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Starfleet X Bomber
voice cast: Peter Marinker, Jay Benedict, Constantine Gregory, Mark Rolston, and John Baddeley

directors: Michio Mikami, Noriyasu Ogami, and Akira Takahashi

610 minutes (U) 1980-1
Fabulous DVD Region 2 retail


RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Ian Sales
Back in the mid-1980s I could be found in front of the television every Sunday at noon. That was when Central TV broadcast Starfleet. The next morning, in A-Level maths, a group of us at the back of the class would discuss that week's episode. It probably says something that 25 years later I can't remember the actual plot of the series. Having now watched all 24 episodes on four discs, I think I can understand why.

Starfleet is a children's science fiction puppet show created by Go Nagai, a famous manga artist. Under its original title, X-Bomber, it was broadcast on Japanese television between 1980 and 1981. The series was inspired by both Star Wars and Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds - Nagai felt that by using puppets, he could keep costs down sufficiently to produce a television show close in scale to Lucas' film. But it was the international success of Thunderbirds which persuaded the Japanese television channel to give the go-ahead. The series was subsequently shown at media fair in the UK and bought by London Weekend Television. The copy they were given had no soundtrack, and the only script was a poor literal translation of the Japanese dialogue. LWT not only recorded English dialogue, but actually wrote a new script, re-edited the entire series, added new sound effects, and even scored it with new music throughout. The end-credits sequence music was a song rather than instrumental. This was later re-recorded by Brian May of Queen, and released as a single.

Starfleet first aired on British television in October 1982, and was an immediate success. It was repeated several times in the years following. It was so popular, LWT agreed to finance a second series. Unfortunately, a fire in the Japanese studio which had made the programme had destroyed the sets and puppets.

X-Bomber is an experimental spaceship, heavily-armed and the most powerful in the Earth Defence Force's fleet. It was created by Doctor Hagen, who was later killed. When a battle-cruiser from the Imperial Alliance enters the Solar system and destroys Pluto base, X-Bomber is sent to fight the intruder. X-Bomber is crewed by Doctor Benn (Peter Marinker), Shiro Hagen (Jay Benedict), John Lee (Mark Rolston), Barry Hercules (Constantine Gregory) and PPA, or Perfectly Programmed Android (John Baddely).

It transpires that the captain, Commander Makara (Denise Bryer), of the Imperial Alliance battle-cruiser has come to Earth in order to find the mysterious F-Zero-One. Unfortunately, no one seems to know what it is. Fortunately, the crew of X-Bomber soon guess that it is Princess Lamia (Liza Ross), an additional member of the crew. She was found as a baby by Dr Hagen in a mysterious spaceship which had crashed on Mars. Complicating matters is the appearance of the space sailing ship, The Skull, commanded by Captain Halley, which assists X-Bomber at various junctures.

Starfleet's centrepiece is clearly X-Bomber and, more than that, the three sections of it - BrainCom, MainBody and LegTrax - which together form Dai-X, a giant robot. When X-Bomber is too damaged, or proving ineffectual, Shiro, Lee and Hercules pilot their craft and form Dai-X, which then smashes everything in sight. But it has to be admitted, Starfleet's production design is appealing, not just that of the (titular) spaceship and its giant robot. The Imperial Alliance ships have a vaguely insectile appearance -- although the battle-cruiser itself resembles some giant bottom-dwelling fish. While the crew of X-Bomber might appear ordinary, Commander Makara has a small metal face over one eye and, when she's speaking to the head of the Imperial Alliance, the Imperial Master, it is this which speaks. Her sidekick, the ineffective Captain Orion (Sean Barrett), also looks very distinctive, with a sort of metal centipede across his helmet and down over one eye.

The programme's special effects are good for their time, as is the puppetry. Both Dai-X and the Imperial Master are clearly actors in costumes. The puppets were around 25 centimetres tall, which gives an idea of the scale of the robot. There are lots of explosions - one or two of which apparently caused minor fires and damaged the puppets.

The actual story of the serial is not up to much. Nor is it helped by every sixth episode's consisting entirely of flashbacks explaining the story so far. Additionally, every episode opens with a précis of the previous episode, and finishes with a summary of the following episode. There is a lot of repetition. If an episode is not about X-Bomber fighting the Imperial alliance, it is about a damaged X-Bomber trying to escape from a planet or black hole. Everything happens numerous times. The dialogue reflects this, with characters explaining preceding events again and again. I suppose it is no more and no less what was typical of a children's show - worse: a children's science fiction show - of nearly 30 years ago. But it does wear very thin after a while.

The DVD set contains all 24 dubbed episodes with re-mastered sound. There are extra features on each disc - essays on the production history and background, character and mecha profiles, a number of stills galleries, plus a 35-minute documentary on disc three. It's this last which really proves the worth of the DVD set. Go Nagai, Gerry Anderson, Louis Ellman (the producer of the UK version), Peter Marinker and Paul Bliss (who composed the score) discuss the programme. Nagai admits he hadn't known Starfleet was so popular in the UK, and only found out when the promo video for Brian May's single was broadcast on Japanese television. Starfleet's lack of availability on VHS or DVD has affected its popularity. It was huge in the early 1980s, but now is almost forgotten. This DVD boxset may help change that. Admittedly, the series does show its age - the use of puppets and models, rather than CGI seems a little quaint and old-fashioned. Having said that, however, many of Gerry Anderson's programmes remain popular, so perhaps that's not a factor.

Watching Starfleet after more than 20 years proved to be considerably harder work than I'd expected it to be. Those fond memories have been forever poisoned. However, I suspect it will attract new fans. In many respects, it's as good as current television programmes of its type. I'm only surprised it's not currently being broadcast on some cable-only channel already...
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