Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Boy's First Space Opera

"We're off to outer space."

By the mid 1980s, my geek/nerd tendencies were already well formed. My interest in the apocalyptic first manifested as a fascination with volcanoes, with the catastrophic 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens focusing that interest. At the same time Space Shuttle launches were still a new thing that school classes stopped to watch. NASA was taking people into space and bringing them back again, and my young mind was inspired. It was in those years my obsession with space opera began. It was the time of finding Star Trek reruns, Battlestar Galactica after lunch on Sunday, and British sci-fi like Doctor Who and The Tripods on PBS. But those were the effect, not the cause. My beginning started a little earlier.

"We're leaving Mother Earth."

The action cartoons of the early 80s were often built around toy lines, things like GI-Joe, He Man,  and The Transformers.* There were colorful characters fighting crazy exaggerated villains, but the chief factor that all observed (and this even carried over to live action shows like The A-Team) was that nobody ever died. The good guys always won in the end, and the bad guys always managed to get away. GI Joe was especially egregious in this regard, with its tech directly inspired by the real world of cold-war military machines and then pushed into the realm of sci-fi lasers and James Bond-esque plots. All the lasers, missiles, tanks, and so forth never managed to actually kill anyone. Exploding planes were always accompanied by parachuting pilots. A tank taking a direct hit always left enough time for the driver and gunner to bail out before the vehicle exploded. No matter how many times Optimus and Megatron faced off, neither ever really defeated the other. I loved the cartoons anyway, and badgered my parents into getting me the toys too. So maybe that intrinsic lack of consequences would never have bothered my young mind if something entirely new hadn't come along. That something was the first wave of Japanese imports.

"To save the human race."

As I remember it, there was a particular time slot on weekday afternoons on one of the local UHF channels that showed three different shows from Japan. The first one had been on for a while before the other two were added. That was Speed Racer, the cartoon that forever ruined NASCAR for me. The crazy, poorly animated, utterly distinctive madness of jumping, wrecking racing was completely different from the toy tie in shows (though it did sell some Hot Wheels if I am honest). The second was Ultraman, the rubber-suited hero fighting rubber-suited monsters great-great-grandaddy of the Power Rangers, which I will admit I did not like all that much.** Both were unusual enough to hold my eyes, but they ultimately still followed their own formulas. The third show was something else entirely: Star Blazers.

"Our Star Blazers"

By some miracle, I managed to see Star Blazers from the beginning in a time before TV recordings were available. And that was critically important because Star Blazers was a true serial. It is hard to overstate how different that was at the time. The first episode sets the tone, opening on an over-the-shoulder view of a man gazing at a Mars-like red planet with a few wisps of white cloud. The voice-over begins, "I can not bear to see what has become of Earth." Yes, the Earth has been devastated by an implacable enemy firing radioactive asteroids from the vicinity of Pluto. The remnants of Humanity have constructed underground cities to escape the radiation, but every day that radiation creeps deeper, and within a year the planet will be uninhabitable. We quickly learn that the man is Avatar, the Captain of the last remaining space battleship in Earth's fleets, and his tiny fleet is about to go into battle near Pluto against the vastly superior Gamalon forces. If I now refer back to the formula mentioned above where the good guys win and the bad guys loose, then you might get a glimpse of the surprise a child might feel when the Earth fleet gets summarily crushed. The battleship's weapons can not penetrate the armor of the enemy's battleships. While they get in a few missile kills, the battleship hull is holed and its escort ships destroyed. Avatar orders the retreat, but the Captain of the final remaining escort ship disobeys and takes it into battle to buy the flagship time to get away. And that's just the first ten minutes.

The rest of the episode introduces some of the other characters, including Derek Wildstar, the younger brother of the escort ship captain, now angry with Avatar for leaving his brother behind to die, his friend Mark Venture, nurse Nova, IQ-9 the genius robot, and Doctor Sane. Wildstar and Venture retrieve a message capsule from the wreckage of an alien ship on Mars. That capsule contains a message from Starsha, ruler of a distant planet, offering technology that can remove the radiation from Earth and designs for a faster-than-light engine that will give the humans the capability to retrieve it. It closes with Wildstar and Venture unsuccessfully intercepting a Gamelon patrol that seems to be interested in the wreckage of the World War II battleship Yamato, which the evaporation of the oceans has exposed. It will take another episode before the secret of the Yamato is revealed. The Earth forces have built a new space battleship, the Argo, out of and disguised by the hulk of the old ship and fitted it with Starsha's wave motion engine. It takes another episode still before the ship actually launches. And so begins the first serial space opera I ever saw.

While the pattern of the hero's journey is there in many ways, Star Blazers had themes much deeper than any of the adjacent cartoons. In place of the colorful toy characters you see the grief of a young man who lost his parents and the older brother he idolized to war. You see the grief of an old man who survived longer than his daughter and son-in-law. You see the conflict between hatred of an enemy unknown and the openness to learn about that enemy. There is an entire episode in which the crew has one last chance to speak to family on Earth before they go out of range, giving the characters connections and depth unheard of in a child's cartoon.  It introduces a very Japanese tone of honor, including the idea of the honorable enemy. It is a gateway into World War II history, via the ship itself which was in real life the largest battleship ever created, and via the cultural legacy of the only country to ever experience the horror of nuclear bombing. Already not a very covert metaphor, I would learn much later that the original show did not change the name of the battleship, nor give its crew an independent name. The ship and crew were referred to as one, Yamato, a name that can also mean Japan and/or Japanese in general. The entire thing can be read as a post-WWII cultural allegory.*** Is it any wonder that my tastes were changed? Even today, I find that the story, or at least the depth behind the story, holds up for me. Though the cartoon itself has aged, it has aged about as well as any late-70s era space opera for children is likely to. But of course, I am biased. You don't forget your first geek obsession.

Star Blazers is available on youtube (though it seems many of the videos are buggy) through Manga Entertainment, and via Manga Entertainment's Roku channel the last time I checked. My impressions are based on the first two seasons; I never saw the third.

For another's experience read, io9's Charlie Jane Anders's "Star Blazers Got Me Through the Shittiest Year Of My Childhood".

Images used in this article are from Yamato 2199, a recent remake of the original's first season from studios Xebec and AIC. Which is both fairly faithful to the original story (and ship designs) and very beautiful. As far as I can tell they are copyright Voyager Entertainment and used without permission, since I could not find any promotional art. Yamato 2199 is available on (very, very expensive) DVD and Blu-Ray.

*  Notable exceptions to the toy-tie-in rule, including Thundarr the Barbarian and Space Ghost, often came from Hanna-Barbera.
** I'm still not overly fond of the 'kaiju' genre, though like Ultraman I can watch and get some enjoyment from good ones.
*** I believe there are definite parallels to be drawn between the WWII influence on Space Battleship Yamato and the 9-11 influence on the more recent Battlestar Galactica series.

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