Friday, 30 August 2013

Top 5 Seasons of Power Rangers

 Special Guest Contribution by Ryan!

Twenty years ago, five teenagers with attitude leapt on to our TV Screens and captured our imagination. Jason, Billy, Kimberly, Zack and Trini were the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, chosen by the great and powerful Zordon to battle the threat of Rita Repulsa – an evil space witch who wanted to enslave or destroy earth.

The show has survived cancellation three times – once in 1998, again in 2002 and more recently in 2009 when Disney sold the series back to Haim Saban who has gone on to produce Power Rangers Samurai and Power Rangers Mega Force. Twenty years on, I’m still as passionate about the series as I was when it first began – it’s legacy is impressive, and the Rangers still hold a place in the hearts and minds of big kids everywhere.

2013 – 2014 marks the 20th Anniversary of Power Rangers, so to celebrate, here’s my Top 5 Best seasons of the show so far:
5. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (1993 to 1995)

Purely from a standpoint of childhood nostalgia, I look back on Mighty Morphin’ very fondly. Having watched the series that Season 1 was adapted from, I can hardly say it did the source material justice but there were things that Mighty Morphin’ did very well – particularly in the first two seasons. The character-base was brilliant, the five teens with attitude were well defined and were interesting to watch. Each had their own unique personality and traits, brought something to the group the others didn’t or couldn’t, and made for a great viewing experience. There was comedy, drama, tension and awesome action scenes – what more could one ask for?

Despite being looked upon as being a one-dimensional series – MMPR saw the characters grow and develop over time. The character arc with Tommy was probably the thing I will remember most fondly about MMPR. The guy who started out evil, turned to the side of good, had his powers taken away, restored, drained for the last time, and then returned to lead the team as the White Ranger. Bulk and Skull went from being the token bullies who only served to annoy, to being fiercely determined to find out who the Power Rangers really were, and finally giving up on that dream to become Junior Police Officers.

For the most part, the villains weren’t dangerous – Goldar, Squat, Baboo and Rito Revolto in particular were just stupid and goofy, Finster seemed more content serving Rita than conquering the universe, and Rita Repulsa wasn’t as threatening as her Japanese counterpart. Lord Zedd kinda pushed the boundaries a little, brought that fear factor to the show and showed us what a really scary and dark villain was like – but was watered down toward the end of Season 2 due to complaints from parents that he was too scary.

A lot of fans look upon Mighty Morphin as being the definitive series of Power Rangers, but for me, it lacks the bite of the later seasons which are far better developed, structured and executed as a whole. For me, it has great nostalgia value, is a great reminder of the 1990s, and deserves it’s place as a Kid’s TV Classic, but it is far from being the best series of the show. The cast changes that took place over three years with four major characters being forced out or leaving of their own volition took its toll on the series, and by the time Zeo came around, the show was suffering for it. But the campiness, stupidity and fun was well worth the watching.

4. Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue (2000)

Lightspeed Rescue wasn’t universally loved when it first came out. It was the first season to make a clean break from previous continuity, standing completely alone in the now-expanding Power Rangers universe. Whilst Power Rangers In Space had brought the end to six years of continuing storylines, Power Rangers Lost Galaxy was something of a hybrid – keeping a sense of continuity with Bulk, the Astro Megaship and even an Alpha Robot in the series. Lightspeed Rescue was the bold step forward with no ties to previous continuity – and had the first Power Ranger team created by human science and technology, and not magic.

For me, it’s a winner. It’s something new, different and exciting we never had before. It’s akin to movies where the Government has created Federal Agencies to tackle major threats from outer-space. In this case, it’s demons from our own planet who ruled the planet, and wish to reclaim the land their Palace was built on thousands of years previously, which is now the city of Mariner Bay.

The characters are adults – they have careers, skills, experience and attributes that they bring to the team – fire-fighting, expert-pilot, aquatic stunts, climber and a paramedic, they’re the best of the best – it’s not ‘teenagers with attitude’, it’s honouring real heroes who put their lives on the line every day of the week to keep us safe and I truly think Saban’s team did an excellent job in paying tribute to these people in choosing the characters they did. However, with the dynamics of the team and the way they have been thrown together, there’s still learning curves, obstacles to overcome and lessons to learn. The cast are well-chosen for their roles and work well together, and play off one another perfectly. There’s genuine chemistry here which reminds us of the original five Rangers from 1993.

Further to that, I believe it is the first Power Ranger season to follow the storyline of the Super Sentai original, which works perfectly here. The storyline is good enough to follow, and with some additions such as the Titanium Ranger (The first US-created Ranger), there was a depth to Lightspeed Rescue, which sets it apart from other Ranger seasons.

