"It's Morphin' Time!": 20 Years of Power Rangers With No End in Sight
The campy Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: 22 years, 22 seasons and two movies in (and a reboot on the way). Why do we love this show?
In December of 1994, for the second holiday season in a row, the toy industry was unquestionably dominated by one force. Michael Goldstein, then CEO of Toys “R” Us, called it “the biggest phenomenon we have ever seen in the toy business”. A mother-of-two from Tuckahoe admitted to the New York Times, “I’ve never seen such a terrible show in my life, but my boys love it. They are possessed, and so am I.” Children had little critical analysis to offer, but the insurmountable demand for this brand in stores across North America spoke for itself: that year, ninjutsu-trained anthropomorphic reptiles had nothing on the Power Rangers.
Since the early '80s, producer Haim Saban and his business partner, music composer Shuki Levy, had enjoyed the wildly lucrative aspect of children’s programming that was cartoon music. For every Inspector Gadget, Rainbow Brite, or He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, there was a soundtrack; for every soundtrack, there were publishing royalties stemming from the licensing and re-licensing of those cartoons around the world. Hiring composers to work on salary and offering production companies free music for their shows, the enterprising Saban and Levy listed themselves as co-writers of the music, with Saban keeping all of the publishing rights. The money rolled in (as it still does today, with Saban set to continue receiving millions of dollars in royalties for the rest of his life), but then Saban had another idea: why not produce the shows, too?
During his travels to Japan, Saban had stumbled across a long-running (I’m talking 1975-to-present long-running) franchise of superhero programs called Super Sentai. Having scrutinized the enormously popular, cross-media Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles monopoly in the late '80s and early '90s, Saban saw an opportunity for fortune.
The Japanese show’s 16th season, Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger (1992–1993), was laden with mythological histories about ancient human tribes, dinosaurs, space travel, and an evil witch. Aspiring to exploit the international children’s media market long conquered by the Ninja Turtles, Saban interlaced newly-shot footage featuring American actors with the Zyuranger action scenes, with Levy penning the screenplay. Their adaptation was called “Bio-Man”, which Saban peddled around for a few years. (In Levy's words: "The general reaction was ‘This is the worst thing we’ve ever seen.’") Later reworked into a show and renamed, it was aired amongst cartoon programming on the new-fangled Fox Kids network. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was an instant hit.
The campy program about monster-fighting, world-saving teenagers became an international sensation, spawning live stage tours, lunch boxes, trading cards, two movies, and highly coveted toys that resulted in desperate parents camping outside stores come Christmastime. The Power Rangers’ share of the action figure market leapt from four percent to 40, and annual sales topped out at $1 billion. Hundreds of products, from pyjamas to snack foods, were endorsed by the show’s name and logo. Its young stars were selected to spearhead anti-drug campaigns.
But far more impressive was the fact that the television program had secured an astounding 52 percent share of children’s viewership, along with a consistently undefeated first place in the ratings―all within one month of the series' premiere in 1993. The success of the merchandise could be categorically accredited to the optimum branding of the show, designed for the sole purpose of TV-to-retail translation.
Adhering to the blueprints of Super Sentai, which rechristened its seasons annually, Saban Entertainment abandoned the “Mighty Morphin” prefix after three years. Every post-1996 season of Power Rangers would continue to edit together US-filmed sequences with footage from a corresponding Japanese season, but feature different premises and casts (normally between three and nine teenage Rangers, a handful of villains, some sort of helpful magic advisor, and a couple of token comic relief characters). Some seasons would closely follow the existing Japanese plot, while others would have original storylines. New incarnations have been churned out on a virtually uninterrupted conveyor belt, the most recent season to date being 2015’s Power Rangers Dino Charge.
[Note: Saban Entertainment, which eventually merged with Fox Kids and then acquired the Family Channel, produced the show until the end of 2001, when The Walt Disney Company bought Fox Family Worldwide―Power Rangers included―for $3 billion. (Saban, with his half-interest in the company, instantly became $1.5 billion richer when the deal closed.) Still with me? Disney decided to stop producing the show in 2009, and its run of the franchise ended when Saban Brands bought it back from Disney for $43 million the following year. But that’s another story.]
