My nostalgic sweetspot for Power Rangers lies more with the latter half of the Saban era and the beginning of the Disney era. That said, I did grow up watching a lot of runs of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers so I am fond of the original series in all of its 90s cheese. Naturally, I was going to check out Once & Always, Hasbro and Netflix’s 1 hour special commemorating the original’s 30th anniversary.
Once & Always takes place around three decades after the MMPR TV series. Rita Repulsa (voiced by Barbara Goodson) returns in a new robotic body and the original team morphs once again to stop her. During the first battle, the Yellow Ranger, Trini, dies protecting the Blue Ranger, Billy (David Yost), leaving both the Rangers and Trini’s daughter Minh (Charlie Kersh) devastated. Fast forward once year, Rita concocts a plan to use the energy of captured Rangers to power a time machine so that she can meet with her past self to change the course of history. Billy and Zack (Walter Jones), the Black Ranger, reunites with Rocky (Steve Cardenas) and Kat (Catherine Sutherland), the second Red and Pink Rangers respectively to combat Rita while Minh sets off to avenge the death of her mother.
Aside from commemorating MMPR‘s 30th anniversary, Once & Always serves as a tribute to Trini’s actor Thuy Trang, who sadly passed away in a car crash in 2001. Prior to this special, Trini’s status was never addressed in the franchise. The character’s last appearance was in the MMPR Season 2 two-parter, “The Power Transfer”, where she leaves Angel Grove alongside Jason and Zack to attend a peace conference in Switzerland (and yes, it really is as flimsy as it sounds). This special provides fans some overdue closure by finally addressing Trini’s fate and having the Rangers come to terms with it. I’ll admit that it’s a little weird to see Trini die onscreen but I understand that the special has to do it in order for the plot to work and I appreciate that the writers doesn’t mince words over Trini’s fate, like Power Rangers often does on the rare occasion one of the goods guys are killed off. I also have to hand it to the special for treating Trini’s death with such sincerity. Bringing back Yost and Jones isn’t just for the purpose of nostalgia; the emotional core of the special would simply not work without them. Whenever Billy and Zack talk about Trini, you can tell that their respective actors are drawing off of the grief they have for the loss of their castmate and friend.
The inclusion of Minh, an entirely new character created for Once & Always, works to good effect. I don’t think it’s any secret that Minh ultimately succeeds her mother (and Aisha) as the Yellow Ranger though the special wisely makes an arc out of this. It doesn’t hand the powers over to Minh but rather makes her earn it by giving up her quest for vengeance and instead tap into the same compassion her mother had. The only nitpick I have with this arc is the notion that Minh shouldn’t go out of her way to kill Rita when really, the Rangers destroy monsters on a weekly basis. I also enjoy Minh’s chemistry with the veteran rangers. Zack raises Minh in Trini’s stead and there’s an effective uncle and niece dynamic between the two. There’s also some decent drama between Minh and Billy, the former blaming the latter for her mother’s death while also knowing deep down that he’s family to her.
Unfortunately, none of the other Rangers play much of a role in the special. Having Rocky and Kat on the team is nice as it means all three seasons of the original show are represented in the team but the two sadly don’t do much apart from action, banter, and a little bit of lore in Kat’s case. Johnny Yong Bosch and Karan Ashley return as Adam and Aisha, the second Black and Yellow Rangers respectively, but their involvement boils down to a cameo and a very deep cut to Power Rangers lore. For behind the scenes reasons, some actors don’t reprise their roles so their characters appear in-suit with archival audio. When they are absent, the explanation provided by the special is pretty silly (though I suppose that’s appropriate for Power Rangers). The most notable absence is Jason David Frank, who portrayed Tommy, the Green/White ranger of the team. Frank reportedly declined to appear though his absence is especially sad due to his death last year. Once & Always was deep into production around the time Frank died so unfortunately, the special doesn’t pay tribute to him in the same vein as it does with Trang. There is one tribute during the credits for both actors that was presumably added in during post-production and it is a touching one at that.
Rita returning is appropriate for an anniversary special such as this and it is great to hear Barbara Goodson voicing the character again. The fact that she kills Trini raises the stakes and makes her feel like a legitimate threat again. Rita’s plan and especially how she goes about it is ridiculous but then again, Rita has done all sorts of stuff in her heyday so maybe I’m just desensitized. What is definitely an issue is the fact that Rita is the only major villain to appear in Once & Always. You’d think Zedd would show up but Hasbro already made plans for him for Dino Fury and the upcoming Cosmic Fury. Goldar would’ve been nice but he already showed up for a special in Beast Morphers. Apparently, Hasbro forgot about other options such as Rito. So who’s accompanying Rita this time around? Just the usual plethora of Putties and the robotic versions of Mighty Minotaur (Ryan Cooper) and Snizzards (Daniel Watterson), two of the many, many monsters of the week from MMPR. I give Once & Always credit for bringing back monsters from the original show but I’m also not fanboy clapping over their return. I suppose the intent is to evoke a typical episode of the original show but this is an anniversary special so I’d argue it should’ve gone bigger.
Like the show it pays homage to, Once & Always shares some of its core issues. This is Power Rangers we’re talking about here. The dialogue gets pretty darn cheesy from time to time. There’s admittedly been worse in the franchise and I’ll give the special credit for reining it in during the more dramatic scenes but in general, the dialogue is an acquired taste at best and juvenile at worst. The stunts in this special are pretty good, that’s one area Power Rangers should perform well in, though some of the special effects do look cheap. The climax particularly suffers from this as both the giant monster and the Megazord are rendered in pretty rough CGI. If the intent is to evoke the look and feel of MMPR, the crew really should’ve put some guys in suits for the Megazord fight. Either that or commission Toei to do it for them.
If you’re a fan of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, you’ll find plenty to like about Once & Always. As you may expect, it’s filled with fanservice but to its credit, it offers a meatier story by paying a sincere tribute to one of the original show’s cast members. It’s also great to see some of the original cast back, especially David Yost and Walter Jones given their long absence from the franchise and the harassment Yost had to deal with behind the scenes. That said, the special is far from perfect. Outside of Billy and Zack, many of the returning characters don’t have much to do. Rita being the only big bad to return is pretty disappointing. I know this is Power Rangers and this special in particular is a one-off thing but it wouldn’t have killed the companies behind it to pour a little bit more money into the project. As far as Power Rangers anniversary specials go, I think Wild Force‘s “Forever Red” is still the best one though I would rank Once & Always as one of the better ones.