Japan sure loves Thunderbirds…

Posted by DiGiKerot in Old!, Random Stuff at January 6, 2010 on 10:30 pm

Or at least Japan’s animators seem to love Gerry Anderson. I mean, that surely is Thunderbird 2 that Imo-chan is riding upon there. Not that this is the only blatant Thunderbirds reference in anime, of course, rather it’s just the one which is sitting most recently in my mind. Here’s Thunderbird 2 in Otaku no Video, for another example.

See it up there on the bookcase? Good.

Then there was Technovoyager, the show which was so much like Thunderbirds that they localised it as Thunderbirds 2086. What I’m actually intending to write about here, though, is what happened back at the beginning of the 80’s, when a Japanese production group (including Go Negai, of all people) decided that it’s sure be a neat idea to do their own their own marionette show. which resulted in X-Bomber.

Which promptly, by all accounts, kind of bombed in Japan. It’s probably safe to assume it did regardless of any accounts, though – it’s not like Japanese animation history is exactly saturated with puppet shows. It did, however, end up getting versioned for UK TV under the title Star Fleet, where it ended up gaining a lot of fans – most bizarrely Queen guitarist Brian May, who somehow managed to convince Eddie Van Halen to play on a cover version of the shows ending theme.

Like a lot of the weird stuff that somehow managed to make it’s way onto UK TV back in the 80’s, the show was then promptly forgotten by all but a handful of fanboys. It’s not like many people had VCR’s back then, and only a couple of compilation movies made their was onto retail VHS (which is how I originally saw it – I’m a little too young to remember it’s TV broadcast). Since then, the only real availability for a long time was a Japanese DVD boxset which happened to have one of the English compilation movies on it, which went out of print kind of quickly. Thankfully, Fabulous Films managed to clear the licensing hell that it’d no doubt fallen into (much like they managed with Mysterious Cities of Gold) and released the English version of the series on DVD last year.

The show is set in the year 2999 – not just on Earth, but across the entire Universe. The date is kind of important in the show, though it is incredibly bizarre that all existence runs on Earth time, even though Earth is presumably kind of insignificant. Apparently it’s just after the end of Space War 3. What precisely Space War 3 constituted, I have no idea, and the show never actually tells you. I presume it’s just another World War which just happened to take place in the Solar System, though, given that the Mankind has previously never got any significant distance away from it. It’s not really important, in any case. What is in important, however, is that Earth’s Pluto base has just been destroyed by a Warship of the Imperial Alliance.

No, I’m not really sure how having an Imperial Alliance works either. I kind of assume it’s a case of The Emperor saying “I’m the boss, Mm’kay?”, and everyone else just agreeing to it simply because he’s, like, a hundred times taller than anyone else (Seriously, whilst all his subordinates are models, he’s so freaking huge that he’s a guy in a suit). Wouldn’t that make it more of an Imperial Empire and an Imperial Alliance, though? It certainly looks to be a dictatorship, at least. I guess they’d figured that outright calling them The Empire would be just a little too Star War-ish (though similarity to other established SF franchises certainly didn’t stop them calling the show Star Fleet). Maybe the Alliance part of their moniker comes from the fact that, despite not actually being part of this Alliance, they all agree to measure time using Earth standards?

Again, though, this is kind of unimportant. What’s important here is that Commander Makara is looking for something called the F-01.

That, and she has a little face on her face. Which talks. Occasionally. There’s your Go Negai influence right there. Makara also talks in this odd accent, somewhere between mock-German, mock-Chinese, mock-Russian and just plain nonsensical. I think the point is that they are scary foreigners. It’s kind of funny that she’s got such a Japanese name in the English version, given that she’s called Bloody Mary in the Japanese version. Suppose they didn’t take kindly to villains being named after former British monarchs way back then. They probably wouldn’t care these days.

Anyway, she’s demanding that the people of Earth hand over whatever this F-01 thing is, else be crushed by the might of their superior Nazi-Chinese-Ruski Empire. The problem is that absolutely no-one has any idea what this F-01 thing is, which leaves Star Fleet with no option other than to call in Doctor Benn.

Now, Doctor Benn doesn’t just have the most bad-ass facial hair on not just Moon Base, but on all bases anywhere – he’s also almost completed work on the X-Bomber, a prototype Space Fighter which might just be powerful enough to fend off Commander Makaras’ Space Battleship. The problem is that it’s not only untested, but he doesn’t have a crew for it – call in the bravest of the brave from Star Fleet Academy (Murrr….).

Actually, Doctor Benn has most of the best lines of dialogue in the show. I particularly liked the part when he proclaimed “‘Surrender’ isn’t a word that appears in the Academy Handbook!”. It makes me wonder if this Star Fleet Academy is actively encouraging their students to commit war crimes. It kind of makes a nice change from what they’re teaching people in Star Trek.

You may be forgiven for thinking that this plucky younger protagonist-type is called Shiro, given that, y’know, it’s written right across the side of the helmet that he never removes. You would be wrong, though – he’s very definitely called “Shy-Row” Hagen. No, really. Shy-Row. His job on X-Bomber is to sit around being all protagonisty whilst everyone else seems to do the hard work.

Conveniently, he’s also the son of the guy who originally designed the X-Bomber, though goodness knows where his father has actually gotten too.

Secondly, we have John Lee. He’s fat, sarcastic and kind of dopey. He was called Bigman Lee in Japan, which is certainly far more descriptive a name. He’s the X-Bombers navigational officer.

Finally, there’s Barry Hercules. I think you’ll agree, Barry has the most epic chin in all of creation, which also makes him the finest character in the show despite his lack of stunning facial hair. Apparently in the Japanese version he was called Bongo Hercules – I really can’t think why they’d change that. He’s the X-Bombers weapons guy.

They’re also joined the Doctors assistant, Lamia, and her fuzzy side-kick thingy Kirara. For reasons mostly revolving around they fact that she was mysteriously discovered on Mars as a baby, she thinks that she may, in fact, be the F-01 that Makara is talking about. Whether or not she actually is the F-01 is basically the whole plot of the show for the first two thirds of its runtime.

Curiously enough, Lamia was apparently raised by Shy-Row’s father, which kind of begs the question – given that she and Shy-Row had never met prior to the shows first episode, who the heck raised our plucky hero?

The X-Bomber also comes supplied with Haro 7-Zark-7 Herbie the Robot PPA (that’s Perfectly Programmed Android – yes, I know he’s not humanoid, but it’s not like I named these things…). PPA is the character that everyone would hate if it wasn’t for Kirara being even lamer.

Together, they take to space in the super-fighter X-Bomber, which looks like an X-Wing with a funky Swan-neck on it. Of course, it’s also full of super high-tech, in kind of inconsistently placed, weaponry – the neck raises to reveal a powerful laser cannon, for example, and it also has it’s ultimate last resort weapon the X-Impulse, firing which drains a whole 70% of the X-Bombers energy! OH NOES!

Most importantly, however, the X-Bomber also carries three additional small fighter craft, which in true Go Negai fashion, combine to form…

The giant robot Dai-X! Yes, they actually called it the Dai-X in English as well.

Anyway, the lot of them manage to force back Commander Makara in short order, and Lamia quickly cements her belief that she’s the F-01 when she comes into contact with the ship The Skull – literally a Pirate Ship floating through space, sails and all. Makara attacks once again, however, before they have a chance to talk, driving The Skull back into deep space. With the hopes of learning more about the F-01 and it’s connection to Earth, the crew of the X-Bomber set off after it, and with Makara now entirely convinced that Lamia is the F-01, she decides to follow them. Cue the rest of the series.

Star Fleet’s a pretty weird series. I mean, honestly, if this was anime, I’d have probably given up after the first episode. It’s very much an 80’s kids SF cartoon, in all the best and worst ways. It’s all kind of hilarious when Dai-X is lured into a trap at Makaras secret advance base, hidden upon the rocky, rocky surface of, urrr, Jupiter. It’s not quite so hilarious when the crew are lured into a trap for the forth time, let alone the seventh or eighth. Whilst there’s certainly a continuity to it all, a lot of the series is very much a “Threat of the Week” kind-of show, with re-cap episodes taking place as often as something significant happen (that is, more than once).

Things do pick up somewhat in the latter third of the series, though, once they actually catch up with The Skull. It’s pretty clear that they back-loaded a lot of the budget – the appearance of new models, be they ships or characters – isn’t all that frequent early on in the series. A large portion of the Dai-X scene are actually achieved using the good-old “Guy in a suit” method of giant robot rumbling, though, disappointingly, there’s never a good robot-versus-robot rumble. Whilst they do visit a lot of different planets, you kind of get the feeling that a lot of them are the same set only with varying amounts of smoke, else they’ve just added some additional models onto one of the sets they’ve finished with.

Then they introduce Destro.

Actually, there’s simply a lot more packed into that latter part of the series in general – things start happening, they introduce a whole load of additional characters, and they actually kill a few off. It doesn’t really matter so much that some of the more insignificant ones are secretly just members of the Earth Defence Force from the first couple of episodes dressed in different costumes – this shows back from the days where VCRs weren’t common enough that people would be expected to be able to check these things – it’s just kind of nice to see something new.

Honestly, though, it’s kind of hard to put across how much charm this show has simply for it being a puppet show. Admittedly, an awful lot of it is in a Team America kind of way – puppets are just kind of funny. Star Fleet uses rod rather than string puppets – that is, they are controlled from beneath using rods running through the models, rather than from above with strings. One the one hand, that means the show lacks the wildly exaggerated motions of something like Thunderbirds, but this does also mean that the movements are rather more stilted. Which, you know, adds a certain amount of unintentional hilarity when the puppets bob wildly as they run down a back-projected corridor, or even more-so on those rare occasions where the puppeteers are pretty much forced to simply wildly flail the puppets around to achieve the desired effect.

The dub adds to the hilarity in a similar fashion as well. Not that the dubs bad – it’s pretty decent in general, and there’s a lot of voices which will be familiar to those who watched 90s UK anime dubs – it just has a habit of trying to adhere rigidly to the lip flaps. The result is some of the dialogue being delivered in an incredibly staccato fashion. It’s really hard not to laugh when, talking about his former instructor who has been missing since the Pluto attack, Shy-Row delivers the line “I knew it… If only he hadn’t… Given up… His position at Star Fleet Training School… To go to the loneliest spaceport… in the Solar System”.

Though, let’s face it, that would have been hysterical even without the two second pause every three words.

A lot of the show show also has a vibe which probably wouldn’t fly in a modern kids show. There’s a number of episodes where, if you are paying attention to what’s actually going on, it actually promotes violence as a way to solve your problems, which is hilarious un-PC by today’s standards. I particularly like the episode where they start slaughtering the tribble-like creatures who were preventing them from taking off, only for Lamia, who had been complaining the entire episode about the rest of the casts attitude towards them, agrees that it was the right thing to do. Ultimately, they actually leave them all to die, trapped in the path of the lava spewing from an erupting volcano.

Ultimately, though, there’s just something kind of cool about this being a puppet show. It’s not something you really see that often, after all, and Go Negai’s production design for the show is as often awesome as it is goofy. A lot of the models are fantastic, even if they aren’t always shot or operated in the best of fashions.

Plus, it has Barry Hercules punching Shy-Row in the face. Have I said how awesome Hercules is?

I ended up plowing through the series twenty-four episodes in a couple of days. Well, more like twenty-three since I watched the recaps in fast-forward. It did manage to hold my interest despite it’s simplicity. Well, actually, it’s more like it held it because of it’s simplicity – it wasn’t exactly demanding viewing, doubly so because it’s a dub.

Plus, puppets are just freaking cool.

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