Our Last, Best Hope for Kool-Aid (Captain Power: “Final Stand”)

Hello and welcome once again to A Mind Occasionally Voyaging. My cohost is Sherlock Holmes, our topic is Post Apocalyptic Children’s Television, and tonight’s victim is “Final Stand”, episode three (or four) of…

Captain Power

Before we get started tonight, a couple of kudos to the post-apocalyptic world. I spent a good chunk of last week rummaging through blip.tv for web original series that might make for good watching. In the post-apocalypse department, here’s what I found:

  • After Judgment: Sort of a spin on Christian End-Times fiction, this is a show set after a “Judgment” based loosely on the 19th century idea of a premillennial “rapture” in which God removes the virtuous before destroying the Earth. In this world, though, God has elected not to visit plague and disaster on the unsaved, but rather has just sort of let the universe wind down. The Earth has stopped spinning, no one is born, no one dies, everything is just sort of more of the same forever and ever. Well, except for some creepy guys in motorcycle leathers who occasionally show up, grab someone, and take them away, never to be seen again. The story is about your average ragtag group who band together to try to find a prophecied back-door into heaven.
  • Day Zero: This one only has one episode so far, but it’s basically a Zombie Apocalypse (These are Honorary Zombies — radiation-afflicted mutants altered by the fallout of a nuclear war, rather than the walking dead). The eight survivors are a ragtag mismatched group who, y’know, have to do that whole surviving thing. Did make me scream “SCIENCE DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY!” a few times at such ideas as radiation having “killed off their natural immunity to crystal meth,” allowing street drugs to be used as one-hit-kill weapons against the mutants, but fun enough so far.
  • Exile: Another zombie apocalypse, this time a legit one. The first (and so far only) episode introduced some interesting characters, and then killed them all. So.
  • Necroland: Another zombie apocalypse. This one was too disjointed to for me to really have much of an opinion yet, but does feature a foul-mouthed ten year old girl killing zombies, so there’s that.
  • The Black Dawn: This one is a plague apocalypse of some sort. Though there’s a whole season of episodes, I’ve only seen one so far, so no opinion yet.
  • Zomblogalypse: This one’s a lot of fun. The Zombie Eschaton as told by bloggers.

I’ve got a few more of these in my queue, so look forward to more words about them in the future.

One thread that runs through a lot of these web serials is that the influence of Lost really informs the storytelling. Now, I’m sure Lost is a good show, but I really don’t look forward to a generation in which every “castawayAs I mentioned back in my review of Captain Power Episode 1, I view post-apocalyptic drama as being a one of several particularly science-fictiony flavors of the literary tradition of Robinson Crusoe: stories which are largely about the challenge of survival in a hostile world, cut off from the protagonist’s home culture.“-type science fiction drama has to ape it any more than I particularly like the way that The Road Warrior prompted every post-apocalyptic earth for the next 20 years to look like the Australian Outback.

SH: I don’t see what you’re complaining about. I didn’t find the plot of Lost to be impenetrable in the slightest. Now, could you pass the cocaine? I am dangerously close to coming down.

So let’s rewind for a bit to the days before you were contractually obligated to frame your castaway story as a series-long mind-fuck ontological mystery, and see how things were in the world of the future-as-viewed-from-the-Eighties.

Final Stand

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future
Episode 4 (or 3): Final Stand
By J. Michael Straczynski

This one is going to be Tank’s character focus episode, which is nice because we’re four reviews in yet, and I can count the number of lines from regulars who aren’t Cap or Hawk on my fingers. We open with some Bio-Mechs emerging through the inexplicable fog into… What looks like basically the same abandoned factory as every other indoor fight scene so far.

The Putties Mechs wander around, looking for the Future Force, who have cleverly hidden behind and under things, until one of them scans what looks like the air cleaner off a Chevy Vega with his The future will be apocalyptic, but well-labeled.DYMO label maker Deluxe, revealing inside the source of the “Vwoop vwoop” noise that has been driving me crazy for this scene so far. Inside the air cleaner is what looks to be… How are you? Because _I_'m a potato.GLaDOS?

