Captain Power may be largely forgotten, but its legacy on 1980s television at the time is nothing short of extraordinary. The series borrows elements from the Terminator film series, but it's unique enough to stand on its own as a near-flawless example of strong storytelling, high production values and a set of characters that the viewer can actually care about.
For those who don't know, Captain Power takes place in the year 2147, after a horrific war between man and machine known as the "Metal Wars." While mankind stands on the brink of total extinction, some have sided with the machines led by Lord Dredd (David Hemblen), a former human who has since been turned into a cyborg to lead the machines to victory. Aiding him are Bio-Dreads, near-indestructable machines with coded D.N.A. who can regenerate their bodies after injury, and Overmind, a sentient computer A.I. who secretly influences Lord Dredd and enforces the will of the machine. The only thing standing in the way of Lord Dredd are a pocket of human resistance fighters who refuse to give up the fight and be enslaved to the machine. Among them are a group of specialized freedom fighters led by Captain Jonathan Power who each possess Power Suits which can be activated instantly to encase the wearer in high powered battle armor. Jonathan Power is the son of Dr. Stuart Gordon Power, an ally and fellow scientist to Dr. Lyman Taggart, the man who would later become obsessed with the perfection of the machine and become Lord Dredd. With both a personal and general stake in the battle against Dredd, Power and his team struggle to turn the tides of war to the favor of humanity, while working to unite the resistance into one final push against Dredd's stronghold.
When George Lucas made several concessions to 20th Century Fox during the negotiations for "The Empire Strikes Back," he managed to solidify ownership of one key area: merchandising rights. Seemingly overnight, merchandising become the buzz word of the 1980s entertainment industry. Lucas had reaped a massive fortune built on the success of the film which had an immediate and powerful effect on the rest of the industry. Soon, TV shows and movies were being created specifically to sell toys. The best examples of this were He-Man & The Masters of the Universe, the Transformers, M.A.S.K. and G.I. Joe, which served largely as vehicles to push toys. Captain Power followed suit, but to criticize the series of opting for straight merchandising cash-ins is woefully unfair. Captain Power had, among other things, an extremely strong writing team who recognized the (at the time) potential of a soap-driven plotline. As such, events in the show all tie into a master theme that centers around the events of the first season. Power's team learns early on of the existence of "Project New Order," a secretive agenda by the machines which is comprised of three terrifying phases designed to wipe out the remaining humans and establish global dominance of the machines. Several themes are revisited during the season, including the ambiguous existence of "Eden II," a supposed paradise of peace hidden deep within the wasteland of the scorched Earth, Power's growing romantic interest in compatriot Jennifer "Pilot" Chase, and a backstory of Stuart Power's relationship with Lyman Taggart before becoming irreversibly corrupted by Overmind. Amidst all the intrigue are some genuine heartfelt moments by the unlikeliest of characters, and a great degree of powerful dramatic elements.
Of course, there is action. Loads of it. Captain Power held the distinction of being one of the most exciting shows on television at the time, with raging, violent battles and well executed sequences. This, unfortunately, inflated the budget of the show to $1 million per episode, which was unheard of at the time, and eventually contributed to the downfall of the series after just one season. It's a shame, because the tragic events at the end of season 1 should have built immense anticipation for the next one. As such, Captain Power was destined to the hall of fallen heroes whose time was cut short despite the uniqueness, intelligence and quality of the work. The same fate would befall other amazing shows like Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles and other notable mentions.
The actors do a fine job in their respective roles, to varying degrees. Tim Dunigan claimed the role of Captain Power after being let go of the A-Team after the airing of the pilot episode. Here, Dunigan is able to project a young, yet commanding presence as the Captain, despite his tendency to get caught up in wooden delivery sometimes. Peter MacNeill shines as second-in-command Major Matthew "Hawk" Masterson, a fan favorite for his paternal presence and sense of gruff wit and determination. Schwarzenegger buddy Sven-Ole Thorsen brings his incredible brawn to the role of Lieutenant Michael "Tank" Ellis, a walking destroyer armed to the teeth. Thorsen isn't the sort able to tackle Shakespeare on any given day, and is mainly there as action fodder, but a favorite nonetheless. Maurice Dean Wint plays Sergeant Robert "Scout" Baker, who is perhaps the most underutilized of the entire crew with little to flesh out his character, save for a few brief scenes near the climax of the season. The one who truly shines is Jessica Steen as Corporal Jennifer "Pilot" Chase, an archetypal unlikely hero who escaped the BioDread Youth company (similar to the Hitler Youth) and was brought to Captain Power's team full of anger and hatred, only to be humanized and given a chance to atone for past sins. Several episodes in the season touch upon Chase's dark past, including a village who holds her on trial for a previous massacre. Steen's powerful, emotional delivery is so believable and genuine that it may astound those who ever thought this was just a show for young children eager to collect toys. Equally magnificent is David Hemblen's performance as Lord Dredd, who comes off cold, calculating and absolutely ruthless in his quest for ultimate order and perfection. Even more astonishing is Dredd's cybernetic getup which, to this day, would befit any good sci-fi blockbuster. The series also made heavy use of CGI, which at the time was still in its relative infancy. By today's standards, the flaws of the Bio-Dreads would be readily apparent, but there is no denying they're still a great spectacle to see. Soaron and Blastarr are equal parts comic relief and sheer terror, representing the near-unstoppable nature of the machine force. It's a shame their respective personalities and programming would not be fully revealed in a second season.
