November 27, 2009
Recently there has been much buzz online about Bandai and Disney relaunching the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The show will be re-aired on ABC Family, and Bandai has a whole line of freshly tooled toys ready to hit the market (including a new version of the MegaZord). With all this going on, I decided to seek out and finally rewatch the show after I hadn’t seen it in at least a decade. I have a fair amount of Super Sentai under my belt now, including Zyuranger, and wanted to really see how it stacked up. I was going to mention here that the episodes were available on iTunes, but they aren’t anymore. Not sure if that has to do with the relaunch or what. If that’s how they’re going to be though, and not have the episodes for sale or streaming anywhere, well… you know what I had to do. The versions that were on iTunes were the post-9/11 cuts which had some shots of building destruction removed anyway. I’d rather see the original cuts released. Methods of content acquisition aside though, on with the review.
Saban’s concept for Power Rangers, one that they pitched many times before it was picked up, was to take footage from a Japanese tokusatsu series and splice it with new footage of American actors to make a new, English-language series. This must’ve sounded insane to the network execs, and who could really blame them. The result would be disjointed and silly as hell. However, circumstances aligned in the correct way, and Fox Kids was in need of a throwaway mid-season series. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was greenlighted, creating 40 episodes based on the 50-episode series Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger.
Compared to Zyuranger, the premise was substantially altered. Instead of five ancient warriors waiting in suspended animation until they are needed to fight off the witch Bandora who has a personal grudge with them, Power Rangers has five freshly recruited “teenagers with attitude” battling Rita Repulsa who wants little more than to destroy the Earth. Why does she want to do that? Who knows, maybe it’s blocking her view of Venus. Instead of a wise old elf watching over them, the Power Rangers are supported by an interdimensional being called Zordon and his perpetually annoying robot assistant Alpha-5. In addition, they control giant battle machines called Zords, a more traditional idea than Zyuranger’s sentient dinosaur gods.
During this initial batch of 40 episodes, the fact that it’s written around existing footage is painfully obvious. The Power Rangers were granted the ability to teleport into battle, which conveniently explains away the sudden shifts in setting. However, this also causes the plot to leap all over the place just as suddenly. Some episodes it’s almost like there are two shows going on, one a bad Saved by the Bell clone, the other a superhero series, and never the twain shall meet. “Civilian” scenes would have the Rangers doing some bullcrap to promote peace, or help the environment, or whatever soapbox it is they’re on today. Then, suddenly, Rita will attack them, they’ll fight some putties, then transform and teleport to a totally different place to slug it out with a monster. When that’s done, it’s back to the good old Youth Center to resolve the story from before and drill in today’s moral.
This first part of the series would be almost unbearable at times, aside from two saving graces — Farkus Bulkmeier and Eugene Skullovich, aka Bulk & Skull. Played by Paul Schrier and Jason Narvy, these two bumbling wannabe bullies are always good for a chuckle. Often, I found whatever antics they were up to more interesting than what the Rangers were doing. You can hardly blame Bulk & Skull for wanting to pick on the Rangers either. I mean, they really were a bunch of dweebs.
Contrary to all expecations, Power Rangers was a smash hit. Kids all over the country were running around karate kicking each other and singing “Go Go Power Rangers!”, myself included. Problem: Saban didn’t have much Zyuranger left to work with. Almost all the usable footage had been exhausted making the initial 40 episodes. A couple more were created with what was left, plus an episode featuring an encore of the Pudgy Pig consisting of almost all American footage. Meanwhile, Saban prepared a nice little surprise.
Zyu2 — The Zyuranger episodes that never were
Saban went back to Toei with a request: Shoot another half season (25 episodes) worth of Ranger fights and corresponding Zord battles. Toei agreed, and designed 25 new Zyuranger-styled monster costumes as well as dragging the Zyurangers’ suits out of mothballs. Saban even got them to include elements tailored to Power Rangers, such as a relationship between the Green and Pink Rangers which didn’t exist in Zyuranger. This footage is often referred to by Power Rangers and Sentai fans as “Zyu2”. Since these were not full Zyuranger episodes, just costume and Zord fights, the only place to see them is in Power Rangers.
Since Saban was now working with footage that was made specifically for Power Rangers, they had a much easier time creating cohesive stories. The last 20 episodes of the season contain some of its best and most memorable. The stories are better, it’s less jumpy, the actors are improving, even Bulk and Skull are funnier. There was even new combination footage for MegaZord and UltraZord. The new MegaZord sequence is interesting since it has them going directly to MegaZord without going through the tank mode first, but it’s also pretty obvious that Toei shot these new sequences using the toys. This isn’t new, all the original footage of Kyuukyoku Daizyujin (UltraZord) was the toys, but these new sequences make it more apparent so I don’t like them as much.
In Zyu2, the Green Ranger was even revived, something that never happened in Zyuranger. Ironically he was more active after his revival with his temporary powers than he had been before. In his previous stint, Saban had to work around the fact that Burai (Zyuranger’s Dragon Ranger) had a very limited amount of time to live from the very start. Whenever he would leave his special “lapseless room”, his remaining life would decrease. For this reason, Burai would only come out to fight when his Dragon Caesar was needed. Thanks to that, MMPR’s Green Ranger never participated in a ground fight while transformed, they would always have to find a way to write him out until it was time to call out the Zords. In the Zyu2 footage though, Green Ranger is frequently right there with the others kicking ass and taking names. This is great for fans of the Dragon Ranger/Green Ranger (and who isn’t his fan, honestly).
The Zyu2 episodes are also where they started using the show’s famous battle themes. Songs like “Fight”, “We Need a Hero”, “Combat” and “5-4-1” help to really up the excitement level of the fights. They are also genuinely pretty damn good songs. Ron Wasserman, under the pseudonyms Aaron Waters and The Mighty RAW, was called in to create the new themes. Wasserman had previously performed the series’ infectious opening theme “Go Go Power Rangers”. Though I think the drums were done with a drum machine, Wasserman’s vocals and guitar created some truly memorable stuff not befitting a mere childrens’ TV series.
All that combined to bring the series its own identity during the Zyu2 era. No longer was it merely a hacked up Zyuranger, it was its own entity with its own style and appeal. This trend would continue into the second and third seasons as they relied less and less on the Japanese footage. It does beg the question though, what would this have been if Saban had just made their own show? Could they have come up with a concept that would have worked as well? I’m not sure, but at the very least it has introduced a lot of young Americans to tokusatsu and Super Sentai in particular. Though I still think the Super Sentai shows are overall better, MMPR is pretty enjoyable once it hits its stride and shouldn’t be totally written off.