Friday, April 30, 2021

Star Blazers, Episode #10

Here, the Argo is, at long last, ready to leave the solar system and make a dash for Iscandar to retrieve the life-saving Cosmo DNA. 

But before the Argo leaves the solar system, the crewmen and women must make their goodbyes to Earth, and Earth Command.  Captain Avatar notes solemnly that it might be even worse to be stuck on Earth than facing danger aboard the Argo.  “They can only wait.  We can act.”

As time to communicate with Earth runs out, Nova arranges for each crew member to get five minutes on“the telecommunicator” with family and loved ones.  Mark Venture telephones his Mom and Dad, and talks to his brother Geordi, who is building a model of the Argo in the living room when the connection goes through.  

Meanwhile, Nova speaks to her own parents, and learns that her mother is obsessed not with the impending end of the world…but with finding a suitable husband for Nova upon her return.

These “goodbyes” to family are emotional enough, but then the episode follows up on such heartfelt moments with the revelation that men like Avatar and Derek Wildstar are even worse off. 

They have no one on Earth to even say goodbye to. Talk about feeling lonely...

Until the last few frames of episode ten when Desslok appears, there’s not a twitching, threatening Gamilon in sight, and that’s a very good thing, as Star Blazers diagrams the emotional impact of the Argo’s journey.  The crew must not only accept its mission, but the vast distance from Mother Earth. And the people from Earth are hungry for hope…any hope.  

We have a great need of news of the Star Force…can we hope?” asks the Earth commander. 

In short, this episode makes up for the last several middling weeks of Star Blazers, which merely tread water in terms of narrative The focus here is rightly on the crew and the fact that it carries the weight of the world upon its shoulders.  

The only negative I can point out, as before, is the detail surrounding the “star warp.”  Already -- several episodes back -- the Argo has jumped twice, and yet this episode again explains the concept of folding space all over again.  And also, I’m not quite clear why the star jump distances have been so short.  The first jump barely took the Argo from Mars to Jupiter.

Still, this entry is a very strong episode in the series, and all of “galactic space” is ahead.  Only 315 Days left…

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Star Blazers, Episode #9

The ninth episode of the 1970s animated series Star Blazers (1979) does a strong job of showcasing imaginative visuals, and for that reason, this installment is considerably more interesting than some of the earlier episodes.

In this Star Blazers episode, a damaged and “very vulnerable” Argo suffers damage during an attack by the Gamilon fleet and subsequently seeks shelter inside an asteroid belt.  These asteroids are the remnants of the destroyed tenth planet in our solar system, Minerva.  Realizing that the ship is “not fit to go into battle now,” Captain Avatar approves a risky defense strategy by Engineer Sandor.  

Specifically, he activates an experimental “polarity reactor” which magnetizes the ship’s hull, and pulls nearby asteroids onto the ship…essentially burying the ship inside rock on all sides.  This new “asteroid camouflage” prevents the Gamilons from easily locating the Argo, at least for a time.

This episode features many dynamic visuals, which makes it a more interesting and lively segment than some so far.  For instance, we see Argo’s engineers working on the damaged hull of the ship in a thoroughly impressive sequence.  This EVA reveals scope well, with a team of personnel set against the backdrop of the detailed ship, and again, this is precisely the kind of composition that live-action programs of the day like Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica would have been hard-pressed to emulate.  Here, the audience gets a sense of the massive scale of the repair efforts.

The visuals of Argo encased in asteroid rock, and then surrounded by a rotating weapon called an “asteroid ring” (to deflect Gamilon fire) are also incredibly impressive and inventive.  It’s been a few weeks since the show has revealed such flights of imagination.

If this episode boasts any weakness at all, it is in the characterization of the villains, the Gamilons.  These aliens sweat, grovel, whimper, gasp and are forced to speak dreadful dialogue such as “Boy that Star Force is really clever!”  In toto, one wonders how the Gamilons ever defeated the planet Earth, and brought it so low.  In virtually every episode thus far they are depicted as ineffective, even incompetent bunglers.  Lacking courage, loyalty and equanimity, one wonders how the Gamilon race has endured…

After the serious action featured this week, there are only 338 days left for Argo to complete its mission to Iscandar.  And the bloody ship still hasn’t left the solar system yet…

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Star Blazers, Episode #8

The eighth episode of the animated series Star Blazers (1979) continues the story-line commenced in the previous installment.  Specifically, the Gamilons have used their powerful new weapon, the Reflex Gun, to disable the Argo and send it sinking to the bottom of an ocean on Pluto.

