On my 10th birthday, I received a full set of Power Rangers Zeo action figures. My reaction would have been something akin to the clip above if Power Rangers hadn’t fallen out of popularity among my peers, prompting me to hide my enthusiasm until the party was over so I could indulge in my secret shame. In those prepubescent days, before legitimate addictions like sex and drugs kicked in, Power Rangers served up an amalgam of boy-child obsessions: dinosaurs, explosions, giant robots, and toys. Especially that last bit. While recently slogging through three seasons of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, one fact became increasingly clear: Story and character don’t matter. It’s all about the toys.
After cartoons like Transformers and G.I. Joe showed that children’s television programming could be an invaluable marketing tool for the toy industry, Power Rangers brought subliminal advertising into the realm of live-action. Created in 1993, MMPR was the first series in a franchise that ran for 19 seasons (and counting), spawned two films, and sold huge quantities of merchandise. Costumes, accessories, action figures, birthday-party decorations, fruit snacks—the Power Rangers were everywhere in the ’90s, and the supply matched the growing demand as the series became more popular. Every year brought new Rangers, new villains, and a new set of Zords (the Rangers’ robot vehicles), and those toys weren’t cheap. There must have been a lot of pissed-off parents at the start of each season, looking at the television with disdain, thinking, “Christmas is going to be a bitch this year.”
I loved Power Rangers, but my house had a strict “no television on weekdays” policy when I was growing up. If I couldn’t watch at another person’s house, I would go to the White Hen Pantry across the highway and read story synopses printed in TV Guide. Turns out, those one-sentence summaries are really all that needs to be said about the plots. The entire series is available on Netflix Instant, and I’m sure there have been many instances of people eager to revisit their childhoods who wind up relying on those handy summaries to weed out what episodes aren’t worth the effort.
Splicing action footage from the long-running Japanese series Super Sentai with new scenes featuring American “teenagers with attitude,” MMPR was a bargain to produce, and it shows. The footage from Super Sentai looks considerably grainier than the American footage, and characters appear in generic park, alley, and beach environments to match up with the action sequences. The sets look like relics from ’50s sci-fi B-movies: retro in black-and-white, cheap as shit in color. As for the acting? Here’s a fun tidbit: The reason the characters of Jason, Zack, and Trini were written off the show in the second season is because the actors wanted raises. The three Rangers they played were sent to a Peace Conference, never to return. The show wasn’t looking for daytime Emmys; it just needed semi-attractive faces to read the lines without cracking up.
Everything on Power Rangers is hyper-calculated. The group is ethnically diverse, and the characters cover pretty much every teenage stereotype. People have criticized the show because the Black Ranger and the Yellow Ranger match up to African-American and Asian-American actors, respectively, but it’s so much worse than that: Zack, the Black Ranger, can’t stop breakdancing. He also has dramatic plots in which his friends forget his birthday, and he grapples with a fear of snakes, spiders, and other slimy/crawly things. Trini, the Yellow Ranger, is completely auxiliary for most of the first season, functioning as a girl-unit with Kimberly, the Pink Ranger, but never getting any of her partner’s romance plots. (I always felt that Trini and Billy had a chemistry that was never explored because everyone always fawned over Kimberly.)
When it comes to stereotyping teens, it’s hard to beat MMPR, which had a jock (Jason/Red), a nerd (Billy/Blue), a cheerleader (Kimberly/Pink), a wallflower (Trini/Yellow), and the token black guy (Zack/Black, duh). They hang out at the juice bar/dojo (because those exist) when they’re not in nondescript parks, alleys, and beaches. They help out friends with disabilities, ride dune buggies, and fight goblins and monsters covered in eyeballs. They welcome everyone and have complete trust and admiration for one another, which just doesn’t happen with real teenagers. Where’s the rebellion? The disappointment and deception that comes so easily to adolescents? Enter Tommy Oliver.
Tommy Oliver, played by Jason David Frank, debuted in the five-part episode “Green With Evil,” MMPR’s first mini-saga. When I was a kid, multi-part episodes were always exciting, but this was more exciting than most. Here was a weeklong epic about a new Ranger! And he’s evil! With Tommy, MMPR introduced an element of drama that stemmed from relationships rather than monster battles. His tiniest bit of attitude translated into a rolling typhoon of badass in the saccharine world of Angel Grove. He could best Jason at karate and catch Kimberly’s eye, turning him into the perfect rival for the resident alpha male. Even Tommy and Jason’s horrible fashion senses square off perfectly; Rita Repula should have turned Jason’s earring and Tommy’s hair into monsters, because they’re the scariest elements of the show.
The terrible acting makes “Green With Evil” difficult to watch as an adult, as does its characters’ astounding stupidity. The Green Ranger shows up just as a new kid named Tommy arrives in town. Tommy wears kelly-green mesh tank tops and is a huge asshole to everyone. Put the pieces together, Rangers! I must admit, I did feel pangs of nostalgia as I watched the Green Ranger destroy the Control Center and heard the familiar horn fanfare of the Dragon Dagger (which is supposed to be a flute, but whatever). But that nostalgia fades. You can only watch the Dragonzord emerge from the same pier so many times.
Most of the early episodes (the mini-sagas being the primary exceptions) have the same structure: a teen story, a monster story, and a big fight scene where evil alien sorceress Rita Repulsa makes her monster grow really big and the Rangers’ Zords combine into a Megazord to fight it, with miserable “comic relief” from local bullies Bulk and Skull interspersed throughout. The appearance of Tommy changed that, bringing in a new face that would actually stick around for more than one episode.
Jason David Frank played Tommy for 234 episodes, the longest run of any actor playing one of the Rangers. (The actors who played Bulk and Skull, however, remained on the series for years.) Over the seasons, Tommy transformed from the Green Ranger to White to Red, and ultimately finished his Power Ranger stint as the Black Dino Ranger in Power Rangers Dino Thunder. He began as a temporary character, then became the focal point of the series. Tommy introduced continuity to MMPR, and as the series continued, it began to develop its own bizarre mythology.
The Super Sentai series were mired in Japanese history and folklore, none of which MMPR retains. The American show eventually developed some backstory for its characters, but it’s generic “intergalactic battle between good and evil” business. Season three even begins with an extended Star Wars riff, as the Rangers travel to robo-sidekick Alpha 5’s birth planet, Edenoi, to fight Jawas and team up with the Masked Rider (another Japanese import that went on to have his own show/toy line). With each new season came a new batch of villains and a new arsenal of Zords and weapons, but after the initial status-quo changes, the seasons fall into the same patterns.
The first big shake-up comes at the start of season two, when the grotesque Lord Zedd usurps Rita Repulsa’s role as the main villain, prompting the Power Rangers to upgrade their Zords to fight the amped-up threat. Most of the villains on this show are pretty lame, but Lord Zedd is one of the most terrifying character designs I’ve seen on a children’s show: Blood-red and stripped of skin, the character is all exposed brain and muscle fibers accented by strips of metal. I’m honestly surprised he made it through Standards And Practices. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was conceived specifically for the American show, signaling a departure from the Super Sentai material. The show still utilized costumed Ranger and Zord footage, but shot more scenes in America.
The disappointing box-office return on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie in 1995 signaled the end of Power Rangers’ fad years. Ratings began to drop, while toy sales continued to stay strong. Season three is a glorious mess, beginning with the Rangers’ off-world trip to get new ninja powers, then introducing new Pink Ranger Katherine (who is actually a cat for a little while), and ending MMPR by turning the cast into kids to set up the new Zeo series. It’s easy to see why I was so fascinated by this show; the plots were exactly the kind of nonsense a child would come up with.
A few years ago, I was in the toy room of a relative who had accumulated a huge collection of Power Rangers figures. The batteries in the Power Morpher had died, the paint on the rangers was scratched, and Zords sat in plastic crates, untouched for years. Assembling the Power Rangers Turbo Megazord took seconds, and the cheap plastic product I held in my hand had none of the significance I associated with it as a child. The toys were the selling point of the series, but ultimately became just as forgettable as the shallow entertainment that spawned them.