There is arguably far less fanfare these days, but despite the reality that the once-overwhelming craze has died down, millions of children and nostalgic adults continue to consume the enduring franchise. Only the latter group of viewers, however, might notice the alterations that have occurred over the years. Between Mighty Morphin and Megaforce, changes in society have caused the series’ cultural elements, technological content, and production qualities to do a bit of morphin’ themselves.
Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations
Saban’s adaptation discarded and modified many of the Japanese story elements, opting for an incontestably Western and more marketable flavour. Because the original action scenes showed the superheroes donning costumes that rendered them anonymous, Saban, Levy, and their crew effectively had a clean slate on which to write their version. The ancient Zyuranger warriors were replaced with five specially-selected “teens with attitude” from the fictional city of Angel Grove, California, who sipped sodas at student hangouts and dealt with typical teenage problems when they weren’t battling evil.
While the peppy adolescent group was multicultural and appeared socially diverse, the ideologies depicted were arguably blatant Western stereotypes of race and class. An affable, all-American jock named Jason was the Red Ranger; he was the team’s fearless leader, an accomplished athlete, and the centre-framed star of every group shot. Black Ranger Zack was an equally sporty African-American who loved to dance and invented “hip hop kido”, his own style of urban dancing martial arts. The Yellow Ranger was a studious, kung fu-trained girl named Trini, portrayed by Vietnamese actress Thuy Trang. Blue Ranger Billy was a bespectacled geek who generally remained out of the spotlight until his intelligence was required for the team’s rescue. Finally, the sparkly role of the Pink Ranger was bestowed upon Kimberly, a quintessential blond Valley Girl with a knack for gymnastics. (New cool kid on the block Tommy and his ponytail later join as the legendary Green-then-White Ranger, but that’s also another story.)
The fact that the Black and Yellow Rangers were black and Asian did not go unnoticed by the public. Walter Jones, who played Zack, noted on an episode of VH1’s “I Love the ‘90s” that viewers would sometimes question the racist undertones of his and Trang’s casting, and the NAACP briefly and fruitlessly petitioned for the show’s cancellation. The truth was that the “colour coordination” was an unfortunate accident―the Super Sentai footage always paired off the Red and Black Rangers, and the producers of Power Rangers wanted Jason’s best friend to be black.
The character Trini was originally Mexican, but they recast the role with an Asian actress as a nod to the show’s Japanese origins. By the time the producers realized the racist implications, it was too late. Ultimately, the criticism was rendered moot when Jones, Trang, and Jason’s Austin St. John were written off the show after “contract disputes”. The next Black and Yellow Rangers were Asian- and African-American, respectively.
(Other questionable decisions on the original show included things like a gong sound effect during a karate gag. This type of culturally-cringeworthy choice, along with the entire general structure of the show, likely stemmed from Saban’s close attention to the pan-Asian/American hybrid style pioneered by the nunchuk-wielding, sensei-heeding Ninja Turtles.)
Nowadays, the cultural stereotyping is a little less on-the-nose. Power Rangers: Samurai―season 18 (2011), but who’s counting?―features amongst its six teens a slacker gamer, a Japanese girl who can’t cook, and a fish seller named Antonio as the Gold Ranger. The show has addressed people with disabilities and from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. As for racial diversity, no Asian actors have been featured as the Yellow Ranger since the accusations of subliminal racism in the first series, and the show did not cast anyone of African descent as the Black Ranger until Power Rangers: Operation Overdrive 13 years later.
But the stretchy costumes, their colours as varied as the palette of a Damien Hirst spot painting, have otherwise been donned by actors of all ethnic backgrounds every season, making the Power Rangers one of the most diverse casts on television since Star Trek. (While it’s worth noting that the Red Ranger, usually the de facto leader of the team, is most often played by a white male, a handful of non-white actors and two women have worn the vermilion suit over the last 20 years.) The Pink Ranger, however, has never been a dude―but that must be part of the program’s tried-and-true formula.