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.
Mighty Morphin’ Millennials
In the spirit of formula, the heroes-and-villains storyline of the 1993 show was straightforward. In the series premiere, true to her archetype, the gut reaction of the Blonde―I mean, Pink―Ranger to her sudden teleportation into space station is: “Excuse me, but will, like, somebody come back to Earth and pick me up? Because I am totally confused.”
The writers seemed to think that Kimberly, along with the audience, needed little by way of explanation. The wizard Zordon (a giant holographic head) answers, “It’s quite simple, my dear. The planet is under attack, and I have brought you here to save it.” He vaguely describes an evil sorceress planning to conquer Earth with the help of her innumerable hench-monsters. Within minutes, each teen is sporting a Power Morpher, a now-gaudy but then-impressive device, which gives its owner the arcane ability to literally call on a designated dinosaur and promptly turn into a Power Ranger. (They are also given sorta-dinosaur-shaped battle machines, or “Zords”, which snap together to turn all the Rangers into a giant robot, or “Megazord”.) The impressively calm youth are reluctant for all of 30 seconds, until they are attacked by an army of putty men and forced to try on their new jobs for size: “Mastodon!” “Pterodactyl!” “Triceratops!” “Saber-toothed tiger!” “Tyrannosaurus!”
This unquestioned diegesis reflects the target market of the time, or at least the assumptions made about it by producers. Like other children’s programs of that year, such as The Adventures of Pete and Pete and Mighty Max, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers featured surreal or nonsensical events, but neither character logic nor audience disbelief had to be addressed in detail. The show’s rudimentary narrative held the episodes together, as plot holes were easily overshadowed by robot fight scenes and special effects sequences.
Twenty years later, children are perhaps not so easily impressed. At a minimum, kids of the Information Age seem to demand more of their television fantasy worlds, more elaborate plots. A Power Morpher belt buckle would never work today, and has the additional disadvantage of being unfashionably low-tech in appearance. A group of regular high schoolers, however gifted they may be in karate and hip-hop, might not be handpicked by a prehistoric wizard to save the world. And having grown up with Google, Generation Zeds would likely scoff at the dubious science of the Mighty Morphin world, where everything is credited weakly to, uh, sorcery or something.
Thus, 2007’s Operation Overdrive ups the ante with copious amounts of futuristic technology, replacing the garish Morphers with Overdrive Trackers, which are sophisticated smartphones with built-in morphing capability and probably Snapchat. The Rangers’ enhanced strength and intelligence now comes from DNA resequencing, and the teens are also skilled specialists: a spy-for-hire, a film stuntman, a racecar driver, a Mensa-level genius. (I used to volunteer at the public library, so that’s cool, too.) In 2011’s Power Rangers RPM, the Rangers spend the season battling a sinister computer virus spreading across the world. Don’t open attachments from strangers, kids.
An exceptionally apparent technological change is found in Operation Overdrive’s Red Ranger, a curly-haired teenager named Mackenzie Hartford who wouldn’t look out of place in a boyband. While Mighty Morphin featured a comical, beeping robot named Alpha 5 whose catchphrase was “Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi!”, Mack, as it turns out, is an android. Artificial intelligence and the recurring question “What makes us human?” grew increasingly prevalent in media at the turn of the millennium, with films like The Matrix (1999), Bicentennial Man (1999), and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001).
To have a robot that looks and thinks exactly like a human as one of the Power Rangers—first-in-command, no less—is indicative of society’s now-close relationship with those concepts of advanced technology. While adult viewers are uncomfortably thrust into the Uncanny Valley by Mack’s presence, children grow accustomed to the notion of human-machine co-existence, especially when (spoiler alert!) Mack is granted a Pinocchio-esque transformation into a real boy in the season finale. It is certainly a notable twist after the series’ long-standing tradition of ranger-to-robot metamorphosis.
That brings us to technological advances made in the production of the show itself. Speaking of metamorphosis, whenever the Angel Grove teenagers transformed into Power Rangers, one aspect of the show was made especially evident: the fact that the clips from Japan looked completely different.
The amalgamation of Asian- and American-made sequences within the same program was noteworthy on its own, taking into account the differing cultural characteristics and international production considerations. In fact, Zyuranger was the first Super Sentai series to produce footage especially for the American show. But the most jarring feature of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, aside from its inexplicable writing and remarkably cheesy soundtrack, was the obvious technical contrast between the Super Sentai and Saban Entertainment scenes. The splicing was far from seamless, the video quality of the Japanese footage was lower, and the setting would clearly change from, you know, Southern California to Tokyo. The Power Rangers’ half-hearted proclamations of teleportation didn’t quite suffice.
As a bonus continuity challenge, Trini’s Yellow Warrior counterpart was played by a male actor (a discrepancy made very detectable, thanks to Spandex).
Latter-day Power Rangers is not a prime example of first-rate television production (and I’m being generous), but there is, naturally, room for improvement over two decades. Newer seasons look better than their predecessors, partly because the aesthetic properties of Super Sentai have also improved slightly, but mostly because of advanced special effects, which have become far more accessible to lower-budget productions. They employ far more CGI than Mighty Morphin, which used craftier means such as miniatures.
Furthermore, the current cinematography is finer; for example, there appears to be more thought placed on shooting different fields-of-view. Crowd shots, outdoor scenes, and fight sequences still make the switches to Japanese footage painfully obvious―but that particular shortcoming has really become one of the most classic, charming aspects of the series. It wouldn’t be the same without it.
The sole fact that the franchise continues to exist probably says the most about the broader changes in broadcasting and society. Back in the early ’90s, while some parents dutifully sought out the complete set of five-inch action figures, others were outraged at the violence portrayed onscreen. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was one of the most violent children’s shows at the time, though the behaviour was presented and legitimized as self-defense or protection.
When Canadian stations Global Television and YTV began airing the program, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission began receiving complaints from horrified parents who claimed that their children were mimicking the aggressive behaviour of the Power Rangers, high kicks and all. Despite its immense popularity, the show was eventually pulled. Though the majority of the violent acts depicted did not result in physical injury and never caused death or even bloodshed, the series had the distinction of being the first program to be labelled unacceptable under the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ code of television violence. The show prevailed without the support of Canadian parents, flourishing on other networks.
These days, when bloody imagery is completely routine, even in media that is readily available to children, it’s hard to imagine many parental eyebrows raising at a series which, as stated by Global in its 1994 response to the complaints, “carries a redeeming moral message and promotes camaraderie and friendship” and whose squeaky-clean stars moonlight as D.A.R.E. spokespeople. A number of stations stopped airing Power Rangers in the mid-’00s due to the lack of educational and informative content required to comply with FCC requirements, but not because of violence.
Society demands more from entertainment with every generation of consumers, and children’s TV is no exception. Broadcasters answer to these changes accordingly by producing shows that are better, faster, and stronger, without vastly altering the fundamental infrastructures of character and message. New seasons of Power Rangers debut complete with mobile apps and an active Facebook presence; old ones are now available for streaming on iTunes and Netflix. But beyond modifications made for cultural sensitivity (or lack thereof), increasingly complex content to keep up with the times, and the upgrading of production quality, the basic skeleton of Mighty Morphin continues to thrive year after year.
In May of 2014, a live action feature film reboot was announced by Saban, who had partnered with Lionsgate for the project. He cited the entertainment company’s track record with a new generation of global, merch-heavy blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Twilight. “We’re confident that we will capture the world of the Power Rangers and translate it into a unique and memorable motion picture phenomenon with a legacy all its own,” Saban stated in a press release. The internet was instantly abuzz with fan speculation, former cast members voicing their interest in doing cameos, and even People Magazine eagerly chiming in with an article entitled “Let’s Fan-Cast the Gritty Power Rangers Reboot Coming in 2016”.
Along with season 22 Dino Charge, which premiered on Nickelodeon in February—a dinosaur-themed toy line accompanying its launch, natch—it doesn’t look like the Power Rangers are Go-Go-going anywhere any time soon.