If you were a kid in 1982, or maybe old enough to know better but didn’t care, you probably rushed downstairs on a Saturday morning to watch a Japanese space adventure puppet show, influenced by Thunderbirds and Star Wars. It had a theme song catchy enough to rival the music of both, that inspired a rock legend to record his own version. Welcome to Star Fleet, this months Guilty Pleasure.
The show was known as X-Bomber in Japan where it was created by animation show legend Go Nagai. He wanted to make a show in the spirit of Star Wars, but obviously couldn’t raise a big enough budget. The solution was rod based puppets, which inspired Gerry Anderson, himself an influence on Nagai, to do the same with his last puppet adventure show, Terrahawks. Go Nagai was taking a gamble, as he had never done a puppet show before, and space adventure stories were not always that popular in Japan.
In the show, the Imperial Alliance invade our solar system, looking for the mysterious weapon F-Zero-1. Since no-one knows what it is, war continues. With the majority of Earth’s defences destroyed, authority figure Dr Benn rallies a motley crew of cadets to pilot the experimental X-Bomber, to take the fight to the enemy. They are Luke Skywalker substitute Shiro Hagen (who wears Luke-alike Tattoine duds, and never takes his helmet off!), wise cracking Han type Barry Hercules (who looks uncannily like singer Phil Lynott), and probably Porkins inspired John Lee. Dr Benn’s ward is Princess Lamia, a drippy poor substitute for Leia, who has memory loss and may be connected to F-Zero-1. Her alien bodyguard is Kirara, a Wookie substitute with strange glowing eyes.
There is also a former Earth Force pilot Captain Carter, who has turned to the evil side, all cyborged up. In the english language version he is voiced by Garrick Hagon, Luke’s pal Biggs from Star Wars. A mysterious alien vessel called the Skull also turns up now and then to help our heroes. Bizarrely, it resembles a masted sailing vessel, but this is fairly common in anime. Back then, it was a weird novelty to us. In fact, Star Fleet was probably a lot of kids first introduction (along with Battle Of The Planets) to the strange and wonderful world of manga, or anime action.
And what action! Although the show did have a story arc, it didn’t stop it piling on multiple space ship battles, ground attacks, and a giant robot stomping around Godzilla style, knocking seven shades of shit out of alien tanks and bases. Not everbody lives to the end either- Lucas, you should have let Harrison Ford have his way and have Han Solo go out in a blaze of glory in Return Of The Jedi.
In one episode, Shiro and his now evil mentor Captain Carter clash. Carter, in a fit of rage, smashes his cyborg arm upon a rock. This is similar to a scene in George Lucas’ early draft of Star Wars, where Kane Starkiller, the proto-father /mentor to Luke / Anakin, who has turned to the Dark side, does the same.
X-Bomber has to be one of the coolest space ships in any sci-fi show or film. With multiple weapons, twin gun ports a la The Millenium Falcon, and three smaller vessels which the pilots zoom into via Thunderbirds-like moving chairs, it rocks. The best part is when the three smaller craft combine to form Dai-X: not a large angry welshman, but a giant robot.
The models were mostly large scale, and very detailed. X-Bomber was actually two metres long, and dwarfed the model of the Imperial cruiser, which was supposed to be much bigger. In the show, clever editing and perspective work were used to adjust scale. The Imperial fighters resemble a swarm of angry bugs, and the bad guys have symbiotic crab-like creatures over one eye. Commander Makara is basically a hysterical bully, always cracking up at her incompetent subordinates. She looks like a weird dominatrix, straight out of Flash Gordon!
The puppets were mostly filmed from the waist up, as it was difficult to create realistic looking movement. They were only 25cm tall but looked much larger on screen, with soft rubber skin for expressive facial movement. When LWT (London Weekend Television) bought the show, the sound track was basically non existent. All they had was the footage and a very (bad) literal translation of the script. Louis Elman the dubbing director and editor Tony Lenny basically built the show as we know it from the ground up, creating every sound effect, casting every voice, and hiring a composer to re-score the show. To their credit, they made it sound dynamic and exciting. Paul Bliss, who had played keyboards with various bands, including The Moody Blues, composed all the incidental music, as well as the opening titles and, at the directors suggestion, a song for the end credits. To his surprise and delight, Brian May of Queen, who watched the show with his young son, re-recorded the song and released it on a mini-LP, sending Bliss a signed copy with a personal message. In Japan, Go Nagai heard of this, but believed only Brian May was a fan. He had no idea the show was so popular over here.
Twenty four episodes were made and LWT were so pleased they had a synopsis drawn up for a second series, asking the Japanese creators if they could finance another show from them. Sadly a fire at the Japanese studio destroyed many of the models and puppets, so Star Fleet must remain a curio. The good news is that it is now available on DVD, so get your otaku (geek) on, and delve once more into the weird and wonderful world of Star Fleet!
Originally posted 2012-05-17 17:32:46. Republished by Blog Post Promoter