like a ninja from heaven (deriksmith) wrote,
like a ninja from heaven

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The Passion of the Chip (Hive Queen and the Hegemon)

Today we will discuss how to break a writer.
This is not an in-depth perspective abut a man-- it is the battle all men fight. A parable for our age.
There are, they say, only a few real stories, told over and over again. Man vs. Man. Man vs. Nature. Man vs. Society. Man vs. Self.
And of course- Man vs. Sentai.
Judd Lynn was the head writer on Power Rangers from mid-1997 (Turbo) to 2001 (Time Force). He'd actually been a writer for the series since MMPR-- season 2 I think.
Judd Lynn's five years guiding the series are an odd split. They straddle what many fans consider the 'end' of Power Rangers as a series- Lost Galaxy. His 'opus' was Power Rangers in Space, the show's sixth year, his second as head writer. His last year was Time Force, the grown up, serial-stripped drama about prejudice in a totalitarian future.

People tend to treat the head writer like some sort of Zeus-figure from whose furrowed brow the finished show springs, fully-formed. This is unfair, Judd wrote many of the seminal episodes- but he split those with Jackie Marchand, and even between them they didn't account for half the episodes- there were many writers who supported their fine efforts, and directors, and set designers, and gaffers, etc. I'd say there were many fine actors-- but I was never as fond as the Time Force cast as everyone else seems to be.
To prevent this destructive metonymy, rather than discuss Judd Lynn the person, we are instead going to discuss an abstract representation of the PR writer's plight. (A sort of Hive Queen and the Hegemon for the PR writer.) I call him Chip.
Now if Chip does not represent the Zeus/Whedon-figure (from whom the show springs fully-formed) the literary-criticism almost demands he be called the Christ-Figure.
In stark counterpart to any Passion Play, one must have the devil. For our purposes this is Jonathan Tzachor, one of Power Rangers executive producers in the era in question. To prevent any confusion between the real person Jonathan Tzachor and the abstract personification of evil we're exploring, I shall instead refer to him as Jonathan Tzachor.

Gospel #1: Power Rangers Turbo

Chip took over the reigns on Power Rangers Turbo from the departing writer 18 episodes in (at the season break, back when PR had these weird seasons that broke a third of the way into each season.)
Turbo was an odd mixture of good and bad. It kicked off with a theatrical movie which paid for all the sets, props and costumes- including re-making from scratch some really awful looking Japanese main-character suits with subtle changes that made them so much nicer. On the downside- the previous year (Zeo) has been a serious Military-themed Sentai inspired by 1970's invasion anime.
Turbo was adapting Carranger, a Sentai about racing... and a comedy parody of the last 20 years of Sentai.
Season 1 (episodes 1-18) stumbled badly. It stripped the comedy out of the Sentai, and attempted to continue the previous year's serious bent. Groundwork was laid for the old villains to continue. Every episode followed the new, grittier PR formula of searching for bombs before they exploded and killed lots of people.
To place in perspective just how badly Turbo stumbled, when someone refers to Power Rangers Turbo they are referring to episode 18-on. They are in fact never referring to episodes 1-18 and 19-45 collectively, unless referring to say- a VCD collection. When discussing the series, 'Turbo' refers to the series beginning only two episodes before Chip took over. (A transition story.) Forty percent of the series-- the 40% which featured the cast that had been around since MMPR, the cast the fandom loves-- has just been dropped out of fan-consciousness. "Well that part really doesn't matter, and it's not Turbo." Most fans will tell you it was only the first 13 episodes, it seemed so insignificant is... shrank in memory.
Dino Thunder's Fighting Spirit, which featured Tommy dream-fighting his previous incarnations as Power Rangers omitted his stint as Red Turbo Ranger. "Well, that really doesn't count."

This is the show Chip inherited. A burned out cast, a Sentai silly to the point of un-usableness, continuing a dead-serious story arc, and bombs at soccer matches set to go off when someone scored a goal. Oh- and a 12 year old Blue Ranger foisted on the series on the theory that it'd be a huge ratings boost. (It wasn't.) Oh, and they'd added two chimps to the cast for comedy relief. They were in the credits.

