Thursday 1 November 2018

A Look Inside the Morphing Grid - Samurai / Megaforce / Dino Charge [TV&Film]

This is the end of A Look Inside the Morphing Grid, with three series being looked at. Samurai opens the Neo-Saban era, and manages to be good if mostly forgettable. Megaforce is meant to be a celebration of all of Rangers, but doesn’t go all-out in doing so. And having seen unconnected episodes of Dino Charge before seeing all in order, I can say that it did enough to push through my original thoughts and actually impress me.

Samurai starts off a bit differently, as the opening two-part episode – Origins – is placed at the end of season one. That leaves the season to get straight into the focus episodes. In fact, it seems like the first half of the season is nothing but focus episodes on certain characters, putting such focus above the plot in some cases. Mike is the one struggling the most with adapting to the samurai life. Kevin feels the pull of his dream to become an Olympic swimmer. Jayden has put too much focus in battling the Nighlok that he hasn’t been relaxing and having fun. Mia… She’s nice to everyone and helps with their problems. Emily’s focus is perhaps the best of the five, which goes with the fact she’s the best character in my eyes, in that she faces her lack of self-worth and how she feels she can’t live up to her sister – who was meant to be Yellow before falling ill. The owner of the Shiba house and the mentor to the Rangers is Ji, who looks out for them all and trains them to be the best, helping them to see things the Rangers themselves couldn’t. However, nearly all of these interactions feel one-note. Sometimes in terms of acting, but mostly in terms of personality. They have nothing except for the descriptions given above. That’s not to say they don’t have some redeeming qualities in certain episodes, but if the Rangers are one-note, the same can be said of the villains.

Xandred is the main boss, but is apparently too sick to get into any action. Octaroo likes rhyming to you, and is the one to mostly send the goons out into the world. Then there’s Dayu, a brooding female who at least gets to some action once in a while. The plan of this group of villains is to create  misery in the humans of the world to flood the Sanzu river and escape the imprisonment they were cast into by Jayden’s father. Jayden is the one who has inherited the sealing power to trap evil, and with the increasing Nighlok attacks, it looks like that power will need to be used again.

Bulk returns to the cast, with his best friend- looking after his best friend’s son. Bulk and Spike are set in their mission of training to become samurai, but mostly the scenes they feature just feel really unneeded. I get they’re the comedic duo of the season, but like most things here, it mostly falls flat.
The season picks up within its middle section, starting with a two-parter in which the secret of the sealing power is revealed to the other Rangers. Wanting to protect Jayden, they put themselves in the line of fire to defend him – something which he never wanted to happen. To protect the others, he leaves the Shiba house, but comes to realise he can’t win this fight alone – something which Ji tells the other Rangers he had been insistent on doing before they were brought in.

When a fisherman comes to play, the others are sceptical at first, but when he reveals he has Ranger power, they are in awe of him – while still being a bit cautious, naturally. It builds the reveal well, and upon helping the Rangers Jayden realises his friend from the past has returned. The others find him a bit strange, but welcome him to the team. Except Ji, who refuses and keeps Antonio’s morpher. Jayden – as leader of the team – follows that decision even as it hurts to do so. Antonio’s reaction feels powerful, and the settlement between the two when the other Rangers say they need him feels a bit subdued but still works.

The improved character interactions continue as Antonio and Kevin work together to foil another plot, while a surprise birthday party for Emily looks like it’ll never happen due to a Nighlok taking her soul. The reactions in this one are powerful, especially from Mike – who seems to be growing to like her as more than a friend.

The finale stretches out over the final four episodes, and it is here the season falls from the better quality of the middle. Setting up the second season – the ‘Super’ season – with the Black Box, Jayden is poisoned by Octaroo. Deker takes him to heal him, so they can finally have their ultimate duel. Deker was previous set up as someone cursed to be half Nighlok forevermore until he could find an opponent worthy to battle. It is this battle that the final episode is leading to. Nearly everything else feels inconsequential compared to it, or even just not needed. And the ultimate duel that takes up the finale’s name feels just the same. There’s still some good interactions happening within the four episodes, but the ending episode of season one doesn’t actually feel an ending.

Origins as a two-part episode feels unnecessary. Most of what the episode gives us has been given throughout, and having it at the end of the season really adds nothing extra to these characters, so the only thing going for them is the action they give.

The second season of Samurai raises the quality just a bit. But also somehow manages to lower it. While the ending of season one didn’t feel like a finale, the beginning of season two doesn’t exactly feel like an opener. Sure Sanzu river water is seeping through to Earth and there’s a monster on the loose, giving a bit more interaction between the world and its characters, but then there’s the Black Box – a device that boosts a Ranger’s powers with the combined force of all the Rangers. The Black Box isn’t at fault though – it’s no different from SWAT mode in SPD, or to give a better idea of where this is going Super Samurai mode from Ninja Storm – it’s the fact you have a whole season that advertises the fact it is nothing more than the second half that introduces the power-up of the series, and manages to add Super everywhere it can just because it wants to feel special. It can be overlooked in this season, but with Megaforce and especially Dino Charge it gets annoying. Oh, and the plot point of Sanzu water seeping through gets resolved that episode, losing some of the impact that could have been held had it been a growing problem throughout the season. This is just one more added to the pile of Xandred, Octaroo, and all the monsters that have been sent out feeling like side villains rather than the main. That status goes to Dayu and Deker, as their relationship actually feels fleshed out and there feels progression with their story.

There are some fun episodes, such as Mike and Emily fighting together when all the other Rangers are out of action, followed by Antonio gaining a fear of fish after having his spirit switched with one and almost being eaten by a cat. Dayu, having been cast away for helping Deker last season, is still around; hoping to get back at Master Xandred. Serrator enters the picture and creates havoc for the Rangers. He also gets Dayu to do a little something for him, showing her that Deker is still alive. Now that this has come back, the signs are there for a repeat of the previous season. Thankfully, it doesn’t go that route, instead developing on what was shown last season between these two.

And speaking of developing, the same episode Deker comes back is also where Kevin also gets closure for leaving his previous team behind. Spike gets a bit of time to shine, and Emily continues to be the standout character with an episode focus that has her become a tough training instructor when Bulk and Spike come to the Shiba House to return Mia’s purse. And Jayden seems to be hiding a secret, one which Deker can see, and it seems to be making him lose focus.

Serrator is focusing on a larger plan, and is using Dayu and Deker to carry it out. This plan is also operating outside of Master Xandred’s knowledge. When he finds out, he makes an appearance in the human world with a towering temper tantrum. And the power to match. Dayu goes back with Xandred, but because Xandred was in the human world, he suffered the same as all other Nighlok. Out of the way for now, Serrator takes over and accelerates his plan. The arc is probably the strongest of all episodes, and I’m not saying that just because it has a strong sense of story. More that it pushes these characters in what they are willing to do to win. Even Bulk and Spike with their comedic antics get in on this. It does feel like it drags a bit, but that’s more to do with the excessive amount of transform sequences used for the zords. They aren’t the extended sequences, but add up to roughly the same thing.

The finale here is five episodes, running through an arc. And it stands as the strongest that Samurai has given. The first episode reveals the secret that Jayden has been hiding, in what is one of the strongest episodes of the series. Jayden has a big sister who has been in waiting – training for her moment to shine – and it is she who has the sealing power to stop Master Xandred for good. With Lauren now back, Jayden leaves, but the others want him. It’s just not the same otherwise. Jayden and Deker do battle once again, and across two episodes the duel rages. With Deker lost, Dayu releases her misery, bringing Xandred back. With Xandred absorbing her into him, the sealing symbol no longer works. Thus, the final assault. The character interactions are stronger here than ever, and the finale as a whole provides a strong narrative that delivers results. The build-up it takes to get to this point doesn’t really matter, that’s how strong I feel the finale is.

Megaforce does a decent job of introducing everything in its first episode, as well as being a faithful recreation of the very first episode of Rangers. Although this team seems to accept this new world they’ve been thrust into easier than the Mighty Morphin’ team did. Perhaps because evidence came from a source they trusted. Emma showed off a photo of one of the monsters which had been wondering around. Gia is best friends with Emma, with Jake having a fancy for Gia and doesn’t hide it – always trying to impress her. Best friend of Jake is Noah, the science geek. Troy has recently moved to town, and takes the mantle of leader. This group of Rangers are another team who are still within school, with their secondary hangout being Ernie’s Juice Bar – another reference to the original series.

The starting episodes do good in putting character into these characters, with the friendships being explored and also what it takes to be a Ranger. The fourth episode does this best by giving us a character who is pretending to be a Ranger to gain attention, but when it comes to actually getting to the action he is scared at facing the monster. In Ranger form, the group get through to him that being a Ranger needs dedication and hard work, and being something you’re not only puts yourself and others in danger. And while the lessons and morals the episodes present can be too visible at times, it doesn’t detract from the plot of the day.

There has been no talk of the villains here, and that’s because they just serve the episode with conflict and nothing more. The closest it does get with supplying some character is with Creepox – who early on saw something in Troy and named Red as a rival. The two meet two other times before Creepox’s destruction. Vrak is analytical, testing the Rangers and seeing how best to conquer them.

Suddenly Megaforce becomes Wild Force, with new enemies rising from toxic pools much the same as the Orgs did. Instead of relying on that information and using it to tie into Wild Force – especially considering what’s coming next season – this season just calls them toxic mutants. And it’s not as if they couldn’t have tied to the Orgs with a new generation of them, considering their creation is the exact same as the Orgs and almost half of the season has focus on them. Though when I say focus, I really mean one episode of set-up followed by the usual villain motions for monster of the day’s.

Robo Knight appears in the same episode the toxic mutants are introduced, and follows the story of being a guardian of the Earth left dormant for thousands of years, reawakened at its time of need. I’m not going to launch into a rant – as I’m sure plenty of others already have over that particular point [along with Gosei’s existence as well]. Instead, Robo Knight for me doesn’t feel like a full character yet, but it is the arc he goes through that finally warms me to him – even if I still don’t much like him.

The end of the toxic mutants comes with the introduction of the Ultimate Command Ship, and it’s a good end for the two leaders even if they didn’t do much. But with the end of the toxic mutants comes a new faction to face. And Megaforce becomes RPM, Zeo, SPD, or any season with robot villains.

It’s here that I find Robo Knight goes through his arc that warms me to him, as Metal Alice becomes his rival – one robot on the side of good and one on bad each with their own views that clash. While it does only last a few episodes before the finale, this entire arc of robot v robot is another strong part of Megaforce.

The finale is a strong three-parter, with Admiral Malkor ready to unleash the power he has been absorbing. Malkor is defeated – along with their ship which Vrak had been piloting down to the surface – but Vrak survives, with Metal Alice turning him into a robot. They don’t succeed in defeating the Rangers, and the invasion force arrives in full force.

Robo Knight had sacrificed himself to bring about the defeat of the villains, and has disappeared. The Rangers are powerless to do much against the invasion, and that is where season one ends.

The second season of Megaforce carries straight on from the first, with the Rangers heading back to the command centre. There, they get some new powers to take on the invasion force. This, however, is the first thing I have a problem with.

An entire season of the Sentai has been adapted into Megaforce – as a power-up. All the zords, all the enemies, and all the lore that could have been used from that Sentai season – reduced to a power-up. And in the universe of Megaforce, it makes no sense. There’s no history behind anything here – no lore as to why everything has gone all pirate. At least the Dairanger elements in Mighty Morphin’ were given a reason for their existence. Here – it explains they’ve been given new powers that will allow them to tap into the powers of their predecessors, and that’s it.

The second thing I have a problem with is an extension of the first. Just as there’s no lore behind the new powers, there’s little in the way of respect for previous teams’ lore on a deeper level. If the Sentai version was kept previously for the Rangers adaption, it works here. But when the two diverge from each other. That’s where the problems arise.

And third – again lore related – is the fact they incorporated Sentai-exclusive teams as ‘powers’ with the only explanation being ‘powers never before seen on Earth’. Take Dairanger again. It could have been said that they were an upgrade of the Mighty Morphin’ Rangers that Zordon never put into effect that were based on the White Ranger. Instead, Megaforce just labels a whole season as Squadron mode. Though at least squadron is a translation of Sentai, so it could be said that at least for this team Megaforce is showing a bit of love for what it’s adapted from. Everything else has no lore to it though – and just like the pirate powers – make no sense within the Megaforce universe.

Those observations don’t affect the characters, who remain just as they always have. The same observations from the previous season about the characters are still the same here, which are possibly the best part.

After exploring the powers over a few episodes, a new Ranger in the form of Orion comes. His planet has been destroyed by the Armada, and it’s taken him a while to reach Earth. Now he is learning about the Ranger legacy and about Earth. His inclusion adds one more character that is welcomed here. And there’s some fun to be had with some of the stories between this and the next major arc.

And that major arc is the finale across six episodes. Why do I say six? Well, first off is Prince Vekar finally doing something major and paying for it with his destruction. That brings Vrak back into action in a two-part episode – where everything he has been planning gets put into action. This one is a good episode as it is personal for this team of Rangers. Not only has Vrak returned – twice now – but he’s also captured the current sixth Ranger along with the previous one of Robo Knight. It closes Robo Knight off in a good way, along with Vrak, provides a good bit of action and finally provides a payoff for Troy missing Robo Knight at the beginning of the season.

Those who were by Vekar’s side are dealt with by Emperor Mavro when he arrives to deal the final blow to Earth as a whole. Once they are gone, the full force of the fleet heads into the Earth’s atmosphere for a massive bombardment upon the ground. The Rangers deal with the first wave, but are beaten back by the second. All the zords are now destroyed. The city is in ruins, and people are scared and trying to find hope. When a new day dawns and the fleet returns to finally crush the Earth, the people stand up. The Rangers appear and they fight back. Troy and Orion take the latter’s ship and crash into the command ship to deal with Mavro and the entire fleet. It’s very similar to how In Space played out, and the creators knew that – having the two escape the destroyed command ship with Legendary In Space Ranger suits and boards.

That would have been the perfect end. The fleet destroyed, everything back to normal, and paying heed to the beginning of the season where the people were rebuilding the city and a message of how working together allows things to be achieved easier. Instead… Legendary Battle.

Seeing all the past Rangers fighting with the current team should really feel an epic end, but it feels more an afterthought. It also doesn’t help that anyone other than the current team hardly get any screentime.

Dino Charge starts off by slowly introducing characters. Keeper being chased by Sledge in space as he tries to get the Energems. Keeper using dinosaurs to keep the Energems safe while using a bomb to keep Sledge away from him. That causes the extinction of dinosaurs on Earth, as Sledge was also hauling asteroids - the explosion within the ship causes the hold on them to fade.

Cue the present day, where we meet Tyler and Shelby. Tyler is looking for his dad, while Shelby works at the museum where Tyler asks for information. Chase and Koda are two other workers of the museum, with all three being under the eye of Kendall Morgan. One of the Energems are found by Tyler, with Shelby rescuing another from a monster. On a farm, Riley finds the third. The three head to the loading dock of the museum and accidentally end up at the base of operations for Keeper and Kendall – where Chase and Koda also reside with Energems of their own. The first two episodes only show the T-Rex zord, with the third being where the first Megazord is formed and the team truly becomes formed. And speaking of the Megazord, this is probably the least energetic transformation sequence in the history of Rangers.

The team get on well with camaraderie present between them all during the focus episodes – even during slight antagonistic moments. The focus episodes of Koda and Chase also reveal how they came to find their Energems.

With the introductions out of the way, the first real arc can begin. Using a machine to hunt for more Energems, the Rangers get more than they bargained for when they release the Ptera-zord, with Fury in control of it and a certain other thing. The arc works in how it introduces everything and sets up what is to come, with the end result being Sir Ivan of Zandar being freed from Fury when the Gold Energem is reunited with him. And Tyler thinking his dad was the person inside Fury is a bittersweet moment that has its payoff.

Ivan at first is reluctant to join the team, not helped by Sledge setting a monster on the Rangers that destroyed their sense of courage. He comes to realise that fighting for the team is the best thing he can do to protect the kingdom of Zandar. The current Prince Phillip is also getting in on the action, having found an Energem of his own and trying to bond with it – even trying to help the Rangers out with a fighting robot. That gets into enemy hands. He comes to understand that he needs to help selflessly rather than for selfish intent for a bond to happen.

There’s a lot of character interaction happening all throughout, with even those parts played for comedic effect working to strengthen the characters themselves, aside from one or two minor things I felt. It all feels in character, though. And with the Graphite Energem now found, the Purple one comes into play for the finale. And it feels like a proper finale this time – which I found to work with how the second season starts.

The first two episodes of the finale have the Rangers in New Zealand for the finding of the Energem, and both introduce characters who are helped and help in return. Those two also learn from their experiences of interacting with the Ranger world – with one of two having been a Ranger.

But that has now left the Purple Energem unbonded, which is dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. Which it eventually does throughout the second-to-last episode – where the Rangers are trying to find a ‘hero’ for it to bond to. I’d say they were desperate for it to be bonded so much they forgot the reason they all bonded to their own Energems.

Then the final episode itself, which is actually quite well managed. It fits in the growing relationship of Tyler and Shelby, works in Kendall bonding to the Purple Emergem, and has a great paced plot that has a sense of danger throughout. Tyler manages to rescue his Energem that Sledge had taken from him, and a short battle sends the ship’s controls into a frenzy that has it crash down to Earth.
Thinking the danger has passed, everyone but Koda and Ivan are free to go. There’s just two Energems to find, but they will be called on if ever any help is needed.

Sledge’s ship is downed and damaged. “It’s my turn now,” a voice calls.

The opening episode of the second season introduces new leader Snide and his other side of Heckyl. Heckyl had already shown up during the finale of the previous season, acting as an ally to the Rangers – or so they think. He was successful in hiding his true self, meaning as long as he doesn’t transform into Snide, the Rangers will be none the wiser. It also makes use of the Rangers being split at the end of the last season by having them be picked off separately, leaving it to Koda and Tyler to rescue them. An effective opening episode, then.

The next two also present effective episodes, with Heckyl being found out. I’ll skip over the inconsistency of the second episode to restore the status-quo, since it does get mentioned in the third. Then there’s Chase trying to impress another girl but having competition – against himself. The plots relating to the characters are still as strong as they’ve been in this series, which is a plus.

A virus is uploaded into Kendall’s laptop, corrupting the new charger to activate Dino Super Charge mode – the Red Ranger battlizer. This then sets into motion the reunion of Tyler and his dad – who is the Aqua Ranger. It’s quite a powerful moment, and once again we get a Ranger experiencing the side effects of never aging that the Energems give when bonded. It’s always been fun to see those reactions. However, the time the two spend catching up is cut short as James and Keeper agree that the Silver Energem – the final Energem – has to be found, and a one-man crew will be better at doing so than a whole team.

The story of the Silver Ranger takes a slow burn approach, starting with Silver coming forward with a message from space. The Titanus zord needs to be found. Through a return signal, the Rangers learn that Silver needs help and that the Dark Energem has resurfaced. It’s setting up a lot for the finale, with character stories still being at the fore – giving Chase problems with his girlfriend and a bit more history behind Koda.

There’s a lot of story involving the creation of the Energems, the zords, and even Heckyl’s place within all of it when Zenowing and Lord Arcanon are introduced. And just like with the first season, each episode is giving bits of the main plot that leads up to the finale during these episodes.

Tyler finally works up to expressing his feelings to Shelby as the two face the danger of Doomwing – an alternate form of Zenowing created by the Dark Energem. It seems a bit… funny – how Kendall can create all these technological marvels and have them work without testing, but that’s already come up before in the first season, and I don’t think it would have served the story much more to have it fail. The Silver Energem is still in evil hands, and it does get back into the hands of good as fast as the split. Though it’s the exploration of the effects of the Dark Energem that is key here, and that follows all the way to the finale.

Heckyl is split from Snide, Arcanon is destroyed, and Sledge returns after setting up a plan that involves the world. All the Rangers are called to action, and seeing all ten in action was worth the wait.

Zenowing had taught the basics of zord creation to Shelby, who manages to create one when the situation calls for it. Heckyl warns them the best place to be when Sledge’s plan starts is off the planet. And then…

I found the finale good, don’t get me wrong, filled with action and character – especially the final send-off. But it just goes over-the-top. Sledge’s plan involves the Greenzilla monster’s eggs, placed around the world, which will hatch into more monsters and wreak havoc on the world. The Megazords are brought out, but the whole sequence of events feels incredibly scripted and rushed.
Then there’s part two of the plan, where those eggs act as anchor points to allow Sledge to tow the entire Earth with him. The Dark Energem is finally destroyed, but a black hole is created that pulls the Earth into it. Keeper then sends the Rangers back millions of years to when he first arrived on Earth to stop Sledge before the events started.

That final scene… The characters have been the driving force of this series, making the split of Koda and Ivan from the group as they return to their own time bittersweet, you could say.

Samurai mostly drags, but provides some decent character moments. The overall finale works, even if most of the rest falls flat. Megaforce manages to improve on all areas, but the second season – depending on how you feel – destroys all that with its shallow attempt at celebrating Ranger history. Dino Charge improves vastly upon both, though it does show a lot of strain at times in merging the Sentai footage with the original. And I’m only mentioning this here as while it is an annoyance it doesn’t detract from the quality of the series, but the ‘Super’ being forced into names to make the second season feel important is on full show here.

As for where I place these three on my list, I have a feeling this is going to be an unpopular opinion. You’ll see when you look at where they’re placed.

Dino Thunder
Time Force
In Space
Jungle Fury
Lightspeed Rescue
Ninja Storm
Wild Force
Mystic Force
Dino Charge
Lost Galaxy
Mighty Morphin'
Operation Overdrive

Megaforce above Mighty Morphin'. If you remember back two years to that post on the original series, there was more I didn't like with it, and found it only started picking up half-way through season two. Then fell off again with season three. Not to mention a case of repeated plot points and forcing a merge between Sentai and original footage [keeping Tommy out of the way, for instance].

This series comes to a close, then. Or it would be, except I want to revisit it - even if I don't rewatch the Rangers series - just to flesh out a few points and shrink the posts down. At points I did ramble on about the episodes themselves instead of getting to the point, and most posts hit the same amount of Word document pages as these six seasons have - so there's definitely room to skrink them down.

There'll be news of that soon, though, so keep an eye out.