Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are that I’m talking about this.
For those of you who have lives and hence may not know, “Power Rangers” is a franchise of live-action children’s adventure shows that’s been running continually since 1993. It’s run several years longer in Japan, but I don’t know anything about that, and honestly I don’t care. The American(ish) iteration has produced 20 seasons, 16 overlapping TV series, 2 theatrical movies, 1 miniseries, and 746 episodes as of the start of the current year.
And all of ‘em suck.
No, seriously. If you’ve got kids, you’ve seen some version of Power Rangers at some time, and whatever you pick up in one 22 minute episode is pretty much all you’ll pick up from any 22 minute episode. They’re all pretty much the same. They’re all aimed at young kids, around 6-10, and the show is essentially a commercial for the toys, so there’s not a lot of reason in nuanced storytelling. Just get in there, tell your story, do your chop sockey, sell your toys, and get out because odds are your audience will have outgrown you by the end of season 2, and you’ll have to start all over again. That’s why there’ve been so many separate short-run TV series, the longest of which only lasted three years.
While I’m one of those parents who insists on watching TV with their kids, showing interest in what interests them, and so on, I confess pretty much being annoyed by Power Rangers from the outset, and while I didn’t resent having to feign interest in Jungle Fury or Ninja Storm, I will admit it wasn’t my favorite thing to do. And having to have conversations about it on car trips was tiresome. “What would you do if you had a power rangers show, dad? I’d do ‘Power Rangers Military Force’ and….” Eh. You deal with it. Babies cry, little kids talk incessantly about power rangers. It’s life.
We got Netflix, and my 14-year-old had an unexpected burst of nostalgia. All the series are available for streaming, and he blasted through all the shows he’d liked when he was little, quickly declaring them ‘not very good.’ Then he expanded to other ones he hadn’t seen. Which brings us to “RPM.”
My kid told me to watch it. He said it was unlike other power rangers shows. He said that it was good enough that you really didn’t need to use a sliding scale to judge it. “It’s almost a real TV show, dad, one that actual people might watch!”
The show is set in the not-too-distant future, when the narrator informs us a computer virus named “Venjix” has all-but-destroyed the world, and such humanity as still exists lives in the domed city of “Corinth” (Which based on a map appears to be Chicago), continually besieged by the virus’ killbots.
Ok, so already we’re pretty bleak.
As the show starts, the final refugees are hurrying into the city, and we meet most of our principle cast: Scott sliding under the closing city gate, on the back of a motorcycle driven by a girl named “Summer.” A Scottish guy, Flynn, driving a school bus up with half a dead killbot in it, and handing a small child over to her mother, and Scott’s dad, the Colonel in charge of the city. This is all done under uncharacteristic higgaldy-piggaldy.* They’re going for a fall of Saigon feeling here. They’re not quite getting it, but they’re trying.
Flash forward a year, and we meet, basically, a teenaged version of Mad Max, wandering the wastelands. He sees a flower all alone in the desert, and gives it the last of his water, then stumbles upon a skinny guy in a suit named “Ziggy,” who’s stumbling out of a truck inexplicably in the desert. When I say “Mad Max,” I’m not joking. The guy drives a beat up black ‘70s muscle car, dresses in leather, is kind of a loner. In fact there’s even several Road Warrior in-jokes. “Mad Max” has amnesia. He’s looking for someone, but doesn’t know who or why, or even who he is. Ziggy decides to call him “Dylan,” and they head to Corinth, which they shouldn’t be able to get back into, but they do anyway thanks to Dylan’s preternatural driving skills. Reluctantly he joins the team, and that’s the start of the series, kids. Dylan’s identity will become the central mystery of the series.
Odd, but not promising, particularly.
The first five episodes introduce the rest of the characters – including Doctor K – and the adversaries, and sets up the conflict. The good stuff starts with episode six, which is all about Ziggy.
In the present we see him training, having run-ins with Doctor K, who can’t stand him, and basically being a screw up. The real story, however, is told in extensive “Lostbacks.” Ziggy was a collector for the mob in Corinth. He picked up protection money, and was supposed to rough people up, but he wasn’t really good at it. His biggest job was driving a truckload of drugs in a huge shipment that would have made a fortune for “The Five Mobs” in town, but Ziggy gave it all to an orphanage full of sick kids instead. Knowing the mob was going to kill him, he took the now-empty truck into the desert, presumably to die, when he stumbled across Dylan watering a flower. This brings us up to where we first met him.
The next episode is mostly Lostbacks telling the story of Scott, who was a fighter pilot in a squadron led by his older brother. They were sent out on what was obviously a suicide mission to protect convoys of refugees and buy time before the city had to be shut down. His brother dies, and Scott crashes, only to be rescued by a pretty blonde on a motorcycle – Summer. As they drive to the city, the gate is closing, and they slide under it. This brings us up to where we first met them.
Next we get a two-parter about Summer. In her lostbacks, we see she’s a terrible person, a rich spoiled brat largely raised by her butler as her absentee parents can’t be bothered. Her friends are shallow and only around for the money. She is really good on motorcycles, though. When the world falls apart, she’s abandoned by her friends as she and her butler try to make it to Corinth. This starts out stupid and dumb/funny (Rather than genuinely funny) but quickly goes all pathos when the butler dies – onscreen! – and Summer realizes he’s been more of a parent to her than either of her real ones. When she finally makes it to the city, and is reunited with her parents, she’s disgusted by them. She hears there’s a stranded pilot outside the city, steals a motorcycle, and goes to rescue him. She finds Scott, heads back to the city, and they slide under the gate just as it closes. And this brings us up to the point where we met her.
