Saturday, November 01, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK #61: Space Rangers (1993)

In the early 1990s, Star Trek's syndicated child, The Next Generation (1987-1994), spurred a new renaissance in science fiction television of the "outer space" variety.

Spin-off Deep Space Nine was on the way (1993-1999), Babylon 5 (1994-1998) was rising, and all of the sudden, the big networks were willing -- for the first time in over a decade (and the demise of NBC's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century [1979-1981] -- to take a chance on expensive, otherworldly space adventures again.

This boomlet would eventually bring such memorable (but short-lived...) ventures as Earth II (1994), Space: Above and Beyond (1995), another Trek called Voyager (1995 - 2001]) and, finally, this relatively obscure curiosity, Space Rangers (1993).

Created by Pen Densham, Space Rangers was broadcast from January 6 to January 26, 1993 on CBS. Only six hour-long episodes were produced, and only a handful of those actually aired.

For some reason, I was one of the few people who actually watched the show in its original run. I remember having high hopes for it, in part because of my growing ennui and dissatisfaction with 1990s-style Star Trek.


I felt at the time (and still do...even more strongly) that The Next Generation squandered the original Star Trek's sense of fun and adventure for too many dull "love boat in space" stories (Troi's Mom is visiting again! Or, this week, Worf's brother beams up!) It was either that, or the series featured irrelevant holodeck stories (look, Picard plays a 1940s detective...again; Riker goes to a jazz bar and plays the trombone! Alexander has a mud-bath! Ad infinitum, ad nauseum).

The upshot was that it seemed that only about half of TNG's stories concerned actual space exploration (you know, boldly going anywhere...) or the hazards of space travel.

Why had this happened? Well, it seemed that the series writers had badly misunderstood the concept of "character development"...replacing genuine growth with hackneyed old soap opera-type stories (in which Riker makes peace with his visiting, estranged Dad ["The Icarus Factor"], or Troi has to choose between an arranged marriage or a Starfleet career ["Haven"]).

Yep, Star Trek: The Next Generation committed the unpardonable sin of space adventures: it was often boring.

As hell.

In concept, if not execution, Space Rangers certainly promised to be an antidote to the increasingly safe, stale, predictable and dull universe of 1990s era Star Trek progeny.

Set in the year 2104, Space Rangers was set on "the frontier," on a distant world called Avalon, where an outpost named "Fort Hope" had been established.

The series' central characters were law enforcement officials dedicated to "upholding the law." They were "space rangers" -- "part peacekeepers, part marines."

And they were all essentially blue collar in nature. Which means that the rangers complained about over-time, about risking their lifes on "straight-time" and they often lobbied for "hazard pay." Off-duty, the rangers caroused in Fort Hope's "Geno's Bar;" gambling their currency (called "solars"), drinking zulus and occasionally wasting their hard-earned dough on prostitutes.

One episode of the series, "The Replacements," concerned Headquarters' secret plan to "outsource" the human (and alien...) rangers with pliable androids called "Ringers," and the dramatis personae all feared they would lose their jobs not to foreigners, but to A.I.

Job loss was an especially pertinent issue at the time, because America was undergoing an economic recession at the end of the first Bush era, and there was an epidemic of "downsizing" and "outsourcing" throughout the U.S. in 1993-1994. Or as one character on Space Rangers noted, "budget cuts are affecting everyone."

They were affecting technology and infrastructure too. The Ranger space vessel of choice -- a "sling ship" [#377] called "Lizzie"-- was an old rust-bucket with an interior like a revamped World War II submarine. It had no holodeck, no replicators, no warp speed and no transporters.

Instead, Lizzie was a no-frills, low-tech affair, held together by spit-and-polish...and the Rangers often talked about how -- even though they requisitioned HQ for new parts -- they never got them.

The only way for Lizzie to achieve light speed was to travel through an orbital "light speed donut," which would "slingshot" it to incredible velocities.
If the Rangers wanted to get down to a planet surface, Lizzie would actually have to land the ship, or the rangers could hop into confining "para-jets," one-person pods designed for trips below. When approaching quarry, whether smugglers or drug-runners, Lizzie could also hide by using a "radar shrouder." The only problem was, it rarely (if ever...) worked.

