Sunday, March 10, 2013

Cult-TV Blogging: Star Blazers (1979), Episode #1

In Japan, the animated series Space Battleship Yamato first ran on TV from October 1974 through March of 1975.   It was followed by two other successful series featuring the same universe and many of the same characters, in 1978 and 1980, respectively

The original series finally came to American shores, with some dramatic alterations, as Star Blazers, in 1979.  The series’ first season was dubbed over in English, and the characters were given new, westernized names like Captain Avatar, Derek Wildstar, and Mark Venture.  Even the great ship Yamato became, instead, the Argo, after Jason’s mythical vessel. 

The re-vamped series premiered post-Star Wars (1977) in the U.S. on September 19, 1979, and quickly became a critical part of the pop culture firmament if you were a 1970s space kid.

I have always watched the series as Star Blazers, not as Space Battleship Yamato, so I’ll be blogging the Americanized version of the material in the weeks ahead, particularly the first twenty-six installments, which comprise one narrative, or complete story arc.

The series’ first episode -- which I’ve seen titled as both “Battle of Pluto” and, on DVD, as “S.O.S. Earth! Revive Space Cruiser Argo” – establishes the crisis, characters, and essential universe of Star Blazers.

It is the year 2199 AD, and the hostile Gamilon race has bombarded Earth with “planet bombs.”  The fall-out from these devastating bombs has decimated life on the Earth’s surface, and mankind has moved underground to escape the toxic radiation pollution. 

Unfortunately, even the underground cities are endangered now.  The bad news is that all human life will be rendered extinct in one year’s time if nothing is done to save the planet, which has been termed “hopelessly contaminated.”

Meanwhile, the war with the Gamilons goes badly.  Earth’s space navy is “all that stands between” the alien battle-cruisers and Mother Earth.  In the Battle of Pluto, old space salt, Captain Avatar watches from the bridge of his flagship as his forces are soundly defeated.  The captain of another ship, Alex Wildstar, saves Avatar’s flagship but at the cost of Wildstar’s ship and crew.  It is a time of sacrifice, and honor.

Meanwhile, Alex’s brother, Derek Wildstar, unexpectedly learns of a new hope for the planet while stationed on Mars.  Queen Starsha of the distant world Iscandar has sent a critical message for the people of our world.  The natives of Iscandar possess a technological innovation called the “Cosmo DNA” which can restore the planet, removing the lethal radioactivity.

Furthermore, Starsha provides the blueprints and plans for a propulsion system called “the Wave Motion Engine,” which can carry an Earth ship the 148,000 light years to Iscandar and back…just in time to resolve the crisis.

The most pressing concern, however, is that there is no ship is available to make the survival run.  But wily old Captain Avatar has a secret plan.  The Earth’s future rests in excavating its forgotten past.  The sunken battleship Yamato from World War II has been found, and is currently being re-fitted as a space vessel for the long and dangerous voyage to Iscandar.

Wildstar and his friend, Mark Venture, join Captain Avatar on his quest.  They also meet a lovely nurse, Nova, and the comical Dr. Sane.  Another sidekick is the robot, IQ9, who can split into three segments and then-re-form.  Together, this team -- as well as a dedicated volunteer crew -- must get the Yamato – re-christened the Argo -- safely into the sky before it is destroyed by Gamilon bombers…

The episode ends with urgent notice that there are three hundred-and-sixty-four days remaining until the Earth dies.

I grew up with Star Blazers (as well as Battle of the Planets) and remember in the early 1980s visiting Forbidden Planet in New York City with my Dad to buy toys and models from the series (and also from Doctor Who).  I still have a Gamilon battle-cruiser on display in my home office after all these years, as well as a red spaceship/“aircraft carrier” that I haven’t seen yet on the program.

As I watched the inaugural Star Blazer episode for the first time in years, I noticed especially how the imagery -- particularly how it pertains to Captain Avatar -- generates and sustains a sense of suspense and mystery.  Throughout the first episode, the character is drawn with his back to the audience and to other characters too, making him feel removed and enigmatic.  This composition repeats at least three times in the first half-hour, and of course, we learn in the first episode what Avatar’s secret is: Yamato awaits.

I had also forgotten-- despite the obvious and central appearance of Yamato as a sea-going ship in outer space -- how thoroughly Star Blazers mines its central nautical metaphor.  Officers speak of “space knots” in terms of speed, or observe that the ship’s “stern is damaged.”  When buffeted, the great lumbering space cruisers also list to the side, as if knocked off balance while sailing an ocean setting.    

The space battles, with pivoting turrets and blaring weaponry, remain visually impressive, even today.  I love how the ships explode, for instance.  They seem to puff up first – their insides shattered – before they burst outwards in a blossom of destruction.  I was also struck by the terrifying depiction of destruction on Earth.  There’s an image of a small rural home or building struck by the Gamilon bomb, and at the moment of impact, the edifice melts away like a liquid until nothing solid remains. 

The premise for Star Blazers is both tense and adventurous.  A countdown has begun for Earth, yet at the same time, the episode acknowledges that no human has “ever gone” as far out in space as Iscandar, making the destination a mysterious one too

I also appreciate the conceit at the crux of Star Blazers: that the secret of our future survival rests in our past.  Yamato/Argo is just a “pile of scrap metal” to some eyes, but the past can be re-purposed and made vital again if only we remember it, and learn its lessons.  Thus I feel very strongly the Argo is a metaphor for how human beings face each day: experience and history are our guideposts, going forward. Star Blazers literalizes that notion with the Argo, a ship of war now transformed into a vehicle of hope.  


  1. Anonymous4:06 PM

    John, I too enjoyed both Battle of the Planets (1978-1979) and Star Blazers in 1979 debut. However, Star Blazers was epic on an emotional level to me as a boy in '79. I have seen the 2010 live-action movie called Space Battleship Yamato which production wise is simply brilliant, albeit lacks the emotional impact of the Star Blazers animated series. I still think that Ron Moore's 2003-2009 Battlestar Galactica character of Adama was greatly influenced by Avatar of Star Blazers. Even George Lucas admitted to seeing Space Battleship Yamato animated series/films before he wrote Star Wars.


  2. I was happily surprised to see that Space Battleship Yamato is still going strong in Japan with "Space Battleship Yamato 2199" being released in four episode installments (in theaters no less) last year. This modern update basically follows the original story-line, with some clever updates/character additions. The animation style is incredible and the updated, yet familiar score hits all the nostalgic notes and is still quite stirring. I highly recommend checking out the first 10 episodes that have been released; they're pretty easy to find on various anime sites by doing a simple Google search.

    - Adam

  3. What a great show, or at least I fondly remember it that way. It reminds me of hurriedly packing my lunch so I could catch as much starblazers as possible before had to run out and catch the schoolbus to 2nd grade..
    I still think the ship looks baddass..