It’s October 18, 1987. The world of finance knows it as “Black Monday”, when the Dow took a five hundred point dive that took two years to recover. The Minnesota Twins are playing the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Zac Efron, future Disney child-star is busy being born, and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam top the charts with “Lost in Emotion”, while on television…
Well okay. The actual thing that is on television that anyone cares about is… The world series. Okay. But if they’re not watching that, then the thing they care about is… Well, okay, 21 Jump Street. But in the unlikely event that neither of those is to your liking, maybe, just maybe you’ll be watching the Science Fiction Event of the Season:
This week’s episode is “The Last Outpost”, a major episode for the season, introducing the revived series’ new big star villains, whose name will soon strike terror into the hearts of nerdy children, said in one breath with “Romulans” and “Klingons”, the Ferengi. These new, radically different alien villains will show themselves to be a menace fit for this new, more advanced time by… Making occasional token references to being motivated by profit while mostly acting like they have a serious developmental handicap and being humorously unable to pronounce the word “Human”. But at least they’re dropped into a rich and complicated plot where the crews of the Enterprise and the Ferengi ship are forced to fight at the whim of a godlike being who is testing them to determine if they deserve to live or — Yeah, it’s basically “TNG does Arena, only without the moral complexity.” It is widely considered a disaster, which is really saying something during the first season of TNG.
But stick around after or possibly before the show, because there’s this other show on tonight, and with the bar set this low, it can’t be anything but an improvement.
I haven’t really talked about TNG much yet. There’s no real evidence of direct cross-pollination between Star Trek and Captain Power. It wouldn’t be entirely out of line to compare the dystopian future of the Metal Wars with the dystopian late 21st century we get little references to in TNG, but there’s no real traction to that. But as an interesting contrast here. The first season of Star Trek The Next Generation is ambitious, clean, optimistic, and… Not very good. And Star Trek the Next Generation proved wildly successful, leading to another six seasons, followed by two more series which each lasted about the same length, and four feature films, and a sort of Trek Renaissance, creating what is widely considered to be the definitive era of the Trek-verse. Meanwhile, Captain Power‘s first season was ambitious, dirty, gritty, technologically bold, and extremely well-made. And after this week, there will be exactly sixteen more stories that make up the sum total of all the Captain Power that has ever existed.
If you were to look objectively in a technical sort of way at the relative qualities of the first seasons of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and Star Trek The Next Generation, completely divorced from context, you might think– Okay, let’s be serious here. You would probably not think either one of them really merited a second season. Star Trek is at this stage kind of banal and creepily arrogant, every episode finding Strange, New Ways of denigrating twentieth-century humanity and their values. Heck, the Ferengi, as depicted in The Last Outpost, only make a lick of sense at all if you interpret them as an allegory: the Ferengi are clearly meant to be unscrupulous 80s Wall Street types viewed through the lens of a world where humanity has advanced enough to see through the Gordon Gecko veneer and percieve Capitalist Pigs as something more literally porcine. We’re lucky they didn’t just recycle the Telarites. Captain Power on the other hand is a children’s show that’s gotten above its station. There are moments of real promise, brilliance even, but the plot structure is perfunctory at best and there’s never any sense of characters in the story actually advancing the plot, rather than things just moving forward by clockwork at the appointed hours.
The crucial difference, then, is that in 1987, Star Trek The Next Generation didn’t actually have to be any good. They could have just showed that first tracking shot across the Enterprise-D for forty-five minutes twenty-two times and they’d still have gotten renewed. (Seriously. There are basically four images in my memory that have a special place in my memory. The alien chick in Moontrap taking her top off, the first time I saw my son, this picture of an astronaut in the Cupola of the ISS, and the first time we see the Enterprise-D), whereas Captain Power had to be at least as good as Murder She Wrote, Family Ties, or My Two Dads.
Captain Power beat Star Trek to air by a week, and they weren’t in direct competition for the most part, as they both aired on independent networks, and in most viewing areas, that meant they’d be on the same channel — back to back in my viewing area, though Wikipedia and IMDB both assure me that all the airdates for Captain Power were a day off of those for Star Trek, with Trek airing Sundays and Power on Mondays. I’m quite sure they both aired on Friday, but this was decades ago when I was a small child, so I’ve probably got this completely wrong.
