It is May 16, 2013. The last episode of the US remake of The Office airs. David Beckham announces his retirement. Pope Francis calls for global economic reform in the face of the “tyranny” of financial speculation. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis hold the top position on the Hot 100 with “Can’t Hold Us”. Of Monsters and Men’s “Little Talks”, which will later be my son’s favorite song, is number 6 on the Rock chart, part of a weird little movement where everything on the Rock top ten sounds kinda like a sea shanty: “Ho Hey” by The Lumineers, “Carry On” by fun., and two songs by Imagine Dragons also chart.
But we’re not really here for the music. There’s a movie opening at midnight tonight. It’s pretty hard for me to see a theatrical release these says, what with the one-year-old. I’ve made my peace with that. The last one was fine, I liked it well enough, but it didn’t really ignite my inner fanboy, so I’m okay with waiting until this one is on Netflix. So let’s talk a little more about where it all started…
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I guess the reason I started this series, so many years ago, was because — actually, you know what? I’m not sure why. I mean, we could posit a world where Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was an obscure piece of television history that hasn’t already been exhaustively covered by people with way more scholarly cred and dedication to keeping to a schedule than me, but we don’t live in that world. There’s plenty of apocalyptic science fiction for me to have chosen from when I started out down this path. I guess at some level, I wanted to take a more jaded, cynical look at the first season of Captain Power because I think we lose sight now, after seven seasons and three spin-offs and several feature films, just how precarious things were at first.
Do you remember Star Trek? Influential cult science fiction series from the ’60s. They did a bunch of movies in the ’80s that were pretty good. And at the same time as Captain Power‘s first season was airing, they actually made a new TV series out of that. The called it, Star Trek the Next Generation, which seems like a kind of awkwardly on-the-nose name, but who are we to talk, right? After “Retribution” aired, there were still six more episodes of that left to run, at least one of which was pretty good. But it sort of petered out. Star Trek the Next Generation‘s series finale, “The Neutral Zone“, aired twenty-five years ago today, on May 16, 1988 (Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine hold the number one spot with “Anything For You”; SCOTUS rules trash can be searched without a warrant; Surgeon General Admiral(In an utterly bizarre twist, the Public Health Corps is a uniformed service, and therefore the Surgeon General is by definition an officer, holding the rank of Vice Admiral) C. Everett Koop issues a report saying nicotine is as addictive as heroin.). It’s kind of a snore, though maybe you can see them backpedaling a bit on the arrogance that made this season so unlikeable: the plot involves a little cadre of 20th century humans the Enterprise finds in suspended animation, and though it looks like they’re going to do the whole “Boy is our audience a bunch of backwards savages,” with the suave ’80s venture capitalist being shown as useless and obsolete in this post-scarcity society, he ends up redeeming himself as his business sense lets him see through some Romulan posturing, which is helpful because it’s not like the Enterprise has a telepath in its senior staff or anything. Mostly, the episode is just sequel bait, though, with the cryonauts and the Romulans mostly being there to set up a mystery involving stolen colonies on the edge of Federation and Romulan space. If they’d been renewed, I assume they’d have gotten into that next season. Probably somehow related to the flue-gill parasites from last week’s “Conspiracy”.
But, of course, there was no second season for Star Trek. After the resounding “meh” that the first season had generated, the admittedly sizable fanbase just couldn’t get worked up enough to fight for this one. Not all of them had been on-board in the first place, with this idea of trying to do Star Trek without its iconic 1960s characters, and this just seemed to prove it: maybe there was still something they could wring out of the unexplored corners of the existing franchise, but there just wasn’t a viable way forward for that universe. When 1989’s Star Trek V flopped, that was pretty much it for the franchise.
I hope this series of essays has given you some sense of how close we came to seeing Captain Power face that same fate — as bad as Star Trek the Next Generation was, I don’t think it was worse on average than the episodes of Captain Power that aired around the same time. Heck, a modern fan would be hard pressed to even recognize that first season — the whole show changes when they find their footing in the third season. It’s even literally a different show, as they change the title from Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future to Captain Power: The Phoenix. We like to joke that you can pretty much tell when it becomes the show we know today when Tim Dunigan grows a beard. Of course, switching to an hour-long format helped too.
