Star Fleet - The Complete Series (4 Discs)
For a now fast-approaching middle-aged gang of TV lovers who did all their growing up in the early 80's, this release may prove to be the most significant of the year ...or even the decade so far. Previously only available on part series VHS tapes, 'Star Fleet' somehow managed to combine all the magic of a Gerry Anderson show along with all the fun of 'Battle of the Planets'. Released at about the same time as Anderson's 'TerraHawks' it does compare extremely favourably, with longer story arcs, great effects and a really top notch soundtrack. Not to mention cuter puppets that resembled their manga counterparts. (Think big-eyed Blythe dolls). Perhaps the only viable critique of the show is the use of rods beneath the marionettes rather than strings, making movement more like a kid holding a doll but hell, that's all part of its charm anyway.
Set in 2999 (a cleverly considered thousand years further out than Anderson's Space 1999) we join the puppet cast just as the people of earth begin to enjoy peace following the end of space war 111. However, the evil Imperial Alliance launch a new assault. Facing the evil alliance, earth's defending forces are ill-prepared for another war and pin their hopes on Dr Benn Robinson and his new X-Bomber programme. Just what what is F-01 (F Zero One) which the Imperial Alliance want so badly? Only the Japanese could come up with a story so convoluted and unlikely as this one and make it work!
Starfleet, or X-Bomber as it was known in Japan, was actually a failed Japanese TV series from 1980 that originally lasted just 12 episodes and was not a particularly big hit, leaving a further 12 episodes un-shown and lurking inside canisters with a decidedly uncertain future. The show's fortunes changed completely when ITV in the UK decided to buy it and put it on mid-Saturday morning before Dickie Davies started up the sports for the day. Despite having to recreate the soundtrack from scratch (mute versions were sent over along with scripts) the show caught the imagination of youngsters everywhere and was surprisingly big hit. It virtually killed off the godawful Saturday Morning Superstore on BBC and the show continued for the full 24 episodes - for the first time ever.
Despite a minuscule budget and short time-frames, an entirely new soundtrack was created which included some low-budget commissioned synth music that, despite firmly setting the piece in the eighties, seems to add to its charm today. Brian May claimed that he watched the series with his son and loved it so much that he cut a version of the theme song and released it as a single. You get a copy of the cheesy video made to promote it here. (Ha! How we laughed at that old fashioned eighties hair-do! Actually - he still has that exact same hair do today...hmmm).
What's quite different, and potentially risky for the series is that it follows a single continuous narrative - a classic serial - which makes it great fun to watch in its entirety today. Each episode ended with a sneak look at the next one, though no 'Last weeks adventure' stuff at the start.
The story is actually quite complex when summarised though plays out simply enough episode to episode. An alien battle cruiser commanded by the evil Makara along with her loyal but bungling lieutenant Orion comes out of the Thalian Zone and attacks Earth Force command. They demand that Earth gives them 'F-01'.
General Kyle of Earth Command has no idea what F-01 is so Makara attacks. Earth's only chance of survival is in Doctor Benn's untested X-Bomber project, a new and powerful fighting ship built on the moon. Benn recruits Shiro Hagen, Barry Hercules and John Lee along with his melancholy assistant (and Blythe-doll lookalike) Lamia, her fluffy bodyguard Kirara and the de rigueur robot, this time called PPA (Perfectly Programmed Android).
As the plot unfolds, the X-Bomber and Makara's ship battle across the solar system and into uncharted space (courtesy of a black hole in episodes 6 and 7) and the revelation of the F-01, whilst not a surprise, changes all aboard X-Bomber's lives forever.
The crew receive occasional help from the mysterious alien sailing ship, The Skull, commanded by Captain Halley, further evidencing an unhealthy obsession with skull motifs that seems to be a feature of the series.
The battles look fantastic. Fans will remember the Transformers-like robot, Dai-X which, according to the Director, never battles another robot only because the budget wouldn't stretch to two! There are plenty of lasers of course and hundreds of Thunderbirds-like explosions. But there's also time for a little romance too - and if the tale occasionally feels as bleak as Series 1 of Battlestar Gallatica, well, there's time for occasional humour too. There are moments of extreme pathos too - surprisingly harsh for kids with some key characters biting the dust.
With regard to the DVD Box Set itself, according to the press release you get the following: (I just got four silver check disc so can't comment on the quality of some of these but they are well illustrated in the picture above).
All 24 Fully Restored Full Length Episodes
Behind The Scenes Stills Gallery
Brians Mays Star Fleet Project Promo Video
56 Page Comic Book From The Star Fleet Series
16 Page Episode Guide Booklet
Double Sided Fold-Out Poster
Brand New Making Of Documentary Featuring Original interviews with Creator Go Nagai, Director Louis Elman, Voice of Dr Benn- Peter Marinker, Composer Paul Bliss and The Master of Supermarionation Gerry Anderson.
The 'Making of' documentary is fascinating stuff detailing this series unlikely journey into our homes in the early eighties. It's quite sad that the programme was popular enough for ITV to contact the original Producers and offer funding for a new series, but this was never realised as the industrial unit containing all the sets and puppets burned down before the call was made and a complete reinvention was out the question. So this is all the original Star Fleet you'll ever get. One tip with regard to the documentary. It may appear on Disc 3 but don't watch it till you've finished the series. It's full of spoilers. There's even a clip of Gerry Anderson confessing a grudging appreciation of the show.
The other extras on the disc are so so. The collectibles gallery is fun, and that Brian May video essential eighties nonsense, but a lot of the informational material (like character profiles, machine profiles, character biographies and episode synopsis) are all just text based and you'll struggle reading them with dark green on light green lettering. Far better to dig out the information on the web.
The picture quality is not particularly wonderful, but that may be a result of the original filming. The film grain looks occasionally soft, particularly on long and detailed shots, and this is clearly shot on 16mm rather than Anderson's use of 35mm on Thunderbirds for example. But none of this will spoil your enjoyment of it one jot and it's probably in better shape now than when it aired.
Lining this series up against Anderson's contemporary offering of the time, 'Terrahawks' I would have to say that I enjoyed this more. It really is a fantastic children's show and, even without the glow of childhood nostalgia it stands up extremely well. To lay that on top of general appreciation will mean that this will be an essential purchase for anyone who enjoyed this first time round.
And finally, for the anoraks, here's the complete episode listing:
1. Scramble X-Bomber!
2. The Super Powerful Imperial Alliance
3. Find F-01!
4. Wipe Out The Transport Fleet
5. The Mysterious Ship 'Skull'
6. X-Bomber Goes Forth
7. Mortal Combat In The Gravity Graveyard
8. An Attack Beyond Tears
9. Target: The Commander
10. Galaxy Adrift
11. Farewell, The Eternal Battlefield
12. Our Mortal Enemy Is Captain Carter
13. Battle To The Death: X-Bomber Vs. The Imperial Alliance
14. Lamia: Girl Of Destiny
15. X-Bomber: Death On Planet Morphane
16. Lamia Kidnapped
17. Asleep In The Ice Prison
18. Commander Makara's Promotion
19. F-01: Assassination Plot
20. Callinean: Full Frontal Attack Begins!
21. Callinean: A Battle With No Tomorrow!
22. Board The Imperial Alliance Flagship!
23. The End Of Earth
24. A New Beginning For The Galaxy