It’s 1987. A Saturday morning. A kid sitting on the sofa in an Ecto-Cooler-stained T-shirt is about to take advantage of this commercial break to grab a third bowl of cereal when the cake commercial on TV goes fuzzy. A voice: “Do we have the power on? What year?” demands the unseen speaker, clearly someone who’s accustomed to the rigors of command. “1987, I think. Try it.”
The screen stabilizes, and the cake commercial is supplanted by a guy from some distant future. “Hello, is anybody watching? This is Captain Power. Jonathan Power. Do you read? We have a situation here. The year is 2147. Human life is threatened by Bio-Dreads. They follow Lord Dread. I need your help. I have instructions.”
That’s a weighty burden to lay on the attention span of a 7-year-old. “If you have the power jet XT-7—the XT-7—you can fire invisible beams at enemy targets on these transmissions.” The screen shows a kid shooting laser beams at his TV set from what appears to be a spaceship-gun hybrid. But wait, there’s a warning: “The TV show will fire back. It will fire back. Score, or be hit. Do you understand?” Captain Power And The Soldiers Of The Future had arrived.
A year later, after only one season of all-out war against Lord Dread’s mechanical empire, the Captain was no more. But this wasn’t the typical Saturday-morning flameout. Captain Power had a talented staff of writers, including story editor J. Michael Straczynski—who would go on to pen 92 episodes of Babylon 5 and, more recently, both the comic and big-screen versions of Thor—and Larry DiTillio, another future Babylon 5 scribe. Then there was the gaming aspect: Thanks to an electronic toy tie-in, Captain Power had an unprecedented level of interactivity for a broadcast TV show. Despite all this and a small but devoted fan base, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was a Hindenburg moment for both TV and games, and thus after 22 episodes, it was powered down.
At the heart of the train wreck was an irreconcilable identity crisis. The money for the show came from Mattel, but the atmosphere of Captain Power And The Soldiers Of The Future is grim, more like something that could have come from the marketing wing of Heckler & Koch. The scripts had totalitarian themes and mild sexual innuendo, and even the occasional jarring death: The lone female team member, Pilot, sacrifices herself in the first season’s final episode, which must have been tough to take for a generation of kids still reeling from the demise of Optimus Prime.
Adults who enjoyed the show’s surprising sophistication would have been put off by its clumsy commercial overtones, and some parents found the show too violent for their kids. In what was surely a productive use of his time, Santa Monica resident Jerry Rubin even went so far as to start (and apparently see through) a 43-day fast in 1987 to protest Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and its perceived celebration of violence. By aiming at the coveted 4-to-70 demographic, the makers of the show attempted to please everyone, and seemed to end up pleasing none.
The writers, too, reportedly chafed against the oppositional creative and profit-driven mandates. While Mattel likely had something like Voltron: Defender Of The Universe in mind, Straczynski and Co. had other ideas, creating a dark world where humans live on the burnt fringes, hiding from a tireless robotic enemy.
The premise: Lord Dread, once a human named Dr. Lyman Taggart, has through his merging with the Overmind supercomputer become a cyborg megalomaniac intent on “digitizing” the Earth. He’s essentially a worst-case hybrid of Mark Zuckerberg and Darth Vader, with a little Jackie Gleason thrown in for good measure. At times, you can almost see him muttering “One of these days, Overmind. One of these days!” At Dread’s command are legions of mechanized monsters called Bio-Dreads, a sadistic talking Predator Drone named Soaron, a tank-treaded behemoth called Blastarr, and bands of fanatically devoted “Bio-Dread Youth.”
Standing in Dread’s way is Captain Jonathan Power, who leads a small, highly trained band of freedom fighters. Power is an incomparable battlefield commander and a master tactician. To prevent confusion among the ranks, Power refers to each of his subordinates by a helpful job-related call sign, like “Tank” or “Scout.” It’s this kind of human creativity and visionary leadership that the robots can’t match.
The Soldiers of the Future are few, but they have help from an unlikely source. The show, among the first to mix live action and CGI, allowed kids at home to strafe Dread’s goons in a supporting role. The Powerjet XT-7, available for $32.99 from your local Kay-Bee Toys—was outfitted with “the latest in proton and ion beam systems” (read: flashing lights) and was purportedly able to maintain speeds of Mach 20 (read: however fast you could run around the house making jet noises). It was in many ways the world’s first cinematic shooter. This hand-held jet blaster light gun could be aimed at the screen during battle scenes on the show to score hits. The toys could also be used with any of the three available VHS “training” tapes.