But that sea-change didn’t come out of nowhere. You can absolutely see the show growing up over the second season. In the fall of 1988, Captain Power returned with its opening two-parter, “Vendetta”, which really sets the tone for the whole season. That sense of gravitas that I always said was conspicuous in its absence? Deprived of the Power Base, and with Cap clearly coming unglued over the death of Pilot, we finally see the team acting like they actually comprehend the stakes. And the format change helps a lot too: there’s only two single-parters this season. “Vendetta” and the two-part finale “Code Name: Ranger”/”The Observer” feel very much like hour-long episodes that have just been split down the middle — “Vendetta”, of course, originally aired in a special hour-long block. Those two really prefigure the way the show will work in the hour-long format from Season 3 onward, but so too does the rest of the season. “The Archers” and “The Blood-Dimmed Tide” are very much in the tradition of the television serial. It reminds me a lot of old British shows like The Tomorrow People or the original Doctor Who: each part is structured with a beginning, middle, and end, but each beginning, middle and end are still only parts of a larger story.
It’s not perfect at this stage; there’s a strong impulse in serials like these to have every episode end on a “cliffhanger”, on the misguided theory that people are only going to tune in next week because they are seriously entertaining the fear that it’ll turn out that the protagonist of the series dies from the seemingly-inescapable death trap he was in last time. This is just painful, say, in episode 4 of “The Archers”, which ends with Hawk’s suit failing while he’s flying over a plasma storm. Episode 5, predictably, starts with Hawk just switching it back on. On the upside, though these are pretty much the only times in the season that they fall back on season 1’s favorite trick of “It turns out that he wasn’t as badly hurt as it seemed.”
This serial format, I’ll note, was a really weird thing to do on American TV of the period. They’d done it a bit back in the ’60s with the Adam West Batman, sure, but the dominant model of US TV at the time was completely stand-alone. The idea of having plots that stretched from week to week just didn’t jive well with the syndication model of TV distribution, where episodes could be aired out of order or preempted at random. The only real exceptions were soap operas. And to a certain extent, what you had with Captain Power was a collision of cult science fiction with some of the motifs of the soap opera: not just a continuing storyline, but also an increasing sense that everyone existed in one coherent world with elements that stuck around to grow and change over time. The loss of the wormhole system from the first season makes the second a lot more geographically grounded. The Jumpship crashes in a forest explicitly near Toronto at the end of Vendetta, and it’s not until “The Observer” that they move on. I’ve read that the original treatments called for “The Blood-Dimmed Tide” to be set on a nonspecific tropical island, and boy am I glad they rewrote that.
There are basically two season-long plot threads for season two. Right from the start of “Vendetta”, we find out that Captain Power’s dad had built a second Power Base somewhere in northern Canada, and for our heroes, this season is about them trying to locate and get to it. For the other side, it’s “Project Rebirth”, which on the face of it is just Project New Order Redux. The punch-line, such as it is, is the introduction of Xenon, the third Bio-Dread Warlord, “Fire” to Soaron’s “Air” and Blastarr’s “Earth”.
Obviously, this calls for a new “Specialist”-type Soldier of the Future, and that’s Private Chip “TNT” Morrow, formerly Andy Jackson from “The Intruder”. This is a character archetype I never really like, but he does grow on me a bit, especially when we get a little more character focus on him in the later seasons, and we get to see that yes, he actually does have some issues with the fact that, after he’d worked so hard to earn a place on the team, he was ultimately given a Power Suit on a whim because Cap wasn’t thinking clearly — Chip’s introduction marks the point where the relationship between Captain Power and Hawk starts to break down, with Cap increasingly turning to the reckless and less experienced Chip instead of the old friend who’s level-headed enough to curb Cap’s growing excesses; Cap pretty much steals one of the spare Power Suits and gives it to Chip because everyone else has more sense than to go on a suicide mission to murder Locke.
I wish there were more to say in the context of season 2 about the other new addition to the team, Christine “Ranger” O’Connor, but she doesn’t really come into her own until next season. I will say this, though: it would have been far too easy to just write her straight-up as a replacement Pilot, and they don’t. Although we don’t get any character focus episodes this season (“Code Name: Ranger” is a really brilliant misdirect; its first act is clearly setting up a Ranger-focused episode, but she’s essentially sidelined after the first commercial break with the reveal of the Observers), they spend enough time with her, particularly in “The Blood-Dimmed Tide”, to really distinguish her. I mean, Pilot was tragically under-used in the first season — she’s fairly generic even in her own character focus episodes — but they go out of their way with Ranger to play up the fact that she’s far less sheltered and starry-eyed than Pilot ever was, and her budding relationship with Tank (though it never does go anywhere during the original series) serves to contrast Pilot’s difficulty with expressing her feelings: Ranger is one of those really delightfully forward female characters that nerdy men sometimes write basically because they’ve always wished that girls would just freaking tell them when they’re interested.
