Author’s note: Due to severe VHS interlacing artifacts, a lot of the scenes I wanted to use to illustrate this article were incomprehensible from single frames, so I’ve used a greater than usual number of GIF animations. As a result, this page may have unusually long load times.
Merry Christmas! There’s an episode of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future that’s set on Christmas, but to be perfectly frank, it’s like one lighthearted minute and then the whole thing turns into an unrelenting bummer, since we’re into the part of the season that gets kind of heavy. So let’s talk about something else Christmas-related instead. Specifically, Christmas, 1987.
It is Christmas Day, 1987. George Michael still tops the charts with “Faith”. Erma Bombeck, Stephen King, Tom Wolfe and Danielle Steele all have NYT Bestsellers out, as do Bill Cosby, Donald Trump and Mikhail Gorbachev. Time Magazine has named Gorby their Man of the Year. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, one of Charles Manson’s followers, is recaptured several days after she escaped from Alderson Federal Prison. Nothing much is happening on TV as far as I know; Teri Garr and Connie Chung are Letterman’s guests tonight. The Atlanta Hawks beat the Philadelphia 76ers. I don’t know, really. Christmas, when you’re a child, has a kind of out-of-time quality to it and it seems weird to try to ground one particular Christmas in its broad historical context. So let’s try again.
It is Christmas and I am eight. This is the second of the three to five years that my grandmother came to stay with us for Christmas (My grandfather had died the year before). I found this kind of upsetting the first year for reasons I couldn’t fully process at the time, that there was this intruder inserted into our Christmas. But I was just old enough to control myself and get over it. The JC Penney Christmas Catalog might give you a certain insight into what this year was like for a kid. Or for anyone really, I mean, look at those shoulder pads.
Christmas Catalogs aren’t really a thing any more, as my sister and I were lamenting this past Thanksgiving. Sears discontinued their “Christmas Wishbook” in 1993, having decided that people buying stuff from the comfort of their own homes and having it delivered to them was pretty much dead, and that traditional brick-and-mortar department stores in enclosed shopping malls was the wave of the future. This bold insight eventually led Sears, Roebuck and Company to evolve from the king of mail-order, through which you could buy everything from a suit of clothes to a washing machine to a house to put your suit of clothes and washing machine in, to be a company who, in 2013, managed to screw up an order I made on their website so badly that I ordered two things, and received three, none of which were the things I had ordered. That is a 150% failure rate. (The Sears Wishbook was reinstated in 2007 as a shadow of its former self). But that’s neither here nor there, because I’m actually referencing the JC Penney book, as it’s the one I remember for this year.
I think my sister had one of those dresses from the cover. I know she got the play kitchen from page 378 — it’s in my parent’s family room right now for when they’re on babysitting duty (though they had to cut the cord on the phone, since my niece, having been born in the twenty-first century, could not cope with the concept of a phone that was leashed to something. Speaking of which, the gray one at the top of page 506 is the first cordless phone our family had) — along with the shopping cart on 380. And the Laurel and Hardy ventriloquist dummies on page 374? Literally the first presents we saw when we walked into the living room that morning. And there’s lots of other stuff there I remember from other years — Teddy Ruxpin (page 359) was the previous year’s big present (My sister got the more advanced “Julie”, page 357, this year). The Cobra Night Raven (page 441) is one of the few GI Joe toys I had. It’s in the basement now. I’d been into Transformers and MASK (pages 443–445) in previous years, but they’d fallen below my threshold by ’87 — I was always too much of a dabbler to acquire a really big collection of any single toy line the way my friends did, which I kind of regret a bit in retrospect. (I wanted one of everything instead of all of one thing. Well, okay, I wanted all of everything, but one-of-everything was the compromise I hammered out with my parents.) I had the chemistry set from the middle of page 478. And I know for a fact that my grandparents (the other set) got us the Easy-Bake Oven from page 381 in 1986. Oh, and I don’t know when we got the Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker at the top of the page, but my sister was so nostalgic for it that she bought one on eBay at considerable expense as an adult. (If it seems like I remember my sister’s Christmas better than my own, in 1987, she was three, and as it turns out, three is the perfect age for getting awesome Christmas presents. Says the father of a child who just turned three and is into Transformers and Power Rangers.)
