Happy New Year! It’s the tenth and/or eleventh of January, 1988. Since we went on hiatus back in November, George Michael has owned the top of the charts with “Faith”, except for the week of December 5, when Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” held the top spot, nudging George Michael down two spots. Michael Jackson, INXS, George Harrison, Whitesnake, Taylor Dane, and Jody Watley also chart. Whitney Houston has finally unseated George Michael as of this past Friday with “So Emotional”. A bunch of notable movies opened in December, including the Robin Williams hit Good Morning Vietnam, the iconic ’80s flick Wall Street, and The Hanoi Hilton, the biggest film role for he who must not be named, but since the first of the year, the only things on the new release list I’ve even heard of are Eighteen Again and Light Years, a French animated film with an English translation by Isaac Asimov, which I found utterly incomprehensible as a child, but whose weird tagline stuck with me all the same. Margaret Thatcher is now the longest-serving British Prime Minister since Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury and William Gladstone took turns serving about thirteen years apiece of the 34 years from 1868 to 1902. But not all long-serving leaders are as bad as Thatcher: for example, Robert Mugabe just became president of Zimbabwe. The Soviet Union has announced that they’ll be participating in the upcoming Seoul Olympics — a big deal since the US and the USSR took turns boycotting the last two out of spite. In the upcoming week, SCOTUS will rule that school boards can censor school newspapers, Sportscaster and Bookie Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder will make some racist comments about black athletes, and because it’s 1988 and not 2012, he’ll get fired for this but will not become a poster boy for how the “liberal media” has “gone mad” over “political correctness”. Sony concedes the First Great Home Video Format War and starts making VHS recorders. Employees and employers are stunned when health insurance rates go up 10-70%, but I’m sure that will be the wake-up call we need to get health care costs under control. The Justice Department announces that it’s going to start going after pornographers with racketeering charges, which surely will make it much harder for people to access images of people having sex over the next decade. It is very snowy.
Not much worth commenting on in the rest of the TV universe, though the second half of Flight of the Navigator was the Sunday movie on ABC. Star Trek the Next Generation is back with “The Big Goodbye”, which I think is one of the season’s highlights. It’s a Holodeck Malfunction episode, with Picard, Data, Crusher, and Lieutenant Bucky getting stuck in a pastiche film noir. Guess which one gets shot! The science is rather worse in this one than in the later Holodeck Malfunction episodes, but on the other hand, in 1988, there had never been a Holodeck Malfunction episode before, so this was all very fresh and exciting, rather than being very hackneyed and cliche. It is also, as part of its B-plot, the first instance of the Diplomatic Meeting Where Protocol Requires You To Perfectly Recite Some Long Speech in An Alien Language Your Tongue Isn’t Designed For On Threat of Death if You Mispronounce Anything, which would later turn up in Futurama and Star Trek Enterprise, but here it’s still very fresh and new, and there is really nothing too bad about this episode other than the fact that they shoehorn in another “Wesley Crusher Saves the Day” bit. At the time, it was criticized for being too similar to TOS’s “A Piece of the Action”, on account of it containing people in fedoras and the critics having stopped paying attention after they saw the people in fedoras, because other than that, the two have balls-all to do with each other.
Elsewhere, “Gemini and Counting”. Twelve episodes in, and we’re finally going to get a character focus episode for Pilot. It’s another episode where the plot is kind of secondary to what the episode is really doing, which is one big character scene in the middle. In fact, the plot is almost depressingly simple: there’s a flu bug going around in the passages, they don’t have the ingredients to cook up the vaccine, so Pilot breaks into a Dread Youth-staffed pharmaceutical lab and steals some. If this were MacGyver, the episode would feature a series of problem-solving scenes where Mac uses his ingenuity to get past locked doors and evade guards. If it were Doctor Who, there’d be a series of the Doctor getting captured then escaping at least six times. But this show is half an hour long, so we don’t have time for that: Pilot breaks in, finds what she needs, and leaves. There’s no twist or complication that ever seriously jeopardizes her mission, or any serious danger that she’s going to be caught or killed. Yet.