I guess GLaDOS is supposed to be some kind of fake bait transmitter thing, because the commander Bio-Mech immediately announces (say it with me everyone), “It's a trap!It’s a trap!

SH: Excellent piece of deduction on the part of the robotic gentleman.

Hawk (For we can not have a scene without Hawk) and Scout decide to press their advantage by… Immediately revealing their position. Scout jumps out in front of the mechs and, in what seems to be a radically misguided Jayne Mansfield impression, says “Looking for me, boys?”

Oh Yeah!

After few exchanges of laser-fire, Tank decides that he needs to get on the Bizarrely Inappropriate Impressions bandwagon by performing what is going to be his major character shtick for the rest of the series: channelling the Kool-Aid Man.

Tank is such a badass that he manages to Chuck Norris ain't got shit on Tankdecapitate a mech with a single backhand, and his weapon is so powerful that its video toaster laser effects make a sort of “Skoom!” sound effect instead of the usual “Pwoosh!”. He even wears an ammo belt even though none of the weapons we will ever see take any kind of ammunition (Except Hawk’s nerf launcher). It’s Hawk’s time to shine, and he does, sending dozens of mechs to meet their maker, including one who he only clips across the hip, which staggers to the ground, then struggles back to its feet, and sort of stands there Please no, I have a family!quaking with terror until Tank fires off the coup de grace. Our hero, everyone!

Now, I know that the Bio-Mechs are meant to be soulless automata, without even the capacity for independent thought and self-awareness of a Warlord Bio-Dread like Soaron, and that is why it is okay that they get slaughtered by the dozens without our heroes ever showing them even a hint of compassion.

But here’s the thing. Soaron is a (poorly-rendered) CGI robot. He looks funny. he moves funny. He speaks in clipped sentences and his delivery is over-the-top. Overmind does the detached-psychotic-bedroom-voice thing that HAL 9000 taught us to fear in computers. Lord Dread has a human face, but he’s barely mobile — so far, we haven’t seen him so much as rise from his chair — and he looks like what you’d get if the Borg assimilated Darth Vader. And he’s a genocidal lunatic.

The bio-mechs, on the other hand, are actors in suits. Stunt men, no doubt, who are doing a lot of very physical acting. And they don’t move like robots. They move like people. They bump into things. They interact with their environment in a physical sort of way. They duck behind things. They stagger. They get clipped across the hip by a bazooka-laser, fall down, and try to get back up. When they die, their bodies twitch and they let out little rasping, rattling death sounds. When the last two mechs try to escape, they don’t look like robots attempting an orderly strategic withdraw: they look like routed soldiers who are running for their lives.

That mech Tank shoots is staggering, shaking. I don’t imagine that was intentional; just something the stuntman did naturally because he is a human being acting out a very physical scene, and his own humanity shines through. And this is kind of awkward in your Ultra Disposable mecha-mook. Because when Tank head-shots an injured mech that is literally quaking with terror, my sympathies ends up on the wrong side. And when Scout guns down two retreating mechs, then calls out “You’re out!” in what seems to be a weak Rex Barney impression, it just seems callous.

Undoubtedly, this would be a lot easier today — in a big-budget exercise, the Mechs would likely be CG themselves. Ironically, it’s possible that if they did a modern re-imagining, Soaron, being a major character who has to interact with other characters, might be the only one of Dread’s forces not to be computer generated.

Scout dispatches the last two mechs as they desperately try to escape, and claims their prize from the mech corpses: a Bio-Dread transmitter (Or receiver, as it will be called in the next scene). We switch to the jumpship, where Cap makes his log entry: Stardate 47-7.1. They are on their way to “Sector 7, grid co-ordinates 9 by 5,” a place which “Had a name once, but doesn’t any more.” You know, if Cap has been waxing poetic about how much has been lost in every journal entry for the past 15 years, Ken Burns will be rather spoiled for choice when he goes to pick out good voice overs for his documentary on the Metal Wars.

