January 4, 2015

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, episode 14 "Judgement"

Power and Pilot have managed to get their hands on a data tape concerning Project New Order, and are racing over a desert on a hover bike, Soaron blasting away at their tail. Just as they score a hit against the Dread, he also blows off part of their bike, and everyone spirals to the desert floor. Power has a broken leg, so Pilot binds him up and drags him to shelter under rocks, then heads off to Oasis, a water town, for help.

Arriving, she's instantly recognized by a screaming teen, Randall, who accuses her of taking part in the burning of Sandtown, a massacre which killed his parents. As people gather and others, including Randall's uncle Gaelen, recognize Pilot, we flash back to Pilot in her Dread Youth uniform, being led by and shouting the slogan of "Cleanse them!" with Overunit Wilson, as Dreads burn and blast every building and divide the survivors up for internment. Back in the present, Arvin, leader of the town, calms everyone and calls for a tribunal, which Pilot accepts as long as help is sent for Power.

With Soaron disabled and regenerating, Blastarr has been called to the scene, and he rumbles up to his busted co-worker, gloating at Soaron's state. Soaron refuses to reveal where Power went down, as he wants the kill to be his, but Blastarr beats it out of him, then leaves Soaron with fresh wounds to heal.

Power peeks out of his hiding place when he hears a vehicle approach, seeing the truck with two scouts from Oasis which were sent to find him. Just as they arrive, though, so to does Blastarr as he opens fire, killing both. One just managed to get off a radio warning to Oasis, and Blastarr locks onto the transmission and starts following it.

At the tribunal, both Randall and Gaelen testify, adding in details about the Sandtown massacre, like Gaelen having only just arrived shortly before after escaping a slave camp. Randall continues lashing out at Pilot, but Gaelen acknowledges she was just a drone of the Youth, and not responsible. When it comes time for Pilot to testify, she admits to it all, but further adds that Dread and the Youth were her entire life. She not only didn't know her parents or family, but the entire concept of each was alien as she was raised to serve the Machine, and it wasn't until that massacre that her eyes were opened over what it was she was standing for. Her guilt over it is what led her to Power, and he gave her a new cause and taught her what it means to be human.

Randall refuses to believe this, but Gaelen silences him, saying Pilot's blood can't bring back the dead. As Pilot looks at Gaelen, she recognizes him from just before the massacre, being tortured for information about resistance forces in Sandtown. He was the one who led the Dreads there in the first place.

Word bursts into the room that Blastarr is on his way, and everyone scrambles to defend and evacuate. Heading out, Arvin hands a gun to Gaelen, saying the final choice over Pilot's fate is his. He can see that she remembers him, knows his part in Sandtown. And he lets her go. Randall can't believe it, but Gaelen finally tells him the truth.

Blastarr arrives and starts blowing everything to hell. Pilot Powers On, but her suit is on its last few dregs of energy and is quickly blown off. Just as Blastarr moves in for the kill, Gaelen comes out firing... only to be shot down. Then a powerful blast fells Blastarr. Power has arrived on the armed truck of the scouts, and Pilot builds on his fire by knocking Blastarr out with a pulse bazooka.

Rushing to the dead Gaelen and sobbing Randall, Pilot learns Gaelen told the others the truth, and they apologize for the tribunal. She says it was a debt that needed to be paid. She and Power help the others evacuate the town and bury their dead.

Arriving at the abandoned town, Soaron takes in the regenerating Blastarr and gets some of his own gloating in.


Whoa. I thought I had this episode pegged from the opening, that it would be all about Power trying to survive in a desert with a broken leg while Pilot runs around trying to find some kind of help, maybe even lead to a bit where a hobbled Power is dragging himself along rocks while a hobbled Soaron drags after, and Pilot brings the rest of the team in for the climax as they spend 5 minutes slinging lasers. That would have been a perfectly okay episode, depending on execution, and not all that out of the ordinary given the route quite a few have gone up to this point.

