Since the new big-budget Hollywood Power Rangers movie opens in theaters this Friday (March 24), I thought it would be a good time to celebrate the long-running TV franchise on which it’s based, especially since the 2015 and 2016 seasons, “Dino Charge” and “Dino Super Charge,” were among the best in the series yet. The first Power Rangers series, “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” premiered on local TV stations in the U.S. on August 28, 1993 and the franchise has continued with new seasons every year since. The most recent season, “Power Rangers Ninja Steel,” premiered on Nickelodeon on January 22 of this year and is currently up to episode #8.
Every Power Rangers season is based on a counterpart series in Japan constituting the Super Sentai franchise, which began in a slightly different form with “Goranger” in 1975. (In April 2015, I wrote about 40 Years of Sentai here to commemorate that occasion.) The first super sentai series to be used for the American version was “Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger” (1992). The American version uses action footage and special effects scenes from the Japanese episodes, while intercutting newly shot scenes with American actors to play the characters when out of costume. The settings have been changed to American ones as well. Gradually, more and more new action scenes with the characters both in and out of costume were developed for the American version. At a certain point, the casts began to change with each new season, reflecting the production pattern in Japan, and the last member of the original Mighty Morphin cast, Jason David Frank, left the series during the 1997 season, “Power Rangers Turbo.” With “Power Rangers Ninja Storm” in 2003, the production shifted from America to New Zealand. Toei, the Japanese studio which produces the original sentai series, eventually shifted some production to New Zealand also as a means of sharing production facilities and costs with the American co-producers. Non-American actors, mostly from New Zealand but also from other regions, began to populate the Power Rangers casts as well, beginning with “Ninja Storm.”
In 2015, “Power Rangers Dino Charge” premiered and was based on “Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger,” the Japanese sentai season from 2013. The follow-up season in 2016, “Power Rangers Dino Super Charge,” was a continuation and kept the same cast and setting. It, too, was based on “Kyoryuger,” which was the third sentai season to have a dinosaur theme. A total of 43 “Power Rangers” episodes were produced in 2015 and 2016, making up the 22nd and 23rd Power Rangers seasons, as opposed to 48 for “Kyoryuger.” The setting for these seasons is a town called Amber Beach, presumably in California, and the action is centered on the Amber Beach Dinosaur Museum where the five initial members of the Dino Charge team work, under the direction of Kendall Morgan (Claire Blackwelder), the director of the museum and the supervisor of their Power Rangers activities. All the members have to work in the museum cafeteria when they’re not being summoned to fight alien monsters.
What’s most notable about these two seasons is the sheer number of Power Rangers that emerge over the course of the entire story. While most PR seasons have a core group of five members, with a sixth often added late in the season, this lineup eventually expands to ten rangers, definitely a first for the franchise, although all ten rarely fought together in any one episode. (It should be noted that the final episodes of “Kyoryuger” offer a lineup of ten rangers as well, three of them female.)
In addition, with the character of Shelby Watkins, played by Camille Hyde, the franchise introduces its first black Pink Ranger and the first female black ranger in 14 years—since Yellow Ranger Katie Walker (Deborah Estelle Philips) in “Power Rangers Time Force” back in 2001. Shelby is also the only female among the initial five, a first for the franchise as well, since every other season had two females among the five. (In Japan, most seasons had only one female ranger until after “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” made audiences expect two females, although even “Kyoryuger” started out with only one female ranger) Another female ranger joined “Dino Charge” later in the season.
There’s an elaborate backstory explaining the alien monsters constituting the threat in “Dino Charge” and why they’ve come to Earth and I have to admit I must turn to Wikipedia to find a suitable description of it:
65,000,000 years ago, a dinosauroid-like alien named Keeper was pursued through the galaxy by Sledge, an intergalactic bounty hunter bent on acquiring the ten Energems in Keeper’s care and using them to conquer the universe. Keeper crash landed on prehistoric Earth, entrusting the gems to a group of dinosaurs for safekeeping and crippled Sledge’s ship with a bomb that left the bounty hunter stranded in deep space. Unfortunately, Sledge’s collection of asteroids held in a tractor beam accidentally rained down on prehistoric Earth and ultimately caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
In the present day, Keeper is found by archaeologist Kendall Morgan and they set up a base under the Amber Beach Dinosaur Museum in the city of Amber Beach. They begin a mission to find the Energems, but five have already found by teenagers who use them to morph into the Dino Charge Power Rangers. The group consists of the Red Ranger Tyler, the adventurous leader of the group who is searching for his father who disappeared years ago on an archaeological dig; the Pink Ranger Shelby, a tomboy and waitress with a vast knowledge of dinosaurs; the Blue Ranger Koda, a Cro-Magnon caveman living in modern times as he found his Energem in his tribe’s cave and was kept in suspended animation until the present day; the Green Ranger Riley, the youngest of the group who is skilled with swords; and the Black Ranger Chase, the suave and laid back member of the group originally from New Zealand. With these powers, the Dino Charge Power Rangers fight against Sledge, Poisandra, Fury, Wrench, Curio, and their prison full of monsters in order to find the remaining Energems and protect the Earth.