The next episode tells Flynn’s story, which is funnier than the others. Basically his whole life he’s just wanted to help people, but he’s really bad at it. He’s been a failure as a cop, a fireman, and in a rather hilarious scene, a Peace Corps volunteer (He paints up African natives like Picts from Braveheart, screams “This is a good day to die!” and runs off to attack the enemy) Basically he’s safe, hears about a child that got separated from it’s mother, steals a schoolbus and runs out to rescue her, killing a killbot on the way. This episode, too, ends up where we were when we first met him.
The next episode is all about Doctor K, who was evidently kidnapped as a small child and raised in a government lab. She was told she was allergic to sunlight and could never go outside. As she grew older, she began to suspect this wasn’t true, and eventually she created the Venjix virus to trick her way through the defenses of the government base so she could go outside. This goes horribly wrong, Venjix gets free, and the narration we’ve heard in the start of every episode is her, yelling in a radio about what’s happened. (That was a nice touch)
This was all pretty darn exciting. There was a definite arc, they’d clearly planed stuff out, the big fight generally took place earlier in the episode, and was shorter, so the eps had more time for story, and felt longer than they were. There were some pretty dark elements, such as Dr. K’s origin, Venjix’ origin, the criminal elements, some onscreen deaths (Everyone who dies in this show stays dead), not to mention the offscreen deaths of about six billion people (Who also stay dead). I was genuinely looking forward to it.
…and then it turned into just another Power Rangers show. Once the initial 11-episode arc is out of the way, they really don’t have much to do until the endgame. Literally. The third-to-last episode is called “Endgame,” and that’s the point where things start getting good again. Basically the show would be much better if it was 8 to 10 episodes shorter.
It’s not all a total wash, of course. The acting is better than normal for these shows. The cast – all Kiwis – do really good American accents. The semi-post-apocalyptic elements are cool, and there’s a feeling of “Holy crap, the world really is ending this time!” that all the other series lack. The ongoing mystery of Dylan’s origins, and its link to one of the villains is predictable from like the third episode on, but probably modestly interesting for kids. The emerging romances between a couple of the team members are generally understated, oddly. They were setting up a romantic triangle between Scott, Summer, and Dylan, then just dropped it. They also set up a ha-ha-ha-romance of opposites who can’t stand each other between Ziggy and Dr. K, which I’m convinced was an afterthought by the writers (The actor who played Ziggy and the actress who played K got married in real life some time after the show ended).
Much like the dropped romantic triangle, there are several points where the series appears to be building to something for a long period of time, then just drops it. The most noteworthy of these is Scott’s continued insistence to his father that they can’t just keep defending the city. If they’re going to win, they need to go on the offensive. Towards the end of the show’s run, Scott’s dad finally agrees, they decide to build an army and then….nothing. We never hear of it again.
Oh – one of the dark elements – though Colonel Truman is a good guy, they make no bones about the fact that Corinth is a military dictatorship with a puppet government.
About halfway through the run of the show, the tone changes subtly. It’s almost as if they feel they’ve pushed things slightly further than they really can in a Power Rangers show, and start amping back a bit. You want an example? Ok, right around this time Summer’s costume gets a redesign. No one else does, just her. She’s given a skirt, presumably because jumping and kicking in spandex isn’t demure enough. They also introduce two new incredibly annoying rangers as comedy relief. (these *WERE* set up earlier in the series, but I don’t’ think they were intended to be so goofy)
In the end, the good guys win (Deaths of 6 billion people notwithstanding), the bad guys are destroyed, imprisoned, or converted, Dylan recovers his memories and finds the person he’s looking for, and gets the girl (Summer). He and she decide to head off into the wilderness. “There’s a world out there waiting to be reborn.” In the unexpectedly effecting final scene of the series, Dylan comes up to the very same spot where he watered a flower in the first episode. He and summer get out of the car, and see hundreds of tufts of small flowers growing all over the place.
This really is about as good as Power Rangers can be done, and about as good as it undoubtedly ever will be done. They attempted to take their storytelling to a new level, and mostly succeeded. They tried to tell a (slightly) more grown-up story, and succeeded. They wanted to use modern storytelling techniques, and again they succeeded. And having proven they could do that, they kinda’ don’t ever need to do it again.
So they won’t.
One last thing of note: About halfway through the series, I said to my kid, “Is it just me, or did you notice that Tenaya is…uhm…sexier than the norm for a Power Rangers show?”
“I’m a 14 year old boy, dad, of COURSE I noticed it.”
The actress’ name is Adelaide Kane. She was 19 when they made the show, and, uhm, yeah…
Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who has written three full-length anthologies, and is at work on several other projects. He used to blog under the name “Republibot 3.0,” but now that his stalker is dead, and he can afford to be less paranoid, he uses his real name. His personal website is here: http://www.kevin-long.com and his smashwords page is here https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/rthree And despite the fact that he was awkwardly attracted to a needlessly hot 19-year-old actress in a children’s show, he’s not a perv. No, really.
*- Higgaldy Piggaldy means “A real mess.”