Star Fleet - The Complete Series Review
The year is 2099. Space War III has ended and the galaxy is once again enjoying a time of peace. Our solar system, with the earth as its leader, is slowly rebuilding, attempting to forge new hope out of the ashes of devastation. ‘Star Fleet’ - the spearhead of earth’s defences - is commanded here at the headquarters of EDF: Earth Defence Forces.
However, just sixth months before the turn of the new millennium, Pluto base is lost during an assault from the Imperial Alliance. Nothing is known of the alien invaders, but Commander Makara of the Thalian fleet doesn’t mess about, and informs earth that it shall befall the same fate should they fail to hand over the F-Zero-1. The EDF insist that they have no idea what this item is, and in a refusal to be taken hostage, call upon the actions of Professor Hagan, who has been working on the secret X-Project for a number of years. From earth’s hidden moon-base resides the X-Bomber: a ship armed to the teeth with awesome firepower, but nobody to pilot it. Enter Hagen’s son Shiro, Barry Hercules and John Lee; three promising young pilots from the academy, who under the guidance of Dr Ben must ready themselves for the ultimate onslaught. Joining them is Ben’s secretary - the beautiful Lamia - and her companion Kirara, along with the annoying droid PPA.
Just what is the F-Zero-1 and why does the Imperial Alliance want it so badly?
Ah, nostalgia. I’ve spoken a bit of nostalgia in the past, as those of you may already know having read my various coverage of eighties toons. For those like myself who grew up during that time Star Fleet represented quite a turning point in children’s television. It wasn’t particularly new in the strictest sense, but it came across quite unlike anything else we had seen on TV. There were repeats of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlett of course, while live-action fare such as Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers entertained on a different scale. Go Nagai’s Star Fleet, or X-Bomber as it’s known in its native Japan, came at a time when science fiction was enjoying a new lease of life. It didn’t just have Anderson and Glen A. Larson to thank for its inspiration, but so too a fellow by the name of George Lucas, who had unwittingly revolutionised, and indeed revitalised the genre in 1977; his success with Star Wars having made such an unparalleled impact on the entertainment industry, that every studio going was eager to tap into what made it so great. Around that time Japan had already dabbled in a few cheesy science fiction flicks in an attempt to recapture the spirit of their old fifties and sixties offerings, whilst also utilising the latest in pioneering effects. Along with obvious western influences the creators of Star Fleet would also turn to hit Toei features such as War in Space and Message from Space, the latter proving to inspire some of the series’ own concepts.
A man by the name of Kimio Ikeda, producer at JIN (whose own fascination with Thunderbirds later led him onto direct the anime adventure series Thunderbirds 2082) had originally conceptualised the project as a new breed of ‘Supermarionation’. Leaving the painstaking duties of realising characters, environments and technical design to manga legend Go Nagai he aimed to create a series unlike any other, one that would provide plenty of depth along with a unique visual style, which would see Japan continue to prove itself just as well as the U.S. and U.K. in the field of special effects work. Go Nagai called upon his good friend and occasional collaborator Keisuke Fujikawa to write the series, while his staff were veterans in their field, having worked on several other SF features for the likes of Toei. It was a grand undertaking indeed; a risky endeavour which unfortunately didn’t do enough in the ratings to secure a further run of episodes. It practically bombed in Japan when it originally aired in 1980, attaining but a small cult audience. But their hard work wasn’t in vain. Shortly afterward its international distribution rights were purchased. Leah Productions worked on re-editing, re-dubbing and re-scoring the series for a UK audience and in 1982 it aired, securing a large fan-bass. Since that time Star Fleet seems to have earned more admiration overseas than in its homeland, becoming one of those shows that crops up in conversation from time to time to remind us of our days obsessed with giant robots and explosions. Oh, wait a minute…
If not exactly original Star Fleet’s narrative is a fully developed one; a space opera in the truest sense of the word, it’s lovingly crafted like the best of old serials as it sets up cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger over an established six month timeline (this would have mirrored the original Japan and subsequent UK run). It’s a series which isn’t ashamed of making its influences known, as evidenced in blatant recreations of scenes from Star Wars, from the numerous cockpit/turret encounters to rescue missions and imposing vessels slowly trawling across the screen, and indeed it seems to embrace all the best clichés in the book. Yet Star Fleet makes for compulsive viewing all the same and is undeniably edgy in its storytelling. Imbued with a fairly dark streak Go Nagai’s series seems to harbour some deep issues, with bitter resentment toward human conflict, and as it further goes to offer more twists and turns whereby bonds are broken and sacrifices are made, it begins to show a kind of cynicism which could be deemed misplaced within a piece of children’s entertainment. Much of it remains predictable, some of it quite shocking, with the director having the balls to take daring risks as our heroes place their lives on the line for a cause they don’t fully understand. As the series progresses and the sub-plots and further character introductions begin to converge the mystery of it all becomes quite enchanting, but in a way it’s equally as draining.
