And So Do I (Captain Power: Retribution, Part 2)


Captain Power Episode 22A lackadaisical blogger decided to write a series of reviews about the failed 1980s post-apocalyptic children’s series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. With an emphasis on sight-gags and the ill-conceived idea of having Sherlock Holmes as a sidekick, he covered four episodes of the series before going on a two-and-a-half-year hiatus after the birth of his son. Cribbing some stylistic elements from Phil Sandifer’s Tardis Eruditorium, he resumed the blog in 2014, eventually ramping up to a weekly posting schedule, albeit one with frequent side-trips. In the mean time, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future turned 25, an occasion marked by the release of all 22 episodes on DVD, and followed shortly by the announcement of a planned reboot under the title Phoenix Rising.

And now, the conclusion…

It is March 27, 1988. Macho Man Randy Savage pins Ted Dibiase at Wrestlemania IV. Brian Boytano wins the men’s figure skating championship at Budapest. The Grateful Dead play Hampton Coliseum in Virginia. Jesse Jackson becomes the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primaries, defeating Michael Dukakis in the Michigan caucuses. Dick Gephardt drops out of the race to see who’s going to lose to George Bush. Next week, Beetlejuice will open in theaters. In the past week, McDonalds opened a restaurant in Yugoslavia, its first in a communist country. Rick Astley immediately caves on his promise and Gives (the top spot on the Billboard Charts) Up to the man in Michael Jackson’s mirror.

Supercarrier and Murder, She Wrote are new. NBC shows a new Lincoln biopic with Sam Waterston, ABC shows Tootsie. CBS shows a biopic starring Rick Schroeder as Calvin Graham, a husky 12-year-old who lied about his age to join the Navy in World War 2. Star Trek the Next Generation takes the week off, leaving Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future unopposed for what turned out to be its denouement.

Jessica Steen as Cpl. Jennifer "Pilot" ChaseLet’s get this out of the way right up-front, because it’s easier to talk about the first half of the episode without it hanging silently over out heads.  At the climax of this episode, Jennifer “Pilot” Chase dies, sacrificing herself to destroy the Power Base before Lord Dread can capture it. There. With the pretense of suspense out of the way, we can talk openly about how this episode unfolds and walks itself to its inevitable conclusion.

There is almost a kind of Greek Tragedy element to the final episode of Captain Power. When we left off last week, remember, Lord Dread had discovered the wormhole network our heroes use to reach the Power Base and Soaron has scanned the frequency key they use to access it. Which is to say, from the first minute of this episode, the end is already inevitable. Even if Captain Power and his friends knew how precarious their position was right now, it’s not clear they’d be able to do anything about it.

On the one hand, this can make for a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion: we already know going in that nothing Captain Power does in this episode is going to affect the outcome. And that’s been one of the biggest problems all season, that our heroes seem almost completely lacking in agency. We’re not going to end with the good guys storming the castle and a fateful one-on-one battle between Jonathan Power and Lord Dread.

But, of course, we did all that two weeks ago, and frankly, I was underwhelmed. There’s a shift in emphasis here, then. We’ve already had the big fateful confrontation. Captain Power invaded the very belly of the beast, took on Lord Dread in single combat, foiled his plans and left Volcania crippled. But that’s not going to be what the finale’s about: the finale is going to be about Lord Dread’s terrible vengeance.

David Hemblen as Lord DreadAnd this is ultimately a good thing. The big problem I had with “New Order”, dramatically speaking, is that it was too much of a curbstomp. Enough, in fact, that it starts to become unconscionable that Captain Power has let the war drag on this long: if his gang of five freedom fighters can waltz right into Dread’s throne-room and seize control of Volcania’s systems — even if it’s only for a few minutes — why didn’t they round up Cypher and Sands and Gundar and the rest five years ago and level the place?

This episode has an answer of sorts: namely, Dread’s been playing softball. While Lord Dread’s shown a repeated willingness to kill, it seems like — admittedly, they haven’t been entirely consistent about this — he overwhelmingly prefers to convert or digitize. And therefore he’s been holding back. He essentially said as much last week: he’d opted to focus on creating the “new order” rather than on wiping out the old one. The justification, then, that it’s only with the “ticking time bomb” of Icarus and Prometheus that Captain Power would finally go on the offensive is because even with Volcania in ruins, Dread is capable of launching a counterattack more devastating than anything we’ve seen.

Heroes, particularly superheroes, are of their nature supposed to be primarily reactive: Batman can’t just show up at the Joker’s hideout and beat him to death for “being a villain”, he has to wait until the Clown Prince has actually embarked on some kind of crime. Even in your classic Joseph Campbell Monomyth (Which Captain Power tacitly accepts at least insofar as it is rather shamelessly knocking off Star Wars), where the hero is on a quest to unseat the tyrannical power that rules over the land, the story arc itself is still largely reactive: the hero starts out by refusing the call to adventure until the Saruman scourges the Shire, The Kurgan kills Ramirez, Storm Troopers toast Uncle Owen or Lyman Taggart kills Captain Power’s daddy.

Villains act, heroes react, says the law of dramatic necessity. Thus, Captain Power can react to the Prometheus countdown by attacking Volcania, but he can’t just waltz in there on a Thursday and shoot Overmind with a bazooka.

All the same, these last four episodes seem like something of a reversal, don’t they? The lack of any sort of meaningful tension in “New Order” makes the whole “Ticking time bomb” ring false. That story essentially opens with Captain Power learning the vital piece of intelligence he needs to mount a major successful offensive against Dread, then mounting a major successful offensive against Dread. Meanwhile, the very title of this two-parter tells us that now it is Dread who is going to be doing the “reacting”: all season, we’ve been watching him try (and fail) to enact his masterplan. But now, he’s given up on that and is just going to get his revenge.

This is especially important because one of the biggest problems I’ve had with this series is how little seems to be at stake. We’re told that the whole world cowers under Dread’s oppressive rule and all, and Cap told us at the end of “The Land Shall Burn” that this was their first substantial victory against Dread. But does that ring true at all? In “Wardogs”, they destroyed Dread’s base and evaded his trap. In “Final Stand”, they rescued the townspeople before they could be digitized. In “Pariah”, they rescued the kid and cured the Pariah Virus. In “A Fire in the Dark”, they persuaded Jessica Morgan not to help Dread. In “The Mirror in Darkness” they unmasked Jason. In “The Ferryman”, they almost completely foil Charon. In “And Study War No More” they shut down the Styx toxin manufacturing in Haven. In “The Intruder”, they rescue Jim. In “Flame Street”, they escape with critical intelligence. In “Gemini and Counting” they steal a supply of flu vaccine. retribution204In “And Madness Shall Reign”, they completely foil Styx. In “Judgment”, they get key intelligence back to the Power Base and in “Freedom One” they capture Christine and foil the plot to capture the resistance leaders. Practically every episode ends with the heroes scoring at least a minor victory against Dread, and the only time Dread manages even a qualified victory is creating Blastarr in “The Ferryman” (Even then, it’s less a “victory” and more “One step shy of an utter rout”). I know, I know, kids’ show and all that baggage, but by this point in the series, Lord Dread seems to be ranking up there with Cobra Commander and Skeletor. I know we’re still half a decade away from David Xanatos, but look at, say, Megatron. He managed to pull off the whole, “Sure, Optimus Prime managed to foil my plan, but we still made forward progress before he did by stealing all this Energon,” thing. Lord Dread is far more in the vein of Dr. Claw, uselessly shouting, “I’ll get you, Captain Power, NEXT TIME!!!” at the end of every episode. We’ve never really seen the good guys lose anything — even the people who get digitized tend to be villainous. We really should have had Eyepatch-Cypher back in “Freedom One”.

Jessica Steen and Tim Dunigan That streak’s going to end here, though. After Dread gives a motivational speech to the Hitler Youth, we hop over the the Power Base. Captain Power visits Pilot in her room, where the music does its level best to fool us into thinking there is any chemistry at all between the two of them, as Cap gives an utterly emotionless speech about how much he appreciates and values her while they stand over her little shelf of unlicensed Captain Power collectibles, such as the Isaiah plaque from Haven and her Dread Youth hat from “Gemini and Counting”. Jessica Steen does her usual admirable job of using her eyes to do the acting since Straczynski can’t be bothered to give her any lines, but Dunigan feels especially low-key immediately after Lord Dread’s big emotional speech to the troops. Jessica Steen and Tim Dunigan do a commentary track for this episode on the DVD, and he doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with his performance here (He thinks the scene really works), so I’m going to assume that his flatness here is deliberate and pretend it’s confirmation of what I’ve been saying for months now, that Captain Power is meant to be profoundly emotionally crippled. Pilot starts to confess the Big Secret She’s Been Wanting To Tell Him For Some Time when Scout calls them to interrupt with a mission.

The episode from this point on is in large part an inversion of “New Order”, now that I think about it. The story sends our heroes once again to meet chain-smoking, bullet-shooting, mushroom-haired Locke, who sells them up-to-the-minute information on Dread’s troop movements, and throws in the highly time-sensitive tidbit that our old friend Cypher (who will not be appearing in this episode, more’s the pity. Also, Cap identifies him as the head of “The Angel City Resistance”, which I assume is meant to be Los Angeles, even though he was part of the “East Coast Resistance” last time), has been captured and they’ve got exactly one hour to rescue him while he’s being relocated to a secure facility.

Just like “The Sky Shall Swallow Them”, then, we’ve got Locke delivering intelligence to our heroes that leads to a ticking clock with Captain Power and his allies needing to act quickly before Lord Dread’s plan comes to fruition. I find myself really pleasantly surprised by just how cleverly this parallel is set up. It goes a long way to redeeming a lot of my issues with the “New Order” two-parter. Of course, we know from the outset how things are going to turn out this time. Any questioning of Locke’s veracity is short-circuited when a brief fight scene erupts with some mechs, who our heroes easily dispatch before saying their goodbyes to the data thief.

