It was Peggy Charren’s worst nightmare. For years, the founder and media spokesperson for Action for Children’s Television had been rallying against animated shows that were thinly-disguised commercials for toy lines. Masters of the Universe, ThunderCats, and others were, according to Charren, empty calories.
Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, a live-action syndicated series premiering in September 1987, was a new kind of threat. Charren, watching an advance copy, was appalled to realize that it was not only being subsidized by Mattel—who footed the $1 million per episode budget—but that the toy company had actually encoded a signal in the series that responded to a toy gun being marketed to the audience. When kids aimed the weapon (which was actually a ship) at the screen, the toy could recognize a light on the enemy robots onscreen. The child could “fire,” scoring points, and the TV could “fire back.” If a direct hit was scored, a tiny toy pilot would eject from the cockpit with a squeal.
With Captain Power, Mattel had not only created a series that promoted awareness of a toy line: They had created a toy that practically required kids to watch the show.
“This,” Charren told the press, “is commercial television gone berserk.”
A television series that prompted viewers to interact with the screen was not a revolutionary idea. In the 1950s, a show titled Winky-Dink and You encouraged the audience to place a transparent piece of plastic on their TVs and draw on it with crayons. When Winky wanted to cross a body of water, he’d plead with the audience to draw him a bridge.
Primitive to the extreme, Winky was nonetheless a hit, and an early example of blurring the line between filmed entertainment and audience engagement. In the 1980s, that notion gave way to home video game consoles, which offered complete control over pixels. Mattel, eager to capture that audience without diving fully into video games (their Intellivision system of the early 1980s was a miss) pursued development of a technology that allowed a sensor to read signals emitted from television broadcasts.
At the same time, director Gary Goddard—who would eventually work on Mattel’s 1987 live-action He-Man adaptation—had arrived pitching his idea for a television series. He explained it was like Star Trek crossed with Combat, a paramilitary show about a rebellion standing its ground against an oppressive robot regime in the year 2147. Cobbling elements of The Terminator, Star Wars, and other sci-fi staples, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future seemed perfectly suited for what the toy company had already been planning to do.
Production got underway in June of 1987, with actor Tim Dunigan—who had been the original “Face” in The A-Team pilot before it was recast with Dirk Benedict—playing the title character. Leading a ragtag assembly of soldiers from an indeterminate military operation, Power tries to thwart the plans of the Vader-esque Lord Dread, a man-machine hybrid with designs on fully “digitizing” human survivors of a robot war. In each episode, the action would come to a lull for 30 seconds to three minutes at a time, allowing viewers to take aim at Dread’s army.
Despite the overt commercial tie-ins, Goddard later claimed Mattel was largely hands-off during the production. Story editor Larry DiTillio recalled that the series was “saddled with the worst title for a TV show ever created,” and that the writing staff tried to produce a sci-fi series for a family audience.
For the fall of 1987, Captain Power was the second highest-rated new series in syndication, behind only Disney’s DuckTales. Kids seemed to enjoy the PowerJet XT-7, the gun/plane that took aim at onscreen enemies; a series of VHS tapes were made up strictly of battle scenes to shoot at; comic books rounded out the backstory. For Mattel, which had seen consumers grow fatigued with He-Man, it seemed like a multimedia franchise that was off to a good start.
But by January 1988, Goddard had gotten word that Captain Power wouldn’t see a second season. With $22 million invested in the first 22 episodes, Mattel wasn’t seeing the sales from the toys they had anticipated. Worse, Charren and other activists had declared Captain Power the worst of the worst in terms of manipulative programming. The seeming need for the $40 toy, Charren said, created a class divide among young viewers who might not be able to afford it; Jerry Rubin, who made a spectacle of protesting violent programming, declared he would fast for 43 days to raise awareness of war-themed shows like Captain Power. (To Rubin’s credit, Captain Power was a particularly violent series, with the National Coalition on Television Violence estimating it averaged one attempted murder every 30 seconds.)
With toy sales slow and negative publicity growing, Mattel decided to back off. Captain Power’s first and only season climaxed with the destruction of the rebel base and the death of Pilot, Power’s female colleague and onetime love interest. Goddard and DiTillio’s planned second season—which would see Power and his group roaming a robot wasteland—was written but never filmed.
Goddard, who had long discussed plans for a revival, made progress in 2016 when he announced he was in active development of Phoenix Rising, a continuation of the show that would see Captain Power and a new team of resistance fighters battling robot enemies. There’s no word on whether viewers will be able to take aim themselves.