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Starship Operators

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Genre: Action/Drama
Company: J.C. Staff/TV Tokyo
Format: 13 episodes
Dates: 1/05/05 to 3/30/05

“I don’t think it’s possible to defeat the Kingdom with just one ship. But . . .”

The 73rd Class of Cadets of the Defense University of the small planet Kibi takes the fleet’s new prototype starship Amaterasu on a shakedown cruise as a run-up to graduation. As the cadets are returning to their home planet, the aggressive Henrietta Alliance of Planetary Nations, a.k.a “The Kingdom,” declares war on their home world. The government of Kibi surrenders forthwith. Determined to offer resistance, but lacking financial resources, the Amateresu crew strike a bargain with a television producer and become stars of a reality show on The Starship Channel! Of course, the crew’s goal is to strike a crippling blow to the Kingdom and liberate Kibi, but the Starship Channel only wants ratings.

summary by Papa-san

 

Reviewed: 09/27/14 by
Grade: 80% av-Gendo

Highs: High tension, intricate plot, some beautiful artwork

Lows: Clunky CGI, some animation is crude and choppy, some viewers might find the pace too frenetic in places

Let me start by saying I am feeling audacious and humbled to offer my own first review here in this hall of learning where so many wise men and women have been before. I hope my efforts now and in the future will do honor to my predecessors here.

Starship Operators is some good hard science fiction set against a stage of political, diplomatic, and military intrigue. This is much more thriller and psychodrama than action series: despite being at war, actual battles are infrequent and perfunctory through most of the series. Much is made of the psychology and strategy of warfare and diplomatic maneuvering, and even public relations aspects. (As noted in the summary, all these battles are being broadcast to the whole galaxy). This, to the point that at one point the Amaterasu is represented on a battle schematic by a Hello Kitty! type icon! When the former Kibi Prime Minister boards Amaterasu, they become a “government in exile”, and we learn that this whole scenario has been pre-planned. “Wheels within wheels” is a major motif here, as we see several different background schemes at work: secret deals, betrayals, power struggles in and between the planetary governments.

The premise is still quite topical and with the modern explosion of “reality” shows, none too far-fetched. Nearly ten years after first airing, it seems (if anything) even more plausible than ever.

Acting sounds good and natural. All characters remain age-appropriate; there are no juvenile prodigies or other oddball characters who inexplicably act, look, or sound like a ten year old. There is good contrast between the patriotic earnestness of the cadet crew and the cynical, jaded producer, whose comment that the first episode and battle are “so-so”, and that after the first casualties, “burial in space” ceremonies for the dead will play well. One sequence early on where one character “declares her love” for another seemed rather out of place. Granted, a bit of shipboard romance in and of itself is not inappropriate and these are college-age cadets, not full-fledged adult ship’s officers. I understand this is a common motif in young people/schoolroom shows, but I did find it rather awkward and out of place in this situation. While a number of other ships engage Amaterasu in battle, it is the Kingdom’s flagship Conquistador who is her prime antagonist, and the one ship Amaterasu cannot defeat. Starship Operators does not slip into the murky waters of moral equivalency or relativism, when we find out the “bad guys” aren’t really that bad and the “good guys” aren’t really that good. The Kingdom is very definitely an Evil Empire, and Amaterasu and her Kibi government-in-exile are very much the good guys. However, very often mutual respect can grow between worthy opponents, and even an admiral of an evil empire can be, personally, an honorable enemy. By the last episode, the viewer (and by extension, the Amaterasu crew) can feel sympathy and even sorrow for how Conquistador and Admiral Elroy have been betrayed.

Very good music. The opening theme is some good rousing techno; with a sharply contrasting soft ballad for closing. Incidental and background music is very well done, unobtrusive and atmospheric, and used conservatively. A lot of it in fact is the best kind of background music, the kind you don’t even realize is there until some note or motif grabs your attention and you realize suddenly how it’s been carrying a whole scene along.

The ship designs are creative and plausible. As real naval warships, most have particular missions and special capabilities which the design reflects. And — sorry, Macross fans — the ships are static in design, and do not change into giant battle mechs.

A nice technical detail — when other ships are approaching, their “relative speed” is reported, as would be most correct in a deep-space situation. Another good detail is that the result of recoil from firearms in zero-G is correctly depicted. In keeping with a naval theme (most of the Kingdom ships are named for real naval battles on Earth), when a ship is destroyed it is declared “sunk”. Another detail which gave me pause for thought is that often when a ship is in her final moments, she tends to drift down and away, just as if actually sinking. I realized that this would indeed be an accurate depiction of events, considering the effect of weapons’ fire on a disabled vessel: one assumes a functioning ship ordinarily corrects for recoil, but without maneuvering capability, a struck vessel will suffer the full consequences of Newton’s Third.

I particularly liked the rendering of the ship’s control screens, very classic video-game looking! Another detail I found authentically, almost pleasantly annoying (!), is that when a video message pops up on the screens, it is announced with a brief old-fashioned telephone ring. A lot of scenes have a characteristic I’ve seen noted positively in a couple other non-anime series: there is so much background detail going on (especially those control screens) that it is virtually impossible to take in every single thing happening at a given time (yes, think Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, the original series, and the actual Guide sequences.) There is a definite feel of getting your money’s worth every moment!

The weakest part of this series is simply the animation. Animation is not fluid. This is a shame, as the characters themselves are distinctive and realistic, little of the standard cookie-cutter stock design faces here. In close-up, anyway. Distance shots of characters leaves faces & detail rather sketchy (literally). This may have been intended as an artistic gimmick, but if so, it doesn’t work well. CGI is well done and almost photo-realistic at times, but obtrusive against regular animation: primarily outside shots of the ships, and especially when there are characters in shot with it. Additionally (and I will concede this may be just my computer), CGI movement had some very jerky motion to it, especially towards the end. Most of the artwork is top-notch, though.

“Fast-paced” is one term which could describe this series. The rapid-fire technical banter at some points might annoy some, but it is what I imagine would be quite authentic. In particular, when the crew are desperately trying to analyze an enemy’s movements and discover his strategy, and how they in turn can outfox him. (Oh yes, it helps that this prototype ship is armed with a 4300mm plasma cannon, a weapon the likes of which has never before been seen.) In episodes 5 & 6, “The Great Escape, Parts 1 & 2”, scenes similarly hit the viewer rapid-fire, which some may likewise find annoying. This, though, is intended to convey that all these events are occurring virtually simultaneously, and I found it quite gripping. In fact, there is a lot of fast-paced action and high tension that found me clenching my fists, and some cliffhanger endings that had me literally gasping “No!” Some viewers might wish that this had been fleshed out a few more episodes so that the individual characters could be explored a bit more. However I would suggest that, in true military style, it is the crew as a whole which is the lead “character”, more than any one individual: and I think we do get a very good feel for the crew.

Very good ending, more upbeat than not, but still dark, introspective and philosophical. One could say it is the best ending which could be realistically expected. And it is an affirmative ending, a satisfying conclusion, to both Amateresu and her crew’s adventure. I do not mean it in a negative sense that this series does not leave me yearning for a sequel.

Overall, I enjoyed this series quite a bit, and appreciate that they did keep it a short series, rather than try to milk it out a full 26 episodes or more. But then, that’s partly me, I tend to prefer the shorter series. The story has some depth, and definitely has its emotional kickers, high and low. So definitely worth a watch. One wishes the animation and artwork had been better. But it’s a solid story and good acting, which makes up for a lot of the visual weakness, and even if you only watch it once, it is well worth the time.

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