But all of this is neither here nor there, because the version of A Fire in the Dark that lives in my memory isn’t this one. So let’s start again.
It’s, for the sake of argument, August 21, 1996, or thereabouts. the Star Trek that is on the air these days is Voyager, which isn’t very good. Hardly any of the shows that were on in 1987 are still on now. Married With Children is the only one that comes to mind. We are still in the early days of the Billboard Hot 100 being rules by Los Del Rio’s cover of The Macarena. It’s the summer before my senior year of High School. A few weeks ago, my dad’s mechanic told him that his 1990 Subaru was reparable, but was never going to be reliable enough to trust with that long commute any more, so he should, and I quote, “Give it to your son and just let him drive it until it breaks, then get rid of it.” I would have that car until 2002.
In the summer of 1996, on a lark, I thought it would be fun to drive through ever county in Maryland. I didn’t quite make it, since it turns out that there’s seriously like seven hundred miles of Maryland tucked away up in the corner where it hides behind West Virginia. I’d finally complete my mission in ’99 on a road trip to St. Louis. But I hit most of them, tooling around, seeing the sights, finding out which porn stores didn’t card, then hitting the mall when the lack of functional air conditioning in the Subaru got to me (It had seized up and ejected its A/C belt one day, which was not a problem, except that it ejected it into the power steering belt, which was.).
On one of these mall-stops, I ducked into Kay-Bee Toys, as I was wont to do, on the off chance that they’d somehow found themselves with some awesome 80s toy leftover on the shelves (This never happened, but we can but hope), and I was poking about through the clearance bin, and I found something that didn’t make any sense. I found this:
Let’s take a moment to talk about this VHS cover. Anyone else find it interesting and kind of cool that it’s illustrated rather than being a screengrab as you’d normally see on this kind of thing. And it’s not just some random bit of promotional art; that lower third of the picture there, with the cowering woman in front of modern art either having an epiphany or being shot in the face? That is a 100% show-accurate illustration of the first scene. The likeness of David Hemblen and Patricia Collins are spot on — that Lord Dread is more show-accurate than just about anything in the comics (And while it’s stylistically similar, it’s also more show-accurate than the merchandise packaging art, which I’ve talked about before). It’s one more link in the weird Captain Power chain, another of those artifacts that makes you imagine, as I said before, that the show I remember from my youth is somehow secretly the well-intentioned-but-ill-conceived live action adaptation of some old Japanese cartoon. In fact, they have to say right out on the front of the tape that it’s a “Live-action adventure”, because of course you’d assume from this cover art that you were looking at an animated show. In fact, I almost suspect that they wanted that ambiguity — that here, late in the day, it finally occurred to the people desperately trying to turn this beast profitable that perhaps they should start marketing it to actual children and try to make it look a bit more like it was actually, y’know, for kids.
Ever since that day, I’ve always wondered about this tape’s backstory. How is it that a videocassette almost a decade out of print found itself in the clearance bin at a toy store? Needless to say, this tape came home with me. And so A Fire in the Dark has a special place in my heart, because from round about August 1996 until round about the time I started writing this series, this video tape was my primary way of experiencing Captain Power. This has its ups and downs. It’s not an episode that really showcases a lot of the show’s big, glamorous elements, and it’s not representative of the structure and pacing of the rest of the series. But it’s a good, solid episode. We actually get interaction between Power and Dread. We actually get Captain Power doing stuff in his own show. And this is very much Dread’s big Character Focus episode. It’s also a very beautifully 80s sort of vision of the future.
We open, based on the evidence here, at some point in the middle of the episode A Summoning of Thunder. Soaron has already been created, and is flying around this vaguely-defined black, boundaryless space that is presumable some trippy sort of modern art gallery, full of weird over-saturated single-color pictures of models with geometric shapes superimposed over them. It all looks very 80s-futuristic, in a very “Opening Credits to Saved By The Bell” kind of way. Soaron’s using his eye-lasers to blow up the art while a middle aged woman who’s been made up to look young frets about at the destruction in an outfit whose shoulder pads would make Rob Liefeld wet.