Incidentally, you know what isn’t included in this catalog? A certain science-fiction franchise that had a revival this year. Yes, Star Trek The Next Generation missed out on the Christmas rush: Galoob held the license at the time, and their toy line didn’t launch until 1988. Josh Marsfelder has a nice article on them, which I’ll link to because really I should find more excuses to link to Vaka Rangi, as it is fantastic. I think I probably got my first Star Trek the Next Generation toys the following summer at a convention, where I got to meet Michael Dorn, and possibly Marina Sirtis, but those may have been two separate cons (Also some people who were in much less famous sci-fantasy shows of the time whose lines my dad made us stand in because he felt sorry for them and it was only like an extra two minutes anyway). Most of the draw of conventions for me was that you could get weird and obscure merchandise, so they kind of lost their attraction to me once eBay was invented.But come on, you know the reason we're all here. Page 432. For that spectacular Christmas of 1987, I got a pair of clip-on sunglasses, a stopwatch, something large in a gray box that's too blurry in the home movies to identify (I think maybe it was a toy electric guitar), a dustbuster (I distinctly remember wanting this and it making perfect sense at the time) and... About a hundred and forty-three dollars worth of page 432 of the JC Penney Christmas Catalog -- basically everything but the gun.
I was the only kid on my block with the amazing PowerJet XT-7. In fact, I was the only kid I knew with one, other than my friend Steve from New Jersey. Which is probably a pretty telling slice of why the franchise didn't end up going anywhere. Returning to Christmas 1987 now means being haunted by the understanding that this is pretty much the exact day that Captain Power died: there were lots of difficulties facing the production, with parental outrage at the violence, terrible syndication timeslots, and stiff competition from that other show, but the nail in the coffin for Captain Power was that the toys didn't sell well during the Christmas rush.I probably would have gotten the Interlocker Throne too had it been available (It is possible I didn't get the Phantom Striker until my birthday. Heck, it's possible my memory is cheating and I didn't actually get that one after all, since we haven't been able to locate any trace of it. But I have a pretty solid memory of having a hard time getting the wings to stay on, so probably.)
Included in this haul was the first two “training videos”, animated shorts set in the Captain Power universe, with voice acting and live-action bumpers from the cast, providing fifteen minutes of toy interaction. Three of these videos were made (I got the third one some time later, possibly for my birthday, but in my mind it seems like it was much later than that) by Artmic, a Japanese Anime studio that’s probably best known for Bubblegum Crisis, though they also, in 1985, produced the Genesis Climber MOSPEDA OVA, which, in 2013 was adapted into the movie Robotech: Love Live Alive.
As with all things Captain Power, the cover art is strange and fantastic. Stylistically consistent with the art on the rest of the toyline packaging, it’s clearly derived from earlier concepts than made it to the live-action version. But also, there’s something kind of retro about the style. As incredibly ’80s as Captain Power’s high concept is, having a dude named “Captain Power”, who parades around in shiny gold armor fighting an evil overlord with a physical defect who lives in a volcano very much harkens back to old Republic serials. Hell, Hawk’s flying suit, especially with its janky special effects, is very Radar Men From the Moon. In fact, Captain Power is kind of all over the place temporally, mixing ’80s dystopia with ’50s robophobia, ’40s serial adventure, a bit of ’70s punk and glam, with the ghosts of ’90s CGI and even maybe a bit of contemporary phobias about losing our humanity to the internet hive mind. Some of this is second-order effects: Power clearly drew some of its visual stylings from Star Wars, which itself was a product of the ’70s with stylistic elements deliberately derived from the Sci-Fi adventure serials of George Lucas’s youth. But it’s mad and fun and it’s one of the things I love most about the show.
