Category Archives: Eschatology

The Voice of the Resistance: I Like French Films, Pretentious, Boring French Films… (Light Years / Les hommes-machines contre Gandahar)

Light YearsBonjour. Nous ne visitons pas ici dans l’ordre strictment chronologique. Ni d’un ordre strictment programmatique. Je n’ai pas étudié en francais depuis les années nonante. Et je n’ai jamais parlé francais tres bien à l’époque, à moins que on parle de les choses dans l’ecole. Mon lexique n’a pas grande, et j’ai oublié beaucoup des lois de la conjugaison. C’est la vie.

Allons-y all the same. Between the article title and the near-gibberish of that last paragraph, you may have guessed that I want to talk about something French this week. You may recall that among the movies that were released to the US Box Office over Captain Power‘s Christmas break, there was this one animated film that ticked one of my dormant childhood neurons. That movie was Light Years. Light Years was a Weinstein-brothers produced English-language translation of the French film Gandahar: Les Anées Lumière. Our old pal Isaac Asimov, taking some time off from creating Probe, did the translation.

Les hommes-machines contre GandaharGandahar was itself an adaptation of the novel Les hommes-machines contre Gandahar by Jean-Pierre Andrevon. He’s apparently a fairly prolific French science fiction author, but his fame seems to be pretty regional since I can barely find anything at all about him in English. I’m fairly sure Gandahar was a series, since it looks like he also produced Les portes de Gandahar (The Doors of Gandahar),  Gandahar et l’oiseau-monde (Gandahar and the Bird World), Cap sur Gandahar (The Conquest of Gandahar), Les Rebelles de Gandahar (The Rebels of Gandahar) and L’Exilé de Gandahar (Exile of Gandahar) but I can’t even be sure some of those aren’t just alternate titles of the same book.

I’ve talked before about the underlying tradition of “realism” in American cinema. There’s a preference for showing worlds that are like our world, at least insofar as the worlds behave like a world. There may be outlandish plots from mad scientists, or ancient artifacts with magical powers, or a basic ignorance of Hanlon’s Razor, or even superheroes, but people still get up in the morning, things still fall when dropped, causality only goes in one direction (Even if there’s time travel, time travel can be “unwound” to produce a linear sort of meta-time where causality flows in only one direction; the same sidereal moment might occur several times, but one of those times is explicitly “first” and one “last”), and cats don’t spontaneously turn into delicious chocolate pudding. American cinema has been at least a little uncomfortable with breaking from this at least as far back as The Wizard of Oz, where they tacked on an “All Just a Dream” ending because, I swear I am not making this up, they imagined that modern 1930s audiences were far too sophisticated and intelligent to accept a movie set in a fantastical world with living scarecrows and melting witches (Yes. In the book, Oz is absolutely, unquestionably 100% real. And the shoes were silver. Read a book.). It’s not a rock-solid taboo or anything, but being properly psychedelic normally locks you in to the arthouse circuit, and even then, well, to give you an idea, when William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was adapted to film by David Cronenberg, one of the big complaints about it was that they changed it so that it made way too much sense.

But cinematic tropes and traditions are themselves products of a particular time and place, and not all times and places are the same. Popular US culture has always been haunted by the specter of puritanism, but on top of that, the US has that whole “melting pot” thing going on. And I think those work together to disincline major American media-makers from wandering off into surrealism. Once you start digging below the world of surface meanings, below the common shared part of reality that we can all agree on — the whole “sun goes up in the morning” and “things fall when dropped” business — reality starts to become a lot more subjective, and a lot more a function of time, place and culture. Which works well enough when you’re somewhere like England, and 90% of your population has a shared cultural heritage that stretches back to when the Saxons displaced the Britons, but on this side of the pond, the only shared culture we have that, honestly speaking, stretches back before the civil war settled the question of whether or not we cared to actually be one shared culture is… One we tried our best to exterminate. DisneylandSo we tend to stick close to the surface, to the bits of reality we can all agree on, filing off the rough edges and desperately trying not to think about the fact that we’re anything other than one big happy family that’s totally not made up of a bunch of people who spent most of history trying to kill each other. Some would call this “catering to the lowest denominator”, but if you want to feel better about yourself, you could say, “trying to be as inclusive and inviting as possible” (With an awful lot of failing to be as inclusive and inviting as possible mixed in there. Often, ironically, because we’re trying so damned hard to not notice the differences between groups of people with radically different life experiences). Our culture makes itself deliberately banal because a mixture of puritanism, idealism and capitalism that desperately wants to be all things to all people all at once.

At the risk of playing down the fact that many other cultures manage to handle pluralism perfectly well, this just isn’t as much of an issue for, say, the British, or the French, or the Germans, or… Pretty much anyone else. And accordingly, you see a much greater willingness to look “under the surface” in their popular cultures. Some of the most influential early films were made by the German Expressionist school, with its sharp lines and weird geometries, where buildings might lean on each other, or objects in the foreground might cast impossibly long painted shadows at weird angles. Back in the ’90s, I saw a staging of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (or What You Will) done in an homage to German expressionism and it was almost a kind of religious experience. I didn’t understand it at the time, this sense of being in a space clearly made by humans, clearly made for humans, but also clearly a broken world where human shapes didn’t belong.

Meanwhile, in France, surrealists were… Well, really, they were trying invent LSD a few decades early. The Treachery of Images Surrealism is a school of art that rejects the idea that human thought is really based on logic and reason and other kinds of Aristotelian bullshit. People like to use the phrase “dream logic” when talking about surrealism, but I hope that’s less misleading in French, because I think that while it’s technically true, it leads you astray. Surrealism is actually an awful lot like phenomenology, in that they’re both interested in the question of what’s actually going on when you experience something. Namely, the nature of the separation between the thing you perceive and act of perception — as René Magritte would put it in one surrealist painting, ceci n’est pas une pipe.

I find surrealism very hard to talk about, particularly in film. I just don’t have the lexicon for it. For me, there’s a line between good surrealism and just plain incomprehensible nonsense, but it’s still something you can at times kind of luck into. This is one of the reasons I can take joy in watching really bad movies and TV shows: sufficiently advanced incompetence can be indistinguishable from surrealism. When you have something like, say, The Roller Blade Seven or Phase IV, or Zardoz, it can be hard to tell if the thing you’re watching is brilliant, insane, both, or neither. And this is just a personal thing, but where I draw the line is: if you can work out what the hell just happened without consulting the cliff notes, you’ve got a contender for good surrealism. I’m not talking necessarily about the why of what happened; just the what. I may not have a chance in hell of sorting out why or how Avenant and the Beast switch bodies when a statue of Artemis shoots them at the end of La Belle et la Bête, but I can tell you that’s what happened. I have no fucking idea what happens at the end of Phase IV, so that one goes off the rails. (I actually do know, because I read the book. But I submit that there is no honest way that from the film alone you could work out what that acid trip of an ending was).

The plot of Light Years is only a little bit surreal. It’s got some time travel in it, but it barely matters at all. I’ve seen capsule summaries that describe the central conceit as a time paradox, but it’s just not: causality only goes in one direction, and the only reason time travel matters at all is that we meet the same character at two points in its life. The whole time travel aspect is undercut by the fact that the characters to whom it’s most relevant have the gift of prophesy. Which means that they can foresee events the future events that have come back in time. Carry the two, divide both sides by X, and what you get is that they have the power to see… the present. No, the thing about Light Years that’s just nuts is the animation.

Again, I’m at a loss for vocabulary, but in the ’80s, there were basically two dominant styles of US animation. At the one end, you had cartoons in a style which is so stereotypical that people usually just call it “cartoony”. The style of your Tex Averys and your Chuck Joneses. Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, that sort of thing. Caricatures of real objects, with their proportions distorted — hypercephalic anthropomorphic animals with big eyes pulling giant mallets out of hyperspace. At the other end of the spectrum, you had folks like Don Bluth, a sort of stylized realism. Use of motion capture. Classic Disney feature-length stuff. I’d also put most of the Filmation stuff in here too — it’s clearly going for the same basic approach to how things are proportioned and juxtaposed even if they’re not putting in the same effort. It kinda pains me to lump Filmation in with Don Bluth, but I just don’t think exploring the distinction is going to be very helpful for this ramble. As we got into the nineties, you’d see a greater diversity of styles, elements of Anime creeping in, as well as the sort of very frenetic, high-chaos and often ultra-grotesque stuff that characterizes things like Duckman or Ren and Stimpy. But back in the days of my youth, you basically had two choices: the sort of cute-uncanny style that’s most associated with Warner Bros., or the sort of simplified quasi-realistic style that’s associated with Disney.

That’s not to say there weren’t outliers. There was Ralph Bakshi, for instance, who seemed to be in kind of the same vein as Don Bluth half the time, and then suddenly he’d whip out something completely apeshit like animating a sequence by tracing over live-action or Nekron 99. What makes Bakshi’s films so unsettling to me is that he’s one of the few animated film makers who actually blends the quasi-realistic style with “cartoony” elements. What I mean is, you might have something fantastical — the dragon, say, in Sleeping Beauty, or heck, Optimus Prime, but they’re still drawn as if they were real things that could be in, if not the real world, at least a real world. You can imagine what Optimus Prime would look like if he were real — a big, roughly human-shaped robot. But what would Bugs Bunny look like in the real world? A rabbit? A man in a rabbit suit? Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam suggest that the answer is, even if he were somehow transposed into the real world, Bugs Bunny himself would still be a cartoon. That’s why we call it “cartoony”: that he is a cartoon is intrinsic to Bugs’s essentia in a way that being animated isn’t essential to He-Man (as Garry Goddard demonstrated a month or so before Captain Power premiered), Princess Aurora, or Frodo Baggins. When a character of the first kind and a character of the second kind meet, it’s nearly always some kind of subversion or gimmick — it’s something that’s deliberately wrong. Which is why it’s so weird to have a character like Necron 99 in Wizards, where the humans are shaped like humans, and the faeries are shaped like humans with wings, but then there’s this sort of sock-monkey-looking robot assassin with disproportionately long legs.

Well, I say unusual. And then places that aren’t the US go and do it all the time. Take a look at something like Yellow Submarine, or Heavy Metal. Or Fantastic Planet. Fantastic Planet. We’ve almost caught up with ourselves now, because Fantastic Planet is the brainchild of René Laloux, who also directed Gandahar.

And the animation in Gandahar is, as I’ve been working at saying, real freaking weird. The people are detailed and realistic and look like people… Except that some of them have three breasts or wings growing out of their heads or superfluous arms or suchlike. What’s so uncanny about it is that, for all my talk of surrealism and expressionism and cartoonism, if I were to actually assign an art style for the character design, I’d kinda have to begrudgingly go with “realism”. There is a Vienna School of Fantastical Realism which on paper sounds like a good fit for the art style of Gandahar, but the examples I’ve looked at don’t really look the same. It’s kind of like… I don’t know. Imagine if Ralph Bakshi had done Yellow Submarine. I’ve mentioned Yellow Submarine twice now, because even though the two don’t look anything alike, they both approach, in different ways, the same kind of uncanny juxtaposition.

But where Yellow Submarine‘s animation is sort of minimal, Gandahar‘s is lush. Everything moves kind of weirdly slow. Like there are too many frames of animation, the way you sometimes get in flash games. Or Prince of Persia. The original Prince of Persia, the 1989 one, where everything feels just a little floaty because it’s rotoscoped and it’s using every frame it’s got to cram in little details of motion. Most traditional animation is shot “on twos”, two frames of film for every frame of animation. Maybe this is shot on ones. Or maybe it’s still shot on twos but the tweening (Drawing interpolated frames to transition between keyframes, which show the beginning and end of a single discrete motion. Usually done with computers today, but traditionally done by an assistant animator, who is called an “inbetweener”, but never a “tweener” because I’m pretty sure that’s a euphemism for vagina.) was done on the assumption that it was going to be shot on ones. Whatever the North Korean animation house did, the result is that every motion feels just slightly slow and floaty, almost like it’s underwater.

Isaac Asimov's translation for the American version, Light Years, begins with a quote from Isaac Asimov, which seems to me like cheating.
We speak of Time and Mind, which do not easily yield to categories. We separate past and future and find that Time is an amalgam of both. We separate good and evil and find that Mind is an amalgam of both. To understand, we must grasp the whole. -- Isaac Asimov
In fact, as far as I can tell, he wrote that specifically for the introduction of this movie. It's not an epigraph: it's a blurb. I mean, what the hell? As we hold on the quote, it slowly changes, line by line, from blue to white. There is no narration. So... Is the color change telling us when to say the words? Are we watching some kind of weird karaoke-movie hybrid?

The movie proper begins with a starfield, voiced-over by our hero, Sylvin Lanvère, or rather “Sylvain”, le chevalier premier de Gandahar, who gives us a five minute head-start on the catchphrase of the movie by telling us that his journey began with the riddle, “In a thousand years, Gandahar was destroyed. A thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved, and what can’t be avoided will be,” a riddle so cunning that you have probably already worked it out. I’ve flipped through the novel in the original French, but if the pronouncement appears there, my French isn’t good enough to recognize it. Especially since in the original, it’s ten-thousand years rather than a thousand.

GandaharMuch like what I was able to make out from the book, the movie opens with a languid sequence whose main purpose is to convey that Gandahar (“Le royaume, ancré sur la face australe de Tridan, vaste planète à l’axe vertical et à la translation lente,” which is to say “A kingdom where it’s basically always autumn”) is a kind of slow-paced easy-going place where folks just kind of hang around having a good time, making boats out of huge leaves, shepherding large tardigrade-faced snail-like creatures, and nursing little insect pets that grow on trees. Not even making that up. A nude woman sits down in front of a plant, it grows her a little kind of puppy-dog sort of bug critter, and she takes it to her breast and nurses it, prompting me to wonder exactly how I got my parents to let me watch this back in 1988, because, seriously, about 75% of the minor and background characters in this movie are women, and only one of them wears a shirt.

AmbisextraThe book namechecks some other nearby planets and kingdoms to say that they didn’t think much of Gandahar’s decadence, but the Gandaharians, like Honey Badger, don’t care. You can tell that they’re a peaceful, unscientific culture because they are a matriarchy, and Andrevon’s a golden-age style Sci Fi writer, and you show me a golden age sci-fi writer who isn’t a raging gender essentialist. Under the peaceful reign of their beloved and wing-headed queen — I am not making this name up — “Myrne Ambisextra”, art and toplessness flourishes, while science and fighting are all but unknown. But as shepherds pet their deer-armadillo things and topless women stack beets, their peaceful world is shattered by an as-yet-unseen attacker (whose identity will shock you unless you see the title of the book in the opening credits) whose pew-pew sound effects turn peaceful Gandaharians to stone. Kinda like getting bonked by the green apples when the Blue Meanies invaded Pepperland. Yeah, another Yellow Submarine reference. Weird, isn’t it?

Gandahar’s capital is the City of Jasper, which is a big castle shaped like a naked lady because of course it is. Queen Ambisextra and her chief scientific adviser, Omega Santa, discuss the recent murders of their creepy one-eyed “mirror birds”. Omega SantaOmega Santa bemoans their continuing failure to explore scientific options for strategic defense in favor of telepathic-one-eyed-bird-based surveillance, because he is a man, and men are like that, all into science and war and stuff instead of art and nature and all that girly stuff (The matriarchy will don some Warrior Woman outfits later, but still, this movie is playing its gender essentialism painfully straight, with the only two speaking men in Gandahar being the Only Scientist and the Head Knight). Ambisextra’s high council of bald topless women asserts their preference for biological rather than technological solutions, and, over her objections, orders the queen’s son (I don’t think he’s ever directly identified as her son in the dialogue of the movie. It’s explicit in the book, and it’s certainly indicated on-screen from the tone of her objections that he’s personally dear to her.), Sylvain, to investigate the unknown enemy.

He sets out on a flying manta ray in the general direction of the last attack, leading to a montage whose main point seems to be, “Look how weird this place is!” for so long that Sylvain gets bored and falls asleep at the wheel, waking up just in time to shoot a kind of pterodactyl-looking thing in the mouth with a pellet gun that makes it grow thorns. Because surrealism!

Slow FallThe crash of his injured manta ray, and his subsequent slow-motion ejection and languid somersault through the air are witnessed by a four-armed dude on a nearby rock, and a bunch of greenish-brown dudes with the wrong number of limbs and/or faces emerge from the ground, recognize Sylvain as Gandaharian, and take him to their leader, a five minute walk, because plot is pretty much secondary in this movie to giving us a chance to see how weird everything is, like the other mutants with their superfluous mouths or heads at the ends of their arms or unusually large ears, which are all clearly meant to convey that these are a race of horrific mutations, banished from polite Gandaharian society. Which would have a lot more impact if Queen Ambisextra didn’t have a big freaking pair of wings growing out of her head.

Sylvain takes this all in stride too, so I don’t know. I think this movie ramped up the weird too fast. Their leader, Quatto, is awfully polite, all things considered, even after Sylvain accuses him of being “The Enemy”. He identifies his people as “The Deformed”. In the book, I think they call themselves the “Dur de Durs”, which, based on my best reading of a french-to-french dictionary, seems to be a euphemism for “free and independent spirit”, so maybe “outsiders” would be a better translation?

Chief of the DeformedWe get some weird cuts to Sylvain having a snack, and some mutants milking stalactites while Quatto explains that the Deformed “were/will be” the hideous results of Gandaharian scientific experimentation in the distant past. And Sylvain just rolls with it and apologizes to Quatto, Quatto’s six-breasted girlfriend, and the shirtless, mouthless woman who’s making bedroom eyes at him, and now they’re friends. Quatto assigns Shayol, one of the particularly hideously Deformed to accompany Sylvain, mostly so that they can keep the action going while Sylvain gets some more exposition, such as the fact that the first generation of Deformed could see the future, which is why they always double-conjugate their verbs (As close as I can tell, they don’t do this in the book. I mean, I don’t see any dialogue where there are superfluous verbs. They do speak almost exclusively in capital letters though.), and where they got that handy catchphrase.

Sylvain snacks

Sylvain eventually comes to the village of petrified topless women. I don’t mean to keep harping on it, but there really is quite a lot boobs in this movie. If this were live action, even if it were French, it’d be kind of excessive. Like something out of Ed Wood’s later stuff. I’m trying not to pass judgment, just noting that it’s weird.

It’s here that we finally see the enemy: the “metal men”. Sylvain’s thorn-pellet gun has no effect on them as they very slowly advance, and he very slowly evades, eventually being turned to stone himself. Shayol bravely ran/will run away, leaving Sylvain to be… Stuck in a big egg with a topless woman named Airelle, which Google translates as “Huckleberry”, and therefore so will I.

GodzillaAnd then Godzilla attacks the Metal Men’s convoy and steals the egg Sylvain and Huckleberry are in. I’ll let that sink in for a second.

Sylvain cracks the egg with a pellet from his gun, which grows a big thorn tree that, fortunately, cracks the shell open before impaling them. Godzilla (a “Sorn”, according to Huckleberry) assumes them to be its children and makes them a little nest, then very slowly and with exceptionally detailed animation, licks themLick. And then there is an awkward cut and Sylvain has his shirt off. Because in the French version, they totally did it. There’s a few lines of dialogue indicating that Huckleberry and Sylvain have fallen hopelessly in love, which I’d object to, but it’s kind of late in the day for me to start objecting to things in this movie being weird, nonsensical and unrealistic.

