Seeing as it it is Go Nagai’s birthday today, I thought I’d repost this article. Yeah, I’m a lazy opportunist.
I’m not usually someone that indulges too much in nostalgia, especially for the 1980s. But I cannot deny the mounting excitement I’ve been feeling over the last couple of months, knowing that the original Star Fleet/X-Bomber Ｘボンバ TV series was to be finally given an official DVD launch in the UK. One of the reasons I usually avoid nostalgia is the almost inevitable feelings of disappointment that are associated with it – anyone that’s gone back and played a retro video game from around that time only to realise that their rose-tinted spectacles are broken will understand exactly what I mean. The question is does Star Fleet suffer the same fate nearly 30 years later?
For the uninitiated, X-Bomber was a Japanese puppet and models based children’s sci-fi show created by manga legend Go Nagai. Heavily influenced by Star Wars and the mecha/giant-robot stories that Nagai and others had been crafting for years, it was a moderate success in Japan, and was bought and re-dubbed by now defunct British TV company London Weekend Television, who started airing it on Saturday mornings. Overnight it became a huge cult hit, not just with Star Wars obsessed kids but adult sci-fi fans too. At first glance, due to it’s use of puppets and it’s futuristic setting, it is reminiscent of Gerry Anderson shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, but on closer inspection it’s very different. The character and mechanical designs are instantly recognisable as being of Japanese origin, and it’s ongoing, 24 episode story arc – with a surprisingly dark vibe at times – sets it apart from western work. I was never much of a fan of Anderson’s work as a child, but I remember becoming instantly obsessed with Star Fleet – something about the way it looked, the action sequences, the pacing and it’s epic storyline caught my attention fully. Along with Battle of the Planets and Speed Racer it was my first, very early, introduction to animanga and Japanese culture in general (even if I didn’t know it at the time), and as such I’m fairly sure that without it I wouldn’t be running this website right now.
So how does it bare up to inspection some 29 years later? To my surprise and delight, pretty damn well. The character and vehicle design work still makes it a joy to watch – most of the model work is fantastic, and is a thrill to watch knowing that everything you see is hand crafted, especially when we’re so used to being bombarded with CGI. Even more surprisingly, after watching just a handful of the 24 episodes, it’s clear the plot and script still stands up to my now-adult scrutiny, and I’m looking forward to sitting down and catching up on the whole show, time permitting. It’s no 2001, but it’s still Saturday morning space opera at it’s finest, and better written than some other franchises I could mention.
The DVD box-set itself, apart from the slightly garish packaging, has been nicely and thoughtfully put together. Aside from the 4 discs, there’s also a fold out, double sided poster and a collection of the British drawn comic originally serialised in the 80s teen magazine Look-in. All 24 episodes of the show are intact, with a re-mastered soundtrack from composer Paul Bliss, and the best quality visual transfer you could hope for considering the show’s age and TV origin. There’s a number of extras included as well, one of which is possibly the highlight of the whole package for me. The 30-minute ‘Making of’ featurette on disc 3 includes not only interviews with the English dub’s director Louis Elman and some of the voice actors, but also Go Nagai himself, and even Gerry Anderson. It’s a fascinating insight into the show’s origins, development and journey across the continents, and for me the only thing lacking would have been some sample footage with the original Japanese soundtrack included, as a comparison. Presumably this wasn’t possible due to copyright issues, and it in no way detracts from what is a carefully put together, great value package.
There is a rather tragic story that comes out in the documentary, however. Apparently the show was such a huge success here in the UK that Elman had no problem, based on just a short treatment, in securing funding from LWT for a second season. In fact, they were so enthusiastic about the project, they even agreed to fund the original Japanese studio to produce it. However, when Elman made the call to Japan, he was shocked to find a fire had gutted the studio, destroying all the models and sets. A tragic loss certainly for the modelers and producers that had put so much time and passion into this lovingly crafted series, but perhaps a blessing in disguise for the memories of it’s fans – maybe one perfect, unique series that we can now treasure again is what makes Star Fleet/X-Bomber so special.
I can’t write a piece about Star Fleet without giving props to Andy Thomas’ awesome fansite SF:XB, which has given me years of fanboy pleasure.