Which is not to say that this episode is conflict or tension-free: it’s just that all that is, essentially, an aside to the overall plot of the episode. We open in the passages, the heretofore unseen, nebulously defined place where Cap occasionally sends refugees who don’t meet some arbitrary definition of already having a suitable hovel in which to cower. The establishing shot is nice, but sadly, we don’t have time to really get any sense of what life is like down there, or where “there” is, except that I’m pretty sure it’s a redress of the Tech City set from last episode. It’s got that same kind of underground-strip-mall thing going on. Cap and company are warned that there’s a serious chance of an epidemic if they can’t get the supplies they need to manufacture large amounts of flu vaccine, and presumably George Bush and John Kerry start posturing about which of them is manly enough to forgo vaccination (Yes that was a thing. Not even making it up. There was a big thing in aught four where rather than compelling drug companies to take a loss on stepping up vaccine manufacture, the political propaganda machines of the US tried to turn skipping vaccinations into a machismo thing, implying that a healthy man who got vaccinated was just being a pussy. It was like a weird reversal of those WWII-era propaganda ads telling women that smoking was unwomanly and asking them to save our country’s strategic cigarette reserve for “those for whom God intended them: our fighting men overseas”. Yes. Really. God wants soldiers, not women, to smoke.). Fortunately, Pilot remembers from her Dread Youth days that there’s a pharmaceutical factory, which I assume is in sector 3 (Sector 3: where everything in the fucking world is) staffed entirely by The Littlest Nazis as part of the Dread Youth’s Summer Internship Program, and she’s fairly sure they could
shoot their way in and steal what they need because a bunch of kids playing Nazis would be like lambs to the slaughter before Captain Power’s fighting force sneak in unnoticed and steal what they need, and Pilot, with her inside knowledge, volunteers to go under cover.
I’ll point out that, according to the series bible, Pilot was ten when Cap liberated her from the clutches of the Dread Youth, and she’s presumably in her early twenties now, so we’re talking about some decade-old knowledge. Even Cap questions her on this, but Pilot just kind of waves it off. She also insists that she has to go in unarmed, as she couldn’t possibly hide her spandex leotard under a Dread Youth uniform, even though the thing covers so much skin that even a Victorian would probably suggest they’re a bit repressed. Fortunately, her old Dread Youth uniform still fit, and we get some great physical acting from Jessica Steen as she emotes half a dozen flavors of discomfort, shame and anger while she adjusts it.
There’s an obligatory action scene as the rest of the team dispatches a patrol outside to stop them noticing the Jumpship, because we’ve forgotten that it has a chameleon circuit, then sneaks inside. She dispatches the first guard she meets, apparently using the Vulcan neck pinch, but is forced to shoot the second one in the leg. I’m not sure, and can’t find any credits to back it up, but I think this second soldier, Erin, is the same one the camera stops on for an otherwise inexplicable close-up during the Dread Youth Graduation scene back in “The Ferryman”. Of course, since that was graduation, she really shouldn’t be Dread Youth any more but an “Overunit”.
That’s Laurie Holden from The Walking Dead by the way. Her performance here is nothing special, but she does a really good job of playing the character she’s clearly written to be: a younger version of Pilot. She’s unsure, but masks it with indignance and bravado, accusing Captain Power’s gang of being barbarians. Jennifer restrains and gags her, but promises to return. Inside a hastily redressed set recycled from every other time they’ve needed a “clean-style future” set, Pilot cold-cocks a technician, and swaps her Dread Youth uniform for a technician’s, because this somehow will be more discrete. She politely declines to take his key card as well, instead relying on her sonic dildo to unlock the door to the lab. There’s a few nice touches here, though. Namely, a Lord Dread propaganda poster that looks suspiciously like the Nick Gaetano Ayn Rand covers. Those date from about five years after Power, so it’s probably just coincidence with a splash of “they’re both intentionally trying to conjure up a 1930s deco sort of feel,” I mean, and yes of course I am being deliberate when I make this comparison, it’s also kinda reminiscent of this poster for The Triumph of the Will.
