September 21, 2014

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, episode 5 "A Fire in the Dark"

Jessica screams as Soaron swoops into her gallery, razing her paintings to the ground and prepping to digitize her. A man named Taggert appears, shouting "No! Not her!" Soaron's beam cuts off, but not before its initial impact robs Jessica of her sight.

In the present, Taggert laments at the memory in his present form: that of Lord Dread. Dread's computers show him the latest "body types for the new human form", but he dismisses them as too cold, too inelegant. Lacking an artistic touch. He needs... her. He looks to a self portrait of Jessica.

Soaron and Biodreads swoop into a village, rounding up the elders. One of them, Henry, refuses to reveal Jessica's location, so he's digitized. Back at Volcania, Henry is reformed before Lord Dread, who threatens to digitize and reform him again and again, an agonizing process. Henry talks.

At the Power Base, Mentor and Pilot fill the team in on Jessica. They set out to the mountains, where the remaining elders lead them to Jessica. She doesn't know what Dread wants, just that she's been running from him for 15 years. While flying her back to the Power Base, Power demonstrates for Jessica the hover bike voice controls by letting her take over for part of the trip.

They arrive just in time to find out Dread is broadcasting a signal, threatening to kill a human for every hour Jessica stays in the custody of Power, as well as coordinates for where she should be delivered. Power and his team can't capitulate, but Jessica sneaks off to the hover bike, programming the coordinates in and taking off.

She lands at a hospital, where Dread, there only as a hologram, leads her into an operating room where Biodreads set about repairing the damage done to her all those years ago. He wants to restore her vision so he can use her artistry to craft the next, perfect stage of humanity as its evolution is driven into a fully mechanized form.

The team Powers Up and arrives, entering into a fray with Biodread soldiers and Soaron. Power works his way into the hospital, learning of Dread's plans as Jessica's vision is restored. Both Power and Dread leave the choice up to her, Dread even dismissing Soaron from fighting Power. Though if she leaves, her vision will again go away. After looking out a window at the wasted landscape civilization has become, she chooses blindness as Power helps her walk off.

At Volcania, Dread watches the portrait of Jessica burn.


Coming off of an episode that was only slightly less painful to watch than letting a hippo Riverdance on your nards, I was on guard against lowered expectations heading into "A Fire in the Dark". Let's be honest, it wasn't going to take much to surpass "Pariah" (at least for me, as Noel liked it for some reason), and even a mediocre effort here could easily seem better than it actually is due to its proximity to that one. That's why I'm happy to say that, without qualification, this is the best episode of Captain Power that we've reviewed by far. In fact, I dare say it may be the single best thing we've reviewed on the Showcase, period. It's not as much fun as "Staying Alive While Running a High Flashdance Fever" (my favorite episode of Automan), the first two episodes of Street Hawk, or the sheer joy that was Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines, but strictly in terms of dramatic quality, I don't think anything comes close.

Though it features a bit of comic relief in the ridiculously masculine form of Sven-Ole Thorsen's Tank Ellis, in full Ahnold mode, quipping his way through hordes of bad guys with a series of groan-inducing one-liners, "A Fire in the Dark" is otherwise a very somber, mature, and straightforward episode. There's no pandering here. This is as serious and sophisticated as anything Star Trek: The Next Generation was doing that very same year, and in some ways more so. And, once again: kid's show. I would've been impressed with the boldness of this approach even if I hadn't liked the episode so much.

Last week, I complained that Lord Dread needed to get off the robo-lounger every once in a while, so naturally I was thrilled to see him so actively involved. David Hemblen plays Dread with machine-like cool, but he does an excellent job of betraying some remaining hint of his humanity here without over-selling it. It's superb acting on his part. Also quite good is Patricia Collins. After several scene-chewing guest stars, it was refreshing to see such a thoughtful, layered performance. Even surrounded by grown men in plastic armor, she manages to remain authentic and sincere. And yes, those were pigs you just saw fly past your window, because I'm about to compliment the performance of Tim Dunigan. Noel and I both agree that Dunigan is a little on the stiff side (I've been jokingly calling him "Captain Viagra" in my notes), but he's actually quite good here. He isn't asked to carry a lot of the dramatic water, but when he does, he more than holds his own.