Soaron finally decides to taunt and then digitize our hapless victim (I assume. Soaron doesn’t actually deploy his digitizer, so maybe he just wanted to off her) , but Lord Dread intervenes. He’s still in Taggart mode at this point, fully human and unscarred (As I mentioned, the comic adaptation changes pace of Taggart’s evolution into Dread, having him be mutilated in the initial coupling with Overmind, and switch to dressing like General Zod early in his conquest. In the live-action version, Taggart isn’t physically injured until the final fight with Stuart Power, and wears the same gray retrofuture-y coverall, apparently for several years). From what we’ll see later, there’s only a fairly narrow window of time between Soaron’s creation and Taggart’s transformation, and it’ll be a bit tricky to fit this scene in. But anyway, the salient point here is that Soaron, with typical competence, kind of spazzes out when Taggart shouts at him to leave the woman alone, and Dread reacts by shooting him, which leads to a largely inexplicable escalation of violence which ends with Soaron shooting the woman in the face as Taggart does a Darth Vader-style Big “Nooooooo!” shout, whereupon we Video Toaster out of flashback mode to find the “present”-day Lord Dread, gurning in his sleep as he relives these sketchily explained events.
At this point, I’d like to note that this is a somewhat unusual opening for an episode of Captain Power; we’ve got only a very little bit of action and minimal use of the interactivity gimmick. The status quo, well-established by this point, was to open with a melee battle using a bunch of Bio-Mechs, entirely regardless of whether or not it fit in with the rest of the episode, due to the corporate mandate about the minimum amount of action and interactivity each episode needed. This is going to be a comparatively low-action episode, and it’s starting to look to me like one of the fundamental problems that eventually ends up scuttling the series is the fact that it tends to be the low-action episodes that are the good ones. That’s a real problem when you’re selling a show as part of the “Action-Adventure” genre. It’s almost as though the action elements are basically an afterthought in this show. Which is a real problem. Don’t get me wrong; I am not any kind of an action junkie, but if you’re just throwing in action sequences at the last minute to meet the technical requirements of the genre, perhaps you should reconsider whether you actually want to be a television show in the “Action-Adventure” genre at all. And if you are reconsidering that, you might also want to reconsider why you are making a show about henshin heroes called “Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future”. The same way that Michael Bay should perhaps have considered why, if what he really wanted was to make a movie about the compelling human drama as people struggle to survive and save their world in the face of an unstoppable, otherworldly destructive force, he bothered putting Transformers in it.
What I’m getting at is: If you aren’t really interested in making an action show, you probably should not be making a show called Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. You should perhaps be making some kind of speculative fiction drama about the human horror in the face of a genocidal machine war. You should, in essence, be making Battlestar Galactica instead.
And here we can start to understand why Power Rangers is still on the air twenty-two years after “Day of the Dumpster”, but Captain Power was dead and gone nine months after “Shattered”. Because the goofy, frequently camp, stock-footage-cut-n-paste extravaganza may never have been as strong dramatically, but they did, for the most part, get all the pieces to fit together. Not perfectly, of course, but, especially in its middle seasons, Power Rangers more often than not managed to take four largely disparate elements (light tween drama, martial arts action, kaiju action, and sci-fi/fantasy adventure) and staple them together into a coherent whole (Except for Megaforce, which makes a total mess of integrating the elements, on the assumption that the fight scenes are all that matter). Captain Power suffers badly from having its dramatic elements edited with a chainsaw to make room for action sequences that feel somehow both perfunctory and unnecessary.
So yeah, this episode is action-light and that’s ultimately a good thing, since it’s one of the few episodes that gets to take the time it needs to actually tell the story it wants to. Unlike “Pariah”, things happen for reasons mostly, rather than just “Okay, we’re at the 12 minute mark, everyone move on to the next part of the plot now.” It’s also, as I mentioned, Dread’s character-focus episode. Dread is a difficult character to get a handle on, and I think part of the reason is that there seem to be conflicting visions for where the character was supposed to go. From interviews with the writers, it appears that Dread’s arc, had the show continued, would have led him eventually to a heel-face-turn, and see him seeking to recapture his own lost humanity. I like this. I’m kind of a sucker for villain redemption stories, and I was even as a small child. Which makes it all the stranger that I somehow failed to pick up on this as a kid. I don’t recall it ever occurring to me that Dread might potentially be redeemable.
