Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987): "Shattered"


With the original V saga now blogged in full, I’m going to switch gears for a while, and turn my attention to another eighties sci-fi TV program: Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987 – 1988). This is a syndicated series that lasted for one season of twenty-two half-hour episodes, and is fondly remembered today by many fans.

Marketed in conjunction with an impressive line of “interactive” toys (vehicles, play-sets and action figures), Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was created by Gary Goddard and Tony Christopher, and developed by writers including J. Michael Straczynski and Marc Scott Zicree. The series blended live-action material with late-1980s computer animation. 


A bit like V, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future is also a story of human resistance fighters fighting a formidable enemy. The series is set in 2147 AD after “The Metal Wars,” and that destructive event pitted man against sentient machines. 

As the program’s opening narration reminds us: “the machines won.” 

Now a vicious warlord, Lord Dread (David Hemblen) rules the Earth from his base at Volcania with robotic minions like Sauron, and he uses a process called “digitizing” to defeat enemies, transferring their essences to the cyber world and a system called Overmind.



A post-apocalyptic series, Captain Power focuses on “mankind’s last hope” to defeat Dread.  In this case, that hope is Captain Jonathan Power (Tim Dunigan) and his resistance cell.

The group operates in secret out of an old military installation in the Rocky Mountains, and often consults with a hologram/A.I. system called “Mentor” (Bruce Gray). All members of the team can also activate impressive fighting power suits/armor featuring different offensive and defensive capabilities.

Those populating Power’s team include:

Major Matt “Hawk” Masterson (Peter MacNeill), a man who wears a suit that permits flight, and thus aerial combat. 



Lt. “Tank” Ellis (Sven Ole-Thorson)is the muscle of the group, as his name indicates. 


Sgt. Robert “Scout” Baker (Maurice Dean Wint) can infiltrate enemy lines in his power suit, and the premiere episode, “Shattered” begins with one such mission.



And finally, Corporal Jennifer “Pilot” Chase (Jessica Steen) expertly gets the team in and out of treacherous locations.


In the series premiere, “Shattered,” we join Jonathan Power and his squad as they infiltrate a Bio Dread Energy Sub-Station and destroy it. An angry Lord Dread realizes that Power must be eliminated and suggests that the answer to destroying Power rests in his past.

Sometime later, Power’s team receives a transmission on the Resistance frequency from Sector 19, which used to be the city of San Francisco. The sender is Athena Samuels, one of Power’s old friends.  Before the war, he and Athena used to spend time at the City Limits Book Store together playing chess.


Although his team members suspect a trap, Powers meets Athena at a rendezvous, and she promptly shoots him. 

Power survives, and soon learns that Athena had been digitized by Dread, and agreed to help him spring a trap in exchange for her release. Athena feels guilty over her behavior, but Powers understands her dilemma and they work together to beat back the attacking Dread Forces, including Sauron.


Perhaps the best way to understand Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future is by recalling historical context. The series was conceived and aired in the mid-1980s, a time of a national “apocalypse mentality” due to the Cold War with the Soviet Union. 

Several popular science fiction films of the time, including The Road Warrior (1982), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and The Terminator (1984) involved visions of a post-apocalyptic future in which man’s 20th century civilization had fallen.  Of all those films, The Terminator seems to have had the greatest visual and thematic impact on Captain Power, since the series involve a clash between man and his (rebellious) machines, and is set in a future of ruins.



“Shattered” is clearly a low-budget show, and yet within a modest framework, it is visually compelling. The opening sequence set in the substation reminded me of the frequent boiler room settings of Blake’s 7 (1978 -1981). 

And just as those location scenes suggested an industrialized future empire in collapse, similar settings here suggests a world of machine construction lacking in humanity and warmth.  Later, the episode provides some vistas -- both miniature and studio-bound -- of destroyed San Francisco.  Again, budget is a factor, but the visuals are certainly adequate, if occasionally claustrophobic.

Already in “Shattered,” the writers seem to have determined (rightly) that the stories need to be modest and straight-forward given the budgetary and time limitations. After the opening battle, the episode settles down into a nice, emotional tale involving Power’s past. Athena and Power’s relationship is contextualized in terms of their favorite game: chess.  That’s how they got to know each other before the war, and now they play a kind of game of chess involving the future, with higher stakes.  And Athena is just a pawn being used by the real power, Lord Dread.

Yet “Shattered” never makes Athena into a villain, two-dimensional or otherwise. Instead, she speaks powerfully about slavery inside Lord Dread’s cyber-verse. “You don’t know what’s like in there, in the machine,” she tells Jonathan.  “It knows every secret…every shame…every hate and every love.” 