Captain Power Episode 22Literally the frame after Captain Power is off-screen, the camera pans over and an Overunit and some troopers appear behind Locke — there is absolutely no way Cap and Company could have missed them, but the fact that the rouse is this transparent almost becomes part of the charm. Or maybe I’m just waxing nostalgic because I’m on the last episode. The Overunit thanks Locke for selling out Cap and Company, and Locke decks him while expressing his own self-loathing. There’s no talk of payment as Locke departs unchallenged. That’s an especially nice touch. Given J. Michael Straczynski’s ham-and-anvil approach to morality at this stage in his career, I’d have expected Locke to be offered thirty pieces of silver. As the scene stands, though it’s not said outright, we can, if we want, assume that Locke was paid with his liberty. We’ve had more than enough examples by now to believe that the threat of digitization would break a better man than Locke.

Lord Dread orders Blastarr and a unit of troopers to sneak back through the wormhole when Captain Power arrives to rescue Cypher — they’ll secure the unguarded Power Base and gain all of Cap’s secrets: Mentor, the spare power suits, files on the resistance, Tank’s enormous collection of bodybuilder porn, the Stargate, everything. What Dread hasn’t anticipated, however, is that Cap has decided that the information from Locke is sufficiently important that they ought to take it straight back to base first, and, since they’ll be taking the jumpship into battle and will need their best pilot at the controls… Has decided to send Pilot back to the base anyway and let Hawk, the guy who’s more accustomed to flying solo, pilot the ship.

I gather that Jessica Steen had come to the decision to leave the show fairly early on. I don’t begrudge her this. Her character is really poorly served by the vast majority of episodes. Every time she’s on-screen, she’s wonderful, but it happens so rarely. And besides, the character of Pilot is a very sort of “tech” character. In her minor appearances, she’s usually fixing equipment or using her proton spanner to unlock something. While she mentions in her commentary that the technobabbling she learned for Captain Power helped her land a role as a space shuttle pilot in Michael Bay’s Armageddon, a look at the rest of her filmography suggests that playing an emotionally stunted young woman who is the one regular character to least often get a fight scene is almost uncannily avoiding her strengths as an actor. I have no idea who they’d have cast as her replacement if the series had been renewed, but given the general outline of the replacement character, “Ranger”, a passionate, cynical, “dark action girl”, you know who I’d strongly consider? Jessica Steen.

Peter MacNeill in Captain Power

This scene technically goes about two paragraphs down, but I am impatient to share the Peter MacNeill Facial Expression Goodness.

But if they did indeed have full warning of the need to write Pilot out, it’s strange how awkwardly set up this is. Namely, we have Pilot going off alone on a hoverbike, and this is going to lead to a one-on-one fight with a BioDread. Meanwhile, Hawk’s going to be flying the jumpship, and when it’s inevitably damaged, he’s going to be the one fixing it while everyone else goes off for a fight scene. This is exactly backwards from how these characters have been used so far this season. And after Hawk’s close call and its surprising lack of payoff in “The Land Shall Burn”, I wonder if there was some stage in development here where the roles were reversed, and the intention was to send Hawk back to the Power Base for a final, deadly confrontation.

Captain Power Episode 22Whatever the case, Cap promises to continue that talk they were having later, again, utterly failing to convey any emotion. Pilot sets off for home on her bike while the others head for “Sector 9”. As they emerge, Hawk, having missed the memo that Star Wars references were three weeks ago, shouts, “It’s a trapAdmiral Ackbar!” as they’re attacked by this ugly quad-copter looking airship thing. When Cap realizes that the enemy ship has entered the gate, he finally shows a little emotion as he shouts for Hawk to get them back into the gate. Just like in “The Ferryman”, it’s messing with Cap’s stuff that really gets him riled up.

At the Power Base, Mentor declares the disk they got from Locke to contain nothing of note, giving Pilot a two-second warning of the trap they’re in, because Blastarr and his troops are inside the Power Base by now. She’s able to contact Captain Power, who tells her to “Hang procedure!” because you can’t say “Fuck” on broadcast TV, and blow the place up immediately. She sets the self-destruct, but first makes a backup of Mentor and grabs the spare Power Suits. Later, they will say this is because she was a rebellious sort who didn’t like to follow orders. I think it would have been better if they’d acknowledged that it was because she was a by-the-book, non-rebellious sort who always followed standard evacuation procedures, since, y’know, it would have actually reflected the character she’s been playing for 22 episodes.

Tim Dunigan does his best at ACTING!, first with his desperate pleas for Pilot to get out of the Power Base, then shouting at Hawk to get the Jumpship back in the air while he goes off to shoot some more troopers because we’re running out of time to get in any more fight scenes. Cap does mention the possibility of running back to base in the Power Jet, but it can’t be launched due to the damage the Jumpship has taken. It’s a bit annoying not to see the centerpiece of the toy line in the finale, but honestly, there’s just no room in the story for it anyway.

Captain Power Episode 22Just in case you missed the memo that they’re evil, scenes of Pilot packing up Mentor and turning on the self-destruct mechanism are intercut with the Troopers shooting up the other rooms in the Power Base. Careful checking of the past season worth of episodes should remind you, though, that the only other rooms we’ve ever seen are bedrooms. So we’re treated to clips of Biomechs shooting at beds. And, of course, symbolically blowing up Pilot’s swag table. Because Evil!

Lord Dread orders Blastarr to find the control room and stop the self-destruct, then channels a Batman Villain from the old Adam West series, because he reckons that Power’s final defeat is completely assured at this point even though Blastarr hasn’t actually found the control room yet, the only strategic information they’ve acquired is what color bedsheets Captain Power likes, and right now his Ground Guardian looks very strongly to be reenacting the role of Commander Torg from Star Trek IIIAnd this means that he thinks that he doesn’t actually need to watch the rest of the episode, and it’s a perfectly good time to take a nap — the suspended animation they’d mentioned last time that he’d be going into as part of his “upgrade” to a fully robotic form.Captain Power Episode 22 And that is how David Hemblen leaves the series, a few minutes ahead of the climax, in the middle of a fight scene, escorted out of the room by some troopers for his nap.

Cap and Tank finish off their own set of troopers just as Hawk finishes his makeshift repairs. Meanwhile, Blastarr shoots his way into the control room. If the Star Trek III parallels so far weren’t obvious enough, his incidental music even kind of sounds like the Klingon theme. He shoots the place up.Bruce Gray in Captain Power As Mentor’s tube is destroyed, I swear to God, it kinda looks like he flips Blastarr off. He blows up the Christmas Tree, because symbolism. He even blows up the spiral staircase. It collapses onto a chair, which apparently is how you disable the self-destruct mechanism, because we cut to Pilot in the hangar bay hearing the cancellation announcement. I think if I were constructing a secret base from which to run a resistance against a world-conquering psychopath, I would not design my self-destruct mechanism such that it would automatically shut off if someone shot at the controls. Just saying.

She launches the hoverbike on auto-pilot, then runs off to have a pitched fight with Blastarr and the troopers in the hallway. She singlehandedly kills the sixteen troopers, but takes a direct hit to the back and two to the chest from Blastarr. Which is actually pretty good given how many times he shoots at her, because Blastarr can’t aim for crap. Her power suit fails, but she manages to drag herself back to the control room, where Cap contacts her from the Jumpship.

This next scene is hard to watch without getting a little choked up. Even more so when you know that J. Michael Straczynski drew on his own real-life experiences in writing it. In a message board post on GEnie back in 1993, he revealed that he’d drawn inspiration from an incident in his own life when he’d tried — and failed — to talk a friend out of committing suicide over the phone.

Jessica Steen in Captain PowerRemember, this is 1988. This sort of thing does not happen. I mean, maybe if an actor died then when they came back from a break in filming they’d do an episode where everyone was in mourning, like with Mr. Hooper or Coach. Or if an actor got in a big fight with the producers they’d just be absent and never spoken of again. If the producers were really mad, maybe you’d end on the characters getting a telegram announcing that Colonel Blake’s plane had been shot down. But you didn’t actually kill a regular character on-screen. Even in the sort of show that killed people, if your name was in the titles, you were contractually immune from monsters of the week. It is March. We’ve still got a month before a sentient oil-slick effortlessly bitch-slaps Tasha Yar to death on Star Trek the Next Generation (Seriously, fuck that scene). This scene traumatized me a little, as a nine-year-old. It stuck with me for years. Even though he’s continued to be willing to kill off main characters, Straczynski has never really topped it in my opinion.

;There are only five minutes left in this show, including the credits, but they are determined to squeeze some emotion out of Tim Dunigan. There’s desperation and choked-back tears in his voice as begs for Pilot to hold on. Blood is running from the corner of her mouth and her voice falters as she warns them off. With the auto-destruct disabled, she’s left with no choice but to trigger an overload of the power source, which, shockingly, is a thing they alluded to way back in “The Ferryman”. Cap fumbles his words as he tries to protest that there’s another way.

There are things you can’t say in kids’ shows. Sometimes, this can be hilarious, such as one of my favorite lines from Power Rangers: “He who lives by the sword meets his doom by the sword.” As a small child, I’d gotten this idea that “oblivion” was some kind of pocket dimension where Megatron would send captured Autobots. But other times, this can be unintentionally chilling. For example, in The Sarah Jane Adventures “Day of the Clown”, they’re squeamish about having Oddbob outright kill the children he’s abducted over hundreds of years, but don’t want the logistical problem of his defeat leaving London full of temporally-displaced children freed from his pocket dimension, so they assert that the kidnapped children simply cease to exist over time. Sweet dreams!

As a child, this part confused me a little. It wasn’t like a few minutes were going to make any difference at this point, and if Cap had another way to destroy the base, why didn’t Pilot just wait for him? That’s because as a child, I didn’t understand what she says next.

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future has not been one to hold strictly to kids’ show tradition, of course. They’ve identified people as dead before. But having Pilot outright say that she’s mortally wounded with any specificity was apparently a bridge too far. She says, “It’s too late. I’m all broken up inside.”

Cap is now visibly fighting back tearsTim Dunnigan as he begs her not to do it. Pilot confesses her love for Jon as Blastarr shoots his way in. “Goodbye. Think of me sometimes. Goodbye.”

Blastarr advances on her, orders her to surrender. “Go to hell,” she says. Her hand touches a control which glows brightly. A mountain that doesn’t look much like Cheyenne Mountain explodes. We cut in close on Captain Power’s face as he screams a Big No.

Captain Power: The Death of Pilot

I want to point out: there should be no doubt whatever that Pilot died here. It’s hard to explain just how clear this is. Because obviously, we don’t actually see her die: we just see the explosion from a distance. Blastarr is right there, and he has his arm up — it’s technically possible that he’s about to digitize her.

And yet, you can not watch that scene and walk away believing that’s what happened. Pilot was not digitized. She died in that explosion. Whether Blastarr himself survived is uncertain. If, three seasons later, there was a shocking reveal that she’s saved to disk in Blastarr’s blown-off digitizer buried under a mountain, I wouldn’t believe it. I’d probably go post on Compuserve or something about how the show had been RUINED FOREVER by cheaping out like that.

In a sense, Pilot’s death is also where Captain Power exits the narrative — the Captain Power we’ve been watching since way back in September. The cool, commanding stoic really vanishes from the story. A broken, weeping man buries his face in his hands.

Hawk, though shaken, implicitly takes command here, ordering Scout to rendezvous with the skybike before hugging his grieving friend. Peter MacNeill and Tim DuniganThe final scene of the series places the four grieving survivors in a smoke-filled forest (It seems pointless to bring it up at this late date, but just about every single “outside” scene in this series is filled with smoke). Hawk discovers the rescued power suits and Mentor backup. His voice cracks as he announces it. Peter MacNeill’s delivery reminds me a lot of the scene in Star Trek II where Scotty announces the death of his nephew (I feel like I always understood the kid was his nephew, but sources tell me that the line where they explain this was actually cut from the theatrical release). Captain Power is being stoic again, but this time the character of it is different: it’s transparently forced. He stares vacantly at nothing as he reiterates that he’d told her to drop everything and book it. Tank promises to make the “Metal Monsters” pay. Cap orders the bike and its contents loaded onto the jumpship and walks away in order to fade into a montage of Cap-n-Pilot moments, which is mostly just clips from last week’s episode since, as I’ve been saying, Jessica Steen was criminally underused. I assume if they’d gotten the rights, they’d have played “Dust in the Wind” for this, that being the universal way of signifying that a character is well and truly dead.

Because there was no second season of Captain Power, we’re forced to confront this episode as a series finale, and it’s weaker on that count than it ought to be. We don’t have time for there to be any aftermath to Jennifer’s death or the destruction of the Power Base. Lord Dread drops out before the climax. Soaron is completely absent.

But, of course, if it’s still March, 1988, we don’t know that Captain Power is over yet, and viewed as a season finale, it fares much better. Indeed, let’s not forget that in this time and this place, the idea of the Season Finale Cliffhanger wasn’t the dominant mode of adventure show writing yet. Season Finale Cliffhangers were largely unknown in US TV until Dallas’s “Who Shot JR?” campaign in 1980, and wouldn’t become the default until Star Trek the Next Generation ended its 1989-1990 season with “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1”. The big “event” episodes for adventure series of the ’80s tended to be two-part season openers that would often be initially aired as a single feature-length block. This ending is not exactly a cliffhanger, but we do have a radical change to the status quo left hanging: Captain Power has lost Jennifer and the Power Base. Lord Dread is undergoing a metamorphosis and may have lost Blastarr. We’ve got avenues left to explore with Eden 2, two power suits in need of an owner, and the fate of Locke the Data Thief left up in the air.

There are weaknesses, of course. Scout is barely present and Tank is just there to say whichever words the writers think sound hilarious in a thick Danish accent. They completely forget about Cypher. Was the information about his capture a lie? It seems like they assume it was, but it’s just as likely that he was bait for the trap. Why couldn’t they try to contact him first to check if he was okay? To what extent am I just complaining because I wanted Lorne Cossette to show up again?

It seems even more obvious than usual to compare this episode to Star Trek the Next Generation. At the end of April, the episode “Skin of Evil” will kill off Tasha Yar. The situation behind the scenes isn’t all that different: Denise Crosby had originally been cast as Deanna Troi. For reasons no one has ever been able to adequately explain, Crosby and Sirtis’s roles were switched, leaving Crosby in a part that didn’t really play to her talents and that the writers didn’t really know what to do with. She quickly came to the conclusion that this part wasn’t going to go anywhere and bowed out.

So, in act 2 of the twenty-third episode of the first season, Tasha Yar tries to force her way past a gestalt entity created from the collective evil of an ancient alien culture, and it zaps her dead like it ain’t no thang. She dies like a Redshirt, struck dead effortlessly for no better reason than to demonstrate to the audience how the monster of the week works. It is cheap and sensationalist, its only redeeming value being in how utterly wrong it is — an affront to the laws of narrative logic that work to protect the lives of people with first names.

The war to be “Star Trek for the Eighties”, the war for the soul of science fiction on television was an utter rout. Star Trek the Next Generation defeated Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future so handily I doubt they even realized it was there at all. But on this one, small point, I think Star Trek needs to concede one very palpable touch. When it came time to kill off an under-utilized, miscast character who was wasting a perfectly good actress’s talents because writers had their heads way up their butts when it came to the concept of “Strong female warrior character”, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future actually knew what the hell they were doing.

Tasha Yar died because there was nowhere for her character to go, and her death shouted that at the audience. When Jennifer Chase died, it wasn’t merely the death of a character who was never going to go anywhere. It’s the collapse of a future that could have been. A romance with the nominal hero that would never happen. A quest for redemption that would never end. Her death doesn’t just leave a hole to be filled by giving Worf a different color uniform: it completely rewrites the dynamic of the team. From the moment Pilot dies, Captain Power is no longer in control of his world. He only gives one more order in the series, and he’s barely paying attention when he does.

This was part of the plan going forward: Cap’s plot arc through season two was to make him increasingly unfit for command as he failed to cope with Jennifer’s death, leaving Hawk as the de facto leader, and you actually see that happening in the few minutes of screen-time left after the Power Base explodes, with Hawk immediately taking charge, while Cap walks around in a glaze.

This is not the strongest of series finales. It’s not the strongest of season finales. But it’s a far stronger and more coherent finale than we’d been led to expect out of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. It turns the show’s former weaknesses into strengths. The oddly subdued stakes of “New Order” — indeed, the overall lack of anything in this show ever costing our heroes anything — creates a sense of invulnerability about our heroes which proves disastrously false here. The unfortunate tendency for our heroes’ actions to have little bearing on the outcomes of individual episodes is here transformed into a very classic style of tragedy. It’s very Caves of Androzani (A Doctor Who serial whose plot is basically “Ten minutes in, the Doctor falls into a hole full of poison, and spends the entire rest of the story trying and failing to not die from it.”). Their favorite trick of “It turns out our hero isn’t hurt all that badly after all,” is turned on its head when Pilot indicates that she’s been mortally wounded.

This series has been strange and uneven. Almost every episode has a strong idea at its core, but it’s hamstrung by poor follow-through. Pacing is all over the place, plot developments are sidelined for action sequences, and the writers are rarely willing to place the characters in real peril, whether moral or mortal. The practical effects are lovely but the digital effects are… overly ambitious. The model work, though rare, is absolutely beautiful, but also very dated, having a visual texture that aims for Star Wars but feels a lot more like Space: 1999. Few of the actors are actually bad, but few of them are great, and only David Hemblen and Peter MacNeill are written to leverage the acting skills they actually possess, with Maurice Dean Wint reduced to one-liners and Sven Ole Thorsen, weighed down by a suit that wouldn’t even accommodate sitting, only gets as many lines as he does because the director really got a kick out of the way he says “Party”.

And there’s digitization. No one in the show, hero or villain, seems to be quite sure how horrific it’s meant to be. Dread himself offers it as the blessing of “immortality” to Stuart, and uses his preference for it over killing as moral justification… Then turns around and uses it as a form of torture, and punishes his own people with it. Meanwhile, for our heroes, it’s a straight-up rape analogy the first time we see it, but then they’re perfectly happy to allow or even manipulate their human enemies into being digitized as punishment.

But there’s something mad and beautiful about this show. There’s a basic bizarreness to the way that there are quite clearly three completely distinct iterations of the design process that all bleed through into the finished product of the franchise. There’s the Marvel Annual, which can’t seem to tell if it’s derived from the toy line or the show. There are strange ghosts of a much more Flash Gordon version of the concept. There’s the training videos, where they bring together the worlds of the merch and the show, and which by all rights ought to be utterly disposable and non-crapgiving. But then you see the World Trade Center in the background, or the absolute epic awesomeness of the “Tower of the Seer”. You’ve got the sheer, unmitigated balls of history’s most shameless rip-off of the Death Star Trench Run. And the creepy sexual undertones of Dread’s relationship with Overmind. Or the growing parallels between the Dread/Overmind dynamic contrasted with the Cap/Mentor one. There are tantalizing hints of a bigger world out there, with Eden 2, the Wardogs, the East Coast Resistance, but then the odd contradiction of Captain Power’s team being seeming ignorant about events outside North America.

There’s no one thing you can point at and call, “The reason Captain Power failed.” Most of the parts of this show are, if not great, at least okay. There are ideas and themes that J. Michael Straczynski would pick up on later in his career to great effect. This level of reliance on computer-generated effects won’t be seen again for years — in fact, the degree to which Captain Power integrates live action with computer animation is probably still unheard of in television (Yes, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and later incarnations of Star Trek would all do that sort of thing, but not for a substantial chunk of every episode), but it’s hardly bad enough to sink the show. I think the biggest problem for the Soldiers of the Future is just down to it being 1988, and that TV doesn’t work that way yet. In the years to come, Sci-Fi/Fantasy TV would learn how to do things like series-long plot arcs (The X-Files), maintaining a lighthearted tone while tackling adult storylines (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), telling whole stories while maintaining a heavy action component (Hercules), conveying the horror of war on a human level (Battlestar Galactica), and transforming heroes fighting robots after the apocalypse (Power Rangers RPM).

