Starship Operators: Volume 1
You can't beat a good space opera. I grew up on the things, with shows like Battlestar Galactica (the original Star Wars rip-off), Buck Rogers, and later on Babylon 5 and Stargate. Then there is the granddaddy of them all, Star Trek, of which I was absolutely fanatical, until Voyager, Enterprise and Nemesis stopped milking the cash cow, and instead started pulling fetid pus from its poor abused udders. I hope you're enjoying your tea. Even the better Treks weren't always perfect, and one Deep Space Nine episode that I loathe is Valiant. It's set during the Dominion War, when a Federation Starship on a training cruise is attacked, its command crew killed, and it's left under the command of the cadet crew, who proceed to wage their own private war against the Dominion. A more annoying, stuck up, self-important bunch of second-rate actors you have never seen, and the characters weren't much better either. It's a premise that I hoped never to see again. Along comes Starship Operators, boldly going where Star Trek has already been, although with a rather interesting and innovative twist.
The planet Kibi is a pacific nation, albeit with a proud defence force. They have recently taken delivery of the pride of their space navy, the Amaterasu, and its shakedown cruise conveniently coincides with the graduation of the 73rd class of cadets from the Defence University. But on the return leg, the crew are horrified to learn that the Henrietta Alliance of planets has declared war on their home world, and the pacifist government has immediately surrendered. At the same time, the command crew of the ship accedes to the demands of their new rulers and disembark the ship, expecting the cadets to follow suit. But rather than capitulate, they decide to fight back using the most advanced ship in their navy, and to fund their campaign, they invite the Galaxy News Network to televise every second of it. It's war, it's reality TV, and it's a tossup as to whether winning battles or winning ratings are more important.
The first four episodes of this thirteen episode series are presented on this disc from MVM.
Sinon Kouzuki is a promising young cadet returning on her first training mission on the Amaterasu. While she may not score highly in her evaluations, she is a dab hand at simulations and strategy, and she and her fellow cadets are looking forward to graduation. They are almost home when they learn that their world has surrendered to the Henrietta Alliance without even firing a shot in defence. Their command crew rapidly follows suit, but with several children of political and industrial dynasties in their number, they are a little more pumped up with national pride. They decide to take the fight to the Alliance alone if they have to, and they take the unprecedented step of buying the Amaterasu as war surplus. To do this they need funding, and that comes from the Galaxy News Network, who know a ratings winner when they see one. Soon ace reporter Dita Mirkov is aboard, and the demographics are dictating command decisions. It's why telegenic Cisca Kanzaki is sitting in the captain's chair, and why most of the command crew are female (make up is mandatory). But will the cadets survive their first encounter with the enemy?
2. Trafalgar Crisis.
When former Prime Minister Mamiya comes aboard, the Amaterasu essentially becomes the Kibi nation in exile. They are soon up and running, literally so when two enemy ships approach and they find themselves outgunned. They still have battle damage to repair from the previous encounter, and they set course for the neutral planet of Phoenicia. But then the enemy battleship Trafalgar appears challenging the Amaterasu, and this time the network is demanding some eye-candy for the viewers. But fulfilling the demands of their sponsors will exact a heavy price.
3. Call From Home
Repairing the ship takes priority when they finally reach Phoenicia, but lives are put at risk when a solar flare coincides with a space-walk. With the regular crew having to double up as maintenance staff, they can ill afford to lose anyone, and time is of the essence. But the crisis only highlights the deepening morale problems aboard ship. People are talking of leaving, when the worst happens, a ship from Kibi arrives with Sanri Wakana's industrialist father on board, with a Kingdom offer of amnesty for the majority of the crew.
4. Final Answer
Sanri's declaration unites the crew, but only inflames the Henrietta Alliance. When psychological warfare fails, they send in a stealth ship to take out the Amaterasu. The 'space submarine' Aboukir is jet black, has a minimal silhouette and EM signature, and is essentially a flying weapons platform designed for sneak attacks. With a fault in the Amaterasu's sensors, they'll have to seek it out by eye, and they only have five to ten days before it will be in firing range.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is typical of anime in the UK, clear and problem free, except for the usual issues with NTSC-PAL conversions. The animation is good as well, combining 3D CGI and 2D to impressive effect. The spaceship designs are effective, but given the blackness of space, they are usually obscured in some way (none of the brightly lit up ships of Hollywood productions here). The starscapes and planets are also impressive, but the level of detail gone into the ship's interior design is astounding, creating a full realised and believable environment. Tiny little things like foot grips on the captain's chair to keep him in his seat in zero G are quite fun to notice. The character design is typical of many anime, and the animation is of similar quality to the show's look. To be honest, I don't think much of the look of the Amaterasu, it's a Nike trainer of a spaceship, but the story isn't hard done by.
It's your basic anime disc, so DD 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese, along with translated subtitles and a separate signs track. The stereo is effective enough for the action and the music, and the English dub makes an acceptable alternative to the original language track.