Pilot grabs what she needs and sneaks out. This feels like maybe a bit of a cheat, since she grabs a little satchel of bottles which is roughly the same size as the little satchel of bottles that hadn’t been enough back in the first scene. But maybe this is concentrated or something. It’s a minor complaint. She also snags a first aid kit so she can clean up Erin’s leg. They have a little heart-to-heart where they take turns reciting the Dread Youth oath:
The world is imperfect
We will make it perfect.
Mechanized, immortal, human minds
In undying metaloid bodies
We are the body electric,
We are his fist.
With our blood and our trust,
He shall mold the new tomorrow
She explains a bit about being human and having feelings and all that jazz, though there’s not much meat to it; her argument basically boils down to, “Hey, did you know that the side you are on is actually evil? Why not try good for a change?” It’s not clear to me whether this argument is working for her, and anyway, someone finally notices that missing patrol from earlier. Dread is, as always, personally notified, and dispatches Soaron, because, again, Lord Dread does not believe in middle management.
As Pilot makes her escape, Cap has to fire up the Power Jet, which surprises the heck out of me because I coulda sworn that the Power Jet only appears in “The Ferryman” and “A Summoning of Thunder”. After how Hawk-heavy the first quarter of the season was, it seems like he’s really vanished into the background for this part. I think he only has one line in the whole episode, and it’s to tell Pilot, “You took a big risk.”
Pilot shoots her way past some mechs, but Erin briefly channels the powers of a slasher movie villain and manages to be just behind her despite having a severe limp and possibly still having been tied up. She insists unconvincingly that she’s still loyal to Dread, but since she’s reluctant to actually shoot, they basically just stare at each other until Tank shows up on a hoverbike. Tank’s apparently read the script, because even though Pilot cautions him not to shoot, it’s not like he raises his weapon, or really even acknowledges Erin’s presence at all. Pilot invites her to come with, but politely offers the alternate suggestions of shooting her to become a hero among the Dread Youth, or just going home and pretending none of this ever happened. Erin chooses option C and allows Pilot and Tank to withdraw unmolested. Later, Pilot speculates that she’s “cracked her armor” and hints that she may have planted a seed that might lead to Erin someday making a heel-face turn. Presumably these seeds of disloyalty lead to her being caught and digitized by her comrades, because we never see Erin again.
The stardate on this episode places it just about a week after “Flame Street” — based on the best guess I can make about how stardates work, “Final Stand” and “The Mirror in Darkness” both took place in July, while “Flame Street”, “Gemini and Counting”, and next week’s “And Madness Shall Reign” are in August, as is “Freedom One”, though that one, like “A Summoning of Thunder”, which should have fallen immediately after “The Intruder”, were aired out of order.
Which makes this one kind of an oddball. It feels very much like the episodes from earlier in the season. The plot of course is very similar to “Final Stand”, down to the contrivance of the hero not being able to wear their power suit, and it’s got the same kind of structural problems that plagued all the episodes up through “The Ferryman”: everything feels forced and obligatory. Obligatory mech battle at the five-minute mark, obligatory Soaron aerial battle at the fifteen. No real obstacles for the heroes to overcome, and in fact, the actual plot is entirely secondary and superfluous to what this episode is about. Dread himself is barely in the episode either, and frankly I think it would have been better to leave him out altogether. His appearance seems quite literally down to, “His contract says he has to be in every episode,” and really adds nothing. The best thing I can say about it is that our heroes actually accomplish something in the main plot of the episode, unlike so many of the early-season episodes where the presence of the Power team is more or less irrelevant. Also, Blastarr and Lakki are conspicuous by their absence — this is the first time we’ve had a Blastarr-free episode since he was introduced. There’s also absolutely nothing to do with Project New Order in this one, after it’s dominated the narrative for weeks. And we’re only a couple of weeks away from Pilot’s other character focus episode, “Judgment”. It seems strange to put two so close together — of course, that one’s another “out of order” one, with a stardate in November.
Regardless of what order you put them in, though, this is our third “evil counterpart” episode, after pairing Tank with Kasko in “Final Stand” and Cap with Jason in “The Mirror in Darkness”. Now that I think of it, I really wish “The Abyss” had done something to parallel Hawk as the “good” soldier against General McCrazy as the “bad” soldier, because we’d have some really nice symmetry going then. And it does work a lot better here than it did in the other two: Kasko’s too much of a cartoon and Tank’s too much of a cypher; Cap seems to go bizarrely mental and Jason’s too thin of a character. But with Erin set up so straightforwardly as being “Basically just like Pilot was in the past,” we’re basically getting a backstory-flashback for Pilot without actually having to sideline Jessica Steen in favor of a child actor for a whole episode (Which is, of course, what they’re going to do with Cap in a couple of weeks). The best part of this is that by translating what was a backstory about Cap and Young-Jennifer into story between Pilot and Erin, we completely bracket the (very slowly) building arc about Pilot carrying a torch for Cap: whatever Pilot is meant to be doing to “crack” Erin’s “armor,” it’s not based around happy pantsfeels. All the same, this episode doesn’t really have the solid footing around its emotional center that the better episodes have had. It’s hard to swallow that Dread Youth indoctrination is so flimsy that “One of those rebel scum I’ve been taught to hate and view as mindless barbarians bandaged my leg after she shot me,” is enough to give Erin an existential crisis. It’s good, great even, that Erin ends this episode still asserting her loyalty to Dread — that Pilot only accomplished as much as to plant the first seeds of doubt rather than prompting her to full-on reject her Dread Youth upbringing — but I still feel that their interaction never gets around to actually conveying this alleged armor-breaking. And for that matter, Pilot’s sense of Erin as being like a younger version of herself is kind of weaksauce too. It seems to amount to no more than, “She’s a blonde girl who is loyal to Dread because that’s all she knows,” which, yeah, is entirely valid, but how is Erin any different from anyone else in the Dread Youth? She wordlessly dispatches another soldier just seconds before meeting Erin and never gives him a second though. Why does Erin merit this chance at redemption and not Nameless Dread Soldier #456? There’s no answer other than “Because the plot says so,” and it seems kind of venial and capricious for it. Pilot puts her life on the line to help Erin rather than cold-cocking her and being done with it her basically because she’s a pretty blonde girl. Pilot’s calling her, “my young twin,” but all I keep thinking is, “You let one of them go, but that’s nothing new. Every now and then, a little victim’s spared because she smiled, because he’s got freckles, because they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while, on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction, you happen to be kind.” I don’t mean to accuse Pilot of being like Blon Fel Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, but Pilot doesn’t have so much as a second thought about knocking out anyone else she happens upon and just leaving them tied up in closets, so the fact that the one she stops to have a heart-to-heart with just happens to look a bit like her is… suspect.
Nothing I’ve read about season 2 suggests that there were any plans to bring Erin back in the future, which is a shame. Much like “The Intruder”, “Gemini and Counting” feels like a story that would have been better as the first chapter in an ongoing narrative than as a stand-alone piece never to be revisited. Grooming Erin to be Pilot’s replacement would be too obvious, but I think she’d be a great foil to have the characters encounter repeatedly over time — we could see her react differently to each member of the team, building up to a fateful meeting with the Captain himself. And having a sympathetic enemy character would do a lot to make the conflict of the show more interesting, and give us some more variety to how the villain side of the story is told. What might have been.
Next week’s episode will bring us back to the “Project New Order” story arc, but I’m thinking that before we do that, there’s one more little diversion I want to go on. See you then.