August 30, 2014

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, episode 2 "The Abyss"

At night, a soldier named Price climbs out of a sewer grate, dodges surveillance drones, and plants a transmitter before suddenly finding himself surrounded by other soldiers. Leading them is General Briggs, who executes Price on the spot as a traitor.

Power and Hawk are the only troops present at the Power Base when they pick up the transmission coming in on an old frequency. Worried this means some soldiers are in danger, they quickly Power On and fly out to the sector. Also picking up the signal is Lord Dread, who sends Soaron to investigate.

Power and Hawk arrive and are astonished to find themselves being attacked by human infantry led by Briggs. Unwilling to return fire, our heroes take enough hits to knock them out and dePower their armor. Power is interrogated by Briggs, who accuses him of being a spy for responding to the unauthorized signal. Briggs and his men have been hunkered underground all these years since the war, training and waiting for the day when the President tells them to join the battle, and Briggs doesn't accept it when Power tells him the government is gone. So they instead hook Hawk up to some electrodes and torture him for info he doesn't have, as it's revealed he fought alongside both Dread and Power's father in the war, and watched the former turn and kill the latter. Frustrated by no admissions of guilt, Briggs sentences both to execution. His lieutenant, Masters, starts to question both this choice and his general's sanity.

Power has his own torture session wrapped up as he and Hawk are left in a cell awaiting their execution. Their Power Armor is lacking in juice, but Power notices cables leading to a transformer. He starts prying them from the wall, even as an agog Hawk is worried he'll fry them both. Jonathan presses the cable to his chest and is blasted out, but when he comes to, his Armor is fully charged and activated. He hands the cable to Hawk.

On the surface, Soaron and a legion of Biodread troops have arrived and a firefight breaks out with the infantry forces. Masters ultimately leads his soldiers in a retreat, abandoning the zealous Briggs, who refuses to leave and is ultimately Digitized by Soaron. There's lots of action as Power and Hawk join the fray, holding off Biodreads long enough for Masters to clear the men, then much butt is zapped. When the coast is clear, Hawk swoops in and snatches up Power, and they fly off.


J. Michael Straczynski has long been a writer I've enjoyed and been intrigued to check out the works of, but I've gone through so little of it I can hardly be called a fan or have a significant grasp on his overall strengths and weaknesses. I've read his entire The Amazing Spider-Man run, which had its significant ups and downs (though I know it had some severe editorial conflicts with Quesada), Supreme Power, which started brilliantly, then dropped off, and a couple other odds and ends here and there, mostly comics and his pilot for Spiral Zone, an odd yet fun cartoon he was otherwise uninvolved with after walking off early. But I still haven't watched Babylon 5 or Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors beyond the first few episodes (not for a lack of interest), I haven't read Rising Stars or his handful of novels, nor watched his era on Murder She Wrote or the few films he's written. He-Man and The Real Ghostbusters are works I haven't revisited since I was a really little kid, and this is my first time watching Captain Power. So again, my experience with Straczynski has significant gaps, but I've been through enough to know those are gaps I'd like to fill some day.

This is our first episode by Straczynski, in a show he helped develop and was the head writer of, and it's a mixed bag. Not so much on paper, as I do like the story. There's some good world-building in finding a sheltered group of soldiers waiting for the day they'll be called into duty by a government who no longer exists, but they take a bit of an easy way out by making the commander a tepid cutout of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. Briggs is half mad and swollen with pride, and he'll kill innocents and damn his own men to doom before admitting he's wrong. It's not only tired, but isn't particularly well played here as Michael J. Reynolds a bit of a weak actor. He looks and sounds well, but isn't delivering the part in a particularly compelling way. Better is Hardee T. Lineham as Masters, the soldier going through a crisis of conscience as he's realizing the man he's loyally serving under may be off his rocker.

I am a little more into Tim Dunigan as Captain Power this time around. His facial acting is still flat, but he's pumping up the intensity and giving a lot of gusto to his physicality, reminding me a lot of Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai. When Power is facing down Briggs, you feel both his confusion and anger at the nonsensical situation he's fallen into. And then you get the great sequence of him ripping a power cable off the wall to crudely recharge his suit. I like the reveal that the armor isn't just magically coming out of the badge, as I believed in the last episode, but that he and the other Soldiers are all wearing a full body stocking of electronics from which the exoskeleton will emerge. That's more plausible to me. And the moment where he jolts himself in the chest and is flung back into a wall is almost as awesome as when his fully armored self then stands up, hands the sparking cable to Hawk, and says "You're next."

But then we get into the action, and things fumble again. I'm surprised this episode is from the same director, Mario Azzopardi, as the last, as things are so much more flatly staged and shot this time around, and having it be set during daylight doesn't help much. The last episode did a great job of hiding the limited space of the sets and the weak backdrops, but they're in full view here. The fight in the sky between Hawk and Soaron is no better or worse than it was the last time (though thankfully shorter), though the solo fight they give to Power is bizarre. I like the "oh shit" moment of having him be surrounded on all sides, but instead of pulling a clever trick, he just lets them gun him down until there's enough smoke for him to leap up and start shooting them off one by one. A) Why didn't he just start shooting them down from the start? B) Why did they suddenly become unable to continue shooting him? C) We've seen the Power Armor lose its charge and go away after taking just 2-3 hits, yet now he can absorb an entire barrage before it fades? No, this doesn't work for me. I like the little moment of his computer spotting a sniper and him flinging out a shot to the side without even looking, but it caps an otherwise clumsy scene. Also, ridiculously visible stunt double in this scene, including closeups where half his face is visible.

