Friday, April 22, 2011

Nostalgia Theater: Captain Power Edition

Here's a show that meant a lot to me as a wee one but went mostly ignored by the rest of the world at large. Back in the '80s, the practice of creating kids' programming specifically engineered by toy companies to sell their wares was alarmingly widespread, due mainly to the loosening of restrictions in the early part of the decade that prevented such commercialization (thank you, President Reagan!). While I agree in principle (especially now that I'm a parent) that toymakers shouldn't ply their trade on unsuspecting children, I also have to admit -- however grudgingly -- that huge swaths of happy childhood memories can be owed to those loosened restrictions, as they allowed for such toy-based fare as He-Man, G.I. JoeTransformers, and of course, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.

As dreamed up by the marketings whizzes at Mattel, clearly on the hunt for a new boys' line after He-Man had begun to flame out, the hook with Captain Power was that it wouldn't just get kids into the storyline and make them want to buy the toys, it would actually involve them in the storyline with their toys, thanks to an interactive component built into the product line and TV show. How well that actually worked is certainly up for debate, but I'll get to that in a second. Premiering in syndication in fall of '87, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was that rare live action entry into the kiddie sweeps, and its fairly ambitious scope and execution -- helped along by head writers J. Michael Straczynski and Larry DiTillio -- tried like heck to break it out of the narrow "sell toys" marching orders that prompted its birth.

Created by Gary Goddard (director of the the live action Masters of the Universe flick, also in '87), Captain Power was set in the year 2147, where a Terminator-esque war between humankind and machines has left human civilization in ruin and pockets of survivors scattered across the country (world?) are being systematically tracked down and "digitized" -- stored as electronic data -- by their new machine overlords. Leading the resistance is the titular hero, Jonathan Power (played by Tim Dunigan, whose greatest claim to fame before then was playing "Face" in The A-Team's pilot episode) who, along with his four teammates, utilizes a new "power suit" technology to strike back, lead guerilla attacks, and just generally try to reclaim the planet.

In telling its tale of post-apocalyptic survival, Captain Power was steeped in commentaries on genocide, fascism, collaboration, and betrayal. It even culminated -- in the last of its scant 22 episodes -- with the shocking (well, it was shocking to nine-year old me, anyway) death of a longstanding character. This was dark stuff for what was ostensibly children's programming, and once it got out that this kids' show was actively encouraging its audience to participate in the war by using their "PowerJet" toy to shoot at the TV (I never owned one, but my understanding is that it worked better in practice than execution), the fires of controversy were suitably stoked to ensure that Captain Power enjoyed a short shelf life, both in the toy aisles and in TV syndication (despite the fact that a second season was entirely written, and is probably sitting in a drawer somewhere).

I think the problem, ultimately, is that Captain Power, in trying to appeal to the kids who would want the toys and the grownups who would want mature sci-fi, got stuck between both demos. The grim subject matter was probably too intense for the little ones, while most adults likely took one look at that title and said, "I'm good, thanks." And at a steep $1 mil an episode, that wasn't the response Mattel was hoping for, so goodnight, Captain. Bringing things full circle though, at the recent WonderCon a few weeks back, I was trolling the shelves of dealers selling DVDs that are *ahem* currently unavailable, and came upon a set of the complete series, which I dutifully scooped right up. Re-watching it now, twenty-three years removed from when I first saw it growing up in Saudi Arabia, I was shocked to find how well it holds up.

While the kidvid origins (and budgetary limitations) are readily apparent, it's also clear that Straczynski (who made his bones on The Real Ghostbusters and would go on to create cult fave Babylon 5) and DiTillio (also late of Ghostbusters, who would head up the terrific Beast Wars: Transformers series in the late '90s) invested it with considerable heart. As usually happens with me, my buying that *ahem* extra-legal DVD set was followed immediately by the news earlier this week that some kind of revival is in the works, as is (naturally) an official DVD release. *sigh* Of course there is. Still, this is one set I'd happily buy again, and I'm hoping it will be rediscovered both by folks like me, who loved it as kids, as well as those who might have missed out entirely the first time around.

Check out the first part of the first episode below:


Anonymous said...

I came upon this series in re-runs, long after the fires of controversy over the toys and advocacy groups' complaints had died down.

It was airing on a kids' network, and I was in my mid-teens. I like a good story, and was pretty well blown away by the complexity of the story-telling in the handful of episodes I managed to see. "This is a *kids' show* ??!" I recall thinking.

Since I hadn't a clue of the toy connection, I was in no way tarnished by the commercialization/gimmickry of those flashing chestplates on the tin-can clickers.

Dread, I thought, was a rip-off of the Borg (little did I know of which came first), but was still impressed by his menace. He wasn't the typical kid-show 'friendly' baddie; Dread exuded menace. His plans for world domination weren't cheesy and low-brow.

In an episode like 'Judgment', people got dead and stayed dead. No 'stunned' or knocked out cold silliness. The episode tackled (as Zaki mentioned) genocide and the prosecution of a character for what would amount to war crimes. Heavy theme for a children's program!

This was a show that deserved so much more recognition than it received back then. The fact that people are still talking about it and remembering it nearly 25 years later is a sign of the impact it made on the hearts and minds of the fans.

Zaki said...

Thanks so much for sharing your memories! This is one show that was definitely a cut above. I don't know if any revival could be a patch on the original, but even if it doesn't, it wouldn't tarnish what they managed to accomplish here. Glad I was able to kindle some nostalgia!

Anonymous said...

I caught CP by accident when the first episode was airing in September 1987. The name was hokey, but the opening caught me and I stayed for what remained of the season. Except, of course, when the stations in my area stopped carrying it and never aired "Retribution"!!! Imagine the horror of THAT revelation, when I found out Pilot was the one at the base!

(I know it's silly, but I still believe Pilot made it out of there. Digitized and injured, yes, but she was going to make it out of there!)

I was not part of the target audience. As a female in my late teens, it wasn't supposed to catch my attention. As someone interested in scifi, however, it was easy to see just why I had gotten hooked. The storylines, the character development, the breadcrumbs left in each episode that were never pulled together to give us any kind of ending. I didn't care at all about the toys - I just wanted more STORY.

I wasn't quite clear from the post by Anonymous (above) whether s/he believed the Borg came first or not. They arrived at ST:TNG in 1989, well after CP had been canceled. It would be interesting to know how much influence Dread had in their outward appearance.

I have little desire for a reboot - there's really no way to bring back what the original held for me. The SFX and CGI would be improved, of course, but the characters, the story, the essence of the show can't be recreated. That is firmly held by the writers, the actors and actresses and the rest of the team involved back in the late 80s. Congratulations to THEM for creating something people are still talking about today.