Johnny Mnemonic. Does that name ring a bell? It’s a cyberpunk movie from 1995 starring Keanu Reeves as a high-tech memory dealer who uses virtual reality to save a robot dolphin from an evil corporation–or something like that. It was based on a short story by William Gibson.
Anyway, when I was a kid in the ‘90s, I saw the commercials for it on TV and thought it looked so cool. I dug the mystique of it. I liked the soundtrack. At the time, it was like a doorway to the future that we thought we’d get in the year 2000 and beyond, and I liked how provacative and dangerous anything that was about virtual reality was back then. I had caught ads for The Lawnmower Man a couple of years before and was curious to see why it looked so twisted and scary (and what it had to do with the art of landscaping).
I wound up seeing both of those films for the first time much later on, when I was a teenager, long after the virtual reality fad had been defragmented. I rented them from a Blockbuster. I watched them on the VCR in my room, which is analog technology…
I don’t know, seems kind of ironic now, doesn’t it?
Anyway, both of these films weren’t what I expected them to be at all. In fact, they wound up confounding me, making me question why I remember the virtual reality fad feeling so larger than life.
Then it hit me.
VR Troopers. Yes, Power Rangers’ weirder older brother that was into Kung Fu, motorcycles, and faded pinups of blonde supermodels. Both of the shows were a huge part of my formative years, as were any of the other “ameri-toku” shows that were out there at the top of the pre-Pokemon/Mighty Morphin’ zeitgeist. (Mystic Knights, not so much.) But that’s why virtual reality was such a big deal.
This syndicated action series was about three young adults who turn into stuntmen that fight robots in barren rock quarries. The audience is supposed to buy that these rock quarries are what virtual reality looks like. But even as a kid I was easy tell that was where the Red Ranger jump kicked a putty the day before. Long story short, this is because the same companies (Saban and Toei) produced both of these series.
Related historical sidenote: the original pilot for this series, Cybertron, starred Jason David Frank and Jamie Kennedy. Anyone else thing they should team up for a direct-to-video action flick? No? Yeah, me either.
But while most of Power Rangers’ action came from spliced-in footage from Toei’s most recent Super Sentai series, VR Troopers based itself on footage from old Metal Hero action programs, Metalder and Spielban, that were almost a decade old and even more dated looking when edited together with the scenes filmed in mid-1990s southern California. Not only that, but it was a marriage of three separate tokusatsu programs instead of just one to make it look like a team show. That means in every episode, the Troopers would always split up into two groups no matter what. Somehow, this always worked.
Of course, maybe that’s because it was the only show you could watch as a kid where monsters get impaled on a double sided lightsaber and then blow up.
For those of you who want to relive the batpoop craziness that was VR Troopers, you’ll be glad to know that the show has been chilling on Netflix for about half a decade now, waiting for you to click on it. It knows you want to, but you just need that one last final nudge to make you do it. And this, my friend, is it.
Episodes 1 & 2: “The Battle Begins”
Our epic adventure through stock footage insanity kicks off with a solid two-part pilot that introduces us to the dangerous, goofy and surreal universe of VR Troopers.
The series centers around the adventures of Ryan Steele and his friends J.B. and Kaitlyn, three hot young professionals who balance the edgy casualness of the early ‘90s grunge movement with the blank flavor of mid-’90s style. They help Tao, their favorite sensei ever, run his dojo and train kids to fight and get along too.
After class one day, the kids receive a message from Professor Hart from virtual reality. He selects them to be the VR Troopers, high-tech warriors chosen to defend the virtual world.
Their powers were designed by Ryan’s missing father Tyler Steele, Professor Hart’s colleague and close friend, to stop the evil, presumably 8-bit generated forces of Grimlord (aka industrialist Karl Ziktor) and his army of robot-mutants/mutant-robots.
This is essential because, number one, it’s the pilot episode. Number two…yeah, there is no number two.
Episode 8: “Computer Captive”
J.B. is abducted through a computer monitor (!) and sent to the bowels of Windows 3.2 where Grimlord’s dungeon is located. There, his strength is slowly sucked out of him by the dark lord’s kinky lightning chains. An infuriated Ryan infiltrates his lair to rescue J.B. and has a samurai showdown with Battlebot. What a good virtual friend!
