Welcome to the first(last?) in a new feature where I talk TV*. I’d like to explore some lesser-known or forgotten TV shows*, not just because they are shows* I like but also to see what impact they had on the industry.
Today’s Episode: Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987)
Captain Power was a 1987 live action
toy commercial TV series set in a distant future after the ‘Metal Wars’, and the machines have won. A group of rebel soldiers let by Captain Jonathan Power use Power Suit armor to take on the evil Lord Dread and his robot army.
It’s a little ham-fisted, to be sure, but it was a children’s show meant to sell toys. It was about watching future soldiers use cool armor and weapons to fight evil robots, but there are a few things that make it stand out today when looking back on it.
First of all, even though it was a show designed to sell toys, the creators sought to make something more compelling:
Captain Power, to the public at large, is perceived as just another excuse to sell toys. It is a notion that rubs story editor Larry DiTillio the wrong way.
“We’re not writing stories with the idea of turning each episode of Captain Power into a video game,” declares DiTillio. But DiTillio, a first season staff writer who became story editor when J. Michael Straczynski (Starlog #111) left the position for a similar post with the revived Twilight Zone, claimed that ramrodding the script side of Captain Power hasn’t been easy.
“This show has definitely not made my life easier,” chuckles DiTillio. “This is not just another kid’s cartoon show. The writing is always to an adult level. There is the interactivity which has been centered mainly in the battle sequences but we aren’t in a position of having to write X amount of animation and interactivity into each episode. I want to make it very clear that around here, we’re working for the story.” –Starlog #128
Indeed, the story of Captain Power deals with the horrors of war, human relationships and what it means to be human. In one story line the villain, Lord Dread, is confronted with the pain his war has inflicted on the woman he once loved. The story was written as much for the parents watching as for the kids.
But, I bet you’re wondering what DiTillio meant by “animation and interactivity into each episode”. Well, as stated the show was created to sell toys, the toys in question were a way for Mattel to use a new technology they had developed, a light sensing technology like that of Laser Tag or the NES Power gun. The play feature was that the vehicles for the action figures could interact with each other, if you ‘shot’ another jet with your jet it was a hit point, enough hit points and your pilot was ejected from the jet. This same technology was built into the show, allowing kids to interact and with enemies on the TV by shooting them as well as being shot. It was an interactive game built into the TV show, and pretty innovative for the time. You could also buy VHS tapes that had longer sequences on them to play the game any time you wanted.
This wasn’t the only innovation the show had on it’s side. Remember how the army of bad guys were robots? Well, the show runners decided to use a new technology called ‘computer generated imagery’ to create the robots instead of opting for guys in costumes. That’s right, they used CGI to create characters for a TV show in 1987, they were the first TV show to do it.
Impressive but, yeah it didn’t look too great back then and really doesn’t hold up well today. They may have been the first, but it was something that was on it’s way without them, eventually. The last great innovation Captain Power made probably had the most impact on the film and TV industry as we know it today.
Film and TV have been shot all over the world for many different reasons, but a staple of the industry for the last three decades has been shooting in Canada for that sweet, sweet government lucre. I bet you’ve already guessed it, Captain Power was one of the first major US television shows to entirely move its production to the great white hat of America. The show runners had to build the resources there from scratch and retrain local canooks to be able to shoot and edit an American Sci-Fi Action TV show.They leased an old bus terminal and converted it into a film lot. The writers from Hollywood would ‘modem’ the scripts to Canada and the rest of the production process was done there.
So what happened to such a fun, inventive, and successful TV show? Guns killed it! Well, not guns, but fear of guns. This was the 80s when busybodies started trying to get rid of violence on TV. The show had high ratings at the onset, but because of controversy surrounding the violence on the show it kept getting moved around time slots, which can kill just about any show. Also the toys weren’t selling as well as Mattel wanted. Also CGI was very expensive back than (a lot more so than today when it is still expensive.)
It is a show I remember fondly and when I started looking back on it I was surprised to learn how innovative the show really was. I’m currently re-watching it. There is also a good documentary on Youtube that goes into more depth of what I’ve talked about if you’re interested.
*Probably some movies as well.