This article appeared in Issue 18 of Frontier, Australia's sci-fi media magazine, and Issue 29 of Asian Cult Cinema
We're off to outer space, we're leaving Mother Earth
To save the human race. Our Star Blazers!
Searching for a distant star, heading off to Iscandar.
Leaving all we love behind, who knows what dangers we'll find?
We must be strong and brave, our home we've got to save.
If we don't, in just one year, Mother Earth will disappear
Fighting with the Gamalons, we won't stop until we've won
Then we'll return, and when we arrive,
The Earth will survive with our Star Blazers!
'In the distant future, time is running out for the human race as a sickness slowly destroys the Earth, making it incapable of supporting life within a short time. Earth's last, best hope for a cure is the valiant crew of a powerful yet untested spaceship. Guided by a wise and experienced captain, they set out towards the stars on an epic journey in search of mankind's salvation, ready to face whatever dangers await them...'
Though this premise sounds like that of "Crusade", it is actually for a series that preceded J. Michael Straczynski's latest offering by at least a quarter of a century. It was back in 1974 that Japanese cartoonist Leiji Matsumoto unleashed on Japanese audiences what was to herald a new genre in anime. In an industry that was dominated by literary adaptations, children's folk tales, and giant robots, Matsumoto offered the first outer-space adventure with the animated miniseries "Uchuu Senkan Yamato", which translated to "Space Cruiser Yamato". Buoyed by an enthusiastic response, the "Yamato" franchise quickly expanded to include two follow-up series and a number of theatrical films, and also helped lay the foundation for other popular space-based series that followed, such as "Macross" (known in the West as "Robotech") and "Space Pirate Captain Harlock".
Unfortunately, Western audiences would not discover the wonders of "Yamato" for another five years. With interest in space operas high from the monumental success of "Star Wars" the year prior, Westchester Enterprises and Claster Television saw that the market was ripe for "Yamato" and purchased the syndication rights for the first two series in 1978. Finally, in 1979/1980, the after-school crowd got their first glimpse of a revolutionary new animated series, "Star Blazers". Though audiences in the United States were lucky enough to be the first to see the Japanese import, "Star Blazers" quickly made its way around the world, enthralling audiences and establishing cult followings in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and many other countries.
With its high-quality animation (which even included some 3-D effects achieved via rotoscoping), epic story lines, mature writing (including some well-handled pathos and romance), well-developed character arcs, and superb voice acting, "Star Blazers" raised the bar for not only televised animation, but also sci-fi drama in general. The writing found in "Star Blazers" easily outshone the best efforts of the creatively bankrupt sci-fi dramas of the time, including "Battlestar Galactica", "Buck Rogers", and "Space: 1999". In some respects, "Star Blazers" even outshone the ubiquitous reruns of "Star Trek". This didn't happen by accident-- working from translations of the original show, Claster Television had the entire series re-written and re-edited to meet the requirements of Western audiences. In the process of such an undertaking, Claster Television actually improved on the original.
Part of this was due to cultural differences between Japanese and Western audiences, resulting in Claster Television having to make a number of judgement calls during the rewriting and re-editing process. For example, a prologue detailing the sinking of the Yamato during the Second World War was excised, as it spoke to allegorical references found in the Japanese version. In this deleted opening, the original Yamato is sunk by American fighters during a fierce battle, which has numerous parallels, in terms of specific sequences and music, to a later scene in which Gamilon fighters attack the space-faring Yamato. From this, it becomes obvious that the Gamilon's are thinly-veiled Americans, the nuclear planet bombs represent the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the series is a revisionist view of the War in the Pacific (this 'nationalistic' viewpoint is actually quite common in Japanese science fiction, and can also be seen in the "Godzilla" movies that were made by Toho Studios in the 90's). Obviously, the original opening had to go. Other changes reflecting differences in cultural norms included the removal of fleeting nudity, scenes of bloodshed, and transforming Dr. Sane's sake into mineral water (in case you didn't notice, the good doctor was inebriated most of the time).
Despite rebuilding the series from the ground up, the core elements of the "Star Blazers" remained faithful to "Yamato". The first season, "The Quest for Iscandar", takes place in the year 2199, when the Earth is buckling under constant nuclear bombardment by an alien race called the Gamilons, a stellar empire headed by Desslok. The long war with the Gamilons has rendered the Earth's surface uninhabitable, forcing humanity to live in vast underground cities. Furthermore, it is estimated that the Earth will be unable to sustain life within one year.
However, humanity is given hope when they receive a message from Queen Starsha of the planet Iscandar. She offers the people of Earth an element that will restore Earth's ecosystem, CosmoDNA, as well as the technology necessary to make the 148,000 light-year journey in order to retrieve it. Using the hull of the ancient battleship Yamato, a space cruiser named the Argo is built for the long journey. Captain Avatar, a veteran of the Gamilon war, assembles a crew of Earth's best and brightest, including the brash First Officer Derek Wildstar, the lovely radar operator Nova, the fearless navigator Mark Venture, the emotional robot IQ-9, the cyborg Chief Engineer Sandor, and the world-weary Chief Medical Officer Dr. Sane. With an immovable deadline and an untested ship, the Argo begins the long journey to Iscandar, a journey that will become the basis of legends.
The story then continued in the second series, entitled "The Comet Empire", which finds the crew of the Argo violating direct orders when they go out to investigate what may be a new threat to Earth's sovereignty, the Comet Empire. Unfortunately, they quickly learn that the threat is real and that the rebuilt Earth fleet is no match for the military might of the Comet Empire, especially since it has recruited the remains of Desslok's forces.
