One of Japan’s leading companies in Tokusatsu, Toei, left its footprint in the US with Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers after they revolutionized the form back home. Along with Saban Entertainment, MMPR was their biggest gambit in the Western market, but it carries on and is also fondly remembered for its original incarnation. That’s without taking account of subsequent seasons from Zeo to Lost Galaxy.
What people don’t remember is, that around the same time, Toei and Saban tried to get adaptations of other Japanese properties off the ground. This included a version of Toei’s first hit, Masked Rider, which is a polarizing misfire best left forgotten. That is the last outcome you would expect when Kamen Rider has had such explosive success across the Pacific.
In contrast, another series with ties to its more prosperous brethren had mild success in syndication for a few years. Cobbled together using footage from Toei’s Metal Hero Series, VR Troopers was objectively rough around the edges, but it still developed a following. Interestingly, what audiences embraced wasn’t the original vision.
During a reunion panel at Colossus Con a few years back, two of the show’s stars, Michael Hollander and Brad Hawkins, revealed that making VR Troopers was a seat-of-your-pants experience. Six months into filming, they didn’t know if their series would be picked up or how it would change by the premiere. The finalized title, for one, was a last-minute thing.
Initially, the project was called Cybertron, which no one consulted Hasbro about during development, hence it was struck. But that’s just the beginning; Cybertron was originally pitched and produced as a solo vehicle for Power Rangers stalwart Jason David Frank. With his star on the rise, Saban nearly spun him off into a new project, for which a pilot and sizzle reel were filmed.
Unfortunately, Saban changed its mind for whatever reason. The likely story that Hawkins recalls is they underestimated how popular Frank was as Tommy, the Green Ranger, a run that finished out soon after Frank was brought back from his first hiatus. The Green Ranger’s powers were depleted in the storyline, but Saban kept Tommy around and later made him the White Ranger.
Things get more interesting from here. In a twist, Brad Hawkins was lined up for the White Ranger spot after auditioning for a new character, but again, JDF was too popular to deny. Concerned kids and parents wanted their Green Ranger back even though, unbeknownst to them, his Japanese counterpart was killed off and the imported footage of him was exhausted.
Undeterred, Saban took the opportunity to welcome Frank back to the Mighty Morphin’ fold and maneuver Hawkins over to Cybertron which was revamped with more characters, and others cut or retooled. The main antagonist Adam Steele became Ryan Steele (Hawkins) and he was joined by friends and teammates JB (Hollander) and Kaitlin (Sarah Brown) in the fight for reality against Karl Ziktor/Grimlord.
The interdimensional tyrant and his corporate alter ego were played by the late Gardner Baldwin, an actor with a handful of Saban credits under his belt. He, the mentor Tao (Richard Rabago), the wardrobe, and most of the sets made it through every transition – and there were many. VR Troopers lasted two seasons, nearly reaching 100 episodes.
They were often filmed back-to-back and used so much stock footage that a reason for alterations to Ryan’s robotic suit in season 2 had to be contrived. This problem would resolve itself when the producers ran out of usable footage and decided to cancel the show. Lagging toy sales and newcomer Big Bad Beetleborgs becoming the priority didn’t help either.
VR Troopers still hasn’t seen a proper home video release on Blu-ray or DVD with all the episodes enhanced by 4K and special features, although it did wind up on Netflix for a while. Michael Hollander largely retired from show business and Brad Hawkins eventually got his Power Rangers moment when he voiced the Gold Zeo Ranger.
What is your reaction to this bit of history? Do you remember VR Troopers? Tell us below.