Gonna Lay Down My Burden, Down by the Riverside (Captain Power: And Study War No More)

It is the eighth and/or ninth of November, 1987. Tiffany hits number one on the Billboard charts with I Think We’re Alone Now, which is three places higher than Tommy James and the Shondells managed to get it back in 1967. Eleven people die in an IRA bombing in Enniskillen. President Reagan defends beleaguered Attorney General Ed Meese,  declaring him “of sound mind,” because history loves irony. Sondheim’s Into the Woods has its first weekend at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway, rapidly burning through the world’s allotment of how much of an anthropomorphic wolf’s dangly bits you can show on-stage.

There is balls-all on network TV this week that I haven’t adequately covered already. Wesley CrusherStar Trek The Next Generation does “Justice”, which is that episode where Wesley Crusher is sentenced to death for tripping and falling on some flowers, and inexplicably, the Enterprise crew spends all episode trying to save him rather than just muttering something about the Prime Directive then breaking out the Romulan Ale to celebrate. The episode is basically five minutes of things happening padded out with forty minutes of rambling discussion about ethical jurisprudence. Then Picard tells off the local god and they all go home. The only way you can call this a good episode with a straight face is in comparison to TOS’s “The Apple”, which is basically the exact same story, only with a fuckton more patriarchal western imperialism (And they shoot god rather than shaming it). Also at one point, Riker says that the natives of this planet (Who aren’t called the “Eloi”, but are definitely called something similar enough that it’s clear they mean for you to compare them with the childlike good ayrian future-people from The Time Machine) will, “Make love at the drop of a hat.” It’s my personal headcanon that the random yellow-shirted guy working at a console in the background just stopped whatever he was working on to look up where to get a hat at this time of day.

In the other Science Fiction Event of the Season, “And Study War No More”.

Blastarr shoots at rocks We open on Blastarr, shooting rocks, presumably because they outwitted him. To make sure we’re all on the same page about Blastarr’s personality, Dread calls him up to ask why he’s stopped moving, and Blastarr explains that something got in his way, and he declared it hostile because, “You can never be too sure.” I know that they want us to see Blastarr as just brutal and needlessly violent, but at the moment, it feels more like they’re hinting that perhaps the air got cut off to his brain a bit too long due to the birthing difficulties. Still, there’s definitely tonal elements that suggest that we’re supposed to find him properly scary in a way that Soaron isn’t.

Cap and company are flying off into an ambush in sector 12, having intercepted some radio transmissions about Dread seeking a power source there. We pull in tight for a moment on Cap’s face in order to be very clear that he is showing absolutely no emotion. We cut away and then back, so everyone can get ready for the VFX shot when Cap orders them to power on. After landing, Cap orders Scout to “hit the holo-cam,” hiding the jumpship behind a fake rock. Normal dramatic necessity would call for this to be setting something up for later in the episode, but this is Captain Power, so it’s probably just because they wanted to exposition-drop the fact that their ship has a chameleon circuit. Dread’s troopers spring the incredibly obvious trap, leading to our first interactive fight scene of the episode. Cap decides that their “only chance” is to hide in this cave right in the center of the battlefield, despite the fact that I see no indication their retreat back to the ship is covered. He orders Tank to cover their escape, unfortunately giving Sven-Ole Thorsson a chance to get off a few more one-liners. (“Nice of you to drop in,” to a mech as it falls off a boulder.) bazooka trooper Eventually, he meets his match in the form of a Mech armed with a laser bazooka, and falls down dead.

Only this is Captain Power of course, so he’s actually perfectly fine and just waiting for the mechs to surround him and start arguing over who’s going to get the five cent deposit for turning Tank’s suit in for recycling. This shouldn’t be a surprise, even given the fact that every tense moment this season where someone seems to have been incapacitated in battle goes this way, because Tank’s suit doesn’t dissipate. “There’s nothing like a nap to make a guy feel rested,” he explains when Cap returns to help. Maybe Tank’s going for a Steve Reeves Hercules kind of thing. I’d kind of like a Tank talking action figure now, something with a pull-cord that would recite Tank’s famous one-liners in a really bored tone.

After dismissing the possibility of going back the way they came for… Reasons, they all decide to “be careful” by turning off their power suits. They’re soon met by a camera that asks them to identify themselves, then tells Cap that it knows who he is, then says it’s going to let him in to “Haven” anyway. Hawk is uncomfortable and likens their situation to the Spider and the Fly, though Scout advises him to keep an open mind. Are they all working off of the same script?

