Toy manufacturers know that a successful TV series based on one their products leads to better sales. Deregulation in the 80s allowed toy makers to fund what were essentially half-hour toy ads masquerading as cartoons and live-action shows. The key issue is getting the target audience to watch, which means making the shows enjoyable to watch. Hasbro has had the most success with their spin-off series, from the various Transformers efforts to My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The latter series has helped Hasbro gain in sales while other toy makers saw sales falling. From the creative point of view, the success of a series based on a toy hinges on two elements – the popularity of the show and the popularity of the toy. If either drops, the show is no longer supported. There have been times when the show’s popularity far outstripped the sales of the toy it was based on. One of the exemplars of the phenomenon is Captain Power & The Soldiers of the Future.
Mattel‘s major line has been Barbie. The doll has sustained the company for almost 60 years. However, few companies want to rely on just one product to sustain them. Mattel expanded its toy lines to include items of interest to boys, with Hot Wheels the best known line. In a competitive market, companies are always searching for the next big thing to cash in on. Mattel thought they had found that next big thing with interactive TV.
In the 80s, interactive TV was in its embryonic stage. The idea of viewers participating with what they watched became possible as electronics took advantage of the potential of the silicon chip. While the first patent in the US for interactive TV was issued in 1994, the concept predates the patent. NABU Networks was an ambitious attempt to combine cable television with an Internet-like connection with the ability to play games appeared in 1983, though it folded in 1986. By 1987, Mattel developed a version of the technology for their own use, but didn’t have yet have a toy developed.
In steps Gary Goddard, who had an idea for a live-action children’s series. Mattel saw a way to use their new technology, The result is Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Mattel had requirements, mainly at least three minutes of interactivity per episode, but allowed Goddard to develop the series the way he wanted. Technically, this means that Captain Power isn’t an adaptation but a joint effort. However, the development of the series was separate from the interactive technology and the toys released. The fate of Captain Power is still instructive.
The toys and the show were parallel developments. Goddard, who also acted as the producer, decided to film in Toronto, Ontario. To qualify for tax breaks*, he had to make a decision about which parts of the show would use Canadian talent and which parts wouldn’t. He went with using American writers, including J. Michael Straczynski, Larry DiTillio, Marc Scott Zircee, Michael Reaves, and Christy Marx. Goddard reasoned that if the writing was strong, the directors, all pulled from Toronto’s television industry, would be able to work with the scripts despite being unfamiliar with science fiction**. The writing staff was able to work with the requirements. The big one was the three minutes of interactivity . The closing credits provided one minute, and the writing staff started most episodes with an action sequence that led into the main plot, eating up another minute there. A climactic action sequence would use the last required minute, if not more.
Mattel developed the toy line, including the PowerJet and action figures. The PowerJet and similiar, like the PowerBase and the MagnaCycle, were deisgned to interact with the TV series and with three video tapes released. The toys reacted to signals in the shows, scoring both hits made on targets and hits made on the toy. Get hit too often, the pilot ejects. The toys could be played with as stand-alone, not needing the show or the video cassettes, but the main focus was the interactivity.
Captain Power, for being a live-action kids show designed for a thirty minute time-slot, was ambitious. It was the first series to feature a regular CGI character with Soaron, voiced by Deryck Hazel, followed later by Blastarr, voiced by John Davies. The sets were built at an unused bus repair facility. Effects, barring the lasers, the flashing targets, and Soaron and Blastarr, were all practical. Even the back story showed work. When the series starts, the Metal Wars, the last battle between man and machine, are over, with the machines under Lord Dread, played by David Hemblen, winning. The Earth is a desolate, blasted landscape, with pockets of humanity trying to survive against the Bio-Dread Empire. However, a light stands against the darkness. Captain Jonathan Power, played by Tim Dunigan, has assembled a small team. Equipped with Power Suits, the Soldiers of the Future stand against Dread and his army of robots.
Each member of Power’s team has a specialty. Major Matthew “Hawk” Matheson, played by Peter MacNeill is the aerial expert; his suit includes wings and jets to let him fly. Lieutenant Michael “Tank” Ellis, played by Sven Thorsen, is the heavy assault expert. Sergeant Robert “Scout” Baker, played by Maurice Dean Wint, is the infiltration and espionage expert, with a suit that can project a camouflage to let him blend in with the Bio-Dread troopers, and Corporal Jennifer “Pilot” Chase, played by Jessica Steen, is the technical expert and pilot of the team’s Jump Ship. The characters had history, as well. Tank is the product of a cloning experiment. Hawk lost his son during the Metal Wars. Pilot was a member of the Dread Youth, an organization meant to install blind loyalty to Lord Dread into young adults.
