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In Memoriam: The Power Rangers

In 1975, Japan’s Toei Studios produced Himitsu Sentai Goranger, a live-action tokusatsu (special-effects) series featuring a team of heroes in multicolored armor battling evil.  In 1978, they produced a Japanese version of Spider-Man in which the hero battled giant monsters with a transforming ship/giant robot.  In 1979, they combined these two formulae and the Super Sentai franchise was born.  It became a big hit in Japan, each year featuring a different title, storyline, characters, costumes, monsters, robots, and the like (so that co-producer Bandai could sell a new line of toys every year).  In 1987, six episodes of the Dynaman season were aired on the USA Network with a comedy dub, but otherwise the Super Sentai franchise was unknown in America (although Toei’s animated version of the premise had become familiar in the states under the name Voltron).

Then, in 1993, Saban Entertainment, a company that had brought many dubbed anime shows to US television, had an idea: produce a cheap live-action series by taking the action and effects footage from a Sentai series and combining it with newly filmed scenes of unknown American martial artist/actors playing high school students.  Since the Sentai costumes completely hid the wearers’ faces, they could be passed off as the same people.  They called it Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and they probably expected it to be just another cheap, disposable import.  Instead, somehow, it became an enormous hit and spawned a franchise that ran for 17 seasons.

Today, on December 26, 2009, the final two original episodes of Power Rangers RPM, and of the franchise as a whole, were broadcast.  Starting next week, the original MMPR series will be rerun in the PR timeslot.

And yes, I am unabashedly a fan of the Power Rangers.  Even though I was at least twice the age of their target demographic when it debuted, I still became a loyal viewer for most of the series’ existence.  Yes, it was silly.  Yes, it was repetitive.  Sometimes it was achingly stupid.  But it was still fun.  (Was it violent, as hysterical parents insisted in its early years?  Hell, no.  The “violence” was completely stylized and fanciful.  It was interpretive dance with fireworks.)  And over time, it got a lot better, though it’s had its ups and downs.  It’s been a long, rich 17 seasons, and now that it’s over, I figured a retrospective was called for.

Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers

The series that started it all.  Season 1 was by far the worst the entire franchise had to offer.  The writing was horrible and deeply stupid.  The characters were ciphers.  Despite the main titles’ assertion that the Rangers were chosen on the basis of being “teenagers with attitude,” they were all uniformly the blandest, nicest, most clean-cut bunch of kids you’d ever meet outside of a ’50s sitcom.  And it was bizarre that the only people who knew their secret identities were their worst enemies, and that those enemies never just blew up their houses while they slept.

But man, were they ever charismatic.  Of all the PR casts, the original bunch was the best ever assembled.  Of course, the main and overriding reason why I watched could be summed up in three words: AmyJoJohnson.  Absolutely the most gorgeous and amazing female Power Ranger who ever lived.  Staggeringly beautiful and sexy, heartbreakingly charming and bright, a highly gifted gymnast, a lovely singer, and definitely the best actor in the bunch.  I daresay she, more than any other factor, was responsible for giving the PR franchise a sizeable teen and adult male fanbase.  But she wasn’t alone.  The other cast members weren’t necessarily all that talented as actors, but they were all good athletes and acrobats (and it was impressive to see them do their own stunts, something done less in later seasons) and most were appealing, charismatic people.  Some stood out.  Austin St. John, an excellent martial artist, started out as a mediocre actor, but got better, and was very effective at conveying a strong action-hero presence.  Walter Jones was an amazingly athletic martial artist and a likeable, charming presence.  The late Thuy Trang was lovely and warm and serene like a female Buddha.

The recycled Japanese footage had its own charm as well.  It was repetitive as hell, and the sequence of the giant “Megazord” being assembled from its component parts was ridiculous — the extinct-animal robots would emerge from the jungle, the forest, the tundra, an erupting volcano, etc., and the giant rampaging monster would apparently just sit around twiddling its thumbs for the six hours it must’ve taken for them all to converge on the city.  But the art design was imaginative and interesting, and the stunt footage was fun to watch.  I don’t much care for violence in fiction, but I like watching martial arts and stunt performances, because it’s an opportunity to watch talented, athletic people demonstrating their skills.

Once the show became successful, it began to evolve.  In the second season, rather than following the Sentai lead of changing the cast, costumes, and storyline every year, they kept the cast and most of the costumes, which required using much less Sentai footage and more original content.  (Which was a shame, since the costumes for the Dairanger season were striking.)  The writing got smarter, to an extent, though the characters were still essentially ciphers.  But it became less inane and more fun.

This was particularly true of the comic-relief sidekicks, Bulk (Paul Schrier) and Skull (Jason Narvy), who were basically the Skipper and Gilligan as teenage punks.  In the first season, they were nothing but annoying bullies who came in, tried to make trouble, and always had it backfire in some way that got them covered in food or goop or something.   They contributed nothing.  But in the second season, they gained a mission: find out who the Power Rangers are and get rich revealing the knowledge.  They were still bumblers, but they weren’t bullies anymore, and they had an actual purpose as characters.  Eventually the Power Rangers’ goodness must’ve rubbed off, because in the third season they became junior police officers under Lt. Stone, the Sgt. Carter to their Gomers Pyle.  By this point, they’d matured into an excellent comedy duo with a lot of charm and rapport.  I always wanted to see Schrier and Narvy get their own show as a Laurel-and-Hardyesque duo, or star in a Gilligan’s Island remake.

