Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987): "Shattered"

With the original V saga now blogged in full, I’m going to switch gears for a while, and turn my attention to another eighties sci-fi TV program: Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987 – 1988). This is a syndicated series that lasted for one season of twenty-two half-hour episodes, and is fondly remembered today by many fans.

Marketed in conjunction with an impressive line of “interactive” toys (vehicles, play-sets and action figures), Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was created by Gary Goddard and Tony Christopher, and developed by writers including J. Michael Straczynski and Marc Scott Zicree. The series blended live-action material with late-1980s computer animation. 

A bit like V, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future is also a story of human resistance fighters fighting a formidable enemy. The series is set in 2147 AD after “The Metal Wars,” and that destructive event pitted man against sentient machines. 

As the program’s opening narration reminds us: “the machines won.” 

Now a vicious warlord, Lord Dread (David Hemblen) rules the Earth from his base at Volcania with robotic minions like Sauron, and he uses a process called “digitizing” to defeat enemies, transferring their essences to the cyber world and a system called Overmind.

A post-apocalyptic series, Captain Power focuses on “mankind’s last hope” to defeat Dread.  In this case, that hope is Captain Jonathan Power (Tim Dunigan) and his resistance cell.

The group operates in secret out of an old military installation in the Rocky Mountains, and often consults with a hologram/A.I. system called “Mentor” (Bruce Gray). All members of the team can also activate impressive fighting power suits/armor featuring different offensive and defensive capabilities.

Those populating Power’s team include:

Major Matt “Hawk” Masterson (Peter MacNeill), a man who wears a suit that permits flight, and thus aerial combat. 

Lt. “Tank” Ellis (Sven Ole-Thorson)is the muscle of the group, as his name indicates. 

Sgt. Robert “Scout” Baker (Maurice Dean Wint) can infiltrate enemy lines in his power suit, and the premiere episode, “Shattered” begins with one such mission.

And finally, Corporal Jennifer “Pilot” Chase (Jessica Steen) expertly gets the team in and out of treacherous locations.

In the series premiere, “Shattered,” we join Jonathan Power and his squad as they infiltrate a Bio Dread Energy Sub-Station and destroy it. An angry Lord Dread realizes that Power must be eliminated and suggests that the answer to destroying Power rests in his past.

Sometime later, Power’s team receives a transmission on the Resistance frequency from Sector 19, which used to be the city of San Francisco. The sender is Athena Samuels, one of Power’s old friends.  Before the war, he and Athena used to spend time at the City Limits Book Store together playing chess.

Although his team members suspect a trap, Powers meets Athena at a rendezvous, and she promptly shoots him. 

Power survives, and soon learns that Athena had been digitized by Dread, and agreed to help him spring a trap in exchange for her release. Athena feels guilty over her behavior, but Powers understands her dilemma and they work together to beat back the attacking Dread Forces, including Sauron.

Perhaps the best way to understand Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future is by recalling historical context. The series was conceived and aired in the mid-1980s, a time of a national “apocalypse mentality” due to the Cold War with the Soviet Union. 

Several popular science fiction films of the time, including The Road Warrior (1982), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and The Terminator (1984) involved visions of a post-apocalyptic future in which man’s 20th century civilization had fallen.  Of all those films, The Terminator seems to have had the greatest visual and thematic impact on Captain Power, since the series involve a clash between man and his (rebellious) machines, and is set in a future of ruins.

“Shattered” is clearly a low-budget show, and yet within a modest framework, it is visually compelling. The opening sequence set in the substation reminded me of the frequent boiler room settings of Blake’s 7 (1978 -1981). 

And just as those location scenes suggested an industrialized future empire in collapse, similar settings here suggests a world of machine construction lacking in humanity and warmth.  Later, the episode provides some vistas -- both miniature and studio-bound -- of destroyed San Francisco.  Again, budget is a factor, but the visuals are certainly adequate, if occasionally claustrophobic.

Already in “Shattered,” the writers seem to have determined (rightly) that the stories need to be modest and straight-forward given the budgetary and time limitations. After the opening battle, the episode settles down into a nice, emotional tale involving Power’s past. Athena and Power’s relationship is contextualized in terms of their favorite game: chess.  That’s how they got to know each other before the war, and now they play a kind of game of chess involving the future, with higher stakes.  And Athena is just a pawn being used by the real power, Lord Dread.

Yet “Shattered” never makes Athena into a villain, two-dimensional or otherwise. Instead, she speaks powerfully about slavery inside Lord Dread’s cyber-verse. “You don’t know what’s like in there, in the machine,” she tells Jonathan.  “It knows every secret…every shame…every hate and every love.” 

Commendably, Jonathan treats Athena with compassion and understanding, never blaming her for trying to kill him or working with the enemy. This quality of compassion permits the character to transmit as very likable. He is depicted taking chances rather than making decisions based purely on fear. 

“Shattered” tells its story of friendship against a back-drop of heavy action. The opener features lots of zippy, colorful laser fire, and the end features a confrontation between Power’s team and Dread’s in the air and on the ground.  

Yet the explosions and laser beams don’t outweigh the impact of the human tale, and I still remember that some critical voices of the day suggested that Captain Power had -- out of the starting gate -- found the right balance between conflict and drama; one that the more expensive, more heavily-publicized first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) did not.

If any factor visibly dates Captain Power at all today, it is not the storytelling (at least so far), or even the action beats, but rather the computer animation used to depict Sauron and other Dread minions.  The designs are great, but the execution looks prehistoric by today’s standards. 

Personally, I don't find the effects bothersome, any more than I find the effects from Land of the Lost (1974 - 1977) bothersome. You just sort of "tune" yourself to specifics of the program and its possibilities, and move on.

So join me Tuesday afternoons in the coming weeks, as I review further episodes of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.  Next week: "War Dogs." 

Power On!

1 comment:

  1. Another show that really needed the censors and BS&P to leave it alone.