One might say Chip's outlook was grim- but not doomed. Despite the clunky opening, Turbo had not ground to a halt. Justin (the kid-ranger) had been awkwardly shoved into a mentored role-- but he had not become the 'annoying kid character added for the audience to relate to.' And there were changes in the wings, two new cast members has been quietly introduced to replace some of the departing, burned-out cast.
(It's said, apocryphally, that the plan was to have Tommy and Kat leave, and keep the other 2 old cast members as Mentors- and the decision to dump all 4 of the cast that's been here since MMPR was made after the writer change. I don't know if it's true or not... but it makes a lot of sense.)

However Chip had been a bullpen writer for PR for 3 years. Watching, observing, making notes and full of ideas and creative energy for how he'd do things differently- full of boundless optimism "The trick is to just write around that problem, let me show you how." The energy of the young, and a little elbow grease, could make this work.
All four of the old cast were swapped out, leaving just the 12 year old- who was re-purposed into a mentoring position and treated like a full equal by his teammates. The new cast, almost miraculously, gelled within two episodes. Dump the old villains returning, this series needs to concentrate on its primaries. No 6th ranger in the Sentai? Grab that armored guy and declare him a ranger. Turn the chimps into humans, dump the bomb plots, lean into the Japanese comedy-footage, alternately playing the parody-like over the top sequences as dead serious or going along with the silliness... and you have Turbo. The Turbo everyone talks about when they say 'Turbo.'

I still think it's the best series. Carefully weighted plots, episode-driven yet laying slow groundwork for the next year. It excelled at off-center scenarios that gave the episodes really different flavors, and had the best season cliffhanger or any PR show, ever.

Gospel #2: Power Rangers in Space

No one announced it, but the general consensus was that PRiS was going to be the show's last year. Ratings had been in a gentle fall since MMPR, the Turbo movie flopped in theaters (but made money on video) and the 12 year old ranger hadn't given the ratings hike everyone wanted- he was dumped in the Turbo finale. Space would have a lower budget than Turbo.
None of which mattered, because this year, Chip crowed, the Sentai has given us everything we could ask for! Have you seen these early pictures? The robots are spaceships? They ride fling jet-things! My god- we can turn this series into a war in space with no effort at all, and tie off everything perfectly! The Sentai had handed them everything they ever wanted, the Rangers were high schoolers, just like PR had always done, and they had a team of EVIL RANGERS to fight, the plot PR had wanted to do for 6 years!

...and then he saw the actual episodes.
"What do you mean they never go to space?"
Megaranger, touted as a 'Space Sentai,' was actually video-game themed. They never left Earth, their ship was in orbit, it just flew down to Earth for the fights. There was no footage of the ships sailing the stars, no alien landscapes or monsters, no... SPACE at all from the Sentai that was destined to be 'Power Rangers in Space.'

"Fuck it, we're doing it anyway."

They greenscreened the model of the spaceship. There, space footage. This was not the multi-pass green-screen composites used by shows like Star Trek (TNG's models were shot in 7 motion-controlled passes to get the authentic look they wanted.) This was a guy with a camera on a track- and occasionally carefully handheld. "We'll steady it in post," slapped over a star field. It looked bad- but it worked. "NEXT, moving on!"

"Four robots. They gave us FOUR. We don't need four, I want one." How to juggle this fleet jaunting across the stars? In the Sentai, they were all in Earth orbit, and it wasn't a big deal if one showed up spontaneously as needed. Half of PR would take place in deep space, were they now compelled to film a convoy...? "Damnit, damnit, DAMNIT. Eat it. Just- eat it. They always travel in the main spaceship, but the other 3 can just show up whenever called. You can't explain it; you have to just ignore it. It sucks, but I think it can WORK if we're careful." It worked.