3. Power Rangers: Dino Thunder (2004)

Out of all the seasons that Disney produced, this one was by far my favourite. The villain, Mesagog is completely different to the villains who proceeded him, that being that he’s basically an experiment gone wrong, and became the living, breathing alter-ego of the scientist, Anton Mercer, who is at constant odds with the beast, who’s bent on bringing back the age of the Dinosaurs. He’s cold, he’s calculating, there’s nothing redeeming or humane about him – he’s just pure, unrepentant evil through and through.

In a bid to unify the universes of Disney and Saban, they brought back a fan-favourite – Tommy, to clock up his fifth incarnation as a Ranger – this time graduating to Black Ranger. Now, this as fan-service is awesome, but it also adds a new dimension to the series. Tommy acts as the team’s new mentor, passing on his years of experience as a Ranger, and being brutally honest, there’s no veteran Ranger better for a new team to learn from. Tommy was introduced to the franchise as a servant of evil, who suffered the painful loss of his powers twice – the first very quickly; the second, a more protracted affair. He then served as the team’s leader when he returned as the White Ranger, fought very different type of villain as the Red Zeo Ranger when the Machine Empire attacked earth, and sacrificed his powers mid-way through Turbo. He’s seen it, done it and printed the T-Shirt.

Dino Thunder is darker in tone than a lot of other Power Ranger seasons, with underlying storylines of resentment, rivalry and deeply hidden secrets, which rise up through the season, whilst still retaining the fun-factor with the comic-relief characters, Cassidy (Wannabe Reporter) and Devin (Hopelessly devoted sidekick, head over heels for her, locked in the ‘Friend Zone’ until the final episode).

However, it’s not without its flaws, mainly elements outwith the control of the production department – Jason David Frank, who plays Tommy had business commitments in the United States which meant he had to skip a large part of the shoot (Power Rangers has been shot in New Zealand since 2002), cue Tommy being frozen in an amber block, stuck in his Ranger suit for part of the season (even, it seems, unable to remove his helmet – as they do so frequently in the Command Chamber!) and for the latter part of his physical absence, turned invisible...! The other major flaw was the fact that despite Doug Sloan and Ann Austen’s attempt to veer away from the Sentai storyline for Abaranger (from which much of the footage is drawn) – when the White Ranger was introduced, they were forced to follow and comply. And even when they turned their White Ranger, Trent, to the side of good – the original Sentai footage saw their White Ranger continue on as a bad guy. The only way around it? Easy – clone him for American audiences...

On the whole, it’s one I’d recommend watching – characters are likeable, the episodes are well-written and the storyline is killer, right until the end.

2. Power Rangers Time Force (2001)

Time Force is an excellent season of Power Rangers. At the time, this raised the bar for the standard of a Power Ranger season. A mutant criminal, Ransik, from the Year 3000 breaks free from police custody and proceeds to take over a prison full of cryogenically frozen mutants, and is bent on taking them all back with him to the year 2001, where there is no Time Force Police to stop him. After ‘killing’ the original Time Force Red Ranger, Alex, his fiancĂ©e, Jen takes it upon herself and three of her colleagues – Trip, Lucas and Katie to chase him back in time, against the orders of her commanding officer. When they arrive in 2001, they are stranded, and try to activate the Time Force morphers – but cannot do so as the DNA code is locked and cannot be activated without a Red Ranger.

This is when Wes, Alex’s ancestor from 2001 comes to the fore. Jen tracks him down, begs him to use the morpher in order to unlock the others. He eventually does so, but quickly has it snatched back from him after Jen deems him unworthy of being part of the team. This is of course until Wes comes to realise himself that he has nothing to fight for, and never has done – having lived a life of privilege from birth. But he still has a personal struggle – his father will not allow him to carve out his own destiny, and continues to control him. Wes makes the bold step to walk away from his father and joins the Rangers in their new clocktower home.

Time Force is all about carving out your own destiny. The Rangers are fully aware that when they go back to the year 3000, a lot will have changed in terms of world history – all brought about by Ransik’s rampaging army, and their own interactions with people in this time frame. The stories and subplots are fantastic, from Katie’s (Yellow Ranger) fears about the changing of the future; Trip’s (Green Ranger) feelings about his inadequacies, and position within the group and Jen and Wes’s growing attraction to one another. It’s also the first time we see a sixth ranger who is almost completely peripheral to the team – Eric (The Quantum Ranger), who is bent on driving himself to the top of his profession and impressing his boss – Mr Collins, Wes’s dad, who has formed a group called the Silver Guardians.

