Airing for one season from 1994-95, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad was a decidedly transparent and cheap attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The series was produced according to that distinctly ‘80s model of children’s television production where the demands of promoting a toy line took precedence over the creation of a quality program. Indeed, especially when compared to Power Rangers, cheap describes this series in most every with the exceptions of the incredible Japanese footage incorporated into the narrative and the presence of Tim Curry of all people as the voice of the Syber-Squad’s nemesis, Kilokahn. Today, Mill Creek Entertainment releases Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad: Volume 1, collecting the first 28 episodes of series’ 53 episode run on DVD.
Syber-Squad finds teenager Sam Collins (Matthew Lawrence) transformed into the computer-based superhero, Servo, who battles Mega-Virus Monsters in the digital world with the help of his friends in Team Samurai, even as they attempt to live normal teenage lives. The series incorporates the battle sequences from a 1993-94 Japanese series called Denkou Choujin Gridman, which, having been produced the year prior to Syber-Squad, is more seamlessly visually integrated into the series than the obviously dated Super Sentai employed in Power Rangers had been in many ways. That said, the only way this footage is seamlessly integrated is visually. Narratively, there is a considerable disconnect between the appropriated sequences from Gridman and that footage shot specifically for Syber-Squad. The first time Sam becomes Servo, he doesn’t even show surprise or comment on the fact that he suddenly knows kung fu and can shoot lasers. We never even see Matthew Lawrence in costume as we would the Rangers at times.
One thing sorely missing from Syber-Squad that defined the early episodes of Power Rangers is an emphasis on social consciousness amongst youth, a facet of that series that allowed it to rise above mere robot vs. monster pap. Here, the writers replaced the themes of social responsibility and charity with something the writers likely assumed kids would find more appealing, soft rock! You see, Team Samurai are in fact a garage band (a basement band to be more precise), and when Sam transforms into Servo, he must do so by playing a cord on his guitar. Radical! It’s a tell-tale sign that the writers were trying to be cool rather than responsible. Never mind social consciousness, as long as your program sells, right? To be fair, near the end of this set, we do get some PSAs tacked on at the end of episodes, a blatant tactic of many such series that failed to imbue the central narrative with a message being too busy plugging action figures.
However, in its attempt to be cool, Syber-Squad actually succeeds in being hysterically bad, especially given the overacting of the likes of Glen Beaudin as Malcolm Fink, a would-be moustache-twirling, teenage villain in service of Kilokahn. The way Beaudin savors each line as though he were saying the most sinister thing any person had ever uttered brings me great joy. And such joys are absolutely necessary in the face of Amp, the series’ supposed comic relief. Believe me, you’ll be praying for relief from his comic relief. Amp is like a half-assed, half-brained clone of Screech, who is never, ever funny! Here’s a fairly average example of an Amp joke from early in the series:
Team Samurai’s token female member Syd runs in to Sam’s room/basement and yells, “Bad news, guys!”
Amp replies, “The price of goat cheese has doubled?!”
After Syd reveals the real reason for her outburst, Amp replies, “Phew. Now I don’t have to stock up.”
Where the hell is the joke in that?! Is it that he eats goat cheese? Is it that he would have stocked up? Is it the mere concept of a goat cheese price gouge? He never gets funnier. Even as late as episode 23, you find him eating books by way of “digesting” the information. Do you get it? DO YOU?!
Of course, Kilokahn and Malcolm are no more intelligently written than Amp, all told. Kilokahn doesn’t attempt to gain control of the world’s nuclear weapons with one of his Mega-Viruses until episode 20, and even then, he and Malcolm had only the episode prior infected a kitchen timer with a virus. (It should be noted to, by way of transparency, that the kitchen timer isn’t even computerized! Ugh.) Prior to episode 20, the series’ central conflict surrounds Malcolm’s attempts to foil Sam’s relationship with Jen, the girl Malcolm has a crush on. Sure, this marks an admirable attempt to personalize the monster battles for the protagonist. However, that the primary focus of each battle is on whether or not Sam will be able to fix things with Jen ultimately undermines the potential threat of the viruses. Thus, only after 19 superfluous episodes does the series start to get interesting. However, even when Kilokahn is attempting to take over the world’s nuclear missiles, the focus of the episode’s narrative is still on the minutiae of Sam and the gang’s lives as Sam attempts to finish a report before class that his sister had ruined. Moreover, the very next episode centers on Amp’s attempt to get in shape for a physical exam. So I guess it’s only really narratively interesting for about an episode. Spoke too soon.
That said, I have to admit that as an example of children’s programming in the 1990’s, Syber-Squad is in fact quite fascinating, especially when viewed in context of its relation to Power Rangers. Now, is this series for everyone? Hardly. The discerning adult with no nostalgic memories of Syber-Squad or an interest in the history of popular culture and children’s programming, such as myself, will likely find no value in the series whatsoever. However, at a price tag of around $10 for this volume, folks who fall into those two categories will indeed find the Mill Creek release to be a great value.