It is the last two days of November, 1987. Three Men and a Baby and Planes, Trains and Automobiles have recently opened in the theaters. Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes dethrone Billy Idol with (I’ve Had) The Time of my Life from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Dougie Poynter of McFly is born.
For both of this season’s Science Fiction Events, this is the last week of 1987. Star Trek the Next Generation and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future will be on break until January. Trek opts to go out with “Haven”, a mostly unremarkable episode based around Troi being strongarmed into an arranged marriage, because this is the enlightened 24th century, not the backward, amoral, greedy, pig-fucking twentieth century, and a Starfleet Officer would totally promise his infant daughter in marriage to someone, and she’d be expected to fulfill that obligation decades later when her dad was dead and she was an officer herself, and she’d just go along with it and the only reason they end up not getting hitched after all is just because the guy backs out due to a prophetic vision and decides he would literally (by “literally”, I mean “literally”. This episode’s resolution is that he beams himself over to a plague-infested ship to help care for the survivors) rather contract the space-plague than marry a Season 1 TNG character. Also, technically, this is the best Season 1 performances by Wil Wheaton and Michael Dorn, because they aren’t in this episode.
Captain Power, on the other hand, goes on hiatus with “Flame Street”. It’s the one About The Internet. But, of course, it’s 1987, so saying that it’s “about the internet” is about as accurate as saying Le Voyage dans la Lune is about the Apollo mission. But it’s about cyberspace, and that means, rather tragically, that we are going to have to talk about cyberpunk.
You may have gotten the impression from my posts, particularly since returning from hiatus, that I rather like the 80s. The truth is more complicated than that, and it wasn’t always true anyway. While I think of myself as being squarely “from the ’80s”, My memories of the ’80s are the memories of a small child, and my properly formative years were during the ’90s, so for a lot of the ’90s and a lot of the ’00s, I was working from an internalized very ’90s view of the ’80s which said, “The Eighties were terrible. We were always at the brink of nuclear war, no one gave a damn about the damage we were doing to the environment, we idolized wall street bankers who sought to trickle down golden showers on the proles, there was an AIDS crisis going on and the official government position was ‘Ignore it because it’s only killing those people,’ and everyone had mullets. Mullets!”
It’s only with distance, and with the Bush II era to compare it with that I came to appreciate the ’80s. Y’see, the 1980s were a strange mix of optimism and pessimism (while the 1990s were exactly the opposite). As I’ve said many times before, nothing that happened in the 1980s makes a lick of sense except in light of the understanding that everyone was fairly sure we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust any day now. And this understanding had sort of grown up through the ’60s and ’70s after we’d spent the fifties in denial of it, so that by the ’80s, we’d reached the Kubler-Ross stage of acceptance. So on the one hand, yes, there was that nagging belief that any day now, President Reagan would make good on his offhand jokes and start the end of the world. But as we’d all accepted that and come to terms with it, there was a tremendous sense of liberation that came with it. Okay, sure, we were all going to die, but, for good or for ill, that meant we didn’t need to hold back. Go ahead, eat an extra desert. Build a car out of stainless steel. Sell junk bonds. Snort a line of coke. Have anonymous, unprotected, premarital sex. Get a mullet. The world’s going to end well before you’re ever called to account for it.
And then the ’90s came, and the Evil Soviet Empire crumbled, and everyone shouted, “Yay! We’re all going to live,” and then, “Shit. That means I’m going to have to pay the bill, aren’t I?” And we spent the next decade basically trying to prove to anyone who would listen how mature we were now, with our flannel and our angsty music, and recycling, and our only ever liking things “ironically”, and our always having to be subversive and postmodern, and our “not running the economy into the ground much”, which made us feel good about ourselves and how we weren’t all shallow and self-destructive like those ’80s guys.
It all fell apart, of course. We repealed Glass-Stegall, elected George Bush, watched two planes crash into the New York Skyline, and basically got ourselves everything that sucked about the ’80s with none of the hairstyles. (We got iPods too, though, so it wasn’t a total wash).