In this story, Captain Avatar plans to strike back by using the Gamilons’ reflective satellites against them.  

When the Reflex Gun fires once more, the Argo personnel are able to use the satellites to determine its position (under an ice field on Pluto…) and launch missiles to disable it.

Meanwhile, Wildstar commands a dangerous mission to the Gamilon base and meets the first non-aligned aliens in the series: Pluto’s cute Protozoa creatures, who “feel like slippery grape gelatin.”  The alien creatures look like the Blob, only with eyes.  These aliens aren’t advanced, and perhaps lack much more than rudimentary intelligence.  They are put to sleep with harmless gas so Wildstar can gain access to the enemy headquarters. 

Once inside that base, Wildstar must avoid booby traps and blow up a reactor, thereby destroying the threat to Earth from additional planet bombs.  Victorious, Captain Avatar declares “And now…onto Iscandar” with just 354 days remaining until Earth’s destruction.

In a deliberate mirror image of that victory, Desslok orders his defeated forces on Pluto not to return to Gamilon until the Star Force is destroyed.

As I wrote about in regards to episode seven, Star Blazers has become a fairly formulaic show, featuring strategic move and counter-move, but with little forward momentum and almost no character development to go along with the pitched battles.  I’m hoping it’s just a rough patch here, because this has only recently become the case. 

I’m hoping this is the last “Gamilons test new weapon on Argo, which ekes out a surprise victory” story for a while.  When I watched the series as a kid, I don’t remember it being a military war show to the exclusion of every other consideration.

I’m with Avatar: let’s head out into unexplored space, to Iscandar, and see what’s out there.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Star Blazers, Episode #7

Gamilon forces strike back in Star Blazers, episode #7.  Here, the evil aliens wait for the Argo to approach the secret base on Pluto, and then prime their “ultimate weapon,” the Reflex Gun.

On the Argo, it’s time for tough choices.  

Destroy the Pluto Base and spare Earth additional bombardments by planet bombs, or set course for Iscandar at top speed? 

Somewhat surprisingly, Captain Avatar chooses battle. 

Unfortunately, the Reflex Gun fires on the unsuspecting Star Force vessel, emitting a “powerful surge of energy” that damages the ship.  When Captain Avatar attempts to use the planet Pluto to hide from the weapon’s line of sight, he learns that a clutch of orbital satellites can transmit the weapon’s power to Argo, no matter where it hides.

As the episode ends, the Argo goes down…falling into a planetary ocean on Pluto.

I must confess that with this installment, I’m beginning to find the development of Star Blazers’ s narrative a little bit anemic.  It’s been several weeks now of punch and counter-punch between secret Gamilon facilities and weaponry (like the Ultra Menace Missile or the Reflex Gun) and the Argo, and so this episode, frankly, feels like a retread. 

What’s worse, the story is stretched out, essentially, to two parts, with the Argo still battling the planet-based Reflex Gun in episode eight.  It feels like a very long preamble, and I hope there will be some forward plot momentum soon.

Early in the episode, Captain Avatar notes that “We’re in Gamilon territory now,” and he’s right.  Indeed, much of the solar system -- near Mars, Jupiter, Titan and Pluto -- is solidly in the hands of the enemy.  With Argo as the only line of defense, one wonders why the Gamilons don’t simply invade Earth and be done with the war all together.  They possess numerical, technological, and territorial supremacy, as episodes one through six abundantly demonstrate. 

I was also curious regarding Captain Avatar’s rational for fighting the Gamilons at Pluto.  He knows there is only one ship – Argo – that can reach Iscandar in time and recover the device that will save the Earth.  I thought for certain Avatar would see the logic of fighting another day, and use the wave motion engine to get out of Dodge, so-to-speak. 

