When I was a 12-year-old, I was obsessed with being cool. Aside from standard late-80s pre-teen tastes – Arnold Schwarzenegger action films, Jessica Rabbit – most things I enjoyed were decidedly uncool: video games, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, and so on (as Jonah Hill says in 21 Jump Street, “If I was just born ten years later, I would have been the coolest person ever.”) But probably the uncoolest thing I loved was a show called Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. It was ostensibly a kids’ show set in a dystopian future where robots hunt down surviving humans. To this day I don’t know how a hyper-violent kids’ show that was basically the flashbacks in The Terminator got greenlit – and despite this was somehow still uncool to my middle school classmates – but I loved it.
I hadn’t thought much about it since 1988, but a few weeks ago The AV Club reviewed its first and only season. Some of the article’s quotes came from a making-of documentary, and since I’d enjoyed similar fare like The Death of Superman Lives and The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness . . .
Out Of The Ashes: The Making Of Captain Power And The Soldiers Of The Future isn’t quite up to that standard (although I do appreciate its overuse of capital letters). Compared to them, however, it is as straightforward as documentaries come. Its access is impressive, featuring screen tests, behind the scenes footage, episode clips, contemporary interviews, and current interviews with most of the creative team and cast (the only glaring omission will be familiar Schwarzenegger collaborator Sven Ole-Thorsen). Most everyone is still immensely pleased to have been part of something they enjoyed so much and took so much pride in, although my 12-year-old crush Jessica Steen appears to be largely over it. And if it seems like creator Gary Goddard does most of the talking, the fact that he’s the documentary’s executive producer is probably why.
Despite said access, Out of the Ashes is an eyesore. As is painstakingly explained by the visual effects team, the original show was composited by hand (!) from up to five layers (!!) of film, including animated smoke, light gun signals for its associated toy line, and then-cutting edge CGI. The original masters were lost, so all that’s left is the video sent to TV stations for broadcast. Needless to say, it has not aged well. (It also didn’t help that I was watching a version of the film uploaded to YouTube.)
Where Out of the Ashes really falls short is in its focus on Goddard and his narrative: he did everything right and money issues on the part of Mattel, its main backer, led to its cancellation. In between Goddard patting himself on the back for coming up an innovative marketing campaign and directing action scenes requested by Mattel to punch up the show, you do hear some occasional dissent, like the writer who bemoans the Captain Power’s seriously uncool name.
But most of its focus is very workaday. If you want to know how hard it is to produce an inexpensive, live-action, sci-fi TV show, Out of the Ashes is the documentary for you. No wonder a lot of the creative team went on to work on other syndicated sci-fi shows. Unlike The Death of Superman Lives, there’s very little time spent on the vision Captain Power had, or what made it appeal to anyone (even uncool 12-year-olds). As it was included as an extra on the DVD release of the series, it appears they assumed viewers would be familiar with its subject, or at least watch it first.
The AV Club article does a much better job articulating its strengths and its appeal, as do the creators themselves in a press release announcing the inevitable reboot: “Although the surprisingly dark themes, serialized storytelling, and shocking character deaths featured within the series were well ahead of their time in 1987, they’re exactly the kind of story elements a modern viewing audience craves.” That makes me think I ought to watch a few episodes, if my eyes can stand it.