But the angsty ’90s weren’t the only ’90s, and the ’90s weren’t a wasteland: there was another ’90s where, emboldened by the fact that mankind had collectively sorted out how to avoid nuking itself out of existence, we actually thought maybe we could sort out major problems like pollution and poverty and inequality (This too didn’t last). And you could be all postmodern and subversive, even angsty if you wanted. So too, there was more than one ’80s. Alongside the devil-may-care ’80s of glam and big hair and primary colors, there was another ’80s. An ’80s that saw itself being forced to pay for the sins of the old men who carved up the world back at Yalta. That ’80s was pissed.
It’s kind of strange to be talking about Punk here in 1987. Punk’s real heyday had come and gone by 1987 — its influence lived on in Post-Punk and Pop Punk and Neo-Punk and Emo and.. Well pretty much everything worthwhile about modern music. But as a specific identifiable movement with certain tropes and trappings, Punk is really more of a ’70s phenomenon. But you wouldn’t know that if your memories of the ’80s came primarily from post-apocalyptic children’s shows. There is a pervasive idea through ’80s eschatology that the apocalyptic future will be full of Punk Rockers. If it’s an anarchic dystopia, they’re the bad guys, rapacious street gangs looking to assault and rob more photogenic survivors. If it’s a totalitarian dystopia, they’re more likely to be sympathetic — characters who look scary but turn out to be allies in the cause of bringing down The Man. Punk was, even on its most superficial levels, kind of apocalyptic to begin with, and I imagine that using some of the iconography of Punk in the Mad Max series did quite a lot to make it one of the major indicators of dystopianism in film.
But even as Punk Rock evolved, moved on, and waned in its original form in the real world, it remained a dominant signifier in mass media dystopianism. I think by the late ’80s, Punk had simply been around long enough that the people who made mass market media had finally heard of it and finally thought Middle America would find it “edgy” but not too scary. And Punk was especially dominant in Cyberpunk. Which you’d think was obvious, but it’s not really; the “punk” in Cyberpunk wasn’t originally specifically related to the Punk Rock movement — it was analogous to it, but cyberpunk’s literary trappings are much closer to noir and more heavily influenced by the culture of the far east. More mirrorshades than mohawks. I don’t know if the entanglement between Punk and Cyberpunk was a simple matter of film and TV producers not caring to learn the distinction, or if there was other cross-polination, but by the time Max Headroom got his own series (A series which is surprisingly disjoint from Captain Power; though both had their entire runs in 1987 and 1988, only three episodes of Max Headroom overlap the span of time between the broadcast of Power‘s first and last episodes.), it was pretty standard for the “urban misfit” class in anything cyberpunk to be depicted as very specifically 1970s punk rockers.
Which more or less brings us to “Flame Street”, an episode that, much like “The Ferryman”, is simple and well-structured, and hangs together mostly on important character moments rather than plot. Cap and company have come to “Tech City”, which is kind of a cross between Tokyo’s Akihabara district and the Kowloon Walled City. Only this is Captain Power, so it’s populated entirely by white people dressed like punk rockers (Seriously, about a quarter of Toronto’s population is of Asian descent. Would it have killed them to cast an Asian actor for this one? Pretty much the one unbreakable trope about 80s cyberpunk is the assumption that folks from the pacific rim were going to be running things, especially anything to do with technology, in the grimdark cyber-future.). It’s enough to make you wonder if they’ve accidentally wandered onto a Max Headroom set. The Captain’s Log entry at the beginning tries to make sense of this place by explaining that Dread allows it to exist because of the technology they provide. It seems like a pretty thin excuse, especially as it’s clear that Overmind’s capabilities are superior to anything in Tech City. Also, Tech City is kind of a dumb name (“Flame Street” is better, but I don’t think the name is actually used for anything in the episode).Cap and company have come here undercover in order to, ahem, surf the web for information about the Styx phase of Project New Order. One of the big things about the web, of course, is that you have to physically go to it in person. And stick your head in it. They dress as monks and wander through the streets of Tech City, chanting as they try to be discrete in this techno-dystopia. By pretending to be ascetics. Their cunning disguise fails to hide them from the attention of "Zone Boy", who is basically Luther from The Warriors with a mohawk.
