August 24, 2014

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, episode 1 "Shattered"

It's the year 2147, and the Metal Wars ended with machines conquering mankind. Lord Dread, leader of the cybernetic Bio-Dread Empire, sits on his throne of Volcania as his mechanical underlings seek out the last remaining dregs of human resistance, Digitizing their captives into the growing memory banks of their central computer.

Among the resistance, Captain Jonathan Power has outfitted himself and a squadron of fellow soldiers with Power Suits, giving them added protection and abilities with which they take on the Bio-Dreads. Tank is heavily armored and has a massive gun. Scout can create holographic disguises so as to infiltrate targets. Hawk has a winged jetpack allowing him to soar through the skies. Pilot flies a plane.

As the episode opens, Power, Hawk, and Tank watch from a ridge as Scout takes out a Bio-Dread soldier, then assumes its form so as to infiltrate an energy substation. He rigs the place to blow, but the entrance has been locked tight behind him and tripped sensors have tipped the Bio-Dreads off. He fights through a horde to get to the door while the other three fight through a horde to get the door blown open for him, and he's through and diving for safety just as the place goes up. Their mission done, they're picked up by Pilot and head home.

In Volcania, Lord Dread is less than pleased to get the news as this means yet another delay to the mysterious Project New Order. He starts scanning the Digitization archives so as to attack Power with the man's past.

At the Power Base (yep), our heroes take a break from the battle, when a repeated transmission starts coming in for Power. It's a chess move, signed Athena, and Power remembers her as an old lab assistant of his father's, with whom he was on the verge of starting a romance when the Metal Wars began. Sure enough, the transition is coming from the San Fransisco book store where they'd meet to play chess. Hopping a ride with a hesitant yet reserved Pilot, Power sets out to investigate. He'd heard Athena joined the resistance, but thought the fighters in that sector had all been wiped out. They look out the window, the rubble of a ruined and empty city beneath them.

They land and Pilot stays with the ship as Power goes off to investigate. Checking on a sound she hears, Pilot is taken out when she's gassed in the face by a figure in worn battle armor.

Power arrives at the book store and, just to be on the safe side, activates his Power Armor before going inside. There's distant music playing, but every book inside is scorched and rotten, crumbling to dust in his fingers. He follows the music to a small stereo in the basement. At the table is a chess board. Power sits and makes a move, flashing back to the lovely Athena playing against him in the past. Back to the present, a figure appears in the corner, the same one who gassed Pilot. Removing her helmet, Athena is grimy and intense, glaring at Power as she points out he always opens with the same move.

Before he can say anything, she whips out a gun and blasts him, apologizing that it's the "best way" as she run up the stairs and stumbles outside. She has a subcutaneous tracker in her neck and, back at Volcania, Lord Dread is displeased to learn about her attempt to kill Power as orders were to take the captain in alive. Soaron, a looming, mechanical pteranodon man with a Digitizer canon on his arm, is summoned to make sure nothing else goes wrong.

Pilot comes to and calls in the others as backup. Power also comes to. His armor absorbed the brunt of the blast, but its energy levels are low. He confronts Athena, and when she tries to shoot him again, he knocks the gun away with a throwing star. So she pulls a grenade, and the explosion is enough to drain and remove his armor, leaving him unprotected. As Athena approaches, gun trained, he tries talking her out of it, and she tells him her story of the failed resistance, of the lucky ones who died, and the ones like her who were Digitized. That's the fate she's trying to spare him of.

Soaron arrives, blasting Athena in the leg and preparing the Digitizer canon for them both, and she clutches in fear, even as Power tells her one should never stop fighting, never stop trying to stay alive.

Hawk swoops in, catching Soaron in a crossfire with a Power Armored Pilot. Soaron takes to the air and a big fight breaks out as Tank and Scout also fly in on hover bikes. Soaron is ultimately driven off, and the heroes gather and take off with Athena.

Back at the Power Base, Athena's tracker chip is removed and the others move off (Pilot reluctantly) to give her and Power a moment. She's still struggling to accept that she's free, as free as anyone can be in the current state of the world, and isn't sure if she's ready yet to rejoin the rebellion, but Power calms her by activating a digital game of chess, opening with his usual move.

And we don't usually stick the closing credits sequence on here, but check out how awesome this is:


1987 was a transition year for me. I turned thirteen, and with my hormones beginning to rage and high school looming, I suddenly found that chasing girls and jockeying for the pole in the popularity race were more important to me than toys and cartoons. But I didn't quit cold turkey. I still raced home from school so that I could catch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and on Saturday mornings I would wake up in time to watch Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.

My memories of the show itself are a little fuzzy, but I vividly remember the gimmick. There was a brief period in the late 80s where companies thought it would be a good idea to make interactive VCR shooting games. It wasn't, and they quickly disappeared from the market. What made Captain Power different was that you could not only buy video cassettes of various "missions", but you could play along as the show was airing. I owned the ship that acted as the light gun, but I rarely ever played it "live". I genuinely liked the show and didn't want to interfere with this by multi-tasking.