Ryan storming Grimlord’s castle happens again over the course of the series, yet somehow it’s still an effective trick each time. There’s really not much more to say about this one, other than Grimlord once again demonstrates that he likes to fuck with Ryan’s loved ones a lot. Asshole.
Episode 10: “The Virtual Spy”
Meet Jeremy. He’s a virtual emissary sent by Grimlord to spy on the VR Troopers in this reality. Both Ryan and J.B. think that Jeremy’s weird right off the bat, but Kaitlyn gives him a chance since she’s the token female and more understanding than her musclehead friends. Eventually, Ryan has to beat the shit out of Jeremy until he explodes, so the men were right the whole time. Silly virtual warrior girl! Your female intuition is no match for virtual fists of iron.
But the real question is – was Jeremy’s mullet real or was it virtual? Because either way, it was out of this world.
Episode 11: “The Virtual V-6”
At the offices of the Village Voice, a young scientist named Dr. Ulysses T. Poindexter visits Kaitlyn to inform her about the pollution free motorcycle engine he’s working on. When she sees his schematics, she gets excited and shows them to the other Troopers. They’re so impressed that they steal his idea and make a mockup version in virtual reality to attach to J.B.’s Skycycle, which is such a friggin’ gas hog.
Meanwhile, Grimlord gets pissed because Poindexter’s engine could threaten his human counterpart’s oil business, so he sends his armies to do what they usually do: run around empty fields in the middle of nowhere and make things go boom.
Get used to Poindexter, by the way. He’s going to be back whether you want him to be or not.
Episode 14: “Searching for Tyler Steele”
In an unsettling episode, the Troopers stumble across a creepy abandoned building in the middle of nowhere while on a hike. Kaitlyn notices a mysterious man lurking inside – a prisoner, staring out through barred windows. Before they can get any closer to investigate, a group of Skugs ambushes them and silly music plays, ruining the tension.
Once the Troopers develop the photos Kaitlyn took, they find out that the man looks a lot like Ryan’s father. Grimlord spends the whole episode keeping them from going back to that building, and when Ryan finally does, the man is gone, and he realizes they were right: Tyler Steele really is being held prisoner by Grimlord. Well, shit.
Episode 31: “Defending Dark Heart” Pt. 1
The first multi-episode event of VR Troopers is its best, hands down. It weaves together all of the main plot threads that have been dangling over the audience’s heads into one tense story arc spanning four episodes that feel much longer. That this didn’t get a movie-length home video release in the States is shocking. If this storyline had been more accessible to the public, VR Troopers might be slightly more memorable than it is today.
When the Troopers detect one of Grimlord’s mutants, Dark Heart, has human DNA, Ryan is convinced that it’s his dad. So he goes to confronts this mysterious mutant at his post on the reality barrier in hopes to discover his true identity. They get into a fight, Ryan wins, and the mutant begs to be killed, but Ryan won’t do it. When Dark Heart returns to Grimlord, he is sentenced to “virtual termination” for losing the fight against Ryan. Finish Him!
Meanwhile, J.B. and Kaitlyn get to have a side adventure in a virtual sex dungeon with Percy. Remember kids: the safe word is “Circuit Propulsion Matrix Analyzer”. (You might want to write that down.)
Episode 32: “Defending Dark Heart” Pt. 2
Ryan rescues the injured Dark Heart from his death sentence in a fairly breathless sequence. While repairing him back at Professor Hart’s lab, the truth is revealed: Dark Heart is indeed Tyler Steele, but because of his brainwashing, he doesn’t remember much at all about his old life. Professor Hart uploads Ryan’s childhood memories into Dark Heart’s mind to counteract this, and it works. Hooray!
But Tyler decides that he would rather be a mutant than be partially human, so he heads back to the virtual world to defeat Grimlord. D’oh!
Ryan, the greatest son ever to have sonned, follows Tyler and fights mutants by his father’s side. God, I could use a kleenex right about now.
Episode 33: “Defending Dark Heart” Pt. 3
In case things weren’t getting heavy enough, Dark Heart gets shot in the head in this episode by a mutant known as Renegade in a hardcore, drawn out, and fairly graphic slow-motion sequence. He survives (because this is a kids’ show after all) and is kidnapped by Grimlord – again – and used as bait to lure Ryan out. He takes it, and finds himself in a brawl with Renegade himself, who shoots his dad – again!