Possibly, the problem for child-me was that I didn’t really process what the deal was with Overmind, because once you understand Overmind, a lot of things fall into place. To put it bluntly, Lord Dread is Darth Vader and Overmind is the Emperor. It’s not a perfect match, but it’s very clear that’s what’s going on at a high level here: Overmind manipulates Taggart, even while he mistrusts him. Taggart is genuinely trying to bring about a better world, but once he’s got blood on his hands, he find himself increasingly feeling like he’s gone too far to stop. While Overmind is really the one in charge, it’s still strangely deferential to Dread at times, as if it knows that if it pushes too hard too fast, it might lose control of the beast it’s created, but even its deference is manipulative (Compare with the bits where the Emperor seems to be afraid of Vader, simultaneously letting Vader feel like he has power, while also shaming him with a note of “You are such a monster that I’m the master of the Sith, and even I am scared of you.”). Also, Dread falls into a volcano and gets rebuilt as a cyborg. And the end credits are a shameless ripoff of the Death Star trench run. In that light, it’s increasingly obvious that this series would have eventually needed to end with Dread sacrificing himself to destroy Overmind and save John from Overmind’s Force Lightning. In the director’s cut, he’d do this while shouting “Noooooooo!” (All this is doubly impressive when you consider that we don’t actually see that much of the Vader-Emperor relationship until Revenge of the Sith, decades later. But it’s not as though the broad strokes weren’t well-established).
So Dread. We had that weird little bit earlier in the season with him dictating scripture. We’re supposed to believe that Dread is a true believer in the supremacy of the machine, but also that he sees a genuine kind of beauty in it. It may seem a bit schizophrenic that Dread sees a world made by of and for machines as beautiful and therefore wants to replace humanity with a race incapable of appreciating beauty (This is going to play into the big themes of this episode), but if this is true, it is true largely because Dread is a bit schizophrenic. By which I mean, Dread explicitly had some kind of very complex mental break when he interfaced with Overmind, and it’s clear that holding this paradox in his mind causes Dread considerable tension.
Overmind’s motivations are harder to get a handle on. It’s going to become increasingly clear that Overmind lacks Dread’s aesthetic interest, and while Dread’s been digitizing humanity ostensibly in the hopes of transforming humanity into a machine race, Overmind just wants to wipe out humanity and build robots. Why? I have no answer to that one. According to the usual laws of science fiction, the answer is probably “Because Logic,” just like all the logic-obsessed sci-fi villain races, an answer I’ve never found satisfying, but it’d hardly be fair to take this one show to task for it.
“Jessica Morgan”, for what it’s worth, is probably named after Jessica Morgan Wolfman, the daughter of Marv Wolfman, who wrote this episode. He’s best known for his comic book work, having created the character of Bullseye, and written Crisis on Infinite Earths. Another “Jessica Morgan” appears in the Wolfman-written Transformers episode “The Return of Optimus Prime”.
Anyway, this whole diversion about Dread’s motives and character is important at this point, because we’re about to see the dichotomy between Dread and Overmind. The woman in the flashback was the famous artist Jessica Morgan, and Dread was apparently a fan.
Jessica is on Dread’s mind because he and Overmind have been working on the design for the “new human form”. Overmind hit all the technical requirements, but the fleeting images we get of the designs look kinda like a box on stilts, and Dread is disappoint. He decides that what he really needs is to track down Jessica, apologize for getting her shot in the face, and hire her to prettify his next generation of soulless human-annihilation machines.
What follows isn’t exactly an action sequence, but I guess it’s close enough to count toward the episode’s contractual mandate, as some Dread troopers round up some refugees, with Soaron circling around in just about the worst composite shot captured on film until Birdemic. The perspective is all wrong and Soaron’s scaled incorrectly for that angle and the artifice is just painful. The troopers round up a guy who kinda looks like the lovechild of David Ogden Stiers and the guy who played Al in Home Improvement, and orders him to pony up Jessica. When he refuses, Soaron digitizes the guy.
We cut to Cap’n’company who are deeply concerned about this rash of “Dread attacks villages looking for this one person” deals. Cap summons holographic Kenny Loggins, who, because he’s programmed with the personal history of every single person in the world, is able to tell him that Jessica Morgan lived in a city that was attacked fifteen years ago, “During Dread’s first attack.”
Pilot helpfully chips in that the attack we saw earlier left Jessica blind, which has put a crimp in her art career. Possibly the whole “Its the apocalypse” thing might have also harmed her creative output.
Back at Volcania, the captured elder is un-digitized so that Lord Dread can inform him, “Every cell in your body implodes when you are digitized. Then, when you’re reformed, those same cells explode,” in case you’d forgotten the protracted rape analogy from September. And what “explode” and “implode” mean. The elder instantly breaks and agrees to tell Dread whatever he wants to know.
In a random cave somewhere, Jessica asserts that she’d like to give herself up to Dread before anyone else gets hurt, but for a small diversion, Cap and Pilot show up, and offer to put her up for the night at their place. They hop on their hover-bikes and head for the Power Base, which gives us an opportunity to explain that the hover-bikes are voice controlled. There’s a tonally awkward scene where Cap programs Jessica’s voice into his bike, so that she can control it a bit, just for kicks. For the sake of pacing, I’m glad they didn’t feel the need to add some exposition for what possible good it could be to give a flying motorcycle voice control, but it does leave you wondering. That said, this is one of the few examples of this series pulling out a structural touch that you don’t see much in TV of this era: While it seems largely pointless here, the fact that the bikes can auto-pilot themselves by voice control is something that will become important at the far end of the season. So I guess it’s a lucky job that, in spite of the fact that they were planning to pick an old blind woman up and take her back with them, they took their flying motorcycles (and didn’t even bring a spare helmet) instead of, say, the jumpship. It will also come in handy in this episode, since it’s Chekov’s gun, but I’ll discuss some issues with that later. Also, though we’ve already had computers like Overmind with his creepy bedroom Hal 9000 voice, and Mentor with his Kenny Loggins voice, and “Time to change the batteries” voice from the suits with her phone company operator voice, the hover-bike’s computer sounds like Dr. Sbaitso.
No sooner have they returned to base than Lord Dread broadcasts some threats about what he’s going to do to Jessica’s friends if she doesn’t hand herself over. Cap explains the usual platitudes about why you shouldn’t negotiate with hostage-takers, then Pilot takes her to a bedroom. I’ll note here that the sets for the Power Base have the common motif of consisting largely of things that look like small prefab alcoves set into rough-hewn rock. The Power Base is ostensibly built on the remains of NORAD, and I imagine the visible stone is meant as a visual reminder of, “We are inside a mountain,” but, well, is this an actual building technique? Wouldn’t it be a lot of work to blast out little individual alcoves for things like these prefab bunk bed modules? Wouldn’t you actually just blast out one big empty space and then use more orthodox building techniques to fill the space with an office building?
But that’s neither here nor there, because the second Pilot’s out of earshot, Jessica fumbles her way to the door (which I will note, is one of those big round sliding airlock-type dealies, which, in context, must retract into a narrow door-high slot in the rock wall. Again, this is a ridiculous way to build a secret underground lair. Also, the doors don’t close all the way) and, undetected, makes her way to the hoverbike hangar, where she asks Cap’s bike to take her to Dread’s specified rendezvous site, and then seems to be surprised and terrified when it obliges.
(Here, we have a commercial break. Dylan is confused and thinks the show is over, because he was born more than a decade after the invention of the TiVo and has absolutely no idea what a “commercial break” is.)
Her absence is noticed so quickly that it’s a little hard to swallow that this old blind woman snuck all the way from her room to the hangar bay and stole a hover-bike without anyone stopping her (And here for the first time, we see the whole team power on in the kiosk.). But they’re at least far enough behind her that she manages, on autopilot, to beat them to the rendevous site by several minutes. Jessica meets up with a holographic Lord Dread, who– actually, I want to stop for a second and think about this. This whole sequence seems kind of weirdly constructed in context. Dread manifests before a, again, blind woman in the form of an intangible hologram. Well, semi-intangible. Jessica’s hand passes right through him, but she does note that he feels “cold.” Dread does about the world’s worst job of reassuring her by explaining that “Though my body remains in Volcania, I am with you in spirit.” Throughout this sequence, though Dread is not physically present, he sort of acts like he is; he reacts to things as though he’s in the room with them. Soaron addresses him like he’s really there, rather than telecommuting. He turns toward things, gestures toward things, reacts as if he’s seeing things from the vantage point of his avatar. This seems like a weird amount of effort to set up for, I keep stressing this, the benefit of a blind woman.
Dread also apologizes for the squalor Jessica can’t see, as he “hasn’t needed” this I-m’-guessing-it’s-a-hopsital since his takeover. He has her follow his holographic voice to what looks like the set from the third season of Red Dwarf (Maybe that’s why Dread’s a hologram), and waxes poetic about his longing to build a new world based on mechanical perfection and whatnot. Outside, we get a proper fight scene, and for once, it doesn’t feel tacked on. The focus is primarily on Tank and Scout, and here you get a bit of tonal whiplash. Scout’s had very little screen time, and I get the feeling they’re primarily writing him as a comic relief character. And Tank is kind of a ridiculous character to begin with. The fight itself has a bit of a comic relief element to it as well. Tank uses a mech as a
human robot shield in a maneuver that relies on the fact that all the other mechs seem oddly compelled to keep shooting even when they can clearly see that they’re just shooting one of their own. And at one point, Tank uses a technique to disable a mech which he clearly learned at Acme Looniversity.
Meanwhile, Cap makes his way into the set from Red Dwarf, and upon seeing Dread’s hologram, he reflexively shoots him, tragically murdering the gaffer standing behind the holographic Dread. I might complain that it seems kind of shallow and unheroic to have Cap react like that, just trying to gun down the villain in cold blood the second he sees him, but I rather like the idea that Dread kind of pushes Cap’s berzerk button.
I’m sorry, though; we have to stop here for a second and contemplate this. You and I know that Lord Dread is a hologram, but as far as Cap knows, he just turned a corner and potentially could have ended this whole genocidal war by shooting Lyman Taggart in the face, so he tried.
This is morally complex, of course. a big question: is Cap justified in simply shooting the villain dead in this case? Possibly. Probably even. But there’s one more thing we so rarely talk about: we are watching a kids’ show. We are watching the selfsame genre where America’s top-secret highly-trained special-missions force neither kills nor captures a single enemy soldier. Where Interpol’s top special investigator invariably allows his arch-nemesis to escape in his rocket-powered throne while stroking his cat. Perhaps a gritty ’90s anti-hero is allowed to shoot the unarmed villain in the head. But a guy wearing gold armor over blue spandex in a kids’ show in 1987 is most emphatically not.
I said before that Dread’s motivations seem schizophrenic. When you get down to it, this whole show is kind of schizophrenic. We are, keep in mind, more or less halfway between He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Babylon 5, and I suppose you could look at Captain Power as a bit of an angsty “What kind of TV show do I want to make when I grow up?” for J. Michael Straczynski. And while JMS himself may have eventually come up with an answer to that question, it came too late for Cap and his pals. It can’t have worked in this show’s favor that half the screen time is spent sending our hero on a blood-vendetta against the obvious Nazi analogies who sci-fi-raped his childhood crush and Hawk gurning as he mourns his dead children, and the other half is spent with Maurice Dean Wint doing stupid impressions and Tank evading killer robots by the strategic use of the phrase “Rabbit season.” This is just not a show that knows what it wants to be. It’s in this respect that I’m most optimistic about Phoenix Rising, which will almost certainly lack some of the frankly insane ambition of its predecessor, but seems even at this stage to have a much firmer idea of the tone and style it’s shooting for.
After being disappointed that he hasn’t just shot his arch nemesis in the face, Cap and Dread have a pleasant conversation where Dread just explains his motives and plans: he considers Jessica’s injury to have “wasted a resource,” and he plans to “correct” this by giving her a Geordi Laforge-style visor. Well, more a sort of barrette. With Cylon eyes. He means to restore her sight with technology, and he assumes she’ll be so grateful that she’ll agree to offer up her services as an artist in order to help him design his replacement for humanity.
Cap thinks that this is the thing which demonstrates that Dread is insane, but agrees to let Dread have his fun and why not. Jessica recovers from her surgery and waxes poetic about how the colors had all been “locked up in her mind” for the past decade and a half. People wax poetic a lot in this show, and I’m forced to remind myself that television in the 80s did not work even remotely the same ways as it does today. Remember: TV did not evolve from film, but rather, both evolved separately from a common ancestor on the stage, but while film went one way, preserving much of the, irm, “theatricality”, TV drew first from vaudeville and then from radio, and therefore developed a very different sort of visual and storytelling language. TV and film would to a large extent converge stylistically in the 21st century, but that’s still a decade and change off here. No real point in that diversion, just my hobby horse.