As I mentioned before, I have no idea how their sector numbering works, but according to the Sherman Oaks, 2147map Hawk pulls up, this nameless sector is Sherman Oaks, 2011Sherman Oaks, in Los Angeles. Which seems strange given that back in episode 1, San Francisco was in sector 19, and the military installation that we tentatively placed on the east coast in “The Abyss” was either Sector 14 or Sector 42, depending on who you ask, and in “Wardogs”, we supposed that Sector 7 was in Canada. But perhaps I’m reading too much into the map, because I think it’s the same map every time someone pulls up a map screen in this show.

It will take them about an hour to evacuate the civilians from Sector 7, which may not be enough time, as their captured receiver has revealed that a Bio-Dread has already been dispatched to digitize the locals. Now, based on all the clues, can you figure out which Bio-Dread has been sent to Sector 7?

SH: Based on a careful analysis of the facts of the case, I notice that there is a scuff on the left side of your shoe, indicative of some sort of back injury that causes you to favor one side. If I factor this in with the presumed geography of sectors 14, 7, 19 and 7, taking into account the theory we previously established that a date of 47-7.1 corresponds to the first of July, and interpolating from the weather patterns of Los Angeles, assuming current projections of global warming, but also accounting for a drastic reduction in pollution because of the wholesale destruction of humanity and infrastructure, I think I can conclude that the Bio-Dread best suited for this mission would be… Soaron.

You just said that because he’s the only Bio-Dread we’ve ever seen.

SH: Elementary deduction.

Well, this turns out to be a fortunate move for our heroes, since the immutable laws of the universe say that Soaron can not appear in an episode without a dogfight ensuing. This time, as Pilot keeps the Jumpship out of sight, Hawk launches a pair of guided missiles at Soaron. Soaron dogfights one of the missiles, finally destroying it, but is caught off guard when the Jumpship takes a shot at him — the shot misses, but Soaron, having turned to return fire, receives a Actually, and this one just blows my mind, he isn’t hit by the missile. The missile sort of… Shoots him. And then he explodes. The future is WEIRD.guided missile suppository and crashes, Soaron Injuredhurt bad enough that we may assume it will take him almost exactly one hour to self-repair, plus or minus the amount of complications that will arise before they can start evacuating people.

We cut back to Volcania, where Dread orders Soaron to — you guessed it — do exactly what they had already established he was going to do. Repair himself, then go to sector 7 and digitize all the humans. Then Overmind tells Dread that he’s got some more artifacts from “Tauron”. Oh Holy Crap! I just figured it out! This is actually a prequel to Battlestar Galactica and the Bio-Dreads are really Cylons! This explains EVERYTHING well actually nothing. Oh well. It was a nice thought. We only get a passing glimpse of the artifacts, but they look for all the world like Directive 1: Serve the Public TrustRoboCop and Nimon-from-Doctor-Who action figures. They will not come up again after the next scene, where Dread looks at one for a moment, then sets it on fire. Symbolism!

Cap powers on (We won’t see them use the pedestal back at base in this episode or the next one. For a show that so often reuses little set-pieces to show off particular things over and over, they seem bizarrely averse to showing the big flashy version of the transformation sequence) and they exit the Jumpship to survey the devastated-village set. Cap quickly identifies the devastation as, “Marauders. Hit and run. Take what they can and burn the rest. It’s bad enough we have Bio-Dreads to worry about. But looters… Humans, preying on other humans.”

SH: Someone should thank him for that exposition. It might have been difficult for the audience to sort it out otherwise. Unless, I suppose, they were to actually look around, or pay attention in the preceding scene when we saw one of these marauder fellows peeking out at the heroes from hiding.

Yeah. And for all I respect Tim Dunigan, frankly, Patrick Stewart would have a hard time keeping this exposition-heavy purple prose from going over like a lead nerf missile, and Tim Dunigan is no Patrick Stewart. Tank adds, “Marauders hit ze place hahd, Keptin. Throw everybody out.”

Hawk is more optimistic: “At least it keeps them out of Dread’s hands.” Well, given the extended rape metaphor in episode 1, I suppose he might have a point. Better to be assaulted, robbed, possibly murdered or sold into slavery than to be digitized, right? Ick.

What do you mean my outfit looks ridiculous?

The local Marauder, a burly, sort of vaguely Or maybe Irish. Or maybe he just smokes way too much. His voice is all over the place.Australian-sounding guy named Kasko, shouts a taunting warning before stepping out of a ruined building. He’s played by Charles Seixas, an actor about whom I have been able to discover absolutely nothing at all other than his filmography. He’s hamming it up as a middle-aged-punk type, with the mohawk and the leather, sort of like an evil version of Blank Reg from Max Headroom. But much more like a character lifted directly from The Road Warrior. The major point here is that he’s a Punk Rock Type, which is basically ’80s shorthand for “This man is a dangerous and unsavory element from a dystopian future”. Tank recognizes Kasko by his voice, and identifies him as having “Came out of the same place I did. Genetically engineered. A freak.” “Like you!” Kasko accuses. “Like me,” Tank repeats, impassively.

Kasko has some survivors imprisoned nearby with a time bomb, and offers to trade them for a chance at unarmed single combat. Cap is unwilling, but Tank insists that it’s the only way, what with their limited time and Kasko being a psychopath. So he strips down, takes off his Tron underwear, comes out of the Jumpship to fight according to “Street Rules”, which is a lot like Navy Rules: First one to die, loses.

Kasko takes an early lead by Oh Yeah!pushing a brick wall over onto Tank. Since they don’t especially trust Kasko to keep up his end of the bargain, Scout is busy trying to rebuild the walkie-talkie Kasko had used earlier to talk to his hostages then smashed and discarded. He explains the procedure of tracking the signal by interfacing with the crystal in a ridiculous fake spy-movie German accent, which Cap finds about as endearing as I do. Is stupid voices going to be Scout’s thing now? I do not like this thing.

It's a trap!

We cut around a few times, showing Soaron repair himself, Cap and Company track the hostages, and Tank playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Kasko before getting caught in an incredibly obvious trap when Kasko offers to just give him the detonator for the bomb, and walks out onto an unstable bit of floor, which he Oh Yeah!promptly falls through.

SH: Or, if you are observing carefully, gets lifted out over and lowered through, presumably by invisible guide wires.

Indubitably. Kasko runs downstairs to kick and taunt Tank some more, preparing to detonate the bomb early just to be an asshole. At the same time, Cap and Company find the prisoners. Tank begs Kasko to let the hostages go, as he’s got what he wants. Kasko accuses Tank of having gone soft and holding back, to which Tank responds by Oh Yeah!kicking Kasko through a wall.

They fight some more while Cap tries desperately to diffuse the bomb. Then, just as things look tense, with about a minute and a half left…

Cap opens the door and lets the hostages out. Wait. A minute and a half? Who diffuses the bomb with a minute and a half left on the clock?

Kasko hits Tank in the face with a cinderblock, retrieves the detonator, and declares, “You lose!”, but Cap barges in and declares the hostages rescued, entreating Tank to come with them before Soaron gets there. Tank, in a move that will surprise you if you haven’t watched this show at all yet, turns to not be at all hurt from a cinderblock to the face, gets up, decks Kasko, and leaves, shouting “Quick! Let’s hide!” I just want to point out that this sounds absolutely adorable the way he says it. This six-foot-seven bear of a man with a Scandinavian accent, all covered in sweat and brick dust, saying “Quick! Let’s hide!”

Punkachu! Final Attack!