Ryan heads back to the lab on his cycle with an unconscious Dark Heart but Professor Hart tells him not to, because Grimlord is currently bombing the shit out of it.
Y’know, it’s episodes like this one that set VR Troopers apart from the other live action Ameritoku productions that came out during that time. Since this series aired in first-run syndication, it didn’t have to adhere to the standards and practices like its cousin Power Rangers over on Fox Kids did. Any part of the Metalder footage could be used, even the part when a robot dude gets shot point blank in the face. None of the source material had to be censored or watered down (well, too much).
Episode 34: “Defending Dark Heart” Part 4
Dark Heart tells Ryan to head to his secret lab hidden in the mountains where his virtual body can be repaired through state of the art virtual reality equipment (i.e. flashy laser beams and ‘80s disco beats). But his day at the robot spa is cut short when Grimlord’s mutants start bombing the shit out of that place too. Damn!
So the Steeles are on the run again, and Ryan has to lightning hand command bitches left and right. They reach Grimlord’s dungeon where the final climax of Return of the Jedi is played out, but on a lesser scale. Grimlord does his best Emperor Palpatine impersonation when he shocks Ryan with his lightning tentacles. But just when they think they’re free, Decimator sneaks up behind the father and son team and leads them into a three-way duel in which he stabs Dark Heart with his sword. Ryan is outraged and tries to get a piece of retribution pie, but the mutant drives off on his motorcycle like a big ol’ douchebag. Fuck you Decimator! You ain’t shit!
Ryan holds the severely wounded Dark Heart, who finally de-virtualizes back into his father. But as soon as he does, Grimlord transports him back to his lair and tells Ryan he’ll never let his father go.
In the end, Ryan lets Kaitlyn and J.B. know that they’re his only family in a much-deserved warm ending for an emotionally exhausting story arc for our main character.
Episode 51-52: “Rise of the Red Python”, Pt. 1&2
If the “Defending Dark Heart” saga was VR Troopers’ answer to “Green With Evil”, then I don’t know what to make of this two-parter, which is half as long and pulls the same stunt but to lesser effect.
Don’t get me wrong – “Rise of the Red Python” is a quality VR Troopers adventure (assuming there is such a thing) but it doesn’t have nearly the same impact that it’s predecessor had. That’s because the conflict simply isn’t personal this time; instead of Ryan’s father, the “Evil Trooper“ role is filled by Amy, a young woman who works at an animal shelter. I’m pretty sure she used to be in Wilson Philips, too.
Long story short, the Troopers figure out their new friend is the Red Python, Grimlord’s latest virtual warrior. J.B. has confrontation after confrontation with her (because she was from Spielban, not Metalder) and each time she collapses/runs away because of that whole limited stock footage thing.
In the end, Professor Hart cures her back at the laboratory. She loses her powers, doesn’t join the team, and is never heard from again, even though she signs up for the team’s karate classes. My guess is, she probably went for a month or so and then stopped going because she just didn’t “have the time.” (AKA She was tired of Ryan not giving her attention because of his serious daddy issues and life-consuming video game addiction. #realtalk)
For those of you who may have forgotten, the second half of VR Troopers’ brief yet prolific run is wildly different from what came before on just about on every level – but not at first. The season begins with a trio of episodes that burn through the few remaining scraps of Metalder footage Saban had left, maintaining the status quo before indirectly easing the audience into the massive changes that were about to occur, thanks to the addition of an entirely new tokusatsu series to the mix.
If you don’t already know, Space Sheriff Shaider is another installment from Toei’s metal hero series. It’s older than both Metalder and Speilban since it came out in 1984, a whopping eleven years before its battle sequences were edited into VR Troopers. If there was a noticeable disparity between film quality before, it was now more distracting (and entertaining) than ever. Shaider is a deeply weird and colorful show that can terrorize just as easily as it can thrill. Its plot also defies description. But I will tell you this – there’s an episode where Santa Claus is crucified upside down during a black mass held by a choir of creepy masked children that resemble the robot people from The Black Hole.
How is this not great material for a kid’s show?
Anyway. Season 2. Let’s do this.
Episode 56: “Quest for Power”, Pt. 1
The “Quest for Power“ saga is a defining moment for VR Troopers. Strangely enough, it’s not as captivating as ”Defending Dark Heart“, despite all the significant changes that occur. I think that’s because it gets a bit silly towards the end when the new villains are introduced. But let’s talk about it anyway.
In the first installment, Grimlord drains Tyler Steele’s top secret knowledge of virtual reality into a prism he must have recently bought from Bed, Bath & Beyond. While doing so, he distracts the Troopers with Wolfbot. Then, he goes out of his way to stream Ryan and the gang live footage of Tyler’s mind being drained.
Wow. Grimlord is a colossal asshole. There’s a quote for your Wikipedia entry.
Episode 57: “Quest for Power”, Pt. 2
Instead of sitting around and watching Tyler Steele be psychically tortured, the Troopers get proactive and drive their flying car to a storage vault Professor Hart set up in the basement of Crossworld University that contains all of Tyler’s secret research.
Turns this vault is a giant Costco-sized warehouse full of…what? Glamour shots of Ryan? Huge bins of chocolate pretzels? Back issues of Starlog? Whatever all that crap is, the Troopers narrow down their search when they find an old book containing the original blueprints for virtual technology.
Meanwhile, Colonel Icebot gives Wolfbot another injection of Tyler Steele’s secret virtual sauce. Grimlord complains that he doesn’t look any different, to which Icebot responds that they’ll have to design new monsters to fully handle such high amounts of virtual energy. (In other words, we don’t have the footage for that.)
So Ryan takes on the modified Wolfbot, who is made ten times creepier by a giant pet spider he got from his upgrade. Looks like Tyler Steele has a fucked up imagination.
After defeating this refurbished virtual lackey, Ryan and Jeb dash into Grimlord’s lair, and footage from “Defending Dark Heart” is recycled in a sequence that sees the dark lord blow up his dungeon once and for all – with Ryan still inside. It looks like it’s curtains for Steele Jr.
Episode 58: “Quest for Power”, Pt. 3
…until he crawls out of the rubble! And yeah, Jeb is fine too. Because this show would never be the same without unnecessary Jack Nicholson gags.
Grimlord sets up a temporary base of operations until his new Dark Fortress has finished materializing. He programs spare severed heads left over his virtual army to attack Ryan Steele in a fairly tasteless plan. (Jesus. I think I find him scarier now than I did when I was 10.)
After Icebot finishes draining Tyler Steele’s brain into the prism, he uses it to create the Ultra Skugs, who disguise themselves as tacky looking trees to catch the Troopers off guard.
By the way, the Ultra Skugs are really ugly, aren’t they? Saban wants us to pretend like they’re as cool as Lord Zedd’s new putties in MMPR Season 2, but they’re so not. I mean, really. Bring back the capes. Old Skugs for life!
Anyway, these Ultra Skugs are so Ultra they kidnap J.B. and Kaitlyn and chain them up to these weird crucifix looking things alongside Tyler Steele, of all people. It really is a small world.
Ryan cuts through the BS and storms Grimlord’s temporary hideout, only to be bombarded with those disembodied floating heads. Like any good James Bond villain, Grimlord turns on a laser beam that slowly drifts towards his captives, threatening to fry Ryan’s friends.
But when Ryan confronts Grimlord, the dude shocks him – again like Palpatine – badly damaging his armor in the process. Then he sets another bomb and jets off – again, like a Bond villain. (I’d love to see what he’d do with an N64 Goldeneye cartridge.) Ryan manages to save the others in time, but his virtualizer gets all busted so he loses his powers. But…he gains his father I guess. It’s give and take with this show.
Episode 59: “Quest for Power”, Pt. 4
Professor Hart tries to restore Tyler’s mind back to the way it was, but looks like that’s something imaginary technology can’t take care of at this point. Thus, Kaitlyn and J.B. suggest trying a different approach – “alternative medicine”, and they agree to tell Tao their big secret so he can help cure Ryan’s dad.
Now that the prism is full of Tyler Steele’s weird perverted virtual reality knowledge, Ziktor doesn’t need that dumbass crystal ball anymore. It’s so season one. So he crushes it, replaces it with the new prism, and uses it to conjure up his new lair: the Dark Fortress, which is basically just a crappy abandoned Chinese restaurant that hovers somewhere in space.
There, he calls forth his new employees – er, minions. Meet Despera, the new assistant manager; Doom Master, a guy whose cosplay game needs some serious work; Oraclon, a giant face that’s embedded in the wall; and the Vixens, a team of waitresses/prostitutes who have the heels to stamp out the VR Troopers for good.
After Tao cures Tyler, Ryan takes him to that temple he’s always having his deep thoughts at. It’s a touching moment that ends as soon as it began, because we soon cut to a montage of Tyler creating Ryan’s new armor at the lab! Oh, and looks like Grimlord blew up the VR Skybase. What a psycho.
Episode 60: “Quest for Power”, Pt. 5
This is it! Ryan finally transforms into his new suit, after four episodes of teasing and buildup. But what’s he going to do with it? Take down Doom Master and his posse of evil hookers, that’s what! Cue the poorly choreographed American produced stunt footage featuring 1986 Spielban heroes fighting 1984 Shaider villains in 1995 Southern California. Whoo! This is success.
Ryan’s new blue armor is so…cool? And it’s kinda looking dirty already. Uh, wow. He really likes doing those twirling flips doesn’t he? Oh, that music. Despera, girl – what is that thing on your head?
Okay, that was bizarre. Huh. Well, looks like the storyline about Ryan’s dad is all wrapped up now. Or is it?
Episode 64: “The Negative Factor”
Grimlord traps J.B. and Kaitlin in the Negative Zone – an alternate dimension where their virtual powers don’t work. While there, they remain invisible to everyone but Jeb and other dogs. Grimlord plans to send the whole world into the Negative Zone, so Tyler Steele helps build a huge robot from the remains of the Skybase called the V.R. Gargantus – also known as Troopertron – to help Ryan stop him.
The Troopertron is as close to a Megazord-type battle mecha the series ever got. It’s nothing impressive, since it comes from a simpler time in tokusatsu, way before Sentai entries like Zyuranger and Dairanger revolutionized the design and appearance of mecha. What’s fascinating is, although piloted by Ryan Steel and a part of his new powers, Gargantus is adapted from Spielban and not Shaider, so it could have debuted during the first season if Saban had felt like it. Maybe they wanted to leave giant robots out of the equation to further distinguish VR Troopers from Power Rangers, or they wanted to focus heavily on Metalder instead.
Personally, I think it’s a combination of the two. Either way, it’s surprising how much it didn’t matter by the time year two rolled out.
Episode 65 & 66: “Kaitlyn Through the Looking Glass”, Pt. 1 & 2
This mind-bending saga indicated that VR Troopers was aiming to be a more mature science-fiction program for young adults in degrees.
Kaitlyn is cloned by a compact mirror that is secretly Grimlord’s new weapon, the Master Virtual Replicator in disguise. Kaitlin Two infiltrates the Troopers inner sanctum and tear up Professor Hart’s lab, much like evil clones are prone to do. But before she can, she watches Kaitlyn One lose a tough battle with the rest of Grimlord’s army on the viewscreen. After Ryan pleads for her to save her twin’s life, she does. (But probably only because he asked her to.)
The plot twists and turns between both halves of this two-parter, but ultimately the gang figures out how to bring the two Kaitlyns together. When they do, a malfunction occurs, which leads to a strange new power-up that gives her the power to split into two VR versions of herself during battle. This is called the “VR Kaitlyn Double Team Command Now” – which sounds kinda sexy, doesn’t it?
A bit of trivia here: in the source footage, the two Dianas (aka “VR Kaitlyns”) came about because she and brother Spielban finally manage to rescue their sibling Helen – who once transformed into Hellvira (aka “Red Python”/ “Evil Wilson Philips”) – from the Waller Empire. Instead of getting her own suit, they just give her one of her sister’s spare suits. See kids? Redemption is totally worth it.
Episode 74 & 75: “Grimlord’s Dark Secret”, Pt. 1 & 2
In what may be VR Troopers’ most pivotal episodes, the team gets closer to finding out Grimlord’s secret identity than ever before. Since we the audience already know what that is (he’s Ziktor), we get to see a flashback to that fateful showdown between Professor Hart, Tyler Steele and Karl Ziktor we’ve always heard about, because we’re omniscient like that. It’s also revealed (insinuated?) that virtual reality has roots way back in ancient Egypt! How? Why? Because the writers needed to justify the weird-ass Shaider footage they were handed, that’s why.