The first few episodes are simply all about the soldiers finding their feet, thrust into a fierce conflict as earth’s last hope for humanity. Glossing over how they even learn to pilot the Dai-X it quickly establishes the kind of people they are, and here is where the Star Wars nods rear themselves once more. Forming the trio we have Shiro, the whiny Luke Skywalker clone, who’s kitted out in almost the exact same attire, save for a helmet which he never removes; the awesomely named Barry Hercules (though I’m not sure which more awesome considering his Japanese counterpart is Bongo) who’s your typical gung-ho, opinionated dude; and finally the dulcet-toned John Lee, who remains fully laid back and unashamedly modest. The relationship here, for all it’s archetypical parts is one that’s continually tested, seeing to it that a lot of the time these chaps struggle to do anything else but bicker amongst themselves, not forgetting that they‘re also highly arrogant products of a federation whose training methods must be questionable at best. And that’s where we have the counter-balance in Dr. Ben and his secretary Princess Lamia. It’s Ben’s job to keep the guys on the rails and focused on the mission at hand, while Lamia (Princess Leia) provides the overall backbone of the series. She’s the moral fibre if you will, one who brings into play a certain kind of idealism. She often questions certain ethics and ponders upon the ignorance of mankind, never letting the crew who are protecting her forget that their actions can sometimes lead on to worse things. We see that they’re not quite so clean-cut, in fact on occasion they’re utterly detestable, especially when encountering unknown alien species to which they’ve been taught to fire first and ask questions later. This naturally leads on to some debatable issues and unsurprisingly Go Nagai coats much of it in syrupy exchanges and high melodrama. Lamia even goes so far to try and reason with her pursuers - “Why must we fight?” she continually asks. And that would be the question we’ve all been asking since the dawn of time; it’s a tad preachy on occasion, but then you can‘t argue against its sincerity in trying to get through to youngsters. By now this all sounds so depressing, but let it not be said that the series isn’t fun. In fact to further throw in your typical stock players we do have bouts of light comic relief in the form of cypher droid PPA, while Lamia’s beastly protector Kirara grunts hysterically a lot.
But it’s the bad guys who take top honours in this department without question. Despite being quite disturbing in their appearance, from the standard Termoid soldiers, to multi-faced weirdness-ness, one can’t help but be consistently entertained as they effortlessly manage to screw up each task they set for themselves. The ruthless Commander Makara - delightfully voiced by show-stealer Denise Bryer - constantly shouts at her snivelling Captain, laying blame on him time and again over his incompetence in trying to capture Lamia. The further the plot thickens the more her desperation for survival deepens, with the ever-looming threat of execution hanging over her head. As the Imperial Master becomes increasingly impatient, she thinks up different ways to save her own skin by pointing fingers at Orion. We do feel sorry for him after a while, the poor loyal fool, right up to the end when he seems to have some sort of epiphany. And it’s really just these two who run the entire operation, with just a couple of guest baddies appearing throughout the twenty-odd episode run. The Imperial Master does indeed make a grand appearance as things reach their climactic conclusion, which sees the show mix up puppetry with live acting - a rare occurrence, save for the Dai-X moments.
Of course Star Fleet wouldn’t be the same without its marvellous designs. While the narrative might start to grate from time to time it’s the overall aesthetic appeal which lends the series a certain grace and keeps us glued to the screen. While comparisons to Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlett are inevitable given that very few production houses were churning out this kind of entertainment, Star Fleet remains unique unto itself. Employing a different strategy by opting for rod-based puppets it immediately lacks the kind of fluidity seen in Gerry Anderson’s creations (though it’s interesting to note that Anderson’s Terrahawks would seemingly take leaf out of this process not long after); we rarely see anything below the waist, which means that much of the dialogue-based scenes are tightly shot. However, as dull as that might sound the series is beautifully composed, with no frame wasted. Nagai makes the most of his situations, not only by employing some fine cinematography, but also in wonderfully lighting each episode. Moreover the stylized character designs, which are unmistakably manga-like in appearance benefit from their large, expressive eyes, with the sheer diversity of the cast always keeping things interesting. It’s all largely thanks to the tireless efforts of puppet master Ryuji Kawasaki, whose initiative in overcoming such budgetary constraints leaves us owing that much more respect to the series.
Ultimately where Star Fleet excites is in its set-pieces and attention to detail. The scale of the show is impressive as is the level of skill employed in delivering some tense action. The numerous environments showcase some tremendous work, especially in how successfully the miniature effects work in tandem with the suited-up action. The star would initially seem to be Dai-X: X-Bomber’s trump card. When joining their three ships together (this was already a trademark of Go Nagai) Shiro, Hercules and Lee form the ultimate super-weapon; a red behemoth capable of taking down an entire fleet. However, Dai-X is surprisingly underused, having very little screen time up until around episode eleven when he actually gets to do a little more than simply smash up rocks and pose a lot. But it’s a guy in a suit, and that makes for some sweet Kaiju goodness. Then we have Makara’s ship, a giant space-louse which is home to a fleet of Astro Fighters which launch from independent carriers. Moments involving the little insect ships leave their docks, while the inter-locking mechanisms of Dai-X show are captivating and show a real love in trying to create a workable technology; there are also several episodes in which we see some brilliant remote-controlled sequences involving racing vehicles. It all paves the way for some epic encounters, some a little repetitive and others - such as the Death Ball - benefiting from the odd bout of insanity. But really they’re an incredible sight to behold, for which my words do little justice. All this of course is masterfully punctuated by Paul Bliss’s electric space funk, and if you wish to know a little more about that then I shall refer you to the recent interview I conducted with the man himself here
There are a few caveats, however, none more offending than the two episodes which offer 95% of flashbacks; the first one coming just eight episodes in! It’s writing at its laziest, though at least they can be forwarded through after the opening couple of minutes. Another problem is the romantic undertones which have been shoehorned in to the narrative just to make sure the producers haven’t forgotten to tick off a clichéd plot device. It’s quite loosely played between Shiro, Hercules and Lamia. Not only is this subplot poorly written, it’s not helped in the slightest by some awkward acting. Being fully aware though that shows of its time were often dubbed under difficult conditions whereby timed cue sheets would race at the speed of knots before the actor’s very eyes, it’s easy to forgive such concessions. Besides, for the most part it’s all part of the charm even if it may cause a fair few unintentional giggles along the way.
The first thing you notice are the newly created menu screens, which are pleasant to look at, if not slightly cumbersome to use when going from one to the next.
Those expecting to see something amazing here will be in for slight disappointment. Despite reportedly being ‘remastered’ there’s very little to suggest so, though I personally find the word is banded around a bit too much these days and means very little. It’s to be expected that it wouldn’t look as good as the Japanese DVDs put out a couple of years ago, seeing as we’re looking at what would be completely different masters. The episodes here appear to be sourced from broadcast tapes, and much like Fabulous Film’s Mysterious Cities of Gold they’re a mixed assortment. Overall the quality lacks consistency, with some episodes being notably softer and fuzzier than others; some exhibiting green-ish tints, slight colour bleed or washed out tones, while a few are nicely detailed with a good overall balance. One thing that does remain consistent throughout, however, is haloing. I can’t quite determine if it’s edge enhancement or some old tape by-product, but it’s a little irritating, along with a spot of ghosting, which I wouldn‘t have thought would be an issue presuming they could obtain PAL masters. It’s all perfectly watchable and I should point out that they presented in their original 4:3 ratio, preserved in a window box.
Likewise the sound has its share of issues. While there’s nothing particularly awful about the 2.0 DD English track, it does require you to turn up the volume levels considerably; doing that though shows up a bit of background hiss. The main problems it has, and again this imposed itself upon the MCOG set, is that it suffers from occasional warping and drop outs. By the latter I don’t mean a full silence, but a tendency for the volume level to drastically drop for about a second. Thankfully it’s a rare occurrence, while the warping is a little more frequent during the score. With the bad stuff out of the way that leaves things pretty respectable. These days a show like this would sound unbelievable in all its 5.1 glory, but as it stands we have a decent central channel that remains true to the original broadcasts.
But again, I find myself disappointed that Fabulous Films has failed to subtitle another great show. It’s a shame that a lot of kids and adults might miss out on this one.
Following on from The Mysterious Cities of Gold Fabulous Films have decided to offer some nice little extras for this set. There’s certainly some decent stuff here, but it’s also not without fair share of fluff.
Disc 1’s text-based features are fairly light, with the least interesting being a lengthy ‘Series Synopsis’ and ‘Dubbing Cast List’, the latter nothing more than list actor name next to character. ‘Series Background’ by Momosuke Yamiryu proves to be a very good introduction to the series, touching upon the show’s development roots and how it succeeded in branching out ideas. Disc 2 also offers very little, with ‘Character Profiles’ being exactly that - short write-ups on all the main players - while ‘Machine Profiles’ is largely the same, but a tad more detailed in that it also includes some geeky trivia as to the width and height in meters of the space craft.
Disc 3 is where things improve with ‘The story of production’ (33.38) being the main attraction of the set: a nice and detailed enough look at the genesis of the show. Series creator Go Nagai kicks off the piece, recollecting his fondness for Star Wars and his attempts to create something of similar ilk, pitching it as a new kind of Thunderbirds at the time. As his first and only marionette series he talks very enthusiastically about the project; telling plenty of production tales, and even mentioning a few regrets, such as not being able to do bigger things due to a small budget. He talks about the puppets and miniature effects, which culminates in the sad knowing that all those lovely models perished in a fire, and speaks about his surprise of the show becoming a hit in the UK. Anyway, he pops up often, while in-between we have further input from Gerry Anderson, who talks of his admiration for the series and also informs of how certain things were done back in his day on Thunderbirds, including the benefits of working with wires. Things move on to the dubbing side, where we meet Louis Elman, the English dubbing director, who talks of receiving the series, sans audio, and given the task of reshaping it with his small team. Peter Marinker (voice of Dr Ben Robinson) also makes a welcome appearance, while composer Paul Bliss chimes in very briefly a couple of times with an audio interview.
‘Brian May’s Promo Video’ (4.29). That’s right, THE original 1983 video featuring the disembodied head of ace guitarist Brian May recreating the classic closing theme, with a quality guitar solo thrown in featuring EddieVan Halen. The video quality isn’t too bad, although this has been boxed in, presumably to make the resolution appear better. It’s certainly a lot nicer to look at than the Youtube versions doing the rounds.
Disc 4 goes back to basics with a collection of photographs. First up is a ‘Stills Gallery’ of 17 pics, which features the character models and mech designs. ‘Behind the Scenes Gallery’ includes an assortment of 13 black & white and colour photos showing various members of the Japanese crew hard at work, while ‘Collectibles Gallery’ shows off some of the various toys and albums from Japan and Europe.
Looking back at fondly remembered television shows of my childhood and then having to write about them through grown-up eyes is what probably tests me the most at DVD Times; after all we’re talking nostalgia here, and sometimes we don’t want to take off those rose-tinted specs in fear of the worst. Thankfully Star Fleet still kicks a shed load of arse. Nostalgia, yes, in the words of Commander Makara herself - “IT IS VERY GOOD!”