It is the first and second of November, 1987. “Bad” still holds the top place on the chart until week’s end. Pretty much jack-all is going on in the world. Well, rather, quite a lot is going on in the world, but nothing that would interest the sort of person who was watching a minor children’s action show in 1987; South Korea just got a new constitution; a British train broke the Diesel Train world speed record; the TurboGrafx-16 came out on Friday, but since it and everything for it cost about six times as much as its competitors, this had very little impact on the lives of any but the ultra-rich. Pretty much all the same stuff is on as was last week. Murder She Wrote, MacGyver, My Two Dads, Family Ties, ALF. CBS airs a two-part “true-crime” drama about the murder of a Pennsylvania high school teacher, though they leave off the best part, since in 1992, it’ll turn out that the author of the book the film was based on bribed police and the prosecution to influence the outcome of the case.
Star Trek the Next Generation airs “Lonely Among Us”, about which the less said, the better. Another episode that’s all about being weird and otherworldly, but just comes off as pretentious and not very good. It says something that what keeps tipping people off to the fact that their crewmates have been possessed by an alien intelligence is that their friends are suddenly curious about learning new things. Also that they manage to exposition-drop the fact that no one eats real meat in the future in a way calibrated specifically to come off as “Our audience is a bunch of backward savages who rape livestock.” Oh, and it’s the first time a redshirt dies in the TNG era.
Which I suppose means that for this week at least, the best Science Fiction Series Episode to Air on a Sunday or Monday Depending on your Viewing Area award has to go to the plucky little kids’ show. This week, it’s “The Ferryman”, an episode which is kind of straightforwardly likeable in a way that Captain Power just has not been so far.
What I mean is that so far, we’ve had two episodes that were thematically centered around the long, exhausting, dehumanizing hardships of war, and we’ve had two episodes about the pain of losing someone you care about, and we’ve had two episodes about facing off against your own twisted reflection. And now, we’re getting an episode that is basically just a nice, straightforward adventure. The plot is simple enough that it doesn’t feel rushed in half an hour; it has a nice solid three-act structure; the regular cast all get something to do; the visual effects are used about the best they ever are; there are tense beats in all the right places. And — I can not believe my life has come to a place where I have to qualify my analysis of a children’s show with this sentence — no one gets sci-fi raped in the entire episode. It’s just an enjoyable watch, the first one so far that you can watch all the way through without worrying that you are a terrible person for liking this.
And on top of all that, this episode is where the myth arc of the series finally gets around to starting to happen. This show has, to a great extent, just been spinning its wheels for a month and a half so far. Of the episodes we’ve talked about, this is the only one you’d actually need to watch if you were in a hurry and just wanted to get the gist of the overall story (I like all of them, with the possible exception of “Pariah”, but you don’t really need to watch them; some of them are very good for understanding the characters, but there’s literally nothing that happens in any of those episodes that is important for understanding the series-arc. If you really need a shorter viewing experience, drop the episodes in this order: “Pariah”, “The Mirror in Darkness”, “Shattered”, “The Abyss”, “A Fire in the Dark”, “Final Stand”, “Wardogs”). Here, a third of the way into the series, we get a whole bunch of things all at once:
- Formal introduction of the “Dread Youth”
- The culmination of the “Charon” phase of the thus-far only hinted “Project New Order”
- Introduction of two major characters
- First acknowledgement of Overmind’s hidden agenda
- First explanation of Mentor’s nature
- First appearance of the Power Jet XT-7
In half an hour. That’s a lot of stuff to squeeze in, and yet this episode doesn’t turn into a clusterfuck of plot-advancement, which is even stranger when you compare it to how spartan the other episodes were. It’s not perfect, of course, but its sins are minor and, unlike, say, “Shattered”, you don’t have to try very hard to forgive them on the basis of how likeable the show is.
We open on a Dread troop transport driving through a ruined city. They’re descended upon by a one-eyed balding trader who kinda looks like the lovechild of Clint Howard and Steve Buscemi. He “skulls” that they be looking for an organic, name of Power, calls ‘imself Captain, Yeppo, making me really glad that by the time of Babylon 5, JMS had given up on slang and instead decided to make everyone in the future be really, really square (And unlike Star Trek, it’s not just “It’s the future, so everyone acts square to the point of being borderline Aspie because that’s what it means to be more advanced,” but rather “Human society in this period is extremely straightlaced because they’re unhealthily repressed as part of their long march toward Naziism.” Unfortunately, by Babylon 5, JMS had not given up on utterly unsubtle Nazi analogies).
After a protracted but content-light exchange wherein the trader “scans” the lead mech’s rank as “Second Phallus (Okay. He’s clearly saying “Second Phalanx”, but that’s a stupid name for an individual trooper’s rank)” and they agree not to kill him on the spot in exchange for leading them to Cap, there’s a reveal that would be shocking if we hadn’t been listening to Cap’s log entry at the beginning. The trader is Scout. Of course he is. And his cunning trap is… That the rest of the team is nearby and starts shooting when he drops his disguise. Again, not entirely clear why they bothered with the subterfuge. What follows is a fairly tight action scene which, aside from the gratuitous use of slow motion, is actually pretty good. The fight mostly centers around Tank, as Scout is occupied with the laborious project of getting head from the Second Phallus, and everyone else buggers off immediately. Tank tries to channel some of the Governator’s battlefield charisma as he encourages Scout with tonally inappropriate complaints about how long he’s taking. His sarcastic tone isn’t really clear enough to carry it off; he comes off more Lou Ferrigno than Sylvester Stalone, more Andre the Giant than Arnold Schwarzenegger. And all this would be fine if Sven Ole Thorson were playing him that way — I think there are some parallels to be seen between Captain Power and Blake’s 7 , and the character of Tank would work really well as a character in the vein of Oleg Gan. But once again, the show chooses not to play to its own strengths, and seems like it really wants us to see him as one of those Big Serious 80s Action Stars with Wry Battlefield Sarcasm. I have never actually seen Sven Ole Thorson in a major role — most of his work is playing “Other big guy who is fighting alongside or against Arnold Schwarzenegger”, but you can just tell from the way he carries himself that he’d be great as the, “gentle bruiser with a nonspecific foreign accent who is seems stupider than he is and underreacts to everything,” and it’s disappointing not to get that here, a bit like watching Reb Brown play a villain: yes, he can technically do it, but really, we all just want to see him use a taxidermied giant bat as a hang-glider.
Eventually, Scout succeeds in removing the trooper’s head — I am not clear on why this took so long, since we’ve previously established that you can just punch your average Clicker in the face and it’s head will fall off. They bugger off back to the Jumpship, where Pilot exposits a bit about their shiny new afterburner as a lead-up to Soaron appearing. I’m starting to reconsider some of the things I said about Hawk earlier in the season — I don’t think we’ve seen him take center stage, or even fly for that matter, since “Pariah”, and indeed, this battle is between Soaron and the Jumpship, much like last week. Unfortunately, it’s 1987, and no one is doing good sci-fi aerial battles yet, and pretty much won’t until Babylon 5 (And even those were prototypical; they don’t really get it down until the post-series movies). Star Trek the Next Generation is going to use the old-school “Two ships pull up next to each other and shoot at each other broadsides” method pretty much up until its series finale seven years from now (Another thing that’s hard to convey to someone in 2014. In the last episode of TNG, an alternate-future version of the Enterprise flies up at a right angle to the ship it’s attacking, and that one little shot blew everyone’s mind and just screamed “Truly we are in the future because at last, space ships can fly UP!”).
This air battle is better than anything in the original Star Trek, and it’s better than anything in the original Battlestar Galactica. But it’s still not all that good. It’s dark, everything’s shot against a nondescript blue-gray sky backdrop without any angles that let you see the ground or a horizon, the scale is all over the place, with Soaron sometimes appearing to be roughly the same size as the Jumpship, and when the camera angle changes, the combatants have changed relative position in impossible ways. The Soaron-Hawk battles had that awful aspect of “We can never have both of them on-screen at the same time because of the compositing,” but they still felt a lot more coherent and dynamic than this. Pilot’s shiny new afterburners let Cap and Company effect an escape, even though they “Weren’t meant to outrun a Bio-Dread.” Which just raises more questions — what was the point of the afterburners if they couldn’t outrun what appears to be literally the only flying thing they are ever going to need to run away from?
Meanwhile, back at Volcania… Lord Dread gives his keynote speech at
Hitler Dread Youth Graduation, talking all about the perfection of the machine and his plans to stick human minds in robot bodies. He’s played offstage so that a nameless Overunit (ie. “Bling Nazi”) can report that Cap and company have just gotten head from a second phallus. There is grave concern that the memory unit in the stolen head contains information about “Project New Order,” which Dread has alluded to several times so far but never said anything specific. Enraged, Dread demands a full report on what’s inside the stormtrooper’s head and also his remote destruct code. I’m a bit perplexed by this: If they have the ability to remote-explode the head, why does he want to wait for a full report? Is this one of those things where OnStar bills you double if you remote-detonate more than five stormtroopers a month? I can’t see any logic in “Maybe we’ll blow it up if it’s got information on Project New Order in it, but if there’s nothing sensitive in there, we’ll just let Cap have the thing to do what he wants with it.” Actually, since it’s an explodey kind of self-destruct, I’d just be like “Hey, let’s blow it up while they’re still in the air with it and maybe they’ll crash their ship.”
Let us unpack this. First, given that ALL GLORY TO THEFor no discernable reason, Mentor concludes that, since the phases are named after stuff from Greek Mythology, they surely refer to the four classical elements.
HYPNOTOADMACHINE, isn't it kind of frivilous to name the phases of Project New Order after stuff from mythology? Wouldn't calling them phases "1", "2", "3" and "4" be more logical? And if, as he surely is, Mentor is right, isn't it also really stupid to give them meaningful code names that allude to the nature of the plan. Moreover, how the hell do you get from "There's four of them, and they're from mythology," to "Must be the four classical elements then"? Not the four seasons? Or the four cardinal directions? Or the four tops? And honestly, there's not much sense to it: Okay, "Icarus" is air, obviously. But the rest? I guess the idea is that Charon is Earth because he's associated with funerals and thereby burial? But Charon is a ferryman, so... But Styx is clearly water, because it's a river -- it's also the only one of these that isn't a person, which is odd. And Prometheus is fire, of course, though personally, I tend to associate Prometheus with Earth, for admittedly circuitous reasons (Victor Frankenstein is the Modern Prometheus, and the thing he did was essentially to make a golem, which is a kind of Earth elemental). I don't know. Besides, the association between the phases and their actual content is flimsy at best -- Icarus involves something airborne, Prometheus involves explosions. Styx is a plague. I guess because it's waterborne? I bet the whole thing made a lot more sense when they were planning to do that Land/Sea/Air thing with Tritor and Stingray.
There’s something a little strange about Mentor that hasn’t really come up before. I’m almost reluctant to bring it up, but maybe there’s something important here. In order to fit in his tube, Mentor has to keep his arms crossed at all times. But Bruce Gray is apparently the kind of actor who likes to use his hands when he talks. So he’s always standing there with his arms crossed, doing these tiny little hand flips as he speaks, staying in tight so as not to go past the edge of the tube. It’s kind of — I don’t know. It reads very strongly effeminate to me and I’m not sure why. Someone with a proper sociology background can probably explain something about our society socializing men to take up as much space as possible and women to take up as little or something. The effect is magnified when you couple it with the lines of his clothes and their huge shoulder pads, which, probably by accident, are very strongly reminiscent of an ’80s fashion trend where women’s business attire briefly became a kind of hyperbolic caricature of men’s, with businesswomen wearing neckties and shirts that were basically ill-fitting Oxfords darted out to accommodate the differences in relative proportion. With shoulder pads. Everything with shoulder pads. And plus you’ve got his perm, and his soft, neutral voice. What I’m getting at here is, and I hope you’ll bear with me through some offensive stereotyping, Mentor looks like a middle-aged lesbian with an androgen problem.
I bring this up because I recently had it pointed out to me that there’s a kind of weird tradition among AI and robot characters in fiction, in that an awful lot of them are coded as effeminate, regardless of the nominal gender. The voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, quite famously, was deliberately imagined as a “jilted gay lover”. C-3PO is often heralded as the “first gay robot”. To a lesser extent, KITT from Knight Rider comes off not per se gay, but certainly “soft” — a combination of effete and submissive that contrasts with David Hasslehoff’s much more straightforward “Big strong manly man” masculinity. We’ve already spoken a bit about Overmind, and the creepy abusive-boyfriend relationship he seems to have with Dread. Some have proposed that symbolically emasculating robot characters might be seen as a way to deal with the writer’s fear of being, in essence, bested by a robot — after all, the traditional image of manliness is intrinsically tied to strength, speed, and the capacity to do work. Robots are stronger, faster, harder-working — robot is, after all, derived from a Czech word for “worker”.
