January 12, 2015

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, episode 15 "A Summoning of Thunder, Part 1"

Biodreads swarm. Laser fire, digitizations, screams and roars, Lord Dread looming over it all. A young man cries out to his father, who screams. An explosion.

Captain Power shoots awake in his bunk. He barely pauses before grabbing his gear, and Hawk's not surprised as Power heads outside on his own, same as he does every year. Power uses a gate to teleport out to a tree alongside a lake, below which is a plaque reading "Dr. Stuart Gordon Power, 2092-2132. His light will never fade."

Years ago, Stuart is overseeing construction of the Power Base, doubling the salary of construction workers and technicians to quiet them when they complain about being blindfolded to keep the location a secret. He heads into another room to see a more richly haired Hawk train a young Jonathan Powers (can't tell if he's supposed to be late teens or early 20s) in how to fight off Biodreads with his bare hands. Stuart is so impressed that he offers to let his son lead a supply mission.

Later, Stuart and Hawk go over plans for a network of gates which will allow his followers and forces to cross larges spans of the country in short bursts of time. Stuart can't accept any praise for it, though, as he still blames himself for what happened with his friend Taggert, who began plugging himself into their shared creation, Overmind, in a search for immortality. They built Overmind to end war, but Overmind and Taggert ended up corrupting one another and leading to the Metal War.

In Volcania, Lyman Taggert, lacking the cybernetics he'll later be buried under as Lord Dread, joins Overmind to witness the birth of their first Warlord: Soaron. The Warlord is instantly deployed, his regenerating biomechanics and powerful weaponry rapidly sweeping through the human resistance. Stuart recognizes the technology and tries to lock his people down for safety, but Overmind has started targeting supply runs, and Jonathan just happens to be leading the next one.

As Soaron swoops in, Jonathan tries his best to save his men and fend the monster off, but he's overwhelmed. As Soaron moves in for the kill, Taggert orders him to instead capture the boy.

At the Power Base, Stuart is putting the finishing touches on Project Phoenix (aka, the Power Armor), when he receives a call from Taggert, who dangles a captured Jonathan with the threat that Stuart has one hour to meet with him in person. Resigned to his fate, Stuart uploads a final program into his base's computer, then heads out.

At Volcania, Jonathan vows that, if anything happens to Stuart, Jonathan will devote his life to taking Taggert down. We flash back to the present, realizing this is a memory of Lord Dread as he watches Power at the memorial plaque on screen. Lacchi needles him, saying Dread is passing up a point where Power is vulnerable. Dread tries to brush him off, but Overmind cuts in, agreeing. Dread relents, personally climbing into a ship as Soaron joins him in racing out to Power's location.

To be continued...


While watching "A Summoning of Thunder, Part 1", it occurred to me that we never got a traditional origin story for this series. We were just sort of dropped off into this world with nothing but a quick info dump and forced to get our bearings on our own. Whether this was by artistic design or practical reality, I don't know, but I think that mystery lingering just below the surface has served the series well thus far. Like the original Star Wars trilogy, I've found myself wondering who these people are and how things got to be this way. They've slipped in a little background info here and there, but this is really the first explicit and in-depth look at the backstory. So does that make "A Summoning of Thunder" akin to the prequel trilogy? Let's find out.

Though there are some good moments here, they're sort of like tasty raisins hidden deep within a ball of stale Play-Doh. I enjoy the fleshing out of Dr. Stuart Power. I can't say that there's anything particularly interesting about him, but to this point, he's been little more than a hologram and post-apocalyptic OnStar for Captain Power and his team, so any insight into who he was I find welcome. I also enjoy seeing David Hemblen as Lyman Taggart. Though Lord Dread isn't given enough to do in the series in my opinion, I still find Hemblen's performance to be one of the show's real strengths. Here, he gets to show off his range, making Taggart so different from Lord Dread in voice, bearing, and demeanor that you almost forget that they're played by the same actor.

Less successful is Dylan Neal as a teenage Jon Power. At first, I was happy to see that they cast an age appropriate actor for the role rather than try and have Tim Dunigan pull it off with a baseball cap and a "Gee, swell!" but it didn't take very many awkward and emotionally vacant line readings from Neal for me to change my mind. To put it succinctly: he stinks like a hot boxcar full of hobos. Even the most mundane dialog is far, far beyond his grasp here. And when he's asked to actually carry some dramatic weight, it's physically painful to watch. So of course, naturally, he's been a steadily working actor ever since. If anyone is familiar with Mr. Neal's post-Captain Powerwork, please let us know. This was his first TV gig, and I'm willing to bet he only got better. I say that because it would be impossible for him to have gotten any worse.

This is a two-parter, and as such, I'm willing to cut it some slack because there may yet be some pay-offs to come. And to its credit, the cliff-hanger ending does have me anxious to see what happens next. That at least is worth something.