What we see here is something that’s a little bit Flash Gordon, and it’s lovely enough that, as before, I find myself meandering off in my mind to contemplate some Captain Power that wasn’t. A set of ’50s trading cards a la Mars Attacks that came bundled with bubble gum or boxes of cereal or candy cigarettes. More than ever, Captain Power feels like it’s an adaptation rather than an original property. It’s just that the thing it’s adapting doesn’t exist, which makes me all the more curious about it, this missing counterfactual Captain Power my dad might have enjoyed as a boy. What would it be like? Would Overmind be a giant wall-panel covered in glowing vacuum tubes? What would they call “digitization”? What would Pilot’s name be (“Jennifer” was a pretty rare name until the late ’50s, and wasn’t a hugely common one until the ’70s)? Would they still “Power On”, or just put their armored suits on the old-fashioned way? Dread, of course, would be a cackling villain with none of the subtlety of televised character, but what of Soaron? Would he be closer to his original “Robot Red Baron” concept, or be reduced to a Bleep-Bloop kind of robot? Would the Nazi analogies be more explicit a few decades closer to the war, or would decorum demand they tone it down a bit? I have no doubt it would have been a largely incoherent mess, but if you’ve been reading this long, you probably already know that I kinda like me a beautiful incoherent mess.
Artmic went bankrupt back in 1997, and I imagine that this complicates the rights situation (which was probably already complex, with Mattel, Landmark and Artmic all holding a stake), which is probably why the training videos aren’t included on the 2011 DVD release, which means that your only choice to see them is shady internet bootlegs, or buying the VHS secondhand (at the moment, prices on Amazon start at 49 cents). Or apparently you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.
It’s doubly a shame these have never been remastered for DVD, since the live-action bits give us some of the cleanest, most straightforwardly-shot footage of the Power Base and the Power Suits. Video 1, Future Force Training begins with a panning shot across the various consoles of the TARDIS-console in the nerve center of the Power Base. The closest we get to a title sequence is a close-up on one of the monitors, where the user “MATTEL” logs in to “run” the training program. It’s a little strange, too, that it seems to be shot differently. In the show, the camera normally shoots the Power Base control center from the left side of the room, so that the kiosk and command console are both to the right. The camera in the training videos is shooting from the right, centered on the console with the kiosk on the left. I don’t know if that’s related, but it’s also the angle they used in the comics when Hawk powers on.
Tim Dunigan appears and, with even more than the usual amount of emotionless detachment, explains that you’ve been selected to join the Soldiers of the Future as a PowerJet pilot, and that you’re about to go through some training. You’ll be at the controls of a “real” PowerJet XT-7, facing off against simulated targets, computer-generated by Mentor. But before we get to that, of course, he invites us to Power On.
Right away, we know that there’s going to be some issues if we want to treat these videos as canon. I mean, the whole framing of a new recruit on his (Or her. One thing I’ll say for this series of videos is that, although they must have been dead certain which set of naughty bits 99% of their audience was sporting, the player is exclusively referred to in gender-neutral terms) first day being given one of the two spare power suits — which can’t be reassigned once activated — is right out, of course. And there will be other things that don’t line up right later too. We shouldn’t be surprised. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was tied more closely to its toy line than most of the merchandise-driven kids shows of the era, but it’s a low bar to clear. Masters of the Universe had three separate, wildly incompatible versions of its backstory: one from the toy packaging, one from the animated He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series, and one from the “Miniternia” small-format comic books that came with the first toy releases. Only about half of the Transformers toys bore more than a passing resemblance to their animated counterparts — I don’t think I ever saw a first-edition Bumblebee or Cliffjumper that were the right respective colors, and Ironhide didn’t even have a head(A recent collector’s edition re-release had a show-accurate clip-on head sold separately).