And adding to the clumsiness is Soaron. I know they had extreme limits at the time that they're still working out ways to overcome, but charting their progress does mean we don't shy away from pointing out how poorly it comes off here. There are a couple of decent gliding shots, and the nice moment where he crashes into Brigg's office and Digitizes him, but most of the bits where Soaron is spinning and swopping around in the battle have too much of an airy weightlessness, and a scene where he's just talking to Lord Dread has him wildly overacting in his gesticulations. They get a gold star for trying, but they still haven't figured out how to make it work.

Another element I do like is the reveal that Hawk, the grizzled old war vet of the team, is there because he fought alongside Jonathan's father in the Metal War, and is driven by a paternal loyalty to watch out for his fallen friend's boy. They don't explore it much in depth, but in just a few quick lines, they make him a character and gave him a dynamic, much like the two quick looks given by Pilot in the last episode. Sometimes just a brisk moment is all you need to bring a character to life.

Overall, it's a mediocre episode. They still get points for balls, production design, and the overall mood of the piece, and some of the writing isn't bad, but the parts don't come together this time around as well as they did the last. I'm still with the show and eager to explore it, but I'm more fully aware that breaking new ground can bring with it some cracks that need repairing.


For those of you who were disappointed by the lack of torture in last week's episode, you're in luck! Not only does "Abyss" feature torture, it also has both implied and threatened execution, as well as our hero repeatedly being blasted at point blank range by a platoon of bad guys. Oh, and there's also an insane General who screams in agony as he gets "digitized".

Look, I don't want to overstate the level of violence here. The torture scene involves a device that isn't that much harsher than a dime store joy buzzer, and the action is bloodless. Still, I'm not sure that there's any such thing as G-rated torture (unless you include being forced to watch Dora the Explorer), and there's nothing ambiguous about an execution order, so I believe these things are noteworthy.

But, as I said last week, what really stands out about Captain Power thus far isn't the violence, it's the mature themes. To this point, it's eschewed the McGuffin of the week formula in favor of looking at the effects of what this mechanical new world order has wrought on humanity. I can see weaving that stuff in, but to make it the focus? Wow. In an era where the tail wagged the dog in these toy/TV show hybrids, I'm amazed by Mattel's apparent lack of oversight here.

In between the scenes of torture and murder, we get a few interesting backstory tidbits. Hawk was friends with Jonathan Power's father, as well as pre-cyborg Lord Dread. We've already established that Lord Dread is the Darth Vader of the series, so I guess that Hawk is Obi-Wan, Captain Power is Luke Skywalker, and Stuart Power is Anakin... wait a second. You don't think? Nah! I do like that the backstory is being fleshed out little by little. Mystery is a powerful hook, and I already want to know more about how and why Dread found himself in that suit with an apparent hatred for "organics".

[EDIT FROM NOEL: It completely slipped past me during my first viewing for my review that Hawk served with Dread. I missed the name and thought the traitor they were talking about was the dude killed in the opening, but no, Tony's right. That is a nice addition to the backstory and one I also very much want to learn more about.]

As for the action, there are essentially two types in Captain Power: gun fights and air battles. The former is kinda fun, with various colored rays streaking all around like a Pink Floyd laser light show at your local planetarium (though without the contact buzz from the stoner sitting in front of you). The latter is severely limited by technology and budget, but I thought they pulled it off a bit better here than in the pilot. While Hawk is still glaringly cut 'n pasted into a plate shot, his movements are a bit more fluid and dynamic this time.

The idea that the Power Suits apparently drain their batteries quicker than an iPhone is an interesting one that helps to give our heroes a vulnerability, but it's used a bit inconsistently. Early on, both Hawk and Captain Power's suits are drained of all power after some use and a few glancing blows. Later, after recharging them via a power cable ripped from the wall, Captain Power endures a barrage of point blank laser fire and never so much as gets a low battery warning.

Other than the moments of "Wow, can't believe they did this on a kid's show," there's nothing particularly great about this episode. It hits most of the same beats as "Shattered", tells a tightly focused, if unremarkable, story, and its action is just fun enough to bring it all to a simmer.

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

1 comment:

Tony Williams said...

Noel, I agree with you about Dunigan. It could be a matter of getting over the opening day jitters of the pilot (Not Pilot as in Jennifer Chase, but I could hardly blame him for being nervous around her), or perhaps just a product of not being saddled with the melodrama that made up the bulk of his scenes in that first episode. But he seems much more comfortable with the straightforward, take charge stuff he's given here. He's no still Bill Shatner, but it's a marked improvement.