Photon (Full name Photon: The Ultimate Game on Planet Earth) was a 1987 live-action TV series and publicity device for a chain of nationwide laser tag arenas.
The story behind the show is that on every planet in the universe is a special "Photon Crystal." Every hundred years it expends its energy and must be recharged by being shot by a special laser gun, and the inherent good or evil of the person who recharges the crystal affects the entire planet: a heroic individual turns the planet into a world dedicated to good and brimming with life, while a villainous person turns the planet into a barren haven of evil.
Enter Christopher Jarvis, a teen who's just wild about the Photon game where he goes by the name Bhodi Li. When he gets a high score at his latest match he suddenly finds himself transported into space, and learns that the Photon game is actually used to recruit warriors to go around ensuring the sanctity of the Photon Crystals. While reluctant at first, Chris is soon heading down to the Photon Center whenever a special ring he wears flashes where he wins a game to signal the computer MOM to beam him up and join his alien allies in protecting another Photon Crystal, usually learning a life lesson along the way. Opposing them is the nefarious Warlord of Arr, whose minions' names also all ended in "arr" (and before you ask, yes, one of them was a pirate).
Running for only a single season and largely forgotten today, the show also managed to give rise to a series of YA novels penned by comic book writer Peter David; these books did a little to flesh out the somewhat sparse setting afforded by the show's low budget. There was also the one-shot book Thieves of Light aimed at slightly older readers that took the same setting and characters and made it all a bit less fanciful.
Unlike many shows made at the time, while there was only one season of 26 episodes, the show does have a series finale. Clips of the action sequences were later shown as the "Spaced-Out Theater" segment of Club Mario, the attempt at an update of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!.
- Action Girl: Tivia of Nivia, who's both a princess and a ninja, and tended to look down on puny males like Bhodi Li.
- An Aesop: Chris learned one in the course of every adventure. A lot were pretty standard (different doesn't mean bad, fear is all in your head, judge a person by their deeds and not how they look, etc.), but some were a little unexpected for this kind of show (like 'getting old isn't something to be afraid of, it just means you're good at different things' and 'don't take yourself too seriously, being able to laugh at your own expense is a virtue all its own').
- Bad Boss: Different treatment in the different media. In the books, the Warlord of Arr was tough on his minions for being defeated, saw them as expendable pawns and in one book came up with a scheme to secretly replace them for their regular defeats. In the show he tended to see them as assets to his cause and in a few instances even pulled them back to his fortress when the loss would've been permanent, even if it meant losing the planet they were fighting over. Since thanks to the budget, Status Quo Is God was especially in force.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: While this show had the standard aesop of "don't judge a book by its cover," it's noticeable that the character designers still mostly went by this maxim. The Photon Guardians consist of three humans including a ninja princess in form-fitting spandex, a sleek metal cyborg and two strange-looking but not mean-looking aliens. The Warlord's minions consist of one human dressed all in black with matching eyeliner and mind-controlling circuity all over his face, an overweight green cyborg pirate, and a bunch of unsightly alien monsters. In the pilot Chris even remarks "obviously a bad guy" upon seeing one of the Arrians, and is absolutely right.
- And the episode with that moral breaks it all on its own. At the end of the episode the World-Healing Wave of the heroes charging the crystal turns the two one-shot characters into reflections of their personalities: the unpleasant-looking but helpful rock guy's turned into a human, while the beautiful traitor's turned into a grotesque hag. So don't judge a book by its cover, just because someone doesn't look the same as you doesn't mean they're bad or dangerous...but being turned into an attractive caucasoid is a reward for good behavior, and you'll be punished for bad behavior by being made ugly. Especially since such results never happen from the Photon Warriors charging a Photon Crystal in any other episode.
- Black-and-White Morality: The heroes and villains literally represent light and darkness, life and death.
- Bond Villain Stupidity: The episode "Stalemate" has a confrontation between Bhodi Li and the Warlord of Arr himself. As epic as it sounds, when the Warlord sends his minions out to the latest planet he announces to them how he's going to be defeated by telling them he wants Bhodi to crawl and beg in front of him, instead of just blowing him away or having his army just drag Bhodi away to be brainwashed.
- Brainwashed and Crazy: Evil warrior Mandarr who is actually a kidnapped Photon champion named Evan Kiley. One episode is about restoring him to normal, but even though it works he feels too tainted by what he's done as Mandarr to ever be able to go back to being someone else.
- Card-Carrying Villain: The bad guys were bad and proud of it.
- Catchphrase: The heroes had "The light shines!" The villains' battle cry was "Let the darkness grow!"
- Additionally, instead of the usual "We'll be right back", and "Now back to our show" messages, the Ad Bumpers featured a different member of the good guys simply saying their battle cry ("The light shines!").
- Chroma Key: How most alien locales were realized in the show.
- Darker and Edgier: The Thieves of Light book that treats the confrontation as an actual war and the Photon Guardians as just one group of many. There's no jokes, no silliness, no rote moral lessons and nobody goes home between missions with no-one being the wiser about their double life; saving the universe is a full-time commitment.
- Death Is a Slap on the Wrist: The villains had the advantage of visiting the battlefield as energy constructs so that when they were shot they would be sent safely back to their bodies at their fortress without harm. They're Killed Off for Real when the source of their power is destroyed in the last episode, causing them all to disappear for good.
- Deus Exit Machina: Leon, the "finest warrior in the galaxy" and Pike, a blobby shapeshifter, were always the ones to stay behind and watch the ship.
- Evil Is Hammy: A lot of the villains but especially Mandarr, who mugged for the camera like he was trying to make up for how many of the other villains had inarticulate masks for faces.
- Eyepiece Prank: With the bonus gag that the victim now looks like "Raccoon Eyes" Mandarr, and gets an appropriate "panic" reaction by his teammates.
- Forgotten Phlebotinum: The Photon Guardians include a member who was a shape-shifter and one who was a wizard. These abilities were largely underused, since the show couldn't actually afford to show those special effects much.
- Generic Doomsday Villain: The Warlord of Arr wanted to cover the universe in darkness, but there was no real explanation as to who he was, where he came from or what he got out of it. The description given by one of the books (referencing Will Rogers of all people) trying to give his generic evilness some meaning was kind of admirable.
- Grand Finale: "Stalemate". The Warlord of Arr is destroyed, and without his power to sustain them his minions disappear, apparently for good. Both sides charge the crystal at the same time, though, and the episode ends on the heroes reflecting that even though they defeated the villains for good, there's no such thing as light without darkness and they'll always have to be watchful for new enemies.
- Gun Blade: Pirarr's weapon of choice was a cutlass with a laser in the tip.
- Hollywood Cyborg: The Photon Guardian Lord Baethen.
- Human Aliens: Most of the one-off characters. The only ones who merited big elaborate costumes were regular characters who showed up in most of the episodes.
- Informed Attribute: Mandarr was actually a Photon Warrior from Earth who was captured and brainwashed into service by the Arrians, and Bhodi/Chris really looks up to him and wants to bring him back into the light. It's a pity only one episode does anything with this idea, then, and the rest just treat Mandarr as a bad guy with a name, since it's easily one of the most effective episodes of the show.
- Insectoid Aliens: The villain Bugarr, who nonetheless had a posh English accent.
- Insert Song: Action sequences tended to have a recent popular song playing over them, even if they were wildly inappropriate for sci-fi laser battles ("Don't Stop Till You Get Enough"?). The first episode alone had "Footloose," and "Sussudio" by Phil Collins.
- Invisibility Cloak: Tivia has one.
- Kid-Appeal Character: Preteen Photon Guardian Parcival, who isn't much of a warrior, but is an inventive genius with a portable Magical Computer.
- Lady Land: The planet Nivia which is inhabited solely by female ninja warriors. The show mentions it's unknown how they "maintain their population," while the books had slightly more leeway allowing them to explain it's via "birthing centers" where cloned children come from.
- Medium Awareness: From "Just for Fun".Pike: Isn't this the time where we usually have to slug it out with an enemy ship or two?Leon: 'bout that time.
- Mooks: The mute, black-caped Soldarrs.
- More Expendable Than You: When Bhodi volunteers to destroy a black hole, Leon and Baethan want to do it instead. He tells them that he's the most expendable.
- Multi-Armed and Dangerous: The villain Warriarr is a four-armed colossus.
- Paper-Thin Disguise: In "No Laughing Matter" the Photon Guardians immediately recognize the heir of the planet they're going to as Mandarr in sunglasses and a turban, but he and his buddies doesn't recognize the heroes despite their disguises involving implements such as a wig, hat and pair of glasses.
- Recycled Premise: Rather blatantly took some cues from The Last Starfighter, with a game actually being a secret recruiting tool for an alien military unit.
- Slap-Slap-Kiss: Bhodi and Tivia, more so in the books.
- Starring Special Effects: The aliens.
- Status Quo Is God: As with many children's shows of the day, aside from the first and last ones the episodes can be watched in any order. Averted with the novel series, which has something of a linear continuity.
- Team Dad: Leon the dinosaur-guy.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: Pike the Photon Guardian had the power to change into any creature he could think of. Despite being an incredibly useful ability, he almost never actually did so on the show. In the books where budget wasn't such a concern he used it more often.
- What Measure Is a Mook?: Disturbingly, one episode ("Think Quick") reveals that Soldarrs are actually brainwashed inhabitants of conquered planets. Nothing's ever said about them disappearing back to the fortress when they die like the named villains, making it even worse.
- World-Healing Wave: One happens whenever the heroes charge a crystal and restore a planet. Usually has the side effect of blasting any villains still around into oblivion too.