Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future
"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.)
- After the End : Via Robot War.
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Overmind went evil after becoming rampant. Mentor, given the personality and appearance of Stuart Power, is fatherly and benign.
- Airstrike Impossible: The Star Wars-style trench run against the control center for the Icarus Platform.
- Also all three of the animated videos, ranging from a mad dash down a gratuitous radioactive tunnel to an assault through Volcania itself.
- All Your Base Are Belong to Us
- Antagonist in Mourning: Lord Dread visiting Captain Power's father's grave.
- Anyone Can Die
- Apocalypse How: The series starts off at Class 2, with only isolated pockets of civilization still around. Overmind is aiming specifically for a Class 3a; given the scope and methods of Project New Order, it could end up as a Class 4.
- Battleship Raid: The climactic battle of the second Future Force Training video.
- Big Bad: Lord Dread and Overmind
- Brain Uploading: Warlord-class BioDreads are equipped with Digitizers that can reduce an entire human being to data, which is then stored in Overmind. Although the process can be reversed, victims tend to be irrevocably changed by the experience.
- By the Power of Greyskull
- Captain Superhero
- Christmas Episode: The worst possible kind.
- Cool Ship: The Jumpship, the XT-7 fighter (attached to the top of the Jumpship,) and the enemy Phantom Stryker.
- Cut Short
- Darkest Hour: ...at which point, the series ends.
- Dave Barry: He brought up the series in one of his columns and in particular noted the ship that can fire at enemies on the screen. "[A toy company spokesperson] did not say whether it also would work on Geraldo Rivera."
- Downer Ending: And HOW! (But only because of Executive Meddling as detailed below.)
- It doesn't count as Bittersweet Ending because not only is Pilot dead and the heroes' base destroyed, Lord Dread clearly won the day and is last seen preparing for an cybernetic upgrade to make him even less human, meaning the war is about to get worse.
- The Dragon: The pterodactyl-like Soaron to Lord Dread.
- Dressing as the Enemy: Scout's primary method of infiltration.
- Executive Meddling: In an article from Starlog magazine, the writers and producers talked about how the series was going to become Darker and Edgier (as if it weren't dark and edgy already) and break away from the half-hour commercial format that Mattel wanted. Amongst the highlights that were mentioned included Overmind and Dread simply forgetting the whole idea of digitizing humanity in favor of simply exterminating them wholesale, La Résistance picking up a Dark Action Girl (callsign Ranger) to replace Pilot's loss, Power slowly eroding towards a Heroic BSOD while Hawk ended up becoming the de facto group leader, and eventually Soaron doing a Heel Face Turn when it becomes clear he's been replaced by Blastarr as The Dragon. Needless to say, the head honchos at Mattel were pissed at the season finale - which would have signalled the beginning of the shift - and pulled the plug on the show before we could see the transition.
- Family-Friendly Firearms: Both the Power Team and their enemies use laser guns. Several characters also use firearms, but they don't do a thing against Bio-Dreads.
- Five-Man Band
- The Hero: Captain Jonathan Power. A good strategist and a fine soldier, but impetuous, immature, and still learning what it means to be a leader.
- The Lancer: Major Matthew "Hawk" Masterson. A war veteran and friend of Johnathan's father, Stuart.
- The Smart Guy: Sergeant Robert "Scout" Baker. Good with infiltration of both enemy bases as well as their computer networks.
- The Big Guy: Lieutenant Michael "Tank" Ellis. The team's heavy weapon and Party Tank, short on character development.
- The Chick: Corporal Jennifer "Pilot" Chase. Rescued from the Dread Youth and quite The Stoic; ironically, becomes the heart and soul of the team.
- Gameplay and Story Segregation: In the Future Force Training animation videos, there are hundreds of BioDreads in Soaron and Blastarr's units... only not quite as durable as the real thing. In the actual series, only one of each class exists, but they're much, much more fearsome.
- Dying Declaration of Love
- Healing Factor: The warlord-class BioDreads can regenerate from any damage, even being blown to smithereens.
- The Juggernaut: Blastarr.
- Killed Off for Real
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 friend...it 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."
- This particular case is loaded with tropes: the character took the time to go through personal effects and mementos from previous adventures, her relationship with Jon is finally put front-and-center (but can't express her true feelings, saying, "It can wait," instead,) is (unwittingly) left to Hold the Line from an enemy invasion, and has to perform a Heroic Sacrifice to save the Power Base's sensitive data when the base is overrun. At least she got to destroy Blastarr (we hope) along the way.
- Kill Sat: The Icarus Platform that the Power Team has to destroy before the assault on Volcania.
- La Résistance: The Power Team, along with several groups of allies.
- Machine Worship: At least one sequence shows Lord Dread dictating what seems to be a Bible for the machine empire; and his speeches to the
HitlerDread Youth seem near-evangelistic. One evil spy actually near-religiously praises "the Machine" and practically describes the team's heroic heel-face-turncoat as a heretic.
- Master Computer: The Overmind intelligence, originally designed to stop wars between countries, initiated the Metal Wars against mankind itself.
- Mecha-Mooks: The Dread Troopers
- The Mole: Laccki is this for Overmind, working in Lord Dread's service.
- Laccki, it should be noted, is a terrible mole: he lacks anything even vaguely resembling stealth or subtlety, and Dread is suspicious of him from the very moment of his creation. Laccki is such a terrible mole, in fact, that one suspects his real purpose is not to spy on Dread, but rather to remind Dread that Overmind doesn't fully trust him.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Lord Dread
- Nintendo Hard: The Battleship Raid and Storming the Castle sequences in the second and third Future Force Training videos toss the player into the yellow-strobe equivalent of Bullet Hell.
- No Fourth Wall
- Omnicidal Maniac: Overmind.
- One-Way Visor: the mooks and the heroes' Powered Armor have these.
- Opening Narration
- Powered Armor: The Power Suits.
- Precision "D" Strike: Actually occurs in one episode. There's also a Precision "H" Strike in another.
- Putting on the Reich: Dread's Human goons are all dressed as Nazis. Interestingly, the actor playing Taggart/Dread also looks frightening similar to Adolf Hitler, sans the iconic mustache.
- Robot War: This formed the background of the series. There was a war against the machines, and the machines won.
- Serkis Folk
- Shout-Out: To Star Wars's Trench Run during the assault on Volcania. The ending credits recycle this scene, presumably to allow kids to interact with it with the toys.
- Storming the Castle: The Soldiers of the Future must storm Volcania to stop Project New Order.
- Taking You with Me: Part of a Heroic Sacrifice.
Blastarr: Surrender, by order of Lord Dread.
Pilot: Go to hell. (pushes self-destruct button of the Power Base reactor)
- Teleporters and Transporters: The Jump Gates, which the Soldiers of the Future use to get around the country. Ultimately became their own undoing when Lord Dread acquired their access frequency.
- Title Scream
- Transformation Sequence: Power On!
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Lyman Taggart sincerely thought that humanity would be improved by becoming a cybernetic organism. After becoming Lord Dread, though...
- The whole idea behind Overmind in the first place was as a computer with which Taggart and Power could take control of all the world's military robots, in order to end the years of stalemated warfare that had followed from the invention of robot soldiers.
- "What Now?" Ending: The fate of the Soldiers of the Future after the series finale.
- Whole-Episode Flashback: "The Summoning Of Thunder," a Death by Origin Story for Stuart Power, and Start of Darkness for
Lyman TaggartLord Dread.