Toward the end of his life, Graeme Campbell, who plays Obi Wan, became best known for playing Thenardier in Canadian productions of Les Miserables. When watching this episode, imagine him breaking into “Master of the House”

The cave soon turns into a zen garden, where they meet Obi Wan Kenobi, who welcomes them to Haven and intimates that it’s some kind of peace commune. Scout and Chelsea He introduces them to his sidekick, Chelsea, and we do a quick intercut between her and Scout to say, roughly, “We are the only two people of color in named roles in this show, so we’re pretty much required to fall in love.” When Scout responds to her offer of a tour with, “I’d be happy to see whatever you’d like to show me,” the music does a very Star Trek (TOS) silly-moment thing which I think is really cute.

Obi Wan takes them to another Red Dwarf set (I seriously don’t know what the deal is here, but everything in the pre-fall clean-tech style in this show looks like it’s from the third season Red Dwarf sets) and explains that Haven is a self-sufficient compound built on an old geothermal plant. He assures them that “Not even Lord Dread’s forces can penetrate a mile of solid rock,” having, I assume, forgotten that Captain Power and pals just walked there. Pilot plays with the buttons, which seems kind of rude, but helps move the plot along since she instantly sorts out that Haven is producing a lot more power than it needs. Everyone is suspicious now, though it seems to me way out of proportion to what’s actually happened. I’m almost getting a “Christian End-Times Fiction” vibe from it: “These guys like peace? Must be the antichrist then.” This episode feels like a lot has been cut in the first act.

Scout and Chelsea have a tender moment where she asks him to stay, and he begs off because of his job, and a very soap opera-y piece of music that reminds me a lot of the incidental music from The Tribe plays. For no clear reason, she immediately starts stumbling her way toward giving the whole thing away, rambling about “difficult decisions” and “Wanting to be safe.” Luckily, Obi Wan interrupts her just in time to keep the plot from wrapping up too soon. Luckily, Scout is as dumb as a bag of rocks and doesn’t pick up on it.

For people who don’t immediately respond to “Wait, someone being nice to our heroes?” with “Must be a trap then,” Obi Wan finally does something actually duplicitous and orders Chelsea to persuade Scout and the others to stay “just a while longer,” because — they are fairly explicit on this point without being specific — they are planning something evil that they feel is necessary to protect Haven.

Tank and Pilot happen across a plaque with Isaiah 2:4 (“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,” [NIV] Though the exact translation they use in the show isn’t any of the common ones, because they wanted to title-drop.) written on it. Tank explains that it’s from, “Something called The Good Book,” and Pilot, who, like any non-Christian in a story where the peacenik is the antichrist, has never heard of the bible, but does find the sentiment inspiring. It’s a bit odd that Tank is familiar with the bible and is even the one to note that Pilot wouldn’t have heard of it due to her Dead Youth upbringing, given that he’s some sort of genetically engineered super-soldier who was raised in an undersea colony or something.

Tank finds a locked door, which is of course proof-positive that something is up, since no one would lock a door unless they were secretly evil. Pilot whips out her sonic dildo (In case you’re late to the party, Pilot has this cylindrical metal tool she carries which uses in several episodes to bypass electronic locks. It looks really phallic). They open the door and find… A guy on the toilet who is angry they didn’t just knock.

Nah, just kidding. They find a storeroom full of big drums with a triangle logo on them that Pilot recognizes from last week as the symbol of the Styx phase of Project New Order. I would think that the big obvious Dread Logo would be a more straightforward tip myself. They are shot in the face before they can do anything about it.

Chelsea gets within a word or two of spilling the beans to Scout again when Obi Wan shows up and ushers everyone into the control room. He keeps up the pretense of being about to show them the way out for thirty more seconds before Tank and Pilot are led in by mechs, and Lord Dread holograms in to gloat at them, since Cap’s curiosity is apparently “legendary” and “predictable to twelve decimal places.” So Cap is curious. Cool. I’ve been waiting for him to have a personality trait other than “Prone to fits of violence”.