After all, whether or not it is being bombarded on a daily basis by Planet Bombs, Earth still has a death sentence: 356 days till destruction   By risking the Argo at Pluto, Captain Avatar risks the survival of the Earth.  

The only possible reasons to fight the Gamilons at this juncture are: a sense of revenge/justice for those who have been killed (like Avatar’s son and Wildstar’s brother), or to build morale within the Star Force, going forward.  I’m sure no one in the Star Force wants to feel as though he or she “ran” from a fight with the Gamilons.

Still, Avatar’s choice here, at least to me, isn’t particularly indicative of big picture thinking, or really, an adherence to duty over and responsibility over sentiment.  And I thought duty and responsibility were key elements of the series’ thematic gestalt.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Thundarr the Barbarian in "Attack of the Amazon Women"

In “Attack of the Amazons,” Thundarr, Ariel and Ookla become involved in a battle involving Amazon warriors and innocent villagers. 

The leader of the Amazons is Strya, a web-fingered wizard and shark-woman from the sea capable of summoning a deadly beast called the Kraken.

As Thundarr and his friends learn, the Amazons and Strya seek a weapon at the bottom of the sea, a nuclear missile from 2000 years earlier, from before the apocalypse….

Amazon women have appeared frequently through cult-TV history, on series as diverse as Wonder Woman and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (“Planet of the Amazon Women,”) and this week’s episode of Thundarr the Barbarian (1980 – 1982) features them as well.  

Unfortunately, these legendary, strong women are not treated with tremendous amounts of respect in the teleplay. For instance, when Ookla learns of an army of female warriors, he actually laughs. This point of view doesn’t make a lot of sense given Ookla’s friendship with the powerful Ariel, who is capable of hypnosis, telekinesis, not to mention the manifestation of energy beams and force-fields.  

Ookla’s contempt also doesn’t make sense because he lives in a world 2000 years away from mid-20th century stereotypes about women. To some extent, the episode recovers by featuring a battle of the female wizards -- Strya vs. Ariel -- but the Ookla giggles are tough to get past.   It’s always weird and off-putting when a writer’s biases make it to air, and stick out like a sore thumb.

If “Attack of the Amazon Women,” doesn’t tread very forward-thinking ground in terms of its narrative, the same can’t be said of the (again) impressive visualizations. The episode is set at the ruins of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. The sculptures of the four presidents are damaged -- one chief executive has lost the top of his head -- and stand on the edge of a large sea. 

The visuals suggest not only that an earthquake or other disaster has damaged the famous monument, but that the very shape of the sea has been altered too.  It’s intriguing to see Thundarr and his friends at Mount Rushmore, but having absolutely no knowledge of its importance.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Star Blazers, Episode #6

In this episode of animated series, Star Blazers (1979), The Argo’s energy transmission unit fails upon the vessel’s departure from Jupiter.  To become functional again, the battleship now requires special “titanium” crystals only found on Saturn’s moon, Titan, an inhospitable, frozen world.

The Argo deploys small mining crafts to the icy surface, with Wildstar, Nova and IQ9 all participating in the recovery mission.  Unfortunately, the Gamilons learn of the expedition, and deploy space tanks to run off the Star Force. IQ9 lifts and destroys one such tank, and Wildstar escapes from captivity after finding an operating hand-gun in the ice. 

Incredibly, the gun belongs to Wildstar’s dead brother, Alex.  Derek, Nova and IQ9 soon also locate Alex’s crashed ship -- now a derelict -- the Paladin.  The heroes manage a return to the Argo before being captured again, and Wildstar wonders if his brother, even in death, is still looking after him.

Only 359 days remain until the extinction of all life on Earth…

I see it would be hard to be human,” IQ9 notes in this episode, and that’s very much the point of the story.  Here, Derek unexpectedly finds evidence of his brother’s death, and must come to terms with it.  He is told by Avatar that Alex “survives” in him, and in “the Star Force” but the episode nonetheless carries a heavy emotional wallop.  One of the final scene finds Wildstar and Captain Avatar talking about what Wildstar found on the planet, and a single tear drop falls from Avatar’s face.  I wondered if he was crying for Alex Wildstar, who gave his life to save the Earth flagship, or for his only son, who also died in the Battle of Pluto.

Captain Avatar has been my favorite character on the series thus far, but Wildstar grew on me a bit in this episode, in part because his discovery of Alex’s hand-gun and the Paladin is so damned unexpected.  A viewer definitely shares his sense of surprise at the discovery.  

So far, Wildstar has seemed -- at least to me – hard-headed, impulsive and temperamental.  This episode shows a bit more shading than that, and I appreciate it.  I know that Star Blazers is actually his “hero’s journey,” so I’m watching his maturation closely. 

Once again, the visuals in Star Blazers are quite dynamic, and even beautiful.  There’s a shot I absolutely love here of the icy planet surface as the Argo suddenly becomes visible, moving into the frame, overhead, above mountains.  It’s as though the great ship has been obscured in thick mist or fog, only to break through that barrier and emerge clearly.  This composition while being quite beautiful, also “sells” Argo’s size.  She’s a huge ship.

The most emotional visual section of the episode, however, involves a montage of the derelict Paladin on the ice cliff.  A variety of shots show reveal the destroyed ship alone in the ice, an image of isolation and loneliness.  On the last final withdraw from the ship, we see the ship from Wildstar's perspective as the Paladin seems to blend into the ice itself, a lost memory.  It's haunting.

I also really admired the final flyby of Argo in this episode.  As the ship goes by, Captain Avatar is visible standing alone in the top tier of the conning tower, presumably in an observation deck.  He cuts a solitary, sad figure, but I loved the point of detail. 

Once more, some of the science in a Star Blazers episode doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  Dialogue suggests that Titan possess an environment “similar to Earth except it is very cold.” 

Well, cold is putting it mildly, isn’t it?  And it Titan doesn’t possess an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere like Earth?  The expedition should thus all be wearing space suits throughout the journey.  Again, my barometer is this on “distraction.”  If I’m pulled out of the story by a technical point that seems wrong, it bears mentioning.  This is another one of those details.

All these problems could have been removed from the series if only the writers specified that Argo had journeyed outside our solar system already, and was visiting new, unexplored worlds.  Then, they would have no responsibility to conform to our understanding of our neighboring worlds.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Star Blazers, Episode #5

In the fifth episode of Star Blazers (1979), the damaged Argo is dragged into the gravitational pull of the planet Jupiter.  After passing through a layer of dense clouds, the Argo unexpectedly finds a “floating continent” and sets down there for repairs.

Unfortunately a Gamilon fighter base is also secretly stationed on that very continent, and a terrifying trap is sprung.  Wildstar does battle with an enemy fighter, but for Argo to escape the Gamilons, the wave motion gun must be tested for the first time. 

Fortunately, the gun works.  

In fact, the weapon is so powerful and destructive that it obliterates not just the Gamilon base, but the entire floating continent.  Captain Avatar concludes that the ship “used too much power” and must be “very careful in the future.” 

Meanwhile, the Gamilons are stunned at Argo’s power, and now the game is truly afoot.

Only 361 days remain until Earth’s destruction…

The Argo’s shakedown or trial-by-fire continues in this episode as the wave motion gun is deployed for the first time.  The power of the thing is incredible, and a little frightening.   Watching this episode, I wondered if that was actually the point.  Much of Japanese genre entertainment features terrifying technological advances, from Gojira’s (1954) Oxygen Destroyer to Star Blazers’ wave motion gun. No doubt, this is a result of the country’s well-founded fear about nuclear warfare.

The implicit question of any such weaponry is, simply: what kind of man does it take to control a technological innovation of such terror and raw power?  In this case, fortunately, Captain Avatar is that man, and he is depicted as wise and eminently reasonable.  His response to the deployment of the powerful weapon is to pull back; to think about the future and the proper application of the device.  He promises to be very careful in the future. This is indeed a reassuring strategy, and again, I  find myself drawn to Avatar.  I like his sense of calm and “centered-ness.”