Unfortunately, few saw the third series "The Bolar Wars", which had the crew of the Argo caught in a war between a redeemed Desslok and the forces of the Bolar Federation. This latecomer was not translated for Western audiences until 1985, and due to lack of funding and interest, the quality of the dubbing and writing was disappointingly inferior to its predecessors. As the years passed, time and new anime imports (namely "Robotech" and "The Transformers") eventually caught up with "Star Blazers", and the last episode aired sometime in the mid-1980s, vanishing from television screens around the world. Though a couple of videotape editions of the three series have been released, the first set by Westchester, followed by the high-quality re-masters issued by Voyager Entertainment (the distribution arm of the company that originally produced "Yamato"), "Star Blazers" never aired again on television. The future of the series became even more doubtful when the Japanese arm of Voyager Entertainment went bankrupt in 1997. Fortunately, the legacy of "Star Blazers" is far from forgotten.
Since the early 1980s, the influence of "Star Blazers" could been seen in Western sci-fi. For example, a number of interesting parallels to "Star Blazers" can be seen in the second and third "Star Trek" movies. In "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and "Yamato: New Journey" (a movie that takes place between "The Comet Empire" and "The Bolar Wars"), both captains must go into battle with a ship staffed by a trainee crew, and complications (posts being abandoned) ensue as a result. "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" shared a number of common plot points with "The Comet Empire" series-- both the Enterprise and the Argo undergo refits that automate most of the ship's systems, both captains feel compelled to act against orders and steal their ships out of drydock (while narrowly dodging a closing gate), and are subsequently given chase by the most advanced ship in the fleet (the USS Excelsior in "Star Trek III" and the Andromeda in "Star Blazers").
Even today, almost two decades after it aired, the influence of "Star Blazers" can still be seen in "Crusade", J. Michael Stracynski's follow-up to "Babylon 5". In addition to the similarity in premise alluded to earlier, the central set-piece of "Crusade", the Excalibur, shares some likenesses to the Argo. Like the Argo, which was built using blueprints provided by Queen Starsha, the Excalibur is a ship built with alien technology (a combination of Vorlon and Minbari). Similarly, the Excalibur's main weapon is a powerful main gun that uses up all of the ship's energy upon firing (requiring a significant recharge time) which is not unlike the Argo's wave motion gun, which would direct all the energy from the wave motion engine into a single focused beam, leaving the ship momentarily powerless afterwards. Is it mere coincidence, or is Straczynski subtly paying homage to a classic work as he did for "The Lord of the Rings" and the works of H.P. Lovecraft in "Babylon 5"?
Since the early- to mid-1990s, "Star Blazers" has enjoyed somewhat of a revival. Over the years, a number of fan organizations and Internet campaigns have sprung up around the world on the strength of the series' loyal following, building support for a return of "Star Blazers" to the screen.
One of the biggest stories circulating among "Star Blazers" fans is the possibility of a live-action feature film. Back in 1997, Disney purchased sufficient rights from Voyager Entertainment to allow for the production of a live-action movie, hopefully the first of a new sci-fi franchise. With Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tab Murphy (who wrote Disney's animated "Tarzan") attached to the project to write the script, the live-action film was originally slated for release sometime in 1999 or 2000 (coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of the original series).
The CGI-effects-dominated movie would follow a similar story to the first series, with the Earth close to death in the year 2199 from constant nuclear bombardment by Desslok of Gamelon. The USS Arizona, under the command of Captain Rafe Kogen, heads off to distant Iskandar in the hopes of obtaining a substance that will restore Earth's ecosystem. Along for the ride are hot-shot pilot Derek Wilder, mysterious scientist Nova, and tough-as-nails space marine Sgt. Knox. In essence, it seems that the Disney project would remain faithful to the original concept, with a number of the cosmetic elements (such as character names and the production design) deviating from the original series. However, since that initial buzz two years ago, additional news has not been so forthcoming. Unfortunately, it seems that the "Star Blazers" movie has since fallen into 'development hell', like 90% of the projects in Hollywood, leaving the possibility of a live-action feature uncertain.
More recently, in August of 1999, a partnership between studioNEXT.com and the American arm of Voyager Entertainment (which is still soluble) began broadcasting sample "Star Blazers" episodes over the World Wide Web. This 8-week long experiment was designed to generate interest among fans and non-fans for the series, possibly as a gauge for future "Star Blazers" releases. For example, there still are five feature-length "Yamato" films that are only available in the original Japanese language (with English subtitles), as well as a limited-run series that was only aired in Japan, "Yamato 2520" (which takes place three centuries after the original series and concerns itself with the 17th incarnation of the Yamato). Based on the response to the studioNEXT.com promotion, Voyager Entertainment may reward "Star Blazers" loyalists with new movies and something akin to "Star Blazers: The Next Generation".
Twenty years ago, "Star Blazers" catapulted from being an unknown Japanese import to becoming a cultural phenomenon that forever changed the paradigms of science fiction and animation, endearing a generation of fans in the process. Now, two decades later, "Star Blazers" continues to capture the imagination of audiences around the world with its epic tales of heroism and sacrifice to a new generation. How the rest of the "Star Blazers" story will unfold still remains to be seen, but in the present, the legacy of "Star Blazers" continues to shine brightly.