It would not be strictly accurate to call Brock Johnson "convincing" or "compelling" in this role; he's not a realistic depiction of punk, a realistic depiction of addiction, a realistic depiction of sociopathy, or a realistic depiction of humanity, really. But at the same time, his performance is spot-on: the nihilistic punk sociopath is very much a stock character in dystopian fiction, and so is the cyberpunk nonsensical-technobabble-addict, and he's right on-target for those archetypes, modulo the fact that he only uses language you can get away with in a seven-thirty time slot. Unlike a lot of the guest cast in Captain Power, Johnson's long resume is full of things I've actually seen or at least heard of, such as Viper, MANTIS, MacGyver, Seven Days, First Wave, Supernatural, The Listener, and most recently, Pompeii. It appears that he's got something of a natural talent for this kind of stock character, since his filmography reveals that he's most often credited in his TV work as Unnamed Punk, Unnamed Thug or Unnamed Junkie. Except in the one role I actually distinctly remember him from, a guest spot on So Weird where he played a bee that had turned into a gas station attendant (He helps the heroes solve the Traveling Salesman problem. God, I loved that show).He's a violent sociopath and a junkie, addicted to "Neuro-charge," a suitably cyberpunk pseudo-drug which seems to consist of getting minor brain damage via uploading something unsavory via one's obligatory cyberpunk direct-wired-network-connection-to-the-brain. Which we are meant to believe is an expensive hobby, and not something you can do by, say, jamming a nine volt battery into the hole in your head. I mock because I care -- while this is all very silly and unrealistic, it's still perfectly in keeping with the tradition of cyberpunk, at least on screen (In print too, though to a lesser extent).
Eager for work, Zone Boy agrees to lead them to “Mindsinger”, who they’re seeking in order to access the “cyberweb”, and also because, this being a cyberpunk episode, they have a certain quota of characters with eXtreme!!! 31337 hack3r names which would sound really cool as your AOL screen name, except that it was already taken so you have to be Minds1nger586 instead. Mindsinger is apparently the most 31337 of the 31337, able to hook customers up with, “any sensation you want”. Our heroes are also shocked, shocked when Zone Boy casually drops the fact that Mindsinger is female. Because who could possibly imagine that in the 22nd century a girl would be an expert at computers? Everyone knows that ovaries physically preclude the ability to interact with electronics. Except maybe for piloting a wormhole-traversing shuttle or operating super-powered bio-armor.Don't get me wrong, kudos where they're due: it's clear that Mindsinger's gender is supposed to be a feminist nod, showing the audience that yes, girls can too enter STEM fields. As long as there's an apocalypse to destroy all existing social constructs.
But the reactions from our main characters undermine this more than once as they struggle to believe that a mere woman could possibly have the technological might to deliver what they need.
There's a long tradition in fiction, mass-media fiction in particular, of the desire to portray progressive, enlightened ideals being harshly undermined by a nasty streak of essentialism. Science Fiction and Sitcoms tend to be the worst offenders, and I think it's for a common reason. Sitcom humor trades very heavily -- sometimes exclusively -- on reductive stereotypes: the source of most laughs is either "Watch these people behave in a manner stereotypical of their gender/race/class. Isn't that silly!" or "Watch these people behave in a manner opposed to the stereotype of their gender/race/class. Isn't that unexpected!" These jokes are very often critical of the existing stereotypes (Probably the most popular style of sitcom joke over the last few decades is a variation on "Man behaves in a way stereotypical of Middle America's notions of manliness, and this causes bad things to happen because that view of manliness is toxic"), but they still can't help but reinforce them. The joke is only funny if, at some level, the audience will get on-board with you that there's something inherently wrong with a technolgically-adept woman, or a stay-at-home dad, or an interracial marriage.
Science Fiction too has a long history of trading heavily on reductive stereotypes: with the heavy emphasis on allegory, on high concept, and on worldbuilding, traditional Science Fiction isn't big on characters -- the purpose of a character in science fiction is often to act as an avatar in an exploration of the question "How would the introduction of this high concept into the world affect mankind?" -- so a man in such a story is not simply "a man", but is "Man" in the abstract, and contrariwise, any given woman is liable to be intended as "the avatar of the abstract concept of womanhood": their traits and foibles are not personal quirks, but indicative of the essential character of their respective genders. But although it happens to characters across the gamut of sex and race, it has a greater impact when it's done to a less privileged group: a white man becomes "Abstract avatar of the common human condition among all homosapiens;" a woman becomes "Abstract avatar of humans with ovaries, as distinguished from the normal sort of human," and besides, the tendency to turn "a woman" into "Abstract womanhood" is already common outside of genre fiction to a far greater extent than the same kind of abstraction for men.
If you believe that gender essentialism and feminism are fundamentally incompatible, you're going to have problem with the fact that in shows like this one, they may well show you women who are fully equal matches for the men, but they always always frame it as something exceptional: the remarkable case of an individual who has risen above the constraints of her genitals, or else they frame it as a reconstruction of essentialist stereotypes: the "mama bears" who gain superpowers from protective maternal instincts or valkyries who can dominate men because boobies and because men are barely-sentient troglodytes -- that's basically the problem with Joss Whedon when he's at his worst, and Stephen Moffat when he's at his best. And if you don't believe that gender essentialism and feminism are fundamentally incompatible, you're just wrong. So shut up. (PS: You may well think that this long aside, independent of its merits, is a disproportionate reaction to one throwaway line of dialogue. You are right, but women are so absent in this show that if I want to talk about the problems with this show's gender politics, I have to take what I can get.)
(Which would be kind of a femmy name for a dude in such a superficially punk rock dystopia, now that I think of it) has wildly asymmetric hair, wears a sort of pvc cage, and provides access to the ribald pleasures the Cyber Web offers. Cap leases some time in the web from her, along with access to data that leaked out of the minds of Dread soldiers she's sold her services to for "two hundred stads a minute." The basic gist here seems to be that Mindsinger is running a combination cyber-brothel and internet cafe, and Cap is going to go in there to look up Project New Order on Wikipedia. As you would expect, this being cyberpunk, once he starts his "run", any attempt to forcibly disconnect him from the outside would leave him "zero EEG", because that totally makes sense and isn't just ludicrous bullshit to keep the plot running which not only would no one ever design a system to do, but which no one Mindsingercould possibly ever design a system to do.
Unfortunately, Zone Boy has “pross”ed the identities of our heroes, and promptly calls Lord Dread from a payphone, which exists in the post-apocalyptic 22nd century, to rat them out in exchange for some Neuro-Charge. Dread promises an additional unlimited amount of neurocharge if he can prevent Cap from leaving until Blastarr gets there.
is basically a Laser Tag Arena your mind gets sent to via Video Toaster effects, where you can summon Video Toaster-rendered icons to you in order to learn things. Overmind finds it trivial to hack into the web, and just as Cap has found the icon for Styx, Dread shows up to shoot at him. Dread explains that Overmind has increased the sensory feedback such that if Cap dies here, the psychosomatic shock would kill him for real — which is the closest I think I’ve ever heard to a reasonable explanation of how that whole “If you die in the game, you die for real” thing that always accompanies cyberspace plots could possibly work, a full decade before the vaguer “Your mind makes it real” crap from The Matrix. Cap attempts to fight back, but finds himself outclassed because, as Dread explains, Cap’s fundamental unwillingness to take a human life prevents him from using the force of his will to construct an effective weapon against Dread in cyberspace. Which I think is a clever enough explanation, except for the way it overlooks how three episodes ago, Cap reflexively tried to shoot Lord Dread in the face at point-blank range. The Cyber Web
Out in reality, the bad guys show up. Hawk and the gang power on and fight them, attempting to hold them off until Cap can be safely removed from cyberspace. Zone Boy holds Mindsinger at gunpoint to prevent her from freeing Cap once she realizes the danger he’s in from Dread. I have no idea why this would be necessary though, since we’ve already established that Cap can’t be freed from the outside without killing him. He justifies his actions on the basis that Lord Dread has promised, so close as I can tell, to lobotomize him: he says he’s being given a “Permanent checkout. One-way ticket to nirvana; no brain, no pain.” Which is beautifully nihilistic. I love the idea that in a world like this, there are “drug” addicts who are looking for a kind of total self-annihilation to escape their lives. I just wish it wasn’t all so vague. Based on how he’s described it, the thing he’s seeking could be delivered much more easily with a power drill and a nine-volt, and he could skip all this nonsense with Bio-Dreads and 31337 hackers and all that noise. The implication seems to be that “neuro-charge” is some kind of digital signal that has to be purchased at great cost, which Dread can manufacture in unlimited amounts, and which can’t be stored and replayed. It’s not out of line with the sort of weirdness you see in cyberpunk, but in context, bits of it undermine bits of the Captain Power story around it, and bits of the Captain Power story undermine the cyberpunk. If Lord Dread can easily hack the cyber web and produce “neuro-charge” at will, it’s hard to imagine what resources Tech City has to offer him (This would be better if we saw more of what goes on in Tech City; as it is, the only things we know about it fall squarely into the domain of what Dread can already do “in house”).
Inside, Dread forces Cap to conjure up an image of the Power Base and demands to know its location. Then, we start to get really dark and complex, especially for a kids’ show, as Dread tries gaslighting Cap, suggesting that he might have already found and destroyed the Power Base, but messed with Cap’s mind so much that he’s forgotten. Dread claims that, using the power of cyberspace, he can make Cap doubt his own sanity, which is a nice and heavy concept, and I just wish they’d been a bit less vague about that, since we’re not left with any sense of what it entails. We know Dread can’t read Cap’s mind, so presumably what he’s talking about is forcing the Captain to live through simulated experiences that torture him into submission, but all we see of it is the scene at the Power Base, where it’s implied that Cap is already close to breaking. Dread shows Cap the image of the rest of the gang, their battered bodies dropped limply to the ground by mechs, declaring, “You can not save your friends any more than you could save your father,” and summons up an image of a ghoulish Bruce Grey, looking like he’s been drowned.
This, however, turns out to be a bad move for Dread, as Power rallies. Overmind asserts that Cap’s will is too strong, and suggests Dread get on with the murderin’. A restored Bruce Grey gives a little speech about the indomitably of the human spirit and dictator-shames Dread for his actions. Cap and Dread fight in earnest, using what looks like those retractable sci-fi lances from Andromeda, as Cap asserts his willpower and forces them to be composited over stock footage of the Volcania fly-by and condemns Dread’s vision of a Brave New World. In a callback to “A Fire in the Dark”, Dread pleads that this wasteland is only a transitional phase, and will be justified by the techno-utopia he means to build. Cap counters that no utopia could justify this, and he’s backed up by surprising visitor.
The unmutilated and unmodified image of Lyman Taggart appears unto them to agree with Cap and accuse his counterpart of having given up too much of his humanity. It’s deliberately vague whether this manifestation is generated by Cap, or is a figment of Dread’s conscience. Lord Dread has a go at shooting his former self, but when that doesn’t work, he just does one of those big “No!” shouts and fades away. Cap gets an opening to return to the real world and deck Zone Boy when the rest of the gang creates an EMP pulse that temporarily disables all technology in the immediate area (I think. We actually see that he’s still in cyberspace afterward and kinda wills himself out).
As per usual, the team decides to be sporting about it and not cut up Blastarr into a billion pieces and spread them to the four corners of the earth while he’s out cold from a “Total power failure”, instead going to comfort Cap, who’s visibly shaken from his experience. I have no idea why. In principle, I guess it was that whole, “I can make you doubt your very sanity” thing, but in practice, Dread only has the advantage for about a minute; the rest of the time, Cap’s dominating the hell out of him — undermining his very raison d’etre. But Cap shakily tells Hawk that Dread was in the cyberweb, and Hawk instantly jumps to Shipping-levels of comfort, stroking Cap’s shoulder and telling him that it wasn’t real. I suppose he’s referring to the bit where Cap saw the others dead, but Hawk wouldn’t know about that part, so it’s like he’s saying that Dread wasn’t real, which is dumb, because Dread obviously is real, and his influence in the web was real too, even if he wasn’t physically present.
