Life after Power Rangers: shiny, sharp and superhuman

Dominic Murphy on Reboot, the computer-animated television series that has taken America by storm
Five years ago, four men in silly reptile costumes - aka the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - starred in the biggest-grossing independent film of all time, which went on to become the children's toy sensation of the decade. Now, the film's producer s, Limelight, could be on the brink of something similar. Those who thought that Power Rangers-style mania went out with Christmas, might well have to think again.

The root of this turtle-fuelled sense of deja vu is a children's television series called Reboot - a heroes and villains cartoon in cyberspace - that has already been sold to television networks around the world. When the first episode ran in October on America's ABC, its viewers (young children and adult science-fiction fans - or Trekkies) broke records, knocking Sonic the Hedgehog off the top position and staying there.

The series made its British debut last week and already the merchandising bandwagon is rolling. Reboot fanatics can choose between branded clothes, plastic toys, biscuits, KP "Skips", bubble bath, watches, action adventure books, training shoes, lunch-boxes and flasks.

Reboot, the world's first entirely computer-animated television series, is set in the city of Mainframe, a cartoon world within a computer. While computer graphics dictate the shiny surfaced and sharp-edged look, the idea has its roots in super-human encounters of the Marvel comics kind - typical of children's television.

The main character is Bob, a hero of the Luke Skywalker school, who divides his time between fighting baddies and fending off natural disasters in the city. Bob's entourage includes Dot (potential love interest), Enzo and Frisket, a canine R2D2. Villainscome in the form of computer viruses, like Megabyte and his cruel henchmen, Hack and Slash. While Bob and Megabyte battle in familiar good-versus-evil fashion, Bob also tries to fight off Mainframe's equivalent of earthquakes - games loaded on to the Mainframe world and played by invisible "users" of the computer. Imagine Batman fighting the Penguin while an unseen force is chucking missiles at Gotham City, and you get the picture.

To many adults, this bewildering concept will serve as a reminder that they have not got a fix on the world of screen games, in which characters "erase" instead of kill, "trash", "file lock", "rehash" and, of course, "reboot".

When it was researched, some children found the concept hard to understand, says Reboot's executive producer, Steve Barron. But this turned out not to be a problem; typically, children approached the first half-hour episode in the same way they would a computer game. "They throw away the instruction book as soon as they get it. They don't want to know what's coming, they want to discover it. It's the same with this. We want them to puzzle out what's happening.

"I was in a pizza parlour in Los Angeles recently where customers have got used to seeing kids playing Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. This time I saw three of them banging their chests and shouting `Reboot!' "

Parents may be happy to learn, however, that there is very little Power Rangers-style scrapping. "Reboot is a different kettle of fish," says Richard Morss, senior producer of children's programmes at Meridian, which acquired the programme for British television. "The whole thesis is that the characters win by their intelligence and skill rather than by any mystic eastern combat techniques."

Indeed, Reboot is simply reworking an old, and extremely successful, idea in literature and film - that of toys coming to life. The only difference in this case is that Reboot involves not teddies in the wardrobe but the computer on the table. Throw in adose of attitude, with flying skateboards as a popular form of transport, and the winning formula is complete.

Much of Reboot's $6m cost has gone on setting up the computer programme. Each character and background has to be painstakingly "rendered" - all vital statistics fed into a computer. From then on, it is plain sailing - at a much reduced cost. "Once you'veset up Bob and his walk cycle," Barron explains, "all you have to do is press a button and see him walk."

Even so, realism in the Jurassic Park vein this is not - the powerful equipment was needed for the sheer bulk of work. Instead, there is a faux naif quality to Reboot - more Thunderbirds than Terminator 2. "Reboot should look like an arcade game," says Barron. Juvenile intent is very much part of the show."