Like cold fusion, the hoverboard, and a low-calorie Baconator, it was a great idea that didn’t work. The commercial for the show had clearly shown kids stone-cold blasting the TV with unerring pixel beams. The reality was somewhat less rad. The Bio-Dread enemies on screen displayed flashing squares, providing a handy target for your light-gun salvos. It was a glaring tactical deficiency that Lord Dread may have wanted to address in later seasons. (Like the more successful NES Zapper of Duck Hunt fame, the toy actually “worked” by detecting whether the light sensor in the barrel of the gun was pointed at those bright flashes on the screen.)
But the seeming impracticality of Lord Dread’s design didn’t much matter, because the toy was a piece of crap, a waste of $33 that could’ve been better spent going toward a G.I. Joe aircraft carrier. In theory, if you didn’t return fire accurately, your action figure would be jettisoned from the gun-craft through its auto-eject mechanism. Besides being counterintuitive, this format was deeply unsatisfying. Winning was impossible; players could only hope to not lose. No matter how many shots were fired, it would never result in more metal Bio-Dread entrails littering the battlefield, and inevitably your action figure would hit the silk. Far from promoting violence, the impossibility of real victory in these battle scenes inadvertently taught kids the true futility of war, à la WarGames.
The main reason the toy didn’t function properly was the cut-rate “battle sensors” on the toys. These things were unlikely to pick up solar flares, let alone low-level flashes from the TV. One fix, akin to blowing into NES cartridges, was to lower the brightness and crank the contrast on the TV set—anything to make the receptors less ineffective. But even with the adjusted settings, it was tough for players to shake the feeling that they had no real bearing on the outcome of the fight. Because they didn’t. The broadcast marched on whether kids’ Captain Power action figures hit the rug or not.
While the merchandising wing of the project floundered, the narrative aspects were gaining momentum by the end of the first season. In an interview with Starlog published soon after the show’s cancellation, Larry DiTillio, who was to become head writer after the departure of Straczinski, talked about second-season story arcs that were in the works. The noble Captain was to go rogue, nearly losing his mind and moral compass in the wake of Pilot’s death. He was prepared to wage a hopeless one-man vendetta against Dread while the rest of the team soldiered on without him. Under the progressive leadership of Major Matthew “Hawk” Masterson, the remaining Soldiers of the Future might finally get some flashy new nicknames and emerge from the Captain’s well-coiffed shadow.
That’s all speculation, because Dread had won. Mattel pulled the plug after just one season. The show, with its headstrong writers and flawed toys, was finished, and the second-season scripts were mothballed. The Captain Power experiment, a bald scheme to peddle the world’s least fun toys by roping kids into a show meant for adults, was immolated by its own hubris. All that remains are bootleg DVDs and a semi-active Facebook group whose members amuse themselves by speculating on the manner of Power’s eventual resurrection. Most seem to think it will be suitably Christlike, washing away the sins of the show’s past.
But not all prophesies of the show’s return are the idle musings of Internet sci-fi cultists, and there are some faint life signs coming from Captain Power’s putrified corpse. Lead actor Tim Dunigan has long since quit acting to become a mortgage broker, but others could take up the Powersuit. At captainpowerreturns.net, there is a five-minute video featuring brief interviews with some of the show’s creators, in which writer Marc Scott Zicree suggests that the show has the same kind of potential for a successful reboot as Battlestar Galactica before it.
Sure, just cast Nathan Fillion as Captain Power, Dwayne Johnson as his wise-cracking enforcer Tank (originally played by Schwarzenegger film staple Sven-Ole Thorsen), and Edward James Olmos as Lord Dread. The rest will take care of itself.
Salvaging the wreckage of the XT-7 is another matter. The question of whether or not the light gun worked is moot. Even if it functioned as designed, the game would be about as much fun as the 1918 influenza pandemic. It isn’t a stretch to say that Captain Power belongs in the conversation for worst game of all time. Mattel’s best and brightest must’ve been busy tweaking the musculature of He-Man’s pecs, because the dimmest were clearly on the job here.