Well, Jonathan Power and his team just passed me a note that reads "Do you like me? Circle YES or NO." So you know what that means, it's time for another Final Thoughts piece. *Sigh* Captain, if only it were that simple.
Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was, if nothing else, a bold experiment. First you had the interactivity of the toys and the show. As noted, the final result left something to be desired, but it's admirable that Mattel dared to buck the status quo and risk everything on the success of a fresh approach. And make no mistake, it was a huge gamble. Not only were they taking a chance on new and mostly untested technology, they were doubling down on the synergy between the toy line and the series. Several of our previous Showcases have featured properties that were based on toy lines, but none of them had their fates so inexorably linked to one another as Captain Power. If one failed, both failed, and while that was often the case with these toy based ventures, here it was almost a certainty. The other gambles were more of an artistic nature.
Doing the show live-action in an age of cheap outsourced animation may have been the biggest risk of all, artistic or otherwise. They likely could've produced several animated episodes of Captain Power for the cost of a single live action one. In a business that is more often than not subservient to the bottom line, that speaks volumes about what they were trying to do here. And if there were any doubt about that, one only need examine the episodes themselves. While relatively tame by our contemporary "dark, gritty" standards, this was - and would remain so if aired today - very dark for a children's television program. While bad guys who wanted to take over the world were commonplace in the genre, it wasn't often that their plans involved a global holocaust paired with a rather overt Nazi symbolism. And in an age when cartoon heroes ran into a hail of laser fire without so much as getting singed, here our heroes bled and, in some cases, died. Combined with its relatively sophisticated storylines and world building, I think it's not overstating it to say that Captain Power was a pioneer in children's entertainment.
Now we come to the question of why did Captain Power fail to catch on. For sure, the interactive gimmick didn't become the "next big thing", and you can't overstate how important that is in the property's demise. It was also extremely expensive to produce, and that required it to be a ratings and pop cultural home run and not merely a double. But the biggest factor is probably that Captain Power was just very mediocre. The characters were mostly of the cardboard variety and the actors lacked both the skill and the charisma to breathe any life into them. That probably wouldn't have been a fatal flaw if the stories were more compelling, but alas, thoughtful doesn't necessarily equate engaging. However, the biggest issue may just have been that it wasn't much fun. The action was bland and rather redundant, often feeling staged solely for the purpose of allowing the kids watching at home to grab their lightguns and blast away, which of course it was. If shows like this have a Ten Commandments, the first is surely "Thou shalt entertain", and Captain Power breaks that more often than not.
Despite these criticisms, a few episodes do stand out. Ep. 5 "A Fire in the Dark" had a strong emotional core and a mature story, while Ep. 7 "The Ferryman", with its Hitler Youth symbolism, really showcases how far the show was willing to push that envelope. Ep. 11 "Flame Street" had some awesome sets and a great cyberpunk feel, and the concluding episode of "A Summoning of Thunder" really saw the show off and running at a sprint. But even at its best, I never did feel as if Captain Power was firing on all cylinders, and while I would only classify a few of the episodes as bad, the bulk of them are certainly middling. Could many of its flaws have been ironed out in season two? I guess we'll never know.
Might as well just rip the bandaid off fast...
Captain Power is not a great show. It is not a lost masterpiece. It is not a show that the networks did wrong by us in cancelling too soon. It's just not.
While I applaud how dark and grim it gets at times, how bold and mature, they created themselves a dynamic at odds with itself by having those be chunks of brutal meat grafted onto the colorful action of a kids show titled Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. This is not the place to explore viral genocide and the Hitler Youth and people being gunned down left and right and falling victim to a digitization process which the first episode openly equates to rape. These are all intriguing elements and can and have made for bold, gripping science fiction storytelling, but they just plain don't gel with a zesty show about shiny heroes where kids can score points by pointing their action figures at blinky lights on the screen. I absolutely get the ambition of the creators in terms of wanting to make this something more, but in the act of doing so, they never line up with making the show they've got, and from what we've heard about season 2, they wanted to shy away even more from the reassuring heroics and gleaming armor that were the selling point of the series in the first place.
