Nerding Day: Captain Power 🌭

In 1987, producer and future accused child molestor Gary Goddard was on top of the world. He was directing the yet-to-bomb He-Man movie and was positioned to take a commanding role in the children’s entertainment industry. With He-Man and GI Joe winding down and the coke-fuelled exuberance of the decade giving way to the depressive slimy haze of the ’90s, Goddard partnered with Mattel to create a new children’s property. The pitch was pure evil genius: a merging of toys and television on a level never before imagined. Rather than simply be a 25 minute ad for its tie-in toys, Goddard’s brainchild would actually interact with them. It was called Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.

A live-action series following the struggles of the titular Captain and his friends against the evil Lord Dread and his feared Bio-Dread Empire, Captain Power is set in a post-apocalyptic world where machines have destroyed human civilization. The show follows the plucky resistance fighters who battle against faceless goons and primitive CGI robots using their “power suits,” wicked techno-armor that looks like something off the cover of a Nintendo game.

Mattel’s Captain Power toys included your run-of-the-mill action figures, but they also produced ships which were Zapper-style light guns. These ships could interact with the show through the large, flashing lights displayed on the enemy soldiers. Hitting them racked up points, while having the ship pointed at the screen during enemy laser blasts could cause the figure in the cockpit to be violently ejected. Despite outrage from parent and consumer groups, you didn’t really need the toys to watch the show. The kids in the commercial don’t even look like they’re having much fun.

They also sold some VHS tapes alongside the light guns, in a package that truly stretched the limits of the term “video game.” There actually was a real Captain Power video game for the Commodore 64, but let’s be honest, if you were seven years old in 1987 you’d rather shoot at real people on-screen and pretend you were having an impact on the proceedings than play this:

So far, so good. Pretty standard stuff we’ve got here — good versus evil, lasers, power suits, things of that nature. But there’s a bit of a quirk to Captain Power. See, it’s a live-action show, and you can’t just have people getting shot to death on screen constantly. So people don’t die if they are killed in Captain Power. Instead, Lord Dread’s minions “digitize” them. As the name implies, this process converts a person into digital data — they’re out of the picture, and there are no bullet-riddled or laser-roasted corpses to deal with.

But, you might ask, what happens to a digitized human in the world of Captain Power? Are they held captive by Dread’s forces as bargaining chips? Are their minds preserved for any useful information they might possess? Possibly, but I have another idea: digitization destroys the physical body but creates a perfect simulation which is then tortured for eternity within the virtual realm.

Think about it. If you were a guy who had the literal brass balls to name himself “Lord Dread,” would you really be satisfied with simply wiping humanity out with admittedly awesome laser-wielding computer-rendered pterodactyl robots? Or would you want them to know what a folly it ever was to oppose you? Wouldn’t you want to make the dream of Roko’s Basilisk real?

So you would construct elaborate programs — simple tortures at first, then moving onto psychological techniques, maybe then letting the foolish humans think they’d escaped, or that their whole nightmare existence was just a dream, and that actually they were working for a comedy website writing about the children’s television series Captain Power, which is NOT REAL, and all the doctors keep telling you that none of it is real.

Haha that would be crazy, right? That’s like the kind of detail you’d get in a gritty reboot of an ’80s kids series, not the source material. I- wait a minute, I’m reading here that all of that is exactly what happens in the 1987 children’s television program Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.

In the first episode of the show, Captain Power is lured out to the ruins of a city by a woman he knew before the Metal Wars (played by Ann-Marie “Acclaimed Canadian Lesbian Novelist” MacDonald). When he arrives, she ambushes him and tells him she’s going to kill the both of them in the same kind of tone that Don Cheadle tells his wife to kill herself and their children in Hotel Rwanda to spare them the sight of their parents dying.

“They wiped us out…,” she tells Captain Power as she explains why she’s going to do a murder-suicide rather than bring him in to Lord Dread. “Most of them. The lucky ones. Inside the machine, you can feel it touching you. It’s wires and metal, but it touches you. And it knows every secret. Every shame. Every hate. Every love. It knows, and it tortures you with them.”

Again, this is in the very first episode of the show. This is like a highly-acclaimed mid-series Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode dealing with the horrors of war. Are we having fun yet, kids?

You may be wondering, is the process of digitization itself painful? Yes, unspeakably so. “Every cell within your body implodes when you are digitized,” Lord Dread tells a man he has captured for information in a later episode. “Then when you are reformed, these same cells explode.” Neat!

This, in fact, is Captain Power at its core — a horrific, post-apocalyptic narrative where the enemy is just as frequently one’s fellow man as it is the cold, unfeeling forces of mechanized death. It really seems like the creators were chafing under the requirements of producing a children’s television series, because the pilot episode isn’t an exception — it sets the tone for the twenty one episodes to follow.

Episode two has an insane military commander awaiting orders from the long-dead President. He kills his own men for trying to flee his base and then captures Captain Power and one of his buddies and tortures them on screen. When he becomes lucid near the end of the episode, he orders his men to retreat from an oncoming robot attack and sits quietly at his desk contemplating a photo of his dead wife and singing softly to himself before a cyborg dinosaur smashes the door in and implodes every atom in his body.