In the years since I last watched an episode of Captain Power, the word I consistently hear associated with it is "dark". As in "It's dark for a kid's TV show." I'm certainly not expecting something akin to the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot, but I'm very curious to see if it lives up to its reputation. This easily ranks as my most anticipated Showcase to date, so let's do this. Power on.

Almost right away, it became clear that Captain Power is not your average kid's show. Not then, not now. Yes, there are grown adults running around in plastic "armor" firing "lasers" at a flying "robot", but the story in "Shattered" is anything but kiddie fare. True to its reputation, it's all a little dark, but a better word might be mature. This is a rather serious, adult story with no blatant camp and only a few attempts at levity, all wrapped up in a shiny *pew* *pew* *pew* package. Whatever I was expecting from my return visit to the Future, this wasn't quite it.

Just as impressive as the relatively mature approach to storytelling are the high production values. With a whopping $1 million dollar per episode pricetag (that equates to roughly $2 million today), Captain Power also didn't look like any of its contemporaries in kid's entertainment. Keep in mind, this wasn't a prime-time network show, but rather a syndicated Saturday morning series. There simply wasn't anything else like this on television at the time. Though some of the F/X work - particularly the early attempt at CGI characters - look a bit crude today, they were truly on the cutting edge in 1987. And after giving the episode a second viewing, I found myself impressed by the coldly efficient, CG-rendered Soaron Sentry. Its movements were natural and fluid, and it looked solid and three-dimensional. That's a hell of an achievement considering the budget and the era. Also impressive are the miniatures and matte paintings used to bring this post-apocalyptic world to life. Volcania, the seat of power for our villain, Lord Dread, is particularly well done. Beyond that, the use of actual sets and repurposed locations also help to give this world a sense of scale and realism.

It was a bit tough to get a feel for this cast and the characters they play, as most of the Soldiers of the Future sit this one out after the extremely entertaining first few minutes. The info-dump in the opening theme tells us who they are and what their function within the team is, but they don't have enough to do here to really get a full sense of their personalities. The actors who do get meaningful screentime - Tim Dunigan (Captain Jonathan Power), Jessica Steen (Jennifer "Pilot" Chase), and David Hemblin (Lord Dread) - all fit their roles well. Dunigan doesn't exactly ooze charisma, but there's a decency and likeability about him that makes him the ideal hero to headline this sort of show. Steen is kinda like the girl who was her school's ace athelete, class president, and valedictorian. She's attractive, but not distractingly so, and like Dunigan, she's blandly likeable. Hemblin's Lord Dread quite literally is a combination of Darth Vader (aesthetically) and Emperor Palpatine (personality). Like the other actors, he plays it straight (though with a bit more obvious acting talent) and never once slips into scene-chewery. And he just looks fantastic in that getup. The best performance, however, comes from guest star Ann-Marie MacDonald. She attacks her role with real gusto, adding a snap to the melodrama and quite clearly bringing out the best in Dunigan. Her twitchy, PTSD-afflicted Athena is the single best thing about an already impressive first episode.

I really can't find much to complain about here. I suppose I'd have liked a bit more information on how the Metal Wars began and how the Soldiers of the Future came to be, but there's plenty of time for that later. Fun action. Great musical score. A tight, coherent, and emotionally engaging story. What's not to like?


I would have been 5 when Captain Power first came out. I remember seeing ads for the toys and hearing about their magical ability to interact with the screen, but I never had any. I think I was too young for my parents to buy me anything that complex (and likely a bit pricey) at the time, and the show would have come too late to be among the hand-me-downs from my cousin, from whom I got a heap of He-Man, G.I. Joe, and some random otherness figures. I never saw the show on TV, and it was gone before I was old enough for its tone to not catch Mom's eye and have her change the channel. I came across it again in recent years as I became a fan of 80s/90s action cartoon writers like J. Michael Straczynski, Larry DiTillio (penner of this episode), Bob Forward, Michael Reaves, Christy Marx, and Katherine Lawrence, all of whom have a wide variety of credits on some of my favorite shows, and all of whom wrote for this. I just always held it aside, though, as it felt like something that needed some special attention. Before the Showcase, I was tempted to explore it on my own blog, and even after we started up here, it's topped our list of things to cover, though kept falling back as we A) were waiting for the announced DVD set which has now been out for a while, and B) we were hesitant at first to do a 20+ episode series due to it taking half a year to get through, though that cherry's already been popped by now after Igor and I did Starhunter.

So here we are!

The first episode drops us right in the middle of a mission, full of action-packed tension, a bomb about to go off, and showing heroes who are a well oiled team even as they have moments of panic and wrenches are thrown in their plans. Everyone falls into their namesakes easily - Pilot is a pilot, Hawk flies, Tank is a walking tank, Scout scouts - but do so with little flourishes of personality that instantly warm me to them, like Tank ribbing Hawk about getting old, or Scout being the first to sneak into a situation being a bit of a problem as he has a habit of getting in a bit over his head. But they're a team, a unit, and they pull together and make up for one another's weaknesses.