The sixth ranger was custom-made in the PR mold. His own zord, troubled intermittent powers, saves the day- the kind of plots PR had wished for YEARS to do again, but could never fit in around a Sentai which lacked supporting footage. "...we don't have time to devote 16 episodes to a mysterious sixth ranger and still get anything we want to get done accomplished. We introduce him in a flashback we had to do anyway, and then he leaves the team two episodes later. He can reappear as the plot demands." It worked.

"The rangers are in High School? Well, that's nice, but... we were actually going to dump the High School element this year..." We saw it only twice, and later had it mentioned they'd graduated offscreen.

Megaranger was gutted and bent sideways to make this work. The core of Power Rangers in Space occurs in cheaply-shot forest location shoots, tinted and declared to be an alien planet. If a robot fight doesn't occur in a city (and sometimes if it does!) you can declare it an alien planet. PRiS has 3 teamup episodes- all with single rangers from previous years which tied off loose plot points. With no alien armada from the Sentai like expected, cheap bluescreen and CGI models were used to create ship-fights. It worked.

Only one arc was kept from the Sentai to the US. The Psycho Ranger arc. "It's evil rangers, lets just do it like they did it!" It's also the only major part of PRiS that didn't work. In the middle of a complex interwoven intergalactic conflict- the story stops dead for eight episodes, with the rangers stuck on Earth doing what the Sentai did. Immediately following this, there's a noticeable chunk of missing time where the series scowls, and lets all the stuff it didn't have time to do as a result happen offscreen.
The Psycho Rangers are well-liked PR villains-- but not for their role in PRiS. They're liked for their appearance in the NEXT year's series, in all-US-footage, with an origin finally established for them, where they did something useful and significant instead of parading through the motions and eating time.

It Turbo was an expertly-conducted minuet, a dance with Sentai to spin and repurpose it flawlessly, PRiS was dueling pianos, staggering punch-drunk from one disaster handed to them by the source material to another, wailing in angish that the Sentai wasn't going to let them do any of the things they wanted to do- and then doing it anyway.
Did I mention the mid-season SAG boycott?

It's a deeply flawed season, with huge problems that most of the time it manages to push out of the way. It's also universally adored as the best season PR ever produced, because it did it anyway. And the story it told was better.
Man vs. Sentai.

Gospel #3: Power Rangers Lost Galaxy

PriS had done well. In fact, the ratings were up- so significantly that Pr's sister-show of the year, Mystic Knights: Battle Thunder, was retroactively canceled after starting production on its second season in order to give its budget to Power Rangers. Jonathan Tzachor grinned.
JONATHAN: The kids, the love the Space thing. Here's a suitcase of nonsequential unmarked bills. Make this one in space too.
"Um, Jonathan? Gingaman is a... nature Sentai."
JONATHAN: You can build some new sets.
"They commune with living animals that turn into robots. They have magic swords. Their mentor is a talking tree."
"Well, okay... I guess we can ground the space elements on the old Rangers, they'll be given the magic swords to-"
JONATHAN: Oh, didn't I mention? New cast. I like the way Sentai does it, it's more... what's the word? Accessible.
JONATHAN: Hop to it, this is the BIG PUSH.

The result is... truly bizarre. A Nature series, set aboard a space colony with huge domes covering nature and city enclosures. There was a vaguely Battlestar Galactica plot going on. The idea is that the world they were journeying to, which they briefly saw in the pilot, was inside a Lost Galaxy, cut off from the rest of the universe. There was a great epic battle 3000 years ago, and a cool story to be revealed-- these powers were ancient, thus explaining their archaic nature.

"Okay, I can make this work. The main megazord is made of living animals, that's a bit awkward... but the other two Megazords, and the Carrierzord, are all spacecraft! We'll just eat some time, then use them extensively."

The premiere was the single highest-rated half-hour in Fox Kids history. The production was not a smooth one however.

"Uh, Jonathan? You know episode ten or twelve or whatever?"
"Yes Chip? The one that airs this Saturday?"
"It's not ready."
"What, does it need more editing time? We can air a rough cut and clean it up for re-"
"We're still shooting it."

PRLG had its version of the Psycho Ranger saga early in its run, not late. The 'Lights of Orion' saga, directly translated beat-for-beat from the Japanese versions. It is actually incoherent. Previews for episodes would air with plots completely different from the episodes we actually got- different footage, characters discussing plots that just weren't there-- produced in a scramble with no time to write US scripts while the series was behind schedule. One episode, The Sunflower Search stands out. Characters speak at great length about things that make no sense. Presumably they made sense in Japan. First drafts over translated scripts rushed out to stage the same day to film-- because the production lies idle. You can watch it and scratch your head- "What the hell is happening? No seriously- what the hell is going on in this episode? I can't even tell what they're talking about."
But, that's okay. Chip can grin and bear it because the second Megazord fleet is coming up. The ones of Space Vehicles, that'll make it all come together.

And then Chip actually sees the Sentai, not just pictures.
"The other Megazords... the space-themed ones... they never fight. they show up and perform one attack then vanish. They're HELPERS. They NEVER FIGHT. And they NEVER use the big carrier-zord!"
JONATHAN: Is that a problem?
"I'll... I'll handle it. Anyway, the teamup is ROCKIN'. The teamup with the Space Rangers, that'll make it all come together."
JONATHAN: Did you get the memo on the rewrites?
"...what rewrites?"
JONATHAN: The Pink Ranger has leukemia. We need to write her out so she can have treatment. Oh, and try to make it work with the Series finale somehow.
"W-what? But production starts in-"

But, the rewrites happen. And go well by all accounts. Last year's pink ranger will take over for this year's in the course of the teamup.
"It's gonna be great, one of the SPACE Rangers joins the team, this'll tie it all together. And right AFTER that we do one of our budget-buster all-US footage episodes! It's her focal, and it's Air Force One on the Megaship!"

JONATHAN: Hey Chip, did you get my message?
"What message?"
JONATHAN: Paddee quit.
JONATHAN: She walked off the set. Something about injuries, and insurance, and the fact we weren't paying her the same as the rest of the cast...
"...she's one of the main cast, why weren't we paying her as much per episode as the rest of the cast?"
JONATHAN: Hey, you handle the writey-stuff, I'll do the business-stuff. Anyway, it looks like the Air Force One episode is a bust. We filmed it, and were almost done with the effects, but we're just goanna cut the episode. Find someone else to replace Val.
"But we filmed the handoff..."

...which is how the episode that set up Cassie taking over for Kendrix got a new ending, shot using morphed stuntmen standing in for last year's cast.
Karone, the introspective, torn, formerly evil head villain from last year got press-ganged into things instead.
JONATHAN: No time to rewrite the scripts, we need her on the set. She can just use the other one's dialogue.
"But- but- Cassie is boisterous and outgoing. Karone is gray and introspective."
JONATHAN: I'm sure you'll come up with something.

(The four episodes which awkwardly constitute this twice-rewritten, shot-out-of-sequence and completely unplanned handoff are still considered the best teamup PR has ever done. They're absolutely brilliant- not even under the circumstances, but judged independent of them, they stand tall.)

"Un, Jonathan? Remember the Lost Galaxy?"
JONATHAN: Yes Chip? That's the series' name.
"No, I mean THE lost Galaxy. The place. Where we're theoretically heading to? The place we haven't mentioned yet in the series? We were goanna do the story of the Ancient Rangers, it was the centerpiece of the series, then Val got sick, and we filmed episodes we couldn't' use, and we never did it..."
JONATHAN: We should probably do it.

The 'Lost Galaxy' arc is PRLG's SECOND version of the 'Psycho Saga.' Seven episodes of Sentai-heavy plots. The bookens, entering and exisitng the Galaxy aren't bad. Everything in the middle is drek. The series plot goes into a holding pattern for 7 episodes (with, mind you, only 10 episodes left) in order to have a side adventure that has them exiting the Lost Galaxy exactly as they left it.

"I feel dirty. But the important thing is, we saved the budget by doing that, and can now produce an incredible 3-part finale. It's absolutely great, best 3 episodes PR has ever done, like a big-budget space action flick."
JONATHAN: Yeah, about that. I just got off the phone with the boys at the network. The ratings are kinda down, so they're pulling the series from rotation.
"But- the finale!"
JONATHAN: They're not airing it.

