Watching: Star Fleet

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I never liked Thunderbirds. Nor did I like Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, Fireball XL5 or that silly submarine one with the awful theme tune and mute mermaid.

Take Thunderbirds for instance. For fifty minutes a bunch of all-American do-good God-boy virgins would put every effort into stopping the experimental plane crashing or the runaway nuclear reactor from exploding. As a ten year old kid I *want* to see the plane crash and the nuclear reactor explode – spectacularly! In Thunderbirds, the bad guys always lost, the day was always saved and the good guys would always return to their secret island where they'd change into nerd clothes, party soberly to piano music, tell clean jokes and mutually respect one another – the BASTARDS.

It was the same every week, all talk and no action, and it sucked the big one....

Star Fleet

Star Fleet was also a marionette show, but it had some major differences to the output produced by the Gerry Anderson cookie-cutter. For a start, it was an ongoing story told over 24 episodes at about 20 minutes each rather than the long winded 50 minutes per individual storyline of Thunderbirds boredom. In Star Fleet, the good guys didn't always win and two characters who starred from the first episode were killed off along the course of the story (provoking a certain amount of shock in this impressionable ten year old), while a third was brainwashed into turning to the dark side (so to speak) and chose to lay down his life at the hand of one of his former pupils than continue to serve the evil 'Imperial Alliance'.

While the bad guys in Captain Scarlet would be stupid enough to warn the puny Earthlings of their next impending attack (allowing them to be thwarted EVERY TIME), the badasses in Star Fleet were diabolical symbiont insectoids who had read all the tricks in the Al-Qaeda book. The plots included a suicide bomber, a kamikaze attack, torture, brainwashing, execution and assassination. You wouldn't find anything like that in kids shows these days but that's not to say it's wrong or bad to expose them to this kind of thing. It causes feelings of outrage when presented to a child in this way and prepares them for reality where the news unfortunately reports this stuff happening for real all to often.

Despite their tactics, the enemy in Star Fleet valued honour and one particularly memorable episode had a much put upon alien captain redeeming his previous failures by flying his burning spacecraft into the good guys at the cost of his own life. It finally earned him the longed for respect of his commander although he never lived to see it. Again, as a child you're forced to confront the mentality of such actions as you try to explain why he would do something like this.

The Star Fleet sets were impressive and didn't look as dated as Thunderbirds. Another crucial difference was the level of action. Star Fleet would have bags of it in every episode. The model sets and spaceships were subject to multiple explosions and fires and while a certain small amount was down to special effects, enough of it was the real deal with both sides taking an actual kicking as sets and models were blown apart by so-called laser blasts.

Thunderbirds has their vehicles but they weren't terribly exciting. There was the rocket one, the fat green one that could carry stuff, the underwater one, the one in space piloted by the (presumably) unpopular son – I can't even remember them all. The Star Fleet ships were much more memorable. The bad dudes had a massive mean looking ship that resembled a cat fish (!) along with carrier ships that bore an insectoid resemblance. There was the presence of the mysterious 'sailing ship' called 'Skull' whose intentions remained unknown for so long. The good guys flew an experimental ship called X-Bomber which housed three smaller fighter craft that could combine to form the Dai-X.

Despite sounding like the name of a Welsh porn star, Dai-X was an excuse for the Japanese producers to do what they do best, i.e. dress up a bloke as a frikkin' huge kick-ass robot who would then punch and stomp seven shades of shit out of any nasties that stood in its way. The episode where Dai-X finally came face to face with the alien Commander felt like a long time coming to those kids who had witnessed the atrocities of the Imperial Alliance and wanted to see some payback – and it didn't disappoint.

Indeed, it was a long time coming with 24 episodes at just over 20 minutes each. It was shown on ITV at 12:00 every Saturday with a commercial break inserted to ensure finish time was 12:25 (just before World of Sport with Dickie Davies). Sure, one of those episodes was a cheap flash-back clip show but as those clips were full of cool explosions it was okay to let 'em off.

It's been over twenty years since Star Fleet last put in an appearance on TV and it's been about eight years since I was able to obtain some dodgy knock-off VHS copies of this great beacon of Eighties children's entertainment from an unmentionable crap auction site. Now, at last, the English dub of this Japanese series has been remastered and, as of February 9th, is available on DVD for the first time.

And what a DVD collection it is! Fabulous Films have put in a lot of effort with four discs, a comic booklet, a poster, a collectors booklet, postcards and a 'making of' documentary. Re-watching it now through an adults eyes is definitely a different experience. The dialogue is sometimes more wooden than the puppets and I wonder if the mouth movements were synchronised for a Japanese dub with the English actors working to fit dialogue with lip movement. Certainly there are sometimes some strange pauses in sentences. While one can appreciate the level of technical detail in the set and model designs, it's possible to see strings or give the odd smirk at unrealistic movement. Of course, none of this was spotted when I was ten, but now I'm used to flawless CGI which makes the creases in this seem more apparent. It's actually a bit of a shame to think that the technical skill that went in to something like this is largely redundant now.

Still, there are some bits that are unintentionally funny for a 21st Century adult. The three main leads are supposed to be the best space pilots Star Fleet Academy can offer yet one is a short fat coward and another is a gung-ho trigger pulling hot-head. There is also the female lead named Lamia who is wetter than a fishes tits and is introduced by one of the male characters as "our radar expert and my secretary”! It's nice to know that as well as specialising in the electromagnetic wave detection of the range, altitude, direction and speed of moving objects, Lamia could also bash out a typewritten memo, field telephone calls and presumably make a damn good cup of coffee!

Despite this slip, the lead nasty was a strong female character, albeit with a symbiotic implant over one eye, a robotic arm and a spiky helmet with a window revealing some kind of circuitry wired into her brain. Still, she was kinda cute....

Commander Makara... def would...

Adding to the production values of all this was an incredible kick-ass soundtrack. The incidental music and catchy theme tune were especially memorable and my only complaint about the incidental music was that is wasn't used enough and was often killed dead in the heat of battle just as it's percussive electronic beat was helping to build the atmosphere. The music was put together by Paul Bliss of the Moody Blues (who i admit I've never heard of but the wife knows of 'em). I hear there's a soundtrack album coming out and I look forward to buying it. Paul Bliss was bang-on note when he devised the 'tunage'. Even Brian May of Queen and Eddie Van Halen thought it good enough to cover (which I hesitate to mention because although Mr May may have been considered cool in the early Eighties, he ain't now!)

Thanks to Amazon who had this on release for Feb 9th – I pre-ordered and it was actually delivered on the 9th, so now I'm going through the series again with my two kids. They seem hooked and keep asking to see the next episode, only those lucky buggers don't have to put up with commercial breaks and a weeks wait between each episode.

Enough of my waffle. Check out these external links if you need your memory jogging - then go out and buy the DVD for yourself...

Amazon DVD
Wikipedia article
Star Fleet X-Bomber