Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Pilot Episode of “Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad!”

Ever wondered what “Power Rangers” would have been like had it starred the cast of “Saved by the Bell” instead? Well, wonder no more, amigos …

In wake of the unanticipated popularity of “Power Rangers,” it’s not too surprising that a smorgasbord of Mighty Morphin’ imitators began crowding the airwaves shortly thereafter. A majority of the more memorable ones were actually produced by Saban themselves, such as “V.R. Troopers” and “Big Bad Beetleborgs,” but quite a few production companies figured they could strike it rich with the same formula, too. 

For the most part, the not-quite “Power Rangers” rip-offs were really, really bad … as if you needed me to tell you about the quality of a show called “Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters from Beverly Hills,” anyway. That said, “Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad” stands out from the pack as quite possibly the only redeemable rip-off of the bunch, thanks in part to a premise and overall vibe that owes more to “USA High” than “Masked Rider.”

At heart, “Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad” was a shameless attempt at a mass manufactured toy empire, with a consortium of kid-manipulating marketing pros like Playmates, All American Television and even Tsuburaya coming together to create the perfect “Power Rangers” rejoinder. Originally titled “PowerBoy” (goodness, I can only imagine why the changed that namesake,) the program was really an adaptation of the Japanese show “Gridman,” with a pre-existing toyline for the show to be written around. 

The show itself, henceforward referred to as the clumsy acronym “SSSS,” was  ultimately a short-lived staple of the ABC Saturday morning line-up, which also received an aberrational concurrent syndication run. Since the program could’ve played anywhere from 4:30 in the morning on weekends to 6:30 p.m. on school nights, the show was pretty much in constant need of new viewers due to its inconsistent scheduling. Thusly, the intro to every episode gave you a quick and dirty recap of the show’s primary characters, general plotline and what to expect in terms of live-action mayhem. The opening theme song is also pretty memorable, if only for its myriad computer geek references, including an oblique promise to kick some, and I quote, “gigabutt.”

The pilot episode, adorably enough, is titled “To Protect and Servo.” And no, that doesn’t mean it’s going to contain any wisecracking, B-movie hatin’ robots … I think. 
Nothing says the '90s quite like chugging a can of Orbitz and watching
"Reboot" on two cathode ray tube screens!

In the first scene, we’re introduced to our protagonists, a three guy-and-one-girl band that’s working on a shitty desktop to record a demo tape. 

Our main character is Sam Collins, your poofy haired every-kid played by Matthew Lawrence, of the all-but-forgotten Lawrence thespian dynasty. His whole intent as a musician is to impress a girl named Jennifer Doyle, who is your standard out-of-your-league hottie. Oh, and he keeps a picture of her taped to his guitar because shit, that ain’t creepy or nothing. And he also tried to look her up in every phone book in town … and every online database

Rounding out the cast is brain-dead jock drummer Tanker (who looks like he could’ve stepped out of 1953), Brainiac Smurfette Sydney and Amp, the Screech of the ensemble with a penchant for pouring orange juice into cowboy boots. From there, we’re introduced to the supporting cast, which includes a lunch lady with a thing for motorcycles and geek-goth antagonist Malcolm, who likes to doodle and chide football players for being meatheads. 

In the cafeteria, Tanker and Malcolm almost come to blows over the former’s eating habits, while Sam tries to cajole Jennifer (who has to be at least 28-years-old) into giving him her phone number through some convoluted astrological algorithm. When Sam makes his intentions to call Jennifer known, Malcolm (who also has a thing for her) fantasizes about thwarting his plan through the assistance of some Godzilla rip-offs he designed with MS-Paint. 

And here’s where the fantasy comes in. While just hanging out next to a FAX machine in his cavernous room (complete with this futuristic lava lamp looking thingy in a translucent soda can), a thunder storm hits Malcolm’s computer. Instead of frying the modem, however, the ensuing bolt causes Kilokahn, an insidious digital devil voiced by Tim Curry, to appear on his CRT screen. Although Kilokahn -- imagine, Shredder if he was half jellyfish -- claims to be the world’s most powerful computer program, he tells Malcolm he is incapable of creating his own viruses, and thusly, needs his hand in bringing down the world’s cyber infrastructure. 

Hey, it looks just like ... every other Japanese superhero character, actually. 
Basically, Kilokahn’s shtick is that he wants to invade every single computer system in the world, destroy its microprocessors, and suck up its megabits of energy for some abstract, although surely nefarious reason. And to do so, he needs viruses that look like ACTUAL rubber monster people, and what do you know, Malcolm sure is good at airbrushing up Gigans and Mothras. 

And so, it’s not long before a goofy latex dragon starts stomping on cardboard bits of the NASA Ethernet; I just find it amusing that all it took for Malcolm to be wooed by a Satanic electro-wizard was the promise of one interrupted phone call. 

As fate would have it, though, Sam decides to strum his electric guitar the precise moment Kilokahn’s evil electro thunder goes through his house wires, and he winds up being sucked inside his PC, too! Strangely enough, Tanker and Sydney aren’t all that amazed when he gets evaporated into the Internet, and they seem even less awed when he returns, wearing some sort of high-tech bracelet doohickey. 

Despite being dematerialized just seconds later, all Sam can think about is that damn phone call, and oh shit, the line is down because the Godzooky cosplayer keeps puking it up Ecto-Cooler on everything inside AOL. After laughing off a CNN report about the eminent downfall of the global economy thanks to all of the computer snafus, Sam notices this weird-looking “Servo Progam” booting up on his PC. Sure enough, it sucks Sam inside the Ultraman armor, and before long, he’s cruising down the Matrix Hole, arms-in-front-of-him like Superman. 

Well, I reckon you can figure out how this one ends. In the cyber-world, Sam/Servo breaks out all of the acrobatic karate moves he apparently already knew and does chop-socky death battle with the evil computer dragon virus monster. 

The fight, needless to say, is pretty lame, complete with a really atrocious rock and roll song that plays while the protagonist judo tosses the kaiju around the cardboard computer space. Eventually, Servo shoots a big ass fireball at the monster, and it causes the virus to evaporate. Hooray! All of our technological infrastructure is saved, and the Secret Service doesn’t even think once about raiding that Malcolm kid’s house, like they did Steve Jackson Games that one time.

In the cafeteria, Sam tells Tanker and Syd about getting sucked into the Internet, and instead of wondering if their friend is on crystal meth, they just yammer on and on about how exciting it must have been. The episode concludes with Jennifer asking Sam why he called her up the day before, and complimenting him on his giant-assed bracelet robot thingy

Believe it or not, the series lasted two full seasons, ultimately providing us with more than 50 episodes to slog through the next evening we just don’t feel like doing anything worthwhile as a species. My memory is a bit fuzzy on what the rest of the series resembled, but it followed a pretty predictable formula; Malcolm and Kilokahn hatch some harebrained scheme to take over the Internet, and Servo -- sometimes with the aid of his amigos and amiga, who turn into robotic assist characters through the magic of fiber optics -- kicks the ass and or asses of whatever the computer monster virus du jour was. 

This is going to be a real shocker, but the episodes themselves really weren’t all the memorable, from what I recollect, at least. I think there was one where the monsters tried to eat the world’s refrigeration systems, and another where Malcolm (who bares an uncanny resemblance to the same actor who played Merton in “Big Wolf on Campus”) uses some sort of techno-voodoo to woo Jennifer, but beyond that, I’m drawing blanks on any pivotal plot points. The show did seem to have a pretty high turnover rate, though, with both the lunch lady character and Amp exiting the series halfway through. The latter was replaced by a generic surfer guy, but that’s not the kooky part; the big swerve was that Amp was revealed to be an honest-to-goodness extra-terrestrial being the entire time. Yeah, I know -- we can accept a sentient computer virus sending microscopic Godzilla monsters inside computers to take over the world, but a goddamn alien masquerading as a teenager is just too fantastical for our collective liking. 

As for the cast, nobody (with the exception of Mr. Curry, of course) did much of anything before or after the show. I was especially surprised by the filmography of Matthew Lawrence -- after "Boy Meets World" got axed, dude hasn't done much of shit, with such stellar material as "The Hot Chick" and "Creature of Darkness" on his resume. 

While the show didn’t have anywhere near the pop cultural impact of “Power Rangers,” I still think it was a much better program all around. As an overall series, it may have had its weak spots, but as a spoof of kid-baiting action-adventure programming, I thought it was pretty damn solid. It really did feel more like a sitcom a’la “Saved By The Bell” than it did “VR Troopers,” and that was really to the series’ advantage. As groan-inducing as elements of it may be, it seems to be semi-conscience of its own absurdity, and while not quite a deconstructionist take on the live-action kids programming subgenre, it did have a smug, self-reflexive bent all the same. 

At the end of the day, "Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad" may not have been one of the most nostalgia-inducing relics from yesteryear, but unlike oh-so many things we warmly embraced way back when -- "Stunt Dawgs," I'm looking at you -- "SSSS" actually holds up to some extent. Begrudgingly, you could probably make it through a marathon screening of the program if you had to ... and truthfully, you probably wouldn't hate the experience that much, either. 


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