In the ’90s two of the biggest shows on television were Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Saban wanted something similar for kids but couldn’t quite get the idea out of the talking stages. With a deal for Young Hercules in development at Fox, enter Robert Hughes who pitched a series centered on Celtic mythology. With the green light, work began on Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog in Ireland and the company’s first successful completely original Ameri-Toku series.
Story: The show pits the good people of Kells against Queen Maeve who wishes to rule over the land. Rohan, the druid Cathbad’s apprentice, comes upon an ancient scroll telling of the great warrior Draganta who may have the power to save the kingdom. Aided by reformed thief Angus, the king’s daughter Princess Deidre, and foreign prince Ivar, the four are given mystical weapons by the fairy king of Tir Na Nog. Using these weapons the four are able to summon powerful mystic armor based around the elements of fire, air, earth, and water.
Deidre wishes to break out of being just a simple princess and while her father wishes to protect her, she is determined to fight like any other warrior. Angus is tempted by his old life as a thief but learns that his new friends are worth far more than anything he could ever steal. Ivar is seeking a chalice stolen from his people, which pit him against one of Maeve’s generals.
Throughout the series the group has to protect not only Kells but the fairy people of Tir Na Nog. Mider, a dark fairy who has given Maeve a great deal of power, wishes to rule over Tir Na Nog and will do it any cost, even if it means betraying Maeve. At the end of the series he allies himself with Nemain, the former ruler of Maeve’s domain, Temra.
With the help of King Conchobar, the fair Aideen, a dragon named Pyre, and the fifth mystic knight of the forest, Garrett, the group fights against Queen Maeve and her vicious monsters. Along the way the secret of Draganta is revealed and it may forever change Rohans life.
Mystic Knights, being the first Saban Ameri-Toku that eschewed the use of footage from earlier Japanese series, had a tall order to fill. Would they be able to create a compelling show without the aid of footage to fall back on? The answer is a resounding yes! The show benefited from strong writing, inspired by Lord of the Rings and the Celtic myths. Mystic Knights featured several long running arcs and multi dimensional characters that most of the other Ameri-Tokus seemed to lack. Take this line from Rohan, “Discovering your destiny and fulfilling it are two very different things.” Thought provoking stuff.
The show took every advantage of its filming location and we got the richest and most beautiful Ameri-Toku of all. It’s a shame most of the copies in circulation are of such low quality so that richness can’t be fully appreciated. Castles, forests, villages, throne rooms, this show spared no expense. We even got huge battles taking place on horseback, including a siege on the castle. Although to be fair, this footage was heavily reused throughout the series.
The music of the show was also top notch, none more so than the theme of the show. Much like the rest of the show, it transported you into this mystical realm of dragons, fairies, and great heroes. I’d be lying however if I said I didn’t enjoy the German version of the opening, which, strangely, is in English. Go figure!
Special mention must be given to Lisa Dwan, who played Princess Deidre, who brought a wealth of life to the show’s main female character. Deidre wouldn’t take anyone’s crap and was a surprisingly strong female character for an Ameri-Toku.
What Didn’t Work
The toy line. All of these shows were centered around toys, and the inclusion of what became toys was at odds with the sweeping story the show was attempting to convey. Robert Hughes recalls one meeting where Ban Dai asked him to put motorcycles in the show.
“Motorcycles would totally compromise the integrity of the series!” – Robert Hughes
“Did you just use the I word?” –Ban Dai executive.
They didn’t end up putting bikes in the show, but were forced to compromise with the dreaded, “Battle Wagon.” Even the Mystic Armor seemed tacked on to the major story. This was a character driven show that was forced into having transforming heroes. The weapons they were given, a sword, cross bow, mace, trident, and axes were rarely used for close combat and instead would shoot lasers. Yes, you read that right, lasers. They even had “Battle Gauntlets” which shot them. The toyetic nature of the show clashed far too hard with the serious storyline.
Also, the storylines, while good, did seem to drag on at a times or were even dropped for extended periods. When Garret is introduced he’s given a whole arc of episodes only to disappear for a stretch of over ten episodes, suddenly reappear, and then go off on a quest, which he’d only return from for the final episodes. He’s also given an interest in Deidre and comes off a bit creepy before he mellows out after he realizes she isn’t interested in him.
The series seemed to put a ton of focus on Rohan. He was the main character but it seemed a large chunk of time went to him while everyone else seemed to get shafted in terms of character development. The Mystic Knights all do get a chance to shine, but the ancillary characters suffer, considering that the show featured no less than twelve characters credited up front in the series credits. It was a tall order to give everyone equal time to shine.
Why It Didn’t Catch On
Again, the toy line. At the time (in large part thanks to Power Rangers) the toy market was flooded with action figures based on TV shows. Mystic Knights just couldn’t stand out with its generic roleplay items and average main figures. Again, the show tried not to focus on selling toys and instead on telling good stories.
Those stories did help the show get picked up for a second season but in the middle of pre production the plug was pulled. The toys weren’t selling, so the show wasn’t worth keeping on air. It’s a shame, too The writers had been planting seeds in the first season to expand on. Angus would have left the show (due to problems with star Vincent Walsh) and a new set of villains would have been introduced.
Is It Worth Watching?
Yes! While the pacing can be a bit sluggish at times the show fits quite nicely with the slate of fantasy series that currently dominate the airwaves. Sure, it’s no Game of Thrones, but Mystic Knights could be a great introduction to the genre for kids and has quite a bit for adults to enjoy as well.
The only hurdle is actually finding copies of the series. It’s never been officially released (outside of one VHS when the show was airing and another release overseas). The entire series can be found on YouTube but as previously mentioned, nearly all the episodes are in horrible quality, clearly taped off Fox Kids on low quality VHS tapes. It does make watching the series difficult, but if you can soldier through that it’s worth checking out. It’s one of the most original superhero series from that time period and I’ve never seen anything quite like it in American or Japanese Tokusatsu.
If any of you remember the Fox Family TV movie Saint Patrick: The Irish Legend, it was mostly shot on the sets for Mystic Knights and utilized a good chunk of the crew.
– When the show’s plug was pulled much of its budget was transferred to another Saban series, Power Rangers. Specifically Lost Galaxy, which shows. The premiere is one of the slickest looking Power Rangers premieres of all time and they really needed that extra cash to fight the Sentai that they were adapting that year. Some have also said that money was then transferred to help fund advertising on Digimon.
– While many of the Mystic Knights cast was unknown to Americans at the time, star Vincent Walsh had appeared in one series that had come from up north, Degrassi High! He played Patrick, a recent immigrant from Ireland, who briefly dated Spike and her best friend Liz. He’s gone on to star in other genre fair such as Lost Girl and 300: Rise of an Empire.
– The second season would have centered on the Selkies, another well-known part of Irish mythology.