In one of those curious tangents one comes across when looking up something, I discovered the existence of the 1987 TV show Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. It was a grimdark dystopian live action science fiction show (with then-cutting-edge-now-horribly-dated CGI) with adult themes funded by Mattel in order to sell a line of tie-in toys to children.
(I found it when reading about the costume design for the Borg from Star Trek. There seems to have been some re-use of costume elements from the costume for the villain, Lord Dread, possibly by people who had worked on both.)
YouTube has the first episode:
The show only lasted one season. Apparently, while initial sales of the toys were strong, sales declined quickly. There were action figures, of course, but also a hand-held space ship that you could point at the TV and “shoot” at characters on the screen to score points (much like the Nintendo “light gun” that one could use to play duck hunt). The TV could also shoot back and you had to dodge—if your ship was “hit” too much, your pilot would be ejected, indicating you lost. It sounds like a cool toy, for its day, but it cost $40 in 1987, which an inflation calculator says is about equivalent to $92 in the year of our Lord 2021. That’s a lot of money for a toy that you mostly use when watching a particular TV show (see update below for other ways to use the toy). To put it into perspective, for $99 (1987 dollars) you could get a Nintendo Entertainment System bundled with Super Mario Bros. Two and a half times the money, it’s true, but a much better investment. Since both are probably birthday or Christmas presents, rather than something the kid buys with his allowance or lemonade stand money, I suspect parents were far more likely to go for the nintendo, or to buy the light gun and duck hunt if they already had one.
It’s also not surprising that the show was not very popular. About the only thing that it had in common with kids shows was that it had a fair amount of shooting and explosions. You can’t take a show aimed at adults and make it for children by adding explosions, though, anymore than you can turn a movie like The Predator into a chick flick by giving one of the marines a girlfriend and adding thirty seconds where they talk about their feelings before they’re killed.
It also doesn’t work to make an action show for adults, give it a kids show title, and show it on Saturday mornings between cartoons which actually are for kids. Even if it’s a decent action show for adults.
There really does seem like there was any way that this show could have worked. Even if they somehow managed to create a hit it wouldn’t make any sense for the toy company that was funding it. Adults just don’t buy toys to shoot their television with, especially not in 1987. In some ways I think that all of the creatives involved with the show really just wanted to work on Babylon 5, which many of them, including head writer J. Michael Straczynski, did at the earliest opportunity. (Babylon 5 first aired in 1994.)
I don’t know that this show was influential in any way other than probably contributing to the Borg costumes (Q Who aired in 1989 and it seems that some of the same costume people worked on both, also, just look at the costume for Lord Dread).
UPDATE: A reader who enjoyed the show as a kid mentioned that the space ship toy came with an animated VHS tape so you could use it whenever you wanted, not just when the show was airing. Also, the ships could shoot at each other so you could play a form of laser tag with them. This does make them a better value than they initially sound, though I don’t think it significantly changes the outcome of the value calculation parents were likely to make and, in fact, did make (in the aggregate).