Commendably, Jonathan treats Athena with compassion and understanding, never blaming her for trying to kill him or working with the enemy. This quality of compassion permits the character to transmit as very likable. He is depicted taking chances rather than making decisions based purely on fear. 


“Shattered” tells its story of friendship against a back-drop of heavy action. The opener features lots of zippy, colorful laser fire, and the end features a confrontation between Power’s team and Dread’s in the air and on the ground.  

Yet the explosions and laser beams don’t outweigh the impact of the human tale, and I still remember that some critical voices of the day suggested that Captain Power had -- out of the starting gate -- found the right balance between conflict and drama; one that the more expensive, more heavily-publicized first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) did not.

If any factor visibly dates Captain Power at all today, it is not the storytelling (at least so far), or even the action beats, but rather the computer animation used to depict Sauron and other Dread minions.  The designs are great, but the execution looks prehistoric by today’s standards. 

Personally, I don't find the effects bothersome, any more than I find the effects from Land of the Lost (1974 - 1977) bothersome. You just sort of "tune" yourself to specifics of the program and its possibilities, and move on.

So join me Tuesday afternoons in the coming weeks, as I review further episodes of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.  Next week: "War Dogs." 

Power On!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ask JKM a Question: What Kind of Blog Posts do I Hate Writing?


A reader named Lindsey asks a question about writing:

“I am working up the courage to start blogging. What is it you love most about blogging, and what kind of blog posts do you hate writing and reading the most?

That is a great question, Lindsey, and I appreciate you asking it. I want to wish you good luck starting your blog.

In terms of blogging, I love that this particular format offers me the chance to write about subjects I love, and to do so at great length, at a time of my choosing, and with very little restrictions. 

By contrast, when writing books you really have to make difficult choices about what you include. You must have a much more narrow focus, and more discipline regarding that focus.

In broad terms, I hate writing negative reviews. I would much rather focus on the positive. I always dread writing a negative review.

But there are three kinds of blog posts that I especially hate reading and that I hate writing. 

Let me be clear: I have been guilty of writing all three of these types of posts, so I am pointing the finger at no one but myself.

These days I try to limit or avoid these type of blogs as much as I can. So -- please -- learn from my experience.



The Excuse-for-not-Posting-Post. 

I really hate it when a blogger posts about how busy he or she has been lately and that he or she is sorry that they haven’t blogged more. It’s a space-filler, and a dumb one at that.  

You’re basically taking up space saying that you have nothing to say as a replacement for providing new content.

With the time it takes to write up your excuse and apology, you could actually be assembling something else relatively easily…but something of far more interesting content, like a photo essay or a series of movie trailers with a common theme.  

It took me a while to learn this one. 

You don’t have to write a masterpiece every time you post.  You just have to keep posts in the pipeline. 

In my schedule, I post photographs Sunday night (Advert Art), and toy photos on Wednesday. So I alternate short posts with long ones.  Working in this fashion gives me the flexibility to write longer pieces for Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

And if I fall behind, I do occasionally post a “Deadline Looming” post, just so readers know that I haven’t died, that I haven’t stopped blogged, and that I’m returning to the saddle soon.

That is a good enough placeholder. I have found that it isn’t really necessary to explain all the things you’ve been doing in lieu of blogging, because you’re essentially making your own blog seem like a lark.

You’re getting to it after everything else on your plate, huh? 

How good can your blog be if you don’t want to devote your energy to it, and you’re actually broadcasting to everyone that you don’t want to devote your energy to it?


The-Money-Talks-and-Bullshit-Walks-Post.

Unless you are very lucky, blogging doesn’t pay for itself, and so it is a necessity to find some way to keep the cash flowing. 

I understand these facts, but it is also really horrible and off-putting to read when good writers complain about how readers aren’t paying them to blog. It’s a sort of passive-aggressive attack on the readership, and I never want to do it.

Authors who write this post seem to be saying, essentially “it’s your fault that I keep feeding you, and I’m not making any money doing it!”

How dare you keep coming here expecting it to be free, even though it is has always been free before…

I have decided that instead of resorting to this kind of angry post -- and generating a kind of blogger-audience animosity which poisons the relationship -- I post Amazon Associates links, write and publicize my books here occasionally (and in the side-bar), and I also accept advertisements, and they have been featured here occasionally too.

I know that all that sounds horribly commercial -- and so I’m as guilty as anyone about rattling the donations can -- but it sucks royally to go to a blog and have the writer get mad at you because they are, unbidden, providing you free material. 

