In the “Stuck at Childhood” series, I’ll be taking a monthly look at the television shows that shaped my childhood. Let’s see what made them special, why they appealed to me and if they hold up as art or entertainment.
When I came up with the idea for this series, I decided fairly early on that the first show I was going to cover, had to also be my earliest obssession. I don’t know if Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was, in fact, the first show I was a fan of, but chances are very much in its favor. I suppose you can have memories of when you were three years old, because I remember particular moments of a time when the world I lived in (composed mainly by kids) was absolutely obsessed with the Power Rangers. They were one of the biggest and most powerful marketing machines of the early nineties, with all kinds of merchandise going from toys to sheets (which I had) to walkie-talkies (which I had) and culminating in their own motion picture (which I obviously saw in the theater). Going back and re-watching some episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers made it immediately clear that there was probably no more depressing option for the first installment of this series than this show. I know 3-year-olds are not the standard barrers of taste, but Power Rangers was an awful, awful show.
According to executive producer Shuki Levy, the idea for the show came to producer Haim Saban on a trip to Japan. As we have been recently reminded by Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, the Mecha vs. Kaiju genre has been a japanese favorite for a long time inspiring many manga, movies and television series. One of such series was Super Sentai, whose sixteenth installment (season) would end up being what we saw in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Saban noticed how huge the show was in Japan and bought the rights hoping to spread the fever to the U.S. The original idea was to dub the Japanese show, but it was later decided to just keep the footage from the fighting sequences in which we saw the masked rangers and have an American show built around that.
There were a lot of difficulties in building a show based on pre-existing Japanese footage. The writers had to adhere heavily and quickly adapt to the Japanese story-lines as far all footage concerning fights and whatever scenes featuring the villains. I, of course, didn’t notice this as a child, but watching the show now it’s incredibly obvious whenever we jump from the American teenagers to a group of costumed fighting japanese men and only partially because many times such jumps include a radical change of location (the first episode, for example, doesn’t even bother give an explanation why the fight suddenly jumps from the desert to a city, except for the fact that you wouldn’t get the scale of a giant robot and a giant monster fighting each other otherwise). It’s also now obvious that the voice of chief villainess Rita Repulsa (played by Machiko Soga) was sloppily dubbed. And that the broad performances given by most villains have a characteristic Japanese style to them. However, this wasn’t going to be the hard part for the producers. Whatever worked in Japan was sure going to work in the United States. They had to focus on the original material.
I feel fairly safe saying that Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was a cash-grab. It wasn’t a work of art, it was a product. It should appeal to children and the original material created for the U.S. version reflects the desire to reach the widest possible demographic. Everything about it seems carefully calculated. We have a group of racially diverse teenagers who present a Breakfast-Club-like variety of high school archetypes (the jock, the nerd, the prom queen, etc.). They live in the small town of Angel Grove and hang out at a dojo/juice bar. That is until Zordon (a floating head supreme being) calls them up to turn into the Power Rangers and fight whatever monster evil Rita Repulsa has unleashed in order to conquer Earth. It was unfortunate (or too carefully calculated) that the yellow ranger was an asian and the black ranger an african america, but that was fixed in season two when ethnicities were traded between the two rangers.
Watching “Day of the Dumpster” -the first ever episode of the show and the one that gives somewhat of a backstory on how these teenagers became Power Rangers even if the whole premise of the show was effectively presented each week in the intro- it’s apparent that there was little time and place for inspired work in the Power Rangers writing room. Building around the Japanese footage didn’t leave much time, and so, the motivations are never questioned or explained very deeply. Rita Repulsa, for example, is simply evil and wants to destroy Earth just because. This first episode also features the teens being initially doubtful about taking on the Ranger mission, but after they are forced to fight Rita’s main warrior Goldar, they just accept their role.
