As part of an ongoing series of articles, we’ll be examining all of the series that tried to emulate the success of Power Rangers but just couldn’t catch on. What worked, what didn’t, and why they aren’t celebrating there own twenty plus years on air.
Debuting a year after the premiere of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, VR Troopers was developed by the same creative team behind Power Rangers and, as Tony Oliver put it, “We knew everyone would be copying us. So we decided to copy ourselves.” Bolstered by an extended advertisement at the end of the MMPR Fan Club Video, VR Troopers was the first out of the gate to try and capture some of Power Rangers thunder.
Story: Our main hero, Ryan Steele, hasn’t seen his father in years. When his friends J.B, a computer wiz and martial arts expert, and Kaitlin, a reporter for the Underground Voice, receive a strange message from a man named Professor Hart, their adventure begins.
He informs them that a virtual army led by the evil Grimlord is trying to break through the reality barrier and conquer our world. Grimlord was the one who captured Ryan’s father and defeating Grimlord might be the only way he’ll see him again. Armed with this knowledge, Ryan and the others are bestowed the power of the VR Troopers. With a fleet of vehicles and weapons Ryan and the others fight Grimlord through two seasons of adventures. Helping the group is Tao, their sensei, Woody, Kaitlins editor, and Jeb, Ryan’s talking dog. They also have a comedic foil in the eternally dumped on Percy who harbors not so secret feelings for Kaitlin.
Throughout season 1 the search for Ryan’s father is an ongoing subplot with some very near misses for Ryan, including discovering he’s been trapped in monster form and forced to fight him.
At the start of Season 2 Ryan is able to rescue his father but at the cost of his VR powers. With Grimlord powered up even further (along with a new army of servants) Ryan is given a new set of powers by his father along with a new slate of weapons and vehicles. His father leaves soon after but Ryan is sure to think about him every day in front of the temple that would bookend every episode.
Unlike Power Rangers, which tried to pretend its twenty-year-old actors were high school students, VR Troopers aged up their lead characters. Each of them was out of high school and employed. J.B. was trying to save up money for college, Kaitlin struggling to make it as a reporter and photographer, and Ryan attempting to buy a piece of the dojo and go into business with Tao. These characters were adults and the show made no bones about it.
In terms of action, VR Troopers had the benefit of being a syndicated show, meaning more “intense” action could be shown which included monsters getting impaled and sliced in half. The real highlights of these fights were the actors themselves. Brad Hawkins especially has never been matched in just how much energy he brought to exclaiming such stupid phrases as, “Lightning hand command, NOW!” We also get to see just how much he loves his dad because every episode is not only bookended with the temple, but with a Ryan monologue about how much he misses him, even if the episode wasn’t focused on Ryan. The show was solid, cheesy fun.
What Didn’t Work
VR Troopers was originally a series centered around one hero (that would have starred MMPR’s Jason David Frank) but the toy company wanted a “team show” to support a larger toy line. Thus, J.B. and Kaitlin feel shoved in around the edges of the plot. This was Ryan’s show, daddy issues and all. The show, unlike most of Power Rangers, combined two different Japanese Tokusatsu series together, meaning that whenever a fight would begin Ryan would run in one direction and J.B. with Kailtin would run in another. They never fought together outside of the laughably bad Battle Grid Mode segments, which used repurposed Zyuranger costumes. It made the whole thing feel disjointed and pushed Kaitlin and J.B. more to the sidelines.
Also, since the footage they were adapting from was nearly ten years old, they couldn’t utilize any of the monster suits and had to build their own versions of the Trooper suits, which were bulky and awkward at best. When all our heroes can do is fight against endless waves of foot soldiers, the Skugs, it gets old.
As much as I find Ryan’s daddy issues hilarious, the show needed more continuing plot lines to hold interest. In Season 2 Ryan actually finds his father, who then has to leave soon after because REASONS… Yet he continues to monologue about him like he’s still missing. Jesus, Ryan. Why do you miss your dad? You can go see him! Stop standing at that damn temple all day and actually do something about it!
The show also did little with its side characters. Tao was just the wise old Asian man, Woody was such a bumbling fool one wonders how his newspaper stayed in business, and Percy was unfairly made fun of by the Troopers constantly. Yeah, he was an annoying jerk sometimes but they could have thrown a little more kindness his way. Oh, and Jeb, the talking dog. Does anything really need to be said about that? He was voiced by Kerrigan Mahan (of Goldar fame) and sang the Doggy Rap. Depending on your personal preference that is either the best or worst thing ever (it’s the best and you damn well know it).
Why It Didn’t Catch On
Toy sales. It’s always the toy sales with Ameri-Toku series. The ratings weren’t to blame, even with a slight dip in the second season. The series premiered very strong in syndication but when Saban opted for toy maker Hasbro instead of BanDai, the quality suffered. The VR Troopers toys, while not horrible, just couldn’t stand up to the titans that were Power Rangers action figures at the time. VR Troopers as a toy line just didn’t have enough variety and even the new Ryan Steele suit in the second season couldn’t help things.
A commonly held belief about why the series was canned is that it “ran out” of footage to adapt from the Metal Heroes series in Japan. That actually isn’t true. According to show producer and writer Robert Hughes, they would have kept adapting other Metal Hero shows, going back farther and farther into the over ten year old footage to use.
Is It Worth Watching?
Your mileage may vary. While VR Troopers is just as cheesy as Power Rangers, it doesn’t have the same sort of world building that made Power Rangers such a smash hit with fans. VR Troopers just meanders through its plot, so if you’re looking for something to marathon on Netflix or DVD you might want to look elsewhere.
But if you can accept the unintentional running gags through the show, like Ryan’s daddy issues and endless monologues, you’ll find it has a certain charm. The use of footage from Metalder, Spielvan, and Shaider is damn near hilarious to watch at times, so much so you could make a drinking game out of it. Take a shot every time JB flips away from that explosion! Take a shot every time Kaitlin leaps toward the camera! Take a shot every time the Troopers nod to each other and then run off to different sides of the screen!
– After VR Troopers was cancelled two of its stars made it into Power Rangers. Sarah Brown, now famous for her roles in various soap operas, appeared in the Power Rangers Zeo three parter, “There’s No Business Like Snow Business.” She was a champion snowboarder that served as a potential love interest for Tommy after Kimberly dumped him. Sadly, we never saw her past this nor was she even related to Kaitlin Star.
– In the same season a recurring mystery was who was the Gold Ranger? In his first appearance he was voiced by none other than Brad Hawkins himself (doing some of the greatest fight ADR you’ll ever hear) and this lead to some speculating whether VR Troopers would finally properly crossover with Power Rangers. There had been talks while the shows were both running, but it was deemed too expensive.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. The Gold Ranger was revealed to be Trey of Triforia, a character with three distinct personalities that were dubbed over by Hawkins. In a recent interview he couldn’t quite remember even being the Gold Ranger, so it’s doubtful it was ever going to be Ryan.
– This was Hawkins’ second brush with possibly being a Ranger. Around the time JDF was set to take over VR Troopers‘ original incarnation (Cybertron) preparations were being made for Brad Hawkins to become the White Ranger. At the very last minute the roles were switched when the producers gave him a choice, “You get to be a new ranger, or you get your own show.” Hawkins wanted his own show.
– Saban had been trying for years to get an adaption of Metalder off the ground and one version that has never been seen was actually a dub of the source material, done in a “What’s Up Tiger Lily” style.