’80s Couch Surfing: Photon — Laser Tag meets Power Rangers

Welcome back to ’80s Couch Surfing, a series in which I watch and review TV episodes of various series from the 1980s. Today’s entry is Photon (1986-87), which was basically Power Rangers but with laser tag equipment.

The 1980s certainly loved its fads and kid-oriented technologies, which gave rise to toys such as transforming robots, storytelling teddy bears, and laser tag. Laser tag was really awesome, and the best thing was that while you could go to arenas to shoot it out amid smoke machines, you could also buy gear to take home and shoot it out all over your house and neighborhood. While Lazer Tag became the hugely popular brand of laser tag, the truth is that the Photon franchise technically came first and was a staple among family fun centers across the country.

My entrance into the world of Photon was probably more abnormal than most. I didn’t experience any of that brand of laser tag arenas, nor did I ever catch the short-lived 1986 series. No, the supreme dork that I was, I actually got into the novelizations of the TV show. I actually ate up a lot of TV novelizations, from Robotech to Buck Rogers, but the Photon series always stood out in my memory for seeming so cool. The thought of a really good laser tag player being recruited for an interstellar force and falling in love with a space ninja was right up my alley as a teen. Reportedly, there were seven books, but I only read a few of them.

In any case, my fond nostalgia is about to crash hard on the shores of the supreme dorkiness that is the TV series, because there is nothing cool about this show at all. There is something wildly entertaining at seeing people run around with large chunks of foam padding strapped all over them and fighting aliens, but… yeah, this isn’t the Photon that my mind conjured up from reading the books. Let’s get to it!

Episode 1: The Recruit

I can’t resist a good pilot episode for setting up a show, and I kind of feel that this is more true in Photon than in others.

“The Recruit” starts with a teen boy running out of his house looking like he’s about to audition to become a villain in a Karate Kid movie:

His mom embarrasses him by calling him by his birth name. “Mooom! I’m no longer Christopher! I told you, I’m Bhodi Li!” And if that’s not the most ’80s name ever, I don’t know what is. Anyway, mom is concerned that he’s heading off to play Photon, as all mothers were in the 1980s.

Bhodi here is a “four-time world champion,” which is an impressive stunt considering that the show is set in 1986 and Photon arenas only started popping up in 1984. Maybe they have multiple world championships every year?

“Footloose” blares over the speakers (seriously) and a montage of action takes place at the arena. The episode basically becomes a three-minute advertisement for Photon, but it’s not a very good one. For starters, nobody in this “tournament” are pulling off any moves that you haven’t seen from junior highers running around a laser tag center. And for whatever reason, the show doesn’t use a fog machine, so you don’t see any laser beams or lights. It’s just people pointing guns semi-enthusiastically and electronic warbles happening every few seconds.

While Bhodi dominates this match, a group of strangers watches him from on board a spaceship. These are the warriors of light, the best Photon warriors of their respective worlds, and include a young kid, a lizard/dinosaur, an alien with a head like the poop emoji, and Princess Tivia of Nivia. Tivia’s a problematic character, as she’s from a world that hates men. This means that means every other line she spouts is blatantly misandrist. But she’s a ninja — throwing stars and all — and was in a TV show in an era that was constantly putting girls down on screen, so whatever, I’ll let this slide. I’m just saying that if this aired today, the internet would have a field day with her.

Fun fact: Tivia is played by Loretta Heywood, who actually become a successful singer.

Believe it or not, this is one of the good guys.

The spaceship computer, MOM, freezes time on Earth and beams Bhodi up to the ship while equipping him with lots of chunky foam padding. He poorly acts his way through astonishment while the series’ backstory is explained to him. According to this show, every planet in the universe is controlled by a substance called photon. If the good guys charge it (shoot a crystal), then that planet becomes good for 100 years, and if the bad guys charge it, it’s a century of darkness. So this is the way the show justifies turning all these planets into giant Photon arenas.

Just roll with it.

An alert comes in about a downed ship with a photon crystal, and everyone gets ready to head out to help. Bhodi’s still in the “This ain’t my fight, mate” mode while Tivia’s all, “Typical male cowardice.” So Bhodi stays behind while a whole bunch of bad special and practical effects happen to show the Photon warriors’ scout ship take off. This was a Japanese-made show, and the budget was obviously something like a few hundred dollars. I don’t know how young you have to be to buy into all of this, but it’s not 44 years old, I can tell you that.

It’s here we get introduced to the bad guys, all of whom have the suffix of “arr” and are able to create “projections” of themselves — ostensibly so that the show could keep killing them without actually killing them. The guy on the right is Mandarr, and he’s kind of the Big Cheese at the cracker factory. From what little I’ve gathered about this show, Mandarr seems to be the most popular figure to have emerged, possibly because his makeup and cyborg getup are so over-the-top they come around to being pretty cool.

The four Photon Warriors fall into a “magnetic trap,” so Bhodi and the little orphan hacker beam down to help. After blowing up one of the projections, Bhodi realizes that his gun is for real. The show, however, isn’t clear why the good guys can’t make projections too. I think there is an explanation in the books, but I don’t remember it.

A shootout with Mandarr ensues, and Bhodi breaks out his amazing dodge skills while the funkiest beat that a Casio keyboard had to offer pounds it out in the soundtrack. Actually, it’s Phil Collins’ “Sussudio,” and now I have no idea how a show with such a meager budget could afford all of these well-known songs.

Mandarr gets the drop on Bhodi but spends about 50 seconds posturing for the final shot. That’s more than enough time for Tivia to hit him with some throwing stars and then kick his circuits six ways from Sunday.

With all the bad guys defeated, the Photon Warriors let out their catchphrase, “The light shines!” Uh… needs some work, guys.

They shoot the photon ball, which transforms the world from a desert into a somewhat mossy landscape. Everyone oohs and ahhs over it like it’s the Garden of Eden, so I guess they don’t get out much.

Even though Bhodi is down on himself for his first outing, everyone convinces him to stick it out in their group. MOM gives him a rather garish ring that will flash when he’s needed, explaining that she’ll suspend all time on Earth while he’s out doing missions.

And that right there is probably why I was ever attracted to Photon in the books. As a kid, there was nothing more seductive than the thought of secretly being part of a heroic group while not having to actually worry about leaving your home for good. It’s a whole lot of wish fulfillment wrapped up in red padding.

Episode 26: Stalemate

Let’s jump ahead to the last episode of the first season, which also ended up being the last episode of the show. Rather unusually for a single-season series, Photon actually had a proper finale that wrapped up the storyline — or so I’ve been told. I’m curious how it all shakes out.

Heading up to the station, Bhodi is told by MOM that everyone’s already headed to the exact center of the universe where the bad guys are trying to get the big bang reversed. Considering that this will cause all planets and galaxies to start contracting, it seems like an unwise move, but such are the stakes. MOM is convinced that they’ll never see each other again, and Bhodi accuses her of crying.

Bhodi then heads out in his personal space jet and finds the rest of the Warriors on the planet. They’re all glum because the bad guys already have the crystal and they can’t go search for it until daylight.

In an interesting twist, the bad guys see the big flaw in their plan as well. They don’t want to die, so why charge the ball with black photon and cause everything to collapse on themselves? What does that accomplish? Mandarr’s all for it, hoping to “rest forever in eternal darkness,” which sounds like the tagline to his Geocities goth tribute page. But he doesn’t even shoot the ball, not yet.

Everyone in the good guy camp is all glum and there’s that night-before-the-big-battle talk going on. Bhodi invites Percival (the orphan) to come visit his home, and Tivia seems to show some softening toward this evil man scum that she’s been forced to work with for two dozen episodes now.

Bhodi wanders away from camp and ends up touching the knob of an inconspicuous orange slab. For his curiosity, he’s transported right to the lair of the big bad guy, the Warlord of Arr. Did I mention that this show calls the bad guys “Arrians,” which… well, say that out loud. Again… kind of unfortunate choice.

Arr tortures him for a bit and then shows a video of Bhodi as Charlie Chaplain. He also sees Tivia’s face for the first time here. It’s all rather bizarre without any explanation, so I guess it’s time to shrug and move on. The vision then shows the battle to come, in which all the Light Warriors lose. Arr offers Bhodi a way to save his friends if he gives Arr his photon ring, but Bhodi doesn’t go for it.

Cue a few minutes of Arr making Bhodi crawl around like a worm, until finally MOM contacts Bhodi through his ring and gives him a vague suggestion to use it to win. Somehow, this works, although it’s all very confusing and involves a lot of muddled special effects. But the end result is that the Warlord of Arr — and his space station — are completely destroyed.

In the final battle, Mandarr and Bhodi both struggle to shoot the crystal first. They do so at the same time, which is a first for the show. The planet turns into half-good, half-bad, but then good overtakes the bad? Or something? And Mandarr explodes while a volcano erupts at his back, and MOM tells everyone that they succeeded. Nothing makes sense, but hey, THE LIGHT SHINES! And the series is done.

Last thoughts? Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have ruined any childhood fondness for the books by watching this, but then again, I wasn’t really thinking about those books ever, so it’s not a ruined memory. There might be an interesting idea with the show’s premise, but the bad effects, the horrible dubbing, and the generally dull plots aren’t anything to keep a modern viewer watching. Maybe for the ’80s music video sequences, but not for anything else.

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