Saturday, January 17, 2015

Television Review: 'Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future'

All hail the Machine!  All glory to my Lord Dread!

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, starring Tim Dunigan, Peter MacNeill, and Sven-Ole Thorsen.  Created by Gary Goddard and Tony Christopher.  Head screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski.  Landmark Entertainment Group, Mattel, and Ventura Pictures Inc., 1987.  22 episodes of 20 minutes (approximately 440 minutes).  Not rated.

Jim Bawden of the Toronto Star once called Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future "the most ambitious series ever made for television," and he did not exaggerate.  For a short period during my childhood, this show was all the rage, but it lasted only one season:  Mattel pulled the money when the toy tie-in sold poorly, so it swiftly fell into obscurity, though it continues to enjoy a cult following.  There were VHS releases of all the episodes back in the '80s, but aside from those, Captain Power was for many years available only on fan-made bootlegs, but in 2011 VSC at last produced an official DVD release.  This is a great boon, for Captain Power is is a show that should not be lost.

Captain Power's history much resembles that of the similarly ambitious and ill-fated 1979 Battlestar Galactica, though Captain Power has yet to see a melodramatic, humorless, and oversexed remake.  There were attempts to remake it, and for a while a new show called Phoenix Rising was in the works, though as far as I have been able to discover, it died in preproduction hell.

Funded by Mattel and billed as children's TV, Captain Power sparked controversy for its high levels of violence.  It was expensive, costing a million dollars per episode, with innovative special effects, including the first regular appearances of CGI characters in a live-action TV series.  It is of continued interest in part because the lead writer was for a time J. Michael Straczynski, who went on to create Babylon 5.  There is a place called Babylon 5 in Captain Power, so Straczynski had that name in mind even back then.

But what really made Captain Power unique is now hard to appreciate:  it was the first and last interactive TV show.  The Mattel toy line included action figures and a few other items, but the most important toys were the XT-7 and the BioDread Phantom Striker, both futuristic jet fighters.  They were light-sensitive, and they would react to certain special colors on the screen.  With the toys, you could shoot the villains, and they would shoot back.  Hitting them earned you Power Points, and getting hit took your Power Points away.  If you lost all your Power Points, the cockpit would eject and send your action figure flying across the room.  The toys also had a "room mode" that allowed you to shoot them at each other like laser tag.  It was good, clean, potentially-put-somebody's-eye-out fun.  Unfortunately, the interactivity hasn't survived the digital transfer, so don't expect to dig out your old XT-7, load in the DVDs, and blast away at BioDreads on your flatscreen.

The premise of Captain Power is a pastiche of science fictional awesomesauce from the 1980s and late '70s.  Star Wars and The Terminator are obvious influences, with a concept from Tron thrown in.  Environmental designs, especially the frequent miniatures, show influence from Blade Runner.  One episode is an homage to William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, and there are also references and nods to old-school science fiction, most especially Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops."  The pop philosophy underlying the show, especially the idea that humans are defined primarily by emotion, probably comes from Star Trek.

The story is set in the year 2147, shortly after the "Metal Wars," a war between man and machine, which man lost.  The earth is in ruins, and the last remaining humans, called Survivors, live by roaming from place to place.  The world is overrun with faceless robot mooks called Troopers, which have approximately half the competence of Imperial Stormtroopers, and raining terror from the skies is Soaron (voice of Deryck Hazel), a goofy-looking CGI monstrosity, a "BioDread," which is a living robot with DNA, capable of regenerating when damaged.  Soaron is armed with a digitizer ray that can turn humans into computer data, which he then feeds to a supercomputer called Overmind.

Behold the greatest minute and a half of your life.

Leader of the evil robots is a cyborg named Lord Dread, played by a scenery-devouring David Hemblen.  Formerly, his name was Taggart, and he dreamt of ending forever all war and crime by taking weak, emotional humans and turning them into perfectly logical machines, for the purpose of which he unleashed his robot armies all over the globe.  He got in a fight to the death with his best friend Dr. Power, and he became a cyborg after he fell in a volcano . . . er, I mean, after he got blown up in a geothermal plant, so he is more machine now than man, twisted and evil.

After Dr. Power dies fighting Taggart, his son Jonathan Power carries on the battle, assisted by his Five-Man Band, all of whom are armed with "Power Suits," powered armor that they can call into existence by tapping their badges and shouting, "Power on!"  The Power Suits render the Soldiers of the Future immune to the weapons of their enemies, but they can only take so many hits, or function for so long, before they run out of power and deactivate.