Captain Boon (Jeff Kaake) was the hero of the series, the principled leader of one "misfit" squad of Space Rangers. In the first episode, "Fort Hope," we learned that Boon was in a difficult marriage (to Friday the 13th Part II's Amy Steel...) and had a young daughter named Roxie. In ensuing installments, Boon's wife and child returned to Earth, and the couple was officially separated....a fact which made Boon angry and short-tempered.

Captain Boon was an old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes, blue-collar kind-of-guy, and a distinct switch from the more high-minded, highbrow, intellectual captains of 1990s science fiction tv. Boon was a simple man who believed in the rules, but who also knew when the rules ("the Territorial Code") should be bent, stretched or broken.

Many episodes of Space Rangers featured Boon's voice-over narration, as he explained the universe, the alien races he encountered, the rangers' rule-book, and his own personal perspective to viewers. Often, he talked about matters of loyalty -- either his wife's lack of loyalty; or his crew's loyalty. "Everybody else would call us misfits" he notes at one point, "but I call us family."

Boon's right-hand man was Doc Kreuger (Jack McGee), a hardened old engineer who had seen more than his fair share of action. Scruffy and sarcastic, he had a heart of gold...or, er...metal.

Tasked with keeping Lizzie running under the most unenviable of positions, "Doc" had unwittingly become more machine than man during his stint in the rangers. He had a mechanical arm, a synthetic liver, a mechanical heart, and even one artificial ear. Doc kept all this information hidden from Headquarters, an organization that would shit-can him in a heart-beat (and foul his retirement plans...) if they knew Doc was in such poor physical condition.

A nadir on the series was a faux-heartwarming moment in "Banshees" in which Doc ripped off his mechanical ear and gifted it to a deaf adolescent. This moment was, in a word...ridiculous. But in general, Doc was interesting because -- despite his expertise as a mechanic (notice I didn't say engineer...) -- he was also kind of willfully ignorant and fearful of bureaucracy and progress. You know, like the people who were convinced that Bill Clinton was going to personally take their guns away or something. Again, think blue collar. Doc was so afraid of HQ that he gave up the chance to have a prosthetic arm; he just wanted to stay off the radar.

Lizzie's gunner and pilot was statuesque Jo-Jo Thorson (Marjorie Monaghan), a futuristic Amazon. Jo-Jo was from the planet New Venus and held a "personal grudge" against the alien Banshees (the space frontier equivalent of savage red-skins...). It turns out that all of New Venus's cowardly men had evacuated their planet when Banshees encroached on the world's "space lanes," leaving the Amazonian women behind to "re-shape" their culture alone. According to Jo-Jo, "no woman from New Venus" ever ran "from a Banshee" and she certainly wasn't going to be "the first."


Another resident alien in the space rangers was the noble savage Zylyn (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a fierce "Graaka" warrior who lived by an alien code of honor. Citizens of Zylyn's race were such fierce fighters (and, apparently, cannibals...) that to work successfully alongside human beings in the Ranger corps, all Graaka had to wear "pacifier" collars (also known as "repressor yokes") around their necks.

The Graaka were also known to wear "power rings" (just like the Green Lantern!) and could sense sense "life, movement," even "violence" and "tension" by feel, if in close proximity. (Though apparently these senses didn't work on the Banshee...).

In the episode entitled "Fort Hope," Boon awoke Zylyn from hibernation to join him on a mission to recover a Graaka crystal that had been hidden one thousand years ago, and could destroy the whole world (and perhaps the galaxy itself...) with a single thought. In that episode, Zylyn revealed how the Crystal had created a schism amongst his people, and how -- after defeating the crystal the first time -- the historical Graaka had devoted themselves to becoming "warriors of peace."

Other characters populating the series included Commander Chennault (Linda Hunt), the likable, charismatic leader of New Hope, and Boon's immediate superior. I have to say, I thought Hunt was terrific in this series: offering a human and powerful "anchor" amidst all the craziness. Unfortunately, the sympathetic but diminutive Chennault was often overruled in important matters by a cliched character: the wrong-headed Colonel Weiss (Gottfried John). A consummate chess player, Weiss had it in for Boon and his misfit crew and sought -- like Dr. Smith on Lost in Space -- to make mischief at every turn. [And a side note: Space Rangers might be described as the unofficial bridge between Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan eras of James Bond films, because it features both Licence to Kill's [1989] Tagawa and Goldeneye's [1995] John.)

The last two members of the Space Rangers team included a kooky (!) scientist/physician named Mimmer (played by an over-the-top, apparently-deranged Clint Howard), and Danny Kincaid (Daniel Quinn), a wet-behind-the-ears marine rookie whose dad was a higher-up at Central Command.

The villains on Space Rangers included the aforementioned Banshees: mysterious, Giger-esque alien beasts who would often launch "kamikaze" raids on ranger vessels in flight, and who could move effortlessly through time and space. In "Banshees," the aliens overtook a ship carrying illicit smugglers and attempted to take the ship back into a Banshee dimension, where a giant, alien hive awaited.

Back on Fort Hope, another villain was Isogul, a bald, long-finge-rnailed Roddy-McDowall sound-alike who was basically a Jabba-the-Hutt-style gangster, one who was responsible for importing the illicit narcotic "XJ" to Avalon. Boon soon dedicated himself to bringing down the "untouchable" Isogul, but the series ended before we could see this happen. Isogul came from a race called the "Hoboma" who were known for manipulating the emotions of others.

A different Space Rangers episode (guest starring Babylon 5's Claudia Christian) was entitled "Death Before Dishonour" and it dealt with another space-faring villain, the Vilons (who looked like humanoid snakes). The Vilons were quick to take offense at perceived insults, and Prince Gordo (the leader of the Vilons...) challenged Boon to a duel to the death during trade agreement negotiations. Guess who won?

So, what was good about Space Rangers? Not a whole lot, frankly. However, it's certainly fair to state that the series served as a valiant (if failed...) attempt to create a universe and mood notably unique for an era in which space programs such as Star Trek and Babylon 5 had become, essentially, "politics in space" obsessed with inter-Empire conflicts and micro-strategies for brinkmanship and one-upsmanship.


Also, Space Rangers is a futuristic series in which the characters don't dwell in paradise. They boast oil smudges on their faces and show stains on their uniforms; they even listen to rock-and-roll music as they launch their about-to-fly-apart spaceships. I dig this deliberate veneer of "blue collar cops in space" and appreciate how that overriding leitmotif is apportioned throughout the series. The villains are often either "stupid hoods" working for gangsters or villainous assassins who can re-arrange their molecules so as to more easily kill their prey. In other words, the nemeses are "far future" and "alien" extensions of the cops and robbers conventions of contemporary crime series [see also Gerry Anderson's Space Precinct, for more of this...]

Although the special effects have aged rather dramatically in fifteen years, Space Rangers nonetheless offers some stunning and ambitious otherworldly vistas. In "Fort Hope," there's a planet of jungles in which a second sun rises every day and basically scorches the surface (forecasting Chronicles of Riddick). Another episode reveals a Graaka temple (which looks like the planet Vulcan from "Amok Time" crossed with The Guardian of Forever.)


But what works best about Space Rangers is undeniably the utter lack of pretension. The series remembers that action-adventure should be...well, exciting. There's a jaunty sense of fun about this series; and it doesn't get bogged down in long, self-important Picardian platitudes or lectures.

On the downside, a jaunty sense of fun is extremely difficult to support and maintain. While I appreciate that Space Rangers sought to distance itself from the lugubrious TNG in tone, "jaunty" all-too-often translates here to "campy." Space Rangers frequently lapses into embarrassing silliness, to its own detriment. Furthermore, the performances are pretty darn variable. The way to play "jaunty" is straight and serious; and performers like Hunt, Tagawa and Kaake seem to understand that.

By contrast, Clint Howard -- a cult fave of mine -- just doesn't get it. His crazy-haired, crazy-eyed Mimmer is horrid and ludicrous; a cartoon, one-note joke. Every time Mimmer is on screen, you just cringe, and feel bad about yourself for watching this tripe.

Also, it's virtually impossible for Space Rangers to effectively distinguish itself from The Next Generation when thematically it focuses so heavily on alien warrior races. In the six episodes produced, we meet the Graaka, the New Amazons and the Vilons....all warrior races, all with their individual "codes." Arguably, Next Gen's greatest achievement was the layers and depths it added to the Klingon people (and the Klingon psyche) in episodes such as "The Bonding," "Sins of the Father," "The Emissary" and so forth. It seems foolish and counterproductive for Space Rangers to so recklessly tread into the "warrior race" ethos when that terrain was clearly the bailiwick of the more expensive, more serious TNG.

Space Rangers dramatized some seriously derivative stories too: "Banshees" was pretty clearly an Aliens rip-off, down to the left-behind kid hiding under vent grates (like Newt) and the design of the villainous xenomorphs. Again, that's kind of insulting. In 1993, anyone interested in a show called Space Rangers had certainly watched Aliens. Probably many times.

Another pet peeve: every noun on Space Rangers seemed as though it was preceded by the descriptor "New." Jo-Jo was from New Venus. The spaceship in "Banshees" was The New Mayflower. Boon attended school at New Annapolis. The city New Rio was mentioned in passing during one episode. This uncreative naming system became so laughable that by the third episode, my wife Kathryn was calling everything "new" (the New Banshees, The New Gangstas, etc.). Again, someone on the writing staff should have been paying attention to this; to keep it from being so damn pervasive, and therefore so silly.

Overall, the harder-eged, less utopian settings and concepts for Space Rangers, as I wrote above, certainly held tremendous potential. The idea of soldiers/policemen toughing it out on a space frontier -- fighting budget cuts as well as alien criminals -- was a concept potent enough to inform a longer, more accomplished series. As opposed to the new Star Trek, in which human beings were so evolved that they no longer had conflicts with each other, Space Rangers was set in a universe of fallibility wherein "human beings are human beings...wherever they are."

Again, in theory, I really like that.

It's just that Space Rangers during its short life so often tread on woeful cliches (whether imititating Klingons, Giger's aliens or falling back on the old chestnut of "ritual combat" between opponents) that it never distinguished itself in terms of narrative or storytelling. When you throw in the wince-inducing campy quality of some moments (like the time that Doc pulls out his mechanical heart to see if it's still beating; or blithely hands off his mechanical ear to a deaf boy...) the damage to Space Rangers was terminal.

So this was a missed opportunity; another series that had much more promise than it delivered. Space Rangers differentiated itself from The Next Generation, all right, but likely not in the ways that serious fans of exciting space adventure could ultimately embrace.

5 comments:

  1. Hi John,

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I still (barely) remember this show. It was a little campy, but memorable.

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  2. Anonymous1:03 AM

    I remember this series well specifically because of the way the Isogul character drove us away from it.

    A group of my friends were watching the first episode of the series, and we were impressed by the potential shown by the characters, by the unique blue collar perspective, and by several of the actors.

    Then, they visit Isogul, who appears from behind a curtain, a simpering "decadent prevert" cliche just barely asexual enough to avoid overt homophobia.

    As if that weren't offensive enough, his first lines are a smirking monologue about how he is fascinated with the way humans are afraid of Evil (the viewers can hear the capital E in his voice) as he considers being Evil a useful life-philosophy for himself. When a series criminal blatantly labels himself "Evil" without any sense of irony, the viewers realize they are watching a live action Saturday morning cartoon -- but with less depth.

    Thank you for reminding me of the good things that could have been in that series, if only the network hadn't made them take the easy, trite way all the time.

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  3. Anonymous5:38 AM

    Well, despite it's faults, it was fun to watch. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less! And that is more to say about more recent Sci-Fi-Shows like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (the dreadful Remake) or the whole STARGATE-Franchise which had it's absolutely lowpoint in UNIVERSE. What a crap! Just my two cents...

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  4. Anonymous10:46 PM

    This was, and is, a great series. I watched it when it was TV, on the SciFi channel, and on tape--and never watched the Star Trek series. In my opinion it is the second greatest science fiction series behind the original Battlestar Galactica.

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  5. Anonymous2:41 PM

    Great article. Here in Germany a DVD box w. booklet was released which I own. I agree w. most of your assessments but would claim that the SFX looked sometimes better/more real than B5's CGI, bc. they used old-school models for stuff like spaceships. A small correction: The DS9 ep The Emissary didn't feature any Klingons, it was the pilot focusing on Sisko's loss of his wife and the Bajor/Cardassia situation.

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