The Story of "Captain Power": Commercialism Run Amok

James Logie

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Everything today is interactive — maybe too interactive, but this wasn’t the case in the 80s.

Besides video games, the 80s had one show that was extremely groundbreaking.

Captain Power was a 1987 science fiction/live-action TV show that incorporated in computer-generated images. T

Toys were used that could interact with the show during certain segments by hitting sensors on the screen and being hit in return. It would only last one season.

Captain Power was pretty ahead of its time and embraced technology in a way that captivated a lot of kids.

This is the story of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, and how it was too violent, too manipulative — and too ahead of its time.

What Was Captain Power?

Gary Goddard — who came up with the name before anything else — created Captain Power. The name seemed so simple, and he was sure it had been used somewhere before.

Turns out it hadn’t and he wrote out the characters and story.

Fun fact: they also involved Goddard in making He-Man, which probably played a role in getting the toy and the show launched.

Captain Power would work alongside toys made by Mattel. Certain portions of the show would include visual and audio segments that interacted with the toys.

You could aim at the screen and the screen would fire back at you.

The interactive segments would last anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes and you would use toys that were half laser, half space ship

The show debuted on September 30, 1987, and would only last one season of 22 episodes. Plans were made for a second season, with scripts written, but it never happened.

The Plot of Captain Power

Captain Power is set on Earth in the 22nd century and was during a period that followed the “Metal Wars”.

The Metal Wars was a revolt from the cyborgs that inhabited the Earth, which would use artificial intelligence to take over humanity and rule them by intelligent machines.

Surviving humans lived in hiding from the “Bio-Mechs” who digitize humans into virtual beings. This is all taking place in North America around the Great Lakes region.

It had a kind of RoboCop meets Blade Runner meets Wall-E vibe to it.

Captain Power is actually Jonathan Power, and he leads a small group of guerilla warriors called “the Soldiers of the Future” and they battle the machines that are running the Earth.

Was This Really a Kids Show?

The weird thing about Captain Power was that it wasn’t intended for kids. It was meant to appeal to adults — and at least older-aged nerds.

Because of this reason, some pretty adult themes crept into the show.

There was a bit too much romance and intrigue for the average kid and the show contained kissing and some innuendo. There was even a slight touch of cursing.

There was also a pretty violent demise of one character, and you probably weren’t seeing that on Strawberry Shortcake...

The show also explored some pretty dark themes that would be way over the head of the average kid.

There was the inclusion in the show of a “Bio-Dread youth.” This was a group that would recruit young survivors to Lord Dread’s way of life to further advance his agenda.

How Ronald Reagan Created the 80s

It may be hard to imagine, but there was a time when people tried to put the brakes on how much could be advertised to children.

In the 1970s, they did a ton of research and study that showed how susceptible kids were to advertising.

Not only did young kids not know they were being advertised to, but they couldn’t even always determine what was a show and what was an ad.

There was a mountain of evidence that revealed this, and they put a lot of regulations in place. Commercials could only have 7 seconds of a cartoon in them as to not seem to be an ad in disguise.

All this changed with Ronald Reagan. When he became president, they deregulated all of this saying that manufacturers and companies could do whatever they want and advertise in any way they want.

It would be up to the market to determine what would be successful and that’s why you see an avalanche of new toys, cartoons, cereals, junk food, candy, etc in the 1980s.

It’s also why shows like G.I. Joe and Transformers were created, as they acted as a 22-minute commercial to promote the toys. It was the wild west of toys and cartoons, but we weren’t complaining.

Who Was Stopping This?

The people who WERE complaining however were the Action For Children’s Television. Despite the deregulation, they were still trying to protect kids from this tidal wave of advertising and product.

Captain Power would be their worst nightmare.

The ACT was pushing against shows that were clearly just half-hour commercials. When they first saw Captain Power, they found out that Mattel was subsidizing the whole thing.

They were putting up all the money, and the show was encoded with signals that worked with THEIR TOYS!

So now you’ve got this perfect storm of a show that is blatantly promoting awareness of a toy line, but you needed the toy to really experience the show!

In fairness to Captain Power, it’s not like they are the main ones guilty of this.

The Initial Response to the Show

When it debuted in the fall of 1987, Captain Power was an enormous hit. It became the second-highest-rated new show in syndication.

What was the first? Why Duck Tales, of course.

Kids loved the show; kids loved the action, and kids loved the toys that could interact with the show. Seeing the initial popularity of Captain Power, Mattel was quick to put out some more products to round out the property.

They would release VHS tapes that were just made up of battle scenes so you could fight the entire time and not have to focus on the plot.

Mattel would also put out comics that would extend and round out the backstory, creating more of a Captain Planet universe.

It was now 1988 and other enormous properties, like He-Man, were really slowing down. Captain Power was looking like a good way to fill the void.

Big Time Financial Issues

How much do you think each episode of Captain Power cost to make? A cool one million dollars.

Converted for today, that's around $2.2 million, which is just insane for a Saturday morning kids show.

The creators would find out in January 1988 that a second season wasn’t in the cards. Mattel had sunk $22 million for that first season, which converted for today would be nearly $50 million. Yikes.

It seems surprising based on what a hit it was, but Mattel wasn’t seeing the toy sales that they had expected.

The show was awesome, but the “gameplay” aspect to it wasn’t exactly phenomenal.

I played it a lot and remember feeling like I wasn’t really engaging with it. You could score hits — but it wasn’t exactly a video game come to life.

Add to this all the problems with parents' groups who thought the show was too violent. But they were right.

During one episode, there was an attempted demise of a character every 30 seconds.

Along with this was the fact that they considered Captain Power absolute manipulative programming. If you wanted to properly watch the show, you had to buy a $40 toy!

So poor sales combined with some terrible public backlash forced Mattel to pull the plug on Captain Power.

The Future of Captain Power?

There have been various talks about reboots over the year. I actually think a Captain Power reboot would work depending on the format it’s presented in.

I think there would be enough interest — even if it’s just nostalgia — for at least a season or two.

It was using darker themes at the time, which is now more of a standard narrative in most any shows you see from HBO to Netflix.

The themes that were a bit too advanced--and dark, for 1987--would easily work today.

In 2016 a reboot was in the works that would be entitled, Phoenix Rising. It’s now 2021, so not sure how this is progressing, or if it even is.

At the time of this writing, the Phoenix Rising script has been written by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, who wrote for Star Trek: Enterprise.

The series had been in development by original creator Gary Goddard through the Goddard Film Group and Planet X Productions. All we can do is hope…

Final Thoughts

It always seems cliche when you say something was ahead of its time — but I really think that’s the case with Captain Power.

It was a bit too advanced in its technology and its storytelling. I think there needed to be something that bridged the gap before it was to come out.

But they blazed their own trail and definitely made a big impact on the 80s.

photo via YouTube

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.

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