Here in 1988, what we get instead is a strange Frankenstein’s monster of a show. As though Landmark Entertainment dug up some discarded corpse of a ’50s sci-fi serial and reanimated it by summoning the ghost of the more sophisticated television of the late ’90s. Maybe it walks funny, it’s got bolts in its neck and stitches on its forehead, and it’ll freak out if it sees fire. But, y’know, I don’t think it really deserves the torches and the pitchforks.

Next time, I’ll talk a little bit about the legacy of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, and about the plans they had for a second season. But before that, I’ve got one last diversion I want to go on…

To be concluded…

Tim DuniganTim Dunigan (Captain Power) would go on to star in four Davy Crockett TV-movies for The Wonderful World of Disney during the 1988-1989 TV season. His acting career would slowly peter out afterward, whittling down to one-off guest roles. His most recent acting role was as police chief Crockett in the 2011 direct-to-video Buddy-Cop-Dog movie k-911.

Peter MacNeillPeter MacNeill (Hawk) remains a regular face in Canadian drama, appearing in Rin Tin Tin: K-9 Cop, Call Me Fitz, PSI Factor, and Queer as Folk. He also appeared in The Good Witch series of Hallmark Channel TV-movies, and is currently appearing in the series, which debuted at the end of February.

Sven-Ole ThorsenSven-Ole Thorsen (Tank) continues to work as an actor and stunt man. His most notable role to date is as Tigris of Gaul in Gladiator. He is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most frequent collaborator

Maurice Dean WintMaurice Dean-Wint (Scout) was a regular such shows as TekWar, PSI Factor, and Haven, and starred as RoboCable in Robocop: Prime Directives, Quentin in Cube, and Luther in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Jessica SteenJessica Steen (Pilot) went on to appear in Armageddon. She was a regular on Homefront, Earth 2, Murder One, Killer Instinct, Flashpoint, and Bullet in the Face. She had a recurring role on NCIS and originated the role of Dr. Elizabeth Weir on Stargate SG-1. She currently appears in Heartland and Canooks.

David HemblenDavid Hemblen (Lord Dread/Lyman Taggart) has continued to work in film and television, particularly the works of Atom Egoyan, but is best known these days as the voice of Magneto in the X-Men animated series. He was offered the role in the live-action movie but had to turn it down. He also voiced Asmodeus in Redwall.

Ted DillionTedd Dillion (Overmind) voiced Commandant Lassard in the animated Police Academy series, and Hammer in Cadillacs and Dinosaurs.

Deryck HazelDeryck Hazel (Soaron) has no film credits after 1990. I found a reference in a book to a Toronto-area actor of that name who died in the early ’90s, but I can’t confirm it’s the same person.

John S DaviesJohn S. Davies (Blastarr) had a recurring role in Prison Break and was a frequent guest star on Walker Texas Ranger.

Bruce GrayBruce Gray (Mentor/Stuart Power) was an occasional guest on Dallas, Matlock and Murder, She Wrote. He played Admiral Chekote in Star Trek the Next Generation and Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and appeared as Vulcan patriarch Surak in Star Trek Enterprise. He also had recurring roles in Medium, Falling Skies, and How I Met Your Mother.

Don FrancksDon Francks (Lakki) spent much of the ’90s as a voice actor, with credits on the animated A.L.F., Police Academy, X-Men, The Legend of Zelda, Swamp Thing, and Cadilacs and Dinosaurs, as well as voicing a series of animated adaptations of the works of Richard Scarry. He also has regular live-action roles in La Femme Nikita and Hemlock Grove.

Lorne CossetteLorne Cossette (Cypher) would go on to appear in The Twilight Zone, Street Legal, Two if By Sea, The Song Spinner and Darkman 3 before his death in 2001.

Larry DiTillioLarry DiTillio (Writer) went on to write for such shows as Babylon 5 and Beast Wars: Transformers.

J. Michael Straczynski (Writer) created Babylon 5. I mean, he did other stuff too, for which he is justly famous, but it’s unlikely anything he does with the rest of his life is going to top the epic levels of geek cred he got for creating Babylon 5.J. Michael Straczynski

Gary GoddardGary Goddard (Creator) went on to create Skeleton Warriors, but most of his work has been creating dark rides and 3D short films for amusement parks, including T2 3D: Battle Across Time and a segment for The Star Trek Experience. He’s currently working on Broadway 4D, a high-budget multimedia extravaganza that will feature Christina Aguilera as Eva Peron provided it ever actually happens (there is some doubt). And, of course, Phoenix Rising.

5 thoughts on “And So Do I (Captain Power: Retribution, Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Deconstruction Round Up, All Deconstructions | The Slacktiverse

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  3. Nate

    Hi! Thank you very much for blogging all this! I’d never watched any of it, though I read the news adverts at the time about the interactive game technology and the CGI, which seemed to be the only part that made any waves at all.

    Now that the show has reached its conclusion, I’d like to ask you what you think about the (to me) most obvious reading of it: that, along with most other ’80s ‘kids cartoon’ shows, it was essentially a propaganda allegory about fighting Communist invasion of the USA. Because 80s, and because Cold War.

    To me, ‘Lord Dread’ is primarily, like the Borg, a Communist allegory, and ‘digitization’ is foremost not a rape metaphor but something even scarier for Reagan conservatives: intellectual conversion to Communism, which was since the Korean War always feared as a form of mind control. Dread is building a ‘machine empire’, which is how conservatives viewed the USSR, and by extension, Marxism and anything involving ‘big government’. The metaphor of a centralised ‘machine’, with soldiers and political actors ‘plugged into it’ was very often used as a metaphor for government by central committee. And I suspect even as the Reagan team started wars around the globe and financed literal fascists in Asia and South America and pushed the USSR to extinction, they were still deeply terrified that they might nevertheless fail – and that a future generation of American children might literally have to fight back against a central Communist government in the USA.

    In that light, some of the more nonsensical elements of the Captain Power scenario seem a little better motivated. Of course the villain is an evil mastermind who wants to control everything, because that’s what Communists do in the Reagan-conservative nightmare. Of course the heroes are a rag-tag militia working out of a former military base with what scraps of advanced military technology they can muster, because that would be the situation if a Communist takeover occurred (and perhaps how the political conservatives actually viewed themselves – and still do, to a large extent, even after their domination of the Reagan/Bush years). And more to the point of course the struggle revolves around, much more than merely killing, Dread’s threat of ‘digitising’ (ie, propagandising and intellectually converting) the population – because that’s precisely what conservative fear of Communism centred on. Far more than a mere military threat, it was the fear of ‘brainwashing’ ordinary God-fearing private-liberty-lovin’ citizens into ‘Stalinist drones’ that drove the conservative paranoia.

    You mentioned the ‘Land, Sea and Air’ elements in the early design of the show, which suggests a very strong iconography of US military mythology, which also ties it closely to deliberate conservative propaganda. I’m going here also by my exposure to right-wing underground religious propaganda in the 1980s, which also centred deeply around the idea of ‘forced conversion’, and was part of how the religious right recruited the Evangelical subculture into opposing Communism – and then ‘liberalism’ more widely imagined. This all tied in with the idea of ‘end times theology’ and a ‘beast’, portrayed from the 1970s as a Communist-style dictator. And, sadly, I can plot a direct line from this ‘end times mythology’ into the ‘UN / FEMA camps / black helicopters’ mythology in the late 80s / early 90s, and from there via a weird fusion with the UFO mythos to The X-Files. Which show, I note, appeared on Fox TV very quickly after William Jefferson Clinton was elected US President, an event which was a huge shock to US conservatives at the time, breaking a 12 year lock on the Presidency, and which escalated the dirty war of US domestical politics into unprecedented levels of rumour and mud-slinging. For the first time in 12 years, it was politically advantageous to conservatives for the population to question their government; and oddly enough, suddenly ‘trust no one; your government is in league with evil foreigners’ became a hugely promoted pop culture vortex. An accident? A very timely and happy one for conservatives, if so.

    Anyway, I’d be interested in your response, as I haven’t seen much in the way of political analysis of the Captain Power scenario. To me the political orientation stands out as clearly as that of GI Joe, M.A.S.K., Rambo 2, and V.

  4. Ross Post author

    I think that the communist angle is a legitimate take on Captain Power, but in context, it’s hard to tell how much of that is intentional (It is hard to tell how much of ANYTHING in this show is intentional) and how much is a side effect of the extent to which it draws from ’50s sci fi tropes. The Nazi allusions are much more overt, but, of course, conflating nazis and communists is not exactly unheard of in popular culture.

    It’s hard for me to see a communism analogy as anything but very indirect, particularly in light of the fact that the writers had intended had the series progressed to reveal that “conversion” wasn’t Overmind’s goal, but rather it just planned to “delete” humanity en masse once it no longer needed to exploit Dread’s idealism. You could probably draw a red scare parallel out of that too, of course, casting Dread himself as, say, a left-wing academic seduced by marxist teachings, who becomes a useful idiot for the Red Menace that just wants to bury us all, but I’m really hard-pressed to see a show called Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future trying something that complicated. I think the military aspects speak not to Reagan-era military fetishism per se (It plays too hard and loose with the details, assigning ranks and branches of service basically at random), but it’s certainly not far off, more like the related libertarian-militia-style military fetishism.

    All that said, though, if you’re interested in really aggrssively obvious Reagan-era-politics red scare analogies in your popular media of the late ’80s, you will absolutely want to swing by again on April 8.

  5. Pingback: Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future: Index | A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

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