(It aired later as a special presentation.)

The really remarkable thing is that PRLG as a premise, turning a nature Sentai into a space adventure series... worked. In the middle of the series leading into the teamup and up until the Lost Galaxy arc, the show finally gelled and came together, despite all the rewrites, and produced and incredible string of B+ & A quality episodes. Of course by that time the series had been delayed, and gone through one major unwatchable portion. The record viewership for its premiere evaporated.

If PRiS had been 'Riding the Tiger,' desperately struggling to stay on top of an un-cooperative Sentai where everything that can possibly go against you does... PRLG would be 'Under the Tiger,' in the Roy Horn sense. Everything that could go wrong, did, and now it eats your skull.
Interestingly, despite making the first clean break with previous cast, PRLG is considered by fans to be the natural continuation of the previous year's story. This could not be said for LG's successors, which would stand in isolation.

Gospel #4: Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue

"You know, they all signed two year contracts..."
JONATHAN: Are you nuts? And Val is still out with chemo.
"Not really. I agree. New cast. This isn't all bad. This year's Sentai is, in fact, almost ideal. Their zords and technology bear an almost uncanny resemblance to stuff from the previous years. We'll just say that Lightspeed reverse-engineered the wreckage, especially the Rescue Mega-"
JONATHAN: No references to old stuff. At all. The keyword here is 'accessibility.' I mean- look at what we did lat year! Two OLD rangers, continued the old theme, heck, we gave them the old spaceship to use! And new viewers couldn't get into the series.
"Jonathan. LG was a disaster. You can't say it's because-"
JONATHAN: I like the way the Sentai does it. A new cast and a new universe each year. Do that, only in one universe. Also, try not to muck stuff up too much. We want this series to be sustainable.
"Should I have the bad guy only threaten the city, not the planet?"
JONATHAN: Good idea!
"I was joking!"

Lightspeed Rescue was a straightforward adaptation of the source Sentai, GoGoV. A rescue-hero themed adventure, where they fought demons. Really bland, uninteresting demons.

JONATHAN: Here, we got a contract to produce a video-premium. We're going to make the teamup a giveaway through McDonalds to promote the series. Uh, we need it soonish.
"But that's scheduled for more than halfway through the series."
JONATHAN: Produce it now.
"Well, okay. I guess it'll give me a chance to work with the second general. He replaces Diabolico, who's kinda boring. I'm looking forward to doing his stuff."

Not to say there was no room for innovation. Lacking a highly-marketable 6th Ranger, or an appropriate figure to (as they had in Turbo) promote to Ranger-status, PRLR bit the bullet and introduced their own sixth ranger. He appeared only in US footage, they built a cockpit for one of the autonomous remote-controlled Zords and simply spliced him in via footage. It worked brilliantly, and he was the best thing about the series.

JONATHAN: Hey Chip, remember the teamup?
"Ugh, were two of the cast members walked off the set after filming and had to be ADR'd by other people? Don't remind me."
JONATHAN: We're coming up on it. Shouldn't you be... killing Diabolico? Writing the Titanium Ranger out to explain why he's not there?
"...but Diabolico has become INTERESTING! He and Titanium are the best things! And the Sentai kills him off! And D's replacement is a whiny moma's boy. I HATE him."
JONATHAN: Nevertheless.

The 6th ranger was written out with intention to return. Diabolico was killed- and then resurrected in US footage after the teamup. ...Lightspeed then became caught up in a series of interlocked Sentai arcs, do one, and they were forced to do them all.
"Oh god, Diabolico never does anything, I could have just left him dead! And The 6th ranger NEVER CAME BACK. I guess... we can do both for the finale."

(PRLR's final four episodes are among the strongest of any PR series ever. On the whole, the series is looked down on by the fandom. It was so much... less than previous years. It was basically the Sentai story, with 1 or two things added around the edges. Clumsily.)