Captain Power is an undisputed classic. It was one of the first TV shows to tackle heavy (and frequently violent) sci-fi themes in a show designed for all ages, and it served as much more than just a revenue stream. What a shame that its timing was so wrong. I would have loved to see this series continue, but for now, I'll continue playing out what could have been in the depths of my own imagination.
on May 26, 2012
Before the agents of The Matrix, before the Borg of Star Trek: TNG, there was "Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future"! It was sort of a cross between "The Terminator" and "Star Wars", but was quite versatile, highly influential in Sci-Fi for many years to come. CP only made it only one season, cancelled after mothers' complaints about the intense violent edge in a kids' show got it kicked off Saturday mornings and thus found itself way over budget (at 1 mil per episode (unheard of in its time.) And it was made in Canada!
Back in the 80's, nothing--and I mean nothing--was as cool, as sexy or as violent for a kid as "Captain Power". It was like watching an adult military series with splashy Sci-Fi FX, and an imaginative dark intensity you only saw in some comic books. It was philosophical, political, emotional and action-packed. A team of talented writers (who would go on to write for "Star Trek: TNG" and "Babylon 5") made the stories intriguing and edgy, keeping its audience to the edge of their seats.
A super computer called OverMind has the power to `digitize' humans into bio-mechs: holographic replicants of their former selves who now serve the will of OverMind as agents of the New Order. Most of the world lies in ruins, as the Metal Wars have ended--and the machines won! A small band of warriors give the surviving Resistance hope: Captain Power and his team, equipped with heavy fire power and holographic armor suits that can be generated via a shoulder badge ("power on!") This `power' is maintained by a battery and thus their power can only last for a short time. Added to the fact that their numbers were few, battles were tense because time was always of the essence.
CP was the first live action series to incorporate CGI characters, and it worked because these actually were `digitized' agents! Sauron might look old school today but by 80's standards he was badass! He flew fast and fought hard, and he always shot to either kill or digitize--without mercy or pity. He was the right-hand bio-mech of Lord Dread--the main villain. Dread should be considered among the great enigmatic villains of Sci-Fi History: such as the Terminator, Darth Vader, Kahn Singh and the Borg. He was half man, half machine: symbolic of one who has lost his humanity to the system and seeks to draw all others down that same path.
Ultimately CP is about humanity overcoming an opposing system that smells an awful lot like Fascism. I think, without sounding too extreme, that it's fair to say that many people today could appreciate what a show like this was warning us about. Should humanity work for the system or should the system work for humanity? One erases your humanity (`digitizes' you) and one forces you to `power up' your humanity (such as William Wallace in "Braveheart".) CP was clearly an appeal to the human side, and even if we didn't get it consciously I'm sure Generation Xers got it subconsciously. Many of us have written very similar stories since. CP wasn't the first to talk about this stuff but when it comes to TV nothing was ever as provocative at grabbing our attention to its message.
The show's FX is outdated, but the same could be said of the old "Star Wars" films and many other classic Sci-Fi titles. For 20 bucks it's a great buy and I'd highly recommend it if you're a Sci-Fi adventure fan! When I was a kid you had to buy episodes individually on VHS for the price of a movie! I wanted the whole show, or at least several episodes for that price! I've waited a long, long time, but it's finally here--the complete Captain Power on DVD!!
SPECIAL FEATURES: An in-depth documentary that explores every aspect of the series through interesting interviews with the show's creators, crew and some of the cast. I didn't realize how innovative it was for its time. Today CGI is easy but back in the 80's this was a cutting edge, experimental stuff. "Star Trek: TNG" is one of my all-time favorite shows, yet I always felt that it took a few years to really find its feet. With such imaginative and competitive people at the helm, if CP had been switched to Saturday nights (instead of being cancelled) one can only wonder what this show might have evolved into. This docu really makes you wonder!
Also, "The Legend Begins" adopts CP footage to create a CP movie. I enjoyed it. There is also a "Gallery" with lots of cool art designs. "Season 2: Declassified" is a second in-depth documentary which explores the planned second season of CP. They had plotted several episodes and drew visual concepts for new characters, villains, technologies and story ideas. Also, the disks include six commentaries.