“I cannot bear to see what has become of Earth. Once green and growing, with blue lakes and silver streams, great rivers and mighty seas! Now, all gone! Only day and burning desert left, radiation everywhere!” – Captain Avatar
So begins the very first episode of STAR BLAZERS, first broadcast in syndication on Monday, September 17, 1979. It’s an opening, and indeed an episode, utterly unlike anything else then being broadcast on American television at that time–and it still retains all of its emotional power.
It’s a very strange episode in one sense: you don’t get to the actual premise of the series until Episode 2, so this first installment is almost entirely backstory. But the one thing it does brilliantly is to establish a sense of hopelessness and despair–not at all common things in a children’s cartoon. From the very first line uttered, we see that the Earth is in a terrible state, literally on the verge of extinction–and things will not get much better for the next 23 minutes.
STAR BLAZERS was freely adapted from the original SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, first aired in Japan in 1974. But the producers made a number of changes when importing the series for the American marketplace. Chiefly, these alterations involved the removal of sequences of excessive violence and culture-specific touchstones that wouldn’t translate to an American audience. But in a number of cases, they played around with the actual structure of the episodes themselves.
In YAMATO, the state of the Earth isn’t revealed until the halfway point, when Captain Avatar/Okita’s crippled battleship returns from space. But in STAR BLAZERS, that entire sequence is moved to the front. And so we learn immediately that the planet has been poisoned by a superior enemy from outer space, that Earth’s space fleets have largely been defeated and destroyed, and that the whole of surviving humanity has relocated to cities constructed miles deep inside the Earth itself. In terms of presenting the emotional power of this idea, I think I prefer the STAR BLAZERS arrangement, where the narrative cards are put on the table right away.
The episode is also canny in terms of how it lays out its cast. Coming into it cold, the viewer has no idea which characters are meant to be regulars and which will not. So when we’re introduced to Alex Wildstar, commanding the missile ship Paladin among Captain Avatar’s last remaining space fleet, it’s only natural to assume that he’s going to be a central player.
A quick word about the character names. Yes, they are all just a little bit silly–but honestly, no sillier than Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, or Starbuck and Apollo. The production team was really following the conventions that had been recently established for naming your space-faring heroes. Honestly, the most remarkable thing about it is the choice of a non-traditional first name such as Derek for their lead character. It’s not especially common, and like Luke, it’s got a certain cadence to it. The contrast personality-wise between Derek Widstar and Mark Venture is apparent right in their names. You can hear them and immediately get a sense as to what sort of character they are.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this first episode is the sacrifice of Alex Wildstar. Especially in these early episodes, the production team appears to struggle with just how they’re going to deal with all of the very serious situations they’re going to encounter during the course of the series. In some cases, they’ll splice in footage to ensure viewers that a particular character survived an obviously-fatal encounter or to obfuscate a death. Past a certain point, though, there’s a sense that they realize that they’re not going to be able to keep this pretense up, and so they largely abandon it, leaving it only for the most extreme cases (”Knox got out just behind you!”)
And in 1979, the apparent death of Alex Widstar is strong stuff. he goes out a hero, of course, sacrificing his ship and his crew to allow Captain Avatar the time to retreat (”It’s just a simple matter of mathematics, sir! There are 470 men on your flagship! There are 20 on our ship!”) But his death is actually mourned, and felt, throughout the remainder of the episode. We see its impact directly, on both Derek Wildstar and on the old, grizzled captain, and it’s the event that defines their relationship. Tragedy was also not something we were used to experiencing on weekday afternoons.
No less affecting is Wildstar and Venture’s descent into an Underground City after they’ve returned from space with the message capsule from Iscandar, and we follow that geiger counter as it ticks away as they go. and they speak about the inevitable oblivion that they and all they love are facing. No two ways about it, this is a depressing episode, and it doesn’t pull its punches much in terms of getting across the themes and the stakes.
But it’s not all doom-and gloom. There is, of course, the message of hope from Starsha of Iscandar, promising the Earth the Cosmo DNA that can restore it to prosperity, and delivering unto humanity the plans for the Wave-Motion Engine that can help mankind to bridge the unfathomable 148,000 light years that separate the two planets. There’s also some light fun to be had as a few other key players are brought onto the canvas, Dr. Sane and the robot IQ-9, as well as his nurse, Nova.
It’s perhaps worth pointing out that, in the entirety of this inaugural episode, we never so much as see a Gamilon. They are a faceless, implacable enemy, represented only by their ships and planes and guns. This parallels the experiences for the characters as well, as we will learn that, one big narrative mistake to the contrary, most people on the Earth have never laid eyes upon the enemy who has brought them to such ruin.
From a creative sense, it seems to me that this taps very much into the sentiment of post-WWII reconstruction-era Japan, the time in which most of the creative staff of YAMATO grew up. That same sense of defeat, of humiliation, of helplessness in the face of destiny permeates throughout this episode. In a very real way, YAMATO is WWII-era wish fulfillment: “what if, when American unleashed the Atomic Bomb on us, we were able to hold out, and send our strongest ship, the representation of our nation and culture, against them!” For many of these creators, they themselves may not have come into contact with an actual American.
And so we come to the wrap-up of the episode, wherein the battle-hungry Wildstar and Venture steal a fighter to attempt to engage an enemy plane making a sortie above the sunken battleship, the Yamato. At this point, we still don’t really have any idea what this show is going to be about, but we get our first taste after the two cadets crash in the dry sea bed, and the strains of that soul-stirring theme music begin to swell as they crest the ridge.
The music was a big part of what made STAR BLAZERS work. That original YAMATO score is so powerful and evocative that those of us who watched the show sought it out, on record albums and cassettes once we became aware of their existence. It must also be said that while the STAR BLAZERS theme song is itself rather silly–I expect there isn’t a STAR BLAZERS fan of the era who wasn’t taunted by other kids mockingly singing portions of it–it’s also strangely affecting and sincere. It’s about something, it resonates.
And so this first episode closes dramatically, with the view of a 200-year-old decayed, sunken battleship and the narration uttering the question that will bring us back on Tuesday: “What is the secret of this ancient battleship?” We will soon find out.