Go, Go, Power Rangers

When astronauts accidentally free evil sorceress Rita Repulsa from 10,000 years of stasis, she resolves to take over the world. Only five (er… six) “teenagers with attitude” can hold her and her monsters back, suiting up as the Power Rangers to save the planet.

With a little bit of Thunderbirds and a little bit of Battle of the Planets, Japanese toy companies tried to find a winning combination that would maximise the potential of an action-packed kids’ show that would sell action figures. They first hit on the magic formula in 1975, when Masked Rider creator Shotaro Ishinomori brain-stormed Secret Battle Team Go Ranger, a bunch of super-powered, colour coded heroes who came accompanied by a toy line of matching vehicles. Thereafter, there was a “sentai” (Battle Team) show every year, each with a different unifying theme, everything from playing cards to Egyptian gods, and in the case of the 1979 Battlefever J, dance steps – including a Russian cossack and a disco-themed all-American girl.

There were a few experiments with Ishinomori’s template, but it was soon relatively fixed. A five-strong battle team would pilot signature vehicles that combine into a super-vehicle, all the better to encourage parents to buy the whole set. They would fight a series of crazy monsters-of-the-week, and there would usually be a “shock” discovery halfway through when one of the baddies switched sides. As for the toys, the uniforms would change just enough each season to make last year’s models seem like old hat. The moulds at the toy factory would make a slight adjustment to helmet design or giveaway weapons, and last year’s Red Ranger simply would not do

Producers Haim Saban and Shuki Levy struggled for years to find a way to transport the franchise over to America. They finally struck gold with 1992’s Dinosaur Battle Team Zyu Ranger, when they realised that they only had to keep the fights and monsters. The original Japanese heroes were thrown out, and replaced with all-new footage of all-American teens off-duty in everytown Angel Grove, chosen by the enigmatic Zordon to defend the Earth from the cackling Rita Repulsa.

“Oh… kids, y’know, they’re really funny,” Pink Ranger Amy Jo Johnson once told me. “But I mean Power Rangers has got everything that they look for in a show. It’s got dinosaurs, monsters, real kids they can relate to, bright colours.” Although it’s easy to overlook today, it was also worthily inclusive, with the WASPy leads accompanied by a black colleague and even Vietnamese girl Trini (although famously her boobs disappeared when she transformed, as her counterpart in the Japanese original was played by a man).

Despite its square-jawed genuflections towards love and peace, Power Rangers was also a fighting show, and inevitably there were tears at bedtime when toddlers in the Midwest tried to imitate a flying kick against a Putty Patroller. And yet, for an entire global generation of six-year-olds. Power Rangers was a veritable religion. It’s difficult to comprehend, a generation later, just how deep an impact it had on its young audiences. Most traumatic to many youngsters was the sudden disappearance of the Green Ranger, a figure who started as a bad guy, but then became arguably the biggest hero of the original line-up.

“Oh yeah!” remembered Amy Jo Johnson, “I mean, first season the Green Ranger leaves, but the kids went mad, so they bring him back. I mean, we had mothers calling up saying ‘My little boy won’t come out of his room.’ God!”

The problem was managed out of existence by finding new reasons to splice the former Green Ranger back into the show. Actor Jason David Frank came back as the White Ranger, two different Red Rangers and a Black Ranger in later seasons. Power Rangers and its Japanese counterparts have become increasingly hybridised in later years, with the Japanese actively contributing to the American (and more recently, New Zealand-shot) footage, swapping stuntmen and planning ahead for integrating characters. This year’s Power Rangers Ninja Steel is a respray of a Japanese original from two years ago. If you want to know what Power Rangers will look like in two years’ time, then Space Battle Team Kyu Ranger is running on Japanese telly at this very moment

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the original series, is released this June by Manga Entertainment. This article originally appeared in Geeky Monkey #20, 2017.

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