I am a connoisseur of media that was released in the wake of Star Wars. Give me a Starcrash, or a Message from Space and I’m in my glory! Now, such tales of intergalactic high adventure weren’t only to be found on the big screen. TV had its fair share of space operas cut from the same cloth as well, with programs such as Jason of Star Command (check it out on Netflix!), the revived Buck Rogers franchise and Battlestar Galactica.
But, there was one show that stood out to me above all others, a show that was produced on what was equivalent to George Lucas’ last Starbucks bill. That show was Photon, and for a brief period it was my obsession (admit it, you started humming a lil’ Animotion just then didn’t you…).
Photon arrived on the scene roughly three years after Return of the Jedi and it provided a nice diversion for a sci-fi lover like your ol’ pal Th1rte3n jonesing for his next cosmic fix. And what a trip Photon is. It’s exactly what would happen if someone were to snort Pixie Stixs off from a slave Leia cosplayer while being serenaded by Kenny Loggins…and then a talking lizard shows up…and we loved every damn minute of it!
The show, a Japanese/American co-production filmed primarily on green screen with sets added later (way ahead of its time…think of how movies like the Star Wars prequels, Sky Captain and Sin City were created) centered around a teenager named Christopher Jarvis whose claim to fame was that he was really good at playing Photon, a light gun game similar to Laser Tag. Before you can say “The Last Starfighter”, Chris (who is given the space-name Bhodi Li) is recruited into an intergalactic army (the Warriors of Light, whose ranks include: a super computer named M.O.M., a talking dinosaur, a robot with a Fu-Manchu ‘stache, a female ninja, a kid who digs computers and the Braves, and a creature named Uncle Pike, that may be some form of sentient muffin) who were hell-bent on destroying the evil forces of the Warlord of Arr (who was represented on the show by the most terrifying puppet ever created…picture Jaws if he decided to become the lead singer of Poison…all kidding aside though, that puppet was awesome!).
Each episode of Photon went as follows: every week, a crystal was found on a different alien world that needed to be charged. Both factions would fight it out to determine if the crystal would be charged with positive or negative energy, then laser battles ensued. While the basic story structure was uncomplicated, the series absolutely shined in other areas.
For one, the creature suit design was amazing. Lizard men, four armed warriors, insect men, cyborgs…all were created and executed on a miniscule budget, but they still exuded a sense of cool, surreal tangibility impossible to replicate by today’s CGI creations… and they were all major characters! The staggering amount of effects work that went in to this show is mind-blowing. Each episode had space battles, laser fights, and unique alien worlds.
The writing on the show was excellent as well, with storylines that weren’t afraid to enter some surprisingly dark territory. My personal favorite episode centered on the origins of the villainous Mandarr (the villains on the show all had “arr” as a suffix to their name). We learn that Mandarr was once a normal human named Evan Kiley who, like Chris, was recruited into the interstellar war. After losing his love (a female ninja from the same clan as Tivia, the ninja that fights alongside our current warriors), Evan is captured by The Warlord of Arr and is tortured until he becomes Mandarr, a cyborg soldier dedicated to the dark. During the course of the episode, elements of Evan’s personality begin to show, but alas the evil that Mandarr has done prevents Evan from returning to the light, no matter who passionately Bhodi persuades him. This is extremely heady stuff for a children’s show, and the actor that portrayed the role, David Stay, gives an outstandingly expressive performance that really hits an effective nerve.
I loved the show so much, that I would get up amazingly early (I believe the show aired at 6:30) every Saturday to watch it on WPIX Channel 11, and I relished every one of the 26 action-packed episodes that comprised the show’s run. And as much as I’m dying to watch the series again, there hasn’t been any indication that it will ever be released on DVD (perhaps music rights are holding it back, as each episode featured a popular song of the day).
So there you go, Photon a little show with a lot of really ambitious ideas and a huge amount of heart. If you want to experience a little of what the show was like, I recommend picking up the novel Thieves Of Light, which tells of Bhodi’s first adventure with the Warriors of Light. There was also a 6 novel follow up series written by comic book author Peter David (under the pen name David Peters) that is a lot of fun as well (here’s a link to get you started).
Also, special thanks to the amazing Sean Hartter for providing the incredible illustration that accompanies this article! He truly captured the spirit of the show!
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