But no, as soon as Pilot reaches a village of refugees, we squeal around one hell of a left turn as the story veers down another road. This. Episodes like this are what this show has gained a reputation for. It hasn't been terribly consistent in terms of going where it can go, but when it does, wow, it's a stunning thing to behold.

We've explored in the past Pilot's origins in the Nazi-esque Dread Youth, but here it's all laid bare as she has to face down raging people scarred and orphaned by her actions, and she has no defense. She absolutely took part in the massacre they accuse her of, and nothing will make that go away. I love this, because it shows her resolve, that she dedicates herself to the work she does under Power because of that guilt, not to make it go away or absolve it, but because the world is broken and, as someone who helped break it, she has knowledge and abilities that can help rebuild. It says a lot that she never claims innocence or tries to escape or make excuses. They want to put her on trial, she goes with. They testify, she acknowledges. Her victims are given a gun and told to decide her fate, she stands ready to take whatever iti s. It's fascinating that they break out the Nuremberg testimony of "I was following orders", "I didn't understand", and in so doing, raise the question of whether that's actually bullshit or not. She was raised by this system. It was her life, everything she knew and was ingrained into believing, and it wasn't until she took part in that massacre that she saw the reality behind the propaganda and started breaking away from it. Contrasting this is yet another appearance by Overunit Wilson (great to finally build an Overunit as a recurring character), who went through the exact same situation, yet further dedicated herself to the cause and continues to flourish under its grip.

Again, none of this is to say Pilot should be forgiven. She obviously doesn't forgive herself anymore than she expects anyone else to. But she has changed as a result of things, and now works to protect and build instead of oppress and destroy, and does that mean anything? Is that enough to let her carry on? These are mind-blowing ethical struggles that you never see in a children's cartoon, and is presented here with a maturity and sophistication few adult dramas are even capable of. This episode is everything "Gemini and Counting" was not, most importantly a showcase for Jessica Steen's acting as Pilot's reserved stoicism falls away and you see her pain, her trauma, her guilt and shame, her hope and compassion. So much emotion suddenly pours out that it more than makes up for cold moments we've gotten in the past, and even retroactively gives them weight as you now see what she's kept bottled up all this time. She's not a just hero who used to be a villain, she became a hero because she used to be a villain, because she has blood on her hands and has done things which she can never take back. And she's fully willing to face retribution for it, as while Power has given her a chance, she has no illusions that everyone else should or will.

Beyond Pilot, there's also so much else to recommend about this episode. We've got William B. Davis (best known as Cigarette Smoking Man on The X-Files) as the village leader, who knows these are serious accusations which need to be faced, but he doesn't want his people to lose their humanity by resorting to mob tactics. Yet another great character actor, David Gardner, as Gaelen, one of the witnesses who saw Pilot at the massacre, but is hesitant to throw all the blame on her because he was the one who, under torture, led the Dreads to raid the resistance camp in the first place. I love that they don't go the usual route of having Gaelen try to cover his own tracks by throwing her under the bus or manipulating things in his own favor. No, he's burning with just as much guilt as Pilot, making him sympathetic to her plight.

I also love how diverse the village is, with a multi-ethnic cast as opposed to earlier camps which were very segregated in portrayal. And I love the cuts around their faces, both suspicious and moved, as they hear all the testimony. Also, that the past burning of the camp isn't left unseen as people describe it, but we instead see fully produced flashbacks of crowds screaming in terror from Dreads, fire and death raining from the sky, and a Dread uniformed Pilot taking it all in even as she stands in formation and recites the propaganda slogans. It's amazing.

Hell, even Tim Dunnigan breaks out some chops in his few scenes, grimacing through the pain of his wounds as he apologizes to a cactus for having to cut into it for water, then bearing witness to the deaths of the men who come looking for him. And yes, I said deaths. Blastarr doesn't knock these two dudes out or stun them or digitize them. No, he roars and laughs as he straight up guns them down. And it's not off screen, as we see them take the laser hits, wrench in pain, then collapse in a motionless heap. This show has gone pretty far, but now it's straight up killing people on camera. Kid's show! This is a kid's show! I'm blown away by this, and continue to be as Blastarr reaches town and continues gunning down everyone in his path.

