A Subjectively Obscure Sci-Fi Primer: Space Rangers
The Obscure Sci-Fi Primer is back once again, this time looking at the shortest show we’ve ever seen, clocking in at only 6 episodes. Space Rangers was a 1993 military/action series, following a team of part-police, part-military Rangers on their adventures out of the growing colony of Fort Hope on the planet Avalon. Space Rangers was created by Pen Densham (the 90’s Outer Limits) and originally aired on CBS, right at the time where numerous other amazing scifi series got their start on other networks (or in Star Trek‘s case, no network at all!). Did Space Rangers get the short end of the stick, or was it just as bland and generic as its name implies? Let’s find out.
While we’ve had some shows as short as 8 episodes in the past, 6 is very, very short. Generally, even cancelled shows are working far enough ahead that there might be some unaired episodes to help fill out the season and reach the respectable 8-10 episode range. Apparently, it was canceled after only 1 episode aired, while three more were eventually aired in the US (leaving 2 unaired). Not a good sign, admittedly, but it’s not fair to judge a show that quickly, right?
The show is about the Ranger team led by John Boone out of Fort Hope, which consists of himself, pilot Jojo, engineer Doc, rookie Daniel, and warrior alien Zylyn, while theoretically under the command of the fort’s leader, Commander Chennault. Much of the existing episodes involve them running rescue missions and trying to take down the local crime boss, so they definitely seem to be a bit more like police than a military unit (more Texas Ranger than Army Ranger). There’s a few familiar faces (Pat Morita is in the first episode as an alien, and the scientist guy is played by Clint Howard, who played Blalok in Star Trek TOS) but not much. Let’s just get straight to the review part, eh?
- The show has pretty decent continuity. While it’s definitely episodic, they start to set things up a bit before the episode where it becomes relevant. For example, a recurring plot point is that the Rangers are suffering from budget cuts, so their equipment doesn’t work quite right for a an episode or two before the budget issue comes to the forefront. There’s also the 2 episodes dealing with the aforementioned crime boss, where the plot of the second is a direct consequence of the first. So that’s something.
- The sets are pretty okay looking, I guess. Nothing special, but not awful either.
- The main cast does alright given what they have to work with. The actors are the only thing giving their characters any personality.
- It accidentally wrapped up the main plot, so no cliffhanger for once.
- Alright so I said earlier it wasn’t fair to judge the show after one episode. But the Space Rangers pilot is pretty much a textbook case of how NOT to make a TV show. It’s set on Christmas, gives very little attention or development to any of the characters (in favor of Boone’s relationship with his family, who immediately get sent away when the series proper starts). There’s almost no build-up of the world they live in and no sense of a wider galaxy beyond the fort. It’s not clear what the Ranger organization stands for, or what banner they operate under. Maybe that sounds like a lot to ask, but even some of the infamously mediocre pilots in sci-fi history manage at least some of these.
- Here, let’s go over the characters of Space Rangers:
- We got our tough soldier chick who can never be vulnerable, even for a second! (Jojo, a literal Amazon)
- We got our Warrior Race alien, complete with a mystical bent from the first moment. (Zylyn)
- We got our green recruit who needs everything explained, as a proxy for the audience. (Daniel Kincaid, who walks up and asks to join the team after seeing the leader for 30 seconds. Boon says he shouldn’t be on the team but the cast list says he needs to be so he is).
- We got our experienced vet who gives the rookie a hard time and complains a lot, but isn’t all bad. (Doc)
- We got our reasonable authority figure, who wags her finger sternly but lets our heroes get away with disobeying orders for a good cause. (Commander Chennault)
- We got our ultra-nerdy scientist who’s physically weak and provides the team with tech. (Mimmer)
- and last but not least, our hero, the tough as nails, highly decorated leader with a strong moral compass that causes him to clash with authority. He ought to be fired for what he’s done, but god damn it he’s the best they’ve got! (Boon)
- Do these characters sound familiar to you? They should. You and I have seen them a dozen times each. Space Rangers isn’t just a cliche storm, it’s a cliche hurricane (and I know a thing or two about hurricanes). It is almost completely devoid of creativity and innovation. While six episodes isn’t much time to develop these characters, they didn’t really try. They each fill their stereotypical niche on the team and do not go beyond that. The closest we get to some interesting characterization is with Boon–since he’s painted as a family man in the pilot, their disappearance in the remaining episodes can’t be ignored, and thus the prospect of looming divorce and inability to see his child hang over him, giving him something resembling a personality. On the other hand, it looks like this was done for 2 reasons: to get rid of that annoying family element from the pilot before moving to series, and to open his character up for romantic relationships with one-off characters. There are times when his family should be important, like when his apparently inevitable death is looming and he tells the surviving crew to spend his pension throwing a big party–shouldn’t he have wanted to send some of that money back home to his daughter? Apparently not.
- And then the characters don’t even fulfill these roles that well; Chennault is so lenient she may as well not exist. The greatest example of the “Reasonable Authority Figure” I’ve seen in sci-fi is, without a doubt, General Hammond from Stargate SG-1; Hammond is firm about the rules, and while he lets SG-1 have a lot of rope, when he puts his foot down, it means something. He will actually have discussions with the team about why he’s not allowing them to do the dangerous thing, and provide them with some alternatives. You really believe that his primary concern is the safety of Earth, but he’ll do everything in his power to care for the troops under him. Chennault… she just gets barreled over by Boon’s bravado and sticks her neck out so often she almost comes across as eager to get fired. (also, nothing against Linda Hunt, but when the protagonist towers over his superior by a good 2 feet, it really makes it seem like she’s too intimidated by him to be an effective leader. That’s on the directors, though. Shoot around it!)
- Zylyn’s species, the Grakka, are like Klingons turned up to 11; they’re so aggressive and so heavy on the warrior thing that they’re functionally animals when not wearing a special yoke that lets them overcome their feral nature. But that leaves them with almost no culture and very little to explore in the character. This could potentially be the basis of a very interesting satirical take on the “warrior race,” but the show doesn’t try at all.
- Just about every minor character is awful. The acting of anyone not in the opening credits is absolutely abysmal; the bad guy Isogul is the worst by far. I don’t know who to blame that on, but ugh, what a terrible performance.
- The plots and subject matter that make up the existing episodes just… aren’t interesting. Of the 6 episodes, 2 see characters being put on trial for crimes they didn’t commit, and 2 see the crew rescuing someone from a planet they aren’t allowed to visit. That’s REALLY quick to resort to recycling ideas. What’s unique about it is only unique because it doesn’t make for good television. No one wants to watch 3 episodes of space heroes struggling with budget cuts and malfunctioning equipment.
The utter failure of the first episode to find any audience is obviously the reason the show was canceled, but it goes beyond that. Keep in mind, this is 1993. Star Trek TNG was nearing the end of its run, and DS9 was getting started. Babylon 5 and The X-Files debuted that year, and the list goes on. It was steep competition in the world of TV sci-fi at the time, and a show as generic as this one simply wouldn’t cut it. Space Rangers could have been interesting if someone had put some thought into it, but only in the sense that the barebones premise has been used before to great effect.
A quick reminder of my rating system: a 5 represents must-see–a “hidden gem,” as it were. A 4 is good, solid television. A 3 is “cult classic” stage, where the show’s appeal is likely limited to a specific group. A 2 is flawed, but fun, or even “so bad it’s good,” depending on the series and its release timeframe. A 1, of course, is avoid at all costs. Space Rangers isn’t on any streaming services, unfortunately, and is pretty hard to find. Shockingly, it was released on DVD, so that option is available.
Have any suggestions? Or are there any little known shows you’re a fan of that you’d like me to cover? Leave them in the comments, or send a tweet to @RetroPhaseShift. To be notified of the next entry in the Subjectively Obscure Sci-Fi Primer, you can subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking here. Alternatively, go for something that I can guarantee had a lot of thought put into it, and check out my novels The Arcology or Eidolon.