We return to Volcania, where Dread has stolen off for some intimacy with Overmind. Overmind’s all a-flutter about Charon, wherein they’re going to beam a bunch of power to Volcania so it can — ahem — birth a new army of Bio-Dreads. This is just about the creepiest Overmind has been so far, talking about how there are “many voices” inside it eager to be born. Dread himself waxes a bit poetic, and Overmind chastises him for being emotional. Dread does the “flustered not-at-all-convincing-‘No I was just making an observation'” thing that purportedly emotionless characters always do in TV shows. The Bling Nazi calls him up, prompting Dread to scream in outrage about how he’s NEVER EVER supposed to be interrupted when he’s making out with his large computer ball, prompting me to wonder why he even has a video phone installed in their bedroom. The Nazi explains that they’ve got the report on the beheaded trooper, and Dread decides that Cap can’t be allowed to know the details of the Charon project, so he orders “all available power” to be used sending the trooper’s destruct code.Remember when we read the comic adaptation? One of the things I thought was very well done there was parallel scene construction -- juxtaposing images of heroes and villains in arrangements that call attention to how the one mirrors the other. This episode is a lot like that. We alternate between scenes in Volcania and at the Power Base, and very particularly, I think, we're called to see a parallel between Mentor and Overmind.
Flashing back to the original pitch, this whole "Parallel characters" thing seems very baked-in at the premise-level of the show. Remember, the original pitch seemed like it was setting up three "elemental" heroes, Hawk, Tank, and Stingray, paired with three Bio-Dreads, Soaron, Blastarr, and Tritor. Cap and Dread, as we discussed last week, are very much parallel characters. There was also meant to be a shape-shifting Bio-Dread called "Silvera", who I think would likely have been meant to parallel Pilot (not just because they they'd both be women; Silvera, like Pilot, would fall in love with Cap, and like Pilot, would eventually turn against Dread), though as a shapeshifter, one might also assume a parallel to Scout. This is, of course, a pretty straight-up kids' show trope, every hero paired off with his equal and opposite villain. In that sense, it's one of the few things Captain Power has done explicitly right vis a vis being the thing they were marketed as. But on another level, it adds an element of structure to the show which has been lacking in the episodes that don't focus on these parallels. When this show juxtaposes characters which are similar-but-different, compares the good and evil, as in Final Stand and The Mirror in Darkness, or even between the noble and the broken as in Wardogs and The Abyss, the show gets a whole lot better.At this point in the series, we know very little about either of them, and until now, it never really occurred to me, but I think we're very much meant to see them as parallel characters. Look at their names: "Overmind", "Mentor", both convey a sense of headship, but while the former connotes the relationship of master to servant, the latter suggests that of a teacher to a student. Overmind, though nominally the result of a collaboration between Stuart Power and Lyman Taggart, is most directly Taggart's creation, made when he, ahem, joined himself to the overmind. Mentor, on the other hand, is all Power -- an encapsulation of its creator's intelligence for the purpose of serving, rather than dominating man. Overmind's relationship with Taggart is straightforwardly abusive and disturbingly sexualized -- like I said, the tone of Overmind's original fusion with Taggart reads very much as "Taggart broke the first rule of tampering in God's domain and put his dick in it." There's none of that with Mentor, who is very explicitly likened not to a sexual partner but to a father. More than that, even, Overmind's Big-Sargon-Ball is situated in Dread's inner sanctum right next to the "Birthing matrix" where they make Bio-Dreads. Overmind has an adjacent kiosk where it gives birth to evil robots. Mentor appears from a column in the center of the TARDIS console in the Power Base, directly next to the power-on kiosk. Thus, the creation of Bio-Dreads is a twisted form of the creation of the Power Suits, and Mentor is father to the Future Force in the same way that Overmind is father (or perhaps mother) to the Bio-Dreads. (Which makes me wonder about the fact that I've basically called Overmind a HAL-style "jilted gay lover" and Mentor a "middle-aged lesbian")
Obviously, we return to the Power Base, where Mentor is downloading the details of the Charon phase, when a sudden loud whine accompanies Dread’s destruct code. I don’t like the science fiction trope of “You can broadcast a signal that will be picked up everywhere all at once and can’t be turned off even by switching off the receiver, but I like the pacing of this scene even less. If you had to pick one scene out of this episode that was the worst-served by the 22-minute running time, it’s this one. It’s just “Downloading” – <WHINE> — “Dread is sending the destruct code and we can’t block it and it’s going to explode,” all about in the space of one breath. Cap switches into ACTING! mode for a second and screams that Mentor is still attached, throwing himself at the exploding robot-head, only for Hawk and the others to pull him back in a scene I think might be intentionally reminiscent of the bit where McCoy and Scotty have to hold Kirk back in the engine room at the end of Star Trek II, only much, much faster. Predictably, the head explodes, Mentor vanishes, and the lights go out as we head into commercialsign…
We return mere moments later, with the Power Base lit only by little fires that have erupted from improperly grounded computer consoles. Cap desperately screams for Scout to get Mentor back, while Hawk explains that without Mentor, the base’s systems will shut down (I’m again reminded of Blake’s 7, this time “Breakdown”, where they’re forced to fly the ship without its computer system, a suicidal gambit since, every system on the ship was designed to be under constant computer control, and was therefore in danger of falling out of balance and tearing itself apart). Cap’s voice catches a little as he demands that Hawk and the others find a way to get Mentor back — he sounds like a frightened child.