We end on Volcania, where Overmind is berating Dread for letting Cap get away with the Styx information instead of just killing him when he had the chance. A shell-shocked Dread just sort of absently mutters about how Project New Order must succeed. Surprisingly, there’s no ultimate closure on Zone Boy. We can thank our lucky stars for that, since this setup has historically always led to them doing a scene where the traitorous human gets his just deserts by being digitized, and by now you all know how I feel about Retributive Digitization. The way the were setting it up in this episode, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest if at the end Zone Boy had demanded Dread pay the promised neuro-charge, having held up his end of the deal, only for Dread to dispatch him in some suitably unsavory way, like a lethal download or something. Or perhaps they’d have Mindsinger set up some ironic punishment for him, locking him in the cyber-web experiencing some kind of permanent torture. Y’know, for kids. But instead, Zone Boy ends this episode half-conscious on the floor in Mindsinger’s basement. I hope this was on purpose, and they didn’t just cut the scene of his horiffic karmic punishment for time.
It doesn’t feel like a whole lot happens in this episode. If you take out my long digressions on punk, cyberpunk, and gender essentialism, this article isn’t any longer than the one on “Pariah”. And yet, it feels like a really well-paced episode. It comes and goes quickly, leaning on a small number of pretty dense scenes. We do have the obligatory fight scenes, but the one between Cap and Dread actually feels like character catharsis rather than contractual obligation, and the one with the rest of the team is at least split up by the cuts back into cyberspace.
It’s simultaneously trivial and impossible to complain about the cyberpunk elements. Trivial in that pretty much everything technological that happens in this episode is bullshit, but impossible in that it is pretty much the exact same bullshit that any 1980s TV or film interpretation of Cyberpunk was going to fall into: If you die in cyberspace you die for real; the internet is only accessible by going to a secret elite hacker den; there are electronic drugs that can’t be replicated; accessing the internet involves going into a virtual reality world that looks like a laser tag arena; people will have computers that plug into their brains; I’ve seen it all before. In fact, this may be the closest that Captain Power has ever come to actually doing the genre they were shooting for: they aimed for cyberpunk and they hit cyberpunk.
It’s not a perfect fit, though; there are some parts of the plot that seem to be working against each other. Mindsinger kinda forgets which show she’s in and cautions Cap against getting too close to mainframes because of the brain-destroying countermeasures they deploy, which is total “the world is run by supergiant evil corporations” cyberpunk, in a world without supergiant evil corporations, where the “cyberweb” can not possibly extend beyond this one city (and its unlikely direct T3 line to Volcania. I mean, it’s not like it actually makes any sense at all for the “cyber web” to be any kind of inter-system network. It would make more sense for it to be a single isolated system owned and operated by Mindsinger, that holds the information Cap wants because she recorded it off of her other customers. But what would be the point of warning about mainframes, and how did Overmind hack it?) And Dread’s three-stage plan has three stages that actively work against each other: Zone Boy is sent to keep Mindsinger from pulling Cap out when we’ve already established that she can’t, but he at no point tries to actually kill Cap himself; he’s just keeping him from escaping until Blastarr gets there to kill Cap in person — Blastarr is actively trying in the fight scene to draw the rest of the team away so he can go in there and off Power. But meanwhile, Dread can apparently kill Cap any time he likes using Cyber, and just chooses not to because he wants to taunt him instead, which would of course be interrupted if Cap were so impolite as to get murdered.
But it more than makes up for these sins with its character moments. Team Power doesn’t get a huge amount of dialogue, but it’s all pointful: their battlefield banter isn’t one-liners this time, but actual strategizing and working together. Under torture, Cap expresses more emotions in this episode than in the entire rest of the series. And much like in “A Fire in the Dark”, we get an intense look at Dread’s inner turmoil: Cap pretty much exposition-bombs us that under all that metal, there’s a part of Dread still capable of seeing that what he’s done and what he’s doing is wrong — yes, he’s a true believer in the glory of The Machine, but he’s not quite sure that the world he’s making is really the utopia of his vision, or whether it’s worth the cost.
Heck, even Bruce Grey is on the stick here. There’s not really anything to Zombie Dad, but when he gives his little speech to Dread about how he can’t kill a dream, he speaks with passion and fury and hope and disdain and pity, and it’s nothing like his performance as Mentor. And he finally gets to use his damned hands. You can tell he’s been dying to do this, and he makes big broad sweeps with his arms for the whole speech and it would be lovely, except that it’s framed so that you can’t actually see his arms, just his excited fingertips bobbing in and out of the corner of the frame.
Captain Power is done for 1987, but this was a good one to go out on. Next time we travel twenty minutes into the future, it’ll be… Less far in the past. See you in 1988.