Sunday, August 24, 2008


As an 80s teenager naturally I watched way too much MTV, wading through video after video, back when music videos were three-minute dramas with special effects, insane plots, action, adventure, girls in skimpy outfits, and explosions. Nowadays rock acts are too full of themselves to make videos where they turn into post-nuclear barbarians and/or fight zombies. Or maybe they realized that the budget for such nonsense comes right out of their pockets. At any rate, you turn on MTV in the early 80s and you don't know WHAT you're gonna see. Which is how I got to see STAR FLEET!


STAR FLEET is the English version of a Japanese live-action science fiction TV series from 1980 called X-BOMBER. This of course means it's a hodgepodge of concepts and visuals lifted from STAR WARS, SPACE CRUISER YAMATO, MESSAGE FROM SPACE, super robot cartoons, etc. However, X-BOMBER breaks out of the lookalike pack with one simple method - it's a puppet show. The entire cast is THUNDERBIRDS-style puppets. This is not a Gerry Anderson show, so there's no effort to painstakingly mimic real life in 1/4th scale. This IS, however, a Go Nagai show, at least a show Go Nagai worked on, and therefore is vastly superior in every way, in that it has scary deformed villains, features crazy, nonsensical plot elements, and devotes a large part of its running time to a combination giant robot destroying things with fist and ray-gun.

The story, such as it is, involves the evil Imperial Master, the giant leader of a race of space-bugs and surgically-altered freaks. Imperial Master and his Imperial Alliance are looking for something called the F-Zero-One. He's decided the Earth has it, and sends Commander Makara out in a super space battleship to blow up Pluto in a friendly gesture. The Earth Defense Force, having never heard of the F-Zero-One, is not pleased by the destruction of Pluto, and in response sends out the X-Bomber to find out what the heck is going on. The X-Bomber is an experimental space cruiser with a crew of Scientist, Hero, Fat Guy, Mean Guy, and Funny Robot, later joined by Space Princess and Hairy Alien. When danger threatens, our heroes climb into three smaller spaceships that combine to form the super robot Dai-X!


As it turns out F-Zero-One has something to do with our beautiful space princess, who turns out to be from a destroyed planet, who may or may not have awesome cosmic powers, and has a mysterious connection to mysterious outer-space clipper ship called "The Skull", which shows up to save the X-Bomber whenever things look bleak. The 24 episodes of the series are filled with mighty struggles between fleets of model space warships, space mantises, Death Balls, the brainwashing of our heroes' old mentor, planets of evil trees and space hippies, and of course the final battle between the Imperial Master, played by a guy in an Imperial Master costume, and F-Zero-One, a 12-inch puppet.


It's easy to laugh at the idea of a dramatic science-fiction puppet series, but STAR FLEET winds up being a pretty entertaining show. The puppets all have a great anime-character look, the mecha design is great, the model work is excellent, and the Go Nagai influence means that the bad guys have wonderfully demented appearances. Commander Makara, striking a blow for Feminist Evil Space Commanders, not only dares to expose part of her cybernetic brain, but sports an eyepatch that is actually a little face that talks on occasion. Puppets argue, wear camo in space, reveal cleavage, scream, die, and never take off their helmets, even in bed. There are lots of lasers, spaceships, explosions, exploding spaceship models, and models of spaceships that explode. The Dai-X is a guy in a giant robot suit, all distressed metal and flaking, battle-worn paint, who stomps around destroying bug tanks and smashing fighters with his giant metal fists. It's a really well designed robot that makes most of the Toei sentai robots look weak. In the climax of the series, they fly the Dai-X right into Makara's space battleship and start busting the whole place up in an orgy of destruction not seen since the final episode of GRANDIZER, and if that's not entertaining children's television I don't know what is.


(Commander Makara and her little friend)

Two years after its Japanese premiere, X-BOMBER found itself on ITV in England with English dubbing and a new title. STAR FLEET would also air in America on the Showtime cable channel, in two compilation films, "Thalian Space Wars" and "Space Quest For F-Zero-1". For years afterwards the show existed only in reruns and an 8-volume set of American VHS tapes.

The MTV connection? Well, Brian May, the talented QUEEN guitarist, has a son, and his son watched the hell out of STAR FLEET and soon Brian was too. Brian was struck by STAR FLEET's English theme song which was penned by Paul Bliss from the MOODY BLUES. Over a weekend with nothing much else going on, May called up some pals (including VAN HALEN's Eddie Van Halen) and they recorded their own bluesy rock version of the theme song. This was in turn released on an EP, which was this half-assed 1980s cross between a 45 single and a full LP album, usually used for extended dance remixes or stuff the label didn't know what else to do with but was contractually obligated to release. But anyway, Brian May took some footage from STAR FLEET and his own floating head and made a video, and it showed up on MTV, and it blew our minds! And now here I am writing about it 24 years later.


I'm not going to go into too much detail about the show, mostly because there's a really comprehensive site about STAR FLEET / X-BOMBER here. The show was produced in literally a big warehouse in Tokyo by Cosmo Productions, which apparently existed only to produce X-BOMBER, and it seems to have been a forgotten casualty of the SF boom of the 70s and 80s, drowned in the tide of media aimed at a science-fiction hungry world. Too anime-style for the Supermarionation fans, too puppety for the anime fans, it carved out its own genre and remains in a class all its own.

If you're interested in seeing the show for yourself, why not just buy it on DVD? Amazon UK has the 4-DVD set attractively priced at less than 30 pounds, or quid, or maybe guineas... do they still use guineas? What's that in Euros? Dave says pick it up, even if you don't have a region-free DVD player... and if not, why not? Worth having just to watch STAR FLEET.