This must have been weird to watch back in 1987. At this point in the series, the audience doesn’t know Mentor’s backstory. And here’s Tim Dunigan conveying just about the most emotion we’ve ever seen out of him. I mean, so far, Tim has played Cap almost exclusively with a kind of extreme stoicism — in most episodes, his role is kind of peripheral, and the stoic thing works for him as a slightly aloof leader figure. He might at times express sympathy or wistfulness, but it’s always detached and a bit distant. But even in “Shattered”, he doesn’t unload a whole lot of emotion, more nostalgia than affection. Really, last week when he switches into “Homicidal Rage” mode is the only time we’ve seen strong emotion out of him, and even then, it’s got a clinical, detached quality to it, the “serial killer” vibe I mentioned. But here, we have an actual real-for-real emotion. But, if you’re in 1987 and learning things in order, you’ve got to be wondering why Captain Power is more visibly broken up over Mentor than about Athena or about being tortured by General McNasty. Cap doesn’t say it, but in context, his tone tells us that “Just get [Mentor] back,” is prefixed by an implied, “I don’t care if we lose the Power Base.”
We go back to Volcania for Dread to wax poetic some more about Overmind’s pregnancy glow, mostly, I think, just to do a character shuffle back on the hero side, though we do get a weird Okudagram out of it. Back at the Power Base, Hawk and Cap have gone for a walk-n-talk about how they’re about to try to restart Mentor. Cap seems to be back to stoic detachment, but when Hawk explains that if Mentor’s “internal damage system” can’t cope, he’ll “fry every circuit he’s got,” we go to a tight shot of Dunigan and he visibly swallows hard and looks off into the distance. I’m really surprised to see them do such a good subtle display. Kids shows of the ’80s aren’t known for subtly. Hawk tries to comfort Cap, and this is where we finally get the reveal about Mentor’s nature: “I know how you feel; I feel the same way. But Mentor’s not your father.”
“No,” Cap answers, and now Tim Dunigan’s usual detached deadpan really catches, I think, a sense of traumatic dissociation, “But he has the face of my father, his voice, his essence.” He struggled wordlessly for a second before adding, “I don’t think I could watch my father die all over again.” They return to the Power Chamber and order Mentor switched on. There’s a few tense seconds, but it always goes the same way with this show. The big reveal is that Mentor isn’t as badly off as it had seemed, and he reappears. Cap and Hawk exchange a look, and then — and if you’re feeling generous, you can interpret this as pretty clever and meaningful — John closes his eyes for a second, and then he’s back to being detached, deadpan, all-business Captain Power. He asks Mentor about Charon.
As we already know, the basic plan for Charon is to build new Bio-Dreads. Mentor explains that the new model is going to be a “ground unit”, able to go places that Soaron can’t. Because, y’know, Soaron can only go places with a runway or something. I don’t know. Seems like the next Bio-Dread model will basically have the same mobility as Soaron, except slightly clunkier, having tank treads for feet, and being unable to fly. But since geography in this show is strictly “Whatevs,” who can tell.
Volcania is powered, it seems, by “magma plants”. In Detroit. But these won’t provide enough power to create this new master race, so he’s having the output of a bunch of power plants across the country beamed to him via “tight beam transmission”. There follows a nice ’80s action-show-style Hero Planning Exchange where the come up with a plan to park right in the middle of all these “tight beams” and scramble the transmission, that has a nice A-Team feel to it. Everyone shuffles over to the kiosk and powers on, though I can’t for the life of me sort out why, since they’re unmorphed in the Jumpship immediately after we return from a little hop over to Volcania that lasts just long enough for Dread to order Soaron to run interference.
In position, the Jumpship crew battens down and does a little switch-flipping montage, then everyone gets to bounce around a bit while purple CGI beams converge on the ship. When the approach of Soaron is detected, I of course expect that Hawk’s going to leap into action, but instead, what happens next is amazing.
