From time to time I find myself revisiting television shows and films that were integral parts of my childhood, but I haven’t actually sat down and watched in many years. For example, last week I watched The Monster Squad on a Blu-ray I had to bid $30 for on Ebay because the disc is no longer in print and it came as no surprise to me that the movie still holds up as charming, kickass entertainment for kids and adults alike 25 years after its less-than-stellar theatrical release.
My latest nostalgic obsession is a TV show that made its debut the same year as The Monster Squad and also suffered an unjust fate before it had the chance to grow into a beloved hit, a reputation that – like many movies and shows before it – has been redeemed over time thanks to an ever-increasing cult following.
I am speaking, of course, about Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.
Set in the future after mankind has been nearly decimated in the Metal Wars, the show follows the adventures of Captain Jonathan Power (Tim Dunigan) and his team of highly-trained troops as they use special “power suits” to take the fight hardcore to the forces of the half man/half machine dictator Lord Dread (David Hemblen) and his endless army of Bio-Dread drones and one day free humanity from Dread’s dark clutches. Owing as much a debt to The Terminator as to classic science-fiction stories and war movies, Captain Power was no light-hearted Saturday afternoon lark to ease yourself into the evening after a long day of riding BMX bikes and firing slingshots at stray cats. Each week Captain Power brought viewers into a world rich with wonderful characterizations and an inventive mythology that could sustain the series for many seasons to come.
The late film critic Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune said of the show, “Captain Power was well made… I think you can see that somebody spent some money on special effects, on the dialogue – in fact, there’s some real drama.”
Primarily the brainchild of Gary Goddard, an interactive entertainment impresario who has also produced Broadway musicals and directed the 1987 film Masters of the Universe that brought the action figure and cartoon sensation He-Man to the big screen, Captain Power ran on American and Canadian syndicated television for one season from 1987 to 1988. Goddard created the series as a response to the lack of future soldier toy lines on the market and pitched the concept to toy giant Mattel, the home of He-Man and Barbie. Mattel loved Goddard’s ideas and signed on to produce an extensive line of toys that would included action figures, battery-operated vehicles, and playsets based on the show’s central locations.
What set the Captain Power toys apart from the rest of the pack was that kids could actually use the toy jets to interact with the action of the show. Special visual and audio elements were encoded into each episode to create red and green glowing targets that you could fire the jet’s lasers at and sometimes a response would register on the toy indicating a direct hit. The technology had more than its share of problems but even still Captain Power was the first show of its kind to offer that level of interactive entertainment and very few shows (if any at all) have followed its lead since.
But Goddard didn’t intend for the series to be a weekly, 22-minute toy commercial like many of its live-action and animation peers. Captain Power would be designed to appeal to kids and adults alike with lots of colorful action, strong writing, solid acting from an ensemble cast consisting of little-known or unknown actors, and state-of-the-art CGI effects. To help guide the series creatively Goddard assembled a crack writing staff that included J. Michael Straczynski, the future creator of Babylon 5; Straczynski wrote most of the episodes alone and also served as executive story consultant. Computer-generated visual effects were still in their infancy at the time Captain Power aired and although the show’s effects may appear primitive today it was the first such program to use them.
Each episode cost around a million dollars to produce and was filmed in Canada. The show was expected to be a huge hit and a new cash cow for Mattel but complaints from watchdog groups about the violence and mature themes, the high cost of producing the show not being offset by its staggeringly average ratings (as a syndicated series the show could be aired in different time slots as each channel it was sold to decreed and the producers couldn’t really complain), and Mattel overestimating the amount of toys that would be sold during the Christmas of 1987 ultimately led to its unfortunate cancellation after one season. The final episode of Captain Power ended with a cliffhanger that involved the tragic death of one of its most important characters and aired on March 27, 1988.
For the next two decades Captain Power was relegated to the status of a pop culture footnote but the series’ rabid fanbase kept its memory alive thanks to the growing influence of the Internet and the circulation of bootleg tapes and DVDs. Last December an official DVD release of the the complete series (which you can purchase here) was finally made available. Overflowing with bonus features and presenting remastered versions of every episode that now looked even better than when they first aired in the late 80s, the DVD set was warmly received by critics and fans of the show old and new.
A while back Goddard’s production company Goddard Film Group launched the website Captain Power Returns and talk of a television revival of Captain Power soon began. Now it looks like the revival is about to become a reality. Last week GFG announced that development was going full speed ahead with a reboot of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future in the form of a weekly one-hour dramatic series to be called Phoenix Rising.
You can check out a short promotional teaser video for the prospective series featuring interviews with Goddard, Dunigan, and the new series’ creative team as well as an early logo here below.
Much like the first time Goddard is bringing in some heavy behind-the-camera talent to make this the best show it can possibly be. Along with Goddard the new series will be produced by Roger Lay Jr., Eric Carnagey, and former Paramount Television Senior Executive Jeffrey Hayes. During his time at Paramount Hayes oversaw the production of such hit shows as Family Ties, Cheers, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, former writers and producers for Star Trek: Enterprise and the creators of the U.S. spin-off of the popular British sci-fi series Primeval entitled Primeval: New World, will be working on the show’s creative development as well.
The program is still in its early stages so we don’t know for sure it will happen or not. If it does, and I really hope it does, it would be great to get as many of the old cast and crew involved as possible. Phoenix Rising would make a great fit on a cable network willing to take chances. SyFy is pretty much out unless they have a change of heart, but I doubt it. Ever since Battlestar Galactica – another revival of a sci-fi TV show that featured elaborate visual effects and only ran for one season – ended the network has been steadily descending into a rancid cesspool of reality shows and “original” movies. AMC could expand its viewership by branching out into science-fiction but they might try to cut the show’s budget and elbow all the key creative personnel after the first season. Spike TV is another option; their only stipulation would be to add more women in bikinis and make everything EXTREME! G4 would pick up the show if it was done in animation.
We’ll bring you more details as we get them. Now if you will excuse me but I do believe I have a Megaforce DVD to watch. POWER ON!