Captain Power is campy in the extreme, but it's the good kind of campy.  Most episodes are made up largely of scenes of guys in patched-together fiberglass armor shooting pew-pew weapons at each other, and the combat displays not even a rudimentary knowledge of military tactics (I could not count the number of times Power or a member of his team stands up on a pile of rubble, completely exposed before the enemy, to pose dramatically while shooting his laser gun).  But even when the show is at its worst, it's bad-good rather than straight-up bad.  My favorite scene is the one in which Power uses his rocket pack to do a dramatic backflip over some Troopers in order to blow them away from behind, and then afterwards stretches his arm behind himself to blast a sniper out of a window without looking.  Captain Power shoots guys without even glancing at them, because he's just that cool.

The world is ending, but there's always time for Charlie's Angels poses!

Even the special effects and obvious miniatures, which are cheesy by today's standards, lend to the show's overall ambiance, making the series more immersive rather than less, much as the stop-motion skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts or the deliberately employed fakery in Jackson's Lord of the Rings capture an otherworldly feel.  Even the primitive CGI used for Soaron and (later) Blastarr serves to reinforce the idea that the BioDreads are a new order of being.

And I just have to add that, when I was a kid, Soaron was my favorite character.  I loved his high-pitched metallic Snidely Whiplash voice, and I laughed hysterically whenever he came on screen.

Oh, Soaron, you so silly.

The actors in Captain Power are all likeable, but Tim Dunigan, who plays Captain Power himself, is the weak link, though that's largely because he has little material to work with.  While the other Soldiers of the Future all get intriguing backstories sooner or later, Power never manages to be more than the hardened soldier whose stoical façade masks his underlying rage over the death of his father.  However, this is fitting, because Captain Power deals in unusually subtle irony for a children's show:  although Power ostensibly stands for human life and the full range of human existence, especially emotion, he has trouble getting in touch with his feelings.  Meanwhile, Lord Dread, who wants to eliminate emotion in favor of pure logic, is a highly emotional villain, and the BioDreads behave like temperamental children.

Dread is the most compelling character, easily one of the most interesting villains ever to appear in children's TV, and David Hemblen's performance is pitch-perfect.  In his dark chamber atop his stronghold Volcania, Dread rages, boasts, and vacillates as he struggles to carry out his plans.  As the show develops, Dread enters a cat-and-mouse game with Overmind (voice of Ted Dillon), who frequently corrects Dread for his emotional volatility and even creates a robot, Lacchi (voice of Don Francks), to spy on Dread and keep him in line.  Dread's verbal jousts with Lacchi make for some of the best scenes.  Dread is a man tortured by conscience:  he has convinced himself that he can do evil that good may result, but under his surficial bravado, he knows better.

The worldbuilding of Captain Power is unusually good for the time and the medium.  The Survivors are depicted as having developed a gypsy-like culture complete with its own slang, and one episode taking place in a location called Tech City has a unique slang as well, though most of it is pulled from the aforementioned Neuromancer.  Dread's move to turn men into machines also comes complete with its own ideology:  Dread has an organization called the Dread Youth (based, obviously, on the Hitler Youth) that trains his "Overunits," un-digitized humans in charge of the robot armies.  The Overunits are fanatics dedicated to "The Machine," an apparent homage to E. M. Forster's famous dystopia.  The Machine of which they speak seems to be no particular machine, but an abstract ideal of machine-ness as such, which they view as a sort of god.  To emphasize this, an early scene even features Dread sitting in his evil overlord chair and dictating his own version of the Bible, in which man creates the Machine and is then perfected by the Machine.

My Lord Dread can brood with the best of them.

But I like this show mostly because it is in conversation with Clarke's Childhood's End.  I am certain it is no coincidence that the supercomputer who pulls the strings behind Dread is called Overmind.  Clarke's novel is a Gnostic parable, depicting a future in which humanity dies out, replaced by our inhuman and amoral but powerful offspring, who are then absorbed into a sort of materialist cosmic soul called Overmind.  Serving Overmind are the Overlords, benevolent beings that look like devils, and one of the Overlords' first task in their project to perfect humanity is to eliminate human religion.  Captain Power rejects the projected future of Childhood's End or any Transhumanism, exactly because a post-human is by definition not human anymore, and Captain Power takes it for granted that human life is good in itself.  Religion gets only passing references in Captain Power, but the famous words of Isaiah 2:4 are presented in a positive context and contrasted with Dread's mission to create a new world by burning the old.  There are also hints that the war between man and machine is part of something bigger, as the Overmind computer is as an unambiguously evil force:  at one point, Dread asks Overmind how many "voices" are inside it, and it replies, "We are legion."  These individual "voices" inside the Overmind are used to create the A.I.s of the BioDreads, and the BioDreads are not built on an assembly line, but appear out of an opening in Overmind as if being birthed from a womb.  All this hints, perhaps, that these are not actually machines, but evil spirits given physical form.  That would at least explain the BioDreads' rage-filled personalities.