Obi Wan and Chelsea finally explain that they’ve basically been paying protection money to Dread, hence having set Cap and company up. Why they went to all the trouble when they could have just left them stuck in the cave until Blastarr showed up I’ve no idea. Fortunately, Tank finds the one flaw in Lord Dread’s cunning trap: it relies on them just standing around and waiting to be digitized while Blastarr walks the rest of the way down from the surface. Instead, Tank turns around and punches a trooper’s head off. While Dread uselessly demands that they stop, Cap and Hawk shoot the remaining troopers and Pilot closes the door. They all power on, open the door, shoot some more Mechs, then leg it.

Lord Dread waxes ominously to the empty room about how unprepared Cap and company are to face the might of Blastarr. The next bit is actually properly spooky. Talking to Blastarr, Dread refers to Cap as “The one who interfered with your birth; the one who hurt you,” and orders the Bio-Dread to “Hurt him.”

Cap makes plans to blow up Haven while Blastarr rockets down the tunnel on his tank treads. Tank stops to wryly contemplate the Isaiah plaque one last time before Cap finally meets Blastarr. Obi Wan takes another stab at betraying Cap and gets digitized for his trouble. At least Cap has the decency not to gloat over it. Actually, this is one of the rare times since “Shattered” that digitization feels properly horrific, and it’s just unfortunate that it still has that whole retributive element to it. (For the record, “Traitorous human gets his comeuppance via digitization” happens in “Final Stand”, “The Mirror in Darkness”, and “And Study War No More”. Also, arguably, “The Abyss”, depending on whether you see the general as villainous or simply tragic.) Cap isn’t able to harm Blastarr, nor can a combined assault with Hawk and Tank. I know I’ve said before that Blastarr is clearly meant to be a parallel character to Tank, but they don’t really do much with it. Though they can’t harm Blastarr, Cap manages to cause a cave-in with some borrowed grenades to immobilize him for a bit.

Pilot promises to take Chelsea and the Haven survivors to the Passages. I wish they’d tell us more about these passages — if they are, as they seem, a safe place with an unbounded capacity to handle refugees, it’s not clear to me why Cap and company don’t take everyone they meet there. Tank gives Pilot the Isaiah plaque, which is apparently a poster now, because he’s rolled it up, and as they all head off, and we leave on a shot of Blastarr, superimposed over an explosion.

Blastarr, exploding
If he regenerates into John Hurt, I’m done.

The show is really coming together now. This one isn't as solid as "The Ferryman", but it still hangs together in a way that the early episodes don't. Everyone has something to do (Even if Scout's key role is undermined by how much of it seems to have been trimmed for time). Once again, we've got a basically complete plot, and once again, most of the major weaknesses mostly stem from the half-hour format.
Most, but not all. I went back and checked, and in all the episodes we've talked about so far, the only black guest characters have been a non-speaking Wardog and the elders who introduces Jessica to Cap in "A Fire in the Dark". Now, I will in their defense say that while (I looked it up) Toronto is a very racially diverse city (as of 2011, slightly less than half of the population belongs to visible minorities (Canadian for what USAnians would call "minorities", since Canada also has "invisible" minorities like Francophones and Catholics)), only eight Torontonians out of a hundred are black. But before we give them too much credit for this, a quarter of the city's population is of east Asian decent, but the only non-white people I've been able to spot are the folks I've mentioned and Graham Greene. Which just makes it so grating that we're given to assume on the basis of one quick intercut and two very abbreviated scenes that Chelsea and Scout have such a close bond that she's prepared to sell out Haven to protect him. Of course she is, narrative logic practically screams: he's the only black man she's ever seen. Maybe this would have grated a bit less had they given more time to their relationship -- Tonya Lee Williams is criminally underused here; she spends basically the next decade on The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, which I think gives her more career screen-time than the entire regular cast combined -- but even so, her presence just serves to highlight again how really shockingly white this show is. Worse, I find myself wondering if the decision to cast a black actress inthis role isn't just down to "The american audience isn't going to stand for having Maurice Dean Wint make googly eyes at a white woman."
Cap and company are too quick to become suspicious of the Havenites, Scout's relationship with Chelsea consists of two scenes (Which just reinforces the tokenism of it), and a lot of the steps in Dread's plan to trap our heroes that don't add up to anything at the pace of this episode. If they'd had more time to spend on it, let us see a bit of what life was like in Haven, they might have sold the idea of the Havenites being desperate enough to preserve the peace that they'd betray Cap. Contrariwise, showing us that Haven wasn't the paradise it seemed would have done more to sell Cap's suspicions.

You know what this episode kinda feels like to me? An original series Star Trek episode. The music cues I mentioned, of course, but there’s other elements. An underground, technologically advanced society whose utopia is built on a dark secret which abuses the heroes out of a desperate need calls to mind elements of “Spock’s Brain,” “The Cloud Minders”, “The Return of the Archons”, or about a half-dozen other ones. More than that, you’ve got the same sort of abbreviated mostly-offscreen “romance” between one of the minor heroes and a girl-of-the-week that you’d see whenever Scotty or McCoy got a character focus episode. And then there’s the casual and unchallenged pop-Christianity, shoehorned in despite the fact that the rest of Haven’s set and costume design is clearly meant to evoke Buddhist imagery, comparable to the casual Abrahamic-religions-are-the-right-ones dropped into TOS’s “Bread and Circuses” or “Who Mourns for Adonais?”

All the more interesting, at this stage, Captain Power seems almost to be more similar to Star Trek than Star Trek the Next Generation is. TNG rarely goes for the “Utopia based on a dark secret” angle — the only one they’ll get this season is “When the Bough Breaks”, which I’ll talk about some time down the road. (“Symbiosis” also features a Dark-Secret-Utopia, but said utopia is entirely off-screen, so it doesn’t really count. Also, it has aliens who can shoot electricity from their hands and a moral message (Just Say No to Drugs) that is exactly as hamfisted as the time they featured aliens who could shoot electricity from their hands in an episode of TOS (Don’t be genocidally racist)). They get a handful of other ones, but it’s never really their mainstay. TNG also isn’t big on the straightforward sort of action scenes that TOS did at least two times every three episodes and which Captain Power is contractually obligated to do twice per episode.

Keep in mind that, technically at least, on September 20, 1987, when Captain Power premiered, the most recent televised incarnation of Star Trek was neither TNG (which wouldn’t premier for another week) or TOS. It was Star Trek the Animated Series, which most people consider largely irrelevant and also have not seen. But TAS actually had a lot to recommend it: it was to a large extent free of many of the shackles that had weighed down its predecessor, such as the need to pad out thin plots with repeated capture-n-escape sequences. Or budgetary limits that required most aliens to be played by white men with shoe polish on their faces. Or Gene Roddenberry paying too much attention to it and thereby undermining his own good ideas on account of the fact that he had the occasional great idea but was not a great dramatist and was also a bit of a lout. Or the other actors suffering from hypoxia as William Shatner’s clever feats of performance art used up all the air in the studio.

You may have noticed that I mentioned “the need to pad out thin plots” up there. That might seem a bit strange coming as it does only a very few paragraphs after I’ve, for like the twelfth time, said that the half-hour format is a big problem for Captain Power. Here, for the first and probably last time in history, I can say that Star Trek the Animated Series is saved by the quality of Filmation’s animation. Because the one thing you don’t do in a 1970s cel-animated Filmation show is contractually require two five-minute action scenes. There are episodes of TAS that feel too thin, but none of them have the same sense of the film stock having been hit with a weed-whacker  — this episode is particularly bad about this, not just the “They gloss over stuff to save time,” that most of the episodes have, but actual specific “It feels like a key scene was deleted” moments. I note that, unusually, we don’t cut back to Volcania at all after the first scene, and Dread only appears twice in the entire episode. Half-hour drama used to be one of the common formats for TV shows. In the ’60s and ’70s, hour-long dramas often had to be padded out to fill forty-five minutes with a twenty-two minute plot. By the ’80s, the increasingly dynamic style of TV (We’re still twenty years away from the visual style of TV and film converging, but basically once Jaws invented the “blockbuster”, I think the writing was on the wall and TV knew it had to step up its game) showed up the weaknesses of that format. Thanks to Filmation, Star Trek the Animated Series was pretty much guaranteed to be in a “low-dynamic” style, where you can make a half hour plot work.

In the past, I’ve sort of offhandedly dismissed the notion of Captain Power and Star Trek the Next Generation being in some kind of competition with each other: they weren’t in direct competition for a time slot, they weren’t really targeting the same audience, and frankly, for it to be a “competition”, there’d have to have been a serious possibility of Trek losing, which there wasn’t.

But in another sense, I’m starting to realize that there was a competition between the two. Not a straightforward “One shall stand and one shall fall,” sense, but rather, in the juxtaposition between Star Trek the Next Generation and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, we’ve got two competing notions of what Science Fiction TV is going to become. Neither one is fully-baked yet. In a certain sense, in the late ’80s, the question of “What is Science Fiction TV going to become?” could be phrased as, “What will be the next Star Trek?” Through the ’70s and ’80s, there’d been successful and influential Science Fiction movies, and even TV miniseries, but live-action prime time series TV was a wasteland. There’d been plenty of action/adventure with fantastical elements in their premise, including a fad for low-budget superhero shows in the ’70s, but the closest thing (in the US market) to a “next Star Trek” — a big Science Fiction Cultural Phenomenon — had been Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but neither one had anything like Trek‘s cultural impact. We know now that this was all going to change in a few years: Quantum Leap, seaQuest DSV, Babylon 5, two more Star Trek spin-offs, Sliders, eventually Stargate SG-1, and a whole host of other series that, while never as well-known, eked out respectable lifespans, unlike their cancelled-after-6-episodes ’80s counterparts, and for that to happen, in 1987, something was going to have to set the standard for what Science Fiction on TV was going to be from now on.

It’s strange, in retrospect, the two specific things that most distinguish Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future from Star Trek the Next Generation: TNG, particularly in its first season, is just about as utopian as Star Trek ever gets. Trek is often thought of as being an especially utopian vision of the future, but closer examination suggests that while Trek does celebrate the abstract ideal of utopia as something to be sought, whenever they try to uncritically depict the Federation as an actual utopia (As opposed to a society undertaking the project of bettering itself), it all goes off the rails, and you get TNG’s first season: preachy, condescending, and not a whole lot of fun to watch. Captain Power is, of course, dystopian. That’s why I’m covering it, after all, on this blog, that if it had enough content to make a single coherent theme, would be about apocalypse fiction. On the surface of it, you might think that Power‘s dystopianism is more in keeping with the Grimdark that’s so popular in the ’90s. But when I went and actually looked it up, the ’90s weren’t really all that stuffed with dystopian fiction; on raw numbers, it tracks close to the ’80s, but even a lot of what technically counts as dystopian in the ’90s has its dystopiae sort of pushed off to the side — The Matrix, for instance, is obviously set in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war, but the use of actual postapocalyptic imagery is very confined: most of the movie takes place in a world that that resembles the 1990s.

But then there’s the other thing that distinguishes these shows. It’s hard to put this in words because it’s just so incongruous. But Star Trek the Next Generation‘s utopianism is, for want of a better word, a pessimistic utopia. There is a certain sense that builds across the season that “We live in the best of all possible worlds and must therefore defend it against outsides who would make us impure.” Indeed, insofar as there’s an arc to the first season (and there’s not, really), it’s building to the reveal that there’s something dark and evil hiding in Star Fleet’s perfection — but it’s that the admiralty’s been infected with alien parasites: something unclean from the outside has tainted them. The thing about TNG that really differentiates it from its predecessor, for me at least, is that TNG has basically no sense of humor, especially in the first season. TNG could be compelling, it could be intriguing, it could be awe-inspiring. But in 1987, at least, it could never quite manage to be fun (I think they eventually came to realize that this was a problem, as most of the changes that came in with the second season seem like they were aimed at making the show more fun. Even still, it’s very much “the serious one” compared to its spin-offs. And one of those is about a trans-galactic war).

This is where the paradox of Captain Power comes in. And, indeed, the paradox of the 80s at large: Captain Power is set a decade and change into the most apocalyptic of a series of apocalyptic wars, after most of humanity has been wiped out. And yet, it’s fun. In a way that Star Trek the Next Generation kind of isn’t.emphatically isn’t. Even though “And Study War No More” isn’t quite there yet, I think it starts to make the case that, yes, Captain Power can do the same kind of things in 1987 that Star Trek did in 1967, and do it in the context of a show that was mature, but ultimately for kids.

If there’s a competition between TNG and Power, it’s this: the battle for the soul of Science Fiction in the ’90s. Right now, Star Trek the Next Generation is showing us a universe of wonders and strange and fabulous things, but cautioning us not to get too excited: space is SRS BSNS. Meanwhile, a plucky little show being filmed in Toronto is showing us a grimy, fallen world. And saying “Yeah, but let’s have some fun. Get out your jet planes and start shooting at the TV!”

4 thoughts on “Gonna Lay Down My Burden, Down by the Riverside (Captain Power: And Study War No More)

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