After playing Mortal Kombat 1’s story mode I found myself wanting more — especially of what we saw in those first two acts. But beyond that, I realized what I really crave is a true prequel. Something that feels like its own fresh story while feeding into other parts of the lore.
MK1 somewhat accomplishes this, changing just enough to feel fresh. But maybe what we genuinely need is closer to a serial story, with familiar characters that have untold twists and origins. What we need now is another MK television event.
Mortal Kombat: Conquest was originally titled Krusades, but was changed due to Babylon 5’s upcoming spinoff being called Crusade. The idea for the series was born out of the success of the 1995 film, and it somehow survived that catastrophe known as Annihilation and ended up on the TNT network. That’s where I first saw it and realized my desire for a true prequel series.
At the time a third movie was still planned – though it would later be canceled – so visiting something earlier in the timeline seemed like a good idea.
Set nearly 500 years in the past viewers follow The Great Kung Lao. He’s a Mortal Kombat champion after delivering Outworld a crushing defeat, but being Earthrealm’s greatest warrior isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Now, he must (poorly) attempt to gather new fighters to help in the realm’s defense while still coming under fire from various schemes of mainstay villains like Shang Tsung, Quan Chi, and Shao Kahn, who care little for the Elder God’s pesky rules.
He isn’t alone though, as disgraced guard Siro, and thief Taja join him in his mission. However, the trio spends most of their time bickering and having to save each other. They do receive some guidance from Raiden when he isn’t too busy being antagonistic toward his charges — or just horny at the bar.
Conquest does realize that no matter what time period they’re in, fans want to see their favorites. As such, we’re given watered-down precursor versions of Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Reptile. We also get brief appearances from other notable characters who barely speak or don’t act the way we’ve come to know them.
A few characters created for the show do connect back to the games and comics or perhaps act as early potential prototypes. Kreeya and her race of bee women resemble a small screen and less fleshed-out path to D’Vorah, while Master Cho could be connected to Bo’ Rai Cho, Tomas a distant relative of Johnny Cage, and fans get a pre-Deadly Alliance team-up of Shang Tsung and Quan Chi.
If that sounds like it could get quite messy with keeping the lore intact, it did. It seems that at one point the idea was for Conquest to be canon with the movies at least, but that looks to have gone out the window rather quickly. Even if the showrunners had done a better job making the histories match, they weren’t giving their characters enough to work with. From episode to episode it seems the main players struggle with their own continuity, they rarely learn anything from previous events.
There are also drastic swings in allegiances, as well as motivations that don’t quite line up with previous plots. It can be hard to follow some of the overarching narrative, and every other episode ends with a tease that never comes to fruition. Sometimes, a new villain is teased, only for the ball to be dropped shortly thereafter. The problem isn’t that the characters are bad concepts, but with how they’re written. Just as it seems like we are getting into their relationships and chemistry, the show ends.
The acting in Conquest is a mixed bag. A few standout performances with some of the worst line reads imaginable and a good bit of ADR—thankfully, they kill off a lot of characters, getting rid of the worst offenders early on. Furthermore, only two of the performers in this show about fighting are actually trained martial artists: Jeffrey Meek (who pulls double duty as Raiden and Shao Khan) and Daniel Bernhardt (Siro), who ironically—because of MK’s origins—previously worked as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s stunt double. This was also one of Kristanna Loken’s (Terminator 3, BloodRayne) first big roles, as Taja, who is a bit all over the place.
Jaime Pressly (Dead or Alive, My Name is Earl) has a recurring part, as well as Eva Mendes (Hitch, Ghost Rider) in one of her earliest acting gigs. A special shout out to Adoni Maropis (Quan Chi) and Bruce Locke (Shang Tsung) who just tried so hard to get into those characters and fiercely chew that scenery. Also, since Conquest aired immediately after WCW Nitro, wrestlers Wrath and Meng made individual one-off guest appearances, which were supposedly ordered by the network.
Conquest has a few martial artists (Chris Casamassa as Scorpion and J.J. Perry as Sub-Zero are of note) and crew who worked on the feature films lending their talents to the show. Non-MK fans were mostly tuning in for the sex appeal and fight scenes, which wasn’t bad for those who aren’t bothered by easy-to-spot stunt doubles, dubious wirework, and bad effects. The CGI used to accompany these fight scenes and enhance other shots has aged poorly, and even the bits that looked fine then had a certain television quality that hurt them. This is especially true in some of the establishing shots when they grew tired of reusing segments from the movies.
Shooting at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, Florida meant that there were some excellent sets that had to be kept scaled-down. It also a few cheap ones where the ground is supposed to be a cave floor, but we can clearly see the carpet moving with the characters. Most episodes feature shirtless men and an abundance of scantily clad women, even when it doesn’t fit the settings. A majority of these ladies were portrayed by former Playboy playmates and models in questionable outfits.
Supposedly, when the budget was trimmed down, the first thing that was gutted was costuming. If there was any question that these two aspects were the highlight of the show, the credits roll over footage recapping the best fight scenes and sexy moments from that episode. The real star, however, is Jonathan Sloate’s soundtrack. He did the music for both Conquest and Defenders of the Realm, with intense tunes that ramped up the fight scenes.
For some, the best part of Conquest was its ending. The season concludes with a stunning cliffhanger, as Shao Kahn’s plans come together, and he is seen vanquishing all of his enemies, including other villains and main characters alike. A lot of evidence points to the cast at least believing there would be a follow-up (and potentially final) season to further tie the show back into the movie timelines and set up Kung Lao’s death.
According to writer James Cappe, no “full plans” had been made, but apparently, ideas were tossed around. Like many fans, he enjoyed the final episode but hated that the show ended on that note.
The cancellation was a little surprising, as Conquest had a lot going for it and was – according to the creators – being received fairly well domestically and popular overseas. Some think the show was canceled due to Annihilation’s poor reception, others point to “industry politics” and controversy caused by the games, but it seems the real culprit was the cost of each episode and the show often exceeding their budget.
Maybe Mortal Kombat: Conquest was too ahead of its time, or perhaps bringing the stories of Mortal Kombat to life is still too massive an undertaking for a television budget. But that opening monologue by Kevin Michael Richardson gets me every time. Knowing the team wasn’t given a solid chance makes me feel like we have to do it again — to honor the creatives’ ambition.