The next morning or whatever, they survey the remains of the Metal Men that were destroyed in the Godzilla attack. Sylvain is surprised to find their bodies completely hollow, save for a little red mcnugget. They follow some Metal Men, learning that they gather up the petrified Gandaharians, stuff them in eggs, then push them through a black gate, which then disgorges more metal men. They sneak aboard a boat and follow the Metal Men to this sort of big pink thing that looks like a cross between a jellyfish, a testicle, and a butt [No, there will be no picture here. I am not putting a picture of a giant pink testicle-butt-creature on my website and getting thrown on porn-filter blacklists. Again.], which the Metal Men worship as a god. It sucks our heroes — or, I guess, our hero and his girlfriend — up into these sort of polyp-vagina things. Sylvain loses his shirt again.

Eventually, they’re dropped into a gooey pink place, where they get to telepathically converse with Metamorphis, played by Christopher Plumber, who you might remember as the bad guy from Star Trek VI. He denies being the god of the Metal Men, but concedes that the Metal Men have a different opinion on that subject. He seems either confused or irascible on the matter: he reckons that he’d find the Metal Men’s defeat “physically unpleasant”, but doesn’t actually want Gandahar destroyed. Metamorphis tongueThen he grows this pink flying tongue-thing to give Sylvain and Huckleberry a ride home. There’s another hard cut, which I assume means that they did it again.

The tongue dies on the outskirts of Jasper, but Sylvain hangs on to a bit of it.  Omega Santa determines that both the tongue and the delicious pink center of the metal men are the same organism, but, in case you are very dense and hadn’t worked it out, the cells from the metal men are “immeasurably older”.

The battle for Gandahar begins in earnest with Jasper launching some vagina-polyp things at the Metal Men. A different sort of vagina-polyp than the last one. These have teeth. So vagina-dentada-polyps. I’m going to guess René Laloux had some weird Freudian issues. These are moderately successful, but can’t handle the numbers. They also launch some bugs that lay thorn plants. The Siege of JasperThese fare less well, as the Metal Men simply petrify them and drive over them. Dumping their reservoir on the Metal Men causes them to very slowly flail around and fall down, but eventually they manage to swim to shore.

Meanwhile, Omega Santa has found some archival footage that reveals that Metamorphis was another product of ancient Gandaharian science experiments, a giant, indestructible brain with super-powers, which they pitched into the ocean. Sylvain is only about 90% convinced Metamorphis is evil, so he takes another flying manta ray to see him again, this time armed with a bio-weapon which may or may not kill it. He accuses Metamorphis, who now reveals that the Metal Men are time-travelers.

Metamorphis doesn’t want to rule the future-world the Metal Men come from, and wants Sylvain to kill him, but he “isn’t vulnerable yet,” because it “takes time to get ready to die”, and wants Sylvain to come back in a thousand years. The explanation, such as it is, is that Metamorphis has worked out — not clear how — that at some point in the future, he’s going to go senile and mastermind this whole invasion. He wants Sylvain to put him down, but just at the moment, he’s indestructible. He’s reckoned that in a thousand years, his regenerative abilities will have broken down (hence the senility), so he’s going to put Sylvain in suspended animation until then. Sylvain works most of this out later, but it’s pretty hard to follow.

This is probably the most ridiculous stunt involving the manipulation of time Christopher Plumber has ever been party to, and he was once in a movie where he delivered the line, “Imperial starship, halt the flow of time!” (Star Crash, 1978).

Things have gotten so serious that the Council of Women have put shirts on. Huckleberry tries to persuade them to give Sylvain more time, though I have no idea for what. The Deformed decide to join in the fight by somehow summoning lightning bolts, which make the metal men very slowly fall down. Jasper unleashes its army of giant crabs, which have some success, but are somehow even slower than the metal men and eventually yield to their ceaseless advance. In their final act of defiance, the crabs smash the pillars that hold the head onto the giant naked lady statue-castle so that a flock of birds can carry it away to safety.

A thousand years later, Sylvain wakes up and finds the Deformed, who’ve recently arrived from the past, but were discarded as unsuitable by the Metal Men, unlike the captured Gandaharians, who Metamorphis has been, I guess, pulping, as it needs replacement cells now that its Wolverine-like healing factor has burned out. Using stolen Metal Man gauntlets, the Deformed help Sylvain make his way to Metamorphis. They use their special powers to… Something. There’s a hard cut like something was removed, I don’t know what. By the way, using their special powers makes their eyes glow blue. Even the ones where their nipples should be.

Metamorphis has forgotten about his plan for assisted suicide, and repeatedly attempts to seize Sylvain in brain-tentacles, which keep exploding into brain-splooge. The Deformed do… Something. Outrun the fireball And it incapacitates Metamorphis’s brain-tentacles while Sylvain shoots it up with the brainacide Evil Santa had given him, leading to an “outrun the fireball exploding brain-splooge” sequence that I nearly described as “tense” before I realized I was watching it in 1.25x speed, and it’s really just as slow-moving as everything else. Metamorphis mumbles philosophically in its death-throes, so you can’t tell exactly how it feels about dying; at times, it seems relieved, at other times scared, and at others vengeful. Sylvain, the Deformed, and the Gandaharian survivors make it through the door of time just before it ceases to exist. The remaining metal men very slowly sink into the ground.

Sylvain returns to Jasper, where he has just enough time to whine about what’s the point of all this if his civilization is in ruins, when a bunch of birds show up, carrying the head of the castle with his people inside.

Jasper Returns

And then we fade to black and roll the credits. The ending of the book, from the return through the door of time to the end, is three pages, so this is only a bit more abrupt, perhaps, but it feels very anticlimactic. After setting up the romance between Huckleberry and Sylvain, we don’t even get to see their reunion. There’s a vague implication that the Deformed are going to be reintegrated into Gandaharian society, but nothing comes of it. The younger Metamorphis is still floating in the ocean somewhere, doomed to eventually go senile and try to take over the world, but no one brings that up (Is that the paradox? Was it the destruction of Gandahar that allowed Metamorphis to build the Metal Men, create an empire, and eventually go senile? Would have been nice to mention that or something). And having already seen the birds fly off with the castle-head, there’s really nothing shocking in the reveal when it comes back.

It feels like the movie just runs out of weird at the end, so Laloux loses interest. Because that’s what this movie comes down to. Even in the original French, Gandahar takes tremendous liberties with the plot of Les hommes-machines contre Gandahar. The plot is simplistic, even with the Time Travel angle — you could have young-Metamorphis and old-Metamorphis be clones or brothers or something and just leave the whole time travel angle out and it wouldn’t really impact the plot. The Deformed having once had prophetic powers isn’t developed and all it contributes to the plot is a catchphrase that only ever serves as a bit of foreshadowing. The idea of the non-scientific Gandaharians having these dark secrets in their past about unethical scientific experimentation could be fascinating, but nothing comes of it other than Omega Santa wryly observing that they’ve brought this whole mess on themselves. There’s no pay-off, no sense of Gandahar having to make up for the sins of their past or confronting their deep dark secrets. Or, you know, anyone reacting to the revelation that their society used to be into science and all, but gave it up after creating a race of freaky mutants and a giant floating brain. Airelle serves basically no purpose in the plot — she’s not a peril monkey for Sylvain to rescue, as you might expect from this genre, but neither does she contribute anything substantive. Just a topless woman for Sylvain to snuggle with while we take in the weird scenery. The explanation we’re given for Metamorphis’s plot is less than satisfying since it’s never more than conjecture Sylvain comes up with on the scantest of evidence. And why couldn’t he have woken up about a week earlier in the future and sorted out this whole mess before the siege of Jasper? And what about Scarecrow’s brain?

No, this movie isn’t about being about something. This movie is a sensory experience. You’re probably better off watching it in the original French with the subtitles turned off, unless you speak French. I hear the soundtrack to the French version is fantastic (The soundtrack to the English version is merely “okay”). The plot isn’t full of holes as such, just thin and unfinished. Cursory. The actual plot of Light Years feels about as obligatory as the fight scenes in Captain Power. It’s there because movies got to have plots. Even in France. The point of this movie is, rather, for us to look at all the weird stuff. Weird stuff, and also boobies.

In a big way, Yellow Submarine, which I keep coming back to, is the same (modulo boobies) — the plot is mostly just an excuse to hang a bunch of weird visuals on while Beatles songs play. But Light Years goes a lot farther in that direction. Things actually happen in Yellow Submarine. The characters do things which advance the plot. They get captured and have to be rescued. They have trouble controlling the submarine. They wake up strange beasts and have to evade them. They make new friends. And when they finally get to Pepperland, there’s a proper battle, with strategizing and everything.

Light Years doesn’t do that. Sylvain, for the most part, is not an active agent in his own story. He’s not even a reactive agent. He basically goes for a long walk and things happen around him, but, for the most part, not to him. Most of his plot consists of him meeting people, accusing them of being behind the attacks, then passively accepting it when they claim innocence. He’s captured by the Metal Men once, and rescued by a random act of Godzilla rather than his own actions. He discovers the physical nature of the Metal Men and learns about Metamorphis, but this doesn’t seem to actually affect how events play out in Jasper. He’s asleep for the siege of Jasper. The only time he actually takes any action that forwards the plot is when he offs Metamorphis at the end. Admittedly, he has more of a hand in the final outcome of the story than Indy does in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but not by much.

And yet, Gandahar is really just a pleasure to watch. Everything’s just so weird. It really is kind of like watching an hour-long Salvador Dali painting. From basically our first glimpse of Gandahar, continuously through the movie, it’s just a rapid succession of weird and uncanny images — Godzilla is quite possibly the least weird thing we find living in Gandahar. You’ve got suckling puppy-bugs, and tardigrade snail cattle, and giant crabs with faces that look kinda like Tintin, and attack-ladyparts-polyps, and those are the normal things that live in Gandahar, to say nothing of the Deformed or Metamorphis. This isn’t a movie you want to watch for its story, it’s a movie you watch for the experience of watching.

And also, y’know, the boobies. Seriously, lots of boobies in this movie. No idea what to make of that.

Boobies!

The Only Choice We’re Given is How Many Megatons (Captain Power: Flame Street)

It is the last two days of November, 1987. Three Men and a Baby and Planes, Trains and Automobiles have recently opened in the theaters. Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes dethrone Billy Idol with (I’ve Had) The Time of my Life from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Dougie Poynter of McFly is born.

HavenFor both of this season’s Science Fiction Events, this is the last week of 1987. Star Trek the Next Generation and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future will be on break until January. Trek opts to go out with “Haven”, a mostly unremarkable episode based around Troi being strongarmed into an arranged marriage, because this is the enlightened 24th century, not the backward, amoral, greedy, pig-fucking twentieth century, and a Starfleet Officer would totally promise his infant daughter in marriage to someone, and she’d be expected to fulfill that obligation decades later when her dad was dead and she was an officer herself, and she’d just go along with it and the only reason they end up not getting hitched after all is just because the guy backs out due to a prophetic vision and decides he would literally (by “literally”, I mean “literally”. This episode’s resolution is that he beams himself over to a plague-infested ship to help care for the survivors) rather contract the space-plague than marry a Season 1 TNG character. Also, technically, this is the best Season 1 performances by Wil Wheaton and Michael Dorn, because they aren’t in this episode.

Captain Power, on the other hand, goes on hiatus with “Flame Street”. It’s the one About The Internet. But, of course, it’s 1987, so saying that it’s “about the internet” is about as accurate as saying Le Voyage dans la Lune is about the Apollo mission. But it’s about cyberspace, and that means, rather tragically, that we are going to have to talk about cyberpunk.

You may have gotten the impression from my posts, particularly since returning from hiatus, that I rather like the 80s. The truth is more complicated than that, and it wasn’t always true anyway. While I think of myself as being squarely “from the ’80s”, My memories of the ’80s are the memories of a small child, and my properly formative years were during the ’90s, so for a lot of the ’90s and a lot of the ’00s, I was working from an internalized very ’90s view of the ’80s which said, Gordon Gecko“The Eighties were terrible. We were always at the brink of nuclear war, no one gave a damn about the damage we were doing to the environment, we idolized wall street bankers who sought to trickle down golden showers on the proles, there was an AIDS crisis going on and the official government position was ‘Ignore it because it’s only killing those people,’ and everyone had mullets. Mullets!”

It’s only with distance, and with the Bush II era to compare it with that I came to appreciate the ’80s. Y’see, the 1980s were a strange mix of optimism and pessimism (while the 1990s were exactly the opposite). As I’ve said many times before, nothing that happened in the 1980s makes a lick of sense except in light of the understanding that everyone was fairly sure we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust any day now. And this understanding had sort of grown up through the ’60s and ’70s after we’d spent the fifties in denial of it, so that by the ’80s, we’d reached the Kubler-Ross stage of acceptance. So on the one hand, yes, there was that nagging belief that any day now, President Reagan would make good on his offhand jokes and start the end of the world. But as we’d all accepted that and come to terms with it, there was a tremendous sense of liberation that came with it. Okay, sure, we were all going to die, but, for good or for ill, that meant we didn’t need to hold back. Go ahead, eat an extra desert. Build a car out of stainless steel. Sell junk bonds. Snort a line of coke. Have anonymous, unprotected, premarital sex. Get a mullet. The world’s going to end well before you’re ever called to account for it.

And then the ’90s came, and the Evil Soviet Empire crumbled, and everyone shouted, “Yay! We’re all going to live,” and then, “Shit. That means I’m going to have to pay the bill, aren’t I?” And we spent the next decade basically trying to prove to anyone who would listen how mature we were now, with our flannel and our angsty music, and recycling, and our only ever liking things “ironically”, and our always having to be subversive and postmodern, and our “not running the economy into the ground much”, which made us feel good about ourselves and how we weren’t all shallow and self-destructive like those ’80s guys.

It all fell apart, of course. We repealed Glass-Stegall, elected George Bush, watched two planes crash into the New York Skyline, and basically got ourselves everything that sucked about the ’80s with none of the hairstyles. (We got iPods too, though, so it wasn’t a total wash).

But the angsty ’90s weren’t the only ’90s, and the ’90s weren’t a wasteland: there was another ’90s where, emboldened by the fact that mankind had collectively sorted out how to avoid nuking itself out of existence, we actually thought maybe we could sort out major problems like pollution and poverty and inequality (This too didn’t last). And you could be all postmodern and subversive, even angsty if you wanted. So too, there was more than one ’80s. Alongside the devil-may-care ’80s of glam and big hair and primary colors, there was another ’80s. An ’80s that saw itself being forced to pay for the sins of the old men who carved up the world back at Yalta. That ’80s was pissed.

It’s kind of strange to be talking about Punk here in 1987. Punk’s real heyday had come and gone by 1987 — its influence lived on in Post-Punk and Pop Punk and Neo-Punk and Emo and.. Well pretty much everything worthwhile about modern music. But as a specific identifiable movement with certain tropes and trappings, Punk is really more of a ’70s phenomenon. But you wouldn’t know that if your memories of the ’80s came primarily from post-apocalyptic children’s shows. There is a pervasive idea through ’80s eschatology that the apocalyptic future will be full of Punk Rockers. Blank RegIf it’s an anarchic dystopia, they’re the bad guys, rapacious street gangs looking to assault and rob more photogenic survivors. If it’s a totalitarian dystopia, they’re more likely to be sympathetic — characters who look scary but turn out to be allies in the cause of bringing down The Man. Punk was, even on its most superficial levels, kind of apocalyptic to begin with, and I imagine that using some of the iconography of Punk in the Mad Max series did quite a lot to make it one of the major indicators of dystopianism in film.

But even as Punk Rock evolved, moved on, and waned in its original form in the real world, it remained a dominant signifier in mass media dystopianism. I think by the late ’80s, Punk had simply been around long enough that the people who made mass market media had finally heard of it and finally thought Middle America would find it “edgy” but not too scary. And Punk was especially dominant in Cyberpunk. Which you’d think was obvious, but it’s not really; the “punk” in Cyberpunk wasn’t originally specifically related to the Punk Rock movement — it was analogous to it, but cyberpunk’s literary trappings are much closer to noir and more heavily influenced by the culture of the far east. More mirrorshades than mohawks. I don’t know if the entanglement between Punk and Cyberpunk was a simple matter of film and TV producers not caring to learn the distinction, or if there was other cross-polination, but by the time Max Headroom got his own series (A series which is surprisingly disjoint from Captain Power; though both had their entire runs in 1987 and 1988, only three episodes of Max Headroom overlap the span of time between the broadcast of Power‘s first and last episodes.), it was pretty standard for the “urban misfit” class in anything cyberpunk to be depicted as very specifically 1970s punk rockers.

Which more or less brings us to “Flame Street”, an episode that, much like “The Ferryman”, is simple and well-structured, and hangs together mostly on important character moments rather than plot. Tech CityCap and company have come to “Tech City”, which is kind of a cross between Tokyo’s Akihabara district and the Kowloon Walled City. Only this is Captain Power, so it’s populated entirely by white people dressed like punk rockers (Seriously, about a quarter of Toronto’s population is of Asian descent. Would it have killed them to cast an Asian actor for this one? Pretty much the one unbreakable trope about 80s cyberpunk is the assumption that folks from the pacific rim were going to be running things, especially anything to do with technology, in the grimdark cyber-future.). It’s enough to make you wonder if they’ve accidentally wandered onto a Max Headroom set. The Captain’s Log entry at the beginning tries to make sense of this place by explaining that Dread allows it to exist because of the technology they provide. It seems like a pretty thin excuse, especially as it’s clear that Overmind’s capabilities are superior to anything in Tech City. Also, Tech City is kind of a dumb name (“Flame Street” is better, but I don’t think the name is actually used for anything in the episode).

Cap and company have come here undercover in order to, ahem, surf the web for information about the Styx phase of Project New Order. One of the big things about the web, of course, is that you have to physically go to it in person. And stick your head in it. They dress as monks and wander through the streets of Tech City, chanting as they try to be discrete in this techno-dystopia. By pretending to be ascetics. Their cunning disguise fails to hide them from the attention of "Zone Boy", who is basically Luther from The Warriors with a mohawk.
Brock JohnsonIt would not be strictly accurate to call Brock Johnson (fabulous name, by the way. I can just imagine Tom Servo going off on a long riff about an actor named Brock Johnson) "convincing" or "compelling" in this role; he's not a realistic depiction of punk, a realistic depiction of addiction, a realistic depiction of sociopathy, or a realistic depiction of humanity, really. But at the same time, his performance is spot-on: the nihilistic punk sociopath is very much a stock character in dystopian fiction, and so is the cyberpunk nonsensical-technobabble-addict, and he's right on-target for those archetypes, modulo the fact that he only uses language you can get away with in a seven-thirty time slot. Unlike a lot of the guest cast in Captain Power, Johnson's long resume is full of things I've actually seen or at least heard of, such as Viper, MANTIS, MacGyver, Seven Days, First Wave, Supernatural, The Listener, and most recently, Pompeii. It appears that he's got something of a natural talent for this kind of stock character, since his filmography reveals that he's most often credited in his TV work as Unnamed Punk, Unnamed Thug or Unnamed Junkie. Except in the one role I actually distinctly remember him from, a guest spot on So Weird where he played a bee that had turned into a gas station attendant (He helps the heroes solve the Traveling Salesman problem. God, I loved that show).
He's a violent sociopath and a junkie, addicted to "Neuro-charge," a suitably cyberpunk pseudo-drug which seems to consist of getting minor brain damage via uploading something unsavory via one's obligatory cyberpunk direct-wired-network-connection-to-the-brain. Which we are meant to believe is an expensive hobby, and not something you can do by, say, jamming a nine volt battery into the hole in your head. I mock because I care -- while this is all very silly and unrealistic, it's still perfectly in keeping with the tradition of cyberpunk, at least on screen (In print too, though to a lesser extent).

