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By Thomas Wheeler

It's the end of one year and the beginning of another, and that means it's time for Bandai's popular Power Rangers to undergo yet another conceptual overhaul.

While the Power Rangers are not generally the favored product of collectors to the degree that, for example, G.I.Joe, Star Wars, or Marvel Legends tend to be, there's also no denying the overall popularity of the concept and the product line. Bandai has successfully marketed the Power Rangers in the United States for well over a decade now.

And one of the key points to that success has been in overhauling the storyline each year, for most of those years. The core of the product remains the same -- five young people in colorful costumes, generally a very specific series of colors -- red, blue, yellow, pink, green, black, white, whatever, banded together and given special abilities and fanciful machines called "Zords", that often combine to fight a Godzilla-like battle with the villain of the piece. There's also generally a sixth Ranger thrown into the mix along the way that's a bit of a "ringer" compared to the other five, and the villain generally has some sort of generic "grunt" soldiers that made for good fight scenes before the big machines are brought in.

Throw some specific story/concept points around that basic premise and you've got the average Power Rangers series. What I've always found interesting from a toy standpoint is how Bandai manages to take the basic premise of five color-coded characters and still make just enough alterations in the idea to keep it interesting. About the only "look" I didn't particularly care for was the one where the characters all had white chests with black zig-zag across it. Looked like they'd all raided Charlie Brown's wardrobe. And while I have absolutely no problem with Charles Schulz's legendary "Peanuts" characters, it didn't look quite right on that year's Power Rangers.

So, what sort of adventure are the Power Rangers going to have in 2005? Say hello to POWER RANGERS S.P.D., which stands for SPACE PATROL DELTA. The Power Rangers are headed out into space!

According to the admittedly very brief explanation on the toy packaging, "In the not too distant futyre, there is an academy to train, educate, and house the next generation of Power Rangers. The Earth has opened its doors to allow alien beings from distant planets to co-inhabit with humans. Peacefulness is short-lived as a planet-conquering alien force turns its destructive attention to Earth... And all that stands in the way of Earth's demise and fall of our universe is the newest breed of POWER RANGERS: S.P.D."

Actually, that sounds fairly interesting. I haven't checked out the show yet, but I might. Power Rangers programs are distinctly kid-oriented, and those of us more used to somewhat more serious sci-fi adventure generally have a little trouble swallowing the occasional if not frequent campiness of it. However, the series have tended to get better, not to mention more tolerable, over the years. This one could be decent.

As for the toys, as one might expect, as this has been the pattern in the past, they started turning up just before Christmas, at most major retailers, including Toys "R" Us, Target, and Wal-Mart.

Three different types of products were available. There was the "Delta Morphin" collection, which features Power Rangers figures that could transform into their own vehicles. This is fairly common in Power Rangers collections, but I've never been that fond of it. Then there were the "Patrol Cycles" collection. Sometimes this is the only way to get the "basic" figures that I prefer, but not this year, and frankly, the figures that come with these cycles are likely to cost them sales. They're not articulated worth a darn. They're just a solid plastic lump you can sit on the bike. Whee. I don't know what Bandai was allegedly thinking with that.

Based on photos in some of the major toy magazines, there's also going to be a 12" line of cloth-uniformed Power Rangers, but these also are not the ones I prefer to go for. Each year, I tend to pick up the most basic Power Rangers assortment that is available. Generally speaking this consists of a series of 5" scale (give or take) figures of the five major Rangers, with the sixth one coming along a little later, and maybe the villain "grunt" if he's well made enough.

On the whole, over the years, the basic Rangers have been very well made. They tend to share common molds, at least with respect to their genders (although early on even that wasn't a consideration, which was a little creepy), but are molded in the proper colors. Articulation and overall detail is generally superb. The villains have tended to be another matter, generally well detailed but very poorly articulated. Fortunately, that's improved a lot in the past couple of years.

The basic Power Rangers figures for S.P.D., designated LIGHT PATROL, arrived in mid-December. The figures stand about 5-1/2" in height, and if you press their belt buckle, the ear-pieces of their helmets light up. Each comes with a weapon and a segment of armor which can be placed around any Power Rangers figure.

The basic articulation of the figure is excellent. The figures are poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, legs, upper leg swivel, and knees. And returning for the first time in several years is an extra bit of arm articulation that not only allows the arms to move forward and backward, but also outwards.

The uniform design is, in my opinion, possibly the coolest ever. The bulk of the uniform is the designated color - red, blue, green, yellow, or pink. But along one side of the "shirt" is a patch of black, which on the front forms itself into a huge number, 1 through 5. It's a fascinating added touch to the overall design.

For the record, the Red Ranger is 1, Blue is 2, Green is 3, Yellow is 4, and Pink is 5. Interestingly, 4 and 5 are the female Rangers. Somebody's probably going to yell discrimination over that one.

The uniforms have a certain amount of white and silver trim. The helmets all look substantially alike, until you notice the marking just above the visor. It's segmented into parts equal to the uniform number. The mark on the Red Ranger's helmet is one segment. The Pink Ranger's is in five segments. Nice touch.

Based on one of the Patrol Cycle sets, the sixth "Ranger" this year is called the Shadow Ranger. His uniform is mostly black with light blue trim, and doesn't look that much like the other five. His "number" is actually "00". Maybe he's been playing Roulette? Anyway, there's no indication on the back of the package for the basic carded figures that there's going to be a figure of him, but I suspect one will turn up eventually. These "sixth" Rangers always tend to be popular in any given series.

The "grunt" villain of the piece is a robotic-looking thing (but then they always are) called a KRYBOT. It's nowhere near as cool looking as last year's Triptoids, but I purchased one anyway. He comes with a somewhat more interesting head-and-shoulder armor piece, that you can place on the basic Krybot figure by moving a switch in the figure's back to lower the head that's actually part of the figure. How this plays out in the TV series I'm not sure, nor, since it's largely a live-action series, am I sure I want to know. The Krybot is a little bland, but decently articulated, however distinctly lacking head articulation that I honestly believe could've been made part of both the basic figure and the snap-on helmet/armor piece without too much difficulty.

It's been stated that Power Rangers aren't quite the massive mega-seller that they used to be. Well, what is!? The whole action world has suffered in recent years from interference from other realms such as video games, kids abandoning toys earlier and earlier, and mismanagement on the part of both the toy companies and the retailers. And that's a colossal shame across the board.

But I will say this -- a generous supply of these new Power Rangers basic figures cleared out of Wal-Mart in about three days. So I think Bandai can keep this line going for a while longer at least.

POWER RANGERS S.P.D. looks to be a winner, as well as one of the cooler Power Rangers concepts to come along in a while, at least from a toy standpoint, and if you have have had any enjoyment of these colorful heroes over the years, then I definitely think you'll want to add this newest incarnation of them to your collection!