Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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"Power on."


"Earth, 2147: The legacy of the Metal Wars, when man fought machine and machines won. BioDreads: Monstrous creations that hunt down human survivors and digitize them. Volcania: Centre of the BioDread Empire, stronghold and fortress of Lord Dread, feared ruler of this new order. But from the fires of the metal wars arose a new breed of warrior, born and trained to bring down Lord Dread and his BioDread Empire. They were Soldiers of the Future, mankind's last hope! Their leader: Captain Jonathan Power, master of the incredible powersuits which transform each soldier into a one-man attack force! Major Matthew "Hawk" Masterson, fighter of the sky! Lieutenant Michael "Tank" Ellis, Ground Assault Unit! Sergeant Robert "Scout" Baker, Espionage and communications! And Corporal Jennifer "Pilot" Chase, Tactical Systems Expert! Together, they form the most powerful fighting force in Earth's history. Their creed: To protect all life! Their promise: To end Lord Dread's rule! Their name....CAPTAIN POWER AND THE SOLDIERS OF THE FUTURE!"


In the late 1980s, it became clear that in the next couple of decades, cable television was going to allow the number of stations the average viewer received to increase from, say, four to, say, four hundred.

As things turned out, this was not a huge deal, but at the time, this was not an easy thing to get your mind around. Network executives scratched their heads in confusion as they tried to work out how in the world they were going to fill that much airtime.

Given how it eventually turned out, it may be hard to believe that pretty much everyone was convinced that it was going to involve "interactive" TV. In the future, we were told, at every commercial break, you, the viewer, would decide how you wanted the story to play out. If the hero got the girl, turn to channel 127; if he gets killed by the villain instead, turn to channel 138. It is probably not coincidental that this was around the same time that "Choose Your Own Adventure" books were a big thing. Early adopters of DVD may recall that there were early promises that it would also lead to this sort of thing. Of course, as it turned out, branching movies and even multiple camera angles ended up a feature utilized almost exclusively by pornography.

The thing was, Hollywood had precisely zero experience at this sort of thing, so they figured they'd need practice. There were a number of experiments in this direction in the late 80s, such as a murder mystery where viewers called in between acts to vote on who would turn out to have dunnit. But one of the more radical experiments in interactive television was Captain Power And The Soldiers Of The Future.

The story followed the adventures of Captain Johnathan Power and his team of freedom fighters on a post-apocalyptic Earth where most of the population had been converted into robotic warriors by the evil Lord Dredd. Fortunately, Captain Power and his team had the ability to transform into armored super-soldiers by standing in a special booth and saying, "Power on."

The interactive element was this: the show was clearly and heavily Merchandise-Driven. Captain Power action figures interacted with electronic toys based on the show's transformation booth, fighter jets, and other hardware. These could interact with each other: the jets fired a strobe of light which a receptor on another jet could register as a hit. After five hits, the pilot would be ejected. Though the centerpiece of the merchandise line, the jets themselves only appear in the two-parter "A Summoning of Thunder", in which their appearance is so incidental as to smack of Product Placement (The bulk of the episode is a flashback, with the jets appearing in a few seconds of framing story).

But the really cool thing the toys could do was interact with the show itself: various things in the show emitted a strobe effect which would register on the toy: villains and heroes had strobes which the jets would register as targets (Red for villains, blue for heroes), weapons fire emitted a yellow strobe that would register as a hit (and viewers were gently reminded that hiding the jets behind their backs was cheating). The "power on" sequence would both reset the damage count on a jet, and activate the "power on" cycle in the transformation booth toy. At the end of each episode, one of the characters would step through the Fourth Wall to tell viewers what constituted a good score. Around the same time, three animated videos were released, Future Force Training, Bio-Dread Assault, and Raid On Volcania, which fans could "Train" on between episodes. These featured the viewer as new recruit, designated "Pilot-1", who received training from the captain himself in piloting the XT-7 fighter, and undertook some dangerous missions. These episodes were animated by Artmic, one of the companies responsible for Bubblegum Crisis and many other anime of the late 80's, and were surprisingly well-animated (they also recycle sound effects from Bubblegum Crisis).

The show was a relatively early TV example of dystopian Cyberpunk, and, though ostensibly aimed at children, was so dark and violent (Anyone Can Die, which means people got Killed Off for Real) that one wonders how many parents were really comfortable letting their children watch it. All the same, it is difficult to believe that J. Michael Straczynski (later of Babylon 5 fame) was one of the creative minds behind it. (He did leave the show, though, when level of merchandising became really excessive in his opinion.) Other big Sci-Fi creators involved in the show were Larry DiTillio (of Beast Wars fame), New Teen Titans creator Marv Wolfman, veteran novelist and scriptwriter Michael Reaves, and Marc Scott Zicree of The Twilight Zone Companion and Magic Time fame. Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber was also slated to write for the unproduced second season.

Beyond the strobing villains, the special effects in the show made extensive use of CGI, and it was the first TV show to use CGI extensively. Watching it now, one can see why, since the computer-generated characters and sequences are of lower quality than one can achieve on the typical PC of today using only free software such as DAZ|Studio, POV-Ray and Blender. Still, at the time, it was mind-blowing.

The show was clearly inspired by the Sentai genre of Japanese toku, probably by Super Sentai specifically (though it had almost as much in common with the related "Metal Heroes" franchise), and as such is something of a spiritual ancestor to Power Rangers.

The series will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2012 with a long-awaited DVD release.

(And before anyone points it out, there were indeed earlier experiments in "interactive television", probably starting with Winky Dink, or even on radio with Doctor Christian. But the appearance of an interactive aspect in Captain Power seems to be part of a specific drive that went on at this time.)

Tropes used in Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future include:

Straczynski: "I've never talked about this before -- said I was in a thoughtful mood -- but I've known several people, friends, who've taken their own lives. In one case, I spoke to her just beforehand. Tried, through the phone lines, to reach her one more time, pull her back from the edge. I couldn't. Years pass. Time comes for me to write the last filmed episode of Power. Jennifer Chase is going to die, partly of her injuries, partly of her own volition. Part of my life went into that scene, in the way it was constructed, and what was said. And what was not said, what never had the chance to be said, and thus still burns. I knew that, at the crucial moment of that scene, he couldn't be near her, as I wasn't near my had to be long-distance, hearing but not seeing her, and the terrible pain of arriving too late. I cannot watch that episode without crying. Ever."


Blastarr: Surrender, by order of Lord Dread.
Pilot: Go to hell. (pushes self-destruct button of the Power Base reactor)