That brings up another point. The series was dark. The villain already won by the start of the series. Dread’s forces were robots commanded by humans whose uniforms were modelled after after the Nazi’s. Even the Dread Youth were a reference, this time to the Hitler Youth. Topics covered by various episodes included the loss of a child and how people treated victims of AIDS in the late 80s. The final episode ended with the death of one of the main characters. Soaron digitized victims, sending them into Dread’s Overmind computer. Captain Power also had a story arc; each episode built up towards the season’s climax. The writing staff did not dumb their scripts down, and were inspired by science fiction series of the past, including Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.
Scripts were written for a second season but were never filmed. The series was not renewed. The sales of the toys weren’t strong enough for Mattel to consider funding a second season. On top of that, Captain Power came under fire for its violence. That combination led to the series ending on a downer with the death of Pilot. However, the series transcended what Mattel wanted from it. It was a well-written science fiction series, first and foremost, and it picked up an adult audience through word of mouth and on USEnet.
A reboot of the series has been announced. Phoenix Rising has signed on Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens to develop the new series as a weekly hour-long show. The new series is still in development, though, and no air date has been set.
Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future shows the limitation of being tied to a toy line. If it had been separate, the success of associated toys wouldn’t have been a factor in the decision to end the series. However, since it was, Mattel had to make the choice in continuing to produce an unsuccessful toy line to support a popular show, and went with its own bottom line. Such is the nature of the corporate world. However, when the creative staff, from writers to directors to actors, all pitch in, a work can go beyond its origins and be remembered.
* Canadian content regulations uses a points system. To qualify as a Canadian production, over half the production must include Canadians. The writing staff could be all American, provided the production made up the difference elsewhere. Goddard used Canadian directors, as mentioned, and kept all the post-production companies in Toronto busy during Captain Power‘s only season. The other benefit of qualifying as CanCon is that it made the show easier to sell to Canadian stations. Canadian television has CanCon broadcast requirements, a minimum about of time that has to be Canadian-made. Captain Power, being CanCon, helped fill that requirement.
** Toronto was and is often used as a stunt double for American cities. The directors of the time were more used to shows like mysteries and police procedurals. The last major science fiction series attempted in Toronto prior was The Starlost, which had many problems.
A while back, Lost in Translation reviewed the 2015 Jem and the Holograms film. Today, let’s look at the cartoon that people were expecting to be the base of that film.
As mentioned in the movie review, the Eighties saw rules and regulations over children’s programming relaxed, allowing toy manufacturers to create animated series that were effectively ads for the toys. Hasbro saw success with both Transformers and G.I. Joe, thanks to the collaboration with Marvel Productions and Sunbow Productions. With the boys’ line of toys comfortable, Hasbro turned to its girls line.
The fashion doll industry is dominated by one company, Mattel. Mattel’s Barbie line dominates the doll aisles at stores. Hasbro decided to try to get a piece of the action by introducing its own line of fashion dolls, Jem and the Holograms. The initial line in 1986 featured Jerrica Benton, her rock star alter ego Jem, her younger sister Kimber, and foster sisters Aja and Shana, all of whom made up the band. A rival band, the Misfits, also received dolls – Pizzazz, Roxy, and Stormer. To round out the line, Jerrica/Jem had a boyfriend doll, Rio. The dolls and fashions were inspired by the music videos of the time, with wild coloured hair and pastel tones. The initial dolls came with music cassettes with two songs each from the Holograms and the Misfits.
The doll line lasted two years before Hasbro discontinued it due to lack of sales. Mattel’s introduction of the Barbie and the Rockers line the same year Jem and the Holograms debuted didn’t help matters. However, by the time the Jem line wrapped up, twenty-four dolls were released, including two releases each of the Holograms, the Misfits, and Rio and three sets of Jem and Jerrica.
To help with sales, Hasbro went with the Marvel/Sunbow team up that had success with G.I. Joe and Transformers. Christy Marx, who had written scripts for both prior cartoons. became the story editor for the new series, Jem and the Holograms. The series revolves around Jerrica Benton, Starlight Music, and the foster home, Starlight Girls. Jerrica starts the series as co-owner of Starlight Music, her late father’s company, along with Eric Raymond. Eric, though, sees Starlight as a means to an end, getting rich, and is using the company to line his pockets. To this end, he backs the Misfits, a punk band made up of Pizzazz, Roxy, and Stormer. Jerrica discovers Eric’s duplicity and tries to find a way to take full control of Starlight Music. The answer is a contest highlighting new bands.
Jerrica, though, doesn’t have one immediately available. She discovers, though, that her father had been working on a secret project and tracks it down to an abandoned drive-in theatre. Inside, her father’s computer, Synergy, reveals itself and its advanced holographic capabilities to Jerrica, allowing her to become Jem. Her sisters Kimber, Shana, and Aja, join Jerrica and become the Holograms. The contest boils down to one between Jem and the Holograms and the Misfits.
Pizzazz wants to win. She’s in music for the fame and has no scruples in how she gets it. She’s perfect for Eric’s purposes, sabotaging Jem’s public appearances. However, the key element is performance, and Jem and the Holograms edge out the Misfits, letting Jerrica get the money to fully own Starlight Music and fund the Starlight Girls. Thus ending the first five episodes of the series. Eric is arrested and the Misfits are looking for a new label as a result.
The series continues in a similar vein. Eric gets out thanks to being able to afford the best lawyers money can buy. The Misfits become rivals to Jem and the Holograms, trying to sabotage the latter group’s efforts any time they can. Eric continues to try to retake Starlight Music, using evvery avenue of attack he can, at least until he starts up Misfits Music with the Misfits. Meanwhile, Jerrica’s relationship with her boyfriend Rio Pacheco becomes complicated thanks to Jem. As much as Jerrica wants to tell him the truth,. Synergy insists that her technologies remain secret. The lives of the Holograms are no less complex. Kimber has her own love triangle develop between a British singer and an American stuntman, while she tries to live in the dual shadow of her sister and her alter ego.
In the third season, a new band appears. The Stingers, comprised of lead singer Riot and musicians Rapture and Minx become a rival to both Jem and the Holograms and the Misfits. Working with Eric, the Stingers take over Mistfits Music and rename it Stinger Sound. The third season ran shorter than the first two, in part because the Hasbro had discontinued the toy line. No toys, no need to advertise. However, the cartoon was a ratings success.
Each episode featured two or three songs, either as a montage related to the scene it appears in or as a more traditional 80s music video. The Misfits appear in most of the episodes, one key exception being the anti-drug “Alone Again“. Some of the draw for the series was the music; the show revolved around two bands, after all. Each band had a distinctive sound, with the Misfits having a harsher tone than Jem and the Holograms.
Ultimately, while the series was popular, that popularity didn’t translate into sales. The sheer size of the line of dolls, which included three of the Starlight Girls, Synergy, and two friends of Jem, Danse and Video, may have spread what sales there were. Availability was an issue in some areas, where the cartoon aired but the dolls weren’t in stores. Mattel’s Barbie and the Rockers may have also eaten into the sales, having a known name despite the lack of cartoon. From this view, Jem and the Holograms failed on what it was supposed to do, sell dolls. However, a cartoon that still draws in viewers over twenty-five years later, that is truly outrageous.
In analyzing the history of movie adaptations, I tracked the sources of works. While the Aughts resembled the Fifties in having adaptations be the overwhelming source of popular movies, the type of work adapted changed. Toys, games, and comics became viable original works for adapting, eating away the piece of the pie that literary works had. Games have had a varied success rate; Clue managed to stay with the core concept and, while not a blockbuster hit, works thanks to the strength of its cast and writing. On the other hand, Battleship had problems, from wasted plots to the checklist approach the script appeared to take.
With toys, all the problems with adapting games return, with a new one introduced. With games, the mechanics shape the nature of the play. With toys, there’s not even mechanics. There is no wrong way to play with a toy, whether it is a doll, an action figure, or a set of building blocks. The manufacturer can give a broad base for play, but, ultimately, it is the owner that determines the story, if there is one. The LEGO Movie provides a demonstration of the problem in-story. The movie felt like someone was playing with LEGO, because that was the source of the plot and one of the film’s themes.
The LEGO Movie is probably the best toy adaptation made. It caught the feel of playing with LEGO. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was based on how series creator Lauren Faust played with her ponies as a girl. Both works pull from the idea of playing with the toys themselves. On the other side, there are works like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Jem and the Holograms. Both are based on toy lines from Hasbro and both films had problems. GI Joe‘s script tended to forget what happened earlier and worked better as a collection of set pieces. Jem, though, may have been better off as a TV movie in an alternate timeline where there wasn’t a popular cartoon in the Eighties.
The presence of prior animated series just adds to the problems facing works adapting toys. Without the series, adaptations face the same challenge as studios adapting tabletop role-playing games. There’s no one way to approach the toy. The toy is just an object; the person playing with it adds his or her interpretation, which could align with the manufacturer’s intent, if any, or go in a direction that couldn’t be foreseen, such as using a set of Matchbox fire and rescue vehicles as a space response team fighting pirates disguised as Furbies. Taking that same fire and rescue set, creating an adaptation featuring it may very well just be an action movie featuring firefighters, at which point, the presence of the toy may become a hindrance.
With an existing series, the problem future adaptations have is the lasting memories of the prior work. Jem is illustrative here. The recent movie, while pulled after two weeks, suffered because it just wasn’t the cartoon. The studio didn’t handle audience expectations well. If the cartoon hadn’t existed and if the movie was aired on TV instead of released to theatres, it would be seen in a better light and could have been spun off into its own live-action series. GI Joe, among its other problems, also had a definitive version in its past, the Larry Hama-helmed G.I. Joe comic published by Marvel, which built upon the animated series from the Eighties.
Not all toys with prior adaptations have this problem. Michael Bay’s Transformers succceeded, at least financially, by borrowing elements from the different cartoons and creating its own continuity. The Transformers franchise doesn’t have just one definitive work, so creating a cinematic universe isn’t necessarily destroying memories.* Mattel’s Barbie movies have the doll and her friends as animated actresses, taking on the roles required by the features without locking them into any one personality.** My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is turning into the definitive MLP work, but the series covers enough ground to include slice of life and magical girls and has a large supporting cast that future works can fit in without a problem.
The key issue when adapting toys is to stay true to the play. The closer the adaptation stays to how a toy is played with, the more the audience will identify with the work. The LEGO Movie is the ultimate example of an adaptation getting to the heart of how a toy is played with and can serve as a lesson for future adaptations. The further away from the toy’s core play, the harder it will be to get an audience to turn out.
* Lost in Translation will go into further details next week. Short version, the Transformers live-action movie made all the right moves in casting to offset fan concerns.
** Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse breaks this approach, but is its own continuity. The result is functionally the same as having the dolls as actresses.
May had a lot of news about upcoming adaptations and remakes.
Farscape movie in the works.
Rockne O’Bannon, creator of Farscape, has confirmed the rumours that a Farscape movie was in production, at least as far as the script. The confirmation was announced at WonderCon.
Prequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in pre-production.
The movie brings back Michelle Yeoh and fight coordinator Yuen Woo-ping to present what Yu Shu Lien did before the events of the original movie. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out in 2000; the delay was caused by a rights conflict between the studio and the estate of Wang Du Lu, whose novels were the base of the movie.
Six issue Avengers mini-series coming from Boom!
John Steed and Emma Peel will be back in a comics mini-series called Steed and Mrs. Peel. The cover art in the article really does suit the show.
Casting started for the Jem movie.
After seeing how crowdfunding worked with Veronica Mars, the director of the live-action Jem and the Holograms turned to YouTube and asked for fans to sumbit video auditions for online casting.
Twin Peaks returns in fan-made web sequel.
Fans of David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks have begun the 25th anniversary celebrations by having a third season done on Twitter. The central repository for the fan series is Enter the Lodge, where the tweets are collected.
Hector and the search for a distributor.
Hector and the Search for Happiness, based on the book of the same name by Francois Lelord, has been picked up by Relativity. The movie, starring Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike, tells the story of a psychiatrist travelling the world in search of happiness.
JK Rowling novel to become TV series.
The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s first novel after finishing the Harry Potter series, has been picked up as a BBC and HBO co-production. The book will be turned into a mini-series, following the town of Pagford, England, after the local councilor dies.
More Jem casting news.
All the actresses have experience to some degree but aren’t major names. Hayley Kiyoko, playing Aja, has an EP, “A Belle to Remember“, on her resume. Aubrey Peeples, playing Jem, has performed as a singer, including on the TV series Nashville, but doesn’t have a release. The live action adaptation still has some hurdles, especially with the original creator Christy Marx not involved, but the casting of the core allows the movie to be about Jem and the Holograms and not furthering the singing careers of the leads.
SyFy getting in on the adaptation train.
Four new series on SyFy, all of them are adaptations. Letter 44, Pax Romana, and Ronin are all based on comics. The fourth, The Magicians, is based on the novels by Lev Grossman.
Dad’s Army to hit the silver screen.
The BBC sitcom Dad’s Army is being adapted as a film. Toby Jones will play Captain Mainwaring, portrayed by Arthur Lowe in the original. Bill Nighy will be Sergeant Wilson. The original TV series focused on a British Home Guard unit in World War II. The writer of the original show, Jimmy Perry, added a provision when he signed over the rights that he wouldn’t have to write anything in the adaptation.
Sailor Moon cast announced.
More on the Sailor Moon news from last month. The Sailor Senshi have been cast, with Kotono Mitsuishi is back as Usagi. The character designs for the new series are based on their appearances in the manga.
Toy and snack movies ahead!
First, Barbie. A live action Barbie comedy is in the works from Sony. It’s not too surprising a move; the animated /Barbie/ features have done well and the online series /Life in the Dreamhouse/ has gone four seasons. Mattel, like all toy companies except Hasbro, is also trying to recover from a drop in sales in the past year.
Next, Peeps. The pink and yellow marshmallow candies are following in the footsteps of The LEGO Movie. Adam Rifkin will helm the movie, basing it on the Peeps dioramas his niece and nephew made.
Another Disney ride gets tapped for a movie.
In celebration of the attraction’s 50th anniversary, It’s a Small World will be turned into a family movie. The earworm generating song will be part of the movie. Disney is batting .500 with rides turned into movies lately; while The Haunted Mansion stumbled a bit, Pirates of the Caribbean became a huge hit. It’s a matter of finding the right team. Or inserting a subliminal message into the song.
Minecraft, the movie.
The producers of The LEGO Movie will bring the digital version of playing with blocks to the big screen. Warner Bros, the studio involved, will also work on a live-action tie-in for the movie.
Scarface to be remade, too.
The remake will bring the story into the today’s world. The immigrant’s story will see Tony’s background change to Mexican from the original Italian as seen in the 1932 and 1983 versions. The filmmakers are looking to cast a Latino in the role.
Marvel’s Peggy Carter to get her own series.
Peggy Carter, who first appeared in Captain America, is getting her own spin-off series on ABC in the fall. The series will be set in 1946 following the events at the end of the movie. This comes in the wake of the renewal of Agents of SHIELD. Meanwhile, over at Warner, no news of a Wonder Woman movie.
Private Benjamin to be remade.
The Goldie Hawn movie about a spoiled rich girl who joins the Army is being remade, with Rebel Wilson in the title role. The update will see a redneck join with the rich girl.
Animated Flintstones movie to be produced by Will Farrell and Adam McKay.
The Stone Age family will return to the big screen animated instead of live-action. The movie will be the first animated film of the characters since the 1966 The Man Called Flintstone.
Go, go Power Rangers!
Lionsgate has licensed Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers from Saban for a reboot movie.
Didn’t see the Rosemary’s Baby remake? You’re not alone.
Maybe Mother’s Day wasn’t the best day for the airing. The remake was up against A Game of Thrones, the season finale of Once Upon a Time, and Cosmos.
Corner Gas movie being Kickstartered.
The Canadian sitcom about life in Dog River, Saskatchewan is being turned into a movie if the Kickstarter campaign is successful.
Blade Runner sequel may see Harrison Ford return as Deckard.
Ridley Scott may provide the answer to, “Is Deckard a replicant?” in the Blade Runner sequel. Ford himself showed interest during an AMA on Reddit.
Infamous Chick tract being adapted as movie.
Dark Dungeons, Jack Chick’s infamous anti-Dungeons & Dragons comic tract, is getting the movie treatment. Zombie Orpheus Entertainment will be treating the tract with the respect the company, staffed by gamers, think is due and will play it straight and accurate.