You can blame my friend Sean for inspiring tonight’s Showcase. Good or bad is up to you though. Ask most 80s kids about Lazer Tag and they’ll tell you it was awesome! And probably forgetting they misspelled “laser”. The initial set came with a belt, the sensor, and the greatest laser gun toy ever, the Starlite. Use the Starlite to score points on the Star Sensor; 6 hits and it’s over. Additionally you could get a vest to hold the sensor instead of the belt, as well as a hat or helmet with its own sensor. These didn’t look like toys. Kids looked like they were playing with daddy’s futuristic combat gear. Even the ads were these huge future combat scenarios with competitors in serious battle.
And then there was Photon.
Oh sure, the game was supposedly more interactive, and Enertech created “Photon Training Centers”, a mock combat arena that is still used to this day (we even have a couple “Laser Challenge” game areas here in Connecticut even though we never had an official Photon center that I know of). But the things LOOK like toys. The helmet looks cheap on its own, never mind compared to Lazer Tag’s Starhelmet. You can see how weak the Photon’s gun looks compared to the Starlite in this very advertisement. It’s no wonder Lazer Tag is the game everyone remembers.
But just as Lazer Tag had a TV show, the NBC Saturday Morning cartoon Lazer Tag Academy, Photon also tried to use TV to promote its game. However, they went syndicated, and live-action…using a couch-cushion budget that featured miniature set pieces and so much blue screen you’d think the wall ran on Windows. (There’s an extra pun there I didn’t intend. Sorry.) It won’t be a surprise to kids TV fans that the budget was this low when you learn DIC Entertainment was behind it. Right up to the end their live-action shows were so cheap that if you saw a high-quality one they probably only distributed it for another production company. Look at Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad and Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills, the other sci-fi action shows they produced. The former had Japanese stock footage to play with, and they still only had three sets…one of which was a darkened bedroom where all you saw were the villain, a computer, and a scanner! DIC made some good cartoons, but lousy live-action shows.
So did Photon do a decent job working around their weak budget? Kinda?
Credit where it’s due: the animatronics weren’t the best on Leon and Lord Baethan (which is still more mouth movement than the other masked characters had) but they were there, the miniature set pieces and ships were good for the budget (they kind of had to be), and I’ve seen worse acting. The other Earthling is an orphan, so sending him into battle isn’t as bad as Christopher/Bhodi, and I do like the concept for the most part. We also learn in a later story that Mandarr is actually another Earthling and former Photon Warrior named Evan who was turned evil after his girlfriend was killed during a mission. (I wonder when they decided to unfreeze Earth after Evan switched sides?) So despite the villains cheating by sending projections of themselves (so they could be reused but let’s keep the heroes in danger), death is actually a factor in the show. That’s different for a kids show, syndicated or network, in the 1980s.
That doesn’t stop the cheapness from being obvious. Every set, even the ship interiors, are miniatures on a blue screen. (It’s like a green screen, but blue. Obviously. It’s not used as much but sometimes green isn’t the best option. Like when some of your characters are green.) If the aliens look good, blame Japan. The show was a co-production although Wikipedia doesn’t say which Japanese company they worked with, as if the writer of the piece thought all of Japan knew how to make monster costumes and the US doesn’t. Filmation and Sid & Marty Kroftt might argue with you. Oddly the unmasked characters…even Christopher’s family on Earth, appear to have been ADRed. Maybe it was trying to keep the same audio consistency to the show but it makes it seem cheap when Parcival, Mandarr and his girlfriend, and the Jarvis family are all American yet sound like they’re in a translated movie with better dubbing. Buy a boom mike! I have one and I’m just a guy in an attic reviewing stuff.
Oh, and the weak covers of popular songs at the time that only barely, if ever, fit the scene. Huge cop-out. This isn’t Kidd Video!
Overall I do remember enjoying it as a kid. When The Super Mario Brothers Super Show did that Club Mario crap in the summer (I envy those markets who didn’t mess with the reruns) clips of the show were used on Thursday and Friday as part of a serial-style show hosted by a green space alien girl Elvira-style that the idiots who took over hosting duties liked to watch. That was the only good thing besides the cartoons. I don’t think there’s a recent home video release, or even an old one, so you’ll have to scour YouTube to see the show. There were books written by Peter David of all writers (under a pseudonym according to Wikipedia–question the source) and a young adult book written by Michael P. Kube-McDowell, also under an alias. Lazer Tag was still cooler as a game but the show…no, premise aside Lazer Tag Academy was still more fun (I will give Photon credit for a better premise), but it wasn’t a bad show for the crap budget it had. Imagine what they could have done with a real budget instead of a DIC Entertainment budget.
For another review check out someone who actually played in the Training Center, the host of MUD2MMO.