I was seven years old when I first saw the commercial. An ordinary housewife, talking to the camera about her new cake mix, was disrupted by a burst of static and a frantic voice from tomorrow. “Is anybody watching? This is Captain Power – Jonathan Power! Do you read?”
Over the next few seconds, the deadly situation was explained – terrifying creatures called BioDreads had taken over the world, and only we, the kids at home, could help with infrared laser guns that would let us battle them at home. “Warning! The television will fire back! It WILL fire back!” entreated Captain Power before static and cake mix overtook him.
We were urged, of course, to watch “weekly program transmissions” of his new show, , and to buy the necessary plastic accessories to battle the BioDread menace. Even at the age of seven, I knew this was advertising and pandering at its most shameless.
It was awesome.Other shows were there to sell toys already, I knew, but this one found a strange and creative way to do it, by talking directly to the audience. This was something odd and dark and new.
Over the next TV season, I experienced a show that was bleaker, deeper and more violent than not only anything else for kids on the air, but also almost everything else on TV. It was a show that, years later, I would realize was for all the goofy names and vacuum-formed plastic costumes, actually ranked as one of the best SF and superhero stories of the 1980s.
And almost a quarter-century later, it’s back.
On Dec.6, viewers who dimly remember it, and those who have never experienced it before, will get a chance to see when it is finally released on DVD. And viewers will get to sit through a show that was, for all intents and purposes, for kids – a show that brought lessons of the Holocaust, death and moral ambiguity into a show about fighting robots with lasers.
The trick with was that, unlike most children’s fare of the 1980s, it was live-action. That allowed it to get away with a few stylistic touches that FCC regulations and network Broadcast Standards and Practices might not have allowed in an animated series.Characters died – characters we liked. The bad guys were straight-up mass murderers, but were also allowed to have touching moments of vulnerability. The heroes didn’t always save everyone, and sometimes merely surviving was their triumph. The story might have looked like something out of , but the stakes were nothing less than preventing the extinction of the remnants of the human race, in a world where the bad guys had already won.
And it was a quality production, even if the costumes are clunky and the green screen backgrounds are sometimes obvious today. The series featured some of the earliest CGI work, with the evil BioDread Soaron (to my knowledge) TV’s first completely computer-rendered character.
Model sets were massive and detailed, and the promotional artwork was done by movie poster god Drew Struzan. Even the short-lived tie-in comic from Continuity Comics featured legend Neal Adams on the art. But what really set apart was the writing.
The cartoons of the 1980s were and are often eviscerated by critics for cheesily-named characters designed to sell toys. That’s fair, but that also ignores the fact that if you grew up in the 1980s, they were magnificent, colorful pieces of non-stop action to an audience whose age range was in the single digits.The combination of DVDs, reruns and the collected arrested development of most Generation X-ers has lead to a good number of these shows continuing to exist in reboots, new toy lines and/or big-budget movies. But looking back at the original material occasionally reveals a few gems (and not just ).
What made 1980s animation special was the writing. Shows such as , and yes, boasted some of the best Marvel and DC talent on their writing staffs – unsurprising, since Marvel produced all those shows.
It wasn’t unusual to see names like Denny O’Neil, Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber and Len Wein in the credits for an episode. On such bizarre Ruby-Spears productions as , the likes of Jack Kirby, Gil Kane and Jim Woodring were working behind the scenes, making more money than they’d ever known in their careers for shows far beneath their talents.
Some of the best cartoons came from the pen of J. Michael Straczynski, who broke into television writing by impulsively typing up a script for an episode of .
Though it would be another decade before he got to do his own show with and the story for the movie (along with scripting many Marvel and DC comics), his scripts for shows such as rank among the 1980s best, elevating such lesser-known shows as and (which he took his name off of after developing the concept).
Straczynski’s name was all over the scripts for , along with Marc Scott Zicree, a veteran of many cartoons and SF series, who developed the series. Along with the other writers on the series, they created a future world that was threatening and thought provoking in a way most children’s programs of the 1980s weren’t – or most adult programs, for that matter.
Set on “Earth: 2147,” in “the aftermath of the Metal Wars – where man fought machine, and machines won!” as the opening narration intoned, viewers were transported to a post-apocalyptic landscape (read: rural Canada) where Captain Jonathan Power – whose last name was mocked by at least one character – led a group of armored survivors against the forces of Lord Dread, the cyborg determined to “digitize” the human race.Though the names were as silly as anything you’d find between and , the backstory and setting elevated Captain Power to something else. Over the course of the series, it was established that Power’s father had teamed with the future Dread, Lyman Taggart, to try to end the robot-fought wars of the future with a supercomputer called Overmind, only to have Taggart go insane when he secretly tried to merge his mind with the machine.
The result saw Taggart/Dread (played with nicely icy dryness by Atom Egoyan regular David Hemblen, also the voice of Magneto on the 1990s cartoon) turn the world’s robotic soldiers on the humans, determined to suck all humans into a digital prison until he could transform them into artificial life.