See, this is, by my calculations, the seventh episode to air. By convention, I think, American TV shows are filmed in blocks of six. From the DVD featurettes, I know that the new CGI model debuting in this episode wasn’t ready yet when the first block was filmed, and I think one of the reasons the series has been kind of spinning its wheels up to this point because of that. Scheduling was so tight getting that first block of episodes out that Gary Goddard had to miss the premier of the feature film he had coming out that summer, Masters of the Universe. Though technically, missing the Masters of the Universe film makes him luckier than those of us who saw it (Seriously. I’m not saying that Filmation’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was anywhere near as good as our collective childhood memories say it was, but I can’t even imagine who they thought the audience for this film was, given how almost deliberately alienating it is to fans of the cartoon and how utterly uninteresting it would be to anyone else. Except maybe Jack Kirby fans, since it apparently bears a closer resemblance to the New Gods with the serial numbers filed off than to anything in the rest of the MOTU canon).
But now we’re into the second filming block, and that means that we can roll out all the
product placement exciting new show features, and here comes one now. We are seven episodes in. It is the centerpiece of the toy line. And it pretty much appears in this episode and one other one. Behold: The Power Jet XT-7
It’s apparently been attached to the top of the Jumpship all this time, though you could be forgiven for not noticing that, as we’ve rarely gotten a good look at the top of the Jumpship, and it kinda blends in. In fact, the Jumpship looks sort of wrong without it there, kind of sawn-off at the top. It’s a nice touch, by the way, that the Power Jet has visible scorch marks on it, indicating that it’s been in firefights before. I mean, I don’t know against what, since as far as I can tell, Dread’s entire army consists of Soaron, a room full of Bling Nazis, and robots in trucks, but it’s there.
Unfortunately, all the stuff I said about aerial battles before is still true. It’s just not composed well. It’s mostly just one combatant on the screen all by himself against a neutral background, flying in a straight line and shooting off-screen. When they do both appear at once, the compositing looks awful and the scaling is wrong. I mean look at this: Soaron is, as close as I can tell, somewhere in the range of eight to ten feet tall. If we assume that my toy is proportional (which is plainly silly), the Power Jet is almost exactly three times as long as its matching action figure. Tim Dunigan is six foot five, so that would make the Power Jet about 19 and a quarter feet long. Now, a Grumman F-14 Tomcat is 62 feet long; at 19 feet, the Power Jet would be smaller than a Cessna; we would in fact be talking about one of the smallest aircraft ever made. But let’s give it to him. The Power Jet is twenty feet long. Soaron is ten feet long. The Jumpship looks to be roughly twice the length of the Power Jet, so forty feet. We’re basically talking about a 1:2:4 ratio. Except in this shot where they’re all about the same size. In some of the shots, the Power Jet wobbles like it’s on strings. And the cockpit shots are terrible; Cap looks like he’s sitting at a desk. On the Satellite of Love. The KTMA-season one. There are some nice bits. One good really tight pass between Soaron and the Power Jet. Eventually, Soaron goes spinning off and explodes, and the power plants conveniently explode off-screen, and Lord Dread’s plan is all undone, but it comes at a cost: the Jumpship’s engines have burnt out. Hawk warns off Cap and plots a crash trajectory to smash them into the side of Volcania if Pilot can’t rewire Chekhov’s afterburners for primary flight in time.
In Dread and Overmind’s lovenest, the shower curtain over the end of Overmind’s birth canal pulses ominously, as a tired, post-partum Overmind reveals that only one of the promised Bio-Dread army has managed to be born, though they delay the reveal, only showing us a silhouette at this point. In the skies above, Pilot, again using the weird Sonic Dildo thing from the first episode, manages to fix the afterburners in the nick of time for them to make a lucky escape. Everyone enjoys a hearty laugh as, entirely unopposed, they fly away from literally right outside Lord Dread’s window. You thought I was kidding, but Soaron is absolutely the only thing Lord Dread has in the way of aerial defense. Cap gets close enough to actually see Dread’s shiny new Bio-Dread, who’s stepped out onto the balcony in order, I assume, to do the Lion King thing with himself, leading to our first good look at the new Bio-Dread, Blastarr, and–
I’m sorry. I need to stop for a moment. Okay. You can see that he’s a technological improvement in computer 3D graphics over Soaron, that he’s got a higher polygon count and better shaders and he’s got a lot of little tiny detailing and more points of articulation. But he just looks so goofy. With his pert little nose, and painted-on frown, and the fact that his feet have tank treads so that they don’t have to figure out how to make his legs move when he walks. And Blastarr is meant to be the “scary” Bio-Dread — even as a kid, I think Soaron’s menace was never really a thing; he seemed to fit pretty well into the archetype of the screamy-incompetent henchman who likes to berate his enemies as “pitiful” or “weaklings” and make boasts he can’t back up, and who would normally be voiced by Chris Latta; Blastarr was the all-business strong-quiet-type one. He’s the one who does The Thing at the end of this series. But looking at him now, he reminds me of nothing so much as a nightmarish version of the robot toy capsule vending machine in the front of the Jefferson Ward store in Annapolis from when I was a little kid. Given that I can not find anything useful by googling Jefferson Ward or toy capsule vending machines that look like robots from the 1980s (Though here’s a picture of a cigarette vending machine that looks like a robot from the 1950s), that maybe the most deliciously anachronistic sentence I’ve ever written.