We finally get Scout’s big character focus episode too, the rather unfortunately titled “Face of Darkness”. Looking back at what eventually happens to his character when Maurice Dean Wint left the series at the beginning of season 4, you could be excused for seeing the writing on the wall here, the way we finally get to see some depth behind the silly voices and get a real sense that, yes, there’s a person underneath who is having actual human-like reactions to the horror around him. We get the man who wears every face juxtaposed with someone who, effectively, doesn’t have one at all. Now, I got a chance once to read a draft version of the script. The draft feels very much like a good first-season episode: a bit rushed around the edges, but with a solid emotional core that is somewhat undercut by a big old problematic-as-hell wart in the middle. The biggest change in the aired version is Scout’s big Kirk-Speech at the climax. In the draft, it’s got an uncomfortable sense of victim-blaming as he comes very close to calling Mindi responsible for her own alienation. The tonal shift of the second season serves this story very well: in the aired version, Scout’s speech is a lot more introspective, and you really get the sense that he knows from experience what it’s like to feel the need to hide behind a false face (In the draft, Mindi wears a hood rather than a mask to hide her disfigurement, another really adroit change).
But of course, the big thing this season, the thing that really shapes the future of the series, is Morganna II. She’s referenced all the way back in “Vendetta”, but she doesn’t appear in the “flesh” until “A Passion Formed in Steel”, yet her palpable absence haunts the season. And when she’s introduced, it’s as Lord Dread’s lover — what at first seems to be a flashback to a pre-war Taggart is revealed to be cybersex. This is shocking all on its own — and let’s face it, anything trying to depict network computing in 1998 is going to be pretty silly; the Cyber-Dens of Flame Street are a far cry from the modern interociter I’m dictating this essay on. But remember, we’re talking about the Season 2-4 version of Dread, the one whose only visible human flesh is the one eye. This is the farthest Lord Dread ever gets from his humanity; his shocking heel-face-turn in “The Worst of Both Worlds” is a whole season away. I know they retconned this later, but if you read any of the interviews from the summer of ’88, there’s no question: Morganna was originally meant to have the mind and appearance of Cap’s mother. So here, when Lord Dread has allegedly — and he’s been living up to it so far this season — shed the last vestiges of his humanity, we see him using cyberspace to recreate himself as Lyman Taggart and bone his best friend’s wife. I’d suggest, if you take into account her interaction with Dread in season 3, it’s Morganna who is the catalyst for his ultimate decision to attempt to reclaim his lost humanity, leading to the arc through season 4 where, in a real sense, he becomes the effective protagonist, with most of the story focusing on his attempts to make peace with Captain Power, building up to his ultimate decision to reject both Cap and Overmind as both being too extreme, and creating a third side in the conflict.
Which makes it all the stranger that Morganna doesn’t ever have a heel-face-turn of her own; she remains 100% Team Overmind for the rest of the series. We never even really lean what she is. Sure, it’s widely understood that she’s some kind of Terminator-style robot, with fake flesh over a crunchy metal center, but they never actually say that, and the special effects sequence when she switches in and out of her human form is ambiguous at the least.
All this builds up to the season finale, which is basically a clip show. Yeah, I don’t like clip shows to begin with, and this certainly isn’t as good as “The Worst of Both Worlds” or “Dread”/”Taggart”, but the framing device of the Observers, particularly the new linking sequences they shot to insert clips of Observer One into earlier stories, is really clever, and it tries out some of the storytelling techniques JMS would perfect later in the spin-off series The Phoenix Banner: Babylon 5‘s season four finale, “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars”. (And what a wonderful parallel it is, too, since it’s here that they finally reveal, years later, who the Observers were — season 2 implies them to be from Eden II, but the whole thing gets dropped by the end of season 3, and it’s only years later in an entirely different show that we learn the Observers were Vorlons the whole time).
But really, just talking about what happens in the episodes isn’t doing justice to the legacy of Captain Power‘s second season. This is really when the show worked out what kind of show it was, and in a very real sense, it set the tone for science fiction TV in the 1990s. See, around this time, television makers were starting to cotton on to the power of fandoms. And in their usual mercenary way, this meant that they saw fandoms as a way to extract money from nerdy twentysomethings who were free to dump every penny they earned on swag, since they didn’t have wives or children or mortgages. There was a serious danger of Science Fiction on TV becoming sort of insular and pandering — Science Fiction shows of the 1960s and 1970s lived or died on mass appeal. Virtually every single one of them failed because they failed to attract a following among “ordinary” folks. But can you imagine what would have happened if Star Trek the Next Generation had survived? There’s nothing in that show’s single season to attract anyone who wasn’t already deeply committed to Star Trek. It would have ushered in an era where you could make and market science fiction specifically for consumption by a smallish group of dedicated followers rather than for the general public. Science Fiction would have become “cult”, shoehorning everything into over-signified master narratives ripped straight out of Joseph Campbell.