Without his armor, Tank wouldn’t stand a chance against Soaron, and Kasko is just enough of a dick to not take his defeat like a man. He breaks cover and shouts “Captain Power is over there!” to Soaron. Soaron, of course, doesn’t care what an organic like Kasko has to say, and instead shouts “Obliterate!” then digitizes him, which I assume is to spare us the moral diciness of having Tank kill a human, even if the human is a dangerous psychopath. That said, let’s not forget that episode 1 has established that digitization is a metaphor for rape. So don’t get too much schadenfreude out of this. Which puts us in the uncomfortable position of cheering for Kasko’s defeat as it comes in the form of what is essentially a metaphor for corrective rape. Yeah. I feel a bit soiled now.

It gets worse. After digitizing Kasko, Soaron throws his head back and lets out a sort of vaguely orgasmic howl. Gross. The heroes take advantage of Soaron’s post-digital distraction to break cover, shoot the Bio-Dread, and make a break for it. Cap has to fight his way back to the jumpship, which should be a really tense scene, but it doesn’t really compare well to the mech fight from the beginning of the episode. Soaron fights rarely do — in this case, we cut back and forth between Cap running around a ruined city set and shots of Soaron, framed by nothing but sky, shooting. It makes the fight seem disconnected, and that takes a lot away from the drama. As the jumpship flies off, apparently having decided that the audience has forgotten that whole “It’ll take three trips and an hour of travel-time to evacuate these people” thing, Soaron caps off an episode full of weird impressions by adding his own: he channels Dr. Claw, and shouts, “I'll get you Gadger, next time!Next time!”

In the jumpship, Tank talks about his escape from A street gang? A genetic engineering lab? Undersea colony? Our last, best hope for punk rock? Who can say? This is all we’ll ever hear about it.Babylon 5, and laments that he’d thought he’d put his violent past behind him. In a scene that I think woulda benefitted from the Full House Music, Cap comforts Tank with a speech about how, sure, he used brute force to solve his problems, and sure, maybe he enjoyed beating up Kasko, but it’s all okay because he used his violence to help people rather than to harm people. Which is an unusual moral lesson, but I think it’s kind of cool for that: a sort of dystopian moral for a dystopian world.

That’s “Final Stand”. Next time is “Pariah”, which has a bit of focus on Pilot, but is basically another character focus episode for Hawk. I told you the writers really liked Hawk.

The following paragraphs talk about gender issues in the media. If that sort of thing is not your bag, hop down until you see the image of Boston Red Sox Manager Eddie Kasko.

So we’re four episodes in now. I think it’s worthwhile to point out that we have yet to pass the Bechdel Test. At no point so far have we had the screen shared by two women who hold a conversation of any sort, much less one not-about-men. The closest we get is “Wardogs”, where Vi is giving orders to her unit, which includes at least 80s River Tam, but I’d hardly call it a “conversation”. Now, I know how the show goes, so I know we will pass it eventually, but it does serve to point out just how overwhelmingly male this show is. So far, the female characters who’ve had dialog are limited to Pilot, Athena, Vi, 80s River Tam, and the leader of the hostages — a character who doesn’t get a name at all: she’s credited only as “The Woman”.

This sort of gender imbalance isn’t unusual for an action-adventure of this period, but it’s the sort of thing that we have to call out when we go back and watch the show today. Despite all my quarter-century old memories of Pilot as a major character, she’s far and away the least developed of the Future Force so far. Her dialog is perfunctory at best, and while Scout may have an incredibly annoying habit of breaking into silly voices, at least he’s got a trait. As of right now, we know nothing about Pilot, and her dialog might as well have been delivered by the disembodied voice who warns Cap when his batteries are low.

This serves to point out very neatly why a 4:1 gender imbalance in your Five Man Band isn’t a good idea. There’s a reason that Power Rangers was almost always 3:2 (And of those seasons where there is only one female ranger, only Ninja Storm fails to supplement the cast with expanded roles for female “sidekick” characters). At this stage, it’s less a deliberate structural thing as an artifact of the overall cast imbalance (Pilot won’t get a character-focus episode until “Gemini and Counting”, halfway through the season. Scout, so far as I can remember, never gets one), but would it have been so hard to add another female member of the team? I happen to know that the original pitch for this series included a sixth teammate, and that the proposed second season was to have added one, but in both cases, the sixth member was to have been… Another white guy. It’s problematic but unsurprising that on a show where the core hero cast is three white guys, a woman, and a person of color, the three white guys all get character focus episodes (Multiple except for Tank — though a second Tank episode had been written, meant to air before “Final Stand”, but was cut to make the season shorted) before the others get any.

Is there some fundamental reason we need so many male characters? In my dim quarter-century-old memories of this show, I always took Tank to be an underdeveloped character, much like Scout. But watching it now with an adult’s eyes, that looks like it might not be the case. Could it be that the writers basically wanted to do a Power Trio with Cap, Hawk and Tank as Ego, Superego and Id, and just threw in the characters of Pilot and Scout in an act of tokenism? It seems unlikely, given how the Five Man Band ensemble is pretty much a staple of this genre, but we have to wonder. How much did the show really need all these characters to be male? Would it have changed anything were Scout a black woman instead of a black man? Possibly not, though it might have inadvertently made the tokenism even more profound given what a weak character Scout is. Could Cap have been written as female? It would probably never have flown in ’87 with the romantic subplot between Cap and Pilot, but maybe. Tank? Tank was genetically engineered, so we might presume his gender was selected deliberately, and it’s reasonable that if he was bred for some kind of physical attribute, the requirements of muscle distribution would have necessitated his gender, but I do rather like the idea of Tank as a muscle-bound warrior-woman. Now that I think of it, though, Hawk is probably the character whose gender could be flipped with the least amount of revision — heck, we practically have a prototype for a female Hawk already in Vi. It’s a little ironic, then, that the character who seems to be the writers’ clear favorite is the one that could most easily be rewritten. But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised: Hawk is the most fleshed-out character — and therefore the only one where gender is just one trait among many we’ve seen in his character.

But of course, you can’t have too many female characters in an action-adventure series. Unassailable Conventional Wisdom tells us that boys Will Not Watch a Show With Too Many Icky Girls In It, and as this show existed primarily to sell toys, it’s also Unassailable Conventional Wisdom that toys for girls must be pink and lame, with action features like “Can urinate,” unlike toys for boys which must be military and use recently commercialized NASA technology, and NOT have Too Many Icky Girls. So by packing the cast with men, they ensured marketing and Nielsen success. And that is why Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future is the second-longest-running Science Fiction Series of all time. Oh. Wait.

I’m not saying that the show would have been more successful had there been a better gender balance — the gender issues in this show are really just the tip of the iceberg of why this show was doomed commercially. But the process of overcoming some of the other difficulties that arose from trying to do a serious post-apocalyptic action-drama at the same time as doing a merchandise-driven half-hour kids’ show would have been helped by having some roles for women that went beyond “love interest”, “victim”, and “love interest who is also a victim”.

Eddie Kasko

The character of Kasko never really goes anywhere. He’s a dick and he likes to hurt people. He has a grudge against Tank, and like Tank, is genetically engineered. But to what end? And why does he have a grudge against Tank? What did Tank ever do to him? Why did Tank, with all his similarities both of nature and nurture, turn out to be a good and noble character while Kasko is a murderous barbarian? But no, we can’t explore that because we haven’t hit our fight-scene quota.

In my imagination, there is an “Unredacted” Captain Power — each of these stories carries with it another hour or so of what-must-have-been, all those details and elements that would have fleshed out these stories. A flashback to Tank’s escape from Babylon 5. Something to establish that Kasko and Tank were once friends, and why they broke with each other. A scene where Pilot DOES SOMETHING. But the show that should have been isn’t the show we’ve got, so all I can do is wonder. We have so many tantalizing hints, but try as we might, we can never make them add up to anything.

SH: I’m working on it.

Yeah, so are we all. Power down.

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