Tuesday, June 20, 2006

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 21: Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987): "Shattered"

Power On!

Now here's a nostalgic (and truth be told, cheesy...) blast from the 1980s past of Izod shirts, Madonna Wannabes and the like. It's Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, a one season, live-action (syndicated) wonder from creators Tony Christopher and Gary Goddard. A pre-Babylon 5 J. Michael Straczysnski was among the series writers, as was Larry DiTillo, and the program aired during the 1987-1988 season...the same year that gave the world Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Set in the far flung year of 2147 -- after The Metal Wars -- (when "man fought machines...and machines won,") Captain Power is the inspiring but threadbare tale of stalwart Captain Jonathan Power (Tim Dunigen) and his elite squad of heavily-armored fighters, including the flying ace, Hawk (Peter MacNeill), the lumbering Tank (Sven Thorsen), the espionage expert, Scout (Maurice Dean Wint) and the lovely tactical systems technician, Pilot (Jessica Steen).

Together with their holographic computer (named Mentor), this crack resistance team combats the evil Lord Dread (a kind of Jason of Star Command's Dragos meets Star Trek's Borg meets Darth Vader...) and his evil mechanical sentries, Bio-Dreads, for supremacy in a post-apocalyptic world. Lord Dread is headquartered in a vast realm called "Volcania" (a dome that looks like a breast with mechanical nipple...) and his evil goal is to "digitize" the human survivors of the war, locking them into computers like the characters in the 1982 movie, Tron.

Buttressed by ludicrous early CGI, video effects, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future episodes tend to concern Captain Power's armored team leading the human resistance movement, and the episode I focus on here, "Shattered" is no exception.

In this story, Scout infiltrates and destroys one of Lord Dread's "energy installations" (actually a re-dressed boiler room...) and the evil lord realizes it's time to kill the meddlesome Power and his team. "Perhaps the answer to my future rests in Power's past," the Evil One muses. To this end, he digs into Power's personal past and sets a trap for our hero. Dread soon sends Power a cryptic message from an old flame named Athena, a hottie believed to have been killed in the Metal Wars. Power realizes immediately that the message revolves around a favorite chess move, and this brings back memories (i.e. a flashback...) of the days before "the new order."

When Power interprets the message from Athena (a former lab assistant to his scientist dad...), he knows he must meet her at their San Francisco rendezvous point, the book store City Limits. Though the others are wary, Captain Power is convinced that his old lover is still alive. Turns out, however, that she has been long "digitized" by Dread and is working to destroy Power in exchange for her freedom from the machine. Why? Well, digitization (like the later Borg assimilation process...) isn't too pleasant. "It touches you," she tells Power with fear. "It knows every secret...every hate...every love. It tortures you until..."

Power and Pilot survive Athena's trap only because Hawk shows up in the nick of time and engages one of Lord Dread's evil predatory Bio-Dread sentries in aerial combat, an extended sequence that merely serves to highlight how dated these special effects have become in the 21st century. Still, for a kid's show, this is a fairly dark episode of a fairly dark program. There's betrayal, death, bombed out cities, and very little hope. I guess that's why it lasted only one season...but truth be told, I dig it.

Why remember Captain Power today? For one thing, it's almost the program's 20th anniversary. And well, heck, as the advertisements for the series assertively blared: "POWER ON! TO THE INTERACTIVE VIDEO REVOLUTION!" Yep, a critical element of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was the fact that the entire series was designed as a state-of-the-art tie-in to a new line of interactive toys. To wit:

"Now kids can battle alongside their heroes in the first video that lets them interact with the TV screen. They can actually shoot at Bio Dread video targets using their Captain Power interactive toys from Mattel!"

Ah yes, a prehistoric attempt to create synergy between authentic entertainment and blatant merchandising. You gotta love it. That "dual" purpose helps explain the end credits sequence for the Captain Power series as well: it's a sustained P.O.V. trip through the bowels of Volcania (Dread Headquarters), where your toy spaceships can blow apart enemy installations. In practice, it looks like a cheesy Death Star trench as "players" weave and bob through the facility and must fire weaponry at appropriate targets (like a vent?). Drop those Cheerios kids, and pick up your toys...it's clobberin' time!

Still, craven commercialism aside, you've got to love Captain Power for its incredible ambition. This is a series that - sadly - looks like it cost about $1.50 per episode, and yet posited that five soldiers could fight a sustained war to win the back the planet from the evil machines. Human cities (like San Francisco) have been reduced to rubble, and the man-machine war forecasts movies like Terminator 2 (1991) and The Matrix (1999). The stories - though rudimentary - contain the seeds of adult drama, and are rarely maudlin or trite. In fact, one main character actually dies in an installment. Someone was clearly attempting something brave, even if it didn't always work out.

So, even if it looks fairly primitive today - as well as like a blatant attempt to steal your kid's dollars - I find something noble about the one season sortie of Captain Power. And yes... I still own most of the toys...


  1. John, I'm glad you finally decided to cover "Captain Power," one of my all-time favorite SF shows. As you pointed out, it aired the same year as the first season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," but, despite its low-budget, quickly proved itself superior in terms of stories and characterization. I had the opportunity to speak with both Marv Wolfman (who wrote one episode) and J. Michael Straczynski about the series, and both told me that first and foremost, JMS, who story-edited most of the season, wanted to tell good, solid SF stories. Essentially, they were required to put in a two-minute "interactive" fight scene into each episode, but after that, they could be as imaginative as they could, which led to, as JMS said, the first cyber-punk story on TV (not counting the PBS movie "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank"), and an excellent story in which Pilot, a former member of the Dread Youth, is tried (and rightfully found guilty) of war crimes against a town of humans. I know that in the past, you've decried "trial" episodes, but in this case, it was warranted. As JMS said, "She did participate in war crimes." The point of the show was to ask how far does one have to go to redeem herself from having committed atrocities. Pilot became one of the best female characters in SF-TV up 'til that time, a distinction that lasted until the mid-90's with the well-developed (no pun intended) casts of "Babylon 5" and "Deep Space Nine." Speaking of B5, fans who watched "Captain Power" got the fist hints of JMS' plans, as Captain Power frequently utilized "jumpgates," and in one episode, spoke of taking survivors to "the
    Babylon 5 colony."
    The death of the major character that you mentioned was truly stunning, as it was the character no one expected to die. Contrasting that death with the death of Tasha Yar just a few weeks later, you see what a difference good writing can make in how viewers perceive and remember a death scene. I literally walked around in shock for the entire day after viewing the final episode of "Catpain Power," whereas I doubt many people were affected by Tasha's demise.
    An entire second season of "Captain Power" was plotted out, with the show becoming much darker in the wake of the explosive events of the final episode of season one. It's a shame that it was never produced.

  2. Hey Howard!

    Thanks for all the vital and interesting background information on Captain Power. Like I said...I dig the show. The limitations regarding special effects and the like don't bother me...I groove on this stuff.

    The show was remarkably dark for a kid's show, and so I figured it was about time I covered it here, in at least some detail!

    Thanks for the informative comment!

  3. Anonymous5:31 PM

    Captain Power movie?

    since there is somewhat an 80's revival with a live action Transformers Movie and Voltron movie planned for 2008 i tyhink would't some producer be interested to do big budget movie on Captain Power

    the show premise allows for plenty of CGI effects, i wonder how Sauran would look like with modern CGI (i presume even scaryer)

    maybe some of the original cast would be nice aswhell

    if i remember PILOT was killed because Jessica Steen sighned only for one season and she didn't want to do another season thats why they killed Pilot

  4. Randy3:48 PM

    You can visit the 20th anniversary of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future at the following url: