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Ace Lightning: Unleashing A Heroic Children’s Classic

In 2023, the death knell for British children’s television was sounded. It was announced that both CBBC and CITV, both staples of weekday television, would both depart from mainstream television to be streaming-only entertainment. It was a dull blow for those who grew up with the channels. The early 2000s offered a diverse offering of shows, including Arthur, Mona the Vampire, The Story of Tracey Beaker, Young Dracula, and Shoebox Zoo. Then, there was Ace Lightning, one of my defining pieces of childhood superhero media.

Ace Lightning, an action-comedy superhero drama, was one of first television shows to feature computer-generated characters on a weekly basis. It was quite groundbreaking for the time. The British-Canadian production was the brainchild of award-winning producer Rick Siggelkow, known for other shows like Shining Time Station and The Noddy Shop. Similarly to his other works, the show featured a colourful cast, designed by puppeteer and concept artist Matt Ficner, who also worked on The Noddy Shop. The soundtrack, at least for the first season, was performed by the band Four Square, who gave us the wickedly nostalgic theme song above.

The Next Level – Our World

The premise itself is any twelve year old’s dream – what if video game characters appeared in the real world to play out their battles. That is the basic selling point of Ace Lightning, but was told in a serialised story that manages to hit a good balance between teenage drama and comic book action scenes.

Our hero is Mark Hollander (Thomas Wansey), a 13-year old British kid who moves to a small American town with his wacky parents. On a near-stereotypical dark and stormy night, Mark discovers a hidden seventh level in his favourite game “Ace Lightning and the Carnival of Doom”. A lightning bolt strikes the satellite dish on the roof, causing the game’s characters to appear in the real world, duking it out in Mark’s backyard.

The baffled Mark is recruited to be the sidekick of Ace Lightning (Michael Riley), the game’s archetypal superhero, a Lightning Knight, which is like an interdimensional cop. Ace is determined to capture and imprison his arch nemesis Lord Fear (Juan Chioran), a 352-year old lich whose accidental crippling by Ace was all the excuse he needed to pursue world domination. Lord Fear and his minions take over a local rundown funfair as the Carnival of Doom, beginning to search for the pieces of the Amulet of Zoar, a mystical artifact which will grant him untold power. Mark’s home and school life is soon turned upside down as he must play the game in order to win it and learn what it means to be a true hero.

Comic Book Inspirations

In the show’s original concept, the characters would emerge from a comic book rather than a video game. That changed once the production team learnt video gaming was a more popular pastime, but the inspiration from comics remains. Mark is directly based on Peter Parker, struggling to juggle his normal and superhero lives, with his school work and relationships suffering as he tries to keep his loved ones safe and oblivious. Ace himself is a fusion of Superman, Thor, and Spider-Man, following his code of “do right, and fear not” to the letter. As such, he struggles to adapt and understand to the real world, which he views as a mortal realm. He regards Mark as a work colleague than as a friend, but comes to adapt to the world and is evolving emotions and desires. Ace even mentions he has never flirted before!

Mark’s best friend is Chuck Mugel (Marc Minardi), a jolly gaming nerd and big Ace fan (“ALF”), who expresses great intelligence, even building his own robot. He becomes Ace’s secondary sidekick and tech guy in the second season. Rather than remain an immature and comical character, Chuck grows up maturely throughout the series, wishing to prove his worth and facing similar hurdles that Mark dealt with.

Programmed To Be Together

Romantic drama was a big part of Ace Lightning. Mark dates the sweet and patient Heather Thompson (Shadia Simmons), his next door neighbour. Sam never finds out about Mark’s secret life, but is often both tolerant and bothered by his weird behaviour. Thanks to the villains’ manipulations, they break up but remain as reconciled friends. Mark then dates Sam’s fiery best friend Heather Hoffs (Petra Wildgoose), but their relationship soon crumbles when Heather grows tired of Mark’s excuses. Samantha would move away to a boarding school, only appearing sporadically in the second season. Mark would then date Kat Adams (Ashley Leggat), a stubborn, opinionated girl who begins piecing together Mark’s connection to the carnival and Ace Lightning, uncovering the truth.

On Ace’s side, he falls in love with Lady Illusion (Tamara Bernier Evans), a spider-haired, shapeshifting villainous who is Lord Fear’s “snookums”. Questions on the ethics of a romance with 300-year old skeleton aside, Ace and Lady Illusion first attracted to each other through feeling out of place in the real world, making things very personal for Lord Fear. Lady Illusion covers her tracks by returning to Fear’s side, but her romance with Ace only deepens. Lady Illusion’s loyalties are divided, but she ultimate sides with Ace in the first season’s finale. However, their romance is rather tumultuous, with Lady Illusion often threatening to murder Ace’s friends to have him to herself. I suppose that is what happens between two game characters who have never experienced a proper relationship before.

A Roster of Colorful Characters

The supporting live action cast was surprisingly large for a children’s series. Mark sent webcam messages to his friend Pete Burgess, played by Devon Anderson, who would appear in other CBBC shows like Kerching, and go on to star in EastEnders. Another notable character is Mark’s apathetic science teacher, Mr. Cheseborough (R.D. Reid), who is kidnapped by Lord Fear and left with the impression he was abducted by aliens. This becomes a recurring subplot where Cheseborough grows increasingly paranoid as time goes on, until he exits the show as a ranting maniac and branded a public menace.

New characters would be summoned from the game overtime. Ace would be joined by fan favourite Sparx (Deborah O’Dell), a gung-ho heroine who flew around on the Lightning Flash, a hover jet ski. She is a skilled swordswoman and gymnast, but her arrogance often clouds her judgement. Her rivalry with Lady Illusion is pretty vicious, leading to a cat fight whenever they meet. By far the most compelling character is Random Virus (Cal Dodd), Ace’s best friend, who is a troubled cyborg with a scrambled program. He suffers from split personality, having a psychotic evil side, and a depressed good side who hides away in a junkyard. Ace and Lord Fear try to coax him to their side, which only makes his condition worse. His evil side views all goodness and cowardice as weaknesses, but he carries a sense of honour, refusing to attack Mark when he stands up to him. Random often fights with his own programming, having moments of triumph when he comes to the rescue.

The villains are a fun bunch, spawning anew like video game enemies after being defeated. Lord Fear is aided by his frog-like minion, Staff Head, a snobby but loyal figurehead (Michael Lamport); the cowardly opportunist Dirty Rat (Adrian Truss), a flying rat clown; Anvil (Howard Jerome), a medieval-themed dumb rhinoceros; the disgusting warthog Pigface (Keith Knight); maniacal jester Googler (Richard Binsley) and his lively sock puppets; and the lovingly incompetent western zombie Rotgut (Robert Tinkler). Enslaved to the gang is Duff Kent (Philip Williams), the carnival’s true owner, who chauffeurs the villains in his ice cream truck. Duff has a close friendship with the Rat, going through moral dilemmas of self-survival, even ending up on a psychiatrist’s couch in one clip show episode.

At first, the game characters are very much archetypes – Ace is the witty do-gooder, Lord Fear is a buffoonish megalomaniac, etc. This appears to be intentional, giving the CGI cast an anchor point, before a majority of them slowly break away from their programming to become fleshed out characters. There were early hints that the characters knew they were from a game, but this story thread was forgotten until towards the end of the first season. Lord Fear even makes a claim that he and Lady Illusion are “programmed to be together”. The dramatic love triangle between Ace, Lord Fear, and Lady Illusion was pretty thrilling, often hitting harder with the same emotional swings as Mark’s love life.

