“Starfleet”/”X-Bomber”: An Appreciation

This was a 24-episode puppet-based (think “Thunderbirds”) sci-fi show out of Japan. It predated “Macross” (i.e. “Robotech”) but this show’s story reminded me a little of that show’s general premise… there was also some obvious “Star Wars” influence.

“Starfleet” was unusual in that it is a serial program… so, one long story over its entire run of episodes. The basic plot involved an alien invasion fleet coming toward the Earth and the somewhat young crew of new, cutting edge defense ship trying to thwart that attack.

Weird stuff was sprinkled into the mix: An Obi-wan-type old guy mentor on the ship, one of the young hotshot crew guys having some missing dad issue, etc. There was a cute commander’s daughter type and her wacky mystery past where she might be the savior of the universe and the aliens’ prime target.

Also… three vehicles that transformed into a giant combined robot.

Um, did I mention that giant combining robot?

That was actually a key point around the show’s history though, as the show creator was a manga legend named Go Nagai who had created “Mazinger Z.” “Mazinger Z” was the first manga to have a giant robot piloted by a human, the resulting animated series being similarly pioneering. Obviously that basic setup had become a huge staple of the Japanese animation boom that began happening and it remained a global sci-fi staple today.

“Starfleet” was expensive to produce and didn’t apparently pull in the ratings to justify it continuing, although the initial run’s story wrapped up just fine. When the show was dubbed and run globally in English-speaking countries, it gained a following though and Go Nagai was apparently pleasantly surprised to have it get a second shot with finding an audience.

I had a special affection for this show, having seen a few episodes in the early/middle of the series when it was on television in the middle 1980s for a short time. It wasn’t until nearly thirty-five years later that I actually got to see all of the episodes, which was a surreal experience in that it gave both the setup to what I had seen and the story’s ultimate resolution.

There was clearly a nostalgia lenses for me on this one but I really dug the huge effort behind these puppet shows and the creativity. I also like the mis-mash goofiness of all the crazy ideas… not at all a surprise for a production like this out of Japan in that era. Also… giant transforming robots that combine!

I’m glad that I revisited this show though and wish that it got a bit more attention from modern sci-fi fandom.

There were toys from the show but they were only released in Japan and nowadays they remained very expensive to buy used.

One strange artifact from the 1980s involving this show was Queen guitarist Brian May getting into it when it aired… apparently his son was watching it at the time. He liked the theme song (which is catchy) and decided to invite his buddy (in his prime Thriller-era) Eddie Van Halen (!?!?!) over to do a jam on it.

The vinyl release of this album looked great. I learned a bit of context via the comments of Queen fans discussing it and explaining the poor timing for the release. Queen was in a funk popularity-wise and this was before anime became more of a big thing into the 90s. Despite having big names behind it, the release didn’t necessarily springboard the show into even wider attention (although that wasn’t really the point of the release… it was just some friends jamming).

For those who were curious, the shows could sporadically be found on Youtube or other online video sites, although it was niche enough that it rarely seemed to get a proper release or stay in circulation. I finally obtained a copy of the DVD in 2017 after learning of Discotek Media’s then-recent release. The show had releases on home media dating back to a 1990s Laserdisc release, but the earlier DVD release were all foreign and rare and expensive. The Discotek release was limited by what I assume to be standard definition source material, but was still a respectable presentation and well worth picking up.

D.S. Christensen
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