Eager for work, Zone Boy agrees to lead them to “Mindsinger”, who they’re seeking in order to access the “cyberweb”, and also because, this being a cyberpunk episode, they have a certain quota of characters with eXtreme!!! 31337 hack3r names which would sound really cool as your AOL screen name, except that it was already taken so you have to be Minds1nger586 instead. Mindsinger is apparently the most 31337 of the 31337, able to hook customers up with, “any sensation you want”. Our heroes are also shocked, shocked when Zone Boy casually drops the fact that Mindsinger is female. Because who could possibly imagine that in the 22nd century a girl would be an expert at computers? Everyone knows that ovaries physically preclude the ability to interact with electronics. Except maybe for piloting a wormhole-traversing shuttle or operating super-powered bio-armor.

Don't get me wrong, kudos where they're due: it's clear that Mindsinger's gender is supposed to be a feminist nod, showing the audience that yes, girls can too enter STEM fields. As long as there's an apocalypse to destroy all existing social constructs.

There's a long tradition in fiction, mass-media fiction in particular, of the desire to portray progressive, enlightened ideals being harshly undermined by a nasty streak of essentialism. Science Fiction and Sitcoms tend to be the worst offenders, and I think it's for a common reason. Sitcom humor trades very heavily -- sometimes exclusively -- on reductive stereotypes: the source of most laughs is either "Watch these people behave in a manner stereotypical of their gender/race/class. Isn't that silly!" or "Watch these people behave in a manner opposed to the stereotype of their gender/race/class. Isn't that unexpected!" These jokes are very often critical of the existing stereotypes (Probably the most popular style of sitcom joke over the last few decades is a variation on "Man behaves in a way stereotypical of Middle America's notions of manliness, and this causes bad things to happen because that view of manliness is toxic"), but they still can't help but reinforce them. The joke is only funny if, at some level, the audience will get on-board with you that there's something inherently wrong with a technolgically-adept woman, or a stay-at-home dad, or an interracial marriage.

Science Fiction too has a long history of trading heavily on reductive stereotypes: with the heavy emphasis on allegory, on high concept, and on worldbuilding, traditional Science Fiction isn't big on characters -- the purpose of a character in science fiction is often to act as an avatar in an exploration of the question "How would the introduction of this high concept into the world affect mankind?" -- so a man in such a story is not simply "a man", but is "Man" in the abstract, and contrariwise, any given woman is liable to be intended as "the avatar of the abstract concept of womanhood": their traits and foibles are not personal quirks, but indicative of the essential character of their respective genders. But although it happens to characters across the gamut of sex and race, it has a greater impact when it's done to a less privileged group: a white man becomes "Abstract avatar of the common human condition among all homosapiens;" a woman becomes "Abstract avatar of humans with ovaries, as distinguished from the normal sort of human," and besides, the tendency to turn "a woman" into "Abstract womanhood" is already common outside of genre fiction to a far greater extent than the same kind of abstraction for men.

If you believe that gender essentialism and feminism are fundamentally incompatible, you're going to have problem with the fact that in shows like this one, they may well show you women who are fully equal matches for the men, but they always always frame it as something exceptional: the remarkable case of an individual who has risen above the constraints of her genitals, or else they frame it as a reconstruction of essentialist stereotypes (that is, a declaration that yes, the stereotypes are true, but the female stereotypes should be the good ones and the male stereotypes the bad ones): the "mama bears" who gain superpowers from protective maternal instincts or valkyries who can dominate men because boobies and because men are barely-sentient troglodytes(You may have a gut reaction of "But that's not misogynistic! If anything, it's misandrist!" That reaction is understandable, but wrong. Historically, "Men are barely-sentient troglodytes who can't be expected to control themselves," is invariably the preamble to "Whereas women are pure and good and must remain unsullied. Therefore the liberty of women must be heavily restricted for their own protection, since it's obviously unreasonable to expect men to control themselves." It's the second most popular historical justification for the oppression of women, coming in just behind "Women are basically an advanced form of livestock," and has been growing in popularity now that you can only rarely get away with referring to women as "Penis houses".)  -- that's basically the problem with Joss Whedon when he's at his worst, and Stephen Moffat when he's at his best. And if you don't believe that gender essentialism and feminism are fundamentally incompatible, you're just wrong. So shut up. (PS: You may well think that this long aside, independent of its merits, is a disproportionate reaction to one throwaway line of dialogue. You are right, but women are so absent in this show that if I want to talk about the problems with this show's gender politics, I have to take what I can get.)

But the reactions from our main characters undermine this more than once as they struggle to believe that a mere woman could possibly have the technological might to deliver what they need.

MindsingerMindsinger (Which would be kind of a femmy name for a dude in such a superficially punk rock dystopia, now that I think of it) has wildly asymmetric hair, wears a sort of pvc cage, and provides access to the ribald pleasures the Cyber Web offers. Cap leases some time in the web from her, along with access to data that leaked out of the minds of Dread soldiers she's sold her services to for "two hundred stads a minute." The basic gist here seems to be that Mindsinger is running a combination cyber-brothel and internet cafe, and Cap is going to go in there to look up Project New Order on Wikipedia. As you would expect, this being cyberpunk, once he starts his "run", any attempt to forcibly disconnect him from the outside would leave him "zero EEG", because that totally makes sense and isn't just ludicrous bullshit to keep the plot running which not only would no one ever design a system to do, but which no one could possibly ever design a system to do (he said, fully expecting to be mocked in 2034 when the RIAA gains the right to DMCA bits of your brain if they catch you thinking about music).

Unfortunately, Zone Boy has “pross”ed the identities of our heroes, and promptly calls Lord Dread from a payphonePayphone, which exists in the post-apocalyptic 22nd century, to rat them out in exchange for some Neuro-Charge. Dread promises an additional unlimited amount of neurocharge if he can prevent Cap from leaving until Blastarr gets there.

Virtual RealityThe Cyber Web is basically a Laser Tag Arena your mind gets sent to via Video Toaster effects, where you can summon Video Toaster-rendered icons to you in order to learn things. Overmind finds it trivial to hack into the web, and just as Cap has found the icon for Styx, Dread shows up to shoot at him. Dread explains that Overmind has increased the sensory feedback such that if Cap dies here, the psychosomatic shock would kill him for real — which is the closest I think I’ve ever heard to a reasonable explanation of how that whole “If you die in the game, you die for real” thing that always accompanies cyberspace plots could possibly work, a full decade before the vaguer “Your mind makes it real” crap from The Matrix. Cap attempts to fight back, but finds himself outclassed because, as Dread explains, Cap’s fundamental unwillingness to take a human life prevents him from using the force of his will to construct an effective weapon against Dread in cyberspace. Which I think is a clever enough explanation, except for the way it overlooks how three episodes ago, Cap reflexively tried to shoot Lord Dread in the face at point-blank range.

Out in reality, the bad guys show up. Hawk and the gang power on and fight them, attempting to hold them off until Cap can be safely removed from cyberspace. Zone Boy holds Mindsinger at gunpoint to prevent her from freeing Cap once she realizes the danger he’s in from Dread. I have no idea why this would be necessary though, since we’ve already established that Cap can’t be freed from the outside without killing him. He justifies his actions on the basis that Lord Dread has promised, so close as I can tell, to lobotomize him: he says he’s being given a “Permanent checkout. One-way ticket to nirvana; no brain, no pain.” Which is beautifully nihilistic. I love the idea that in a world like this, there are “drug” addicts who are looking for a kind of total self-annihilation to escape their lives. I just wish it wasn’t all so vague. Based on how he’s described it, the thing he’s seeking could be delivered much more easily with a power drill and a nine-volt, and he could skip all this nonsense with Bio-Dreads and 31337 hackers and all that noise. The implication seems to be that “neuro-charge” is some kind of digital signal that has to be purchased at great cost, which Dread can manufacture in unlimited amounts, and which can’t be stored and replayed. It’s not out of line with the sort of weirdness you see in cyberpunk, but in context, bits of it undermine bits of the Captain Power story around it, and bits of the Captain Power story undermine the cyberpunk. If Lord Dread can easily hack the cyber web and produce “neuro-charge” at will, it’s hard to imagine what resources Tech City has to offer him (This would be better if we saw more of what goes on in Tech City; as it is, the only things we know about it fall squarely into the domain of what Dread can already do “in house”).

Inside, Dread forces Cap to conjure up an image of the Power Base and demands to know its location. Then, we start to get really dark and complex, especially for a kids’ show, as Dread tries gaslighting Cap, suggesting that he might have already found and destroyed the Power Base, but messed with Cap’s mind so much that he’s forgotten. Dread claims that, using the power of cyberspace, he can make Cap doubt his own sanity, which is a nice and heavy concept, and I just wish they’d been a bit less vague about that, since we’re not left with any sense of what it entails. We know Dread can’t read Cap’s mind, so presumably what he’s talking about is forcing the Captain to live through simulated experiences that torture him into submission, but all we see of it is the scene at the Power Base, where it’s implied that Cap is already close to breaking. Zombie DadDread shows Cap the image of the rest of the gang, their battered bodies dropped limply to the ground by mechs, declaring, “You can not save your friends any more than you could save your father,” and summons up an image of a ghoulish Bruce Grey, looking like he’s been drowned.

This, however, turns out to be a bad move for Dread, as Power rallies. Overmind asserts that Cap’s will is too strong, and suggests Dread get on with the murderin’. A restored Bruce Grey gives a little speech about the indomitably of the human spirit and dictator-shames Dread for his actions. Cap and Dread fight in earnest, using what looks like those retractable sci-fi lances from Andromeda, as Cap asserts his willpower and forces them to be composited over stock footage of the Volcania fly-by and condemns Dread’s vision of a Brave New World. In a callback to “A Fire in the Dark”, Dread pleads that this wasteland is only a transitional phase, and will be justified by the techno-utopia he means to build. Cap counters that no utopia could justify this, and he’s backed up by surprising visitor.

Dread vs DreadThe unmutilated and unmodified image of Lyman Taggart appears unto them to agree with Cap and accuse his counterpart of having given up too much of his humanity. It’s deliberately vague whether this manifestation is generated by Cap, or is a figment of Dread’s conscience. Lord Dread has a go at shooting his former self, but when that doesn’t work, he just does one of those big “No!” shouts and fades away. Cap gets an opening to return to the real world and deck Zone Boy when the rest of the gang creates an EMP pulse that temporarily disables all technology in the immediate area (I think. We actually see that he’s still in cyberspace afterward and kinda wills himself out).

Cap leaves VR

This is what I imagine the Body Debit scene with Zaphod on the Frogstar would have looked like if they’d done a second season of the BBC Hitch-Hiker’s Guide series

As per usual, the team decides to be sporting about it and not cut up Blastarr into a billion pieces and spread them to the four corners of the earth while he’s out cold from a “Total power failure”, instead going to comfort Cap, who’s visibly shaken from his experience. I have no idea why. In principle, I guess it was that whole, “I can make you doubt your very sanity” thing, but in practice, Dread only has the advantage for about a minute; the rest of the time, Cap’s dominating the hell out of him — undermining his very raison d’etre. Hawk Comforts John But Cap shakily tells Hawk that Dread was in the cyberweb, and Hawk instantly jumps to Shipping-levels of comfort, stroking Cap’s shoulder and telling him that it wasn’t real. I suppose he’s referring to the bit where Cap saw the others dead, but Hawk wouldn’t know about that part, so it’s like he’s saying that Dread wasn’t real, which is dumb, because Dread obviously is real, and his influence in the web was real too, even if he wasn’t physically present.

We end on Volcania, where Overmind is berating Dread for letting Cap get away with the Styx information instead of just killing him when he had the chance. A shell-shocked Dread just sort of absently mutters about how Project New Order must succeed. Surprisingly, there’s no ultimate closure on Zone Boy. We can thank our lucky stars for that, since this setup has historically always led to them doing a scene where the traitorous human gets his just deserts by being digitized, and by now you all know how I feel about Retributive Digitization. The way the were setting it up in this episode, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest if at the end Zone Boy had demanded Dread pay the promised neuro-charge, having held up his end of the deal, only for Dread to dispatch him in some suitably unsavory way, like a lethal download or something. Or perhaps they’d have Mindsinger set up some ironic punishment for him, locking him in the cyber-web experiencing some kind of permanent torture. Y’know, for kids. But instead, Zone Boy ends this episode half-conscious on the floor in Mindsinger’s basement. I hope this was on purpose, and they didn’t just cut the scene of his horiffic karmic punishment for time.

It doesn’t feel like a whole lot happens in this episode. If you take out my long digressions on punk, cyberpunk, and gender essentialism, this article isn’t any longer than the one on “Pariah”. And yet, it feels like a really well-paced episode. It comes and goes quickly, leaning on a small number of pretty dense scenes. We do have the obligatory fight scenes, but the one between Cap and Dread actually feels like character catharsis rather than contractual obligation, and the one with the rest of the team is at least split up by the cuts back into cyberspace.

It’s simultaneously trivial and impossible to complain about the cyberpunk elements. Trivial in that pretty much everything technological that happens in this episode is bullshit, but impossible in that it is pretty much the exact same bullshit that any 1980s TV or film interpretation of Cyberpunk was going to fall into: If you die in cyberspace you die for real; the internet is only accessible by going to a secret elite hacker den; there are electronic drugs that can’t be replicated; accessing the internet involves going into a virtual reality world that looks like a laser tag arena; people will have computers that plug into their brains; I’ve seen it all before. In fact, this may be the closest that Captain Power has ever come to actually doing the genre they were shooting for: they aimed for cyberpunk and they hit cyberpunk.

It’s not a perfect fit, though; there are some parts of the plot that seem to be working against each other. Mindsinger kinda forgets which show she’s in and cautions Cap against getting too close to mainframes because of the brain-destroying countermeasures they deploy, which is total “the world is run by supergiant evil corporations” cyberpunk, in a world without supergiant evil corporations, where the “cyberweb” can not possibly extend beyond this one city (and its unlikely direct T3 line to Volcania. I mean, it’s not like it actually makes any sense at all for the “cyber web” to be any kind of inter-system network. It would make more sense for it to be a single isolated system owned and operated by Mindsinger, that holds the information Cap wants because she recorded it off of her other customers. But what would be the point of warning about mainframes, and how did Overmind hack it?) And Dread’s three-stage plan has three stages that actively work against each other: Zone Boy is sent to keep Mindsinger from pulling Cap out when we’ve already established that she can’t, but he at no point tries to actually kill Cap himself; he’s just keeping him from escaping until Blastarr gets there to kill Cap in person — Blastarr is actively trying in the fight scene to draw the rest of the team away so he can go in there and off Power. But meanwhile, Dread can apparently kill Cap any time he likes using Cyber, and just chooses not to because he wants to taunt him instead, which would of course be interrupted if Cap were so impolite as to get murdered.

Bruce GrayBut it more than makes up for these sins with its character moments. Team Power doesn’t get a huge amount of dialogue, but it’s all pointful: their battlefield banter isn’t one-liners this time, but actual strategizing and working together. Under torture, Cap expresses more emotions in this episode than in the entire rest of the series. And much like in “A Fire in the Dark”, we get an intense look at Dread’s inner turmoil: Cap pretty much exposition-bombs us that under all that metal, there’s a part of Dread still capable of seeing that what he’s done and what he’s doing is wrong — yes, he’s a true believer in the glory of The Machine, but he’s not quite sure that the world he’s making is really the utopia of his vision, or whether it’s worth the cost.

Heck, even Bruce Grey is on the stick here. There’s not really anything to Zombie Dad, but when he gives his little speech to Dread about how he can’t kill a dream, he speaks with passion and fury and hope and disdain and pity, and it’s nothing like his performance as Mentor. And he finally gets to use his damned hands. You can tell he’s been dying to do this, and he makes big broad sweeps with his arms for the whole speech and it would be lovely, except that it’s framed so that you can’t actually see his arms, just his excited fingertips bobbing in and out of the corner of the frame.

Captain Power is done for 1987, but this was a good one to go out on. Next time we travel twenty minutes into the future, it’ll be… Less far in the past. See you in 1988.

The Voice of the Resistance: Time Keeps On Slippin’ (Second Chance)

It’s November 22 or 23, 1987. Billy Idol’s cover of “Mony Mony” has unseated Tiffany on the Billboard chart. A pirate television signal in Chicago, IL interrupts the local public television station’s broadcast of reruns of a British Science Fiction show I used to like, to show a few minutes of obscenity from a man in a Max Headroom costume. On the other side of the pond, said show turns 24 with the first part of “Dragonfire”, introducing Sophie Aldred as Ace, the last of the classic-series companions. “Hell Week”, my all-time favorite episode of MacGyver, airs. Star Trek the Next Generation airs “Hide and Q”, the first step in the evolution of John DeLancie’s character from “Otherworldly existential threat” to “Picard’s wacky omnipotent uncle”, as he’d describe himself at a con I attended years later. Captain Power airs one of its better episodes, “Wardogs”.

Oh dear. We’ve done that one already. This is one of the dangers of talking about a show that was filmed in one order, written in another, aired in a third and put on DVD in a fourth, especially when you don’t plan the whole thing out ahead of time. Well okay then. You know what we’re going to do? Since it’s Doctor Who‘s birthday, let’s celebrate by hopping back in time a bit, to talk about something kinda weird that’s going on in the next universe over. It could not possibly be more disappointing than Day of the Doctor.

It’s some time near the end of 1979. M, the Eagles, the Commodores, Styx and Rupert Holmes are duking it out in the charts. Ronald Reagan has announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Ayatollah Khomeini takes over Iran and declares the US the “Great Satan”. Robert Guillaume’s character from Soap, Benson DuBois, gets his own show, Benson, following his exploits as the only sane man in the staff of the scatterbrained governor of an unspecified midwestern state that looks like suburban California. Seven seasons will see him rise through the ranks from head of household affairs to state budget director, to lieutenant governor, ending with his bid at the governorship. It’s widely understood that if the series had continued, Benson would lose to his friend and incumbant Gene Gatling, but be appointed to fill an open seat in the Senate, I’m guessing because they wanted to title an episode “Mr. DuBois Goes to Washington.”

We seem to have gone back too far. This isn’t right; I’m only a baby at this point; this just doesn’t work as part of my television history. What are we doing here?

Ah. There it is. Benson is known for his trademark snark, and here in one of the early episodes, he drives home a point by comparing someone unfavorably to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. A handful of years later, between three and five, a little boy in Maryland is going to catch a rerun of this one, and it’s going to be the first time he’s ever heard that name. Let’s see if we can get back on track and hop forward again…

It’s July 29, 2011. LMFAO is in control of the charts with “Party Rock Anthem”. US courts uphold the patentability of DNA. We’re in the thick of a series of uprisings in Africa and the middle east collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring”, and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi dies.