I won’t make any more comments this week about Argo being able to traverse the distance from Mars to Jupiter without the star drive (after harnessing that incredible power to reach Mars from Earth), since I covered it thoroughly last week.  I will note, however, many of the beautiful images this week, like Argo listing to one side in the rainbow-hued atmosphere of Jupiter, or the white-hot flower and destructive flare of the wave motion gun.  I also love the visuals of Argo skimming the ground and lifting off - its nose ascendant -- as it leaves the floating continent.

Instead, I’ll only note that this animated series has done a good job so far of getting viewers on the side of the beleaguered Star Force.  Although the wave motion gun is a terrifying thing, there’s also a sense of accomplishment and triumph in the destruction of the bad guys.  Although the Argo defeated the ultra-menace missile and survived an engagement with a Gamilon carrier, this is the first instance in which the Gamilons have really taken it on the chin, and had their arrogant confidence shaken.  They were clearly not ready for the Argo to bear so much power, and it’s good to see the conquering aliens rocked back on their heels, at least a bit.  

The Argo, we now see, can at least defend itself on its long journey to Iscandar.  But after damage on Mars and repairs on Jupiter, the great battleship better get moving…

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Star Blazers, Episode #4

In this episode of Star Blazers (1979), the great ship Argo tests its wave motion engine for the first time. 

In the Central Strategy Room, Captain Avatar and his top crew strategize for space warp, described aptly in the dialogue as a “giant step across space.”  The problem, as everyone realizes is that if calculations are wrong by even a degree, the Argo could become lost forever in the corridors of the “fourth dimension.”

The region selected for the Argo’s first jump is “Area 14,” a span of territory between the Moon and Mars.  Alas, a Gamilon carrier approaches the Argo as it nears those coordinates, and Derek Wildstar launches a squadron of Argo’s small fighters to intercept it.  One ship -- Conroy’s – nearly doesn’t make it back in time to join the Argo.

The Argo succeeds on the jump, and reaches Mars in a matter of seconds.  Unfortunately, the ship is badly damaged in the jump, and the crew must undertake repairs before the Gamilons can locate the battleship and resume their bombardment.

Only 362 days remain until Earth will be destroyed…

Between this episode and the next, The Argo is getting a shakedown of sorts.  The engine is tested here at space warp capacity, and the follow-up episode involves the first deployment of the wave motion gun.  

Much of this episode consists of building tension in terms of the first space warp jump.  Mark Venture is understandably concerned and anxious, since he is Argo’s navigator, plotting the vessel’s trajectory through space/ time.  More suspense arises when Conroy is almost left behind as the countdown to space warp ticks down.  My friend SGB has written before in the comments about the “emotional component” of Star Blazers, and this scene certainly fits the bill.  Once again, as viewers we are asked to contemplate the notions of duty and sacrifice in the service of a greater good.  Captain Avatar is prepared to leave a man behind because the consequences of mission failure are, literally, global.

All these moments work well, and the moment of space warp doesn’t disappoint, either.  The episode cuts to a trippy montage of the ship crossing planes of existence, it seems.  Images of the ship in flight double and triple, and the Argo even seems to travel through the corridors of time…where it briefly meets itself.  It’s a pseudo-2001 visual “trip,” and as such, awesomely psychedelic.  

Less satisfactory, however, are the exact details of the space warp.  It is reported in the dialogue that “thousands of light years” are traversed in a matter of moments, but the Argo bafflingly emerges near (a snowy) planet Mars.  On average – because both it and the Earth move -- Mars is some 225 million kilometers distant from our world.  A light year is approximately 9.4605284 x 1012 kilometers in distance, so the Argo hardly jumped at all.  

In fact, it didn’t even jump one light year, let alone thousands, if Mars was its destination.

Now, I am not at all a person who believes that science fiction programs must be entirely scientifically accurate to be enjoyable.  In some sense, a focus on scientific accuracy over drama can take the fun and imagination out of certain narratives.  But, there should be some surface attention paid to scientific accuracy.  In other words -- just on a general level – I know that Mars is not a light year distant, let alone thousands of light years distant. 