This isn’t quite the end of the episode — we’ll return for another closeup of Blastarr in a second, but first, there’s the matter of Overmind’s afterbirth. The H.R. Geiger-inspired birthing chamber steams and wobbles and opens up again to disgorge this little techno-placenta:
This lovechild of Johnny Five and Dylan’s Playskool Magic Touch Screen Palm Leaner is Lakki, because at this stage in the show, the writers decided that what they really needed was a comic relief non-human sidekick. Lord Dread is not amused, but Overmind insists that Robo-Scrappy will surely prove useful to them. Once Dread’s left the room, Overmind throws us a bone and does what the audience was hoping for by shooting Lakki in the face. Well, I mean, it’s exactly the same visual effect as shooting him in the face, but presumably it’s some kind of reprogramming beam, because Lakki responds by acknowledging the super-seekrit orders he’s just been given and trying to look menacing, which is a neat trick when you look like something that even TSA agents at Logan would immediately dismiss as harmless. This is, of course, all setup for the reveal they never get around to, that Overmind doesn’t trust Dread and has created Lakki to spy on him. Why does Overmind have to add this secret program by shooting him in the face rather than either telling him out loud or baking it into him in utero (as he clearly did with Soaron)? That would certainly be a major plot hole except that, come on, there is no reason to complain about Lakki getting shot in the face.
Lakki is singularly worthless at this role. I mean, Lakki is pretty useless at any role, but in terms of “Covertly spy on Lord Dread so that Overmind will know ahead of time if he’s having second thoughts about this whole ‘genocide’ thing without him cottoning on,” Lakki is kind if hilariously unsubtle. Some folks, myself included in the past, have interpreted this as intentional on Overmind’s part: Overmind is very much written as something like Dread’s abusive boyfriend, and it does work well as a power-play to put Dread in a situation where he knows that Overmind doesn’t trust him and he knows Overmind is spying on him, but Overmind has just enough plausible denyability that if Dread were to confront him, it could get all indignant about being falsely accused. But watching it now, I find myself preferring the possibility that Overmind is just so completely detached from the way actual human beings think and act that it just never occurs to it that Lakki is slightly less subtle than Jar Jar Binks or that this could even be a problem. Maybe next he’ll say that the trees are the right height here.
This episode is good. Probably better than I’ve made it sound. In terms of major structural problems, the only thing I can really fault it for is the pacing, and as I keep saying, there’s a reason that half-hour drama isn’t really a thing any more. The scene where Mentor overloads is so rushed that it almost trips over itself, the exposition drop about Mentor looking like Cap’s father is kind of offhand for such a bombshell (and we never elaborate on what’s meany by Mentor containing Stuart Power’s “essence”), and once again the big tense moments for the heroes are resolved by “They try turning it on and it works,” not once but twice. But these are small sins, comparatively speaking, and speak more to an intrinsic problem with the format rather than the episode itself. On the other hand, even though Pilot, Scout, and Tank get a bit shafted on dialogue front (Actually, the only folks who get significant numbers of lines in this episode are Lord Dread and Overmind, but Hawk and Cap at least get a whole conversation), there’s multiple scenes of the team working together to solve problems in the same sort of montage you would get out of all the great ’80s team action-adventure shows from the tradition of Airwolf and The A-Team. This is really the first time in seven episodes that you can really see this show evolving into a proper Five Man Band-type action-adventure. Sure, we’ve had moments where I could just about see it working as a sort of oddly cyberpunk wanderer-in-the-dystopia show a la Mad Max, but here we really start seeing the show try to be the kind of show I think it actually wants to be. We’re finally starting to get a vision of where this show wants to go. If they’d led with this one — and I’ve given the technical reasons up front why that wasn’t possible — I think they’d have had a much more serious chance of making it.