Featuring strong performances and rich, character-driven storytelling, "A Fire in the Dark" is now the benchmark for the series moving forward.


In the last episode, Tony rightfully called out Lord Dread for being maybe just a hair too complacent in his rein over the conquered world, a little too lax and unwilling to take action himself. That is an aspect I like about Dread, but Tony had a good point, as it hasn't yet allowed us to see what power Dread himself wields, and he's kept too distant from events, robbing the battle between Power and he of a personal element. Here, we still don't see him take part in the action all that much, but we do get that personal angle and his machinations for perfect mechanization bring him into direct contact with an old flame from when Dread was a human named Taggert. I wish we'd gotten some more flashbacks to their shared past, but I like how the episode almost makes you want to believe Jessica will touch a part of Dread's lost humanity, that his quest for her artistry, her literal vision, will somehow awaken something buried deep within him. And when it doesn't, when he's now entirely on the side of the machines and just wants to pervert her gift, it ends on a great moment of her quietly walking away, accepting that she'll once again be blind to a nightmare of the world she wished she'd never seen. Even then, he has just enough humanity to let her go.

Patricia Collins is great as Jessica, bringing a weight and grace to the role, and she manages to sell the somewhat obvious setup of Power giving her voice controls to operate the hover bike, which lets her steal it later, and I love her big "OH MY GOOOOOOD!" as it takes off. David Hemblem doesn't do much of anything different with his portrayal of Dread, but the extra focus helps us sell how inhuman he's become, and his short stature loses none of his grandeur as he's up and walking about alongside the much taller Power. It is a bit of a cop out to have him be present as just a hologram instead of actually there, but it's not tactically unsound for the character, and there's no way the standoff would have resolved the way it had were Power able to finish things by taking a shot. And I think this is the first time I realized the actor has a full animatronic robot arm slung to his right shoulder. That's a nice touch, and I'll be watching for it more from here on out.

There are some clunky moments, like the plotting with the hover bike, or Pilot seemingly set up to take a bigger role in the episode than she actually does, or the other team members not having much to do (I'll get to Tank in a second). And I still don't get Mentor. I mean, I get the idea of Mentor, but he's pretty elaborate for something they rarely use, and there's nothing he's done so far (mapping coordinates, analyzing viruses, sharing history) that couldn't be better delivered as actions from our core group of five heroes and further characterize them with additional skillsets.

But it is a strong, deep, entertaining episode, which shines a strong light on our main villain, has a great human conflict at its heart, and spends several minutes letting Sven-Ole cut loose as Tank finds himself surrounded by Biodreads, hoisting one up as a shield as he cuts the others down one by one, also firing off jolly quips along the way. It's great work from everyone around, and good on legendary comic writer Marv Wolfman for giving us this standout as his one and only script for the series.

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


Tony Williams said...

I hadn't realized how much Power towers over Lord Dread until you mentioned it. They look more like C-3PO and R2-D2 than mortal enemies, but you're right, Hemblem makes up for that disparity with his presence.

I forgot to mention Mentor. He reminds me of that large, disembodied head that gives the old school Power Rangers their assignments. But he's never really explained, and I can only recall him popping up one other time. For some reason I had a notion early on that he was Power Sr.'s essence, but it seems like that's the sort of thing that would've been brought up by now. Hopefully they flesh him out a bit as the show goes along.

NoelCT said...

Zordon at least serves a purpose on Power Rangers, as their teacher, guide, giver of powers. Mentor has so far been a glorified Google search.

I do love this episode. I don't know that I can go with you as far as "best we've ever done", but it is certainly high up there. I actually think the first episode of this show had a much stronger script and direction, the acting just wasn't up to snuff. And the Visionaries episode "The Overthrow of Merklyn" is still my high bar. :)

Tony Williams said...

Zordon at least serves a purpose on Power Rangers, as their teacher, guide, giver of powers. Mentor has so far been a glorified Google search.

The fact that he looks like Barry Gibb's Force ghost doesn't help matters.

And the Visionaries episode "The Overthrow of Merklyn" is still my high bar. :)

Wow, we actually agreed on that one!