Some of my favorite prequel episodes, in which a show flashes back to years or decades or generations before the series proper, are ones which starts with the feel they could be a pilot in their own right. Such is the case here, as we totally could have opened the series at this point in time. The machine uprising has already taken place, as what's left of the world is split between the wills of two men: Stuart Power, who turned the machine on in the first place and has dedicated himself to conquering it out of the guilt he feels, and Lyman Taggert, destined to become Lord Dread, the still fully human operative who dedicates himself to the dream of immortality and a perfected society he finds within Overmind. We're at a point where the conflict is escalating on both sides, with Taggert debuting the first of his biomechanoid warriors, Soaron, and Power putting the finishing touches on Power Armor and the Power Base.

So much of this story hinges on the performances of Bruce Gray and David Hemblem, and both more than rise to the occasion. Gray's Stuart Power is a brilliant, driven man who, nonetheless, has the weight of the world on his shoulders as he feels fully responsible for breaking it and takes it upon himself to rebuild it again. It gives a weight to how much of a shadow of this man the image of Mentor is, even as Stuart activates that computer program in a moment where he knows he's about to face certain death. Hemblem's Taggert has all the cold calculation of Dread, but he's still fully a man instead of being buried himself within the machine, even as Stuart and Hawk talk about how Taggert and Overmind have been fused. They're still seeing it from a distance, not witnessing the struggles Taggert still faces with the machine over his choices and emotions, a struggle which continues to this day as Overmind calls Dread out for respecting Power's annual memorial and cliffhangering us on that pending attack. Taggert doesn't want to be the villain, people just won't accept that he's trying to save them and make everything better, which makes him all the more complicated of a baddie.

I love how the world of this story is still heavily populated, and has trade and industry and a working economy. The rise of the machine has happened, the wars have begun, but the world of the humans has yet to fully collapse, and we're only seeing the first notes of that as Soaron racks up an impressive debut of destruction. We laugh at him now, but Soaron really is a freakishly powerful force, and in a world that has yet to figure out how to balance that out, he sweeps over it like a typhoon.

This episode is fantastic, crisply and deeply written and very cleanly directed. Other things I like: Hawk still being the ever-reliable right hand pal that he is, regardless of the Power he's doing it for; Lacchi showing more of a quietly malicious streak than we've seen till now as he directly challenges Dread's remaining humanity; our lead Power having been so well trained to face Biodreads that he can take on metal robot soldiers with his bare hands; and the great twist as our young, would-be hero is taken captive, not through poor choices but rather the overwhelming change of the tide, and looks to be the tool which will bring his father down.

So it's a shame that the only real sour note this episode is Dylan Neal as the young Jonathan Power. Neal's gone on to a prolific career and I wasn't even sure this was him at first even though he did look familiar, but wow, he's as flat as an expertly leveled shelf in this early role, lacking even the intense gaze Tim Dunigan brings to his stronger moments. And Dunigan does bring some nice weight to his opening scenes, waking up from a nightmare he has at the same time every year, then jetting out to a lonely tree bearing his father's plaque. Shame Neal wasn't able to build on that very well.

Tony, I'll tell you now that Neal has gotten better in subsequent years, but still isn't very good. Cleaned up his delivery, learned how to convey some actual emotion from time to time, but usually comes and goes in his many many many tv guest spots without leaving much impression beyond looking pretty. And it must be said, he is very pretty.

Back to the episode, I'm also not sure why we needed the teleportation wormholes all of a sudden, as we didn't need an explanation before of how everyone covered so much ground in past episodes. They fly fast and we're pretty much isolated to a single country. Don't need more than that. Granted, it is nice finally hearing a full explanation of why Soaron and Blastarr are just so damned hard to kill. I know we've had snatches here and there, but it's good to clearly lay it out for once.

Overall, a spectacular episode which continues a really impressive run over the last few weeks. Can't wait to see what J. Michael Straczynski does with part 2!

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


Ross said...

I think Dylan Neal's biggest post-Power role was as Aaron, the love interest in the last season of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. He's also apparently in Fifty Shades of Gray. Obviously, I don't think his performance here is actually "good" by any metric, but I do like that he plays it so differently than Dunnigan. I have this pet theory that Captain Power is actually a high-functioning psychopath, and the events of this story pretty much leave him emotionally crippled for life.

I really love Bruce Gray's performance in this, not least of all because he plays it so different from Mentor (and also because he gets to use his hands. It's really clear to me that it was driving him crazy in all those Mentor scenes that he has to keep his arms folded and stay in his Zordon Tube.

By the way, this story was actually adapted as a comic the following year. The comic goes into a lot more detail on the background of the Metal Wars. And it's got a lot of really goofy artwork of people with their jaws hanging open.

NoelCT said...

I don't know that I watched Sabrina long enough to get to Dylan Neal's run, but what I most know him for is a Canadian vampire detective show called Blood Ties, where he was one corner of the lead romantic triangle.

Great point about Bruce Gray. He does have a great physicality to match his voice, and that very much brings him to life in a way Mentor doesn't allow.

I will be covering the comic later, so don't say much more about it. :)

Strannik said...

what I most know him for is a Canadian vampire detective show called Blood Ties, where he was one corner of the lead romantic triangle.

*IMDBs it* Oh, he was the human detective. I thought he was alright in that part. Nothing extraordinary but it wasn't bad, either. I thought he sold the "everyman who's a bit in over his head" part decently enough, and he had some funny lines.