But there’s another way to interpret it. Sure, maybe Tim’s wooden performance and the various points of divergence from show-canon are just a matter of no one bringing their A-game to making a fifteen-minute video to be bundled with a toy. Or maybe it’s diagetic. In-story, this is a training mission. Cap is clear, direct, and dispassionate to the point of being boring, but he’s also kind of jingoistic. He’s very, “Now get out there and serve your country, soldier,” and “With these weapons, we will one day bring Lord Dread’s tyranny to an end.” I think that the right way to interpret this video is as an in-universe training video. This isn’t Tim Dunigan reading a script where he’s playing Captain Power training a new recruit, this is Captain Power reading a script for distribution to the recruits. In fact, maybe we shouldn’t watch it as a training video, but as a recruitment video. Something they show in the Passages to inspire people to sign up. Of course they’d dangle the carrot of getting to wear a Power Suit or fly a Power Jet. The later videos don’t support this reading tremendously well, but I think you could still make the argument, particularly in light of the fact that, after the power-on sequence, we transition to animation.
Powering on, by the way, will activate the Power On pedestal toy if it’s facing the TV and switched on at the time.
Not visible in the picture on page 432 is the fact that it’s got a handle on the back, so you can pick it up and fly it around too if you wish. Unlike the jets and the gun, it doesn’t shoot, but it will respond if shot. The Captain Power action figure (unlike the others) has a hole in its back that allows you to impale it on the center post of the charging station, making its strobing light visible through Cap’s translucent chest symbol. The sequence has two phases: first, it acts as a target, allowing other toys to “recharge” by scoring points off of it. Then, it switches its strobe pattern and sound, becoming an attacker (The manual calls this the “force field” phase, I think), registering hits on anyone nearby. Or maybe it was the other way around. I can’t remember, and I haven’t found mine in mom’s attic yet, and it’d be a moot point if I did since the PowerJet’s got so much cigarette tar caked on the sensor that I’m not sure it could tell the difference anyway.
The animated sequence begins with the PowerJet’s launch and jump to hyperspace. It’s very anime, with a lot of attention to detail in the cockpit design — a lot more than we see from the, y’know, desk Cap sits at in the show. If there were giant robots in this, it’d hit my sweet-spot for anime, in fact: high-quality animation, lavish and detailed artwork, but none of the excesses that turn some people off of the style. You’ll find no big-eyed girls in sailor suits, for example, nor any long-haired pretty-boy emo gits, or long-haired pretty-boy world-destroying nihilists. I’m sure some of you (Hi, honey!) will react to this by saying, “Then what’s the point?”, but sometimes, you just want to get on with the robot-smashing.
I should be thankful they took the route they did, because otherwise I wouldn’t have one, but I’ll tell you, this whole thing feels like it should have been a LaserDisc game. It looks and feels very much like a LaserDisc on-rails light gun shooter, a bit like, say, Mad Dog McCree, except for the fact that the video doesn’t kick you back to the stage select when you run out of power points (I’m not actually familiar with any FMV lightgun games that used the mechanic of having multiple targets on the screen at once with the player accumulating points for shooting any of them; all the ones I know instead were based around “One target appears and if you don’t shoot it within the time window, you lose a life and have to start over,” But I don’t think there’s any technical reason the systems of the time couldn’t handle this, since they don’t have to distinguish between individual targets. You’re basically talking about a simplified version of a traditional physical-gun shooting gallery carnival game.). I bet if Captain Power had been a couple of years later, the Power Jet would have been designed to plug into a Phillips CD-I.
Hawk joins as your unseen wing-man for stage 1, which pits the player against simulated “Sky Mines”, small flying weapons allegedly controlled by Dread’s “Interlock”. Aside from one or two places where they basically fill the screen with yellow strobing death, they’re no real threat, just blinking red targets to shoot. The sequence ends quickly enough, and you’re prompted by both Hawk and the cockpit display to “Check Power Points.”