I'm not saying this makes the show bad, at all. There are magnificent episodes in there, a good cast, and with a few exceptions, even the weak episodes have some strong moments in there, but you can tell the creators are working from a place of frustration. They don't want to make a silly show, despite being handed a silly property, and they're also running into limitations of both technology and running time which just aren't giving their ideas room to breathe. You can feel the sighs in every episode, the eyerolls, the bits where they stepped outside to be alone as they shouted and kicked something. There is admirable work to be proud of, but the grand majority of it is only ever almost there, almost what they want, almost what it's trying to be, and what we've seen of Season 2 - where two members of the main cast and the head showrunner were already skipping out by - don't convince me they were any closer to satisfying those issues.
The cast is good, but with very few standout performance that'll stick with me, despite praise we've given to David Hemblem and others. The characters are good and impressively rich for the most part, but are also bland and, again, a bit forgettable in the long run. The setting is impressively wrecked, but very confusing in its geography and elements of worldbuilding. None of the guest stars leave a huge impression, even ones they were planning to bring back the next season. The sets and costumes are nice, but are drably shot with clumsily staged direction. The CGI characters are applaudable in their ambition, but the technology just plain isn't there yet to make it anything more than an interesting attempt. And they pretty much lose me any time people take to the sky and we're treated to awful Chroma Key effects which are even dated for the time.
And then you get Gary Goddard. We've mentioned countless times how much the prolonged action scenes strangle the storytelling and often grind things to a halt instead of driving it forward. We were told there was a mandate from Mattel that seven minutes of each episode had to be dedicated to interactive action with the toys, but this is not true. There was a mandate, but it was only for three minutes, one of which was burned out by the end credits. Goddard slaps himself on the back for this all over the DVD, that he shrunk down those requirements so the writers could have more freedom. He then also praises himself for a bone-headed decision which itself squashed that freedom and can be felt throughout most of the series. Unimpressed with the directors they were able to get in Canada, and feeling the series needed more zest, Goddard snuck up north with a guerrilla team to shoot new action scenes, some extending what's there, some entirely added from scratch. In doing so, he created minutes worth of material which needed to be stapled into each episode by hacking out minutes of story which were already present. So Goddard is entirely the person to blame for many episodes feeling choppy and thin, with plot and character threads under-explored or outright dropped. For all we know, those threads were there, but hit the editing room floor so Gary could blow more shit up. While some of those action scenes are impressive, they are in no way worth having made this sacrifice.
And yet, I'm not going to not recommend the show. I did enjoy watching it and exploring the world, I do applaud the bold steps and initiative we see, and I would like to see more of it some day (seriously, guys, just put the season 2 scripts out there - I'll pay money to get a book or ebook of them). I did enjoy it. And yet, I didn't enjoy it any more than I have, say, Street Hawk, as all the good parts that do work are ultimately buoyed into an unwavering level of inconsistency by the parts that don't work. So go in, absolutely, but with appropriately measured expectations. This is not going to live up to the stronger work Straczynski did on Babylon 5, or Larry DiTillio did on Transformers: Beast Wars. It's not a superior predecessor to Power Rangers, as even that franchise has seasons which hold together better than this and are almost as bold. Even Spiral Zone, which I've been told by no less than Straczynski himself is a vastly weaker show, really isn't, because it maintains a consistency and level of technique to match its ambition which we don't get here. Captain Power gets respect for trying more, but it does ultimately fail at a lot of it, leaving Spiral Zone much more steadily watchable.
In the end, I can see why this show struck a chord. Had I seen it as a kid, I'd probably be drooling nostalgia all over it the way I do with Robotech. And yes, it did start a lot of things later shows would perfect. It did take bold steps and tried new things. It did reach beyond the silliness of its concept to be something more. It did all of these things and deserves all the gold stars and cookies in the world for doing so. But it's still frustrating, still weighed down by dull and indecisive stretches, still wracked with poor direction and technical limitation they pushed against instead taking advantage of, and while I did enjoyed watching it for the most part, it's not an experience I'm eager to revisit with a rewatch any time soon.
The anime training videos, however, I've already watched a few of those a couple more times, so there's definitely that at least!
Favorite episode: "Judgment" - Great examination of guilt and responsibility which both breathed new lift into and put into sudden perspective the previously wooden character of Pilot, while also kicking the violence that is Blastarr up another notch.
Least favorite: "Gemini and Counting" - The dual opposite, taking what could have been the amazing story that made Pilot awesome, and wasting it all in a flat, aimless, bore of an episode.