We got this instead: Captain Power was always pitched as a kid’s show. But I just got through telling you that one of the major antagonistic forces in the narrative is introduced in a sex scene. This wouldn’t have computed by the logic of anything that came before. Kids’ shows hardly ever got the respect they deserved, just an abiding belief that children were stupid and undiscerning, so there was no need for anyone to try too hard to make shows that didn’t suck ass. But of course, Captain Power didn’t work like that; it was something altogether stranger: a “kids’ show” for the whole family. This wasn’t a show for mom and dad to set the kids in front of then go off about their own business. This was a “Family dinner in the living room in front of the TV” show. It wasn’t ever really a properly “adult” show, but it was a show adults could and did enjoy. This is a thing that hadn’t really happened in American TV like this, not with any deliberation. You had “adult shows” with broad kid appeal, things like MacGyver and Knight Rider, but the most you had in the other direction was “Sesame Street occasionally throws a bone to the parents so they don’t kill themselves some time around hour 7 of Elmo’s Greatest Hits”.
It reminds me of the great legacies of British TV in the 1970s, shows like The Tomorrow People, and of course Doctor Who: a bit of “teatime brutality” that had enough of a plot to keep adults engaged, and enough action and silly faffing about for the kids. With a serial structure to keep people coming back week after week. And it won. Captain Power became the dominant model for science fiction TV in the 90s: fantasy that targeted the entire family, where an individual episode’s plot was simple enough for a child to follow, arranged into arcs that the adults could appreciate. I mean, obviously, between The Phoenix Banner: Babylon 5 and its sequel series, The Phoenix Banner: Crusade, you have a big chunk of the ’90s where Captain Power and its spin-offs are the powerhouses of the genre, but you can see its influence as the genre evolved, say, in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, an adaptation of a pretty camp comic vampire film, which recast it as serious drama, taking advantage of the season-long arc structure Power pioneered. And of course, it’s fitting that in 1996, Doctor Who, which had died in its original form just as Captain Power was taking off, got an American revival that ran for eight seasons. I can’t imagine an American-made Doctor Who having succeed if it were born out of the Star Trek tradition; the whole thing would have been laden down with pointless continuity references and given the Doctor some kind of Campbellian hero’s journey and just been a pile of largely disconnected scenes that screamed “EPIC, ISN’T IT?” at the audience rather than telling a story. They’d probably have gotten someone young and dashing to play The Doctor rather than Hugh Laurie.
That, then, is the legacy of Captain Power‘s success. A decade of Science Fiction shows which straddled the line between a kid’s show and an adult show. Those kids’ show sensibilities held in check the general trend of the ’90s to be Darker and Edgier and more Extreme, really giving us the best of both worlds. I shudder to think where shows like Dark Skies or Sliders would have ended up if they’d actually tried to take themselves entirely seriously. Or something like The X-Files. Can you imagine what that would be like if, say, the focus had been on those two FBI agents and not their wacky conspiracy-nut groupies?
Of course, the pendulum swings back over time. It’s a good thing; you had folks like Joss Whedon and Aaron Sorkin and JJ Abrams finding a way forward for properly “adult” TV to incorporate (and to a certain degree, perfect) the techniques that those family-aimed ’90s shows had developed. But I miss it. I saw the 2009 reboot, and it was… Good. Seeing Soaron rendered with twenty-first century technology was amazing, and I thought it was delightfully cheeky for them to introduce Stingray only to kill him off in act 2. Plus, the whole thing having been engineered by a time-traveling Tim Dunigan!Cap to bring Pilot back to life was a really clever twist. And yes, I know that after the prequel series The Metal Wars flopped, most people thought the franchise had run its course (Let’s face it, Scott Bakula is no Bruce Gray). But ultimately, it just didn’t do it for me; those kids’ show sensibilities were gone (Which I should have seen coming when they announced that they’d changed the title to something less silly), and the whole thing just felt a bit “ordinary” without it.
From the trailers, it’s pretty clear to me that Phoenix Rising Into Darkness is going to be similar. I’m sure it will be fine, just… A bit ordinary. Though if you get the chance, watch the Japanese trailer. There’s an extra bit at the end in that one. Spoiler Alert: I think they’re going to reenact Pilot’s death scene, but it looks like maybe Pilot and Cap’s roles will be reversed.
Can they pull it off? I don’t know. But here, in the nexus of all realities, all things, even this, are possible.