At which point, I will talk a bit more about the PowerJet XT-7. The PowerJet XT-7 is a downward-cranked, tailless, cropped-ogee delta wing jet, which I am fairly sure has roughly the same aerodynamic properties as a brick. Each wing is tipped with a detachable weapon pod — mine are missing. The toy resembles the jet from the show, but features a pistol-grip
. It is powered by two AA batteries in the handle and 9-volt battery in a compartment under the tail section. A switch on the underside at the base of the port wing turns it on, causing a “Sha-woop” sound to issue from a speaker on the bottom near the middle of the plane. There is also what looks like a headphone jack. If left unattended while switched on, a reminder “doot-doot-doot” sound issues every few minutes. A second switch next to the first selects “Room” or “TV” mode. Jet engines are mounted to either side of the tailwing. The forward-facing surface of these house the interactivity components
. One side is a photosensor, its visible component is a white slightly translucent dome with a small hole in the center. The other side, protected by a clear flat lens, holds a small incandescent bulb shrouded by a parabolic reflector, typical of cheap flashlights. In “Room” mode, this bulb flashes a strobe when the trigger is pulled. On the back of the toy, directly below the tailwing is a small black button. The player’s score, counted in “Power Points”, is reported by a series of ascending beeps when the button is pushed. In “TV” mode, a point is acquired if the ship is facing a red target when the trigger is pulled, and subtracted if the ship is facing a yellow target when the trigger is not pulled. In “Room” mode, points are deducted when the photo sensor detects the strobe light of another ship. Points are not acquired in room mode. The jet shipped with a cardboard practice target containing a diffuse reflector, allowing the player to shoot at himself. An ordinary mirror could also be used as a practice target. Or really anything that isn’t matte black if you’re close enough.
At the front of the cockpit area
of the plane is a red, spring-loaded plastic piece that resembles a tiny leg extension machine. A plastic shell molded in the shape of a seat hooks onto this, and is held in place, once the transparent cockpit lid is installed, by a red spring-latch at the opposite end. Part of the latch is exposed in the form of a button, which can be pressed to open the cockpit. When the latch is released, the spring at the front causes the cockpit lid to eject and the seat to be flung upward, ejecting whatever compatible 4-inch scale action figure was inside (Hawk and Soaron do not fit in the cockpit unless their wings are removed). The latch releases automatically if the player’s score reaches zero, accompanied by a buzzing and vibration from the jet. I think I broke the lid or the latch or something, because I know I couldn’t get my seat to stay in. I haven’t seen the seat or lid in decades.
In one of the DVD interviews, Gary Goddard admits one of the major design flaws of the Power Jet — leaving aside the fact that it was kind of spotty on actually working in the first place, the coolest thing it did was to lose. If you lost the game, it’d buzz and vibrate and open up and toss your action figure at the TV. If you were doing good, all you got was another ascending “beep”. He’s got one of the few existing prototypes of the cancelled second-generation Power Jet, which worked the other way. Instead of simply ejecting on a loss, the prototype Power Jet featured additional weapons pods under the wings which would open up after the score hit some threshold.
Mission 2 pits the player against Dread’s equivalent to the PowerJet, the Phantom Striker. The Phantom Striker is functionally identical to the PowerJet, but its stylings are very different. It’s a black forward-swept canard with huge, canted fence winglets and a V-tail. The fuselage narrows considerably between the drive section and the cockpit, giving the impression of the cockpit as a bulbous head attached to the rear of the plane by a spindly neck. The drive pods are hexagonal, with a third hexagonal pod mounted in-between. The strobe emitter is mounted in the starboard pod, the sensor in the center. The decal sheet includes twelve phoenix emblems, counting its kills.
The large winglets make very little sense aerodynamically. On the tape, Captain Power describes the Phantom Striker as having exceptional maneuverability at low speeds, which I guess isn’t theoretically inconsistent with the design (I mean, other than the fact that the entire design is engineered based on looking scary rather than anything to do with lifting surface ratios), insofar as vertical dealies on your wings that run parallel to the wind are generally there to reduce stalling at low speeds. But when you get down to it, the one and only reason for those wingtip devices is to make the Phantom Striker look just a little bit like a TIE fighter. I mean, overall, the Phantom Striker pretty much looks like a TIE bomber with a big cockpit hanging off the front.