Got it? Good.
What makes the Dino Charge seasons stand out for me is the attention paid to the characters and their relationships. Unlike so many of the early Power Rangers seasons (and the current one, “Ninja Steel”), the characters here are young adults, just out of college and trying to find their way in the world. They each have interests of their own and most have backstories providing the motivation for their involvement in the Power Rangers. Each character gets to shine in individual episodes and their relationships with each other develop as well. Tyler, the Red Ranger (Brennan Mejia), is eager to find his father, who was lost during an archaeological expedition, and he keeps a journal and sometimes narrates his thoughts about the others. He and Shelby begin to display romantic feelings toward each other as the series progresses and their mutual courtship has its ups and downs, leading, or so it seems, to a full-scale relationship by the final episode. Eventually Tyler is reunited with his father, who becomes another member of the team. There are plenty of emotional moments in the series and the cast is uniformly good.
Shelby is the most dramatic character in the group because she comes to the Amber Beach Museum with an intense interest in dinosaurs and a highly developed knowledge of the subject and resents having to work in the cafeteria when she could be putting her knowledge to use in the museum’s exhibits and educational programs. She has an initially prickly relationship with Kendall, which reflects the dynamic that often plays out in office settings when black women have white female bosses. In the episode, “Let Sleeping Zords Lie” (Dino Charge #7), Shelby’s complaints about being underestimated lead to a change in their working relationship. Things further improve over the course of the two seasons and by the third episode of Dino Super Charge, “Nightmare in Amber Beach,” Shelby is seen leading tours of the museum for visiting classes, maybe not the promotion she wanted, but a good start.
Shelby also has a contentious relationship with her father, Mr. Watkins, an entrepreneur who wants her to forget about dinosaurs and pursue a degree in business and follow him into the family ice cream business, which he’d started from scratch and developed into a nationwide sensation. In one great scene in “Nightmare in Amber Beach,” Mr. Watkins (James Gaylyn) puts together a delicious-looking burger deluxe in the cafeteria kitchen to give the rangers a quick demonstration on how to improve both quality and profits.
Here’s what I wrote about this episode on Facebook after I saw it:
All the discussion about diversity in movies and TV led to a piece in The New York Times this past Sunday called “Why ‘Diverse TV’ Matters: It’s Better TV. Discuss.” which was essentially a dialogue between two of the paper’s TV critics. Yet there was no mention of one of the most consistently diverse franchises in recent TV history: “Power Rangers.” This was especially galling because Saturday’s episode of “Power Rangers Dino Super Charge” depicted a black father-daughter dynamic that is generally pretty rare in popular entertainment these days. One of the subplots this season focuses on the black female ranger, Shelby Watkins (Camille Hyde), and her enrollment as a business major in college to please her entrepreneur father, despite the fact that her passion is dinosaurs and she wants to study paleontology. In Saturday’s episode, “Nightmare in Amber Beach,” we see Shelby’s father, an ice cream magnate, visit the museum restaurant where Shelby and the other Power Rangers work (when they’re not in their spandex uniforms fighting alien monsters) and whip up a scrumptious cheeseburger deluxe for the group, all to illustrate cost-profit ratio. It’s a delightful sequence and adds a layer of character development we’ve rarely seen in this show. During the course of the episode’s action, Shelby constantly frets about making it to school in time for her accounting exam. At the end, the father sees Shelby lead a museum tour of the dinosaur exhibit and realizes he should let her follow her dream. It’s quite touching. The whole issue of black parents wanting secure professions for their children rather than encouraging them to follow their own interests is something we see often in real life and is complicated by all sorts of other social questions, but I don’t know how often I’ve seen it depicted in popular culture, especially a children’s action show like this. The frustrating thing about this excellent Power Rangers episode? I’m the only one who knows about it.
Well, now you know about it, too.
Another episode is about the relationship between Riley (Michael Taber), the Green Ranger, a farm boy with a Midwestern work ethic, and Chase (James Davies), the Black Ranger, a slacker from New Zealand given to riding a skateboard with headphones on. Riley has a very precise way of doing things, which sometimes puts him at odds with the more laidback Chase. Episode #6, “The Tooth Hurts,” shows a clash in their training methods and how they learn to adapt to each other.