I was less than kind to Tim Dunigan last time. I mean, I tried to be moderate in my complaints, but the fact of it is that in 1987, he was only a mediocre actor, and the direction his career took since then meant that he never got the opportunity to become a good actor. And he totally could have done. I’d compare him in a lot of ways to Walter Koenig. Back in 1968, Walter Koenig was, I think, a pretty mediocre actor who was trading on being boyishly handsome and charming, shoved by Gene Rodenberry into a ludicrous wig to capitalize on the popularity of Davy Jones, and forced to affect a ridiculous accent. But by the time he turns up as Bester in Babylon 5, he’s grown up to be a proper actor, and when he guests as an older version of Chekhov in James Cawley’s pet Star Trek, he’s flat-out amazing. Or Jonathan Frakes. He was doing the whole “Boyishly handsome but not a great actor” thing over in TNG for a few years before he grew a beard and his writers ran out of old Star Trek Phase II scripts where his equivalent character was pretty much “Kirk Jr. as played by Mike Brady”.
Because there are places in this episode where you can really see that Dunigan has the potential to be a better actor. For most of the episode, he’s in standard Captain Power mode: detatched, aloof, an somewhat muted interpretation of the wisecracking ’80s action hero — not much on the one-liners, but still good for the occasional smirk or wry observation. But from the moment that the skinned stormtrooper head starts exploding to the moment Mentor announces himself back on-line, it’s like he’s a whole different character. Because of the pacing and the context, the original audience doesn’t have a whole lot to go on in interpreting this sudden change, but “Mentor looks like his dead father,” is certainly enough to justify him getting all broken up, at least if we were dealing with a character who was less of a cipher than Captain Power is at the moment. We’ve only got a few minutes for this bit of the story, so you have to pick and choose, I guess.
But the oddest thing, really, is that the second Mentor is back on-line, Cap closes his eyes and switches off. He’s back to stoic action man for the rest of the episode. I mean, okay, Mentor’s a computer, and once the danger had passed, it probably even seemed a little silly to have gotten worked up like that. But there’s not even a “Oh good; our base didn’t explode,” or a “Good job, team.” It’s just business as usual. What are we to make of this?
We might, taking a cue from Gary Goddard, suppose that it’s just a weakness in the direction. I looked up this episode’s director. Otta Hanus is apparently most often connected with children’s shows, nothing I particularly recall as being either especially good nor especially bad. Kid’s shows are of course more often known for big emotion rather than the kind of subtlety displayed here, though. So let’s assume this is intentional, if for no other reason than that it makes for interesting analysis.
You know what it reminds me of a little bit? Spock. When Spock is written well — and really when any Vulcan in the Star Trek universe is written well, but Spock is the Vulcan who gets written well the most often — he’s got these little moments where, under duress, he lets just a bit of subtle emotion out. And almost immediately, you can see that he’s ashamed of himself, and he immediately buttons it up and tries to find a cover for it. And because he lacks both the cultural vocabulary and also the cultural permission to talk about his feelings, they can only ever come up through subtle, non-verbal cues.
The other thing it reminds me of is closer to home: The scenes of Cap fretting over Mentor are basically adjacent to the scene where Dread expresses pride over the forthcoming Bio-Dread army, Overmind chastises him for it, and Dread immediately buttons it up and tries to find a cover for it. This whole thing about parallel scene construction may have legs to it.
But, of course, Lord Dread is a genocidal psychopath and Spock isn’t human. When Star Trek (2009) came out, several reviewers I read, especially those who had family members with a spectrum disorder, suggested that Zachary Quinto was playing Spock as an Aspie. Fair enough; Spock has a half-Vulcan brain and a fully-Vulcan upbringing and a mostly-Vulcan psychology, so yes, it makes sense that if you evaluated his psychological makeup in entirely human terms, he wouldn’t evaluate as neurotypical.
What does this say for the Captain? If it’s intentional — and I’m not convinced one way or the other — could this mean that we should read Cap as having some kind of profound (but high-functioning) neurological or psychological disorder? I never thought I’d find myself here, but after “The Mirror in Darkness”, I’m seriously entertaining the possibility that Cap might be — well, I don’t know. It’s profoundly impolite to psychoanalyze someone from an armchair. So let’s stay non-specific: it is starting to look like maybe there is something profoundly wrong with Cap. Not so wrong that he can’t compensate, but he was clearly unhinged by his confrontation with Jason last week, and this week, he has to hold on with both hands to keep it together when he faces losing his surrogate father (Not to mention: Cap has been raised since he was a teenager by a computer with the face of his dead father. That can not possibly be good for your mental health). Already in this episode, he’s taken a big risk with the lives of his entire team in order to thwart Dread. He’ll take more. I think this is a pretty unlikely thing to be asking about a kid’s show hero from 1987, but as we go forward, let’s keep this question in our minds: what’s going to happen when Johnathan Power can’t compensate any more?