In episode three, a genetically-engineered madman takes women and children hostage with plastic explosives and calls out Captain Power’s teammate and fellow genetic freak Tank (portrayed by Sven-Ole “Evil Space Cop in Jesse Ventura vehicle Abraxas” Thorsen). By the time they finally come to blows, they aren’t even fighting with lasers, just smashing cinder blocks and flaming pieces of wood into each other’s brains.

Tank later mentions that the two of them came from the “Babylon 5” facility. That’s weird, huh? Well, it turns out that one of the lead writers on the series was none other than J. Michael “I Always Have to Look Up the Spelling of His Name” Straczynski.

What about Lord Dread and his Bio-Dread Empire, though; the ostensible villains of the series? I mean, they get up to some shit, sure. Dread himself is kind of a proto-Borg figure, a bald cyberman who sits in a big revolving chair looking menacing. He’s the type of guy who delegates, rather than getting his hands dirty, and he’s definitely the most interesting and fun character in the show.

We get to see him doing shit like dictating his own new version of the Bible, waxing over the perfect world he’s bringing into being, and getting into spats with Overmind, the supercomputer with which he merged his brain and now acts as an Emperor Palpatine to his Darth Vader.

But again, more often than not, the real monsters in Captain Power don’t have robotic eyes or crudely-rendered jet engines. They’re just ordinary people, people who truly seem to loathe Captain Power and everything he stands for. Or, if nothing else, they’re willing to sell him out for their own ends. Sometimes, this is presented as a morally complex if ultimately wrong move, as when a secret human society hidden away from the war tries to use Power as a bargaining chip to get Dread to leave them alone.


But then there are the truly fucked up little freaks who will inform on human resistance fighters for nothing more than their own selfish pleasure. Seriously, an episode where Captain Power has to enter the “cyber web” to access some information features a creep who calls up Lord Dread to tell him where his nemesis is.

What does he ask for in return? That Lord Dread directly stimulate the pleasure centers of his brain with electrical impulses. This is the kind of plotline William Gibson would write if you held him at gunpoint, forced him to consume a large quantity of amphetamines, and demanded that he tell a story appropriate for seven year olds. Sadly, we never got a “drug dealer who sells out his kin for a hit of that sweet daddy lightning and kind of resembles Rob Schneider” action figure.

Neighbor selling out neighbor in the face of the implacable march of evil — where have we heard that before? What if I told you that Lord Dread has a standing army of children called the Dread Youth? In one episode, we get to see him deliver a speech in which he promises, if they give him “their blood, their trust, and their minds,” to bring about a “New Order.” It’s not exactly subtle. If Captain Power aired today people would be calling it woke for teaching kids that Nazis are the enemy.

We learn partway through the series that the female member of the Soldiers of the Future, Pilot, was once a Dread Youth herself. One episode has her infiltrating one of their bases in her old uniform. I guess good on her for the foresight, but you’d think that burning your outfit would be one of the first things you do when you renounce robo-Nazism. Regardless, Pilot has an encounter with a younger Dread Youth member (Laurie “Criminally Underused in the X-Files” Holden) in whom she sees herself. The girl is so devoted to the cause that she threatens to blow herself up with a grenade to stop Pilot.

I’m imagining the writers getting notes from the network saying “listen, we love the bleak atmosphere, the cheapness with which life is depicted in the grim future, but we need MORE murder-suicide threats!”

Also, Pilot ties up and gags the girl after shooting her. This image absolutely became the sexual origin story of someone who spends thousands of dollars monthly commissioning art of blonde on blonde lesbian cyber-Nazi BDSM. Not me. Someone else.

Later, Pilot is placed on trial by a bunch of villagers for her participation in the burning of a human settlement. This one kid is screaming for her blood because his parents died in the fire and when the townspeople decide that ultimately she wasn’t responsible — because she was just a kid herself and, whoops, someone else sold out the settlement after being tortured — the kid’s still furious. The judge hands him a gun and tells him to exact his judgment and we all learn an important lesson about how punishment doesn’t actually undo the harm caused by the perpetrator. Again, this is something that would happen to Major Kira in DS9, not Optimus Prime or He-Man.

Oh, and in the very last episode of the series, Pilot blows herself up to stop Lord Dread’s goon Blastarr from getting his hands on Captain Power’s secrets and technology. Her last words are “go to hell” when the robot asks her to surrender.

Script synopses for a planned but never produced second series of Captain Power were posted online years ago, and they seem to mostly continue the grim tone with one major exception. According to series writer and story editor, Larry DiTillio, one of the episodes was written by Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber and featured Lord Dread getting a new assistant named Morgana, who was actually the mind of Captain Power’s mother in a robot body. The episode allegedly would have featured the first cybersex scene in television history, because you can only include so many Nazi rallies and suicide bombings in a children’s series before you need to dig up that old hoary trope of the villain fucking the hero’s reincarnated mom in cyberspace.

So that’s Captain Power, a relic of the late ’80s awkwardly sandwiched between commercial interests and artistic intent. Nothing quite worked when it came to this show — the toys were crummy, the narrative was too scary for kids and too goofy for adults, and the whole thing feels like you threw Star Wars, Star Trek, and Terminator into a blender and breathed in the resulting toxic powder before watching Downfall. If nothing else, though; we got this bitching music video out of it, made by the show’s music editor and screened at the wrap party. We can only guess at how the cast and crew felt when they saw it. Proud? Ashamed? Aroused? Aroused.

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