Riley also figures in an episode with Koda, the Blue Ranger (Yoshua Sudarso), a revived caveman trying to cope with the modern world. I liked this second season episode, “Home Run Koda,” so much that I wrote a review of it on IMDB:
“Home Run Koda,” the seventh episode of “Power Rangers Dino Super Charge,” is one of the best episodes of the two seasons with this cast. It’s got a simple but compelling story and gives Koda (Yoshua Sudarso) and Riley (Michael Taber), the Blue and Green Rangers, a chance to develop their characters and reveal previously unseen layers. It opens with the Rangers on a field with other young people practicing various sports when a new alien monster, dressed up in sports motifs, including basketball hoop and carrying a bat and explosive balls, and his army of “vivics” (which used to be called “putties” back in “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”), attack the group, forcing the Rangers to defend themselves out of costume. Koda, the former caveman in the group, picks up the alien’s bat in the heat of battle and manages to hit back the alien’s explosive balls, sending the monsters fleeing. The local minor league baseball coach happens to witness this and recruits Koda for the team, with Riley tagging along to train and manage Koda. As Koda’s baseball success soars, thanks to the powerful alien bat, the two spend less and less time with the rest of the Rangers, who are quite annoyed at Riley’s new affection for baseball at the expense of his and Koda’s obligation to the Power Rangers team. In time, it’s revealed that the bat Koda uses is the alien bat and that it’s primed to explode during the next big game. The other Rangers race against time to stop this from happening. You can guess the takeaway message that Koda and Riley derive from this adventure.
This episode is a good illustration of the strong chemistry of this particular Power Rangers cast and how their characters function as a team and constantly have to cope with outside challenges and distractions. The attention to characterization is one of the key strengths of the two “Dino Charge” seasons. It helps that the actors play their roles with consistent sincerity and conviction. There isn’t a weak link in this cast.
Tyler and Shelby are not the only rangers to get romantic. In “A Date with Danger,” Chase, the Black Ranger, meets a girl named Kaylee (Elizabeth Dowden) and tries to impress her with his skateboarding stunts and trophies, but she’s much more interested in the Black Ranger, who rescues her from monsters at one point, and he finds he just can’t compete. Eventually, he learns to talk less about himself and listen more to her and they finally get together, forming enough of a relationship to figure in a later episode, “Love at First Fight,” in which Chase is recruited to try to sweet-talk a monster who’s possessed a random girl’s body and fallen for the Red Ranger into leaving the girl’s body, incurring the jealous wrath of Kaylee, who then finds out that Chase is the Black Ranger, which makes everything all right.
From “A Date with Danger”:
Late in the first season, a new villain is introduced named Heckyl, a human in Victorian-era garb who harbors a monster named Snide inside him, who sometimes emerges and takes control, forcing poor Heckyl inside. (Heckyl and Snide, get it?) Heckyl gains the good graces of the Power Rangers team and even joins them on the cafeteria staff, all so he can find the secret PR base, which is situated under the museum. His nefarious purpose is discovered after a few episodes and he is cast out, only to turn around and come back as a good guy after he makes a horrible discovery about his past and what the aliens did to his home planet. I enjoyed Heckyl’s appearances because the actor, Ryan Carter, from New Zealand, plays him in a broad, comically pompous manner seemingly inspired by Hollywood character actor and voice performer Hans Conried. This may just be a coincidence, based entirely on Carter’s resemblance to Conried, but as long as he seemed to be channeling Conried, I was enthralled.
Hans Conried in THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR. T (1953):
While the first five rangers (Red, Pink, Blue, Green, Black) were introduced in the first two episodes, five other rangers joined the Dino Charge team over the course of the two seasons. The sixth ranger, Gold Ranger, is Sir Ivan, a knight of the ancient kingdom of Zandar, which has something to do with the “energems” (energy gems) that give the Power Rangers their power. He is 800 years old and has been kept inside one of the monsters, Fury, for all these years before being freed in episode #11, “Break Out,” and reuniting with his energem. As played with flair by Davi Santos, Sir Ivan acts like a knight of old, complete with British accent and notions of chivalry and honor, and his collisions with the modern world are often quite funny.
The seventh ranger is Prince Philip (Jarred Blakiston), the current Prince of Zandar, an elegant but severely sheltered individual who resembles Benedict Cumberbatch, and in episode #17, “Rise of a Ranger,” bonds with his energem and becomes a ranger of gray hue, labeled somewhere on the internet as the “Graphite Ranger.”