I wonder if the original Japanese series made this error in science, or if it was an error in translation to English. In other words, I wonder if in the Japanese original, the planet the Argo jumps to is not actually Mars, but rather one much more distant and far outside the solar system. 

Regardless, this is a jarring mistake that raises many distracting questions.  And that, generally speaking, is my threshold of tolerance.  I’m willing to let pass a lot in the name of entertainment and imagination -- I’m a die-hard Space: 1999 fan, after all -- but what does appear on screen generally shouldn’t be so amiss that it actually distracts from the narrative.

What makes the mistake worse is that in the follow-up episode, Argo travels from Mars to Jupiter in a matter of minutes without using the wave motion star drive.  The distance from Mars to Jupiter is approximately 3.18 AU or 419 million kilometers, which is greater than the distance between Earth and Mars.  

So basically the Argo space warps to travel a shorter distance (Earth to Mars) and conventional engines to traverse a longer one (Mars to Jupiter). Again, I ain’t a science expert, but I know enough about space to be distracted by all this.

Despite the goof, I still have “faith” in what Star Blazers is “doing,” to borrow a line from Derek Wildstar.  In particular, I’m enjoying the series as momentum builds, and the Argo passes one crucial test after the next as it begins its long journey.  

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Star Blazers, Episode #2

The Star Force saga continues in the second episode of the animated series, Star Blazers (1979). This chapter depicts Yamato’s (or Argo’s) baptism of fire as it faces its first challenge from the Gamilons: an ultra-menace missile.

This episode also introduces several additional Argo crewmen, including Chief Engineer Orion, head mechanic Sandor, assistant pilot Eager, and officers Conroy, Dash, and Homer.  

Even better, the episode escorts viewers on a tour of the impressive Argo’s interior, from the holography room which can display 3-D “memories of Earth” (an early version of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck?) to Sandor’s machine shop. We also get a good look at the fighter hanger bay, and the Wave Motion Engine and gun areas of the ship. There’s even little information introduced about the science underlying the wave motion technology, which involves tachyon particles and the folding of space itself. 

Future episodes establish the first test of the engine at “star warp” speed and the inaugural deployment of the Wave Motion gun in battle (near the floating continents of Jupiter).  But there’s a powerful and memorable image in this episode: Avatar and Wildstar standing in the turret/muzzle, essentially of the gigantic weapon.  This visual sells the size of the thing perfectly.

Additional character background also gets filled in during this early episode of Star Blazers.  The audience learns that Wildstar isn’t the only person who lost someone he loved at the Battle of Pluto.  In fact, Captain Avatar lost his only son as well, a fact he carries with him every moment of every day.  Wildstar learns this information when he is trying to determine “what kind of man,” his captain is, and his answer is clear. Avatar has faced personal tragedy, but that fact isn’t going to paralyze him when there is a planet to save. 

Captain Avatar, who is rapidly becoming my favorite character, also gets to offer another one of his great nuggets of wisdom here: “The less time you have, the more you need to use it wisely.” Sometimes I think that’s the story of my writing career!

The episode ends with the notion that 363 days remain until Earth’s destruction…

Although the central threat of this Star Blazers episode -- the ultra menace missile – is a bit of a dud, the story nonetheless functions ably as the second chapter of a longer work, like a TV novel.  The Argo has become a character in the drama herself, and so this episode wisely reveals much more of the great ship.  

We also see and spend more time with the Gamilon leader Desslok here, and he sounds, unfortunately, like an adenoidal Roddy McDowall, which makes it a little difficult to take him seriously as a threat.

It’s also a little strange that the robot IQ9 boasts such a pronounced New York accent. I wonder who programmed him with that little touch?

One factor I appreciated about this chapter involves the Star Force personnel saying goodbye to Earth and loved ones.  Parents cry and cheer during a parade, and onlookers quarrel as Earth’s future hangs in the balance.  This sequence puts a fine point on the bravery of Argo’s crew. 

These young, dedicated people are going where none have gone before, with full knowledge that a dedicated enemy will be nipping at their heels throughout the journey.

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...