Wait, that’s not right either. It’s too soon for that. What’s going on here? Something is very wrong. History has come off the rails. We seem to be in several places at once. Start again.

It’s September 26, 1987. Whitney Houston tops the charts with “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”. Over the next two days, Captain Power will air “The Abyss”, and then any chance of that promo narrator being right about it being “The Science Fiction Event of the Year” will be cut down when “Encounter at Farpoint” airs.

But it’s also 2011. How can this be? Where are we? I see pearly gates. That ain’t good. We are at the threshhold of the afterlife — a place I always knew I must come to if I was going to talk about Captain Power. But I didn’t expect it so soon. We aren’t in heaven yet, though, nor in hell. Not as above, not so below. No, we’re just in the antechamber. And here is St. Peter. A figure perhaps more comforting to middle America in 1987 than Anubis, but reduced to the same role: he will weigh your heart against a feather, and determine your ultimate fate. A vapid but kind and caring beauty queen steps onto the pedestal. It glows gold she is sent up to paradise. Colonel Gaddafi steps up and the pedestal glows again, red this time. His fate is less pleasant: to live out the final experiences of a suicide bomber every two minutes for the rest of time. St. Peter beckons; it is your turn.

The mind is its own place, Milton said, and can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell. Which is a weirdly observant thing for a Calvinist to say, but there you go. St. Peter has a problem. He doesn’t know what to do with you. His pedestal has turned blue. Somewhere else, in the 1987 around us, the video game console wars are ascendant, and their influence has intruded here as well. A thousand years of subtle nuance and theology went into the western conception of how the worth of a human soul is judged, but here, at the 2011 that exists in the eye of this storm, all that is discarded in favor of a point system: this afterlife may have unambiguously Christian trappings, but they’re only skin-deep: Gaddafi was condemned specifically (and explicitly) for his use of bombs against civilians; his choice of religion doesn’t enter into it. Do good things, acquire Blessing Points, do bad things, acquire Damnation Points. If your BP exceeds your DP, the light turns gold and you go to heaven. If your DP exceeds your BP, the light turns red and you burn.

But the light has turned blue. HP=DP. Does not compute. Abort, Retry, Fail. What is St. Peter to do with us? What does one do in a video game if you reach the end of the level without enough points to achieve a victory condition? Try again.

It is April 9, 2011. The US congress narrowly avoids a government shutdown with a temporary agreement to fund the government for a bit longer. This is pretty much how the country limps along until 2013, when they finally fail to keep the god damned country running for several weeks. Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” is unseated in the charts by Katy Perry’s “ET”. This is pretty much how the country limps along until the middle of May. In a bar in Ellicott City, twenty-several teams are in a tight competition for Trivia Bowl XXVIII. Very few points separate the top-ranked teams, and we’re nearing the end of the game. One question could make or break a team here. The category is television. Give either of the two names of the 1987 show which was Matthew Perry’s first leading role as a regular cast member in a sitcom. I remember. No one else does. The team is awfully good at this game, and those eight points are enough to break the logjam among the top four and ensure that no one can catch us. We take home the trophy.

The answer I gave, because I wasn’t sure of the other one, was Boys Will Be Boys, a bog-standard sitcom about a teenage boy, his mildly delinquent friends, and his family. It was okay, nothing noteworthy, except that Matthew Perry played a guy named “Chazz,” which was a thing that could happen in 1987. It died a merciful death within a year. But Boys Will Be Boys wasn’t where the show started, and it’s not what sucked us back and forth from 1979 to 2011, then back to 1987. Because Boys Will Be Boys was what the show became after a heavy retool. When the show first aired, on September 26, 1987, it wasn’t Boys Will Be Boys, but Second Chance. It was still about a teenage boy and his mildly delinquent friends, but it wasn’t just about that.

2011 seems to be the crux here. We have been to it twice now, but the two are strangely different; April and July are separated by more than the two months they usually get. The premature death of Colonel Gaddafi I can understand; in April, the cards were already on the table. But here in July, there are hovercars, and hover-freeways. And people are impressed by furniture made of wood. John Travolta is on the fifty dollar bill. And business attire is a blue Nehru-inspired polyester suit that wouldn’t look out of place in either Star Trek the Next Generation or Captain Power. With blue slippers.

We are back in July, in the first scene of the first episode of Second Chance, and after sending Miss America and Colonel Gaddafi to their respective fates St. Peter’s next guest is a man who looks a lot like Mitt Romney, who has just died by crashing his hovercar on the Santa Monica Hover-Freeway while wearing a blue Nehru-inspired polyester suit. This is Charles Russell, and he sets off the blue light. Not good enough for heaven, not bad enough for hell. The karmic equivalent, St. Peter explains, of the music of Barry Mantilow.

Charles Russell is therefore transported to Venice, California, September 26, 1987, to become a lodger at the home of his struggling mother, where he can act as a father figure to his own past self, then incomprehensibly using the nickname “Chazz”, in order to steer himself onto a slightly more virtuous course. This mostly takes the form of painfully unfunny jokes like Chazz claiming he “Wouldn’t be caught dead” in a blue polyester Nehru-inspired suit, and President Travolta being on the fifty. Chazz, along with his friends Nerdy Eugene and 50s Greaser “The Booch” (Because it’s the 80s and you can apparently be named “The Booch”) has been driven to petty larceny in an attempt to forestall the pending foreclosure on their home.

Fortunately for Chazz, his older self is the attendant at the convenience store they attempt to rob, and talks them out of it, which is, as I said, fortunate for Chazz, but apparently doesn’t cut it with St. Peter, as he “changed the circumstances” rather than teaching his younger self the difference between right and wrong. This comes as a great disappointment to Charles, who, having spent a day in the 1980s, is now understandably very eager to get on with being dead. So Charles is ordered to remain in 1987 for as long as it takes to teach his younger self to make sound moral decisions.

Which is apparently four months. It is November 28, 1987. Almost back where we started. Where everything went off the rails. Edmondton beats Tortonto in the Grey Cup. Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medly knock Billy Idol out of the top spot on the Hot 100 “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”. Episode 9 of Second Chance airs, and the show goes on hiatus for the Christmas holiday season, which, this being 1987, has the decency not to start until after Thanksgiving. If I’ve got my years right, this is one of my favorite childhood Christmases. But don’t get comfy; we’re not staying.

It is January 16, 1988. We’ve hopped over “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, “Faith”, and “So Emotional” to find George Harrison at the top of the charts with his cover of “Got My Mind Set On You”, a song with a catchy enough tune, but which only had about thirty words in it when James Ray sang it back in 1962, and Harrison leaves one of the verses out. (The missing lines, in case you’re wondering, are “Everywhere I go, you know / Bad luck follows me / Every time I fall in love / I’m left in misery”). All this hopping around in time has broken something. History has changed. Second Chance returns to the air, but things have changed. Now, it’s called Boys Will Be Boys and is about the continuing exploits of Chazz, Eugene and The Booch — with no time traveling dead future-selves.

This is basically the weirdest damned thing I have ever heard of. It’s like if for the second season of The Incredible Hulk, they’d fired Lou Ferrigno and said, “Y’know what? Let’s just make it a drama about David Banner going back to work as a scientist and never mention the period of his life when he occasionally turned green.”

It didn’t save the show. Of course it didn’t. The problem with Second Chance wasn’t its outlandish premise. It was the fact that it wasn’t very good. Matthew Perry is basically just charisma and one-liners, the jokes are predictable and forced, and they decided to include a character called “The Booch”. And for some reason, half the cast have very forced-sounding Brooklyn accents. I can’t tell you with any certainty, because this week I am a time traveler and am dropping anachronism bombs everywhere, whether it was especially bad compared to other sitcoms of the time. It’s clearly trying too hard, but remember, one of the places we are today is 1987, and TV hasn’t adopted the pseudo-naturalistic frame it has in 2014: we expect our sitcoms to be broad caricatures, trading on one-liners and catchphrases: “Did I do that?”; “Of course not, Cousin, don’t be re-dick-a-loose”; “I HEAR you!”; “Don’t have a cow, man”; “Whatchu Talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

What I can tell you is that over the past few years, I have gone back and re-watched big chunks of Benson, One Day at a Time, The Facts of Life, Punky Brewster, Out of this World, The Torkelsons, and a handful of other sitcoms. And they’re all still funny. The first three of those at least have some serious problems that are really grating today: Benson is clearly trading on the joke “He’s black, but he’s more competent than the white people!”; The Facts of Life is clearly trading on the joke, “They’re girls but they think they’re people!”; One Day at a Time keeps playing, “Their landlord is really REALLY rapey” for laughs. But they’re all still properly funny. Out of this World is a little bit harder to watch. Its humor is all one-liners and funny walks. It’s clever enough that it’s still enjoyable, though, and it doesn’t have the same kind of problematic concept at the core of its premise the way those (otherwise better) shows do; yes, it occasionally has elements of gender essentialism, and it’s got a whole tanker truck full of fat-shaming, but it’s much more “This is the way TV works in this imperfect world we live in” and not “The fundamental idea of our show is based around reinforcing an ugly stereotype.”

Second Chance is not as good Out of this World; the jokes aren’t as good, the characters aren’t as good, and like shows that are far its superior, it’s got a baked-in problematic premise: the implication that single mothers don’t cut it and a boy needs a Real True Father Figure, even if it’s his own temporally-displaced ghost-self (Act 2 is basically the characters shouting at the camera that Chazz has been driven to amorality specifically and entirely because his estranged father won’t pay child support). And this show isn’t good enough for me to forgive that. The Facts of Life is funny enough for me to bracket (not overlook) the gender essentialism; Second Chance is not.

They probably shouldn’t have played it for laughs. If you wanted to do a show about a guy sent back in time to put right what once went wrong, who is assisted in his journey by someone only he can see and hear, you probably want to make it a drama. And get Scott Bakula.

It is October 20, 2011. Adele, who had unseated Katy Perry back in May, has returned to the top Billboard position by unseating Maroon 5 with “Someone Like You”. The two have been duking it out since September. In Libya, Colonel Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi dies. Again. In Baltimore, a man who recently helped his friends win a trivia bowl gets the first season of Benson from Netflix. Huh. That’s funny. There’s a reference to Gaddafi. Weird how the more things change, the more they stay the same. I thought this was supposed to be the future. I want my hovercar.

Did I do it, Al? Is history back on the right track?

I think so, Sam. Ziggy’s saying that the Arab Spring happened the right way, and Miss America didn’t die in 2011. On the down-side, it looks like you set flying cars back about twenty years. And for some reason, an episode of Captain Power ended up in the wrong place on the DVD.

All that just by retooling a sitcom? How about Matt? Did his career ever recover?

He made out great. Ziggy says he goes on to star in one of the biggest sitcoms of the ’90s. Oh. That show kept the Nice Guy character archetype alive for another century. Can’t have it all I guess.

It is July 12, 2014. Iggy Azalea is on top of the charts with “Fancy”, a song I don’t like, but I can at least respect the craftsmanship. I’m about three quarters of the way through writing this article. I am almost certainly writing it months in advance since I know chronologically, it falls another four or five articles down and I’m not even finished with The Mirror in Darkness yet, but I wanted to get it written down before I forgot. I pull out my tablet and check NewsBlur. I’m following a handful of blogs that have, like my own Captain Power articles since the hiatus, adopted (ie. “stole”) some stylistic conventions from Philip Sandifer’s Tardis Eruditorium, a blog I no longer follow because something happened in my head and now I find its subject matter sends me into a recursive obsessive bad-head-place. A cat named Frezno has posted to The Nintendo Project Resumed (A successor to Sandifer’s now-defunct Nintendo Project) about Metroid. Crap. He’s doing the whole “Bouncing around to different time zones” thing, and he’s obviously beaten me to it. I’m going to have to write a whole extra paragraph at the end to acknowledge that so that no one thinks I’m ripping him off.

Oh Boy…

And you should win prizes for watching (Not quite Captain Power: The Rose of Yesterday)

A brief intermission. Between “The Intruder” and the next episode, there was originally meant to be an episode called “The Rose of Yesterday”. That episode, along with one called “The Room”, were dropped when the episode count was cut during production. What I know about “The Room” is pretty vague; it was to involve Cap passing himself off as a refugee, faking a vague European accent and inappropriately asking his buddy Mark about his sex life before declaring that everyone betray him and that he’s fed up with this world.

“The Rose of Yesterday”, on the other hand, has the following capsule summary: “Lord Dread orders the destruction of all books. The Power team scramble to save all literary artifacts. Tank meets a librarian.” I am SO DISAPPOINTED this one got dropped. I mean, sure, yes, okay, that’s a massive tonal shift from the surrounding episodes. But to have such a straightforward kids’ show plot? I wish we could have one good, solid, traditional kid’s show episode. It would put everything in perspective. Besides, Post-Apocalyptic Library? Holy crap, Captain Power collides with Tomes and Talismans. I can’t even begin to codify how fucking awesome that would be. Mentor doing database searches for the Universal Being? Miss Bookheart explaining to Tank that Melville Dewey invented his decimal system to help people find things in a library? Hawk’s facial expression as he plants his underwear somewhere to attract a horse? Cap asking if biographies are a kind of fiction? Pure unbridled awesome. I would happily trade away “Pariah”, “The Intruder” and “The Mirror in Darkness” for “The Rose of Yesterday”.

And since it doesn’t exist, let’s talk about something else for a while.

So, a while ago, I said that sitcoms with outlandish elements to their premise were a sort of specifically late-80s-early-90s thing. This isn’t so much “true” as “nonsense I came to believe because of confirmation bias”.  As it turns out, late-80s-early-90s is basically just when I was most aware of sitcoms, and thus most likely to notice.

The phenomenon I’m talking about excludes “Situation Comedies in a traditionally Science Fiction setting”, so things like Red Dwarf, Quark, and Homeboys in Outer Space don’t count (Not that I don’t find them fascinating, just a less specifically 80s trope); I’m specifically talking about “Contemporary domestic sitcom whose premise includes one major fantastical element.” As far as I know, the earliest example is 1953’s sitcom adaptation of Topper, which is kinda sorta like a more Eisenhower-era version of Beetlejuice if the Michael Keaton character hadn’t been in it. The seminal early example is probably 1961’s Mr. Ed (Which is the one with the talking horse, which if you aren’t familiar with it, then you are so TV-illiterate that it’s unlikely anything I say in these articles will mean anything to you. I don’t even mean that as an insult; there’s no shame in not having wasted your life learning trivia about the history of TV, but we’re kind of in the deep end of the pool here for someone who isn’t familiar with water), then you’ve got 1963’s My Favorite Martian, where Ray Walston plays the quirky alien houseguest (Think ALF but with Ray Walston with a TV antenna on his head instead of a penis-nosed furry. Also, for the kids out there, a “TV Antenna” is a pair of telescoping wire rods that used to stick up out of the back of televisions.) to Bill Bixby. The 60s also gave us the infamous Jerry Van Dyke vehicle My Mother The Car, about Jerry Van Dyke’s infamous vehicle, and The Smothers Brothers Show, an early vehicle for future-variety-show hosts Tom and Dick Smothers, wherein straight-man Dick struggles to help his deceased brother Tom earn his wings as an angel, The Second Hundred Years, about a 19th century prospector who gets Buck Rogers’d into the 1960s, and My Living Doll, where a psychiatrist struggles to teach a military android to be a “proper” woman, adhering to proper 60s gender roles land being obedient, subservient and submissive to men. So there’s that.

The big seminal ones from the mid-60s, of course, are Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, which are basically the same show only the former is a lot cleverer than the latter, about, respectively, a witch and a djinn who marry ordinary suburban men and have to avoid spooking the squares with their superpowers.

The ’70s gave us The Girl With Something Extra, which was just about ESP and not, as the title would lead you to expect, a shockingly early and misguided attempt to depict transgender people in mass media, Bewitched‘s short-lived spinoff Tabitha, and the ur-example of the 1980s-flavor, Mork and Mindy, which is another show about a Typical American Person who has a permanent houseguest from another planet, the houseguest this time being Robin Williams, [A joke has been deleted here in deference to the recent passing of the troubled but extremely talented comedian]. There was also a short-lived contemporary show about a guardian angel called Out of the Blue.

But the 80s is obviously where my knowledge of TV stops being hearsay and starts being first-hand. So when I was talking about a particular movement in “Sitcoms with Outlandish Elements to their Premise”, I was talking, really, about a particular little cluster of shows:

  • Small Wonder (1985-1989), about a Typical Suburban Family with a robot daughter
  • ALF (1986-1990), about a Typical Suburban Family with an alien houseguest. Who is a cat-eating muppet. Also, the last survivor of a destroyed homeworld. For Laughs! Also, dude’s nose is really phallic. Said family mostly just complains about him, never once expressing any sympathy for his loss, any respect for his dietary requirements, and refusing to even call him by his real name, Kunta Kinte Gordon, instead only ever calling him by his slave name, “Alf”.
  • The Charmings (1987-1988), which I described last time this came up, about Snow White, the prince, their kids, the witch, the magic mirror, and one dwarf moving to suburban 1980s California.
  • They Came From Outer Space (1990-1991): Alien teenagers go on a road trip in California to pick up chicks.
  • Out of this World (1987-1991): About a typical suburban California teenage girl who is half alien and can stop time.
  • Hi Honey, I’m Home (1991-1992): About a typical suburban California family whose next door neighbors are Witness Relocated characters from a 1950s Leave It To Beaver-style sitcom. Who have to use a device called a “Turnerizer” to transform themselves from their natural Black-and-White state.
  • Harry and the Hendersons (1991-1993): Adaptation of the 1987 film about a typical suburban family with a houseguest who is a Sasquatch.
  • Dinosaurs (1991-1994): A traditional sitcom where all the characters are animatronic dinosaurs.
  • Herman’s Head (1991-1994): A work-com told from the point of view of a sort of Greek chorus personifying the title character’s four dominant personality traits.
  • Woops! (1992): About the six survivors of a global thermonuclear accident. For laughs!

There’s another little cluster in the late 90s, with Third Rock from the Sun, Sabrina, Meego, and the like, but after that, I think the balkanization of television started to become an active force against this sort of thing — all the post-2000 examples I can think of aired on The Disney Channel (Speaking of The Disney Channel, one I left off that list as a marginal case: Kids Incorporated (1984-1992): a show about a tween pop band that dealt with things like bullying, graffiti, after-school jobs, aliens, robots, and time travel.), unless you count the Geico Cavemen, about which the less said, the better. Another factor you got, moving into the late 90s, is that shows like The X-Files and later Buffy the Vampire Slayer laid the groundwork for a renaissance of high-concept hour-long action/adventure/drama, and caused a resurgence of what we’d more comfortably call “proper” speculative fiction. By 1999, if you wanted to do a show about Ordinary Teenagers Who Are Also Aliens, you had options other than doing a sitcom about an Ordinary Family in Suburban California With Permanent Houseguests From Alpha Centauri; you could make Roswell instead.