Jessica wants to have a look out the window, and Dread inexplicably thinks this would be a good idea, so he beckons her over to show her the wasteland outside. Jessica is predictably unimpressed. She’s been blind for fifteen years, the last thing she ever saw was her art gallery being burned down, but she never managed to really imagine the scope of the destruction that’s come with the apocalypse. I don’t know about this. Keep in mind that part of the backstory to this series is that even prior to Dread’s rise to power, the world was being torn to pieces by automated war for years. We saw the scope of the destruction in the comic book. It rings a bit false that, even being blind for fifteen years, Jessica wouldn’t have expected the world to be quite so crappy. On the other hand, of course, it’s not stretching the imagination too much to suppose that in her long darkness, Jessica would have defensively been selective in how much she remembered about the state of the world. But I think it would have been better to make this explicit in the dialogue. Rather than just lamenting, “I never knew,” Jessica could have said something like, “I kept telling myself it couldn’t be–” something that hints that she’s not learning how bad things are, but accepting. Heck, you’re halfway to a parable if you try to paint Jessica as using her blindness as a shield to protect herself from the harshness of reality (Though you have to be really careful here, since “Let’s turn a person’s handicap into a metaphor to teach the kids at home important moral lessons,” is so distasteful that The Facts of Life only did it four or five times.)
Soaron shows up to report to Lord Dread on how the fight outside is going, rather than, y’know, calling him on the radio the way he does every other time he reports to Lord Dread. How meta is that? The CGI robot walks into the hospital in order to give a report in person to his hologram boss. Think about what this scene would be like for the actors. “Okay, Tim, now Soaron’s going to come in and point his laser hand at you, and you’re going to be aiming at him, sort of Mexican stand-off style. Now, Patricia, remember, you can’t see Soaron or Dread. I mean, none of us can see Soaron, but you can’t for real. David, you look like you’re here but you’re really not, so don’t bump into anything. Deryck, you’ve just come in to talk to your boss, who isn’t really here, but you find your arch nemesis. Also you aren’t here either, because we record all your lines in post.”
Dread orders Soaron not to shoot for fear of “A waste of material,” and points out that Power can’t shoot either for… Some reason. I mean, the idea is that neither of them can shoot for fear of hitting Jessica, but as she’s standing behind Cap at this point, the only way this actually stops him firing is on the assumption that Soaron won’t obey Dread’s orders not to return fire. Okay, given that the way Jessica lost her sight in the first place is that Dread pulled a gun on Soaron and made his trigger finger itchy. Dread dismisses Soaron on the assumption that Jessica will stay with him of her own volition, as her new cylon eyes will only work in range of his transmitter. John assures her that he’ll abide by her decision, and Jessica takes Cap by the arm and they leave Dread to shout maniacally about the neverending darkness she’s resigned herself to. Jessica tells Cap, roughly, that it turns out that being able to see really sucks in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and waxes poetic again (Seriously, there is a lot of waxing poetic in this show) that her memories of the pre-apocalyptic world are way better than seeing this crap-pile. Which now that I think about it, is actually kind of an ugly moral. Yes, kids, you too can hide from reality just so long as you have a handicap you can use to permanently shield yourself from perceiving harsh truths. But this show has not been great at kids’ show morality, and I don’t expect it to start now. Not to be outdone in the poetic waxing, when Tank shows up and asks where Dread is, Cap wryly reflects, “Alone.”
Back in Volcania, Dread pointedly doesn’t answer Overmind when he asks again about the new designs, instead watching a self-portrait of Jessica from that first scene immolate itself in Dread’s office-incinerator (previously seen in “Final Stand”. Because Lord Dread does not outsource anything and literally sets fire to every knick-knack he wants destroyed personally in his office.)
That’s A Fire in the Dark. Like I said, for a decade, this was what I still had of Captain Power, so it was a bit of a letdown when I rewatched the series in its entirety prior to the start of this project, and discovered that most of it was a lot less coherent. But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Every episode so far has had a lot going for it. They just don’t tend to hang together as a whole. But this one, I think, does. We see both Pariah and Fire dispensing with the structure we saw in a lot of the other episodes where the plot is arbitrarily partitioned into a largely irrelevant and incoherent actiony bit and a bit that would actually make a good story if they’d spent more than eight minutes on it, and unlike Pariah, the main plot is actually fairly interesting.
