that his specialty is espionage, but this is depcited in the form of him backing into a cliffside niche while evading enemy fire.

And Colonel Nathan “Stingray” JohnsonStingray— Wait, who?


It's pronounced Sea-Man!Yes, Colonel Nathan “Stingray” Johnson was the original Green Ranger sixth teammate. Now, as I mentioned in earlier posts, the plan for season 2 was to have a sixth member join the team, but not Stingray; the capsule summaries call for the new member to use the handle “TNT”, and to be an explosives specialist. Stingray’s motif was to be water.

Ground, Sea and Air, remember? We’ve got the “Powerful” Power Vehicles for Ground, Sea and Air, and now the original team includes Hawk, with the power of flight, and Stingray, with the power of water. To fill in the gap, let me tangent a little about the forces of Evil…

Though only Soaron appears in this promo video, Lord Dread’s army was originally to consist of at least four named Bio-Dreads. One, a shape-shifting, liquid-metal style female Bio-Dread was dropped early as being too impractical to film. The remaining three are described using various terms, the one I have used so far is “Warlord”. Soaron is identified in some of those design notes as the “Sky Sentry” or “Air Warlord”. A second Bio-Dread Warlord named Blastarr is added around the midpoint of the series. This is a ground-based warrior, a giant brute with laser fingers. The design notes describe a third Bio-Dread, Tritor, who described as the “Water WarlordWater Warlord“.

If I tell you that Blastarr has tank-treads for feet, would it make it more obvious what’s going on here?

Soaron, Blastarr, Tritor. Hawk, Tank, Stingray. Three “elemental” Bio-Dreads, three corresponding “elemental” Future Force fighters.

Tritor and Stingray were dropped, of course. The interviews on the DVD claim that after shooting the promo, they realized that the difficulties of filming underwater scenes made it impractical to make aquatic battles part of a weekly series. Personally, I prefer to imagine that they suddenly realized that they’d reinvented Aquaman from Superfriends and wisely decided that it would not add to the richness of storytelling to keep arbitrarily adding fjords to all the plots.

I think that this Ground-Sea-Air thing does a lot to explain some of the unevenness and weirdness in the series as it came to fruition. Hawk’s disproportionately large role, for example. If the original intention was to have the three Warlords paired off against their three counterpart specialists, then Hawk is really doing the work of three characters for the first half of the season: they may have imagined rotating through the elements, doing an “air” episode, then a “ground” episode, then a “water” episode. Hawk inherited Stingray’s screentime, and the long lead-time to have the Blastarr model ready for the screen meant that he also got a chunk of Tank’s as well.

There’s also this: I mentioned before that, especially looking back after twenty yearsHoly crap, it’s been twenty years of ethnically diverse Power Rangers, the Future Force — and the show as a whole — feels pretty overwhelmingly white and male. The aired Future Force was three white guys, an African-American and one woman. While this version has a slightly worse overall ratio — four white guys — there’s something else to consider. See, in one sense, this isn’t really a Five Man Band any more. It’s almost more like a Power Trio. You’ve got Cap, the leader, Scout, the intellectual, and Pilot, the one with ovaries who represents the deliberate rejection of cold machine logic. Then as a sort of secondary layer of characters, you’ve got the three “specialists”. My impression is that had the show stayed close to the vision in this promo, the characters of Cap, Pilot and Scout would have been the big parts, while the other three would have, in essence, have been treated as a single character: it’s the Big Three plus Specialist, who is in Air-Mode this week. The specialists would trade-off being major characters from week to week, leaving the other two to make only a token appearance for the Big Fight Scene, while the other three would provide consistency. Viewed this way, the racial and gender imbalance is somewhat less problematic. The “main” characters are one white guy, one African-American, and one woman. It’s still a little off-putting that all three specialists are white and male, but it’s less forthright when only one of them is active at any given time.

head tilt thingWe return to Volcania, where a computer voice alerts Dread to a possible Captain Power sighting. This presumably is Overmind, though it lacks Overmind’s Creepy Stalkery Voice, and Overmind is never mentioned in the promo. Dread responds by ordering an attack. His voice has been run through a ring modulator and he speaks only out of one side of his mouth. As he ponders his evil plans to capture Cap and the Gang, he does the Robot Head Tilt ThingYou know the thing. In TV and film when a robot is looking at something it doesn’t understand, like a timed explosive it’s just picked up, or a teddy bear, or love, it sort of tilts its head to one side in contemplation. Best guess is that the motion is based on observations of people who have some vision problem that affects object recognition, where they have to turn a thing around and look at it from several angles and reason out what it is because the complex post-processing that our brains normally do to identify objects isn’t working. Or it’s because robots don’t have eyebrows to furrow..

This Dread comes off far less human than the Dread we ultimately got. He’s scarier, and on the basis of what we’ve seen so far in the series, I think this interpretation would have been more effective. He’s less physical and less relatable. Now, as the series goes on, we’re going to see an evolution in the character of Dread that will make it more clear why the character’s affectations were modified. I realize that I may be going out on a limb, given his limited screen time in this promo, but it’s hard to imagine this version of Dread conveying that slight hint of regret — even remorse — that we see in the aired version. That hint was going to become the key to the character had a second season happened. As things turned out, without a second season to rely on it, they probably could have made a go of it with this interpretation of the character. It would have made a few things a slightly harder sell, mostly elements in A Summoning of Thunder and A Fire in the Dark, but it could have worked.


SoaronHere’s the main event: Soaron. And I’m kinda surprised; Soaron looks good. I mean, he still looks like a Playstation 1 character, but a really good one. From late in the console’s lifetime. His colors are considerably darker, and he lacks the strobing breastplate he would later gain — I assume at this stage, the details of how the interactive element would work hadn’t been determined (One of the interviews mentions that they’d initially had much smaller targets, but had needed to rework them several times to get them to work). His alternate breastplate does look a bit sparse, but this Soaron really conveys menace in a way that he just did not in the final show. Soaron’s voice is also different. In the show, I do not think I’ve mentioned this, he’s got a little bit of a Don Adams thing going on, or maybe even a bit of a WC Fields. Like an evil robot Inspector Gadget. That nasal aspect is absent here. In fact, his voice kinda reminds me of those Racist Trade Federation Fake Chinese Accent aliens from Star Wars Episode 1.

Unlike what we see in the show, the Soaron “fight” is handled almost entirely by Cap and Jennifer, mostly shooting over their shoulders as they run from laser blasts. The fight also includes some disconnected clips of Scout, Tank and Stingray (But curiously, not Hawk) popping put of their respective elements (Scout pops out of that niche in a rock wall; Tank steps through a shattered wall, and Stingray emerges from a body of waterStingray which isn’t even in the same time zone as the desolate quarryKirk's Rock where the other scenes were filmed.

We end on Dread, one side of his mouth telling us that “There is no place to hide!”

Thus do we leave the future that almost was. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but it provides a curious insight into what was in the minds of the showmakers while they were putting this together. We see hints here of things that they wanted to include in the series but ultimately never had the chance. There’s a certain sense of epicness to this promotional video that only rarely comes across in the final product. But at the same time, this trailer lacks the humanity of the series I still remember fondly a quarter-century on.

So what do you think, Sherlock?

SH: Fascinating. I think in future, I shall leave the tokusatsu-style transformation sequences to you. If I feel the need to radically alter my perceptions in a blur of lights and visual effects, from now on, I shall keep to my cocaine.

Probably for the best.

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