This sort of show fascinates me enough that they’ve stuck in my head for decades despite the fact that most of them were failures and few of them have been rerun since I hit puberty. A big part of the reason is that it’s so rare to see a TV show incorporate Science Fiction or Fantasy elements without becoming just straight-up Sci-Fi/Fantasy. See, only a few years ago, I finally came to understand that “Science Fiction” is not actually a genre (More accurately, there is a “genre” which is properly called “Science Fiction”, but that genre is a subset of the thing we generally refer to as the genre of “Science Fiction”); look at how other genres work: mystery; romance; action; adventure. Those genres work differently than “Science Fiction.” When a story is a “mystery” it is obliged to be about a mystery; there has to be a thing which is unsolved at the beginning, and the story has to follow the process of solving. Mysteries gotta be mysterious; a mystery that isn’t mysterious fails at being mystery. A comedy that isn’t comical fails at being comedy. You can’t make an action show about two people having a quiet discussion over cucumber sandwiches and tea (Which is why my Knight Rider fanfics always ended up sucking). But Science Fiction doesn’t work that way. There is absolutely no level of lack-of-“Science” that will cause a piece of Science Fiction to stop being Science Fiction. Science Fiction is less of a genre and more of a set of tropes and motifs — it’s something more akin to a desktop theme. It sets how the buttons look and what color the UI is, but it doesn’t actually specify what applications you’re running. (Science Fiction is not the only genre that is like this. See also “Western”).  And yet, most of the time, the inclusion of a science fiction element exerts a kind of irresistible marketing gravity that “marks” the whole thing as going on the shelf with Orson Scott Card and Ray Bradbury.

I mean, think about this: the following shows are generally considered “Science Fiction”:

  • Star Trek
  • Quantum Leap
  • Red Dwarf
  • The Twilight Zone
  • First Wave

And these are not:

  • MacGyver
  • The A-Team
  • Monty Python’s Flying Circus
  • Tales from the Darkside
  • The Fugitive

How is it that we can seriously say that Red Dwarf is more similar to Star Trek than it is to Monty Python? Or that two shows which are about men walking the earth to try to avenge the murder of their wives while on the run from the law which has falsely accused them are fundamentally different because in one of them, the real killers are aliens and in the other, the real killer is just a dude with a prosthetic arm? And what do we do with something like Knight Rider? There’s no sensible categorization of shows that makes Knight Rider more like Doctor Who than Airwolf, except that Knight Rider has a talking car.

So I’m very interested in these things which somehow managed to avoid genre-gravity and remain in orbit around “Normal ordinary mainstream non-genre sitcom about a typical suburban family, probably in California” despite having alien houseguests or supernatural creatures, or robots. How did that happen? How did formula-obsessed Hollywood allow it?  And is there something about the period from 1985 to 1992 that made these things more likely to make it to air, or is it just that the ones from earlier are too obscure for my googling to turn up? Why did audiences give four years (Which is, I believe, the legal definition of “A successful run”) to Evie Garland, VICI, and Gordon Schumway? How did The Charmings get a second season, when Captain Power didn’t?

This was all meant to segue into something, but I see now that I’ve just about hit two thousand words, so hold that thought.

Broke into the Old Apartment (Captain Power: The Intruder)

It is November 15 and 16, 1987. Tiffany retains ownership of the top spot on the charts. John Mellencamp also charts with Cherry Bomb, though at this stage in his career, he’s John Cougar Mellencamp, because, I am not making this up, people thought that “John Mellencamp” was not a sufficiently manly name for a rock star. Also working their way up the charts are Belinda Cougar Carlisle (Heaven is a Place on Earth), Fleetwood Cougar Mac (Little Lies), and Debbie Cougar Gibson (Shake Your Love). Since last we met, the BBC aired a condom commercial, which everyone thought would be the end of the world but wasn’t. Anthony Kennedy has been nominated to the US Supreme Court, which nobody thought would be the end of the world but was. Someone paid fifty-three million dollars for a Van Gogh painting. The Running Man opens in theaters. And there was a snow storm that got me out of a day of school. When I woke up, my dad pretended that the air outside had frozen solid and we’d need to chip our way to the toolshed with ice picks to get the shovels we’d need to shovel the driveway.

The Ferengi return for this week’s episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, “The Battle”, and I’ll damn it with faint praise by saying it’s better than “The Last Outpost.” I mean, it’s an okay watch, but the whole plot hinges on the fact that the profit-obsessed always-lawful-evil race shows up out of nowhere, says “Hey, we found this weapon you used years ago to kill a bunch of our people. We thought you’d like it back for free with no strings attached,” and no one finds this sufficiently suspicious that they do anything about it until it is way too late even though their captain almost instantly starts acting very very mind-controlled. It’s also another one of the episodes that makes everyone hate Wesley Crusher, because he’s a smug git about it when he takes a sidelong glance at some scan data and is thereby the only person to realize that Picard’s being mind-controlled.  And for that matter, the “Picard Maneuver”, proof of Picard’s tactical brilliance, turns out to be “Warp straight at the ship you want to shoot at, and then shoot them.” The Picard ManeuverI mean, the allegedly clever thing is that because you are breaking the speed of light, the ship you’re attacking sees two of you. Because Picard is the first person clever enough to realize what “faster than light” means. (Earlier in the episode, he switches off a tractor beam, shocking everyone by realizing that, in accordance with Newton’s laws of motion, the ship they were towing is just going to maintain a constant velocity and therefore stays right where it was alongside them. And this is supposed to make us suspicious that he’s being mind controlled. This is the second time that “Has a basic understanding of eighteenth century science” is used to hint that someone is being mind-controlled this season). And the reason the whole thing works, close as I can tell, is that when the other ship sees two of you, one far, at the place you have been the whole time so far, and one near which just appeared, they will shoot at the far one and not bother trying to evade the near one… Because they are stupid or something I guess. Data comes up with a countermeasure that involves scanning for trace gases for some reason, since I guess that travels faster than light? I don’t know. There’s nothing I’ve ever seen or heard that explains why the much simpler countermeasure is “There are only two of them. It’s the one that just appeared out of nowhere.” I don’t know. Star Trek was never known for its science. They wanted Picard’s clever tactical maneuver to involve leveraging the concept of outrunning your own image, which, yes, is a cleverly scienceish thing to do, but in practice, it’s way less clever than “Fighting Game Boss Who Makes False Images of Himself Where You Have To Realize Only The Real One Casts A Shadow,” because there’s only two images, they don’t move, and it’s always the new, closer one.

Sorry about that. I just wanted to vent. Anyway, the corresponding Captain Power episode is “The Intruder”. This is an episode which was clearly supposed to be iconic: it’s the first introduction of Private Chip “TNT” Morrow. Except that at the moment, he’s Private Andy “TNT” Jackson, but nevermind. Chip slash Andy was slated to become a recurring character, joining the team in season 2 as part of a cast expansion that would have presumably paired him against a new fire-themed Bio-Dread, so that we could finally play a proper game of elemental roshambo. And then none of that happened, so we’re left with a story that suffers from being clearly meant to be more interesting when considered from a perspective that no one ever got the chance to see it from.

This is unfortunate, because left to its own devices, “The Intruder” is a pretty thin episode propped up by a few strong performances. The bare-bones of the plot are these: an independent resistance fighter wants to join the Power Team, so he stows away on the Jumpship and breaks into the Power Base, giving Cap and Company a quandary about how to ensure the secrecy of their location. Getting from that sentence to twenty-two minutes is mostly a matter of faffing about with character-driven antics. Now, some of these are from our heroes, and that’s good — nine episodes in, these folks are still largely ciphers. But the lion’s share of the screen time goes to the plucky guest star who we’re never going to see again.

So let’s talk about Andy Jackson. Chip Morrow nee Andy JacksonRight away you can see what they’re going for with this guy. He’s a slightly comic character, all confidence and pluck and not-quite-charm. He’s a fairly straight attempt at the “loveable rogue” archetype, the sort of guy who doesn’t believe in rules, or in shaving, who shoots first, and is usually named “Jack (eg. Jack Sparrow, Jack Harkness, Jack-of-all-Trades, Jack Dalton, Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, Jaques Chirac, etc.)“, and gets the heroes into trouble because he’s been manipulated into participating in some unscrupulous scheme involving hidden Inca gold or something. The strongest Science Fiction precedent is Han Solo, but he’s really an old pulp adventure serial archetype, and Andy Jackson is more Lone Star than Han (Though the character he reminds me of most is Jack Dalton from MacGyver). As I said, upon his return in season 2, the character was to be renamed “Chip Morrow”. I have no idea why; there’s no indication that “Andy Jackson” is an alias, and it doesn’t even make a whole lot of sense that it would be — it would make sense for him to be using a code name of some sort, but you’d expect him to drop the pretense with Cap and Company by the end of the episode, and there’s also no good reason that he’d used an ordinary sort of name as his code name rather than something more Top Gunny like “Maverick” or “Goose” or, for that matter, “TNT”. Now that I mention it, the idea that he’s a demolitions expert is also something that isn’t addressed at all in this episode. If anything, his skills seem to be specifically in infiltration. But, of course, that’s Scout’s schtick. Maybe someone looked up President Andrew Jackson’s history vis a vis displaced refugee peoples and decided it was in slightly poor taste to name a resistance fighter after him.

Andy and JimChipandy and his comic relief sidekick Jim (Yes, despite being a deliberately silly character himself, he’s got his own comic relief sidekick) are spying on Cap and Company as they deliver supplies to a refugee camp, once again leaving me unclear on how this apocalypse is supposed to work anyway. Apparently sometimes Cap takes refugees to the passages, and sometimes he leaves them where they are, and sometimes he does their grocery shopping for them. Leaving Jim to lookout duties, Chipandy slips over to the ship and, as close as I can tell, tries to defibrillate itBreaking into the ship. It starts out as a nicely ambiguous scene, with Andy and Jim keeping their conversation vague enough that you don’t know what their deal is. Even better, we’re first introduced to them via a POV shot through Jim’s binoculars’s cheap photoshop filter. All we know at this point is that these two are coding heavily “rogue” and they’re trying to do something naughty to the jumpship.

Unfortunately, they kind of ruin it by cutting back to Volcania, where Lord Dread is watching the whole thing through one of his own drones. Because the world is seriously only about the size of your average football field in this show and at any given time anywhere in the world, every named character in the show is either physically present or watching remotely. I mean seriously, if it takes this little effort for Dread to find the Jumpship, which is parked just outside a refugee colony, how has this war been going on for fifteen years? Dread’s trying to “establish a pattern” to Cap’s movement. I have no idea. They could have made this scene work if Dread’s dialogue had been a little more ambiguous, but instead he kind of lays it plain for us that Chipandy isn’t working for him. He does, however, consider his presence “propitious”, so he sends Blastarr to… Sector 3. Nope. Still no idea where that is, except perhaps that it takes Blastarr approximately the same amount of time to reach it from Volcania as it takes Cap and company to fly back to the Power Base via wormhole.

Chipandy manages to hack his way into the Jumpship just ahead of the returning heroes and hitches a ride back to the Power Base as Dread goes off to Overmind’s boudoir for some negging. Dread apologizes for all the fail they’ve experienced in the past few episodes, and Overmind responds by accusing him of being too emotional. Dread apologizes and promises to do better, then goes outside and gets all bitchy at Lakki, who he’s decided is spying on him for Overmind. Despite the fact that Dread and Overmind are supposedly mind-linked and anyway, Overmind can presumably see and hear Dread at all times anyway because Dread spends like 90% of his time in the room with him. But nevermind. Lakki is all like “I live to serve,” the literally immediately goes off to rat Dread out to Overmind.

At the Power Base, Andy slips out of the Jumpship when no one’s looking. There is a brief comic interlude where he nearly triggers the Jumpship’s self-destruct sequence in the process. Comic relief in eschatological media is always a dicey proposition. You do want to lighten things up from time to time because you risk audience burnout. But if you tack too far in the direction of silly, it very quickly gets tacky and the mood starts to break down. This one just doesn’t work. It’s like we become a different show for a minute. The soundtrack even provides some Mickey-Mousing for Andy during this scene.

I do like the soundtrack, though. I actually bought the soundtrack album Captain Power Soundtrackwhen it was released a couple of years ago. Until this watch-through, I didn’t think too much of the music. It seemed a little too generic, a little too upbeat, and a little… I guess “cheap” is the best word for it. Television soundtrack music was largely unremarkable for most of the history of TV, I think, at least in the US market. You had theme tunes, which usually worked on the same sort of emotive logic as advertising jingles, but that was about it. Once again, I have to refer to where J. Michael Straczynski’s going to go over the next few years, because Babylon 5 changed things for TV Science Fiction Soundtracks when it featured an actual orchestra and real instruments and leitmotifs and character themes and suchlike. And as a cultural antecedent, Star Trek the Next Generation feels much more modern than Captain Power due to their choice to adopt the musical style of the Star Trek feature film franchise (TNG’s theme song is, in fact, a cover of the theme from Star Trek the Motion Picture. I always wished someone would do a Trek series using a modernization of Alexander Courage’s original theme music, but at this point, it’s just as much a stylistic outlier from the canon of Trek music as “Faith of the Heart”).

Retired Mega Man boss Gary Guttman is clearly writing music in an older, more “One guy with a MIDI keyboard” model of soundtrack composition. But having acknowledged that, it kind of works, especially in light of what we were saying last time about Captain Power being a more firmly ’80s vision of where Science Fiction TV should go. The incidental music as Andy is futzing with the self-destruct controls in the Jumpship feel really properly TOS-era Star Trek; you could easily imagine it accompanying Harry Mudd trying some sleight of hand. Only without the intense desire to punch Harry Mudd and the writers responsible for him.  Maybe Cyrano Jones is a better choice. Actually, there’s something kind of vaguely Cyrano Jonesish about Chipandy overall, really.

Power Base HangarThe destruction of the Jumpship averted, Chipandy emerges into the hangar, where Dylan is really pleased when he’s able to make out the shape of the Power Jet XT-7 docked atop the Jumpship. Because this show’s sense of geography extends to interior design, it seems like he walks from there directly to the command center, as he almost walks in on Pilot, who is asking Mentor about this Earth Thing Called Love.

I am actually serious here. Pilot, who’d been “in the rust on a survey mission” during the first scene (presumably to justify the ship being unattended when Andy broke in), summons up Mentor, who appears in his tube delivering a quote from Tennyson, seemingly for no reason other than to ham it up. I mean, he tries to play it off like she’d asked him a question, but that doesn’t really work in context. Then Pilot asks Mentor about love. Pilot asks about love Pilot has really gotten the short shrift from the scripts so far — she’s really only had one noteworthy scene in the entire series, and her upcoming character focus episode is going to be one of the more threadbare ones — but Jessica Steen does a good job of making use of what little the script gives her. She’s adorably awkward in this scene. For his part, Bruce Grey plays it perfectly straight; oblivious to her obvious discomfort, he simply asks for a clarification: Parental, Brotherly, Platonic, Friendship, Camaraderie, or Lovers. Pilot selects “lovers” with all the confidence of a teenager buying drug store condoms, and I’m impressed that they had the option, yet still went with a specifically sexual form of love when they could have chickened out and gone with “Romantic” (Even if the exact wording is a bit awkward, as all the other terms Mentor uses are adjectives).

Chipandy undermines the moment a bit with a goofy grin, but has the discretion to leave her to her lesson. What he does not have the discretion to avoid is calling his sidekick from the hallway, thus breaking radio silence, alerting Pilot to his presence, and, presumably, sparing us a very awkward scene of Mentor explaining where babies come from. She calls Cap on the video phone and they round up the gang to search the place, which only takes about ten seconds because Andy is not very good at hide and seek.

InterrogationAfter a commercial break, the Power Team tries very unconvincingly to act bad-ass as they casually talk about murdering Andy because he knows too much. Andy finds this no more convincing than we do and just smugs at them for a while, though he does eventually give up that he’s a former “Earthforce Marine” who’s been fighting Dread “in his own way” since the apocalypse, and his invasion of the Power Base was intended as a sort of “audition” to join the Power Team. Meanwhile, Blastarr locates and roughs up Chipandy’s buddy Jim. We are treated to a few seconds of Blastarr parroting back Jim’s protest of “Get stuffed!” while he learns to impersonate Jim’s voice so he can call the Power Base and beg Andy to return quickly. Fortunately for Jim, Blastarr, ahem, “Needs his bodyI wish I could quit you,” so Jim is spared from immediate death or digitization.

“Jim”‘s incredibly unconvincing message is received by the Power Gang, who of course immediately believe it and power up, leaving Chipandy to just kinda sit there and watch, restrained by no more than a stern glower from Tank and his own reaction shot of childish delight at getting to see the whole-team-power-up-sequenceAndy's Delight. They apparently plan to fly off to the rendevous coordinates and just kinda leave Andy unattended in their base, because they’re all very resistant to the idea of taking him along for the ride. But Chipandy is adamant: he’s noticed that Jim’s vague, soulless message is an obvious decoy, and persuades them to let him call back in order to demonstrate that “Jim” isn’t willing to give their Seekrit Password. He also makes some vague threats about how unwilling he will be to let it stand if his partner gets killed on his account.Andy looking skyward The scene is framed a little oddly, cutting back and forth between a medium two shot of Tank and Cap and a close up on Andy’s face. It’s hard to place where the two of them are relative to each other, except that Andy is looking up in all of these shots, as though Cap is at least two feet taller than he is. Now, Tim Dunigan is quite tall, but it’s not like Barry Flatman (who plays Andy) is diminutive. (Hm. Barry Flatman. Gary Guttman. Gary Goddard. Now I’m wondering if I’ve ever seen all three of them at the same time, because boy do those sound like aliases.)

Also, at one point, he shouts, “Blast it!”, and much like a few episodes ago when they forced Tim Dunigan to threaten to “Shove it down his throat,” it rings really false. You can see in Flatman’s eyes that it took them about sixteen takes for him to make it come out “Blast” instead of “Damn.” It’s a treasonous look. He knows that word doesn’t go there. Whatever acting chops he has are telling him that Andy Jackson, or Chip Morrow, or whoever the hell he is, just is not the sort of loveable rogue who uses the phrase “Blast it!” when his partner’s life is on the line. This show wants to be better than it is. It’s fighting for it.

Before flying into the obvious trap, Tank, now inexplicably powered down (I mean, it’s explicable in that during the previous scene, Cap had ordered them to power down once the Jumpship was ready to launch. But, like, why did they power up in the first place? They seem to do this a lot, which is weird given how short the battery life on those suits was in the first few episodes.), straps a remote-operated grenade to Andy’s wrist so that Cap can execute him if he feels the need, which is a totes legitimate threat and not just padding. We’re meant to believe that their plan is to send Andy out unarmed and alone to confront Blastarr. For his part, Blastarr has had Jim drugged and left out in a field. And he’s standing in front of him, hiding or something? I don’t know. Honestly, the logic of this scene is hard to follow. Andy smugs at Blastarr, Blastarr demands he give the location of the Power Base, Andy basically just shouts “Okay, shoot now,” and Cap’s team starts shooting. It’s a fairly well-balanced fight scene, with everyone getting screen-time, but of course, since it’s a Blastarr fight scene, it suffers a lot from composition, mostly just cutting back and forth between mid shots of someone shooting off-screen. Tank and BlastarrThe one nice exception is a western two-shot right at the climax of the fight where we see Tank standing behind Blastarr just before he incapacitates himBlastarr with his laser-bazooka.