If there's a weak cog in the engine, it's Captian Jonathan Power himself. It's not that he's a bad guy, he's just the Cyclops/Leonardo of the group whose job is to juggle the other personalities around him into usable strategies, which often makes for a lack of a personality of his own. Here, we learn about his past, his lost love, see him going rogue to look into a personal matter, and even get gunned down, but very little of it resonates. He's just A-McLead the square-jawed lead because he's the name of the show, and he's not giving us any other reason to care. And it doesn't help that Tim Dunnigan is an exceptionally flat actor, and that he spends half of his lack of emoting under a clunky visor.

Also, there's Athena. Ann-Marie MacDonald has the perfect look of a shell-shocked warzone survivor who's been through hell, with her buzz cut and wild eyes, but she overplays the twitchiness and sneers, and comes off forced and campy when it should be poignant and haunting (worst bit is "Hold me, my friend! Hold me!"). And as sweeping as it is to learn about the horror of digitization, where people are literally absorbed into the central hub of the machine, there's a very uncomfortable rapey vibe to it with Athena's line "It touches you, and it knows every secret, every shame." As far as this show goes in its grit and depth and maturity, that's maybe a bit far.

Otherwise, the sheer devastation of this world works. There's a great scene of Power looking out the window of a jet at the ruins of San Francisco which gives us scale, stories of his normal past life which shows us how much has changed for these people over such a short amount of time, the flashback to how Athena used to be, smiling across a chess board, to how she now is as she scowls at Power, shoots him, and tosses the gun at the old chess board, scattering the pieces. This is a world at war, where the humans have largely lost, and the best the heroes can hope for at the moment is to keep some semblance of a fight going while searching for a miracle that'll turn things in their favor. This isn't some scheme about weather devices that ultimately leave no lasting damage, or hordes of villains who blinding fire and hit nothing at all (several of our heroes take hits over the course of things, in fact). This is a force that's won, that's already conquered humanity and is just scraping off what few stragglers remain. And while them using digitization as a replacement for death is expected given this being a kids show, they do one heck of a job right out the gate showing how awful an experience that is, and that returning from it doesn't mean much given the level of trauma you bring back with you.

There is silliness here, like the magical badges that flare our heroes' armor onto them in a flash of light, or some of the laser effects, especially the glowing ninja star Power whips out, or the bad cut-n-paste bluescreen of the big midair battle, or the early flat polygon render CGI used for Soaron, but those elements do very little to detract from the show. The sets are gloriously rubbled and dank, the glowing red chestplates add a neat eeriness to the villain horde, Soaron is still a chillingly realized henchman regardless the quality of the CG, and those gleaming suits of armor are actually pretty awesome. Power's clunky visor and Pilot's unnecessary boob plate aside, they look like realistically practical suits of high-tech battle armor, with a heroic sheen that gives them brightness and chrome clarity in an otherwise dark and soot-stained world. And we don't really see much of Lord Dread in action, but it's not a bad design, and the scale of his fortress, amidst the ruined cityscapes surrounding it, gives scale to his actions. Again, he's not setting out to win, he's already won, and he has the relaxed comfort of someone who knows it's going to take a hell of a thing to take him off his throne.

Overall, this promises to be a damn good show. There's a weight and grit to the world, a sense of consequence and loss, and the production values - while they don't all hold up - are astonishing for not only an 80s produced television series, but a KIDS SHOW! It blows my mind that this made it to air, and I can't wait to see if they manage to keep this quality going for an entire season.

If you'd like to watch along with us, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future is available on DVD!


Tony Williams said...

You make a great point about Lord Dread's demeanor being a reflection of his position in this conflict. I'll be curious to see if it begins to change as the season progresses and Captain Power and Co. (presumably) begin to pile up victories.

Neither of us touched on the hint of a crush that Pilot has on Power. It's underplayed, but when Power begins to recount his past with Athena, Pilot asks "Just friends?". It sails right over Power's well-coifed hair, but it's pretty clear they're going there at some point *sigh*.

NoelCT said...

I did catch that with Pilot, yeah, but outside the synopsis, I just never thought to comment on it because a) it never really went anywhere, and b) was so blink-and-you-miss it subdued. It's a typical dynamic, but not badly played. And yeah, baddie casual is such a refreshing air to see in an era where they were typically a raging megalomaniac

Relatively Geeky said...

This is going to be one fun ride. Both for you, and for us.

NoelCT said...

Thanks! :)

Tony Williams said...

Ditto that thanks, RG. We hope so!

Enbrethiliel said...


I never saw this show and now feel that I missed out on some classic 80s awesomeness. In general, Philippine networks in the 80s didn't syndicate anything that didn't also have toys being marketed in the country. Which is another sort of 80s thing, I guess. =P

NoelCT said...

It's surprising that, even Stateside, I don't recall Captain Power getting much or any rerun syndication after its one initial play. I wonder if it was a similar situation where you are, that if it ran, it was just that one brief blip.

Tony Williams said...

It seems like I recall stumbling upon Captain Power on either Sci-Fi or USA network back in the 90s, but Noel knows my memory is a bit fuzzy at times. It definitely never got the sort of heavy syndication that other 80s genre shows did. Not sure if that is a result of the relatively few number of episodes, sticky rights issues or a lack of interest.