Features TV

SECOND LOOK: Ace Lightning

Written by Mark Russell

I’ve been wanting to write an article on the television show Ace Lightning ever since I joined this website, even promising to write one in my second article. The show was a big part of my childhood and I consider myself a huge fan of it. Ace Lightning is a British-Canadian children’s show that aired from 2002 to 2004, and has the awesome premise of superheroes from a video game coming to life in the real world. It sounds like something from a nerd’s fanfiction, but it was a short, sweet and fantastic series that was unfortunate axed by the BBC before its completion. With some memorable characters, great acting and music, and one of the first shows to feature computer-generated characters in a live action setting, Ace Lightning is an underrated show about being heroes and doing what is right.

Our hero is 13-year old Mark Hollander (Thomas Wansey), a British teenager who moves to the American town Conestoga Hills with his parents. Getting to grips with his new home proves difficult, particularly when a lightning bolt strikes Mark’s house. By coincidence, Mark is playing his favourite video and the electrical blast somehow brings the characters of the game to life in his backyard. Mark is enlisted to be the sidekick of Ace Lightning (Michael Lindsay), a Lightning Knight who is very much bound by his programming of the wisecracking superhero and doesn’t understand the real world and its nature. Ace’s mission is to obtain the mystical Amulet of Zoar, the resident MacGuffin which has broken into pieces, and is able to open portals to the game world. Also after the pieces is Ace’s nemesis, the skeletal sorcerer Lord Fear (Juan Chioran) who has a chequered past with Ace, and wants to take over the world as compensation.

Lord Fear and his colourful gang of flunkies take shelter in the rundown Kent Bros. Carnival and rename it the “Carnival of Doom”, enslaving the owner Duff Kent (Philip Williams) as a minion. Mark finds himself struggling and juggling his normal life and job as a sidekick, something which he is reluctant about, though he seems to enjoy the hero work. The series focused on the events in Mark’s social life, and the antics of Ace, Lord Fear, and the other game characters, who view Earth as another level of the game and go along with it. Mark finds friendship in the jolly overweight nerdy Chuck Mugel (Marc Minardi), and girl next door Samantha Thompson (Shadia Simmons) who becomes his girlfriend for the first season. The relationship between Mark and Ace is a major focus, starting off as a partnership of reluctance and naivety, but they form an understanding and form a strong friendship.

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As the first season progressed, each time the two factions of good and evil gained a new Amulet piece, a new character or item from the game was summoned. The series starts off as a bit of a comedy/action piece, it developed into taking pokes at superhero clichés, the blurs of good and evil as well as moral decisions, the complexities of a teenager’s life and the impact a secret life has on it, the nature of the game characters’ reality, and most notably, what it means to be a hero, what it takes, and what kinds there are in the world – this being a BBC co-production, there was an educational aesop at the conclusion of each episode. Okay, it is possible I’m putting too much thought into this, but as you can tell, I am fond of the series.

Interestingly, the show’s original concept was to have the characters originate from a comic book but it was changed to a video game for more modern reasons (comics being a bit on the downside after the industry collapse in the 90s). Most of the characters represent certain archetypes or act as nods to popular characters (i.e. Mark is directly based on Peter Parker). Ace is the standard wisecracking do-gooder, Lord Fear is an evil sorcerer who can easily fall into cartoon villain buffoonery. There is also Lord Fear’s femme fatale minion Lady Illusion (more on her later), the red-headed action girl Sparx, most of Lord Fear’s minions lack brain cells, and a lot of the humans fit roles straight out of other high school dramas. However, what Ace Lightning did was to pull the characters out of their archetypal roles and give them strong personalities and relationships.

The series has quite the large cast of around thirty or more characters, and it is pretty impressive balancing out the screentime for the live action and animated characters per episode. While Ace is the titular character, Mark Hollander is the main protagonist, struggling to keep his normal life together while going on crazy adventures with Ace. His turbulent love life takes up a lot of the story time, having three girlfriends in less than a year – the previously mentioned Samantha Thompson who is packed up to a boarding school in the second season, her best friend Heather Hoffs (Petra Wildgoose) who went from martial arts enthusiast to a girl who could gnarl the hind legs of a police dog after breaking up with Mark, and then thirdly ,Kat Adams (Ashley Leggat), a stroppy big city girl who took up a career as the school newspaper editor.

