Nerding Day: Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad 🌭

Everyone wanted in on that sweet Power Rangers heat in the ’90s. And while Saban Entertainment cranked out their share of shows based on Japanese tokusatsu to capitalize on the craze for spandex-clad warriors battling bug-eyed monsters like VR Troopers, Masked Rider, and the horrifying Big Bad Beetleborgs, they weren’t the only ones with their eyes on the prize.

In 1994, DIC Productions, who put out at least half of the American cartoons produced in the ’80s and ’90s, partnered with Tsuburaya Productions to create Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad. If you’re unfamiliar, I bet you’re picturing a Power Rangers-like team of samurai-themed guys. If so, you are wrong. This is a show about four kids in a band called Team Samurai who occasionally go inside their Compaq brand computers to kill monsters devised by a socially awkward outcast classmate and brought to life by Tim Curry.

Sam(urai) Collins and his bandmates Tanker, Syd, and Amp are drawn into battle against the evil Kilokahn, a military AI gone rogue, when a power surge turns Sam into a video game character of his own creation. Sam is played by Matthew Lawrence, who was also Shawn’s brother on Boy Meets World and one of the kids in Mrs. Doubtfire (the one who sees his dad pissing in drag).

Sam’s friends Tanker and Syd were portrayed by Kevin Castro and Robin Mary Florence, respectively, who are best known for… Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad. Amp was played by Troy Slaten, who was in Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and is now a lawyer interested in “ending the scourge of mass incarceration, ending the jail turnstile and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.” Hey, that’s actually pretty cool! Chalk one up for child actors.

But, of course, the real draw of the cast is Tim “Hexxus in FernGully” Curry as Kilokahn. He looks like a cyber-Shredder, he calls human beings “meat-things,” and he craaaaaves power. (Hi daddy.)

Kilokahn makes a deal with Malcolm Frink: Malcolm designs “mega-viruses,” and Kilokahn brings them to life to mess up Sam’s chances with their shared love interest, Jennifer. Of course, Kilokahn also wants to subjugate all of humanity, so Malcolm maybe isn’t thinking this all through, but who can judge what the young do for love? I once allowed a girl I had a crush on to pierce my ears with a sewing needle, and at least Malcolm isn’t getting staph from teaming up with a genocidal computer program.

How does Malcolm fuck with Sam? In the first episode, he creates a virus to stop Sam from calling Jennifer and asking her out. But uh oh! Kilokhan shuts down the entire world’s telephone lines. Sam is sucked into his computer after a power surge and becomes Servo, an Ultraman-looking hero who kicks the virus’s ass, and telephonic communication is saved.

Sam decides to keep all this a secret from everyone except his bandmates — not because he’s worried about the potential dangers or the government tracking him down to weaponize his ability to physically enter computers and do karate stunts, but because he’s embarrassed about it and doesn’t want people to think he’s a computer geek.

Sam sucks. He is, by his own admission, only interested in playing rock music to attract women. He tricks Jennifer into giving him her phone number. And he’s completely uninteresting, a vacant-eyed indictment of the emptiness of American youth culture in the ’90s.

Contrast him with Malcolm — a creative, driven young man who is computer-savvy, a talented artist, and has a cool put-on British accent. Malcolm is the kind of kid who probably got the shit kicked out of him throughout high school for being overly theatrical and wearing black all the time, then landed a great job working for a game developer and realized that he was never all that into Jennifer anyway.

Maybe his rivalry with Sam and his willingness to partner with the computer devil stemmed from his sublimated desires for his all-American classmate whose easy charm and circle of friends represented everything that Malcolm wanted but felt was denied to him because of how different he felt from his peers.

And maybe one day he’d meet someone, a programmer with a shy smile named Jake who could give him what neither Jennifer, nor Sam, nor even Kilokahn could — love and understanding. They would be happy, Malcolm and his husband. There would always be nights when he would wake up in a sweat, feeling sick to his stomach at the horrors he had wrought in his youth: the time he set up an impenetrable wall around half the world to stop Sam from getting to a gig; the time he forced Syd to go on a crime spree by putting a virus in her wristwatch; the time he tried to roast everyone in the school alive by raising the thermostat and locking the doors; the time he nearly made Sam go insane from isolation by trapping him in his video camera; the time he turned the city’s entire water supply into hydrochloric acid. That’s not who you are anymore, Jake would remind him. You’re the man I fell in love with.

And on occasion he might think of Sam, wonder where he was since they’d last seen each other at graduation, made eye contact across the stage and silently nodded, the last gesture of recognition on the part of two worthy rivals parting ways.

Meanwhile, Sam is still living in his mother’s basement and swearing that he’s going to “make it” any day now. Jennifer is a dream from long ago, and when Tanker and Syd come back to town to see their families, they smile weakly when he talks about the open mics he’s playing and how close he thinks he is to getting a record deal. Nobody has the heart to tell him to give up, that it’s not going to happen.

Sorry, I think I just started writing the world’s only Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad fanfiction. But I digress. Aside from the humans, the monsters, and Kilokahn, there’s another character in SSSS: Compaq Computers.

Whenever a character is shown looking at something on a computer screen — which happens a lot — the Compaq logo is prominently visible on the monitor. This seems like a really odd choice for product placement in a show aimed at kids. Was the idea that children would think that Compaq computers had the capabilities to transform them into digital superheroes so they’d beg their parents to buy one rather than a Dell or Gateway?

Or was the idea just to establish brand recognition so that when the target audience was grown up and shopping for a home computer, they’d have some flash of recognition, some positive association with Compaq machines they couldn’t explain? Am I overthinking this and the Compaq executives just went to the same strip clubs as the DIC guys and they made a seemingly senseless, coke-addled deal one night? Yes.

Unlike a lot of similar shows, SSSS is actually pretty close to the Japanese series it draws its action footage from. Gridman the Hyper Agent is also about a bunch of teens who fight virtual monsters with the help of a cyber superhero. In that show, the viruses are also created by a misfit fellow student and brought to life by evil program Khan Digifer. Of course, in the original version Khan Digifer wasn’t played by Tim Curry. Can you imagine? What do the Japanese think of Tim Curry, anyway? Do they think of him as the Copy Machine Wizard because of that time he was in a Xerox commercial?

Unfortunately, Gridman ended with the protagonist dying in its 39th and final episode. That meant that SSSS had to get creative with their material around the same episode mark. After a dramatic finale in which Malcolm turns face and helps save Christmas from Kilokahn (real, that really happened), we got a number of episodes featuring all of the hits of the desperate screenwriter trying to make things work. There’s a mirror universe episode where Malcolm is nice and Jennifer is a nerd! There’s an amnesia episode where everyone forgets who they are! There’s a clip show where it’s revealed that one of the core cast members is an alien who has returned to his home planet!

And of course, there were toys. I only ever remember seeing them at the hardware store and they were marketed with the phrase “SAMURIZED FOR YOUR PROTECTION.”

What the fuck does that mean? I would have asked my dad when he was done shopping for screws or whatever, but one time my family went to stay in this cabin out in Atlantic Canada and my sister and I found a wrapper over the toilet that said “sanitized for your protection” and we thought it was the funniest thing in the world, like the toilet had been sealed off to protect us from the horrors within. Anyway he got pretty annoyed at how hyper we got about it and snapped at us, so I wasn’t going to risk bringing up that memory again.

What was I talking about? Oh, right. A show where the kid from Mrs. Doubtfire (not Mara Wilson or the other girl) fights the digital mind creations of a friendless and possibly closeted goth brought to life by Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

I watched a number of episodes of the show to jog my memory for this piece, but I also referred to the Wikipedia article, which is… extensive. Once again, I’ve stumbled onto a subject obsessively remembered by like six people and forgotten entirely by the rest of the planet. To put things in perspective, the Wikipedia article for beloved and accomplished actor and musician Tim Curry is about 4,600 words. The article on legendary German character Faust, which is linked in the plot section of the SSSS article to describe Malcolm Frink’s deal with Kilokahn, is 5,200 words. The article on SSSS is larger than both of those put together, clocking in at over 12,000 words long.

It’s a trite observation at this point that Wikipedia articles on subjects of relative inconsequence — such as ’90s television shows about teenage cyberwarriors fighting mutant diamond dinosaurs inside Compaq computers for the fate of the earth — receive far more attention than those which most people would agree are more critical to the collective store of human knowledge. I don’t care, I’m going to say it anyway. Hideo Kojima was right in Metal Gear Solid 2. The internet was a mistake.

Ironically, that seems to also be the prophetic message of Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, a message we failed to heed. And that might be the most interesting thing about Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad — it accurately predicted how fucking terrible the internet and a world of connected technology would be. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some fanfiction to post to Archive of Our Own.

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