By Charles EP Murphy
Power Rangers is a franchise that has lasted for almost thirty years: a team of youths transforming into colour-coded superheroes with giant robots, fighting evil monsters and teaching kids moral lessons. The theme for their powers shifts every year or two and so does the cast, keeping it forever young. While it’s never been as big as its heyday as a global craze in the early 1990s, it has been a perennial source of toy sales; current owner Hasbro have grand plans of cinematic universes and shows aimed at older audiences.
Despite being set in America, the bulk of the fight scenes are taken from Japanese super sentai shows and stitched together with American material (or, since 2003, New Zealand material). This allowed the show to be adapted for the presumed Western sensibilities: the ancient tribal dinosaur warrior knights of Zyuranger became five stereotyped Californian teenagers in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Super sentai (“task force” or “squadron”) was created by the influential manga-ka Shotaro Ishinomori, who had already created the first human-morphs-into-a-costumed-hero show with Kamen Rider. That had been such a merchandising hit that production company Toei asked if Ishinomori could make a team of such heroes, and Himitsu Sentai Gorenger was born in 1975.
Israeli mogul Haim Saban stumbled across super sentai by accident. In many an interview, he has said he realised he could use these actions scenes alongside American footage – speaking to Hollywood Reporter, Saban’s business partner Shuki Levy said it was his idea to not just do a straight dub. Either way, Power Rangers as we know it…
…was not being made, because Saban had discovered super sentai in 1984. Instead of Zyuranger, he was adapting Bioman. And that would have been quite different.
Friendly Neighbourhood Bio-Man
The first change is that the name is just a slight modification of the source material (Bio-Man). The helpfully generic name Power Rangers would not be developed for years, while Mighty Morphin came about because Peter Dang, VP of marketing at Bandai, wanted a title with the same syllables as the market-dominating Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The very first mention of Bio-Man is in a 1986 LA Times article about Saban’s company, where he talks confidently about the show – not mentioning the Japanese footage – as something that’s been delayed by union issues but is coming soon. “Five kids with identical “bio-rhythms” who defend Earth against Zadar’s attacks,” Zadar being an “evil half-human, half-robot thug”. Footage from this pilot was used for the “Galaxy Rangers” pitch video Saban sent to the toy company Bandai, with “Biorhythm” data still on the characters’ credits and the Black Ranger is still credited as “Biorhythm Green”.
The character names Zack Taylor, Kimberly Hart (as “Harte”), and Billy Cranston are already present, but alongside a white Trini Crystal rather than an Asian-American Trini Kwan. A leaked Bio-Man licensing folder shows the Rangers’ helpful robot pal Alpha 5 dates back to this pilot, here the Japanese ally robot Peebo instead of a new costume. The personalities, however, are vastly different:
• Instead of a 90s-hip-hop cool martial artist, the pilot’s Zack is a fast-talking detective and is telling a man he’s tracking down terrorists!
• Valley girl Kimberly is instead a “sometimes clumsy” aerobics teacher
• Trini is an intellectual and novelist
• Instead of being an overalls wearing nerd, Billy is “an athletic heart throb with a body of steel”!
And instead of being a white man called Jason, the Red Ranger is an Asian-American martial artist called Victor Lee. In a sign of the times, this appears to be to ‘explain’ how he knew martial arts.
An interesting wrinkle is the cast here are SAG union actors, when Saban would eventually go non-union – the LA Times even reported union issues as delaying the show. A unionised Bio-Man could not have inflicted the same punishing production schedule as Power Rangers, and couldn’t have underpaid them (and so lose half its Rangers, as MMPR did in 1994). Not all of the actors are new discoveries either. Miguel A. Núñez Jnr and Trisha Fisher, the Green and Yellow Rangers, were working at the time.
The original cast included Mark Dacascos as Victor Lee – he would go on to be a jobbing actor and host of Iron Chef USA, with his career fully kicking off in the early 1990s. Being in Bio-Man could have given him a career earlier, but as a cheesy kids show could it also have hurt his career? Either way, his adult life will be quite different. Similarly, Núñez had been in both Friday The Thirteenth: A New Beginning and Return Of The Living Dead but little else, so he would be confirmed as the low budget genre actor, a potentially lucrative career but quite different to the one he would gone on to have.
However, a successful Bio-Man is unlikely. Saban sanguinely told Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us that the pilot was “pretty bad”. Nobody bit until he pitched it to Margaret Loesch in 1992, a children’s TV veteran who was in charge of the Fox Network’s kiddie programming. She eagerly bought it. She sensed this could be a hit.
Why? Because she was involved in the first attempt to attempt sentai.
Marvellous Morphin Vulcan Rangers
In the late 1970s, Marvel Comics had made a joint licensing deal with Toei which allowed them to create a Spider-Man live action show for the Japanese market. Infamously, this has Spider-Man pilot a giant transforming robot to fight giant monsters (because toys) and this worked out so well, Toei decided they were going to have giant robots in the super sentai shows as well. And the first sentai to do it was Battle Fever J – another result of the Marvel-Toei licensing deal.
In the words of Marvel’s ‘man in Japan’ Gene Pelc, speaking to Comic Interview #3 in 1983, the show was very loosely based “on THE AVENGERS [likely meaning Captain America], in that you had superheroes from different countries”. The female Ranger was based on and named after Marvel’s heroine Miss America. Two more sentai, Denziman (whose villainess is vaguely based on Thor villain Hela) and its sequel Sun Vulcan, would be produced with involvement from Marvel.
Now, around 1980 Marvel had decided to take greater control of its own licensing and started Marvel Productions – with Stan Lee as creative director – to carry this out. This happened partway into the Toei deal, and Stan Lee became a huge fan of the sentai concept and the Sun Vulcan show in particular. He believed it had the possibility to knock out every kid show in America. Pelc told Comics Interview that Lee was trying to sell this to “an American network, HBO, anyone who buys films” and that this could either be a dub or “cut out the parts where Japanese actors appear” to have American ones.
This didn’t work out in 1983. It’s also unclear how widely Lee was truly able to pitch it. Jim Shooter, Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, was left with the perception that Lee was being excluded by Marvel Production’s CEO: “no one reported to him… [he had] no day to day responsibility.” But in 1984, Margaret Loesch was headhunted to become the new CEO of Marvel Productions and she started to bring Lee into the fold.
And in return, Lee would pitch Loesch on Sun Vulcan – as she told The Toys That Made Us, he walked into her office one day with a video tape of Sun Vulcan. Loesch was immediately sold on it (“it’s so funny!”), and the two worked on a pilot.
What did that pilot look like? We don’t know – not even if it was a straight ‘concept reel’ dub or had any US footage. The plot of Sun Vulcan sees the Earth menaced by alien robots and the United Nations duly assemble three top officers from the Guardians of World Peace’s air force, navy, and army to become solar-charged superheroes; this is most likely the plot of the adaptation but it would probably have been a pilot, soldier, and seaman from the US military.
Whatever it looked like, whenever Loesch and Lee tried to pitch it to networks, “they basically laughed us out of the room” and it was given up on by 1985.
But what if any network had bitten, won over by either Stan Lee’s sales patter, Margaret Loesch’s record, or the fact Marvel Productions had recent hits with The Transformers and the co-produced Muppet Babies? What does a successful Power Rangers show almost ten years earlier mean?
One immediate change is Mighty Morphin Power Rangers isn’t with the Fox Network when Loesch is working there, and thus never leads to the creation of Fox Kids – a plan Loesch had, with Saban shows as the initial core. There’s also no massive influx of $$$$$$s into Fox’s many affiliates stations. Loesch won them over to airing MMPR by cutting them a slice of toy sales, something she told Toys That Made Us have never been done before.
As we saw in the 1990s, other Japanese superhero shows are going to be nabbed up by American companies. Marvel Productions, like Saban Entertainment OTL, will have a lock on Toei’s Kamen Rider shows (Masked Rider) and the Metal Heroes shows, tales of heavily armoured robot law enforcers (VR Troopers and Big Bad Beetleborgs). Unlike in the 1990s, the Kamen Rider series is still in production. Handily too for Marvel’s rivals, in the mid-80s the Ultraman series of TV shows has only recently ended and provides the same thrills as sentai. Haim Saban will have still learned about sentai in this timeline and if he can’t get the source material, maybe he gets Ultraman instead.
If Ultraman’s now selling worldwide, the franchise is going to get brought back years earlier than it was in our timeline. Similarly, Kamen Rider’s not going to end if Toei’s got export money to bolster it. And with a close relationship with Marvel, Toei’s sentai series may end up influenced by Western marketing issues.
This isn’t just a one-way benefit for Marvel either. The Marvel-Toei license of the time allowed Toei to take whatever Marvel property it wanted and adapt it for the home market, and now that license is being extended. Is there a live-action tokusatsu adaptation of X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Punisher? At the same time America’s getting a craze for all things Japanese and spandex-clad, are there anime and manga created about Marvel’s product but changed to be set in Japan (as there briefly had been in the early 70s)? Will Toei’s rivals reach out to DC Comics, giving us a Japanese Batman series?
All of this can happen whether Sun Vulcan is dubbed or uses new American media. If it’s dubbed and kicks off a trend of dubbed live-action Japanese shows, this will have a big cultural impact of a generation of Americans – and Brits, Aussies, Canadians etc – growing up used to the idea. This could, as happened with dubbed Godzilla films back in the day, mean dubbing is still associated with cheap-and-cheesy product, but could it help out the release of foreign language shows and films in the long term?
Dubbing would also mean the shows are associated even more with Japan, right at a period when America is extremely paranoid that Japanese businesses are coming to take over the world. Does poor old Sun Vulcan get dragged into this? Will there be references to sentai in things like Crichton’s Rising Sun? Will cyberpunk novels be full of sentai nods?
And the final big change is that Stan Lee is tied to a successful TV franchise.
As recorded in Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Stan Lee wanted out of comics for a long time. The success of the Marvel Age in the 1960s had changed some of that, but by 1969 he was feeling constrained once more: he felt the money wasn’t good enough, he didn’t like the lack of ownership, and comics were still a slightly grubby industry. He confided his frustrations to industry peers, college audiences, and even to French arthouse director Alain Resnaid. (Lee and Resnaid, a Marvel fan, would even collaborate on an unproduced screenplay, The Monster Maker.)
In 1978, he was admitting to Circus magazine that “I should have gotten out of this business twenty years ago… I would have liked to have make movies”, got frustrated he was being ignored by the CBS Spider-Man show writers, and spent the next year trying to shop a Silver Surfer script around Hollywood. These never quite worked out and as Shooter attests, Lee spent the first few years of Marvel Production in the cold.
In addition to this, the early-to-mid 1980s was a time of increasing demand for creator’s rights in American comics and one of the big causes of the time was Jack Kirby’s treatment by Marvel Comics. This was not a fun experience for Lee, who was now being criticised by the fandom for his parts in this.
So if Lee’s suddenly part of a big TV hit, he’s going to grab that opportunity and not let go. He’s going to promote sentai, and his connections to it, to the hilt with all the passion he devoted to selling the Marvel Age. He’ll get involved in planning for the next sentai adaptions.
And with his bonafides in TV confirmed, he’ll want to start selling new ideas and characters and shows, just as he would try with Stan Lee Media in 1998 and POW! Entertainment in 2001. In our timeline, these ventures proved disastrous but in this timeline:
Stan Lee will not be in his mid-70s but a decade younger and relatively less able to be taken advantage of
Stan Lee won’t be getting involved with the shiny world of dotcoms at the sleaziest point in their history
Stan Lee is working with professionals like Loesch, and not dodgy geezers and conmen like Peter Paul who would leave the company bankrupt and then run to Brazil with $250,000
(All of which also means he won’t spend the last twenty years of his life dealing with asinine legal cases started by grifters.)
While we can’t be sure how good the TV ideas Lee would have would be – as Howe wrote, Stan Lee Media’s creations “seemed suspiciously like pastiches of Marvel”, and later creations of his would include, er, Stripperella. But unlike OTL, he’d be working with people better able to develop his ideas and who are in this for the long haul. And just as in OTL, he has the benefit of, quoth Howe, “a tremendous amount of goodwill among the entertainment industry over the past decades”. Stan Lee Media was able to attract all manner of potential business partnerships with Burger King to RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, and Michael Jackson visited the office.
Potentially, this slowly fails and he simply gets seen as past his peak, the Stan Lee brand tarnished decades ago. Potentially, he could have a second golden age of influence and new creations in a whole different industry, making him an even bigger icon in America.
Either way, by the time Zyuranger comes up, a swarm of butterflies would have flapped their wings across global culture.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.