JONATHAN: Buck up Chip. Look at next year! It's the TIME TRAVEL Sentai!
"Well, yes. That'll be good. We're gonan treat it like Power Rangers in Space. It'll be the hugest, most fun thing ever, it's gonna be GREAT."
JONATHAN: We got the money for a longer production schedule! We're gonna have 56 episodes, no rushing things anymore. And at the end of it- a MOVIE. Another movie!
"Oh, your sultry sweet words seduce me Jonathan. I think we both know Lightspeed was really just killing time while we waited for next year, which is going to be SO AWESOME."

Gospel #5: Power Rangers Time Force

Time Force was a straightforward idea. Take the Sentai- Timeranger- a series about time-traveling futurecops- and lay over that some hard-sci-fi and moral/ethical conflicts that will come to a head in the last quarter of the series, where you radically break out from the Sentai's direction. In the meantime, have lots of fun doing all the time-travel plots. A dark, socially-conscious series, presented in serial-form.

And then Chip actually saw the series.

JONATHAN: Woah woah Chip, calm down, what is it?
JONATHAN: ...are you sure? I saw the credits, it shows them in all different eras-
"In the credits, yes. Not in the series. It's not a time-travel series."
JONATHAN: ...but the zords form a timeship.
"It doesn't time travel. Just like Megaranger's spaceship never went in space. FUCKING TOEI, they ALWAYS pull this shit-- 'Timeranger' isn't about time-travel. It's a Matrix ripoff, where everything looks cool and 'futurey.'"
JONATHAN: Oh. Well we can still do the time-travel stories. We'll just shoot them ourselves, like in Space, and use the robot fights set outside the city.
"Matrix is a slick urban noir. All of Timeranger's robot fights take place in the city. Every single one of them."
JONATHAN: Oh. Well... there's Ransik, the bad guy. Timeranger had them fighting gangsters. You replaced the mob boss with a charismatic insurgent leader fighting prejudice against mutants in a dystopian totalitarian future, a sympathetic multi-dimensional bad guy! You can still differentiate the series.
"Yeah, I guess. And there's the last quarter, where we totally break out, and the movie. I guess it'll be okay."

"Yeah, I've been watching television all day. It's crazy."
JONATHAN: Oh god, our villain is a sympathetic terrorist from the future!
"Um, insurgent. And he has legitimate-"
JONATHAN: We have to go back and rewrite.
"Yeah, I guess we do, the upcoming episodes-"
JONATHAN: No, I mean the old episodes. We have to cut out anything that made him sympathetic for the reairings.

They did. Most notably Ransik Lives's televised speech, whose dialog was replaced by the show's theme song played. It's exactly as good as it sounds.

JONATHAN: Hey, you hear SAG is threatening to strike?
"Yeah, that's a... why do you mention it?"
JONATHAN: The um... we'd be starting pre-production on the movie. And if there's a strike...
"They canceled the movie rather than risk losing their money if there actually is a strike, didn't they?"
"Ugh. Well, it's diminishing returns, but I'm actually still optimistic. The plans I have for the last quarter of the series..."
JONATHAN: Yeeah... about that. With... no movie and all... the studio doesn't think this is the time to make the BIG PUSH. So those extra 16 episode they gave us? Not happening.
JONATHAN: Chip, say something.
"Maybe... later."

SAG settled before a strike occurred.

Chip turned in the script for Time Force's series finale- a direct translation of the Timeranger finale, with a fight for this year's villain added midway through- and quit, to go build houses. Presumably drunken carpentry being a more rewarding profession than screenwriting.
In an interview given just a few months after he left, Chip couldn't remember any of the characters names, instead refering to them by color.

SPD did more time-travel stories than Timeforce. Two of Timeforce's time-travel stories involve one of the cast members falling down the stairs into the past, and a random hole in time a knight comes through. None of them involve the Rangers' timeship, or the Time-Warper the villains had.

Man vs. Sentai.

And that is how you break the writer of the best season PR ever did.

All characters portrayed within this book are fictitious and any resemblance to persons given or dead is purely deniable. Especially Jonathan.

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