Artmic presumably missed the memo on this, though, because their Phantom Strikers diverge from merchandise and live-action versions considerably. The general features are all still there, but the proportions are off, making the aft section too small, the midsection too spindly, and the cockpit too large — especially given that the commentary by Hawk and Cap makes it clear that these are unmanned drones. The whole thing is overall less squat. The front wing is a proper canard (On the toy, it’s really more of a weapon pod) and the winglets are smaller and don’t fold back on themselves so much. Not that this makes it look especially airworthy. In fact, it doesn’t really look like a plane at all. Aside from the obvious lack of a propeller, it kinda looks like the lovechild of a Bell AH-1 Cobra Helicopter and a Soviet Mi-24 Hind. Or maybe a rat’s face, kinda.
After that is a bombing level, which switches to a top-down view as the player is invited to shoot the targets on a simulated Dread factory. This section is pretty short, interrupted when Shit Gets Real, as it were, as the training mission is hastily aborted when it just sort of coincidentally happens upon a group of actual Phantom Strikers.
Well, I say “actual”, but keep in mind that one of the conceits of this tape is that the reason it’s animated is that it’s a training simulation. They don’t come right out and say it, but Cap shows a clip from later in the tape on one of the monitors in the live-action framing sequence. So I think it’s fair to interpret the whole “Oh noes our training mission is interrupted for a real mission” as just part of the conceit of the training video. But whatever. Most of the Strikers are easily dispatched, then our intrepid hero happens upon a flock of Soarons.
That’s what I said. Soaron is, of course, supposed to be unique. There’s a handwave here in dialog, as Captain Power explains that Soaron’s served by an army of “clones”. There’s no indication in the live-action series that this is the case, of course, what with Dread always sending Soaron personally to deal with every little thing. However, it’s indicated by the series bible that each of the warlords was originally meant to command an army: Blastarr was in charge of the bio-mechs we see in the show (then called “land-robs”), Soaron controlled the “BioDread flying forces”, while Tritor was served by a navy of “shark-robs”. These lesser Soaron “clones” are dark gray rather than Soaron’s off-white, and chests lack the Biodread emblem, instead featuring a single large red target. All the same, Hawk’s going to be pretty consistent about refering to these “clones” as “Soarons”, and while I don’t think we ever see two “real” Soarons at exactly same time, they do appear later in contexts where it’s clear that the animation was done on the assumption that the light-colored Soaron was some kind of officer-class, but not actually unique. Soaron is closer to his action figure design here, with a huge barrel-chest and a very prominent “ponytail” (Soaron has this long, tentacle-like extension out the back of his head. In the show, it always lays flat against his back, and really looks more like a spine ridge or backfin. In the alt-world of the merchandise-related art, it’s more like a prehensile tail) and a much less prominent beak. The face is altogether more human, in spite of the beak, ironically making the animated Soaron look more like a man in a suit than the televised one.
Some clever flying dispatches the Soarons, but the player is shepherded into a radioactive tunnel, full of dangerous yellow strobes. In case we hadn’t gotten the memo that Captain Power is drawing heavily from Star Wars, Hawk helpfully announces, “It’s a trap!” After escaping, there’s another point of strange divergence as the player has to face a legion of Interlockers. The Interlocker, never shown or referenced in the show, was meant to be a massive mobile canon built around Dread’s personal throne — there’s definitionally only one of them, and it’s located at Volcania most of the time. To make matters weirder, the dialog supports this, with Hawk having earlier claimed that Dread remotely controlled the skylines from the “Interlock”. But now, they’ve been interpreted as simply being autonomous hover-tanks.
For the last part of the mission, Captain Power detects human survivors, leading to a fight with Phantom Strikers and Soarons while you rescue them before beating a hasty retreat.
The coda, delivered on the Powerjet’s screen, is Captain Power congratulating you on your mission and welcoming you to the soldiers of the future. He’s interrupted when Lord Dread himself breaks into the transmission to threaten the player with the promise of battles to come. Dread looks slightly wrong, it’s hard to say how. I think it must be his makeup. I suspect this was the first footage filmed with the TV cast. They’re all kind of wooden and not really into character yet. Like I said, it really feels more like a propaganda video than a narrative. On one level, maybe that shouldn’t be entirely surprising. The credited writer is Tim Kilpin. Kilpin is currently Mattel’s executive vice president for their international division, and he’s been with Mattel off and on for thirty years, having credits (usually “Special Thanks To”) on TV shows and comics for tie-ins to various Mattel toy lines spanning that period, such as Hotwheels, Barbie, Max Steel, and even the original Masters of the Universe minicomics (I mean, I assume it’s all the same guy. IMDB lists him as four separate people, but it seems unlikely that there would be four guys named Tim Kilpin who all did merchandise tie-in media for Mattel lines). This feels like advertising. I think I can live with that, though, in context. And the animation is really great. Like I’ve said at least once before, no one was doing live-action aerial battles well in live action in 1989, and even today, it’s the sort of thing that has to be reserved for a big once-a-season “event” episode. But anime — or “Japanimation” as we called it back then — had been doing this stuff for years. I don’t personally find the art style quite as attractive as the style of the live-action, but I can’t dispute that it’s well done.
Not much changes in the remaining videos: we’ve pretty much seen the whole bag of tricks. The second video, Bio-Dread Strike Mission, opens with Captain Power, Pilot and Tank preparing for a three-man assault on a “massive Bio-Dread military complex.” But even though Cap claims that there’s “no time for training” on this mission, he still maintains the “This is an educational film” style, explaining, “You’re a member of the Soldiers of the Future, a resistance movement that’s fighting to regain control of the Earth from Lord Dread’s evil macines.” Also, the first line of dialogue in the program is a presumed computer voice asking the Captain if he’s ready to begin the training simulation. Since Dread is building tubas (Okay, Tank is obviously saying “troopers”, but it sure as hell sounds like he said “tubas”.) in the “northland territories”, Cap and Pilot will be attacking in PowerJets, accompanied by the player, who is given the callsign “Pilot One” for this mission, because it’s totally not going to be confusing to have a “Pilot” and a “Pilot One” at the same time. Cap and Pilot power on, and for some reason, they cut away to a strangely appreciative grin from Tank before they head to their power jets. The display screen in the Power Jet hints that the “Northland territories” in question are somewhere in the neighborhood of Chicago, and that’s going to be verified soon enough.
After a few skirmishes, you’re sent against your primary target. It’s an “ancient monument” which Dread’s converted into a transmitter. The tower is called “The Tower of the Seer” in a joke so clever that I literally only just got it right now. Tower of the Seer. Seer’s Tower. Yeah.
I mean, obviously, they don’t call it that any more, but still. With one ridiculous joke, they have made this show more geographically grounded than anything in the live action series, and they’re going to kick it up a notch in part 3. But now I’m almost wondering if the whole “The player blows up a major recognizable US skyscraper by flying a jet at it,” thing didn’t figure into the decision to not include this on the DVD.
The rest of the mission is fairly pat. Phantom Strikers, another bombing run — this one’s a bit muddled and hard to follow — and a Soaron attack that ends with a tunnel chase just like last time. And like last time, the action just kind of peters out: they don’t even finish off the last wave of enemies, preferring to just jump to hyperspace, this being the animation’s interpretation of the jump gates. Back at the Power Base, Cap congratulates you then everyone has a good chuckle at a garbled transmission from a ranting Lord Dread.
The final mission, Raid on Volcania was released some time after the first two, and it shows. Captain Power, Pilot and Scout all do something actually resembling acting in this one, and the opening scene (after a wordless intro where Cap simply stands up from his seat at the console and powers on) is set not in the Power Base, but in the Jumpship. A transmission from Lord Dread reveals his plan to take out a number of resistance bases, and he literally dares Cap to stop him. With the stakes high, Cap and Hawk take Powerjets to “Outpost Vega” (It’s strange to hear places have names in these, after all that “sector three” nonsense in the show) as Scout sends Pilot One to assist.