Kendall Morgan, the rangers’ supervisor, becomes the eighth ranger, Purple Ranger, in the last episode of the first season, #21 “One More Energem.”
In the fifth episode of the second season, “Roar of the Red Ranger,” Aqua Ranger, the ninth ranger, is released from his alien captivity and is revealed to be the long-lost father of Tyler, the Red Ranger.
Finally, in #16 of the second season, “Wings of Danger,” an alien ally of the rangers, the birdlike Zenowing, is revealed to be the Silver Ranger, the tenth and final ranger.
The character of Kendall Morgan, as played by Claire Blackwelder, deserves special note. With her hair pulled back, glasses on, eyebrows dark, and smart attire, she is a particular favorite of Power Rangers fanboys of all ages. Away from the show, as seen in the actress’s head shots, Ms. Blackwelder is certainly attractive in a more generic Hollywood way, but as Dr. Morgan she’s loaded with nerd/geek sex appeal, whether bossing the Ranger troops out in the field or working overtime in the lab to create new weapons, crystals or accessories for the team.
Claire Blackwelder’s head shot as found on IMDB:
One thing that struck me about the Dino Charge seasons is how little Japanese footage they used. (In some episodes I was quite sure that no Japanese footage was used at all.) All the monster costumes from “Kyoryuger” were given to the American/New Zealand crew and re-used in entirely new scenes and new sets. There’s usually a single fight scene from the original episode and the final Zord battle in the episode’s last five minutes, in which the Rangers’ dinosaur-shaped vehicles and fighting machines (labeled “Zords” in the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) fight the alien monsters once they’ve grown to giant-size and have battles either in the countryside or in the original’s miniature Tokyo streetscapes. (Lots of property damage in EVERY episode, but always unremarked upon by any of the characters.)
While there is plenty of CGI on display in the series, the bulk of the effects are done the old-fashioned way, with actors in Zord suits and monster costumes stomping on miniature sets on the Toei Pictures soundstages in Japan, just the way I like them.
The current season, “Power Rangers Ninja Steel,” has an all-new cast and setting. The rangers are all high school students and the action is centered at the school in Summer Cove, evidently a sister city of Angel Grove, the original Mighty Morphin crew’s hometown.
The action footage comes from the 2015 super sentai season, “Shuriken Sentai Ninninger,” a ninja-themed series, hence the ninja theme for this season.
In choosing that series to remake, the American producers completely skipped over one of my favorite sentai seasons, “Ressha Sentai Toqger” (2014), which had a train theme. I’m guessing the constant shots of the Tokyo train system would be hard to justify in a series set far from Japan, so they wound up continuing with “Kyoryuger” as the basis for “Dino Super Charge,” since they had plenty of episodes left over, and then jumped right ahead to “Ninninger.”
Judging from the eight episodes of “Ninja Steel” that I’ve seen so far, it doesn’t quite measure up to the last few seasons of “Power Rangers.” (I am also a big fan of the two seasons that preceded “Dino Charge”: “Power Rangers Megaforce” and “Power Rangers Super Megaforce.”) The characters aren’t that interesting, the cast members are less charismatic and the storyline a bit convoluted (as most of them are, to be sure). It’s also more comical and more kiddie-oriented. Two comic relief characters, an over-achieving narcissist and his nerdy sidekick, are annoying without being funny. What’s interesting, though, is that two of the rangers, Calvin (Nico Greetham) and Hayley (Zoe Robins), the Yellow and White Rangers, respectively, are already in a romantic relationship when the series starts and it’s an interracial relationship. It’s also the first time the Yellow Ranger has been male, at least in the U.S. version.
The original “Shuriken Sentai Ninninger” crew:
Meanwhile, the newest super sentai season has premiered in Japan. “Uchuu Sentai Kyuranger” began airing on February 12 of this year.
We’ll see how well the new Power Rangers movie does. I will go and see it, of course, although I’m not expecting it to provide the pleasures I associate with either TV series, the Japanese or American versions. Either way, it will probably have no effect on the quality or status of this long-running franchise which shows no sign of slowing down either here or in Japan.
The original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers:
The new Power Rangers movie:
ADDENDUM (3/30/17): I went to see the new POWER RANGERS movie and am pleased to report that the positives outweighed the negatives. I thought the script was good and the young actors were excellent. It took a while, but as edgy and angst-ridden as they appear to be, they all came around to fully embrace the Power Rangers ethos before taking on the villainess and her army of monsters in the spectacular half-hour finale. (They don’t even morph until the 90-minute mark!) I had problems with the direction and the design. Did everything have to be so dark? I like light and color in my superhero movies. I like to see what’s going on! Here’s a typical shot: