Ring Raiders is one of those toylines from the end of the eighties where you might be able to remember it but not really remember much about it. Small planes connected to rings by a plastic stalk, so to make them fly you could just pop the ring on and pilot them with your hands. An interesting concept, but lacking any figures or characters, which limits the appeal to me beyond the cool names.
A short-lived show was produced to promote it, and while it’s been mostly lost to history it’s shockingly good.
Ring of Fire
The origin episode of sorts, WWII pilot Cub Jones is on a training mission when futuristic planes warp into his vicinity and drop a device into a volcano. He goes to pursue them, but when they send him crashing he’s bound for death until he’s beamed out and brought to the future. There, he meets Ring Raiders commander Victor Vector (yeah, I know, but it’s actually not that cheesy) who explains he’s been brought to their time to be a Ring Raider and help fight against the evil pilot Scorch, leader of the Skull Squadron, who’s planning to detonate the device dropped into the volcano and activate the catastrophic ring of fire, which would severely threaten civilisation.
One of the first things to take note of with this show is the mix of people and things used to put this show together. California-based writers and producers for the French-American DIC, with Shuki Levy and Haim Saban providing the score (with quite a few pieces recycled from Starcom), plus American actors rather than the Canadian ones DIC had a tendency to use at the time from shows like Starcom, COPS and The Raccoons. They’re actually better, so you have guys like Dan Gilvezan, Jack Angel, Ike Eisenmann, Susan Silo and Townsend Coleman, all great actors, but strangely not ones that worked together a lot. Rodger Bumpass is also a part of the cast too, and I’ll get to him in Scorch’s Revenge.
From the intro as well you can see the Peter Chung influence on character designs, especially ones like Yakamura, who’s almost grey in pallor, the rat-like Siren and the piranha-like Mako. Scorch himself gets a great look as well, explained later, with a half-mask on the left side of his head, which is immovable – the lips don’t move as his do. It’s very much like Black Mask from Batman. I also wonder if there was a bit of an influence from the British comedy The Young Ones for main heel stooge Hubbub, who’s part punk rocker and part surfer dude.
I actually expected this episode to be the first of a five-part series, but the ring of fire plot is wrapped up in the debut, with Cub earning his stripes as a Ring Raider. The gimmick there is that each good guy has a ring that they can connect to their controls to make their plane even more powerful for a short time, lest it destroy their nervous system. A bit cheap that the disconnect is just the power-up animation played backwards, but it’s pretty high quality animation otherwise with a Top Gun influence. Great start to the series.
The Best Man For the Job is a Woman
This episode takes the contrast of aging misogynist Baron Von Claudeitz, a former WWI aerial ace, and his views on women and former Vietnam veteran Jenny Gail, codename: Nightingale, and challenges the Baron’s opinions on the capabilities of women. It’s no-contest, really, Nightingale gets a fantastic origin story as a medic who felt she could do better and so signed up as a rescue chopper pilot to get to the scene quicker and firmly establishes herself as able to do as much, if not more, than any other guy on the team. The Baron, played really well by Chuck McCann, does learn a lesson in humility and is used as a decent case study of being “a product of his time”. It’s actually surprising that the episode itself is from 1989 given the relevance of the story in more recent years.
Only shortcoming I can think of is not trying to match a little bit of that on the Skull Squadron side. Siren isn’t especially sympathetic, but Visionaries did a good job a year or two prior of having the rest of the Darkling Lords alienate the Darkling Lady Virulina, to the point that she quit the team for a few episodes until she just turned back up. It made them bigger pricks for laughing at her when she stormed off. Great episode here, though, with a thrilling recap of Nightingale doing her rounds in ‘Nam and almost being shot down.
Scorch kidnaps Nightingale and holds her hostage until Victor Vector agrees to a rematch from years prior, back when they were both students at flight school and neck and neck as far as who was the best pilot. Scorch, or Scorcher as he was called then (real name: the less threatening Stanley Smith), made the challenge and was ready to cheat to win, but ended up losing and getting badly burnt, hence his current mask and new moniker, swearing revenge on Vector.
As mentioned before, Scorch is played by Rodger Bumpass, who is Squidward on Spongebob, so you’ve got him in the present with the rather mellifluous voice, close to his Doctor Light from Teen Titans, but to differentiate him as younger and more seemingly innocent you get a normal voice that’s lighter in timbre but does also recall that he’s Squidward. Dan Gilvezan as Vector plays him a hero with big balls and a barrel chest, so not far off General Hawk from GI Joe, someone who’s older but isn’t relegated to the office yet.
I don’t think anyone really believed Scorch was going to send Nightingale back to the time of the dinosaurs, but it’s a decent threat. The stuff in the present is fine, but the best parts of the episode are those flashbacks, which as becomes a custom for the show are presented in a cool blue colour rather than sepia. Makes for a different look, more fitting with a futuristic show.
All the Right Stuff
Given the title, it shouldn’t be too much of a shock that there’s a space travel element to this episode. Pilot of the future Yakamura is injured in battle, but is the only Ring Raider that can capably fly into space to destroy a satellite weapon that Scorch is going to use to cause a lot of problems. We actually get Yinsu on the operating table while Nightingale talks through some of the brain surgery she is performing on him, with futuristic medical equipment, but no pretense to cover that she’s performing invasive surgery with a very long drill! Although he recovers well quickly, the premise of going into space is still taken on while admitting he’s got a “hole in my head”!
On YouTube this episode is actually ordered fifth, but as far as original air dates go it was fourth. When we get to the next episode I’ll remark on why that episode is better as the last one, but one of the things that would somewhat mark this episode less well is Scorch and Hubbub getting into a “Did not!”/”Did too!” squabble and wrestling at the end of the episode while the other Skull Squadron guys watch on helplessly. It’s funny and a sign that they were able to establish the characters and relationships so quickly, but not the scene you want to end on.
An interesting inclusion in this episode too is the Ring Raiders flying fortress having to travel temporarily to the past to escape further damage from the Skull Squadron. As they fly over cornfields in Kansas, the troubled people of that time run from their horse-drawn wagons and run for their lives, unable to comprehend what is above them. That alone would make a good episode, with the further time-displaced characters seeming like aliens to the non-technological people of the time.
A Pilot’s Faith
The Ring Raiders have to save the world from a powerful plague (another interesting contemporary coincidence). This makes more sense as the last episode with the scale of the threat and people seen to be dying or near death, including children. We also get some of the Baron’s background, when he was attacked by the seemingly supernatural Wraither of the Skull Squadron in the past and then fighting him again in the future. Although he was used as a bad example of views in the previous episode, here we get better insight on him and his belief that a pilot shouldn’t just be reliant on their plane and their instruments but on their faith and instincts too, which is good when the former do abandon you and you only have the latter.
As good as this episode is, with a real sense of urgency and threat, it’s also a reminder that this show overall is forgotten to history pretty much, suspect name aside. Someone like Wraither as a villain is hinted at as being very mysterious, but due to the lack of episodes it’s not delved into further. I don’t know if they would’ve maintained the level of interest or quality over 65 episodes, but at least eight more would’ve done the show, the toyline and the legacy the world of good.
The Bottom Line: A lost classic of a show where it seemed like the combination of all the disparate elements allow it to be truly unique. As much as I like Starcom, which seems like the nearest point of comparison, I like this show more, and thanks to YouTube for preserving it.