In the land of kid vid, no one does kitsch better than The Power Rangers. This venerable series, now in its 13th season, tells us that more is better. More bright leather motorcycle jumpsuits. More cheesy action sequences. More villains who look like Godzilla on a bad day. More wailing rock and roll soundtracks. More toys. Catch an eyeful on the two DVDs comprising Season 13’s 10 episodes, on Power Rangers S.P.D. Vol. 2: Stakeout and Power Rangers S.P.D. Vol. 3: Wired.
The franchise was actually innovative when it launched in 1993. It introduced a hybrid genre into popular children’s television, a live-action show with a cartoon feel, what producers called a “degrees live cartoon,” the live part achieving the pace, color, and crazy action of a cartoon. That form, the chief engine of kitsch here, can be amusing. Wouldn’t it be fun to run like you’re the Road Runner? Rangers is nowhere near as inspired or fast as Stephen Chow’s realization of that dream in Kung Fu Hustle (2004), yet it remains a provocative experiment with live-action cartoons.
Tediously, the toys are king here. With astonishing marketing brilliance, the original creator, Saim Haban, figured out how to make a show about the toys. No surprise that Disney took over the successful series (Disney bought it when it bought Fox Family Worldwide in 2001 and took creative control of the franchise in 2003). While each installment of the franchise stars five to six teen heroes who battle the forces of intergalactic evil, the most aggressive eye candy is always the action toy sequence that dominates each episode.
Our heroes have special powers to morph into ninja-style Rangers. They kick. They spin. They crush. Then, after a few minutes of martial arts combat, they call up special vehicles (Zords). Add a toy vehicle to the mix (like motorcycles or spaceships in this season). More fighting. Then, the baddies usually transform into 10 times their original size, very Godzilla. In response, our Rangers mush their Zords together to make a giant action figure, I mean robot fighting machine (a MegaZord). Looks just like a Transformer action figure. More fighting. The heroes win. You can buy a toy that looks exactly like the MegaZord. Because it is literally the toy shot amidst tiny towns or landscape sets that go up in glorious flames. Toasty. Repetitive. Mind-numbing.
Yes, this marketing imperative is nothing new. Every TV show is designed to sell viewers to advertisers. We’re the real product, and product placement is icing on the cake. But this children’s show is one long commercial itself, and a boring one at that. While goofy costumes and clunky editing can be fun for a while, after 13 years they get old.
This particular commercial, I mean season, could be dubbed “Power Rangers in Space.” The year: 2020, the set-up: some cretinous intergalactic aliens are making trouble for us and for some peaceful aliens who want to live among us (why they would want to live with Earthlings is not explained). The solution: precocious teenagers. Isn’t that always how we save the universe?
The karate-chopping kids are cadets training to be part of Space Patrol Delta (hence the S.P.D.), intergalactic cops. (I wonder if they have Krispy Kreme in outer space.) Our little grasshoppers are on a space station, earning their wings, backing up veterans. When the A Squad of Rangers goes missing in Volume 3, for example, our spunky posse leaps into action. Their enemy is one Emperor Gruumm (Rene Naufahu), who wants to take over the universe, and their mentor is Commander Cruger (John Tui), who looks like a blue dog. Ah, in the Ranger universe, people can take the form of animals who are oh-so-wise. The Rangers gives us an incredibly reductive version of Japanese cultural elements, like Samurai. In fact, this series is made by splicing action footage from a long-running Japanese franchise called Sentai together with the teenager sequences (now filmed in New Zealand). Something’s definitely lost in this cultural translation.
During this season, we learn some standard after-school-special lessons. The first five episodes of the series (out on an earlier DVD), preach teamwork. There, our group comes together and begrudgingly accepts a latecomer as their leader, Red Ranger (Jay McLaren). The second five episodes, for Volume 2, teach us to accept outsiders. In a two-episode arc (“Sam Part 1” and “Sam Part 2”), the Yellow Ranger (Monica May) realizes she has to accept an outsider (a creepy runaway kid named Sam in danger of going to the dark side, as it were) in order to save her team and the day. A scoundrel is shrinking humans to doll size and keeping them captive in a mad-scientist laboratory. Some of the Rangers fall prey to the spell, and it is up to the Yellow Ranger to save them. The doll thing is more marketing drivel (don’t you want doll-size Rangers to play with?), and we learn you must love your brother as yourself unless you want to diminish yourself. Or something like that.
The third volume eschews the small fry cops and robbers chases to go big. Here, we learn that cops with special powers can save us from both natural disasters and terrorism. (Where are those MegaZords when we need them?) In an obvious fantasy resolution to current global tensions, the Rangers can fight potential earthquakes as well as intergalactic villains joining forces (including previous villains they thought they’d taken care of). This set of episodes is heavier on the fighting and grandiose rhetoric. The implication is that you should support our brave fighting crew, maybe even join them. Both volumes include a faux recruitment video (“The Power Rangers Want You”) and a video game (“Flight Simulator,” where you can pretend you’re flying a space ship like the Rangers do).
Some of the series’ world cop messages are rather disconcerting. But the point of the Rangers is to dress up teen heroes in new situations for each new incarnation, in order to sell the same old product. Children, you can grow up to be kick-ass teenagers. But you have to have special powers. Failing that, you can always go buy a few action figures to help you forget your troubles.