Possibly for me, the best plot would have to be the changing relationship between Wes and his father. Mr Collins discovers that Wes is a Time Force Ranger, and doesn’t know how to take it, but later goes onto form his own group which charges a premium to protect the City – The Silver Guardians. Initially, he invites Wes to lead the team and bring the Rangers with him, believing they could make a fortune. Wes disagrees with this, knowing his work as a Ranger is a voluntary sense of duty. It does not stop Mr Collins making the others an offer however, which they begin to seriously consider before turning it down to stick with Wes. However, over time, Mr Collins does begin to understand Wes’s reasons for wishing to carve out his own destiny, and in a heated exchange with Ransik, who’s invaded his lab in search of a serum which he sorely needs to survive, he ends up fighting for his life after telling the mutant how proud he is of his son.

Eric himself has a lot to prove and fights alone for much of the series, reluctant to work with the Time Force Rangers. He’s struggled all his life and continues to do so, he does not want pity, he wants to be admired for what he’s going to achieve. As Quantum Ranger, he takes up the leadership of the Silver Guardians and ups Mr Collins’ ability to tackle Ransik’s threats.

Ransik replaced the Japanese leading villain, who still appears in the show, but in a reduced role. He’s a complex character, shunned by society who rejected him for being a mutant and later became responsible for a criminal empire of mutants who decided to fight back against the oppressive human race. He himself, however, has a lot to answer for – after being bitten by another mutant and almost being killed, a scientist took pity on him and gave him a serum which saved his life – in recompense, Ransik killed the scientist and burnt down his laboratory. Little does he know, that scientist would later become one of his own followers, Frax, the robot who would become so bitter toward Ransik’s cruel and bitter treatment that he would try to destroy Ransik and the Power Rangers himself.

Time Force is just an excellent adaptation of the Super Sentai series TimeRanger, which follows the same storyline, and has a very positive message accompanying the series throughout – choose your own path and know no fear!

1. Power Rangers In Space (1998)

By 1998, the show was facing cancellation – Turbo had been a flop and the series’ popularity was waning. The Producers were given one more year and season to wrap things up in a satisfactory fashion – and despite having their budget slashed, they produced one of the best Power Ranger seasons in the history of the show, and put right a lot of the problems that had plagued Turbo.

Power Rangers In Space sees the villains from the past five seasons grouped together as The United Alliance Of Evil – a group bent on conquering the Universe, led by the Dark Spectre. The season follows on from where Turbo left off – Zordon’s been captured, the Rangers have lost their powers and Dark Spectre is seeking a new commander to follow on Divatox’s success and complete the conquest of earth. Despite Rita Repulsa and Divatox battling it out for the job, he chooses the up and coming Astronema to finish the job. However, they’ve reckoned without the Red Space Ranger, Andros, who eventually lets the earth Rangers join him and provides them with new powers to take on Astronema, and track down Zordon.

In six years of Power Rangers, we had nothing like this before. Storylines would unravel over time and provide a deeper and darker series of stories, which continued throughout the course of the season. Our Red Ranger for this season is a refugee from a planet conquered by the United Alliance of Evil, and now fighting back against them in rebellion for his people.

Villains like Ecliptor, Astronema’s General, were dangerous, intelligent and deadly, not like the goofy, stupid and dimwitted characters who had been there previously. Worse still, villains like Darkonda were plain nasty, wicked and uncompromising in pursuit of their goals – even if it meant hurting or even killing those who considered him their ally. Astronema as a leading villain was an interesting concept – we would later find out that she was in fact the Red Ranger’s long lost sister, who had been kidnapped years before and brainwashed for the side of evil – abducted by Darkonda and raised by Ecliptor, who despite his harsh exterior, truly loved and cared for her as only a father-figure could.

The Rangers who took over from the previous team also came into their own at this point – you were endeared to them, they had more personality, vibrancy and character to their credit, and the new character, Andros, was a worthy Red Ranger. Even the introduction of the sixth ranger was more interesting than what we had had before – Andros had kept a secret from his team mates. His best friend Zhane, who had been his partner in crime-fighting as the Silver Ranger, had been mortally wounded in battle and frozen in ice to preserve his body until a cure could be found to help him. Even when he is revived, he finds his powers are limited and he finds he can only fight for two and a half minutes before unmorphing – and so he needs to find a solution to the problem before he falls prey to the enemy.

Probably the best part of the Power Rangers In Space saga was the Psycho Rangers. Five monsters linked to the Space Rangers who provided this team with the greatest challenge any team has had to face to date. The battle against this opposing team was prolonged, kept the Rangers on their toes and saw them faced with several moments when they would seriously have to use their intelligence and skill to defeat the enemy – including a full-team colour change to blue!

As a final series, it did have some fan-service. We saw Johnny Yong Bosch return as Adam, morphing into the Mighty Morphin’ Black Ranger again, and Justin made a return to tie-up loose-ends from Turbo. Probably my favourite team-up was the one they did with the Ninja Turtles – if you haven’t seen it, go on Netflix, buy a DVD or look it up on YouTube if it’s still there, it’s a good episode.

Countdown to Destruction was intended to be the final episode of Power Rangers, and for the first time ever, we saw what was likely to happen when earth finally did fall to its knees. The situation is hopeless, the universe is in the grip of a massive invasion of evil forces, and planets across our solar system are held by the Dark Spectre. Andros finally finds Zordon, and he urges Andros to destroy his energy tube. This pretty much marks the end of an era as Zordon’s energy wave spreads throughout the galaxy and wipes out the forces of evil we’ve known and loved to hate for six years. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the journey.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Ric the Raven (1989)

Personally speaking, while I happily accept cartoons with clever word-play and mad personalties, I've mostly favoured visual humour on account of it's so much fun and easier to draw or write. And in terms of storytelling, they get through scenes and gags much quicker than having characters over-explain everything. To coin a phrase: "Actions speak louder than words."

Pantomime cartoons have always had a great appeal to the International Market, spanning back as far as the Black-and-White days of Charlie Chaplin - given that they barely contain any dialogue to translate, it makes them very easy to air across the world. The Pink Panther, Nudnik, Tom and Jerry, Chuck Jones' Road Runner and Coyote...these would all knock the likes of Spongebob for six should one find wall-to-wall dialogue extremely taxing. They have also inspired many modern-day "silent" works such as Oggy and the Cockroaches, Bernard and even Scrat of Ice Age fame.

They also inspired King Rollo Films to create their own "silent" cartoon back in the late 80's. Co-produced by German Studios Ravensburger Films / Videal GmbH Production, it follows the adventures of Ric, an optimistic blue raven who, as with many characters that weren't limited to singular settings or "guidelines", was placed anywhere in a variety of roles - as a Pilot, a Viking, a Thief, a Knight and many others - where he somehow stumbles through even the simplest of jobs in a series of frantic "sqwarks". Along the way he was regularly assisted / pestered by a trio of short bearded men, who seem like a cross between Bill Oddie and the Oompa-Loompas...  =P

Ric's career started out as a series of 30-second shorts - as were most of King Rollo Films's shows at the time, these were animated in a "cut-out" style; similar to Oliver Postgate's Ivor the Engine, for example. Then soon after, Ric was extended to five-minute shorts with full hand-drawn animation. All in all, it's a terrific series, which features the sparkling talents of Duncan Lamont, David McKee and David Bull, and which follows the comical spirit of the Pink Panther / Looney Tunes very nicely.

Ric originally aired first on Channel 4, then GMTV Kids for ITV, and then Tiny Living for Satellite Television, but he remains very popular in Germany to this day - so much so that he even has his own Digital Channel plus Website, which also airs a variety of other European cartoons. Suffice to say, it's impressive how far that little Raven has flown since 1989!

Friday, 2 August 2013

Animal Stories

Considering the number of British Animation Studios that have sadly shut up shop in recent years, it's always heartening to know that a few are still going strong in spite of "Economy this", "Taxes that" - and so I was delighted to learn that Collingwood O'Hare (now under its new name, Collingwood & Co) are still creating new content for today's watching generation. As of 2010, they've been quite busy with The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!

But for those unfamiliar with their work, Tony Collingwood and Christopher O'Hare are the same chaps who were behind the 1996 Dennis the Menace animated series, along with The Secret Show, Oscar's Orchestra and the lesser-spotted Captain Zed and the Zee Zone. They have also done extremely well in the pre-school market for UK Animation, and have won acclaimed awards for Gordon the Garden Gnome, The Magic Key and Yoko! Jakamoto! Toto!

Animal Stories is another of their shows that deserves some attention. First aired on CITV in 1998, this series follows the everyday lives and problems of a variety of animals with every short story told in rhyme. With its gentle wit, cute character designs and well-chosen storytellers (the UK had Sir Nigel Hawthorne while the US Alan Marriott, the latter who would become super-spy "Victor" for The Secret Show), it was another winner thanks to creators Chris O'Hare and Trevor Ricketts, as well as Tony Collingwood for developing it for TV.

So here's to Collingwood & Co - may you continue on your winning streak for many more years to come!