Starship Operators: Volume 2
I really like what MVM are doing with the release of shorter series recently. Instead of the bi-monthly format, they are going for a monthly release, and also getting those 13-episode runs onto three instead of four discs. In real terms, that's about 2 months that you have to wait to watch a series, which is nigh on civilised when in comes to anime. In one of those bizarre developments, delays have placed volume 2 of Starship Operators just one week behind the release of volume 1, although that date may change soon enough for me to have to edit this review… hmm didn't change then. Starship Operators' first volume was certainly enough to get the appreciative juices flowing, a space opera with a reality TV twist, which impressed with its attention to detail and more than a passing acquaintance with the laws of physics. There was a surprising amount of realism doled up alongside the teen angst, and it was enough to make me sit up and take notice. Volume 2 couldn't come soon enough for me.
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.
Volume 2 has four episodes on it as usual, but they are split up into two-part stories.
5. Great Escape Part 1
6. Great Escape Part 2
The Amaterasu is still fleeing from the forces of the Henrietta Alliance and looking for sanctuary. They appear to find it on the planet of Shu, and Prime Minister in exile Mamiya negotiates safe harbour for them. It seems to be a good idea too, as ratings for the Galaxy Network's series of programmes have been highest among Shu's people. There is a price though, Shu's government wants to parade their guests and have a proper, rousing reception. Mamiya, his niece Rio and the Amaterasu's Captain Cisca are invited as guests of the government, while the photogenic bridge crew, Sinon, Alley and Miyuri get to perform in front of the cameras, with reporter Dita along for the news footage. Renna and Akiho have the grunt work of organising the supplies to be transferred, while the rest of the crew wait on the ship. But the Henrietta Alliance has been up to no good, and insurgent forces are poised to strike when everyone is separated from the ship. With so many of the command crew trapped on the planet, the coup d'état begins.
7. Stardust Memory Part 1
8. Stardust Memory Part 2
Their issues with the insurgents on Shu resolved, the crew of the Amaterasu pause to mourn. They don't have long to reflect though, as yet another insidious plan of the Henrietta Alliance has failed to subdue their rebellion, and once again they respond with overwhelming firepower. This time, they have sent four battleships against the Amaterasu, but fortunately the cadets have the support of the Shu vessel Shenlong. They're still outgunned 2-1 though, which means long hours in the simulation room, trying to anticipate the enemy strategy, and come up with a viable counter. Sinon and Cisca come up with a startling conclusion, and a wholly unconventional battle plan. It's now a matter of convincing the Shu Captain Wong. But these are battle-tested cadets, who have seen more action than Wong has in a lifetime of service. The thing about well-laid plans though, is that the enemy never seems to follow them. Wong has a few amendments of his own to make, while when it comes to the crunch, the Galaxy Network couldn't care less about the better part of valour, they need to boost their ratings.
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 Lagoon and Shana. Speaking of trailers, there are also 2 minutes of the TV commercials for Starship Operators, as well as a 2-minute promotional video for the same.
A lot of what I said about volume 1 applies here, so rather than risk RSI, I'll just point you in that direction for my comments on the realism of the show, the sense of scale, the attention to detail, and all those wonderful touches that impressed me then, and impressed me just as much with this second volume. The same sense of character overload is still apparent too, with it just as difficult to keep track of who is who beyond a few main characters. I still feel that this is a show that will be best appreciated by a second and even third viewing, and taken as a whole, not piecemeal. That's something the faster release schedule appears to remedy though. This is one of those occasions that 'more of the same' is a desirable state of affairs however, and I enjoyed this disc just as much as the first.
One of my petty grouches of the previous volume does get addressed though, that of the glorified submarine combat genre transferred to deep space. This disc is split into two stories, and the first transfers the action to the surface of a planet, mostly. The crew of the Amaterasu visit an ostensible ally to fly the flag, drum up support, and get some supplies, but they walk straight into some politics, when it turns out the Henrietta Alliance has been fomenting insurgency among the people of Shu, there are factions within the government who aren't pleased about painting a big target sign on their world by treating with the galaxy's most wanted, and their arrival happens to coincide with what appears to be an attempt to overthrow the Shu government. With the Captain and Prime Minister trying to re-negotiate with the government even as it is under siege, the glamorous bridge crew trapped on the surface of the planet, and two more of their number stuck on a space station besieged by the insurgent faction, there is a whole lot more running around and shooting things in this episode. There are also several moments for character drama and plot developments.
It's back to the space combat for the second half of the disc in the next two-episode arc. The first episode is all about preparing for the inevitable attack, and we get to see both sides of the build up, the planning and machinating that goes on. As per hero villain conventions, the good guys put in more of a collaborative effort, cheering each other on, attempting to keep morale up. The villains on the other hand posture, pontificate and browbeat each other into following established doctrine, and pounce on anyone with a hint of good sense and individuality. It is perhaps the weakest aspect of the characterisations, but I suppose there is only so much you can do with a limited runtime. The final episode on the disc is devoted to the battle itself, and it certainly keeps hold of the attention. There is a fair amount of strategising and tactics involved, more than the average space opera which usually amounts to "Fire weapons", "Shields to 99%", "Fire again", "Shields to 98%", and so on ad tedium.
In amongst the eye-candy and action, the plot continues to unfold, revelations are made, and the characters continue to grow. It looks as if some of the cadet crew are pairing off, while others remain oblivious to interest. The pressure of the situation begins to show in other ways too, certainly with Sinon who lets her frustration out when yet again she is called upon to devise a plan for a campaign that she never agreed with. Then it emerges that the cadets may not have instigated the so-called cadet takeover of the Amaterasu at all. The sheer mercenary nature of the Galaxy Network also becomes clear, when the TV producer insists on action and combat against overwhelming odds, when retreat would be the wiser course. With the network funding the campaign, they have little choice.
Starship Operators is a nice little show, very enjoyable with a decent story to it. But being little may be its largest drawback when all is said and done. It's a complex universe we are presented with, plenty of characters and an intricate storyline. It's enough to make you go back and rewatch the episodes as soon as you finish, just to make sure you get all the nuances. It also feels like at thirteen episodes, the show is just scratching the surface of its potential. With these two discs, we're already two-thirds of the way through the run, and I wish that it could be twice as long to really get under the skin of some of the characters.