After foolishly deciding to just leave Blastarr where he fell and, say, tearing his unconscious body to pieces and scattering them to the four corners of the earth, Cap removes Andy’s explode-o-wrist and tells him that, having given his application all due consideration, he does not believe he’s a fit for the position they have open at this time, but he’s welcome to apply again in the fall. This is the first time Cap’s mentioned the possibility of adding a sixth ranger, though. Later, they’ll say that there are seven power suits, but at this stage, either Cap’s miscounted, or he’s read ahead in the script and knows why you only get six Soldiers of the Future out of seven Power Suits. Chipandy and a patched-up Jim are sent on their way with a hearty handshake and, I assume, the full understanding that Blastarr is just going to track them down and torture them for information as soon as he wakes up.

This episode is pretty weak, and that’s a disappointment after the last few. I can certainly understand them wanting a bit of a lighter one after the last few, but we seem to be back in the domain of “Things happen for no reason like clockwork in order to drive this empty caravan of a story to its authorially-mandated end,” that plagued the first half-dozen episodes. The major redeeming factor here is the character study of Andy. Barry Flatman hasn’t been in much else that I’m familiar with — most recently, he’s had a recurring role on Fargo — but he’s had pretty steady work, so I assume he’s a generally competent actor. And unlike some of the other guest stars we’ve had, his performance here isn’t a black mark on his resume (Even if he leaves this Goddard-production off of his professional resume on the Goddard Agency website). His performance is solid, aiming for and pretty much hitting a sort of “Han Solo in his funnier scenes” character, albeit with the rougher edges filed off.

Unfortunately, it’s kinda like he burns off all the acting for the entire cast. Tank’s reduced to a few unconvincing threats, Hawk and Scout have barely any presence at all. Only Pilot is spared; I think these are her best scenes so far — she gets a little reprise at the end so she can fidget really wonderfully when Andy suggests she ask Cap to help her with those studies he’d eavesdropped on. Cap is particularly wooden this episode. He shows a grand total of one emotion in the entire thing, and it’s just to get a bit angry during one of the “Threaten Andy” scenes. In fact, he’s so flat and emotionless, I’m halfway convinced that it’s one of those deliberate clever-juxtapositions the showmakers have been doing: mirroring Dread’s spat with Overmind about his lack of emotional control with Cap’s creepy robotic emotionlessness.

So in all, it’s mostly harmless. Andy’s fun to watch and all. As a little break from the recent tension, it would have worked better a little bit later in the season — placed here, it feels a bit like a regression rather than a respite. In terms of foreshadowing a future character, it’s just weird; aside from authorial fiat, there’s nothing we know about Chip “TNT” Morrow to suggest that he’s the same character as Andy Jackson. And frankly, that’s a good thing, since TNT’s character arc was meant to be “He wants to bone Ranger, she does not want to bone him, so he keeps trying Urkel-style to win her over through manipulative nagging and subterfuge.” Do. Not. Want. It seems more likely that Chip “TNT” Morrow was originally conceived as a totally separate character, not related to the guest star of this episode, and hastily tweaked to align with a one-off season 1 character. Perhaps they only decided to make Chip the same character as Andy after deciding to cast Barry Flatman again. But what’s this episode for then, if the character as introduced here wasn’t actually the one we were meant to see join the team next season? My best guess is that, in reverse to what I said before, they did plan to have “Andy Jackson” return when this was made, but something prompted them to heavily revise the character. But I can’t imagine what that was. Maybe they’d originally planned to have both Andy and Chip as separate recurring characters, but merged the two to keep the cast smaller.

This is definitely another episode for the “What in the world kind of show does this want to be when it grows up?” pile. Structurally weak, cinematographically weak, everyone but Barry Flatman and Jessica Steen way off their respective games, with a bare-bones plot and no advancement of the overall storyline. Fluff and filler that I’d be faster to forgive if there hadn’t been so much fluff and filler already. Really, just watch the scenes with Pilot in them and fast-forward the rest.

Gonna Lay Down My Burden, Down by the Riverside (Captain Power: And Study War No More)

It is the eighth and/or ninth of November, 1987. Tiffany hits number one on the Billboard charts with I Think We’re Alone Now, which is three places higher than Tommy James and the Shondells managed to get it back in 1967. Eleven people die in an IRA bombing in Enniskillen. President Reagan defends beleaguered Attorney General Ed Meese,  declaring him “of sound mind,” because history loves irony. Sondheim’s Into the Woods has its first weekend at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway, rapidly burning through the world’s allotment of how much of an anthropomorphic wolf’s dangly bits you can show on-stage.

There is balls-all on network TV this week that I haven’t adequately covered already. Wesley CrusherStar Trek The Next Generation does “Justice”, which is that episode where Wesley Crusher is sentenced to death for tripping and falling on some flowers, and inexplicably, the Enterprise crew spends all episode trying to save him rather than just muttering something about the Prime Directive then breaking out the Romulan Ale to celebrate. The episode is basically five minutes of things happening padded out with forty minutes of rambling discussion about ethical jurisprudence. Then Picard tells off the local god and they all go home. The only way you can call this a good episode with a straight face is in comparison to TOS’s “The Apple”, which is basically the exact same story, only with a fuckton more patriarchal western imperialism (And they shoot god rather than shaming it). Also at one point, Riker says that the natives of this planet (Who aren’t called the “Eloi”, but are definitely called something similar enough that it’s clear they mean for you to compare them with the childlike good ayrian future-people from The Time Machine) will, “Make love at the drop of a hat.” It’s my personal headcanon that the random yellow-shirted guy working at a console in the background just stopped whatever he was working on to look up where to get a hat at this time of day.

In the other Science Fiction Event of the Season, “And Study War No More”.

Blastarr shoots at rocks We open on Blastarr, shooting rocks, presumably because they outwitted him. To make sure we’re all on the same page about Blastarr’s personality, Dread calls him up to ask why he’s stopped moving, and Blastarr explains that something got in his way, and he declared it hostile because, “You can never be too sure.” I know that they want us to see Blastarr as just brutal and needlessly violent, but at the moment, it feels more like they’re hinting that perhaps the air got cut off to his brain a bit too long due to the birthing difficulties. Still, there’s definitely tonal elements that suggest that we’re supposed to find him properly scary in a way that Soaron isn’t.

Cap and company are flying off into an ambush in sector 12, having intercepted some radio transmissions about Dread seeking a power source there. We pull in tight for a moment on Cap’s face in order to be very clear that he is showing absolutely no emotion. We cut away and then back, so everyone can get ready for the VFX shot when Cap orders them to power on. After landing, Cap orders Scout to “hit the holo-cam,” hiding the jumpship behind a fake rock. Normal dramatic necessity would call for this to be setting something up for later in the episode, but this is Captain Power, so it’s probably just because they wanted to exposition-drop the fact that their ship has a chameleon circuit. Dread’s troopers spring the incredibly obvious trap, leading to our first interactive fight scene of the episode. Cap decides that their “only chance” is to hide in this cave right in the center of the battlefield, despite the fact that I see no indication their retreat back to the ship is covered. He orders Tank to cover their escape, unfortunately giving Sven-Ole Thorsson a chance to get off a few more one-liners. (“Nice of you to drop in,” to a mech as it falls off a boulder.) bazooka trooper Eventually, he meets his match in the form of a Mech armed with a laser bazooka, and falls down dead.

Only this is Captain Power of course, so he’s actually perfectly fine and just waiting for the mechs to surround him and start arguing over who’s going to get the five cent deposit for turning Tank’s suit in for recycling. This shouldn’t be a surprise, even given the fact that every tense moment this season where someone seems to have been incapacitated in battle goes this way, because Tank’s suit doesn’t dissipate. “There’s nothing like a nap to make a guy feel rested,” he explains when Cap returns to help. Maybe Tank’s going for a Steve Reeves Hercules kind of thing. I’d kind of like a Tank talking action figure now, something with a pull-cord that would recite Tank’s famous one-liners in a really bored tone.

After dismissing the possibility of going back the way they came for… Reasons, they all decide to “be careful” by turning off their power suits. They’re soon met by a camera that asks them to identify themselves, then tells Cap that it knows who he is, then says it’s going to let him in to “Haven” anyway. Hawk is uncomfortable and likens their situation to the Spider and the Fly, though Scout advises him to keep an open mind. Are they all working off of the same script?

Toward the end of his life, Graeme Campbell, who plays Obi Wan, became best known for playing Thenardier in Canadian productions of Les Miserables. When watching this episode, imagine him breaking into “Master of the House”

The cave soon turns into a zen garden, where they meet Obi Wan Kenobi, who welcomes them to Haven and intimates that it’s some kind of peace commune. Scout and Chelsea He introduces them to his sidekick, Chelsea, and we do a quick intercut between her and Scout to say, roughly, “We are the only two people of color in named roles in this show, so we’re pretty much required to fall in love.” When Scout responds to her offer of a tour with, “I’d be happy to see whatever you’d like to show me,” the music does a very Star Trek (TOS) silly-moment thing which I think is really cute.

Obi Wan takes them to another Red Dwarf set (I seriously don’t know what the deal is here, but everything in the pre-fall clean-tech style in this show looks like it’s from the third season Red Dwarf sets) and explains that Haven is a self-sufficient compound built on an old geothermal plant. He assures them that “Not even Lord Dread’s forces can penetrate a mile of solid rock,” having, I assume, forgotten that Captain Power and pals just walked there. Pilot plays with the buttons, which seems kind of rude, but helps move the plot along since she instantly sorts out that Haven is producing a lot more power than it needs. Everyone is suspicious now, though it seems to me way out of proportion to what’s actually happened. I’m almost getting a “Christian End-Times Fiction” vibe from it: “These guys like peace? Must be the antichrist then.” This episode feels like a lot has been cut in the first act.

Scout and Chelsea have a tender moment where she asks him to stay, and he begs off because of his job, and a very soap opera-y piece of music that reminds me a lot of the incidental music from The Tribe plays. For no clear reason, she immediately starts stumbling her way toward giving the whole thing away, rambling about “difficult decisions” and “Wanting to be safe.” Luckily, Obi Wan interrupts her just in time to keep the plot from wrapping up too soon. Luckily, Scout is as dumb as a bag of rocks and doesn’t pick up on it.

For people who don’t immediately respond to “Wait, someone being nice to our heroes?” with “Must be a trap then,” Obi Wan finally does something actually duplicitous and orders Chelsea to persuade Scout and the others to stay “just a while longer,” because — they are fairly explicit on this point without being specific — they are planning something evil that they feel is necessary to protect Haven.

Tank and Pilot happen across a plaque with Isaiah 2:4 (“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,” [NIV] Though the exact translation they use in the show isn’t any of the common ones, because they wanted to title-drop.) written on it. Tank explains that it’s from, “Something called The Good Book,” and Pilot, who, like any non-Christian in a story where the peacenik is the antichrist, has never heard of the bible, but does find the sentiment inspiring. It’s a bit odd that Tank is familiar with the bible and is even the one to note that Pilot wouldn’t have heard of it due to her Dead Youth upbringing, given that he’s some sort of genetically engineered super-soldier who was raised in an undersea colony or something.

Tank finds a locked door, which is of course proof-positive that something is up, since no one would lock a door unless they were secretly evil. Pilot whips out her sonic dildo (In case you’re late to the party, Pilot has this cylindrical metal tool she carries which uses in several episodes to bypass electronic locks. It looks really phallic). They open the door and find… A guy on the toilet who is angry they didn’t just knock.

Nah, just kidding. They find a storeroom full of big drums with a triangle logo on them that Pilot recognizes from last week as the symbol of the Styx phase of Project New Order. I would think that the big obvious Dread Logo would be a more straightforward tip myself. They are shot in the face before they can do anything about it.

Chelsea gets within a word or two of spilling the beans to Scout again when Obi Wan shows up and ushers everyone into the control room. He keeps up the pretense of being about to show them the way out for thirty more seconds before Tank and Pilot are led in by mechs, and Lord Dread holograms in to gloat at them, since Cap’s curiosity is apparently “legendary” and “predictable to twelve decimal places.” So Cap is curious. Cool. I’ve been waiting for him to have a personality trait other than “Prone to fits of violence”.

Obi Wan and Chelsea finally explain that they’ve basically been paying protection money to Dread, hence having set Cap and company up. Why they went to all the trouble when they could have just left them stuck in the cave until Blastarr showed up I’ve no idea. Fortunately, Tank finds the one flaw in Lord Dread’s cunning trap: it relies on them just standing around and waiting to be digitized while Blastarr walks the rest of the way down from the surface. Instead, Tank turns around and punches a trooper’s head off. While Dread uselessly demands that they stop, Cap and Hawk shoot the remaining troopers and Pilot closes the door. They all power on, open the door, shoot some more Mechs, then leg it.

Lord Dread waxes ominously to the empty room about how unprepared Cap and company are to face the might of Blastarr. The next bit is actually properly spooky. Talking to Blastarr, Dread refers to Cap as “The one who interfered with your birth; the one who hurt you,” and orders the Bio-Dread to “Hurt him.”

Cap makes plans to blow up Haven while Blastarr rockets down the tunnel on his tank treads. Tank stops to wryly contemplate the Isaiah plaque one last time before Cap finally meets Blastarr. Obi Wan takes another stab at betraying Cap and gets digitized for his trouble. At least Cap has the decency not to gloat over it. Actually, this is one of the rare times since “Shattered” that digitization feels properly horrific, and it’s just unfortunate that it still has that whole retributive element to it. (For the record, “Traitorous human gets his comeuppance via digitization” happens in “Final Stand”, “The Mirror in Darkness”, and “And Study War No More”. Also, arguably, “The Abyss”, depending on whether you see the general as villainous or simply tragic.) Cap isn’t able to harm Blastarr, nor can a combined assault with Hawk and Tank. I know I’ve said before that Blastarr is clearly meant to be a parallel character to Tank, but they don’t really do much with it. Though they can’t harm Blastarr, Cap manages to cause a cave-in with some borrowed grenades to immobilize him for a bit.

Pilot promises to take Chelsea and the Haven survivors to the Passages. I wish they’d tell us more about these passages — if they are, as they seem, a safe place with an unbounded capacity to handle refugees, it’s not clear to me why Cap and company don’t take everyone they meet there. Tank gives Pilot the Isaiah plaque, which is apparently a poster now, because he’s rolled it up, and as they all head off, and we leave on a shot of Blastarr, superimposed over an explosion.

Blastarr, exploding
If he regenerates into John Hurt, I’m done.

The show is really coming together now. This one isn't as solid as "The Ferryman", but it still hangs together in a way that the early episodes don't. Everyone has something to do (Even if Scout's key role is undermined by how much of it seems to have been trimmed for time). Once again, we've got a basically complete plot, and once again, most of the major weaknesses mostly stem from the half-hour format.
Most, but not all. I went back and checked, and in all the episodes we've talked about so far, the only black guest characters have been a non-speaking Wardog and the elders who introduces Jessica to Cap in "A Fire in the Dark". Now, I will in their defense say that while (I looked it up) Toronto is a very racially diverse city (as of 2011, slightly less than half of the population belongs to visible minorities (Canadian for what USAnians would call "minorities", since Canada also has "invisible" minorities like Francophones and Catholics)), only eight Torontonians out of a hundred are black. But before we give them too much credit for this, a quarter of the city's population is of east Asian decent, but the only non-white people I've been able to spot are the folks I've mentioned and Graham Greene. Which just makes it so grating that we're given to assume on the basis of one quick intercut and two very abbreviated scenes that Chelsea and Scout have such a close bond that she's prepared to sell out Haven to protect him. Of course she is, narrative logic practically screams: he's the only black man she's ever seen. Maybe this would have grated a bit less had they given more time to their relationship -- Tonya Lee Williams is criminally underused here; she spends basically the next decade on The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, which I think gives her more career screen-time than the entire regular cast combined -- but even so, her presence just serves to highlight again how really shockingly white this show is. Worse, I find myself wondering if the decision to cast a black actress inthis role isn't just down to "The american audience isn't going to stand for having Maurice Dean Wint make googly eyes at a white woman."
Cap and company are too quick to become suspicious of the Havenites, Scout's relationship with Chelsea consists of two scenes (Which just reinforces the tokenism of it), and a lot of the steps in Dread's plan to trap our heroes that don't add up to anything at the pace of this episode. If they'd had more time to spend on it, let us see a bit of what life was like in Haven, they might have sold the idea of the Havenites being desperate enough to preserve the peace that they'd betray Cap. Contrariwise, showing us that Haven wasn't the paradise it seemed would have done more to sell Cap's suspicions.

You know what this episode kinda feels like to me? An original series Star Trek episode. The music cues I mentioned, of course, but there’s other elements. An underground, technologically advanced society whose utopia is built on a dark secret which abuses the heroes out of a desperate need calls to mind elements of “Spock’s Brain,” “The Cloud Minders”, “The Return of the Archons”, or about a half-dozen other ones. More than that, you’ve got the same sort of abbreviated mostly-offscreen “romance” between one of the minor heroes and a girl-of-the-week that you’d see whenever Scotty or McCoy got a character focus episode. And then there’s the casual and unchallenged pop-Christianity, shoehorned in despite the fact that the rest of Haven’s set and costume design is clearly meant to evoke Buddhist imagery, comparable to the casual Abrahamic-religions-are-the-right-ones dropped into TOS’s “Bread and Circuses” or “Who Mourns for Adonais?”

All the more interesting, at this stage, Captain Power seems almost to be more similar to Star Trek than Star Trek the Next Generation is. TNG rarely goes for the “Utopia based on a dark secret” angle — the only one they’ll get this season is “When the Bough Breaks”, which I’ll talk about some time down the road. (“Symbiosis” also features a Dark-Secret-Utopia, but said utopia is entirely off-screen, so it doesn’t really count. Also, it has aliens who can shoot electricity from their hands and a moral message (Just Say No to Drugs) that is exactly as hamfisted as the time they featured aliens who could shoot electricity from their hands in an episode of TOS (Don’t be genocidally racist)). They get a handful of other ones, but it’s never really their mainstay. TNG also isn’t big on the straightforward sort of action scenes that TOS did at least two times every three episodes and which Captain Power is contractually obligated to do twice per episode.

Keep in mind that, technically at least, on September 20, 1987, when Captain Power premiered, the most recent televised incarnation of Star Trek was neither TNG (which wouldn’t premier for another week) or TOS. It was Star Trek the Animated Series, which most people consider largely irrelevant and also have not seen. But TAS actually had a lot to recommend it: it was to a large extent free of many of the shackles that had weighed down its predecessor, such as the need to pad out thin plots with repeated capture-n-escape sequences. Or budgetary limits that required most aliens to be played by white men with shoe polish on their faces. Or Gene Roddenberry paying too much attention to it and thereby undermining his own good ideas on account of the fact that he had the occasional great idea but was not a great dramatist and was also a bit of a lout. Or the other actors suffering from hypoxia as William Shatner’s clever feats of performance art used up all the air in the studio.

You may have noticed that I mentioned “the need to pad out thin plots” up there. That might seem a bit strange coming as it does only a very few paragraphs after I’ve, for like the twelfth time, said that the half-hour format is a big problem for Captain Power. Here, for the first and probably last time in history, I can say that Star Trek the Animated Series is saved by the quality of Filmation’s animation. Because the one thing you don’t do in a 1970s cel-animated Filmation show is contractually require two five-minute action scenes. There are episodes of TAS that feel too thin, but none of them have the same sense of the film stock having been hit with a weed-whacker  — this episode is particularly bad about this, not just the “They gloss over stuff to save time,” that most of the episodes have, but actual specific “It feels like a key scene was deleted” moments. I note that, unusually, we don’t cut back to Volcania at all after the first scene, and Dread only appears twice in the entire episode. Half-hour drama used to be one of the common formats for TV shows. In the ’60s and ’70s, hour-long dramas often had to be padded out to fill forty-five minutes with a twenty-two minute plot. By the ’80s, the increasingly dynamic style of TV (We’re still twenty years away from the visual style of TV and film converging, but basically once Jaws invented the “blockbuster”, I think the writing was on the wall and TV knew it had to step up its game) showed up the weaknesses of that format. Thanks to Filmation, Star Trek the Animated Series was pretty much guaranteed to be in a “low-dynamic” style, where you can make a half hour plot work.

In the past, I’ve sort of offhandedly dismissed the notion of Captain Power and Star Trek the Next Generation being in some kind of competition with each other: they weren’t in direct competition for a time slot, they weren’t really targeting the same audience, and frankly, for it to be a “competition”, there’d have to have been a serious possibility of Trek losing, which there wasn’t.

But in another sense, I’m starting to realize that there was a competition between the two. Not a straightforward “One shall stand and one shall fall,” sense, but rather, in the juxtaposition between Star Trek the Next Generation and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, we’ve got two competing notions of what Science Fiction TV is going to become. Neither one is fully-baked yet. In a certain sense, in the late ’80s, the question of “What is Science Fiction TV going to become?” could be phrased as, “What will be the next Star Trek?” Through the ’70s and ’80s, there’d been successful and influential Science Fiction movies, and even TV miniseries, but live-action prime time series TV was a wasteland. There’d been plenty of action/adventure with fantastical elements in their premise, including a fad for low-budget superhero shows in the ’70s, but the closest thing (in the US market) to a “next Star Trek” — a big Science Fiction Cultural Phenomenon — had been Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but neither one had anything like Trek‘s cultural impact. We know now that this was all going to change in a few years: Quantum Leap, seaQuest DSV, Babylon 5, two more Star Trek spin-offs, Sliders, eventually Stargate SG-1, and a whole host of other series that, while never as well-known, eked out respectable lifespans, unlike their cancelled-after-6-episodes ’80s counterparts, and for that to happen, in 1987, something was going to have to set the standard for what Science Fiction on TV was going to be from now on.

It’s strange, in retrospect, the two specific things that most distinguish Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future from Star Trek the Next Generation: TNG, particularly in its first season, is just about as utopian as Star Trek ever gets. Trek is often thought of as being an especially utopian vision of the future, but closer examination suggests that while Trek does celebrate the abstract ideal of utopia as something to be sought, whenever they try to uncritically depict the Federation as an actual utopia (As opposed to a society undertaking the project of bettering itself), it all goes off the rails, and you get TNG’s first season: preachy, condescending, and not a whole lot of fun to watch. Captain Power is, of course, dystopian. That’s why I’m covering it, after all, on this blog, that if it had enough content to make a single coherent theme, would be about apocalypse fiction. On the surface of it, you might think that Power‘s dystopianism is more in keeping with the Grimdark that’s so popular in the ’90s. But when I went and actually looked it up, the ’90s weren’t really all that stuffed with dystopian fiction; on raw numbers, it tracks close to the ’80s, but even a lot of what technically counts as dystopian in the ’90s has its dystopiae sort of pushed off to the side — The Matrix, for instance, is obviously set in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war, but the use of actual postapocalyptic imagery is very confined: most of the movie takes place in a world that that resembles the 1990s.

But then there’s the other thing that distinguishes these shows. It’s hard to put this in words because it’s just so incongruous. But Star Trek the Next Generation‘s utopianism is, for want of a better word, a pessimistic utopia. There is a certain sense that builds across the season that “We live in the best of all possible worlds and must therefore defend it against outsides who would make us impure.” Indeed, insofar as there’s an arc to the first season (and there’s not, really), it’s building to the reveal that there’s something dark and evil hiding in Star Fleet’s perfection — but it’s that the admiralty’s been infected with alien parasites: something unclean from the outside has tainted them. The thing about TNG that really differentiates it from its predecessor, for me at least, is that TNG has basically no sense of humor, especially in the first season. TNG could be compelling, it could be intriguing, it could be awe-inspiring. But in 1987, at least, it could never quite manage to be fun (I think they eventually came to realize that this was a problem, as most of the changes that came in with the second season seem like they were aimed at making the show more fun. Even still, it’s very much “the serious one” compared to its spin-offs. And one of those is about a trans-galactic war).

This is where the paradox of Captain Power comes in. And, indeed, the paradox of the 80s at large: Captain Power is set a decade and change into the most apocalyptic of a series of apocalyptic wars, after most of humanity has been wiped out. And yet, it’s fun. In a way that Star Trek the Next Generation kind of isn’t.emphatically isn’t. Even though “And Study War No More” isn’t quite there yet, I think it starts to make the case that, yes, Captain Power can do the same kind of things in 1987 that Star Trek did in 1967, and do it in the context of a show that was mature, but ultimately for kids.

If there’s a competition between TNG and Power, it’s this: the battle for the soul of Science Fiction in the ’90s. Right now, Star Trek the Next Generation is showing us a universe of wonders and strange and fabulous things, but cautioning us not to get too excited: space is SRS BSNS. Meanwhile, a plucky little show being filmed in Toronto is showing us a grimy, fallen world. And saying “Yeah, but let’s have some fun. Get out your jet planes and start shooting at the TV!”

Don’t Even Fix a Price (Captain Power: The Ferryman)

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.

Disguised traderWe 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 (JMS referenced Blake’s 7 in an interview about Babylon 5. I’m guessing he drew some influence from it, particularly in the way he portrays sci-fi totalitarian regimes), 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. Activating the afterburnerI’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?

GraduationMeanwhile, 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(I am going to milk that joke for all it is worth). 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.”

We cut back to the Power Base -- I like the way this episode is structured, short scenes that alternate back and forth between the heroes and the villains -- where they are plugging the head into the TARDIS console in order that they can extract what it knows about "Project New Order". Mentor offers to let them plug it into his brain, an idea which can't possibly end well, and they are able to retrieve a Ceefax page of Lord Dread's plans, which conveys no real information beyond the fact that Project New Order is organized into phases called "Charon", "Styx", "Icarus" and "Prometheus".
Let us unpack this. First, given that ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD MACHINE, 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.
For no discernable reason, Mentor concludes that, since the phases are named after stuff from Greek Mythology, they surely refer to the four classical elements.

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.

MentorI 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 HawkHawk's Reaction 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 Okudagramout 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

 

Power Jet

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.

Air battleUnfortunately, 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 deskCockpit. 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 canalOvermind'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, Blastarrwho’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:


Lakki

This lovechild of Johnny FiveJohnny 5 and Dylan’s Playskool Magic Touch Screen Palm LeanerMagic 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 faceLakki. 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?

I am he as you are he as you are me (Captain Power: The Mirror in Darkness)

Depending on your viewing area, it’s either October 25 or October 26, 1987. The Minnesota Twins have just won (or are just winning) their first World Series. The Dow continues to tank. President Reagan issues Executive Order 12612, which, pragmatically, said, “The Federal Government is not allowed to override the states on anything not explicitly granted to the federal government by the constitution. Except for the numerous examples of the federal government doing exactly that during the Reagan administration, see also: the war on drugs.” It is seen largely by conservatives as one of the crowning acts of Reagan’s presidential greatness, up until it was largely revoked by President Clinton, in what I am sure they will tell you was Clinton’s grand stab at establishing a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship. Lisa Lisa has been unseated in the Billboard Hot 100 by Michael Jackson’s Bad.

Star Trek The Next Generation is doing “Where No One Has Gone Before” this week, an episode which I tend to recall as being really good, one of those few where the weirdness and trippyness of the first season of TNG pays off, despite the fact that it is a Wesley-centric episode. Actually, I never got on the Wesley-hating bandwagon, since during those early days of Star Trek, one of my most influential friendships was with a young woman who had the singular misfortune of being The Girl That Character Archetype Worked For. She seriously crushed on Wesley Crusher. She seriously crushed on Adric. The crushing weight of the internet not really being a thing for a child living in 1987, I never learned that, as a fan, I was actually supposed to hate those characters. The only character in that whole class I learned to hate all on my own was Scrappy Doo.

Before the week is out, St. Elsewhere, The Charmings, A Different World, The New Adventures of Beans Baxter, and Werewolf will have their Halloween episodes. You are likely to have heard of at most two of those series, so here’s a brief primer:

  • St. Elsewhere was a long-running medical drama that starred a whole bunch of people, but the one you’re liable to have heard of is future-Boy Meets World-teacher and former Knight Rider-talking car William Daniels. These days, remembered for the fact that the whole series turns out to be the fantasy of an autistic child, and because of all the crossovers they did, so does literally every other TV show ever made.
  • The Charmings was, I am not making this up, a sitcom whose premise was that the evil queen from Snow White cast a magic spell that zapped herself, the magic mirror, Snow, Prince Charming, their two sons, and one dwarf into the 1980s, where they had to integrate themselves into suburbia. Yes. In 1987, someone made Once Upon A Time as a sitcom. It lasted two seasons, which is one and a half more seasons than anyone in their right mind would ever expect.
  • A Different World was a spin-off of The Cosby Show, except that it severed almost all of its ties when Lisa Bonet quit after the first season.
  • The New Adventures of Beans Baxter was a short-lived action-comedy about a teenage spy. I have no recollection of ever having seen this show, but I hear people reference it a lot.
  • Werewolf was like the first FOX series. It was about a dude who got bit by a werewolf. I think the plot hinged on some bullshit where, due to a rare astronomical conjunction, the moon was full every night for a month.

TV, it should be noted, was weird in the 1980s. Much weirder than it was in the 1990s. I mean, okay, maybe some of this is that in the late 90s I went off to college and stopped watching so much TV. But in a very real sense, here in the late 80s, you’re going to see things like “A sitcom about an ordinary suburban family who have a permanent houseguest who is a furry, cat-eating alien whose nose looks like a dong,” or “A sitcom about an ordinary alien family who are also fairy tale characters,” or “A sitcom about an ordinary suburban family where the daughter can stop time and her dad is an alien who sounds like Burt Reynolds,” or “A sitcom about an ordinary suburban family who have a permanent houseguest who is actually a time-travelling ghost of the family’s teenage son, sent back in time by St. Peter to nudge his past self into a more virtuous lifestyle in a kind of profoundly unsexy adaptation of ’70s porno-chic classic The Devil in Miss Jones.”Second Chance/Boys Will Be Boys As the long 80s gave way to the long 90s, it’s in many senses as if popular culture recoiled in horror at the excesses of the “The bombs are gonna drop any day now” 80s and resigned itself to be sensible and mature from now on. This era of television, though my memories are grainy and lensed by the fact that I was eight, had a much more profound effect on me than what would come later.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, “Things that turn into other things” is kind of one of my Core Tropes That I Like, and fortunately for me, the 1980s in children’s TV was lousy with it. Transformers. He-ManCaptain Power, Voltron, Robotech, MASKChallenge of the Go-Bots, A Hundred Thousand Other Kids Shows Hardly Anyone Remembers. Heck, even Filmation’s GhostbustersFilmation's Ghostbusters (Not the RealThe REAL Ghostbusters one) had a Magical Girl Transformation Sequence. Heck, in the last season of Knight Rider, they gave the car a Magical Girl Transformation Sequence (However, this would somehow totally delete itself from my memory from 1986 until 1995).

But I digress. You know what one of the universal tropes in this broad category of 80s kid-friendly action-adventure was? Evil twins. Everyone had an evil twin back then. Usually the one with the goatee. Knight Rider only had three human characters in it for most of its run, and they somehow managed to have four evil twins. Evil twin episodes (In all their various manifestations, such as “evil long-lost sibling”, “evil clone”, “Shapeshifter”, and “Body-snatcher”) are popular for a bunch of reasons: you can skimp on your guest cast budget. The split-screen match shots of the twins confronting each other is a striking visual effect even when done on the cheap. And it tends to be a lot of fun for a series actor to spend an episode twirling a moustache and playing against type (For all the infinity of other sins in the original Star Trek‘s final episode, I can’t imagine Bill Shatner having anything other than an absolute ball as he gluts himself on delicious, delicious scenery playing Janice Lester screaming that she’s Captain Kirk.).  Well, here we are, a few days from Halloween, watching a show about people who wear elaborate and mass marketable Halloween-ish costumes, so what better time to do their own Evil Twin episode. This is the week that Captain Power meets his match in “The Mirror in Darkness”.

Well, sort of, anyway. Let me put it to you this way: my son, who is two and a half years old, likes to watch Captain Power with me. He likes me to get out the Power Jet, after he’s promised that he’ll be careful with it, and he likes to shoot it at the screen, and he does not care at all that it has never once responded to the flashing lights on the screen. And if he isn’t sure what he’s looking at, he’ll ask me for permission before he shoots something, like during Cap’s confrontation with Dread in “A Fire in the Dark” — he wasn’t sure if he was “supposed” to shoot at Lord Dread in that scene (Which shows, I think, considerably more restraint and a better understanding of the moral dimension of children’s television from my son than from the writers, since Cap just starts shooting the instant he sees Dread.). But because he’s a very small child, he has trouble processing a lot of what goes on. He always has a hard time associating the armored heroes with their unarmored counterparts. So in a scene where boyishly handsome Tim Dunigan is clad in his gray polyester combination pajamas and military uniform rather than in his blue spandex and gold armor, Dylan will squint at the screen and ask, “Where Captain Power is, Daddy?”

Not-Captain PowerWhen we watched “The Mirror in Darkness” , when Evil-Cap shows up, Dylan looked at the screen for a few seconds, and then he said “That Captain Power? That Captain Power? That Captain Power?” and then, finally, “That’s a Captain Power.” He could tell right off the bat that something just was not right here. So that’s what we’re up against.

Given the provenance of our writers, folks like Stracyznski and Wolfman and the rest, it really shouldn’t be too big of a surprise when our cold open is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect out of one of those really aggressively dishonest Silver Age Superman covers, where they’d show Superman gleefully robbing a bank or murdering a kitten or deciding he’s sick and tired of catching Lois Lane ever time she gets herself thrown off of a skyscraper, and lets her fall to her death. Sure enough, despite their promises that this wasn’t a trick or a cop-out or a dream sequence, a few pages in, we’d see the scene play out, and it would turn out that Superman was actually orchestrating a clever sting to entrap the real bank robbers, the kitten was actually a shape-shifting alien warlord, and Pink Kryptonite had temporarily turned Lois into rubber.

In this sequence, a bunch of future-rednecks slang incomprehensibly at each other about how The Great Captain Power is going to come take them all away to a place of safe refuge. You know, I respect that they’re trying to do with having all the refugee characters speak a weird, incomprehensible pidgin, but seriously, they lay it on too thick. Dread’s conquest is, canonically, about decade and a half in so far, so okay, we should have a lot of teenagers and young adults who were deprived of schooling and mass media, and you’d expect some dialect shifting. But we’re only talking about fifteen years. That’s the length of time, roughly, between today and the day I met my wife. So okay. There’s some new words. Twitter. App. Facebook. iPhone. And we’ve stopped saying things like “Don’t touch that dial”. But this is going full-out zero-to-creole here. Max Headroom wasn’t this bad about having everyone use weird future-slang. If we were doing an obligatory Lord of the Flies episode about a tribe of children who’d been living rough ever since the fall of civilization, sure. But in this scene, the speaking roles among our refugees consist of one teenager, his mother, and and old man. Only one of those people is young enough to have had his language skills disrupted by the end of days.

Refugee Mom

By the way, is it just me, or does mom refugee look like Fred from Angel if she had a really really rough twenty years?

And clearly, it’s not “Oh also it is the future, so part of the language shift is down to that,” because Cap and company don’t talk like that. In fact, Cap has a hard time understanding them. Now, they could have made this work. After all, it’s only refugees living rough in the ruins of civilization that talk like this; not Jessica Morgan, or the soldiers from “The Abyss”, or any of Dread’s human minions, and even the Wardogs use only a modest amount of future-slang. There had been, though it hardly ever becomes relevant, years of war preceding Dread’s rise to power, and it’s not unreasonable (I daresay, easier in 2014 than in 1987) to imagine a kind of balkanization of society, with the trappings of modern civilization — education, hygiene, art, regularized grammar, polyester clothes with big shoulder pads — preserved among the wealthier echelons, while an ever-growing underclass was so disenfranchised and separated from the benefits of modernity that even their language started to go its own way. To wit, if we take the notion that Dread’s rule was preceded by decades of endless “sanitized” machine-run war and run with it, then yes, there should be a large refugee class for whom the war hasn’t been going on for fifteen years, but for decades, with Dread’s being only the latest and most horrific campaign.

But of course we never actually see any of that. The whole business about Dread and Cap’s dad having created Overmind in order to put an end to years of world-destroying war just rings incredibly false based on what we actually see on-screen. Remember, Jessica Morgan didn’t expect the world to be in ruins. Or Cap’s flashbacks about Athena back in the first episode — do you see anything in those to hint at the fact that this is the middle of global apocalyptic war? That whole “Taggart and Stuart used to be pals and they built Overmind to put an end to years of apocalyptic war, but it all went horribly wrong,” thing feel very much like an afterthought (Not least of all because the timeline is really hard to make work. Like, just what the hell has everyone been doing for the past fifteen years?).

Obviously-Not-Cap arrives, reassures the refugees, then fires off a flare, which summons Soaron to come digitize them. Soaron crows (tee hee) about how Dread will be pleased, making sure to refer to Not-Cap as “Power” in a forlorn attempt to keep up the charade that anyone in the world might believe this is really Captain Power at this point. The teenage boy refugee, who had been skeptical about this whole “Captain Power” thing, and had therefore wandered off earlier, evades capture in order that he can later mistake the real Cap for the imposter in order to get our heroes involved in the plot. Also spared was Conveniently Blind Grandpa, who had been slow enough that he was still on the other side of Kirk’s Rock when Shit Went Down. He will have one more line of dialogue in this episode. Incidentally, is it kind of odd that we have two consecutive stories with blind characters in them, which both have “Dark” in the title? I think it’s kinda odd.

Anyway, when we return from commercialsign, Cap and Company are in the Jumpship, investigating some “old fashioned” radio chatter they can’t decipher and which has no relevance to anything else in this episode. I’m hoping it’s actually just foreshadowing for a future episode, because if it’s meant to relate to the imposter plot, I don’t see it. They’re also troubled by a spate of abandoned settlements in “Sector 9.” This has got to be the least geographically grounded show I’ve ever seen. I have no idea where Sector 9 is meant to be. In the poorly-matted process shots, it looks maybe like the Mojave. The refugees have kind of an Appalachian back-country accent, except for the teenage boy, who I am going to call “Billy-bob” because I can’t be bothered, who sounds kind of Irish. Actually, not quite Irish. Like a recent Irish immigrant in a film set in turn of the century New York. And Evil Cap flies to Volcania and back in what seems like about half an hour. And there’s the ruin of a modern industrial city in walking distance. I dunno. Time is warped and space is bendable, I guess.  Did I mention that Captain Power has a private wormhole network?

Geography gets even weirder, when this one little Jumpship, not actually looking for him, just coincidentally happens upon the one Soaron in all the world, who is not actually looking for them, and they promptly get in a fight, complete with their standard array of “Laser beams narrowly miss, exploding harmlessly when they hit the empty sky behind them,” until Cap orders Tank to fire what appears to be a large purple CGI dildoSoaron vs Purple Dildo at Soaron, which, ahem, circles around and takes him from behind.

Jason and DreadMeanwhile, back at Volcania, Evil Cap is going for a romantic stroll with Lord Dread, who explains that, “Our enemy is an eccentric. He may have friends we know nothing about,” because apparently, Cap is in some way “eccentric” and that eccentricity is exemplified by having friends, but not advertising their identities to your enemies. I assume the point of this exchange is to warn Not-Cap that he might accidentally happen upon someone who knows the real Cap. Not-Cap, in an impressively wooden feat of underacting, manages to not sound creepily obsessive when he responds that, “It’s worth the risk if I may serve my lord Dread.”

Dread also reflects that, “If I did not know better, I would swear that you were Power,” in another vain attempt to persuade the audience not to see what, I can not stress this enough, my two-year-old son saw. Which is that, aside from the fact that they are both tall and male, Not-Cap looks and sounds absolutely nothing like Cap. Not-Cap asks Dread if he’s ever met the real Captain Power, which you’d kind of expect him to be curious about under the circumstances. Slightly harder to justify is why they haven’t had this conversation sooner. Not-Cap and Dread seem awfully chummy — to the point that Dread calls him by his first name (It’s “Jason”, by the way. Huh, Jason. Jonathan. Jennifer. Jessica. You know, I had a thing for J-names for a while too. I wonder if it means anything.), and Jason’s expression as he asks is kinda borderline “Catty question about your boyfriend’s ex.”  This is presumably an excuse to exposit to us about how Dread and Stuart were bros back before Dread hooked up with Overmind. This is the first reference to Cap’s father since the tangential mention back in episode 1 that Athena had worked with him. After last week, we’re starting to get a firmer picture of what Dread’s motivations are, something more comprehensible than the vague and borderline incoherent “Praise be the machine” scriptural stuff in the first few episodes.

That’s David James Elliot, by the way. He’s best known for playing Harm in the mid-90s Armed Forces Legal Drama JAG. My mom liked that show. It seemed okay to me. So apparently seven years can make a big difference in an actor’s craft, because he is complete shit here. I mean, the character is paper-thin, so I’m not expecting Olivier here, but this guy. He’s like the happiest Nazi or something. His protestations of his love for Lord Dread and the Way of the Machine have a creepy sexualized tone, he never even comes close to projecting any sort of menace, and… A lot of the time he positions himself like he posing for a Harlequin cover, looking off into the distance rather than meeting the eyes of whoever he’s talking to. I guess maybe if he was deliberately going for “Creeper”, you could maybe– actually, y’know what, I think maybe he just hasn’t learned how to act yet. I mean, he hasn’t even learned how to look like David James Elliot yet — he’s got a very “Skinny-First-Season-Beardless-Riker” thing going on, and his facial features don’t seem to quite fit him correctly. He’ll grow out of it.

Well, until Jason thumps his chest and says “Praise be the machine!” before marching off. I can see Jason being an interesting character here — he seems to be a True Believer. We’re going to see more hints about folks like that later, as we get into Pilot’s backstory. I’m going to guess he’s a Dread Youth alumn, raised by The Machine to be an obedient little Boy Nazi.

Of course, we’re never going to see Jason again after this episode, and he’s really only in like two more scenes, and has no more than a half-dozen lines.

Soaron is dispatched for the moment, but the Jumpship needs repairs, so they put down on the outskirts of some ruins, where Cap decides to go off on a wander for a bit. The laws of plot convenience specify that in this blighted, vaguely geographically defined wasteland, they’ve set down pretty much right next door to where Not-Cap had just been. Okay, this isn’t too much of a stretch; in the earlier scene, Hawk mentions picking up the flare Not-Cap had used to summon Soaron, though the signal was too faint to locate. This suggests that the episode so far has happened in close-to real time; Soaron was literally just leaving after digitizing Billy-Bob’s family when he encountered the Jumpship, and Jason makes it back to Volcania in less time than the aerial battle takes (Dread mentions Soaron having taken damage. Though it’s strange, in context, that Dread doesn’t seem to put two and two together and realize that the real Cap must be nearby, given that he’s literally having a conversation about the possibility of that sort of thing happening at the time.)

Naturally, Billy-bob is the first person Cap encounters. The enraged kid accuses Cap of being a “clicker” (I thank heaven for small mercies that at least this slang term gets to be consistent across episodes), in league with the “Bio-Bird” (I do not thank heaven for this one. Soaron tends to announce himself by name. Sure, maybe you’d choose not to use his christian name, but am I really supposed to believe that the slang term this backwoods yokel would come up with would be “Bio-Bird”, and not something remotely sensible like “The bird”? Or “That metal asshole”? Something where Captain Freaking Power won’t have to double check with you for confirmation about who the hell it is you’re talking about.), and is, in general, the same douchebag who attacked his family. Also, I think he calls him a “Yuppo,” though later in the episode, that’s clearly future-speak for “Yes”. Cap tries to demonstrate his non-evilness by powering down his suit, by which I mean that they spliced in the same inset of Tim Dunigan with his hand to his breast that they almost always use for the transformation scene. Seriously, just how stretched was the VFX budget when you can’t cover the cost of just doing a dissolve from the footage you obviously shot of costumed and uncostumed Tim on the set? At any rate, Cap starts to piece together that Dread’s been sending out a lookalike to round up refugees and determines himself to get to the bottom of it.

Only Billy-bob isn’t having any of that, as it’s exactly what an evil Dread agent would say, so he exploits the fact that Cap is kinda dumb by pulling the “Look behind you!” trick, then conking Cap over the head, swearing that he’ll take him somewhere where no one will ever find him. At this point, the second time through, Dylan decided he didn’t want to watch this episode any more, because, “The boy think Captain Power is bad; He gonna tangle Captain Power up!” and Dylan didn’t want to see that again.

And indeed, that is what happens. Back at the Jumpship, Hawk and Pilot have already decided that Cap’s been gone too long, but as close as I can tell, they do precisely jack about it, because they aren’t in the episode after this scene, other than a two-second shot of “Cap calls them between scenes later to say he’s okay.” (By the way, no wonder he thinks no one will ever find him; when Cap reports back, he says he’s in sector three. Which is a full six sectors from where this episode started. You know how before I said that time is warped and space is bendable? Well time is warped and space is bendable.)

Cap, TangledCap is “tangled” as it were, by being chained to a pipe in a ruined building. One of Billy-Bob’s compatriots, who I will call “Fedora Man”, because he wears a fedora and has no other traits, disposes of Cap’s hoverbike off-screen, and they wake him up for an impromptu Kangaroo court of sorts, where Billy-bob declares his intention to avenge himself on Cap and his forthright refusal to listen to Cap defend himself. Grandpa is wheeled in as an expert witness, who testifies that he isn’t completely sure, but Cap’s voice sure does sound exactly the same as the one he’d heard. Presumably this is not a universe where blindness enhances your other senses if he thinks Cap and Jason sound anything alike. Billy-bob, Gramps, Fedora Man, and some other hoboes bugger off a bit to vote on whether or not to off the Captain, giving Cap the time he needs to whip out this show’s favorite means of resolving drama: having it turn out that our hero is not quite so badly-off as it had previously appeared. He basically just kicks his guard in the face, then tugs on his chain until it breaks, then we cut to that same stock footage close-up of him touching his badge. Keep in mind, in the long shot, he’s still got one arm chained above his head. Yes, I know this sort of thing happened all the time in 80s action shows, like a close-up inset shot on The A-Team where you see a pair of black hands reaching in to work on whatever the team is building, even though B. A. had been captured this week, or the really weird one in Knight Rider where KITT activates some feature while trying to rescue Michael, and we see a close-up of a hand reaching out to push the Turbo Boost button — on one of the monitors (Like, they don’t just cut to a closeup of a finger pushing a button. One of KITT’s monitors lights up and the clip of the finger pushing the button appears on the monitor), but it still feels cheap. The hobo army rushes in and pounces on Cap, but, unlike every other time this crap happens in this show, Captain Power is not overpowered by a bunch of starving refugees, and manages to fend off his attackers.

When Cap fails to murder and/or digitize them despite having them at his mercy, Billy-Bob decides to trust the good Captain, and they set up an elaborate trap to capture the imposter.

Well, I say elaborate trap. More like “They call him up and invite him to come ‘rescue’ them.” Which he does. He wandered around an abandoned building for a bit saying “Where is everybody?” and “Hey, it’s Captain Power!” a few times, before Real-Cap springs his cunning trap. Which is, roughly speaking, “Show up.”  Okay, to give him full credit, he waits for Jason to say something he can make a witty riposte to: he gets to reveal his presence with the phrase, “You got that right,” to Jason’s “Captain Power is here!”

They exchange a few shots, with Not-Cap conveniently firing pink chevrons while Real-Cap fires blue lines, before Not-Cap can summon a legion of mechs to assist him. He orders them to attack Cap while Jason flees. Where were they hiding? Does he always have a legion of robots hiding just off-screen when he goes on these missions? And no one ever notices? Maybe they were hiding in Sector 9.

Jason and PalsAt this point, the episode gets really, really weird. Because Cap’s reaction is an oddly detached and utterly deadpan “If you had a thousand of them, they wouldn’t keep me from you.” Jason tries to back off and leave Cap to the Mechs. Though Cap is initially forced back by concentrated pink chevron fire, we’re past the 15-minute mark, so the late-show rules apply, and Cap just sort of ups and decides to stop losing. Suddenly, their shots have no effect on him as he hops up on something, rides a convenient zip-line back down again, and effortlessly murders an entire room of Clickers single-handed. Cap then shoots Not-Cap in the hand when he tries to pick up a gun.

Then Tim Dunigan starts inexplicably doing a Arnold-Schwarzenegger-in-The-Terminator impression. Well, really more of a Robert-Patrick-in-Terminator-2 impression, but since that movie won’t be made for another four years, it’s got to be a coincidence. He slowly, silently, emotionlessly walks after his impostor as Not-Cap flees in terror, begging for his own life and making unconvincing threats of Lord Dread’s vengeance. Wordlessly, with Michael Myers efficiency, he shoots off Jason’s shoulder pads, rips off his breastplate, peels away his helmet, then beats him half to death with it. Our hero!

Cap pins Jason and draws back his fist in a pose where you’d pretty much expect him to morph into Ralph Macchio and honk Jason’s nose. Finally, just as you’re trying to sort out how you’re going to explain to your son why Captain Power just drove that young man’s nose into his temporal lobe, he relents, and, seething with anger, explains, “I made a promise to my father that I would never take a human life. That I would protect and preserve all people. You almost made me forget that promise.”

Let’s unpack that one a bit. First of all, I would love to see the context where Cap’s dad makes him promise not to kill people. I’m kinda having a hard time imagining exactly how that would come up. “Okay John, today I’m going to teach you how to punch someone’s nose into their brain. But I want you to promise me you’ll only ever use it to kill robots, never humans.” Was young John all like “Sweet. I’m a gonna go murder me some survivors”? I mean, yeah, I know that Dread’s got his whole Nazi Youth Army thing, but still. This seems like an oddly specific thing to be making your kid promise you during the apocalypse.

Also, of course, this whole “Never kill people” thing presumably does not apply to Lord Dread, since last week, Cap shot what he thought was Dread point-blank.

After the stock footage of Cap powering down (Hawk and Tank are here now, but they contribute approximately balls to the scene), Cap is reluctant to hand Jason over to the hoboes for execution, as Fedora Guy wants. Fortunately, Billy-bob finds a compromise: “Okay Yeps(His delivery suggests that “Yeps” is a referent for Cap, not an intensifier for “Okay”, reinforcing my uncertainty as to whether “Yeppo” is future-slang for “Yes” or some kind of pet name.), I skull a better way. No killing, I promise. Better. And worse.”

They send up a flare, then dress Jason as a hobo and gag him (Personally, I’d have done that first). Soaron obligingly shows up and unwittingly digitizes Not-Cap, then complains to Is-Cap about how he’s really only supposed to pester them if he’s got more than five victims lined up. Cap pulls his gun and shoots the crap out of Soaron, because this is the end of the episode, so Soaron is easily overpowered by one guy with a blue pew-pew gun rather than needing a concerted effort involving purple CGI dongs. Cap goes all Scary-Crazy again and screams at the retreating Soaron, “You tell your master no more impostors! Not one! Or I’ll shove that mountain of his right down his throat!”  I think they would have sold it better if this weren’t a kids show and Cap could say “Up his ass” instead.

Back at Volcania, Dread repays Jason’s loyalty by having him fed to Overmind, and we close on the sight of Jason’s part-digitized face, locked in a gurn of anguish as he falls into the video toaster effect of Overmind’s hard drive, in order to drive home that no matter how much you love The Machine, the machine does not love you back.


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She Blinded Me With Science (Captain Power: A Fire in the Dark)

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:

560px-Star_Trek_TNG_logo.svg

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:

fire-vhsLet’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 galleryfire-01, 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 stiltsfire-03, 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.

fire-05Dread 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 fire-07 (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.

fire-06After 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.)

fire-08Soaron 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.

For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come (Captain Power: Pariah)

The more astute among you may have noticed that it’s been about a year since my last Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future post. More than two years since my last episode review. Those of you who pay very close attention may suspect that it might have something to do with the fact that my review of episode 4 was published on December 10, 2011, and my son was born on December 12, 2011. I’ve been otherwise disposed.

Of course, now my son is old enough to want to watch Captain Power, only not the vaguely sci-fi-rapey episodes. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking. But he likes pointing the Power Jet at the screen and “Shooting the bad guys”, even if I never did manage to get the jet to work with the DVDs (I suspect the sensor in the jet is shot, since it won’t register shooting itself in room-mode if you point it at a mirror either.)

But even more than the fact that watching TV with a toddler is distracting, I just really couldn’t find an angle on this one. Over the past four episodes, we’ve had the misfortune of magic sci-fi-rape, some really awkward gender role stuff, tortured Vietnam metaphors, and, well, Kasko. Then we get to Pariah, the original pilot for the series, the one meant to sell the Captain Power experience and it’s… Fine. Okay. I mean, it’s a good, serviceable workman-like business-as-usual episode. But it really lacks… Well, anything noteworthy, really. It adds very little to the ongoing story of Lord Dread’s convoluted multi-stage plan, no one does anything really aggressively sexist, at least not enough that you could distinguish it from any other show of its period.

So this kind of episode is hard to find an angle on. I mean, if I walk you though the salient points of the plot, I am done by the end of this paragraph: Hawk spends the better part of twenty minutes talking to a slang-talking teenage orphan while slowly falling asleep, occasionally punctuated by a short exchange of gunfire with robots.

Yeah. It’s another Hawk character-focus episode. The rest of the regular cast is largely absent — they do get a fight with Soaron, which I suppose is interesting because it’s the only time that we don’t do the obligatory Sauron vs Hawk fight, but really, nothing they do advances the plot. Actually, nothing much advances the plot; everyone just sort of mills about until they reach the appointed time, then moves on to the next part of the story. The major hurdle of the episode is “Will the team make it to Hawk in time?” and the answer is “Yes, as it turns out, they will,” in a way that feels very much like if you made a heist movie where the only real conflict was “Will the getaway driver find a good parking spot?”

Which I guess speaks to what I’ve said before about this show feeling atimes awfully perfunctory. Things often don’t feel like they happen for any satisfying diagetic reason so much as “because we are now seventeen minutes in, so it’s time for a fight scene.” And indeed, the final fight scene here feels like Hawk basically just says “Okay, I’m kinda bored with this now,” stands up, powers on, and walks out to have a fight. There’s more to it than that, sure, but the only reason that this time, it leads to a big fight and all the other times it didn’t is because we’re at the eighteen minute mark.

I mean, sure, there’s a big reveal about the kid and Lord Dread’s evil plans, but it’s telegraphed so obviously that you yourself have probably figured it out already even though I’ve basically only said one sentence about it.

Because, of course, the plot of this episode isn’t the point of this episode. The point of this episode is for Hawk to react to this kid, whose name I’m told is Mitch, and be all heartfelt and suchlike because Mitch reminds Hawk of his own (presumed deceased) son.

Which is all well and good, but this is still a 22-minute show which also has to serve as a toy commercial. When you peel back the outer layers, there’s just nothing to it. There are certainly ways to get 22 minutes of compelling drama out of a parent’s grief at the loss of a child, but “Let’s get Peter MacNeill to gurn at the camera for a bit and tell this very 80s kid of the future that he reminds him of his dead son,” isn’t it. Peter McNeill GurningEven if Peter MacNeill is fantastic at pained gurning.

Moustachio'd Nazi of the WeekSo anyway, the long and short of the episode is that Cap’n’company are investigating a series of towns being struck by a disease that renders everyone comatose for convenient digitization. Hawk gets separated from the others, meets a skittish orphan boy on the run from another of Dread’s Bling-wearing Nazis, and they hole up for a bit. Hawk slowly earns the boy’s trust as he succumbs to the disease, because, and you really should have worked it out by now, the kid is an immune carrier. This shocking reveal for some reason necessitates a final fight scene, which Hawk abandons halfway through by passing out, but fortunately Mitch Mitch throws himself on Hawk, leaving only Hawk's area visible.throws himself on Hawk’s prone body, protecting him from Soaron (Who has orders not to harm Dread’s Typhoid Mary) for nearly five seconds while the rest of the cast shows up. The disease is cured off-screen when we come back from commercial and they all live happily ever after.

Like I said, all those years ago now, there’s a reason that half-hour drama is not a format you see a lot of. I don’t mean to give the impression that this episode was bad — it’s fine, really. But there’s just not much to it.

Of course, in production order, Pariah would have come before Wardogs — Pariah is set about a month in real time after Shattered, and Wardogs more properly fits two months later, after A Fire in the Dark. So if we’d watched these in the order the creative team intended, this would have been the first time we’d mentioned Hawk’s family. Maybe it would have been more impactful that way (In Original 1987 TV Audience Time, Wardogs is even later, having originally aired five weeks after Pariah). And I guess that’s it: how good an episode this is hangs in its entirety on the reveal that Hawk has lost a child. If, like me, you watched Wardogs first, you already know that, so this one’s just spinning the wheels.

Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe the fact that the moral center of this episode is Hawk grieving over his dead son just makes this an episode that Now-A-Daddy-Me didn’t want to think too long and hard about… Hm.

It’s actually gotten kind of hard for me to enjoy my eschatons since I became a parent. I’ve never been able to find a way to move on from the question, “What does one do with a toddler during the end of days?” I mean, I’ve found some answers. Just not ones that I want to think about. Maybe next week will be better.