Darker Designs

The second season introduces the intimidating Kilobyte (Ted Atherton), the Cyber Stalker. Cold, calculating, and patient, Kilobyte focuses on slowly destroying Ace like a hunt. Armed with tentacles that carry immense though explained power, Kilobyte mutated a normal wasp into a giant named Fred; gives Lady Illusion the power to infect Ace with chaotic humans emotions; and gifts Lord Fear with a badass coffin-motorbike called the Doom Wagon. His true endgame is unclear, but he leaves an unsettling, creepy presence, especially with the way he likes caressing Lady Illusion with his tentacles.

Kilobyte is under the control of the mysterious Master Programmer, a shadowy hacker and mastermind, whose true identity is so obvious it hurts. He is actually Rick Hummel (Brett Heard), a computer store owner and actual programmer of Mark’s version of the game. In a better handled clip episode, Rick explains he designed a revolutionary program that would let video game characters appear in the real world, and for whatever reason, he was mocked and fired for his creation. In what insane universe would a corporate bigwig not bank on this selling point? Rick snuck his program into Mark’s game, plotting to rule the world through Lord Fear’s victory, but made Kilobyte once he failed. A convenient blackout short circuits Rick’s mainframe, allowing Kilobyte to go AWOL and plot his schemes for world domination.

Kilobyte’s master plan is a little bizarre, plotting to somehow trap all of mankind in the game and take over the world. He starts with Rick. The exciting finale has Ace and Lord Fear team up to destroy Kilobyte. They send Kilobyte packing, only for Lord Fear to then mortally wound Ace. But, the injured Ace is actually Lady Illusion in disguise, causing Fear to flee. Lady Illusion dies in Ace’s arms, though it was confirmed that she would return in the cancelled third season.

Game Over

Plans for the third season included the introduction of a new villainess named Candy Floss, a punk rock gothic archer, whilst Kilobyte and Rick would remain trapped in the game, working together to find a way out. But why was the series cancelled?

In an interview with Joseph Marshall, Rick Siggelkow revealed its rather ironic fate. The BBC chose to actually make a trio of rather shoddy video games based on the show. The costs of the real games’ development, their poor quality, tepid reviews, and lacks of sales led to the BBC being unable to financially support the show, pulling the plug on Ace Lightning. It took me years to learn the truth, so it brought a sense of catharsis twenty years later. The irony for the show’s cancellation is fitting, though disappointing. The BBC have had very little experience in video game development, and it blatantly shows through the production value of the three games.

They were released on the PC, PlayStation 2, and the Game Boy Advance. I owe all three naturally. The PlayStation version was an expansion of the PC game, with slightly improved graphics and an additional two levels. The Game Boy addition was a 2D side scrolling platformer, probably being the most faithful and varied of the games. The gameplay was basic, but were plagued by awkward controls and boring battle mechanics. All the exciting titbits of the show’s fictional game were absent, such as being able to play as Sparx, donning disguises, and even having story options which could decide what alignment Random Virus fell into.

There’s A Hero In Us All

Regardless, there are fans who still remember the series fondly, such as myself, and Scottish painter William Hayward, who has interviewed several members of the cast and crew on his YouTube channel. The aforementioned Joseph Marshall has dedicated himself to restoring and preserving obscure children’s shows, including those developed by Rick Siggelkow. These shows can be viewed on his second YouTube channel.

As with all shows made by the BBC, it was required that Ace Lightning have some educational value. Well, the Beeb was often snobbish and disapproving towards video games, so that was out. Instead, , its core message was about being a hero and the means to become one, like being there for your friends and learning to be brave. Twenty-two years on, Ace Lightning holds a special place in my heart, but it also represents untapped potential. In today’s society where both superheroes and games dominate pop culture, there is an audience awaiting the revival of this overlooked children’s classic.

This article is dedicated in loving memory to Ace Lightning heroes no longer with us:
Keith Knight (Pigface), R.D. Reid (Mr. Cheseborough), and Michael Lamport (Staff Head)

Did you grow up with Ace Lightning? Who were your favourite characters or moments of the show? Would you love to see a revival? Leave comments on our Twitter feed.

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Mark Russell

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