Sunday, January 1, 2012


Man, it's great when circumstances collude to provide content.

Back not so very long ago (but ages in Blogtime) during the inaugural edition of this little feature, longtime friend of the Prattle, the illustrious Diana Kingston-Gabai pointed out that while Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers may have it's charm, it's a hell of a hurdle to its credibility when the main characters are riding robot horses in the intro whilst synthesizers blare.

And I had no comeback for this, except to shrug and say "well, it was kind of what you had to do then." And it kind of was, because at the end of the day, you had to sell toys, that was what you were there for, and that was all the sponsor cared about (well, that and taking the curse off the people who were pointing and shouting at them for being History's Greatest Villains for creating 30-minute adverts that kids seemed to want to watch without needing guns put to anyone's heads)

It's pretty cool in a sense--provided you hew to a handful of directives, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted., and by the end of the golden age for this kind of stuff (let's set the date at 1987. I said 1988 last time, but I'm only human--born to make mistakes.) the people creating them had worked that out, and you got stuff that was a bit more ambitious than the usual fare--stuff like Galaxy Rangers, Spiral Zone, and today's subject Captain Power And The Soldiers of the Future (which I will refer to as Captain Power until I forget to) which I was lucky enough to be gifted the full series on DVD for Christmas.

Circumstances conspired to make this happen, is what I'm saying.

Nominally, Captain Power was made to sell toys, of course, with a cool gimmick--essentially, the vehicles are light guns and you pointed them at the strobing targets on the screen and racked up points. The TV show could strobe back at you and if you took enough hits, your jet exploded. Kinda.

It seems pretty daft now, but at the time, it was pretty slick (and the Phantom Striker is just an awesome design. If anyone wants to snag me one on eBay, I will speak highly of you), and led to a lot of puffery in press about how this was a bold new frontier in TV which would allow us to truly interact with the programs we were watching (otherwise known as every damn article ever written about every innovation in television ever.) even though it was the same damn technology as an NES Zapper, and we'd had those for two years already.

But if you're around 11, this shit seems major, especially when they sell it to you by completely fucking with your head, as they do in the teaser commercial:


I'd like to think the whole notion of "breaking into the TV signal" came about because this guy had been in the news not so very long ago. I have no proof, but any time I have the opportunity to post a link to it and possibly cause nightmares is an opportunity I would be a fool to pass up. This has been one of those opportunities.

You might be able to detect, ever so subtly, that this is a little different from the typical way toys are being huckstered. We'll get to that in second.

Concurrent with the toys, a TV series was mooted. This would be live action (a rarity back iLinkn those days) and would feature CGI character interacting with human characters. Take note: this is 1987, so the CGI is naturally incredibly recognizable because it's so goddamned shiny and looks exactly like something done with the bleeding edge of computers in 1987 (for some perspective--we'd only just moved to 3.5 diskettes and that was seen as a quantum leap. Think about this) so we're really trading on the novelty at this point more than anything else.

Now, remember, all his is in the service of selling toys, or so the verdict on high says. Bear this in mind as the intro tries (heroically) to hard sell you on this.

Right so--it's the future, everyone's dead, some rather dodgy CGI is hunting down the final pockets of humanity and making their faces melt into video effects, and the only hope are five guys, and their leader's helmet doesn't even fit properly. Plus the show is called "Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future," which as even J. Michael Straczynski, who worked on the show, said was "the worst title in the history of anything."

Much as we may hate to admit it, he kinda has a point.

So, with all that against it, why are we talking about it? Because despite all these handicaps, it's basically Terminator: The Kid's Show. Because despite the mandate to sell toys, and the ropiness of the production, the people writing it are actually trying to do an honest-to-god grown-up SF show.

The problem is that that doesn't really exist yet. More on that later, let's actually get into the details of the story, shall we?

In the far-ish future, all combat is done by machines and directed by computers, which has led to essentially a permanent stalemate. To break the stalemate and provide a more evenhanded control over military forces Stuart Power and Lyman Taggert build Overmind (not that one. Also not the Overfiend, thank god) Naturally, calling your computer "Overmind" is totally not going to be a regrettable choice should said computer lose his shit and turn against humanity.

Taggart, impatient with Overmind's development, plugs himself into the machine, and this makes him insane and makes Overmind lose his shit and turn against humanity. Taggart gets blown up and is rebuilt as Lord Dread, leading to people remembering Captain Power (if they remember it at all) as "that show with the guy who looks like the Borg" and Dread starts a fascist cult of Dread Youth (in a show with total war, mass slaughter, concentration camps, did you not think they wouldn't play the Nazi card too?) while Overmind digitises whatever humans are left, with the intention of collating them and finally deleting them.

Let me stop here and point out again that this is a kids show, and humanity has already fucking lost. The new normal is a fight for whatever can be salvage out of the ruins. The planet is totally fucked, there's barely anyone left, and . . .well, go by toys kids, and try not to think about how much of a brainfucked Rorschach blot of Cold War paranoia this is.

Stuart Power kinda anticipated this, and so was creating the Phoenix Program, which boils down to special digitizer-resistant power suits. And there's maybe seven of them. To fight an enemy that has the entire planet in its grasp. He also--and man, how lucky was this?--was training his son Jonathan (because only people named "John" get to fight to fight the machines in post-apocalyptic hellscapes) on the mathematically insignificant chance that Overmind would go nuts and wage a war of extinction on humankind. Jonathan gets his power suit and forms the backbone of the Soldiers of the Future, who deserve a ROLL CALL! right about now don't they?

CAPTAIN POWER--The leader of the group, Power is also the nexus of this show's schizophrenia. Because Power has to be the bold square-jawed hero and profess something other than a grim determination to survive at any cost, Power carries the bulk of the show's heroism, which is good in theory--lead character, right?

The problem is, he's also painfully naive and I think he gets betrayed, tricked, suckered, or trapped like 5 times in the first disc of this series alone. He's also upstaged by Pilot as a character in just about every way, but we'll get to her in a bit.

"HAWK" MASTERSON--Like Mr. B Natural, Hawk new Jonathan's father and worked with him on the Overmind and the Phoenix Program. Essentially he's Team Dad and has a role beyond being the guy who has the same laser fight with Soaron in the sky every third episode or so (seriously, this show reuses footage a lot) which is good.

"TANK" ELLIS--You may remember Tank from being the big guy with the hammer from Conan the Barbarian or as laFours from Mallrats, and of course, I would be the kind of anorak who would know this. Even on the DVD they joke about his role in movies was to be the big strong guy who gets killed before he has to talk (his accent is awfully thick, as the show demonstrates) Tank is the team's Big Strong Guy, a genetically-engineered supersolider from Babylon 5 (no, not that one. Not yet, anyways) He's apparently supposed to be leading a life of peace, which explains him shooting people all the time.

"SCOUT" BAKER--Our stealth specialist, Scout has a lot to do, but doesn't get near the level of character development he should, which is a shame, as the one time he does (in the final episode) he really sells the anecdote about his family. Scout was pretty awesome, and I wish he'd gotten more time.

"PILOT" CHASE--Hey kids! Here's the breakout character of the show, and she's a chick! Pilot is the most awesome of the Soldiers, not because she's super-powerful or more competent than everyone else, but basically because she's the only one with a real character arc on the show, and I am going to spoil the shit out of it right now.

Before she was recruited, she served in the Dread Youth, which is exactly what it sounds like. Power finds her and convinces her to defect, but it leads to a recurring thing wherein she's called out for it, meaning the survivors don't trust her because of what she was, and the Dread Youth (who want to be digitised because Dread conflates it with religious enlightenment) think she's a traitor. Plus she has a crush on Power (God knows why--maybe she digs guys she has to bail out of danger all the time) which means that she's ill at ease on three sides and never really seems comfortable in her own skin.

This all comes to a head in the series finale, which frankly blew my young 11-year old mind. Left on her own in Power's base, Dread's forces overrun the base and Pilot holds them off long enough to save everything the Power team needs and blows up the base with her inside it. We're given pretty explicit direction that this was not just because she was wounded and couldn't get clear in time--that she wanted to kill herself.

This is the other thing people remember if they remember this show at all--because kid's shows did not end with lead characters committing suicide. It was a lot like the end of Blake's 7, which ended on a note even bleaker than this one.

I should point out two things:

Yeah, the command structure is incredibly confusing. Also, man, what a great idea it is to go up against a numerically superior force in shiny metal suits, huh?

Oh, and he's the bad guys, for balance:

SOARON--One of the Bio-Dreads who function as the field commanders for the Troopers, Soaron was the first creation of Overmind, and the beginning of the war against humans. Soaron initially seems like a generic second-in-command, but gradually gains something of a distinct personality as the show evolves, as his personality matrix is evolving unaccountably and he has a rival with the other field commander . . .

BLASTAAR-- No, not the Living Bomburst. Blastarr is the commander of ground forces for Lord Dread as is a major-league asshole. Has more guns than I am able to count and in the best Imperial Stormtrooper tradition, can't hit a bull in the ass with a steam shovel. Treats Soaron like shit because Blastarr's the new and improved model. Despite his braggadocio, Blastarr is not as smart as he thinks he is and is forever getting himself blown up and trapped underground.

LORD DREAD--Lyman Taggart plugged himself into Overmind and, well, neither of them has been the same since. Taggart came out with a headful of nonsense about "the perfection of the machine" (yes, he was editor for Wired magazine) and, after getting blown up a bit later, got turned into a half-robot. Despite selling out his own people and leading a genocidal war against them, Overmind doesn't trust him, and halfway through the season creates a robot lamed Lackki to function as a snitch.

Yes--a robot stooge named Lackki. I love this show for things like that.

OVERMIND--The problem with all these "war against the machines" high concepts is that giant computers are not, in and of themselves, visually very interesting. Overmind, being a weather balloon inside a hula hoop on top of a dry ice machine, is yet another attempt to overcome this obstacle. I leave it to you to determine if they succeeded.

This show was pretty unique in that the entire season has the rough shape of an arc. Essentially, the season is all about Power and co. finding about Dread's Project: New Order (no, not them.) which is Dread's plan to finish off humanity and start building his perfect world. Dread being dread, this involves poisoning them, digitizing them from orbit and raining fire on them from space.

And in perhaps the perfect encapsulation of this show and it's not-quite-kid's show-ness, Power succeeds in stopping it. Unfortunately, he does it a whole two episodes before the end of the season, which means the final two episodes (the one where Pilot dies) are a savage counterattack by Dread, who manages to pull an Empire Strikes Back and put Our Heroes backs against the wall only a little bit after what should have been his final defeat.

That kind of dichotomy--selling toys vs. telling a dark SF story--is the heart of what makes Captain Power such an interesting little historical curio. It doesn't really succeed in all it attempt to do, but the mere audacity in attempting to do them is itself interesting.

And obviously, as Captain Power is kind of forgotten 25 years later, it didn't really work. Part of it is, well . . .it's a bit of a feathered fish. Too grown up to really grip the kids, too kiddy to be taken seriously by grown-ups.

But it's still a snapshot of a transition that was happening at the time. One of the reason I look so close at shows like this is that the writers doing them really wanted to be writing grown-up SF television. But it didn't exist yet. So you did your time on the kid's shows, selling toys and trying to add your own personal touches here and there.

So what changed? Well, Star Trek: The Next Generation pots of money, and the powers that be started seeing there was really money in SF shows. So by the late 80's there's a bunch of SF (and SF-esque shows) shows on the air and by the turn of the decade, there's going to be even more--3 Star Trek shows, Babylon 5 (which had a good chunk of the people behind the scenes at Captain Power working on it), et al. Concurrently, the kids shows that ruled the 80's die off, barely remembered except by anoraks like me.

Captain Power gives us a great look at what that transition in action, and what the road ahead was going to look like. I can't say it's worth tracking down--it has aged horribly, and you are always acutely aware while watching it that it's not quite one thing or the other. But it certainly doesn't want for ambition, and if you wanted to see what kind of transition was happening during that time, well, it's worth a watch-through once.

Plus--hey, robot snitch named Lackki. Who doesn't like that?


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

I think the problem I have with these series is that, while their generic/historical significance is clear, it's hard to enjoy them because they're old enough that more contemporary "successors" have improved upon the concepts, and the creakier bits become harder to overlook.

That said, it is interesting to see how certain trends and tropes evolved over time - and you're right, Pilot's sacrifice boggles the mind in terms of where and how it played out. I always enjoy attempts to push the "for kids" envelope just a touch further than people suspect: it's what gives us scenes like Brooklyn shooting Elisa in the back with her own gun. :)

Kazekage said...

Oh, they're creaky as hell, and while revisiting the series on DVD has been enjoyable (not least because even the people who worked on it seem to be cognizant of its accrued kitsch) even I can't see around the flaws in the show. It is bleedng edge for 1987. 1987 was twenty-five years ago, and it has dated in the same way that Logan's Run and the like have dated.

But as a historical curiosity and a look at the "ground zero" of what is to come, it's quite interesting.

Even before her sacrifice, Pilot's a character who seems to be dropped in from another show. She had nowhere she can be comfortably, she doesn't think she's worthy of Power, everyone thinks she's a traitor in some fashion and you can kind of follow her getting closer to killing herself. I don't think you really would have the stuff that happened in Gargoyles (for instance) happen without something like this breaking the ground (though I wonder if that wave hasn't rolled back some since those glory days)

PS: Brooklyn's anti-gun rampage is just awesome. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Oh, I don't doubt that there's some evolutionary pattern at work in terms of how the phrase "kid show" gradually stopped meaning "dumbed down to the point of inanity". You can draw a line from "Captain Power" to "Gargoyles", then from "Gargoyles" to, say, "Samurai Jack", and from there to "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and so on.

I wouldn't say the wave's rolled back per se - it's just more... focused, perhaps? In that there are less series taking that approach, but the ones that do go further than you'd think. A:TLA did an episode on the difference between guerilla warfare and terrorism - in their first season.

PS: Yes, it most certainly is. Only now I realize it was Broadway, not Brooklyn. Methinks a rewatch is needed. :)

Kazekage said...

Well, for a brief period, you had a good run of kid's shows of every stripe. If you liked action cartoons there were a bunch of good ones as far up as. . .hmm 1998, maybe? Comedy, you had Freakazoid and Animaniacs, among others . . .then you started having to go to cable for the good stuff, it seemed.

One of the things that really hobbled things over here--at least in terms of network/syndicated stuff was 1) The synidcation market dried up at the turn of the century and it was impossible to find time between the multiple sitcom runs scheduled and 2) They changed the law on the amount and strictness by which you had to hew to educational/information content, which made things so difficult, no one really felt they could do their best work (though you could make an argument the new My Little Pony show ties to work under those constraints and still make it worthwhile.

I would have probably conflated the two myself, Diana. ^_~