Really, is it the reader’s fault for showing up, or the writer’s fault for choosing to work in that fashion?

We would live in a better world if writing was valued more, and paid better, to be sure, but I see the blog format more as a hub... one that provides content and leads readers to my other work. I hope you like what you read here and buy my books, but I don’t want to piss on you for coming to my blog and just enjoying it, either.


The-“I just had my biggest month ever-Post. 

Again, I’ve been guilty of this one too. 

But it’s basically a narcissistic thing, and again, it takes away precious time and energy from actually providing decent content. 

It’s a competitive world out there, writers must toot their horns occasionally, and I think that’s fine. 

When I have been linked to, or earned a positive review of one of my books, I absolutely tell you. 

But I don’t trumpet my stats anymore. What’s the point? To show you that my analytics are bigger than yours?

It’s especially poor manners to do this if you’re not going to back up your “I just had my highest month!” post with actual reader figures. Not that you’re lying about your achievement, but it could be meaningless. Maybe you had 10,000 views last month and 10,002 views this month. Is it worth telling your readers that?

Nobody’s perfect, and I picked these three specific posts because I’ve been responsible for posting every single one on the list at least once in the nine years I’ve been blogging.

Blogging is a great process, and I love it, to answer your question, because you evolve over time as you do it, and your understanding of blogging evolves too. 

In five years, hopefully I’ll have evolved some more and will come up with more blog posts to avoid writing...

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Radio



Did television kill radio? 

If so, then cult-television has shown its deepest remorse for that murder by, across the decades, featuring many stories about radio, radio disc jockeys, and radio broadcasts.


The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1961) episode “Static” by Charles Beaumont, for instance, concerns an older man, Ed (Dean Jagger), who discovers an old radio that plays only his favorite tunes from the 1930s and 1940s.  

He finds out the station, broadcast from somewhere in New Jersey, closed down over a decade ago.  After a time, Ed realizes that this strange old radio is actually portal to his past, and his opportunity for a second chance with a woman he loved, but never married.


In Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1969 – 1973) Arte Johnson starred as J.J. Wilson in the second season segment, “The Flip Side of Satan.”  J.J. was an immoral, adulterous disc jockey transferred out of New York to a remote station called KAPH.  He soon learned the hard way how it felt to be betrayed, and was tortured by Lucifer (and the station…) for his lapses.


Another horror anthology, Tales from the Darkside (1984 – 1988) featured an object lesson for radio “hate” talkers like corpulent Rush Limbaugh.  In George A. Romero’s “The Devil’s Advocate,” a talker named Mandrake (Jerry Stiller) spews hate and condescension on the airwaves for thirteen years straight, but one day his outward appearance begins to match his soul and temperament, and he discovers that he is broadcasting live…from Hell itself.

Evil radios appeared more than once on Friday the 13th: The Series (1987 – 1990) too.  

In “And Now the News,” a cursed radio caused trouble at the Maseo Institute for the Criminally Insane.  

And in “Hate on Your Dial” a cursed car radio from a 1950s Chevy transported a boy to a racist past that includes the Ku Klux Klan.

Radios have appeared on other series as well.  

On Gilligan’s Island (1964 – 1967), a small white radio proved the castaways’ only life-line to civilization, and any news of rescue attempts.  

Likewise on ALF (1984 – 1988), the stranded alien ALF used a ham radio in the Tanners’ garage to attempt to contact any survivors from his destroyed home world, Melmac.


One of the most beloved sitcoms of the 1970s, of course, was entirely set at a radio station.  WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982) highlighted the shenanigans of a low-rated station in Ohio, and featured such personalities as newscaster Les Nessman (Rich Sanders) and crazy D.J. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman).   

The Cult-TV Faces of: Radio

Identified by Hugh: The Twilight Zone: "Static."

Identified by Hugh: The Outer Limits: "The Galaxy Being"

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Gilligan's Island

4

Identified by Hugh: WKRP in Cincinnati

Identified by William Mercado: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Flip Side of Satan."

Identified by Hugh: ALF.

Identified by William Mercado: Tales from the Darkside: "The Devil's Advocate" 

9

Identified by Hugh: Saturday Night Live (with guest host Alec Baldwin)


Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Battlestar Galactica (re-imagination)

Television and Cinema Verities: Captain Power Edition


“The moment action figure sales sank horribly in 1987…that’s the year in which Masters of the Universe went down from $400 million in sales to something like $7 million…Captain Power sold $70 million which was a great figure, if you look at the action figure lines that were coming out immediately after Captain Power – toy lines like BraveStarr – those weren’t even doing half that. But Mattel had these expectations, thinking it was going to be He-Man numbers in its prime…”

- Roger Lay Jr., Executive in Charge of Production, discusses the reasons behind the cancellation of the original Captain Power series and toy-line from 1987. From an interview of May 2014.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Advert Artwork: Space:1999 Edition


The Fantastic Journey (1977): "The Funhouse"



Given my long-standing love of the horror genre, The Fantastic Journey's "Funhouse" stands as one of my favorite installments of the short-lived 1970s sci-fi series. Using fun house and other carnival atmospherics to good, macabre effect, this installment is unlike any other in the FJ canon, and nicely eschews the by-now-common "civilization of the week" formula.  In proving different, "Funhouse" is actually a breath of fresh air, a good old-fashioned "spooky" hour.


In "Funhouse," Varian, Scott, Fred, Willaway, Sil-El and Lianna -- now boasting a new fluffy hair-do -- cross into a new "time zone." 

Instead of finding another divided culture in the Bermuda Triangle, the group discovers a very ominous, abandoned carnival fairground. 

Although Willaway has concerns about the mysterious carnival, noting that it "doesn't belong there," Scott and others insist they check it out, and the group takes an impromptu tour.  Before long, the amusement park rides come to mysterious life, and the interlopers are greeted by a bearded man who claims to be the descendant of Marcus Apollonius, a famous magician of antiquity.  "I am an entertainer.  I belong to the ages," he notes.  He also reveals that his expansive carnival was "salvaged from a shipwreck."

Along with two cohorts -- the Barker (Richard Lawson) and Roxanne (Mary Frann) -- Apollonius (Mel Ferrer) hints to the visitors that if they defeat the surprises of his carnival fun house, he will share with them the secret of Evoland.  Again, Willaway is wary of the endeavor, but he goes along anyway.

Inside the creepy fun house, the travelers are quickly separated in a Hall of Mirrors, and the real plan becomes plain.  Apollonious is actually, Marcus himself -- the ancient magician -- and we wishes to possess the physical body of Willaway so as to challenge the Gods themselves, after departing the Bermuda Triangle from Evoland.  

Meanwhile, Roxanne desires Lianna's body for her own use because she's tired of being treated as ugly.  Both Apollonious and the woman have been cursed by the Gods with hideous countenances, ones carefully cloaked under masks of normality.


After Willaway's body is possessed, Varian and Scott attempt to restore their friend's life, while Fred crawls through a fun house vent shaft to rescue the imperiled Lianna. 

As Varian attempts to drive the villainous Apollonious from Willaway's body, Apollonius conjures images of Varian's lost love, Gwenith (from "An Act of Love.")  With herculean effort, Varian rescues Willaway, and the travelers leave the fun house and carnival behind.

Later, as they depart the time zone, the group wonders if Marcus Apollonius has been cursed by the Gods to play the same role again and again, always luring visitors to their doom...and always failing to achieve his goal of escape.


Perhaps the most surprising aspect of "Funhouse" is that the story's antagonist, Marcus Apollonius, is a real historical figure.  He was a wandering philosopher in the first century, one who was believed to have taken his miracles and magic to distant kingdoms including India, Spain and Mesopotamia. 

Apollonius was also believed to have performed human sacrifices (!) and some sources suggest that, like Chris, he was assumed into Heaven.  

The Fantastic Journey's depiction of Apollonius is close to the historical article in only very general terms, but not specifics.  Though Apollonius was known to have challenged at least one Emperor, Nero, here he was an arrogant magician who challenged the Gods of Mount Olympus, apparently real beings.  And he didn't beam up to Heaven, he was "cursed to wander in the limbo of this land [the Bermuda Triangle] for all time." 

The Gods also cursed Apollonius and his woman friend, Roxanne, with ugliness.  In particular, they have unsightly hair growth on their faces.  Yet, they have perfect "flesh" masks under which to hide, so it's difficult to see why stealing more handsome/pretty bodies is such a burning necessity.   If you don't actually look ugly, outwardly, nobody would treat you as ugly.  Then again, all is vanity, right?

In some ways, "Funhouse" copies the central idea from "Atlantium:"  a life form who wants to steal the body of one of our heroic travelers in the Bermuda Triangle.   However, in this case the trappings are so different from what came before in "Atlantium" that the repetition of the concept isn't that noticeable.

"Funhouse" also derives a lot of mileage out of the funhouse setting, featuring weird slides, dangling skeletons, "shrunken" rooms, a hall of mirrors, a rotating tunnel, pervasive mist and other creepy effects.   The camera work is impressive too.  The shots of the group entering and walking on the empty fair grounds do a good job of suggesting a faintly sinister isolation.  Right from the first few compositions, you feel unnerved by the place. 

 It all adds up to a dynamic episode in terms of visuals.  It also features a nasty villain -- one who reminded me of Space: 1999's Magus -- and a nice final chill: the thought that Apollonius will attempt his body thievery on the next wanderers who happen by...


The finest moment in "Funhouse," however, involves Varian (Jared Martin)...as it often does on the series. Here, his efforts to heal Willaway are stymied when Apollonius creates a vision of his beloved Gwenith, lost to Betticus in "An Act of Love."

This style of  episode-to-episode continuity was very rare in 1970s science fiction television indeed, and it's great that the writer, Michael Michael included Gwenith in the action, and that Christine Hart returned to play her a second time.  You can see how the series writers were really attempting to develop the characters, and build a consistent history for them.

Although it didn't air near Halloween, I always consider "Funhouse"to be The Fantastic Journey's Halloween episode.  It features spiritual possession, ghoulish make-ups, a fun house, and even lightning and thunder flashes at one point.  

The story is not particularly deep once you dissect it -- there's no social commentary this time out -- but "Funhouse" is a diverting roller-coaster, and a nice interregnum between those repetitive "civilizations of the week."

Outré Intro: The Fantastic Journey (1977)


The short-lived science fiction series The Fantastic Journey (1977) involves a diverse group of travelers stranded on an island in The Bermuda Triangle.  

The island, however -- because of its unusual location -- encompasses many time periods of the past, present and future. 

The series was originally titled "The Incredible Island" and the land itself was called "Evoland."

Although it lasted only ten episodes, The Fantastic Journey underwent many cast and character upheavals during its short life span.  Despite this fact, some of the episodes were  actually quite strong, and the characters are very likable and memorable, particularly Varian, Liana and Willaway.  The series was finding its way when canceled, and if NBC had demonstrated a little patience, the series could have run three or four years, easy.

The introductory montage to The Fantastic Journey establishes the series premise -- a strange green cloud pulls a 20th century sea-vessel into the Bermuda Triangle and the island -- but more than that, finds a visual way of expressing the time-centric nature of the odyssey.  

Specifically, many frames of this montage feature three-images each, and with a little imagination, it is not difficult to view this three-way split as being a kind of visual short-hand or corollary for the nature of the island, with three images equaling the three points of the terrestrial triangle: past, present and future.

We begin with the ship, and the ominous approach of the green cloud while it is at sea.



Next, we get the breakdown I mentioned, the same scene fro three separate angles, but in one split-screen.  It's as if we are learning where the ship is headed, after a fashion: to a place where past/present/future merge into one.




Next, the ship is absorbed by the green cloud, and we get our title card.



Next in sequence, we begin meeting our cast of characters.

Below, we see Varian (Jared Martin), the man from the 23rd century.

The images introduce his tuning fork instrument as well, a tool on the series that operates much like the Doctor's sonic-screwdriver on Doctor Who (1963 -1989).

This is the only frame in the introduction, incidentally, that features four split screens. The montage would have been more consistent if we got only three, representing past-present-future as I have noted above. 

One other point: Varian's imagery is all connected to the futuristic aspects of the island.  There's the advanced tool, but also control panels, an alien brain, and such.



Next, we're back to the three-image dynamic and meet Dr. Fred Walter (Carl Franklin). 

His imagery is more natural and organic than that of Varian, revealing details of the physical landscape of the island.  Walter is a man from our present, extremely fit in mind and body -- a true Renaissance Man -- and the imagery suggests these qualities.



Next, we meet another character from the 20th century, young Scott (Ike Eisenmann).




In the frames below, meet Liana (Katie Saylor), an Atlantian of mysterious nature, who communicates with her cat, Sil-El. The images here appear to accent Liana's nature as both an alien and as someone who can communicate with other types of beings (hence the cat...).



Our final character is Willaway (Roddy McDowall), a man from the 1960s, who often discusses philosophical concepts.

At least one image in the tri-part frame below stresses his connection to philosophy by surrounding him with Greek pillars.



The final imagery of the montage puts everything together. 

For the first time, we see the entire group as one -- as an ad-hoc family -- and see imagery of both the future (the gate which transports the characters between time zones on the island), and the past (the ruins of a Greek amphi-theater.).

We have seen how our travelers came to their situation, we have seen their individual characteristics, and now we see them traveling together through the time zones of Evoland.



You can see The Fantastic Journey's intro in live-action, below: