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Media Musing Counterfactuals: The White Ranger vs VR Troopers

By Charles EP Murphy

Probably the biggest character in Power Rangers history is Tommy Oliver, as played by Jason David Frank. He’s famous to an entire generation as the Green Ranger: turned into Rita’s own evil Ranger, breaking free of her control, only for her to later steal his powers with her Green Candle. He would later return and regained his powers, but they were limited, each fight running the risk of his powers running out. But his experiences were rewarded by Zordon making him the mighty White Ranger, the new leader of the Power Rangers, and he would go on to command the team for years.

He would then come back in three different anniversary teamups and spend 2004 as the Black Dino Thunder Ranger, the wise mentor (and high school teacher!) of the current team. An alternate evil version of him called Lord Drakkon became a multimedia villain in the late 2010s, in comics, games, and almost a webseries.

But originally, “The Green Candle” was it for Tommy – because Jason David Frank was going to have his own show.

The Metal Hero

Wanting to capitalise on the success of Mighty Morphin, Saban adapted two of Toei’s “Metal Hero” shows to make VR Troopers. Why two? Because that meant a team, which meant more toys, so who cared if it meant the heroes could rarely be on screen together in fight scenes? The lead Trooper, Ryan Steel, has his costume and footage taken from Choujinki Metalder.

The VR Trooper formerly known as Cybertron

However, the original plan was to just adapt Metalder as Cybertron (initially Psycon), with Jason David Frank playing young martial artist Adam Steel. In the raw footage version of the pilot (though not the finished pitch), it even boasted it starred “the most popular Ranger”.

As in VR Troopers, Steel broods over his long-lost father and is shocked to learn Tyler Steel created a robotic super-suit to defend the world from the evil Grimlord. The baddie is secretly a wealthy and corrupt industrialist, here named Cyrus Rikter instead of Troopers’ Karl Ziktor, and so is an antagonist in both of Steel’s lives. As well as fighting Grimlord, Steel searches for his lost dad.

This is more or less like the VR Troopers we got, after you exercise the other two Troopers, but other details would be changed as the pilot went to series:

  • In both versions of the show, our hero has a wise karate sensei called Tao. In Cybertron, Tao was a confidant of Tyler Steel during the Cybertron project and acts as a mentor in Adam Steel’s superhero life as well – a role taken by a new character, Professor Hart, later on.

  • Tyler Steel was actually working for Cyrus Rikter when he designed Cybertron

  • Grimlord has a son, preppy martial artist Percy Rikter. He serves as Steel’s civilian rival and carries the ‘bully’ role of Bulk and Skull, but also has some pathos as his father shows contempt towards him in front of an uncomfortable audience. (“You’re embarrassing me.”) From the pilot to production, the character disappears but his first name & wealthy status is given to show-off dork Percival Rooney the Third, a job rival of female Trooper Kaitlin.

  • Two journalists ripping off Bill and Ted, Elmo and Scuzzy, serve as comic relief; a young kid named Mouse is idolising and cheering Adam Steel on; and Tao has a daughter called Mia, who is Steel’s love interest (and Percy wants her to be his). They all get dropped.

  • The tacked-on ‘virtual reality’ aspect isn’t present. Instead, Grimlord runs an army of “war drones” that have been ravaging the Earth for over a decade

The song in the Cybertron pilot, which we assume is the theme, is by Ron Wasserman and was recycled for the Go Green Ranger Go song – with that line replacing an elongated “Cyyyyybeerrrrrtrooonnnn”.

The result would be a fundamentally different show to the VR Troopers we got, and would have excised Jason David Frank from the Power Rangers franchise – he would now have more episodes under his belt as Adam Steel. A major reason VR Troopers ended was lack of useable footage but this was when it had to fill in a team, when it only had the show Spielban (with a brother and sister armoured up) to work with, and Cybertron has the great advantage that it can keep using footage from solo hero Metal Hero shows. Spielban could potentially be adapted as Mia gaining a Cybertron armour to fight alongside Adam Steel. The only issue is when Frank wants to move on and in our world, he lasted five years on Power Rangers.

Which Ranger can replace Tommy as the signature veteran Ranger? The only other two actors with similar lengthy tenures were Johnny Yong Bosch as Adam and David Yost as Billy. Due to bad experiences with homophobia from a Saban executive, Yost may not agree to come back during Disney’s ownership of the show (and OTL he did not during Saban’s second time running the show). Bosch did come back twice, one time flying to New Zealand for the 15th anniversary story, but would he fly out for a whole year?

Another casting butterfly is that the actor for Cybertron’s comic relief reporter Elmo is Jamie Kennedy, who would break out in 1996 with a role in Romeo + Juliet and horror buff Randy Meeks in Scream. If Cybertron isn’t revised, he’s getting regular TV work two years earlier, so what impact does that have on his career? With Saban’s punishing production schedule, would he even be available to audition for these films?

But in the end, Cybertron is dropped and the show rethought, and in large part this is due to developments on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Eye of the Tigerzord

Saban Entertainment wanted a new sixth Ranger for the toy money and was eyeing the white-garbed Kiba Ranger from the Dairanger sentai for a long while. Obviously with Jason David Frank over in Cybertron, this wasn’t originally meant to be Tommy. We don’t know who the original character was going to be, but we do know who the original actor was going to be – Brad Hawkins, who would play Ryan Steel in VR Troopers!

Enjoying the spotlight in episode “Lights, Camera, Action”

This leads to a slightly messy timeline, with conflicting statements. In a 2017 interview for That Hashtag Show, David Frank said Saban and Fox “freaked out” over kids getting upset the Green Ranger was gone and that’s what led him to come back as the White Ranger. In contrast Hawkins said in 2009 that he was asked which role he’d rather have, the White Ranger or lead Trooper, and logically this would mean Saban assumed he’d take the VR Troopers one and are diplomatically making it a ‘choice’. In 2014, Hawkins told No Pink Spandex that he was appearing on set for Rangers choreography and he understood Cybertron had “sold”, making it an eleventh-hour switch.

Add in the rapid production schedule, how quickly Tommy comes back as the Green Ranger, and it probably means Saban had cast Hawkins as the White Ranger shortly into planning the remaining Season 1 episodes. How? Because close to thirty episodes of Mighty Morphin, from the end of S1 to early S2, are not sentai adaptations.

Saban had dealt with using up all the Zyuranger footage commissioned Toei to make entirely new, just-for-the-US Zyuranger footage they could adapt – “Zyu2”, as fans dubbed it. (There had already been some extra footage filmed for America that had, among other things, Bandora/Rita actress Machiko Soga saying “magic wand…” for the dub.) These were elaborate fights, with the Blue Zyuranger using gadgets and the Pink & Green Zyurangers being close together to better fit the American takes.

When Power Rangers began its second season, it switched out the Zyuranger Dinozords for the Dairanger robots (Thunderzords) and awkwardly spliced in footage of Zyu2 monsters lumbering at the camera, swiping at the camera, and the Dairanger ThunderMegazord staggering backwards from an unseen hit. Later, Dairanger monsters would fight the Dairanger robots but now you’d often see that monster firing at the camera and the Power Rangers in an American park falling over. Add in that there wasn’t enough useable Dairanger footage and the show had to stretch everything out as long as possible while reusing any suit it had around, and you ended up with some extremely painful stretches of the show.

But Japanese designs exist for what fans inevitably named “Zyu3”: new versions of the Dinozords, as well as a concept for a Megazord formed out of Dinozords and the White Ranger’s Tigerzord. As far as anyone understands, Zyu2 was far more expensive than Saban actually expected and mandated the excessive use of Dairanger footage to make up for it, killing off any Zyu3 in its crib.

This is the theory, based on the Zyu3 designs, the likely timeline of Cybertron, and Brad Hawkins’ comments: the White Ranger and Tigerzord were meant to appear partway into the Zyu2 footage, possibly around the time of the Green Ranger’s return OTL, with the new Dinozord toys coming after. When Tommy was brought back, the White Ranger was delayed so Saban could make use of the Green Ranger’s popularity and make an arc out of him becoming White Ranger. And then Haim Saban saw the pricetag for Zyu2 and the Zyu3 plans had to be dropped, and the White Ranger would only be from Dairanger footage.

In the short term, this would have a detrimental effect on the show – instead of the story arc of the Green Ranger’s powers fading away and Tommy fighting anyway, you’d just get ‘here’s a sixth Ranger so buy his toys’ with no build-up.

But there’s a big potential long-term impact from all this:

Ohhh, You Got Them, They’re Not Part Of The Union

As discussed before, being non-union meant Mighty Morphin didn’t have to pay much and got them to do lengthy hours. After Narvy initially joked he and Schrier made “both of the dollars”, he revealed in 2018 that they’d made $500 a week pre-tax – Schrier boiled that down to $3.80 an hour. This wasn’t just for the comic relief, as Austin St John told Huffington Post “I could have worked the window at McDonalds and probably made the same money the first season”. And while they got new contracts for the new episodes and for the planned film, Walter Jones notes they “were not great contracts” for the work.

The actors decided, quoth Jones, “we should all get together and talk to representation and have someone represent us for these contracts as group”. This failed, and St John, Jones, and Thuy Trang walked out in a strike. That failed and they were recast – around the same time Jason David Frank debuted as the White Ranger. That’s why he became leader: Saban added a dubbed line where the White Ranger is made the new leader while Jason smiles. For over a dozen episodes before the new characters came in, it was really clear half the cast weren’t really on screen and this was stock footage or badly dubbed suits.

This failure is likely due to the cast being quite young and being overwhelmed – when talking to No Pink Spandex, Amy Jo Johnson said in relation to this that “they had every right to want that [unionising] and I was just naïve and young and stupid.” “I don’t even think I knew what a union was. I just was so green.” Saban basically had to just be the immovable object.

But what happens if this all comes about when you don’t have a returning favourite character but a brand-new person? Would Saban risk being left with only two Rangers that kids have heard of?

Maybe he would for the show alone but again, there was a film coming out, a film with proper money spent on it and 20th Century Fox involved, a film they could only film in October and November 1994 (it would overrun badly). The new actors told Flickering Myth that they were told they’d be doing a movie in “a month and a half” after getting the jobs – their initial episodes would end up airing at the same time they were filming down in Australia, where the locals didn’t know them.Several key markets did not. If you look up the early trailer online, you’ll notice the three new Rangers have no lines and are cropped out of one shot!

Could the risk be taken that the film will go into production with just Billy and Kimberly as the draws? Would this situation change whether Yost or Johnson flip?

Is Saban going to blink?

If so, the entire show changes: every episode will be written differently to fit the old cast. The film also changes as it will be less White Ranger focused, as he’s no longer the main draw.

But having blinked, will Saban let this stand or will he decide to replace the actors en mass with cheaper replacements for the third season? And if he’s deciding that, will he keep the Zyuranger costumes or decide if he’s changing so much anyway, why not change the costumes to more cheaply adapt Kakuranger? In our timeline, there was no big change in costume until Power Rangers Zeo and that led to it happening every subsequent year until Power Rangers Samurai began the trend to two-year runs.

What if all this happens at the same time, with a Kakuranger-based ‘Power Rangers Ninja’? Does the rebooting, closer to the height of Power Rangers popularity, keep the franchise firing on all cylinders or do the target audience react badly to a cast change when they’ve not been weaned onto it by steady replacements? Does this actually damage ratings and sales, leading to Power Rangers ending as a franchise in late 1990s as it almost did with In Space OTL?

(This would also change the film further, which focuses on the Rangers travelling to get new ninja powers and Ninjazords. As writer Arne Olson told Flickering Myth, the plan started with “this space adventure, and something dire happens back home and they have to save them” but this doesn’t have to be an ad for new toys. The quest and climax would need to change.)

Alternatively, Haim Saban is left disgruntled but the cast are still making him money, so they get to carry on. The show now gets to have greater character development, or at least tries to, while individual actors start dropping out as they decide they want to do something else. Could this lead to an organic full cast change earlier?

And all of this comes full circle because if the Power Ranger actors successfully win a union deal, Jason David Frank on Cybertron may want one too…


Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.


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