Blastarr has the five-finger laser death punch.

I'll give a spoiler alert before I discuss the end.

The final four episodes of Captain Power are both melancholy and very satisfying.  Throughout the series, which was supposed to be only the first season, Dread puts into action what he calls Project New Order while Power and his team fight to discover what New Order is and put a stop to it.  They at last discover that Dread intends to put into orbit a long-range digitizer that can digitize people from space.  Stopping the satellite for some reason requires them to fly down a trench Star Wars-style, and then they send the satellite crashing into Dread's base, Volcania.  Altogether, it involves a lot of elaborate action set-pieces and some very exciting scenes.  After this, in the two-parter that closes out the season and thus the series, the BioDread Blastarr (voice of John S. Davies) discovers the location of the Power Base and attacks it.  Power's right-hand woman Jennifer "Pilot" Chase (Jessica Steen), shortly after she finally confesses that she's been in love with Power all this time, destroys the base and herself with it to keep its technology away from Dread's forces.  The last moments of this sequence are stilted, but the episode overall is well constructed.  This episode was also, apparently, the final straw that provoked Mattel to pull the plug.

The Captain and the Pilot.

At the same time (and in my opinion this is much more interesting), Dread makes the decision to shrug off the bonds of weak human flesh—but first he kills Lacchi, perhaps out of spite, or perhaps as part of a larger plan.  Overmind sends two Troopers to take Dread to be digitized, perhaps to force him if he hesitates, and Dread walks away between them like a condemned man going to his execution.

Thus the series ends when the Power team has lost an important member as well as its base, which contains the device that can recharge their Power Suits, while Dread goes to his (possible) destruction.  The second season was planned but never made, though synopses of the un-filmed episodes are floating around the Internet.  My own humble opinion is that the second season probably would not have been very good.  Some years ago, I read an interview with one of the series creators (Gary Goddard, I believe), who said they were planning to drastically reduced Soaron and Blastarr's parts because the company doing the CGI could not deliver all it promised.  I have also read that the killing off of Lacchi was intended to be permanent because the writers didn't know what to do with him.  They also killed off the only female character in the main cast, though they intended to replace her with another.  They planned to bring Dread back, but in a nastier and more robotic version.

The second season, then, would have been without much of what made the show so good.  If the writers really couldn't figure out what to do with Lacchi, then the writers were crazy, because his interaction with Dread is one of the best things in the show.  Reducing the parts of Soaron and Blastarr, the second and third best things in the show respectively, also would have harmed the series.   And a robo-Dread without the weaknesses of the human Dread, if that's really what they were planning, would have been much less interesting that the villain we have in the first season.  According to an interview with some of the writers and producers in Starlog, they were also going to replace the whole digitizing concept with Overmind and Dread just deciding to wipe humanity out, and Power was going to collapse into psychological issues while his second-in-command Hawk took over.

This would have sucked.  Perhaps the series cancellation is a blessing in disguise.

Regarding the DVD collection from VSC, it is good on the whole, but the final disc, which contains the extras and the never-aired made-for-TV movie The Legend Begins will not play.  I don't know if this is a problem for others or only for me.  Cleaning the disc hasn't helped.  In any case, the whole TV series plays with no problems.  It is a little grainy, but I noticed no artifacts from the digital transfer.

Originally, there were three animated Future Force Training Videos depicting a first-person fly-through with lots of baddies to shoot at, and who shoot back.  These animated films, made in Japan by AIC and Anime R, were designed to be played with the XT-7.  Unfortunately, they are not included in the DVD package.  Though designed specifically for use with the toys, they are well-made and entertaining animated short films, and they deserve to be preserved with the rest of Captain Power.

This is a fun show, and watching it is a must for any fan of '80s television.

Content advisory:  The typical episode is mostly action sequences with plenty of shooting and explosions, but most (not all) of the violence is bloodless.  There is one implied sexual encounter (because apparently they wanted to get cancelled).  Some characters get killed, and the overall tone is fairly dark, though not oppressively so.  In terms of suitability, it hovers between a children's show and an adult show; it's probably too much for young kids, but it's pretty corny for adults.  The best audience is child-like man-children.
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