And speaking of Blastarr, we finally get some glorious time between he and Soaron, with Blastarr straight up choking info out of his own colleague, then them bookending their meetings with jabs at each of their fates as defeated "scrapheaps".

My only issues are Hans Engel as the kid, Randall, who wasn't a bad character, the actor just wasn't anywhere near up to it. Too shrieky and theatrical against the subdued character actors around him. And that we do get some form of apology in the end, that he and Pilot agree to bury their mistakes here, that feels a bit far and not like something Pilot should be able to do, given how much her past has fueled her drive to be better. And he technically did nothing wrong. His accusations against her were fully justified and she was fully willing to face them.

Still, it's a magnificent episode, definitely one of the best we've covered to this point, and alone explains to me why this show means so much to those it's touched. Two in a row for writer Larry DiTillio and director Jorge Montesi!


I have a handful of small gripes about "Judgement" that I'm going to get out of the way here at the start so that I can give the copious amount of awesome my complete and undivided attention.

The first few minutes are like a montage of epic special f/x fail. Typically, anytime the characters take to the air, it's bad, but this is like a whole 'nother level. I'm pretty forgiving of the rudimentary CGI used to animate Soaron and Blastarr, as criticizing it seems akin to knocking the Wright-B Flyer because it couldn't go MACH 1. But I'm fairly certain that green screen technology was in its heyday during the late 80s, and even on a TV budget, they should've been able to do better than this.

There's also the ongoing issue of the acting of the guest stars. There's been the occasional good performance along the way, but more often than not we get actors like Hans Jason Engel. He's the sort of kid who would be out of his depth in a toothpaste commercial, and yet here he's tasked with carrying at least half the dramatic water. It's really tough to gauge the quality of the writing when the lines are whined by an actor who confuses wild eyed stares and thrashing around like someone is holding a plastic shopping bag over his head for dramatic flourish.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the wasted potential of Captain Power's 127 Hours ordeal. What should've been the focus of its own episode is instead a plot device/B story. I wanted a gritty tale of survival and the triumph of the human spirit. Instead, we get one scene of Power lamenting the fact that he has to cut open a cactus to get some water.

Now, on to the awesome.

First of all, death. Not implied death, but people flat-out getting blasted and killed. I counted at least four deaths, which is four more than you'd see in any other children's TV show of the era. It's not that we haven't seen people killed before, but this was the most overt instance that I can recall, and it's particularly brutal.

This is also the first time we've seen the rivalry between Soaron and Blastarr in a while, and I thinks it's handled particularly well here. The clash of their personalities and the constant one-upmanship is a lot of fun, and the voice performances are so good that you soon ignore the wonky CGI and really accept their characters as real.

Also of note are the lack of "Okay, kids, grab your light gun" action sequences. This allows the focus to remain tight on the story, and it really pays off.

But the real strength of the episode is the story. Not so much the lynch mob trial format, which we've seen in the series already, but the focus on Pilot's backstory. We've seen glimpses of her time in the Dread Youth, but this is the first time we really see her knee-deep in its indoctrination. It makes her horror and subsequent turn after witnessing the true nature of Dread's doctrine all the more powerful.

Jessica Steen was only 21 while making Captain Power, which may be why she sometimes disappears when she's on screen with her more experienced costars. But here, with the spotlight solely on her, she shines. I was tempted to chalk it up to the fact that acting against Hans Jason Engel would make anyone look like Meryl Streep, but Steen gives a moving and sincere performance that never veers off into melodrama.

Though I'm still waiting for that episode where everything comes together and all of the pistons are firing, "Judgement" is easily one of the better episodes in the series thus far.

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

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