Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Importance of Legacy in Power Rangers

When a show exists for a long time, say something like 25 years, it tends to build something of a history behind it. It creates a mythos, something that people will remember during its long run and, hopefully, well after it's done. In television, shows like Star Trek live on in now just how they shaped the Science Fiction genre, but also key characters and motivations that have been either revived in different media, or been made a point of reference. However, sometimes it's just important for a series to look back and reflect on its own legacy. The comic book character The Flash has an immense history that's built almost exclusively on the legacy of Jay Gerrick and Barry Allen. But perhaps few shows or series analyze and give respect to legacy better than Power Rangers...most of the time.

It's hard to talk about Power Rangers and not talk about something like legacy. It's a show that most people think about with major nostalgia goggles, and it's also a show with a constantly revolving cast of characters and stories. Power Rangers in an of itself, from a meta level, is a show build not necessarily on a formula, but on legacy. What worked before will work again, hopefully, as the characters and stories pay homage to what was done before. The (once upon a time) annual team-up episodes and anniversary episodes are a great reflection of this.
But, why is this so important? Why does Power Rangers make such an emphasis on constant reflection on various individuals getting the ability to put on spandex and gain superhuman abilities to fight off giant monsters?

Well, sometimes it seems that it isn't quite so important. Seasons like Dino Charge and Jungle Fury don't really care for building upon the legacy of series so much as building upon the depth of their character or story. However, other series like Lost Galaxy, Wild Force, and RPM are keen on making sure the viewer and characters understand that what came before; what once started with five teenagers with attitude would one day evolve into government organizations bent on saving the world. Police forces in the far future would build upon the power unleashed by Zordon and Alpha in the first episode "Day of the Dumpster." Often when Power Rangers doesn't make a point to explore its history, it's usually doing its best. The two aforementioned seasons, which have no crossovers with any other series, do well to introduce new variations on the "Power Rangers" mythos, such as having the Zords be a literal aspect of the Rangers' energy or having a show with the largest cast of Rangers to date and making sure that each has a unique personality to let them stand out beyond just the color of their uniform.

The worst elements of legacy in Power Rangers are often when the history is looked at, acknowledged, and then made nothing of. The entirety of Megaforce/ Super Megaforce exemplifies this. The Rangers morph, constantly, into the old outfits, but it's so rarely with any sort of resonance. You'd think that when they morph into something like the Wild Force Rangers that they'd use nature to their advantage in a fight, or have it focus on an aspect of nature, like fighting a resurrected Org. Or if they morph into Time Force it's to fight a rogue mutant that's allied with the Armada; instead, nope, it's just there because "Hey, look it's that thing you remember." At that point it becomes little more than empty nostalgia; so, in effect, it becomes what the "Legendary Battle" was: guest stars putting on the outfits and saying some stuff and then having a giant army of stunt-doubles and extras fighting monsters you don't care about.
"Once a Ranger," the shows 15th anniversary episode courtesy of Operation: Overdrive, doesn't do anything to make us want to include the Overdrive Rangers in the great mythos of Ranger history by the virtue of having the current team hardly interact with the team of haphazardly-assembled Rangers. Not only that, but it also contains empty nostalgia.

Power Rangers integrates its legacy the best when it makes a point of saying how special being a Power Ranger really is. Think of when Leo meets Andross in Lost Galaxy and how amazed he is to see the Red Ranger that stopped the invasion in person, or when Wes finally confronts Eric to get him back on his feet to finish the fight because they're Power Rangers, and they have a responsibility.

Heck, you can often just listen to the theme songs and you'll get that feeling of legacy and of responsibility in it. Jungle Fury has a great theme song not just because the song is awesome but because it says that the Power Rangers are going to save the day, because that's what they need to do, that's why they're Power Rangers.

I mentioned the team-up episodes, and those are often the highlights of any given season. It's not just because it's cool to see two, or multiple, Ranger teams coming together to fight a common threat, but because it gives us a sense of where we once were and how far we've come since then. The best team-up episodes, which for my money are "To the Tenth Power," "Reinforcements From the Future," "Forever Red," and "Thunderstorm," show the teams not just in a balance, but in a conflict of styles. Wild Force and Time Force don't fight the same way, but they fight together, understanding how the other team operates and how they can work off of that.
"Forever Red" may just be the best episode of the entire series on what it does and how it expands the mythos of the show by explaining what enemies from almost ten years ago are still up, and getting new characters involved in the fight. It never disrespects the new for the old or makes us want the old Rangers back, but rather makes us want to see more of the other Rangers interacting. "Forever Red" has inspired countless ideas and fan team ups for the other Ranger colors, like a "Forever Blue" or "Forever Pink."

Still, though, why does it matter? Why does reflecting on the past at all make a difference in a show like "Power Rangers?" Isn't it all just the same stuff over and over again?
No. Not at all. That's why it's been able to last for 25 years, and why, now, it's arguably in its weakest state.

When Saban reacquired the rights to Power Rangers, and released Samurai, there were a lot of detractors for the season, but I think everyone can agree that "Clash of the Red Rangers," was a great way of telling the fans that things were going to be okay; after all, it'd been since Operation: Overdrive that we got a proper team-up episode (since Jungle Fury didn't have one from the writer's strike and RPM took place in another dimension). However, since then? Megaforce was a mega fail, Dino Charge was good but had no team-up episode, and the verdict is out on Ninja Steel but given that it had Sledge appear in the Season 2 premiere and then not at all again should raise some eyebrows; not to mention that the first episode contains the much-lauded "Power Rangers? Those aren't real!" bit...even though we have 25 years of proof that they DO exist and can basically confirm that Ninja Steel takes place in the main Power Rangers dimension.

The fact of the matter is that Power Rangers has always lived off of its own legacy. When Jason, Zack, and Trini left the original team to be replaced, there was a definite hole left in people's heart; however, that only made Jason's return in "Zeo" all the more important. The reason "To the Tenth Power" works so well is because it places such an importance on the existence of the previous Rangers and the team that Zordon set in motion. Not to mention, in that same season, Karone undergoes major character development to reflect on her own past as Astronema and grows from it, eventually becoming the Pink Ranger.

In Ninja Storm, another series that does not have a team-up episode, the first episode opens with that stupid "Power Rangers aren't real" stuff, but Dustin, the Yellow Ranger, makes a point to say that, even if they're not, they're still awesome and when he becomes a Ranger, he's the most excited to show off the power. This was an incredibly wise move for Disney, who wanted to reset things a bit after acquiring the show, to get new audiences involved by having the "cool guy" of the season make such a big deal about becoming a Power Ranger. THAT is legacy.

Legacy is Cole and Jason getting to fight side-by-side in "Forever Red," showing how far the original Ranger has come and putting them next to the newest addition. Legacy is having the Mystic Mother turn out to be a reformed Rita Repulsa after the effects of the Z-Wave. Legacy is Tommy becoming the Black Dino Ranger while still mentoring the new team. Legacy is RPM" placing such an emphasis on the science and logic behind the Morphing Grid. Legacy is Jaden and Scott building a brotherhood despite their differences because at the end of the day they're still Power Rangers.

Legacy in Power Rangers is almost as important as the teams themselves, but legacy is not the same as nostalgia. Think about how many different stories there are and how the characters we follow and meet are built on something that came before. Harry Potter is a household name in the Wizarding World before he can even walk, but he builds something for it and expands his own story so that one day, maybe when his children are old enough, they can really understand what their father did, and how they can move forward from that. Think about how Luke Skywalker becomes a Jedi not by thinking about how great and awesome the other Jedi before him were, but by studying and meditating on what they did, learning how to become a great Master in his own. It's the same for Power Rangers. Nobody wants to see Tommy or Jason or Kimberly coming back every season; no, we want new faces, but we want them to understand that being a Power Ranger is more than just the suits and catchphrases, it's about being part of a family.

While the future is a bit dim for the rest of Ninja Steel, the very fact that the synopsis for Beast Morphers, the season to come in 2019, is based around the Morphing Grid being at risk gives me hope. That, in and of itself, is a legacy story, placing emphasis on the power source of the Rangers. Hopefully we can get more there because, if we do, we might just see the best that Power Rangers has to offer.

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