The Strange Ambition of 'Ace Lightning'
It’s time to take a stand,
It’s time to do what’s right,
No matter how scared you are,
You’ve got to stand and fight.
And we don’t have to play this game, All alone ‘cos,
There’s a hero. There’s a hero in us all. There’s a hero in us all!
Picture this. It’s 2002 and you come home from school to waste away your afternoon in front of the television through the usual ritual of CBBC programming that briefly takes over BBC One for a couple of hours. The network has its own channel but you only have terrestrial telly on your bedroom’s TV so it’s the best time to settle in and endure half a dozen shows you’re indifferent towards in order to get to the one you’ve been waiting for all week. Whether that was The Basil Brush Show, The Story of Tracey Beaker, Mona the Vampire or Young Dracula, you know the wait would be worth it. It was an event you had to wait for back in the days of scheduled programming, and you always felt that little rush of excitement in the fact that you were able to be fully prepared for it without missing a chunk of the episode. After which, you’d spend hour after hour playing either whatever Tony Hawk game had most recently come out or Disney’s Extreme Skate Adventure before dinner.
There are shows that capture a significant snapshot period of your life, and for me Ace Lightning is one of them. Created by Jim Corston and Rick Siggelkow, the show was about a British teenager named Mark (Thomas Wansey) who moves to America and finds that the characters from his favourite videogame – Ace Lightning and the Carnival of Doom – have crossed over into the real world and continue to do battle against the backdrop of suburbia. The Kiefer Sutherland-like Ace (Michael Riley) enlists Mark as his sidekick ‘Lightning Knight’ in the battle against evil lich Lord Fear (Juan Chioran) – a leader of the Skeletor-variety. It was unashamedly of its time, from the cheesy pop-punk opening theme from Four Square, to the poor understanding of how videogames are actually formatted. But it was a heavily-serialised show with characters arcs and consequences that were unlike many other shows offered at the time. Oh, and it was strangely ambitious too.
In the early noughties the budget for kids’ programming was modest at best. It was much easier for a network to craft live, studio-audience fare such as sitcoms and gameshows. To craft a single-camera adventure drama that consistently boasts a mixture of live-action and CGI characters working together took some balls and the show was actually one of the first to feature such an abundant mix so heavily. The show was co-production of the BBC and the Canadian company Alliance Atlantis, which filmed the show in Canada for worldwide distribution. It was originally going to focus on a comic book superhero finding his way to the real world, but Ace was changed to a videogame character after the creators decided to update the show based on what ‘the kids were into these days’.
The show lasted for a 22-episode first season in 2002-2003 and then a 13-episode second season in 2004 (2005 in the UK). Averaging over a million viewers per episode in the UK, the series was a commercial success and spawned a limited run of merchandise including novels, annuals, a comic-book adaptation, two videogames (more on those in a bit) and even a run of kid’s meal toys at KFC (I only ever managed to get the Lady Illusion one). Of course, as a show it left a lot to be desired. Looking back on episodes now in a post- Avatar: The Last Airbender and other quality family shows-world means you find yourself groaning at some of the voice-acting and stiff dialogue. But the concept and dramatization were what kept me excited the entire time.
As Lord Fear and his cronies take refuge in an abandoned carnival, Ace, Mark and his best friend Chuck (Marc Minardi) get swept up in their fight for the pieces of the Amulet of Zoar, which allows them full-power over the sixth dimension and in the real-world allows them to craft new weapons and unlock new characters to join their cause. As per the mandate for kid’s programming, there’s also a hefty dose of social melodrama as Mark’s life is turned upside-down whilst attending a new school and having to keep this world-saving side to him a secret. Oh, and he gets a girlfriend too – that old chestnut. It’s about as generic as it sounded but the dedication to its mythology was admirable. The love triangle between Ace, Lord Fear and their fight over Lady Illusion (Fear’s mistress who is a shapeshifter) lead to many of the series’ most memorable moments as she goes back and forth between working alongside the two. Whilst the first season tested the waters with a season-long arc alongside the standard ‘fight of the week’ mentality, the condensed second season allowed for a focus on a single storyline. As Lord Fear is overthrown as evil leader, the evil Kilobyte is created by the mad creator of the Ace Lightning videogame in a desperate bid for world domination. And I know what you’re thinking, but what about Mark and Chuck? They’re starting high school which means they’re going through such tough personal changes at the exact same time! You’re damn right they are!
As a kid the standard double-life scenario was still super exciting and whenever Fear, Pigface or Rat broke into Mark’s school or almost revealed themselves (hehe) there was a real sense of danger. It’s in their more quiet moments where the CG character models and integration worked too. Whilst now it’s basic stuff, in 2002 it was…slightly more than basic. Just, keep that in mind whenever there’s a fight scene. As a protagonist both Mark and Ace are lifeless altruistic archetypes, with Ace being snarky as a by-product of his fish-out-of-water storyline. Lord Fear on the other hand is a joy to watch to this day. His elongated neck and cracking movements escalate his high-pitched, nasal performance to theatrical levels of evil like every good cartoon villain. There was even a terrifying crony in the form of Googler, a clown-like jester with evil hand puppets that jumped about with a manic energy that screamed ‘I WILL HAUNT YOUR FUCKING DREAMS’. All the characters were featured in the videogames too, and speaking of which…
The Ace Lightning videogame was a long sought-after item for child George. In the UK there was a two-year wait after the end of the first season – of which featured a pretty final ending. I didn’t know whether the show was going to return or not, and I needed as much content from the sixth dimension as possible. The game was released on Game Boy Advance and Playstation 2/PC, and I managed to nab both of them, several years apart. The games take the form of the videogame from the show, in which titular hero Ace fights his way through the Carnival of Doom in order to face against Lord Fear for the pieces of the Amulet. What could have been a cool exploration of the world created within the series was…well, pretty empty. The GBA port was a linear platforming side-scroller where your character sprite was too large to perform half the jumps without getting hurt, whilst the PS2 version was a 3D collect-athon platformer along the likes of Banjo-Kazooie. I mean that in the loosest sense possible too because Ace Lightning’s levels were so barren that it often felt as though the game was unfinished. Of course, this was a tie-in for a Canadian kid’s show, so there were far worse ways to spend a couple of hours. As a kid who had a fear of clowns however, the game’s creepy synthetic score and technicolour jamboree backdrop made nearly every moment goosebump-inducing.
While the second season of the show has a reduced episode order, it was still profitable and proved to be a success. But why didn’t it get a third season? Well, that’s where things get interesting… In 2004 a communication professor at the University of Arizona homed in on Ace Lightning as an example of ‘anti-social’ children’s programming, due to its close connection and infatuation with videogames. This, along with its simulated violence (which was mostly just shooting lightning at each other) was deemed harmful by various activist groups including ‘The United Church of Christ’ and ‘The Centre of Digital Democracy’. Though these claims were stated as ‘mischaracterising’ the show, the growing pressure under the anti-violence boom of the mid 00s took its toll. The budget for Ace Lightning actually increased between seasons, and the cost came under scrutiny as many parents lashed out, blanketing the show in with others that were deemed as ‘harmful’ for their offspring. It’s funny how five years later these would be the same parents who’d gladly give their six-year-olds an iPhone for their birthday. Nevertheless, the show was unofficially cancelled and ceased production where it’s slipped into relative obscurity. Of course, the season two finale managed to end the series on a high note, with Fear and Lightning teaming up against Kilobyte and the death of Lady Illusion. While it would have been cool to see Ace get his revenge for the death of his love, it just wasn’t meant to be.
At around the time the show ended my interest in CBBC began to fade due to my age. The show wasn’t really repeated either, and has never been given a home-release aside from the first 8 episodes in a bare-bones DVD/Video package. Whilst it’s just a small footnote for many, I’ll always have a soft spot for Ace Lightning. TV was rarely cooler as a kid, and the guts to do a Who Framed Roger Rabbit? -style mashup made it somewhat of a pioneer for those days where the sun shone brighter, the summer meant something, and we didn’t have to worry about our phones one bit.
Next week I won’t talk about children’s TV programs I promise.
Ace Lightning isn't currently available, much to my disappointment.
However, the first 8 episodes and the game can still be found in charity shops/online somewhere.
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You can also find me on Twitter over at @ManicMorris where I mostly…well…I just tweet. Not about Kid's TV shows. I swear.
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