There's not a lot to see here beyond your usual anime offering. The textless credit sequences are all present and correct, as are trailers for Black Cat and Witchblade. A little extra goodness comes from the US trailer for Starship Operators (which is the same as the UK trailer), and a two-minute music video for the closing theme from singer Kotoko.
So I'm sitting there last night, watching Starship Operators, and I wound up thinking to myself that this is what Enterprise could have been, or rather should have been, albeit without the teenagers and the reality TV crew. Enterprise was supposed to be a prequel to Star Trek, explorers out their roughing it, with spot welded starships and MS Windoze for the main computer. Instead we got warmed over Voyager leftovers and big-breasted Vulcans. Starship Operators shows a galaxy where it looks as if people have only just figured out how to travel faster than light, and all the other technology is not too far removed from our own. They also have to obey the laws of physics, which in later Treks, despite Scotty's protestations were often just thrown in the scriptwriter's wastepaper bin, as they came up with another fancy particle of the week.
Starship Operators then… It's pretty good actually, although it does suffer from a couple of flaws that viewers have to deal with, rather than overlook. The first is character overload. It's a ship full of cadets, which means straight from the off, there are a whole lot of characters to get to grips with, and given the typical anime runtime, not a lot of time to do it in. Most characters get a brief appearance, and it is really only the command crew that gets a lot of screen time, but even then I was hard pressed to keep up with just who is who. This is a show that benefits greatly from an immediate re-watch, and it'll be best appreciated when you have all the discs, have seen the story once through, and know just who figures in the long run, so you can watch their arcs properly from the beginning.
The second problem, the one that is harder to reconcile, is that like a lot of similar shows, both live action and animated, this borrows heavily from the WWII submarine combat genre. There is a lot of repetition of orders up and down the chain of command, and combat amounts to plenty of terse glances, sweaty brows, and staring at green view-screens looking for significant blips. As you would expect from such a genre, actual animation is pretty thin on the ground, although suspense and tension is always prevalent.
Still, the story is off to a rousing start, with the 73rd class of cadets taking command of their starship when their command crew quails at the demands of the Henrietta Alliance Kingdom. They are the top rated cadets in their university, a lot of them are children of rich and influential people on their homeworld of Kibi, and they are motivated in making a stand where their government failed to. A good number of similar shows show such bravery without thought to cost and realism, but the cadets here realise that they have to fund their campaign, which is where the reality TV show comes in, although in these early episodes it's more of an understated gimmick than a major part of the story. The story is quite smart too, with politics and idealism playing a part in the motives of both sides. There are hidden agendas, secret conspiracies, and plenty of interesting subplots and intriguing characters to explore. There are also the slice-of-life observations of a teenage crew working together, and the emotional mayhem of unrequited love, and heartfelt declarations. So it isn't all hard sci-fi.
What really impressed me was the sense of realism. You have the faster than light maguffin to get starships from A to B in fast order, but everything else is surprisingly real world. The majority of the ship is in free fall, with crewmembers floating around to get about. There aren't any magic inertia suckers, which means that they are affected by acceleration and course changes, and non-FTL travel has to be done at a relatively sedate pace, with one eye on the gravitational field of the star system. While communications and sensors do work at FTL speeds, they aren't infallible, indeed one episode has the crew searching for an enemy ship using astronomy, and the distances, speeds, and times involved give a greater idea of the size of space than any episode of Star Trek ever managed. People going on EVAs have to worry about radiation exposure, and all are sent scurrying for cover when a solar flare threatens. There's a really cool moment during battle (the ships fight with missiles, lasers and plasma weapons) and unlike the slower than light plasma, which has a telltale flash of light from the ship firing it, a laser hits the ship with no warning. When the inexperienced cadet complains that he didn't see a muzzle flash from the enemy ship, he's reminded that lasers travel at the speed of light, and by the time you see them, they've already hit you. The attention to detail really shows up with something like the residential wheel. All quarters and recreational facilities are on a spinning wheel to provide gravity, and even the showers have a warning that the Coriolis force generated by the spin will affect the water spray. A great gag is that the TV company has to add a sound effects reel to the shows to make them more entertaining for viewers who aren't used to the lack of sound in space.
Starship Operators is an odd one, and I'm still in two minds about it. The sheer character overload is overwhelming at first, and just trying to keep track of them all is impossible. Like the large cast of shows like Negima, I'm sure that re-watching it will solve that. I also love the technology and realism of the show. In comparison, shows like Star Trek are little more than fantasy, selling magic as futurism, and making stuff up on the fly just to ease their way out of plot developments. But underneath all the gloss, Starship Operators is built on the tried and tested submarine warfare genre, so if a lot of tense waiting around between brief bursts of action is your thing, then this is just the ticket. I'm intrigued enough to want the next volume already.