However, midway through the second season, three of the original cast — St. John, Trang, and Jones — left abruptly in a salary dispute.  It was so sudden that for ten episodes, the show had to fake their continued presence (keeping them mostly in Ranger costume and otherwise relying on stock footage and stand-ins) while introducing three new characters who gradually earned the right to become new Rangers.  This was the beginning of the series of cast changes that came to define the franchise — and kept it cheap to produce.  (Actors get raises for each year they stay on a show.)  Unfortunately, the replacement actors weren’t as talented or charming as the original bunch.  But the better writing helped compensate.  We actually started to get some characterization and emotion, though only to a small degree.

MMPR: The Movie

This film, produced during the second season (resulting in several episodes of the show filmed in Australia where the cast was making the movie, and relying heavily on monster and stunt-double footage while the actors were busy on the film), is out of continuity, insofar as PR has a continuity.  It’s basically an alternate version of the same storyline that opened the third season of the show.  A revisionist version with modified, uglier Ranger costumes and computer-animated Megazords that were so shiny and reflective that it was hard to distinguish them from their surroundings.  A curiosity, mainly just a reminder of how big the Power Rangers were for a few years.

Mighty Morphin’ Alien Rangers

This title was used for the last ten episodes of the third season.   For some reason, the story had the Rangers turned into children, too young to use their powers.  So the Alien Rangers from the planet Aquitar were called in as pinch-hitters.  These Rangers actually used costumes and footage from the corresponding Sentai season, Kakuranger; perhaps it was done to avoid the expense of relying on new footage of the third-season Rangers still in their first-season costumes.  The Aquitian Rangers were the first Ranger team with a female leader, something that was also nominally true in Kakuranger even though the male Red Ranger remained the star and the leader in battle.  Anyway, the child Rangers were sent on missions into their ancestral pasts to recover the fragments of the Zeo Crystal to reverse the de-aging spell.  There was some good storytelling here as the characters explored their heritage.  But the whole thing led into:

Power Rangers Zeo

With the fourth season, PR began adopting the Sentai pattern of changing the title and costumes as well as the bad guys each season, though they kept most of the previous cast, giving them a new power source, the Zeo Crystal.  (“Season” is actually a simplification; starting here and for several years after, each differently-named PR “season” actually constituted the last half of one broadcast season and the first half of the next.  But I’m using the standard practice of calling them separate seasons.  This is why PR is said to have 17 seasons even though it ran for only — only! — 16 ½ years.)

Mostly, it was more of the same comfortable formula as the third season.  It featured one of the best Power Rangers theme songs, though.  It culminated with the MMPR villains, Lord Zedd and Rita, who’d been driving around the Moon all season in an RV (yes, the Moon in the PR universe has a breathable atmosphere), overthrowing the PRZ villains, the Machine Empire, and declaring triumphantly that they were back.  But then…

Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie

Though the second feature film is in continuity with the series, it still has continuity glitches.  Zedd and Rita had inexplicably retired right after their triumph, but this paved the way for the franchise’s first sexy villainess, Divatox, played with great over-the-top brio by Hilary Shepard Turner.  On the downside, the movie featured the departure of one of the Rangers and his replacement with an irritating 12-year-old who became adult-sized as a Ranger.  (Super Sentai had used this gimmick back in Dairanger, which is why White Ranger Tommy in MMPR season 2 acted so hyper and childish in the recycled Japanese footage.)  The movie was a pilot for:

Power Rangers Turbo

This is the season where PR began to mature, as Judd Lynn came in as producer.  He began making the show more like Super Sentai, with more sophisticated, arc-driven storytelling.  He began moving toward the pattern of regular cast changes as well, with all four adult Rangers being replaced at once in the second half of the season and — mercifully — the kid being dropped at the end.  On the villains’ side, Divatox was played by Carol Hoyt for a time, but then Turner returned and made her really fun again.  (“Viva la Diva!”)  Lynn gave us some attempted story arcs that fizzled, for instance, setting up that that the Rangers’ new mentor Demetria (Hoyt) was Divatox’s sister but then never paying off the hints (perhaps because of Diva’s recast).

At the end of the season, the Rangers’ original mentor, the big giant floating bald head named Zordon, was captured by the malevolent Dark Specter, overlord of all evil, and Divatox was summoned to his court.  The adult Rangers blasted off into space, into a cliffhanger, and into:

Power Rangers in Space

The culmination of the “Angel Grove era” of the series, the last and the best.  The cast was one of the weakest, but the storyline and characters were rich; even the villains had distinctive personalities, conflicting agendas, and occasional ambiguity.  The new Red Ranger, an “alien” named Andros, was searching for his lost sister Karone while battling the queen of evil, Astronema.  Eventually we learned that Astronema was Karone, taken as a toddler and raised to be evil (by Ekliptor, a character who truly cared for her as a daughter — a very Japanese type of nuanced villain). Andros finally won her back, only to have her taken and reprogrammed for evil again.  Ultimately, all the villains from the entire six seasons united to conquer Earth.  Bringing the planet to its knees, they demanded the Power Rangers show themselves.  Bulk and Skull, sadly marginalized this season, had their finest hour, leading an “I am Spartacus” moment to protect the Rangers.  But then the Rangers revealed themselves to the world and began the final battle.

Andros had a final confrontation with his sister, and her final attack backfired and struck her down.  At Zordon’s bidding, the mournful Andros destroyed the tube that kept Zordon alive, releasing his energy to spread across the universe and destroy all the evil monsters (and redeem the human-looking ones, since you couldn’t kill anyone who looked human on a US kids’ show).  Zordon’s energy and/or Andros’s love brought Karone back to life.  It was a hell of an ending, still the franchise’s finest hour in many regards.

Power Rangers Lost Galaxy

For the first time, a PR show had a fresh start with nearly an all-new cast, though several supporting characters from PRiS carried over.  Bulk was included but cut off from Skull, which was kind of pointless, and his role diminished to virtually nothing before long.  Set a few years into the future, the show involved a colony ship heading for a new planet, cleverly designed with a city dome and environment domes so that Earth-based Sentai footage could be incorporated.  Judd Lynn continued to follow Sentai precedents in the storytelling, adapting the Gingaman main character’s story arc pretty closely.  A good season, but perhaps notable mainly for what two of its Rangers did afterward: Archie Kao became a regular on CSI, and Cerina Vincent gained minor infamy for her nude scenes in various movies (notably as the constantly nude exchange student in Not Another Teen Movie).  But it also deserves credit for the cool original FX work, particularly the Terra Venture space colony.

Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue

The first complete break from what came before, though there was a crossover episode eventually.  This was the first PR season where the Rangers weren’t magically empowered by alien forces but were employees of a government(-ish) organization which had invented Ranger technology on its own.  Here, the Rangers were rescue workers with publicly known identities, though they battled demons more than fires and disasters.  This was also the first PR season where the “sixth Ranger” (extra character added midway through the season, often starting as a villain or renegade) was entirely original to the American production, and his origin story as the son that the Rangers’ boss had presumed dead produced one of the most poignant PR episodes ever, though unfortunately there was little followthrough.

Power Rangers Time Force

The finest season of the Judd Lynn era and one of the two finest overall.  This was when Saban’s PR reached its peak of sophistication.  A terrific cast, smart characterization and storytelling, ambiguous villains, and effective drama.   Notable for featuring prominent actor Edward Laurence Albert (Eddie Albert’s son) as the father of the Red Ranger, leading to some effective drama when he discovered his son’s identity as a Ranger.  Also featured the most complex sixth Ranger, who never truly embraced the role of hero but was a difficult character with his own agendas throughout.  TF also gave us one of the sweetest PR romances between Red Ranger Wes and Pink Ranger Jen, who was technically the leader of the team.  Unfortunately, thanks to network censorship, they never got to kiss or admit their love (and no, I have no idea why the FOX network would think that showing two people express love for each other would damage children in any way).

Power Rangers Wild Force

At this point, Saban was beginning to be absorbed into Disney, and this season was a co-production.  Judd Lynn was no longer involved.  A fairly mediocre season, its storyline was almost a note-for-note remake of the corresponding Sentai season, Gaoranger.  The only changes were to the Red Ranger and the main villain, and to the sex (but not the personality) of the Yellow Ranger.  For the first time, even a lot of the Japanese names for monsters, places, etc. were used unchanged.  Its main point of interest was that it was the first PR season to depict human death.  The Red Ranger’s parents died in flashback, killed by the main villain, a human who made himself leader of the monstrous Orgs.  In the end, he was changed into a full monster himself and killed by the Rangers.  The Red Ranger’s final confrontation with the villain is pretty intense stuff, as I recall.

WF is remembered mainly for its “Forever Red” 10th-anniversary episode reuniting almost all the past Red Rangers (except for Rocky, who never had a distinct Red Ranger outfit of his own).  This is not remembered fondly in PR fandom due to the way it brought back an unbeatable monster ship from the early seasons and reduced it to a patsy easily destroyed by a single Ranger on a flying motorcycle.  As for myself, I thought it was okay, but was disappointed that we didn’t get a “Forever Pink” reunion of female Rangers.  After all, the progression of attractive Pink, Yellow, and White Rangers has always been one of my main reasons for watching the show.

I think this is a good point to break.  In part 2, I’ll cover the Disney/New Zealand era and some overview discussion.

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Categories: Reviews Tags: ,
  1. Adam
    January 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Wow, I watched the first few seasons as a kid, but had no idea it kept going like this. I didn’t understand the different seasons having different names, etc. This is an awesome write up.

  1. June 13, 2010 at 10:05 am

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