This was some deep stuff for a seven-year-old to watch.
It only got darker from there. By the second episode (“The Abyss”), Power and friends were also battling US soldiers isolated from the conflict, waiting for a call from the President that would never come. In “The Mirror in Darkness,” Power’s reputation is nearly ruined by a doppelganger, played by a pre- David James Elliott, who lures out survivors, crushing their hopes as they’re digitized by Soaron. “I made a promise to my father that I would never take a human life…that I would protect and preserve all people,” spat Power as he contemplated whether to bash the traitor’s head in. “You almost made me forget that promise. Almost.”As mentioned earlier, the fact that was a live-action show, as opposed to a cartoon, meant that there was a far more dark and violent set of circumstances hanging over the character’s heads. Good humans were often digitized, and never returned. The two-part flashback origin “A Summoning of Thunder” showed Captain Power’s father sacrificing himself to save a young Jonathan from Lyman Taggart.
Power’s companions were equally haunted. Tank Ellis was a genetically-engineered supersoldier who had escaped from a colony called “Babylon 5” (Stracynski at work again). Hawk Masterson had lost a son, Scout Baker had lost his mother, and Pilot Chase (Jessica Steen, who went on to be on , and many other shows) had never known her family, having been taken by the Dread Youth. Like every other kids’ show of the 1980s, there were lasers, but in , the lasers killed.
The Dread Youth, for that matter, were an example of how not-so-subtly used the Nazis and the Holocaust as fodder for their stories. Dread’s goal was to digitize all humans and keep them in the horror of Overmind (read: “Übermensch” aka “Overman” aka the Nazi ideal) until he had designed, “immortal, perfect metal bodies” for them to be reborn into.
Dread’s master plan to digitize the entire population was “Operation New Order,” and the Dread Youth were the youngsters born into his cause, who were taught to betray other humans in Dread’s name; one episode, “Gemini and Counting,” Pilot confronted a young Dread Youth, played by ’s Laurie Holden, and tried to convince her to take a different path.“Freedom One” (written by creator Christy Marx) saw Dread manipulating a popular pirate radio broadcast, while the unproduced episode “The Rose of Yesterday” would have had him ordering all books destroyed. This wasn’t Skeletor trying to break into Castle Grayskull on ; this was history’s greatest evils being redone as a show for children.
The final episodes saw Power and company score a major victory over Lord Dread – only to have Dread’s retaliation leave the team on the run and perhaps the show’s most likable and well-developed character dead. A second season was scripted, but never produced.
As it turned out, the same promotional strategy that had made me tune into the show had thoroughly annoyed a number of parents, who protested about how their kids were being suckered into buying the toys.
More problematic for the show was that the toys, well, weren’t very good. They were flimsy, broke easily, and several barely bore a resemblance to their live-action counterparts. Captain Power himself, Tim Dunigan, admitted as much when G4 featured one of them on a “Your Childhood Sucked” segment a few years ago.
<div style="margin:0;text-align:center;width:480px;font-family:Arial,sans-serif;font-size:12px;color:#FF9B00;"><a href="http://www.g4tv.com/games/trailers/" style="color:#FF9B00;" target="_blank">Game Trailers</a> - <a href="http://www.g4tv.com/e3-2012/" style="color:#FF9B00;" target="_blank">E3 2012</a> - <a href="http://www.g4tv.com/attackoftheshow/classics/index.html" style="color:#FF9B00;" target="_blank">AOTS Classics</a></div>
The rule of thumb for a lot of syndicated 1980s fare was that the toy companies paid an animation studio to make the cartoon to promote the toys – and if said toys didn’t sell, the quality or ratings of the resultant product were moot.
That was the fate of . It didn’t matter that those who watched the show loved it – in the ultimate bit of 1980s tastemaking, even Siskel and Ebert gave a VHS compilation of episodes the coveted “Two Thumbs Up” – it was that making a quality show for a crappy toy was like putting lipstick on a pig. Though my little brother quite enjoyed them a few years later when he bought them all up discounted at the Crabtree Valley Mall Brindle’s. He grew up to design robots. Irony.
Of all the properties of the 1980s, is perhaps one of the most unappreciated, and most deserving of a revival. The scripts to continue the story are already written, and the premise is surprisingly adaptable and relevant to the modern day. Fans have kept it online for years through fan sites and morally-gray video trading, but there’s finally a legitimate and legal way to experience the series – with recollections from Zicree, Straczynski and others.As a kid, was one of the thousand cuts of weirdness that doomed me to become whatever the hell it is I am today. It brought home themes of darkness and struggle to the formerly-happy world of children’s entertainment, and offered the idea that perhaps being a good guy wasn’t so much about some vague conception of “good,” but about doing the right thing when the odds against you were overwhelming.
And more than that, it offered the idea that even if the bad guys had already run, the act of fighting back and believing in something better meant that there was hope. I think that’s a lesson we could all use.
So check out the DVDs, and watch carefully next time you see a commercial for cake mix.