The archetypical characters were a quick way to not have to lose time to much characterization, but the writers might have taken it too far. The first episode makes a point of showing what’s each teen’s personality while still making it clear that these are all good kids and that jock Jason is going to help nerd Billy become good at karate. The acting is for the most part horrible. Not that the writing helped at all. The biggest. It is particularly sad that the absolutely worst lines go to Kimberly, the Pink Ranger, who is obviously the prom queen type and says stuff like “these outfits are super cool” and such other nonsense. It’s not just an offensive portrayal of femininity, but also a pity since Amy Jo Johnson, who played Kimberly, was far and away the best actress of the bunch* on account of how she was the only one to inject some kind of life or personality to her lines.
*A statement proved right by the fact that she’s the only one of the cast members that went on to have a somewhat successful career as an actress, getting a role in J.J. Abrams’ “Felicty” as well as in “The Division” and “Flashpoint”.
Most every episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers followed the structure set up in “Day of the Dumpster”. The Rangers are doing something cool, then Rita suddenly sends an evil monster to earth. Sometimes, the monster sort of ties into whatever it is the Rangers are doing, but it’s important to emphasize the “sort of” part of that sentence, since these thematic tie-ins weren’t anywhere close to the way monsters reflect on the themes of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or to play on a fairer level, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The Rangers would fight the monster (and Rita’s Putty Patrolers) and when they’re about to beat him, she would use her magic wand to make the monster grow into giant size. That’s when the Rangers would call their “Zords” (giant dinosaur robots) and combine them to form the “Megazord”. That would be the moment when two actors, one in a robot suit and one in a monster costume would fight it out on our television screens.
The simple plotting could have been enough to keep children glued to the screen for a while, but the people behind Power Rangers (and Super Sentai, for that matter) knew that they had to shake things up every now and then. This would not only keep audiences interested, but would be an opportunity to sell more toys. The first of such changes came in the five-part episode titled “Green with Evil”, in which Rita created her own evil Ranger. The Green Ranger, aka Tommy, being a classic saturday-morning-cartoon badass was an instant hit with young boys. I remember when I played Power Rangers with my friends, there was always going to be an infinite debate over who was going to be the Green Ranger. Like it happens to many popular villains in children’s action shows, the Green Ranger became a good guy, and not much time later, changed the green for white.
This change in colors coincided with the start of the second season, which began with the arrival of a bigger villain: Lord Zedd takes the place of Rita Repulsa and destroys the Ranger’s Zords. Now, this didn’t mean the end for the Power Rangers, but a new, more profitable beginning: they would get new Zords! (This charade was repeated at the start of the third season, after Zedd and Rita got married and, once again, destroyed the Ranger’s Zords). By this moment in time, the Rangers were at the to of their popularity. They were probably bigger in America (and around the world) than the Super Sentai had ever been in Japan. Lord Zedd, for example, was an original creation for the American cartoon, which still used Japanese footage for the battle sequences, but wanted to be able to script their villains. The next logical step for the Rangers was to have their own movie. And they did.
The movie ended up being a financial disappointment. The decline of the Power Rangers’s popularity had started. There was one last Mighty Morphin season. Ratings weren’t huge anymore, but along with the money made from merchandise, they were good enough for the show to keep going. Like the Super Sentai series, that worked in short installments that changed characters and robots, Amerca’s Power Rangers followed suit. There have been 20 seasons/versions of the Power Rangers, but none of them have been nearly as popular as the series’ first three years. I’ve actually watched some of the later seasons and think there were some interesting or at least entertaining (and technically better) stuff done.
I guess there is some campy fun to be had rewatching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but I don’t know if I could have made it through a single episode without my childhood nostalgia being a factor. I might revisit one of those latter seasons in the future. I also might take a look at the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Movie, which judging from what I can recall could be either surprisingly nuanced or incredibly hypocritical. Just don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, I think I’ve had enough Power Rangers for at least a few years.
Next Time: I’ll go the safe route and pick something that I know is good. It also features giant robots fighting monsters, but Dexter’s Laboratory is one of the best animated shows of the 90s.