The Troopers meet world famous archaeologist Nebraska Smith (eye roll) who has recently unearthed an artifact known as the Box of Isis outside of Crossworld City. Grimlord gets pissed off and sends his mutants to stop this meeting from happening. But he’s too late: Nebraska Smith figures out how to open the box, which hurls both of them through a magic gateway to the Isis dimension.
J.B. and Kaitlyn take the box back to Tao’s secret chamber in hopes to rescue them. But when they open it up, Kaitlyn walks through a portal that leads to Grimlord’s Virtual Dark Fortress. Back at the lab, Professor Hart explains how he and Tyler Steele dug up the Box of Isis long ago, and how the confrontation lead to his consciousness being uploaded to virtual reality.
Unbeknownst to Ryan, the pyramid he finds in the Isis dimension keeps all of Grimlord’s secrets – including his real identity. But in the end, he chooses to save his friends (and Nebraska) over learning the truth, which is what any hero should do I guess.
Episode 78: “Forward into the Past”
With his old telepathic cross-dressing ghost pal Knighttime working under his command, Grimlord sends J.B. and Kaitlyn back in time to the stone age. There, they awkwardly reenact the first ten minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a group of cave dwellers. Ryan gets them back home safely in the end. But that’s not the last we’ll see of Knighttime. No siree.
Episode 79: “Into Oraclon’s Web”
Ryan is lured into the Dark Fortress by Alexis, one of Grimlord’s spies, who pretends to have a crush on him for most of the episode. (Talk about catfishing.) Once there, he has a fateful battle with Oraclon that ends with the giant vampiric head exploding via Ryan’s laser saber. Hey Grimlord. Your new crew blows, man.
(And this battle wasn’t saved for the final episode…why, exactly?)
Episode 81: “Dream Battle”
Yay! Knighttime is back. This time, he traps the VR Troopers in their worst (k)nightmare – a world ruled by Grimlord. It’s great to see the show finally get creative with their set pieces and not rely on some barren landscape on the outskirts of LA as usual, although there is some of that too.
Episode 88: “Despera Strikes Back”
Ever want to meet Despera’s sister?
Wait, don’t answer that. You’re going to anyway.
Episode 91: “Time Out!”
When our heroes have their third and final confrontation with Knighttime, they are shocked to find out he has frozen all of time on earth.
To get things up and running again, Ryan combines forces with Grimlord to destroy the Omegachron, a giant MacGuffin in a warehouse that’s stopping the flow of time. Once it’s gone, Grimlord rushes back to his Dark Fortress in shame. It’s easy to see why. Remember when he was attacking Ryan with the flying severed heads?
Come back, Metalder footage! We need Grimlord to be threatening again. He’s like Mumm-Ra from Thundercats now. He started off threatening and became incompetent after the first year. (MMPR’s Lord Zedd went through this change too, but that particular shift happened within the same damn season.)
Episode 92: “Galileo’s New Memory”
The last episode of VR Troopers centers around the team building a new robot assistant named Galileo to help Professor Hart around the lab. When they take their new robot friend to meet Poindexter for adjustments, Grimlord orders the Ultra Skugs to kidnap him. When they do, he tries to raid the robot’s memory banks for the secrets of the VR Troopers.
Grimlord sends his entire army into reality to face Ryan while J.B. and Kaitlyn infiltrate the Dark Fortress and find that Oraclon has begun draining Galileo’s memory banks. In order to stop him, they program their creation to solve an unsolvable problem: calculate the exact size of the universe. It works, he breaks free, and they escape back to the Skybase. Major damage occurs to Grimlord’s Dark Fortress, but it’s not completely destroyed. When the Troopers get back to the lab, they reset Galileo and everything is fine.
And…yeah. That’s it.
VR Troopers ends quietly, contentedly, and without a true finale to resolve its main ongoing conflict. Sure, it’s an adequate note for the series to leave off on. And maybe this was intentional, just in case Saban wanted to keep things open for a possible Season 3 by adapting B-Fighter instead of producing Beetleborgs. Still…it would have been nice to have a sense of closure. But since this series already wrapped up most of its major storylines long ago, what stories were left to tell?