Five Teenagers With Attitude: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Season One - part one
The premier episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (MMPR) bears the humble title ''Day of the Dumpster,''and it is upon this unlikely foundation that a global phenomenon was launched. The ''Dumpster'' in question is the mystical receptacle that imprisons the show's chief villain, an intergalactic sorceress known as Rita Repulsa. Dubbed with a rough screech of a voice by Barbara Goodson, Rita is freed when a duo of astronauts haphazardly open the golden cask after finding it on the moon's surface. Emerging as well are her four monster henchmen - Goldar, Finster, Squatt and Baboo. They have been captive for ten thousand years, and Rita wants to celebrate being set loose by immediately conquering the nearest planet, this being Earth.
As it happens, this version of Earth is home to the idyllic fictional city of Angel Grove, and here, in a Youth Center/Gym/Juice Bar we meet the teenage protagonists of the series. Jason (Austin St. John) and Zack (Walter Jones) are sparring, each visibly skilled in martial arts. Trini (Thuy Trang) is practicing what might be Tai Chi, and Kimberly (Amy Jo Johnson) is performing gymnastics on a balance beam. All are thus established as physically capable, except Billy (David Yost), who is beginning his first day of Karate under Jason's tutelage.
Their socializing is interrupted by the arrival two inept bullies, Bulk (Paul Schrier), and Skull (Jason Narvy). Their entrance is accompanied by loping, goofy score music, which breaks something of a cardinal rule of comedy: resist indicating humor through humorous music. If material is funny, it will stand on its own merit - you shouldn't have to bludgeon the viewer into noticing with audio condescension - it is redundant, and can actually undercut the impact of the scene. If the material isn't funny, the music won't make it so, and might lay bare its inadequacies further. MMPR breaks this rule upon every single appearance of Bulk and Skull. The two are shadowed by their theme everywhere they go, in every episode. There are well over one hundred episodes, and eventually this malpractice does in fact become somewhat funny, through the repetition of error.
The Youth Center where the characters are gathered begins to rumble and shudder, and what seems to be an earthquake is in fact an attack on the planet by Rita, but the details of this are never elaborated upon. Ernie, proprietor of the center, spills a tray of drinks on Bulk in the chaos. Bulk and Skull are frequently splashed with various food items. If edibles of any sort are present in a scene, there is a near certainty that it will end up plastered on one or both of them by its conclusion - it's inevitable. Many young people become bullies as a way of transferring some form of their own torment to others. They are often bullied themselves in some way, and want to exert control over people as a way of regaining a power which they feel that they have lost. Bulk and Skull are cosmically tormented by food at every turn, and perhaps this pushed them toward bullying behavior. They are nevertheless relatively harmless. If the universe threw a cake on me each and every week, I'd be a much more terrible person than they are.
As patrons of the Youth center panic and flee from the tremors, our five main characters are teleported out of the building unannounced, becoming colorful bolts of energy and rocketing into the desert sky. Their journey terminates inside of the Command Center, an architecturally unique structure (in reality a California landmark) housing a circular bank of computer consoles, and small columns ringed by blinking neon lights. Waiting to greet them is a friendly, panic prone robot named Alpha (performed by Romy J. Sharf, voiced by Richard Steven Horvitz), who Billy takes particular scientific interest in. A large, vertical, glowing tube houses the stronghold's other resident; Zordon (David J. Fielding). Appearing as the hazy image of a disembodied head, Zordon, ''an interdimensional being caught in a time warp'', informs the quintet that they have been chosen to become Power Rangers, so that they might defend the Earth from Rita's attacks. They are each given a ''Power Morpher'', a sort of belt buckle which houses a ''Power Coin''. The coin bears a likeness of the dinosaur/prehistoric animal which represents the individual ranger form of its owner. In order to activate the newfound abilities attendant to being a ranger, Zordon informs them, they need only to hold the Morpher and speak aloud the name of their prehistoric icon. Beyond this, the group is given access to enormous battle machines called ''Zords'', versions of their totemic beasts which are conveniently color coded to their uniforms. If a threat proves too much to handle even for the singular Zords, the five of them can physically combine to become the ''Megazord'', which can take the form of a tank or a sword wielding humanoid robot.
All of these various accoutrements on offer are evidence of the commercial aspect of Power Rangers. There is no mistaking that the show, or the original Japanese series Super Sentai Zyuranger, from which MMPR is constructed, is intended, in part, to sell toys. At times this can be distracting, though in this first season that aim seems somewhat sidelined by the creators' focus on simply trying to make cohesive episodes. But maybe the issue is not so much whether the show functions on some level as a toy commercial, but whether or not it still entertains while fulfilling the obligation. Many fans think so, and perhaps that's because both toys and entertainment share a common goal of producing something, that is, above all else, pure escapism. In terms of the show's aesthetics, it might even be an advantage, as the visual attributes needed to make a toy appealing are pretty much the same ones needed to make everything else appealing. The Ranger costumes, weapons, and Zords are strong, colorful, polished designs as they appear in the show, and would be still if the toys didn't exist.
Despite how much allure the vehicles and gadgets may have, the protagonists are more befuddled than amazed when given the opportunity to wield them. After Zordon makes his case, Zack responds ''Power Morphers? Megazords? Uh uh - this is just too weird for me. I tell you what, it's been real, but I gotta go.'' Jason shows reluctance, but joins the rest of his friends as they all leave the Command Center. Rita spies the group from the telescope atop her castle tower on the moon, a base whose origin is never fully explained. She orders her designated monster designer, Finster, to create a group of Putty Patrollers. The Putties are the basic infantry of Rita's evil forces, and, like all of her monsters to come, they are sculpted from magical clay and cooked in an odd contraption of an oven. They seem to be of low intelligence, have a grey, slack jawed face without a nose, vacant eyes, and an overbite recalling the one that belongs to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Clad in silver/grey unitards, Rita sends the freshly baked foes down to the desert to intercept and attack the five vulnerable teenagers. At first, the able young targets hold their own against the clay henchmen, but are eventually overwhelmed, and resort to trying out their Power Morphers. Following Zordon's advice, they each say the name of their prehistoric power source. Jason (''Tyrannosaurus!'') becomes the Red Ranger, Trini (''Sabertooth Tiger!'') the Yellow, Billy (''Triceratops!'') the Blue, Zack (''Mastadon!'') the Black Ranger, and Kimberly (''Pterodactyl!'') morphs into the Pink Ranger. The Ranger's uniforms are all identical except for color, form fitted, bearing a white diamond shape on the torso, and accessorized with white gloves, belts, and boots. Each sleek helmet suggests the face of the wearers beast theme, with an opaque black visor set in its open maw. This is the streamlined, eye catching style of costume which adorns the typical, distinctly Japanese tokusatsu hero, such as Ultraman and Kamen Rider.
Once they are reborn as Power Rangers, the ever watchful Zordon again teleports the team, this time back into the city to fight Goldar. Adorned in ornate golden armor, Goldar is a winged, blue skinned warrior with primate facial features and angry red eyes, and is Rita's most hands on henchman. If Rita is the Wicked Witch of the West, Goldar is her flying monkey, albeit one skilled at swordplay. Once the Rangers appear, Rita greatly magnifies both the stakes and Goldar's size by throwing her magic staff into the surface of the Earth. In response, our heroes call forth their Zords, and quickly combine them into the assault tank formation, before transitioning to the walking, fighting Megazord combination. Trini and Billy comment that piloting the machines feels like second nature to them. Typically, in the course of the first season, the Rangers assemble their Zords into this giant robot directly after summoning them, and getting any glimpse of what they are capable of as individual vehicles is almost unheard of (when it does happen, we see that the Mastadon emits icy blasts from it's trunk, and the Triceratops can launch chains from its horns to ensnare enemies). Goldar shows himself to be a formidable opponent, dodging to and fro, and slashing his sword against the chassis of the Megazord. But when the protagonists draw their own blade, the ''Power Sword'', down from the heavens, Goldar makes a hasty retreat and vanishes back to Rita's castle. Introducing what would become a recurring behavior, Rita berates her underlings for their failure and exclaims ''I've got a headache!''
Meanwhile, the victors, again in their civilian clothes, have reconvened at the command center, where Zordon congratulates them an informs them that in order to retain their powers, they must follow certain rules. Among these are keeping their roles as Power Rangers a secret, never proactively escalating a battle, and never using one's power for personal gain. Zack wonders whether they are really prepared to take on the responsibility of defending the Earth - that maybe it was luck this time. Zordon assures them that they performed admirably, and make fine superheroes. "You have been through an extraordinary experience together, and need each other now. And the world needs you.'' The five have become the Power Rangers, melded together in the furnace of combat.
''Day of the Dumpster'' establishes the formula for the great majority of episodes from the first season. An opening in Angel Grove sets up a subplot involving the main characters (often something along the lines of a school parade, dance or other extracurricular activity) as Rita watches from her telescope, and creates a monster that may or may not be closely inspired by said subplot. She sends putties to attack the teens in their civilian lives, and the actors reveal some impressive physical prowess in the skirmishes. The putties retreat, and Rita sends down the monster itself, which often possesses some kind of special ability that the Rangers have to overcome or counteract, though the solution sometimes comes a bit easily to them. Monsters include the blue King Sphinx (the design of which is a personal favorite of mine), the notoriously hokey Pudgy Pig, Shellshock, a turtle culled together from scraps by Squatt and Baboo, Eyeguy, who is composed entirely of eyeballs, and Gnarly Gnome, who resembles a Rankin/Bass villain. The performers inside the often rubbery monster costumes express themselves through show's signature swift, brief, gestures, which compensate for an absence of facial movement. Rita inevitably causes the creature to become gigantic, just as she did Goldar, and a showdown with the Megazord concludes when the monster is destroyed by an energy slash from the Power sword.
In the early going, the struggle of the show's creators to make a television series on a shoestring budget while accommodating footage from Japan is fairly apparent. They are as often as not transparently subservient to the Japanese Super Sentai footage, managing only the barest cohesion between it and their own material. This could be because of a lack of access to the monster costumes, which would at least allow them to better connect Angel Grove and its citizens to the threat at hand. So producers/creators Haim Saban and Shuki Levy are essentially left trying to fit a show into gaps. Often, this struggle can be entertaining in itself, as it results in a weird hybrid product. When they do begin to make the ends meet, it can be through the most wonderfully silly means. My favorite example involves Billy, the intensely nerdy genius of the group. When he is crestfallen to have received his first B grade on a test, it sets up a battle with an insectoid Grumble Bee, wherein Billy must recover his faith in himself if he is to triumph. It's the first season formula at its best.
As the show finds its footing, so to does the cast find their voices. They transform roles that begin almost as mere types into actual human beings through their likeability and enthusiasm. To the perhaps restrictive role of brave leader Jason, Austin St. John brings a terrific sincerity, and manages the balance between the heavy responsibility of command and confidence. Billy is written overbearingly in the beginning as a socially awkward genius who communicates in thick, mechanically articulate technical dialogue, but David Yost reveals the thoughtful, sensitive, loyal person beneath the stereotypical nerdy exterior. Trini, who often translates Billy's techno speak for the rest of the group, is given an aura of wisdom and serenity beyond her years by the late Thuy Trang. Zack might be the most relatable of the bunch. He has warmth and charm to spare, and on occasions when his school crush gives him the cold shoulder, a lovable vulnerability. He and Jason share what might be considered a "bromance", though it probably predates that term by years. Their dynamic is perhaps my favorite in the show. Kimberly is a bubbly girl who loves shopping, but thanks to Amy Jo Johnson, she's totally endearing, tough, and smart, upending any notion that "girliness" and strength can't coexist. These actors may not have been seasoned professionals when they were cast in the show, but the youthful energy they contributed was a vital factor in its appeal.
Here, I believe, is where the inherent magic of the MMPR concept lies. It features normal people, teenagers, transported into the plane of otherworldly adventure. The audience relates to them as peers, or as they would to their own younger selves, and through this connection are brought along on the journey. We experience the spark of myth when superhuman abilities are bestowed upon them. It is heroic, empowering wish fulfillment of the same kind that is evoked when Billy Batson, surrogate for comic book reading kids of all ages, becomes a godlike being when he utters the word ''Shazam''. The word, in this case, may be ''Pterodactyl!'', but the fundamental effect is the same. Beyond this is the common experience of being a teenage student. Joss Whedon was once asked how his Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, which also featured students in their teens, could be relatable to people of all age groups. He responded ''People out of high school respond because people never get over High School.'' This still manages to ring true for MMPR. Even though its iteration of high school is the broadest, most basic form of the idea, there are enough minimal landmarks present to engage nostalgia.
But as our heroes relax into the dual routine of going to class and fending off Rita's intrusions, their world is disrupted with the arrival of a mysterious new student named Tommy...