Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Power Rangers Reflections #25 - Once And Always (MMPR 30th Anniversary Special)

A week has passed since the premiere of the Netflix-exclusive Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once And Always reunion special and more than enough time has passed that I'm able to reflect on my feelings regarding this special. To make a long story short, I thought it was fine as a standalone extended episode and for the most part, I was entertained. Part of that were due to somewhat tempered expectations; I wasn't expecting something along the lines of Forever Red, which was nothing but fan service that was light on plot (though as far as anniversary episodes go, it's still one of the better ones.) All I wanted was a nice little program with a good story behind it and some good action... and that's pretty much what I got.

We'll dive deeper into this after the break, so naturally, there will be spoilers.

The show opens with original Blue Ranger Billy Cranston laying on the ground in pain. As he slowly gets up, we hear and eventually see his attacker; a group of old-school Putty Patrollers led by a mechanical robotic version of Rita Repulsa, who is once again voiced by longtime Rita voice actor Barbara Goodson. For what it's worth, she still sounds the part. A bit slower due to age - naturally - but the important thing is that Rita sounds like Rita. She doesn't sound like somebody doing a bad Rita impression, as was the case with Mystic Force.

Anyway, Billy morphs and is soon joined by the other Mighty Morphins, who are already morphed and we get fight between putties and Rangers for a little bit before Rita gets a blow in on Billy. She charges up her staff to fire off a big powerful shot at Billy, but at the last minute, Trini (Yellow Ranger) jumps in to catch the blow and gets vaporized as a result. Yep, they killed off Trini and that becomes a driving point in our story. Satisfied, Rita and crew teleport away, leaving Billy and Zack to ponder how they're going to break the news to Trini's daughter, Minh.

One year later, Zack is Minh's legal guardian and is living in the old Kwan household... there is no mention of who is the father. I'd imagine if the budget allowed for it, we'd have Maury Povich do an investigation and air it on his television show. But enough about that. Zack and Minh are getting ready to visit Trini's grave at the cemetery, but when they get there, they find the other Rangers fighting Robo-Rita and her two new monsters; robot versions of the old Minotaur monster and Snizzard. If there is a reason for these two monsters in particular to get recreated into robot form (or why they're even in robot form in the first place), it's never specified.

After a brief scuffle, Snizzard manages to paralyze and capture Jason, Kim, and Tommy; turning them into action figures wrapped in vines. Said action figures are slotted into a contraption, which slowly drains their energy to power Rita's doomsday machine - later revealed to be a time machine that Rita plans on using to go back in time and warn her younger self about the less than stellar future that's coming up in an effort to change things. Over time, we see that Rita has captured other Rangers (seen as other action figures) to fuel this device. The idea of kidnapping Rangers and siphoning their energies for their big Doomsday plot reminds me of that Ninja Steel episode with the old Rangers being kidnapped and replaced with robot clones... that is not a compliment.

Being the only ones who managed to not get captured, Billy and Zack send Minh home, who doesn't stay there long because all she can thing about is REVENGE. So she grabs Trini's old morpher and runs off after finding out that putties are attacking the Youth Center...

Okay, so for the younguns, the Angel Grove Youth Center Gym and Juice Bar was the favorite hangout for our original group of teenagers with attitude. Over the years, it has seen a number of remodels and revisions to the point where it ceased being the Youth Center and became the Surf Spot (see Power Rangers In Space and you'll find that same set has been repurposed into something else.) Now you're telling me that somewhere along the way, the property had gotten new owners and turned it back into the Youth Center as it appeared in 1993... gee, if only there were some shopping centers that would consider going back to 1993 when they had more varied shops instead of numerous high-end clothing stores that last about three months before shutting their doors.

For what it's worth, they did a fine job in recreating the Youth Center set. The colors are perhaps a bit too vibrant - probably due to the higher definitions; I had this same thought with Picard's restored Enterprise-D bridge - but other than that, it's not bad.

So Billy and Zack appear in the new Command Center set that's built under the world headquarters of Billy's new company, Cranston Tech. Good for you, Billy. Moving up in the world. We are introduced to the newest version of Alpha, Alpha 9, voiced once again by original Alpha voice actor, insert name here. Again, age is a factor to take into consideration, but for the most part, he mostly still has it. I'm not particularly thrilled with the taller-than-usual Alpha robot - anything that reminds me of that atrocious Operation Overdrive team-up episode is going to give me pause.

Zack notices Billy having internal doubts, thinking that maybe Minh is right about this whole thing being his fault. This brings us to a flashback sequence where Billy and Alpha 8 are attempting to bring back Zordon by gathering all of his scattered Z-Wave energy and reforming it into the tube. Again, for the younguns, Zordon was the original mentor of the Power Rangers and was a prominent character for the first six seasons until he sacrificed himself to scatter his energies to purge the universe of evil at the end of In Space. But Billy wasn't content with letting the dead rest, so he tried this gimmick to bring him back.

What ends up happening is that the device kinda works, but instead of gathering up Zordon's energy, it gathers up the evil energy of Rita Repulsa, which musters enough strength to break through the glass tube and possess Alpha 8, turning it into the robot version of Rita. Billy calls on the other Rangers, which would lead to the opening scene and thus end our flashback sequence. 

Couple of takeaways I got from this: Firstly, it's established that the Z-Wave didn't exactly "destroy" the evil energy when passing through Rita and other humanoid villains, but rather purged said energies from their physical bodies. Secondly, Billy devising a means to find all of Zordon's scattered energy and bringing it all together as a means to bring him back is something that I'm surprised has never been brought up. Honestly, the fact that such a thing is possible - even if a bit tricky - opens the door to possibly bring back other past villains, even in different forms.

(Side digression here: Once upon a time, yours truly was doing the PR fanfiction rounds - some of that stuff can be read on this here blog if you're brave enough. There's actually a bunch more stuff that I had in the works that ended up never coming into fruition. One of which involved the reincarnation of Rita Repulsa - separate from the human Rita who would eventually become the Mystic Mother of Mystic Force fame - and adopt a more menacing form than her previous human shell. I always felt that that evil energy had to go somewhere and it was only a matter of time before someone found the means to bring those folks back in some form or fashion - apparently, somebody else had the same idea.)

An alert sounds that putties are attacking all over the world and with their team short on Rangers, Alpha initiates the Bandora protocol to summon former Rangers. This brings us former Pink Ranger Kat Hillard, who had to bow out of her son's soccer game to take the call. This also brings us former Red Ranger Rocky DeSantos, who is now a fireman and is upset that they called him before he got to eat his noodles. Billy and Zack update them on the situation and in order to solve the missing power situation, Alpha supplies Rocky and Kat with what they call "proxy Power Coins" that lets them use Dino Power.

Setting aside the fact that this is a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers reunion special and the reasoning is just to get that particular team back together on screen, is there an in-universe reason why Rocky and Kat simply can't use their existing powers? Rocky and Kat are both former Zeo Rangers and presumably those powers still work. Hell, they both came back for that Dimensions In Danger episode that had Kat come back as Pink Turbo Ranger and Rocky come back as Red Ranger MMPR. Now that I think about it, how the fuck did Rocky get that suit back then? Was that also a proxy Dino Coin? The story of how these Rangers gain and regain these powers is even more of a convoluted mess than whatever is coming out of the Boom Studios comic, where they give Ranger powers to every character on the page. Mr. Caplan could one day be featured as a Power Ranger and his weapon would be the Power Toupee.

But I digress.

So Rocky and Kat take their coins - with Kat even slipping a reference of too much pink energy being dangerous or something, har har - and we get a brand-spanking new morphing sequence to recreate the old morphing sequence... and it looks cheap. Like dirt-cheap, like low-budget fanfilm quality cheap. The actors do the call just fine - years of convention circuits has given them more than enough practice - but you'd be better off having them green-screened and overlayed over vintage morph effects and it'd look better. This is bargain-basement cheap even for Power Rangers.

The Rangers appear and they start fighting Putties. Putties now disintegrate when defeated, which is a neat effect despite the cheapness. Eventually, the robo monsters show up and the Rangers fight them off for a bit before clearing away the last group of civilians. The Rangers teleport out to the next trouble spot, but Robo Minotaur reveals his ability to track the Rangers while morphed. They eventually find the Rangers, who get clued in by Alpha. They power down and teleport out of sight, preventing the monsters from tracking them.

Back at the Command Center, we get cameos from Aisha and Adam - now part of something called the SPA, which is probably a spin-off of SPD, a major part of Power Rangers... SPD, duh. Aisha and Adam inform them that their spaceship is still hours away from Earth, meaning they won't be able to jump in on the Mighty Morphin Party. Adam makes mention of stealth technology that I'm sure is just a passing mention and won't figure into the story... if you get my drift.

Our team of Rangers begin to strategize. Rocky suggests heading on over to Rita's moon palace and stopping whatever she's doing there from happening, but first they need to figure out a way to take the other two monsters out of the equation. Kat then suggests a magnet; since the monsters are robots and thus made of metal, it's a good idea. What's not a good idea is going to a Youth Center fully of putties and pretending to play hero but actually have no clue what you're doing... clearly Minh figured that out the hard way and our boys Rocko and Zackman have to come in and save the day.

Credit where it's due; Minh is doing well for herself at first before she busts out the old Power Morpher and tries to do the whole Morphin Time thing... except the morpher doesn't work. Putties laugh at her, they surround her, and then Rocky and Zack show up to save the day. We even get a bit of hip-hop-kido.

