Binge 'n' Purge - Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future
I get that I’m going to sound like an old fart who is clearly a child of the 80s, but man, they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore…and to be perfectly honest, in today’s oversensitive/overprotective climate, I EXTREMELY doubt they’d be allowed to! Set your preferred method of time travel (WAYBAC, TARDIS, DeLorean, sling-shot-ing around the sun…) back to the decade where the Reagan Administration had lifted restrictions on children’s programming, allowing for toy companies to factor in to it. Sure, in 2015, we can see both the positives and negatives to this. It’s given us long-standing IPs such as Transformers and Masters of the Universe, but at the same time, it’s been the reason why otherwise good to great programs have been cancelled [Yeah…the cancellation of Green Lantern – The Animated Series due to no support for it on toy shelves is still a sore spot. – Ed.]. Another product of this then-new arrangement was Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Many factors played into the show’s untimely demise after only one season: a retro, yet silly, sounding name, parents’ groups railing against this new paradigm of children’s programming, and, at least from my perspective, a constant shifting/shuffling of when it was on amongst them. And, after binge watching the entire series on DVD, that’s a goddamn shame.
Why do I say it could never get made today? Well, you see, back then, children’s programming didn’t really shy away from violence unless it specifically chose to. For example, Super Friends, which would later evolve into Super Powers, didn’t really have much in the way of character to character physical confrontation, i.e. Superman never really punched anyone…not even characters that could take that level of power, such as Darkseid or Bizzaro. He-Man was similar. Sure, he’d punch a mountain or something and block with his sword…but never really attacked. On the flip side of that, you had Transformers, G.I. Joe, Robotech, Voltron and others that embraced the fact that the sides of good and evil were indeed in conflict…and fought accordingly. What parents’ groups failed to realize then (and now) is two-fold. First, these programs showed that violence had its cost. Voltron was formed only as a last resort. The war between the SDF-1 and the Zentradi cost lives. Probably most famously, Autobot commander Optimus Prime died in battle. These, in my mind, were all rather poignant moments and certainly didn’t make me want to grow up and shoot lots of people or bring a gun to school to take out a bully or other such unfounded fears. Why do I bring this up? Well, because Captain Power certainly had plenty of gun battles. And unlike all the shows I listed above…this was live action…mostly…we’ll come back to that. On top of that, the toys for the show allowed viewers to partake in said gun battles and, if their jet/gun took too much damage, the pilot would be flipped out. Having been able to experience it, I’ll tell you, a lot of the time I didn’t know if I was hitting or being hit…but when my pilot would pop out…damn that was cool.
Let me back pedal a bit…maybe it could be made today…but the target audience would be VASTLY different. While marketed as a children’s programming, this post-apocalyptic adventure show would encompass concepts far from most children’s minds; genocide, propaganda and, as mentioned above, the cost of war. The machines’ main goal, spearheaded by Lord Dread (who would go on to inspire the creation and look of Star Trek’s Borg), was the digitization of the remaining humans into the Overmind…the supercomputer at the heart of the Empire. Digitization? Yeah, the transformation of the physical human being into data. Wanna guess the survival rate on that? It’s a nice round number… On top of that, there’s the entirety of Project New Order…which, while I certainly don’t want to reveal anything, well…let’s just say any sort of mercy toward humanity wasn’t on the Bio-Dread agenda. As for propaganda, the show highlighted an aspect of Dread Empire that only after one had a knowledge or World War II would any viewer really start to comprehend…the Dread Youth. Stop and admire the balls it takes to do that…incorporate an analog to the Hitler Youth into your future TV show for kids. The wonderful thing about all of this and about many of the best examples of children’s programming (then and now) is that it never talked down to the audience. It told the story it wanted to tell and, if you wanted to enjoy it on as many levels as you could then you, the audience member, had to up your game…do