Though we’re not shown a map this time, and I don’t recognize any specific landmarks, something about the lay of the land makes me suspect that “Outpost Vega” is meant to be post-apocalyptic Las Vegas. After a fight with Dread’s Phantom Strikers, Scout summons our heroes to “Washton Province” The map confirms this to be Washington, DC, and we’ll even get to see the ruined Capitol building after Hawk crashes his PowerJet into it, forcing Pilot One to fly into the shattered rotunda to pick him up. I’m fairly sure they referred to “Washington” by name back in “Final Stand”, so that’s a bit of a mistake, though it seems cheap to count it at this point.
Escaping from a flock of Soarons, our heroes make their way to “Nu’Ork”, where thousands of refugees hide in the subway system. Unfortunately, Dread’s sent an army of absolutely massive proportions there to– Buh,
So that happened. Yeah. Okay. Wow. Of all the times to start paying attention to geography. Wow.
Anyway… Cap and Pilot One take on Dread’s entire armada to blow up what is apparently the one and only entrance to the subway tunnels, sealing the refugees inside where they will be safe until they inevitably turn to cannibalism. But this attack has given Captain Power an idea: since the Bio-Dreads are clearly being “tightly controlled”, cutting off the signal from the battle computer at Volcania will end the attacks. He thus sets the two remaining PowerJets on course for Volcania.
They do their own version of the end-credits Death Star Trench Run sequence to attack the factories that surround Dread’s volcano. Entering through the loading bays, they fight their way through “electron corridors” to a computer room that’s “linked to the Overmind.” Dread breaks in on their frequency, mostly to taunt them childishly. They finally reach the computer room, full of what Cap identifies as “computer links”, but which are quite clearly meant to be missiles. Soarons, Interlockers, Phantom Strikers and even Sky Mines all attack, but a direct hit on the battle computer ends Dread’s assault and leaves Volcania badly damaged. As a parting gift, Captain Power burns the phoenix symbol into the side of the compound, though you’d be hard pressed to actually make it out at VHS resolution.
In a nice “And the story continues…” ending, we return to the Jumpship for congratulations, when a call from “Tansin Province” comes in, prompting us back into action again as we fade to credits.
Though short on plot, these little fifteen-minute animated shorts are a fun diversion. The animation is fun and dynamic, basically everything that you’d wish the action elements of the live-action show would be. With the exception of Raid on Volcania, the live action sequences aren’t nearly as good, feeling very much like they were written by… Exactly the sort of person they were written by. It’s compelling advertisement, which I guess in its way is still kind of interesting; back in the magical land of the ’80s, even toy commercials were kind of awesome. Plus, how many ’80s toy cross-marketing direct to video animations can you think of that have something as subtle and clever as “The Tower of the Seer” (Yes, I know it’s a low bar, but I still think it’d a hard one to clear.).
And it’s especially interesting that in a handful of respects, these videos actually improve on elements of the show. Two of my big perennial complaints with the series have been the lack of any sense of geography and the creeping sense that Lord Dread and Soaron are basically handling every little task in the Biodread empire personally. Then along come these training missions, where we have settings that are explicitly real-world landmarks projected into the future, and where Dread actually does have resources beyond one bird-man robot and a bunch clickers.
I wonder now, what might have come of it if Gary Goddard had looked at these animations and said, “You know what? Let’s just do a cartoon instead.” If they’d traded in the constraints of shooting a visual effects-heavy live-action series for the more traditional children’s action-series medium of animation, but maintained a similar quality in the writing, maybe Captain Power wouldn’t have felt so awkward and ill-fitting. Larry DiTillio and J. Michael Straczynski had both done work for animated series, so it’s not like it would have been a stretch.
Why is it that the deeper I dig into Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, the more I find little hints of this strange alternative series which didn’t exist, but might have? Perhaps it’s just the Christmas spirit getting to me: that moment of opening up a PowerJet XT-7 Christmas morning and having your mind filled up with the imaginary adventure that might be, before you spend three hours trying to get the damned thing to work and eventually snapping off the tab that holds the cockpit door closed. Christmas is, of course, a very good time to be haunted, especially when you’re living in 2014, talking about a show made in 1987 about a war in the year 2147, that’s currently being remade.