Once that's done, Zack, Rocky, and Minh head back to the Command Center and everyone clears out so that Zack and Minh can have a heart-to-heart talk about what it means to be a Ranger and also so Zack can explain to Minh about Billy feeling guilty over his efforts in bringing back Zordon accidentally causing the return of Rita, which in turned resulted in the death of Minh's mother... oh, and by the way, Zack was a congressman before giving up that profession to become Minh's legal guardian. Again, good for Zack; he's done well for himself.

In a junkyard, Billy checks the giant magnet that's going to be used to snare the monsters and gives the okay to set everything up. Kat operates the crane... get it, because she used to be the crane... mind you, they probably wanted Kim to do it, but since OG Pinky had better things to do like petitioning for people in their 50s prancing around in pink spandex to be arrested, we got Kat instead. Fortunately, Catherine Sutherland is still in her late-40s, so I think she's safe for the time being.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah...

So the Rangers morph, the monsters show up on cue, and Kat activates the big ol' magnet that snares the two monsters, who hate the surprise. Minh isn't pleased that they didn't just kill them, but Billy points out that all-out destruction isn't always the optimal solution... yeah, we'll get back to that point in a bit. In any event, Billy pulls out that stealth tech that Adam mentioned and our four Rangers go invisible before teleporting to the moon.

Minh decides to play hero, and so she takes back the morpher, steals and uses a stealth gimmick to sneak out of the Command Center... and then she steals Billy's new Rad Bug. She makes her way to the junkyard - all the while saving a couple from a putty attack by running said putties over... and also exposing the fact that this car can fly, so that's one happy couple right there... and Minh goes into this big speech before trying to morph again... which doesn't work... again. This brings out Robo Rita, with whom Minh has a brief scuffle with before she is taken down and we get a big flash of light.

On the moon, our four inviso-Rangers show up and dispose of the putties guarding the machine, which now has a bunch of Rangers wrapped in snake vine things having their energies sucked by Rita's machine. Doesn't take long for Billy to figure out that Rita's new playtoy is a time machine. Seems like Rita's big plan is to go back to the very beginning, meet up with her younger self, and kill all the teens before Zordon makes them Rangers... seems like a sensible plan, but somewhat flawed because there's plenty of teenagers that Zordon could choose from. 

In any event, Robo Rita and crew show up with Minh in tow. There's a scuffle, Billy gets caught by Rita and she's launches another one of those Revenge Death Blows that killed Trini, but Minh, realizing that you're supposed to be selfless, takes the blow and she seemingly dies... except not really because she opens her eyes and we get random clips of Trini and stock Zyuranger footage play in one of her eyeballs. Seems like the blast not only didn't kill Minh, but also powered the morpher, which means, yes, Minh morphs and is the new Yellow Ranger.

Now morph and brandishing weapons, the Rangers make short work of the putties, but just as they're about to destroy the time machine, Rita warns them that doing that could harm their friends and the only way to free their friends is to kill Snizzard. Rita sends Snizzard to the moon surface... or rather an ugly CG render of a moon surface, uses her magic wand to make her monster grow. Snizzard grows and Billy calls Alpha to send the ol' Dino Zords to the moon.

And so we get CG recreations of the Dino Zords emerging from their resting places... it doesn't look good, the movement is actually kinda janky and not in the endearing jank. On the bright side, the new Megazord cockpit looks good, even if it's a bit generic. Look, I want to at least credit the effort in recreating all the stock stuff instead of just reusing the stock stuff, but the quality of the CG is just bad. Even Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie's cheap CG laughs at this cheap CG.

And so we get a rather underwhelming Megazord fight inter cut with the other three Rangers killing off Minotaur before joining up wit the others to finish off the other remaining monster. Rita, however, is able to activate a portal to the past and we get to see the moment where two astronauts open up the space dumpster in a combination of recreation and stock Zyuranger footage that... well, I've railed on the cheapness enough times, so let's bring this home.

Snizzard finally croaks, the Rangers grab their friendly action figures, and Zack blows away Robo-Rita "for good" with a blast from his Power Ax. I'm a bit disappointed that they didn't assemble the Power Blaster and use that for a final blow, but that probably would've meant more production than this was getting.

We get a little reunion of sorts in the new Command Center, where we're told the rescued Rangers are recovering on Adam and Aisha's spaceship, which will head off to Aquitar so the recovery process can continue there. Adam namedrops Billy's former/current/whatever girlfriend Cestria and Billy later makes mention of Mirinoi, but the last scene has Zack, Billy, and Minh (in her new yellow sweater) discussing old memories of Trini before the scene fades to black. 

The episode closes with an old MMPR clip of Kim playing guitar, followed by the Thuy Trang and Jason David Frank tribute screen, and then we get a kind of recreation of the old MMPR opening credits, with the veteran Rangers getting neat then-and-now shots to show the passage of time. And then the show ends.

Further Thoughts
So I railed on a few things here and there... that's a thing I do whenever I do these things... but for what it's worth, I thought the special was entertaining enough. Was it great? No... Was it terrible? No... It was just fine.

First off, let me just commend the cast and crew for an entertaining show. While there are issues that irk me, the fact that this exists at all is worth all the credit in the world. Bringing back the old Mighty Morphin crew for their own little reunion special - even if it's just a partial reunion with some names missing - is something that I wouldn't have imagined happening in prior regimes. They didn't bring back old faces for some pointless cameo that would mean nothing; they were given significant roles, they played their parts well, and there was actual substance in their appearances.

While this was a reunion of sorts, this was also a sort of passing of the torch, as it were. Aside from the veterans having another go, this was also the journey of a daughter who lost her mother, found out about that other gig she did, wanting revenge on the creature who took her mother, learns about being selfless, and that ultimately is what earns her the suit. I will give this special credit; they made Minh an endearing enough character with what little they've given her and honestly, I would not be opposed to future productions featuring her in some form or fashion. Maybe she shows up in that Cosmic Fury thing.

Although it does beg the question... who is the father?

I'm watching this special from two frames of mind. One being as a standalone television special, of course, and in that regard, I'll dive deeper into that in the final thoughts... but also I'm looking at this as a preview of the franchise's future. Because later this year, we're getting Cosmic Fury, the 30th season of Power Rangers. And that season is doing something that's never been done before; create an entirely new team of Rangers from scratch rather than take inspiration from a previous Super Sentai show.

Yes, there has been the occasional one-off American creation like Titanium Ranger, but even those were used in short bursts. Cosmic Fury has new suits and they're front and center, which means those fight scenes are likely going to be original footage made for the show and not just stuff culled from the Sentai shows. So Once And Always could be seen as something of a preview of things to come. In this regard, when it comes to the Ranger fights, those are pretty solid. There's some stuntwork involved, some practical effects, and perhaps a bit too much CG explosions that look cheap, but are probably safer in the long run, so I can see the appeal there.

But Ranger fights have always been easy to pull off even for the old eras. The special effects might not be up to the Sentai standards, but it's gotten better over the years. When it comes to the Megazord fights, this is where I raise a red flag and this is also where I need to clarify that, no, I'm not expecting high-end multi-million dollar ILM special effects caliber CG on display. Power Rangers was always done on the cheap; this is obviously reflected in the production. Sadly, when the cheap rubber suits and styrofoam cityscapes of the 20th century comes across as more higher-end than the computer graphics of the 21st century, that's not a good sign.

I'll admit that the poor CG quality bothers me more than it probably would anyone else and for what it's worth, they did manage to recreate the old sequences well enough. The old morph screens, the Megazord sequences; those were done with some care and that effort should be commended if nothing else. I only wished that it looked a little better than it did. Even Super Sentai had better CG effects and those are generally years older than what's featured here.

Anyway, that's all I've got to say about the technical aspects. Maybe Cosmic Fury will improve on these things and produce something that looks a little better.

One last thing worth mentioning is the people who didn't show. Obviously, this Mighty Morphin is incomplete. Austin St. John couldn't join the production due to legal troubles at the time that placed him under house arrest (the show was filmed in New Zealand) while both Jason David Frank and Amy Jo Johnson declined to appear, with JDF declaring that he had done enough for the franchise and was focusing on his own film (the special was filmed before he passed away), while AJJ cited personal reasons for not participating, but of course, people have their own theories on what that is... none of which I wish to entertain because it's, as she put it, "none of my beeswax."

Would the special had been better if they did appear? Well, it would've been more special, but ultimately, having seen the special, it wouldn't have mattered who filled the suits. Whether it was Rocky and Kat or Jason and Kim in those suits, the plot would've played out the same way with some slight tweaks. And had they showed up, the others would've been relegated to other minor roles. The story itself was such that any number of pieces could be moved around and it wouldn't have made much of a difference because the faces behind the suits are ultimately immaterial because it's all about the propping up of a new hero to take the reigns, so to speak.

That's my take on it, at least.

Final Verdict
As a standalone extended television special, I thought that Once And Always was fine. It wasn't the be-all, end-all anniversary special that some folks were clamoring for, but rather, it was a perfectly serviceable story that brings back a few old faces while telling the journey of a potential new hero in the fold. Would it have been nice if a few missing faces could have been included? Sure, it would, but the story was such that you could move a few pieces around and it wouldn't have mattered much. It would've played the same beats, walked the same path, and we'd still have the same moments. Slight details might change, but the larger picture wouldn't.

All in all, I'd say that Once And Always is worth checking out... provided you keep your expectations in check.


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