If I have one big complaint about this story, though, it’s this: Consider what the plot of this episode would be if Captain Power and his pals weren’t in it at all. Here’s the really remarkable thing: nothing changes. Jessica is already planning to give herself up to Dread when Cap arrives in the story. They delay her from doing so for basically the length of time it takes to fly back to the Power Base. After Dread gives her back her sight, she makes the decision on her own to abandon him, and he willingly lets her go. Captain Power and his Soldiers of the Future do not actually contribute to the plot of this episode at all beyond giving Jessica a ride home at the end. It’s just like Raiders of the Lost Ark: in the event that you notice that nothing the hero does has any impact on the outcome, it’s impossible to un-notice it. I may have said that a lot of what happens in the other episodes turns out to be irrelevant, but in Shattered, Cap rescues Athena, in The Abyss, they help the general’s men escape capture, in Final Stand, they rescue a bunch of hostages, and in Pariah, they cure Dread’s new bio-weapon. And yet, to my mind, the episodes I’ve really properly liked so far have been A Fire in the Dark and Wardogs, and in both of those episodes, Cap and Company accomplish basically nothing — the base Cap attacks in Wardogs is a decoy, the Wardogs themselves are never in any danger, and when they leave, they’re still following the same lead for Eden-1 as when they showed up (The plot to Wardogs, in case you’ve forgotten, is basically, “A Canadian military unit is delayed on their way to a rumored refuge when they have to rescue the actual heroes of the show, who have walked into an obvious trap. Also Hawk gets laid.”) Yes, things happen for reasons in A Fire in the Dark, but they’re their own reasons, nothing to do with the guy who’s name is on the title card.
Why is it that my favorite episodes so far are also the ones that, on paper, are the most pointless? Actually, I have a theory on that. One thing I’ve been trying to convey in my reviews of this show is just how uneven and incompletely-thought-out this show is. It’s not just me being flippant when I say this show didn’t know what it wanted to be when it grew up. Over and over, we see this show having lots of ambition and lots of really good elements, but there’s a distinct lack of one cohesive vision of what this show should be like. When you get to modern shows, to things like Lost, or The West Wing, or Doctor Who, or Battlestar Galactica, when they are at their best (Which is emphatically not “for the whole of their run”), there is a real sense of there being one unifying creative vision that’s holding the reigns and guiding where the show is going. And this is greatly prefigured by Babylon 5, which was also very much at its best when JMS had both hands on the reins. Even by the time of B5, television wasn’t quite ready for this sort of thing yet, so it does suffer in places from a similar (but much reduced) sense of unevenness and incongruity. Put simply, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was already hamstrung by the market forces that caused it to be, well, titled “Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future”, and if it was ever going to beat that, what it needed was a strong hand with a clear vision to guide it. This show needed an Aaron Sorkin, or a Russel T. Davies. Or, at the least, a J. Michael Straczynski, 1994. It needed a showrunner. The closest thing it had was a J. Michael Straczynski, 1987, and though in retrospect, we can see that he’s on his way, in 1987, he’s not there yet. So ultimately, when Captain Power succeeds, it’s not on the strength of its creative vision. It succeeds on its parts. In 1987, J. Michael Straczynski(Don’t think I’m getting down on JMS here. I’m not a fan of Babylon 5 myself, but I’ve got plenty of respect for his skills as a writer and producer. In honesty, I’m not sure anyone in 1987 could have made this show work, because TV didn’t work the right way in 1987 to make a show like the show this show needed to be. But it’s very striking here that we know that in another few years, JMS is going to be one of the instrumental folks in creating the mode of television that this show needed to be.), executive story consultant, and Gary Goddard, creator, can’t make this series work.
But just a handful of times, freed from the need to actually carry the season-long arc forward or have anything of importance actually happen, Marv Wolfman or Larry DiTillio, or, heck, J. Michael Straczynski can make an episode work. When we look at television of the 21st century, we often measure the good shows by the extent to which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That way of looking at television just isn’t going to work for us in the land of 1987-being-relived-in-1996. Keep that in mind as we move forward. Captain Power failed in 1987, and I think ultimately, it failed because it never figures out quite how to work as a series. But there’s still joy to be taken here. Don’t look at the forest. Look at the trees. The whole, this time, may be less than the sum of the parts, but just look at those parts. Because they’re really quite lovely.