the research, learn new words and so forth. As a blossoming nerd, you’re damn right I took up the challenge…and, upon fresh viewing of the series much later on in my adult years, there was indeed much that I had missed. And, upon knowing that, I’m both amazed it got through the stringent filter of Standards and Practices and extremely thankful that it did. Looking at the names behind the stories though, this level of depth and excellence shouldn’t come as a surprise. J. Michael Straczysnki (Thor, Babylon 5, Superman – Earth One, He-Man, She-Ra), Larry DiTillio (Transformers Beast Wars, He-Man original and 2002 reboot) Michael Reaves (Batman The Animated Series, Star Trek, Transformers) and others…and as you can see from what’s listed in parenthesis, if none of these shows/films/comics fall in your wheelhouse, then buddy, you are on the WAY wrong website. It’s not all good though. As lofty as my praise is for the themes and content of the show, well, it just doesn’t escape from the 80s “nacho factor”. Yeah, there’s some cheese here folks. Much of it is tolerable and doesn’t jar you out of the show’s atmosphere too much…but I have to admit, there is one thing that really bothered me: the code names. ‘Scout’, ‘Tank’, ‘Pilot’, ‘Hawk’…those aren’t code names…they’re functions! Take a look at G. I. Joe…’Shipwreck’, ‘Tunnel Rat’, ‘Snake Eyes’, ‘Scarlett’, ‘Duke’, ‘Flint’…THOSE are code names!
Pulling away from story and moving into visuals, well, here’s where the cracks start to show. That’s not the fault of the series or those behind it in any way, shape or form. For its time, what they were trying to do was amazing; incorporate fully CG characters in with live-action elements, mixing computer and practical effects and heavy use of blue/green screen effects. These are things we take for granted now and are light years away from where they were in the 80s. Back then, this stuff was very much in its infancy…and it very much shows when looking back on it. Still, many of the folks that played a role in this prototype technology then are now at the forefront of the Hollywood special effects trade. One name that springs to mind? Rob Coleman, who ended up being the lead of animation on the Star Wars prequels. And given how much of the elements in those films were animated [Kinda like all of it. – Ed.], let’s just say he did okay for himself.
Lastly, I really should comment on the acting…but you know, I really can’t. And maybe that’s the highest compliment I can give the show. I mean, sure, I highly doubt any of the cast was up for Oscar, Golden Globe or Emmy considerations that lone season…but credit where it’s due. In a show that involved what could be perceived as silly costumes (they certainly weren’t in a child’s eye and looking at them through adult eyes…well…they still stand up pretty well!), acting against things that weren’t there (a new thing back then) and incorporating lore and dialect from an imagined post-apocalyptic scenario…well, there are plenty of opportunities to come off as very stupid or overact or…well…just about anything. I mean, come on, even known Ah-nold associate Sven Thorsen couldn’t take you out of a scene…and if you’ve ever seen his turn in, well, pretty much anything else he’s ever been in…you’ll know that is one hell of an accomplishment. [Oh, come on, you’re just still mad you sat through the entirety of the Jesse Ventura headliner, Abraxas. – Ed.]
All in all, a series like this just makes you shake your head. It’s a shame it wasn’t able to enter into a second season. It’s a shame the toys, while successful, didn’t pull in the boatloads of cash that Mattel had hoped, having gotten a little bit drunk on the popularity of the Masters of the Universe line (this would be a huge factor in the cancellation of the series, as it was funded by Mattel themselves). It’s a shame that while the series was released on DVD in 2011, in celebration of the show’s 25 anniversary, those discs have since gone out of print and have become pretty pricey on the secondary market. Most of all, it’s a shame that, as of this writing, there hasn’t been some way to revive this extremely deep, well thought out and still timely story. Yes, there are attempts to revive/reboot the show, under the very appropriate title Phoenix Rising, but those efforts have been mired at least since this DVD set’s release.
If there’s some way you can track down either the DVDs or the episodes in general, Captain Power is certainly worth a look. Don’t let the name of the show fool you, there’s some good, deep material here and deserves to if not rise again, at least be recognized for what it accomplished in its all too short run.