Mark doesn’t have much to go on as a superhero, using his wits and bravery to get out of encounters with the badguys, but he has a number of awesome moments despite going through enough trauma to last a lifetime. Opposite Mark is Chuck, being very funny, upbeat, but intelligent and there is something just charming about his “chillax dude” attitude. He becomes Ace’s secondary sidekick in the second season, mistakenly called “Chuckdude” by the game characters. He grows quite a lot as a character, learning to stand up for himself and using his intellect to his advantage. There is also a running gag about his nausea, often throwing up when disgusted, and it is played for laughs.

Ace Lightning himself is one of my favourite characters. He starts off as an archetypal superhero, being brave, heroic, and always has a wisecrack on hand. He can fly, lift up a truck with his hands, and shoots lightning from the gauntlets on his wrists. But this is intentional as per his programming, and is also a walking aesop fountain, reminiscent of those PSA messages straight out of cartoons from the ‘80s. Over time, Ace starts to experience new emotions such as love and friendship, becoming a much more interesting character, understanding the troubles Mark goes through and forms an unbreakable bond with him. Interestingly, Ace faces potential destruction all the time unless he has a reliable source of electricity to charge his powers, he could fade away from existence.

Ace’s naivety to the real world is very amusing, poking around Mark’s house and breaking appliances. Lord Fear also gets in on the act at one point, dismantling Mark’s washing machine thinking it is a weapon. Ace pursues a forbidden romance with the villainess Lady Illusion (Tamara Bernier) who happens to be Lord Fear’s girlfriend, leading to a love triangle. I should also point out that Lord Fear is a 352-year old skeleton…let the fanfics roll. In the second season due to misunderstandings, Lady Illusion grows resentful of Ace’s priorities so she infects him with human emotions, making him very unstable and sending through shifting emotional phases that ultimately turn him into a better, more understanding and even philosophical character.

The series later introduces Sparx (Deborah O’Dell), a badass redheaded Lightning Knight who fights with a lightning-spewing sword and flies on a hovercraft that resembles a shark fused with a jetski. While admittedly she is your standard reckless action girl archetype, Sparx was the most popular character among the show’s small fanbase. She has a nasty habit of leaping into battle without thinking, but ends up becoming a very dynamic character, becoming Ace’s confidante every now and again, and having a surprisingly venomous rivalry with Lady Illusion regarding her relationship with Ace. It is never established what kicked off the fiery feud between them, though Lady Illusion mentions “revenge” prior to their first epic cat fight.

Perhaps the most compelling character is Random Virus, a cybernetic Lightning Knight who is voiced by Cathal J. Dodd, who readers might known as Wolverine in X-Men: The Animated Series. Six years prior to story, Random was hurt in an undisclosed battle than turned him into a mentally disturbed cyborg with very crude mechanical prosthetics. Seriously, whoever his surgeon was must have been cheap – giving Random a giant mechanical claw, and caterpillar tracks in place of legs. But to make matters worse, Random’s mind was split in two, turning him into a dangerous Robocop-esque character with the mind of Two-Face.

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Random’s good side wishes to do what is right but is too afraid of the consequences to act, while his bad side is a crazed psycho with a twisted sense of justice, vowing to wipe out all forms of weakness in the world which consists of goodness, virtue, etc. Usually torn back and forth between allegiances, Random hides away in the local junkyard for his own safety.

Opposing the Lightning Knights is Lord Fear, Ace’s nemesis who our hero accidentally crippled in the past and then imprisoned for evildoing. Lord Fear escapes and desires to conquer the world for his pains. How and why he is a skeleton is never explained but since he is a sorcerer, the possibilities are endless, since he can still talk, feel, see, and play the pipe organ like a pro. He is a cunning, charismatic badguy but often falls into classic villain buffoonery. He is accompanied by Staff Head (Michael Lamport), a frog-like gargoyle who sits on the end of his master’s staff/walking stick. Staff Head is a pompous, rude little jerk who insults just about every character save Lord Fear, and is my least favourite character in the series.

In the first season, Lord Fear used an ice cream truck to get around; but changes in the second season when he is given the motorcycle/hovercraft Doom Wagon by fellow badguy Kilobyte. It is rocket-powered, has a coffin motif, and a chainsaw on the hood. Sweet!

Speaking of Kilobyte (Ted Atherton), he is the big bad of the second season, usurping Lord Fear to hunt down Ace and crush him slowly and painfully. Known as the Cyber Stalker, Kilobyte is a creepy, tattooed bald guy whose main power lies in his octopus tentacles, which he can use to drain characters of their power or even give them new ones as he does for Lady Illusion – and yes, I did say tentacles, so there is some creepy touchy-feely stuff going on. Kilobyte was created by the Master Programmer, a mysterious puppetmaster who played a key role in the development of the video game. He hides in shadow and controls Kilobyte from his Fortress of Solitude. Superman references aside, the true identity of the Programmer is ridiculously obvious as soon as the character is introduced, and though they spend a whole episode building up to the dramatic reveal, it isn’t all that shocking.

Kilobyte is usually very serious, stone-faced and focused on crushing Ace, advancing his plans, or considering whether or not to destroy the other badguys for their repeated failures. The only kindness he shows is to his giant mutated wasp Fred, turned into a monster after it stung Kilobyte, bringing up all sorts of interesting questions as to how he can mutate a bug into a super mutant. I’ve found it hard to describe what I like about Kilobyte. He is a great antagonist, but doesn’t really grow as a character, and even when he gains a will of his own after being freed from his master’s commands, he becomes more forthright in his actions and a bit more crazy.

I’ve danced around Lady Illusion enough so let’s talk about her. She is like an alternate version of Mystique (fittingly her voice actress Tamara Bernier Evans went on to voice Mystique in Wolverine and the X-Men), a green-skinned elfin character whose hair is actually a living spider. She has a number of powers – shapeshifting, teleportation, spider-like powers, and can create deadly bombs that resemble crystal balls. For the first few episodes, she is a blank slate who suddenly gains a personality in the sixth episode, tired of the slow pace to victory and strikes out on her own with Lord Fear’s Amulet piece. She then bumps into Ace and they quickly fall in love through their confusion about the new world – and Ace apparently is very chaste for a 32-year old. However, Lady Illusion returns to Lord Fear’s side when he charges into the Thunder Tower (an abandoned observatory which serves as the heroes’ base) to save his relationship with the lady.

Explaining her character is difficult, since her character is for the most part written around her romance with Ace and loyalty to Lord Fear, though eventually the former wins out. She is an emotional, violent woman who won’t let anyone come between her and Ace, yet is unafraid to bomb him if he acts against her, a little hypocritical at times. The first episode of the second season had Ace and Sparx being sent back to the game, something which Lady Illusion could have done too if she hadn’t bombed them to begin with, and then she spends the next five episodes whining about Ace’s “treachery”.

Her rivalry with Sparx is something to behold. They just both want to destroy each other just for being around Ace, even though Sparx sees him as a friend. Lady Illusion’s loyalties are often tested on an episodic basis, particularly in the second season when her treachery is out in the open, and Kilobyte has a strange affection for her.

The rest of the badguys fall into archetypal roles – you’ve got Anvil and Pigface (Jerome Howard and Keith Knight) who are the dumb muscle, the crazy one Googler (Richard Binsley), the sneaky spy Dirty Rat (Adrian Truss) and the useless funny one Rotgut (Robert Tinkler). Dirty Rat is the only one who grows much as a character, befriending Duff and is a relatively alright chap when he isn’t being devious or cowardly. Googler is great fun, obviously paying tribute to the Joker, and is armed with a pair of talking sock puppets that can eat a person’s powers and even zombify Ace in one episode. Rotgut is introduced in the second season, a hilarious, overly sensitive undead cowboy who is more concerned with keeping is body in one piece than being evil. He also takes a liking to Chuck after getting the impression that they are friends, and stalks him with the intention on zombifying him. Anvil has a cool design (medieval rhino with an anvil for a hand) but his role as the dumb muscle limits his growth, while Pigface often hangs out with Dirty Rat and Duff and is the butt of Ace’s puns.

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The supporting cast of live action characters is vast, and most fit into roles seen in school dramas but there are a couple of note – obviously Duff Kent who is enslaved by the badguys and often has to grovel, an is put on the psychiatrist’s couch in a clip show episode. The other is Mr. Cheseborough (R.D. Reid), Mark’s science teacher, a grouchy man who has little faith in his students, wears badges expressing his ego, and deliberately marks quizzes incorrectly. He is abducted early on by the badguys in a plot to defeat Mark, and after released, he becomes convinced he was abducted by aliens. This becomes a running subplot throughout the series. The aforementioned Master Programmer becomes a major villain in the second season, controlling Kilobyte from behind-the-scenes.

The core of the drama centres around Mark’s struggles to balance his social life and superhero life, often making up excuses to protect his loved ones from harm. The writing is well aware of this, upping the ante with each episode when Lord Fear and co. start targeting Samantha or try to break into his house to assassinate him (with hilarious results). The episode “Nobody’s Hero” has Mark’s life falling apart around him with failing grades, diluted friendships, and being stalked by Lord Fear doesn’t help him. When he successfully summons Sparx, she is unconvinced he is a hero, which makes Mark snap and he quits being a hero then and there. He makes amends with Ace and Sparx in the next episode.

One issue I have with the show is that the game characters have little to zero backstory, thus why most fall into character archetypes – though this might have been done intentionally to show them as coming from a video game. Ace and Lord Fear are very bound by their roles before being fleshed out more as they interact with the real world. It is implied on and off that the characters are subconsciously aware that they originate from a game; in the pilot, Ace is shown tenderly touching a computer screen and bowing his head, and in the sixth episode, Lord Fear claims he and Lady Illusion are “programmed to be together”. This leads to some minor if not intriguing examinations of the nature of emotions in the game characters.

Philosophy aside, the show has an excellent production value. It was shot somewhere in Vancouver, the acting is good, and at times the blending of the computer animation in the real world is amazing. The quality of the CGI changes every few episodes, and in the third episode, it looks very poor, and there are some glitches if you look hard enough. The character designs were made by Matt Ficner, a talented puppeteer, artist, and designer who previously designed characters for one of the BBC’s many Noddy shows. I love the music in the series, particularly the kickass theme song, which was written by a rock band named Four Square.

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The second season likely had a bigger budget, with several characters getting complete redesigns (i.e. Pigface and Staff Head), and allowed for some more exciting action scene. Seriously, the car chase between the Doom Wagon and Mark driving a test car is really exciting. But like all good things, Ace Lightning was cancelled by the BBC before it could conclude and was left on a cliffhanger. A few years ago, I exchanged e-mails with the show creator Rick Siggelkow, and kind-of learnt that the show had been cancelled due to a lack of money from merchandise even though the BBC stopped producing memorabilia shortly after the first ten or so episodes were aired on TV.

Beyond the other fans I know, Ace Lightning has fallen in obscurity and occasionally I find comments on YouTube by people remembering it. But to me, it is a nostalgic and awesome piece of my childhood, with wonderful characters, great storytelling, and a rather nice production package (special effects, acting, music), and clear strong message encouraging viewers to find their inner hero, and as the code of the Lightning Knights goes – Do right and fear not.

Do you have any fond memories of Ace Lightning? What were your favourite characters or moments from the series? Do you remember any obscure shows that you wish were more known? Sound off in the comments below or post on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell